VI. The Distinctive Value of First Corinthians
Before turning to the study of the epistle itself it will be helpful to emphasize some of its features which should be kept in mind as one studies.
Its picture of life in the early church. Undoubtedly among its members were those who had passed from the outer circle of the synagogue, i,e, from the proselytes to Judaism. They had come under the influence of its strong demands for purity of life and ideals of conduct far above those of paganism. The Corinthian church was not singular in this — all the Pauline churches had accessions of this kind. Others in the church had separated themselves directly from a heathen mode of life. It was a sharp change and those who experienced it faced a steep and difficult path away from old habits and customs toward new and exalted ideals. No epistle exhibits more fully the need and struggle for readjustment to another order of life.
Paul addresses them all as "Saints" and thanks God for the "grace that has been presented as an honor upon them in Christ Jesus" (1:4), but we soon realize as we go on in the epistle that "saints" has a different meaning from that which we ordinarily give to the word and that "grace" has much to do to shape life in accordance with the spirit of the Gospel. Strong contrasts are brought out within this community of saints. Individualism asserts itself again and again against the bond of the spirit which holds them together. They own one Lord, indeed, but how much they have to learn of His spirit. Some fall easily into the old ways to which they had been accustomed; others react with such rigor that they are ready for rather extreme forms of asceticism. They go as brethren to a common meal and manifest a selfishness that virtually denies all brotherliness. The pressure of social custom in regard to guilds, clubs, or temple feasts is put upon them and "the strong" lose all consideration of "the weak." "Pride of knowledge" is impatient with imclear and hesitating conceptions. Independence is almost eager to break with habits of decorum in public worship. Skepticism questions the truth of great Christian verities. There is manifest in the church in more than one direction a sad lack of a clear church consciousness.
And yet that heterogeneous body of slaves, artisans, slave-owners, city officials from different races, is, after all, held together by allegiance to Christ and by the Spirit of God. It is all this that makes the epistle a fascinating study. It is calculated to destroy all illusions about an ideal church in the apostolic age.
These people were human as people in the church today are — very human, and this epistle lets us see the fact. It also shows the eagerness of the church to learn the way of life. Part of the reason of the letter's existence is the questioning earnestness as to how its perplexities and difficulties can be solved. First Corinthians might be described as Lessons in the Education of the Early Church. This brings us to the second distinctive future of the epistle.
The application of great principles to the problems of Christian, social life. It is this feature that has made this letter of abiding worth. Factional spirit, compromise with the world, careless assertion of Christian liberty and the pride of intellectualism have not been peculiar to any one age of the church. We, alas! know too much about them in our own day. Again and again the church has come back to the principles which the Apostle gave to the Corinthians. We have no problem about eating meat offered to idols, nor of the pride of "speaking with tongues," but the spirit which needed reprimand or instruction yet appears. Paul's spiritual insight and his pro-found understanding of the spirit of his Master enabled him to give answers which are yet applicable. He suggested no superficial remedies; rather, he met the spirit of selfishness in any and every form with the spirit of devotion to Christ and forgetfulness of self, embodying them in a principle which was a sure solution of the problem to which it was applied. It is these principles that virtually constitute the Bible for us as far as i Corinthians is concerned. In them we have the soul of this epistle. It were well to gather them out of one's study of their setting. The peculiar form of the setting has in more than one instance passed away. The principles abide.
Another feature of this epistle is its great chapter on Love. The twelfth and thirteenth chapters have been called the heart of the epistle. Certainly in the thirteenth chapter we reach the climactic expression of that spirit which Paul in some way set over against all the sins of the church. The church was marked by the possession of the Spirit, but it had but a faint conception of the truth that the "spirit works by love." Its "knowledge" was not what it should be, because of the want of love. Its liberty was not guided and restrained by it. Its pride was imtouched by it. In an exalted utterance which Paul would describe as "a prophecy" he sets plainly the indispensability, the characteristics, and the durability of Christian love. No chapter in the epistle deserves closer study. It is a study of the Spirit of Jesus Himself. Held up before the preceding dhapters of the epistle it reveals, as would a fine mirror, the distortions and defects of the unlovely spirit that appears in them. The one other part of the epistle that stands out with prominence is
The Teaching about the Resurrection of the Dead. There is a triumphant note in it that is often missed in the way it is read at the burial of our dead. The remarkable feature in it, however, is in its way of correcting the misapprehensions of both the Jews and the Greeks regarding this great subject. It does not speak of "the resurrection of the body," though it defends bodily resurrection; it teaches that there will be "a spiritual body," but is silent about the substance of that body; it is confident of the "resurrection of believers," but has no doctrine regarding the resurrection of those who have not felt the quickening Spirit of the Risen Christ. Wise in its silences, it is also careful in its utterances. It is emphatic in its assertion of the vital connection of the resurrection of Jesus with His life and death in the accomplishment of redemption. If He did not rise, then the whole Christian message of salvation is emptied of its content and Christian faith and hope are futile. The chapters ran^e with the greatest in the New Testament.
From I Epistle to the Corinthians by professor James S. Riggs, Auburn Theological Seminary. Published by the MacMillan Company in 1922. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2013. This conversion is not completed.
Insights of the past for the present
To the Corinthians - J.S. Riggs
ON THE BOOK SHELF
May your insights be worthy.