Quotations are from the Revised Version
In the section from Acts 16. 6 to 19. 20 it is evidently part of Luke’s design to give samples of the reception of the Gospel by five typical cities – Philippi (a Roman Colony), Thessalonica (a free city), Athens (the centre of learning), Corinth (a corrupt sea port) and Ephesus (the shrine of the goddess Diana). It is remarkable that we have preserved for us Epistles written to four of the churches founded in this period, throwing a great deal of light on their spiritual condition. In the case of Corinth the disclosures shock us at first and then give us an awed sense of the grace and patience of God against a dark background of human depravity.
When Paul went from Athens to Corinth he left an ancient but declining centre of Greek culture and intellectualism to labour in a city which was the moral cess-pit of the Mediterranean into which drained all the vices of East and West. Although he was scoffed at by the ‘high-brows’ at Athens, his witness was not entirely fruitless even if not so successful as at other places. ‘Certain men clave unto him, and believed: among whom also was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them’. Acts 17. 34. In contrast, a great work of God was accomplished in corrupt Corinth, chiefly among Gentiles and largely, it would seem, among the lower classes who were immersed in pagan darkness, 1 Cor. 10. 20; 12. 2.
The Jews were more than usually antagonistic, and the apostle’s denunciation of them was more than usually vehement - ‘he shook out his raiment, and said unto them, Your blood be upon your own heads’, Acts 18. 6. Yet we get a delightful glimpse of those exquisite ways of God, the conversion of one of the Gentile elite at Athens being matched by the conversion of the ruler of the Jewish synagogue at Corinth. Moreover ‘many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized’ which effectively disposes of the false idea that Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1. 14 - 16 imply that he attached no importance to baptism.
Probably this ‘defection’ of Crispus and the baptism of so many Corinthians so increased the Jews’ exasperation that his successor Sosthenes was goaded into instigating the insurrection against Paul. But how God can circumvent His enemies in most intriguing ways! For his pains, the new ruler got the beating intended for Paul; poor man, how was he to know that the Lord had said to Paul that no man should set on him to hurt him! Sosthenes was not a common name, so it is more than likely that he is the very man who later was associated with Paul’s greetings to Corinth, 1. 1, and called ‘our brother’. If so the beating did him no harm, but only taught him a lesson which led to his conversion. How he became a companion of Paul is not disclosed but it needs no stretch of imagination to suppose that the Jews would have been driven frantic by the ‘defection’ of two rulers in succession, so that the continued presence of Sosthenes in the city could have provoked a dangerous situation.
It was certainly no easy place, and the likelihood of receiving a buffeting such as he had known elsewhere had made even a dauntless spirit like Paul afraid – listen to his own confession, ‘I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling’, 2. 3. It would seem from the account in Acts that the arrival of Silas and Timothy helped to put fresh heart in him. Despite the clearest indications that the apostles were men of like passions with ourselves, people still persist in regarding them as a race apart, impervious to the temptations which beset us and superior to the weaknesses which humble us. What made them so different from us was not their immunity from human frailty but their out-and-out committal to Christ. Paul’s gracious Master, who had experienced all the same trials, understood His over-wrought servant and sympathizing with his natural apprehensions, assured him that at Corinth, at least, he would have some respite from ill usage. If we bore as many scars as Paul did, we would have welcomed this comforting promise, but would we have been willing to remain in a tense atmosphere for eighteen months teaching the word of God among them?, Acts 18. 11. Though no man had a profounder sense of the sovereign purpose of God, the Lord’s disclosure for the encouragement of Paul that He had ‘much people in this city’ did nothing to slacken Paul’s efforts to find them.
Surely we may believe that the Lord’s special intervention at this particular time was linked with the prayers which the Thessalonians undoubtedly offered in response to Paul’s special request made at this very time - ‘Brethren, pray for us,… that we may be delivered from unreasonable and evil men’, 2 Thess. 3. 1-2. How this should strengthen our confidence in the efficacy of prayer for our brethren who labour today in difficult fields.
Such is the inexorable candour of Scripture that it will not conceal the fact that, despite Paul’s devoted labours, the over-all picture of the church at Corinth was a depressing one. Full allowance must, of course, be made for their terrible pre-conversion background in that infamously licentious city. Although there were the better types (e.g. Paul’s host Gaius, Erastus the city treasurer, and Quartus, Rom. 16. 23) some of the converts had been thieves and drunkards and other vile things we prefer not to mention, 1 Cor. 6. 9-11. Thus we see the force of his earlier reminder that when God called them they were for the most part foolish, weak and base, 1. 26-27. It must have called for a good deal of grace on the part of men like Erastus to meet and mingle with such on the basis of Christian brotherhood.
Recollection of these humiliating facts might have saved them from fleshly glory, but so perverse is human nature that ignorant men can pride themselves on their fancied knowledge, and weak and even immoral men can find delight in the vulgar display of mis-used gifts.
Moreover, even though they were babes in spiritual understanding who could only assimilate milk and not thrive very much on that, 3. 1-2, they conceitedly set themselves up as competent to assess the relative effectiveness of the servants of Christ, putting each in his proper category. Needless to say, there was no general agreement, some giving the palm to Paul, others to Peter or to Apollos, and so on, 1. 12; 3. 4; 4. 6. This naturally led to divisions, providing sad evidence of their carnality and immaturity in behaving as worldlings instead of children of God, 3. 3-4.
Altogether they deserved little affection from the one who had laboured so earnestly for their blessing. Such was their attitude, that when he was with them he had his own good reasons for remaining independent of them, but this makes no difference to the fact that a large church, many of whom were well off materially, 4. 8, had no concern for his needs. His earnings were insufficient to secure him from hunger and he would have gone hungrier but for the support he received from Macedonia – probably from his faithful and appreciative Philippians, 2 Cor. 11. 8-9; Phil. 4. 15-16.
Yet they could be puffed up even whilst indifferent to the immorality which broke out soon after Paul’s departure. The outrageous case referred to in 1 Corinthians 5. I, which would have shocked the none-too-fastidious pagans, was only an extreme example of moral indifference in the church.
In view of Paul’s remarks in 1 Corinthians 4. 8, ‘already ye are become rich’, it is not unlikely that following their conversion some had been able to make more money than they had been used to, and such types seldom know how to use aright unaccustomed affluence. There was covetousness linked with a litigatious spirit so that whilst they were not averse to defrauding others they were determined to safeguard their ‘rights’ regardless of the dishonour done to the Name of Christ by the exposure of their quarrels in the sight of a scoffing world, 6. 1-8. Covetousness in a cruder form degraded the professed observance of the Lord’s supper, those who were ‘better-off’ gluttonously eating and drinking whilst poorer believers, probably ill-treated slaves, had to be content to be hungry spectators, 11. 21-22.
Could the picture be blacker? We might think it impossible, but things evidently went from bad to worse until Paul dreaded to think what he might find when he visited them later – he anticipated having to deal with strife, jealousy, backbitings and immoralities indulged in without a sense of shame, 2 Cor. 12. 20-21.
Despite all that was calculated to break Paul’s heart, it was still the heart of a father even when the more abundantly he loved the less he was loved, 2 Cor. 12. 15. Much of his letters to them can be understood only if we realize that in many of his remarks he is actually quoting their taunts in order to refute them. There was obviously a good deal of confusion in the congregation, and it is only by a careful reading of the two Epistles with the fore-going constantly in mind that we can gain a real impression of the various forms which opposition to Paul took; copious quotations will not suffice for this, we can give only some indications. Some of his detractors ridiculed his person, 2 Cor. 10. 10, questioned his authority, 1 Cor. 9. 1-3, hinted at mental instability, 1 Cor. 4.10; 2 Cor. 5.13, charged him with fickleness 2 Cor. 1.17-18, and with cowardice, 10.1-3, belittled his work, 2 Cor. 11. 5-6; 12. 11-12, and practically accused him of misappropriating church funds entrusted to him, 2 Cor. 12.16-18.
Blessed as we are with a stable Christian background, it is difficult to conceive such appalling conditions, and most people today would emphatically deny to such a company any title to be called a church of God. Yet Paul continued to regard them as such, 1 Cor. 1. 2,2 Cor. 1.1, and continued to labour for their improvement. This was not because he was unmoved by their degradation – his stem warnings and his pathetic appeals reveal his anguish of spirit and the pain and embarrassment he felt at being compelled to defend, only for the sake of Christ’s cause, his apostolic authority which they of all people had least cause to question. All this makes affecting reading which no selection of references can convey, but we refer our readers to such samples as 2 Cor. 3. 1-2; 10. 7-8; 12. 11-12.
We have intentionally given a somewhat one-sided view of the situation. Admittedly there were bright spots to cheer the oppressed soul of the apostle but if these shine out it is only because of the dark background – in healthier churches the features from which he drew some comfort would have, been taken for granted. His was more the comfort that an anxious parent feels when a desperately sick child shows some signs of recovery, rather than the joy a parent feels in the vigorous health of his child. It is a wonder that the church survived. We are reminded of the militant atheist who delved into church history so as to compile a damning catalogue of her scandals and squabbles. His glee at uncovering a more terrible picture than he had foreseen was, after reflection, dispelled by the arresting thought that the only possible explanation of the church’s survival despite the hatred of the devil and the wickedness of men was that it had been both planted and sustained by God. Christ did not say in vain, ‘The gates of Hades shall not prevail against it’. So we can take heart when otherwise we might despair at the success with which the devil sometimes disrupts the life of a church and beclouds its witness. Not that we dare be complacent in the presence of God-dishonouring conditions – rather we should take warning as we see the appalling depths to which unjudged carnality could drag a church which began so promisingly as Corinth. Let us judge ourselves before the Lord if we detect in ourselves the first signs of that carnal spirit which wrought such havoc in a church so richly endowed with gifts, 1 Cor. 1. 7. The exhortation in Hebrews 12. 15 is not that we should narrowly watch our brethren but that we should watch ourselves, lest falling short of the grace of God, we should plant a root of bitterness whereby ‘the many’ may be defiled.