Community Group Study Guide — Sanctified Together
1 Corinthians 1:1-3
If there was a book in the Bible that felt like it could be written in our modern cultural setting it would be First Corinthians. All scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit and profitable for teaching, correction and all of life as a follower of Jesus (2 Timothy 3:16), but there is something unique about the Corinthians and the issues that Paul addresses that resonate with our modern world. Here is some background on Corinth, see if you can spot the similarities to our part of the world.
Ancient Corinth was a place of exceeding wealth and commerce because it was located at an Isthmus. An Isthmus is an area where the land bottlenecks and narrows with water on both sides which created a trade route and access to two major shipping ports. These factors put Corinth as a strategic location for trade route between Italy and Asia Minor. Corinth was a Roman city with quite a past. The city was destroyed in 146 BC by Rome because of rebellion and refusal to submit to Roman rule; but Corinth was later rebuilt by Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Their Population was a mixture of Greek, Roman and Jewish people and the society and religious life was pluralistic meaning there were various religious expressions and social norms with tolerance and acceptance as the highest value. This would create a temptation and a challenge for the first century church there because on one side they would be pulled to be like the world and on the other side pressured and even persecuted. Because of their diversity and prosperity Corinth would be seen as a place of opportunity; you did not have to be from the “right” people or place to get an opportunity. Corinth was also an entertainment based culture with a large theater, various expressions of the arts and every other year the city would swell with people for an olympics style competition called the Isthmian games. Finally, Corinth also had an underside to it; scholars estimate that 1/3 of the city were slaves, there was rampant prostitution (some of it based on pagan religion) and there was a lot of income inequality between the really wealthy and the poor.
How familiar does Corinth sound? Large income gaps, diversity, commerce, opportunity, trade, pluralism and tolerance, social influence, entertainment and athletic competition… this all sounds a lot like life in the Bay Area.
We first encounter Corinth in the Bible in Acts 18. Around AD 54 Paul was on a missionary journey and left the city of Athens and headed to Corinth. Paul had just finished giving a defense for his faith on the Areopagus which was a place where philosophers would debate and they loved nothing more than to tell or hear something new (Acts 17:21). God directed Paul’s steps as he entered Corinth. He’d quickly connect with two Jewish Christians, Priscilla and Aquila, who were recently deported from Rome because of their Jewish heritage during a time of persecution. Likewise, Silas and Timothy would arrive in Corinth and they all got to work teaching in the synagogue and reasoning with both Jews and Greeks about Jesus. Christ would even appear to Paul in a vision to encourage him to persevere through the coming resistance and indeed Paul stayed for 18 months and was part of many coming to saving faith including many gentiles and the Synagogue leaders Crispus and Sosthenes (Acts 18:8, 17).
The early Christian community would be really eclectic. They would be a majority Gentile church with temptations and pulls back to their pagan past. There was also a gap in wealth in the church and a fascination with displays of power and flashy communicators and temptation towards wordiness.
Paul will interact with them around things like:
- sexual immorality
- tolerating people in in open sin and patting themselves on the back for being “loving”
- pride and division based on how entertaining or influential their favorite preacher was
- rivalries and conflicts around worship and things like communion
When you read First Corinthians you can get the sense that this church is a mess because of all the direct problems Paul addresses. There were divisions and some big sin struggles that they were wrestling with. It appears that the letter was written in response to a report brought to Paul by “Chole’s people” (1 Cor 1:11). The first 6 chapters of the letter are direct responses to things that were happening in the church that alarmed Paul; but Chloe’s people also brought a list of questions because chapter 7 onward is structured with Paul introducing each new topic with “now concerning”. A general theme of Paul’s concerns for chapters 1-6 was their conflict and division and the questions the Corinthians have in chapters 7-16 are focused on how how the physical and spiritual interact with things like food and idols, sex and marriage, physical practices in worship like communion, prophecy and spiritual gifts, and probably most important of all: the physical resurrection of Jesus and our future incorruptible resurrected bodies. Throughout the letter Paul is going to implore them to humility and love which is why 1 Corinthians 13 is the turning point of the book in Paul’s appeal for them to sacrificially humble themselves in a Christ-like love towards one another.
With such a big focus on their specific problems and questions they bring to Paul we can wonder, “how in the world are these folks saved?!” This church certainly struggled with sin, pride and division. Yet, look at how Paul introduced his letter to the church (1 Corinthians 1:1-3). First, he calls them a church which is to say that they are a group of believers who are called out by God to be his body and his bride. Second, he reminds them that they are sanctified in Christ Jesus meaning they are set apart and in process of being made holy by God in action and character. Third, he calls them to be “saints together” which is to say that he focuses them away from their past identity as sinners and their present identity in a community (together) as holy and redeemed people in Christ. Finally, a little later on Paul will remind them that they are spirit filled and not lacking in any spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 1:7). It is sometimes easy to judge people in the middle of their sanctification as being outside the faith, especially if you do not struggle with the particular sin they struggle with. However, First Corinthians reminds us that this is not a letter to a broken church or a messy church or a pagan church… this is a letter to an ordinary church because every church is filled with broken yet redeemed saints who are being corrected and pushed forward towards godliness as they live out their identity as a sanctified body and bride of Christ.
Paul begins his letter to the Corinthian church by reminding them who they are in Christ as a redeemed community that is called together to pursue God. This theme will set the stage for the book because of their struggles with individualism, pride and division that are at the core of each of the problems Paul addresses.
At your community group:
Take 15-20 minutes to share about how God has been at work in your life, prayer concerns and pray for one another.
How did God speak to you through the scripture and the sermon this week?
Read Acts 18:1-17
What are some things that we observe about Paul’s time in Corinth? Are there any things that seem to be particularly unique or highlighted in this text?
How much time does he spend in the city? Who seems to be the focus of his ministry?
Read 1 Corinthians 1:1-3
What do these verse teach us about Jesus? How many times is he mentioned and how is he specifically referenced? Notice particularly verse 2.
This letter seems to open with a high level of encouragement. However, the first few chapters of First Corinthians deals with division, rivalry and pride in the church. How do these first few verses set up where Paul is going with that conversation? Why do you think he highlights that they are “sanctified together” instead of pointing to their individual holiness or personal faith in Christ?