1 Corinth, U.S.A. What’s in a Name?
Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy.
But being a Christian, that’s a tough call.
Two thousand years ago—first in Asia, and then in the Roman Empire and throughout Europe—if you wanted to know about someone’s life, you simply asked them about their name. For instance, if you were speaking with someone in China who said that his surname was Wang—meaning king—then you’d know that person hailed from a royal line. If you met someone named Li—meaning a follower of Taoism—then you’d know that person was a descendant of that particular religion.
Spreading into Europe, if you happened upon sisters Antonia Major and Antonia Minor, you’d immediately know (a) that they were the daughters of an Antonius and (b) which was the
older child. Later, to encounter Joe Smith or Sam Potter or Ed Taylor or Fran Webster was to know what these people did for a living: blacksmith, potter, tailor, weaver. During the Middle Ages, resourced people ate fine, white bread, while under-resourced people ate coarse, dark bread, and so to meet someone with the surname Whitebread—or, later, Whitbread—was to know their socioeconomic standing in life.
A man surnamed Andrews was Andrew’s son. A man surnamed Stevenson was Steven’s son. A man surnamed Richardson was Richard’s son. “Atkins” came from “Adkins,” which meant Adam’s kin. “Dawkins” came from “Davkins,” which meant David’s kin. “Jenkins” came from “Jankins,” which meant Jan’s kin.
Julia who lived by the village green was dubbed Julia Greene.
Malik who lived by the holly trees was dubbed Malik Hollis.
Louis who lived in the town’s longest valley was dubbed Louis Longbottom.
Robert who lived by the town’s walls was dubbed Robert Walls.
If a person was arrogant, he might be surnamed Prince.
If a person was strong, she might be surnamed Armstrong.
If a person was surnamed Swift, guess how he walked?
If a person was surnamed Makepeace, you automatically knew how she conducted herself on the heels of a misunderstanding.
There were the Shorts and the Smarts, the Longfellows and the Youngs, the Blunts (blondes) and the Reids (redheads), but—regardless of the specific designation—one thing was certain: a person’s name told you much about him or her. A person’s name revealed who they were.
More than two thousand years ago, in a town called Antioch, people who followed Jesus, people “of the Way,” were given a special name. “Christians,” they were called (from the Koine Greek word Christos)—those who were following the teachings of Christ. In Acts 11:26 (KJV), after Paul encountered Jesus and showed up in Antioch to disciple believers there, the designation was introduced: “The disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.”
Later, when the apostle Paul is pleading with Herod Agrippa to come to Jesus and surrender his life, the king interrupts him, asking, “Do you think you can persuade me to become a Christian so quickly?” (Acts 26:28). Then, on the subject of suffering for the gospel, the apostle Peter reminds us that “it is no shame to suffer for being a Christian” (1 Peter 4:16).
To be known as Christian was a meaningful thing. Whatever else was true about you—where you grew up or where you lived, whose son you were or else whose father, whether you were tall or bald or brilliant or old—this was the truest thing, this name that said, “I am not attached to the mission and values of Rome but rather the mission and values of Jesus Christ.”
Throughout history, God has looked for a group of people who would give themselves wholeheartedly to the idea of radically following him. He has longed for a people who would push aside all other preferences and priorities for the sake of knowing and loving him. “The eyes of the LORD search the whole earth,” 2 Chronicles 16:9 tells us, “in order to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.”
This divine strengthening was reserved for believers.
It was reserved for those serious about following him.
It was reserved for those who answered joyfully to “Christian.”
It was reserved for those whose hearts were fully his.
What God has been searching for since the beginning of time, he searches for still today: a people whose core identity centers on his Son, Jesus; a people remarkably distinguishable from the rest of the world.
A recent study from The Barna Group, a market research firm that statistically scrutinizes the intersection of faith and culture, says that 82 percent of believers polled don’t know what the “Great Commission” is. Technically, only 51 percent acknowledge having “never heard of it.” But the other 31 percent I lumped into my sum responded either “I’m not sure” or else “I’ve heard of it, but I can’t tell you what it means.”1
No matter how you parse the data, a significant number of people who self-identify as “Christian” and “believer” and “churchgoer” can’t quite put their finger on the seminal task that Jesus asked us churchgoers to achieve.
In Matthew 28:18–20, just before he was to leave his disciples and ascend to the presence of his Father, Jesus commissioned his followers with a specific task. “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth,” he says. “Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach
these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Clearly, Jesus had an expectation of his followers that the faith that saved them and was transforming them wouldn’t get stuck with them alone. He dreamed of a reality in which lovers of God would reach out to those struggling to feel loved—both those who know Christ and those who have never encountered him before—and love them as Jesus loves them. In this paradigm, Christ’s followers would possess such strength of character and such compassion that they would shine like “bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people,” as Philippians 2:15 not so subtly puts it. They would be remarkably optimistic. They would be remarkably unoffendable. They would be remarkably forgiving whenever they were wronged. They would be remarkably faithful, remarkably patient, remarkably generous with their resources. They’d be remarkably encouraging, remarkably gracious, and remarkably loving to all.
And perhaps most astounding, by their admirable attitudes and actions they would compel others to do the same.
The challenge in achieving this goal, I’m finding, is simply getting out of my own way.
I took my teenage son, Abram, to breakfast at McDonald’s one Saturday morning not long ago. We walked up to the counter, placed our order, waited for the nice lady to hand us our tray
of saturated fat, and headed off to find a booth. After we sat down and unpacked our bags of food, we realized that the order taker had gotten our order totally wrong. I plunked the food back into the bags, loaded the bags back onto the tray, scooted my way out of the booth, and headed for the counter with a head full of steam.
Here is what my posture was shouting as I approached: What kind of idiot can’t get a simple breakfast order right? Was it the extra Egg McMuffin that threw you off? It’s early. I’m irritable. I haven’t had coffee. I don’t even know why life is happening at this hour. Can you try again and this time not screw up?
Thank goodness there was someone ahead of me in line. I was forced to stand there, errant order in hand, and breathe. By the time I reached the lady, I’d come to my senses again. “Ma’am,” I was able to say gently, “I think my son and I got someone else’s order by mistake.”
This was an especially fortuitous turn of events, given that her reply was “Oh! My mistake. Let me fix that for you. And by the way, my family and I sure love being part of your church.”
What is that thing that seems to overtake us between the goal for kind, loving living and our faithfulness to act on that goal? Where is our patience when our spouse forgets to pay a bill? Our forgiveness when someone cuts in front of us in line? Our love when someone gets our breakfast order wrong? Our kindness when a friend says a hurtful word? Our faithfulness when it seems like doing the right thing isn’t rewarded like we expect?
Last year, I did a deep dive into the apostle Paul’s first recorded letter to the Corinthian church in preparation for a sermon series I wanted to write. I approached my research with curiosity: Was the culture in ancient Greece somehow more conducive to living like Jesus than the one we find ourselves in today? Was it easier to choose righteousness in the year 50 than it is here and now, today? In various places in 1 Corinthians, the apostle exhorted believers to practice what in my estimation are truly amazing feats. A sampling, for our review:
• Live “free from all blame” (1 Corinthians 1:8).
• “Live in harmony with each other” (1 Corinthians 1:10).
• “Let there be no divisions in the church” (1 Corinthians 1:10).
• “Boast only about the LORD” (1 Corinthians 1:31).
• “Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16).
• “Stop deceiving yourselves” (1 Corinthians 3:18).
• Stop associating “with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people” (1 Corinthians 5:11).
• “Run from sexual sin!” (1 Corinthians 6:18).
• “Do not deprive each other [as married couples] of sexual relations, unless you both agree to refrain from sexual
intimacy for a limited time so you can give yourselves more completely to prayer” (1 Corinthians 7:5).
• Practice the type of love that is “patient and kind . . . not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, . . . keeps no record of being wronged, . . . and does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance” (1 Corinthians 13:4–7).
• “Let love be your highest goal” (1 Corinthians 14:1).
Surely there were no incorrect fast-food breakfast orders in Corinth. It was probably much easier to be holy there.
I was having a conversation this week with an acquaintance of mine who was lamenting all that is wrong in our culture today. “We’re losing our way,” he said soberly. “It’s everywhere . . . teen drug use, mass shootings, vitriol spewed 24/7 on social media, everyone demanding instant gratification, zero attention span, soaring suicide rates . . . Everything is hypersexualized . . . TV commercials sexualize hamburgers, for crying out loud . . .” The guy had a point, but—given my immersion in ancient Greece these last twelve months—instead of joining his lament, I said, “You think it’s bad now? Compared with Corinth back in Paul’s day, we’re Main Street at Disney World.” (The next time you’re at a Disney theme park, toss a piece of
trash on the ground. It won’t lie there three seconds before a “cast member” swoops in to whisk it out of sight. The place is immaculate—almost sterile.)
To understand the allure of Corinth, we need only to be reminded of its distinct location on the map. Harkening back to middle school geography, you’ll recall that an isthmus is a narrow piece of land surrounded on two sides by water. But not all isthmuses are created equal. The sole link between Greece’s two highest-profile cities, Athens and Sparta, as well as the central land route for traders needing to trek back and forth between the Aegean and Adriatic Seas, the isthmus of Corinth was a highly coveted piece of land. Eventually, in the nineteenth century, a canal would be dug, but even without it the city boomed. Boats were lugged across giant stones from one side to the other, which meant sailors could avoid the lengthy, often treacherous journey around the Peloponnese. There were plentiful freshwater springs and mounds of fertile soil, making the town highly desirable to prospective residents and merchants alike. And there existed an overemphasis on entertainment, success, and pleasure, which drew the hungry, the greedy, and the lustful . . . in other words, a whole lot of people in that day. Corinth was Vegas before Vegas.
Adding to the draw were the biannual Isthmian Games. Second only to the Greece’s Olympic Games in popularity, the Isthmian Games were a celebration both of athletic and musical performance, the grand prize being a crown of wild celery. (I hope competitors were in it for more than the prize.) But if you think about the effect of such games on a culture, the licentiousness of Corinth begins to make sense.
In our day, whenever a city is chosen to host, say, the summer Olympics, massive efforts are under way years before the Games arrive. Athletic facilities and a giant main stadium are built or at least repurposed at quite an expense. Hotels, conference centers, and restaurants are erected. Some sort of Olympic Village to house athletes is constructed. Transportation options get sorted out. Sochi spent $51 billion when it hosted the Summer Games, the highest in history, with Beijing a close second at $44 billion. Those outliers help explain why, on average, a city will spend more than $5 billion to host the event, which is still a lot of coin. This kind of resourcing wasn’t around in Paul’s day, of course, but, relatively speaking, the Games were big. Every two years, people flocked to Corinth to compete and to spectate, and to make money off all those competitors and spectators. The reason Paul himself was thought to have been able to stay in town for as long as he did—eighteen months, by nearly all accounts—was that he was a skilled tentmaker. “Olympic Village” in those days was little more than a glorified tent city. But the carnival vibe of it all . . . imagine such grandiosity, such an adrenaline rush, such a festive atmosphere, not once in a city’s lifetime but rather every twenty-four months.
The city had been decimated by Roman warriors two hundred years before the apostle Paul’s arrival on the scene, during which time the Games were relocated to Sicyon, a neighboring town to the west. In 44 BCE, Corinth was rebuilt by Julius Caesar to be a port town, a key to Grecian trade. It makes sense, then, when Paul arrived in AD 51 that he found all the shine and slickness of new money, which, as most Americans
know, can quickly lead to shortsightedness, self-centeredness, and greed.
Spiritually, Corinth was a mixed bag. A melting pot of hundreds of nationalities, both male and female, both enslaved and free, both rich and debilitatingly poor, Corinth seemed unified by the occultic worship of pagan gods. The big deal in the area was the temple of Aphrodite, and to our earlier point about our modern United States reality being like Disney by comparison with Corinth, just imagine having to have sex with a sanctioned “temple prostitute” prior to entering the temple each week to worship.2
Things here may be bad, my friend, but they aren’t that bad.
It’s telling that people who properly assimilated to life in Corinth, which generally meant taking to sexual escapades that “even pagans do not tolerate” (1 Corinthians 5:1 NIV) and fervent worship of man-made gods—what Paul called drinking “the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too” (1 Corinthians 10:21 NIV)—were said to have been “Corinthianized” (korinthiazesthai in the Greek). And more scandalous to me, the term was worn not as an insult but as an honor badge.3
The name Corinth means ornament, and you get the feeling, upon reading accounts of chronic misbehavior on the part of many in town, that indeed its value centered on playing the role of superficial adornment rather than that of substance, wholeness, or depth.
Roman slaves who had been set free settled in Corinth to make new lives for themselves. Roman military retirees eager
to unplug from a brutal regime and Roman merchants looking to profit from the town’s resurgence as a commercial hub came too. Jews who had been banished from Rome established their residence in Corinth, as did some Greeks who were intrigued by all the talk. A million or so in all came to Corinth, among them a handful of believers, little more than a house church—fifty or perhaps one hundred strong. And to them the apostle Paul longed to deliver a message: You can shine as a remarkable light for Jesus in a culture that has little use for him.
He could speak those same words to those of us here in our context today . . . You and I can live productively as followers of Jesus in a world that increasingly pays him no mind.
When Paul arrived in Corinth, he stepped into a situation where the body of Christ was being lured by a callous culture to accept cheap substitutes for intimacy with their Creator, to attempt to find fulfillment in pursuits other than him. While the church there was small, the implications of this type of drift were huge. Without some sort of official governing body for the church of Jesus Christ, its survival rested largely on the faithfulness of individual hearts. As we will explore in the pages to come, not much has changed here despite our modern, elaborate “church governance” structures. So much still rides on each faithful human heart.
Regarding his strategy for influencing Corinthians to consider Jesus, Paul was clear: “When I first came to you, dear brothers and sisters,” he wrote, “I didn’t use lofty words and
impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1–2).
In the next verses, Paul admits that he has come to Corinth “in weakness—timid and trembling” (v. 3). This makes sense practically, given that, weeks prior, Paul had been imprisoned and beaten to within inches of his life in Philippi for proclaiming the gospel of Christ. But I believe there’s more to the story than that. Despite its Roman influence, Corinth still was a Greek city, and Grecian culture celebrated intellectual prowess. The Greeks loved public debate. The great orators of the age would come to Corinth, stand in the public square, and with great expertise defend their views on the big ideas of the time before audiences hundreds and sometimes thousands strong.4
Paul hadn’t come to do that, even though he certainly could have. He was a Hebrew scholar whose reputation for deftness in debate preceded him, and yet his approach to ministering in Corinth leaned into an entirely different set of skills: “I didn’t come to amaze you with my sermon,” Paul essentially said. “I didn’t come to entertain you in the public square or to win a heated debate. I came to demonstrate the Spirit’s power. I came to urge you to let your faith rest not on man’s wisdom but on the wisdom that comes from God.”
See, while Paul surely was exhausted, frustrated, and in pain following the events in Philippi, his decision to come at things differently was far from an emotional one. Paul knew that this “new life” he spoke of was a foreign concept to those in his midst. This church was young. The believers were babies.
And most parents—biological ones and spiritual ones, too—don’t read textbooks to babies; they take things down a notch. Here is how Paul explains how and why he has come:
Let me now remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of the Good News I preached to you before. You welcomed it then, and you still stand firm in it. It is this Good News that saves you if you continue to believe the message I told you—unless, of course, you believed something that was never true in the first place.
I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him. For I am the least of all the apostles. In fact, I’m not even worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted God’s church.
But whatever I am now, it is all because God poured out his special favor on me—and not without results. For I have worked harder than any of the other apostles; yet it was not I but God who was working through me by his grace. So it makes no difference whether I preach or they preach, for we all preach the same message you have already believed [1 Corinthians 15:1–11].
Paul knew that he could blow endless amounts of time chasing down every manifestation of Corinthian waywardness
he saw, or else he could labor to demonstrate the gospel, trusting the Spirit to draw tenderized hearts. He chose the latter, which I find instructive for you and me, given the culture we find ourselves in. As you might guess, the people of Corinth were spiritually stubborn. They’d found new freedom, they’d found new resourcefulness, they’d found new opportunities, they’d found new wealth. But Paul knew that even as this new path seemed stimulating and satisfying to Corinthian believers, any path that led to opposition to God was a destructive one. Paul implored them to correct their course.
Thus, the level-setting reminders throughout his letters: Believers, remember what you’ve believed, he pleaded with them. Christ came. Christ died. Christ rose again from the dead.
By Christ’s power, they could live differently now.
I imagine Paul vying for Corinthian hearts in this way for a full eighteen months and feel exhausted on his behalf. It’s tiring to call people to change! A friend asked me why I was so tired one Monday, and I said, “I’m always tired on Mondays. Mondays come after Sundays, and on Sundays, I’m putting 100 percent of my energies toward pleading with people to change.”
I can speak at a conference or do an hour-long radio interview or lead back-to-back meetings and go home feeling great. But preaching? It’s a different beast. When you go up against the gods of this age and ask people to imagine a fresh way of living, a wholly different direct object of their faith, the energy tank gets tapped—and fast. I think of Paul coming off of Philippi and setting foot on this eighteen-month journey to compel Corinth back to Christ, and my heart goes out to him.
This would be an uphill climb if ever there were one. And yet he knew it was a climb that had to be made.
And so he looked into the eyes of those believers at Corinth and said with the compassion of a loving dad to a son that they’d traded something stunning for something sordid. Their pursuit of pleasure had replaced their pursuit of God. They had valued their own ways above the ways of their Father. They now craved chaos instead of peace.
Come back, Paul was imploring them. Come back to the cross of Christ.
It wasn’t exactly what his listeners wanted to hear. Who wants to talk about a cross?
As Christians, we have made the cross palatable. We put flowers around it. We cast it in gold, thread a chain through it, and feel noble about wearing it around our necks. But when Paul was on the earth, the cross represented serious business. This Roman method of execution was so bloody and torturous and awful that you never would have even alluded to it in polite company, let alone glorified it. For Paul to preach about a Christ, a Messiah, the Son of God, being crucified was an awful way to start a conversation. Crucifixion was a shameful way to die, and nobody wanted to be reminded that the One they were following, the One they’d devoted their lives to, had been murdered on a Roman cross. This was a culture that celebrated the big, the bold, the successful, the strong, the sensual, the popular, the rich. This image of a poor, weak, vulnerable Jesus being put to death in this manner went against everything they esteemed. Which is precisely why Paul started there. As we’ll explore further in chapter 9, the
power of entertainment, of sex, and of money gets broken only by the power of the cross.
It is by the power of the cross that believers can live blamelessly.
It is by the power of the cross that unity can have its way.
It is by the power of the cross that churches can operate harmoniously.
It is by the power of the cross that humility can mark a human heart.
It is by the power of the cross that deception gets defeated.
It is by the power of the cross that sin loses its allure.
It is by the power of the cross that true love is practiced.
It is by the power of the cross that cultures see genuine change.
Paul knew that the practical shifts he was asking believers at Corinth to make would happen only by the power of the cross, and so, instead of shaking his fist or stomping his feet or disparaging the ones he was hoping to serve, he simply fixed his gaze on the old rugged cross, trusting that there, every wrong would be made right.