(A) Introduction. (Read the reference)

It is easy to read this impassioned passage and to be critical of Paul. Paul employs sarcasm to bring the Corinthians to heel. Sarcasm is a potent but dangerous means of rebuking the erring. It can bring a person to their senses but it may also humiliate and produce deep resentment. Paul also uses pathos, which is not altogether dissimilar to self-pity, in order to correct the wayward Christians at Corinth. We need to ask the following questions: Was Paul justified in writing what he did? Were his tactics productive? Were his motives good? It is wrong to lose sight of the fact that we are studying a letter written by a great hearted, totally dedicated, but sinful Christian leader. Paul, unlike his Master, was not perfect.

(B) The symptoms of a sick church.

Paul identifies three deadly symptoms in the church at Corinth:

(1) Arrogance. Some of you have become arrogant as if I were not coming to you. v18. Why do you boast .. ? v17.
The Corinthians were opinionated. They had plenty to say. Nobody would stop talking in the church. Paul had to tell them to speak one at a time and listen to what was being said. Many believers were boastful - about the leader they preferred, their spiritual gifts and understanding. Those who felt very superior, indeed, were patronising. There was definitely an element who patronised Paul. In his second epistle he wrote: I, Paul, who am "timid" when face to face with you, but "bold" when away! 2Cor10v1. His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing. 2Cor10v10. Paul is obviously referring to remarks Christians at Corinth made about him.

We all know opinionated Christians who love to air their own views and who are uninterested in anyone else's; boastful pastors who publicise the great things going on in their churches: patronising believers who belittle members of other denominations. My friend, Miss K, and yes she was my friend, used to tell me that no good would ever come of the church I attended as it was only a sect. She never heard me preach but always dismissed me as a 'tub thumper'. I wasn't a 'proper Christian'.

(2) Delusion Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings - .... . v8.
The Corinthians considered they had reached the pinnacle of spirituality. They were spiritual giants - self-satisfied and complacent about their accomplishments.

Charles Dickens deals over and over again in his novels with little men of very limited ability who are wonderfully grand in their own, very small circle. Ridiculous individuals like Mr Pumblechook in Great Expectations and Mr Chadband in Bleak House suffer from delusions of grandeur. Mr Chadband was a nonconformist minister and this gives a flavour of how Dickens deals with him (after the same ruthless manner as Paul!): Mr Chadband is a large yellow man, with a fat smile, and a general appearance of having a good deal of train oil in his system. Mr Chadband moves softly and cumbrously, not unlike a bear who has been taught to walk upright. He is very much embarrassed about the arms, as if they were inconvenient to him, and he wanted to grovel: is very much in a perspiration about the head; and never speaks without first putting up his great hand, as delivering a token to his hearers that he is going to edify them.

"My friends," says Mr Chadband, "Peace be on this house! On the master thereof, on the mistress thereof, on the young maidens, and on the young men! My friends, why do I wish for peace? What is peace? Is it war! No. Is it strife? No. Is it lovely, and gentle, and beautiful, and pleasant, and serene, and joyful? O yes! Therefore, my friends, I wish for peace, upon you and upon yours."

We all know some modern day equivalents of Mr Chadband - professing Christians who are very big fish in a very small pond. They might be leaders of a traditionalist faction within a small denomination that considers the use of the Authorised Version, an archaic hymnbook, 'Thees and Thous' in prayer and familiarity with a smattering of reformed doctrine the height of spirituality. Such individuals are like a would be mountaineer who reckons he has scaled the ultimate peak after walking up Box Hill in Surrey. They are spiritual pygmies not spiritual giants.

(3) Partisanship
I have already dealt with this characteristic of the Corinthian Church in an earlier exposition. (See exposition on 1Cor1v10to17) However, Paul brings the matter up yet again: Then you will not take pride in one man over against another. v6.

Wherever Christians are partisan, supporting one Christian leader as opposed to another, the result is:

    (a) Competitiveness. Each faction wants to out perform the other and so there is competition for adherents.

    (b) Exclusiveness. Devotees of one leader or teacher or pundit or theologian tend to rubbish, denigrate and undervalue the devotees of someone else.

    (c) Divisiveness. The church fragments. This has been the curse of Protestantism. It is something Roman Catholics justifiably criticise. Divisiveness is absolutely contrary to the mind and will of Jesus Christ. Nothing can excuse the damage done to the body of Christ by its chronic disunity.

(C) The treatment of a sick church.

Paul makes use of four medicines to fight disease in the church at Corinth:

(1) Indignation. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? v7.

Jerome Murphy-O'Connor in his thought provoking commentary on 1 Corinthians considers that these are wounding questions. Murphy-O'Connor believes that Paul is putting the intellectuals down. He argues that Christians are set free by grace but then: It is up to them to make such freedom a reality. God does not give it. Thus, the intellectuals, as all believers, could claim credit for the good use of grace. But in the heat of the moment that was far from Paul's mind.

Now I understand this line of reasoning. It can be used in other contexts. A pupil who does well in an examination has been set free by grace - a high intelligence and an excellent teacher. But the pupil can also claim that he has made the most of his opportunities by working hard. He can claim credit for the good use of grace.

However, indignation might be in order when:

    (a) A young woman is full of herself for being pretty.
    (b) A man brags about his good digestion.
    (c) A large landowner expects to be respected for owning the acres he has inherited.
    (d) A public schoolteacher whose pupils get tremendous exam results considers himself superior to a teacher in an inner city comprehensive whose students get poor results.
    (e) A white English skinhead looks down on a Pakistani immigrant.

In each of the cases above the person with a high opinion of himself has made a small personal contribution to what makes him different.

Paul is justifiably indignant with the Corinthians because the little they may have contributed to their spiritual enlightenment and understanding is as nothing compared to what they had been given. The believers at Corinth had received: forgiveness of sins, new life, spiritual gifts, a new status as children of God and the hope of glory. God's plan of salvation, the redeeming work of Jesus and the indwelling Holy Spirit made the Corinthians citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Every Christian should beware of uttering the prayer of the Pharisee: "God I thank thee that I am not as other men are ....... even as this publican." Lk18v11. The Grace Baptist might pray: "God I thank thee that I am not as other Christians are .... even as an errant Roman Catholic." A lively charismatic might pray: "God I thank thee that I am not as other Christians are .... even as a stodgy Grace Baptist."

Such superiority as we might have over other Christians is as nothing compared to the new status we have in Christ and that is all of God's grace.

(2) Bitter irony

(a) The content of Paul's irony. He questioned their:

    (I) Accomplishments. You have become kings - and that without us!

    The Corinthians had attained so much, they were in want of nothing, rich beyond measure, monarchs of all they surveyed and all without Paul's help. They were like children who build themselves a house, a den, without any help from their father, a master builder. What a contrast there is between the children's paltry shack and the houses dad builds.

    We can never know too much. We should never fail to consult Bible scholars or listen to those who do. If we rely wholly upon our own ideas and interpretation of the Scriptures our collection of beliefs may resemble the children's den.

    (II) Status. How I wish you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you.

    It is not certain what was in Paul's mind when he wrote this except that he had grave doubts about the spiritual maturity of the Corinthians. He might be saying that he wishes the Corinthians really were splendid specimens of Christianity because then he could bask in their reflected glory - he could get some glory for himself. Or he could be indicating that if the believers at Corinth really were as enlightened and spiritually endowed as they claim they would have so much to share together.

    It is impossible to gain much or share much with those who are ignorant of a subject. I am quite knowledgeable about meteorology. I meet several folk who are very contemptuous of weather forecasters and reckon they can tell the weather from the state of their joints. Such people have no knowledge of meteorology to share with me! There is nothing I can learn from them - and nothing I can teach them!

    Sadly, there are Christians who think they know it all but who know very little. They actually have nothing much to contribute.

    (III) Judgment. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak but you are strong! You are honoured but we are dishonoured! v10.

    It is possible Paul is contrasting what some at Corinth thought of him - foolish, weak and dishonourable - with what they thought about themselves - wise, strong and honourable. The apostle is challenging their judgment.

    During the four months I taught on a temporary contract at a difficult school in Haverhill there were several pupils who did not respect me. It is easy is such circumstances to lose confidence! But I would ask myself: 'Who does this lack of respect reflect badly on - me or them?' I had previously done a fairly good job teaching Geography at all levels in secondary schools for 22 years. I questioned the judgment of the Haverhill students.

    That is what Paul is doing in this passage. He is asking: "Who is at fault here?" He expects the Corinthians to accept that they are!

(b) Was Paul justified in being so savagely ironic?

Some commentators, like Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, do not think Paul was justified: Authentic Christian leadership should give life not take dignity. I am rather ambivalent about the matter. (In other words I don't know quite what to think!)

I would make three points in Paul's defence:

    (I) Paul's sarcasm was understandable. There is something very provocative about immature, uninformed Christians acting as though they are the founts of all wisdom. Mr Chadband deserved Dicken's ridicule. He was a greasy, humbugging windbag.

    (II) Jesus flayed the Pharisees. He used irony. He was sarcastic. He employed ridicule. Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You give a tenth of your spices - mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. Mt2v23to24.

    What Jesus said did undermine the authority of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. He was taking dignity! Sometimes it is necessary to break down before building up. This is a tactic used with some success by a sergeant faced by a cocky group of recruits.

    (III) Sometimes shock tactics work - they work in the army! I have found that after giving a class a tongue lashing for showing a poor attitude at least some pupils will feel ashamed, take stock and change. I used to teach a boy whose behaviour would steadily deteriorate until I finally blew my top and read him the riot act. He would say to me afterwards: "I needed that Mr Reed." For several months his attitude would be exemplary

    Jesus didn't deal with Nicodemus gently! Jesus stirred the leading Pharisee up by the use of irony, veiled sayings and gentle ridicule. It led to Nicodemus reconsidering his position and eventually coming to saving faith. (See exposition on John3v1to12.)

    The use of bitter irony does not always work! The majority of Jewish leaders remained opposed to Jesus and conspired to crucify him. When I was on holiday in North Norfolk I heard a local pastor tell his congregation of over 100 that too many of them were behaving like sulky children. Virtually no-one turned up to the evening service!

    Irony, sarcasm and ridicule are not weapons that can be used too often. However, if used sparingly they can bring the proud and foolish to repentance. Paul's tactics did work with the Corinthians as a really poignant passage in his second letter reveals. See 2Cor7v8and9.

(3) Pathos.

Paul used pathos when he described his life as the apostle to the Gentiles. He itemised the following aspects of his experience as an itinerant evangelist:

(a) His status in the eyes of the world. For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. v9.

Paul asked his readers to picture the triumphant entry of a victorious army commander into Rome. He marches into the capital at the head of his conquering army followed by his chief officers and then rank after rank of legionaries led by their captains and centurions. At the back of the procession are the demoralised prisoners of war - unfed, unkempt, dejected and defeated. As they stumble along at the end of ropes the crowd mock and jeer them - perhaps, a few pity them. Everyone knows their fate: to fight each other or wild animals to the death in the arena. Paul likens his status in the eyes of the world to one of these pathetic captives. He wrote: We have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world. v13.

Christians brought up in societies where religious tolerance still exists might be tempted to think that Paul is exaggerating or wallowing in self-pity. However, wherever Christians are a minority in a society that rejects the values of Jesus they are likely to be despised and marginalised. This was the case in totalitarian regimes of the 20th century like those existing in Russia, China, Cambodia and Nazi Germany. Today, it remains true for some Moslem countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan. I get the impression that there is a growing number of liberal, media people who are contemptuous of born again Christians. I wouldn't be surprised if some of them thought I was 'the scum of the earth'.

(b) The deprivations of a wandering life. To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. v11.

I hope that Jerome Murphy-O'Connor will excuse me for quoting from his book on 1 Corinthians but he does powerfully bring home Paul's hardships:

On the Roman roads throughout Asia Minor and Greece inns were spaced roughly 22 miles apart. That was a day's steady walking. As he was setting out, however, Paul might be called to repair a traveller's equipment or the tack of a carriage. He had to take the job because he needed the money. But the delay meant that he would not reach the inn before nightfall. The consequence was a cold and hungry night in the open. Or, while on the road, he might be requisitioned by a platoon of soldiers to repair their leather cloaks or sandals. A lot of work paid for by an insulting blow, and most of the daylight gone.

Robbers infested the roads. In particularly bad areas Paul would have to waste time and money waiting for a group of travellers going in his direction. In no town did Paul have the connections that guaranteed protection. He was the outsider who would be victimized with impunity. There were no police forces to whom he could appeal. The military did not intervene in civil matters. In any sort of trouble Paul was on his own. Despised and humiliated, he seethed with the impotent anger of the weak.

The phrase in Paul's description of his deprivations that really struck me was: We are in rags. You do not make much of an impression if dressed in rags! In some respects Paul had it harder than his Master. The well-to-do ladies that supported Jesus would not let him walk around in rags.

I wonder how the advocates of a 'prosperity gospel' square their beliefs with Paul's experience. Some Christians expect God to provide them with a whole basket full of goodies: a happy home life, good health, a satisfying job and material riches. How many of these did Paul enjoy?

In today's Daily Telegraph (Sept 13th 2006) I read the obituary of Joachim Fest, the German historian and journalist who provided the definitive account of the Third Reich. His father, Hans, was a schoolmaster. A devout Catholic, he refused to join the Nazi party or to allow his children to join the Hitler Youth. His defiance got him the sack; he was not even allowed to give private tuition. Hans Fest's stand left the family almost destitute. This is sometimes what it takes to be a Christian. How we dread the very thought of it! The advocates of the 'prosperity gospel' are in the same league as the self-confident, boastful Corinthians.

(c) The indignity of manual labour in Greek culture. We work hard with our own hands. v12.

Paul was a leather worker and wherever he went he practised his craft. He was in most places a self-supporting evangelist. The Greeks looked down on tent makers and cobblers. Things don't change much! Certain kinds of unskilled workers, like cleaners or vegetable pickers, are little regarded in England.

It is particularly sad when the church makes more fuss of those with high status occupations than low status jobs. It can still happen. Folk flock to hear the testimony of a self-made multi-millionaire who would not turn out to hear a carpenter!

(d) The demands put upon his self-control and Christian charity. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. v13.

Christian humility and forbearance, such as practiced by Paul amongst the Gentiles, were not greatly admired virtues amongst the pagans. I am not sure they are today. Parents tell their children to stand up for themselves at school, to give as good as they get. My brother fostered a little girl who had been taught by her father to whack anyone who whacked her. Eventually this led her to take pre-emptive action and kick anyone in sight. She was quite a pretty little girl - the sort you might pick up and cuddle. You wouldn't make the same mistake twice.

Paul was being faithful to the teaching of Jesus even though it did nothing for his reputation. But even he got uptight with those who questioned his Christian leadership!

Paul leaves the Corinthians in no doubt about what is involved in being a servant of Jesus Christ. It is not about earthly glory, comfort, respect or reputation but about suffering, enduring and being true to Christ's teaching and example regardless of the consequences. Paul lived by Kingdom values whatever the cost.

Sometimes pathos is effective in making people reconsider their behaviour. I have used it as a schoolteacher. I can recall running a putting game at our school Christmas fair. None of my form gave me any help. This was not true of other forms that co-operated with their teachers to man stalls and competitions. I used a good deal of pathos and eloquence to draw this to the attention of my class. It made some pupils promise to help next year!

ANY COMMENTS FOR JOHN REED: E-mail jfmreed@talktalk.net