Due to our sin, especially pride and idolatry, human beings always create societies which fall short of what God’s desires (Ro 3:12). Jesus, therefore, puts his people into a new kingdom which has a different lifestyle that does honour God (Mt 6:33; 1Jo 2:15-17). But as Christians pursue this, it can bring us into clash points with the surrounding culture, especially when our view is very different from a view which has strong influence upon our society. Such clashes are important, however, since the Lord uses them to challenge the sins of a society. That’s been seen in the cities Paul has already evangelised in Macedonia and Greece, and appears again here in Corinth.
Situated between two seas, Corinth’s position helped it become an important and very wealthy city. Shaped both by Roman and Greek culture, this administrative capital of Achaia drew many to itself, becoming large and cosmopolitan in the process. But what defined the city was not simply the achievements of its success; it was also a society built on status. What mattered was how you compared with others: where you fitted into the social tree. And what hugely affected that was your education. Those who had been trained for public speaking – rhetoric – were the celebrities of Corinth, the people of position, power and honour. Now, being able to speak well is no sin in itself. But it had become sinful in Corinth through the ugly, despising pride it generated. Therefore, the Lord shapes Paul’s mission to challenge this feature of the city’s culture.
Paul arrives, alone, in Corinth from Athens (v1), where he’s done quite a bit of public speaking (Ac 17:17,22). However, in Corinth he settles into the Jewish community having befriended Aquila and Priscilla, a couple recently arrived from Rome (v2). Like other Jewish students, Paul learned a manual trade when young and so joins the couple in making tents (v3). Then every Sabbath, he gives himself to reasoning in the synagogue both with Jews and Greeks who are seeking the God of Israel (v4). This work intensifies when Silas and Timothy arrive which allows Paul to leave off the manual labour and focus on his evangelism in the Jewish community (v5). However, antagonism grows among the Jews until Paul has to exit from the synagogue, warning the Jews as he leaves about their dangerous rejection of Christ (v6). Nonetheless, Paul remains in the Jewish area, establishing himself next door to the synagogue, where a number join him (v7,8).
But why does Paul adopt such a strategy? Why not go to the marketplace like Athens? Paul explains his approach in a later letter. There (1Co 2:1-5) he explains that in Corinth he would not pander to the local obsession with fine speaking and the pursuit of a reputation as a ‘wise’ man. Instead, Paul preached simply a message which offended those who heard him by focussing on Jesus’ crucifixion – a story which would gain no status points for Paul or Jesus in Corinth’s social league. It wasn’t easy for Paul to do this and his nervous demeanour often betrayed that (1Co 2:3). Yet this apparently irrelevant and clumsy approach actually saw many converts (v8). How did this happen? By the power of God’s Spirit (1Co 2:4; 1Co 1:20-23).
Paul’s technique can reassure us when we seek to honour the Lord. Sometimes we feel that our words are failing him. We look stupid. We don’t have all the answers. We get harsh responses. We run out of things to say. We trip over our words. We find it hard to overcome shyness and initiate conversations. But we do not need to become fretful. The Lord does not need brilliant speaking from us to do his work. His power is far greater to save than any words of ours.
However, was Paul really so countercultural in Corinth? After all, didn’t he later write that would become like others if it gave him the opportunity to speak to them (1Co 9:19-22)? Well, it is true that Paul would suppress his personal preferences in order to mix with others. With Jews he’d practise customs that he had long given up. With Gentiles he’d eat foods which, for much of his life, he’d seen as unclean. In these and other ways Paul ignored what he liked and became like others to reach them. But that was about friendliness, not cultural relevance, and it’s good for Christians to learn to do the same. We should be willing to mix freely, even with those who make us feel uncomfortable, so long as it doesn’t lead us into sin. That’s to be like Paul, and Jesus.