4 Reasons You Should Preach through 1 Corinthians
We reached chapter 5 on church discipline in my expositional series through 1 Corinthians. It’s a tough passage for our young church in Iraq—a church with zero history of practicing church discipline despite numerous appropriate opportunities.
I felt apprehensive about the sermon’s reception by the congregation.
Then, as if to make matters more complicated, a couple minutes into the sermon the electricity went out—a regular occurrence in Iraq. I raised my voice to overcome the loss of the microphone and an elder handed me his phone flashlight so I could see my notes but I was speaking into stygian darkness.
“The backup generator will kick in soon,” I thought to myself.
Unbeknownst to me, the caretaker had left that week for a trip to Turkey and took the key to the cage that prevented the generator from being stolen. Unfortunately, this also prevented our frantic deacons from being able to fire it up.
I continued preaching for 50 minutes, in the dark, with no clue that the congregation was awake.
Occasionally, I would point the flashlight to my face and say, “Church, I want you to listen to this,” (having the effect, I hoped, to what I had seen at spooky storytelling time around the Boy Scouts campfire).
As I came to my conclusion, the lights went on. Everyone was blinking and big-eyed—riveted by the text, it turns out. They were also now deeply committed to the need for church discipline.
And in this moment, once again, God impressed me with the importance of preaching systematically through the books of the Bible.
WHY PREACH THROUGH ANY BOOK?
Unfortunately, most preaching in the world today is topical. Preachers pick a topic, and gather verses about it. In our church, we do topical sermons from time to time. But a steady diet of them is thin gruel.
There are many problems with strictly topical preaching. First of all, it lets preachers off the hook. They don’t have to wrestle with difficult texts. So preachers skip hard parts and talk about “love” in 1 Corinthians 13. But you’re not serving your congregation well if they’re not equipped to understand all parts of the Bible, including the hard parts. So discipline yourself to preach through books of the Bible in their entirety, teaching your congregation to rightly handle the word of truth.
Not only will this be good for your church, it will be good for your soul. I can’t preach all that I learn in my sermon prep—there’s just too much. But it’s a treasure house in my heart that I’m grateful for.
Here’s another problem with strictly topical preaching: Over the years, I’ve noticed that the hard parts of scripture—rightly understood and preached—make for the most interesting and intriguing sermons. Wrestling though divorce, figuring out Christian singleness, or wondering what Paul meant when he said “baptizing people for the dead”—sermons on these texts stick with congregations.
And finally, though you may not solve some of those obscure issues, the way you deal with the text becomes a model of how every Christian ought to treat hard texts of Scripture.
BUT WHY 1 CORINTHIANS?
Let me give you four reasons why it’s worth it to preach through 1 Corinthians.
It covers relevant issues.
I suspect you would admit that all Scripture is “relevant.” But some speak of parts of 1 Corinthians as if they’re irrelevant, best left for another era. Put that thought aside. The book is complex, but not irrelevant. It’s complex because 1 Corinthians doesn’t lend itself to one theme. There are many, and they weave their way through the book.
Reading 1 Corinthians is like listening in to one side of a phone call: much of the book is Paul answering questions from the Corinthians. But there’s a problem: we can’t hear their questions. To make it further complex, Paul is dealing with cultural issues of the day that at first seem odd or irrelevant. After all, there’s not much meat sacrificed to idols in the modern Western world. He’s also dealing with gender issues that, upon a superficial reading, rankle modern listeners.
But when we scratch the surface, we find biblically principled gold below. It just makes our preparation a bit more difficult, that’s all. With apologies to G.K. Chesterton, it’s not that 1 Corinthians has been tried and found wanting, it’s that 1 Corinthians has been found difficult and left untried.
After finishing our series on 1 Corinthians, I looked back with astonishment at the relevance for the modern church. Some of these relevant themes I expected: divisions in the church, sexual purity, the necessity of the resurrection for our faith. But other relevant themes jumped out unexpectedly: gender identity, for instance (that’s the main point of head coverings in chapter 11). In our context we had covered women who came to church just to hear what I would say.
Some themes proved relevant to our specific situation. Our church is in Kurdistan—sandwiched between Iran, Syria, and Turkey. So you can imagine what they thought when I told them Paul’s background. That the author of this book was a former terrorist. It snapped people’s heads to attention.
Others parts would be specific to your situation, I promise. After all, Paul is dealing with humans and we haven’t changed that much. For example, giving up our rights as we’re called to live out gospel lives seems to be a theme that crosses time and culture.
Bottom line: do you think we live in a politically and economically polarized world? You ain’t seen nothing like Corinth! Do you think there are gender/sexual issues today? There are, but dig a bit and see what faced this first-century local church.
It’s full of God’s instructions for getting rid of the worldly divisions among believers in the church.
The themes of 1 Corinthians will shape your church into the church you want. I’m a pastor, so I know the kind of church you want. You want a gospel-centered, Cross-focused, Bible-drenched community of members who are genuine baptized believers and delighted to live out covenanted relationships of holy living, caring for each other in gospel love, joyfully submitting to the leadership of the elders, giving witness before a watching world of the resurrection of Jesus—all to the glory of God.
I want that, too.
And if you preach through 1 Corinthians, it’ll happen, right?
But you will lay the groundwork for it. Why? Because 1 Corinthians is a frontal attack on the things that tear churches apart. It’s full of God’s instructions for getting rid of the worldly divisions among believers in the church. It’s about putting to death the carnal and fleshly sins that plague believers in a sexed-up culture. It’s about living together in a way that honors Jesus.
It lays the foundations for a healthy church—in both biblical doctrine and pastoral affection.
The foundation for a healthy church is given in 1 Corinthians. In chapter 1, we get Paul’s clear understanding of biblical conversion. In chapter 5, we see the principles of church discipline. In chapter 14, we see how the whole church speaks of Jesus. Throughout the book, we see the need and practice of church membership.
But most of all, we see Paul’s love for this difficult, sinful, and cantankerous community. It’s a model of biblical discipleship.
I love how Paul loved these struggling saints. At the very beginning, he thanks God for them and the grace given to them from Jesus. He tells them that Jesus will sustain them until the very end as guiltless. Guiltless? Yes, Paul affirms these sinners’ sanctified standing before Christ (1:2). That’s how he begins. Holy cow!
The middle of the letter is full of their many sins: they were snobbish and divisive, they took each other to court, and they couldn’t give up their addiction to prostitutes. They were loose on doctrine and loose on moral behavior. They focused on minor points of theology while missing love. They happily accepted divorce, and they got drunk during the Lord’s Supper. They were shot through with cliques and fighting. They even rejected Paul himself.
Given all that and much more, at the end of the book, in the very last sentence, you’d expect Paul to say . . . and now I’m going to dust off my feet.
But no, he says, “My love be with you all in Christ Jesus” (16:24). Paul loved these struggling saints with gospel love.
The local church in Corinth was a real church with real problems—just like your church. So what could be more important for your church to hear? Well, they need to hear the truth about these doctrines. But they also need to hear that you love them with this kind of discipling love.
It offers a long-term vision.
Finally, have you ever had that thought, “We could have a great church here if we could just get rid of the people?”
Paul didn’t think that way. First Corinthians is about seeing people the way God sees them; it’s about seeing the world through biblical lenses, and seeing the potential of a church, despite how messed up they are.
Paul took a long-term vision for the church. Forget the rapidly reproducing nonsense. Paul understood that the church is Christ’s chosen instrument for kingdom advancement. This takes patience and kindness, grace and forbearance. So he stuck with them. He knew that God would work in their lives to bring the saints in Corinth to completion (Phil. 1:6). He trusted God’s work in their lives as they built the church.
In that way, Paul models for us what we need for our best church now.
I used mostly my own manuscript study of 1 Corinthians. The ESV study notes were also helpful.
I occasionally used Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner’s Pillar Commentary.
I understand that Tom Schreiner has published a commentary, but I finished my series as it was released.
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Editor’s note: You can read the rest of the articles in this series here.