The Curious Power of God
Together, the readings from Acts and 1 Corinthians offer a sense of Paul’s mission through various phases.
In these readings, we follow Paul from his entry into a town, through his work to establish a congregation, to his renewed preaching after he has left the community and questions or problems arise in the church he planted.
First, a community of Christians takes root. In Acts 18, Paul makes his way from Athens to Corinth. The pattern here looks a lot like the one we saw in Thessalonica, Beroea and Athens (cf. Acts 17) and that we will see in Ephesus (cf. Acts 19:1-10). The general pattern is this: Paul goes to a new place and finds his way to a synagogue on the Sabbath, where he discusses (or argues) with his fellow Jews about the news that Jesus is the Messiah. The response to this news is mixed. Some who hear him believe what he is saying; others reject his news. In both instances — that is, whether Paul’s message meets with acceptance or rejection — God reassures Paul and the apostle continues his work.
The story of Paul’s entry into Corinth and his church-planting there adds a few details to this standard story line. For one thing, it is in Corinth that Paul makes the acquaintance of a married couple, Priscilla and Aquila. They are Jews from Rome with whom Paul becomes a co-worker, both in the trade they share and in the ministry of the gospel. In his letters, Paul will send greetings from them (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:19) and to them (cf. Romans 16:3; 2 Timothy 4:19).
For another thing, when Paul leaves the synagogue, he doesn’t get far. His host is Titius Justus, a “worshiper of God.” From Josephus, we know the term describes gentiles who were drawn to the monotheism and ethical clarity of Judaism and who participated in synagogue worship, but who had not themselves become Jews. (It was, after all, a conversion that would require circumcision of males.)
Another who receives Paul’s message gladly is Crispus, an official of the synagogue. So for all of Paul’s show of “being done” with mission to his brother and sister Jews (cf. Acts 18:6), it is nonetheless true that in Corinth as elsewhere, the Christian communities Paul helps to form include a mix of Jews and gentiles.
Finally, in Luke’s story of Paul’s time in Corinth, the Roman state plays a role in the person of Gallio. When certain Jews seek Gallio’s judgment against Paul, the Roman proconsul does not get involved. While this scene may at first look like Luke’s attempt to cast the Roman authorities in a favorable light, the concluding verses of Gallio’s story leave readers with the impression that it is not any sense of good government that motivates the ruler. Rather he is most likely just uninterested in events he imagines as beneath his notice, for even an outbreak of mob violence on the steps of the tribunal fails to move Gallio to action.
From the Corinthian letters we know that problems arise after Paul leaves Corinth. Paul writes 1 Corinthians because the Corinthians themselves have sent him a letter with questions and those whom we imagine to have delivered the letter (Chloe’s people) report divisions in the community that Paul wants to respond to. The divisions he mentions in chapter 1 have to do with allegiance to particular leaders, but this is only one of the ways a small group of believers in Jesus has managed to divide itself. The Corinthians embody a mix of arrogance and insecurity not only around their alignment with favorite teachers but also around their assessment of spiritual gifts, their worship practices, their ongoing interaction with pagan culture, and so on.
Notice that even as Paul urges the Corinthians toward unity of mind and purpose, he de-centers himself. Paul often places himself at the heart of his theological arguments and ethical instructions (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 5:1-5; 9:19-22; 14:18-19) so the fact that he does not do so here is noteworthy. He says that, in this case, he is glad for his lack of ministry: he didn’t baptize any of them, except a couple of people — and one household, as far as he can remember, and besides, whom he did or didn’t baptize is not the point.
Paul aims to inspire unity, but not by encouraging the Corinthians to rally around an authority, even himself. Living the gospel in the congregation is not a matter of getting in line behind the right leader. As Paul will say explicitly in chapter three, to be “united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1:10) is largely to give up on the idea that leaders matter (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:5-7, 21-23).
From there, Paul leaves the topic of leaders and takes up “the message of the cross.” This phrase is shorthand for the news that Paul will describe in more detail when he reminds the Corinthians of what he received and, in turn, handed on to them. The texts are 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 and 1 Corinthians 15:3-8), and the story is the betrayal, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Much of Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians is his reminder to them that they participate in the very events on which their faith is founded. Even now, they “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (11:26). Even now, they are “being saved” (1:18). In the future, that salvation will be complete as death is destroyed and they participate in a resurrection like Christ’s (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:51-57).
The cross looks like foolishness, weakness, even a dismal, repellant failure. Paul’s own ministry may well have looked the same to those Jews and gentiles who thought his words were nonsense or worse, a call to “worship God in ways that are contrary to the law” (Acts 18:13). It is, however, the wisdom of God that through Christ’s cross and Paul’s ministry, God is reconciling the fractious Corinthians (and the rest of us) to each other and to God’s self.