Category Archives: Scripture in Sequence

I Corinthians

Probably the third surviving text from the unfolding life of the early Christian communities, I Corinthians is a much longer, and therefore richer, source of St Paul’s thought, then the two earlier epistles. 

Unity & Love

The Christian community in Corinth is suffering from divisions. It’s clearly very mixed in its membership (1:26-28). Richer members are not waiting to share food with the less well-off ones at the Lord’s Supper (11:21-22). Members appeal to different Christian leaders as the source of their authority (3:1-9) and Paul seems to have written this letter to settle some disputed issues indicated in a letter received from Corinth; he also intends to visit in person at some later date.

Famously, chapter 13 is Paul’s great text in praise of love – always patient, always kind and bearing no record of wrongs. In a letter elsewhere confrontational, here he challenges the Christians of Corinth to rise to the heights of love. He does this after reminding them that the church is one body, and the “weaker members” of a body deserve “greater care” (12:14-26).

The Holy Spirit

The Spirit (or “breath”) of God features prominently in this letter.  We have already seen that both in Thessalonica and Galatia, St Paul’s audience experienced some sort of dramatic manifestation of the God’s spirit, and we are told this also happened in Corinth (2:4). Verses 8-16 of the same chapter set out Paul’s understanding of what it is to be led by God’s spirit, which comprehends the depth of God, and equips believers with the “mind of Christ”. Each Christian believer is therefore a temple of God’s Spirit (3:16-17).

Because the Corinthian Christians have been touched by God’s spirit, they are now manifesting charismatic gifts. But again, the lack of love in the community causes these to be exercised in an inconsiderate way, and Paul gives directions on the right use of spiritual gifts in the worshipping community (12 & 14). There is no reason to think that the list of nine gifts mentioned by Paul is exhaustive; other gifts may be bestowed by the Holy Spirit at God’s pleasure.

Jesus Christ

“We proclaim Christ crucified.” Paul’s message, at its heart, is about a man who was executed on a Cross (1:23). Near the end of the letter (15:1-11) he sets out the Gospel which he himself “received” (he doesn’t say whether in a heavenly vision or handed on from the apostles who were witnesses), stressing that it is of “first importance” that Jesus died for our sins, was buried, rose and appeared to many of his followers.

Earlier in the letter, Paul also passes on what he has received about the Lord’s Supper (11:23-26) – in the breaking of bread and the cup of the new covenant, believers “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”.

Immediately following (11:27-32), Paul warns of the consequences of unworthy participation in this ritual meal. Those who do not “discern the body” bring judgment upon themselves; Paul says this is why some have become weak or even died! Now “discerning the body” here seems to point less to an understanding of the Real Presence and more towards the Christian community as Christ’s body. It comes soon after words about Christ as the “head of humanity” and before the image of church as one body of differently-gifted members (12:27).

It is clear that at this early time in the life of the church, the Lord’s Supper is being kept in the way Jesus celebrated it originally – in the context of a meal, at which bread and wine would then be blessed and shared. It is unlikely the host family would provide all the food; this letter has the clear sense that what was meant to be a “bring and share” meal has descended into a “bring your own”. (How many of us have gone to a church “bring and share” bringing our own favourite food, and favoured that out of all the variety on display to us, even when we have waited our turn to fill our plate?)

Paul seems to believe that selfish behaviour at the Lord’s supper attracts God’s direct punishment (11:31-32), but this is for our own good. Is this telling us Paul’s personal opinion, or something he has learned through a revelation? (Most of the New Testament points to judgment as being something awaiting at the end of our lives rather than a current intervention from God.)

Sexual Morality

“The body is for the Lord and the Lord for the body” – St Paul understands that we are called into relationship with Christ, and this has consequences for all our other relationships. I Corinthians is marked by much thinking about the “body” – in sexual relations, in how the dead shall be raised, and in the church as “body of Christ”.

Should the unmarried or widowed marry? Ideally no (7:8 & 27), because this will leave them free to concentrate on their relationship to Christ (7:32-38), but it is no sin if they do; but they should marry a believer (7:39). This letter reflects an “equality” in Christian marriage where each spouse has rights over the other’s body (7:1-7).

An unbelieving spouse is connected to Christ through their marriage to a believer – and that’s a good thing (7:14). But a sinful sexual relationship connects a “prostitute” to the body of Christ, and that’s a bad thing (6:12-20). Divorce is to be avoided; but if an unbeliever abandons a believer, then the believer is free to marry again as long as the new spouse supports their faith (the Pauline Privilege). The community were expected to know that it was utterly forbidden for a man to live with his stepmother (5:1-2).

In 6:9, Paul gives an explicit list of behaviour which forfeits heaven – not just the unspecific porneia but also adultery and the active and passive roles in a homosexual act.

Meat & Idols

Can we eat meat sacrificed to idols? This is the key question in chapter 8, but is returned to in chapter 10. Paul’s main response (8:3-13) is that Christians are free to eat meat which has previously been involved in pagan temple sacrifices, but this should not be done when it gives offense to other members of the Christian community. He returns to the theme (10:14-11:1) but there seems to be having conflicting thoughts. He muses that once you become “one body” with Christ, how can you “drink the cup of demons”? Yet he also affirms that you may “eat whatever is sold in the marketplace”. So if you know that no-one in your house is going to be scandalised by your purchases, Paul is saying, “carry on, if you’re happy to eat something that connects you to demons”. (A strong minded Christian householder might retort that by giving thanks over the food, the connection has been broken.)

Slavery & Torah

Paul lives in an age where slavery is an everyday institution. It’s not clear whether he approves of slavery in general; it is clear that he doesn’t expect it to be overturned, so guidance is needed for Christian slaves and Christian masters. He does affirm that one’s status as slave or free is irrelevant for one’s standing in the Christian commununity (7:21-24) – and leverages the institution to model our relationship with Jesus: Paul would have everyone be a “slave to Christ” (while enjoying their “freedom in Christ”!)

There may be a parallel between Paul’s opinion of slavery and that of the Jewish Law. Paul is pragmatic. He follows the Jewish Law when it serves his mission purposes (9:20); he sets aside his rights when he needs to. He knows that being Jewish does not bring automatic security; the Jews spent 40 years in the wilderness. He believes strongly that a Christian man’s circumcision status is irrelevant (7:17-20). Paul is wrestling with a question which will confront any serious Christian thinker: Why did God reveal the Jewish Law (Torah) to Moses, only for it to cease to apply to believers following the Resurrection of Christ? We have already seen this is a major theme in Galatians, and we shall return to it  when we consider Romans.

The Second Coming

Picking up a theme prominent in I Thessalonians but not Galatians, Paul expects a “Day of the Lord” to come when our work will be tested (3:12-15). As in that first letter, he refuses to enter into details about what form our risen bodies will take (15:35-54). Careful study of chapter 15 is needed to see where Paul speaks of the reward of believers vs. a univeral raising of all who have died. Paul’s Gospel is that Jesus rose from the dead, and did so for our sins. Through this good news the Corinthians are “being saved”, as long as they hold firm to it (15:2). This form of words is significant for dealing with evangelicals and questions of whether we are “already saved” or “working out our salvation” and whether salvation can be lost.

Judgement

Paul asks that he not be “judged” by the Corinthians, as that will happen when the Lord returns (4:1-5).

But he does pass “judgment” on the man living with his stepmother, and expresses disappointment that the Corinthian church had not already done so (5:3-5). He also tells the believers not to accept into their midst one who practices porneia or one who is greedy – or a drunkard – an idolater – or a reviler – or a thief (5:9-13).

Further, he does ask trustworthy members of the community to adjudicate disputes between members (6:1-11) – clearly there has been at least one case of fraud inflicted by one member of this church on another.

There is scope here for a deep study of ‘judgment’ and when Christians should practice it, and when they should refrain.

Paul and Women

One final topic remains to be considered: the status of women in the Corithian church and in Paul’s thinking. But this is so contentious I will leave it for a post of its own. Watch this space!

Galatians

Continuing our series of reviews of Scripture:

St Paul has a problem. The Christian believers in Galatia are beginning to believe they have to follow the Jewish Law, despite his teaching them that they are free in Christ. But this means Paul has to explain why it was neccessary for God to make the Law binding through Moses and then reverse this decision through Jesus Christ.

Galatians 1 emphasises St Paul’s personal calling to be an apostle, and his concern to communicate faithfully what he has received in a direct revelation from Christ. Chapter 2 continues this theme and establishes his authority for saying that followers of Christ need not be bound by Jewish dietary laws. The chapter concludes with a clear statement that no-one can be “reckoned as righteous” (or “justified”) because they obey the Jewish law, but only through “the faith of Jesus”. The same ambiguity exists in the original Greek as in English – the “faith of Jesus” could simply mean His faithfulness (by going through with the Cross) or the faith the “justified” person places in Jesus. Chapter 3 asserts that “all who believe” are children of Abraham but again, this could be applied to “all believers” or could pick out Christ’s unique role as the perfectly faithful one through whom Abraham’s blessing could come to the Gentiles (3:14, 3:16) – all who are baptised into Christ are counted as Abraham’s offspring (3:29).

3:19-26 clearly reflects Paul’s ponderings on why God had given the Jewish Law (Torah) only for it to become redundant upon the death of Christ. He sees it as “added” because humanity sinned, providing a temporary disciplinary code for people to deal with their faults, and in some way required so that Jesus could faithfully fulfil the Law. 3:19-20 contains a confusing reference to the Law coming “by angels through a mediator” – not easy to interpret but perhaps Paul is pointing to a Jewish tradition about how the Law came, and saying the Mediator could not have been separate from God, but the Word of God “was” God?

In Chapter 4, Paul mixes images of Christian believers as “adopted children” and as “heirs”. As adopted children in God’s house, we have “come of age” at the death and resurrection of Christ and share in our Father’s authority within the house – an idea we will also find in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The concept of “heirs” is more difficult because it depends on the execution of a will – but our Father has not died, and our eldest brother has been raised. It is implicit that Jewish people who don’t embrace Christian faith are still “slaves” rather than “heirs” in God’s household. This image is not as damning as it might sound to modern ears: in Roman society, to be a household slave did not always imply poor conditions and backbreaking work, but could indicate some status and rights as part of the family of the paterfamilias of a household.  The image of slavery is subverted in the next chapter, where Christians are called to be “slaves to one another”.

The fifth chapter focuses on sin, understood as works of the flesh: the beginning of a long New Testament tradition of speaking of “flesh”, our bodily humanity, as a source of temptation. The flesh can be responsible for sexual immorality, other acts of intemperance, human conflict and recourse to magic – all who practice such things are said to forfeit the Kingdom of Heaven.

In the final chapter, Paul speaks of the need to bear our own burdens but also to bear one another’s burdens; perhaps we all have to be ready to do the former but should aspire to the latter. We are also to correct one another gently when we fall into sin, and ensure that Christian teachers are provided for within the community.

One other point of note – Paul clearly hints that when God’s Word was preached in Galatia, they experienced some kind of manifestation of the Holy Spirit (3:2, 3:5), reprising a theme in I Thessalonians.

I Thessalonians

Today, I’m beginning a new series of posts, reflecting on Scripture. Marcus J. Borg challenges readers to take a fresh look at the New Testament in his “Evolution of the Word”, approaching it in the order in which its books were composed. He expects to lose potential readers who belong to fundamentalist evangelical churches, where they would be unlikely to embrace the “humanity” of God’s word, in tension with ideas of inerrancy. His own approach is not only historical-critical but leans in a liberal direction, insisting on inclusive language, and on calling the early disciples “Jesus followers” or the “Christ-community” rather than more conventional labels.

Why I am pursuing this on this blog? I think the AspiePriest perspective brings something distinctive to the party. Our starting point is the Catholic teaching that the Gospels offer the “honest truth” about Jesus and that Scripture does not err in teaching things God wishes to communicate about faith and morals. As a charismatic Catholic I am willing to embrace supernatural perspectives: I allow the possibility of divine revelation given to Christ even in his self-imposed humanity, and to the human authors of the sacred texts through the promptings of the Holy Spirit. With that in mind, let us begin.


Around the year AD 50, Paul, Silvanus and Timothy wrote a letter to the Christians in Thessalonica. Following Paul’s vision of a “man of Macedonia” these missionaries had visited first Philippi, then Thessalonica. Later, Paul had gone on to Athens and Corinth but sent Timothy back to visit and report on matters in Thessalonica. Some time after Timothy’s return to Paul, the letter we now know as I Thessalonians was written and despatched.

After the usual greeting formula, the letter immediately affirms (1:5) that when these missionaries had preached in Thessalonica, the Gospel came “not only in word, but in power and in the Holy Spirit and in full conviction.” What exactly happened when the missionaries first preached there? What powerful outpouring of God’s Spirit was manifested? Whatever happened, it immediately sealed a community of convicted believers. The end of the letter (5:19-20) intimates that gifts of prophesy were present, but receiving a mixed reception; the immediately prior admonishment not to “quench the spirit” leans towards this being current rather than Old Testament prophecy.

The missionaries say they did not seek to collect money or offer false flattery, but sought to nurture a community of disciples beginning to follow God’s ways. Paul prays that the Thessalonians grow to “even greater love” for one another (3:12) and reminds them that, to follow Jesus’ teaching, they must resist “lustful passion” (4:5) avoiding fornication (4:3). As usual, the underlying Greek word used is porneia, frustratingly vague in communicating what exactly was being forbidden; but the mention of “not exploiting” other members of the community (4:6) sounds like this message was a corrective to adulterous relationships being considered as a wrongful expression of “love one another”. Closing remarks also affirm the Christian values of patience, returning good for evil, rejoicing, thanksgiving and continuous prayer (5:15-18).

This letter famously contains teaching about the Second Coming – the dead will rise first, and the living will be caught up to meet them in the air (4:16-17). How can Paul know this? If he has been caught up into heaven and granted visions (as he intimates in some of his other letters), he could plausibly have been given teachings about this. This early generation of Christians still expected the imminent return of Christ, and are questioning how some of their number could have died already; Paul minimises this (5:2) and affirms it doesn’t matter whether we are alive or dead when Christ comes (5:10).