was a large, thriving, modern city. The pride of life was far more catered for and excited than in the smaller, simpler communities where Paul labored. The believers there were in constant contact with the spirit of frantic bustle and grasping ambition, which such an environment develops. Prestige and worldly success and a show of surface wisdom glittered constantly before them and a great depth of spiritual perception was necessary to withstand its seduction.
This peculiarity of circumstance is reflected in Paul’s letters to them. His very first message, 1st Corinthians, chapters 1 and 2, is devoted to showing the worthlessness, from an eternal viewpoint, of all the vaunted wisdom and accomplishments of the world. The eternal viewpoint is the only mature and intelligent one, and by that viewpoint — which the world glosses over and refuses to face — all temporal acquisitions and productions are merely childish and time-wasting follies.
The Corinthians tended to glory in appearances and in men who made a good show after the flesh. This led them to look down on Paul, who was a laboring man with no worldly position or flesh-pleasing qualities. Paul purposely humbled and abased himself that he might get near to the poor and simple, and he carefully avoided any appeal to fleshly motive. His great concern was to ground the believers in spiritual things, that they might rest on a solid, eternal foundation.
He said to them:
“Learn in us not to think above that which is written”; that is, “Be not highminded but learn the true scriptural course from our example … Now ye are full, now ye are rich, ye have reigned as kings without us … We are fools for Christ’s sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honorable, but we are despised. Even to this present hour we both hunger and thirst, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling place: and labour, working with our own hands … I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you … Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me” (1 Cor. 4).
This was their relationship. A prosperous self-satisfied ecclesia, rich, honored and respected — a despised, destitute and humble apostle. They judged by appearances and had not the perception to see that, in the eternal purpose of God and in spiritual values, they were pigmies compared to the giant stature of Paul.
This is the background discernable throughout his letters to them, and it comes out particularly in two chapters (2 Cor. ch. 10-11):
“Now I Paul myself beseech you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ.”
He tries to awaken them to the fact that the house of God is not built according to worldly standards, but that its strength and glory lies in meekness and gentleness and service.
“Whosoever will be great among you,” said Jesus, Let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant” (Matt. 20; 2 Cor. 10).
The way of the world is so ingrained in the flesh that unless we are very careful and alert we take it for granted as the starting point of our reasoning. But God’s way is entirely different.
God attaches so much value to loving freewill and individual spiritual enlightenment that He has permitted 6,000 years of violence and wickedness in order that out of this fiery crucible a few divine characters may be developed for His eternal pleasure and glory.
This we must always bear in mind. The end could superficially be accomplished a thousand times more easily by enforced regimentation but the vital spark of freewill would be destroyed.
Paul was ever mindful of this one great principle. He says:
“Our authority, which the Lord hath given us for your edification, and not for your destruction.”