In some Christian circles, it’s popular to look up the advice of “experts” and “consultants” for help with church planting, worship, preaching and strategy. Yet imagine if you could overhear a conversation between a young church plant in a strategic city, and the pastor and preacher who helped found their church. How helpful would that be?
Our church had the privilege of exactly this as we recently completed a sermon series through the book of 1 Corinthians called “Christ Amid Chaos”. Over six months, we heard directly how similar the church in Corinth was to ours today: gifted, but worldly. Diverse, but divided. Yet despite their (and our!) numerous issues, Paul’s words of love and affection were so helpful in calling us to follow Jesus alone (not other preachers), and to live holy lives. After first hearing an expository sermon series from this book in 2008 as a young follower of Jesus, I found it a huge privilege 15 years on to help guide our young English-speaking congregation through the gospel-saturated wisdom from this part of God’s Word.
To prepare for this sermon series, I translated 1 Corinthians from the Greek NT text (with occasional peeks at the Chinese Union Version / 和合本 for the sake of our more Chinese brothers and sisters). On the text, among the many available commentaries on 1 Corinthians, I found Andrew Wilson’s “1 Corinthians for You” commentary the most helpful and accessible for busy pastors, with Gordon Fee’s magisterial commentary helpful on the details. Andrew Naselli’s contribution in the ESV Expository Commentary was also helpful (and supported by his diligently prepared recitation of the whole letter from memory!)
Around the area of spiritual gifts, I found Don Carson’s “Showing the Spirit” unmatched for depth and breadth on exegetical and pastoral issues (if a bit dated regarding recent trends among Pentecostal and Charismatic movements). On the perplexing and sometimes heated discussions around women in the church of Corinth, I was most grateful for the perspectives from Claire Smith (“God’s Good Design”), Kathy Keller, Michael Bird and Craig Keener (arranged here roughly along the complementarian-egalitarian spectrum). There’s definitely less scholarship out there on 1 Corinthians from non-Western perspectives, so I look forward to keep discovering and learning in future!
For preachers, bible study leaders and keen readers, here’s a few thoughts and tips in no particular order:
- The questions in this book raise a lot of questions and difficult pastoral issues: interpersonal conflict, unrepentant sin, division, sexual immorality, singleness and marriage, eating and drinking, and worship culture. Be prepared to follow up your sermons or studies with time and willingness to chat with those who are struggling with personal or pastoral issues. The goal is not to condemn each other but to lift our collective gaze to our faithful God, who calls his holy people into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:9).
- Paul saves his most important point to the end: it is the gospel that is of first importance (1 Cor 15:3-4), and the answer to our holiness amidst a messy church in a messy world. I made the most of this fact by preaching the gospel every time I could, and showing how the gospel is both the power and pattern for us to live as holy people in Christ. (A bonus was helping the kids in our church learn and recite this memory verse!)
- One key insight for interpreting 1 Corinthians for me was to realise that the church in Corinth was young, cross-cultural, and multilingual — just like ours. This helped me to better connect Paul’s teachings to the actual issues and tensions faced by our immigrant church, situated in a cosmopolitan city like 1st-century Corinth.
- 1 Corinthians is a fairly lengthy letter (after Romans, it’s the longest letter in the New Testament) – so introducing some variety into the preaching schedule and format may help your congregation make it through edified rather than exhausted. I was especially grateful that in the Lord’s providence, I could call on some fellow pastors also journeying through 1 Corinthians this year for advice on exegetical and pastoral issues, but also to guest preach some of the chapters in the series faithfully and reliably.
- Another way to add variation to a 6-month sermon series is to employ different preaching styles and structures. As much as I treasure and prefer Jesus’s style of expositing the Scriptures (c.f. Luke 24:27) as the bread and butter of pastoral preaching, it can get wearisome without some creativity. Some ways I tried to vary my preaching style included a first-person narrative sermon (“Am I Not An Apostle?”, 1 Cor 9), a sermon structured around an extended Corinth x Barbie crossover to explain women in worship (1 Cor 14:26-40), and an 8-minute sermon preached mostly ex tempore to close off the series. Not everything worked perfectly, but perhaps that’s to help us see “foolishness” of the gospel in the world’s eyes, but the greater wisdom of Christ amidst this.
- Concerning spiritual gifts, I found it helpful to flag to our leaders up front my own convictions on 1 Corinthians 12-14 regarding the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and why. Prior to starting a “mini-series” on these chapters (“Spectacular Church”), I prepared an internal Q&A outlining my stance on various questions, and our pastors gathered as a preaching team to discuss areas of agreement and difference (almost unheard of in a Chinese church!) Doing this helped us to preach through this very contested portion of God’s Word in a way that honoured Paul’s own approach: offering pastoral wisdom so as the church in Corinth was not uninformed (1 Cor 12:1), yet making the basis of our unity as a church the belief that “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor 12:3) and in His gospel “of first importance” (1 Cor 15:3-4), rather than a particular view of spiritual gifts.
- Finally, because of the pastoral and conversational nature of this letter, we offered the church multiple opportunities to ask questions about what they were hearing, culminating in a 30-minute Q&A panel (PDF version here). In our church the questions mostly revolved around spiritual gifts, but our hope was not just that we answered people’s questions, but did so in a gracious way that edified everyone in our worship services (the heartbeat of Paul’s advice in 1 Cor 12-14).