I believe this study of 1 Corinthians will be valuable for us because this letter shows how an Apostle deals with a church that has major problems, and is in the midst of a sexualized culture. Corinth is a major metropolitan city with much commercial influx and many cultural influences. It is also a city full of a melting pot of paganism, especially sexual immorality. In fact, Corinth’s sexual reputation was to great that to CORINTHIANIZE became a by-word in ancient society to fornicate. Indeed, there were in Corinth temples to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and Apollo, the god who’s figure became an idol of the male sexual form and homosexuality. Those temples were said to have employed over 1,000 cultic prostitutes for service in the temples’ worship ceremonies. The culture of Corinth was saturated with ungodly sexuality. Sounds a little familiar to us today.
Second, this study will be valuable for us because this letter shows how zeal, even for truth and service to God, doesn’t automatically mean we will be loving. This church was full of people that wanted to exercise their spiritual gifts, wanted to hear the word of God preached, and wanted to partake of the sacraments, but went about those things in ways that were unloving to their brothers and sisters, divisive to the household of God, and that obscured the simple message of the gospel. Zeal for truth without humility and love is deadly to a church. It was for Corinth and it is for Morningview, so studying this letter will be valuable for us.
We will learn much more about the history and culture of Corinth as we study this letter. For now, let’s begin by reading just the first three verses of this letter. 1 Corinthians 1:1-3.
Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes,
2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We will look at three different parties, and those will be our three points: Paul, the Church in Corinth, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul, the church in Corinth, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
First, let’s look at Paul. Unlike our letters that we write today and we sign off at the end, biblical letters begin with the Author, or the sender of the letter. That’s why the first verse begins, “Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes.” Paul, and his helper Sosthenes, who was likely the overseer of a Corinthian synagogue and who was mentioned in Acts 18, these two were the senders of this letter.
Paul describes himself in very clear terms as being “Called by the will of God” and an “apostle of Christ Jesus.” Both of these aspects are necessary for any man that would claim to speak with authority to God’s church: divine calling, and apostolic sending. That’s what the word apostle means, a messenger, someone that is sent in the place of another to speak, an ambassador we could say. Paul is affirming that he is called by the will of God himself, and is sent by God as a messenger of Christ Jesus to the church.
I believe Paul is describing himself in these terms, in part, because he is anticipating what he will say later. Further on in this letter Paul will address the false apostles, or the so-called “super apostles,” who had by their rhetoric so obscured the clarity and the simplicity of the gospel message, that it ultimately destroyed the gospel itself. These super apostles, which the Corinthians were pleased to listen to, were so concerned with rhetorical flair and impressive oration, that they had let the gospel itself become distorted, and therefore lost.
This is a temptation in every age: for a church to find preachers who speak with such eloquence and majesty, such high and lofty speech, that the simplicity of the gospel message is obscured, and therefore the gospel itself is lost.
Our church must always be on guard against this. We should speak with doctrinal precision, but we could do so with such loftiness that the gospel could risk being obscured to our hearers, and thus the message itself is lost. Now, don’t hear me wrong; doctrine and precision is important. If that were not true, then Paul would not have written large portions of this letter. But we must never let our zeal for doctrinal purity crowd out the simple message that Christ died for sinners in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was raised in three days in accordance with the scriptures, which is Paul’s summary of the gospel that he gives in chapter 15.
We should strive for Pauline language and clarity. Even more, we should strive for language like Jesus himself. How did he speak? He spoke in a way that the simple, the lowly, the uneducated, the children could all understand. And at the same time, nobody would dare accuse him of being doctrinally shallow. The language of Jesus in the gospel of John, for example, is some of the simplest Greek in the New testament, and yet at the same time some of the deepest and most profound statements about the doctrine of the Trinity. May we ever aspire to speak with doctrinal depth while maintaining the clearest and simplest language possible, lest the gospel itself be obscured.
Another thing to note about Paul is that he is having to defend his calling and his reputation because he had been vilified in his absence. No minister is immune from sin-motivated contempt, not even Paul himself. Satan can so incite rebellion and accusation among the body of Christ that even those with the miraculous apostolic gifts were not shielded from Satan’s devices. The church was guilty, for various reasons, of not honoring their father in the faith, for not giving to him the honor that was due him. And we too must always be on guard against this agitation, this instigation from the devil.
It is natural for our sinful flesh to want to rebel against authority of any kind, and especially spiritual authority, and Satan knows that, and he often uses that to divide and blow up otherwise godly churches. Division, dissention, slander, gossip, rivalry, and selfish ambition have done more damage in churches than Pagan hordes or Islamic terrorists ever have. May we all be ever vigilant to watch our hearts and our motives for any hint of selfish rivalry and ambition, and rather be like Jesus himself who laid down his own life in order to honor his father.
Consider: Jesus’s desire to fulfil the 5th commandment was so strong that he was willing to die to obey it. Would you be willing to die in order to honor those in authority over you? Would you give up your own life in order to make sure that your superiors, your boss, your teacher, your parents, your pastors are properly honored? I know that on any given day I sure wouldn’t do that.
We don’t often even want to give lip service to such things. We’d rather complain about how dumb our boss is, or how overbearing our parents are, or how annoying our superior is, or whatever. Such a heart reveals how similar we are to our brothers and sisters that were in Corinth, and why we need this letter.
We need to be reminded that Christ died for grumblers and complainers like us. Christ bore the wrath that usurpers and whiners like us deserved. He fulfilled the 5th commandment perfectly and honored his superiors as he should have in the Lord. That’s the gospel, and why we need to hear it. Because even though the Corinthians were so messed up, Christ died for them, and had washed them, and had made them his own. And the same is true for us.
If you believe the gospel and repent of your sins, you too can have this washing, this forgiveness, and be seen by God himself as one who DOES obey the 5th commandment out of a heart of love and joy, rather than being seen as a grumbler and complainer, rather than one who rebels against any authority that is over you. That offer is as true today, as it was for the Corinthian church.
Which leads to our next point: the church in Corinth. The church in Corinth. As we will see, it is exceedingly encouraging to consider how Paul speaks of the church in Corinth. This is where I spent most of my week meditating: how did Paul view the Corinthian believers? With all their flaws, their sins, their backstabbing of him, their unloving behavior toward one another, for all their tolerance of heinous sins in their midst, how did Paul address them? He says:
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints
Let’s look at each of those aspects. First, Paul addresses his letter to the church of God that is in Corinth. It’s not Paul’s church, even though he was the person most responsible for the church’s existence, humanly speaking. He was its founder, as we’ll read about from Acts 18 in the coming weeks. And yet he knows that it is not Paul’s church; it’s God’s church. God owns it. God runs it. God is the one who effectually calls His people to it. God has rights over it, not Paul. God is the owner and master, not Paul. Not Apollos. Not Sosthenes. Not Peter. God.
This issue of who has rights over the church is an issue that will come up more than once throughout our study in this letter, so I won’t linger here tonight. It will be sufficient just to note it here, because we will return to this theme very soon.
Second, not only does he refer to them as the church of God in Corinth, Paul also says “to those sanctified in Christ Jesus”. Sanctified in Christ Jesus. Paul reminds the Corinthians, and by extension us, that those in the church of God have been sanctified. Sanctified means purified, cleansed. Made holy. Set apart. Just as the utensils and the priests and the sacrifices in the Temple were set apart for service unto God, so too have we been set apart.
And how is this sanctification received? He says “In Christ Jesus”. Our union with Jesus by faith in him and his work is the means of us receiving this special sanctification. Because we have a savior in Jesus Christ, we can be assured that we’ve been sanctified, cleansed, made pure.
Christ’s work as our great High priest assures us of this. He’s the high priest of God, an everlasting high priest, working in God’s cosmic temple to ever mediate for us. That means he’s working on our behalf even now, pleading our innocence and purity, applying his own precious sacrifice to cleanse us, and purifying our hearts through the work of his Holy Spirit.
What is the basis of this purification? How can he do that? Not simply by declaring us clean. The bible makes clear that sin earns death. If someone sins, someone has to die. And the good news of God is that Jesus is not only the Great High Priest, but he is also the sacrifice. He has willingly and joyfully come to earth to die in the place of a sinful people. And because he is not merely a man, but also fully God, his sacrifice is eternally efficacious for us, infinite in its value, and completely sufficient to save each and every one of His people.
It doesn’t matter how dirty you’ve made yourself with sin. He can wash you. No sinner is outside of the reach of his grace. No stain of sin is too indelible to resist his holy washing, and no transgressions of God’s holy law make us unfit to be cleansed.
Further, no man is too late to taste of this good news. The thief on the cross heard and believed just minutes before his death, and we will see him in heaven. The sick and the dying can be saved.
Is your conscience hounding you tonight? Is your heart burdened by the load of your past mistakes and transgressions? Is your past something that makes you feel defiled and dirty? Dear ones, hear again of how God has provided a way in Jesus Christ for the foul and dirty to be made clean.
God promises you that, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be [white] like wool.” If you are in Jesus Christ you are not defined by your past failings. You’re not known by your sinful history. God sees you as cleansed, as washed, as sanctified in Christ Jesus. Take heart in that good news, and love the high priest that has come to wash you.
And if you haven’t felt that cleansing of conscience, if you don’t know what it is to feel purity of soul and innocence of heart, then the bible says that you must only come to Jesus to receive it. You don’t have to first wash yourself, and clean yourself up. You don’t have to be righteous to receive this cleansing. In fact, Jesus says that he came to save the sick, not the healthy. He came to save the lost, not those who feel found.
If you feel dirty and in need of cleansing, if you feel sick of soul and in need of healing, then consider this Jesus described in the pages of scripture. Hear of the son of God, hear of his great work of sanctification, of washing, and of his great love for sinful and dirty souls like us. Trust in that Jesus as the only way to have true and lasting peace for your soul and cleansing of your conscience. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? A conscience made clean, a spirit that can finally have rest from its burdens, and a savior who provides every single thing needed for your soul. Trust in that Jesus, and have complete sanctification in Him.
A third thing to note about Paul’s language about the Corinthians believers. He calls them the church of God, calls them those sanctified in Christ Jesus, and he also reminds them that they are called to be holy. He says in verse 2: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be SAINTS”. Called to be saints, or we could say, “holy ones.” The church in Corinth, and we at Morningview are not only made righteous and cleansed in the work of Jesus Christ, we are also called to BE saints, or to PURSUE holiness. We’ve been made pure, and we’re called to be pure. We’ve been washed, and we are called to avoid filth. Just as Israel was called to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, so too is the church of God in Jesus Christ called to be a kingdom of holy priests, set apart from the sinfulness of this world and of the flesh.
This doesn’t come easy. This striving for holiness is described elsewhere in scripture as a war. Our remaining sinful tendencies will fight against us; our confession of faith calls this a “a continual and irreconcilable war, with the desires of the flesh against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh” (2LBC 13.2). Our remaining sinful tendencies will give us no rest. Further, the world, being under the influence of Satan, will fight against us. The devil himself with all his minions will battle for our souls.
And yet, even with all these opponents and difficulties, our confession states: “through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part overcomes. So the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. They pursue a heavenly life, in gospel obedience to all the commands that Christ as Head and King has given them in his Word.” We will not ultimately be overcome, but instead will grow in grace and holiness as we pursue a heavenly life. I love that language: pursuing a heavenly life.
So how are you doing in this battle? Are you perfecting holiness in the fear of God? Are you pursuing a heavenly life in gospel obedience to all the commands of Christ as our king?
We can use just a single one of the ten commandments to check our progress. The 10thcommandment says that we must not covet, which means to sinfully desire something that someone else has. It means to be discontent with what God has given you, and to long after someone else’s stuff.
Does that describe you this week? Has your home been unsatisfying to you? Have you been discontented with your job… or your car… or your health…or your spouse…or your kids? Or maybe God’s timing isn’t lining up with yours, so you’re frustrated and grumbling.
Brothers and sisters if we believe what I described above, that we’ve been sanctified in Jesus Christ, then we must also seek to be saints as well, putting to death the sin of discontentment. Our sanctifying God loves us enough to die that we might be washed; will he not also give us the things that we need in this life? Look at the lilies of the field, Jesus says. If God so clothes them with what they need, and yet they are cut and thrown into a fire, how much more will he clothe us with what we need in this life.
Don’t listen to the lies of Satan which say that we deserve better, that God must not love us because we don’t get the things that everyone else gets. Those are lies from the mouth of Satan himself, and are just echoes of that first lie in the garden, “Has God really said?” Satan wants us to doubt God’s word and doubt God’s goodness. Cast off those lies and listen to the word of God which says that God is both good to us, and God is also faithful to give us what we need, when we need it. Don’t crave that which hasn’t been given; rather, rest in the one who has given you what he in his infinite wisdom has determined is for your good.
What does it mean to be a saint? A large part of it is heart level submission to the providence of God in what he has provided for you, rather than sinful rebellion against his plan and his provision towards you. Believers, be the holy ones of God by trusting in his providence, rather than coveting that which hasn’t been given to you. Be saints in Christ Jesus.
Paul calls the Corinthian church the church of God, calls them sanctified in Jesus Christ, and calls them saints. A fourth encouraging thing for us to note about how Paul addresses the Corinthians believers is their connection to the global body of Christ. Paul says in verse 2, to those, “called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” They are called to be saints, but not as an island unto themselves. Not as an isolated body, unrelated to and disconnected from the church universal. We are part of a global body of Christ. Corinth didn’t have the market cornered on the gospel message. Likewise, neither does Morningview. We certainly should strive to have the purest gospel message and the most biblical polity, and the most morally upright congregation of saints. But none of that should preclude great charity when speaking of other congregations, even those congregations with great problems.
Consider: Corinth had fractured leadership. They were taking each other to court and suing one another. They were openly accepting of someone in great sexual sin. They were divided, and hating one another in their observance of the Lord’s supper. They obscured the gospel’s simplicity through their vain love of impressive rhetoric. They had disorderly and chaotic worship, and prioritized certain public and showy gifts of the holy spirit over and against others. They had forgotten what love should look like. They were a mess.
And yet, Paul calls them saints. He says they’ve been sanctified. And they have been sanctified WITH the global church of Christ. They are part of the communion of saints. They are members of Christ’s very body.
Would you have extended such charity? Would you have called the Corinthian church a true church? They had struggle with a pure gospel and tolerated sin surrounding the sacraments and discipline. Those are usually the benchmarks that the reformed tradition uses to measure a true church. And yet. And yet Paul calls them saints. He even says in verse four that he Thanks God for them.
I bring this up because the American church, especially within the reformed Baptist tradition, has a history of fracturing, judging, retreating from fellowship, downplaying and treating as suspect the global work of God in denominations outside of our own. In short, of being very uncharitable in considering what the Spirit of God might be doing in churches that interpret the bible a little differently than we do.
May we never be marked with tribalism that could not acknowledge and appreciate what God might be doing at the church down the street, or across town, or of a different tradition, or in a different culture, or elsewhere in the world. May we never be marked with the arrogance that considers us as the only ones who preach the true gospel, and as the only way that God’s spirit brings His people out of darkness and into the light of his grace.
Corinth, with all its problems, was still part of the global communion, and that should encourage us that God’s church can still stand and the gospel can still be advancing, even when individual churches struggle with real problems.
Finally, we’ve looked at Paul, and we looked at the Church in Corinth. Now let’s look at the final character in our text: God himself. God himself. Verse 2 again:
“2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours”
Both their Lord and ours. Paul is reminding us that God is Lord. God is Lord. He is master, not merely of Paul, and not merely of the Church in Corinth. He is the same Lord of both the saints in Corinth, and every other place that calls upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have one Lord, which is a theme that Paul will use later to argue for unity in the Corinthian church.
There is but one Lord, unlike what the pagans in Corinth believed. And the fact that there is but a single Lord should mean that we share in a similar unity. Church unity was an issue in this baby church, it remained an issue in the early church, the medieval church, the reformation era, and has remained an issue up through today. We have a single Lord, and yet we struggle to love one another in humility, and thus we fracture.
Paul knows that a church that is thinking more globally, that is aware of the universal body of Christ, will hopefully be less fixated on its own problems and preferences. It is often a case that a church that turns inward, always concerned about itself, will continue to foster problems and division. But a church that is faithfully concerned with the global advance of the church, with the great commission and evangelism and making disciples, that kind of church often has fewer internal squabbles and bickering. That’s because their concerned with the Lord and with the harvest, and less with their preferences and predilections.
May we ever be that kind of church. The kind of church that is focused on the purity AND the proclamation of the gospel. A church motivated to honor our Lord by teaching and speaking of our Lord wherever we go. A church that is full of individual members that are serving the Lord in the whatever ways they can to make disciples. That may mean serving in prayer, serving by giving, serving by hosting and being hospitable, serving through mentoring, serving by teaching, serving by babysitting, serving in whatever way and with whatever gifts the Lord has given you.
And when a church is full of people motivated to honor the Lord by serving in love, you’ll usually notice a church a peace. Which is what Paul prays for the church in verse three.
3 Grace to you and peace FROM God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
God is the source of grace, and when there is grace there will also flow peace. Grace and peace from God. Grace is the root implanted by God into his people, and peace is the fruit that grows out of a heart that has been gripped by grace.
Brothers and sisters, do we have a heart of peace? Have we been so gripped by the grace of God that has pulled us from the muck of this world and washed us clean, that we’re willing to die to ourselves and our preferences in order the defend the peace of God in the church? Or are we like the Corinthian church, full of opinions and preferences and posturing and politicking, so much so that the church is divided, fractured, and un-peaceful.
We must remember the sacrifice that Christ has made for us, and how far down he stooped to pluck us up, and how high he has raised us: he’s made us saints. And when we’ve cherished that good news within our hearts, we’ll be quick to defer to others, quick to forgive when others offend us, quick to love and serve, rather than being quick to anger and quick to stir up quarrels over our preferences, which is what the Corinthians were doing.
In conclusion, when we’ve cherished the love of God shown to us in Christ Jesus, then we’ll be quicker to love others, and so promote the charity and peace of the church of God. We will have much opportunity to continue to reflect on unity and love in the coming sermons in this series.
But for now, let’s close by remembering that grace and peace are what Paul is praying for the Corinthians, that they’d remember the grace of God that’s been shown to them, and by doing so, taste also of God’s peace. May that be our hearts and our experience here. Amen.