On Sunday nights we’ve been working our way through first Corinthians. We’ve been in 1stCorinthians for about a year now, and today we begin chapter 6. This letter is written by the Apostle Paul to a struggling young church in the Greek city of Corinth. The church had run into all sorts of problems, and Paul in this letter is working through many of them, and showing them how a proper view of God, and a proper view of ourselves in light of the gospel will help rid them of their big problems.
He’s addressed their arrogance related to their inflated views of their own wisdom, as we will see again in this text today. He’s addressed their pride over their spiritual leaders and preachers. And as we saw last week in chapter 5, he had to address their deficient view of the church’s need for holiness, specifically calling out a man in open sexual sin.
In today’s text he tackles head on the problem of Christians suing one another, and even robbing each other, because of their un-Christian spirit of demanding their own rights to the harm of another. Unresolved conflict had led some in the church to take their brother to court in order to get the world to resolve their conflict. And as we will see from Paul, such sinful recourse is ruled out when we really understand who we are in the gospel, and what we have been given in the promises of the gospel.
So, let’s look at our text and then we’ll begin with prayer. 1st Corinthians chapter 6, verses 1-8. Hear the word of the Lord:
When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? 2 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? 3 Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! 4 So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? 5 I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, 6 but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? 7 To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? 8 But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers![a]
Today we will look at our text in two main points, specifically noting the two things that the Corinthians had forgotten: first, they had forgotten who they were in Christ, and secondly, they had forgotten their calling in Christ. Who they were in Christ, and their calling in Christ.
Let’s begin by looking at how they had forgotten who they were in Christ.
As I prayed through this text, I initially struggled to see how Paul moved from what he was saying in chapter 5, to what he is saying here in chapter 6. It seems on the surface to be kind of a rabbit trail, or a diversion from what he had been saying. But as I chewed on it more, I began to see that a main connection point is a failure, on behalf of the church, to understand who they were as a holy people in Christ. They were new creations in Christ. They were filled with the holy spirit, and thus they ought to have been be distinct from the world, in terms of how they related to one another and in terms of how they relate to the world.
And that was again the issue here in chapter 6. In order to highlight how worldliness had infiltrated the church, it will be helpful for us to notice a little bit about the context in which they lived. The Greek society in which this church was located was a highly litigious society. There were lawsuits and lawyers everywhere. In fact, someone at the time had even said that in Greek society every man is a lawyer. Every man was a lawyer. That’s because the whole society was filled with legal proceedings, in which many men would take part in at one point of their life or another.
Lawsuits and legal proceedings were almost like a national pastime. They were a form of entertainment. Greek citizens were drafted to be jurors, similar to our system of jury duty, and they were drafted in sometimes comically large numbers. The standard civil litigation trials would have a jury composed of 40 men. And we have historical record of some juries in bigger trials being as large as 1,000 and up to even 6,000 people. Could you imagine a jury of 6,000 citizens?
And the court proceedings were regular fare. They were almost like the reality tv entertainment of the day. This is the context in which these likely majority Greek believers were saved out of. This was their culture. And it was into this cultural practice that Paul was speaking. It was this worldly frame of mind that the Corinthian believers were dragging into the church.
Now as we get into the text, Paul uses some pretty strong language. He uses at least 8 rhetorical questions, by my count, depending on your translation of the Greek, in order to move the Corinthians to see the truth of God and the sinfulness of their actions.
His basic principle that we see in this text is clear: Christians don’t sue one another. Christians should not sue each other. Look at verse 1:
When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?
If you have conflict between brothers and sisters in Christ, why would you go to those outside of Christ to handle the conflict?
I know that each of us is probably thinking about exceptions in our mind right now. This text does not eliminate the possibility of using the legal system at all, and it is certainly not teaching that the legal system isn’t a good thing. Paul himself appealed to the law in Acts 28, and he affirmed the goodness of lawful civil authority in Romans 13. But we never read of Paul appealing to the legal system in matters between brothers.
Now, Christians may have to use the legal system in proper ways. In a divorce proceeding, which involves the dissolution of a civil union of marriage, you have to go through the courts in our society. Or in matters of public safety, you may have to use the law to get a restraining order to get the police to protect you. But these kinds of exceptions do not negate the overriding principle that Paul is teaching in this text, which is that Christians ought not sue one another.
And why is that, Paul? That’s because they had forgotten who they were, and specifically, what their destiny will be as those saved by Christ. Look again at the text:
When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? 2 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world?
Their destiny that they had forgotten is that they will judge the world. The saints, meaning anyone who has been united to Christ by faith, literally, the “holy ones,” these saints will one day judge the world, or we could even translate it “rule” the world. The bible teaches that believers will be united to Christ, and will join him in his rule over the entire cosmos on the last day. This is taught several places in scripture.
Matthew 19:28- Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world,[b] when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
Jude 14-15- ““Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, 15 to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.””
Revelation 3:21, Christ says to the church at Laodecia- “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.”
You can read of similar things in Daniel chapter 7. The point Paul makes is this: because of who you have been made in Christ, and by virtue of being united to him by faith, you will stand in judgment on the last day. And if that is the case, then why can’t you handle these trivial matters here now?
2 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases?
He presses it further, and even says in the next verse a very interesting statement: Do you not know that we are to judge angels?
Presumably here he means that in the life to come we will stand with Christ, perhaps as jurors, or even fellow rulers, affirming the righteous judgement of Christ over the fallen, sinful angels. I’m not sure why we’d need to judge the holy angels, so I assume he’s referring to the fallen angels. I don’t know all the implications of that theologically, but the point is this: if we have the destiny of one day ruling over the creation, indeed, over such significant matters as the judgment of angels, can we not also judge in more trivial matters now? He’s arguing from the greater to the lesser.
Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!
So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church?
If you have been saved by Christ, if you have been granted his Holy Spirit of discernment and peace, then how could you not resolve the matters among body? Why would you take these conflicts in front of people who lack the Spirit, who lack biblical discernment, who lack the principles of truth outlined in God’s word? It doesn’t make any sense, and it brings shame to God’s people. That’s what he says next:
5 I say this to your shame.
They had forgotten who they were, and adopted the mentality of the pagan world, where they went before pagan rulers in order to demand their own rights, even to the point of defrauding one another.
This may seem like something that you might not struggle with, or may seem like a very particular situation that is very distant from you, but in the past month I have read in the news of a well-known Baptist church near Washington DC that is getting dragged into court by a member who is upset over their voting in three new elders into leadership. This is a real temptation for some people who get so worked up over their conflict, so enraged and frustrated by their grievance, that they run to the world to solve their problems.
And that’s what had happened in Corinth. And so Paul pressed them. And he did so with the sharpest sarcasm of this entire letter. Look at verse 6:
Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, 6 but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers?
Is there nobody wise enough in the church to handle this? Is it possible, for the church that was so proud of its wisdom and so proud of its doctrinal knowledge, and so proud of its gifting, that there was nobody wise enough in the spirit to mediate the dispute? Is your church so devoid of spiritual maturity and wisdom, that you would run to pagans? Run to those destitute of the Spirit and lacking biblical truth, in order to handle such trivial matters? Paul’s really taking it to him.
That’s why he said back in verse 4: “So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church?” Why not give the case to the least, to the simplest, to the person of weakest reputation in the church to handle it? That’s because the simplest Christian, armed with the truth of God and the discernment of the holy spirit, ought to be able to mediate even complex disagreements between brothers better than a pagan in the legal system.
You note the fundamental distinction that Paul is highlighting again. The spirit-empowered believer, even an immature one, is made an entirely new creation in Christ, and thus is able to discern difficult matters. Now, not all have the same level of discernment, but his sarcasm is illustrating that the presence of the spirit in a person, combined with prayerful humility and the word of God, ought to be able to handle the conflict.
So that leaves us then to apply this to ourselves. When you’re in conflict with someone else in the church, what is your first impulse? When a brother or sister has a grievance with you, or if you have a grievance against someone else, is your first impulse to demand your rights? To seek immediate justice for them? Demand immediate retribution and vengeance for the wrongs committed against you? Even to take them to court in order to get what you’re owed?
Or are you a person who’s first impulse is toward being long-suffering toward the offending party? Are you first inclined toward grace and mercy? Or are you a demander of your own rights, even to the detriment of a brother or sister?
If I’m honest, my first inclination is usually to demand immediate justice for others, while demanding mercy for myself. I want people to show me grace when I sin, but I’m slow to grant that same grace toward others when they sin against me.
And that’s probably the case for many of you. We are born inclined toward the worldly pattern of selfishness, to excuse our own sin, and to magnify the sins committed against ourselves. I demand wrath for others, but want my own sentence reduced.
But praise be to God that Christ hasn’t treated us that way. Christ didn’t demand that we receive the just punishment for our sins, and has instead granted us mercy. Christ didn’t take immediate vengeance against sinners like me and you, but instead took on the liability, took on the punishment, that we had all earned because of our selfishness. He died, so that we might receive mercy. He went to the cross, so that our sentence might be forgiven. He took on the full weight of divine justice on the cross, so that we might be vindicated in the divine court of cosmic justice.
That’s the good news of the gospel. That’s what the Corinthians had forgotten, and that’s what we’re too quick to forget as well. Believers, when you are quick to demand your rights in a conflict, when you’re quick to demand justice for others and reserve mercy for yourself, remember Jesus. Remember how he was moved by love to lay down his life for his people, and how he was willing to take on immense grief, in order that others might be relieved of theirs.
That’s the radical nature of Christ’s work on the cross.
And if you see that you are not a merciful person, if you are quick to demand your rights, while not first thinking of the good of another, then you too can be forgiven of your sinfulness. Come to Jesus by faith, come and trust in this Jesus that is presented in the pages of scripture, the Jesus that is presented by Paul and the other apostles, see the love of Christ poured out on the cross, and trust in him, and you too can be filled with the Holy Spirit, you too can be forgiven of your sins, and you can be made a new creation in Christ, and made into an increasingly merciful person, just like Jesus.
That was the first point, that the Corinthians had forgotten who they were in Christ. Now let’s look at the second point, and see that the Corinthians had forgotten their calling. They had forgotten their calling to which they had been called when they became followers of Jesus Christ. And their calling is this: self-sacrificial love. Self-sacrificial love.
Look with me at verse 7:
7 To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.
They had already been defeated. The presence of lawsuits among believers is the presence of defeat. They had given over to sinful litigation, and were demonstrated that they had forgotten what was their high calling as followers of Jesus Christ.
Christ says that we should be known by our love for one another. 1 John makes the point in multiple places that our love for one another ought to confirm our assurance that we are saved, and the absence of our love for one another demonstrates that we might not even be saved.
Listen to some of the words from 1 John:
Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.
Here is another:
We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15 Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.
These are strong words. If we love a brother, we won’t take them to court. Instead, we ought to be willing to love, even to suffer, instead. That’s the calling of the Christian life: to suffer for the sake of love. That’s what Paul says next:
7 To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? 8 But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers![a]
One commentator sums it up in this way: “A Christian should rather put up with a little injury than [to appease] himself, and provoke others, by a litigious contest. The peace of his own mind, and the calm of his [community], are worth more than victory in such a contest, or reclaiming his own right, especially when the quarrel must be decided by those who are enemies to religion… It is utterly a [sin] to wrong and defraud any [person]; but it is an aggravation of this [sin] to defraud our Christian [brothers]. The ties of mutual love ought to be stronger between [brothers] than between [all] others.”
We’re called to love, especially loving those brothers and sisters for whom Christ himself has died.
And where is Paul getting this understanding, that we should be willing to suffer, even for those who have wronged us? Where does this come from? The answer is: it comes from Jesus himself.
Listen to some of Jesus’s words from the sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic,[h] let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
Or hear again the words of Jesus in Luke 17:
“Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him,4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.””
That’s the radical calling to which we have been called as believers. Not to be those that retaliate, and harbor a list of wrongs done against us. Not to be those that demand their rights and demand immediate justice against those that have grieved us. We’re called to forgive. We’re called to give up our tunics, give up our stuff, and rather be robbed, for the sake of the name of Jesus Christ.
That’s a high calling, and that’s the radical nature of being a follower of Jesus Christ. I admit, it is a high bar, a tough calling. But for those that have been filled with the Spirit of Christ, for those that have tasted of true forgiveness themselves, and forgiven of their sins and their desires for vengeance and retaliation, and instead given the Spirit of love, this is our calling. Press into this.
Pray to God to help you be a merciful and forgiving person. For there are few virtues that so clearly highlight to the world, the unmistakable difference that the gospel has makes in your life. Few things demonstrate to the watching world that the gospel is true, and that Jesus really is the Christ, like real, costly, loving, forgiveness.
And if that picture of forgiveness is compelling to you, if you want to become a person of mercy, like Jesus was, then think again about the glorious picture of forgiveness given at the cross. The God of all creation gave up his own Son, put him up to death, in order to love a people who didn’t deserve it, and make them into new creations, new creatures. Creatures who love and forgive one another, not creatures that sue one another.
Isn’t that a compelling vision for the church? To be a community of people that are so in love with their savior, that they’d be willing to suffer loss, out of love for their brothers and sisters. That’s the kind of church I want to be a part of, and that’s the kind of church we are called to be. May God help us to grow into that kind of Church, and distance ourselves from the sinful clamoring of rights so prevalent in this world, and thereby to bring greater glory to Christ, even through our conflicts with one another.
 Matthew Henry Commentary on 1 Corinthians 6.