The Church and its setting - 1 Corinthians 1:1-17

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 2nd September 2001.

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Receiving news from people we love is not always a pleasant experience. Last summer Debbie and I received a postcard from Debbie’s sister who was helping on a children’s activity holiday in Canada. It read: "Having a great time here on camp… I have been trained in kayaking but on the last day [of training] I dislocated my shoulder. Spent the day in casualty, so I can’t go kayaking for at least a month. So I took up mountain biking. Tried to ride but it was hard because my arm was in a sling and I crashed headlong into a tree and hurt my other shoulder. Spent another day in casualty. They thought it might be broken but fortunately it wasn’t. Just bruised and scarred. However they did discover a break in my collar bone from an injury which I hadn’t noticed from a while a ago. Apart from that, all is well!" And she wonders why we call her accident prone.

Well if you think that is bad news, then spare a thought for the apostle Paul when some friends from Corinth turned up at his house in Ephesus in 54 AD to tell him what was going on in the church. Paul you see had planted a church in Corinth a few years before. And it was an incredible church. It was set in the heart of one of the most populated and vibrant cities in the Mediterranean. Corinth was the ancient equivalent of London or New York or Sydney. It was a hot bed of every vice under the sun as well as being a thriving commercial and cultural centre. The word ‘Corinthian’ came to be used as a byword for someone who lived a pagan lifestyle to the full in all its depravity and evil. And yet here God had miraculously established a church. It was a young church full of promise. But things had gone badly wrong since Paul had left. It was now a church with a catalogue of very serious problems. There were internal disputes and factions; there was rampant sexual immorality, with one man even sleeping with his step mother without rebuke; Christians were suing other Christians; their public meetings had descended into chaos, and their communions had become orgies of greed where the weak were ignored and down trodden; and to cap it all, there was serious theological confusion about the afterlife.

Now why had the church fallen into such a situation? Why had this happened? Well quite simply it boils down to one thing: Worldliness. This church was shaped more by the world around them than by the gospel. They were Corinthians first and foremost, who happened to profess to being Christians, rather than being Christians first and foremost, who happened to live in Corinth. And as you read through Paul’s letters to the Corinthians it becomes clear they were obsessed with certain things. Spirituality was one thing. ‘We’re the really spiritual ones, the spiritual kings,’ they were saying. ‘We’re the one’s who have really made it.’ And for this reason some of them thought Paul was a bit elementary. ‘He’s OK for the basics, but quite frankly you’ve got to move on. We’re reached new spiritual highs,’ they said. And the result was they believed it didn’t matter what you did with your body. It was the spirit which really mattered. Power was something else they were obsessed with. They thought they were the powerful ones. It doesn’t matter about the weaklings. Love is a sign of weakness. And another thing they were obsessed with was knowledge or wisdom. They loved to listen to impressive speakers and wandering philosophers who would show off their skills of oratory in the market place. Now they were impressive. They had real wisdom and skill. Old Paul was pretty useless. So their Christianity became infected by the world’s agenda. The world’s view of spirituality, power and wisdom. They were Corinthian first and Christians second.

Now we may be twenty centuries down the track, but the incredible thing is this letter is still as relevant and up to date as the day Paul penned it. If you go down to Waterstones Bookshop it won’t take you long to find the sections on spirituality, how to find yourself, or how to be successful and powerful. And if you look on the shelves of some Christian book shops you find exactly the same thing. How to attain your spiritual goals, how to achieve power in your Christian life, how to go onto deeper knowledge and wisdom. It’s all there. And a moment’s thought shows that the 21st century church in England is no less worldly than this first century church in Corinth. And the question each of us needs to ask is this: Are we shaped by the world’s agenda or God’s agenda? And the things Paul has to say to the Corinthians, as God apostle, his chosen mouthpiece, he also says to us. What God has said, he continues to say. His Word is timeless. So let’s turn to the beginning of his message and we’ll discover three things that we are to remember if we are to keep walking to God’s drumbeat as opposed to the world’s.

 

1) Remember who you are (vv 1-3)

2) Remember where you are going (vv 4-9)

3) Remember who you are following (vv 10-17)

1) Remember who you are (vv 1-3)

So first, then, remember who you are. Have a look at verses 1 and 2: "Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God {notice how Paul emphasises his divine authority at the start] and our brother Sosthenes. To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ- their Lord and ours." Notice here how Paul describes the church in Corinth. He calls them the church of God in Corinth. Paul you see has got the divine logic the right way round. They are first and foremost God’s church. And the place they happen to meet is in Corinth. It’s the same for us. We are God’s church in Newland, Hull. It was God’s work to bring these people together in Corinth and its his work to bring us together here in Hull. It’s not Melvin’s church, or our church, it’s God’s church and we are his people. And notice how Paul goes on to describe this church of God in Corinth. They are sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy.

Now what does this mean? Well here in this verse Paul is talking about the Corinthians’ status before God, and by extension our status before God. He says that we have been sanctified in Christ Jesus. Here the word means something that has happened once and for all. Usually when we use the word sanctification in Christian jargon, we mean the onward process of becoming more like Jesus. And that’s a very true Biblical doctrine as we’ll see in a minute. But here Paul is using the word in a different way. He is saying that when we become Christians through Jesus’ work on the cross, we are sanctified, we are declared to be holy and blameless. We have been washed clean and forgiven, and so when God looks upon us he sees forgiven cleansed, pure people. In fact, Paul says exactly that later on in the letter. In chapter 6 Paul says that though some of the Corinthians were drunkards and sexually immoral and prostitutes and slanderers, yet God washed them, he sanctified them and justified them in the name of Jesus Christ. Both in this verse and in chapter 6 Paul uses sanctified to mean something that has happened. God sees you and me as pure, forgiven people in Jesus Christ. Now that is incredible isn’t it? How can that be? How can God looked upon as pure and spotless? Well only because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross. He took our sin and gave us his perfection. We are sanctified in Christ. A Christian is therefore someone who in God’s eyes is spotless.

But Paul doesn’t stop there. He goes on in verse 2 to say that they are called to be holy. So not only are we sanctified and declared pure and blameless but we have a task to be holy. We must live the way we are. Yes we are declared spotless and yet there is much work to be done in reality. So get on with it he says. The Primary School I went to when I was a boy had a very good reputation. And it was obvious that you went to this particular school because you had to wear a very bright red jacket and cap which was quite embarrassing. And every so often we would go on school trips. And before such trips, the Headmaster would remind us of a very important fact at assembly. He would say to us: "Boys and girls, you are children of St. John’s. So you must behave like children of St. John’s when you are out and about. Your behaviour will affect the school’s reputation." And it is the same for us Christians. We are children of God, we have been sanctified, washed clean, forgiven, declared spotless. So act like. Behave according to your status. Be holy. Of course that was where the Corinthians were failing spectacularly. Their behaviour contradicted their status. There was still far too much Corinth in these Christians. So Paul reminds them right at the start. Remember who you are. You are God’s church.

And that is of course what we need to hear 2000 years later. Remember who you are. Remember what it cost God to bring you into his church. In order to sanctify you, God’s own Son had to die. So be holy. Act according to your status. And again, we need constantly to ask ourselves: Whose drumbeat are we marching to? The world’s or God’s? It’s so easy to take on the world’s attitude to money, sex and power, the big three, even in very subtle ways. Would we say there is more of the world in us than Christ? Well God’s people march to a different drumbeat. It may well be costly, but it was for Jesus, and it’s his footsteps we walk in. So remember who you are. We’re God’s sanctified people, called to be holy.

 

2) Remember where you are going (vv 4-9)

But that brings us on to our second point which is to remember where we are going. Now I think if I had planted a church like the one in Corinth which had gone so badly wrong, then I’d be tempted either to cut off all ties with them or to discipline them so severely that they could barely recover. What would you have done? Well I bet you wouldn’t have written verse 4: "I always thank God for you…" It is an incredible thing for Paul to write and tells us as much about Paul’s godliness as anything else. So why does Paul give thanks? For the simple reason that he can see God at work. Let’s read on: "I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way- in all your speaking and in all your knowledge- because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you." Paul can see that God is at work in these people because they have been richly blessed with wonderful gifts and the gospel testimony that Paul brought to them has been confirmed in them. All this came about through the preaching of the good news about Jesus. And that, says Paul, is reason to give thanks. However poorly the Corinthians have behaved, yet Paul can still praise God for his obvious work in them. It’s so easy isn’t it to write people off, to point out people’s faults and yet to forget that God is at work and to forget to praise him. Paul will do his fair share of rebuking, and yet he begins first and foremost by thanking God for his work.

And, he says in verse 7, they don’t lack any spiritual gift. This was a church that was very highly gifted. Like every Christian, these Christians were gifted by God to serve the local church. But notice the context of these gifts, how the Corinthians are to use them. What perspective does Paul expect these Corinthian Christians to have? Verse 7: "You do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed." The perspective that Paul expects them to have is of the second coming, of Jesus’ return, when as Paul puts it, Jesus is revealed. It’s not that we cannot know Jesus now. Rather, when he returns, we’ll see hi in all his glory. And Paul expected them to be living in the light of that glorious return. These gifts were to be used as they waited for Jesus to be revealed. The sad fact is of course was that the Corinthians were acting as if they had it all now. They were swanning around Corinth saying: "We’re the spiritual kings, we’ve got this Christian life sussed. We’ve reached the higher plane." The facts though, as Paul explains, were that they were actually very immature, and they were babes in Christ. And as soon as we lose sight of our goal as Christians, when Jesus returns, then we’re heading for spiritual ship wreck. Rather there is much more work that God must do in us. And the best is yet to come. And wonderfully, Paul says verse 8: "God will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful."

Remember where you’re heading says Paul. Keep your eternal perspective. Perspective is very important in life isn’t it? A student once wrote home to his parents. "Dear Mum and Dad, Sorry I haven’t been in touch in the last few months, but one or two things have happened in my life which I think I should tell you about. Two months ago, I decided to go off for a bit of a holiday in the Far East. The reality is that I wanted to find myself. The oppressive Middle Class regime that you have raised me in was just too much to cope with. When I first met my spiritual guide in the mountains of Tibet, he was kind and gentle. The drugs weren’t too powerful and I was happy to share everything with the others around me. I soon discovered their true identity, and I too joined the fight for freedom. I soon learnt to handle my AK 47 with ease, and even had a go manning the machine gun from the back of the helicopter; that was until I fell out and broke both legs. In hospital I met this lovely nurse and we fell in love. The wedding last week was a simple affair. We didn’t want to risk losing the triplets she had conceived early on. The only slight snag is that I need to pay her father off for the betrothal price of 200 cows. That’s life in Thailand for you! Still with any luck it should only take a few years, and by that time I will have served about a quarter of my prison sentence for illegal drug dealing. Actually, Mum and Dad, all the above story is a load of lies. I just wanted to get into perspective the piece of news I am about to give you. Last month I failed my final exams."

Perspective. That is what Paul wants his Corinthian friends to have- a Biblical Christian perspective. And it is vital for every Christian. What happens when we fail to have this heavenly perspective remembering that Jesus will be revealed? Without it we’ll either become proud, like the Corinthians, thinking we have it all now, when we don’t. We’ll try and bring heaven to earth. Or we’ll despair and give up, thinking that this world is all there is. It isn’t, for the best is yet to come. And the wonderful promise of these verses is that God is well able to keep us to the end. One day he will present us before his presence blameless, blameless not just in status, but in reality. We will truly and really be sinless. For God, verse 9, who has called us, into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord is faithful. He will keep us. So remember where you’re heading. Well do you? How important is this truth for you? For the NT writers it is central. Without it, like flowers without sunshine and water we will die spiritually, either puffed by our own pride, or withered by our own despair. So keep your eyes fixed on heaven. For if we don’t then we’re heading for a warped view of the Christian life and a miserable Christian experience. Remember where you’re heading.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3) Remember who you are following (vv 10-17)

And then finally remember who you are following. This is the third lesson we learn from this opening passage. For the Corinthians, they were more concerned about their own particular human heroes. And for this reason they were divided. Paul explains in verse 12: "What I mean is this; one of you says I follow Paul, another I follow Apollos, another I follow Cephas, that’s Peter, and still another I follow Christ." Different Corinthians followed different leaders. No doubt they were impressed by their oratorical skill, especially in the case of Apollos who was known for his abilities. Some still stuck to Paul and some were so spiritual that they placed themselves above the rest by saying they simply followed Christ. All were misled, and all were quarrelling with each other. So what is Paul’s solution? Verse 10: "I appeal to you brothers in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may not be any division among you and that you might be perfectly united in mind and thought." He’s not saying that they should agree on absolutely everything. No Christians would ever be completely agreed on everything. Rather be united on the essentials. The Corinthians’ problem as that they focussed on human leaders and pitted their heroes against one another. The cult of the personality was destroying the church. And again the underlying cause is worldliness. The pagan Corinthians loved to follow their own particular philosophers and gurus. And so these Corinthian Christians simply Christianised their gurus. And it led to strife.

Paul makes it clear in verses 13-16 that he’s having none of it. He doesn’t want a following. Was Paul crucified for you? Paul didn’t die for the church. Were you baptised into the name of Paul? He didn’t baptise people in his name, in fact he struggles to remember who he baptised. He’s not putting baptism down; he’s simply making the point that human leaders have a job to do. And it is according to verse 17 to preach the gospel- not with human words of wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. It’s not about personalities and power play. It’s about the message of the gospel. It’s about following Jesus. The church is not a human club. It’s God’s church for God’s people with God as the boss. Human leaders are simply servants pointing people to Christ. And again this is very relevant today isn’t? How tempting it is to follow personalities rather than Christ. We buy their books, we listen to their tapes, we flock to their conferences. There’s nothing wrong with those things in themselves, and yet we need to be careful who it is we are following. It’s another instance of worldliness seeping into the church if we are not careful. So where is our confidence? In men or in God? The world puts it in men. We must put it in God.

Martin Lloyd Jones was arguably one of the most influential preachers of the twentieth century. He preached all over the world and led many to Christ and influenced hundreds of young men and women to serve Christ in full time paid Christian work. And yet at the end of his life, all he could say was this: "I am nothing but an old sinner saved by the grace of God." That’s the attitude we need in our leaders. Men and women who point us to Christ, not to themselves. So that when Lloyd Jones received letters of thanks, more often than not they would say something like, "thankyou for your ministry which has helped me to know God better." Lloyd Jones pointed people to Christ. It was a lesson Paul had to instil in his Corinthian friends again. Who are they following? It must be Christ and his message of the cross. Remember who you are following.

So here is Paul’s opening message to his Corinthian friends. And we’d do well to take his words to heart if we are to keep ourselves from falling into the same traps. We must remember who we are- God’s sanctified people called to be holy; we must remember where we are heading- to heaven when Jesus returns; and we must remember who we’re following- not men, but the Lord Jesus Christ and his message of the cross.


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