Last Lord’s Day Morning, we began to think together about the teaching of the first letter of Paul to the church at Corinth, and if you would go ahead and take a copy of the Scriptures in your hands and turn back there with me to 1 Corinthians chapter 1, verses 4 to 9, we will direct our attention to God’s Word. Let me say a few things by way of preface first of all. You will remember that it was ordinary letter writing etiquette in those days, to begin with the author of the letter, then you mention the addressee, then you offer a word of greeting, and then usually there is some declaration of praise to the gods. And if you’ll look at the opening verses of 1 Corinthians, you will notice how Paul is content, in general, to follow that tradition although he amends the pattern, doesn’t he, to fill it with new significance and spiritual purpose. So that as we began to see last week in verses 1 to 3, Paul weaves into these introductory words themes that he’s going to go on to develop and expound as the letter unfolds. And this week, in place of the customary, routine declaration of praise to the gods of ancient Greece and Rome with which most letters of this era began, Paul offers a word of thanksgiving to the one, true and living God, which as we will see, is hardly routine; it has absolutely nothing routine about it.
We learned, you will remember last time, that not all was well with the congregations of the Corinthian church. As the weeks ahead will show us, there were problems of schism and division and party spirit among them. Christians were suing one another in the secular courts and dishonoring the name of Jesus. There was sexual immorality of such perversion that even the proverbially debauched pagans of Corinth would not name the offenses plaguing the Christians in their city. And for all their immorality, nevertheless, they still found room to practice some spiritual snobbery and elitism, claiming that their unique giftedness made them the elite of the church. There was theological confusion, anarchic worship, and a general failure of love. And behind all of that, giving force and power and fueling all of their confusion stands an even deeper confusion about how the Corinthian believers ought to relate to the culture of their day, the culture out of which they had been converted and in which they still lived each day. The value system, the cultural expectations, the social norms, the language and the rhetoric of the world had a huge pull upon them still and it was wreaking havoc in their lives and in their churches.
And so Paul clearly had a great deal to rebuke and challenge and exhort the Corinthians about, didn’t he, which is why it is absolutely fascinating, really quite striking I’m sure you’ll agree, to notice that in verse 4 that he does not begin there at all. Not with a word of rebuke, but rather by thanking God for them. I suppose even the Corinthian leadership were rather bracing themselves for some stern words from the apostle. You can imagine the elders meeting. There’s the letter from the apostle about to be read and they’re all wondering, “Oh boy, he’s about to unload both barrels on us now I suppose!” And how disarming it must have been, therefore, to hear Paul begin not with devastating critiques, a stinging word, but instead offering this extended, thoughtful, specific word of thanksgiving to God betraying a deep and abiding love for the Corinthians, all their mess notwithstanding. He’s not playing psychological games with them as he offers a word of thanksgiving, of course. He isn’t engaged in flattery. Neither is he simply trying to be nice. This is not the Pauline equivalent of a “Bless your heart” before he really puts the boot in the rest of the letter! He means every word. He feels deep, lasting gratitude to God for these believers among whom he has invested a year and a half of his preaching and teaching and discipleship ministry.
I think that quite searching complaint, after all, is terribly easy, isn’t it? Critique is easy. Haven’t you found that? It comes easy. But cultivating a grateful heart for the people of God on the pew around you, for your church, that is the searching example that the apostle Paul sets before us. I wonder if that’s how you think of First Presbyterian Church if that’s your default setting; if those are the first thoughts and the first words in your mouth and in your mind as you think about our church. Are you thankful or do you have a critical and complaining spirit that betrays a lovelessness, that makes you more like the Corinthians than the apostle Paul?
Well, Paul begins by giving thanks for the evident work of grace he sees in their lives, and as he does so in this great prayer, these six verses, verses 4 to 9, he provides for us what we might call a spiritual biography of the Corinthian Christians. He tells us some of their stories. I love to read biographies, especially of some of the great heroes of the Christian faith of the past. You see all sorts of illustrations – concrete, real, historical examples of what grace did in their lives and through them in the lives of others. It encourages me about what God might yet do in my life and through me and others lives. And that is precisely what Paul intends to happen as we read the Corinthians spiritual biography. He wants to show us what grace did in their lives that we might be encouraged with the hope of what grace might yet do in our own.
And so if you would please, let’s turn our attention to this marvelous prayer, verses 4 to 9 of 1 Corinthians chapter 1. Before we read it together, would you bow your heads with me as we also pray? Let’s pray together.
O Lord, would You grant us the grace to receive Your living Word, to be nourished and strengthened by it. Cause us to be enriched by grace in all speech and all knowledge as the testimony about Christ is confirmed among us. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
1 Corinthians chapter 1, verses 4 through 9:
“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge – even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you – so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
So as I said, this is Paul’s spiritual biography of the Corinthian believers. Here’s what grace has done in them, is doing in them. Here’s what grace may yet be doing or may yet still do among us. And as we look over these six verses, I want to highlight four aspects in particular of the Christian life that we find here that Paul celebrates in the Corinthians. First of all, notice that the Christian life is a fundamentally and supremely Christ-centered life. As we read over these six verses, you heard it, again and again, a number of times, almost every verse, the name of Christ is mentioned. It is everywhere. Verse 4, the grace of God is given to the Corinthians “in Christ Jesus.” In verse 5, they are enriched in every way “in him.” The testimony that is confirmed among them is testimony, verse 6, “about Christ Jesus.” They live their lives, Paul says, verse 7, “waiting for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And our faithful God is the one who has called us into the fellowship of His Son, verse 9, “our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Christian Life is a Christ-centered
This prayer is saturated with Jesus and it is a Christ-centered prayer because as Paul thanks God for the Corinthians he sees they are living a Christ-centered life. The Christian life is a Christ-centered life. In particular, notice the bookends in verse 4 and in verse 9, both of which give special emphasis to the believer’s union with Christ. We are “in Christ,” verse 4, the grace of God is given “in Christ Jesus.” The grace of God that we enjoy as believers is not a sort of blob of spiritual stuff that God doles out to Christians. No, it is the disposition and the stance, the orientation of the heart of God towards us when we are in Jesus Christ when we are brought into personal union with His Son. He is filled with grace towards us. Or look down at the other end of the passage, verse 9. The same emphasis in slightly different language. “God is faithful, who has called us into the fellowship” – the word really means “participation; sharing; communion” – “of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.” God’s irresistible call in the Holy Spirit empowered preaching of the Gospel, brought us out of darkness into His marvelous light – from death to life; from being men and women in Adam to being men and women united to Jesus Christ. And there, we have fellowship, communion with Him. To be a Christian at all, do you see, means to be a man or a woman “in Christ.”
A Brief Precis of the Corinthians’ Lives
And everything else in our whole Christian life, as Paul gives a brief precis of the Corinthians’ lives, everything else is centered on and is in some way or another an aspect or a celebration of our connection, our union with Jesus. So the grace we receive at the beginning and the grace we continue to receive every step forward, we receive in Christ. The Word of God, the testimony that is confirmed among us that sustains and strengthens and nourishes us is a testimony about Christ. And that for which we look and long at the consummation of all things, our final destiny, is the revealing of Jesus Christ. In a therapeutic age like ours, that always turns our attention inward, isn’t it helpful to be reminded that the Christian life is centered elsewhere, not on the self but on the Savior. Paul directs our gaze up and away to Jesus. We are in Him. The testimony is all about Him. We wait for Him, he says.
Maybe you’ve been coming to church for years and you’ve missed this. Maybe you’ve been looking for comfort and healing, for personal wholeness, for human companionship. Maybe church for you is really about finding a place, building a community. Well, fair enough. I’m glad. You can find those things here; I pray that you will. But hear me carefully please, if that’s all you’re looking for, you are not yet a Christian. Christians, whatever they find in the church, have found something infinitely more satisfying, more precious in Christ. A Christian is someone “in Christ.” He is all in all to us. So Paul’s prayer here directs our attention to Him. He would ask you today the supremely urgent question, “Are you in Christ? Do you have Jesus? Does Jesus have hold of you?” That is the vital question we all must answer. The Christian life is oriented toward Jesus. It is in Christ. We are waiting for Him to come. It is a Christ-centered life.
The Christian Life is a Grace-enriched Life
Then secondly notice the Christian life is a grace-enriched life. A grace-enriched life. Look at the text carefully. Take out the little parenthesis, the little aside Paul makes in verse 6 for a moment and read verses 4, 5, and 7 together. “The grace of God was given you in Christ Jesus that in every way you are enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge,” verse 7, “so that you’re not lacking in any spiritual gift.” The grace of God that was given them in Christ has a particular result that Paul wants to emphasize here. It has produced in them gifts, spiritual gifts, especially in the areas of speech and knowledge. If you were on vacation in the city of Corinth and you went to one of the churches there when you came home and they asked you, “Well, how did it go? What was a church like among those screwy Corinthians?” You would have said, actually with Paul, “They were all speech and all knowledge.”
And these are two rich blessings that the Lord has lavished upon them in His grace. They loved to speak about truth and they loved to know the truth. Now, these are two distinctives, of course, as we’ll see in the weeks ahead, that will become problem areas for the Corinthians. It will get them into some trouble. They quickly became imbalanced, infected with the values of their old paganism that emphasized and loved rhetoric and secret knowledge. They began using their gifts for personal prestige and self-promotion, claiming that their unique gifts made them special, allowing them to denigrate others. And Paul, as we’ll see in due course, will have to deal with that firmly. But for now, he simply gives thanks that whatever abuses there may be in Corinth, there nevertheless was spiritual reality and God was enriching the life of the churches in the city through these gifts of grace. To be a Christian is to live enriched by the grace of God, to live in the grip of grace.
Actually, the two words “gift” and “grace” are from the same Greek root. The word “grace” is “karis” and the word “gift” is “karismita.” Gifts are gifts of grace. You know we sometimes flatter one another by talking about “your marvelous gifts.” And we swell and strut in pride because we are so gifted. But Paul, understand what Paul really is talking about when he’s talking about spiritual gifts. He’s talking about the donations of grace that there might be no boasting except in the God that has given them. Not to make much of us, but that as we use them for the good of the church, much is made of Him. The Christian life is a grace-enriched life. He gives us the grace we need and the gifts He requires in order for the church to be equipped for ministry and service that we might be edified and encouraged and comforted and pointed back again and again not to some buffoon in a pulpit, but to Christ that is the burden of holy Scripture and the great need of our hearts.
The Christian Life is a Word-sustained Life
The Christian life is a Christ-centered life, it is a grace-enriched life, and then thirdly notice the Christian life is a Word-sustained life. A Word-sustained life. Come back to that little aside that we took out a minute ago in verse 6. Let’s plop it back in. In the middle of all this talk about spiritual gifts, Paul says God’s enriching grace that made the Corinthians abound in these gifts of speech and knowledge, worked in their lives, notice verse 6, “even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among them.” The testimony about Christ is another way of speaking about the ministry, the faithful ministry of the Word. The Christ-focused message proclaimed from holy Scripture he says, “was confirmed among you.” And as it was, grace began to do amazing things, equipping you for service, enriching your lives. It is as the Word of God has its way among us, as the testimony about Christ penetrates and takes root in our hearts, that grace enriches and equips us with everything good for doing His will. Christian faithfulness and Christian fruitfulness are together the product of the ministry of the Word of God, the testimony about Christ being confirmed among us.
God’s Sustaining Power
That’s a point that’s driven home a little further when you notice the word “confirmed” used in verse 6 and the word “sustain” in verse 8. Do you see it in verse, “sustain”? Those are the same words in Greek. In verse 8 we have a marvelous promise. Look at verse 8. “God will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of the Lord Jesus Christ.” What does that mean? We’re going to make it. Isn’t that good news? Some days you wonder, right? Me too. We’re going to make it. God will do it. He will sustain us and transform us and remake us till we shine at the last day with the completed reflection of the character of Jesus. Praise God! What a promise. But how will He do it? How will we get there? How is He going to sustain us? The word “sustain” and the word “confirm” are the same word. They both describe the effect of the Word of God in our hearts. He will do it, He will sustain us as the Word is confirmed among us, as the testimony about Jesus grips our hearts, fills all our horizons, motivates all our service. It is as the Word of God gets a hold. Do you love your Bible? Do you love your Bible? Do not neglect the Word. It is as the Word has its way that God will preserve and protect and perfect your life and His Church.
The Power of God’s Word
That’s why, in Roman Catholicism, for example, the focus of the worship service is the mass. In charismatic churches, the focus is on ecstatic personal experience. But in Reformed churches, the focus is on the preaching of the Word. That’s the emphasis of holy Scripture. God is at work by the Word. Listen to Larger Catechism 155 that I think really sums up and explains and amplifies Paul’s point brilliantly. “The Spirit of God,” the Catechism says, “makes the reading but especially the preaching of the Word an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners, of driving them out of themselves and drawing them to Christ, of conforming them to His image, subduing them to His will, strengthening them against temptations and corruptions, of building them up in grace, establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.” That’s what God is doing by His Word in your heart today. He is sustaining you to the end by the Word. Praise God for His Word.
Please, will you pray with me in 2017 for the preaching of the Word, that God would rend the heavens and come down and own the ministry of His Word in a demonstration of the Holy Spirit and in power? That He would awaken in all of us an appetite for the Word. That the testimony about Jesus would be confirmed among us. And as it is, that we like the Corinthians, might begin to abound and be enriched by grace in Christ for gifts of speech and knowledge, that we might lack nothing but might serve Him for His glory and praise. What might God do by His Word among us if we gave ourselves to pleading with Him to own and bless the Scriptures in our hearts?
The Christian Life is a Future-oriented Life
So the Christian life is a Christ-centered life, a grace-enriched life, a Word-sustained life, and then finally and briefly, notice the Christian life is a future-oriented life. Some of us are living in the past; can’t quite shake yesterday. Two years ago, five years ago. You can’t get over it. Some of us are living always for now, constantly in the moment but always taken off guard by tomorrow. But the Christian life is future-oriented and the particular future in mind is not tomorrow or two years hence; it is the final horizon line of history. Look at verse 7. Paul is saying, “God has enriched you by His grace in Christ with spiritual gifts.” As God’s Word is at work, He is confirming the Word in their hearts. God is doing many great things. In verse 8, He’s even going to sustain them by His Word. But what are the Corinthians doing while all of this is happening? Verse 7, “You are waiting for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Their eyes are fixed on the final horizon line, on the finish line. You see, that’s what a Christ-centered heart always results in – a heart that is captured by Jesus. However much of Him we know here, longs for the fullness of knowing Him hereafter. We never get enough here. We never see enough, know enough here. There’s always more to come when He returns in His glory.
One day, brothers and sisters, the Lordship of Christ will be opening displayed and every eye will see Him, every knee will bow, every tongue will confess to the glory of God the Father and then our eternal business will begin – face to face with Jesus, reveling in His glory, delighting in His love, and adoring Him with all the Church and all the angels in His presence forever. This here and now, this is the antechamber, the waiting room this side of eternity. This isn’t home. When Christ comes, that’s home, that’s where we’re going, that’s what we’re looking for, that’s what we’re longing for, we who have Christ-centered hearts, who live in the grip of grace, enriched by His grace, whose Word is sustaining us and changing us and nourishing us. We’re longing for Jesus to come. This world is not our home.
I wonder if you’re ready to go. Are you ready to go? Are you ready to go, or is this world your home? Do you live waiting for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ or are you still living in the past or living only for today when the best is yet to come? Let me ask you if Jesus Christ has captured your heart. That really is the most important question you will ever answer. I’m not talking about church. I’m not talking about tradition and routine and religious language. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about reality. Does Jesus Christ have hold of your heart? Are you in Him? Has He captured you so that you long for nothing so much as to be with Him and to see Him, to have more of Him? Nothing else matters compared to how you answer that question.
Are you a man or a woman or a boy or a girl in Christ? If you are, then you live a grace-enriched life. God will give you all He needs. There are no unfunded mandates in the Christian life. What God requires from you, He will supply to you, that you might live for His glory. A grace-enriched life. You will live a Word-sustained life. The Bible, that was once a dead letter, pounded by a guy in a funny gown every Lord’s Day, starts to live, starts to nourish your heart, starts to be life, food, a light to your feet and a lamp to your path. You hear the voice of your Jesus speaking to you, directing you in your ear saying, “This is the way. Walk in it.” He will sustain you and one day, as you follow His lead, the skies will split and He will come and you will see Him and He will take you to be with Him where He is forever. So may the Lord give us all grace to be able to answer that great question well. Am I a man or a woman in Christ? I must get into Christ.
Let’s pray together!
Our Father, as we bow before You, we know the one thing needful is to know Jesus. So would You give those of us who do not yet know Him no rest, no rest, till they come to Christ? And we pray for those of us at whatever stage we may be in our pilgrimage following Christ, would You fill our vision again with His greatness and glory? Would You re-center our lives on Jesus? Would You give us grateful hearts for Your Church? Would You supply fresh measures of grace to enrich us not for our own sake but for Your praise? And would You make Your Word live and nourish our hearts, sustaining us, confirm the testimony about Jesus among us, and keep us guiltless on the Great Day? And do it all that Jesus might have the praise, for we ask it in His name. Amen.
© 2017 First Presbyterian Church.
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