Would you please take a copy of the holy Scriptures in your hands and turn with me to 1 Corinthians chapter 1? Let’s bow our heads as we pray together!
O Lord, would You have mercy on us and help us as we read the Scriptures together and as we hear them preached. Give us the grace to understand and embrace, believe, receive, and rest upon Jesus Christ alone as He is offered to us in the Gospel. Deal with our hearts. Wound and heal. Show us ourselves and our sin and bring us the grace of repentance and show us Christ and His sufficiency, and give us grace that we may live glad-heartedly and wholeheartedly for Him. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
How you think about the problem of the human condition will, of course, determine what you believe the solution should be. How you think about the problem will determine what you think the solution will be. If you think our basic problem is intellectual or psychological, or if you think it’s physiological or philosophical or ethical, then you will likely look to education or to therapy or to surgery or to philosophy or to morality for your solutions. Each of those approaches, of course, imagines that we are essentially sound but in need of some assistance, some corrective training, some supplemental input. We’re like a beautiful old home that is well-made and functionally sound but in need of some TLC – a lick of paint here and there, a new pane of glass perhaps, and then all will be well.
But that is not at all the picture of the New Testament, of a human being. No, from the Biblical perspective, we are much more like the old home in which at first glance the necessary repairs may seem only cosmetic but upon closer inspection it turns out the wiring is deadly and every inch of it must be stripped from the walls and replaced altogether. We don’t need a lick of paint; we need a complete re-wire. We don’t need surface changes; we need a fundamental overhaul at the very deepest level. This morning we are beginning a new series considering the message of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and in some ways, that is largely Paul’s point as he writes to them. He wants them to understand that the Gospel of Jesus Christ radically re-wires our whole lives.
Now Paul had visited the city of Corinth and planted a church there around AD 49. It was, as you may know, a strategically located city. It’s positioned on the narrow four-mile isthmus that separates northern and southern Greece. It had been destroyed by Rome in 146 BC only to be rebuilt about a hundred years later by Julius Caesar as a Roman colony and it became the capital of the province of Achaia. Because of its location, it rapidly became a major center of trade and a thriving, wealthy city. And as always happens when cities are located on major trade routes and where economic opportunity abounds, it attracted people from all over the world. It was a vast melting pot of cultures, all of which, of course, made it a place of stark, social contrasts. Writing sometime after Paul’s stay in this city, for example, one ancient visitor to Corinth said that “the sordidness of the rich and the misery of the poor were extraordinary.” He said it was a place, “abounding in luxuries but inhabited by an ungracious people.” It was a city noted for its immorality and its debauchery. The great temple of Aphrodite was located on the top of a hill overlooking the city where thousands of temple prostitutes worked there are priestesses and below it, there was the temple of Apollo which celebrated homosexuality. In time, to “Corinthianize” became a synonym for adultery and sexual perversity of every kind. It was a giant red-light district, we might say. But it was here, into this dark and cosmopolitan city, that the apostle Paul resolved to plant a church, which he did, Acts 18 tells us, with the help of Priscilla and Aquila.
Now when Paul left the city about a year and a half later, he spent the next three years ministering in the city of Ephesus and while he was in Ephesus he began to hear that not all was well back in Corinth. The allure of the surrounding culture continued to pull at these young believers. Sharp divisions began to emerge. Sexual sin continued to be a struggle and the oddities of pagan philosophy and the mystery cults began to creep into the teaching of some people in the churches. And so Paul’s letter to them is designed to address each of those problems very directly indeed. And so it doesn’t take much imagination, therefore, to see why 1 Corinthians might have something relevant to say to our context and our generation, does it? Many of the issues facing the believers in Corinth characterize the struggles facing Christians today as we wrestle with the call of Jesus Christ to be holy while the old life pulls at us and draws us back into the sinful patterns of the world.
But what we are going to see as the apostle Paul addresses them over and over again, is that he does not respond to the Corinthians with angry rebuke or with a series of “how-to” instructions for living a victorious Christian life. Instead, 1 Corinthians points these relatively new Christians back to fundamental truths about God and the Gospel of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Isn’t that striking? As you read through 1 Corinthians, notice how no matter the complexity or the intractability of the problem, again and again, Paul’s answer is essentially really very basic. It is knowing God revealed in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. That’s it – grasping and learning to apply with ever increasing clarity and courage the Gospel of God’s saving grace for sinners in Jesus to all the details of our lives. That’s his response to every problem the Corinthians are dealing with. Paul’s agenda in this letter, in other words – and if we’ll allow God’s Word to do its work in our lives, God’s agenda for us as we read 1 Corinthians together in the weeks ahead – is to strip out all the old, tangled, confused wiring of the world and to re-wire our spiritual systems entirely with this simple, clear truth of the good news about Jesus Christ.
And so 1 Corinthians is immensely exciting because it is dealing with the real issues with which we all struggle even now. What work of grace might the Lord intend in our lives and in our life together as a church as we come under the teaching of this book? I want to invite you, over these coming weeks, to begin to pray with me that God would take hold of our hearts and our minds and our lives by His Word in this book of Scripture and do that re-wiring work among us. Let me invite you, therefore, to take your Bibles in hand and look with me at 1 Corinthians chapter 1, verses 1 to 3. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes,
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:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Amen, and we praise God for this reading from His holy Word.
In one of my favorite TV shows, the opening sequence is often made up of a kind of montage of clips from previous episodes in which each character is introducing himself to someone else so that by the time of the opening credits, we’ve been reminded of all the principle figures in the storyline that are about to unfold in that episode. In some ways, that is precisely what the apostle Paul is doing in these opening verses of his letter. He weaves into his introductory greetings themes and ideas that he’s going to build on and amplify that we’ll meet again at various points throughout his letter. And so here in these opening verses of 1 Corinthians, we have, if you like, the dramatis personae. It’s the cast of characters that we’re going to see over and over again brought to our attention as Paul responds to the Corinthians and their needs. In particular, he’s going to emphasize here four themes that will be important as the book develops and that really are vitally important and foundational for our Christian lives.
The Theme of Authority
First, there is the theme of authority. The theme of authority. Look at verse 1. “Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes.” Now at first glance, Paul is simply following the traditional and conventional letter-writing style of the ancient Greco-Roman world. You begin with the author and then you mention the addressee and then you offer a word of greeting. And that is largely Paul’s pattern. But in the light of the rest of the letter, it’s clear there’s much more going on here. In chapters 3 and 4 in particular, Paul will have to defend himself and his ministry from those who were challenging his authority. “Why should Paul tell us what to believe or how to behave? Why listen to Paul?” That was their question. And so Paul is reminding the Corinthians, straight out of the starting blocks, of his apostolic credentials. Literally, verse 1 reads, “Paul, called an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Sosthenes, the brother.” The will of God called him, do you see, and the will of God made him an apostle. His is no derivative apostleship. He didn’t receive it from men. He wasn’t made an apostle by the Church. He was called by the will of God which invests him with an authority that does not belong to other Christians.
The Contrast Between Paul and Sosthenes
Notice the contrast between Paul and Sosthenes. Paul is “the apostle, called by the will of God.” But Sosthenes is “the brother.” Now if Sosthenes is the same man mentioned in Acts 18 verse 17, and I think he is, this is a wonderful title for him. Luke told us that Sosthenes was a ruler of the synagogue in the city of Corinth. And in Acts 18, there is no indication at all that he was a Christian. In fact, he has ample reason to reject Paul’s message outright. When the Jews in Corinth brought charges against Paul before Gallio the proconsul because Paul was making converts from among the members of the synagogue, including one of the synagogue leaders, and from among the Gentiles in the city, Gallio dismissed their charges out of hand. And in their rage and in their frustration, the mob turns on poor Sosthenes who is the arche-synagogus, the ruler of the synagogue. And they beat him because he’s the synagogue leader and this was happening on his watch. He’s being made the butt of the rage of the mob because of Paul’s ministry. This is Paul’s fault.
The Power of the Gospel
Now that’s incentive enough, isn’t it, to hate Paul and to hate his Gospel? But here’s the great power of the Gospel to change even the hardest heart. Now Paul tells the Corinthians, now Sosthenes is the brother! Praise God those of you who are witnessing to and praying for family members and loved ones and friends, some of you for years, and you see no signs of change. God can take the least likely candidates, the candidates with every reason to reject the Gospel and make of them brothers and sisters in Christ. That is exactly what He has done in the life of Sosthenes. But understand that for all the glory of that, Sosthenes is still, nevertheless, only “the brother,” whereas Paul, on the other hand, is “the called apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God.” He is the spokesman of Christ by divine appointment. When Sosthenes speaks the Christians might listen or not. He might speak wisely or he might be spouting rubbish. Their consciences, you see, were free when Sosthenes spoke. But when Paul speaks, that’s a different matter entirely.
I think this is so important for us to grasp today, especially in our egalitarian context where authority is virtually a dirty word. Paul’s words to us in this letter do not come with the same weight and authority as an email from a friend might come to you. Paul’s message does not come with the comparative urgency of a three-minute news segment we might find mildly informative and diverting for a moment or two. No, Paul, Paul is the mouthpiece of Jesus Christ by the will of God so that when 1 Corinthians speak, we should be glued to its every word because every word originates ultimately not with Paul but with Jesus Christ of whose message Paul is the inspired herald. And so the first thing Paul highlights is this theme of authority.
The Theme of Identity
But then secondly, notice the theme of identity. Authority first, then identity. Look carefully at verse 2 with me. He doesn’t write, notice, to the church in Corinth, does he? To whom does he write? He writes to “the church of God in Corinth.” That is its unique, distinguishing character. The word translated “church,” “ecclesia,” as you may know, simply means “an assembly,” of which there were many and various in Corinthian society. But this ecclesia, this assembly, has the distinction of being the ecclesia of God, the church of God. It’s not the church of Paul or the church of the Corinthian leadership or the membership or even of the culture. The church in Jackson, Mississippi is not the creation of a denomination, nor is it defined by the personalities of its pastors, for which you should be profoundly grateful. That was a joke! The church in Jackson, Mississippi is not defined by a denomination, it’s not the creation of a denomination, it’s not defined by its pastors or its leaders or by the culture of its members. It doesn’t belong to us! It’s not for us! We are the church of God. We are His and we are for Him.
And then Paul focuses notice, doesn’t he? He focuses the camera lens so that we can see more of the particular marks. What is the church of God? What does it really look like? How do you distinguish it from other assemblies? What is it that makes First Presbyterian Church distinct from the Rotary Club or a supper club or a professional organization? Look at the text. The church of God, Paul says, is made up of those who are “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” Now you may know the word “sanctified” and the word “saint” really share the same Greek root. A saint is a sanctified one. And the word simply means “to have been set apart; to have been consecrated” like the vessels and the furniture and the garments and the priests themselves in the Old Testament temple. They were set aside and consecrated and devoted to a sacred purpose, dedicated entirely to God.
Or think about the Sundays when we receive new members here at First Presbyterian Church. You might have noticed that usually down here in the first two rows or so, on my right-hand side, there are large “Reserved” signs at the ends of the rows. They are reserved for the new members being introduced to the congregation that day. No one else may sit there. They’ve been set aside for them. That is what Paul is saying has happened to us when we become Christians. We are sanctified. God has placed His “Reserved” sign on us and we are set aside and reserved for His use alone. Like priests in the temple in Jerusalem, we have been consecrated and dedicated to a sacred purpose. That is our fundamental identity now. We have been designated and reserved for God.
The “Saints” at Corinth
And Paul tells us where that happens and how that happens. Where it happens – look at verse 2? We are sanctified where? “In Christ Jesus.” God unites us to Christ through faith. We are planted into Him. He is the holy one and in Him, we are consecrated and set apart as holy too. And then he tells us how it happens. Look at the text again. He says we are “called to be saints.” A better translation is simply “called saints.” The sovereign, effective, irresistible call of God in the preaching of the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit makes us saints. God in the preaching of the Gospel, applied by the Spirit of God, makes us saints as He calls us into union with Jesus Christ. Now just think for a moment about the Corinthians. They were fighting, squabbling among themselves, holding grudges, acting superior, suing one another in the public courts, sleeping around, participating in pagan rituals, getting drunk if you can believe it at the Lord’s Table, and so much else besides. They were a mess. They were a mess! And Paul calls them “saints.” He calls them sanctified in Christ Jesus because of the call of God.
You get up in the morning and you look in the mirror and you see a wicked, sinful, compromising screw-up full of lust and pride and anger and laziness and unbelief and judgmentalism and a thousand other things besides. Me too! Me first. But that is not our identity, brothers, and sisters in Christ. That may be what we do, how we act in our backsliding and sin, but as we cling to Jesus, albeit sometimes desperately and brokenheartedly, as we cling to Jesus Paul says that’s not who we are. No, we are sanctified in union with Christ Jesus by the powerful call of the Spirit of God. You are a saint. God has hung His “Reserved” sign on you. You are His! Dedicated and reserved for His use and His glory. Consecrated to Him. That is who you are. So now Paul is saying to the Corinthians and will go on to say in more detail as we’ll see in the weeks ahead, it is time really to be who you are, to live out your identity before the world and the eyes and gaze of a holy God. Stop living the old life. That is not who you are, not anymore. Stop telling yourself otherwise. You are sanctified, so be holy. You are a saint in union with Jesus; it’s time to start living like one!
The Theme of Activity
Authority and then identity and then Paul mentions two further things that are really simply the implications of all of that. The first has to do with our new activity as Christians. Authority, identity, activity. Here’s what the church does. Look at verse 2 again. We are called to be saints, together with all those who in every place “call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul doesn’t simply mean to say that the church is marked by this stance and posture that we occasionally pray. More than that, he’s saying the whole life of a Christian can be summed up under this heading. This is the distinctive characteristic feature. They’re always calling, they live calling, clinging to, dependent on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. The great Charles Hodge puts it this way in his commentary on this phrase, Paul’s phrase, he says, “expresses not so much an individual act of invocation, a prayer, as a habitual state of mind and its appropriate expression.” That’s what Paul is saying. It’s a habitual state of mind in the church to call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. They’re constantly calling. It’s how they live; their stance, their leaning on, resting on, calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ in every circumstance, at every juncture.
I wonder – can that be said of us? That our most notable feature, our great characteristic is that we are always and habitually and instinctively calling on the name of the Lord Jesus? What happens in your heart when fear strikes? Is it your instinct and habit to run to Jesus or is He fifth, sixth, seventh down the list of other reactions and responses that pass through your mind and occupy your hands? Is He always on our lips, on our hearts? Are we longing for more of Him? All our hope for the future, for our growth, for our ministry, for our faithfulness and our fruitfulness rests on Him.
The Theme of Unity
And then finally, Paul emphasizes unity. Authority, identity, activity, finally unity. It’s the other great fruit of the call of God that sets us apart in Christ as holy. We are first Jesus’ people. We call on the name of the Lord Jesus. And then we are united people. We are called saints, verse 2, together with all those who in every place call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours. You see the emphasis on unity. Paul wants us to understand that to be sanctified in Christ and to be called a saint has vertical implications – we call on Jesus – and horizontal implications – we do it together. We are one. And those two must always go together. The prideful party spirit that riddled the Corinthian church, Paul is saying is incompatible with that posture and habit of calling on the name of Jesus.
Here’s the principle – a Christ-dependent heart – are you listening? A Christ-dependent heart is one that beats with love for Christ’s people, whoever they may be, wherever they are to be found, and from whatever background they come. So do you see the sweep of the argument? Biblical authority produces Gospel identity. We are in Christ, saints, sanctified, set apart for Jesus. And that new Gospel identity leads to dependent activity – we cling to Christ; we’re always calling upon His name. And to profound spiritual unity – we do it all together; we live our Christian lives out together in community.
Biblical authority, Gospel identity, dependent activity, spiritual unity. That’s Paul’s argument! And as we begin a new year together, as we embark on this study of this letter to the Corinthians together, I wonder if you would join me in making a New Year’s resolution? God helping us, let’s resolve to be who we really are – set apart for Jesus Christ. We are saints, sanctified ones, because of the mighty call of God by His Word and Spirit. You are no longer defined by your sin and failure, though sin and failure may yet dog your steps. You are defined in Christ as a sanctified one. So let’s be who we really are in Jesus – holy and set apart for Him. Which means that under the authority of the apostolic Word, we must learn to cling anew to Jesus in 2017. We must learn to cling to Jesus anew in 2017, and to love the Church, preserving and cherishing her unity, caring for those who are not like us because Christ, into union with whom we have been drawn by His Spirit, Christ loves her, this Church, warts and all, and has given Himself for her. If we do that, by God’s grace, if we are enabled more and more to keep that resolution, there is no telling what Christ might do among us for His glory in this new year, what He might, what use He might put us to in our city and around the world in this new year. And so let us look to God, let us learn to be who we really are, let us be holy because we have been sanctified in Christ, let us call on and cling to Jesus, let us learn to love one another preserving the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Let’s pray together!
God our Father, we bow before You and we confess to You that we often love ourselves in a way that allows us and justifies to us our lack of love for one another. And though we claim the name of Jesus, our hearts turn elsewhere when troubles come. It is not our habit and instinct, not as it ought to be, to call on the name of the Lord Jesus. And though You have made us saints in union with Jesus, we have continued to tell ourselves and define ourselves by our old life rather than by the new one we have in Him. And all of that is because we have set at discount the weight of Biblical authority directing our consciences and shutting us up to the obedience of faith. So look for us as a church, we pray, in mercy. Forgive us and work in these weeks ahead of us by 1 Corinthians in all our hearts to teach us who we really are in Jesus and to strengthen us as we seek to live it out for your glory and honor and praise. And as we begin to be re-wired by the Gospel, would You make use of us in ways surpassing our expectations in this part of our city, in our workplaces, among our friends and family, and all over the world. Make us a city set on a hill. Make us a bright, shining light to the world and do it for the glory of the name of Jesus. Amen.
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