We begin a new series this morning in 1 Corinthians and I've four headings this morning. The first is this:
1. The Church in Corinth was a Problem Church
1 Corinthians is a letter. Please turn to that in the Bible. The opening lines are a greeting (1 Corinthians 1.1-2):
"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…"
So what do we know about the church in Corinth? Acts 18 is where you need to go for the background. We'll not look at it now. Here's what happened. Paul is on the second of his journeys taking the good news of Jesus where it has not yet been heard. The year is AD51 or thereabouts. He arrives in the Greek city of Corinth and spends 18 months there, starting a new church. Fast forward a few years, Paul is in now Ephesus starting another new church. A letter has come from the Christians in Corinth. They asked for Paul's advice about various problems. At the same time, some people have visited and the news they bring is that all is not well in the church he planted at Corinth. Glance down to verse 11:
"For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarrelling among you, my brothers."
Verse 11 talks about quarrelling. We'll see as we work through this letter together that is just the tip of the iceberg. There were many other issues in Corinth. The church is fighting. The factions are visible. Some are in danger of going back to their former lives to serve their former gods and to resume life as they once knew it. Others are lording their so-called knowledge over those whom they deem weaker in the faith. Class divisions are visible - even at the Lord's Table. Paul hears reports that involve church members visiting prostitutes and a man sleeping with his stepmom. Some are even questioning the resurrection - the very heart of the gospel! The problems are overwhelming and unrelenting. Paul could not visit them now, so he wrote them this letter.
Corinth was a problem church. And you know what? So is Jesmond Parish Church! Some of our problems may be very different, no doubt. But some will be very similar to those at Corinth. That is true of us as a group, as the church of God called Jesmond Parish Church. Maybe you find that hard to believe. I don't mean to discourage you: but if that's your reaction then almost certainly you don't know us very well! The only point we'll be without problems is when Jesus returns. Until then, we - like every other church - are a problem church. Which is why we need this series of studies in 1 Corinthians!
Or maybe as an individual you wonder how the book of 1 Corinthians is going to be relevant to you. You know you're not perfect. But there are no major problems! Not anymore, anyway. You'd never say it out loud of course – that would sound too arrogant. Well, almost certainly you don't know yourself very well either and you're in danger of coasting spiritually. Until Jesus returns, we're still a work in progress. So pray that God would speak to you through the words of this book as we study it together.
Perhaps, though, you need no convincing that JPC is a problem church. I certainly don't. You're all too aware of ways we are struggling as a church and whatever failing you're aware of has caused you pain, and anger and frustration. Or you're all too aware of an internal struggle with sin, that is leaving you close to despair that things will ever change. Well, I hope you'll see that 1 Corinthians is just what you need! So, that's our first point. The Church in Corinth was a problem church. Second, then we see that…
2. The Church in Corinth Belongs to God.
The church in Corinth were not living the way they should. How should they have been living? How should we be living? Look at verse 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"
Paul's begins by reminding them that are God's people. Three times he says the same thing in verse 2:
- "The church of God"
- "To those sanctified in Christ Jesus"
- "Called to be saints"
So three times. Church in Corinth, remember who you are. You are God's people. You belong to him. They're not just a club or a society who can decide how they want to live. They are God's people. He is their Lord. They belong to him. They have a new identity. The used to belong to the world, but now they have trusted in Christ Jesus they are set apart. They are part of God's family. Isn't that fantastic?! He doesn't begin his letter listing everything they're doing wrong. He begins by reminding them who they are. And that's not an accident. Paul will go on to tell them that they can't possibly carry on living the way they're living. The way they relate to one another and to those outside the church needs to change.
But why? Why should they change? Because of who they now are. God made them 'holy' when they trusted Christ. So, the way they are living contradicts who they now are. And how can they change? Only by grasping hold of the truth about who they are in Christ. By knowing they're forgiven through Jesus' death and accepted by him not because they deserve it, but because he's a God who of grace. The key to them changing is realising that they are already accepted. Already forgiven. They already belong to God. Only then will they want to please to one who saved them. Only then will they ask for his help to live in a way that pleases him. They needed to be reminded that they belong to God. And so do we. Third, we see that Paul thanks God that…
3. God is at Work in the Church in Corinth
Imagine you were Paul, writing this letter to a church so full of problems. What would you have said? I'm pretty sure I would never have written verse 4!
"I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus"
Paul begins with thanks. Even with all their problems, he had the spiritual eyes to look even at the problem areas and, to say: God is at work. There's a great lesson there. Whatever we see in our church or in our own lives, we are to dwell first on the signs of grace, on the gifts God has given us and not the fallings and failings, which are to be expected. Not only does the church of Corinth belong to God. They have also received from him gift after gift, blessing after blessing, because they are his precious church. And that is plenty reason to be thankful! Listen out, as I read verses 4-9, for what God has done for all those who are in Christ:
"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 spiritual 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."
Paul often begins his letters with a prayer of thanksgiving for those he is writing to. Those prayers give a foretaste, an abbreviated table of contents, of what is to come so it is no surprise to find here that of the countless good things that God has showered us with, he focusses their attention on the truths that they most need to hear.
The Corinthians had two root problems. The first is that they were immature. They hadn't properly grasped that the heart of the gospel is love, servanthood and the way of the cross. The second is they were premature. They thought they already had everything that in fact would only be fully given to them when Jesus has come back again. We'll see him address both those issues as we work through the letter.
In these verses, to address their immaturity, Paul reminds them that whatever knowledge that they have or whatever abilities that they possess have been given to them by God. There was no room for pride, or thinking they were more significant than others because they had a particular gift. No! The gifts they had were just that. Gifts. Part of God's work in Christ. And they were given to be used in a servant hearted, other-centred way. In a Christ-like way.
Many of the problems they face come from forgetting or not realising what God has done and will continue to do for them. In other words, they come from not understanding the gospel. Everything that they have and are comes from God. There would be no church without God. And whatever problems they are facing, the God who called them is powerful enough to see that they persevere to the end.
Paul also reminds them that Jesus is still to come. That hasn't happened yet. It's a future event. They are enriched in every way and not lacking in spiritual gifts. But there is still a day in the future that they are to wait for. When all will be put right, when they will be guiltless and problem free, when they will see their Lord Jesus Christ face to face. They are not there yet. But until that day, God is faithful. He will sustain them to the end. What God begins, he finished. So do not despair. And do not be proud. John Newton once said:
"I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am"
And now Paul starts work on the first problem the church faces: division in the church.
4. God's Church is a United Church
This continues right into chapter 4. But he begins here. Verses 10-12:
"I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgement. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarrelling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, "I follow Paul", or "I follow Apollos", or "I follow Cephas", or "I follow Christ.""
We've already seen that the church belongs to God. So, continues Paul, you should be united. They are, after all, 'brothers and sisters'. They belong to the same spiritual family. Because they trust in the same gospel message and Jesus is their Lord. But they're not united in the gospel. They each have a favourite teacher – Paul, Apollos (who taught the church after Paul left) or Cephas (who is the apostle Peter). And then there was the Christ party – a group of people who were tired of all the other groups and who smugly said something like this: 'Look, we belong to Jesus, not any human teacher'. Technically that was right, but said in a superior, divisive, competitive way meant they were no less divisive than the others.
Whatever the exact details, the church was split into sections. What had begun as personal preferences – perhaps for a style of teaching – had now deepened into judgmentalism and division. The battle lines were now drawn. How does Paul respond? Verse 13:
"Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?"
Paul focuses their attention on the gospel. Of course, it was Jesus who was crucified and died so their sins could be forgiven. They were baptised into Jesus' name. He was their saviour. He's their Lord. Any role Paul – or anyone else – played was simply telling them the gospel about Jesus dying to forgive them back into relationship with him. It was God's work, by his Spirit, that used that message to bring them to faith. Verses 14-17:
"I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power."
The power isn't in the messenger. It's in the message. Paul's work was simply to preach the gospel. Who baptised whom was not the most important point. It was important for the Christians at Corinth to know the real nature of the gospel. The message was simple: Christ died on the cross. That is the message that changes lives. That is the message that brings unity. That is the message we need to stick faithfully to.
Paul warns here of the danger of speaking in a way that draws attention to the one speaking. That doesn't mean we don't try and be clear, or deliberately speak in a boring or unhelpful way. It just means we never forget that it is all about the message of the cross. We don't all teach in the same way but we do all talk about Jesus to others. What does this teach us about how to do that? Well, we should be faithful to teach the Bible. We should also keep the main thing, the main thing. It's all about Jesus and the cross. It means we won't focus on style (as if there was only one 'right' way to preach or one right way to lead a small group) or on being entertaining. Our job is to point to Jesus and the cross with the aim that we all trust and obey him more. So when we speak, we should be focussing attention on Jesus and the cross, and discouraging people from following us. Verse 10 again:
"I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgement."
Paul appeals to us too. There are pressures from all sides. Externally and from within. Unless we keep our eyes on Jesus and the gospel message that saved us, we too are in danger of splitting into groups. As a church, let's listen to Paul's appeal and unite as we follow our Lord and Saviour. So, we have seen that The Church in Corinth was a Problem Church. So is JPC. Then that The Church in Corinth Belongs to God. So does JPC. So let's Thank God that He's at Work in the Church and Be a United Church. Let us pray:
"Lord of the church, we long for our uniting,
True to one calling, by one vision stirred;
One cross proclaiming and one creed reciting,
One in the truth of Jesus and his word!
So lead us on till toil and trouble ended,
One church triumphant one new song shall sing
To praise his glory, risen and ascended,
Christ over all, the everlasting King!"