'How dare you, you incompetent bunch?!'
'Have you no shame?'
'Can it really be that there's no-one wise enough here?!'
I'm not sure a modern preacher can get away with saying such things, can he?! I wonder how you felt when you heard those words of Paul read earlier. It was pretty clear that something had upset him, wasn't it? He's as indignant and angry and sarcastic as he gets. So why is he like this? What is it that has annoyed him so much? Well there is nothing that gets Paul's goat more, so to speak, than the hypocrisy of those who claim to follow Jesus and yet live lives that fail to back that up.
Paul hates it when our words and our deeds don't marry up. And he has no qualms about calling this young Corinthian church out on it. No qualms at all! We've already seen him bring them to task time and again: for their divisions, for their sexual immorality… How can it be when you claim to represent the pure, undivided, holy one to an unbelieving world? How can you let these attitudes and these deeds go on amongst you? And, now, as we'll see this morning, he zeroes in to the emotionally charged topic of how we manage grievances and disputes and arguments between us.
Let's just re-enter 1st century Corinth and remind ourselves of what was going on. Corinth - an ancient Greek city, very close to Athens, seeped in Greek culture. Greek culture was, amongst other things, known at that time for its love of all things legal. The Greeks were obsessed with using the courts to solve all kinds of disputes – so obsessed in fact, that some describe it as being one of their chief entertainments! This was the culture that the young Corinthian church had been born into. And this was the culture that had been transferred into this young church. And Paul has something to say about that. It begins like this (v.1):
"When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?"
What sort of grievance are we talking about? Well according to verse 8, a financial one:
"But you yourselves wrong and defraud."
So here is another issue (last time it was sexual immorality, now its relational breakdown over money) that demonstrates to Paul that the church was not behaving like it should. One of the problems with working through the texts in chunks and having gaps in between is that sometimes we don't see all the links between passages week by week. But there is a helpful contrast that Paul makes as he transitions between the two issues – from sexual immorality into financial irregularity. Let's just briefly look back 1 Corinthians 5.12-13:
"For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. "Purge the evil person from among you.""
What Paul is saying is that when it comes sexual immorality, don't point the finger out there. Don't judge the world by our standards. That's ludicrous – we can't look out there and pick non-Christians up for failing to live by standards they don't profess! We don't judge them – but, Paul says, we should judge each other in that sense. The reputation of God's church is on the line and we need to be holy. Judge each other; don't judge them. Can you see the link that's coming?! It's hugely ironic. They won't judge each other – they want to outsource that judgement to people who live by different standards. It's nuts! But friends, Paul's underlying point, as he deals with all these specifics is that the believers need to…
1. Act Like the Church Family They (We) Are Meant to Be (v.1-7)
This is our first main point this morning. Paul wants them and us to act like the church family we are meant to be. And in these first seven verses Paul identifies at least four things that they're doing that will need to change if they're going to act like the church family they were meant to be. What are they doing?
- They're washing their dirty linen in public
- They're forgetting their future
- They're wasting their God-given resources
- They're retaliating
Four sub-points. We'll go through them each in turn.
a) They're Washing Their Dirty Linen in Public
Verse 1 again:
"When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?"
So what was actually going on? One believer in the Corinthian church (let's call him Believer 1) has done something wrong and defrauded a brother (let's call him Believer 2). Maybe it's money itself, maybe it's property, maybe inheritance – we don't know. But something financial. And in response, the defrauded brother, Believer 2, has taken Believer 1 to a Greek court. Paul is not impressed. And you'd think he'd be most miffed with Believer 1 for committing fraud in the first place. But no! His anger is initially focussed on the way Believer 2 has responded (v.1):
"does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?"
In other words, 'How dare you wash your dirty linen in public? Why on earth are you taking this issue to the secular Greek court and not dealing with it internally within the church?' I mean just think about it - they are family. Would you take your family, your son, or mother to court? Sadly, some do, but would you? You wouldn't dare, would you? This is what Paul is driving at.
Now, of course this doesn't mean that Paul is teaching that we sweep everything under the carpet and cover things up. He's not saying that we pretend to be something we're not or deny that problems exist – we see that clearly later. He's not even saying that Christians should never go to court – we know that because he himself appealed to higher authorities later on. And he's certainly not saying that Christians should keep quiet about crime and cover up things like abuse. (The fact that this is referred to as a trivial case in verse 2 suggests that Paul has civil cases in mind and not criminal ones. Paul is very clear when he writes to the Roman church that criminal cases are indeed the responsibility of the state.) But what he is saying is that church has a corporate responsibility of holiness. We shouldn't be seen to be squabbling in public because we shouldn't be squabbling at all. But if we do (actually he's more realistic than that; he says 'when' we do), we need to sort it out ourselves, making every effort to keep our trivial disputes out of a secular court.
Friends, we all know the world is watching from the outside, waiting to pick us up… Any inconsistency and they're on it. We know what it's like as individuals don't we? I remember what it was like on my Squadron in the RAF. Sometimes I would get grumpy, sometimes I would lose my temper, occasionally I would say something I shouldn't or express an opinion about someone else that I really should have kept to myself. And my crew mates would jump straight in: 'Ooo Jon…that's not very Christian of you!' And I hated it. I hated it because I'd let myself down, more importantly I'd let Almighty God down – but by implication I'd let my church family down too. My colleagues knew which church I went to.
I know you can relate - I'm confident that you've felt similar shame. So why, why, why would we do anything that makes that dishonouring and shame even more public and damaging - such as taking a trivial case between us and asking non-Christians to judge it? JPC, in order to act like 'the church family we're meant to be', let's not wash our trivial dirty laundry in public.
b) They're Forgetting Their Future
Paul moves on, suggesting that the Corinthians have actually forgotten their future. Verses 2-3:
"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? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!"
This is a truth we often forget, isn't it? Maybe we've never even heard it. One day we will sit alongside Jesus and we will be involved in judging the world out there. We will be involved in judging angels, presumably the fallen ones. We don't have time to look into this biblical teaching in detail, but it's there. You can trace it from our Old Testament reading in Daniel 7.22, through 1 Corinthians 6, Jude and Revelation – they all testify to this truth. As does our Lord himself, for example in Matthew 19.28 where he says to his disciples:
"Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on this glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel…"
If we remember this truth… if we believe it… then not only will we see the stupidity of asking the world to judge us now, but we'll also see the need to treat each other now the way the Lord does, not unlike Paul's advice to another church (Colossians 3.12-13):
"Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive."
So, in order to act like 'the church family we're meant to be', as well as not washing our dirty linen in public, let's also remember our future and forgive each other.
c) They're Wasting Their God-Given Resources
You know, I think Paul is genuinely surprised that the Corinthian believers have felt the need to go external for judgement, hence the sarcasm of verse 5:
"Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers"
It's almost as if he's saying 'Really chaps, with all the gifts and resources that God has lavished on you, has he really left out wisdom? Do you really need to outsource that? Have you not read Proverbs 28.5?'
"Evil men do not understand justice, [so don't go to them for it!] but those who seek the Lord understand it completely."
Why? Because they have wisdom! And if we are in any doubt that we have wisdom, we have James' encouragement too don't we? James 1.5:
"If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him."
In other words, asking God for wisdom is not a prayer he's going to refuse! Friends, the truth is that in the context of the body, the Lord provides all the gifts and skills needed to express the love of Jesus. So when we find ourselves in situations where our relationships with each other are strained, we need to identify those in our family who are particularly gifted to bring God's wisdom to bear in such situations:
- Who are the listeners?
- Who are those who can be trusted?
- Who are those who have proved themselves objective?
And then, just imagine with me… What would it be like if more of us made it a goal to be trusted, compassionate, objective listeners - full of humility and grace? Our church family would be a much healthier and stronger one, no? In order to act like 'the church family we're meant to be', let's not waste our God-given resources.
d) They're Retaliating
In verse 7, Paul gets the Corinthians to think a bit deeper. He is basically challenging them to think about their motivation:
"To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?"
He's asking the question and it's particularly addressed to believer 2 (the one who's been defrauded and responded inappropriately) – why are you doing this? What is your motivation? It's a question all of us need to ask as we reflect on our reactions to when we've been wronged. In any dispute, any relational breakdown, grievance with a brother or sister… what has been the motivation behind what we did next? Retaliation or revenge, the need to be the one in the right, the need to be the one who always has the last word, control, power, selfishness, greed? Think about any legal case. The goal, the motivation, is to win and very often to win big! You don't go to court expecting to lose. And yet Paul says, from God's perspective, the very act of going to court with another Christian means you've already lost. Your action has betrayed your selfish motivation.
"Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?"
Great questions. If we're honest though, I'm sure we can come up with a thousand reasons 'why not', can't we? But each one of those thousand reasons are attempts to justify our fallen motives…
- 'But it's not fair, I'm out of pocket'
- 'But you don't know what he did to me'
- 'But she's not said sorry yet'
Friends, if we are to live faithfully as the church family we were meant to be – the best place to start is in our interactions with each other and to commit to non-retaliation. Yes, that's tough. Like the Corinthian believers looking at their Greek culture, when we look at our 21st century western culture we see a world standing up for their rights, fighting for their reputations, consumed by their consumerism, hitting out left, right and centre and returning blow for blow. But do you know what JPC? That culture is in our church and in our hearts. It is!
But it isn't Jesus' teaching. It isn't the way of the cross. Jesus forgot his rights. He came from everlasting glory and humbled himself to become a man on this planet. Out of his great love for the world he committed to a path of non-retaliation and allowed himself to be viciously sacrificed on a wooden cross. No greater wrong has ever been done or will ever be done to a human being. But Jesus focused selflessly on his responsibilities, not his rights. To be his church family, the family we're meant to be, we need to do the same. Let's commit to non-retaliation.
So, four things Jesmond Parish Church need to take seriously if we're going to be the family God wants and needs us to be. Let's not wash our dirty linen in public; let's remember our future; let's not waste our God-given resources and let's commit to non-retaliation. Paul's not done though, and he finishes this section with a warning and an assurance.
2. Be Warned: The Unrighteous Will Not Inherit the Kingdom of God (v.8-10)
First, the warning: "the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God". Having just rebuked Believer 2, Paul turns his attention to Believer 1 – the one who did the wrong in the first place and says in verse 8:
"But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!"
In other words, you're not only the innocent receivers of wrong – you are the guilty committers of it too! And here's the warning, not just for Believer 1 or Believer 2 – but for the whole community. Verse 9:
"Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?"
Who are the unrighteous? Well Paul gives some examples. This isn't an exhaustive list, it's probably the most comprehensive list of what he's heard about the Corinthian church, but it isn't exhaustive. Verses 9-10:
"…Do not be deceived: [either by others or by yourselves] neither the sexually immoral [i.e. those who partake in any sexual activity outside of marriage], nor idolaters [those who idolise people or things above God], nor adulterers [those who have any kind of sex outside of marriage], nor men who practise homosexuality [NB: those who practice homosexuality, not those who may be same sex attracted], nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, [i.e. people full of hate, abuse and malice] nor swindlers [none of these, Paul says] will inherit the kingdom of God."
I wonder how often we read something like that and all too quickly conclude that this is a list of vices belonging to a depraved minority out there and therefore doesn't apply to us. But do you remember what I was saying about culture earlier on? We have to be humble enough to realise that our culture affects us in here and if we re-read this list thinking about our culture – we'll realise that our culture does not portray these things as vices but virtues. At best our culture accepts them – at worst it positively champions them. And the reality is that our culture's way of thinking seeps into the church and our hearts.
Paul's warning is stark and it is clear and here it is directed at the church: such behaviour cannot be tolerated in a Christian community. If we persist with such behaviours, having heard and ignored the warnings… if we fail to repent, then there is a very real danger, Paul says, that we will not inherit the Kingdom. We cannot ignore the warning that is here folks. But it's not the last word! Here comes verse 11, and it is one of the most reassuring verses in all of Scripture:
"And such were some of you."
3. Be Assured: You've Changed! (v.11)
Verse 11 again:
"And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God."
Here, in a nutshell, is the staggering assurance of the effect of conversion. You were like that, but now you're not. When Jesus got hold of your life, when the Spirit took up resident in your heart you were washed, sanctified and justified. God the Father looks on us and he doesn't see the sexually immoral, he doesn't see our greed, our drunkenness. For all those who have come to him in repentance and faith he sees washed and clean people made right with him through Jesus. That's who God sees. He's changed you on the inside, so now let what goes on externally reflect that inner change. Here is the motivation to become part of the church family you were meant to be!
So what is God saying to you this morning? Are you more in need of that warning or the assurance? Please if there are things in your life that need addressing with God – don't delay – do business with him today. Don't let the way of this culture deceive you. And if you have come to him and asked for his forgiveness – even though you keep messing up – and you keep coming back, don't forget this assurance. You've changed!