1 Corinthians Introduction
Reid A Ferguson
1 Corinthians 1:1–17
Audio for this sermon can be found here
We’re embarking today on a study of a letter penned by the Apostle Paul to the Church which was located in the cosmopolitan city of Corinth in Greece.
It was a city of about 500K inhabitants. And in Paul’s day it was the 3rd largest city in the Roman Empire.
It was a wealthy city renown for 3 things above all: Banking, Trade and Immorality. Boasting 2 major east-west sea ports it truly was a major crossroads of the empire.
And it was both a challenging and a strategic place for Christianity to be planted and thrive.
One writer noted the culture or climate of Corinth this way –
‘The people of Corinth…[were] familiar with every device and invention of an over-stimulated civilization, essentially a worldly and material set of persons, seeking money and pleasure and success.’ W.M. Ramsey
I think we’d be hard pressed to find a place with more in common with the United States today in terms of its cultural trends and atmosphere.
Politics was HUGE. And politics was built almost entirely around personalities rather than principles.
Whether or not they liked someone was more important than what they actually stood for. As long as they could win the crowd by their communication skills and their bigger than life personae – they had power.
Mere fame or recognition gave you clout.
Much like we see today where famous people – often famous only for BEING famous, or notorious (the Kardashians come to mind) – end up giving Congressional testimony on any range of topics. And their Tweets and other social medial platforms give them a voice on virtually every given topic – where it is given weight as though they are somehow super-experts.
There was a social elite which – as long as you were in that club – your voice mattered. And the rest of society – not so much.
There was a near obsession with self-promotion. If you didn’t brag on yourself, something was wrong.
And everyone was clamoring for their “rights,” clogging the courts with lawsuits. People using the courts to oppress each other – supposedly to get “their rights.” The cult of personality was everything.
Such was the state of things in Corinth. A condition, again, so much like today. And as that atmosphere prevailed in society, so it bled over into the Church. Something we wrestle with even today in the Church.
Take just the issue of Church celebrities, it’s rife among us today. With the result that people who are not very Biblically literate let alone Biblically faithful, write books, make videos, have TV and Radio shows and garner huge followings. Speaking to spiritual matters and things of great theological and eternal importance, as though they are experts to be heeded apart from any true fidelity to the Scriptures.
Now don’t get me wrong, that’s not an indictment on large ministries simply because they are large. Or popular preachers and teachers simply because they are popular. Many a sound and faithful preacher has a large or popular ministry.
But it IS an indictment against the present-day tendency among Christians as consumers whereby we make celebrities out of some of these people, whether they are sound or not.
This makes this particular NT letter powerfully appropriate for our generation and our cultural setting.
Now this is titled 1 Corinthians in our Bibles, but in the letter itself, Paul alludes to a previous letter (5:9). Then there was this letter, then a “severe” letter mentioned in 2 Cor. 2:4, and then what we have as 2 Corinthians. 4 letters in all.
Let me give you a somewhat simple outline of the letter. We’ll be breaking it up in more detail as we go, but broadly:
- 1:1-3 Greeting
- 1:4-9 Opening/Thanksgiving
- 1:10-6:20 The Problem of Disunity in the Church and the problems it brings.
- 7:1-11:1 Questions they had written to Paul about (Singleness, Marriage, Divorce & Remarriage; Eating food offered to idols; Rights; Idolatry)
- 11:2-14:40 Practices in the Church (Head coverings; Lord’s Supper; Spiritual gifts)
- 15:1-58 The Resurrection
- VII. 16:1-4 Collection for the Saints
- VIII. 16:5-24 Closing Comments (Travel plans; exhortation; Apollos; Paul’s situation; greetings from the other Churches)
But to simplify it even more – we might look at the letter’s major theme – for everything he says to the Church there is tied back to it:
THEME: Christian Unity
The theme or backbone of the letter jumps out at you when you read it.
- What constitutes true unity in the Church.
- What challenges true unity in the Church.
- What corrects true unity in the Church.
Why is Christian unity so important? Because this is part of God’s overall plan for redeemed humanity: Ephesians 2:19–22 ESV / So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
This corporate concept runs through all of Paul’s letters and ministry – as well as all of Scripture.
While the Gospel is preached and heard and responded to individually, we are not redeemed to be a disassociated mob of saved individuals. We’re saved to be part of a unified whole as the Church – even as the Trinity is a unified whole – 3-persons in one God. We are many persons joined together to be one Body and reflection of Christ Jesus.
But where there is pride, competitiveness, self-promotion, and emphasis upon personalities, rights and personal spiritual gifts – this grand corporate reality can get tragically lost in the shuffle. As a result, the Church fails to become what she – what WE – are meant to be.
Christians have to survive, and hopefully thrive – in whatever culture or environment they find themselves.
So it is Christians in China right now find themselves somewhat on the run from Government persecution – often forced to meet in underground groups.
Christians in Muslim nations – depending on various strains of Islam must remain quite under the radar altogether – as must those in North Korea where mere possession of a Bible is a capital offence.
Christians in most South American nations right now are enjoying an unprecedented time of growth and public presence that we can only hope will increase to the furtherance of the Gospel everywhere.
Christians in France and other parts of Europe are tolerated, but considered intellectually inferior, relics of a distasteful past. Societal pests. And all lumped together with virtually every other religious group – no matter how faithful to Biblical truth or how deviant from it.
And then there is Christianity in the United States – which due to the size of our nation manifests itself very differently by regions, and has diversified itself – splintered into an almost uncountable number of self-identifying clusters – large and small.
And so as our text this morning begins – Paul hits the first of the 3 things he brings before their minds in these opening verses: 1 Corinthians 1:1–3 ESV / 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.
And it is vs. 2 where he puts down his foundation so to speak:
- The CALL of Christ: 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 1 Co 1:2.
One of the dangers to which we are susceptible in coming to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ – is to see our salvation wholly in terms of our own personal justification or standing before God, without any concept that we were saved FOR something, not just to BE saved.
And here Paul teases that out in 3 phrases found here and in vs. 9 – the first being:
Called to be saints
The average, everyday Joe and Jane Christian is no less “called” than the apostle himself is to his apostleship.
He is no more called than all of them – us. And we, no less called than Paul. But called to what? To be SAINTS! Holy Ones, if we were to translate it more literally. For that is what the word for saints here implies.
Each and every one of us who hears and responds believingly to the Gospel of Jesus Christ have been called to this vocation – to this office and condition of – sainthood. Now that is something for us to consider.
Truly, we need to look at our lives and ask: Am I living in accord with this high, holy, divine call upon my life? Am I pursuing the sainthood to which I’ve been called?
Now sadly, various religious traditions have made sainthood something rather mystical, ethereal and reserved for some special kind of Christian. An elite squad above the rest of us rabble. But that’s not the Bible’s conception. Not at all.
As Paul tells us here – we come to the status of sainthood right from the get-go. That is the very meaning of the words “sanctified in Christ Jesus.”
Everyone who believes has been sanctified or set apart from the whole of fallen humanity as God’s own possession and for God’s own purposes. And that is what makes us “saints.” But I wonder how many of us take this calling seriously. How many of us imagine such a calling rests upon us, and what it implies for how we live, the decisions we make, the way we speak, conduct ourselves with others, and seek God in private as well as together?
To this gifted but troubled Church at Corinth, Paul snaps their heads around as it were and thrusts upon them the need to recover this high and wondrous calling that has been granted to us.
But note secondly what else is inherent in this call to be saints: They, and we are –
Called to be common
Look at the language again in vs. 2 – 1 Corinthians 1:2 ESV / 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:
We are not called to be saints alone, but saints TOGETHER with ALL those who in every place call upon the name of the Lord.
This is will become more important we move on through the letter as it seems many in the Corinthian Church began to think themselves the arbiters of Christian truth and so a little better, more spiritual and knowledgeable than other churches. In fact, they apparently had an inner ring of folk within the Church itself who saw themselves as spiritually superior to others in the same Church.
So once again, from the get-go Paul is going to challenge any notions of elitism or spiritual superiority by reminding them that their call, is the same call as everyone else in Christ. And that our sainthood is to be pursued together – not separating ourselves from those we need, and those who need us – which is all of the Body of Christ.
Called with all the rest so that striving to be “special” – or to think of oneself as special, ceases to be a motivation.
So we are called to be saints, and called together with everyone else who believes – not as lone rangers, and: 1 Corinthians 1:9 ESV / God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Called to the fellowship of Christ
Note that Paul’s idea here isn’t just called to have fellowship with Christ – that is true. But the ESV brings out a nuance here when it says we are called into THE fellowship of His Son.
The idea here is that there are no spiritual elites among us, because our call to be in Christ, means we all share in the very same life of Christ. No one more, and no one less. If we are genuine Believers, we have equal claim on being His and all the gifts and benefits which are His – through whomever and however they are bestowed upon the Church. This again will be vitally important when the whole issue of spiritual gifts gets covered in later chapters. But from the outset, Paul establishes for them and for us this starting point:
The Call of Christ
Called to be saints
Called to be common
Called to the fellowship of His Son – to our shared participation in Him.
2. The Centrality of Christ
You can’t help but notice how often “Christ Jesus” or Christ or the Lord Jesus Christ is referred to in this short opening passage: No less than 9 times in the first 9 verses.
1 Corinthians 1:1–9 ESV / 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. 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.
As the 4th Century Church Father John Chrysostom noted: “[Do you see] the constant repetition of the Name of Christ? From whence it is plain even to the most unobservant, that not by chance nor unwittingly he doe[s] this, but in order that by incessant application of that glorious Name he may [treat] their inflammation, and purge out the corruption of the disease.”
Any time Christ Himself ceases to be central, either in the individual Believer’s life, or in the life of a Church – the very focus and foundation of salvation and the Church is lost.
His Person. His Work. His Purposes. His Plans. His Provisions. His Glory. And this, rather than my plans, my purposes, my gifts, my ministry – or the Church’s plans, gifts, or ministry. Christ Jesus and His person and work must always remain at the heart and forefront of all we are about.
How can we best make Him and His glory known? And that, in all that we say and do?
To throw a spotlight upon Jesus is the very focus of the Holy Spirit Himself – and must therefore be the chief thing He produces in us.
Which brings us to the last of Paul’s opening points:
3. The Curse of Competition
Paul commends them in 4-7 1 Corinthians 1:4–7 ESV / 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,
They were enriched in all speech and all knowledge. They were masters of the social media of their day – since such masters of communication were so highly prized in their culture. And they were knowledgeable.
But as is so often the case, it is our strong points which can also become our most vulnerable points. And it was so with the Corinthian Church. Speaking and knowledge were 2 things the Christians in Corinth seemed to value along with their culture built around celebrity and self-promotion. And soon, they came to OVER value both.
So that the guy or gal who knew the most…And the guy or gal who could talk the best was superior to others – Developed a following.
In this atmosphere – Giftedness trumps godliness. Popularity trumps piety. Reputation trumps righteousness. Fame trumps faithfulness. Self-promotion trumps servanthood.
The question wasn’t – how does God think He can use me best? And let me then just place myself at His disposal – But rather, how can I get the Church to recognize and use me the way I think best? The spirit of competition always takes Christ Jesus out of His central place in our lives, and puts the spotlight upon us: My Gifts. My Ministry. My Concerns. My Life.
Sky has related a story to me many times about a guy who had ministerial aspirations who was asked to help set up for a meeting but replied: “I’m a mover of men, not of chairs.”
Highest on the totem pole in Corinth were the theological eggheads with what my grandfather used to call “the gift of the blarney.” The capacity to talk whether they made any sense or not.
Now some of us here may not think we’ve imbibed any this from our culture, but I’ve got to tell you, it isn’t all that hard to detect once we’re alerted to it.
Competition makes itself known in a number of ways:
Celebrating our uniqueness compared to others. Secretly or publicly.
Comforting ourselves about our sins in comparison to others. – At least I’m not as bad as…
Condemning ourselves in comparison to others.
Justifying ourselves in comparison to others.
Turning every conversation into a discussion of my opinions, my concerns, my successes, my insights or even my failures – as long as I factor in there somewhere.
Looking down on others or a preoccupation with their sins, faults or weaknesses above my own.
So, we are confronted with a passage of Scripture and immediately say: “How does that apply to so-and-so?” Rather than – what does this call me to?
But grace militates against all comparison.
So Paul begins to tackle this head on – even as he will throughout the rest of the letter. And he strikes at the first way it was manifesting itself among them – even as it had come to him by way of a report from those of “Chloe’s people”. Probably slaves or business associates of hers who had traveled from Cenchrea – one of Corinth’s ports where Chloe lived and worshiped, to Ephesus where Paul was.
1 Corinthians 1:10–12 ESV / I appeal to you, brothers, 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 judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling 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.”
Volumes have been written on unpacking the real depths of what was going on here but the basic problem is evident: Pandemic among them “each one of you” – was that groups were vying for status and superiority above others – by appealing to particular ministries – perhaps those under which they were converted.
Now there is nothing wrong with having an affinity for this minister or that in the body of Christ. Paul will refer to that form of affection himself. The problem comes when one imagines that they have some sort of spiritual advantage or standing over against others because of identification with some particular personage.
In this case, Paul who first evangelized Corinth; or Apollos who was such a celebrated orator and fit the celebrity mold better.
Or Peter who as the apostle to the Jews could be held up as the champion of a more Judaistic form of Christianity – you know, being “real” Christians by recovering their Jewish roots.
Or even “I follow Jesus” as though to marginalize the Apostles, Prophets Pastors and Teachers Jesus Himself set in the Church. “I don’t need anyone to teach me – I have Jesus!” A perversion of Jesus’ own structuring of the Church.
But Paul objects to any form of this spiritual one-upmanship on any basis.
1 Corinthians 1:13–16 ESV / Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 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.)
Is Christ divided so that some you have a lot of Him and others just a little bit? No! It doesn’t matter if I (or anyone else) baptized you – it matters whose name you were baptized unto: Christ.
It doesn’t matter if the Gospel was presented with great flourish and convincing arguments – it matters what the Gospel was: The message of Christ crucified.
And it doesn’t matter who it was that preached that Gospel to you – someone of note, or a backwards no-name: It is the Gospel itself that has the power to save. The status of the one who preached can add nothing to it, nor subtract anything from it.
And even today we can see it in the Church can’t we? I follow MacArthur. I follow Washer. I follow Piper. I follow Tim Keller or Francis Chan or Don Carson or Jeff Durbin or whomever!
And it can spill over into I’m a Baptist, I’m an Independent, I’m Reformed, Wesleyan, Presbyterian, Charismatic, Pentecostal, Calvinistic, Fundamentalist, etc., etc., ad infinitum ad nauseum.
No one has ever said I follow Ferguson – except maybe Sinclair Ferguson – but you get the drift.
This form of identification with individuals, styles, etc., had created a terrible and sinful division within the Church.
And so Paul closes this opening portion by spinning everything back around: 1 Corinthians 1:17 ESV / 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.
I wasn’t sent to baptize folks so that they would identify with me. And I didn’t come with a slick way of preaching to try and fit the celebrity mold. I came to do one thing: Preach the cross of Jesus Christ. That He died for our sins, taking the just wrath of God upon Himself so that all who put their trust in His atoning work and follow Him, might have everlasting life. I came to unite you to Christ and Christ alone. Anything else, empties the cross of its power, and makes it into something else altogether.
The Gospel isn’t about wealth. It isn’t about status. It isn’t about getting a ministry or getting to exercise my gifts. It isn’t about a better marriage, nicer kids, success in business, a better job or even well-being. The Gospel is about reconciling lost sinners to the Living God. No matter who preaches it, how well or how accepted they are by any society, group or culture. Lost men and women, standing under the curse of God because of our sin and our desire to serve ourselves above God, need to be convicted of our sin and rebellion, and shown the substitutionary death of Jesus on Calvary as God’s provision for that sin to be obtained by faith alone. And then set on the course of pursuing their call to sainthood, along with everyone else who calls upon the name of the Lord all of whom have just as equal a share in Christ as every other Believer – in a Church where there are no spiritual elites: Only sinners saved by grace.
There is no sin when Believers find certain commonalities with other Believers and decide to gather around certain doctrinal distinctives or emphases. There is plenty of room for that in the Body of Christ.
But there is no room for ever allowing those distinctives to make us feel in any way superior to any other genuine Believer in any way – even if we have the best preachers, and are privy to greater or deeper knowledge.
For all of our spiritual standing is before God, and that by grace alone because of Christ alone. Differing roles? Yes. Differing abilities? Yes. Differing gifts? Yes. Differing spheres of ministry? Yes. Differing emphases? Yes. Spiritually superiority? NO! Not in any way ever.
All saved by the same grace, with the same call to be saints, by the same Gospel, indwelt by the same Spirit, to serve Christ and one another in the same Church of Jesus Christ.
The CALL of Christ
The CENTRALITY of Christ
The CURSE of COMPETITION
In the words of Jesus to each of the 7 Churches He addressed in the Revelation: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the Churches.”