February 2nd, 2014
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Ancient Corinth was already a major Greek city 730 years before Christ.
It was around that time that the boat builders of Corinth developed the trireme, or three-rower, a warship with three banks of galleys – that is three banks of oars, each oar being manned by only one man. This became the dominant warship for 400 years and a fleet of 200 made Athens the most powerful of the Greek city-states for many years.
In classical times, Corinth rivaled Athens and Thebes in wealth, based on the Isthmian traffic and trade.
700 km around the Peninsula by ship vs. 6 ½ km over land.
Corinth hosted the Isthmian games.
It developed Corinthian columns and the third and most ornate order of classical architecture.
It was allied to Sparta in the south and played a major factor in the wars against the Persians.
Its soldiers wore the Corinthian helmet, a design that was adapted for Roman soldiers hundreds of years later.
Corinth fought on the side of Sparta to defeat Athens in the Peloponnesian war.
In the Corinthian war, Corinth switched sides and fought on the side of Athens against Sparta, and lost.
At the time of Paul it was a cosmopolitan city which had been rebuilt by the Romans in 44 BC, 100 years after it had been destroyed.
The foundations of the larger buildings at the city center remain to this day. Corinth truly was a beautiful city in Paul’s day.
Paul reached Corinth during his second missionary journey, about 50 or 51 AD. He was the one who founded the Christian community with the help of Aquila and Priscilla, who had recently moved there from Rome. The church consisted predominantly of non-Jews. After Paul left the congregation, he kept in touch through ongoing correspondence, but unfortunately of which only two letters survived.
When Paul wrote this particular letter, he was in Ephesus, about 3 or 4 years after he had been in Corinth. Paul wrote 1. Corinthians in response to a letter that had been delivered to him by a delegation from the household of Cloe. The letter reported about a number of problems and questions that had developed within just a few short years in this young Church.
One of the most troubling news was that factions had developed, which were threatening to tear apart the church. Also, Paul learned about a case of incest, other sexual misconduct, and ongoing lawsuits between Christians. He was told about the abuses and disorder during church services, including the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and the use of the gift of tongues. He was told of theological errors, for example the false teaching about the resurrection.
He was also asked about, and responded at length about marriage, divorce and singleness, and the eating of meat sacrificed to idols.
Given all of the things that were happening in the lives of these Christians in Corinth, the beginning of Paul’s letter to them seems somewhat surprising. Let me read you the first 9 verses from 1 Cor. 1
1:1 Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 2 to the church of God which is in Corinth – to those who were made holy in Christ Jesus, called to be holy ones with all who call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord in every place, theirs and ours. 3 Grace be with you and peace from God, our father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I thank God at all times for you because of the grace of God that was given to you in Christ Jesus, 5 that in everything you have become rich in him - in all speech and all insight. 6 Because the witness concerning Christ was confirmed among you, 7 no gift of grace is missing while you are waiting for the revealing of Jesus Christ our Lord. 8 He will also strengthen you until the end, so that you will stand blameless on the day of Jesus, our Lord. 9 God is faithful, by whom you were called into fellowship with his son Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Jewish letters in Paul’s day would begin with the author, then the audience, followed by a “wish.”
• Baruch to the brothers carried into captivity: Mercy and peace to you.
• The Jewish brothers in Jerusalem and Judea to their brothers in Egypt: Greeting and good peace to you.
Sometimes that is followed by a short thanks to God for some blessing received.
Paul expands the traditions of his day creatively and adds “grace and peace” as his wish for those he is addressing. The thanksgiving section is not only expanded but applied to his readers rather than to himself.
Paul first establishes his credentials, probably because some in the church had challenged his leadership. Paul calls himself an apostle of Jesus Christ. Apostle literally means, “one sent out.” It is a term that was used of someone who was to convey a message on behalf of the one who had sent him. So an apostle was a messenger or envoy or delegate from the one who commissioned him.
Paul understood himself to bring the message that he had personally received from Jesus, likely on the road to Damascus. As such, he was not secondary to those apostles who had been with Jesus during his lifetime and who had received his teaching and the great commission.
And he wasn’t a self-appointed apostle who was throwing around his weight. He had been called by God specifically to this task.
He describes the believers in Corinth in three ways: holiness in the past, in the present and in the future.
I guess I would need to start with a definition of holy. The expression in Hebrew, kadosch, and Greek, hagios, means
“separated from common condition or use”
“set apart or dedicated or for a special purpose”
“consecrated to God”
In English, this is conveyed more so by the word “sacred” than by the word “holy,” which implies moral perfection. That is not to say that there isn’t a moral component to the term. When used of God, it not only means the one who is wholly other but also the one who is morally perfect. When used of humans, holiness indicates both the condition of being set apart for God as well as moral integrity.
However, when we speak of human holiness, if we believe that this means moral perfection this side of eternity we are misapplying the term.
If we expect moral perfection in ourselves, it will make us miserable. Perhaps you’ve met some believers who really aren’t happy. If anything, they carry their faith like a burden. They weed even wholesome fun from their lives in the attempt to be sinless. They always feel bad about themselves, they are constantly burdened with guilt. If they are perfectionists, they may even fall into self-loathing.
Or they could potentially get so discouraged that they throw in the towel, stop trying to be better, resign themselves to living in constant compromise to what they know is right, maybe even turning their backs on God.
1. They Were Already Made Holy
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed. The new has come. 2 Corinthians 5:17
So what did Paul mean when he wrote that the believer at Corinth were set apart or sanctified, made sacred, made holy in the past?
I think that the reference here is to the point in time when they first believed. It was the point when they heard the message about Jesus Christ, believed it, and received the Holy Spirit.
At that point, they were forgiven of their sins and so stand apart in the sense that they were accepted by God as if they were sinless. But they were also called, as Paul writes in v.9, into fellowship with Jesus, into a mutual relationship that would last eternally.
As a result, their focus or priory in life changed. Maybe you remember the time when you made a conscious decision that you believed in the message that Jesus died as the payment of the penalty of your sin to free you from guilt and gave you into a relationship with God. This is often accompanied by some personal reformation … some people stop drinking or swearing or cheating.
Maybe you can remember experiencing this reformation, possibly accompanied by a new sense of peace, a renewed purpose in life, an inner joy at what has just taken place.
The good news is that this can be the reality for everyone if they so choose.
2. They Currently Are Called To Be Holy Ones (Saints)
Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonourable, he will be a vessel for honourable use, made holy (sanctified), useful to the Lord, prepared for every good work. 2 Timothy 2:21
What did Paul mean when he wrote that the believers at Corinth were presently holy ones, saints, those set apart? The very term saint conjures up martyrs of long ago, people of exceptional faith and piety even in the face of persecution and suffering, who were appointed saints by the church after their death.
If you grew up Catholic, like I did, you may remember the statues in the churches of the various saints … on altars or by themselves … as those who could be asked to be an advocate for your prayers and petitions.
You could pray to St. Christopher for safe travels, St. Anthony or St. Jude for lost things,
St. Francis for animals,
or St. Valentine for love … which is why Valentines’ day is named as it is.
But Paul held that every single believer is a saint, even, as in the case of the Corinthians, they were messing up. Having said this, I should add a caveat. Paul did warn his readers further on in the letter, that if their profession of faith is not followed by some personal reformation, they could not be sure that they really are genuine followers of Christ Jesus.
So how is every genuine believer a holy one, someone currently set apart for something special? I believe, that this refers to the ongoing presence of God’s Holy Spirit within believers, which inevitably will lead to a desire to follow God today, and finds its reflection in the way believers orient the direction of their lives and in the way daily life is lived. If the overarching focus of our lives is simply to cater to ourselves, our desires, wishes and wants, on that which is common in this world, then we should not call ourselves holy ones, because really, we are not set apart for God.
Paul did not consider every person who attended the church at Corinth to be a genuine believer. For example, when he was told that professing believers in the church at Corinth took one another to court, Paul considered it inappropriate for two reasons. One, he believed that the church leadership should play judge and jury, - and he simply assumed that everyone would actually go along whatever decision is made.
Second, Paul believed that this action exposes the kind of greed that is indicative that their lives are not oriented on God, but solely on their own purposes. In another letter, Paul challenges them to test themselves to see whether their lives attest to the indwelling Spirit (cf. 2 Cor 13:5).
So what does a life oriented on God look like? I do not think that there is a cookie cutter model. Rather it is the result of someone sincerely asking themselves how their lives can be patterned after God’s will. It may not even be a prayer or a question that is verbalized. It could simply be the natural outworking of an internal desire to live for God, whatever that looks like.
The answer may be a God-centered life in a secular job, a God-centered life in our neighbourhood and community, a God-centered life in our homes, possibly a God-centered life in full-time ministry.
Paul gives thanks that the believers at Corinth had received what he calls God’s grace and the gifts of grace that were to help them to be saints.
Those of you who were here last week likely remember Bernard giving us the definition of grace – receiving what we do not deserve.
The grace of God found in Christ Jesus is not only the gift of salvation or eternal life, but also, what Paul calls the gifts of grace. This is another way of referring to the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
He notices that all of the spiritual gifts were present among them, and that they have become rich in Jesus as they were given all speech and insight or knowledge.
Being a saint, a holy one, includes the use of those spiritual gifts, those gifts of grace, in the task of building others up, encouraging them, and serving them. A saint uses his God-given gifts in service to others. I believe that means that Christians ought at all times ask themselves where they can make a positive difference, where they can help, where they can volunteer, be it in the church or somewhere else, to make this earth a better place.
3. They Will Be Blameless (Holy) When Jesus Returns
And this I pray, that your love may abound more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless until (or: for) the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
Keep in mind, that Paul thought that Jesus would return sooner rather than later. That’s not to say that he was not aware that Christians had and would continue to die before Jesus returned. Paul specifically addresses that issue in chapter 15.
What Paul was saying then, is that whatever the believers at Corinth might face over the next years or decades, good and bad, God, who is faithful, would guard and protect them. Paul thought that a genuine Christian would just become spiritually more knowledgeable over time so that they would be able to discern and follow God’s will even better, an in the process become more Christ-like.
Again, this is not in reference to moral perfection, even though a real moral component is part of being blameless.
You might wonder what happened to this dysfunctional church down the road. Well, Clement, who was with Paul in Philippi and eventually became one of the leaders in the church in Rome, wrote a letter to the church in Corinth at a point of great persecution, possibly during the reign of the emperor Nero, about 20 years after Paul penned his letter.
Clement writes that the Christians at Corinth had in fact responded well to Paul’s letters. They ended up leading virtuous lives for a long time. Clement praises them for their solidarity, moderation, humility, godliness, generosity and willingness to forgive. He writes, “every kind of faction and schism was abominable in your sight” (chapters 1-2).
However, Clement writes, renewed envy, strife, conflict, and disorder has raised its head as those in the Church acted in ways unbecoming of their faith (chapter 3). Factions and schisms, worse than those described in 1 Corinthians by Paul, are causing people to fall away from the faith (chapter 46). The dismissal of leaders in the church without just cause (chapter 44) and open rebellion against the church leadership (chapter 47) is causing Jesus’ name to be blasphemed.
Clement calls the Corinthian believers back to humility (chapter 13), hospitality (chapter 12), peace (chapter 15, 19), mutual submission (chapter 38), and respect for deacons and elders (chapter 40-44, 57).
Interestingly, Clement also addresses teaching that denied Jesus’ return (chapter 23) and the resurrection (chapter 24).
Perhaps that is a reminder to us that we should never take for granted the grace of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, the commandment of love that gives unity in home and church.
If you’re a follower of Christ, what has God said to you? Maybe think and pray about the fact that you are a saint, a holy one, someone set apart for God, someone who is blessed with gifts of grace to use in service to others. Let us pray.