BOASTING OR BELIEVING?
By Steve Zeisler
The Corinthian letters of the apostle Paul form the best testimony for how
the church should function in any age. Paul ministered at length to the
church in Corinth, and wrote to them often (at least four letters we know
of, though only two have survived). He invested much of himself to ensure
that the church there should function the way God wanted it to function.
One reason for his labor was that the Corinthians resisted his message in
great part. They just did not want to be "made right" according
to the process taught by Paul but according to their own pace.
That very process, which is preserved in the New Testament letters, is critical
to our faith today. As we study this letter we should ask questions about
the nature of the church. What does it mean to us to be God's people? It
is important to ask questions like this in any day, but it is especially
critical to do so in this twentieth century. During the recent visit of
the Pope I found it very interesting to listen to the comments of the secular
media regarding the impact of his visit on the United States. The vast majority
of the commentators regarded the Catholic Church as an essentially human
organism. We were told the number of Catholics in the world; that American
Catholics were in favor of changing some of the doctrines of the church;
that various groups of pickets were following him, etc.; we heard the commentators
poll people on whether the Pope should modernize the church. One could not
be blamed for assuming that the Catholic Church was a very large human organization
that was in the process of deciding whether or not to make changes.
It is clear that the world does not understand that the church of Jesus
Christ is not a merely human organization. People are unaware that it is
made up of men and women, boys and girls in whom the Spirit of God resides.
The world does not know that the church, according to Scripture, is the
body of Christ himself. In Jesus of Nazareth, God humbled himself and took
on human form. In that person, God reached out to a rebellious humanity.
And he now incarnates himself on this earth through thousands of members
of that one body which is his church. The church therefore is a far cry
from any other human organizations that may or may not change, depending
on circumstances and time. It is the primary instrument which God will use
to bring hope, encouragement and conviction to our world.
On every side we see people looking for answers: tuning in to religious
television extravaganzas, to events like the Harmonic Convergence, to following
the Pope of the Catholic Church, in an effort to become acquainted with
the God of the universe. Is there any better reason that the church be seen
to be all that it should be? Let us hope that as we work through this first
Corinthian letter of Paul we will discover afresh how God intends that we
as members of the church should function in our day and age.
Even a cursory reading of the Bible reveals that God is committed to incarnation.
Hebrews declares that "God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers
in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has
spoken to us in His Son..." The truth became incarnate, in other words.
The apostle John makes reference to the Logos of God, the Word of God who
was God and who was with God who, remarkably, became human and lived among
us. Thus, God's primary means of reaching mankind with truth was to place
himself into human flesh.
The commitment to incarnation remains. Christians are vessels of clay who
contain a magnificent treasure, the Lord Jesus himself. As such we are the
hope of the world. Faithfulness to our calling in Christ therefore is a
life-and-death issue for those people who are seeking life and reality on
this earth. The way they will find life is by observing Christians whose
lives testify to the reality of God's love and power. How important it is,
especially in our day when faithless Christianity and hollow and empty boasting
seem to occupy the headlines daily, that the people of God live up to their
calling. Let us seek to learn from the apostle Paul's first Corinthian letter
how he would have us live.
There are at least two reasons why this letter will help us live as we ought.
The first is that the Corinthian Christians lived in an environment that
in many ways mirrors our own. I have heard Ray Stedman refer to these letters
to the Corinthians as "Paul's letters to the Californians"! There
are indeed many similarities between our modern urban settings and the Corinth
of the first century. And, second, we could also draw similarities between
the Corinthian church and our own church.
Unlike Athens, which had a history of hundreds of years behind it, Corinth
did not have a long tradition to build on. The city, which was populated
by Roman soldiers and by peoples from all over the Mediterranean, was a
fiercely competitive place. Having been razed to the ground, Corinth was
rebuilt by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C. None of the many cultures which were
prominent in the city had been able to impose itself to the exclusion of
the others. The result was that the various groupings within the city were
in a constant state of competition with each other. Corinth, we would say
today, was a high-energy city, a place where people felt that self-expression
was their birthright.
Leon Morris says this of Corinth,
The city to which Paul came preaching the gospel was, therefore,
a very cosmopolitan place. It was an important city. It was intellectually
alert. It was materially prosperous. It was morally corrupt. There was a
pronounced tendency for its inhabitants to indulge their desires of whatever
Another commentator writes,
The ideal of the Corinthian was the reckless development of
the individual: The merchant who made his gain by all and every means; the
man of pleasure surrendering himself to every lust; the athlete, steeled
to every bodily exercise, and proud in his physical strength, are the true
Corinthian types. In a word: the man who recognized no superior and no law
but his own desire.
This, then, was Corinth; a hot-blooded, competitive, self-willed place.
Yet we know from the Book of Acts that God had "many people in that
city." Despite all the negative and fleshly things that Corinth was
noted for, God had indeed many people there. However, the carnal environment
ensured that the early years of the Corinthian were turbulent ones. Corinthians
were unaccustomed to having anybody--especially their Lord and Creator--
telling them how they should behave. Thus they tended to express their Christianity
in a fleshly manner. Reflecting their environment, they were haughty, divided
and competitive. They were an embarrassment, in fact, to the gospel.
Much of the activity which went on in the Corinthian church would find a
parallel in some Christian circles today. There were sex scandals, lawsuits
among Christians, drunkenness, and debates about singleness, divorce and
remarriage. People who ought to have known better acted scandalously. They
needed correction at almost every level. That is what the apostle Paul undertook
to do in this letter in an effort to teach a young and immature body of
believers how to live Christianly and thus affect their world for Christ.
Let us see how we also, a church located in a modern urban center, might
find correction in our Christian walk and thus live as we ought to live.
The opening verse of the letter contains a wonderful nugget of truth which
I want to look at before we begin reading from the text. This verse may
assist us in getting an even better feel for the church at Corinth.
Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God,
and Sosthenes our brother,
Acts 18 gives the account of Paul's first visit to Corinth. The apostle
arrived in the city following his ministry in Athens where he had preached
to the Jews in the synagogue and debated the Greeks on Mars Hill. He was
a little apprehensive. "I came to you in fear and trembling,"
he wrote later in his second Corinthian letter. The Jews in Corinth were
as resistant and feisty as they were in many other cities where Paul taught
the gospel, so much so that they threw him out of their midst. But Paul
set up house right next door to the synagogue, teaching in the house of
Titius Justus, "a worshiper of God," according to Acts 18. Setting
up right next door to preach a different message was a typically Corinthian
action, one that was right in step with the prevailing air of competitiveness
of the city.
In an action which further embarrassed the Jews, the head of the synagogue,
Crispus, came to faith in Jesus, together with his family. The outraged
Jews dragged the apostle before Gallio, the Roman consul, and tried to have
him rule for them by banishing Paul and his Christianity from Corinth. The
new leader of the synagogue, and the man who took the case before Gallio,
was Sosthenes. To his credit, Gallio refused to have anything to do with
what he considered a religious issue between competing Jewish factions.
The frustrated Jews took out their ire on their new leader Sosthenes by
beating him up in front of the judgment seat of Gallio. The result of all
this seems to have been that Sosthenes became the second official of the
synagogue at Corinth to come to faith.
In this opening verse therefore the apostle, perhaps with tongue in cheek,
makes mention of Sosthenes, who is now traveling with the apostle. This
reference to Sosthenes sheds further light on what we might call the aggressiveness
that was characteristic of the Corinthian church.
...to the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have
been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every
place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I
thank my God always concerning you, for the grace of God which was given
you in Christ Jesus, that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all
speech and all knowledge, even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed
in you, so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation
of our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall also confirm you to the end, blameless
in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, through whom you were
called into fellowship with His Son, Christ Jesus our Lord.
Paul opens his letter with a brief but profound word on what being part
of the body of Christ means for the Corinthians. Thus, he begins by reminding
these believers of who they are and what they stand for.
Immediately following this introduction, however, Paul will go on to ask
some hard questions of his readers, questions like, "If it is true
that you are chosen of God, saints by calling, and that God's grace is manifest
in you, why aren't you acting accordingly? If all these things are true
of you, why are you living like you are?" How unsettling these questions
can be! When Admiral Poindexter was questioned before the Iran-Contra hearings,
he was asked how a United States naval officer who had taken an oath of
loyalty to his country could become involved in the diversion of funds to
the Contras in Nicaragua. Former Presidential candidate Gary Hart has been
asked how a man running for national office could take a vow before God
to be faithful to his wife and then act as he had acted. These are two of
the people who have held high positions and have acted in a manner inconsistent
with the convictions they once professed, with the result that many have
turned away from them. They have seen their public careers take a downward
spiral because their behavior was not in accordance with their professed
How traumatic for a parent to hear his child say, "I'm confused by
your behavior. You say you stand for Christian morals and yet your behavior
denies it." These are precisely the kinds of questions the apostle
will be asking of the Corinthians in this letter. They profess to follow
Jesus, but their behavior raises serious questions about their commitment.
The initial verses of 1 Corinthians tell us of spiritual realities that
ought to result in godly living. There are three things I would like to
highlight in verses 1 through 9, three concepts around which Paul's train
of thought will proceed. First, the notion of having been "called."
In verse 1 Paul describes himself as having been "called as an apostle."
Referring to the Corinthians in verse 2, he says they have been "sanctified
in Christ Jesus"; they are "saints by calling." They have
been nominated, set apart, drafted by God. They have not come into the family
of God by chance. The word for church, "ekklesia," means "called-out
ones." God initiated the action, setting us apart for himself. We are
special and different. We cannot compliment ourselves for the relationship
we have with him, nor can we drift cavalierly to other commitments. We are
who we are because God initiated the action, naming us and investing himself
in us to make us a special people.
When our family adopted a kitten recently, I got to thinking about the millions
of kittens that are born throughout the world which are abandoned or destroyed.
When we chose the kitten we wanted to take home with us, we looked at a
selection of them and, for no particular reason, chose one to the exclusion
of the others. We took it home and the children began to love it, feed it
and play with it. By the choice of another, that particular cat was given
honor and fulfillment. Something like that takes place when God names people.
He does not have to explain or justify his reasons. But for those of us
who have been called, that call is irreversible. We are the called-out ones
because God chose us and set us apart. It is because God took the initiative
that we are who we are.
The second idea I will highlight which gave the Corinthians evidence of
who they were is the word "grace." This word encompasses the idea
of resources. Paul makes frequent mention in this letter of the resources,
the wealth of power that God has made available to his people. Verse 3:
"Grace to you and peace from God..." God's grace is his rich investment
of himself in us which he pours out upon us. Peace is a reference to an
inner wholeness that ensures we will never again have to still our own hearts
before we minister. God has granted us his peace so that we have something
to give in return. Grace and peace! What extraordinary blessings God has
showered upon us: Peace which stills our hearts, and grace to enable us
to do everything he calls upon us to do.
We have further reference to God's grace in verse 4: "I thank my God
always concerning you, for the grace of God which was given you in Christ
Jesus." Verse 5: "...in everything you were enriched in Him, in
all speech and knowledge." God's supply had been poured out upon the
Corinthians and it is poured out upon us as well. Verse 7: "...you
are not lacking in any gift." This is a reference to spiritual gifts,
which are alluded to in verse 5, the gifts of speech and of knowledge. The
community at Corinth had not been denied any of the gifts, Paul is saying.
They had everything they needed.
The Corinthian Christians had been called by God, thus their identity was
secure. Furthermore, God had granted them every resource they would need
to live as believers in their difficult surroundings.
The third idea I will highlight is Paul's reference to the certainty that
the process which had been begun in the Corinthian believers would be completed.
Verse 6: "...the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you...";
verse 8: "...who shall also confirm you to the end, blameless in the
day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful..." God was at work in
their lives--there was evidence of that--and he was faithful to carry out
that work until the end. As Christians, we have a sense of utter certainty
that we know where we are going. All our questions have been answered; our
destiny is assured.
Paul knows this church at Corinth. He writes in glowing terms of their calling
and their destiny. Beginning in verse 10, however, the apostle begins asking
some hard questions of this body of believers saying, in effect, "If
these things are true, why are you living the way you are?" We also
will find these questions appropriate to ask of ourselves. If these things
that Paul has laid out are true, why are many of us living the way we are?
Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that you all agree, and there be no divisions among you, but you be made
complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed
concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe's people, that there are quarrels
among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, "I am of
Paul," and "I am of Apollos," and "I am of Cephas,"
and "I am of Christ." Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified
for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that
I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, that no man should say
you were baptized in my name. Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas;
beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did
not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech,
that the cross of Christ should not be made void.
Divisiveness among Christians is the first concern raised by the apostle.
The Corinthians had divided themselves into factions, into fan clubs which
looked down on one another. Of course the leaders who were the subjects
of these fan clubs' adulation were in no sense competing with each other.
They were in full accord one with another. But the Corinthian believers
had decided that a certain style, a certain approach to Christianity fit
them best. As a result they hung out together and over time had less and
less to do with the other fan clubs. Paul admonishes them that if they continued
living like this, Jesus himself would be dragged down by their behavior.
Some among them claimed to be "of Paul." In chapter 4, Paul says
that he was the "father" of the church in Corinth. He was the
originator of the church, in other words, having led most of their original
number to Christ. He was the one to whom they owed their life, in a sense.
The memory of the apostle's ministry among the people who made up this faction
was why they regarded themselves to be "of Paul."
Many in our own day regard Billy Graham as the premier Christian figure
in the world, some of them because they came to faith under his ministry.
They cannot imagine anyone supplanting him. Ray Stedman is the father of
this church. Many, including me, know what it means to be "in Christ"
because of his influence in our lives. Now there is nothing inappropriate
about that. What is wrong is assuming that those who do not have the same
feelings you do about someone are wrong.
A second group in Corinth were fans of Apollos. This man was an Alexandrian
Jew (a people who were noted for the brilliance of their intellect), who
had come to faith in Christ. He was "mighty in the Scriptures,"
and "fervent in spirit," according to Acts. He had a charismatic
presence about him; he was an orator who had great influence to stimulate
people to righteousness. Some in Corinth, as is the case with some in our
own day, like nothing better than sitting under the ministry of a gifted
orator who can energize and motivate people. Now there is nothing wrong
with that, but when people gather around such a person, and look down their
noses at others who don't feel the need to do so, then they are denying
the reality of Christian unity.
A third group in Corinth were members of the fan club of Peter (Cephas),
the representative of the great Jewish root of Christianity. Jewish learning
and culture, ancient scholarship and legal continuity were attractive to
a faction in Corinth. This group--and they have their counterparts today--preferred
the oldest forms of liturgy and knowledge, finding their best expression
of faith in these things.
Then there was yet another group who claimed to have no need for leaders
at all. They had Jesus, they said, thus making the claim that they were
the most independent and spiritual of all the factions.
Here the apostle is underlining the Corinthians' propensity to compete,
to divide themselves into groups to the exclusion of all others. Paul is
appealing to them to heed what their division was doing to the name of Jesus.
"Has Christ been divided?" he asks. Is Christ dissipated, diminished
in authority; saying nothing clearly? Have you ever exalted someone, perhaps
a leader, a teacher, a public figure, an author, a preacher--even someone
on our own staff--and diminished the cause of Christ by so doing? Were you
baptized, placed into, the destiny of a mere human leader, or were you baptized
Whenever we exalt the vessel, and thereby diminish the treasure inside,
we have diminished the ministry of Christ and, supremely, the cross of Christ.
That is why Paul declares in verse 17, "Christ did not send me to baptize,
but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, that the cross of
Christ should not be made void." The cross is the heart of Christianity.
We are a rebellious people, deserving of death, antagonists of God, and
yet he loves us. He died for us, and then conquered death, that we might
have life. If we occupy ourselves with running Christian meetings, building
Christian organizations and exalting Christian programs so that people and
what they do, not the gospel, are exalted, then we have robbed the cross
of its message, set off on a course that is faithless, and endangered the
world in which we live.
Is there anything about the way you live the Christian life that calls attention
to humans rather than the Lord who is at the heart of your faith? When you
hope for revival in your life, when you long to see others come to Christ,
do you give first place to the message of "Jesus Christ and Him crucified,"
or do you trust in people, technology or something else to persuade people
to come to faith? Revival comes in a community or in a church when, as Paul
declares, we refuse to be too clever for our own good, when we step back
in humility and say, "I am who I am because of what Jesus did for me.
And you may have it too." That is when revival takes place and life
Catalog No. 4059
1 Corinthians 1:1-17
September 27, 1987
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