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Doug Van Meter - 15 January 2023

The Christian Church (1 Corinthians 1:1–2:5)

As troubled (and, at times, as troublesome) as was the church in Corinth, Paul was committed to helping it to fulfil its purpose of being a truly Christian church—a Christlike church amid a graceless and godless culture. Brackenhurst Baptist Church too needs to be always reforming to be a Christian church. The triune God commands and expects us to be a Christian church—not merely a gathered people, but rather a grace-empowered, godly people that gather to grow in the Lord so we will go with and for the Lord. We consider these verses under the following broad headings: 1. Paul: Called (1:1) 2. Paul: Confident (1:2–9) 3. Paul: Concerned (1:10–17) 4. Paul: Crucified (1:18–2:5)

Scripture References: 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, 1 Corinthians 1:1-31

From Series: "1 Corinthians Exposition"

An exposition of 1 Corinthians by Doug Van Meter.

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The apostle Paul was a Christian, committed to planting Christian churches. When the churches he planted moved away from being Christian, he worked to bring them back to being Christian. So it was with the church he planted in Corinth.

Some forty years ago, I was driving near the downtown region of Cincinnati Ohio, my “home city.” I drove past a church named Corinthian Baptist Church. I was rather bemused, wondering if those who planted that church were familiar with the contents of 1 and 2 Corinthians. I could understand Philadelphia Baptist Church or Smyrna Baptist Church—named for churches that were noted in Scripture for their faithfulness—but CorinthianBaptist Church? Not so much.

Then again, why not? After all, this church was fully gifted (1:5) and worthy of four letters from Paul (5:9; 2 Corinthians 7:8), two of which were inspired. Percentage-wise, these letters, containing a total of 29 chapters, are a large percentage of Paul’s God-breathed and preserved words. He spent eighteen months ministering in Corinth, second only to Ephesus, where he spent three years. Perhaps it is also significant that his gospel magnus opus (Romans) was written while he was in Corinth. This was a significant place, and a significant church to the apostle. From the opening words of this first epistle, it is clear that the church was also significant to the Lord Jesus Christ, as is every gospel-planted local church.

Though the ancient church in Corinth is infamous for its messiness, it is precisely this messiness that makes these two epistles so relevant and timely for every local church in every era of history, including our own. As troubled (and, at times, as troublesome) as this church was, Paul was committed to helping it fulfil its purpose of being a truly Christian church—a Christlike church amid a graceless and godless culture. This is why 1 Corinthians matters to Brackenhurst Baptist Church, and every local church in our age. This is why we are going to do a thorough study of it: verse by verse and chapter by chapter. I trust it will help our churches to be truly Christian churches.

The triune God commands and expects his churches to be Christian churches. The church is more than merely a gathered people; it is a grace-empowered, godly people who gather to grow in the Lord so we will go with and for the Lord. I trust that our studies will help us to be further reformed and conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, to the glory of God.

Corinthian Connection

To paraphrase a church father, we might ask, “What does Corinth have to do with Brackenhurst?” Actually, it has a lot to do with us. There are many similarities between the cultural situations of ancient Corinth and modern-day South Africa. And more to our point, there are many similarities between the church of God at Corinth and the church of God at Brackenhurst. Therefore it is not only instructive for us to study this epistle, but it is important for us to do so.

Several years ago, we studied 1 Corinthians in our adult Family Bible Hour under the theme of “A Messy Community.” If ever there was a church that looked a mess, it was the church of Corinth. It was characterised by divisions over favoured rhetoric as well as between the haves and the have nots. The mess included immorality that even the world viewed as shameless and frivolous lawsuits between congregants. A spirit of pride seemed to have the congregation in its grip. Among its many sin issues, Paul identified idolatry, self-indulgence (including a selfish exercise of spiritual gifts) and heretical attitudes about the resurrection of the body, resulting, of course, in heretical actions. Yes, it was a messy community.

Interestingly, as 1 and 2 Corinthians evidence, Paul did not give up on this church, but rather sought to revitalise and reform it.

Paul viewed this as a true church and therefore worth his time, labours, prayers, and even painful sacrifice. He was driven by passion for God’s glory. He understood that the local church was God’s ordained means to Christ establishing his kingdom and honouring God’s name in every place on earth. He recognised the church of God at Corinth as a means towards this very end and hence his written admonitions, peppered with encouragements. Yes, it was messy, but rather than abandon the Corinthian saints, Paul was determined to edify and reform them. Whether he was successful, we don’t know. Nevertheless, God inspired and preserved these two epistles for our benefit, just as he inspired and preserved the book of Numbers for their benefit (see chapter 10).

Shortly before I commenced this study of 1 Corinthians at our church, I completed an exposition of Number. I am, at some point in the future, to preach through Deuteronomy, where we read of Moses preparing the people for an expected life of godliness and holy purity as they took the presence and name of the Lord into a new land. As Malachi would write centuries later, God desired (and continues to desire) that his name would be honoured in every place on the globe. That was the plan in Genesis 1 and that remained the plan after Genesis 3. That plan was soon to be jump-started as the nation of Israel crossed the Jordan.

What does this have to do with 1 Corinthians? A great deal. An argument can be made that this epistle is the Deuteronomy of the New Testament. That is, Paul here writes to remind and rebuke and exhort the Corinthian believers of their responsibility and opportunity to live to the glory of God in a culture of pagans. In a society characterised by sexual immorality, senseless idolatry, and self-indulgence, the church of God was to be holy. They were to live out their God-appointed identity as those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be saints (1:2). They were to be faithful to fight the good fight of faith as they focused on the lordship of Jesus Christ. In other words, they were responsible to live out the Great Commission in their God-appointed place, just as every other local church was to do so in every other place.

It is for this reason that Paul’s epistle to the Corinthian church is of great relevance to us, to our local church in Brackenhurst, and to every other local church in every place. This epistle puts before us the reality of both the dangers of our surrounding world as well as the discipleship and disciple-making we are to carry out in our surrounding world. Let me explain further.

As mentioned, sexual immorality, senseless idolatry, and self-indulgence marked Corinthian culture. Sadly, this same sinful trio was also creeping into the Corinthian church. The world had invaded the church, which motivated this apostolic corrective. But the more one studies this letter, and the better one understands the cultural context of Corinth, the more one appreciates how we, in our day and culture, face the same evil trio of sexual immorality, senseless idolatry, and self-indulgence. This evil trinity is of particular relevance to our culture and of particular threat to our congregation.

Having been a member of BBC for nearly thirty years, and having been at the coalface of its blessings and burdens, I can testify that the biggest threat to our unity and our corporate pursuit of holiness has always arisen from these three sinful temptations. If are aware of these dangers, we will be better equipped to guard against them. As we identify the threat, we will build appropriate defences. And if we are temporarily conquered by one of these threats, we will know from 1 Corinthians how to apply the antidote.

We can summarise that, as a congregation, that which threatens our God-centred unity and our holiness are the same things that Paul addressed in this epistle. It is hence our responsibility to resist sexual immorality, to reject senseless idolatry, and to run from self-indulgence. To the degree we do, we will avoid needless and destructive conflict, and we will abstain from the nuanced and destructive compromises that aim to rob God of his glory. In other words, though we live in a messed up world, we don’t have to be a messed up church. We can do better. We can be better. For, by God’s grace, we are better. As Paul tells the Corinthians, we are saints in Christ Jesus. We are therefore to live as saints in Christ Jesus. We are to be a truly Christian church.

Let’s begin to unpack this important epistle by a brief overview of the one who wrote it. We need to understand Paul the Christian to understand his commitment that the church at Corinth be truly Christian. What was true of him is, in similar ways, to be true of every believer in Jesus Christ and hence true of every local church.

Paul Called

The letter opens in something of a customary way, identifying the author(s) of the letter: “Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes” (v. 1).

The first word identifies the primary human author as “Paul.” Paul, of course, was the Latin equivalent of the Hebrew name Saul. As the apostle and a missionary to Gentiles, Paul adopted his Latin name in Acts 13:9. Knowing the author and his relationship to and passion for the church will guard us from a “detached” interpretation. We can better enter into the affections and concern the author had. We do well to pause and consider the author.

Two passages in this epistle provide particular insight into Paul’s mind and heart as he addressed the Corinthian church. In 4:16–17 and 11:1, he unashamedly instructs the church in Corinth to follow him and his “ways.” That is, they were to imitate him. They could do so because he followed and imitated Jesus Christ. Paul lived like a Christian—he lived the Christian life—and this is what he desired for the Corinthian church. When they read his name, Paul wanted them to think “Christian.”

So, how did Paul become a Christian? What enabled and empowered him to grow in Christlikeness. What, therefore, is required for us to be Christian and for our churches to be Christian churches. Fundamentally, like Paul, we need to be called by God, who identified himself as “called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus.”

The word “called,” as Paul used it here, is theologically inseparable from the word “chosen” (1:26–28). To be called, in the sense in which it is here used, is a recognition of God’s sovereign grace in calling to himself everyone whom he has chosen to himself (Romans 8:28–30). When we read “called to be” we should understand it to be a salvifically loaded statement (see Jeremiah 1:4–5). Paul was not saying merely that he was called by God to be an apostle, but that, first, he was called by God to Christ and only then as an apostle of Christ. He saw himself as graced by God to be chosen to be called to worship God and then to work with and for God. He hence sought to live worthy of God, which is what he desired for the Corinthian church.

As a zealous Jewish teacher of the law of God, Saul thought of himself as God’s servant as he persecuted to the death those whom he considered heretical apostates (namely, Christians) (Acts 8–9). But on the road to Damascus, the risen Lord appeared to him, arresting his attention and converting his soul. Saul would never be the same. His whole world was upended as he was justified and sanctified. From then on, he would serve the Lord Jesus Christ rather than speaking against him. He had been saved by the crucified and risen Son of God and this gospel radically altered his attitude and his actions. This man, called to and converted by the triune God, had also called him to be among his special church foundation-laying apostles.

Sometimes, Paul used the designation “apostle” to make a statement of authority (e.g. Galatians). Though he may have intended the same here (he was writing, after all, under God’s appointed authority), it is perhaps more likely that he used the designation as a reminder of his relationship to the Corinthians as the one whom God used to plant the church (4:15). In other words, Paul was reminding them that he was converted, calledand commissioned by Jesus Christ to serve them with the gospel. Therefore, they should hear him.

Paul uses the words “called,” “call,” and “calling” sixteen times in 1 Corinthians, much more than in any other of his epistles. This is significant. It was precisely because the Corinthian church lost sight of their gracious calling that they were living conformed to the culture around them. This too often is the root cause of own propensity to embrace the varied enticements to sexual immorality, senseless idolatry, and selfish indulgences. Remembering what we are called out of, who and what we are called to, is essential to live a truly Christian life.

Brothers and sisters, if we will be a truly Christian church—if we will be more than merely a “gathered group”—then we must be born again. We must experience the grace of God in calling us to Jesus Christ, his Son.

Like Paul, we need to be in communion with other Christians. Paul was continually in communion with other Christians. Here, he mentions Sosthenes.

Perhaps, like Tertius (Romans 16:22), Sosthenes served as Paul’s secretary (amanuensis), who wrote what Paul dictated. Paul might be saying to the Corinthians, “Just so you know, I am on speaker phone, and someone is listening to this!” Perhaps. But there may be another reason.

Acts 18:1–18 records the founding of the church in Corinth. Having travelled the seventy kilometres from Athens, Paul lodged with hospitable Aquila and Priscilla, fellow Christians and tentmakers. Paul “occupied” himself with preaching the word (18:5), which resulted in much of the Jewish population opposing him. He announced that he would go to the Gentiles. Many Gentiles were subsequently converted, as were some Jews, including the ruler of the synagogue. Things got tense and the Lord encouraged Paul to remain preaching in Corinth, assuring him of his protection and of a harvest of souls (vv. 9–10). Being called by the will of God as an apostle, Paul continued. Eighteen months later, it appears that a church had been well-planted (v. 11).

At this point, the Jewish element in the city had had enough and they rose up to attack Paul, seizing him and bringing him before the Roman consul, Gallio. He was not interested in their intramural religious conflict and so refused to make a judgement (vv. 12–16). For whatever reason, the now-embittered Jews seized the new ruler of the synagogue and beat him up before a disinterested, yawning Gallio. This ruler of the synagogue had a name: Sosthenes (v. 18).

We cannot prove that the Sosthenes mentioned by Paul is the same rule of the synagogue, but it would not surprise me. Perhaps the abuse by members of the synagogue led Sosthenes to consider Paul’s message of the cross, which may have led to his conversion. I smile to think that, in the course of eighteen months, the synagogue in Corinth lost two rulers through the preaching of the gospel! Before his conversion Paul sought to empty churches; now converted, he was emptying synagogues!

O that God would empower us and enable us to see the emptying of synagogues and mosques—and gospel-vacant churches—in our day! The book of 1 Corinthians encourages us that, one day, “in every place,” there will be churches proclaiming the power of the cross to the glory of God. This is the storyline of the Bible.

Believer, like Paul, we are called by and to the same Lord to be “occupied with the word” of God to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the glory of God. Let us keep this before us as we commence a new year. Let us believe God to show his power through the message of the cross and to save the lost, establishing local churches in “every place,” including places like Corinth, in places like South Africa. Let us expectantly wait on, as we work for and with, the Lord

Paul Confident

Verses 2–9 highlight something of Paul’s confidence:

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.

(1 Corinthians 1:2–9)

Paul’s customary greeting was much more than mere custom. Though ancient letters often began with a Greek word meaning “greeting,” Paul used a related word with a whole new meaning, one drenched with grace. It is this grace that informed Paul’s prayerful wish that “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 3) would continue to form them as the “church of God” (v. 2), sustaining them (vv. 4–8). Paul was confident that God was faithful to do so (v. 9).

Paul was not giving ethical instructions to the world. He had no biblical reason for confidence that those not called by God would give up their materialism, obsession with recreation, consumerism, and individualism. He had no basis on which to say to the culture, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” But he had every confidence that he could encourage “the church of God” that God had a great and glorious plan for them. He had every biblical reason to expectantly exhort the church of God to live for the glory of God; to live in God’s place under his rule and blessing. He did so in these eight verses.

The phrase “the church of God which is at Corinth” is an amazing statement, referring to two radically differentplaces inhabiting the same space. The “church of God” is a called-out assembly of God’s people, who worship and serve him as they gather. They gather together in some place and they do so “in every place” sharing space with those who have not—as yet—been called out by God. It is this “geographic tension” that created the challenge for the church of that day, as well as for the local church of our day. This is why we need to pay attention to 1 Corinthians.

The “church of God” is the temple of God (3:16), where God dwells with his people. This concept loomed large for Paul, particularly as a Jew. When he became a disciple of Jesus, he came to understand that the geographically bound old covenant temple in Jerusalem was done away at the coming of Messiah who through the new covenant established worldwide worship in “every place” where the gospel gathers together those whom God calls out (v. 2; cf. Malachi 1:1; see John 4:16–26).

Under the old covenant, Jerusalem was to be a holy place, for it housed God’s dwelling place, the temple. But now that Christ has come, even in the most unholy places—including Johannesburg, including Brackenhurst—there can still exist a holy place, the church of God living under the rule of God.

The book of Isaiah is influential in this epistle. Paul refers to it through quotations, by allusions, and by being theologically informed by it. This illustrates, incidentally, that the Old Testament certainly matters for Christian maturity, despite Andy Stanley’s claim that “it’s time for the church to unhinge the Old Testament from the New Testament.” As Bonhoeffer wisely observed, “It is not Christian to want to take our thoughts and feelings too quickly and too directly from the New Testament. One cannot and must not speak the ultimate word before the penultimate.”

The book of Isaiah focuses on the prophetic promise of Israel’s new exodus, from exile, by the reign of Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. Isaiah pointed to the day when Messiah would globally rule, reign, and redeem. So when Paul wrote about the church of God “in every place,” he was thinking far deeper than merely a missions pin on a map. He was thinking the presence of God with his people—everywhere. He was thinking Matthew 28:18–20. And so should we.

We should be encouraged that we have a holy place, we should appreciate this holy place, and we should do all we can to maintain this holy place. Lest you be confused, I don’t mean the church building; I mean the gospel-gathered people committed to growing in grace and going in grace to establish holy places elsewhere. We must therefore guard against the evil that surrounds and that sometimes invades this place.

Again, Corinth was a godless place. Sexual immorality, senseless idolatry, and self-indulgence were hallmarks which the Corinthian culture boasted in. It was a friend neither to grace nor to the gospel. As we see in Acts 18, even the Jewish population—which would have rejected much the evil of the city—was opposed to Paul’s message. Yet God had his chosen and yet to be called people in that place.

For the Christian, Corinth was not a safe space, but it housed a saved space. It was essential that believers identified with—and guarded—this God appointed place. We similarly need to be on guard against conflicts in this place We need to guard against compromises in this place. May this characterise the membership of BBC—and the membership of every Christian church in every place.