This morning, I want to begin a new sermon series that I anticipate will carry us through the next several months. We’re going to be taking a look at the book of I Corinthians. Recently, I heard someone jokingly refer to this book as I Californians. Because, the truth is, California and the city of Corinth have a lot in common.
For one thing, both of them were or are big into sports. For California, there are a variety of football, baseball and basketball teams that are extremely popular. Sueanne and I followed the San Diego Chargers for many years until they changed cities and moved further up the coast.
Corinth was also big into sports. There were two big sporting events held in the ancient world. You’re familiar with the most popular – the Olympics – but the second most popular sporting event was held the year before every Olympics and the year after every Olympics. It was called the Isthmian Games, and it was always held in Corinth.
California is known for its commerce, with a lot of traffic passing through its ports. Virtually everything in this country that comes from Asia or goes to Asia has to pass through California. It has a very strategic location.
And so did Corinth. Ancient Corinth was strategically situated on a little piece of land that was only 3 and 1/2 miles wide. Below Corinth was the southern half of Greece. You can see on this map where Athens is and how Greece is laid out.
The southern part of Greece was connected to the main body of Greece by a very narrow piece of land called an isthmus. As I said, it was only 3 and 1/2 miles wide. That isthmus is where Corinth was built, and it was the perfect location. Any traffic that went from Athens to southern Greece by land had to pass through Corinth. And most of the traffic that went from east to west also went through Corinth.
You had the Aegean Sea on one side and the Adriatic Sea on the other side. And the only thing that separated those two bodies of water was that little piece of land where Corinth was located. If you were a ship that was sailing from one sea to the other, that little bit of land posed a problem.
One solution was to dock your boat and unload all of its cargo. Then you could transport that cargo by land to the port on the other side and then load the cargo back onto another ship. Or, if your boat was small enough, you could actually lift your boat up out of the water and put it on rollers. And then you roll it over land 3 and 1/2 miles and put your boat back in on the other side.
Both of those solutions sound like a lot of trouble, so why didn’t they just sail around the southern tip of Greece? And you could do that. But if you did, it would be a 200-mile trip to sail around. 3 and 1/2 miles, 200 miles. Sounds like a no-brainer. And not only was it a longer trip, but it was also a more dangerous trip.
The very bottom part of southern Greece was called the Cape of Malaya. And the sailors used to have a saying back in those days. They would say, whoever wants to sail around the Cape of Malaya, let him first make out his will. Because the weather and the rocks in that area made it extremely dangerous.
So, most sailors opted for one of the first two solutions, either unload and reload their cargo or carry the boat across the isthmus. But, either way, they went right through Corinth. And so, the city of Corinth was very prosperous.
But there’s one more thing that both California and Corinth are known for. With apologies to Sueanne and Kristyn and anyone else who may have called California home, California is known as a place that promotes an immoral view of sexuality.
And ancient Corinth also had a reputation for being extremely immoral. Just to the south of Corinth, there’s a large hill called the Acropolis of Corinth. And in ancient days, there was a temple that sat on that hill, a temple to Aphrodite, the goddess of sex and fertility.
And on top of that hill, there lived 1,000 priestesses. They were called “priestesses”, but the truth is, they were actually temple prostitutes. Every night, they would go into the city of Corinth and ply their trade on the sailors, or soldiers, or anyone passing through the city. And they would collect the money, and that’s how they would support the temple of Aphrodite.
So, Corinth had a reputation all over the world for being an immoral city, filled with prostitution. In fact, there was a saying that went like this – “Not everyone can afford a trip to Corinth.” And what they meant by that is the captains of the ships were likely to lose all their money to the prostitutes. It was like Las Vegas or Amsterdam. It just had its own reputation.
In fact, there was a Greek word that meant “to act like a Corinthian”. It meant you had no morals, you were loose, a party animal, and a drunkard.
But it was into this area that the apostle Paul went to establish a church. He spent 18 months in Corinth — a year and a half — starting the church, teaching the people, doing evangelism, training them, and so on. And then, Paul left Corinth and went to Ephesus. And about three years later, he sent the church in Corinth a letter that we know as I Corinthians.
At least that’s what it’s called in our Bibles. But I need to tell you something. It’s really not 1 Corinthians. It’s probably 2 Corinthians. And 2 Corinthians is probably actually 3 or 4 Corinthians.
If that sounds confusing, let me explain. In I Corinthians 5:9, Paul said, “I wrote to you.” He says, “I wrote to you in my letter [this is my letter before 1 Corinthians] not to associate with sexually immoral people.”
So, evidently, after Paul left Corinth, he moved to Ephesus, started a new church there. And while he was in Ephesus, he wrote a letter to the Corinthians. And that letter was sent because of this terrible immorality, what was happening in the city was now starting to happen in the church. So, Paul wrote a letter that we don’t have. We just don’t have it. We have 1 Corinthians and we have 2 Corinthians, but that first letter that Paul wrote, we don’t have it.
And then, sometime after that, somebody in Corinth by the name of Chloe sent Paul a letter. And Chloe says, “Hey Paul, just a heads up. There’s a lot of division going on in Corinth. People are splitting up into little groups. There’s all these divisions in the church. And I just think you need to know about it. The church is falling apart.”
And not only that, but the Corinthian church itself wrote Paul a letter with a bunch of questions, what about marriage, what about divorce, how do we deal with immorality, so on and so forth. So, beginning in Chapter 7, Paul says, “Now, concerning the things you wrote me about.”
So, the theme of 1 Corinthians, then, is solving problems in the church. It’s a little bit like a couple I heard about recently. It had been another one of those days in the office. John hadn’t stopped for a moment, not even for lunch. He had been running all over town, trying to deal with this project and that project. But, finally it was 4:00, and it was time to start thinking about going home. And he’s thinking, “I wonder what’s going on at home. How are the kids? What’s for supper? Maybe I should pick up something on the way home.” And so, he picked up the phone and called his wife.
Mary answered, “Hello?” He said, “Hi, it’s me. How have you been today?”
Mary hesitated and said, “Um…” At that moment John could hear a lot of noise in the background, hammers pounding, shouts of workers, radios, and was that a fire truck? The police?
Mary said, “Hello dear. Um…We’ve got a big problem.”
When we haven’t talked with someone we love for a while, we hate to bring up problems right away. Its much nicer to enjoy one another first and then bring up difficulties later. But sometimes the troubles are so big that we have to bring them up in the first few minutes. And that’s what Paul is going to do in this letter.
The whole book is Paul’s attempt to correct a whole host of problems. Disunity– there’s divisions in the church, abuse of spiritual gifts, divorce and remarriage, problems of immorality, doctrinal problems concerning the resurrection. It’s a whole series of problems, and so Paul addresses these problems one after the other in this letter.
But, before he launches into dealing with those problems, he does at least take a few moments to greet the Corinthians.
Verse 1, “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.” (I Corinthians 1:1-2)
When he writes his letters, Paul follows a typical format of most letters of that day. And I like the way they wrote letters in ancient times. You see, when we write a letter, we say, dear so-and-so, then we write a page, and another page, and another page, and you don’t know who’s writing until you get to the back page and it says, sincerely, and then you sign your name.
And, because of that, the first thing I do when I get a letter is go to the back page to find out who wrote it. It would be more helpful if they began by saying, here’s who I am. That’s how they wrote letters in ancient times. They would begin by stating who the letter is from, then who the letter is to, then they would give salutations, greetings of some sort. Paul follows that format in his opening remarks.
What I find especially fascinating about this introduction, though is that Paul addresses this letter “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.”
In view of all the problems that we know Paul is going to talk about in this letter, I find it absolutely incredible that Paul starts off by calling them saints. We hear some people say that in order to be a saint, you’ve got to be dead, and you have remains that somebody touches and they get healed, or they say something over your grave and something happens, a miracle of some sort, or whatever it might be. You get canonized and then you’re made a saint.
But that’s not what the New Testament teaches. Scripture says that if you’re a Christian, then you are a saint right now. You’re called saints. The word sanctified and the word saint which are both used here are basically the same Greek word. It means to be set apart. If you are a Christian, then you have been set apart by God. When you made the decision to be baptized, you were set apart to serve Jesus Christ. And so, that means you’re a saint.
I like how J Vernon McGee put it. He said, “There’s really only two groups in the world. There’s the saints and the ain’ts. You’re either a saint or you ain’t.” And even though these Christians in Corinth had tons of problems, they’re still saints. And right now, I’m looking at a whole room filled with saints here this morning. Because the Corinthians were called saints along “with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Then, in verse 3, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 1:3). That’s how Paul opened most of his letters — grace and peace. And when he does that, he seems to be combining a Greek salutation and a Jewish salutation.
Grace was a common Greek greeting. Charis is the Greek word. You would see somebody on the street in Athens and say, “Charis”, grace. It’s a beautiful greeting.
And then the Jews, whenever they would see each other would say, shalom, peace. Now Paul is writing in Greek, so Paul uses the Greek word for peace – eirene. So, charis and eirene – grace and peace. And that’s how Paul opened most of his letters.
And by the way, Paul never says peace and grace. It’s always in this order– grace first, and then peace. And I think there’s a good reason for that. You will never know the peace of God until you know the grace of God. And when you know the grace of God, you’ll have the peace of God, which passes all understanding– so grace and peace.
Then in verse 4, “I always thank my God for you and for the gracious gifts he has given you, now that you belong to Christ Jesus. Through him, God has enriched your church in every way—with all of your eloquent words and all of your knowledge. This confirms that what I told you about Christ is true.
“Now you have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns.” (I Corinthians 1:4-8, NLT)
I love that statement in there that Jesus will “keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns.”
Let me ask you a question. Are any of you blameless? Paul doesn’t say you are now blameless, but he says that you will be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. At the end of Jude, verse 24, the writer says, “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy.”
That doesn’t mean you are faultless or that you are blameless right now, but that you will one day be presented as blameless in God’s presence. How is that even possible? And I ask that because I know me. I sin, I fall short of the glory of God, I have tendencies to say and to do things that are wrong, as we all do. And yet I’m told I’m going to be blameless, I’m going to be presented before God as faultless; how is that even possible?
The answer is that, in his death on the cross, Jesus took our sin and gave us his righteousness.
That doesn’t it mean that you are perfect, or righteous, or blameless. But that’s how God sees you, and one day, that’s how you’ll be presented to him. That’s an encouraging thought to me. It seems almost too good to be true, which why I think Paul says what he does next.
We can believe that because, “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (I Corinthians 1:9). If what Paul said seems too good to be true, it’s not, because that’s what God has told us, and God is faithful. He always does what he says he will do.
So that concludes the introductory remarks of this letter. Now Paul gets down to business, and he first addresses the issue that Chloe has written to him about.
In verse 10, “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.” (I Corinthians 1:10)
The Greek word for divisions that Paul uses – schismata — was used to refer to the tearing of a garment, ripping it apart. The fragmenting of something that was once a cohesive unit being torn into little pieces.
It’s not just that there were disagreements in Corinth, that wouldn’t have been a problem. It’s healthy to have disagreeing points of view over certain things. The problem wasn’t disagreement, it was dissension. The church was splitting up, and they were opposed to each other.
In verse 11, “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.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (I Corinthians 1:11-13)
When Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, prayed in John 17, he said, “Lord, I don’t just pray for these disciples alone, but for all those who will believe in me through their word. That they may be one as we are one. I in you and you in me, that they may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” Jesus prayed for our unity.
Now, unity doesn’t mean uniformity. It doesn’t mean that we will all always agree on everything. And I know that because of what Paul wrote in Romans 14. But it does mean that we will agree on what’s most important. There are essentials of our faith that we must all agree on. We believe in one God, we believe that there is a triune God– Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe that God sent his Son into the world – God in the flesh — to die on a cross, that he died physically and that he resurrected bodily, that he’s coming back again. We believe a number of things that we would call essentials.
But there are a lot of other things that are really not essential. And we can have vigorous debates about them, and we can have disagreements. But we cannot have dissension.
I have a number of different things that I believe. But I’ve discovered over the years that not everybody agrees with all of my positions. Not all of you agree with my positions. But I give you the freedom to be wrong –just as you give me the freedom to be wrong, right? And that’s OK.
There’s a popular quote that says, “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. in all things, charity.” As long as we hold to the essentials, that’s what binds us together, it’s what identifies us as followers of Jesus Christ. All those other things, let’s talk about them– let’s discuss them vigorously — but let’s not be disagreeable. Let’s be loving about it– in all things, charity or love.
But in Corinth, it was getting way beyond just disagreeing with each other. Everybody’s choosing sides and you’ve got at least four groups represented.
“Some say, I am of Paul.” And it makes sense that people would say “I am of Paul.” Paul started that church. Paul used to be a Pharisee, but he discovered the grace of God, and he preached the grace of God. It was a wonderful message that included not only Jews but Gentiles. And so, it’s only natural for somebody to go, “I appreciate that emphasis on grace and inclusiveness.”
Others were saying, well, Paul was an OK preacher, but there’s somebody who has spoken here at our congregation– and he’s really articulate. His name is Apollos. The Book of Acts describes him as being quite a scholar, and a good speaker. He was a good preacher, so a lot naturally liked Apollos.
Then there were others who said, “I am of Cephas”– that’s the apostle Peter. Now, there’s no record of Peter ever coming to Corinth, although he may have. But maybe some of them said, we can relate to Peter. He was one of the original 12– Paul, you weren’t. Peter was a fisherman, so he’s not a rabbi like Paul was. He’s a blue collar guy. We can relate to this working-class guy.
But then there was this fourth group that perhaps was the worst of all of them. They were so snobbish they’d look down on all the rest — oh, we don’t need to follow human leaders, we just follow Christ. Which sounds good. But the fact that Paul is lumping them in the same kind of category as being divisive shows that the way they were following Christ was not godly.
Let me say just a word about human leaders that God uses. Because what they did then, we still do today. People do it all the time. People tell me something that a radio teacher has said, or somebody on the internet has said. You got to listen to this, you got to listen to that guy, listen to this. And people are attracted to certain styles and methods of teaching. And there’s nothing wrong with that unless it becomes exclusive and divisive.
And there’s always a danger when you are a man or woman of God, and you are used by God. People start elevating you, and looking to you, and they put you on a pedestal. And if you’re a leader, you have to recognize that people have a tendency to do that, and you need to step off the pedestal. Don’t allow that pedestal to be under you, get off of it. Because really, there’s nothing special about you, no matter who you are.
It’s the cross that puts everyone on the same level. It’s like what happens in the book of Acts, chapter 3, when there was a man who sat at the Gate Beautiful, who had a problem. And Peter and John walked by and said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” (Acts 3:6)
And Peter lifted him up, and the man was healed. And so, all the people who saw it were staring at Peter and John because they were so amazed. And I love Peter’s response. He said, “Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk?” (Acts 3:12) We didn’t do this– we’re just instruments– Jesus did this.
It happens again in Acts, chapter 14. Paul and Barnabas heal a man and the people want to worship them, and they wouldn’t let them do it. So, it’s a danger. Whether you’re Paul, or Apollos, or Peter, you need to point to Christ and to say, “That’s who’s really important.”
And in verse 13, Paul says, “Is Christ divided?” In other words, can you take Jesus and cut him into little pieces and separate all those pieces? No. Was Paul crucified for you? No! Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” No!
In verse 14, “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.) 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 Corinthians 1:14-17)
Some people like to use this passage to prove that baptism isn’t important. That’s not Paul’s point at all. His point is, “It’s unimportant who baptized you.” Paul says, “I don’t want people going around saying, “I’m special because I was baptized by the apostle Paul.” No! He wants people to go around saying, “I was baptized into the blood of Jesus Christ. That’s what’s important! It is the cross of Christ that has the power. Not you, not me. It’s Jesus!
As we close, I want to go back for just a moment to a verse we looked at earlier.
“I always thank my God for you and for the gracious gifts he has given you, now that you belong to Christ Jesus….You have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will keep you strong to the end.” (I Corinthians 1:4-8, NLT)
As you leave here this morning, I want you to remember that each and every one of you who have put your faith in Jesus Christ and made the commitment to serve him, you have everything you need to do that. And so, this week, in your behavior, in the choices you make, in the challenges you face, you have everything you need to be a faithful follower of Jesus.
And so, we go forth with the assurance that “I am a saint called by God, through Jesus Christ, and through grace, God has given me everything I need. Because of that, I need to live faithfully as a child of God this week. I eagerly anticipate his return because I know he has promised on the basis of his grace, that I will stand blameless before him in the end, and I know that he will be faithful to keep that promise. Therefore, I make the commitment to live a life set apart as a Christian, a member of his church, so that I might represent him to the world around us as he has called me to do.”