1 Corinthians 1:1-9: Dear Kemsing

Sun, 15/04/2018 - 10:30 -- James Oakley

Over the past few months, I’ve got to know some churches in a largish town. There are several. St Paul’s. St Peter’s. St Apollos. And Christ Church.

The churches have experienced almost explosive growth, tripling in size in just 5 years. Many of those converts came from some surprising backgrounds. Some were thieves and pickpockets from the criminal underworld. Others worked in the somewhat seedy sex industry in the towns. Others were previously very active participants of other religions before they converted.

But this rapid growth has led to a number of problems in the churches. All these recent arrivals don’t know the history of the church. And they don’t have the respect they should for the longstanding leaders. Some of them are having some trouble adapting their lifestyle. Some of the criminal attitudes, some of the promiscuity that is in the city at large, some of the snobbery, is now found amongst the Christian churches. And some of the converts from other religions want to mix and match their religion.

A couple of other cultural pressures are worth mentioning. As is often the case, there’s a big divide between rich and poor in this particular town. That’s causing tension within the church, as those who are better off somehow see themselves as entitled to special treatment. They think their better education, their bank balances, mean that they should have more influence in church life. Occasionally they actually mistreat those who are not so well-off.

And then there’s the celebrity culture. There’s a bit of an entertainment industry in town, which means that the best performers are treated as heroes. Bring that into church life, it means that church leaders are not always assessed by the right standards. Church members want leaders, preachers who perform well. People take a Sunday off if it’s one of the less engaging speakers that week.

I’m talking, of course, about the church in ancient Corinth.

{Background information on Corinth}

The apostle Paul visited Corinth in the year 50. Some people became Christians, and he stayed about a year and a half, before leaving. He wanted to go back, and use it as a launchpad to take the gospel to Rome. But that plan got held up, the Corinthian Christians grew less fond of Paul, and the non-Christian lifestyles of recent converts began to invade the church. He wrote one letter, which we don’t have. The church continued to go in the wrong direction, so he wrote the letter we’re looking at this morning, 1 Corinthians.

And we’re going to look at this letter together over the next few months. I tried to make it clear as I painted a picture of the Corinthian church just now that life in Corinth was not so very different from life in any major Western city today. We’ll face the pressures they faced, and the relevance of this will just walk off the pages.

But we need to pause and locate ourselves in relation to the Corinthian church. It’s one thing to notice that life today is remarkably similar to life in ancient Corinth. But this wasn’t written to us; it was written long ago. Is this actually relevant to us, today? Or is it just a piece of ancient history: an ancient letter, written to an ancient church, by its ancient founder?

That’s what we’re looking at this morning. Today’s reading was just the introduction of the letter. The opening greeting, and Paul thanking God for the Corinthian Christians.

We’re going to look together at three questions: Who wrote this letter? Who was it written to? What period of history is it for? We’re going to see that we are in exactly the same privileged position as these Corinthian Christians, and that God therefore intends us to listen to this ancient letter. He even had us in mind as he inspired Paul to write it. It’s for us.

So let’s look at these opening verses.

Who’s Writing

Firstly, who wrote this letter? That’s in verse 1: “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God”.

It’s written by Paul. That’s not big news. He wrote 12, maybe 13, of the letters of the New Testament. But here, he elaborates as to who he is. He reminds the Corinthian Christians that he’s not just “good old Paul”. He’s Paul, an apostle.

Maybe “apostle” is one of those words we use from time to time but you’ve never really known what it means. Literally, it means a “sent one”, a delegate. Research shows that by the time of Jesus, it had become a bit of a technical term. We might better translate it “emissary”.

It means someone who is sent by someone important to speak on their behalf. They would travel to foreign parts, and bring a message from their sender to another world leader. They do so with the complete authority of the person who sent them. The message they bring is to be treated as if the person themselves had travelled to bring it. If the foreign country disregards the message, it doesn’t matter than an emissary took the message; they’re choosing to ignore the person who sent them.

The closest in our day is an ambassador. Laurie Bristow is the British ambassador to Russia. He’s there to represent the British Government, to represent Her Majesty the Queen. If he goes to the Foreign Ministry in Moscow to deliver a message, let’s say about Salisbury, he speaks on behalf of the Queen and her Government. What he says is the Queen and her Government’s message to Russia. How Russia responds is how they respond to Great Britain.

So here’s who writes to the church in Corinth. It’s Paul, the apostle of Christ Jesus. Jesus only ever commissioned about 15 apostles. They are the remaining 11 disciples after Judas left, and a literal handful of others. The criterion was that these people had to have met the risen Jesus in person. So there’ll never be any more apostles. Just those 15 or so. And Paul is one of them. We’ll meet this more fully in chapter 9.

But for now, he reminds them who he is. An apostle of Christ Jesus. He’s not just their mate. He’s not just their founder. He’s the personal ambassador of the Lord Jesus Christ. He speaks with Jesus’ authority. How the Corinthians treat this letter is how they treat Jesus. If they ignore what Paul writes, they’re ignoring Jesus. Instead, they should treat this letter as a personal word for them from the risen Lord Jesus. He loves them, he wants to lead them and steer them, he wants to speak to them. And this letter is how he’ll do it.

And the risen Jesus will do the same for us through this same letter. As I say, there are no new apostles. These were the people who spoke for Jesus after he returned to heaven. For us, too, these words are the words of the Lord Jesus Christ. And we need to treat them as that.

Who’s It For?

That’s who wrote this letter. Now let’s ask: Who’s it for?

Well, again, there’s an easy answer to that question. Verse 2 tells us. This is “to the church of God in Corinth”. But again, he expands on this. In two ways.

Firstly, they’re sanctified, holy. Let’s read on in verse 2: “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people”. Now, again, it’s quite possible that “holy” or “sanctified” is one of those words we use all the time but don’t really understand.

They are the same root word, and they mean something like “set apart”. The background was in the Old Testament. In the temple, there were certain vessels, pots, implements, tables, scented oil, bread. They were in the temple, they’d been set apart for God’s use. If you’d run out of bread, you couldn’t run down to the temple and treat it as a convenience store. That bread isn’t for you anymore. It’s for God. Set apart. Holy.

Ultimately, God is the ultimate holy one. He’s set apart. Compared to anything else in this world, compared to anyone else, he’s totally “other”. He’s not just like us, only a bit different. He’s in a league of his own. He’s holy. He’s set apart.

Maybe at home you have two different sets of cutlery. Or two different dinner sets. The ordinary every day plates from Argos. And some special ones that you only get out when you have guests. If you don’t have that, maybe your parents did. Or maybe they didn’t either, but you get the idea. Certain things, that are reserved for special use.

That’s what it means to be holy, to be sanctified. And that’s how these Christians are described. “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people”.

They live in Corinth. But they belong to God. And their behaviour needs to reflect that. They don’t take their identity, their attitudes, their standard of behaviour from what you get down the pub or on the TV in Corinth. They are set apart for someone quite different.

God owns them, they’re precious to him, and this letter is their God telling them what he wants them to look like as they live for his special use.

That’s one way that Paul expands on the idea that they’re the church of God in Corinth. They’ve holy. Sanctified. Set apart.

There’s another. They’re part of the worldwide church. They’re not unique. They’re part of something bigger.

The second half of verse 2 is a bit of a shock. Of all the letters in the New Testament, 1 Corinthians is the most tied to the particular issues and challenges faced by the specific Christians it was written to. We’ll find that 1 Corinthians is very “Corinthian” the whole way through. And yet Paul isn’t just writing to them.

Here’s the second half of verse 2: “… together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ – their Lord and ours”.

When Paul writes a letter to the Corinthian church, he’s implicitly writing to every church, in every place. The Corinthians were an arrogant lot. They thought they were really quite special, unique. Right from the off, Paul flags up that they’re not. They’re in exactly the same boat as every other church. Their problems may be unique to them, but he has nothing to say to them that he wouldn’t say to any group of Christians anywhere.

You park in Sevenoaks to pop into the bank. You won’t be long, so you don’t buy a parking ticket. When you return to your car, to your horror, you find a penalty notice. You decide to appeal. I shouldn’t have had this penalty notice because: I’m a customer at the bank, my car is silver, I earn under 50,000 pounds a year, I had a very important meeting to go to later that morning. None of those are valid reasons not to get a parking ticket. You might think you’re different, that your case is unique. But actually, there are thousands of people just like you in Sevenoaks. The enforcement people have just treated you the same as they’d treat anyone else.

The Corinthians are being reminded that they’re not the only fish in the sea, not the only pebble on the beach. What Paul says to them is exactly what he says to Christians in every place.

It doesn’t matter where you live. If you’re a Christian, you’re holy, you’re sanctified, you’re set apart for God. If you’re a Christian, this letter is what Paul would want to say to you.

So who’s this letter for? It’s for the church of God in Corinth, God’s holy people in Corinth, together with everyone who builds their lives around the person of Jesus, wherever they live. Which means it’s a letter for us.

When Does it Apply?

There’s one final question we need to ask: When does it apply? This letter was written a long time ago. We’ve seen it’s not just for Christians in one place, that it’s for Christians everywhere. But what about time? Is it for Christians every-when?

That comes in verses 4 to 9, as Paul thanks God for these Christians.

Paul places these Christians in between two events. In the fairly recent past, Paul brought them the good news about Jesus. On an unknown date in the future, Jesus will return and everyone will see him. And they live between those times.

So start in the past. Paul testified to who Jesus is and what he’d done. It’s a legal word. Like when a witness is sworn in in court, and promises to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Paul testified to the person of Jesus.

Here’s verse 6: “… God thus confirming our testimony about Christ”.

They received Paul’s testimony, took it at face value, put their trust in the person of Jesus. And because they did so, all kinds of wonderful things happened.

Firstly, they received God’s grace. Verse 4: “I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.” God’s grace is his kindness that we don’t deserve, but he just gives it to us anyway. Perhaps you can remember being given a particularly generous gift. It wasn’t paying you back for something. It wasn’t earnt. It was just free. A free holiday, all expenses paid.

No matter how good that was, it’s nothing compared to the kindness God gives us when we put our trust in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. He gives us forgiveness, a place in his family, knowledge of his grand plan, the gift of his Spirit to change us, a wonderful future, and much more.

All that grace, all that kindness, and it comes to them because they trust in Jesus.

Not only have they received God’s grace, they’ve been enriched. I mentioned that there were huge tensions in Corinth between rich and poor. There are everywhere. If you’re a Christian, you’re rich indeed. You’re the richest person on earth. You may be very poor materially, but the blessings God has showered on you make you rich beyond your wildest dreams. You’re rich spiritually.

God’s grace. Enriched. And third, they’re gifted, they’ve got every spiritual gift. Again, as we read on in this letter, we’ll find the Corinthians squabbling about spiritual gifts. They’re trying to get one up on each other: “Look what I can do”. The truth is God has given them everything they need. They lack nothing. They’re gifts after all. Jesus gifts his church as it needs, and he’s not missed them out.

These are the most blessed people on earth. They’ve received God’s grace, his kindness; God’s showered every spiritual blessing on them; they’re rich; and they’re gifted. All because they received Paul’s testimony about Christ.

In January, a bus driver in Massachusetts won a lottery. He matched 10 words on a scratch card, and went to claim his 10 grand. Doubtless he’d bought himself a new pair of shoes in anticipation. It turns out he’d not realised what he held in his hand. It turned out he’d matched 11 words. His price was actually a million dollars!

Most of us Christians know it’s good to be a Christian, but we vastly under-estimate just how blessed we are. To know Jesus is to be so fortunate indeed!

You may have thought things couldn’t get any better. But you’d be wrong. Because that past date when Paul testified to Jesus and they received him is only one of the two time references. The other is in the future, and it’s in verses 7 and 8: “Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The Old Testament talked about a day in the future when God would come and fix everything. He’d judge every person. He’d repair every social injustice. It was called “the day of the Lord”. Paul picks up that theme, but now it’s the day when Jesus will come and fix everything, it’s now “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

One day Jesus will come back. He’ll make this world great again. It’s what we thought about together on Easter morning. As good as things are now, to be a Christian is to be a waiter. We’re waiting for that day in the future when things aren’t just good, they’re perfect.

Again, this is something the Corinthians were prone to forget. They were so focussed on what God was doing with them in the present, that they took their eyes off the prize. The best was yet to be.

Just compare verses 8 and 9.

Verse 9 tells you what it means to be a Christian. It’s to be in fellowship with God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. It’s to know him, to have your life so wrapped up and intertwined in him, that your very identity is tied up with his. That’s amazing!

Verse 8 tells you that it’s going to get better. To be a Christian is also to look forward being blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

We live in between. We are in fellowship with Jesus. We’re still waiting for the day he comes back.

And this letter addresses life in that in-between time, the time in which we live.


So, is the letter of 1 Corinthians one that we should read and digest? You bet it is!

Do you know Jesus? If you do, you are one of the most blessed people on earth.

If so, he wants to speak to you, and he’s asked Paul to speak on his behalf. He’ll do that through this letter.

If so, you’re one of those set apart to be one of God’s special people. This letter will tell you how to live that out.

If so, you’re waiting for the day when Jesus returns, and everything is glorious. This letter is all about that in-between time.

It’s good to be a Christian. It’s very good. And this letter is going to help us work through what’s involved.

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