Have a think for a moment: What’s the most precious thing you own?
If there was a danger you might lose that thing, what would you do to protect it? How far would you go to ensure you don’t lose your most prized possession?
Today, we continue our journey through Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. He’s had a number of reports that concern him. Divisions around loyalty to different preachers. A church that’s proud that a man is sleeping with his stepmother. And now today: Christians taking each other to court.
We live in a culture that sues for all kinds of things. Enough people are claiming for personal injury following an accident that it’s driven up the price of car insurance. Organisations are cautious to apologise for things that have gone wrong, for fear that they might end up being sued for what happened. It’s a feature of modern life that few of us think is a good thing.
But it’s there, and it can easily enter the church. Paul is horrified that it has. Once again, we find ourselves needing to learn from the Corinthians. This may not be an immediate danger to us. But it’s another area where we need to see the world in the right way as Christians. Getting our thinking straight will help protect us from this in the future.
Let’s start with what had happened. It would seem that one of the Christians in Corinth has defrauded another in some way. Cheated him out of something.
We don’t know the details. But you can imagine the equivalents today. Someone in the church lends someone else in the church some money, only to find they lied about having the means to pay it back. Someone sells a second hand car, and isn’t honest about its mileage or service history. Someone’s cheated someone else in the church, and that person is out of pocket as a result.
So the person who was defrauded took it to the courts. It went before the civil magistrate, in modern day speak the small claims court. The date is set for the hearing.
In the modern day, if this was between two senior leaders within the church, people well-known in the community, there would be great media interest. The spat could be followed closely. And the big question is who will win. The person who was cheated and took it to court. Or the cheat who’s maintaining he’s done nothing wrong.
Paul is horrified. Just hear his tone in verse 1: “If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people?”
That absolute cheek of it. Paul can’t believe it. This kind of thing should have been handled within the church family. It should never have gone to the civil courts.
The question is why. And if we follow Paul’s thinking, as he lays into the Corinthians about this, we’ll learn quite a bit about what it means to be a Christian. Who are we? Specifically, how do we relate to the unbelieving world, the rest of the world that is not Christian?
Three things: Future, present, then past.
We will be their co-judges
First, in the future: We will be their co-judges. We will be their co-judges.
This comes in verses 1-6. So, the start of verse 2: “Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world?” Or the start of verse 3: “Do you not know that we will judge angels?”
Paul doesn’t explain how this will work. It’s an idea we first meet in the Old Testament. Although God is the one judge, his people will share that work with him. Paul here simply assumes that this will happen. We will be involved in the final judgement. We will judge both unbelieving people, and even fallen angels. God will be their judge. But we, God’s people, will be co-judges.
Our minds may fill with questions as to how that will work out, but he doesn’t answer them.
Instead, he applies this to the lawsuit in Corinth. The final judgement will be the greatest court case there has ever been. Each and every human being will be tried. Every thought, word and deed will be heard as evidence. Perfect justice will be done. You might wonder what hope any of us have got – we’ll get to that.
But we will be in the jury. However we understand that, the thought of it just blows your mind.
If we will be involved in hearing that case, how trivial and small a bit of fraud is in comparison. There are some truly horrible fraudsters out there. You hear of people’s life savings lost forever. These things are terrible, but in comparison to the final judgement they are minute. A drop in the ocean.
That’s how verse 2 ends: “And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases?” This case that’s exploding in Corinth – it’s trivial, I tell you.
Not only that, but the best civil lawyers are also tiny by comparison. The Roman justice system was extremely good. The apostle Paul wrote this, and the Roman justice system saved his bacon several times. But the most high-flying judge won’t be involved in the judgement on the last day. You will. Well, so will he, if he’s a Christian, but then it’s because he’s a Christian not because he got a first in law. By being part of this church family, you’re rubbing shoulders with people who will judge the biggest trial in human history. So how could they possibly need to take their squabble to the civil magistrates?
That’s how verses 4 and 5 go: “Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? 5 I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?”
Once you see that we will be judges of the unbelieving world, co-judges with God himself, they have no need to take this case to the magistrates’ court. It’s tiny, and they can handle it. Instead, they should have found some wise and experienced members of their church family, and sorted it out themselves.
There are a couple of things to clear up to make sure we don’t misunderstand this.
He’s not saying we should sweep things under the carpet. There are times when the church needs to call in outside help to sort out its mess. It’s obvious when those occasions occur, but that was not the Corinthian issue.
Second, back in chapter 5, Paul said that it’s not our business to judge those outside the church. That is correct, now. It isn’t. But one day that will change, and God will involve us in his work of judging. That happens when Jesus returns as judge, and we get a part to play. One day that will happen. Which doesn’t mean that we look down on those outside the church today. But it does mean we handle our own disputes, within the church.
This is an extraordinarily gifted church. We have amongst us people who are, or who have been, extremely senior in fields such as health and safety, education, law and banking. We aim to use their skills.
This is similar to that, only the gifting may be less visible to us. You see, we also have people amongst us who are extremely gifted as judges, to hear disputes, to untangle them, to ensure that things are put right. That’s because all of us will one day have this role, and God is preparing us for it nw.
So let’s use one another. Let’s bring each other in to resolve disputes and arguments when they happen. Certainly, let’s not go to the civil courts.
That’s the first way we relate to the unbelieving world. Future tense. We will be their co-judges.
We are to show Jesus to them
Second, in the present, we are to show Jesus to them. We are to show Jesus to them.
We’re still in verses 1 to 6, which end on a note we’ve heard before in this letter. Verse 6: “But instead, one brother takes another to court – and this in front of unbelievers!”
Paul is absolutely horrified that the church is hanging out its dirty washing in public.
We had the same reaction at the start of chapter 5: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate.”
The Corinthian church was behaving in a way that was making ordinary Corinthian citizens cringe. Which is a problem because the world urgently needs to hear about Jesus. Instead, the Corinthians’ behaviour was going to mean the world won’t take seriously anything that they say. Their behaviour needs to be the opposite. It needs to be whatever will maximise the chances that the people of Corinth come to the Lord Jesus in trust and obedience. Come to him for forgiveness and new life.
Please don’t mishear this. I’m not saying that we simply mould ourselves to whatever the world wants us to be.
Sometimes Christians have fallen into that trap. We could do it in our behaviour. So all of a Christian’s friends get very drunk, often. So the Christian joins them, gets very drunk, often. Or we could do it in our beliefs. Our friends find it offensive that there’s only one way to get to heaven. So we quietly pretend that Jesus never said he was the only way.
Paul’s not saying that. Indeed, back in chapter 1, he said that the message of Jesus will sound weak and foolish to many who hear it. A rescuer for the world, who wound up being killed in the most humiliating way possible. It was a joke then, and it is now.
It’s always been the case that many reject Jesus when they hear about him. But what we mustn’t do is live in such an appalling way, that we don’t only break God’s standards, we even cross the lines that the unbelieving world would set. Live in ways that they think are a disgrace.
“I’ve got a way to make you happy forever”. It’s not very convincing if it comes from someone looking thoroughly miserable. “I’m going to make you rich.” Nobody will fall for it if the person looks like a complete scruff. “This is the car that everyone wants”. Says the guy with an empty showroom.
“Jesus takes broken people. He forgives them, and he puts them back together. A little at a time. And one day Jesus will come back and make us perfect in every way.” That’s what we say. It’s wonderful and it’s true.
We’re all hypocrites in one way or another. We’re living proof that Jesus does this, a little at a time. We’re works in progress, proof that he hasn’t finished with us yet. But if the church tolerates and flaunts behaviour that would scandalise the most titillating tabloids, nobody will believe a word we say.
That’s why this lawsuit should never have gone to the civil courts. In the present, we are to show Jesus to unbelieving world.
We were rescued from it
The third way we relate to the unbelieving world is in the past. We were rescued from it. We were rescued from it.
This brings us to verses 9 to 11. We’ll skip over verses 7 and 8, and come back to them in a moment. They pick up on some teaching of Jesus, that the Christian way is not to retaliate. We need to learn not to seek to get even when others wrong us.
Let me read verses 9 to 11, and then I’ll tell you why they’re here.
“Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
Now, Paul’s list of sins here is wide. He’s making a bigger and more general point than just addressing the lawsuit that we’re talking about. In particular, he identifies a number of sexual sins. This was his subject in chapter 5, where a man was sleeping with his step-mother. Sexual sin within the church has never really left his mind, and the second half of chapter 6 will have more to say about that.
So I’m not going to comment today on the sexual sins in Paul’s list here. We need to look at those, but I’ll save that for next week when Paul returns to that topic.
For today, let’s focus on why these 3 verses are here. Verse 9 starts: “Or do you not know…” This was the same phrase we had in verse 2: “Or do you not know …?” And in verse 4.
This is one more reason why this lawsuit is so desperately inappropriate.
And it’s because the world’s behaviour disqualifies them from being in God’s kingdom. When Jesus returns, and everything becomes wonderful, people who live in these ways will miss out.
Earlier on, I talked about the great day when Jesus will return as judge. The idea of standing on trial, with every thought, word and deed brought out into the open, is terrifying. What chance do any of us have of coming through unscathed?
The answer, left to ourselves, is no chance whatsoever. Verse 11: “That is what some of you were.” Except that God intervened. The second half of verse 11 is one of the most beautiful in the New Testament. “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
Jesus died on the cross to rescue us. God’s Spirit moved into our hearts to apply his rescue to us personally. And so we have been washed clean. Our past mistakes do not cling to us anymore. We’re clean. We have been sanctified, set apart for God. And we have been justified. That’s the word when someone is acquitted in a court of law. We’ve been declared “not guilty”. We’re free to go. The court won’t sit until Jesus returns, but we’ve already been pronounced not guilty.
If you know the Lord Jesus, you are wonderfully free, clean, forgiven, set apart, restored, made whole. It’s all a gift, paid for when Jesus died on the cross, and applied to you personally when God moved in by his Spirit.
But the key word for the Corinthians in this verse is the word “were”. That is what some of you were. Once again, as we said in chapter 5, all these sins are public, indisputable, known lifestyles that people might adopt. And the danger here is that Christians in the church return to their old ways. And if they do that, the Corinthians must not be deceived. This is serious. “Do not be deceived. … will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
And in that list is the person who steals. The person who is greedy. The person who swindles.
You see the relevance for this court case. Both the fraudster and the person who’s taking it to court are in great danger. They’re in danger of disinheriting themselves from God’s kingdom. When Jesus returns, they might miss out, because they’ve chosen to go back to the kind of lifestyle that you get in the world at large, the way of life we were rescued from.
Don’t worry. God’s forgiveness and new life are still free. We cannot earn them, and there are no mistakes too big for God to forgive them. But if someone in the church embraces a lifestyle that is the very picture of all that is wrong with the world, and if they stay in that way of life, then they’re probably showing that they never knew the Lord Jesus. They’d never knows his forgiveness. They’d never known his power to transform lives. They were just passing through the church for a season.
It’s the third way this chapter says we relate to the unbelieving world. We were rescued from it. And if we choose to return to it, we risk losing everything.
Our relationship with the unbelieving world: We will be their co-judges. We are to show Jesus to them. We were rescued from it.
Back to verse 7: “The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters.”
The Corinthians would love to know who will win the court case. The cheat, or the cheated? The fraudster, or the defrauded?
Paul can already tell them who will win. Nobody. Whichever way the case goes, they both lose. They all lose.
The person who cheated has already lost. He’s succumbed to a lifestyle of greed. Towards his Christian brothers and sisters.
The person who was wronged has already lost. He’s forgotten how to turn the other cheek. How not to retaliate. As Jesus said. As Jesus did.
Both lose. And by allowing it, the whole church loses. Instead of being salt and light to the people of Corinth, they’re a laughing stock.
I started by asking you to think about what your most prized possession would be. And what steps you’d take to protect it.
The Corinthians had got their prize possessions wrong. Here was a man who prized whatever money he’d swindled out of someone more than his new family. Here was another man who prized whatever he’d lost more than the Jesus who never fought back. Here was a church going to court to squabble over tiny and inconsequential property battles.
And yet here’s the irony. The most precious thing they actually have is the Lord Jesus and his Spirit. This is the Lord Jesus who washed them, who set them apart, who has acquitted them. This is the Lord Jesus who will return to bring his wonderful kingdom for all who are in his family.
That is the most precious thing these Corinthians have. And by squabbling over some property, they’re in danger of losing it.
So what do you most prize? Is there a possession you’d hate to see lose? Would you go to court to fight to keep it? Would you cheat, in small ways no doubt, on others to get something you really want?
Or do you value being in Jesus’ family, his church? Do you value your Christian brothers and sisters? Do you value being part of God’s people who will one day join him to judge the world? Do you value being in Jesus’ kingdom, which one day will be yours to enjoy forever?
There is no greater privilege than to be a Christian, to know and follow Jesus, to be in his family.
We need to see things the right way up. And let that colour and transform the way we relate to one another.