Teaching series from 1 Corinthians

Two Spiritual Priorities

1 Corinthians 1:1-17

Teaching t05393


Corinth was one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire (maybe third after Rome and Alexandria). It was situated about 60 miles west of Athens, on an 4.5 mile isthmus between the Aegean and Adriatic Seas. Since sailors preferred to have their ships dragged overland here rather than go around the more treacherous waters south of Greece, Corinth controlled the naval trade between Italy and Asia.

With all of the people and money flowing through Corinth, it became infamous for its intellectual debate ("They do nothing but speak and hear new ideas all day long"), religious agitation (APHRODITE: priestess/prostitutes; ASCLEPIUS: clay genitals for healing from venereal diseases; BACCHUS: drunken orgy worship; MYSTERY CULTS: occultic initiation rites), and moral debauchery (Romans used "Corinthianize" as synonym for sexual immorality). "All of this evidence suggests that Corinth was the New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas of the ancient world." [1]

Paul brought the message of Christ to this city in 51 AD, about three years earlier (Acts 18:1-17), and a large number of people came to Christ.

Since then, things hadn't gone so well in the Corinthian church. A casual reading of this letter will reveal that some were involved in sexual immorality (religious prostitution [6] & even incest [5]), some had serious drinking problems (11:21), some were falling into religious syncretism (10:21,22), some were embarrassed about key elements of the gospel (cross [1] & resurrection [15]), and they were racked by division (1,3,6,11). To put it mildly, the church was a mess! They weren't transforming Corinthian culture; Corinthian culture was conforming them!

How would you begin a letter to a group like this? By beginning the way he does, Paul reveals two key spiritual priorities . . . 

The Priority of God's Grace (vs 1-9)

Paul corrects, admonishes and warns them in this letter—but first he does something else (read vs 1-9). How can he say this? Not because he is a "shmoozer," but because of the most important truth in Christianity—the grace of God.

Paul thanks God "for the grace of God which was given you in Christ" (vs 4). "Grace" is the root from which we get the word "charity." It is the undeserved gift God gives to us because of the work of Christ. Because Christ was willing to receive what he did not deserve (God's judgment for our sins), God is free to give us what we do not deserve. Paul mentions three incredible implications of this grace in vs 1-9:

“SAINT” STATUS (vs 2): We think of "saints" as an elite group of spiritual heroes who attain that status because they no longer sin. But Paul says all Christians are "saints"—including the Corithian Christians in spite of all their moral short-comings. "Saint" and "sanctified" have the same root, which means to be set apart, to belong to God.

God permanently confers this status on us ("saints by calling") the moment we "call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." (NIV "called to be holy" is inaccurate.) So it is proper and significant to refer to each Corinthian Christian (and each Christian here) as "saints." The fact that Paul reminds these Christians (with all their moral problems) that they are saints is a striking reminder that our standing with God is based not on what we do for God, but only on what Christ has done for us.

GIFTED FOR MINISTRY (vs 5-7a): God not only made them saints; he also gave them the privilege of representing him in their world and he supplied them with the spiritual abilities to do this effectively. "Gift" refers to these spiritual abilities, and it derives from the same root as "grace." Verse 6 indicates that these gifts are given the moment we receive Christ.

All Christians, no matter how new or immature or damaged, have this same privilege. The gifting to influence others for Jesus Christ is given to every one of us from the moment we meet Christ. If I had not been taught this, I would not be here today. In spite of all my problems and short-comings, God's people taught me this as a new Christian and challenged me to discover the unique role of ministry to which God had called me. This gave me great motivation to learn God's word and ask him to change my life.

FUTURE SECURITY (vs 7b,8): When Christ returns visibly, he will judge mankind for its sins. In view of their sins, why were the Corinthians "awaiting eagerly" this day? Because they knew Christ would "confirm them to the end blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ."

The NIV translation is misleading here."Make you strong" is bebaioo, as in v. 6, a technical term for confirming or guaranteeing legal contracts."So that you will be" is not in the text. The NIV makes it sound like Paul is saying that God make them strong so that they will be blameless when Christ returns. Actually, he is saying that God will confirm them blameless (in Christ) to the end.

If you have received Christ, you can look forward to the return of Christ, not because you are blameless or because you hope to live a blameless life by then, but because he promises to confirm you blameless on that day. You will not even undergo God's judgment to see if you are worthy of entering his kingdom; you have already passed out of that judgment (Jn. 5:24). This is because of God's grace—Christ's payment for your sins has once and for all time assured you of your membership in his eternal kingdom.

If there was ever a group of Christians who should be warned of forfeiting God's acceptance, this is it! If there ever was the danger of grace being used as license to sin, this is it! But Paul still begins this letter by affirming God's grace in the strongest terms! He will go on to correct them, rebuke them, threaten to give them a spiritual spanking (4:21) and call on them to live consistently with who they are. But he will not call into question God's acceptance, or his willingness to gift them, or his promise of eternal life because these are given to us not on the basis of our good works, but on the basis of whether we have by faith trusted Christ and asked him to give us this gift of grace. This is what makes your decision to receive Christ so important . . . 

The Priority of Unity (vs 10-17)

Read vs 10,11. Of all of the serious problems in this church, Paul addresses division first. More than the sexual problems, more than the doctrinal confusion, Paul is horrified by the prospect of division growing in Corinth. We infer from this that unity in the church is of paramount importance. In order to understand why he prioritizes unity so highly, we must understand what division is. There are many misconceptions on this point.

Paul is not talking about organizational division here. It is possible for Christians to divide up into different churches organizationally and yet still be unified. On the other hand, it also possible for Christians to be in the same church organizationally (as these were) and yet be deeply divided.

Neither is he talking about Christians disagreeing over non-essential doctrinal issues or strategic issues. Christians can deeply disagree with one another over these issues, even to the point of working separately from one another (see Acts 15:36-41), and still be unified. Or they can agree on virtually all doctrinal and strategic matters, and still be deeply divided.

Division occurs when Christians "quarrel" (vs 11) with each other. Every time Paul uses this term, it refers to conflicts arising from things like envy, jealousy, bitterness, malice, greed, and conceit (Rom. 1:29; 13:13; 1 Cor. 3:3; 2 Cor. 12:20; Gal. 5:20; Phil. 1:15; 1 Tim. 6:4; Titus 3:9). In other words, division is relational conflict between Christians arising from sinful attitudes in one or both parties.

Conversely, unity is the personal love which Christians have for each other based on their common love for Christ. When Christians relate to each other this way, it unleashes the power of God's Spirit in a unique way. Non-Christians are struck by a quality of community which they long for but cannot find in the world (Jn. 13:34,35). Christians are powerfully built up and motivated to grow and serve Christ.

No wonder Satan works so hard to spread division. As in normal warfare, so also in spiritual warfare, the maxim "divide and conquer" holds true. In the early years of this church, we could never get anything done because division was an annual event. Through the years, every home group failure has had divided leadership teams. Those of us who have personally experienced the recent division in our church know how demoralizing it can be!

How does division start? It is not usually obvious until it is full-blown. Its' symptoms can be very subtle.

IMMATURE ADULATION OF HUMAN LEADERS: That was the symptom in Corinth (read vs 12; 3:3,4). Paul saw evidence of division in the way they talked about their spiritual leaders. It wasn't that some of them liked Paul's preaching style better than Apollos' or Peter's. It wasn't that some of them felt especially grateful for how God had worked through one of them to bring them to Christ or help them grow. There is nothing wrong with such affinities and affections. But their willingness to "quarrel" over this betrayed that something else, something fleshly, was going on. I suspect that they were talking down the other leaders (and maybe trying to pit them against one another) more than they were simply talking up their favorites. At any rate, Paul was not flattered by this; he was horrified (read vs 13-17).

Our primary allegiance should be to Christ. He was crucified for us. He is the One we have committed ourselves to follow. Read 3:3-9. Leaders should be viewed simply as God's servants, people through whom he works in special ways to bring people to Christ and give them spiritual feeding and direction. They don't want to be told how much greater they are than other leaders. They want the people who follow them to love Christ first and serve him and respect the other leaders.

UNREPENTANT SIN: Sometimes Christians spread division because they are in sin but don't want to deal with it. In Titus 3:10,11, Paul tells Titus to deal firmly with factious people, reminding him that they are "perverted and sinning, being self-condemned." When God confronts us with moral impurity through other Christians and we don't want to repent, the natural response is to despise the person who corrected you and try to discredit him to yourself and to others. This the beginning of division (see 4:3-5).

If you have enmity toward someone who has corrected you, judge your own flesh instead of the person who cared enough to try to help you!

SELFISH AMBITION: Sometimes Christians spread division because they are bent on building their own kingdoms. In 3 John 1:9,10, John warns them of Diotrephes who unjustly accused John with wicked words and actively tried to turn other Christians against him. Why was he doing this? Because he "loves to be first among them." Diotrephes evidently wanted power and the benefits that went with it, and he found church leadership a good avenue to this. But this attitude will view strong, godly leaders as a threat, and move to discredit them.

James speaks of this same attitude in Jas. 3:14-16. Who can deny that sometimes the reason we divide from other Christians is because we're jealous that they get the attention we want, or because they hold positions of influence which we covet? This is rank, but it is in every heart and it must be firmly judged or it will result in division.

LACK OF PROPER PURPOSE: When Christians don't stay focused on reaching out to the lost and building up other Christians, they become vulnerable to division. An inward focus makes it easy to start picking at one another's faults. But an outward, serving focus enhances unity (Phil. 1:27; 2:2).

Treasure unity and be diligent to preserve it (Eph. 4:1-3)!!!!!


[1] Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 3.