All one in Christ Jesus

Paul visited Corinth during his second missionary journey. To say “visited” isn’t quite right, he actually stayed there for a year and a half – he met a couple of fellow Christians there who were also in the  tent making profession; Priscilla and Aquila. During his time in Corinth, Paul preached in the synagogue, with  limited success, the leader of the synagogue, Crispus and his family became believers, but hostility arose amongst the Jews and when Paul was no longer welcome in the synagogue, the believers  met next door in the house of Crispus. From that time on Paul no longer preached to Jews in Corinth, but concentrated his efforts on Gentiles.

The city of Corinth was the fourth largest in the Roman empire. It lay at a strategic point in Greece,  pretty much everything that went north or south by land had to go through Corinth. The isthmus (a narrow strip of land connecting two larger land areas) of some 4 miles on which Corinth lay was an important connection for sea farers from the east (Aegean Sea) and the west (gulf of Corinth). It was easier to carry cargo across the strip of land than to sail the long way round the south of Greece. A canal was planned and construction was attempted by the ancients, but it was not until 1893 that a functioning canal was built.

The city was known for commerce, culture and corruption (acknowledgements to W Wiersbe). A few hundred years before Paul’s time a temple to the goddess Aphrodite had been located just a few miles south of Corinth on a rock of more than 500 metres in height;  Acrocorinthus. The worship there involved prostitutes and this reputation had stuck with Corinth ever since. There was even a verb coined – korinthiazo which meant to act like a Corinthian – i.e. commit fornication.

1 Corinthians was not the first letter Paul had written to the Corinthians – he had previously written to warn them not to associate with sexually immoral people (chapter 5). This letter is more to do with internal matters in the church.

The first chapter provides a brief introduction to the letter, a word of thanksgiving for the believers in Corinth, a condemnation of divisions within the church and a recognition of God’s work through ordinary people.

  1. Introduction

Paul uses the word called three times in his introduction; call or calling. He says that he was called to be an apostle. Paul uses the word as we would to describe  a vocation –  a ‘calling’. It was the task that God asked him to do and for which he was made for – to be an apostle. Interestingly apostles are not mentioned in Paul’s later letters as church officers. It seems that to be an apostle was to be called to a specific role in setting up the church. The members of the Corinthians’ church were also called in a similar way, they were called to be holy. This is an important statement of Paul’s right at the beginning of his letter – the church has a calling – to be holy. To be holy is to be set apart for God’s use. If you’ve ever emptied a dishwasher you might have found the odd plate or utensil that comes out dirty. The clean stuff is set aside for later use in the cupboard, but anything that is dirty is not available for use, it cannot be set aside for that purpose. It needs to be re-cleaned. So it is with us. As we participate in church life we have a calling – to be set aside for God’s purpose – he cannot use us if we are soiled and dirty.

Paul includes in this group, who are called to be holy, those who have “called on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Peter in his sermon in Acts 2 said that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” and Paul himself said “Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake” – again all the Gentiles are called – we will see later that for some it is easier to respond to this call than others, but the point is that all are called. Those who are members of the church are those who have called on him – or who have accepted the call of the gospel. They are the ones who themselves have been called to be holy.

The process seems to be thus: all are called to respond to the gospel, those who respond call on the name of the Lord Jesus, and having done so they are called to a life that is clean or holy.

  • Thanksgiving

It’s easy to criticise! We love to do it – it’s what sells newspapers and motivates many a conversation. As we shall see, the church in Corinth had its problems, and we are tempted with an air of self righteousness to dismiss these sinful people, but Paul was thankful for them! These were God’s people who had received the grace of God!

Note carefully what Paul says – he is thankful because they were given God’s grace in Christ Jesus. Paul goes on to say that because they are in Christ they are enriched. Interestingly there was a time in Paul’s life when he was not in Christ. Paul would later write to the church in Rome stating “Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles and they were in Christ before I was.” (Romans 16.7). What brings a person to be in Christ? It is when we hear the message and believe (Ephesians 1: 13). But what is it to be in Christ Jesus?

Did you know that we are all ‘in God’? As a human race we owe our existence to this fact. Paul said that ‘in him we live and move and have our being.’ We are in this position by birth – when we are born we become members of the human race and we owe our existence to God – we are in him. We have his attributes of life and being. But we are also in Adam! “in Adam all die” says Paul (in 1 Corinthians 15:22). We inherit all that Adam was because we are in him – we arrive in this place again by natural birth. Please note this idea of what it is to ‘be in someone’. We inherit certain of their characteristics as well as their condition because we are in them. What Adam did has a direct effect on our nature –we participate in his error of sin and as a result we die (or are separated) to God.

The Corinthians were in God for sure, they were members of the human race, they were in Adam too – they shared in his sin and the death that it brings, but they were in Christ too! How does one become in Christ? By hearing the message believing – that’s all. We do not need to be naturally born to be in Christ, but we do need to be spiritually born. When we are in Christ we are in a wonderful place – we are “enriched in every way” as Paul puts it. Take a look at Ephesians chapter one and you will see just some of the things that we are granted when we are in Christ. This is not something that is only for some special group of people – it is for all who believe. If you have believed all this is yours in Christ Jesus, if you are not in Christ you can be, just believe. This is the good news that is the gospel.

When we are in Christ we are given gifts (v 7). Gifts are to be used. You will remember the parable Jesus told of how three individuals were each given a sum of money and told to put it to work until the return of the man of noble birth. The gifts were to be used whilst waiting for the return of the king. This is exactly what Paul spoke of to the Corinthians in verse 7: “Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.” You have God-given capability to invest in God’s work as you wait for the return of the king. This is a significant responsibility. The gifts seem to be primarily for the purpose of strengthening the church, but they also seem to be for evangelism too. If you are not using your gift the church is disadvantaged. Let’s work together exercising our gifts to both bring the gospel to this needy world as well as to build up the church.

We may well wonder that this is too big a task and we are incapable of being successful. This is absolutely true! But God has not abandoned us to our own devices, but he will ‘keep us strong.’ The question is why are we so often weak and why do we so often fail? The answer is in verse 9 – if we are to be successful we need his help and if we are to receive his help we need to be in fellowship with Jesus Christ. How can we do that? Have you ever met someone and realised that you have absolutely nothing in common with them? You attempt to have a meaningful conversation but it seems that every time you try to converse you find that either you have no interest in the subject of the other person or they have no interest in yours! Contrast this when you meet someone who shares the same interests as you or who has mutual friends – suddenly the conversation flows and you have real ‘fellowship’. So it is with Jesus Christ – if you have one or both feet in the world or if on the other end of the spectrum you have an interest only in ‘religion’ and its traditions you will find that you have little in common with Jesus. It is only when we align our interests and desires with his that we have fellowship and as we do so we are strengthened to exercise our gifts effectively.

  • Divisions

There were some significant problems in the church in Corinth. Paul wasted no time in his letter in ‘getting down to business’ and addressing these. A church that is moving in the right direction is a church in which unity is known. There are some Christians who seem to feel that any calls for unity are by necessity calls for compromise and they’d rather fight (often about church tradition) than seek unity! I’ve heard of churches that fight over the hymn book used, or whether hymn books are needed at all! Paul makes it clear what he sees as important – he appealed for agreement and for removal of division so that there could know unity of mind and thought. What seems to have happened in Corinth was that some of the church members followed one leader and others followed another and others followed yet another – the result was division and quarrelling. The basis of our fellowship is Jesus – his coming as a man to earth, his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead and the resultant forgiveness made available to all – these are indisputable facts and it is on these facts that we know unity. Whenever there is too much emphasis on a person or leader, members of a church can end up following that person rather than Christ. Who was crucified for us? To whom are we baptised into? Asks Paul. Not Apollos (as good as he is), not Cephas (as good as he is) and certainly not Paul!

Paul goes off on something of a tangent at this point – but it is an important tangent because it helps us understand what really mattered to Paul.

Since the divisions in the church in Corinth were associated with leaders it seems that to be baptised by one of the leaders contributed to the factionalism. You can imagine the sort of thing: “I’ve been baptised by Apollos so I’m on his side!” Paul says – I’m glad I didn’t baptise many of you! In fact Paul couldn’t even remember exactly whom he had baptised! Paul seems to be saying if division as arisen because of the identity of the person doing the baptising then I’m glad I didn’t baptise many of you. Interestingly says more about baptism and its relative importance in the scheme of things; baptism was not part of his mission –  “Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel.” This is a rather startling statement and it seems prudent to factor Paul’s perspective in our thinking on baptism.

  • Wisdom and Power

In verse 17, Paul states that his mission is not to baptise “but to preach the gospel – but not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross be emptied of its power.” He then spends the rest of this chapter contrasting the wisdom of man and the wisdom of God.

I want you to imagine for a minute just how ridiculous Paul’s message sounded. Imagine someone going on about the wisdom of a hangman’s noose! We tend to forget that ‘the cross’ as we perceive these words comes across to us as positive thing, a symbol of Christian faith and of God’s love. But to the average person in Corinth, the cross was just a means of capital punishment. No wonder it sounded foolish! How easy it would be to dismiss as of no consequence the ravings of this Jewish man about the cross!

There are some people in society who are more resistant to Christian things than others. Jesus spoke of how difficult it was for rich people to enter the kingdom of God. Why? Because their wealth made them feel content and secure. There are many influences on people that make them difficult to reach with the gospel. People of high society are less interested in eternal things – they are very happy to concentrate on their status within society. Intellectuals are reluctant to have to accept that there is one who knows more than them. As a result of these influences, often those who are weak and foolish in the eyes of the world are more amenable to the gospel. Those who accept the gospel are those who realise that they have nothing to boast about.

There is a hint in this passage that has lead some to conclude that God doesn’t bother with the noble, intelligent or influential, but nothing could be further from the truth. You will remember the parable of the wedding feast – everyone was invited or called. But not all accepted the invitation. The parable ends with the statement “many are invited, but few are chosen.” The gospel is sent to all, all are called or invited, but not everyone accepts the message – and Paul makes it clear (as did Jesus) that some would find it easier to accept than others.

Some Christians have used Paul’s statements in this chapter to espouse a sort of anti-intellectualism. They are tempted to say that all learning is a waste of time and that ignorance is a sign of true faith. I think nothing could be further from the truth. Once we humble ourselves before God and accept his wisdom we find that we are no longer held back in our thinking by man’s deficient wisdom – we have true wisdom. Whenever I study biological systems I am struck by the wisdom of God in the way that he created them – it’s a real privilege to think God’s thoughts after him. The world says there is no God and thus they are forced to say that all of the complexity of biology has arisen by the effect of time and chance on matter and energy. This defies all rational thought and yet this is the way most people think, anything else they say is dumb!. As Paul says…”the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” Paul continues this theme in chapter 2.