Humble by choice

This is a busy time for our high school seniors. Many of them are applying to different colleges and universities. This can be a very competitive process. Consequently, we tell our young people that before they apply to a particular school, they need to find out what the admissions committee is looking for when they evaluate prospective students. Is it grades? Test scores? Personal references? Work experience? Extracurricular activities? Creative ability? All of the above? Whatever it is, you’d better know what it is and you’d better make sure you’ve got what they want before you turn in your application.

What sort of people does God look for when He gets ready to populate heaven? If heaven has an admissions committee, what qualifications do committee members look for? God’s admission committee is different than any other that we have ever considered, for God’s thoughts are not like our thoughts, nor are His ways like our ways (Isa 55:8). What types of people does God choose for His family? God chooses those that have nothing to brag about. In1 Cor 1:26-31, Paul is going to pull the rug out from underneath us and turn our thinking upside down. First, he is going to tell us that…

  1. God’s choice eliminates self-esteem(1:26-29). In 1:26 Paul writes, “For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble.” Paul begins by taking the Corinthians back to their spiritual roots. He reminds them of who they were not when God saved them. The word “consider” is the first imperative in this book. Thus, this is a key verse. Paul commands the Corinthians to consider or contemplate their calling. The word “calling” refers to their position in the world when they first believed in Christ. This issue of calling is important to Paul (cf. 1:1, 2, 9, 24). He believes that in order to become a Christian you must respond to God’s call. Likewise, if you are a Christian today, it is because you have answered God’s call.

Since Paul will have some difficult things to say, he addresses the Corinthians as “brethren” (cf. 1:10). He then shares with his readers “that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble.”

First of all, the Corinthians were not academically elite (“wise”). They were not wise according to a worldly standard. There were some from the educated classes in Corinth, but most of the people in the church were uneducated.

Second, the Corinthians were not political movers and shakers (“mighty”). The word translated “mighty” referred to the ruling class of a society. There were some in the church who were politically involved in the city, but most of the church members in Corinth had no influence in Corinth’s political power structure.

Finally, the Corinthians were not from well-to-do families (“noble”). Not many had what the world calls “good breeding.” By and large, most of them were from the lower ranks of society, including the slave class.

What Paul is saying to the Corinthians is, “You know what sort of people you were when God called you out of sinful darkness into the light of salvation. You know that He didn’t accept you as His child because you were brilliant or wealthy or powerful, because most of you weren’t at all. And those of you whose lives were defined that way were saved in spite of those positions, not because of them. If anything, they were obstacles between you and God’s grace.” The reality is that position and wealth and influence really can be hindrances, keeping people from the sense of need that leads to salvation.

In a sense, Paul holds up a mirror and says, “Take a good look. What do you see?” If the Corinthians were honest, they didn’t see many impressive people. They saw ordinary men and women from unimpressive backgrounds whose lives had been utterly transformed by Jesus Christ. There is an important message here if we care to receive it. God prefers losers. When God calls people to His family, He intentionally chooses those whom the world rejects. He prefers the weak over the strong, the forgotten over the famous, and the nobodies over the somebodies. He starts with the people the world chooses last. He actually prefers to choose the weak instead of the strong.

It’s not as if God intends to take equal numbers from every social class in the world. And it’s definitely not true that God populates the church from the upper classes but sprinkles in a few from the lower classes. The opposite is closer to the truth. God populates His church with the rejects of the world and then sprinkles in a few wealthy and powerful people. He prefers losers. God deliberately chooses the forgotten of the world and He prefers the company of the poor. He loves to save the uneducated, the foolish, the addicted, the broken, the downcast, and the imprisoned. In short, He specializes in saving those whom the world counts as nothing.

Before we move to our final point this morning, I wonder if there might be someone here asking the question, “If God chooses down-and-outers, is there any place for the famous, the wealthy, or the brilliant in the family of God?” The answer is definitely, “Yes!” Notice carefully that 1:26 does not say, “Not any of you were wise, not any were influential, not any were of noble birth,” but rather not many. Thank God for the letter “M.” Thank God for the athletes, musicians, and actors who have become Christians, but God’s Word tells us we should never expect the Church to be filled with such people.

Have you forgotten your calling? Memory can be a blessing or a curse. In the spiritual life, it can be very healthy to remember what life was like before we met Jesus. If you remember where you started, you’ll appreciate much more the grace of God that has brought you to where you are today. Do you remember where you came from? Do you recall what you were doing when God saved you from yourself? God chooses those that have nothing to brag about.[Now that Paul has reminded the Corinthians of who they were not, Paul goes on to inform them of who they were.]

In 1:27-29, Paul transitions with a strong contrast. He writes, “but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.” Three times in 1:27-28, Paul writes that “God has chosen.” This is the doctrine of sovereign choice—the biblical doctrine of election. These words mean exactly what they seem to mean. If we have a problem with them, the problem does not rest in the Greek text or the English translation. We may not like the idea that God chooses whom He will save, but that’s exactly the meaning of these words. There are no naturally born children of God; all are adopted. They are children by choice, never by accident. Ultimately, we do not become Christians because of an independent decision we have made; rather, even the initial part of our becoming believers comes as a result of an inner call from God, rooted in His love and undeserved grace (cf. also 7:20).

Consider the implication of the text. When the world throws a party, the beautiful people are always invited. They rent a nightclub and hire a security team to keep the ordinary people out. Only the “in crowd” makes it past the rope line. Helicopters circle overhead and the paparazzi strain to a get a picture they can sell to People magazine. It’s all about who shows up and who is wearing what kind of dress, and trying to match this man with that woman. That’s how the world throws a party. But God does it differently. God chooses those that have nothing to brag about.

God chooses people that no one would invite to a party. He includes those who would normally be excluded. He does this so that He can subvert, invert, and convert human values. He shames the wise, He shames the strong, and He “reduces to nothing” (NRSV) the things that are impressive to our world. Why does God do this? God chooses the despised so that no man or woman can boast before Him. God is a jealous God and will not share His glory with anyone (cf. Isa 42:8).

Mensa is an organization whose members have an IQ of 140 or higher. Several years ago, there was a Mensa convention in San Francisco, and several members lunched at a local café. While dining, they discovered that their saltshaker contained pepper and their peppershaker was full of salt. How could they swap the contents of the bottles without spilling, and using only the implements at hand? Clearly this was a job for Mensa! The group debated and presented ideas, and finally came up with a brilliant solution involving a napkin, a straw, and an empty saucer. They called the waitress over to dazzle her with their solution. “Ma’am,” they said, “we couldn’t help but notice that the peppershaker contains salt and the saltshaker pepper.” “Oh,” the waitress interrupted. “Sorry about that.” She unscrewed the caps of both bottles and switched them.

This is how God works! He likes to shame those who are wise and strong. God used trumpets to bring down the walls of Jericho. He reduced Gideon’s army from 32,000 to 300 to rout the armies of Midian (Judges 7:1-25). He used an ox goad in the hand of Shamgar to defeat the Philistines. With the jawbone of a donkey He enabled Samson to defeat a whole army. And Jesus fed over 5,000 with nothing more than a few loaves and fishes.

God does these types of miracles to humble humankind so that no one can take credit for anything! Augustine, when asked what were the three most important virtues, replied, “Humility, humility, humility.” Truly, that is God’s heart for you and me. He wants us to daily recognize that we have nothing to brag about before Him. Rather, we are completely indebted to Him.

[God’s choice eliminates self-esteem…but now we will also see that…]

  1. God’s choice demands Christ-esteem (1:30-31). Paul closes chapter one with these words:“But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, 31so that, just as it is written, ‘LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD’” (1:30-31). It is “by His doing” (lit. “of Him”) that you are “in Christ Jesus.” He is both the source and the cause of the Corinthians being in Christ. The believer is described here very simply as one who is “in Christ.” You know, you can’t be any closer to something than “in it.” That’s our position as born again believers. God the Father sees you and me as a part of His Son. This is just one of many reasons a believer can’t lose his or her salvation—the believer is one with Christ.

This phrase (“But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus”) explains the previous verses: “If things that were not have now become something, it is due to God alone.” The crucified Christ becomes the manifestation of God’s wisdom, which here refers to God’s long-established plan for the world’s salvation (cf. 1:21; 2:7; Eph 3:10). In Him, believers receive true wisdom: the wisdom of the cross and all its benefits—right standing before God (“righteousness”), moral cleansing (“holiness”), and rescue from slavery to sin (“redemption”). These three words describe the fruit of God’s wisdom in Christ. Let me explain.

We’ve been given God’s righteousness. God is perfectly righteous because He is totally as He should be. He can’t vary from His rightness. And when we trust His Son, He shares His Son’s righteousness with us. He makes us right with Him, right within ourselves, and right with other people.

We’ve received God’s sanctification. We’ve been set apart and made holy, both positionally and practically. This is the daily manifestation of the Christ-like character that has been placed into us. The character of Christ is gradually revealed in us more and more the longer we’re in relationship with Him, as we learn how to handle life according to God’s wisdom. We’ll become more patient, more loving, more insightful, and more courageous. It’s a wonderful lifelong process.

We’ve received God’s redemption. To redeem means to buy something back. God, through Christ, has purchased us from the power of sin. It’s because of Christ’s redeeming work on the cross that we have eternal life. God chooses those that have nothing to brag about.

Paul writes because of these wonderful gifts, we can boast. Christians can properly boast, not in their own achievements, but in the Lord (1:31), as in Jer 9:24, the verse Paul quotes here. This quote interestingly follows a verse that declares, “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches” (Jer 9:23). And those are precisely the three categories Paul has enunciated in 1 Cor 1:26.

However, please note that in Jer 9:23 the Lord is Yahweh, but in 1:31 it is Jesus. Paul is saying, “We can boast but we must boast in Christ.” May our boast be not in what we do for Christ but in what Christ does for us. When it comes to salvation we contribute nothing but the sin that makes it necessary to be saved. God does the rest. God chooses whom He pleases, and He does so by choosing those whom the world overlooks. The reason God does what He does is to demonstrate that He alone is the source of our salvation. Thus, if we believe what this passage teaches it will change the way we look at ourselves, and it will change the way we talk about ourselves. Some of us talk so much about ourselves that we hardly talk about the Lord at all. Our real problem is the vast difference between our view and God’s view.

Now, you may be thinking this is a nice sermon, but it further demonstrates that I will never amount to anything. Even though I am chosen by God and included in His plan, I still feel like a nobody. If you think you are too small to be effective, you have never been in bed with a mosquito. I want to assure you that God has you right where He wants you. If you feel average, weak, and foolish, God can use you. Those people that He has used the most are those that have plenty of sin and weakness.

Noah: Rejected from society. Built an ark for 120 years and had no converts.

Abraham: Offered to share his own wife with another man, not once but twice.

Joseph: Ostracized by his dysfunctional family; possesses a prison record.

Moses: A modest and meek man, but poor communicator, even stuttering at times. Murderer.

David: Affair with his neighbor’s wife; murdered her husband to avoid charges.

Elijah: Prone to depression—collapses under pressure.

Jeremiah: Emotionally unstable, alarmist, negative, always lamenting things.

Hosea: Wife became a prostitute.

Peter: Aggressive, hot-tempered fisherman, loose cannon who denied Christ.

Ordinary people of faith can do extraordinary things for God if they eliminate self-esteem and put on Christ esteem.

Being a wise fool

When I was growing up, my parents took my brother and me on two trips across the United States. On one of our six-week trips we visited the Sears Tower in Chicago. I will never forget our awe when we first saw the city’s magnificent skyline. The closer we came, the more the skyscrapers seemed to rise in height. As we headed toward the heart of this impressive city, the imposing buildings ahead of us appeared to grow out of the ground before our very eyes. The famous Sears Tower dwarfed even the tallest of the other superstructures. As we entered downtown Chicago, this massive construction loomed even larger. Standing at its base, we gazed straight up at the 110-story building that soars 1450 feet in the air. Built with 76,400 tons of steel, containing more than 4.5 million square feet, and covered by 16,000 bronze-tinted windows, the Sears Tower is an amazing sight to behold. We were astonished at its greatness and grandeur. The closer we drew, the larger it grew. And the larger it grew, the more we seemed to shrink.

That is what drawing close to something awesome will do. It will make you feel smaller and smaller by comparison. This is precisely the dynamic that occurs in our own hearts when we draw near to the starkest, most awesome display of God’s glory—the cross of Jesus Christ. In 1 Cor 1:18-25, Paul is going to discuss the wisdom and power of the cross. The book of 1 Corinthians is about how to have unity in a divided church. Paul expressed this theme in 1:10-17. Now in 1:18-25, he will take us to the cross, which is the basis of our unity. In these eight verses Paul will answer the question: Why does God use the foolish message of the cross? The answer may be surprising. God uses the foolish message of the cross to show forth His wisdom and power. In other words, God “fools” us to show Himself wise and powerful.

  1. God pronounced the foolishness of the cross(1:18-20). This paragraph begins in 1:18 with a thematic statement. Paul writes, “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Paul makes it clear that there are only two categories of people: the “perishing” and the “saved.” Ultimately, all must fall into one of these two classes; there is no other. Paul writes that those who are perishing consider the word of the cross “foolishness.” Five times in eight verses, Paul will use a form of the word “foolishness.” Now it will help you to know the basic Greek word is moria. In 1:25 it appears as an adjective—moros. I probably don’t have to tell you that we get the English word “moron” from this Greek word. It has the idea of something that is ridiculous, ignorant, stupid, and contemptible. If someone were to say, “You moron!” you would be insulted, and properly so. But that is the very word that Paul uses here—and not just once, but five times. What Paul is saying is this: Most people consider the cross to be moronic! Now there are countless reasons for this, but at the top of the list has to be that the cross offends our pride. The word of the cross is that salvation is freely granted by God’s grace, not human merit or intellect. Furthermore, salvation is extended to all people. This levels the ground at the foot of the cross. Everyone comes to God through faith, based upon the work of Jesus Christ. This offends man’s pride.

While the unbeliever considers the cross utter nonsense, the Christian sees it as “the power of God.” Please read 1:18b carefully. The word of the cross is not simply good advice or helpful information…it is the power of God! In other words, our victory in salvation and life can only be attained through the cross. The cross is everything to the Christian.

John Stott shares this brilliant thought: “I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I turn to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me. He set aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death.” These words provide one of the best arguments for both the existence of God and the power of the cross.

In 1:19 Paul quotes the Old Testament Scriptures, “For it is written, ‘I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE.’” This quotation comes from Isa 29:14. The “wisdom of the wise” in Isaiah refers to political shrewdness, and Paul applies it generically to every form of human wisdom that exalts its own cleverness. The point is this: All human schemes that fail to take God into account will run aground (Isa 30:1-2). Isaiah mocks the failed scheming of the worldly-wise Jerusalem politicians who sought to ensure Israel’s safety. Their clever statecraft came to naught, because their alliance with Egypt so alarmed Assyria that it sparked the invasion they sought to avoid. The prophet reminds them that God is the Creator and humans are mere creations, and that God will turn things upside down (Isa 29:16). God’s rescue strategy opts for what appears to be weakness in this situation by allowing Jerusalem to become besieged and crushed before rescuing it. God doesn’t need human help. He set aside the cleverness of the wise. Paul illustrates the word of the cross with this story from the history of the Hebrew people of how God works, especially in terms of human redemption. God does not need anyone but Himself to accomplish His plan of salvation. The reason: He is an all-wise God (Rom 11:33).

In 1:20, Paul launches into four rhetorical questions. He asks, “Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” Paul is speaking of the philosopher, the religious scholar, and the debater. What do these three categories of persons have in common? They are all perceived as professional experts. God has not simply disregarded the wisdom of the world or shown it to be foolish. He has “made foolish the wisdom of the world.”

Just think about this: None of us would have ever come up with the plan of salvation that God did. In our “wisdom” we would have made it much more confusing, complex, and inequitable. Earn your way to heaven. We would have devised a “lay-away” salvation plan. But God designed a salvation free for all, available to all, by sending His Son to die for our sins. In the death of Christ, God displayed His own sheer genius in masterminding a plan of salvation whereby He remained both just and the justifier (Rom 3:26). If we had a million lifetimes to think and create a means by which a holy God would accept sinful man, we could never come up with the cross. Only the inscrutable wisdom of God could have thought of it. God designed His plan of salvation in such a way that sinful man could not come to know Him by human wisdom, which could only exalt man. So God purposed to save lost sinners through a means that seemed utter nonsense to a “wise” world—the cross. In the cross, we see the wisdom of God most fully revealed. In His infinite wisdom, God designed a plan that in no way compromised His holiness or left His righteousness unfulfilled. God’s wrath has been poured out on man’s sin; all the while, His righteous demands have been met, and He is now free to receive sinners into His holy presence. This ought to blow our minds. God “fools” us to show Himself wise and powerful.

Now, please understand, Paul is not against knowledge. God created us to be inquisitive, to investigate, and to gather knowledge. The problem with fallen humanity apart from Jesus is that we still don’t have a clue with the knowledge we obtain. The problem isn’t with knowledge but with the wisdom that interprets and applies the knowledge to concerns and struggles. We need to recognize that our knowledge is limited. But God knows everything that can be known or could be known. We need to entrust ourselves to Him and recognize that He loves to cut the wise and powerful down to size.

My grandmother used to amaze me. For decades she did crossword puzzles. I was always amazed at what she knew. Her mind was sharp as a tack. The answers that I would never be able to come up with, she could come up with rather easily. She a crossword puzzle master! In a more profound sense, God has devised the ultimate crossword puzzle. The word of the cross is something that would never enter the thoughts of man. That’s why those who are brilliant often struggle with the notion of the cross. It is God’s ultimate crossword puzzle.

George Washington Carver (1864-1943) had a laboratory he named “God’s little workshop.” One day, Carver prayed, “Dear Mr. Creator, please tell me what the universe was made for.” God responded, “Ask for something more in keeping with that little mind of yours.” So Carver tried again. “Dear Mr. Creator, what was man made for?” Again the Lord replied, “Little man, you ask too much. Cut down the extent of your request and improve the intent.” So the scientist tried once more. “Then Mr. Creator, will you tell me why the peanut was made?” “That’s better,” the Lord said, and beginning that day Carver discovered over 300 uses for the lowly peanut.

The reality is that all believers and unbelievers have peanut-sized minds. We are small and foolish; God is immense and wise. The sooner that we really understand this, the better off we will be! The word of the cross is a foolish message, designed to help us glorify God for His wisdom and power. God “fools” us to show Himself wise and powerful.

[The Bible is clear, God pronounced the foolishness of the cross. But now in 1:21-25, we will see that…]

  1. God planned the foolishness of the cross(1:21-25). In 1:21, Paul writes, “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.” Paul explains (“for”) that God humbled the world by keeping those who were wise in their own eyes from knowing God. Paul says that God was “well pleased.” By this, Paul means that God was sovereign over His purposes. God doesn’t want to share His glory (Isa 42:8), so He chooses a message that gives Him the most glory possible.

All of this raises the question, “Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?” Why not a heart attack or some other form of death? In Gal 3:13 Paul writes, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’” This verse reflects the theology of Deuteronomy. The Law of Moses had a curse attached to it. If you failed in one point of the Law, you blew the whole thing and came under the Law’s curse (Deut 27:26; Gal 3:10; Jas 2:10). All of us qualify for the curse. That’s very bad, but here’s something that’s very good. Jesus took our curse for us by hanging on a tree (another term used for the cross). In the Old Testament days, a person who committed a capital crime would be executed, usually by stoning. If the crime was particularly hideous, the dead criminal would then be hung from a tree as the ultimate form of disgrace and shame. This also served as a warning to others. But the central idea was to bring shame to the criminal, because for the Jews to be hung up like that was disgraceful. It was obvious to all that a person hung on a tree was cursed.

Now hold that thought and fast-forward to New Testament times. The Romans had a favorite method of execution for criminals they really wanted to punish. It was crucifixion—nailing the criminal to a cross made of wood from a tree. A good example of the kind of criminal the Romans crucified was Barabbas, the thief and revolutionary who was released by Pilate at Jesus’ crucifixion. Barabbas had led a rebellion against Rome, and that was considered the worse kind of offense. So the Romans didn’t just want to execute Barabbas, they wanted to shame him and make him suffer untold agony. Both were accomplished on a cross. First, it was a symbol of shame. You had to be very bad to be crucified. Second, it sometimes took crucifixion victims several days to die. The Romans wanted to make these people suffer so much that they would wish for death, but it wouldn’t come for many hours. So the cross was a curse too, and Jesus came under the curse of the cross. In so doing, He satisfied the curse of the Law and made it possible that you and I would never have to suffer that curse.

Again, in 1:22-24, Paul explains himself further: “For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” These three verses provide three different responses to the cross of Christ: A person can stumble, laugh, or believe.

1) Many people stumble over the cross (1:22a, 23a). The Jews “stumbled” over the cross because most of them were looking for signs of power. (They must be from Missouri—the “show me” state.) They wanted God to prove Himself to them. In a sense, they required God to submit to them before they would consider submitting to Him. Such people don’t want to obey God; they want to order God around. Jewish history is filled with miraculous events, from the Exodus out of Egypt to the days of Elijah and Elisha. When Jesus was ministering on earth, the Jewish leaders repeatedly asked Him to perform a sign from heaven, but He refused. They were looking for a political leader who would deliver them from the heel of the Roman Empire. They simply could not imagine a crucified Messiah.

It is difficult for us to understand what crucifixion meant to the Jews. We’ve sanitized the cross and domesticated it. We gold-plate it and wear it around our necks. We put it on earrings and on our stationery. We hang ornate crosses in our sanctuaries and on our steeples. We build churches in the shape of the cross. All of this would have been unthinkable in the first century. So terrible was crucifixion that the word was not even spoken in polite company. If we want a modern counterpart, we should hang a picture of a gas chamber at Auschwitz in front of our sanctuary. Or put a noose there. Or an electric chair with a man dying in agony—his face covered, smoke coming from his head. The very thought sickens us. But that’s what the cross meant for Jesus. And that is why the Jews were scandalized by the cross.

Because the Jews were looking for power and great glory, they stumbled at the weakness of the cross. How could anybody put faith in an unemployed carpenter from Nazareth who died the shameful death of a common criminal? They looked for a Messiah who would come like a mighty conqueror and defeat all their enemies. He would then set up His kingdom and return the glory to Israel. This was the attitude of the Jews, because their emphasis is on miraculous signs and the cross appears to be weakness.

2) Many people laugh at the cross (1:22b, 23b). Paul identifies with the Greek quest for wisdom. People think that they might submit to God as soon as they can “figure Him out.” They want God to fit into their minds before they will let Him fit into their lives. This was the response of the Greeks. The Greeks didn’t practice crucifixion, so they didn’t have the problems that the Jews did. They looked to philosophy as the answer to the deepest problems of life. The notion of a man hanging on a cross to save the world was utter nonsense to them. To them, the cross was foolishness. The Greeks emphasized wisdom and we still study the profound writings of the Greek philosophers today. But they saw no wisdom in the cross, for they looked at the cross from a human point of view. Had they seen it from God’s viewpoint, they would have discerned the wisdom of God’s great plan of salvation.

3) Some people believe and experience the power and the wisdom of the cross (1:24). “Those who are called” is parallel to “those who believe” (1:21) and “us who are being saved” (1:18). Part of being called is being able to hear God’s call, and being open to it. Those who respond by God’s grace are granted His wisdom and power. It is worth noting that Paul did not alter his message when he turned from a Jewish audience to a Greek one; he preached Christ crucified. This is the simple message that everyone needs to hear and believe. The word of the cross is foolishness to the most intelligent and self-sufficient people in the world. But it is the power of God for those like Jena who will receive it as a child. The phrase “the power of God” in 1:18 and 24 brackets 1:18-24 as a unique literary unity. Verse 25 summarizes this unit and then provides a transition into 1:26-31.

Our passage closes in 1:25 with these glorious words: “Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” Don’t you just love this verse? This is one of my favorite verses in the Bible. It is the ultimate “trash-talking, put me in my place” type of statement. Paul is suggesting that IF (and this is a big “if”) it was possible for God to be foolish and weak, His foolishness and weakness would still overwhelm us. This should humble us to dust!

How does the word of the cross relate to our lives? First, we must seek to ponder the wonder of the cross. Not that the cross is not a popular symbol today. We see it in stained glass windows and on top of churches of widely varying beliefs. It is found around the necks of the deeply religious, the thoroughly superstitious, and all shades in between. The sign of the cross is made by baseball players before they bat, by pilots before they take off, and by boxers before they fight. In fact, you may have heard of the gambler at the race track who happened to see a priest making the sign of a cross over a horse, and promptly bet his paycheck, rent money, and car payment on that horse. When the horse came in last he sought out the priest and demanded to know why the horse had done so poorly when he had just blessed it. With surprise the priest responded, “I wasn’t blessing that horse. I was giving it the last rites.”

The story aptly illustrates how the cross has largely been emptied of its content in our society today. We have lost the significance of the cross. Our prayer must be, “Lord, take me back to the cross. Help me to see it anew and afresh.”

Second, as we strive to crossover into our world, we must be sure to crossover with the cross. Popular Christianity has been big business in politics, entertainment, sports, etc., but many have crossed over without the cross. Yet, Christianity without the cross is like music without a tune. When you and I talk about our beliefs, we must make a beeline to the cross of Christ. That is what makes our message both unique and powerful.

Finally, it may take a crucified church to bring a crucified Christ before the eyes of the world. Christ’s cross makes foolish human wisdom. The cross insults our intelligence (too simple), ability (nothing to do), and ambition (not glory for self). Yet, the churches that God is going to do great things through are weak and foolish in the world’s eyes, so that God can fool the world and receive wisdom and power.

Have you seen the movie, A River Runs through It? The movie chronicles two brothers coming of age in early 20th century Missoula, Montana. The boys grow up under the stern tutelage of their minister father. This preacher teaches his sons about life, grace, and love, through the art of fly-fishing. But as the boys mature and follow very different paths (one straight-and-narrow, the other wild) they find that fishing is the one bond that still draws them together as adults. Thus, the title A River Runs through It was not a description of the land as much as it was a description of a recurring theme in their lives. When all else failed, they could always go back to the river and bond around their love of fly-fishing.

If I had to pick a title for the Christian community experience, it might be “A Cross Runs through It.” When all else fails, we can always go back to the cross and bond around our love for the One who died for us there. Ultimately, all that we believe is wrapped up in the cross of Christ. It is the central truth of the Christian faith and the preeminent event of human history. The cross is our message, our hope, our confidence. It is our badge of honor and the emblem of suffering and shame. Though the world despises the cross, we rally to it. In this sign, and this alone, we will conquer. Therefore, let us love the cross, preach the cross, stand by the cross, and never be ashamed of the cross. Hold it high as the banner of our salvation. Lift it up as the hope of the world. There is no power greater than the power of the cross. It is the only power that can lift men and women out of their sins, release them from condemnation, give them new life, and set their feet in a new direction.

Uniting and conquering

C.S. Lewis has written a book entitled The Screwtape Letters. In this haunting work a senior demon advises his young nephew, Wormwood, how to afflict Christians. At one point, he challenges Wormwood to focus in on what he calls “purely indifferent things” (e.g., clothes, candles, the semantics of “mass” and “holy communion”). This demon believes that if Wormwood persuades Christians to focus on “purely indifferent things” that they will be distracted from their mission.

Today, there are many “purely indifferent things” that distract Christians and churches from their mission. We call these indifferent things “non-essential issues,” meaning that they have nothing to do with salvation. There are doctrinal, philosophical, and practical non-essentials. While all of these non-essentials are different, they all share one thing in common: Satan loves to use these issues to polarize and divide Christians. His goal has always been to turn Christians against each other. Not only has Satan’s strategy worked for centuries, with every year he learns how to divide us more effectively. He has become so good at his craft that today the greatest problems that face the church come not from the world, but from the church! Satan’s strategy is to divide and conquer, but we must turn the tables on him. We must choose to unite and conquer. In 1 Cor 1:10-17, Paul will exhort us to unite and conquer by majoring on the majors. Our two majors are: the right person and the right passion.

  1. Major on the right person(1:10-12). Paul will argue that we can only have true and lasting unity when we are focused on the right person. Therefore, Paul will argue that we must major on Jesus Christ. In 1:10, Paul begins the body of his letter by expressing his earnest desire for unity. He writes, “Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment.” Notice three ways Paul approaches the issue of maintaining unity. He does not begin with the problem of disunity, but with a positive exhortation to be unified.

Paul’s words are an exhortation, not a command. He is not going to boss his readers around with his apostolic authority. The flavor of the word “exhort” is very important. An exhortation is an appeal to make a willing choice. Paul wants to convince his readers to make the right choice based on an understanding of truth, not based on his throwing his weight around. One of the lessons I’ve learned in my ministry is that commanding people to do things generally doesn’t work. “Thus saith Wayne” seems to have limited impact. There are many times I wish a simple command would work. It would simplify ministry. It would remove lots of frustration and stress. However, lasting change only comes about when people are persuaded in their own minds and hearts. Thus, I can’t command you to be unified because unity is truly a matter of the heart. But I can and will appeal for you to unite.

Paul addresses his readers as “brethren.” Again, he is subtly softening the rebuke that he has to deliver. He identifies himself with them: “We are in this together as brothers and sisters in Christ.” He is also reminding them that they belong together and have a common identity in Jesus Christ. It argues the wrongness of their divisions, because such things deny who they are. Likewise, we are brothers and sisters—we are family! When I am concluding emails, I will occasionally sign “Your brother, Wayne.” I am not speaking biologically, I am speaking spiritually. The person I am writing to is my brother or sister in Christ. Since that is true, I need to seek to be unified with that person. In the Jacobs family, we have taught (and are still teaching) our three children to mutually respect each another. As parents, Karen and I will come down on each of our children when (not if) they treat one another disrespectfully. We will typically say, “‘He is your brother’ or ‘She is your sister.’ We don’t treat one another like that. We are a family!” This same type of exhortation needs to resound in the body of Christ. Our bond as spiritual brothers and sisters is even greater than our biological bond as family. Therefore, we have an obligation before God and to one another to act as if this is so.

Paul’s appeal is grounded in the authority of “our Lord Jesus Christ.” By exhorting his readers in the name of their Lord Jesus Christ, Paul was putting what he was about to say on the highest level of authority. The Corinthians were to regard Paul’s words as coming from the Lord Himself. In 1:9, the Corinthians had been called into fellowship with God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. And now they are being lovingly exhorted to live in unity “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Because they’re one in fellowship with the Lord Jesus, they ought to be one in fellowship with each other. Paul could be confident in this exhortation because he understood the heartbeat of Jesus.

After these endearing words, Paul jumps right into his primary exhortation. In 1:10, he makes two positive appeals and one negative appeal. The first positive appeal is that “they all agree.” But what does this mean? Must we all have identical cookie cutter theology? Do votes taken at a business meetings need to be unanimous? Should we all dress alike, sport the same haircut, and never ask questions?

Unfortunately, this is not the most helpful translation. It gives the impression that we must all see things the same way. Fortunately, there is a marginal note that tells us that this phrase literally reads “speak the same thing.” Now this is quite different from agreeing on everything. This term is an idiom from classical Greek. It was always used to describe political parties or communities that were free from factions. All agreed on what the party platform was, and there was no competition. We commonly hear the same kind of language today from Democrats and Republicans who call for party unity, because disunity undermines their effectiveness. While politicians disagree, they are careful how they do so. They want to present a “united front.” As parents, we also understand that we must present a united front. If we aren’t united, our kids will play us against each other. If they sense any division, they will work it to their full advantage. This principle of “speaking the same thing” also applies in the church. While we are free to disagree, we must do so respectfully. And when it becomes clear that the church and leadership have arrived at a decision, it must be the commitment of every member to unite and support the direction of the church. This is how we can unite and conquer.

The other positive appeal is in the phrase “that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment.” The word translated “made complete” (katartizo) is used in the gospels to describe the mending of fishing nets. The mending process had to be done regularly to make sure they didn’t lose their livelihood by losing fish! Relationships have gaps like holes in a net. We must always look out for these holes and be ready to mend them. The Greek verb is also used of restoring bones that are broken. That has been my goal to restore my shoulders to full strength by uniting or joining the bones. That is a picture of what this word means. As a church family, we are to come together as one.

Please notice that the only way Paul envisions being “made complete” is to be involved in the local church. There are millions of western Christians who don’t attend church who assume that they are mature and walking with God. Nothing could be further from the truth. Maturity only takes place when we are in fellowship with others because spirituality demands community. You will never know if you are spiritual if you avoid relationships with other Christians. A few weeks ago, I read that Sylvester Stallone of Rocky fame has become a Christian. In an interview, he talked about his tendency to be independent and self-sufficient. But he says he now recognizes his need for the church. Stallone states, “The church is the gym of the soul.” He’s right; this is where true spirituality works itself out.

So I must ask you: Do you attend church regularly? By regularly, I do not mean once or twice a month, if your schedule permits. I mean every week unless you are sick. When you are out of town, do you seek to fellowship with other Christians so that you can learn from them or vice versa? Are you currently involved in a small group of some kind? There are many options at our church. Have you chosen one? Are you seeking to enter into deep friendships with people in our church?

Paul’s point is simple. If oneness of mind and judgment marks the church, it is because Christ is one. Oneness is a basic principle of the Christian church, and that principle should affect our attitude about the church. So often, though, the church is run down most by people who should be building it up.

This leads to Paul’s lone negative appeal that the church has no divisions. The word “divisions” (schismata) recalls furrows created by plowing. This word is used in the gospels to depict a tear in a garment or a wrong opinion about Jesus Christ. Paul is saying that these are not minor things. They have no place in the body of Christ. No matter how minor it may seem to us—what we’re differing over—the ultimate effect will be destructive to the health of relationships in the church.

Before we move on we must recognize two very important principles:

Disagreement can be healthy. While the Bible warns about the dangers of bitter disputes it also urges us to cultivate the art of gracious disagreement. I have found that if I am humble and responsible I can learn a great deal from those who disagree with me. It can instill in us a love for people who disagree with us on various matters. It can develop humility in us, reminding us that we don’t have a corner on the truth market. When disagreements arise learn how to work out issues.

Conflict is unavoidable. We don’t need to feel guilty just because we are involved in church conflict. Trouble is unavoidable. Conflict will come. It comes to the best of churches, to the best of spiritual elders, to the best of church boards, to the best of friends. Conflict came to Jesus and His inner circle. It came between Paul and Barnabas, and Paul and Peter. Conflict came not only to the immature church of Corinth, but to the much more mature church in Philippi. So the question is not, will conflict come, but when will conflict come.

It may help to realize that conflict is like dynamite. It can be helpful if used in the right way, but can also be destructive if used at the wrong time or in the wrong manner. It is quite possible for conflict to be managed for good. Conflict can expose problems that need to be worked out. Conflict can deepen relationships in marriage, family, and church.

In 1:11, Paul explains the problem behind the disunity. Paul writes, “For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you.” Today, no one knows exactly who Chloe was. She evidently had a household or business that included servants, some of whom had traveled to Corinth and had returned to Ephesus carrying reports of conditions in the Corinthian church. They shared with Paul that there were “quarrels” in the church over various preferences. Please notice that as Paul rebukes the Corinthian church, he gives up his source. He doesn’t try to protect her identity. He puts the weight of a reliable testimony behind his words. Our tendency is to say, “There has been a rumor flying around” or “Someone told me…” We try so hard to protect an informant’s identity that we blunt our rebuke. Ideally, it should be the “informant” that is going directly to the brother or sister. If he or she is unwilling, then we must get permission to use his or her name.

In 1:12, Paul informs us that the church was picking and choosing preachers based upon personality or giftedness. Paul writes, “Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas [Peter],’ and ‘I of Christ.’” Let’s examine for a moment the specific personality cults that had invaded the Corinthian church. First, there was the Paul Party. It was normal that some would appreciate Paul since he had founded the church and had ministered in Corinth with God’s blessing for 18 months. This group probably represented the charter members of the Church—those who were the original core group established by Paul, the first pastor. I can just hear some of them crying ruefully, “We’ll never have another pastor like Paul. Would that the good ole’ days would return!”

Opposing the Paul Party was a second group known as the Apollos Party. Apollos was an Alexandrian Jew, an eloquent preacher, a skillful defender of the faith, and apparently the second pastor of the Corinthian church (Acts 18:24-28). Apollos was mentored and discipled by Paul, but he had a very different personality and style. While Paul was a teacher; Apollos was a gifted preacher. While Paul was a very analytical thinker; Apollos was more of a synthetic thinker.

Then there was the Peter Party. Apparently Peter never visited Corinth, but his name was well-known in Christian circles everywhere, since he was one of Christ’s three closest companions. Since Peter was the leading apostle to the Jews, it is understandable that many of the early Christians, especially the Jewish believers, would have venerated him. I suspect the issue at stake here may have been legalism.

In Galatians 2 we read about a real heavyweight bout between Paul and Peter. Paul denounced Peter for hypocritically kowtowing to the Jewish legalists in the church. It may very well be that due to that incident Peter acquired a reputation as a champion for the traditionalists, as opposed to Paul’s emphasis upon Christian liberty.

The most dangerous group of all in these four examples is the last. Surely Paul means for us to assume “guilt by association” here in 1:12. Paul uses the same words, only changing the name in the case of the last group. It is true that we all should be followers of Christ. But we should not be proud of ourselves for doing so. This fourth group is no less proud or arrogant than the others who are condemned. I am afraid that I understand Paul all too well in this fourth example. Those who think of themselves as being “of Christ” also think of the rest as not being “of Christ.” Exclusivism is wrong, even the exclusiveness of those who think themselves superior to all other believers because they follow Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or Christ. Those who boast of their following Christ are effectively declaring themselves to be the leader. Those who are “of Christ” do not need Paul, or Apollos, or Peter. They do not need an apostle. They can discern Christ’s mind by themselves, without any outside help from others. These autonomous folks are the most frightening group of all, and Paul makes this clear. This group apparently professed loyalty to no human leader but boasted of their allegiance to Christ alone. They appear to have regarded themselves as the most spiritual element in the church. They had devised their own brand of spiritual elitism that made them no better than the others. The Christ Party felt they had a corner on truth, that they had Christ on a leash and God in a box.

It is appropriate to be grateful for those who are faithful in ministering the Word to us. It is even appropriate to look to them as personal examples and spiritual role models (Heb 13:7). There is no place in the church, however, for celebrity worship. Whenever someone is enamored with my preaching or personality, I can almost always assure you that things will not end well. I think the Lord often allows this to happen when people’s hearts are not fixed on Him. That is why it is so important for us to major on the right person. Our focus must be Jesus Christ. He is the only One who will never disappoint.

Verse 13 reveals a side of Paul normally hidden from view. With eyes flashing and voice cracking, a deeply troubled apostle unleashes three rhetorically loaded questions: “Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” We might ask similar questions today: Is Billy Graham your Creator? Is Chuck Swindoll the one who sanctified you? Did Charles Stanley die for your sins? Was it Calvin or Arminius who was resurrected from the dead for your justification? Paul’s point is that we should not trust in any man, but in Christ. He is the only dependable, trustworthy One. If Christians today placed their eyes upon Christ instead of pastors and leaders, there would be a whole lot of Christians filling our churches. Depending on who you read, there are anywhere from 50-100 million Christians who do not attend church. In many cases, they have dropped out of church due to disappointment with a pastor or various conflicts within the leadership of the church. This is a crying shame! It is this travesty that is rendering the church so powerless. We take ourselves and others so seriously and we take God so lightly. Today, will you make a commitment to unite and conquer? Will you major on Christ and not His followers? [Paul wants us to unite and conquer. To do so, we must major on the right person, but we must also…]

  1. Major on the right passion(1:14-17). In 1:14-16 Paul writes, “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. 16 Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other.” Crispus was the ruler of the synagogue in which Paul preached when he first came to Corinth (Acts 18:8). Crispus was won to faith through Paul’s teaching. Gaius may be the same person as Titius Justus. This man was a Gentile convert who lived next door to the synagogue and opened his home to the church after the Christians could no longer meet in the synagogue (Acts 18:7; Rom 16:23). Paul deliberately did not baptize his converts so there would be no question as to whose disciples they were. This was one way he kept Christ central in his ministry. Paul believed baptism was important, but it was valid whether he or any other believer administered it. He was not superior to other believers in this respect. The members of Stephanus’ family were the first converts in the Roman province of Achaia (16:15). It was unimportant to Paul whom he personally baptized. This is clear because he temporarily forgot that he had baptized these people. As he continued to write, the Lord brought them to mind.

Obviously, baptism is a very prominent theme in these verses, mentioned six times here by Paul. I take it that some, at least, took pride in the person who baptized them. Some people appear to have been proud and looked down on others who were not baptized by as great a celebrity as their baptizer. Paul lets the air out of the tires of these proud name droppers by telling them that baptism is not a celebrity affair, and compared to the preaching of the gospel, baptizing is a lower priority to him. Do they take pride in the one who baptizes them? Paul is glad he has not made baptizing a priority, and thus that he has baptized very few of the Corinthians.

Paul, Peter (Acts 10:48), and Jesus (John 4:1-2) seem to have delegated the responsibility of baptism to others.  Furthermore, there is biblical precedence for it.

Paul closes our passage in 1:17 with these powerful words: “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void.” Paul’s mission was not dunking converts; it was preaching the gospel! It is thus evident that Paul viewed his preaching of the gospel as having a much higher priority than baptizing new converts. It can hardly be overlooked that Paul saw salvation as something which occurs independently of baptism. Baptism is important. It is the believer’s public identification with Jesus Christ. But baptism is not viewed as the means of one’s salvation; rather it is the outward manifestation of salvation. Paul rejects the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Otherwise, if he thought baptism was the means of salvation, he would have made it a much higher priority than he did. People are saved by believing the gospel, and it was Paul’s priority to preach it. Baptism took second place to preaching in Paul’s life and ministry.

Disunity causes the greatest threat to our survival as a church. Jesus Christ is the one ground of unity. The gospel is the primary mission of the church. We are called to divide and conquer. This will happen when we major on the majors—the right person and the right mission.

Thanking God for our church – lesson 1 from 1 Corinthians

How do you feel about your church? When you think of your church, do you get excited or depressed? Do you think of strengths or weaknesses? Do you think of what is happening or what is not happening? How do you feel about your church? How do you view those who are a part of your church?

Imagine with me a church wracked with divisions and factions. There are preaching cults where church members favor one particular preacher over another. Imagine a church filled with sexual immorality. Some of the members are visiting prostitutes. One church member is having an affair with his stepmother. Imagine a church where believers don’t work out their problems. Instead, they sue each other in secular courts. Imagine a church where debates rage on topics like Christian liberty, men’s and women’s roles, prophecies, and speaking in tongues. And to top it off, imagine a church where the Lord’s Supper is abused and a significant number do not even believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ!

The church I just described is the first-century church of Corinth…a church that the apostle Paul founded! Now how do you feel about your church? Do you feel any differently? Perhaps you are slightly encouraged that things in your own church aren’t nearly as bad as you thought. Regardless, the question that begs to be answered is: How did Paul respond to this unlovable church that only a controversial talk show host could love? Paul surprises us and responds with optimistic thanksgiving. Why is Paul thankful for the Corinthian church? Because God gives His church every gracious gift and keeps His church secure in His faithfulness. We could say it like this: “God gives and God keeps.” In 1 Cor 1:1-9, Paul pens a greeting and thanksgiving to the church at Corinth. In these nine verses, Paul will answer the inevitable question: Why should we give thanks to God for our church? Paul gives two reasons: (1) God gives His church every gracious gift, and (2) God keeps His church secure in His faithfulness.

  1. God gives us every gracious gift(1:1-7). Paul begins the book of 1 Corinthians by penning these words: “Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God” (1:1). One of Paul’s primary themes in chapter one is what it means to be “called.” Here in 1:1, Paul describes himself as one whom God has “called” to be an apostle of Jesus Christ. In 1:2, Paul informs the Corinthians that they are saints by “calling.” In 1:9, Paul closes our section by referring to those whom God “called” into fellowship. In 1:24, Paul speaks of Jews and Gentiles who “are called.” In 1:26, he speaks of the Corinthians call to salvation. The idea of God’s calling is everywhere in this chapter! For Paul, God’s call to salvation and apostleship was essential to life and ministry. It reminded him that his true allegiance was to God, not man. Paul goes on to state that he was called “by the will of God.” This gave him an even greater sense of confidence and perseverance.

Have you ever considered your calling? Could it be that you are “called” to be a small business owner, a teacher, or a homemaker? I would argue that God has a calling for each one of our lives. This “call” will keep us persevering in our vocation. Let’s face it, owning your own business is stressful, and so is being a teacher or a homemaker. But when we understand that we have a calling from God, we can persevere when things are discouraging and difficult.

Before moving on to 1:2, Paul tacks on the phrase, “and Sosthenes our brother” (1:1). Who is Sosthenes and why does Paul bother mentioning him? Most likely, Sosthenes was the ruler of the synagogue in Corinth (Acts 18:17). He was with Paul in Ephesus, when Paul penned this epistle. He was serving as Paul’s right-hand man. In ministry, we all need support and encouragement. If you are looking and praying for such a person(s), God will provide you support and encouragement as you serve Him. He loves to give us every gracious gift.

Paul continues his introductory remarks in 1:2, where he writes: “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.” Paul wants us to understand several important truths about the church.

God gives us a new leader. Paul writes, “To the church of God.” How often we hear churches identified in terms of who the pastor is. That is ______’s church, and we fill in the blank with the pastor’s name. When we do so we are not in line with Paul, who believed that the church belongs to God. God is the One who brought the church into existence through the shed blood of His Son, Jesus Christ. God is the One who sustains His church. It is God’s church. Since the church belongs to God, we need to ask: “What does God want us to accomplish at our church?” “Who does God want us to reach?” “How will God be glorified in our gatherings?” The church belongs to God so it should be about Him. He alone is our leader.

God gives us a new family. Paul writes that the church of God includes “all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” When God thinks of the church, He thinks of the “city church” (i.e., the group of all believers in a particular city, or the church at a particular city). The church of God extends beyond a particular local church. In fact, every local church, regardless of size, is like a pebble on a beach. Yet, it can be easy to think that we are the only pebble on the beach. Here, Paul lays waste to this mentality. He wants us to know that we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves. We’re all little pebbles on God’s endless kingdom beach. Our theology must be “one church; many congregations.” With this is mind, how are you encouraging other Christians in various churches in our county? Are you speaking well of other churches? Do you desire their success? This is God’s heart.

God gives us a new identity. In this context, the word “sanctified” is a metaphor for conversion (cf. 1:30; 6:11). The Corinthians were saints by divine calling, not by their conduct. A “saint” is not a dead person who has been honored by men because of his or her holy life. No, Paul wrote to living saints, people who, through faith in Jesus Christ, had been set apart for God’s special enjoyment and use. In other words, every true believer is a saint because every true believer has been set apart by God and for God. What an encouragement! Regardless of our behavior and in the midst of some our most difficult times, God continues to see us as His people. Like Paul, we must establish our identity first. Who we are in Christ is the foundation that cultivates us to become fruitful in Christ.

In 1:3, Paul greets the church at Corinth: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” This greeting sums up Paul’s whole theological outlook. “Grace” (charis) speaks of God’s free gift to us in Christ. Grace not only forgives us when we sin, it empowers us so that we will not sin. Grace helps us to say “no” to sin and “yes” to Christ. Grace shows up beforehand so that we don’t have to blow it. “Peace” (shalom) means more than “peace” does in English. It means not the absence of strife, but the presence of positive blessings. It is the prosperity of the whole person, especially his spiritual prosperity. God gives us every gracious gift.

Like in his other epistles, Paul follows his greeting with an expression of thanksgiving for the church at Corinth. Why does Paul give thanks? Paul does not give thanks for the sins and failures of these saints. Paul gives thanks to God for what He has done and for what He will ultimately do for His children. Paul’s introduction is distinct from introductions to his other epistles in that he fails to commend these believers. Instead, he elaborates on their position and blessings in Christ and His faithfulness to confirm them to the end. What an important lesson for us! May we always remember what God has done and ultimately will do. If Paul could be thankful for the church at Corinth, we can be thankful for our church and all of our mission churches. Instead of complaining about petty things, why not focus on the blessings of our church?

In 1:4-7, Paul writes, “I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul expresses thanksgiving for the grace of God. He acknowledges that in “everything” God has “enriched” the church at Corinth. Particularly, they have been blessed in “all speech and all knowledge.” By “speech” (logos) the apostle means speaking the Word through tongues and prophecy. “Knowledge” (gnosis) refers to their spiritual insight. We can sum up “speech” and “knowledge” as “the telling forth of truth and the grasp of truth.” These are certainly important gifts, but we will find out in chapters 12-14 that they were abusing these very gifts. That is why Paul thanks God for their giftedness, not so much their use of their gifts.

We can learn a great deal about spiritual gifts from these four verses. Consider these three truths:

God gives us the necessary spiritual gifts. The church at Corinth possessed every spiritual gift…and they were not a very spiritual bunch! This should serve to remind us that every Christian, regardless of his or her spiritual maturity, has been given at least one spiritual gift. This means every Christian is immediately useful to Christ and His church with a unique opportunity for ministry. God has given our body every spiritual gift necessary to accomplish our purpose.

God empowers us through the use of spiritual gifts. The church will never be all that she could be unless all God’s people are using their spiritual gifts. Regardless of how big or small you think your gift is, God wants you to use it. God uses seemingly unimpressive gifts to accomplish His purposes.

God wants us to be faithful in the use of spiritual gifts. We do not need to seek additional gifts or experiences, as many do today, though we may need training in the use of the gifts we already have. And God may graciously choose to grant us additional ones as we grow. But our primary task is to act in faithful obedience to God and service to his people with what we have already been given. Gifts are not necessarily mature at the time of discovery…they are developed through practice.

I probably don’t need to tell anyone here that today is a football Sunday. Many of us will watch the game. My question is: Will any of you go out during halftime and throw the football around? Probably not, right? You’ll be feeding your face! Yet, in the past men and women would exercise and play sports together. But now we tend to just watch other people play. We are “armchair athletes.” I’m afraid that there are many “armchair athletes” or “pew potatoes” in our church. This violates the Scriptures and the entire thrust of Christianity. God expects each one of us to find our niche in ministry. As our heavenly coach, God has expectations of us. Will we follow His game plan and serve the body of Christ? We are not lacking gifted people; we are lacking faithful people. What has God called you to do? How will you contribute? May we not complain; may we contribute. May we not sin; may we serve.

[Why should we give thanks to God for our church? Because God gives our church every gracious gift. But not only does God give our church every gracious gift, we will also see that…]

  1. God keeps us secure in His faithfulness(1:8-9). In 1:8, Paul promises his readers that it is God “who will also confirm you [plural] to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The word for “confirm” (bebaioo) suggests that Paul is using a legal metaphor, illustrating that God has completed a contract with the church at Corinth. This indicates that believers have God’s guarantee that they shall be in His presence at Christ’s return. They will be “blameless” (lit., “chargeless” or “unimpeachable”). The word implies not merely acquittal, but the absence of even a charge or accusation against us. It means every Christian will stand before the Lord guiltless, because God has imputed the guilt of our sins to Jesus Christ (cf. Rom 5:1; 8:1). We have the witness of the Spirit within us and the witness of the Word before us, guaranteeing that God will keep His “contract” with us and save us to the very end. This guarantee is certainly not an excuse for sin! Rather, it is the basis for a growing relationship of love, trust, and obedience.

I need to ask you a bizarre question. Are you a “cat” Christian or a “monkey” Christian? There is a big difference. Notice how a mother cat carries her kittens—she grasps them by the neck with her teeth. On what does the kitten’s security depend? The mother. By contrast, the baby monkey grasps its mother with its tiny paws and hangs on for dear life. On whom does the baby monkey’s security depend? Itself! Does your security in salvation rest upon your ability “to hang onto God,” or does it depend on God’s ability to keep you?

Our passage closes in 1:9 with another great promise: “God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” How could Paul be so confident that the Corinthians would be “blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ?” Because his confidence was not in the Corinthians themselves, but in God. The question is not, “Can I keep going as a believer?” Rather, the question should be, “Can I rely on God?” Paul states that everything is grounded in the fact that God is faithful. Our preservation is a sure thing! God is faithful to us even though we are often unfaithful to Him (2 Tim 2:13). Paul’s confidence in 1:9 is based upon his certainly in 1:2—God’s call. Paul’s confidence that his readers would one day stand without guilt before the Lord did not rest on the Corinthians’ ability to persevere faithfully to the end. It rested on God’s ability and promises to preserve them. Since we too are “saints by calling,” God will ensure our salvation.

It is worth noting that most of the verbs in 1:2-9 are passive—God is the One that is acting upon the Christians! It is God who sanctifies (1:2), who gives (1:4), who makes rich (1:5), who confirms (1:6), and who calls (1:9). Furthermore, the last words of our passage are “Jesus Christ our Lord.” It is in Jesus Christ our Lord that we must daily depend upon. Nine times in nine verses, Paul focuses us on Jesus Christ. If this was Paul’s focus, this must be ours as well. Salvation and assurance is all about God’s promise to keep us, through the Lord Jesus.

A common hindrance to discipleship maturity is a lack of assurance. The disciple that lacks assurance will lack confidence, love, joy, peace, and comfort in the Lord (James 3:13-17). Such a one may also lose a good conscience and confidence in prayer (1 John 3:20-23). Furthermore, the disciple that lacks assurance will be distracted from making other disciples (Matt 28:19-20). Yet, these consequences do not have to belong to any disciple. This is why Paul begins his letter by affirming that we have been positionally sanctified in Christ (1:2). He then explains that God has given us gracious gifts (1:4-7). This past action is linked with a future promise: God will confirm us to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (1:8). This act of confirmation suggests that on account of simple faith in Christ, every believer will be legally blameless before the justice bar of God.

In 1937, the great Golden Gate Bridge was completed. It cost $77 million. The bridge was built in two stages: the first slowly and the second rapidly. In the first stage, no safety devices were used. As a result, 23 men fell to their deaths. However, for the final part of the project a large net was used as a safety precaution. At least ten men fell into it and were saved from certain death. Yet, even more interesting is the fact that 25% more work was accomplished after the net was installed. Why? Because the men had the assurance of their safety and they were free to wholeheartedly serve the project. Likewise, those who have been saved by God’s grace have been given a safety net. His name is Jesus Christ. On account of His person and work, we can have complete confidence in our relationship with God.

Why should we give thanks to God for our church? Because God gives us every gracious gift and keeps us secure in His faithfulness. Don’t ever forget, “God gives and God keeps.”

Copyright © 2007 Keith R. Krell. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.