We’re beginning today a new series of sermons on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. From the book of Acts, we learn how Paul left Athens and travelled to Corinth where he met Aquila and Priscilla and worked with them for a time, while preaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath Day. Then, when Silas and Timothy came to Corinth to help with the work, Paul began to devote himself exclusively to preaching about the Lord Jesus, trying to persuade those in the synagogue that Jesus is the Christ, God’s special servant sent into the world to save God’s people.
But the Jews began to oppose him and they became abusive. And so, Paul left the synagogue. But he didn’t give up preaching; instead he went next door to the house of Titius Justus and continued to preach about the Saviour. And while they were encouragements — with many believing and being baptised — there must have been many discouragements as well, because the Lord had to speak to Paul one night to encourage him to persevere and not to give up. The Lord said to him:
Don’t be afraid. Keep on speaking. Don’t be silent. For I am with you and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.
And so, Paul continued to preach and to teach God’s word and a church was planted in that place.
Well, in 1 Corinthians Paul is now writing to the members of that church, a church which was planted by him and a church which he was very familiar with. And what we’ll do this evening is spend our time on Paul’s greeting to them in the opening verses, because this greeting reveals to us very clearly the grace of God. We were thinking about God’s grace this morning as we thought about the kind of people that Lord Jesus appointed to be his apostles. And we’re going to see God’s grace again — his kindness to sinners — in what Paul says to the believers in Corinth. And, of course, Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is not only for the Corinthians; it’s for us as well and it’s for everyone who calls on the name of the Lord Jesus.
And Paul begins his letter to the church in Corinth by describing himself as an apostle of Christ Jesus called by the will of God. Well, in Mark’s gospel, we read how the Lord appointed the twelve apostles and sent them out to preach. Then, after Judas betrayed the Lord and killed himself, Matthias was appointed to replace him. We read about that at the beginning of Acts. And do you remember the qualifications for an apostle? When they were looking for a suitable person to replace Judas, they were looking for someone who had been with the Lord from the time of his baptism until the time of his ascension. So, they were looking for someone who had been with the Lord throughout his public ministry and were familiar with all he said and did. But crucially, they were looking for someone who could testify to the Lord’s resurrection from the dead. That was vital: an apostle was someone who was an eye-witness of the resurrection; who could say that they had seen with their own eyes that the Lord had been raised from the dead.
Well, Paul was not one of that original group of twelve. However, he was nevertheless an apostle, because the Risen and Exalted Lord Jesus Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus and appointed him an apostle. Since the Lord appeared to him like this, Paul too was an eye-witness to the resurrection; and he could testify that he has seen the Lord, risen from the dead and exalted to heaven. So, he was qualified to be an apostle: he had seen the Lord. And the Lord Jesus Christ appointed him an apostle; and, as he did with the others, the Lord sent Paul to go and to preach in his name and to proclaim his resurrection and to call sinners everywhere to turn from their sins and to turn to God for salvation.
And, of course, Paul could also say — as he says here in verse 1 — that he did not choose this office for himself. He didn’t wake up one day and decide he was going to be an apostle. He didn’t make himself an apostle. After all, before the Lord called him, he didn’t believe in the Lord Jesus and he wanted to destroy the church. So, he didn’t choose to be an apostle. Instead he was called to this special office by the will of God, because it was Jesus Christ the Son of God who called him to this work and equipped him for it.
Notice how Paul describes the office. He’s not just an apostle, but he’s an apostle of Christ Jesus. His apostleship is focussed on Jesus Christ: he’s to serve Jesus Christ; and he’s to proclaim Jesus Christ; and he’s to call men and women and boys and girls to believe in Jesus Christ. Everything about his calling and his work is directed towards Jesus Christ who is the only Saviour of the world. And so, when he went to Corinth from Athens, what did he do? Well, every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Gentiles about what? He tried to persuade them about Jesus Christ: that he’s the Christ, the Saviour sent from heaven. So, Paul came to Corinth as a servant of Jesus Christ; and he came to persuade others about Jesus Christ so that they too might believe in Jesus Christ. Everything about his calling and his work as an apostle was focussed on Christ. And that’s the way it should be, for Jesus Christ is the only Saviour of the world; and whoever believes in him receives from God one good thing after another, one spiritual blessing after another: grace upon grace upon grace. And in verse 2, where Paul greets his readers, he refers to some of God’s good gifts to them, the blessings God has graciously given to those in Corinth who have believed in his Son.
Verse 2: Church of God
And the first thing to notice is how Paul refers to his readers in Corinth as ‘the church of God’. Now, the word he uses for ‘church’ and the word that is translated ‘church’ throughout the New Testament is really a word that means ‘an assembly’. So, in this letter, Paul is addressing God’s assembly in Corinth.
Now, if you’re like me, whenever you hear the word ‘assembly’ your mind goes back to schooldays whenever the whole school would gather every morning in the assembly hall. Throughout the rest of the day, all the pupils are in separate classes, listening to different teachers, learning different subjects, paying attention to different things. But in the morning, everyone gathered in the assembly hall and listened to the headmaster to hear what he had to say to the school that day. That’s an assembly.
Of course, school is not the only place where people assemble together; and in the ancient world, the citizens of a city would assembly together for various reasons: for instance, to hear what the governor of the city had to say; or to decide something which would affect the future of the city. An assembly is any gathering of people. And Christians also assemble together, week by week, but for a very special reason. We meet together to hear his word and to worship him. So, throughout the week, we’re living separate lives, doing different things, going separate places, pursuing different interests. But on Sundays, the Lord’s people assemble together in the presence of the Lord to hear his word and to worship him.
And what a privilege it is, to be part of this assembly. By saying it’s ‘the church of God’, or ‘God’s assembly’, Paul is making the point that the church in Corinth belongs to God. So, there might have been other groups in Corinth, but there was only one assembly of people who could say that they belonged to God. And they belonged to God because he had delivered them from their sin and misery and had purchased them by the blood of Christ and had called them out of the dominion of darkness to belong to him for ever and for ever. What a privilege!
And as members of God’s assembly, they were also citizens of heaven, so that while they lived in Corinth, their true home was in heaven with the Lord and where they would one day come. What a privilege!
And when they gathered together on Sundays, they were gathering in the presence of the Lord who was with them by his Spirit and who spoke to them through his word and who listened to them when they prayed to him. What a privilege!
In Old Testament times, the Israelites would assembly before the Lord. So, in the days of Moses, they assembled before him at Mount Sinai, where he spoke to them from the glory-cloud to give them his laws and commandments and to make a covenant with them. Then, after Moses died, the people once again assembled before the Lord; and Joshua reminded them of all of God’s laws and commandments and his promises and warnings to them. Shortly before Joshua’s death, they again held one of these solemn assemblies before the Lord. And there was another great assembly near the end of David’s life. And when Solomon had finished constructing the temple, the people assembled in Jerusalem and the king led them in prayer to dedicate the temple. These were solemn assemblies when all the Lord’s people gathered in his presence to hear his word and to worship him. And now, here’s Paul saying to the believers in Corinth that they too are the assembly of God; and like the Israelites of old, they’re able to assemble in God’s presence week by week to hear his word and to give thanks to him. What a privilege!
Verse 2: Sanctified and Called Holy
And then Paul goes on to refer to his readers in Corinth as
those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy.
The word ‘sanctified’ and the word ‘holy’ are linked, because to be sanctified means to be holy, and to be holy means to be sanctified. They’re also linked to the word ‘saint’; and some English translations of the Bible translate Paul’s words here as
those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.
Every believer is a saint, because every believer is called by God to be sanctified and holy.
And so, here’s Paul reminding his readers once again of the privileges they have in Christ and the spiritual blessings God has given them. Just as Paul was called by the will of God to be an apostle, so his readers were called by the will of God to be sanctified and holy saints.
But what does that mean? Well, to be sanctified and holy means to be set apart by God. In the Jerusalem temple, the various utensils the priests used were holy, because they were set apart from ordinary use to be used for God’s glory in the temple. In fact, the priests wore a sign on their forehead which read ‘Holy to the Lord’, because they too had been set apart from the rest of the people to serve God in the temple. Nowadays, we talk about Holy Communion, because the bread we take and the cup we take when we receive the Lord’s Supper have been set apart by prayer to be used in this special way to worship the Lord. The Bible is the Holy Bible, because it’s set apart from every other book, because it alone of all the books in the world is God’s word. And believers are also set apart by God, because he sets us apart to belong to him as his special, holy people. And this too is by grace.
Just think of the Israelites in the days of Moses again. When we first met them, they were just like the Egyptians, because they were worshipping false gods and idols; and, though they cried out in their sorrow, they did not cry out to the Lord, because they did not know him. So, when we first me them, they were just like the Egyptians. And yet the Lord set his love upon them and he set them apart from the Egyptians by bringing them through the Red Sea; and he made them his holy people. Like the Egyptians, they were sinners. But God graciously set them apart to belong to him. And that’s what the Lord has done for the members of the church in Corinth. Like everyone else in Corinth, they were sinners. But God graciously set them apart to belong to him and to be his special, holy people.
And so, when Paul calls his readers ‘those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy’, he’s once again pointing out the privileges God has given to them, and the blessing they have received. He’s reminding them of God’s grace, because God has set them apart to belong to him as his holy people, his saints, on the earth. They did not deserve it, but God graciously set them apart like this.
God’s Amazing Grace
Paul has reminded his readers of God’s grace to them, his kindness to them, because they’re members of God’s assembly, who have been purchased by the blood of Christ to belong to God and to belong to his heavenly kingdom. And they have been sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be saints. But what makes God’s grace to them stand out all the more clearly is the rest of the letter, because in the rest of the letter, we discover that the church in Corinth was really messed up in many ways. There were all kinds of problems in this church. If you were an outsider, looking in at the church of Corinth, you would probably shake your head in disbelief at some of the things they were up to. In chapters 1 to 3, Paul refers to the divisions which existed in that church. And so, instead of being united and instead of loving one another, they were divided and there were all these groups and factions and cliques among them. Some of them were saying:
We follow Paul. He’s our guy.
Others were saying:
We follow Apollos.
Others were saying:
We follow Peter.
And others were saying:
You follow Paul and Apollos and Peter. Well, we follow Christ.
They were boasting about their favourite leaders; and the congregation was divided. And because of the way they were behaving, it seemed to Paul that they were behaving in a very earthly and fleshy way instead of in a heavenly and spiritual way. And that’s not all. In chapter 5 we learn that one of the members was sleeping with his step-mother. That was bad enough; but what made it worse was the fact that no one in the church was doing anything about it. In chapter 6 we learn that they were taking one another to court. Instead of settling disputes among themselves, and instead of loving one another, they were taking one each to the secular courts to demand their rights. In chapter 7, Paul addressed some confusion they had over marriage. And in chapters 8 to 11 he had to write to them about Christian freedom, because they were confused about that. And from chapter 11 we learn that some of them were abusing the Lord’s Table and they were acting in a shameful way when they came together to remember the Lord’s death. And in chapter 14 it seems their worship was chaotic and confused. And according to chapter 15, some of them were confused about the resurrection. This was a messy church with all kinds of divisions and the people were behaving selfishly and foolishly and without love. An outsider would say they were terrible people: terrible sinners. And from what Paul says, it’s clear that many of them were not behaving in the way we would expect the Lord’s people to behave.
And yet how wonderful. How wonderful. Yes, they were sinners, who were doing terrible things which no believer should do. And yet, even though they were sinners, they weren’t only sinners. Yes, they were sinners, but they were — at the same time — saints because of Christ. They were sinners, but since they were united to Christ through faith, they were washed and cleansed by the blood of Christ and justified by God and accepted as righteous in God’s sight for the sake of the righteousness of Christ. Yes, they were sinners, but that’s not all they were; because by grace and through faith God had covered them with the perfect righteousness of Christ, the perfect obedience of Christ, which was now covering them like a robe, covering over their sin and shame and guilt. Yes, they were sinners, but by grace and through faith in Christ, they were justified; and therefore by grace and through faith they were able to assemble before the Lord week by week to hear his word and to worship him, because by grace and through faith, they had become saints of God Most High.
In verse 2 you’ll notice that Paul not only addresses the church of God in Corinth, but he also addresses all those everywhere who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. To call on the name of the Lord means to call on him for salvation. So, Paul is not only addressing the believers in Corinth; he’s addressing every believer, every Christian, throughout the world in every generation. And what he said about the church in Corinth is true of all of us, because every believer is both a saint and a sinner. Like the Corinthians, we sin against the Lord in countless ways each day. We may not do what they did; although some of the things they did are still common enough among believers today; but whether we sin in the same way or in different ways, we still sin against the Lord and break his commandments in countless ways. Every day we sin against him in thought and word and deed; and when people look at our lives and when we look at ourselves and the things we do and the things we say and the things we think, we see our sin and all the ways we have fallen short of doing God’s will.
But we mustn’t stop there. We mustn’t stop at saying we’re sinners, because if you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, then you also need to remember and believe that as well as being a sinner who sins against the Lord continually, you’re also a saint. Yes, you’re a sinner, but if you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, then your sin and shame and guilt is covered over with the perfect righteousness of Christ. And so, united to Christ through faith, you’re not only a sinner, but you’re sanctified in Christ Jesus, and you’ve become one of his holy saints. By ourselves we’re only sinners; but united to Christ, we share his perfect righteousness which covers our sin and shame so that we’re declared holy in God’s sight.
And what a privilege that is. People may look at you and all they see are your faults and failings, your sin and shame. But the person who counts the most — Almighty God in Heaven Above — he looks at you and he sees the righteousness of Christ, which is yours through faith and which covers your sin and shame.
So, united to Christ, we become God’s holy people. But, of course, that’s not all, is it? Because when we’re united to Christ through faith, we receive the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit works in our lives to enable us to know and to do God’s will more and more. So, united to Christ, we become God’s holy people. And united to Christ, we have the Holy Spirit to help us to live as God’s holy people. We’ll never be perfect in this life; we’ll never be free from sin in this life; but the Holy Spirit, sent from Christ in heaven above, helps us to resist temptation and he helps us to turn from sin and he helps us to obey the Lord more and more. That’s why Paul was writing to the Corinthians: he wanted to exhort them to turn from their sins and to do what was right. And through faith in Christ, and with the help of his Spirit, we’re enabled to live holy lives more and more.
So, united to Christ, we become God’s holy people. And united to Christ, we have the Holy Spirit to help us to live as God’s holy people. But that’s not all either, because united to Christ, we will one day become like him in the new heaven and the new earth so that we will sin no more, but will be perfectly holy like him for ever and for ever.
We’re sinners now. But united to Christ through faith, we’re justified and we’re accepted by God as holy, for the sake of Christ who died for us; and we’re able to look forward with hope to the day when we will be perfect, just as Christ our Saviour is perfect.
Well, in verse 3 Paul wrote to his readers in Corinth and everywhere else including North Belfast:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
By God’s grace we’re justified and we become God’s holy people. And by God’s grace, he will keep us until Christ comes again. And by God’s grace — his kindness to sinners in Christ Jesus — we have peace with God today and tomorrow and forever, because united to Christ we have become members of the church of God and we have become God’s holy people.