Paul has been writing to the church in Corinth; and so far he’s addressed two problems which he had heard about in the church. The first was to do with the divisions among them: instead of loving and serving one another, they were quarrelling with one another and they had divided into different groups or factions; and they were exalting themselves against one another; and they were boasting about this preacher and that preacher. And so Paul wrote to appeal to them to agree with one another and to be perfectly united in mind and thought. And then the second problem he addressed was in connection with this man who was a member of the church, but who was sleeping with his step-mother. And while that was bad enough, what really concerned Paul was the fact that the church had done nothing about it. And so Paul wrote to instruct them that they needed to take action and they needed to exercise church discipline and remove the man from their fellowship. They needed to exercise discipline for the good of the man himself, because once he’s removed from the church, he might be ashamed of what he had done and repent of his sin. And they needed to exercise discipline for the good of the church, because just as a little yeast can spread through a batch of dough and spoil it, so sin can spread through the church and ruin it. So, for the good of the church and for good of this man, exercise church discipline.
That’s what we were thinking about last week. Today we come to verses 1 to 11 of chapter 6 where Paul addresses another problem in the church in Corinth. What was the problem this time? Well, it seems from what we read here that they were taking one another to court. Whenever a dispute arose between the members, instead of dealing with it themselves, they were taking each other to court. And this is astonishing to Paul. He says to them in verse 1:
If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment?
Well, in the Greek text, the word ‘dare’ comes at the beginning of the sentence, to make this word emphatic. Paul is saying:
Dare you do this?
Paul has heard reports that this kind of thing was happening in the church in Corinth; and he can’t believe it’s happening. It’s so astonishing to him: how can they dare do such a thing as this?
Now, of course, believers fall out all the time. After all, though we’ve been pardoned by God and his Spirit is at work in us to sanctify us and to make us more obedient, we’re still sinners who do sinful and foolish things all the time. And so, we still upset one another and annoy one another and hurt one another and we’re often selfish and self-seeking. So, believers will fall out all the time and disputes will arise. That’s to be expected. But what astonished Paul so much was the fact that these believers who were in dispute with one another went to court to resolve the matter instead of dealing with the problem in the church. So:
Dare you take your dispute before the ungodly for judgment instead of taking it before the saints?
When he refers to ‘the ungodly’ here, he’s referring to the unbelieving judges who served in the civil courts. So, why take your case to the unbelievers in the courts instead of taking your case to the believers in church?
That’s what these verses are about. And we can divide today’s passage into three parts. First of all, in verses 1 to 6, Paul makes the point that the believers are perfectly competent to judge these disputes themselves so there’s no need to take one another to court. Secondly, in verses 7 and 8, he makes the point that the fact that they’re having these disputes shows that there’s something wrong in their fellowship. And thirdly, in verses 9 to 11, he reminds them that those who do wrong will not inherit the kingdom of God. So let’s look at those three parts now.
Verses 1 to 6
Let’s think about verses 1 to 6 first of all. And we can perhaps imagine some of the members of the church in Corinth saying to Paul that none of them are qualified to settle such disputes. Whenever there’s a dispute between two members, they need to go to the public courts, because the court contain people with the expertise and knowledge and the wisdom to try such cases and to settles disputes. There are people there with law degrees and with experience of these matters. That’s what some of the members might have said to Paul; and it’s what people might also say today. The courts are there; that’s what they’re for; the judges know what they’re doing; we should bring our cases to them.
But Paul wants to remind his readers of two important things. First of all, he wants to remind them in verse 2 that the saints — that is, the believers — will one day judge the world. And if that’s the case, then are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Secondly, he wants to remind them in verse 3 that we who believe will one day judge the angels. And if that’s the case, then are you not much more competent to judge the things of this life?
So Paul twice asks his readers: Do you not know? Do you not know that we will judge the world and angels? Well, did you know that? In Matthew 19 we have the story of the rich young man who asked the Lord what good thing he needed to do in order to get eternal life. And at the end of that story, the Lord turned to his disciples and said:
I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
You see, in biblical times, kings — the ones who sat on thrones — were the ones who settled disputes and who acted as judges. Think of King Solomon who was asked to settle the dispute between the two mothers when one of their babies died in the night. Solomon was the king; and as the king, it was his responsibility to hear and to settle such disputes among his people. So, in Bible times, the king was also the judge. And here’s the Lord Jesus telling his followers that one day, in the new creation, his followers will sit enthroned beside him as kings. They will reign with him; and they will judge with him. That’s what the Lord said in Matthew 19. Then, in the very last chapter of the Bible, the Apostle John describes the life to come in the new Jerusalem in the new heaven and the new earth. The river of the water of life will be there; the tree of life will be there too, bearing its fruit every month. The throne of God and the Lamb will be in the city and his servants will serve him. They will see his face; and his name will be on their foreheads; and they will reign with him. And if we will reign with him, then we will also sit with him as judges, because the king was also the judge.
And if that’s the case — if one day we’ll judge the world and angels as Paul says — then we’re perfectly competent to settle whatever disputes arise among us in this life. If in the life to come, the Lord will call upon us to judge, then we should be able to judge whatever cases arise in this life. And so, says Paul in verse 4, when such disputes arise among believers in the church, appoint one of your members to settle the case; appoint even men of little account. And by those words, Paul perhaps means that the world regards the members of the church as being of little account; they despise us and mock us and think we’re stupid and foolish for believing what we believe. Nevertheless, despite what the world thinks of us, we’re still competent to settle whatever disputes arise among us; and we don’t need to rely on unbelievers to help us.
‘I say this to shame you’, says Paul in verse 5.
Is it possible there’s nobody among you who is wise enough to settle a dispute between believers?
Well, remember earlier how Paul complained that the Corinthians were boasting about their wisdom? They thought they were so wise! Well, says Paul now, if you’re so wise, isn’t there someone among you who can deal with these disputes? Surely there must be someone in the church who can take on this responsibility so that you don’t have to go in front of unbelievers to settle these things.
And, of course, Paul is right. And since we try in the Presbyterian Church to order our congregational life according to God’s word, it shouldn’t surprise you that we have courts in the church to settle disputes among the members of the church. The Kirk Session is a court of the church and has responsibility to handle some of these matters. The Presbytery is a court of the church and has responsibility to handle some of these matters. The General Assembly is a court of the church and has responsibility to handle some of these matters — although the General Assembly has appointed what’s known as the Judicial Commission to handle these disputes on its behalf. And every year, in the reports to the General Assembly, there’s a report from the Judicial Commission about the cases it has heard during the year and the decisions it has taken. Whenever a case comes before it, the Commission hears from the parties in the case; and it hears testimony from other witnesses; and it considers the evidence before it; and it comes to a decision: so and so is at fault and this is what he must do to put things right; so and so is at fault and this is what she must do to put things right.
People tend to read these reports to the General Assembly and they worry because these cases have arisen; and they worry that there’s something wrong in the church, because these disputes are happening. Well, disputes will always happen, because we’re sinners. But the good thing is that we’re able to handle these disputes ourselves and we don’t need to take them to the civil courts. It’s a good thing that we can handle these matters in the courts of the church which is where they belong, because since we’ll one day sit as judges with the Lord Jesus, we’re perfectly competent to sit as judges now and decide on the things of this life.
And, of course, before any dispute gets to one of the church courts, the Presbyterian Church also has a conciliation service, with people who have been trained to bring together disputing parties to see whether or not they can work things out and come to some kind of peaceful understanding.
So, in the Presbyterian Church we have the courts of the church to help us; and we have the conciliation service to help us. And we have these courts and services because we want to do what God has commanded us to do in his word.
I have a book at home about the city of Geneva when John Calvin the Reformer was alive and was serving as one of the pastors of that city. And one of the chapters records the work of the consistory — that’s the name they gave to the Kirk Session — who used to meet to settle disputes among the members of the churches in Geneva. And there were so many disputes and so many cases of church discipline, that the elders had to meet every week for several hours to hear them all and to decide them all. But once again, they did this in obedience to God’s word, because here in 1 Corinthians the Apostle Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirt makes clear that the church ought to handle these things by itself. Now, if a member commits a crime, then the matter has to be handled by the police and by the criminal courts. And the criminal courts, of course, have been established by God to uphold law and order in society; and they’ve been given authority by God to punish lawbreakers. But when it comes to other matters, when one member of the church has a dispute with another member of the church, they should not go to the public courts about it, but they should bring their complaint to the courts of the church. —
Verses 7 and 8
Look how Paul concludes this first part of today’s passage: in verse 6 he reminds his readers that they’re brothers. We’re brothers and sisters in the Lord. That’s another thing they needed to remember. They’re not enemies; but they’re brother and sisters in the Lord: God the Father has become our Father; Jesus Christ has become our elder brother; and as members of the same family, we’re to love and serve one another. So, can’t the members of the same family sort these things out themselves? Why go to outsiders for help when we can settle things together as members of the same family?
And that leads us to the next part of today’s passage, because in verses 7 and 8 Paul makes clear that there’s something wrong in their fellowship and in the way they’re treating one another. He says to them in verse 7:
The very fact that you have these lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already.
You see, when two parties go to court, they state their case and they lay out the evidence. And in the end, one party wins and the other party loses. You win the case and the other person loses the case. And in Roman times, very often the way to win the case was by attacking the other party. You set about ruining their reputation. One commentator talks about muck-raking and fabrication: you told all kinds of lies against your opponent and brought out every skeleton you could find in order to win the case.
But when one Christian takes another Christian to court, there are no winners, says Paul. There are no winners. Both have lost, because the very fact that we’ve let these disputes go so far means that something terrible has gone wrong in the fellowship of God’s people. Something’s gone wrong in the way you treat one another if it goes this far.
For one, you’re cheating and wronging one another; That’s what he says in verse 8; and that’s not right. But also — and here Paul says something which is remarkable — he says to his readers in verse 7:
Why not be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?
Do you see what Paul is saying here? Yes, you shouldn’t be cheating and wronging one another; however, when that happens, in order to prevent the dispute from going so far that it ends up in court, wouldn’t it be better for the one who was cheated to drop the case? Paul is saying that our attitude ought to be:
Wouldn’t it be better for me to suffer this loss instead of bringing my Christian brother or sister through the law courts?
Now, that’s the kind of statement which makes us raise an eyebrow and want to say to Paul: You can’t be serious! Why should I suffer for something he has done wrong? But, of course, isn’t that what our Saviour did for us? Didn’t he suffer and die on the cross for what we have done wrong? We’re the ones who — all our lives — have done wrong. From our childhood until this very day we have broken God’s laws again and again and again. And what we deserve is to be brought before his judgment seat to be condemned for all the ways we have wronged him and disobeyed his laws and fallen short of doing his will. But on the cross, the Lord Jesus — who never did anything wrong and who was perfectly innocent and free from sin all of his life — took our place and he suffered in our place for all that we have done wrong. He was prepared to suffer loss so that we would not be condemned.
And here’s Paul saying to us: If your Christian brother or sister does something against you, wouldn’t it be better for you to suffer the loss instead of taking them through the law courts to be condemned? And Paul can say that to us, because that’s exactly what the gospel is about: the Lord Jesus suffered in our place so that we will never, ever be condemned. Instead of being condemned, we’re reconciled to God. And instead of taking one another to court to be condemned for what they have done to us, we should be prepared to suffer loss for their sake.
Verses 9 to 11
So, we’re competent to judge these cases ourselves. But in order to avoid such cases, we should be prepared to suffer loss for the sake of our fellow believers. And in the final part of today’s passage, the Apostle reminds his readers that those who do wrong will not inherit the kingdom of God.
‘Do you not know?’ he says again.
Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?
Well, the Greek word which is translated ‘wicked’ here is the same word which was translated ‘ungodly’ in verse 1 and which referred in verse 1 to the unbelieving judges in the courts. So, in verse 1 Paul was saying:
Dare you take these cases before the unbelieving judges in the courts?
And in verse 9 he’s saying:
Don’t you know that those unbelieving judges in the courts will not inherit the kingdom of God?
And then he lists the kind of lifestyle you find out in the unbelieving world: you’ll find people who are sexually immoral; and people who are idolaters; and people who are adulterers; and people who are male prostitutes; and people who are homosexual offenders; and people who are thieves and greedy and drunkards and slanderers and swindlers. You’ll find all of those people outside God’s kingdom in the unbelieving world.
Now, that’s what some of you were like, Paul says to his readers in verse 11. That’s what you were like, but now you’ve been delivered from all of that. God has delivered you from those sins and from that way of life. And so — and this is Paul’s point — since you’ve been delivered from all of that, and since you’ve been freed from that kind of lifestyle, then why go to people who still live like that in order to settle your disputes? You’re members of God’s kingdom now; and those unbelieving judges in the courts have nothing to do with God’s kingdom and they have no part in it. So why look to them for help with your own disputes?
Well, Paul uses three different words taken from three different settings to convey what God had done for the believers in Corinth and what he does for us. The first word ‘washed’ is taken from a domestic setting. You’ve got your clothes all dirty; and so you take them off and put them in the washing machine; and in a while they come out, clean and fresh and spotless. Well, for the sake of Jesus Christ, God washes away the guilt of our sin. He washes it away, so that when he looks on us, he no longer sees the stain of our sin, because it’s been washed away. You know, I’ve known people who have done things of which they were so ashamed. Things which blighted their lives. And how desperately they wanted to wash away the past. Well, that’s what God does to his people. He washes the guilt of our sin away and he promises us: I will remember your sins no more. Whatever you’ve done, I will remember it no more.
The second word is taken from a religious setting. To be ‘sanctified’ means to be set apart as holy for God. And so, in the Old Testament, various cups and plates and other utensils were sanctified or set apart as holy to be used in the temple for God’s glory. The priests were sanctified or set apart as holy to work in the temple for God’s glory. And Paul says of sinners that God sanctifies us: he sets us apart and makes us holy so that we no longer belong to sin. Instead we belong to the Lord and he enables us to live our lives for his glory. Haven’t you met people who were once trapped by sin? But then God came along and released them; and instead of feeling compelled to do these shameful things, they’ve been set free to belong to God and to do what is good and right and praiseworthy.
And then the third word is from a legal setting. To be ‘justified’ means that the verdict has been passed on us by God. And the verdict that God makes on guilty sinners like us is what? Well, the verdict we deserve is ‘guilty’, because that’s what we are. But — and here’s the wonderful and surprising thing — for the sake of Jesus Christ, God looks upon his people and declares us ‘not guilty!’ And more than that: he not only declares us, ‘not guilty’, but it’s even better than that. He declares about us: Loved and accepted for the sake of Jesus Christ. When God justifies a sinner, he treats him, he treats her as if they had done nothing wrong; and he treats them as if they had done everything right. He no longer counts our sins against us; instead he counts us as right in his sight; and he treats us as he would treat the Lord Jesus Christ who is the only one who has perfectly and completely obeyed his commandments.
And here’s the thing; and this is where we finish this evening: since this is how God has treated us in Christ Jesus, then we need to treat one another in the same way. Instead of condemning one another in court, we should forgive one another just as in Christ God forgave us.