But, You Must Listen and Obey

January 2, 2005 Preacher: Randy Smith Series: 1 Corinthians

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:1–3


But, You Must Listen and Obey

1 Corinthians 1:1-3
Sunday, January 2, 2005
Pastor Randy Smith

At the turn of the first century, the Greek town of Corinth was the fourth largest city in the Roman Empire. It was well known throughout the Mediterranean world for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately one reason was its notorious reputation. The two aspects that contributed immensely to its popularity, also contributed to its debauchery.

First, Corinth was strategically located between two harbours. It was the hub of world trade. Its geographical location brought the town great commerce and wealth. However, with the visitors from all over the world, came the heathenism and corruption common to any port city. Stealing, cheating, violence, selfishness, covetousness, drunkenness, divisiveness and a multitude of religious and philosophical beliefs ran ramped in Corinth. It was the den of iniquity.

Corinth was also the home to the Temple of Aphrodite, which hosted its 1000 temple prostitutes. Along with many other gods worshipped by the Corinthians, the worship of Aphrodite and her fertility cult influenced the thinking of the people to the point where many believed sex was a normal part of religious worship. Even secular authors before the rise of Christianity often referred to Corinth as a city of fornication and prostitution. Pagan Greeks coined the verb "to Corinthianize," which meant to practice sexual immorality. As we study this epistle, we will see the sexual sins of incest, fornication, adultery and homosexuality were common among the people. As a matter of fact, modern archaeologists have found clay models of human genitalia offered as sacrifices to Aesculapius, the god of healing. No doubt this is a sign of the venereal diseases they incurred due to their gross immorality.

It was into this harsh environment that the Apostle Paul arrived with the Gospel in AD 51. The Bible says in the book of Acts he planted a church and stayed there 18 months "teaching the Word of God" (Ac. 18:11).

Yet despite his personal presence and instruction, serious doctrinal and moral problems began to surface in the church after his departure. The strong sway of the culture began to have a great influence on the new converts. Therefore in his absence, Paul sent them a letter that was misunderstood and no longer remains in our possession. Shortly after, a second letter was sent to bring clarification and correction. It was the epistle we commonly call 1 Corinthians.

In this letter, Paul reveals a church that acted like anything but a church. They struggled with: Divisiveness, partiality, carnality, sexual immorality, litigation, idolatry, divorce and selfishness, not to mention serious doctrinal error pertaining to their views of worship and the Resurrection. Put yourself in Paul's shoes. Where would you begin? And how would you go about addressing this immature and sinful church to grab their attention and command their obedience?

This morning, as we prepare for the Lord's Table, we'll examine Paul's strategy in verses 1-3 and the personal application to our lives as well.


The opening three verses of this epistle follow the standard custom of the day when writing a letter. Though we commonly place our name and salutations at the end of the letter, the Greeks put all this information at the beginning. You can see in verse one that Paul identified himself and then immediately referred to his credentials as an Apostle. Did Paul want to pridefully flaunt his ecclesiastical title or did he have another purpose in mind?

Paul knew that many false teachers in Corinth challenged his authority. Paul knew that many believed him inferior since he was not one of the twelve original Apostles. Yet Paul also knew that the bulk of his letter would be corrective in nature. How could he demand their attention? Why should they obey his instruction? He needed to establish his authority. Therefore from the get-go he wanted the church to understand that he was writing to them as an Apostle of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 9:1-2).

The Greek word Apostle is apostolos, which comes from the verbal form apostello, meaning "sent one." Paul was more than another philosophical voice in the Greek culture. On the contrary, he was sent out by Jesus as His ambassador (1 Cor. 1:17). He did not appoint himself, nor was He nominated by any human agency. He was called to speak on behalf of God by the will of God. As verse one indicates, he was "called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God."

Therefore, when Paul the Apostle speaks, he speaks authoritatively on behalf of King Jesus. Paul wants the Corinthians to understand that his words in this letter are not to be taken lightly. For they are not his words; they are to be obeyed as if they are coming directly off the lips of Almighty God.

Ephesians says the church has "been built on the foundation of the apostles" (Eph. 2:20a). The Apostles were Christ's delegates (His "sent ones") to build His church. They played a significant role. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit they spoke and wrote the Word of God (Jn. 14:26; 16:13). And even though they were not God nor are their words written in red in our Bibles (as Jesus' words often are highlighted), they spoke with the authority of God on behalf of God as His ambassadors.

This is why the Corinthians were responsible to listen to Paul in his letter and why every pastor today is called by God to "preach the Word" written by the Apostles (2 Tim. 4:2). God desires to speak to His church. He is not speaking audibly so He can't be heard that way. And He surely won't be heard though the preacher's opinions, cleverness and humor - a tactic common among most preachers today. So how does God have a voice among His people? It comes from the man of God proclaiming the Word of God. I am not an Apostle, nor do I possess the authority of an Apostle. However, God has preserved apostolic doctrine in the Bible. So it is the true pastor's responsibility to proclaim the Word of God. Likewise, it should be your desire to hear the Word of God. And when this Word is accurately proclaimed, God speaks, and it naturally comes with the authority of God Himself.

I often think of it like this: God is the Chef and you are the His customers at the restaurant. I am only the waiter. My job is simply to get the food to you without spoiling the work of the Chef. I deserve no glory. I have no inherent authority of my own. But I am called as an ambassador and herald for the King. So when God's people cry out for a word from their Master, it is my responsibility to speak on His behalf as He speaks His Word from the Bible through me. You don't obey because I said it. You obey because God said it, apostolic doctrine "once for all handed down to the saints" (Ju. 3).

Paul's point and my point - don't fool around with the Word of God!


So the Corinthians needed to heed the words of Paul because he was an Apostle and they also needed to heed the words of Paul (as we move to the second point) because they were saints. In the beginning of verse 2 we read, "To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling."

When we think of the Corinthian church, we realize they acted like anything but saints. Form cover-to-cover Paul exposed a series of sins I mentioned some earlier in this sermon that even makes many modern churches look fairly righteous. So despite everything the Apostle knew about these people, how could he call them saints as early as the second verse of his letter?

The reason we struggle with this label is because many of us have been poorly instructed concerning this biblical term. A saint is not a person who has crossed some imaginary line of moral superiority. Nor is it one who has received this designation from a church counsel. On the contrary, a saint is a person called by God to be set apart for His holy purposes. As a matter of fact, the same Greek word (hagios) is used for both "holy" and "saint." Therefore another word for "saint" is "holy one." All Christians are holy ones. All Christians are saints. Realize what I just said. If you are in Christ Jesus, you are a saint!

Allow me to explain. When God calls His children to Himself, He makes them holy. He, as verse 2 says, has sanctified them (hagiazo) or made them holy in Christ Jesus (cf. Heb. 2:11; 10:10, 14). People don't make saints, God does. It's not achieved. It's received. And from our perspective, it happens the second we place our faith in Jesus Christ. It is not our own righteousness that makes us holy, rather it is God clothing us with the perfect righteousness of Jesus. It is finding perfect acceptance in the eyes of God not based on our performance, but based upon the performance of Jesus Christ reckoned to our account! It is what theologians call "positional sanctification." All Christians in the eyes of God, because of their union with Christ are "holy and blameless before Him" (Eph. 1:4; cf. Col. 1:22). As verse 2 says, we are "saints by calling." Literally, we are "called saints." I think many biblical versions have botched this translation and unwittingly have missed initial Paul's point.

What is Paul's application? Why would he want this immoral church to know their position in Christ as saints before he confronts them with righteous correction? It is because our practice in Christ must always be based on our position in Christ. We don't pursue holiness to make us more righteous in God's eyes; we pursue holiness because we are already righteous in God's eyes! We don't pursue holiness to have God accept us; we pursue holiness because God already accepts us! We don't pursue holiness to make us something we are not; we pursue holiness because we are already saints, holy ones! Paul's point - Our position in Christ should compel our practice to live for Christ. If I am already a saint, isn't it only natural that I should be expected to live like a saint?


I hope you are beginning to see Paul's strategy. I hope you are beginning to see how Paul is setting the stage before he begins attacking the problems in verse 10. I hope you see the application for us today.

As we move to the third point, he mentions another factor that the Corinthians must consider regarding their conduct. They must consider the fact that they belong to the church.

In the beginning of verse 2 they are addressed as "the church of God which is at Corinth." The Greek word for church is ekklesia. Literally the word means "called out." The church is an assembly of people called by God out of this world to be His own dear possession. The church is not a social gathering; rather it is God's organization. God is the owner of His church. We are His possession. 1 Peter 2:9 says, "(We) are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light."

The church is called to proclaim the excellencies of God. Paul wanted the Corinthians to realize they represented God. They had His mark of ownership stamped on their foreheads! Therefore their actions had a direct bearing on God's reputation in the town of Corinth. When the filthy town looked at the church would they see holy people emulating the holiness of God? Would they see people who once lived in darkness now living in the light?

Their conduct influenced the unbelievers in Corinth and their conduct also influenced believers from other churches. At the end of verse 2 Paul says, "With all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours."

Though these people were the church of God in Corinth, they also belonged to the universal church scattered all over the world. They needed to examine themselves. Were their actions encouraging or discouraging the biblical conduct God desires amongst His children? Paul wanted the Corinthians to see the responsibility they had to other believers. He wanted them to see that they were members of the same body. We are not autonomous. Our actions will have a direct impact on other Christians, either positively or negatively in promoting God's agenda.


Finally, Paul mentions "grace" in verses 3 and 4. Grace can be defined as God's favour given to undeserving sinners in Christ Jesus. It is an unmerited gift. Now think about that for a moment. What is the greatest gift God can present to humans? How about the ability to love Him by obeying His commandments? Jesus said, "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments" (Jn. 14:15). Is there any greater gift we could receive than the ability to love the living God by obeying His commandments? So as Paul spoke to this sinning church, should we be surprised that He mentions grace twice in the four opening verses.

First, in verse 4 he mentions the grace already given to them. In order to be a Christian and delivered from sin's condemnation, we must receive grace. In Ephesians 2 Paul said, "For by grace (we) have been saved" (Eph. 2:8a).

In chapter 1 verse 1, Paul reminds them of this grace by mentioning a fellow by the name of Sosthenes. Sosthenes was first introduced in Acts 18. When Paul initially landed in Corinth, he began to speak in the Jewish synagogue (Ac. 18:4), as was his customary procedure. Acts says, Crispus, the leader of the Corinthian synagogue "believed in the Lord with all his household" (Ac. 18:8). No doubt this infuriated the Jews. They brought Paul before the judgment seat (Ac. 18:12), but the Corinthian leader, Gallio, dismissed the case (Ac. 18:14-16). In response to this verdict, the people (Jews or Greeks?) grabbed the new Jewish synagogue leader in Corinth; a man names Sosthenes, and began to beat him (Ac. 18:17). What became of this man? Most likely this is the same Sosthenes mentioned in 1 Corinthians.

What a demonstration of God's grace! Two synagogue leaders both from Corinth both converted to Christ. Now Paul speaks of Sosthenes in verse 1 not as a synagogue leader, but as "our brother." What a trophy of God's grace in action!

These Corinthians needed to realize that they are sanctified in Christ Jesus and belong to God's church. They are saints because of "the grace of God which was given (them) in Christ Jesus" (1 Cor. 1:4b). Grace had delivered them from sin's condemnation.

Second, in verse 3 Paul mentions the grace God will give them in the future. "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." Since we are already saved from sin's condemnation, this future grace is necessary to be delivered from sins domination. God doesn't give us daily grace to continue in our sin. If that is the case we should "continue in sin so that grace may increase" (Rom. 6:1). On the contrary, God gives us grace so we can overcome in our battle with sin and live lives worthy of our calling as saints! It was J. I. Packer who said, "The way to be truly happy is to be truly human, and the way to be truly human is to be truly godly. Isn't godliness only natural since we are created in the image of God and recreated in the likeness of Christ?

Paul wanted these immoral Corinthians to understand that the grace of God is greater than their sin! God wants His children to grow in His holy image through His transforming power of grace! The Corinthians would soon learn they had a long way to go in godliness. Therefore Paul wanted them to understand that the means of change is God's almighty and sufficient grace. It is God who gives us the desire and ability to live as He requires.

Paul had a lot to say to this church, but before he spoke by way of correction, he spent the first few verses strategically setting the stage. He wanted them to know his Apostolic authority; therefore, they needed to heed his instruction. He wanted them to know they were saints by calling; therefore, they should live like it. He wanted them to know they belonged to the church of the living God; therefore, they should be aware how their conduct influences others. And he wanted them to know that God gives grace sufficient for a holy life pleasing to Him; therefore, they can be victorious in overcoming sin and living for God's glory.

God's words written to His church in Corinth carry the same weight of application to His church in Lake Como. Maybe as we prepare for the Lord's Supper, we need to do some self-examination to be sure we too are heeding God's expectations.

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