Tuesday, September 1, 2009

I Thank God For You - A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

As I mentioned in an earlier post, this past Sunday I preached at Bethesda Baptist Church in Delhi (Ontario, not India!!). I've already posted the manuscript for my AM sermon. Here are my PM notes. I got the key insight for the sermon from C.J. Mahaney's message at Together for the Gospel 2008 (his was on Philippians). When I began to think through what to preach to the church I pastor on the first Sunday of the New Year, God put 1 Corinthians on my heart, with Mahaney's insight as my thesis. A few months ago I preached this same sermon at a men's breakfast for Trinity Baptist Church in Burlington. This past Sunday, the folks at Bethesda Baptist seemed to appreciate it as well. In fact, I convicted and encouraged myself as I preached it. Here it is (at least, the notes I used while I preached).
Brian Regan is a G-rated stand up comedian who I find really funny. In one skit he tells the story of going golfing with a friend whose wife had left him a year earlier. He hadn’t seen this friend since it happened, so when he got back from golf Regan’s wife asked him, ‘how is he doing’? Regan admitted, ‘I don’t know’. His wife probed, ‘is he dating anyone’? He sheepishly admitted, ‘I didn’t ask’. Then he volunteered, ‘I know he has a new driver’.
In our culture men are taught to avoid conversation about personal things. And they often glory in it.
But within the Church of Jesus Christ this should not be.
We could talk about many ways that we could counter this in the church, but this evening we are going to simply talk about one way: cultivating a habit of Biblical encouragement.
I found 27 places in the NT where the word ‘encouragement’ comes up. Some of these are commands - like 1 Thess 5:11 “encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing”.
Acts 2:42 tells us that fellowship was one of the four priorities of the earliest Christians, along with the apostle’s teaching, prayer, and the breaking of bread. Four marks of a healthy church includes Biblical fellowship.
This morning I want to talk about one kind of Biblical encouragement, one aspect of Biblical fellowship.
I’m thankful to be speaking to a mature Church, and I hope the things we see Paul modeling here will spur on even deeper fellowship among the people of Bethesda Baptist Church.
In 1 Cor 1:1-9 the Apostle Paul models ‘identifying evidences of God’s grace in the lives of other Christians’. This is a display of Biblical fellowship. This is a means of Biblical encouragement.
We know that God’s grace transforms a person. Pointing that out is encouraging. This morning I want to talk about how that is the case.
We are going to look at three points together from these 9 vv.:
1. The People 2. The Praise 3. The Practical Lessons
Our first point is going to help us get the context, and make Paul’s words in 1 Cor 1 all the more powerful. Our second point will overview this passage. And in our third point we will draw out five lessons from what we’ve seen in this passage.
In my effort to not be a typical North American man, but a Biblical Christian, this passage has been an enormous help to me, and I pray it is to you as well.
1. The People
- If I were to mention Las Vegas, what would you think of first? Probably some sins associated with that city. What about New York? More sins. What about San Francisco? More sins. Those three cities are notorious for specific, gross sins.
- If we want to understand the city of Corinth as Paul wrote to it, we could say that it combined all the worst of Las Vegas, New York and San Francisco. When people in the first century heard mention of ‘Corinth’, they immediately thought of a giant heap of gross sins.
- Corinth was such a morally corrupt place, that the ancients invented a word to describe a very sinful, debauched person: a Corinthian! If you lived in Rome and had a morally loose neighbour, you might complain that he’s a real Corinthian, no matter where he was from!
- Ancient Corinth was a thriving city, financially speaking.
- It was built on a skinny piece of land on a major trade route. That meant that tons of trade traffic was funneled into Corinth! Many people with lots of money were constantly coming & going.
- Corinth was also a thriving port city. Cargo ships could save a lot of time and money by docking at Corinth and portaging a few kilometers over land instead of sailing the long way around.
*Corinth attracted people who moved away from home and never returned. It attracted money. It was a thriving big city.
When I was a kid we used to say the Lord’s prayer in school. In Corinth, business men and school kids would be required to offer prayers and sacrifices to other gods.
- Sexual misconduct and idolatry and other gross sins were simply a way of life in this wealthy, debauched city. Married men visited cult prostitutes as an accepted practice. It was Las Vegas and New York and San Francisco all in one.
- Into this horrible context, the Apostle Paul and others brought the gospel of Jesus Christ. What a testimony to the power of the gospel that people from these walks of life were saved! Cult prostitutes and their former customers now began to worship side by side in house churches in Corinth. Idolaters and adulterers and thieves and drug addicts and alcoholics and con-men and liars were all saved by God’s free grace. All these kinds of people heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. 
- They heard of a God who created them and would judge them in the final day. They heard of the Son of God coming down in humility, living the perfect life that we all failed to live, dying the death that we deserved to die. They learned to turn from their life of sin and trust in the perfect sacrifice of the Son of God for them. They received free forgiveness of sins and knew adoption as children of God! These people gathered and worshipped King Jesus together. They met regularly for corporate worship. They were bonded together in Christ and became a family. They were an authentic Christian Church.
- There is a powerful lesson here: the gospel is real and powerful to save the worst of sinners. The most sinful people of Jesus’ day were attracted to him. Paul boldly brought the gospel into sinful Corinth, and the city was never the same! You are not too sinful to be saved! Neither is your loved one or neighbour.
- But then it gets sloppy in the Corinthian church. If you know anything about the way of sanctification, of the way God makes his people actually holy, you know that it happens progressively, over time.
These people were saved out of a brutal life, and they were being radically transformed, but this church was messy, because of the brutal sin that kept popping up in it.
This was a nightmare church in many ways. We could almost say that 1 Corinthians is a 16 chapter letter of rebuke by Paul, where he makes their sin clear to them and calls them out of it!
- Over and over again in this letter, we see moral problems in the church, and at the end, one theological problem.
- These were saved sinners and they struggled deeply. Listen to just some of the things Paul says throughout this letter:
- In 1:10 we see that there are divisions in the church.
- In 1:11 we see that the people are fighting with each other.
- In 1:12 we see that people love certain leaders more than their identity in Christ.
- In 3:1 Paul tells them that they are not spiritual, but of the flesh.
- In 4:7 he identifies spiritual pride as a huge problem.
- In chapter 5 we see that there is sexual immorality in the church that even pagans don’t stoop to.
- In chapters 6:1-11 we see Christians suing each other in secular courts.
- In 6:12-ff we see that church members are visiting prostitutes!
- In chapter 7 we see that the church is encouraging singleness to people who desire to marry.
- In 8:9 we see stronger Christians putting stumbling blocks before weak Christians.
- In 10:14 we see that some church members struggle with worshipping idols.
- In 11:1-ff we see that women participate in the worship service, but refuse to wear cultural signs of submission to the male church leaders.
- In 11:16 these Christians are inclined to be contentious.
- In 11:17-ff we see that people come to the Lord’s supper and they are divided among themselves and they get drunk of the wine that symbolized Christ’s blood shed for their sins.
- In chapters 12-14 we see that they use the spiritual gifts for elitism, not for the common good, not for the building up of the body.
- In 14:26 their worship services are chaotic and disorderly.
- In chapter 15 there is a theological problem: they deny the future resurrection of the body and imply that Christ wasn’t even raised from the dead physically.
- In short, this is a messy church. From the outside looking in, we might be tempted to ask the very simple question: is this even an authentic church? We know that Paul is not afraid to tell a church that they have strayed from Christ. Read Galatians. The tone of that rebuking letter is simply: you have abandoned Christ, come back! I have nothing good to say to you. You have denied the simple gospel. If you continue on as you are, you will not be saved.
- And yet, in this letter, Paul begins differently.
2. The Praise
- To this church, full of sin, that Paul will strongly correct for so many chapters, Paul begins his address this way:
1 Corinthians 1:1-9 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 2 To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ-- their Lord and ours: 3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. 5 For in him you have been enriched in every way-- in all your speaking and in all your knowledge-- 6 because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you. 7 Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 8 He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.
- Very simply, he begins by encouraging them. He tells them the things about them that he thanks God for. Look with me:
- These sinners are in v. 2 the church of God in Corinth. They are God’s church. They are really a church, and not fakes!
- In v. 2 they are sanctified, made holy in Christ Jesus. Jesus’ blood has been shed for them and they are clean!
- In v. 2 they are called to be holy – which means that they are called to be separate from the sinful world.
- In v. 2 they are a part of the universal church – all Christians of all time. ‘together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ-- their Lord and ours:’
- They are a part of something bigger than themselves.
- In v. 3 they are objects of God’s grace, his undeserved favour.
- In v. 3 they are recipients of God’s peace, his wholeness and abundant life.
- Then in v. 4 Paul begins the body of his letter this way: I always thank God for you. This means that whenever Paul prays, he oozes with thanks for this church family. Why?
- In vv. 4-5, Paul says this is because God’s grace was given them in Christ Jesus. They’ve been enriched in every way. Their words and knowledge are all given them by Christ. They are gifted in these ways by God’s Holy Spirit.
- In v. 6 the gospel was confirmed in these Christians, because they responded to it. They themselves show the power of the gospel.
- In v. 7, they don’t lack any spiritual gift – they are a complete church.
- In v. 7, they eagerly await for the return of Christ.
- In vv. 8-9, God has called them and God will keep them to the day of Christ!
- In light of how sinful this church is, what an amazing way to begin his letter. What an amazing model of Christian encouragement.
- Throughout the letter Paul will model the need to call sinning Christians out of sin and point them to the Saviour, Jesus Christ.
- But as he begins this letter, Paul models the need to identify ways God is working in a people and tell them!
- As we think about the fellowship of a church family, we can learn something powerful from Paul at this point: it is important for us to tell people when we see God at work in them.
Through the New Testament we see a strong call to be continually devoted to fellowship. We see strong commands to encourage each other as Christians as an aspect of fellowship. In 1 Corinthans 1:1-9 we see a model of how to do it. We are called by God to point people to the gospel and to identify things in their lives that are rich testimony to the work of God alone.
3. The Practical Lessons
- Five lessons about Christian encouragement as we close:
a. Encouragement: God is at work. This is praise of God, not people. Notice that Paul never says: you’ve done such a good job. He says ‘God has done it all’. This is like taking a giant highlighter and telling these people what God is doing. It is encouraging because it is all of God. It shows me that I’m God’s! He basically says: “I’m so thankful that I see these things, because they are evidence that God is working in your lives”.
b. Encouragement: of Sinful Christians. This encouragement is done to prideful people! The Corinthians were about to be rebuked for spiritual elitism and pride and selfish use of spiritual gifts. They are chaotic and disorderly in their use of radical spiritual gifts but Paul begins by saying: I’m so thankful that you don’t lack any spiritual gift! We learn here that this kind of encouragement is appropriate even when a Christian has sin in their hearts. If there is a glimmer of grace, it is appropriate to highlight that for other people!
- This is especially helpful when Paul turns to rebuke these Christians. The correction will be done in the context of knowing that they are the Lord’s and that their actions are not 100% bad!
c. Encouragement: of Authentic Christians. This encouragement ought to well up in us for all authentic Christians. This is especially evident in 1 Corinthians 1. What a brutal church. How easy would it have been to concentrate on all the sin in the church and forget the fact that Christ purchased them with his own blood. These Christians confess the gospel and preach the gospel and cherish the gospel. These Christians are brutally sinful, but their lives were in the process of being transformed by Christ. And later, we will see that they respond to rebuke by repenting of their sins.
- Do you find yourself only discouraged about a particular brother or sister in Christ? When you think of them you can only think about their sin that discourages you? What about an entire church? What about this church? This might just reveal pride in your own heart. Do you know yourself as an undeserving sinner?
- If this is a struggle for you, I’d suggest that you begin a journal, in which you list ways you see God at work in the individuals in your life.
d. Encouragement: Only for Authentic Christians. This encouragement ought to well up in us for only authentic Christians. Contrast the way 1 Corinthians opens with the way Galatians opens. Very different letters. In Galatians the people have abandoned the gospel and Paul has nothing good to say to them. What Paul is doing here is not flattery and it is not careless and loose. It is authentic encouragement of authentic Christians. When someone does not give evidence of being in God’s grace, we ought not encourage them in this way!
e. Encouragement: For Specifics. This is specific encouragement. It identifies particular areas of the life of an entire church that is healthy and draws a line from that aspect of church life, to the kind working of God. These are specific things that people can be encouraged by. We don’t simply need to hear that we are appreciated generally. We need to hear of specific evidences in our lives that God is working!
- Will you seek to grow in being able to say to this church family as a whole, and to each other: “I thank God for you”, and learn to highlight specific ways God is working, in our own reflections, and in our words to our brothers and sisters in Christ.

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