How Firm a Foundation
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: 1 Corinthians 1:1–9
1 Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes,
2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, 5 that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge-- 6 even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you-- 7 so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8 who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
In beginning his series of messages on 1 Corinthians, Chuck Swindoll described 1st-century Corinth in this way:
Fast, gaudy, commercial, brassy, loud, shallow, slick, plastic, busy, sensual Corinth. The “vanity fair” of the ancient world. A sailor’s favorite port. A merchant’s gold mine. An actor’s dream. A policeman’s nightmare. A prodigal’s paradise. A preacher’s graveyard.
And yet it was here that God placed one of the strongest and most needed lighthouses in all of Europe. It was here Paul planted, Apollos watered, and God marvelously blessed.
Relevant beyond belief, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians remains a citadel of spiritual wealth...a high and holy tower of hope to people today who wonder how to cope with a society gone wild.
I cannot imagine a more appropriate message for today’s local church to consider than the one found in this epistle. Although written nineteen-and-a-half centuries ago, its exhortations remain applicable and its correctives essential for the church that is desirous of carrying out the ministry of Jesus Christ in the times in which we find ourselves.
Therefore, before stepping into its pages, I ask that you join me in asking the Lord to use this series that we are about to enter into to enlighten—and, in some ways, transform us both individually and corporately so that we will be the church and the people He has called us to be.
It will greatly assist our understanding of this epistle for us to explain what prompted the apostle to write it. To do that it is necessary that we lay a little groundwork.
The city of Corinth
...was a prosperous, cosmopolitan, and religiously pluralistic place, accustomed to visits by impressive, traveling public speakers and obsessed with status, self-promotion, and personal rights. Its inhabitants were marked by the worship of idols, sexual immorality and greed.
In addition, it was governed by Roman law and influenced by Roman culture and religion. It attracted many tourists and visitors, especially for the biennial Isthmian athletic games, which were second in popularity only to the Olympics in Athens. Every two years athletes from all over the Empire would gather in competition for prizes and public acclaim.
Being a seaport city, lying between two major bodies of water—the Adriatic and Aegean Seas—Corinth was well-known for its debauchery and corruption. Prostitution was rampant, as was gambling and nearly every other vice one can imagine. Morally speaking, the city could be compared with modern-day cities. In fact, most of today’s metropolitan areas have much more in common with Corinth than differences. That city had such a vulgar reputation that if you really wanted to insult a person you would call him “a Corinthian.”
It was into this environment that the Apostle Paul stepped, bringing the life-changing message of the Gospel with him. Soon a church was planted in this unlikely place. He was assisted in his work by two fellow-believers, Aquila and his wife Priscilla, who like Paul were tentmakers by trade. This trio spent eighteen months in Corinth evangelizing unbelievers and making disciples there. The time would have been in the early-50s, while Paul was on his second missionary journey. You can read about it in Acts 18(:1-17).
Having been rescued from a pagan background such as this...
The church at Corinth
...frequently struggled to adapt to its new culture in Christ. When Paul departed the city, he may have handed off the work there to Apollos (cf. Acts 19:1). Having subsequently found himself back in Asia Minor while on his third missionary journey, Paul ministered and resided in Ephesus for nearly two-and-a-half years. While there, he appears to have written a letter to the Corinthians (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:9-11) that was misunderstood and subsequently lost.
Paul learned of this misunderstanding, as well as of additional problems in the church at Corinth from the household of Chloe (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:11). In addition, a delegation from the church (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:17) brought to Paul specific questions about issues that were dividing the church there. First Corinthians (which was actually Paul’s second letter to those Christians) was written to address those matters. You and I are able to identify those particular concerns by the words, “Now concerning,” which introduce topics throughout the letter (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; and 16:1, 12).
Apparently Paul’s letter—the one we will be studying together over these next several months—did not produce its desired effect. As the problems persisted, Paul decided to revisit the church in Corinth...a visit he later described as “painful” (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:1). Still later, in 2 Corinthians 13:1, the apostle speaks of a third visit to the city, one that was made toward the end of his third and final missionary journey.
So Paul’s history with this church was extensive. It was also time-consuming and exhaustive. Ministry can often be that way. A number of commentators find reason to believe that Paul may actually have written four letters to the believers in Corinth, two of which did not survive and were, therefore, not canonical.
First Corinthians is primarily concerned with the health of the local church. The word “church” appears some twenty-two times, nearly always within the context of the local assembly. Perhaps more than any other of the New Testament epistles, this one puts into perspective and provides for us a glimpse of life within a 1st-century church. We are able to see how far from “saintly” it was. And that is precisely why Paul wrote this letter...to make positional sanctification a practical matter. The “spirit of the world” seemed more influential in the Corinthian church than did the Spirit of God, despite the abundance of spiritual gifts poured out upon the believers there. It was Paul’s purpose to rectify certain serious doctrinal and moral sins and irregularities of Christian living among those who had been “called into the fellowship of...Jesus Christ our Lord.”
In brief, although the church at Corinth had been divinely called, it was also defiled, divided, and disgraced. It was defiled because some of its members were guilty of sexual immorality, others lived in open drunkenness; and still others were using the grace of God to excuse their ungodly lifestyles. It was divided because at least four distinct groups were competing for leadership (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:12). And it was disgraced because instead of glorifying God, it was actually hindering the progress of the Gospel.
Mark Dever has identified no fewer than twelve challenges that local churches face, both in Paul’s day as well as in ours. All were glaringly evident in the church at Corinth...and unless we are watchful, they could become areas of potential problem in ours. These areas we need to guard against are: forgetfulness, division, impostors, sin, asceticism, disobedience, legalism, autonomy, thoughtlessness, selfishness, death, and decline. Along our journey through 1 Corinthians, we will encounter them all.
This morning we are going to focus on just the first nine verses of this epistle. They set the stage for what will follow. In chapter 3:11, Paul writes, “For no one can a lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” And here in his greeting, he takes pains to describe what a firm foundation it is. We need to pay attention to how he does this.
Paul will have some hard and harsh things to say to the Corinthian believers, but he begins with words of encouragement by reminding them of their identity in Christ...in other words, who they were rather than what they were. It is that distinction that you and I must remember as well.
Unlike the letters or emails that we send today, where...
The writer (1:1)
...affixes his name at the end of a piece of correspondence, in ancient times the author’s identity would generally be the first thing the recipient of a letter would read. Most of Paul’s epistles begin this way. Often we are tempted to skip past these introductory remarks and view them as superfluous. Doing that, however, may rob us of some rich material.
Notice, if you will, that Paul tells us that he has been “called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus.” His apostolic office is not one that he sought or earned. He was placed there by God’s “will” as evidenced by His sovereign “call.” In chapter 15(:8-9), he will further reveal that his was an “untimely” call because it did not fit the same experience of others who bore the apostolic title. As one who had formerly “persecuted the church of God,” he considered himself to be “the least of the apostles, and not even worthy to be called one.
It is important to think of this Paul in a number of ways if we are to accurately sense the passion that flows throughout this letter.
- In the first place, Paul was a Jew to the core of his being. He had been schooled in Jewish law and was advancing in religious status beyond all of his peers.
- In addition, Paul was a Roman citizen by birth, and was well-familiar with the Greco-Roman culture of his day.
- More importantly, Paul was a follower of Jesus Christ, having met the Messiah on the road to Damascus through “a (blinding) light from heaven” (cf. Acts 9:1-5).
- As a result of that divine encounter, Paul was a preacher of the Gospel. His allegiance to Jesus was not simply a matter of following a powerful religious figure or persuasive Jewish prophet. In verse 17 of this opening chapter of 1 Corinthians, he testifies that Christ sent him to “preach the gospel.”
- And even more specifically, Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. Twice he admits to this, in Galatians 2:8 and again in Romans 11:13. Thus, his ministry to the Corinthian believers was one in which he had been divinely authorized.
Unless we keep these designations in mind, we will miss something of the heart and mind of the apostle. Blended together in this one man, Paul was uniquely prepared by the Holy Spirit of God and, therefore, qualified to fulfill his ministry to this troubled church.
Something else we ought not to miss is that Paul was not alone when he wrote this letter. At the end of verse 1, he adds, “and our brother Sosthenes.” It would appear that this man is the one identified in Acts 18:17 as “the ruler of the synagogue” in Corinth. Somehow, Sosthenes had been made the scapegoat in a public uprising when Paul was forced to stand before a Corinthian tribunal and defend his preaching. Sosthenes would seem to have become a believer—perhaps a “secret” one—and may have even been emboldened in his faith as a result of being publicly beaten that day. He is not mentioned again in Scripture, so we can only assume that Sosthenes had linked arms with Paul, and may have even been a part of his third missionary team.
Verses 2 and 3 introduce us to...
The recipients (1:2-3)
...of this letter. Paul addresses them as “the church of God that is in Corinth.” Quite likely, there would have actually been several gatherings of Christians in that city who met in different homes. I remind you that there were no “church buildings,” per se, until the mid-3rd-century, and possibly not until the early 4th-century. Until that time, believers would meet together in smaller groups in houses. That does not mean that the church was without structure or organization, but it does suggest an intimate relationship among the members that many local churches are not familiar with today.
But, as Paul goes on to express, that intimacy did not mean exclusivity. Verse 2 goes on to say that these early Christians were “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” Although this letter will shortly contain some harsh words for these Corinthian believers, they are reminded here of their “sanctified” position in Christ. They had been “set apart” by the Lord and “called” by Him. Then and now, the church—despite all of its imperfections—belongs to God, and has been “set apart” for His ultimate purpose and glory.
In our day, people refer to someone being a “saint” if they have seemingly-flawless character. How odd it seems that Paul would refer to this collection of badly-flawed individuals as “saints.” This incongruity is on the part of our misperception, however. People do not belong to Christ because they are “saints.” Rather, they are “saints” because they belong to Christ. Each and everyone who has turned from sin and self and “call(ed) upon the name of (the) Lord Jesus Christ” has been declared to be a “saint” and has been “set apart” or “sanctified in Christ Jesus.” So, here at the outset, the writer sees the church in Corinth as God’s holy people under the universal Lordship of Christ.
It is to these fellow believers that Paul extends the greeting found in verse 3: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” God’s “grace” will always manifest itself as “peace” among God’s people. Thus, here at the outset we find a not-so-covert plea for unity among all of God’s people. The basis of that unity is “the Lord Jesus Christ.” One cannot help but notice the Christological emphasis found in this three-verse salutation. Four times, He is mentioned here. He is “the Church’s one Foundation,” and “how firm a Foundation” He truly is.
From his salutation, Paul moves into an expression of thanksgiving for the Corinthian believers. If you look carefully, you will notice that verses 4 through 8 comprise a single sentence, the entirety of which is built upon the opening words, “I give thanks.” For what specific reasons does the apostle give thanks on their behalf? It is for both their riches in Christ and the reward that awaits them as a result of God’s faithfulness. We’ll take these one at a time. First...
The riches (1:4-7)
Paul begins by giving thanks to God for the “grace” given to them through their relationship with Christ Jesus. That “grace” is specified in verses 5 through 7, where he reminds them, “in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any gift.”
The “speaking gifts” seem to have been immediately apparent among the believers in Corinth. Whether it was preaching the Gospel, teaching the Scriptures, speaking in tongues or interpreting tongues, Paul says they were “enriched” and “not lacking.” If spiritual maturity was evaluated on the basis of possessing spiritual gifts, then the Corinthian church would have ranked near the top. But as they demonstrated through their seemingly perpetual lack of maturity, that was not the case. The issue was not over how many spiritual gifts they had received, but instead over the misuse and abuse of those which they had been given.
This will be highlighted more vividly when we arrive at the section dealing with spiritual gifts in chapters 12 through 14, but it is helpful to remind ourselves even now that the reason God gifts His Church as He does is for the edification of the entire Body (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:7 and 14:5b) and not for the individual or the few. This is where our charismatic friends go astray. As we shall see, there was much confusion and disorder in the manner in which the church in Corinth exercised the gifts that the Lord had bestowed upon them.
Despite that, let’s not miss the end of verse 7: “as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is both a word of assurance as well as a word of exhortation to this less-than-perfect community of believers. Paul seems to be suggesting that the gifts with which the Lord had blessed them were not meant to be taken as ends in themselves. Rather, they were intended to be the means by which they were able to render faithful service to Him until the appearance of Christ. We find this link between spiritual gifts and the return of Christ again in chapter 13(:12). “The revealing of...Christ” will mean the end of the need for spiritual gifts. But for now they are necessary, and they must be exercised in God’s prescribed way.
In spite of their malpractice and misuse of the gifts,
The reward (1:8-9)
...that awaited these Corinthian believers was certain. Notice how Paul expresses this to them in verses 8 and 9: The “Lord Jesus Christ...will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Again, the repeated mention of Christ is meant to call attention to the fact that it is He who sustains those who are His. Furthermore, they will be declared “guiltless” before Him... a clear and present reminder that it is not by their own righteousness they stand, but rather on the basis of the finished work of Jesus Christ on their behalf. He alone is the innocent One, and it is He who bore their sins on the cross and filled them with His holy presence, declaring them to be righteous and holy in God’s sight.
And, as if to add the exclamation point, Paul tells them in verse 9, “God is faithful.” Don’t be tempted to overlook that important truth...”God is faithful.” It is He who has called us, and not we ourselves. Any movement on our part is because He took the initiative and thereby enabled us to move toward Him.
As we have worked our way through these nine verses, perhaps you have seen some parallels between what Paul has written here and the Ordo Salutis—the so-called “order of salvation”—that we have recently been studying. The same God who chose us and called us to salvation in Jesus Christ will “sustain” us, enabling us to persevere until our ultimate glorification when we see Jesus face-to-face. That is the great reward of the believer.
We find this similarly stated in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 and 24, where this same Paul prays and affirms, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Now listen) He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.”
Whenever we approach a book of the Bible, it is not uncommon for us to sense a notable difference between the ancient setting and our own contemporary context. While all of Scripture is clear and understandable, there are admittedly some texts that demand more thoughtful deliberation on the part of the reader than others. In 1 Corinthians, however, there is much “common ground” that you and I share with these 1st-century brothers and sisters.
On the whole, this epistle lays before us an original context that looks strikingly familiar with our modern-day setting. Here we meet a church that faced issues that are not dissimilar to the ones we face. For example,
- How are we to handle disagreements among God’s people?
- What does a Christian sexual ethic look like when promiscuity is the cultural norm?
- In what ways does the Gospel shape the institution of marriage?
- How should we relate to the cultural customs and practices of those with whom we disagree on matters of faith and practice?
- How can the Gospel tear down barriers that we have allowed to be built between others and ourselves?
The list could go on, but the point I want to make is that this is an extremely relevant book. We study it for our profit or we neglect it to our peril.
If we were to assess the church in Corinth by the doctrine they believed, everything would seem right. In terms of practice, however, their lives were far from being in order.
From these first nine verses, we should be reminded that God loves us just as we are, but He loves us far too much to let us stay that way. Let that sink in for just a moment. God did not surrender His only begotten Son to die on a cross for sinners in order that they might go on living the way they always had. His purpose in calling some “to be saints” was in order that they may, through His gift of salvation and sanctification, would become “conformed to the image of his Son” (cf. Romans 8:29).
First Corinthians demonstrates, perhaps more graphically than any of the other of Paul’s epistles, that our relationship with the Father is neither enhanced nor diminished by anything we bring to the table. Yes, we are called to live “in a manner worthy of the calling to which (we) have been called” (cf. Ephesians 4:1), but let’s not get the cart before the horse. As the psalmist put it, it is God who “drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure” (Psalm 40:2). I have no competing illusions...I know that left to myself, I would still be in that “miry bog.”
So, do you know this Christ of whom Paul cannot seem to say enough in his introduction to this letter? Nine times in these nine verses He is mentioned, and rightfully so. That is because Jesus Christ is the foundation upon which the Christian life is built. Remove that foundation or seek to build upon something else, and the entire building crumbles.
Here at the outset, the immediate challenge facing these Corinthian believers was one of forgetfulness...forgetting to whom they belonged and for what purpose. It sounds more than a little familiar, doesn’t it? Under the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit, I believe Paul is urging this 1st-century church—even as we are being urged today—to remember...
- our blessings...namely, as followers of Christ, we have been called unto salvation by the sovereign will of God
- who it is who has blessed us...it is none other than God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ
- how precisely God has blessed us...we have been called out of the world for salvation and sanctification, together with every other believer who calls upon the name of Jesus...we are His church!
- to remind others to remember their blessings as well...this is our task—the purpose of our calling as a local church and as the individual members who comprise it—to make this Christ known and to display the glory of His grace for the glory of God the Father.
The Corinthians were deficient in their memory, just as we all need our minds stirred up by way of remembrance. Paul wrote this letter to remind the church at Corinth of the foundation upon which they were being built. It is my prayer that you and I also be reminded of that foundation and how we are to build upon it so that our Lord—and He alone— receives the honor and praise that He deserves.