About the Author
Read an Excerpt
1 Corinthians 1:1–9
Young people today think of Moby not as the first name of a whale, but as a multi-platinum-selling recording artist. He released his first album twenty-two years ago as a teenager and member of the band The Vatican Commandos. His best-selling album is his 1999 release called Play, which has sold over ten million copies so far. Born Richard Melville Hall in 1965 in Manhattan, he has always been known simply as Moby. He is a direct descendant of Herman Melville, the well-known author, whose most famous work was Moby Dick. Moby has achieved a great deal of success, and although most young people know Moby's connection to the author, many don't know that Moby is a self-confessed Christian. He says he became a Christian when he was about twenty years old, when a friend encouraged him to read the Gospels. He read them, and that's when, as Moby recounts it, he was converted.
I read an article about Moby provocatively titled, "The Two Sides of Moby: Why He Loves Jesus but Not the Church." While that's not quite what Moby is quoted as saying in the article, the sentiment is common enough — and understandable enough. Jesus is a figure of intense interest and even admiration for millions. His stories and sayings still inhabit our minds two thousand years after he taught on the other side of the globe. He published no books, founded no dynasty, led no army, and governed no nation, but his images and stories and teachings and followers have girdled the globe, presenting a message of a Savior who sacrifices himself out of love. And to most, this is compellingly beautiful.
Then there is the church. If you have grown up in a church, you have reasons to be disillusioned. The church seems like a boring topic for most and a duty reluctantly fulfilled for many. In stark contrast with many of the unforgettable sayings of Christ, we can't remember what we heard in most sermons ten minutes after we get home. People around the world aren't interested in our church; for that matter, people just around the corner aren't either! Churches have published books and fielded armies and ruled kings and even so, if you introduce the topic of the church, you'll often find it met with responses ranging from a mild disinterest to a real dislike.
We can understand why. Churches say they have the best and most important news in the world — they have the answer to our problems, they are God's embassies on earth — yet churches are made up of people like you and me, people who are grumpy, irritable, unfaithful, and selfish. We become too possessive of small things and too casual about great ones. We become too defensive for ourselves and ignore God. We talk of love, but we too often give ourselves over to hate — even in church.
In this book we are going to think about this topic of the church and her challenges, using Paul's first letter to the Corinthians as our framework. The epistle has a number of passages that are well known, such as chapter 13, the "love chapter," and chapter 15 about the resurrection. In working through this letter, we will be led into important passages on gender issues, spiritual gifts, lawsuits, and church discipline. Much of the letter is taken up with Paul addressing situations specific to the church in Corinth and answering questions put to him by some of the believers there.
God had used Paul to establish the church in Corinth during what we call his second missionary journey, which was also his first trip to Europe. Paul spent a year and a half there (likely in a. d. 50–51), working as a tent-maker or leather worker and preaching the good news about Jesus Christ. It was probably sometime a few years later during his two and a half years in Ephesus (between a. d. 52 and 55) that Paul wrote this letter.
Corinth was a major crossroads between the east and the west, between the southern portion of Greece and Athens and the northern parts of Greece. Ancient Corinth had been destroyed by the Romans in 146 b. c. A century later, in 29 b. c., Julius Caesar re-founded Corinth as a Roman colony. As a great trading center with mobile populations, it retained a reputation for immorality. Religions from all over the empire flourished in Corinth along with the newly resettled populations.
The church Paul had established in Corinth was young, full of life, and just as full of problems. No other church in the New Testament had more problems nor such a variety, and at the time of Paul's epistle, it was threatened with destruction. Leadership was misunderstood, people were self-deceived, the church was ridden with partisanship, pride, pretentiousness, and immorality. False teachers, super-spirituality, asceticism, and loveless selfishness were rife — not unlike some churches today, not unlike some of the churches that Moby has run into, and not unlike some churches you may have run into.
So how can we learn from Paul's epistle to this troubled church? We want to start where Paul started:
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 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: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way — in all your speaking and in all your knowledge — because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful. (1 Corinthians 1:1–9)
In our consideration of these verses, I hope you will be encouraged to meditate on some of the good things that God has done in the life of every Christian and in our churches. I want to ask four questions that I hope will prove fruitful as we follow Paul's instructions, inspired by God's Holy Spirit, for the Corinthian Christians and for us, too.
Remember Your Blessings
The first question to consider is this: have you forgotten your blessings? The Corinthian Christians were famous for their faults, and Paul is going to deal with these clearly and at some length later in the letter. First, however, he focuses on something positive — the work of God's grace. Had the Corinthian believers received any blessings from God that Paul could point out? Paul usually began his letters with a form of thanksgiving, but if there was a church where he might not be able to do this, the church at Corinth would be it. With all of the problems evident there, Paul had just reason to skip his traditional opening, but he did not. When we need to speak critically about a church — ours or another — how often do we pause and first consider the evidences of God's work there?
The first evidence of God's work among the Corinthians is the fact that Paul himself was writing to them (v. 2). Christ's apostle who had first preached the gospel to them was now writing to them. Christian, we too have God's Word — the Bible. We don't worship a picture or a statue or an idea. We worship a personal God who speaks and has spoken to us. Like these Corinthians, we are blessed people.
In fact, these Corinthians were the church of God as we see here in verse 2. Paul may have been the human instrument that founded this church, but he acknowledges — for their sakes and his — that its members belong to God. God looked at them, and he said, "These belong to me; they are mine. They are of me. I have a special concern and care for them, a special regard to their welfare." And the same is true of us, friends. Whatever challenges we face in our churches, we are a church not owned by ourselves or by the pastor; we are the church of God. The church — our church — is his creation, his concern. Surely that reminds us of the importance of being in a church, not merely that we should attend one, but that we are part of a choice and privileged company. How great a blessing this is to us, to be a part of those people who are God's special concern.
In verse 2 we also see the Corinthians described as those sanctified in Christ Jesus. Paul brings this to the forefront before he gets to other matters. They had been sanctified in Christ Jesus, declared and made holy in him. Grasping the reality of sanctification is crucial to putting things in perspective. God separates people from the world by putting them in Christ Jesus. We are declared to be holy and righteous because Christ's holiness and righteousness are accounted to us. Friends, if you are Christians, you do not need to labor under condemnation. To do so is to ignore what God has done for you in Christ. Christians are sanctified in Christ Jesus, and in him they are being changed in their attitudes and actions, their loves and longings, to be more like him. This is true of you, my friends, if you are Christians.
We read in verse 2 that Christians are called to be holy. We are called to live lives that more fully reflect God's character. Holiness is our responsibility and our destiny. It is God's work in us, work to which we are called as co-laborers. What a blessing that is! Rather than being lost in sin — today and for eternity — we are called to be holy.
We see in verse 3 that Paul prayed for grace and peace for the Corinthians. This standard greeting was used by Paul here as a deeply Christian prayer for God's mercy and for wholeness and soundness, especially concerning the believers' walk with God. These things are the reality of a Christian's life, aren't they? For the Corinthians and for us, the Christian life is marked by God's grace and by peace with him. Whatever challenges we may face in our congregations, we realize that Christ died to save us, and in so doing he bore our penalty. As a result, God's wrath is turned from us and his favor has been poured out on us. So great are our blessings that we can almost say that the things over which we struggle and suffer pain are small in comparison.
I remember reading about the last days of the Puritan minister William Gouge. Those days were marked by physical pain, as death normally is. But Gouge had always had a firm grip upon the gospel. He wrote once, "When I look upon myself, I see nothing but emptiness and weakness; but when I look upon Christ, I see nothing but fulness and sufficiency." As he became more aged, he became more infirm in body, but his faith was strong. Friends remembered: "When he could scarcely hold the cup at the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, with his paralytic hand, while he carried it to his mouth; with a firm and fixed confidence he took hold of Christ, and with an holy and spiritual thirst, applied his blood to his soul." Toward the end of Gouge's life, one friend wrote of him:
In the most violent paroxysms, he said, "Well, yet in all these there is nothing of hell, or of God's wrath." His sufferings were never so deep, but he could see the bottom of them, and say, "Soul, be silent: soul, be patient. It is thy God and Father who thus ordereth thy condition. Thou art his clay, and he may tread and trample on thee as he pleaseth. Thou hast deserved much more. It is enough that thou art kept out of hell. Though thy pain be grievous, yet it is tolerable. Thy God affords some intermissions. He will turn it to thy good, and at length put an end to all: None of which things can be expected in hell." His afflictions greatly contributed to the exercise of his grace.
We see in 1 Corinthians 1:4 that Paul thanks God for the Corinthians. If we were thinking in a secular way, the last thing in the world we could imagine is thanking God for them. The church had been full of problems ever since its founding, and as we go on in the letter we will see that there appeared to be some dissatisfaction in the church with Paul. Clearly a number of people did not think much of him. Paul's influence was being diminished so that he was seen as merely one of several competing "parties" within the church. Some were saying of his teaching, "Well, that's just Paul's opinion!" But regardless of that, what does Paul do? He thanks God for them. Friends, all true Christians are grounds for thanksgiving. God's work in each Christian, and in each congregation of Christians, is grounds for thanksgiving, a triumph of his mercy over sin, a testimony of his grace never to be forgotten.
Here in verse 4 Paul also expands on the grace he has mentioned already. He reminds the Corinthians that they have received God's grace in Christ Jesus. Whatever challenges Christians face, then and now, we know our-selves to be recipients of God's amazing grace; but we still need to remind ourselves of it.
Then, in verse 5, Paul tells the Corinthians that they had been enriched in Christ in every way. He reminds them that they are not spiritually impoverished but have been made better and given wonderful treasures. That is true of today's Christians, as well. Paul shows the breadth of this in the phrase "in every way." The Corinthians had been enriched in all their speaking. In Christ, their words could be used to speak the truth about God and to build each other up.
Paul also reminds the Corinthians that they had been enriched in all their knowledge. Corinth was a place that valued status, and knowledge was considered to be a way to status. So Paul used that fact to appeal to the basis of their richest knowledge, that which they had received in Christ. In Christ they had come to find the purpose of their lives, the reason for their existence, and the way they could be forgiven of their sins and come to know God. What better knowledge is there? Whatever these Christians may have been struggling with, whatever questions they had outstanding, whatever uncertainties or errors, they had been enriched in Christ in every way by the gospel in all their speaking and knowledge.
So have we, if we are Christians. We do not have to squander our words, uttering things that are unloving and untrue, words that are pointless or useless. The most important problems in the universe, and in our own lives, have been solved for us through the gospel. Do you think of yourself as having been enriched in every way? You have been in Christ. What peace or comfort can anyone lack who is in covenant with the Father of mercies?
But there is more still. We see in verse 6 that the testimony about Christ was confirmed in them. The Corinthians had become evidence of the truth of Paul's message. The Christian is living proof of the gospel. This church had become convinced of and had begun to experience and then to display the reality of the gospel of Jesus Christ. What a privilege this was for them and for us, too. Our lives reflect the truth of the message about Christ. We become filled with his image rather than our own, and in so doing our lives confirm gospel claims. Again, what a privilege to be so used by God in such a great task.
In fact, the Corinthians had been so enriched by Christ that Paul says in verse 7 that they didn't lack any spiritual gift. They lacked nothing that God could give them. We have all that we need for what God has called us to. As Christians we lack nothing we need to be built up in the Lord that he has not and will not supply. This is astounding. If you are anything like me, you are probably prone to think that you could do this or that if only you had this gift or that circumstance. But what we find here is that there is no spiritual gift that we lack as Christians. Since God has given us his only Son, how will he not with him give us everything that we need for life and godliness?
The Corinthian Christians, for all their problems, had an eager expectancy about them for the right thing. Paul comments on the fact that they eagerly wait for the revelation of Christ (v. 7). They had been given a sense of anticipation and, unlike our world's cruel counterfeits, this was an anticipation that would be met. Christians, here is yet another gift God has given you. How many times have you known disappointment when some cherished hope has been dashed, some eagerly anticipated moment taken from you? No matter! As Christians, we have been given an ultimate hope that will surely come to pass. This is a gift — a great gift.
In verse 8 there is a wonderful promise: believers will be kept strong to the end by Christ. These Corinthian Christians could be sure of divine strengthening to keep them going till the battle is won, till the race is over, till the job is done, till they have made it home. That is true for us, too, friends. If we are Christians, we have been given this great gift; we will persevere. I imagine that you sometimes feel weak. You wonder what is going to happen. Here we see an encouragement to realize that your well-being is in hands better and more powerful than your own.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Twelve Challenges Churches Face"
Copyright © 2008 Mark E. Dever.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Appendix: Questions about,
1 Corinthians 7,
What People are Saying About This
"As a leading voice for reformation in the twenty-first century, Mark Dever calls evangelicals to love the church as much as we love Jesus. In this exposition of 1 Corinthians he gives clear pastoral guidance for the difficult problems addressed in a difficult book of the Bible, confronting not only the controversial issues that always face the church, but also the spiritual dangers that lurk behind them."
Philip Graham Ryken, President, Wheaton College
"Twelve Challenges Churches Face is a careful exposition of 1 Corinthians. It is both theological and practical in its goal to foster healthy churches. You will be edified and encouraged by Pastor Dever's treatment of important issues that confront the church on a daily basis."
Daniel L. Akin, President, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary