Who, what, when, where, and how? Those are the questions I want to ask concerning the identity and purpose of the church. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians in 53-54 AD. Paul, Aquila, and Priscilla planted the church at Corinth in the home of a man named Titius Justus (cf. Acts 18:1-11) in 50 or 51 AD. Paul served as the pastor of the church at Corinth for a year-and-a-half before continuing his missionary journey. After Paul’s departure, the church body forgot how to be the church, turned her attention to herself rather than her mission, worshipped her stomach and preferences, and experienced disunity and injustice within the body of believers. Paul writes 1 Corinthians to the local church in order to correct her ungodly attitude and practices. He writes this letter while he is in Ephesus on his third missionary journey. Corinth is a thriving trade city and what we refer to as cosmopolitan and progressive, much like New York or Los Angeles in the United States. The key themes in this letter are loyalty and worship. The language is straightforward and the argument is strong, here meaning blunt. From what height did the church at Corinth fall? What does it mean to be the church rather than merely do church like the Corinthians? Paul’s letter answers our questions directly.
1 Corinthians 1:1-3
Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The apostle (v. 1)
Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother
Paul introduces himself and Sosthenes as the authors of 1 Corinthians. He identifies himself as an apostle. Apostle is a word that generally means “missionary,” but also refers to a particular office in the church held by twelve men who walked with Jesus as His first missionaries to the Jews and one, Paul, who met Jesus on the road to Damascus (cf. Acts 9:1-19) and served as His missionary to the Gentiles. Paul was called to be an apostle by the will of God, not by people. Such a realization reveals something about the offices in the church—they are filled primarily by God’s will and not the wills of people. Such was the case with the apostles according to Paul. Elders are called by the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 20:28). Deacons are to be chosen by the church according to their filling with the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 6:3). Church members are those chosen and regenerated by the Holy Spirit (cf. John 3; Ephesians 2). The church Jesus Christ is building has three offices. He desires to be the one filling the offices He has created with people of His own choosing. It is not for people to say, “I will be an elder or deacon here or there.” It is not up to people to select teachers for themselves in accordance with their own desires (cf. 2 Timothy 4:3). The offices of a true local church are filled according to the will of God. We seek God’s will in church membership. In this, I recognize that God has called me to be an elder, and to preach and teach. I have covenanted with the body of believers in Sunsites, Arizona to serve a specific function in the local community—that of a pastor according to Scripture and of serving however else I can. Anytime the church body is given an opportunity to vote (cf. Acts 6:1-6), she does so not according to her own preferences or wisdom; we are responsible to try our best to discern God’s will, not our own. The church’s calling is from above, not below, and Christ is our king. We don’t lead Christ, He leads us.
Sosthenes was likely once the leader of the synogogue in Corinth mentioned in Acts 18:17. If this is the same Sosthenes, then Paul had made an enemy into a friend by the proclamation of the Gospel in Corinth during his missionary journey. The man who once persecuted him now works at his side. Paul mentions him to the Corinthians, who do not at this point respect Paul or desire to listen to him (cf. 4:1-5; 9:1-23).
The church (v. 2)
To the church of God which is at Corinth
Paul is writing to the church of God at Corinth. Church, εκκλησια, is a word that simply means congregation or gathering—the same word used to refer to the Jewish synagogue meeting before Christians began gathering (used as early as the 6th Century BC as the greek word for the gathering which took place at the synagogue and in Roman civic meetings). There are two ways we can define the church of God. 1) The universal church is the spiritual assembly of all those who are in Christ in every place from every time. 2)The local church is the physical assembly of believers in a geographical area. In neither way can the church be defined as individualistic. Church is always the gathering of Christ’s people. Even when we are by ourselves physically, it can be said that we long to be with our church family or “in church” because we are always spiritually gathered with one another. We can further understand the basic meaning of church by observing the very first local church in Acts 2:
So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:41-47).
The bride of Christ is a people devoted to Him, His assembly, His teaching, His eucharist, and His prayers. The bride of Christ is a joyful and valuable part of her community on this earth, even having favor with all people as much as it depends on her. The church accomplishes much in the world through discipleship. When a person is truly regenerated, he or she is added to the church by Christ; He is building His church (Matthew 16:18), not merely getting individuals to heaven. As we walk through 1 Corinthians, our understanding about the church, ecclesiology, will become fuller. For now, we recognize that:
- The church is not an experience but the gathered body of Christ.
- If we do not long to be with the gathered body of Christ, we might not be part of Christ’s church; we don’t have to go to church to be saved, but if we are saved we cannot stay away from the gathering.
- We are being built into Christ’s assembly, not into disjointed members of some ethereal and individualistic something.
- We do not seek to attend a church based on our own preferences but according to the will of God alone; we seek to be part of a people who are most sincerely devoted to Christ’s (1) teaching, (2) assembly, (3) eucharist, and (4) prayers.
to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours
Paul identifies the local church in Corinth as those who “have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling…” Even though Paul is writing the church to correct false teaching and practice, he recognizes the church as having been sanctified (past tense) in Christ. Sanctification carries two meanings in Christian theology. Sanctification can be the process of being made complete or conformed to the image of Christ. In this case, to have been sanctified means to have been set apart as holy. Even though the local church at Corinth is one of the worst we see in the New Testament era, Paul identifies the assembly as one composed of saints by calling. Their status depends not on how perfect they are but on the calling of Jesus Christ alone. The members of the local church gathering are members of the universal, spiritual church gathering. We have one Lord in whom we realize our salvation—Jesus Christ. All those whose faith is in the Messiah are being built into Christ’s single gathering, His bride.
The greeting (v. 3)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The church at Corinth is a wretched group of people, as can we all be and once were. The congregants are given to false teaching and practice. Yet, Paul does not throw boulders or sling mud on Christ’s bride. Instead, he greets her and blesses her. In the form of his standard greeting, Paul extends grace to the church body that is questioning him and living in sin. He proclaims the peace God has made between Himself and His people through Jesus Christ. Paul remains devoted to the community of faith despite her sin. In fact, he makes himself even more a servant to the congregation so he may build her up rather than tear her down. This is the type of love Christ has for His people even as they rebel against and neglect Him. It is the type of love we want our elders to have for the community of faith here—denying self and devoting themselves to serve the spiritual needs of the saints no matter what people say or do. A sincere elder serves humbly and unconditionally, following after Paul’s example here.
In response to this text, I am brought to my knees in repentance. Too often in my life and from my youth, I have overly criticized and shamed the church—Christ’s bride. I have spoken about some local churches out of spite rather than in love. I have overly criticized certain teachers I disagree with even though their teaching is not a false Gospel. The more I understand the Scriptures and the way Christ feels about His bride, the less condemning I become. I desire more and more to instruct in a way that builds up rather than tears down, a necessary motivation anytime we address false teaching or practice like Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians.
If I hear someone talking badly about my wife, my duty as a husband and my desire is to respectfully punch that individual in the face. I am intolerant if anyone mocks my bride. She is imperfect. She makes mistakes. By marriage, I made her holy in my sight. I set her apart as my treasure. Even the worst sin against me cannot undo my decision have her exclusively as my own. When I am with others, I praise her. I speak to her in a way that builds her up rather than tears her down. I love my bride beyond what words can express because I chose her. My love is not based on some emotional feeling. If I, a mere mortal, feel the way I do about my bride, how do you think God feels about His bride, His gathered people? We are the apple of His eye along with the spiritual gathering of saints from every time and place. If people tarnish or neglect God’s bride, what do you think He does? He considers them enemies and makes war against them (cf. Genesis 12:3; 1 Thessalonians 1:6-8; Revelation 3:9; 6:11).
The true church:
- concerns herself with God’s will, not her own;
- is the gathered church and not individualistic;
- is sanctified in Christ, given sainthood by calling and not by works;
- is the local and universal gathering of Christ followers; and
- is to be blessed, not cursed.
Paul will spend the rest of the letter reasoning with the Corinthians to get back to being the church rather than merely doing what they have come to call church. As we eavesdrop on Paul’s words being read to the local church, may we also remember what it means to be the church. The key verse of 1 Corinthians is Chapter 1, verse 10:
Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment.
Such is the goal of any local church that undertakes the expository preaching and teaching of 1 Corinthians. May we devote ourselves to our Lord as we are conformed more to His image as His bride. May we be made complete and perfect. Let me take some time to answer our questions about the church.
Who: The church is the gathering of those who are in Christ.
What: The local church gathers in order to be made complete through the apostle’s teaching, prayer, fellowship, and the eucharist; she gathers in order to provide physical needs and have favor with all as much as it depends on her. The church is to be advancing on the world via peace and forgiveness, not retreating from the world (c.f. Matthew 16:18). Thus, the whole world is renewed through the sanctification of the church. The church is very important in the world.
When: The church is always the church.
Where: The church is always gathered spiritually, and the local church gathers often in her local community.
How: The church is the church only by the calling of Christ, and not by her merits or religiosity.
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