A Study of 1 Corinthians 1:1-11
Introduction—What City Do You Live In? I read the other day about a church that has been a leader in evangelism for many years. They have pioneered an approach to winning people to church that made a global impact. But during the last year or two, with changes of leadership and changes of style, everyone got bent out of shape, the new pastor resigned out of exhaustion, and the church is badly divided. At the same time, I was talking to a friend of mine who has been instrumental in the ministries of a mega-church on the West Coast. For years this church was known for its innovation and vision. But in the last few years, divisions have torn the church apart and destroyed its ministry.
The same thing, of course, happens in miniature every time a Christian home or family or marriage falls apart. Or whenever a denomination becomes debilitated by disagreement. Or whenever disagreement or division ruins a Christian friendship. We are not easy people to live with. Disagreement and division come naturally to us; but it’s almost always destructive and usually avoidable if we live as the Bible suggests.
Well, we have an excellent case study as we study the example of the New Testament era church in the ancient city of Corinth. This is a church that had many problems—in fact, I’m going to make a sweeping statement about it. Every problem that a church can have is illustrated and exemplified in some way by the congregation in Corinth. I believe God gave us the example of this New Testament church so we could do a postmortem on it, so we could do the pathology, so we could learn from all its divisions and diseases.
Let’s turn to the background passages in the book of Acts. Whenever you study the letters or epistles of the Bible, it’s helpful to do so against the backdrop of the book of Acts, which gives us the history, the backdrop, the background for the letters of Paul and the other epistle-writers.
In Acts 18, when Paul was on his second missionary journey, he wanted to get something going in Europe. He wanted a gateway city to establish a gateway church—a beachhead to Europe. In chapter 17, he tried to get something going in Athens but he couldn’t find traction. So in chapter 18 we read:
After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth….
Most of this chapter talks about Paul’s ministry in this city of Corinth, which was about fifty miles from Athens. Corinth was known for its sensuality and moral corrosion. In verses 1-4, Paul met a couple who had moved to the city, Aquila and Priscilla. They may have been Christians when Paul met them, or perhaps he led them to Christ. We don’t know. Being short of funds, Paul worked at his tent-making trade until Silas and Timothy came with some offerings sent from the Philippian church and others in the north (verse 5), and that allowed Paul to get back to his fulltime evangelistic efforts (“Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching”). He had some ups and downs; but in verse 9, the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.”
What does that mean? Does it mean there were already many Christians in the city of Corinth and Paul had not yet met them; or does it mean there were a lot of people in Corinth who were not Christians but who were going to come to the faith? I believe the latter, because there’s no evidence the former is true. This was a pagan city, but the Lord knew there would be a lot of conversions. This is very encouraging to all of us trying to evangelize an area. Perhaps on a street in our neighborhood, not one person got up this morning and went to church. Perhaps not one person on that avenue cares about his or her spiritual welfare. Perhaps not one child on that street knows the name of Jesus. But I can almost hear the Lord Jesus say: “Don’t be discouraged; don’t be afraid. Don’t stop working. I have many people on this street. Many of these homes are going to be converted in the days and years to come.” What a tremendous word for us. What a tremendous word for missionaries. I think of the pioneer evangelists who went to China—Robert Morrison and J. Hudson Taylor and others, who labored for a lifetime and saw few results. Yet today the number of Christians in China cannot be tabulated. The Lord had many people in that nation. Many there were appointed for eternal life.
Acts 18:11 says: So Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, teaching them the Word of God. Paul was peripatetic; he didn’t say long in one place. But he stayed in Corinth for at least eighteen months. And then he left, and in verse 22 he returned to Caesarea and Jerusalem and Antioch and that ended his second missionary journey. From there, Paul began his third missionary journey, and his first major stop was the city of Ephesus, and we have that story in Acts 19. Now if you look at a map, you’ll see that Corinth and Ephesus are both seaport cities across the Aegean Sea from each other. Corinth was the gateway city into Europe and Ephesus was the gateway city into Asia. Geographically they were twins. There’s no question in my mind what Paul wanted to do. He was a strategist. He was a thinker. He wanted to establish a beachhead for reaching two continents—Europe and Asia—by establishing a strong church is these two great cities.
Chapter 19 begins by telling us about the dramatic birth of the church of Ephesus and about Paul’s evangelistic activities, and notice down verse 10: This went on for two years so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.
So the apostle Paul spent 18 to 24 months in each of these two great cities with back-to-back in the accounts in the book of Acts. He sought to establish a beachhead for ministry that would penetrate all of Asia and all of Europe. He established twin churches in twin cities right across the Aegean from each other. But look what happened.
Things could hardly have gone better in Ephesus. The Ephesian church was the most mature and wonderful congregation in the New Testament. All of Asia Minor was evangelized through the work of this church, and when Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians he didn’t have to address any problem. He was able to write about the richness of the Christian experience. The pastors who followed Paul in Ephesus included Timothy and the Apostle John. But things could hardly have gone worse in Corinth. The church there was dysfunctional and troubled from the very beginning. Paul ended up visited multiple times, suffering great anxiety, and writing at least four letters, two of which are in our New Testament.
Now, let me say a word about 1 and 2 Corinthians. In Second Corinthians, Paul was very autobiographical and he wrote about the debilitating effect the Corinthian problems had on his emotions. He talked about his anguish, his anxiety, his frustration over their problems. But in First Corinthians, Paul focused on the church in Corinth and on its problems. He wrote a letter of sixteen chapters in which he addressed their problems one at a time. It’s a very logical, organized letter, very easy to outline. He just dealt with one problem after another giving advice and counsel.
So that’s the background for 1 Corinthians. Every problem that a church can have was reflected in some way in that troubled, dysfunctional, frustrating, divided congregation. Now here is my theory: God allowed Paul to establish a wonderful church in Ephesus so we would know what such a church looks like. He allowed Paul to endure a troubled church in Corinth so we would know what that looked like and how to avoid it. That’s why we have these two stories told side-by-side in Acts 18 and 19, and that’s why we have the letters of 1 and 2 Corinthians and Ephesians in our Bibles.
With all that as background, let’s just take a glance at the first paragraph of 1 Corinthians.
1. We Are Called
Verse 1 says: Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sostehenes….
The word “called” implies that God has a specific plan for each of our lives. Notice that phrase “the will of God.” I truly believe this. We aren’t where we are by accident. We were born into the right home and the right time, we learned about Christ in the right way, we are living at the right speed, and in the will and plan of God there is a specific will and plan for our lives. We don’t need to worry about what it’s going to be five years from now or ten years from now. Just for today we need to be faithful wherever we are to what God has given us to do. We’re called to serve him in a way that is distinctively and uniquely ours.
2. We Belong to the Church of God in our Local Place
Verse 2: To the church of God in Corinth…
Whatever God has called us to do isn’t isolated from the local church. Paul goes on to define the church as.
3. We Are Sanctified and Called to be Holy
…those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be His holy people…
The word sanctified means to be set apart, and we’re called to be holy. We’re living in a very unholy world; but we are called to be holy people. And we’re not alone. The verse goes on to say:
4. We Are Part of a Global Enterprise
…together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours.
We are all in this together. Those who are suffering for their faith in Northern Nigeria; those who are reaching vast multitudes in mega-churches; those who are worshipping in small storefront churches on the backstreet of some city—we are all in this together.
5. We Have Access to Grace and Peace
Verse 3 provides the resources: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The word “grace” represents all God’s blessings to us; and the word “peace” is how we feel when we receive and appreciate these blessings. Because of His grace and peace we can fulfill His will for our lives with all the needed resources. The word “peace” is particularly appropriate, of course, because that’s what the Corinthian church was failing to exhibit within itself. Yet in verse 4, Paul thinks of something positive to say about the church at the beginning of his letter. He was a wise man and a good psychologist. He wanted to begin with a word of affirmation.
6. We Are Enriched In Every Way
Verse 4: I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in Him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge—God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you.
Later in the book Paul would address how they were abusing these gifts, but here at the beginning Paul wanted the to realize how fortunate they were to have them.
7. We’re Awaiting Christ’s Return Any Day Now
Verse 7: Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.
The Second Coming of Christ was never far from Paul’s mind. Let me summarize what he has said so far: “We are all very fortunate people. We have been called to a purposeful and significant life by God. We are part of a great operation and enterprise that covers the globe. We have been given everything we need for service to our age, and we’re to exercise these gifts faithful because Jesus Christ is coming again at any moment. Then he goes on to say:
8. God is Faithful to Us
Verse 7: He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
When Jesus comes again, we’ll be perfect in his eyes and made perfect in the eyes of one another, for…
Verse 9: God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
The word “faithful” when applied to God simply means that God will do as He has said, will keep His promises without failure, and will fulfill everything He has predicted and promised. Therefore, since we are so blessed, since we have such a great calling, since we are part of such a great church, since we have so many gifts, since we have a tremendous future, since we have such a faithful God—therefore we’ve got to do everything humanly possible to love each other and stay united. Verse 10 goes on:
9. You Should Agree With One Another
Verse 10: I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.
Conclusion: Yet You Are Quarrelling!
And now he gets to his first point—the quarrels among them.
Verse 11: My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.
This is a terrible thing. This provides a horrible testimony. This creates so much anxiety on every heart. The word “quarrel” occurs 43 times in the Bible, and not one occasion is positive. I want to end by showing you a handful of these verses.
The first references involve Abraham’s employees quarreling with those of Lot’s herders over water rights and pasturelands and other things, in Genesis 13. Then the servants of Isaac quarreled with the neighboring farmers about wells of water in Genesis 26. But one of the best verses on this in the Bible is in Genesis 45. In this passage the patriarch Joseph had made himself known to his brothers, to the ones who had betrayed him many years before. He loved and forgave them, and he told them to go back to Canaan and get their father and then to return. Genesis 45:24 says: “Then he sent his brothers away, and as they were leaving he said to them, ‘Don’t quarrel on the way!’”
Sometimes I think this is the verse I should quote every time I officiate the marriage of a couple who stands before me to join their hearts for the journey of life: “Don’t quarrel along the way.” That advice should be in the locker room of every sports team, on the doorposts of every home, over the pulpit of every church. As Christians who have been called and gifted and blessed our rule should be: Don’t quarrel along the way.
But listen to these verses in Exodus:
- Exodus 17:2: So (the Israelites) quarrel with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me?”
- Exodus 17:7 says: He called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled.
- Numbers 20:3 says: They quarreled with Moses and said, “If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the Lord.”
- Numbers 10:13 says: These were the waters of Meribah, where the Israelites quarreled with the Lord.
Now let me give you some verses in the book of Proverbs.
- Proverbs 15:18: A hot-tempered man stirs up conflict, but the one who is patient calms a quarrel.
- Proverbs 17:14: Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out. This is a great verse of great practicality. We all have opinions. Every husband and wife has an opinion. Every mother-in-law and son-in-law has an opinion. Every boss and employee has an opinion. But it’s always necessary wise to try to press our opinions on others. Sometimes for the sake of oneness its better to drop a matter before a dispute breaks out.
- Proverbs 17:19: Whoever loves a quarrel loves sin…
- Proverbs 18:1: An unfriendly person pursues selfish ends and against all sound judgment starts quarrels.
- Proverbs 20:3: It is to one’s honor to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel.
- Proverbs 26:21: As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife.
Now, turning to the New Testament, Romans 14:1 says: Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. In other words, there are a lot of minor issues over which Christians can disagree. There are a lot of things that may seem more important to us than they really are. If we decide to quarrel about them, it will become divisive and damage our movement. First Corinthians 3:3 says quarreling is a mark of worldliness: For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans.Isn’t that funny? We are not mere humans. We aren’t to act like mere humans.
- 1 Timothy 3:3 says that pastors and overseers and church leaders should not be given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome.
- Paul told Timothy in 1 Timothy 2 to… Warn them before God against quarreling…
- 2 Timothy 2:23 says: Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments because you know they produce quarrels, and the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.
So here is what Paul was saying to the Corinthians: We are called by God. He has a perfect will for our lives. You belong to His church. You have been called to be holy. You have all the resources of His grace and peace. You have been enriched in every way. You have everything you need. You are living in eager expectation of his swift return. God has promised to keep you to the end. He is faithful, and He has called your into fellowship with Christ.
And yet I hear there are quarrels among you….
I thank God our church is united and at peace. I pray to God that we will stay that way. But I also pray that in all our relationships, in our marriages and homes, in our missions and ministries, in our LifeGroups and home groups, we will be more and more like Ephesus and less and less like Corinth. May God use the study of this ancient book to solidify all our relationships in Christ.