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We’re going to tackle the second verse of 1 Corinthians today, and I want you to know why I’m going into so much detail. It’s because a message given to the wrong audience won’t be good for anything.
As a young adult, I developed a breathing problem, and I would go to the doctors, and they would prescribe me antibiotics. And I’d take them, and nothing would happen so I would go back and they would offer me more. And I’d take them. And the same thing would happen. This went on for years until one day a doctor ran some more tests and found that I had a very treatable condition and he prescribed me the correct medication. And I’ve never had a problem since then.
You see, when you have a problem, you must get the right medicine or nothing ever changes.
In the same way, it’s important, when you write a letter, to know who you’re writing to; because you want to give the right medicine. So, the Apostle Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians and clarified his audience right up front. He wrote,
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. (1 Corinthians 1:2, ESV)
It’s easy to see that the Apostle Paul wrote this letter to a particular church in the city of Corinth.
And that’s important because some of you have been to other churches—different denominations, different cultural or ethnic settings, different age demographics—and you’ve observed that not all churches are the same.
But, Paul makes clear in our verse today, three criteria for ‘ā church’ to be ‘the church.’
What makes a church, ‘the church?’
Paul makes that clear upfront because he doesn’t want to prescribe the wrong medicine.
The first criteria for ‘the church’ is that…
The Church Belongs to God
In his address, Paul writes,
To the church of God that is in Corinth… (1 Corinthians 1.2, ESV)
In Paul’s day, the word church was commonly used to refer to an assembly that gathered for political purposes. But it was also used more broadly, referring to any official gathering of people.
Jesus’s usage of the word church is helpful. Jesus said to Peter,
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church… (Matthew 16:18, ESV)
That might not seem terribly odd unless you realize that Jesus had not died on the cross yet. He hadn’t risen from the dead yet. He didn’t ascend to the right hand of the Father yet. He didn’t send the Holy Spirit yet.
And the church wasn’t an official assembly yet. It was just a handful of people who were disciples of Jesus at this time.
But, Jesus said—notice the word choice—‘I will build my church.’ He said he would create a ‘Jesus assembly.’ Playing off of this idea, many biblical scholars have chosen to refer to the early church as, ‘The Jesus gathering,’ because they recognize that the first movements of Christianity weren’t yet official assemblies like churches are today.
Jesus said he would build his church. And in our text, Paul says it is God’s church. That’s bothersome to some people, but as the Son, Jesus is God in human flesh. Jesus said,
…Whoever has seen me has seen the Father… (John 14:9b, ESV)
So, Paul is right here to say it is God’s church if Jesus is God. Jesus is not just the man who started the movement we call Christianity. Jesus started the movement for sure, but as God, he started the movement for himself. He was building his own assembly. God’s church is an assembly of Jesus followers.
I believe Paul used that language in this text on purpose. In all the letters he wrote, Paul only used the language, ‘to the church of God’ in one other letter. And that letter is the second letter to the Corinthians.
- Romans, 1:7, To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints…
- Galatians 1:2, To the churches of Galatia.
- Ephesians 1:1, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus:
- Philippians 1:1, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.
- Colossians 1:2, To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae:
- 1 Thessalonians 1:1, To the church of the Thessalonians.
- 2 Thessalonians 1:1, To the church of the Thessalonians.
- 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians both are addressed, To the church of God.
You can see that there is a clear emphasis on the church being God’s church.
Why emphasize that the church is God’s church?
I think two reasons flow naturally out of these letters. First,
THE CHURCH IN CORINTH WAS GOD’S CHURCH, NOT THE CHURCH OF ANY OTHER GOD
In the ancient world, we see what is called cosmic geography. The idea of cosmic geography is this. Every geographic area is said to have its own cosmic powers. In other words, every city or every kingdom had its own god.
We see this clearly with the nation of Israel. When they entered the Promised Land, God commanded them to get rid of all the idolatrous people. All the people there worshiped other gods. So, God told them to do away of those nations, because He was going to be the God over all that land. The one true God was not about to share his property with any other gods.
When you get to the early church times, the city of Jerusalem had become the center of Israelite worship. It was the only place that the Jews could go to worship God because his presence resided in the temple there. Worship of God was tied to geographic location.
And the Greek cities, by and large, operated this way. There was one temple to this or that god in each city.
But, a weird thing happened in Corinth. Corinth had been destroyed 150 or so years before Paul went there with the Gospel. But, Rome rebuilt the city because it was a good port city. It was good for trade. So, it became like the shopping mall of the day. It was a huge trading city, and people from all over the Roman empire moved there to do business.
Well, the city had been destroyed. So, there were really no people and no temple. From a cosmic geography standpoint, there was no claim from any gods. So, when people moved there, they would set up temples to worship their gods from back home. So, they had a temple to Apollo and a temple to Aphrodite. And they had shrines for all sorts of other gods. And many of the people worshiped them all because they were all there together in one place.
They were what we might today call polytheists. They believed there were many gods and they all could be worshiped depending on what you wanted to receive from them.
So, Paul came around preaching Christianity, and that sounded good. But, realize the struggle. These aren’t atheistic or agnostic people coming to believe in Jesus. These are polytheistic people who are used to following many gods. They would have said many paths lead to the gods.
And we will see all throughout the book that the Corinthian church was constantly bombarded with issues stemming from the temples to the other gods. The people had a really hard time letting go of that heritage when they came to believe in Jesus.
So, Paul reminded them in the letter. This isn’t Apollos’s church. This isn’t Aphrodite’s church. This is God’s church. There’s no room in God’s church for the worship of other gods.
And the other thing they had a hard time with was this.
THE CHURCH IS NOT MAN’S CHURCH
The practice of the Greeks and the Romans was to worship at the temple of the god who could give you what you needed or wanted. So, if you were going hunting to get food you might offer a sacrifice to Artemis, the hunting God. And if you wanted someone to fall in love with you, you might offer a sacrifice to Aphrodite, the love goddess.
Greek and Roman religion were focused on what the individual could get from the gods. But Jesus is different. Jesus said,
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33, ESV)
Jesus said it backward. Don’t come to God to get what you want from Him. What we want—even things we need—are small peanuts. That’s nothing to God. We come to God to get God and to get God’s Kingdom, forever, and eternally. And, yeah sure, if we do that first God adds the other stuff we need in life.
But, the point is not what man can get from God. The point is far more ultimate. In Christ, we receive what we could never achieve on our own. We come to God because he has freely offered us escape from the punishment of every arrogant, angry, and unfaithful deed we’ve ever committed.
And that’s the reminder here. The church is not a place where a man comes to get what a man wants. We’re going to see in later chapters how church members would show up for potlucks empty handed and eat all the bread and get drunk on the wine. We’re going to see people trying to use miraculous gifts to get attention for themselves. We see people trying to get things from the church for themselves, but it’s not our church it’s God’s church.
The Corinthians were a self-seeking people. And God wanted to remind them—it’s not about you. It’s about the one, true, and living God. It’s about the worship of the Most High. It’s about celebrating the victory of the Son over death, and the free gift of life offered to each of us through His sacrifice.
The church belongs to God.
And it’s not just the Corinthians. We do this. We make the church about ourselves sometimes. Just think about the last time you had to look for a church. Maybe you’re a guest, or you have only been coming for a little while. Or maybe you moved at some point in your life, and you had to look for a church. I’m sure over time you checked out a few churches, probably a bunch of churches.
Why do we do that? Why not just attend the one right down the street from our houses?
Well, I’ll give the benefit of the doubt. One reason is a good reason. Maybe you were looking for God’s Church. Maybe you were trying to find a church that does worship the Most High God. And you were looking for a church that celebrates the grace of God offered to us through Jesus Christ. And maybe you were looking for a church that is focused on the mission of God to see the grace of God transform the city around us. That’s a great reason to look at lots of churches.
But, you looked at lots of churches because you prefer a particular kind of music. Or maybe you like big churches. Or maybe you like small churches. Or maybe you like loud, boisterous preachers. Or maybe you like calm and conversational teachers. Maybe you like small groups that meet in homes. And maybe you like Sunday school.
The reality is, these are preferences that make you feel more or less comfortable. We all have preferences. But, the church isn’t about us and our preferences. It’s about God. Any church that declares unabashedly the Word of God and proclaims unashamedly the Gospel of Jesus Christ is absolutely the right church to join.
It doesn’t really matter what we prefer because the church belongs to God. And a second criterion for the church is…
God Makes the Church Holy
It can be tempting to think that people make the church holy. Here’s why I say that. We might believe that if we just do what is right as often as possible, and we come to all the church events, and we try real hard to get friends to go with us—all of those things are good by the way—but we can fall into the trap of thinking that this stuff is what make us holy.
Like, if we want to be holy, I guess we need to kick all the sinners out. But, that’s not actually possible. We all sin. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And it certainly wasn’t possible in Corinth. They had drunks, liars, adulterers, angry and divisive people and yet, the Apostle Paul wrote this about them. He wrote,
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus… (1 Corinthians 1:2, ESV)
He said that they had been sanctified. The word sanctified means ‘to be made holy.’ Paul said all those sinners were holy. We talked about holiness more last week. Today, I want to talk about it a little bit more. There are two ways that the Bible uses this word ‘sanctify.’
The first pertains to our initial setting apart. When you are living as an unholy person, serving yourself and your desires, and then God rescues you from that life, you are at that moment set apart, sanctified, for something better. The Apostle Paul wrote,
In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit. (Ephesians 1:13, ESV)
When you believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, you are set apart for righteousness and you are sealed with the Holy Spirit, so that you never go back. But notice, this is not attained righteousness; it is attributed righteousness. In other words, you aren’t actually righteous; you don’t actually do what is right and good all of the time. But, God has attributed the righteousness of Jesus to you.
We all know we are not completely righteous at the moment that we come to Christ. But, there is hope of actual righteousness. So that brings me to the second way that sanctification is used. The Apostle Paul gave this illustration to Timothy.
Now in a great house, there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. (2 Timothy 2:20–21, ESV)
An honorable dish is used to serve the master of the house, but the dishonorable dish is used to serve the dogs. Typically, you really can’t help the way a dish is made, but here Paul says you can. He says you can clean it really good and it can become honorable. You can stop doing dishonorable things and become honorable.
This is what we call progressive sanctification. It’s the process of becoming more and more holy, day by day. When we come to believe that our attributed righteousness can be a reality, we are empowered to become actually righteous.
The tension we see here is what is often referred to as, ‘already, but not yet.’ You are already righteous before the Father if you know Jesus as Lord and Savior. But, you are not yet full righteous. We see this play out in Romans 8:29. Paul wrote this:
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:29, ESV)
Here Paul said that people who are followers of Jesus were predestined to be conformed to the image of Jesus. In other words, if you are a Christian, your destiny is to look like Jesus. Not physically, mind you, but in the sense that your life will reflect in every way the righteousness of God.
The concept points back to the beginning of creation where Moses said that humankind was created to image or reflect the righteousness of God. Jesus is the image of God; Jesus is what God looks like within the created world.
And Paul says, that believers, followers of Jesus, are predestined to return to that image to again be conformed to the image of God, to once again live in righteousness just like Jesus.
There’s a debate about this verse. Some people say that the conformity has to do with the end of times when Jesus finally makes us actually righteous. In the end, we are given a new body so that there is no longer a battle between Spirit and flesh, a body where righteousness always reigns. They see it as a one-time event.
But others believe Paul is pointing to a process. They believe Paul to be saying, day by day we become more like Jesus, reflect God’s righteousness more, make more and more good decisions, more and more love the things that God loves.
That’s far more hopeful, isn’t it?
I believe this is the pattern of the Christian life.
- We strive to know God through prayer and the study of the Bible.
- We listen to preaching, and we do personal reading.
- We share our burdens with God in prayer, and we praise Him for his sovereign power and His unwavering mercy.
- And as we do that, something begins to change in us so that we no longer desire the things of this fallen, broken, and unfaithful world. But, we begin to desire eternal things.
- We begin to desire things that love, faithful people and faithful deeds, and we desire to give hope to others.
So many of you want that desperately. You have thoughts and feelings that are so wicked it makes you sick. And you often do things you hope no one ever finds out about.
I would wager to say, some of your family life, everyone knows not to talk about outside the home; that things are going on at home that everyone knows not to talk about in public, certainly not at church. And you want desperately to be free from this stuff. But you hide it because it’s too hard to change.
You want to be characterized by faith, hope, and love, but you feel like a fraud.
Well, James tells us why that happens. He wrote,
You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. (James 4:2–3, ESV)
James says that the problem with the heart and mind is the passions. When you think, feel, and act in ways that are shameful it’s because that’s what you really want. And you pray, sometimes begging God in tears to take away your sin, but nothing changes.
James says it’s because you ask with the wrong motives. You don’t want the righteousness of Jesus; you just want to be free from the pain of your sin. And that’s not the same thing.
But, listen. God wants more for you. He doesn’t want you to continue to revel in self-pleasure. He won’t take your sin away as long as your sin is causing you to direct your gaze towards Jesus.
So, how do you get free from your sin? How do you actually change? What can you possibly do? Is it utterly hopeless?
The answer is no. It’s not hopeless. But, … there is also nothing you can do. Because it’s not something, you do. Holiness is something God does. God makes the church holy!
Holiness is God’s gig. You don’t have holiness to offer yourself. God has it. There’s nothing you can do to get holy. You can’t get holy by working so hard to keep the laws of God that one day you will finally make it. It won’t ever happen.
Holiness comes when God gives it, period. The church of God is sanctified in Christ and is called to be holy by Christ. We are not called to be holy in ourselves.
And that sort of might seem hopeless, but, I said it’s not hopeless. James goes on to say,
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. (James 4:7, ESV)
James apparently doesn’t mean to submit yourself to God’s laws.
I want to illustrate with the way a wife submits to her husband. I’ve seen two ways a wife submits to her husband.
The first is, she makes herself basically the slave of the husband. I’ve actually seen this entirely too much in Christian circles. If, by ‘submit’ God meant to keep all the rules, then this would actually be a good model for marriage. But, we all know it’s not the way a marriage is supposed to work.
So, the second model of submission is this: The wife determines in her heart to support the work of the husband. That’s very different. Remember Genesis 2,
Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”(Genesis 2:18, ESV)
A helper, not a slave. The wife and husband become one flesh, one in purpose, one in life direction. This is the biblical view of submission within marriage.
And it’s also the biblical view of submission to Christ. You become one in purpose with Him. That’s why Paul says to submit to God and resist the devil. He isn’t saying stop doing all the Devil stuff and start doing all the Jesus stuff. That’s law; we can’t do it, and you know it!
James is saying that if you want victory over sin, if you want to be sanctified, if you want to be holy, reflecting the righteousness of Jesus, then you need to align with God and not with the devil. You need to commit to supporting the work of Christ and not the work of the devil which is the desires of your own flesh. You have to love what God loves if you want to be free from your sin.
The bottom line is, you need a better desire.
And the obvious problem is this: I don’t always love what God loves! Sometimes I’m selfish. Sometimes I’m angry. Sometimes I don’t care about other people.
You can’t help what you desire, right?
James has an answer for that too. He says,
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. (James 1:5–8, ESV)
James is talking about wisdom here, but this is a universal principle regarding prayer. If you want something from God, you need to ask for it.
- If you want righteousness in your life, you need to ask God for it.
- If you want freedom from sin, you need to ask God for it.
- If you want to start treating your wife better, you need to ask God for it.
- If you want freedom from lustful eyes, you need to ask God for it.
- If you eat, drink, or do any number of other things to make yourself feel better about life and you want freedom from that negative pattern, you need to ask God for freedom.
But, notice, the emphasis is not on the asking. The emphasis is on faith. Praying for freedom doesn’t work if you don’t believe it will work. If you ask God for freedom, but you aren’t sure that he will give it to you, then James says you are double-minded, unstable in all your ways.
The issue is this. You can’t change yourself. Only God can change you. And even God won’t change you unless you have faith that He is the only way to freedom.
So, where does faith come from? How do I get faith?
Paul tells us. He says that,
So faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17, ESV)
This is the pattern of holiness. This is how people get holy. This is the only way that anyone has ever become more holy.
- You must hear God’s word until you believe it.
- You faithfully sit under teaching on Sundays.
- You faithfully attend and participate in life groups.
- You study the Bible on your own at home.
- You read the Daily Devotionals (sign up on the website) and engage the questions.
- You listen to sermons from trusted preachers on the internet.
- You read Christian books by trusted authors.
The more you saturate your life in God’s truth, the more faith you will have because faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ.
And when you believe without doubting, and you submit your request to God in prayer, and you beg him to deliver you from your sins, then God does amazing things through his Spirit to transform your heart and to enlighten your mind to the wonders of God’s Kingdom so that in all things you desire the righteousness of Christ and you become sickened by the patterns of the world so that the righteousness of Christ reigns in your life, more and more the more you believe.
This is how God makes the church holy. Not by works that we could boast about our achievements, but by the Spirit of God working on humble hearts through prayer and the Word of God.
The church belongs to God and God makes the church holy. But, the most awe-inspiring criteria of the church is that…
The Church is Everywhere God’s People Are
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. (1 Corinthians 1:2, ESV)
Here Paul seems to say that there is one church and the church is comprised of all of those who in every place worship Jesus as Lord.
We talked about cosmic geography, this idea that a god in the ancient world was tied to their geographic location, to a particular kingdom. The people believed that gods only had power in the place that their temple was built.
And here the Apostle Paul says the church isn’t limited by geography. In fact, the church in the city of Corinth was surrounded by other gods, and they were threatened a bit.
But, there’s actually something to this cosmic geography thing. Cosmic geography has some truth if you understand the thinking of the ancient world. The reason that a god would only have power in his own kingdom is because the god resides in the temple in that kingdom. The issue isn’t so much the geography as the temple. If you want the god’s power, you need to be able to get to the temple.
So, Paul says,
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you… (1 Corinthians 6:19, ESV)
No longer does the one true God reside in the temple in Jerusalem. Now he lives with his people all the time, in every hour of every day, no matter where they go. If Jesus wants to have followers in every nation, he doesn’t need to conquer the nations and tear down their temples; he just has to send apostles, missionaries, to go establish His Church everywhere they go.
It’s why Jesus said,
For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. (Matthew 18:20, ESV)
It no longer takes the priesthood in the temple to mediate between God and man; now anywhere that believers come together, they can discern the will of God, worship God, pray to God, praise God.
We call this building the church, but that’s not precise, is it?
The building is not the church. It’s not the assembly. At best, it’s the assembly hall. We are the church. We are the assembly.
And it doesn’t matter if someday the church loses its tax-exempt status. And it doesn’t matter if churches lose their right to public assembly. It doesn’t matter if eventually it becomes illegal to be Christian and the church goes entirely underground. None of that matters, because it only takes two or three of us to gather in the name of Jesus to be the church.
No matter what happens in the world, we will always be united with the church all over the globe. We will always be united with those in every place who call upon the name of Jesus.
It’s this church in Corinth—the church that God has established for himself, the church that God is making holy, the church that exists all over the planet—it’s this church that the Apostle Paul wrote this letter to.
But, we are also the church that God has established. And we are also the church that God is making holy. We are also that church even though we aren’t in Corinth and this letter was written nearly 2000 years ago. Although Paul did not write this letter to us, I know as the church, that this study will be profitable for us in our place and our time.
As we go out today, let’s remember who created the church and let’s remember that God’s holiness is something He alone accomplishes in us as we continue to seek Him daily.
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