The two letters to the Corinthians, the letter to the Romans, and the letter to the Galatians form a quartet of Epistles that were apparently written during Paul’s third missionary journey and are intimately related to each other. In Romans the great fundamental doctrine of justification by faith alone is set forth. In Galatians that doctrine is defended after having been questioned by legalistic teachers. Therefore these two Epistles, Romans and Galatians, form the very foundation of Christian teaching. In the two letters to the Corinthians Paul gave instruction concerning the church: in the first Epistle, the ordering, calling, and discipline of the church; in the second Epistle, the ministry of the church. If we should lose all the rest of the New Testament—and God forbid that we should—and have only these four letters preserved, they would be sufficient to show us the way of salvation and to show us how to conduct ourselves as Christian people coming together in a church relationship. Therefore we can see the importance of being thoroughly familiar with these letters.
How the gospel reached Corinth we learn from Acts 18, where we are told that after his visit to Athens, the apostle Paul traveled to Corinth and began the work in a very quiet way. He did not enter the city with a blare of trumpets; he was not advertised as a great evangelist or Bible teacher; he simply went to work as an unknown craftsman. He was a tentmaker and in association with his two friends Aquila and Priscilla, who were engaged in the same business, he opened up an establishment. Elsewhere we are told that they labored night and day, and that by means of tentmaking the apostle was able to support not only himself but also those who ministered with him when the churches forgot their responsibility to them.
Paul was a great foreign missionary and when the churches of God did recognize their responsibility and send gifts, as in the case of the Philippian church, he gladly received the money and used it for the glory of God. But when he was neglected, he did not sit down and pine and whimper because of the coldheartedness of Christians in other places; he simply created a job for himself and went to work making tents and providing the wherewithal to carry on his testimony. This in a way was helpful to his ministry, for sometimes when a preacher or a missionary goes out as a well-supported individual bearing an official title and relationship to the church, people are not as interested in him and his message as they would be if he had come to work with his own hands as they have to do.
Having established his business in Corinth, the apostle began to move among the Jews. He attended the local synagogue where he doubtless listened to the regular services and then when opportunity was given, presented the gospel. There was a great deal of freedom in a Jewish synagogue. Jewish visitors, particularly if attired in the teacher’s garb, were permitted to take part in the service. Undoubtedly when Paul went there, he wore the garments that showed that he was a graduate of the school of Gamaliel and therefore the apostle was recognized as a teacher.
On one occasion when he and Barnabas attended a synagogue, the rulers, having completed the first part of the service, recognized the two men as teachers and said, “Ye men and brethren, if ye have any word of exhortation for the people, say on.” And we read, “Then Paul stood up, and beckoning with his hand said, Men of Israel, and ye that fear God, give audience” (Acts 13:15-16). This would be the customary procedure in the Jewish synagogue. There was nothing irregular and nothing disorderly about it; Paul was simply availing himself of a privilege.
So from sabbath to sabbath—that was on Saturday of course— he reasoned with the Jews and any Gentiles who might be present. It was a common thing for inquiring Gentiles to attend the Jewish services. Tired and weary of the customary recurring heathen festivities, finding nothing in paganism to answer the yearning desires of their hearts, they sought in the synagogue what they could not find elsewhere. When they in a measure at least accepted the Jewish doctrines, they were recognized as “proselytes of the gate” or “God-fearers.” To these people as well as the Jews, the apostle presented the message; he reasoned with them on the sabbath day.
Some of our present-day legalistic friends who have never known the blessedness of deliverance from law say, “We read in the book of Acts that Paul preached on the sabbath day, and that day is Saturday; so we are duty-bound to recognize that day rather than Sunday as the Lord’s day.” The fact is that the apostle was simply accommodating himself to the Jews who met on their sabbath. If he wished to reach them, he had to reach them on that day. The Christians themselves met together on the first day of the week to break bread and pray. This was their custom from the beginning, but on the Jewish sabbath they found opportunity to minister to the Jews and so used that day for that purpose.
Paul at first simply dealt with them from the standpoint of the Old Testament, but “when Silas and Timotheus were come from Macedonia [to Corinth], Paul was pressed in the spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus was Christ” (Acts 18:5). The apostle’s work up to this time was preparation, but now that he had the backing of other helpers, he felt the time had come to give a clear ringing testimony, to show that all these Old Testament Scriptures pointed to the One who had been crucified outside Jerusalem, who had been raised from the dead, and who had ascended into Heaven. When many of the Jews opposed this message and turned from him, Paul did a very significant thing. Shaking the long eastern robes that he wore, he said, “Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean: from henceforth I will go unto the Gentiles” (Acts 18:6). And so he left the Corinthian synagogue, never to enter it again. He found a preaching place in the house of a man named Justus.
Evidently Justus was a Gentile proselyte; his house adjoined the synagogue and he had accepted the Jewish revelation about God. When Paul began preaching in the home of Justus, one of the first converts was Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue; he believed “with all his house.” The work went on for a year and a half “and many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized” (Acts 18:8).
Notice the order: they heard the message; they believed the gospel; and then they were publicly baptized, thus confessing that they had received the crucified One as their own personal Savior. I emphasize that final step because some people imagine that in his Epistles the apostle seems to minimize the importance of Christian baptism. He did not ordinarily do the baptizing himself, but he always insisted that it be done. The fact that Paul himself was generally not the baptizer does not indicate that he slighted the ordinance.
As we go on in that eighteenth chapter of Acts we read of the insurrection stirred up against Paul in the days of Gallio, and we are told that the Greeks caught Sosthenes, who had become the chief ruler of the synagogue, and beat him for attempting to foment a riot. It would seem that the beating did him good because when we next find his name, it is linked with the apostle Paul’s in 1 Corinthians 1:1. Of course we have no positive proof that this Christian brother is the same man, but I take it for granted that he is. His beating brought him at last to accept the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior.
A mighty work of God was accomplished during the year and a half that Paul was in Corinth. It was not a likely field for missionary service. This metropolis with a population between six and seven hundred thousand people was given over to the worship of the goddess Aphrodite, the Greek name for the one whom the Romans worshiped as Venus, the goddess of lust or carnal love. In celebrating the rites of Aphrodite, the Corinthians gave themselves up to the most shameful licentiousness. So notorious was their worship that in all parts of the Greek-speaking world if men or women were found behaving in an unclean way, the worst that anyone could say of them was that they acted like Corinthians. Today if it is said that a person is like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, we at once understand that he lives a life of the vilest uncleanness; similarly in Paul’s day if it was said that a person was Corinthianized, the intimation was that he had totally lost all sense of morality and decency.
Such was the city into which Paul went to preach the gospel of the grace of God, and in that city the gospel won many to the knowledge of Christ. It was the means of delivering people from their lives of wickedness and making saints out of those who had been vicious and utterly lost to all sense of decency.
The Sanctified in Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:1-3)
What interest this background gives to the opening verses of 1 Corinthians! “Paul, called an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother.” I left out the italicized words “to be” (which had been added to 1:1 by the editors of the King James version) because I wanted to convey the fact that they should be left out of the second verse also. Paul was not called “to be” an apostle; he was an apostle—a “called” apostle, an apostle by divine calling. And so you and I are not called “to be” saints if we have trusted the Lord Jesus; we are saints, saints by calling.
Keep in mind that Paul’s apostleship, as he told us in Galatians 1:1, was “not of men, neither by man.” No one had anything to do with putting him into the apostolate except the risen Lord. An apostle was one who had seen the Lord and went forth to proclaim His message. Paul, as Saul, saw the Lord that day on the Damascus turnpike and went forth to proclaim Christ to the Jews and Gentiles. It was “the will of God” that made him what he was.
Notice how Paul linked himself with “Sosthenes our brother.” I take it for granted that this must have been the Corinthian Sosthenes because those receiving the letter would at once recognize his name. A thrill would go through their hearts as they exclaimed, “Yes, Sosthenes, once the persecutor but converted here in our own city, is still with the apostle Paul and is sending his greetings to us!” Just as we value the greetings of those we love and respect in the Lord, and when they go elsewhere we are always pleased to hear from them, so the Corinthians would find pleasure in seeing his name linked with that of the apostle Paul.
Paul wrote “unto the church of God which is at Corinth.” What a change had taken place since the years when this very man—as Saul of Tarsus—persecuted the church of God! I have heard of a strange teaching that the church of the book of Acts is not the church of our day, that the church, the body of Christ, did not begin until after Paul was put in prison in Rome. But Paul persecuted the church of God when he was still unconverted; how could he have persecuted that which had no existence? The church had its birthday on the day of Pentecost, and after that, churches of God were established in local communities.
The local church in Corinth was composed of those who were once legalistic Jews or blind Gentiles, but were now all one in Christ Jesus. And the apostle spoke of them as the “sanctified… called saints.” Often we think of a saint or a sanctified one as a sinless person. We see someone in whom the grace of God shines out most wonderfully and we say, “Well, certainly there is a saint.” Or perhaps someone has just gone home to Heaven and we speak of him as “the sainted so-and-so” because he has gotten beyond the reach of sin. But that is not the way Scripture uses these terms. It says “them that are sanctified,” not “them that are sinless”; it says “saints,” not “absolutely holy ones.” The saints are the separated; the sanctified are those set apart to God in Christ Jesus.
“Sanctified” and “saints” are two words that come from the same root meaning “separated, set apart, devoted to a holy purpose.” If you are saved, the moment you put your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, God separated you from a world under judgment and set you apart for Himself in Christ Jesus. In that instant you became a saint; in that moment you were sanctified, and that sanctification is a perfect one.
We read in Hebrews 10:14, “He hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.” I used to be taught, and perhaps some of you have been told, that a man has to be justified first, and then sometime afterward he goes on to receive what some call “the second blessing” and he becomes sanctified. When I turn to the Book of God, however, I find that the order is just the opposite. I find that a man is sanctified by the work of the Spirit in his heart even before he comes to the knowledge of Christ. It is the sanctifying, separating work of the Spirit of God that leads him to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The moment he puts his faith in Christ, God sees him as sanctified in Christ Jesus, as set apart to God, as separated from the old life, from the old ways, from the world to which he once belonged; that moment God counts Him as clean in His sight because of the infinite value of the atoning work of His beloved Son.
You may say, “I would hardly dare say that I am sanctified. I know I am a Christian. I trust I am justified. But I am afraid I am not good enough yet to say that I am sanctified.” But just as your goodness had nothing to do with your justification, it is not your goodness that entitles you to take your place among the sanctified. When you were justified by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, all the past was put away forever and God gave you a new standing before Him.
Sin makes men not only guilty but also unclean. Because we are guilty we need to be justified; because we are unclean we need to be sanctified. We are cleansed by the blessed atoning blood through which we are justified. So we read of being sanctified by the blood of His covenant: “Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate” (Hebrews 13:12).
Jesus said, “For their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth” (John 17:19). The moment He rose from the dead God saw all believers as linked with Him. In Hebrews 2:11 we read, “He that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren.” So if you are a Christian and have any doubt about your sanctification, put the doubt away and thank God that you are in Christ and therefore sanctified.
As we go on reading in 1 Corinthians, we will find that the apostle had to bring to the attention of his readers many things that needed correction. He told them that they were carnal, for they were taking one another to court and tolerating all kinds of unholy things in their midst. Some of the Christians in Corinth had wrong ideas about the marriage relationship, and some were ignorant about their relation to their past idolatry, but still the apostle speaks of them all as the “sanctified in Christ Jesus.”
Observe that Paul not only addressed this letter to “the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called saints”; he widened out the address so that it takes in every Christian to the end of the dispensation: “with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours.” Do you see the importance of that? There are many things in this Epistle that some Christians today try to dodge and get away from, and very often you will hear them say as the Epistle is read, “Oh well, that was for that age and that day, or for folks living in Corinth, but not for people today.” They ignore the fact that the letter is addressed to each one who seeks to acknowledge the lordship of Christ.
As we study the Epistle, let us accept it as a personal message from the Holy Spirit of God to each one of us as Christian individuals. We would not like to think that the passages about grace were only for the Corinthians, so we should not attempt to apply the passages about responsibility only to the people of Corinth. We must remember that the whole letter was written for the whole church of God until the coming of our Lord Jesus and our gathering together unto Him.
In the third verse we find the apostolic salutation, “Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” We are saved by grace, but of course this is not the grace to which Paul here referred. He knew that people who are “sanctified in Christ Jesus” are already justified by faith, saved by grace. And all Christians have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We read in Romans 5:1, “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (italics added). It is a settled thing.
In 1 Corinthians 1:3 Paul was not praying for Christians to obtain saving grace. He was praying for the grace that sustains Christians in all the trials of the way, the grace that enables us to overcome in every hour of temptation. In Hebrews 4:16 we are bidden to “come boldly unto the throne of grace [upon which our Great High Priest sits], that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.” We need grace every day of our lives. The grace of yesterday will not suffice for today. Morning by morning we need to draw down from above, through meditation and prayer, supplies of grace to start the day aright. Throughout the day we need to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17); our hearts should continually be reaching out to God so that new supplies of grace may come down to us constantly. We cannot keep ourselves even for one moment, so we need the grace that is in Christ Jesus.
And the peace that Christians need is not peace with God, but the peace o/God, the peace of which we read in Philippians 4:6-7: “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” You see, this has nothing to do with the sin question; that has been settled. We have peace with God because our sins have been forever put away. The peace of God has to do with the question of things that would keep us anxious, the trials of life that would trouble our hearts. How blessed is the privilege to go to God about them all!
I am afraid that many dear Christians miss a great deal of peace because they have never learned to go to Him about their temporal affairs as well as their spiritual needs. Some look at me aghast when I tell them of praying about money and family matters. They say, “You do not mean to say that the God who created the world is concerned that I have money to meet my rent and to pay for food? Are you saying that He will intervene in my family problems?” Scripture answers, “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing [that word is all-inclusive] by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.” Brothers and sisters in Christ, no matter what trial comes to you, no matter what perplexity you are called on to face, no matter what need you have to meet, God invites you to come to Him about it, and He will “supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19). That is a promise.
The Fellowship of God’s Son (1 Corinthians 1:4-9)
We cannot help noticing how frequently the full name and title of our Savior is used in these verses—and throughout the entire Epistle. We will never find in the Bible the undue familiarity in the use of divine names that is so common in the irreverent days in which we live. No one in Scripture ever addressed our blessed Savior merely as Jesus. He was sometimes spoken of as Jesus; for example, by divine inspiration when His atoning work was particularly in view, the angel said, “Thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). But when He was addressed directly, and ordinarily even when He was spoken of by His followers, He was called the Lord Jesus, the Lord Jesus Christ, or Jesus Christ our Lord.
I am sure there is a lesson for each one of us in Paul’s reverence. The One who brought the Corinthian Christians out of darkness into His marvelous light is the One who through grace has brought those of us who are Christians today to a saving knowledge of Himself. He is our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us ever remember when we approach Him in prayer that He is our Lord. Let us ever remember when we speak of Him to others that “God hath made that same Jesus [who was] crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).
Let us also beware of calling Jesus Lord and then slighting His commands.
If He is not Lord of all,
Then He is not Lord at all.
The Epistles to the Corinthians emphasize His lordship throughout. Christ said to His disciples, “Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am” (John 13:13). Thank God, we delight to know Him as our supreme sovereign Master.
Later in 1 Corinthians Paul pointed out many irregularities in the church at Corinth and reproved the believers there for a number of things that were bringing dishonor to the name of the Lord. Yet in this introductory portion of the Epistle the apostle first of all gave God thanks for what His grace had already wrought. As he remembered the year and a half that he labored in Corinth, during which time most of those he was primarily addressing in this letter were brought into a saving knowledge of Christ, he said, “I thank my God always on your behalf.” It brought great joy to the heart of that soul-winner to think of those whom he had the privilege of pointing to Christ.
Paul expressed gratitude for “the grace of God,” for His free unmerited favor toward those deserving the very opposite. For the moment he was not thinking merely of the grace that saves. The Corinthian Christians were saved by grace and we are saved by grace; no one is saved in any other way. But having been saved, we are endowed by grace with all we need for our journey through this world. Among other things, provision is made for us to be built up as companies of believers when we gather together in church fellowship. God’s will is that believers gather in various localities as churches, and the Lord makes Himself responsible to minister that which will profit and edify such assemblies of believers. It is this aspect of grace on which the apostle was particularly dwelling here.
He thanked God for the grace given by Jesus Christ so that “in every thing [the Corinthian Christians were] enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge.” In other words, the church at Corinth was greatly blessed with gifts of the Spirit. Some of the Corinthians could minister the Word of God most acceptably; others who had the gift of evangelist could go out and carry the message to the world; some who were gifted as teachers could impart spiritual instruction to their brothers in Christ; many had miraculous gifts (see 1 Corinthians 12). It is questionable that there ever was a Christian church more enriched with spiritual gifts, yet it is a solemn fact that although the Corinthians were so wonderfully endowed, they were very carnal.
That fact leads us to realize that gifts in themselves are not preservative. One may have great ability individually, yet not have a close walk with God. One may be very gifted, yet not be guided by the Holy Spirit in the use of His gift. A church may have in its fellowship many on whom God has bestowed special gifts of the Spirit, but these gifts do not in themselves prove that that church is more spiritual than other fellowships.
We live in a day when there is a very unhealthy craving for what we may call the miraculous gifts, and people have an idea that if these were more in evidence in the church there would be more spirituality and more accomplished for God. I think the history of the Corinthian church proves the unsoundness of such reasoning. No church that I know of has ever been blessed with more spiritual gifts, yet they were anything but a truly spiritual church.
In Ephesians 4:7 Paul wrote, “Unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ,” and then he went on to mention the different gifts that the ascended Christ has given to the church. It is the grace of God that leads the Holy Spirit to bestow such gifts on His people. How much we need to respond to the grace of God by holding each gift in subjection to Him and by not becoming occupied with the gift rather than the Giver! The Corinthians became so occupied with the gifts that they all wanted to do miraculous things, and so their eyes were taken off Christ and fixed on demonstrations of supernatural power. As a result they lost the sweetness of communion with Him.
We should be careful never to confuse natural talent with spiritual gifts. God gives the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, teaching, preaching, and exhortation, but those gifts are altogether different from any mere natural ability along what we might call oratorical lines. A man may be a born orator; it may be just as natural for him to preach in an interesting, compelling way as it is for another to sing beautifully. But whether speaking or singing, one needs something more than mere natural talent to be truly effective, and that something is the power of the Holy Spirit. If a man is naturally talented, he is not to discard his talents when yielding himself to Christ, but they are not to be put in the place of spiritual gifts. Mere natural talents are displaced by spiritual gifts when the Holy Spirit of God takes possession of a human instrument, works through him, and anoints him.
After people are converted and yielded to Him, the Holy Spirit bestows gifts on them “severally as he will” (1 Corinthians 12:11). Often the Spirit gives amazing power to people who are not at all remarkable for natural talent in presenting spiritual truth. Such power is a divine gift.
The apostle said, “Covet earnestly the best gifts” (12:31), so if you are already saved, if you are trusting Christ as your Savior, look to God to bestow on you some special gift of His grace so that you may be better able to win others to Christ and better able to help His beloved people. But never confuse mere human eloquence with divine ministry; never substitute mere oratory for the preaching of the Word. Preaching the Word may be oratorical or it may lack that characteristic entirely.
The apostle Paul was naturally a wonderful orator, but when he stood before people to preach the gospel, he said he held all that back lest their faith should stand in the wisdom of man rather than in the power of God (2:5). Divine gifts enable servants of Christ to minister to edification, to the salvation of sinners, and to the building up of saints. But one may have these gifts and be out of fellowship with God; therefore it is important to live day by day in the spirit of self-judgment so that He may have the controlling power in the exercise of the gifts.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “The testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: So that ye come behind in no gift.” The apostle had come to Corinth to minister the Word; they had believed and in turn ministered to others. God graciously confirmed that testimony in blessing until there was no gift that was not found in their assembly. In other churches there may have been a few people with some special gift, but in Corinth there were a great number. Yet as we read the Epistle, we are amazed to find how far many of them had dropped from faithfulness to Christ and true communion with the Lord. Surely this is a warning to us.
Paul went on to say that the Corinthian Christians were “waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The word translated “coming” here in 1:7 is not parousia, the term generally used for the coming of the Lord to the air when saints rise to meet Him; the Greek word here is apokalupsis, which refers to His unveiling when He is revealed to the whole world. We too are waiting for the unveiling of Jesus Christ. This of course is the goal. The Lord’s descending and calling His people to meet Him in the air is a preparation, but the goal is the unveiling. When He is revealed in glory, we will be manifested with Him. We should be content to live quiet, godly, unworldly lives now because in that day we will have our reward as we shine forth with Him. That revelation of Jesus Christ was put before the Corinthian saints as the goal of all their hopes. Then the apostle told them that the One for whom they were waiting would keep them until the end.
I wonder whether you have noticed the method of the Spirit of God throughout the Scriptures when He has to reprove Christians because of failure in their lives. He begins by commending them for all that He can and by assuring them that everything is going to come out all right in the end. In Philippians 1:6 the apostle assured his readers, “Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform [complete] it until the day of Jesus Christ.” In 1 Corinthians 1:8 Paul said, “[He will] confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Note that both verses mention “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The day of our Lord Jesus Christ is the day when He will return to call His own to be with Himself, the day when we will stand before His judgment seat. On that day we will be turned inside out, as it were; all our hidden motives will be brought to light and we will be rewarded according to deeds done since His grace saved us.
Until that day the Lord will “confirm” us. Some people make confirmation a ritual in a special church service—a child is under the care of the church until a certain year and then he is confirmed and brought into the full membership of the church. The Bible has much to say about confirmation, but never presents it as a rite. Confirmation in the Bible is always the work of the Spirit of God making His truth real to the soul. This is our confirmation.
Paul was saying to the Corinthians, “I am absolutely sure that your confirmation will go on until the day of Jesus Christ.” In other words, the apostle did not have the slightest thought that anyone who had ever been born again would fail to reach Heaven. He knew that many of them might fail grievously on the way, but he also knew that they were not responsible to keep themselves, for they were being kept by the power of God. People say to me, “Oh, you are one of those old-fashioned folks who believe in the perseverance of the saints.” I generally answer, “To be perfectly frank, I am not at all conceited about the perseverance of the saints. My experience with myself and with a great many other saints is that most of us are not very much given to perseverance. We need to be prodded along most of the time.”
I heard Sam Jones explain why the Lord allowed the Presbyterians to believe once-saved-always-saved and the Methodists to believe that a person would only be saved at last if he held on. Jones said he sometimes thought the reason was that some of the Presbyterians were “such an ornery crowd” that they never would go on if they did not feel sure that they were eternally saved, and some of the Methodists were “such a poor type” that if the Lord did not keep the whip over them, they would never go on! That could be said of a great many people, but when we turn to the Word of God we find that everything for a Christian depends on the perseverance of the Savior. He who took us up in grace has committed Himself to carry us through to the end. He knows how to deal with each individual saint so that he may be confirmed unto the end. And the final consummation is this, that every believer will appear “blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The word translated “blameless” here in 1:8 may also be translated “unimpeachable” or “unaccusable.” In other words, when we stand at last at the judgment seat of Christ, God Himself is going to see to it that no charge can stand against any believer because the Lord Jesus Christ has atoned for all our sins with His own precious blood. Every failure in the life will be dealt with there; all the wood, hay, and stubble will be burned in the fire of that day and we will stand before our Lord unimpeachable.
The next subject Paul brought up is most precious to every Christian’s heart: “God is faithful.” I would like to take time to dwell on those three words, but I do not really need to say much about them. You who have known the Lord for years, do I need to try to reason with you to show that God is faithful? As you look back over the years, do not all His dealings with you tell the story that you have served a faithful God? You can be sure that when we come to the end of the way, when at last we meet with loved ones around the throne, we will realize then as never before the faithfulness of God.
When I shall meet with those that I have loved,
Clasp in my eager arms the long-removed,
And know how faithful Thou to me hast proved,
I shall be satisfied.
I never have been and I am afraid I never will be faithful in the absolute sense, but I have to do with a faithful God who has promised to see me through.
“God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” God does not save us merely as individuals, but having saved us individually, He introduces us into a wonderful fellowship of which our Lord Jesus is the risen glorified Head in Heaven. Every local church should be an expression of this fellowship of the body of Christ. As the apostle said in 10:16: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” If you have been redeemed by His blood, if by the Holy Spirit you have been baptized into the body of Christ, you are called into the fellowship of God’s Son, and you are one with every other believer on the face of the earth. It makes little difference what labels people may use—denominational, interdenominational, or undenominational. The important question is, Are they members of the fellowship of God’s Son?
The word translated “fellowship” in 1:9 really means “partnership.” We have been taken into partnership in a wonderful firm of which the Lord Jesus is the Head and in which every believer has a place. Do you wonder that some of us never crave any other fellowship? In His we have found all we need.
When we trace this word “fellowship” through the New Testament, we find that many beautiful truths are associated with it. In 1 John 1:3 we read that we have been brought into fellowship with the Father and the Son. Is not that a wonderful thing? We are in partnership with the Father and the Son! We share their common thoughts. When you are interested in something that I am interested in, we get together and have fellowship, but just think of it: God the Father and God the Son have taken us into partnership with Them in Their thoughts in regard to redemption, the glorious plan of salvation!
In Philippians 2:1 we read about the fellowship “of the Spirit” because it is not a natural thing. It is produced by the indwelling Holy Spirit of God. There is no real Christian fellowship apart from Him, and that fact shows the incongruity of unsaved people uniting with the visible church of God. Lost souls cannot have fellowship with God’s redeemed ones because that fellowship is produced by the Holy Spirit and He does not dwell in unsaved people.
The apostle Paul commended the Philippians for their participation in the fellowship of the gospel (1:5). Fellowship is not only a sweet and lovely sentiment; it is a practical thing, for we labor together for the blessing and the salvation of a lost world. Each one is to do his part. The preacher is not to do all the work; we have been called into a company in which each partner has service to do for the blessing of all. In 2 Corinthians 8:4 Paul spoke of “the fellowship of the ministering,” in which every believer (not just certain individuals) ministers according to his or her ability. This is the Christian ideal, and if you and I seek wholeheartedly to walk in accordance with it, we will have real blessing in our church relationships.
I wonder if anyone who is reading this commentary is saying to himself, “If in order to have fellowship like this I must possess the Holy Spirit, I am afraid I got into the visible church too soon, for I am not conscious of possessing the Spirit of God; I am not conscious of the indwelling Christ.” If those are your thoughts, what you need to do is to come to God as a poor sinner, put your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, and come right out into the light where God is, for it is written, “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
Contention in the Fellowship (1 Corinthians 1:10-17)
We have seen that God has established here on earth a wonderfully blessed fellowship into which He has called His saints. The fellowship of God’s Son is that communion of saints embracing all believers everywhere, all who have been washed from their sins in the precious blood of Christ and indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
Men, however, have formed denominations, and so the visible church of God is in our day divided into many different factions, and unhappily some of these factions are very markedly un-Christian in their attitude toward others. Yet in all real Christian groups there are those who belong to the fellowship of God’s Son and who, I am sure, are often troubled and distressed as they think of the way Christians are divided among themselves.
I have heard people justify these denominational divisions by saying that each one represents a different regiment in the army of the Lord; just as the military has the cavalry, the infantry, the artillery, the air corps, and the engineers, we have different denominations, and each Christian can choose for himself the one he prefers. This is a very comfortable way of looking at it if one does not want to have his conscience exercised by present-day conditions, but the fact of the matter is that Scripture tells us that divisions are the work of the flesh. It is not the Spirit of God who divides His people into these different companies. It is the work of the flesh in believers that leads them thus to separate from one another.
You say, “What should we do under such circumstances? Should we leave all the denominations and start another company?” I reply, “If you started a new group, in what sense would you be better than the denominations? You would simply be adding one more to the many divisions of Christendom.”
But what should we do? We should recognize the fact that in spite of man’s divisions there remains “one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling” (Ephesians 4:4). We should welcome all real believers who uphold the truth of God as fellow members with us in the body of Christ and thus endeavor to rise above the spirit of sectarianism and denominationalism that prevails in so many places.
It was not denominationalism, however, that the apostle was directly rebuking in 1 Corinthians 1:10-17. Rather it was incipient divisions in the local church, for the Corinthian believers were not as yet separated from one another into various sects. Within that one church in Corinth there were cliques and factions, and so there was dissension and trouble. The members were losing sight of the blessedness of true Christian fellowship.
Notice how the apostle addressed them: “Now I beseech you, brethren.” How in keeping that approach is with grace! Where grace rules, “I command” becomes “I beseech.” The admonition that followed was to refrain from murmuring and complaining and from fractiousness in the local assembly of Christ in order that all might be bound up together “in the same mind and in the same judgment.”
Of course the Spirit of God speaking through the apostle does not attempt to force all believers to look at everything from exactly the same standpoint. That will never happen. No two people ever see the same rainbow. If you were to stand near me looking at a rainbow, you would get a slightly different view because you would be a little bit away from me—besides that, my eyes are very astigmatic and yours may be perfect. How foolish it would be for us to stand there and quarrel about the rainbow’s tints! Instead I should say, “I am so glad you are able to see it so much more clearly than I am; with your perfect eyes you can get a much better view of it than I can with my astigmatism.” And you should think kindly of me and say, “Well, I hope the day will come when you will be able to see as clearly as I do.”
Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing,” and “If in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you” (3:16,15). But we do not see eye to eye even as we read the Scripture. So much depends on our education, our cultural standards, our environment. We often misunderstand statements of Scripture because of not being more familiar with the languages in which the Bible was originally written. If we were to insist that we could have no real fellowship unless we agreed on everything, I am afraid our church fellowship would become a very small circle indeed. I do not know where you could find a dozen people who see eye to eye on everything.
We have all laughed at the old Quaker who left one meetinghouse after another until finally someone said to him, “Well, what church are you in now?”
He said, “I am in the true church at last.”
“How many belong to it?”
“Just my wife and myself, and I am not sure about Mary sometimes.”
Our church would boil down to just that if we could not have fellowship with any except those who saw things exactly as we do. How then can we be “perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment”? Paul explained in 1 Corinthians 2:16 that “we have the mind of Christ.” So “the same mind” is the lowly mind, the subject mind, the mind that was displayed in Jesus. You may look at things one way and I may look at them another way, but if we have the mind of Christ, we are not going to quarrel; we will get along in true, happy fellowship, considering one another and praying for one another.
And “the same judgment”—what does that mean? It does not refer to judging one another; it refers to discernment. Every believer has the Spirit of God dwelling within him to give him discernment, and when things come up about which we differ, if we depend on the guidance of the Spirit of God, He will give us the good judgment we need. Philippians 1:9 tells us that we are to increase “in knowledge and in all judgment,” but I am afraid that some of us never get very far in real discernment because we neglect the study of our Bibles.
We are discerning about our food. If a dish that is brought to you smells as if something is wrong with it, you do not want to eat it. Your nose helps you avoid food poisoning. In Old Testament times a man who had a flat nose was not allowed to be a priest. Why? The nose speaks of discernment. A flat-nosed priest was one who could not discern, and God said that he could not serve (Leviticus 21:17-23).
We are called “a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9), but I am afraid that many of us as believers are flat-nosed. We are taken up with almost anything that seems to have some Scriptural backing; we listen to all kinds of teaching and pay little attention to the careful study of the Word of God. Some people say, “I go anywhere; I listen to everything, for I can get a little good out of everything.” But when they do that, they soon lose all ability to discern the truth as it is in Jesus. It is barely possible that you could train your digestive powers to get nourishment out of sawdust, but why eat that when you can eat good substantial oatmeal? What is the use of going after all kinds of fads and follies when you can have the pure unadulterated Word of God? “Ye shall know the truth,” John 8:32 says, “and the truth shall make you free.”
After pleading with the believers in Corinth to be of “the same mind,” Paul stated one of his reasons for writing: he had heard a bad report about these “brethren.” Observe that the apostle wrote to them about it and told them exactly who had brought the report to him. He would have had no sympathy with anonymous authors who write letters like the following:
Perhaps you do not know it, but there is a woman in the church doing very prominent work who is a thorough hypocrite. I hope you will see that she is disciplined.
A lover of Christ
The apostle would never have paid any attention to such a letter, nor would he have taken any action if a person came to him and said, “Brother Paul, I am sorry to speak to you about this, but there is one of our brethren—don’t for anything say that I told you—but Mr. so-and-so—oh, it is perfectly dreadful. I do hope you will do what you can, but don’t give him the least idea that I told you.” I think Paul would have sternly said, “What business do you have coming to me and slandering a brother when you are not willing to face him openly about it?”
And so when Paul received a bad report regarding the Corinthians, he wrote to them about it and said that it had come from the house of Chloe. Paul was straightforward about the source. If the report were not true, the house of Chloe would have to face the fact that they had been guilty of libeling the Corinthians, but in this case the report was true.
“It hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe,” the apostle wrote, “that there are contentions among you.” So one reason for writing the letter was that there was division right in the local assembly of Corinth. Paul added an illustration to show what he meant: “Every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ.” We can almost overhear their heated discussions:
Some favor Paul, the teacher. “I am of Paul,” one of them says. “I like real Bible teaching. I do not have much use for evangeUsm and exhortation. I like Brother Paul, for he feeds my soul.”
ApoUos is “an eloquent man, and mighty in the scriptures” (Acts 18:24), so some prefer him. One of his admirers says, “I am of ApoUos. I like a man who can stand up and give a wonderful oration, a man who gives a great address and winds it up with a marvelous conclusion that almost lifts me out of my seat. He is the man for me. I am not inspired by dry Bible teachers. I want to hear something that thrills my soul.”
Someone else says, “I am of Cephas. I like practical men, exhorters such as Cephas, who over and over again says, ‘I stir you up.’”
“Well, you can have Paul and Apollos and Cephas,” objects a man from another faction; “I am of Christ. I am not interested in anyone else. I do not need a man to teach me, for I am of Christ and I do not recognize human leaders. Stand by, for I am holier than thou.” (Have you ever seen that crowd? They are the most conceited of all.)
But Paul was not using actual names in this illustration. In 1 Corinthians 4:6 we read, “These things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollos for your sakes; that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another.” There Paul was saying, “You see, I have simply used the names of Paul, Apollos, and Cephas figuratively.” The division in Corinth was not actually over Paul and Apollos; it was over local men, and the Corinthians were saying, “Well, I am for this brother,” or “I am for that one,” or “I am of Christ and I am not interested in any of the rest of them.” And so Paul used his own name and the names of Apollos and Cephas to show how wrong the contention was.
Then Paul asked the question, “Is Christ divided?” (1:13) In other words, “Is it only one little group who are ‘of Christ’? Even those who sometimes say, ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas’ are all ‘of Christ’ if they are truly converted. No one group should arrogate that distinction to themselves.”
Paul asked another question: “Was Paul crucified for you?” What did he mean by that? He meant that we are not to make any man the head of a party. We are to remember that the fellowship to which we belong is that of the One who was crucified for us. It is true that we owe a great deal to Paul. I think that after I have seen the Lord Jesus Christ and my father and mother in Heaven, the next one I want to see is the apostle Paul; I want to have a good talk with him and tell him how much the messages he left on record have meant to me. But Paul was not crucified for me. He just helped to give me a better understanding of the One who was crucified for me and so I value his ministry.
Why did Paul go on to ask, “Were ye baptized in the name of Paul?” The reason is that the only One whom we are to recognize as the Head of the church of God is the One in whose name we were baptized. Do not get the idea as some have that the apostle was putting a slur on baptism, that he meant to imply that baptism was an unimportant thing and eventually would have no place in the church of God. By basing his argument on baptism he was recognizing it as a tremendously important thing.
When you became a Christian, in whose name were you baptized? You were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. You belong to Him and you should recognize the entire fellowship of which He is the Head. But do not try to make His name the head of a party; and do not make the names of His servants the heads of parties, for the only real Head in the fellowship is Christ.
Because of the fact that the Corinthians were making so much of individuals, Paul said in effect, “I am very thankful as I look back that I personally did not do the baptizing in many cases.” He was not saying, “I am thankful that you were not baptized,” for they were baptized. Acts 18:8 says, “Many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized.” Their baptism followed their believing. Paul was saying, “I am very thankful, since you are so given to a party spirit, that few of you can say, ‘I was baptized by Paul.’”
Paul’s actual words were, “I thank God that I baptized none of you, but Crispus [the ruler of the synagogue] and Gaius; Lest any should say that I had baptized in mine own name. And I baptized also the household of Stephanas.” Evidently Stephanas was not with the Corinthians at the time Paul was writing, for we read in 16:17, “I am glad of the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus: for that which was lacking on your part they have supplied.” Stephanas apparently was a traveling preacher, and his household “addicted themselves to the ministry of the saints” (16:15). Besides Crispus, Gaius, and the household of Stephanas, there was no one else in Corinth Paul could remember baptizing.
Giving his closing argument in reference to baptism, Paul said, “For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel.” Observe, he was not saying that he was not commissioned to baptize. He was saying that he was not sent to make baptism the important thing. He was sent to preach the gospel. As an apostle he went out preaching, and when any believed the gospel they were baptized. This sequence is the opposite of the order of events in Roman Catholic missions and other church systems today. When Romanism goes to a new missionfield, the priests make it their first order of business to get as many infants together as possible and baptize them.
There are numerous things that are right and proper in their own sphere and that must of necessity occupy much of a preacher’s time, but it was not to do these things that he was set apart as a servant of God and sent into the world. He was ordained of God to preach the gospel. Likewise Paul’s great ministry was making Christ known, “not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.” He depended not on mere human oratory or rhetoric, but on the power of the Holy Spirit enabling him in all simplicity to present to the people a crucified, risen, ascended, and returning Christ, that all hearts might be focused on Him and brought to put their trust in Him. As Christ is presented to the hearts of God’s people they become occupied with Him, their glorious Head. As they are drawn to Him, they are drawn together. That is the thing that unifies.
The Simplicity of Preaching (1 Corinthians 1:18-24)
The apostle Paul’s great business was proclaiming the cross. “The preaching of the cross,” he said, “is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” There is a challenge in almost every word of this verse.
The word translated “preaching” here is not the usual term that can also be translated “announcing” or “proclaiming”; it is logos, the term that is used to refer to Christ Himself in the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). In its ordinary sense, logos refers to a spoken message, and in 1 Corinthians 1:18 Paul used it to put the word of the cross in contrast to the word of wisdom in 1:17. There he said that his aim was to preach the cross “not with wisdom of words [logos]” or—changing the order to give the exact meaning of the original—“not with the words of wisdom.”
When Paul presented the doctrine of the cross, he did not want to hide it with beautiful verbiage; he would not obscure the message with human eloquence, or weaken or dilute the message in any way with charming rhetoric. He did not desire people to listen to him with admiration and go away exclaiming, “What a brilliant preacher, what a splendid orator!” instead of saying, “What guilty sinners we are and how amazing is the love of God that sent His Son to die for us and bear the shame of the cross for our redemption!”
Some years ago a gentleman living in a country town in England went to London and while there heard some renowned preachers. Writing home to his wife, he said, “Last Sunday I went in the morning to hear Dr. so-and-so [he named one of the most eloquent men occupying a London pulpit at that time] and in the evening I went to the Metropolitan Tabernacle to listen to Charles Spurgeon. I was quite impressed by both of them. Dr. so-and-so is certainly a great preacher, but Mr. Spurgeon has a great Savior.” Do you see the difference?
Since it is possible to spoil the message by dependence on that which simply appeals to the human mind, the apostle tried not to preach Christ with words of wisdom—that is, this world’s wisdom— “lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.” With eloquence, oratory, or rhetoric, a preacher can win the appreciation of even the most utterly godless man, but it is not the will of God that any of His servants should tickle the ears of their hearers. His will is that they should grapple with the consciences of those to whom they are speaking.
An unsaved person is in a most precarious position. If the brittle thread of his life should snap, he would be ushered out into a Christless eternity. How foolish and wicked we would be if when we preach to people who are still in their sins, we simply entertained them! We would be guilty before God if we sought the admiration and praise of our hearers instead of bringing them face to face with their sins and urging them to flee to the cross for refuge.
The thought of souls going to Hell had gripped the apostle Paul. He knew that men were lost without Christ, that there was no hope for them except in the cross, so he said in effect, “I do not want to say anything that will hide the cross. I do not want to decorate the cross with flowers and ribbons and tinsel, and make people lose sight of what it really is.” The cross is the declaration of man’s utter depravity and the demonstration of God’s infinite love. This word of the cross, compared with the world’s word of wisdom, “is to them that perish foolishness.”
What do we mean when we speak of the cross? I wonder sometimes if we have any conception in our day of what the cross meant when Paul wrote about it. Cicero said, “The cross, it speaks of that which is so shameful, so horrible, it should never be mentioned in polite society.” Yet Paul exclaimed, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Galatians 6:14). The cross meant far worse than the gallows or the electric chair means today because the cross declared that the one who was hanging on it was guilty of the vilest, the most awful crimes, that he was utterly unfit to live, that he was rejected of man and accursed of God. And a cross bore our Lord Jesus Christ! What does it mean? It means that man’s heart was so wicked, so sinful, that there was no way for him to be saved unless the eternal Son of God became man and suffered the most ignominious death for his redemption.
The cross also means that man’s heart has been completely exposed, for when God thus sent His Son, man cried, “Away with Him! Crucify Him! crucify Him!” There at the cross man told out the very worst of his nature while God told out the infinite love of His heart. Peter said to the men of his day, “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain” (Acts 2:23). If you want to know how wicked you are by nature, if you want to get an understanding of the awfulness of the sins of which your heart is capable, stand in faith before that cross and contemplate again God’s holy, spotless Son hanging on that tree suffering unspeakable anguish. That anguish is the very expression of man’s attitude to God; it is the word of the cross.
It was not merely the physical suffering that men heaped upon Jesus that made atonement for sin, for we read in Isaiah 53:10, “Thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin” (italics added). God made Him to be the great sin-offering. And so the word of the cross is the story of God’s infinite love for guilty men. Righteousness demanded that sin be punished, and there on the cross it was punished to the full in the person of our blessed substitute. Now the word of the cross goes out to all the world, and since man at last is going to be judged by his attitude toward that cross, the word of the cross “is to them that perish foolishness” (italics added).
I am sorry that the translators used the English word “perish” here in 1 Corinthians 1:18, for that may throw us off the track. Some may think Paul meant that if a person rejects the cross and the One who died there, he is in danger of perishing, but that is not what the apostle was saying. He meant something far more solemn, something that ought to affect you very much more if you are unsaved. What he was really saying is, “The word of the cross is foolishness to them that are lost” The same Greek word is found in 2 Corinthians 4:3: “If our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost.” Do you realize the solemnity of that? They are not just in danger of being lost by and by. For them it is not just a case of being lost if they persist in rejecting Christ and die in their sins. That would be terrible enough. But Paul’s thought was even more solemn: they are lost.
If the Christ of that cross is not yet your Savior, you are lost. If you get into your car and drive off, you drive off as a lost man or a lost woman; and if there is a crash and you are suddenly ushered into eternity, you go into eternity lost, to be lost forever.
People do not think of these things; they do not face these facts. They say, “I do not understand it at all. The very idea that a man, no matter how good He was, could be nailed to the cross and there make atonement for my sins, is foolish. The idea is repugnant to me.” My response is, “Very well, the Bible says, ‘If our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost.’“ That is why people do not understand; they do not understand because they are lost. What a terrible condition to be in!
Now let’s go back to 1 Corinthians and look at the other side: “But unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” Of whom was Paul speaking? He was speaking of people who once were lost but are now saved. Someone might object, “I do not get that. Don’t you mean they they are in the process of being saved? Nobody can be sure of his final salvation until the day of judgment when at last he stands before God and the question is there definitely decided.” But that is not what the Book teaches; it speaks of people already lost and people already saved. Remember, “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
I am reminded of an old Scottish woman who had always been very religious; she had gone to church all her life and she hoped that at the end of her life she would get dying grace and be fit for Heaven. She went one time to a meeting where two earnest servants of God were preaching and when she came home, her grandchildren said to her, “Well, Grandma, how did you like the preachers?” “Well,” she said, “I could not make them out. The first man got up and talked to folk he said were saved already. He talked to folk who were so good that I did not know there were any of them in our town. And then another man got up and preached to folk who were so wicked that he said they were lost and going to Hell. But there was not one word for me.” She was not lost and she was not saved, according to her own estimation.
But there are just the two classes of people: those who are lost; and “us which are saved”—that is, those who have put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. These have faced their sins in the presence of God and have seen in the work of the cross that which has satisfied God and that in which their hearts can rest. They are saved right here and now.
Years ago my father had an old friend who was a familiar figure in our home when I was a boy. One day after he had been saved for many years someone said to him, “Mr. Ross, do you ever doubt that you are saved? Has the thought ever crossed your mind that you may have been mistaken and that you are not really saved?” He said, “It is strange that you should ask me that question today, for last night when I was on my way to the meeting where I was to preach the gospel, a voice seemed to say to me, ‘Donald Ross, what an old hypocrite you are! You have never been saved at all.’ I could hardly tell whether it was the voice of the devil or the voice of the Lord. I said, ‘Man, could that be true? After years of preaching Christ to others, could it be true that I have never been saved?’ And then I said, ‘Well, Lord, if it is true that I have just been thinking I am saved, I am so thankful that Jesus died for hypocrites, and I come to Him now just as I am.’”
Just as I am, without one plea
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!
That dear old saint said that in a moment the cloud was lifted and he knew that he had been listening to the voice of the devil and not the voice of God.
If you are not sure you are saved, you can lift your heart to God right now and trust the One who died on the cross for you; you can trust Him as your Savior. “Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 13:38).
To us who are saved, the word of the cross is “the power of God.” There is no human energy that converts people; we cannot convert them by using any ability of our own. Somebody said to me a short time ago, “You know Dr. so-and-so, well, he is a grand man of God. He converted me ten years ago.” I know that he meant that when this dear servant of God had presented the gospel, he had believed the gospel, for it is not servants of Christ who do the converting. We cannot save people; we cannot give men peace with God. Here is what happens: a poor, troubled, anxious soul does not know what to do or where to go; suddenly the Spirit of God presents the cross, the fact that on the cross “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3); then faith leaps up in the heart, and the soul says, “Thank God, He died for me!” In a moment that soul passes from death to life. The word of the cross is the power of God.
Sometimes we have to preach about a great many other things, but in a sense I begrudge the time that has to be given to other subjects when I think of men who might be sitting before me who have not seen the truth as it is in Christ Jesus. The word of the cross writes “folly” over everything of the natural mind.
Referring to Isaiah 29:14, the apostle said, “It is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” Men pride themselves in their philosophies, in their reasoning powers, but no philosophy in the world would ever have reasoned out the need of the cross or suggested that only through the death of God’s Son could sinners be saved. Reasoning amounts to nothing in the light of the cross.
“Where is the wise?” Paul asked. “Where is the scribe?” In other words, “Where are the reasoners?” When he mentioned the scribe, he was naturally referring to the Jews, the wise men in Israel who tried to work out a way of salvation through systems and ritual. The apostle brushed them to one side, for they did not know of the word of the cross.
“Where is the disputer of this world?” With this question Paul was referring to the Greek philosophers, proud of their learning, investigating all the various sciences and systems of thought of their day. But not one of them would ever have dreamed of Christ dying on a cross as the means of salvation for sinners. So the apostle said, “Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” Mere wisdom would never have delved into the mystery of the cross.
It is a striking fact that our English word “world” is made to do duty for two Greek words in 1:20. The verse might also be rendered, “Where is the disputer of this age? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” In the first instance the Greek word is aion, “the age,” and in the second instance it is kosmos, this “ordered universe” in which we live. The whole trend of the age is against the word of the cross. The wisdom of this age would never have thought that only by the death of the Son of God on the cross could salvation be worked out.
As far as our explanations of the universe are concerned, the things that men pride themselves in are only foolishness in the sight of God. “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision” (Psalm 2:4). Well might the omnipotent God laugh (I do not say this irreverently) as He hears the ravings of godless professors in our universities, trying to explain the mystery of the universe as they measure everything by their own little twelve-inch rulers. They delve into things utterly beyond human comprehension and deliberately turn away from the revelation that would make everything plain.
In His wisdom God has permitted man to grope and grope and do his best to find out these hidden mysteries and to come to an end of himself at last. “After that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” What is preaching? It is a simple proclamation, and it has pleased God by what looks to man like foolishness, by the simplicity of making an announcement, to save them that believe.
I stand up in the name of the God of Heaven and declare that “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” (15:3-4). The world says, “Foolishness! You could not prove that if you had to.” No, I could not; but I repeat the announcement: “Christ died for our sins…” And whenever a man is humble enough and lowly enough to believe the announcement, he is saved.
It pleased God by the simplicity of an announcement to save those who believe, but “the Jews require a sign.” In other words, they say, “Give us some evidence that the word of the cross is true; work some miracle.” Now and then people ask me, “If you could work miracles today, wouldn’t it be wonderful?” I do not know that it would. If I had apostolic power and could in front of an audience lay my hands on a poor cripple so that he would leap to his feet well and whole, I imagine large crowds would come to my meetings, but I have never heard of anything like that causing poor sinners to awake and turn to Christ. When the apostles performed miracles, men turned on them and tried to kill them, as in the case of Paul at Lystra.
It is the preaching of the cross that saves. That is what guilty sinners need. “The Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we,” Paul said, “preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” Someone might have asked Paul, “If you know it is a stumblingblock and foolishness, why don’t you serve it up to your audience in such a way as to get rid of those offending elements?” And Paul would have answered, “If I make the message attractive to the natural man, it will not be the means of salvation to sinners.” The preaching of the cross involves the work of the Spirit of God; He must prepare the heart. His work is the effectual call.
There is a general call that goes to all men, and there is an effectual call when the Spirit of God drives the truth home and a man realizes that God is tugging at his heart to draw him to Christ. “Unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.” This was the apostolic message. In Him “are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). That God-given message has the same power today as it did in Paul’s day. We are to preach it in dependence on the Holy Spirit.
Christy the Wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:25-31)
“The foolishness of God is wiser than men.” What a striking expression—“the foolishness of God”! I remember on one occasion a friend of mine, a very faithful preacher, advertised on a large signboard in a Canadian city that he would preach on these words. He was almost immediately summoned before the magistrate and asked if he knew that there was a law in Ontario against blasphemy. He had to explain that the topic advertised was simply a quotation from Holy Scripture.
The expression of course is akin to “the foolishness of preaching” (1:21), which as previously suggested might be rendered “the simplicity of preaching”; and so here in 1:25 we learn that the “simplicity” of God is wiser than men. Paul was saying that the program of the gospel, which seems so simple to the worldly-wise, is actually the source of all wisdom and is wiser far than all of man’s philosophies.
The apostle went on to say that “the weakness of God is stronger than men.” The weakness of God refers to the cross. Christ was crucified through weakness. He, the omnipotent One, chose in infinite grace to take the place of a helpless prisoner in the hands of His enemies. At any moment He might have destroyed them by His power or, if He was still to stay in the place of weakness, He could have prayed for help from above and twelve legions of angels would have been sent to rescue Him. But He did neither. “He humbled himself, and became obedient unto death” (Philippians 2:8), “that through death he might destroy him that [up to that time] had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14).
The believer’s calling is brought out very effectively in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29. In making up the members of the body of Christ, God has not chosen many from among the wise, the mighty, the noble, or the great men of this world. Lady Huntingdon, who was a friend of Whitefield and the Wesleys and took an active part in the great revival movement of their day, used to say that she was only going to Heaven by an “m.” When someone asked her what she meant, she stated that she was so thankful that Scripture does not say, “Not any noble are called.” It says, “Not many noble” (italics added), and therefore she got in by an “m.”
Had God selected those whom the world admires to be the pillars of His church, to a large extent He would have destroyed the very thing He had in view, for it was His desire to demonstrate the results of His grace. He works not with what He finds, but with what He brings. He delights to take up those whom the world looks down on and make them devoted saints and faithful servants who will “be to the praise of his glory” throughout all the ages to come (Ephesians 1:12). So we read that “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.” He has in His sovereign grace taken up “the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.” Paul went on to say that “base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are.”
Look back over the history of the Christian church. What wondrous stories it tells of grace reaching down to the lowest, the poorest, the most insignificant, and bringing such to repentance; grace creating faith in their souls by the word of truth of the gospel; grace regenerating them, justifying them from all blame; grace sanctifying them by the Holy Spirit and the Word, and then sending them out as ambassadors for Christ to turn the world upside down by the simplicity of preaching the message of the cross. The early followers of the Lord Jesus Christ were, with very few exceptions, men from the lower walks of life: fishermen, tax-collectors, Galilean peasants! Judas from Judea was the only “gentleman” in the entire apostolic band—he was the treasurer of the little company—and he turned traitor. God filled those men from the common walks of life with the power of His Holy Spirit and through them won thousands more to a saving knowledge of His Son.
Paul himself stands out in vivid contrast. Whether saved or not, he would have had some great place among the people of his day, but he is the one who wrote the words that we have been considering. He counted himself among “the base things” and the “things which are not” and thanked God that to him was given the opportunity to be used of God “to bring to nought things that are.”
The reason for all this comes out clearly in the succinct statement in 1:29: “That no flesh should glory in his presence.” Had God taken up the wealthy and the powerful, it would have given their abilities prominence in the eyes of men at least, but by choosing the weak He had the greater opportunity to display His own power. In themselves the early believers could accomplish nothing; through Him they did valiantly. Therefore all the glory belongs not to them but to Him. As He said in Isaiah 42:8, “My glory will I not give to another.”
How we need to remind ourselves again and again of these things today! It has always seemed to me that there is so much mawkish sentiment linked with so-called religious leaders, even in the professing church of Christ. It is considered the proper thing to do when presenting teachers and preachers to audiences, to laud them to the skies, to elaborate on their brilliancy and learning and wonderful personality—until I myself have often felt grieved and shocked and thoroughly ashamed as I listened to such laudations. One cannot imagine the apostle Peter so introducing his beloved brother Paul, nor can one think of Paul presenting Epaphroditus, Titus, or Timothy in such a manner to those to whom they were to preach. Paul did indeed say the kindest things about these fellow laborers, for he loved them truly and was grateful to God for all their good traits; but as he spoke of them, he dwelled not on their ability or personality or charm or wonderful gifts, but on their devotedness to Christ in suffering for His name’s sake. Surely there is a lesson in all this for us. If we give to man the glory that belongs to God alone, we may be certain that we will incur divine displeasure.
Let us now consider 1 Corinthians 1:30, and as I quote this wonderful verse, let me make a slight change from the text of our splendid King James version, a change that I believe any scholar will recognize as warranted by the original text. The change brings out more vividly the actual truth that the apostle meant to set forth: “But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom: even righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.” Paul was telling us not that Christ is made four things to the believer, but that Christ is made one thing to the believer, and out of this one three others spring. Christ is made unto us wisdom. He Himself is the wisdom of God. He is the One “in whom,” as we have seen in Colossians 2:3, “are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
People often speak of the “problem of Jesus,” the “problem of Christ.” There is no problem of Christ. Christ is not a problem; He it is who explains every problem. Listen to that poor sinful Samaritan woman at the well. She had many questions over which she had puzzled for years. As she conversed with the Lord Jesus, the conviction evidently grew in her that here was One whose wisdom was superhuman. Timidly, and yet hopefully I am sure, she exclaimed, “I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things.” No doubt the thought in her mind was this: Oh, if I could only see Him. If He could come in my day, I would go to Him with all my cares, with all my problems and perplexities, and He would explain everything.
Jesus, looking at her with those kindly eyes of His (they had already seen into the very depths of her soul), answered, “I that speak unto thee am he” (John 4:25-26). Startled, she looked at Him again and feasted her own eyes on that wonderful face until she was absolutely convinced that the words He had spoken were true. One might have expected a torrent of questions, but no—she had found the Messiah and every problem was settled. Away she went to the city to call others to meet Him too. And so I say again, there is no problem of Christ; Christ is the key to every problem. To know Him is to have all the knowledge that is really worthwhile.
Returning to 1 Corinthians 1:30, we read that we who are saved are in Him—”in Christ Jesus.” Paul used that remarkable phrase over and over again. It speaks of our new standing before God. It tells of the intimate union that exists between the risen Lord and all His own. In Him there is no condemnation. In Him—in all His own blessed perfection—we are acceptable to God. And God has made Him to be our wisdom. Everything we need for our souls’ deliverance is found in the knowledge of Christ. Our righteousness, our sanctification, our redemption—all are found in Him.
We have no righteousness of our own, for “it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). We have learned that all that we thought to be righteousness is like polluted rags in the sight of an infinitely holy God. But He has set forth the risen Christ, who once bore our sins “in his own body on the tree,” as the expression of the righteousness of God, and we are “made the righteousness of God in him” (1 Peter 2:24; 2 Corinthians 5:21). “This is his name whereby he shall be called, the Lord our Righteousness [Jehovah-tsidkenu]” (Jeremiah 23:6), and so we stand before God in a perfect, unchallenged righteousness, complete in Christ.
Our sanctification is also found in Him, whether we think of it as practical or positional. To be sanctified is to be set apart. For us of course, to be sanctified means to be set apart for God, set apart in all the perfection of Christ’s finished work. This is our positional sanctification. Our practical sanctification involves being set apart from the sin, pollution, uncleanness, and corruption that prevails in this world, as the Word of God is applied to our lives. Our Lord prayed, “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth” (John 17:17). It is as our hearts are taken up with Christ that we will know the reality of this.
Our redemption is found in Him as well. We who had sold ourselves for nought have been redeemed without money. We “were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold,.. .but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18-19). He gave Himself for us; His life was the price of our redemption. His life was given up to death so that we might be delivered from the fear of death and enter into life eternal. We have everything in Jesus, and Jesus is everything to us.
And so we have nothing for which we can give ourselves credit. Therefore, as Paul reminded the Corinthians, “He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.” Like David, each one of us can exclaim, “My soul shall make her boast in the Lord” (Psalm 34:2). John Allen, the converted railroad section hand who was one of the first officers of The Salvation Army, declared as he was dying, “I deserve to be damned; I deserve to be in Hell; but God interfered!” Yes, and each redeemed one may say the same. The sinning was ours, the disobedience was ours; the curse, the wrath, the judgment—all were our desert. The holiness is His; the perfect obedience unto death is His. He became a curse for us; He drained the cup of wrath for us; He bore the judgment for us. Thus He has become in very truth our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, and to Him belongs all the glory now and through eternal ages.