RPM, Volume 12, Number 20, May 16 to May 22 2010

1 Corinthians 1:26-31

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

We are continuing this morning in our study of the letter called First Corinthians, picking up where we left off at verse 26 of chapter 1. If you remember from last week we saw how God has accomplished salvation through the life, death and resurrection of Christ and how the power of that is made contemporary for God's people through the on-going proclamation of the Gospel. Further, we saw that both the message and the method of God's bringing about this salvation are things that the world considers to be offensive, foolish, weak, unwanted, and unimpressive - and yet they remain the very power of God for salvation.

In the passage before us this morning, Paul continues with this same sort of theme: contrasting wisdom and foolishness - this time focusing not on the Gospel message itself but on what you might call the Gospel product - i.e., the people who have responded to God's calling through the preaching of the Gospel. As we will see in greater detail in a moment, the people of God, like the Gospel itself, are also part of God's means and method of showing up the world in all its so-called wisdom and power and influence.

And, taking a step back, please notice how both the passage before us this morning - dealing with the people of God - and the passage before us last week - dealing with the Gospel of God - both of these passages are part of Paul's response to the problem of divisiveness - which we saw in verses 10-17. You see, at the root of their problem of dividing over personalities was a great deal of pride and boasting and worldliness that had crept into the church. And so Paul's reminder that they are servants of a "foolish message" delivered through a "foolish method" is one way in which he is dealing with their worldliness.

In the verses before us this morning, he makes another assault on their worldly pride, firstly by getting them to take an honest look at this ragged little band of believers called "the church" and then, in conjunction with that, by reminding them that it is God and God alone who is the source of their life in Jesus Christ. With that as a very brief introduction to this morning's message, let's pause at the beginning to ask God the Holy Spirit to come and be our teacher, let's pray...

(Read 1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

Without mincing words, without pulling any punches, Paul provides the Corinthians with a very sobering, very UN-flattering description of themselves. He asks them to consider the circumstances of their own calling, to think about what kind of people they were when they first responded to the Gospel. As Paul's words seem to make pretty clear - if the Corinthians were honest with themselves they would have to admit that weren't a particularly impressive group of people. Very few of them were people whom Corinthian society would have considered to be wise, or powerful, or noble. To be sure, there were some wealthy Christians among them. There were some who perhaps were once, and maybe still are, people of reputation. There were perhaps a few who once held the reigns of power, and who may still have some attachments to all of that.

But by and large, the overwhelming majority of people in the Corinthian church were those who would have been considered "nobodies" by the rest of the culture. "Not many were wise", says Paul, "not many were powerful" - "not many were of noble birth" - "God chose what is foolish" - "God chose what is weak" - "God chose what is low and despised" - Now there's a pretty flattering description of God's people for you!

Indeed, it was this very fact, that Christianity had spread so rapidly amongst those who were considered the "riffraff' of society - it was that fact which was the source of much of the criticism of Christianity by its detractors. For example, listen to the words of a man named Celsus, who wrote against the church around the year 150 AD, about 100 years after Paul ministered in Corinth. Please note: These words were not written about the Corinthian Church, per se, but nevertheless they are aimed at the church in general and are a clear demonstration that the pattern in Corinth 100 years before was, in fact, the pattern that still characterized the church as a whole. Listen to what Celsus said:

Let no one educated, no one wise, no one sensible draw near... But as for anyone ignorant, anyone stupid, anyone uneducated, anyone who is a child, let him come boldly. By the fact that they themselves admit that these [kinds of] people are worthy of their God, they show that they are able to convince only the foolish, dishonorable and stupid, and only slaves, women and children....
Critics like Celsus looked at the composition of the church and mocked it. But, as Gordon Fee writes:
....what Celsus saw as the shame of Christianity, Paul saw as its greater glory. By bringing "good news to the poor" through his Son, God has forever aligned himself with the disenfranchised ... It is not that God cannot or will not save the affluent. But for Paul, the glory of the gospel does not lie there; rather it lies in his mercy toward the very people whom most of the affluent tend to write off - the foolish, the weak, the despised...
So, the Corinthian church was not made up of a bunch of impressive people but by people whom society would have regarded as anything but impressive. And this was not simply a result of sociological factors but was, in fact, a result of God's plan and purposes for his church all along - to choose the very people that the world counts as nobodies in order to bring to nothing those whom the world highly esteems - to show that all their so-called wisdom and power and influence amounted to nothing in the end because it did not lead them to God. That was God's plan and purpose in Corinth and it is still God's plan and purpose for his church today.

That being the case, there are a number of implications which flow from that, some of which we would do well to consider. Firstly, notice that Paul describes the Corinthians as those who were not wise, not powerful and not noble according to worldly standards. In other words, the Corinthian believers were considered to be losers - true enough, but just because they were considered to be losers by the world does not mean that they actually were. Far from it.

They may not have had a lot of "worldly" wisdom but they did possess a deeper wisdom, and had access to a greater power and could claim a more lasting nobility than any of their detractors.

However, it was precisely because their wisdom was not "of this world" that it was considered to be so meaningless by the world. And this is something that God's people in every age must learn to come to grips with, especially as we wage our daily battles against human pride. We have to deal with the fact that we are not considered, and may never be considered, wise, powerful, and influential in the eyes of the world. We may never get invited to be part of the inner circle. And you need to ask yourself, " Am I prepared to live with that? Can I be okay with that?

Now, for a lot of people this is no issue at all. But for many Christians, not being seen as wise or powerful in the world's eyes is a struggle. Not being an insider is a real challenge and even a cause of real sadness and loss. Why? Because there is a part of us that struggles with accepting that God's approval and God's perspective on us is enough.

But why is that the case? It seems to me that it's because, if we're honest, we would admit that sometimes God seems so distant - so abstract. And the reality is, there is something to that. Jesus - who remains both divine and human is not here, at least not in body, in the same way that other people all around us are physically here. We can reach out and touch them. We can look them in the eyes and receive handshakes and hugs and hear audible words of affirmation in a way that we cannot with Jesus - not yet at least, and certainly not directly. And there's a real longing that and expectation that results from that, which in one sense is not a bad thing as it keeps us leaning forward, looking for the return of the Lord Jesus.

To be sure, we can and do experience something of the nearness of God and the proximity of Jesus now - tangibly and practically - through his people, his body, the Church. No question about it. And we have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, which is another discussion altogether.

Nevertheless, if we are honest then we have to admit that sometimes we struggle to be content with where we are at the moment and to see these things with the eyes of faith. And we have a hard time being patient and willing to wait for that day when we will know fully and experientially what we now know in only a partial sense, at best.

So what do we do with that? We pray. We make these things the subject of our ongoing conversation with God. We need to regularly, and honestly, acknowledge the struggle that it sometime is for us. We need to openly confess our impatience and desire to substitute the admittedly mediate and partial experience of the sufficiency of God's love for a more immediate, lesser, worldly, and yet, ultimately, dissatisfying alternative. And we need to ask the Lord Jesus to help us with our unbelief and to help us to believe that, borrowing from John Piper, the future promised by God is greater than any other future on offer.

A second implication that flows from the reality that God typically chooses those whom the world does not esteem is this: It should cause us to see worldly values as God sees them instead of robotically and uncritically, adopting them, as we often do and, even further, of actually being envious of them.

One example that well illustrates the church's ongoing problem in this area is to watch what happens when a so-called "famous" person has some crisis experience and then makes some sort of "profession" of faith. When this kind of thing happens, as it does from time to time, it becomes almost comical to watch the way that some Christians will fall all over themselves trying to get next to this "famous" person. And then what is comic becomes truly tragic as Christian leaders, who ought to know better, grant these "celebrity Christians", who are barely a few weeks old in the faith (if indeed they are converted at all) an opportunity to serve as a spokespersons for the Gospel.

And the sad result of this - not always, but often - is that these same people end up saying some of the most outrageous and, frankly, unhelpful things in newspapers, on television, on the radio, on the internet - wherever. This then leads to a huge mess as some - typically immature believers - take what they have said to heart, while other more mature believers, compelled by their own conscience, feel a need to try and undo the damage that has been done and end up saying things that are un-kind or which are perceived as divisive - and which the press then takes and has a field day with.

A slightly different version of this is when we practice "celebrity evangelism" - bringing in a person of reputation to explain the Gospel because we feel that somehow evangelism works better when it is done by famous people and/or by funny people. This sort of thing goes on all the time, but why? Why is the church so susceptible to this? Because we are still enamored with worldly power and worldly values. Because there is a part of us that envies the power and influence that the world has to offer but which God has purposed to bring to nothing.

A third implication that flows from all this is that we need to accept both the challenge and the encouragement that these verses offer to us as a congregation which, I believe, truly desires to reflect and honor God and the purposes of our God for his creation. These verses force us to ask, and begin seeking the answer to, some very important questions.

You see, if God's agenda was to use the " nobodies" of the world to shame the "somebodies" then how does our church match up against that? If that is God's ongoing agenda, his ongoing method of operation, then what does that say about us and what may or may not be going on in this place? Is THAT agenda evident in THIS congregation? In other words, we need to ask ourselves the question, "Who's NOT here, this morning?"

By that, I don't just mean the people who are out of town or sick. And don't get me wrong. Obviously, we are concerned about those people, but that's not what I'm asking here. There are all sorts of classes and groups and sub-groups of people in South Baton Rouge. Where are they? Are they here?

If Paul were to stand amongst us this morning, having a good grasp of what South Baton Rouge is like - would Paul stand in the midst of this congregation and describe us as a church that includes those who are perceived by this culture as "weak", "not wise", "not powerful", "low and despised" and "things that are not"? Would Paul be using those words as a general description of at least some of the demographic of this church? Or would he use other words? And if so, what does that all mean? When one commentator described the evangelical Christianity of our day as "the suburban captivity of the church" - was he talking about us?

We need to ask ourselves, and keep asking ourselves, the uncomfortable question, "who's NOT here ... and why?"

Now, having said that, please hear me. Please don't go home and beat yourselves up, wrestling with this question. That's not my intention in asking it. And, frankly, I struggled over whether or not I should even ask it. Because I know you guys take this very seriously. I know that many of you feel very deeply the conviction of God's Word on these and other issues. And as your pastor I am very encouraged with the way I see God gently but steadily working on the hearts of so many of you. And so I raise these issues, not to bury you under a pile of convictions, but to make sure that we keep asking ourselves this question, because the congregation we are right now is not, by God's grace, the congregation we one day will be.

However, and at the risk of beating a dead horse, let me just say that while I think we can certainly look around and say that there are some "missing persons" in our congregation, the reality is that we do already resemble the Corinthian congregation, at least in some respects. I mean, let's be honest here. We're NOT the powerful people of Baton Rouge, are we? None of us here are the real movers and shakers in this city, nor are we the darlings of society or part of the local "nobility". Those people aren't here either. There are all sorts of "influential" and "powerful" people who just aren't here, which means that, at the end of the day, we're a congregation of pretty ordinary, not terribly impressive people, at least by the world's standards.

Perhaps as you reflect on that, you might be tempted, from time to time, to get discouraged. You might wonder how an organization filled with so many persons of lesser-influence will ever get anywhere. You might wonder if God will ever accomplish anything through a church like this.

Years ago, a man named Martin Bell, wrote a little piece of prose called "Rag-Tag Army", some aspects with which I would disagree, and yet there is a ring of truth about it which resonates with what Paul is saying in these verses:

[Look at God's] rag-tag little army! All he has for soldiers are you and me. Dumb little army. Listen! The drum beat isn't even regular. Everyone is out of step. And there! Yousee? God keeps stopping along the way to pick up one of his tinier soldiers who decided to wander off and play with a frog, or run in a field, or whose foot got tangled in the underbrush. He'll never get anywhere that way. And yet the march goes on.... Do you see how the marchers have broken up into little groups? Look at that group up near the front. Now, there's a snappy outfit. They all look pretty much alike - at least they're in step with each other. That's something. Only they're not wearing their shoes. They're carrying them in their hands. Silly little band. They won't get far before God will have to stop again. Or how about that other group over there? They're all holding hands as they march. The only trouble with this is the people at the end of the line. Pretty soon they realize that one of their hands isn't holding onto anything - one hand is reaching, empty, alone. And so they hold hands with each other, and everybody [then] marches around in circles. The more people holding hands, the bigger the circle. And, of course, a bigger circle is deceptive because as we march along it looks like we're going someplace, but we're not. And so God must stop again. You see what I mean? He'll never get anywhere that way...
Do you ever feel like that? When you look around at the church, are you discouraged because sometimes that's all it looks like - a Rag-Tag Army, a society of misfits and underachievers who couldn't make the grade somewhere else so they all ended up here? Do you wonder how God is ever going to accomplish anything with a church full of people like that, like you?

I'm not just talking about the "you" that you present here, all prim and proper, on Sunday morning. I'm talking about the "you" behind the mask of fear and fakery, and which nobody else sees, except God and yourself. Do you wonder how God is ever going to accomplish anything with an organization full of people like you - with all your struggles and failings?

If you do, take heart. This is God's specialty. This is God's plan and purpose. This is exactly what he intended to do from the very beginning - to set his love on the unlovely, to redeem the unredeemable, to forgive the forsaken, to embrace the outcast and then, by bringing them all together and uniting them to the person of his Son - to make them into one body, one Church, that, one day, is dazzling in its brilliance and spectacular in its beauty and is absolutely radiant as it perfectly reflects the glory of its Creator. So, take heart. Be encouraged...

Well, in addition to addressing the Corinthian pride and worldliness by getting them to take an honest look at themselves, there is one more thing I want you to see here and it is the additional way that Paul addresses their worldliness: By reminding them that their being saved was the result of God's sovereign choice and Christ's Saving Work. Notice Paul's deliberate and pointed language throughout this section:

v26 - For consider your calling, brothers... (referring to the action of God in drawing them to himself)...

v27 - 29 - God chose ... God chose ... God chose ... so that no human being might boast in the presence of God...

What might a person boast about in God's presence? Well, in the context of the passage, the boasting person would claim that there was something within himself that was commendable to God - some inherent quality, some meritorious action - but Paul says that God's intention was to set apart his people and to save them in such a way that there could be no possible grounds for such boasting on their part. Consider these verses as well,
v30 - He [God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus...

v31 - Therefore ..... Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord...

Clearly, Paul's intention here is to underscore the fact that God is the active and responsible agent in the salvation of His people and they can take no credit for that in any way.

As if that was not enough, Paul further highlights this sovereign action of God by reminding the Corinthians, once again, that Christ is the one who has been made our wisdom and our righteousness and our sanctification, and redemption. And Paul's language here is important. You see, while we typically talk about Jesus being the source of our wisdom, or bringing about our righteousness and sanctification and redemption, this passage is not saying things quite like that - it is saying that Jesus IS our righteousness and IS our sanctification and IS our redemption. It is emphasizing what God did in and through Jesus, to make these things a reality.

Yes, he does bring these things about for us, but it is the way he brings these things about that Paul is emphasizing here. Jesus brings about our salvation by accomplishing it himself, through the cross. And the means, then, by which that becomes effective for us is through our union with Christ. Because we are "in Christ", as Paul says in vs 30, because we are "united with him in his death and resurrection" as Paul elsewhere describes it - then we benefit by what he did, in our place. And this being united to him, being "in him", as Paul so frequently puts it, is all related back to what we've already seen - God's sovereign choice to so unite us to Christ.

So Jesus truly is our wisdom - through him we "know" God; He is our righteousness - through Him we are made right with God; He is our sanctification - because of Him, we are now set apart as the people of God which is what "sanctification" here refers to; and He is our redemption - he has delivered us from slavery to sin and death. Indeed, it is because our salvation is like that, it is because it is such a complete and sovereign act of God's mercy that Paul is driven to say, in verse 3l, therefore - "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."

Now, as before, there are a number of implications which follow on from this but, for the sake of time, I want to briefly draw your attention to just one and it is this: This truth about the sovereignty and the completeness of God's salvation of his people is one which we should gladly proclaim and celebrate and defend in the church today.

We talk a lot about how people need to respond to the Gospel - which is great. People do need to respond to the Gospel. So we need to keep encouraging people to do this. Absolutely.

But we also need to talk about why people actually do respond to the Gospel - that is, we need to see the willing embrace of the Gospel by the repentant sinner as the final and necessary outworking of a salvation that is completely and utterly the work of God and which leaves no room whatsoever for human boasting.

All too often we start people out at the end of the process - where God has already awakened them, by his Spirit, such that there is now an awareness of sin and, correspondingly, an awareness of the need of a Savior. Now, again, this is all fine and good. But what we then fail to do is to come back later on and people the bigger picture of which their conviction of sin, repentance and faith was only a small part. We shy away from truths like God's sovereignty in salvation and we sort of whisper these things amongst ourselves and kept them as sort of the "fine print" at the bottom of the page, almost as if we were ashamed to admit them. We avoid using the "p" word (predestination) or the "e" word (election) when in polite company because we don't want to offend.

Well friends, when we do those sorts of things, we are trying to be more biblical than the Bible. We are being hesitant to speak about things which are clearly taught in Scripture and about which Paul spoke boldly and frequently.

Now, am I saying we need to have a "bull in the china shop" approach to these things? Am I saying that we are to uncritically and in-cautiously just inflict these things upon people at any and every opportunity? Am I saying that there is no need for discernment or pastoral sensitivity? Of course not!

Nevertheless, I am saying that we need to stop apologizing for the fact that we believe in the absolute Sovereignty of God in the salvation of His people. And we need to stop treating it as if it is something which we only half believe or as if it is some sort of sub-Christian truth to which we only give partial assent. Friends, it's NOT a secondary, peripheral truth. It's an essential truth. Even more it is the only truth that, as Paul shows here, will leave people with absolutely no ground for boasting in the presence of God and which, as a result, will lead them to boast only in the Lord. And that, according to Paul, is an essential ingredient for addressing the divisions in the Corinthian church.

If it is an essential ingredient for addressing division in the Corinthian church, then it is an essential ingredient for preventing division within the church today. Contrary to popular opinion, we don't need to talk about this less. We need to talk about it more.

So, if I had to summarize this passage briefly, it would go something like this: An honest understanding of who we really are and the sobering reality of how God has sovereignly saved us ought to forever cure us of boasting about ourselves or other people and what we have done and instead cause us to boast only about God and what He has done. To the extent that we do this, to that extent the unity of the church will be promoted. To the extent that we do not do these things, unity in the church will continue to be an elusive dream.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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