Aberystwyth 2007  Christ’s Church at the Crossroads (1 & 2)
This is the second of three articles1 reporting on the 2007 Annual Conference of the Evangelical Movement of Wales held in Aberystwyth in August. Edward Donnelly gave the four morning addresses on the opening two chapters of the First letter of Paul to the Corinthians. It was the third time he had spoken at the conference. The following is my summary of his first two messages (which have not been checked by Edward; the mistakes are all mine). – Geoff Thomas
To make a wrong choice is serious, and 20th-century churches are doing this. They are looking at two options; one road looks narrow while the other looks smooth and wide, and there are many on it. It seems the easy choice, but it is the wrong choice. Many congregations are choosing this wrong road even though their motives are good – to win a hearing and reach people with the gospel. In doing so they are taking the road of their instincts rather than the one directed by the map of Scripture. Influencing the world by becoming like it is the choice they have made rather than influencing it by being different from it. Many stifle their doubts by going ever faster and with more jolly enthusiasm. Churches that want to reach the one true destination face a choice that has to be made and renewed week by week. I want to encourage you from the Word to stay on the right road if you are indeed on it, and to turn back if you are not on it.
What a relevant and stunningly contemporary letter is Paul’s First epistle to the Corinthians. Corinth was amongst the largest cities in the Roman Empire with a population of 750,000 people – a modern urban society with entertainment, trade unions, leisure centres, luxury goods from all over the world, many immigrants – a real multi-cultural society. You could have found every kind of restaurant on the seafront. There were temples serving many gods and lords. It was a morally permissive city; there are grim evidences of the effects of sexually transmitted diseases on skeletons in the museum in Corinth today. Paul is writing to Christians facing pressures like our own. How close we are to them, and so similar! They were confused as Christians as to who they were, and how to communicate to the people in the world around them and so Paul wrote this letter. He begins by examining…
The Identity of the Church (1 Corinthians 1:1-9)
The first three verses contain the greeting, and the next six verses express Paul’s thanksgiving, and in this section Paul sets the key notes for what he intends to say in the whole letter. There were two sides to this congregation. It had both many gifts and many problems. It was both a marvel and a mess. The apostle needed to address directly these problems. How does he go about this? Does he criticise … ‘here’s what’s wrong and this needs to be put right’? No, he is too wise for that. When your child is giving you concern because of being strong-willed and immature you need much tact to speak to him. So in these opening verses there is a subtle mixture of praise and correction. We meet from the start of the letter encouraging affirmation and tactful redirection.
A] ENCOURAGING AFFIRMATION
The opening word of the letter is ‘Paul.’ The Corinthians knew him well. He had come to Corinth with the gospel; and our brother Sosthenes, someone also well known to them. His longing was that they had ‘grace and peace’ – the Greek and Hebrew greetings of the day are conjoined. ‘Grace and peace’ – that is all a human being wants. May that fill your heart and life – ‘grace and peace.’ Then Paul continually gives thanks for them. ‘I pray for you, and when I go on my knees I pray with joy; “thank you Lord for those people in Corinth.”‘ We can’t help loving those who pray regularly for us. Pray for people you have problems with every day for a month and then what a change you will see in the relationship. The testimony of Christ was confirmed among them when Paul came and preached to them and they believed. It is easier to have faith in a man whom we consider to be genuinely well disposed towards us. Paul seeks to win them and have his heart open to them.
What was the identity of these people? They were ‘the church of God in Corinth.’ The church of God with its many weaknesses, but Paul saw them first and foremost as the assembly of the Lord. He gives them the old title of honour and privilege. He is concerned to remind them who and what they are as the assembly of God ‘in Corinth’ – in that immoral city. What a joyful paradox! We cannot expect perfection in the church while it exists in the world. We should give close attention to these words, ‘the church of God in Corinth‘ lest we expect a spotless church and then are disappointed. We can easily dismiss many of the bodies of God’s people.
They are ‘sanctified in Christ Jesus.’ Paul is referring to what we call ‘definitive sanctification’. They have been set apart because they are in Christ. They are a special people, set apart unchangeably and for ever, a distinct people. He also affirms their giftedness, that in every way they were gifted. He is not speaking of them as individuals, but as a congregation, one richly endowed for serving God. They were oozing with talent, coming short in nothing. Significantly Paul commends their gifts rather than their graces. He thanks God for the faith and love of other congregations to whom he writes, but for this church he emphasizes their gifts.
Jesus will sustain them to the end, confirming, making steadfast, setting them on a rock, so that they will not fall. Christ will confirm them guiltless in the day of judgment, with no accusation levelled against them, unimpeachable before God’s throne. How positively he affirms them. Are you suspicious about affirming others? Are you slow in giving praise? My own culture was suspicious of praise; fathers of my parents’ generation were slow in praising children lest they became proud. We tend to look at the problems in people and we don’t see what God has already done for them. God loves these people and they are such special people, kept to eternity. Every word is true. How their hearts must have been warmed in this way.
B] TACTFUL REDIRECTION
They are under the authority of Paul who is a ‘called apostle’; in reminding them of that there is firmness, strength and affirmation. ‘Remember who I am,’ he is hinting. Later he underlines this, ‘Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Christ?’ He is conscious that he is bringing to them God’s Word. At the beginning he stamps his God-given authority on what he says.
They are part of a wider church – the church of God in Corinth. In an earlier letter he addresses the church of the Thessalonians, but he does not write ‘to the church of the Corinthians’ but the church of God in Corinth. They were beginning to regard the church as theirs. No it is not, it is God’s church, and we are not to do with his church as we are pleased. It is not ours. I cannot be invited into your home and proceed to rearrange your furniture. The church does not begin or end with the people. There is a big church out there and each congregation has a responsibility to the whole body. They cannot go on their own merry way, no, they are part of the catholic and universal church. There are many people who follow Christ, those who follow the Lord, and they are part of the wider church. They are all indebted to grace. He gives thanks to God for them because of the grace of God they’ve had in Christ Jesus. Thank God for his mercy. Don’t be full of yourself because it is all God’s doings. You were enriched in every way by him. They once had nothing; they were beggars, and now God has enriched them. It is all God’s works and actions, even to speech and knowledge – these are all God’s gifts. Even that phrase in verse nine, ‘You are not lacking in any spiritual gift’ – may be a pin pricking their pride in their gifts; it is certainly a low-term comment. They are not yet in heaven. They were starting to think that they were. Wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, he was saying. There is the ‘not yet,’ of Christian hope, and so the struggle and tension and groaning and longing and expecting. Paul is lifting their eyes to heaven.
They are dependent on God who is the one who will confirm them to the end. If you are persevering it is due to daily, life-long upholding of the Lord Jesus. All our perseverance is because of his sustaining us as our faithful God. In this God who saves and keeps us is our confidence.
They are called to obedience. Practical Christian living seems to have been neglected. So Paul reminds them that they were called to be saints. ‘You were called to be holy men and women by God into the fellowship of his son.’ The apostle portrays their lives as ones of constant communion with the Lord Jesus, the one in whose presence no sin can dwell. The redirection here is through apostolic authority. God’s grace has made them debtors and they are called to daily obedience. How gently devastating is his redirection.
If the Corinthians had heeded this then their lives would have been transformed. If the church is to be strong and healthy it needs redirection. Apostolic authority was under threat. God’s Word was being pushed to one side. Many parts of the church disregard historic Christianity. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura has gone in many places and ‘solo’ scripture replaces it, that is, ‘I interpret the Bible in my way, without any reference to anyone else. Just me.’ There is a complacency in today’s church; we see some preachers who are grinning all the time, whereas every preacher is dependent on God for any God-honouring effect. This is an era of shoddy ethics – professing believers live no differently from the world. Our forefathers might have had a list of dos and don’ts, but our forefathers did pray to be holy. That passion is being lost in the contemporary church.
As I prepared this message I asked myself who would be the people who would listen to it. Those who need redirecting or reaffirming? Most of us need comfort and assurance. We try to be faithful and godly, but we are disappointed in our hearts. We seem to be ineffective and our expectations are low. We go through the motions and we settle in the status quo. Paul would remind each of our congregations that no matter how small and elderly our congregations may be we are the church of God. We are set apart and glorious. It is not possessing a great building that is the glory of a congregation but that in it God’s love and concern are focused on these people. You are secure in Christ and you are destined to stand before God in the last day in the church which is God’s. He looks down now from heaven with love and joy and the angels marvel. God has something for your church to do however small. We matter to God. Remember that we are all part of the powerful church universal, the company of the people of God throughout the ages. In the communion of saints there are millions joining with us in worship today; we are one with them. How significant the church of Christ is! Understanding it will give us confidence to choose the right path, which is God’s path.
The most serious crossroads that face us are those of life and death, heaven and hell, and all have to make their choice. You have to choose where you are today and also where you are going. And if you do not belong to Christ your Saviour then you are on the wrong road. Perhaps on your road you are silencing your doubts by driving faster. If you go faster do you imagine that the wrong road will become the right road? ‘Look at the map!’ we are told. In other words, turn back to Scripture. Paul is going to point his readers to Christ. How many verses refer to Jesus Christ in these opening nine verses? There are nine references. Paul is going to be bringing people to the Saviour and he begins by piling up the titles of his Saviour. This is the path we must all take; it is all we need to focus on. ‘I am the way,’ Jesus is saying to us.
The Message of the Cross (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)
We have first looked at who we are – ‘saints of God,’ – a rich confirmed status, an inexpressibly wonderful status, and yet ‘the church of God in Corinth’ in a pagan society. We are in such a society as Christ’s ambassadors to display his grace to the world. But the church has always had problems living in the world. If we stay too far from the world and are cut off from it we’ll find ourselves unable to influence it. That may be a problem with some of our churches. They seem to have no awareness of the tide of humanity lapping around their doors, and the community does not know who they are. The other extreme is to go too much into the world and become like it. On one hand not getting involved in the world at all, the salt kept in a salt cellar; on the other hand becoming indistinguishable from the world. We can actually do both disastrously, becoming worldly in our interaction with one another and yet not touch the world.
The church at Corinth was much closer to being sucked into the world, even to doing the things of the world. There were people who became the world’s heroes. The pop stars of this time were the travelling teachers, the sophists. They were highly paid and fanatically supported men and they travelled all over Greece and gave lectures. They were masters of rhetoric, such brilliant men that they could change sides in the middle of a speech. What was said was not as important as how it was said. So the Corinthian church was influenced by that spirit, announcing their support of Paul or Apollos or Peter, and the apostle was horrified; ‘Christ sent me to preach the gospel not with words of eloquent wisdom,’ for then the cross of Christ is emptied of its power. So Paul is concerned to prevent the church copying the world, taking that wrong path at these crossroads. So let us turn to the problem of trying to mix the gospel and the world.
1. The Rejection of the Message.
There is a problem with the Christian message (v. 18); it is folly to those who are perishing. It will always be foolishness to them because of the sort of people they are. Jews demand signs. The Jews had produced some eminent philosophers but at this period they were not interested in philosophy; a movement had spread which expressed a longing to see signs. The Pharisees came to Jesus seeking a sign and the Lord asked them, ‘Why do you seek a sign?’ For them God’s Messiah would validate himself through practical visible blessings. He would drive the Romans out of his land. When Jesus fed 5000 there was an outburst of Messianic enthusiasm; ‘This is the sort of king we want; one who puts food in our bellies.’
The Greeks sought wisdom. They had declined since the fifth century but still had their intellectuals and academics. While Roman authority held the legal power, the cultural life of the empire was Greek. They were up-to-date with scientific developments and philosophies. They loved wisdom. For them any credible faith had to be wise with thought patterns of the day. So there were those two problems with the message.
‘But we preach Christ crucified.’ The apostles stood over against the Greeks and the Jews even though Christ crucified was a stumbling block to them. How shocking it was to the Jews, how blasphemous that the Messiah should be treated like that. God’s chosen One clothed with beauty being ‘crucified’? The word horrified them. People today wear crosses and sentimentalize Golgotha, but in that day crucifixion was a terrifying word speaking of torture and screaming and blood and excrement, a scene of unimaginable horror. The very word ‘cross’ should be far removed from a Roman’s thinking, while a Jew knew that to be hung on a cross was to be cursed. A Messiah crucified was linked to all that was cursed and horrific. It was bound to be a stumbling block to Romans and Jews. How could you have a cursed Messiah? The word Messiah means the blessed one and yet here is one who does not deliver his people or himself from Roman rule or death.
To the Gentiles the gods were untouched by anything that happened in human affairs. They couldn’t be influenced by mortals or they wouldn’t be gods. They were pure spirit and had no contact with anything earthy – in the minds of the Greeks. The body for them was the tomb of the soul and salvation consisted of escaping from the body. The message of the necessity of God being made flesh and dying seemed ridiculous. To proclaim the one on a cross as a divine being seemed utter madness. Folly and a stumbling block are both categories still with us today. ‘Practical’ people are amongst us today. They are interested in the spectacular for its own sake. Anti-Christianity is getting more angry and violent in its opposition; ‘Dawkins examines God in all its forms’ says the blurb on the new Dawkins book.
2. The Purpose of the Message.
It may seem a pity to us that the gospel is so unconvincing. Is it beyond God to devise a message that is more persuasive? And then we would have millions and millions of people becoming Christians every year, but God has a gospel meant to be offensive to the world. It is folly because, as it is written, God is going to destroy the wisdom of the wise. Paul is saying that in the gospel God is doing that again and again, he is contradicting human ways of thinking, to show how futile for salvation the mind of man is. It is majestic far beyond the grasp of the human mind. Salvation is not going to come in any way that enables men to boast of their works. Christ crucified points to our appalling shame and guilt, our utter lostness and inability. Something has been done for us that we could never have done for ourselves. We receive it in simple childlike faith. If they won’t receive it this way they won’t receive it in any way.
Paul asks penetrating questions ‘Where …’ Look at the great people of our day, the business moguls, the chattering classes, the stars, what sort of people are they? Where are they? Do they know how to live? Do you want them as your friends? Will they be steadfast? Do they show admirable character? Do they keep a marriage in being? Why are they admired and why do people hang on to their every word? What are they like? Can they solve the problems of our world? They haven’t a clue. More money and yet more money is what they need.
3. The Power of the Message.
Human wisdom is unnecessary because Christ is both the power and wisdom of God to those who are called. Many accept the gospel not because they are clever or more receptive. It has nothing to do with them at all. They are those who are called – God is showing mercy to them. The only explanation of the difference is that it pleased God to save. Henceforth they look at Christ very differently. He is the power of God. This is the message that transforms people at the deepest most permanent level. Augustine the playboy becomes the theologian … so too John Newton, a slave trader becoming a preacher … Joni Eareckson … a missionary in a wheelchair, and that gospel has changed millions and millions of people throughout history. So we don’t have many but we do have some and they are transformed people. The contrast is great between what they were and what they are now – men reading and living out the Scriptures who once were bad men. To us who are being saved day by day Christ is the power and wisdom of God. What power has there ever been compared to God in Christ revealed in the gospel? What wisdom without any foolishness? Survey the wondrous cross from every angle and as you reflect on it, consider how God can be just and the justifier of the ungodly.
The gospel is simple, yes, and yet one of the greatest intellects the world has ever seen is compelled to fall down and cry out ‘O the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God.’ These Jews are blind to the greatest sign of all. In the National Gallery it is not the paintings that are on trial but the viewers. If you were sitting with a group of people watching a beautiful sunset and yet you couldn’t see anything then if you said, ‘Poor people; they are foolish,’ you would be betraying your blindness. What you should be saying is, ‘Give me sight to see what they are seeing.’ We rarely see God working in converting power today. We want people to believe and so we shall stick with the biblical gospel; to change it is to destroy it. Why would you want to change it? Keep telling the gospel. Don’t lose your nerve, for when it is believed it gives glory to God.
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