Though we’ve only just finished celebrating the coming of our Lord Christ into the world in the form of baby Jesus in a manger, I’ve begun to look ahead to Easter. When I saw that the common lectionary I’ve been using to guide my sermon passages had turned to I Corinthians, I thought it would be interesting to highlight parts of this book over the next few months so that the wonderful resurrection chapter, chapter 15, would coincide and culminate with the celebration of the risen Christ on Easter morning, April 16th.
As is true of many of the books in the New Testament, the book of I Corinthians is an epistle or letter. This particular letter is written by the Apostle Paul to God’s church in Corinth, a city in Greece. And though it starts positively, I imagine this was a difficult letter for Paul to write for in it he will address numerous problems that existed in this church.
To begin Paul follows the practice of the day for writing letters. Whereas we would start with “Dear so-and-so,” during Greco-Roman times it was common practice for the letter-writer to identify himself, indicate the intended audience or recipient, and offer a word of greeting along with a thanksgiving for health or safety, all of which Paul does albeit with a few unique twists. Paul begins by identifying himself and “brother Sosthenes” as the senders of this letter. Though we’re not told anything else about Sosthenes here, it’s possible that he was the synagogue ruler at Corinth mentioned in the book of Acts who was assaulted by Greeks. If he was, he must have become a believer either during the time Paul was preaching at Corinth or during his co-worker Apollos’ ministry there.
As to Paul, he identifies himself as one who has been “called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” As we’ve noted before about Paul, though he was an apostle, he was unlike any of Jesus’ other apostles. Whereas the original twelve were personally called by Jesus to follow him while he was yet alive, and then went on to live closely with him as eyewitnesses to many of the things he said and did, Paul became an apostle after Jesus had died, resurrected, and ascended to heaven. Also unlike the others, Paul was actively persecuting Christians when God in Christ confronted him on the Damascus road, turning his life around once and for all. And Paul never forgot the unusual nature of Christ’s call upon his life. Even near the end of this letter he testifies,
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Paul is “abnormally”—sometimes translated as “untimely” born—he goes on to say in that he does “not even deserve to be called an apostle, because [he] persecuted the church of God.” And yet God in Christ called this killer of Christians to be a key witness and messenger of the good news that the now risen and reigning Christ lived, died, and rose from the dead to bring. However though Paul differed from the original 12 apostles in significant ways, he, like them, was commissioned—was called—by Christ to be his unique representative. As was true of the original 12, Paul too had a unique authority for he, too, was specifically chosen by the risen and eternal Christ to follow him. And hence Paul’s words carried all of the authority that the word “apostle” deserved—a point he will remind the Corinthians about throughout this letter.
Paul continues his greeting in verse 2 by identifying the recipients of this letter, namely, “the church of God in Corinth.” Now Corinth was a commercially and politically thriving city at the time in which Paul was writing. Since it was a crossroads for both travelers and traders, it was a place where many cultures mingled. It was religiously pluralistic, highly interested in Greek philosophy, and highly immoral. One commentator notes that Corinth was so immoral that “to Corinthianize” came to mean “to practice sexual immorality.” So one of the themes we’ll see throughout this letter is how Paul challenges these believers to separate themselves from ungodly cultural practices and to live, instead, like the family of God in Christ that they are—a challenge we as believers have ever needed to be mindful of and encouraged in.
In his opening Paul further specifies that God’s church in Corinth is made up of “those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people.” This seems a bit redundant, doesn’t it? For “to sanctify” means to be set apart from evil and dedicated for God’s holy purposes—which is pretty much what “called to be his holy people” also means. But it may be that this is Paul’s way of considering two sides of the same coin. “To those sanctified in Christ Jesus” indicates that Jesus Christ is the means of our sanctification. Though it’s not as clear in the TNIV translation, this construct is one we’ve seen before. It’s a “divine passive” which literally translates as “those who have been sanctified”—that’s the “passive” part—and they have been sanctified by God—that’s the “divine” part. In other words, it’s because of Christ’s perfect obedience, not ours, that we are holy and thus enabled to be one with our Father in heaven by Christ’s holy Spirit. So those who have been sanctified are being called to live up to this holy status—to this holy call—as God’s holy people. We see a similar usage in the Old Testament with the nation of Israel which was created and called out by God to be his holy people, set apart from other nations, and as such were called to live according to God’s ways. So for both Israel and the Church, who our God is should be made manifest by how we live our lives for we are to live our lives according to his call, his commands, and his instructions which have been left for us in his Word. Because of our union with Christ, we are set aside together to be his holy people; to live as his holy people; to live as those whose lives are marked by the life and teaching of Christ in the way in which we love and serve him, one another, and others.
And notice that the recipients of this letter aren’t the only ones who have been sanctified to be his holy people, but so too are “all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours.” The “all those everywhere” Paul is referring to would have been other believers in Christ who were alive at the time at which Paul is writing. Though Corinth may have been a prominent and important city, the Corinthian believers weren’t thereby themselves more important but rather stood on equal footing with all believers in Christ for all believers in Christ call on the name of one and the same Lord. And I’d like to suggest that in a sense, as Paul is an untimely borne apostle, we might consider ourselves untimely borne Christians whom he is greeting from afar and addressing two thousand years after the fact for we, too, call on and have been sanctified by the same Lord Jesus Christ that Paul knew, loved, and sought to serve.
In verse 3 Paul ends the introductory portion of his letter by stating, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Though this is a common Pauline greeting, it’s also a distinctive one for the word he uses for “grace” is a variation on the usual one for “greetings” so Paul has infused a normal “hello” with a Christian accent. Paul is acknowledging and conveying God’s grace—his unmerited favor in providing us salvation and reconciliation to himself. Too, Paul’s use of “peace” is a Greek form of the Hebrew word shalom. As we’ve noted before, in wishing God’s shalom Paul is wishing them a wholeness of body and soul for the way that things ought to be—the way God intended them to be. And the grace and peace Paul is sending them isn’t from him but “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” This coupling is a reminder not only of the oneness of God—the Father and Son are one—but is also a reminder that Christ’s resurrection from the dead was real and that he is now reigning with the Father over all the world and together they are a means of the grace and peace we all need. To wish God’s grace and peace for one another is a beautiful thing, isn’t it? It’s a reminder that God is for us—that he loves us and in his eternal Son, Jesus Christ, has extended us his unmerited favor and peace even now. But it’s a reminder as well that one day we will experience life as God intended for the victory that Christ accomplished over sin—over death—over the devil—over all forms of evil—will one day be evident for all to see.
Starting with verse 4, we see the final section of the opening of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians as he turns to thanksgiving. Having just blessed them with God’s grace and peace, Paul goes on to say, “I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.” There are many things we can thank God for, aren’t there? We thank him for:
Family—biological and other believers
But how often do we thank him, as Paul is always doing, for the grace God has given in Christ Jesus? Now I think there are times, of course, when we do thank God for someone coming to faith, and rightly so. We all know and love those who, to the best of our knowledge, have not yet expressed a need for or professed faith in Jesus Christ. But Paul says he is always thanking God for the grace he has given. He doesn’t seem to take faith in Christ for granted. And just as we saw that those who have been sanctified was a divine passive in verse 2, so, too, the grace that “has been given” to these believers in verse 4 is similarly a divine passive. So the sense is that the grace has been given by God in his Son, Jesus Christ. This unmerited favor that God gives is something that we, as Paul does, should ever be thanking God for. As Paul was ignorant of his need for Christ until he appeared to Paul, so too we all are ignorant of our need for Christ until by his Holy Spirit he makes it clear to us.
In verses 5–7 Paul goes on to explain: “For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— 6 God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. 7 Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.” Here we have a third divine passive. Not only have these believers in Corinth been sanctified in Christ; not only have they been given God’s grace in Christ; but now we see that they have been enriched in every way in Christ–so much so that they don’t “lack any spiritual gift” as they “eagerly wait for” Christ’s final return to earth as King. As we’ll see in the coming weeks, spiritual gifts are for the sake of living the lives God calls us to live. They are to edify and build up the body of Christ, his Church. What a wonderful reminder we have here that those whom God calls to himself, not just individually but corporately, he will also equip with all they need to live faithfully before him until Christ returns.
Paul reiterates this point as he goes on to say that he is confident that God will help these believers to persevere to that time. In verse 8 he states, “He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In his sermon last week one of the questions Caleb posed to us was whether we believed God’s grace was sufficient not only for our salvation but also for our sanctification—for our being set aside and made holy like Jesus Christ. It’s a great point. It’s important for us to remember the all–sufficiency of God’s grace and Paul is expressing a similar thought—a similar confidence—here as he affirms that God will keep those who are his firm to the end. And that this is also due to his grace is clear because Paul indicates that these believers—the “you” is plural—will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. I don’t know about you, but I don’t always see how I’m blameless now—much less on the day when Christ returns. But that’s part of the joy—it’s part of the good news—of the Gospel, isn’t it? Thank God that it isn’t by our merit or our obedience that we have been given Christ’s Holy Spirit for if that were the case, God would ever be removing himself from us. But he doesn’t because his intimate involvement with our lives is all due to his grace—to the unmerited favor we have received in his Son. In fact the entire reason for Christ’s coming to earth and taking on human form was because he knew that since the time of Adam’s fall, we have been incapable of living the lives he intended us to live; we have been incapable of knowing or experiencing his shalom, his peace. God knew that after the Fall we became creatures who seek to serve ourselves rather than the One in whose image and for whom we were made. So he took drastic measures to overturn and reverse the effects of the Fall. As Adam’s disobedience was imputed—was credited or attributed—to us, making it impossible for us to be righteous, to do right before God by our own attempts, so too was Jesus Christ’s obedience imputed—credited or attributed—to us so that now when God looks upon those who have seen their need and given their lives over to following Jesus Christ, he sees not our inability to obey—or our selfishness—or unkindness—or hypocrisy—or inability in our New Year’s resolve to be better people. No, what God now sees in those who have turned to his Son is a people who because they have accepted Christ’s sacrifice on their behalf are positionally holy and righteous before God even as Christ is. And so he welcomes as his children because we have given our lives over to his Son, Jesus Christ. And in return he has given us his Holy Spirit to indwell us that we might ever be one with him, not only now but for all eternity.
What an irony this is—we who were born marred by the stain of Adam’s blood, which stain we could never cleanse on our own or by means of our own attempts, have now ourselves been cleansed by blood. We have been cleansed by the very substance that had marred us for we have been cleansed by the blood of none other than our Savior, our Lord, Christ Jesus. By Christ’s blood, all of our sins, past, present, and future have been atoned—they’ve been covered—they’ve been removed. By Christ’s blood, God’s wrath has been propitiated—has been appeased and thus forever removed from us—so that when he looks upon us, he sees not our disobedience but the obedience and sacrifice of his Son. And so we are reconciled to him—we were who were once guilty are now declared “not guilty.” We who were once dead in our sins are now alive in Christ. We who were once blind have now had our sight restored. We who were once dying creatures are now made new creatures in Christ by his Holy Spirit who seals us—and indwells us—and unites us with Christ, again, thus allowing and enabling us to become children of our heavenly Father. All praise be to our gracious God!
In verse 9 Paul reminds us of the nature of the God who made us and to whom we now belong: “God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” In this verse we see a fourth divine passive that again isn’t evident in the TNIV translation. This verse literally states, “God is faithful through whom you (plural) have been called into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Do you see the implication of this? Because it is God who has called us, he can be trusted to carry out the work he has begun—to make us, individually and corporately, like Christ. He will keep us firm to the end. He will keep us blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ returns. He will maintain his fellowship with us through Christ not only now but forevermore.
Brothers and sisters, let us embrace and dwell upon the four divine passives we find here:
Let us remember that all who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ have been sanctified by God. We have been set apart from evil and dedicated for God’s holy purposes. So let us point others to our great God in how we live our lives, seeking to live according to his Word by his Spirit who indwells us.
Let us further remember that all who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ have been given God’s grace. We who were creatures of dust have been “abnormally born” and become children of heaven. We don’t deserve God’s unmerited favor but by his compassion and kindness, we’ve been declared not guilty by accepting his Son who took on our guilt and punishment. And let us, with Paul, always thank God for the gift of his grace both in our lives and in the lives of others. And let us pray that those who don’t know him might experience this grace.
Let us remember, too, that all who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ have been enriched by God in every way, not lacking in any spiritual gift. So let us use the resources he’s given us—our gifts, our earthly goods, our time—to love and serve one another and love and serve those around us.
And, finally, let us remember that all who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ have been called into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. And, again, because of this intimate and divine fellowship, who our God is should be clear to all in how we live our lives, in how we seek to live even as Jesus did.
I’ll end as Paul began—by wishing all of us God’s grace and peace. By reminding all of us that the God who made us in his image and redeemed us by his Son is for us. In his Son and by his Spirit we have his unmerited favor and peace both now and forevermore. Let us pray.
 Acts 18:12–17: 12 While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews of Corinth made a united attack on Paul and brought him to the place of judgment. 13 “This man,” they charged, “is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.” 14 Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to them, “If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanor or serious crime, it would be reasonable for me to listen to you. 15 But since it involves questions about words and names and your own law—settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge of such things.” 16 So he drove them off. 17 Then the crowd there turned on Sosthenes the synagogue leader and beat him in front of the proconsul; and Gallio showed no concern whatever.
 Acts 18:18a: Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time.
 Zondervan NIV Study Bible mentions these possibilities. See Acts 19:1: While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus.
 Acts 9.
 I Corinthians 15:3–8.
 ἔσχατον δὲ πάντων ὡσπερεὶ τῷ ἐκτρώματι ὤφθη κἀμοί.
 I Corinthians 15:9.
 Zondervan NIV study Bible Introduction, “Its Immorality,” p. 1774. Descriptive material about Corinth taken from both Zondervan and Crossway (ESV) Study Bible introductions.
 ἡγιασμένοις ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ, κλητοῖς ἁγίοις,
 This is a possible echo of Malachi 1:3: My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the Lord Almighty. [esp. in LXX though this comes out in TNIV as well.] “The echo suggests that the Corinthians are part of the fulfillment of God’s eschatological plan that he be worshiped among all the Gentiles” (Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson, eds.).
 Εὐχαριστῶ τῷ θεῷ μου πάντοτε περὶ ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῇ χάριτι τοῦ θεοῦ τῇ δοθείσῃ ὑμῖν ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ,