We are often in the habit of reading the Bible without paying attention to what we’re reading. The words are so familiar that we just gloss over them. Or the biblical terminology has lost its meaning to us, so the significance of what we’re reading fails to register. In that light, we should revisit Paul’s words to the believers of Corinth.
He wrote, “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people . . . .” (1 Corinthians 1:2, NIV, my emphasis). Or in the old English of the King James Version, “Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints . . . .”
Five more times in this letter Paul referred to the believers in Corinthians as “saints” (or “holy ones”) which was a common expression for God’s people in the Bible.
Yet these believers were hardly saints (and I don’t mean that in the later, Roman Catholic sense of sainthood; I mean it in our everyday vernacular). They had all kind of serious problems in their midst, which was the main reason Paul wrote to them, correcting them and even rebuking them in chapter after chapter.
They were divided (chapter 1; 11).
They were carnal (chapter 3).
They followed deceptive, superstar leaders who promised them riches (chapter 4).
They approved of a fellow-believer who was sleeping with his father’s wife. They were even proud of it (chapter 5).
They were taking each other to court (chapter 6).
They got drunk at the Lord’s Supper, with some people eating all the bread before others, including the poor, arrived. (In those days, the Eucharist was celebrated as part of a larger meal, hence the presence of enough wine and bread for drunkenness and gluttony.) This was so dishonoring to the Lord that some of the believers had died as a result while “many” were sick (chapter 11). Yet at that time, the entire community of believer in Corinth may have amounted to only 50-75 believers!
They abused the spiritual gifts (especially tongues), and their meetings were out of order (chapter 14).
They denied a future resurrection, one of the most fundamental truths of Scripture (chapter 15).
Yet it was to these people that Paul wrote, “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people . . . .” (Note that the same Greek root is used in the words “sanctified,” which means to be made holy, and “holy people.”)
Paul even wrote this: “I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:5-9).
How do we reconcile these two pictures? He even wrote in 1 Corinthians 11:17 “your meetings do more harm than good.” That is quite an indictment!
There are two answers to this question.
First, as much as they blew it and sinned, they were still God’s children, part of his family through faith in Jesus. They had not denied the Lord. They had not utterly rejected him. And so Paul had a special affection and love for them.
After all, as blemished as they were, they were the fruit of his labor. As he wrote in 1 Corinthians 4:20, “Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.”
In a similar way, Jeremiah the prophet wrote these words from the Lord: “‘Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight? Though I often speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him,’ declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 31:20).
As the Talmudic saying goes, “Even if [Israel sins], he is still Israel” (b. Sanhedrin 44a).
Second, Paul speaks of the Corinthian believers as “sanctified in Christ Jesus,” meaning, that through their faith in Jesus as Messiah, God has set them apart as holy. It would be similar to a young man freshly enlisted in the army, with no prior background in military service. The moment it’s official, he’s in the army now, just as much as a commanding officer.
But being in the army means that he must now live with military discipline. Obedience is not an option.
In the same way, Paul says that these believers who have been “sanctified” in Jesus are called to be holy (or, called to be saints).
As he wrote in 1 Corinthians 6:18-20: “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”
Obedience is not an option.
So, the God who set us apart as holy the moment we truly put our faith in Him, even before our lives were changed, is the God who calls us and empowers us to be holy.
And that is how He looks at the Church today (meaning, all true followers of Jesus worldwide). He calls us “holy ones” (or “saints”) and loves us with an undying love and with great affection. And He rebukes us for our many failings and sins – because He loves us – saying, “I set you apart for Myself. Now, with My help, live this out.”
It’s who we are called to be. It’s part of our spiritual DNA. Holy to the Lord. Saints.
Today Paul would write to us, “To the church of God in America, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people.”
If you’re in Jesus, that’s you and that’s me. Let’s live this out!