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Author:Rev. C. Bouwman
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Congregation:Smithville Canadian Reformed Church
 Smithville, ON
Preached At:Yarrow Canadian Reformed Church
 Yarrow, BC
Title:Paul’s thanksgiving focuses on God's grace
Text:1 Corinthians 1:4 (View)

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 106:1,2

Ps 106:3,4

Ps 67:1,2,3

Ps 138:4

Ps 65:5,6

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Acts 18:1-11

1 Corinthians 1:4

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. C. Bouwman, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!

We want to remember today that tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. It has pleased the Lord to bless abundantly in the past year, so that we have plenty in material needs.

Yet precisely there, congregation, a question arises in my mind. When I left the Fraser Valley 18 years ago, there was considerable prosperity in the community as a whole and in the churches also. 18 years later the considerable prosperity of that time has magnified abundantly. Millions of dollars have been invested in this end of the Valley (consider only the building projects in Sardis and Promontory Hill), and it seems to me that numerous in the congregation have benefited much from this flow of money. So very many of us are so very well put. We thank the Lord for the material abundance He gives.

This observation raises a question. Does the economic growth and material prosperity of the Valley have a parallel growth in spiritual prosperity? Is the wider Chilliwack community enriched in service to the God who gave this prosperity? By my observations, the answer is No. Sure, there are still many churches around. But when, for example, I page through the Chilliwack Progress, I note that this paper is far more secular today than it was 18 years ago. Surely that’s a reflection of the average Chilliwack mind, for public appetite is one critical factor in determining what a paper prints. The material prosperity of the Valley has not seen parallel growth in spiritual prosperity.

So another question comes to mind. How has material prosperity affected the Canadian Reformed community? Do we live closer to the Lord today than 20 years ago? Has our material wealth made us more heaven-centered or more earth-centered? To put the question differently: has our material wealth been a blessing for us or a curse?

Thanksgiving Day. This past year the Lord has certainly blessed us materially, and it’s proper to thank Him for His gifts. Yet before we thank Him too loudly, we do well to determine what effect His gifts have had on us. It will not do to be all excited about His gifts if those very gifts have drawn us away from God and made us more earth-centered.

As we busy our minds on the question of whether God’s gifts have helped us or hindered us in His service, I want to open with you the word of God as we read it in 1 Corinthians 1. The Young People hope to busy themselves with this Bible book this coming year; at the same time there’s perspectives in chap 1 that help us with the question of what one can give thanks for.

I summarize the sermon with this theme:


    1. The reason for the thanksgiving,
    2. The surprise of the thanksgiving,
    3. The mandate of the thanksgiving.

1. The reason for the thanksgiving.

Paul’s statement in our text is very emphatic: “I always thank God for you.” Just what does the apostle mean with the word ‘thank’? What is this ‘thanksgiving’?

To give thanks, brothers and sisters, is to acknowledge a Giver. More, to give thanks is to talk up the Giver, to put the Giver in a positive light. That Giver is God. The almighty Creator is the one who has given particular gifts to the Corinthians, and the apostle wants to acknowledge that fact, yes, wants to praise God for those gifts.

What is the gift for which Paul thanks God, yes, praises God? Paul explains in the second half of the text: “I always thank God for you because of His grace given you in Christ Jesus.” Grace: the term catches the notion of an undeserved gift. The content of this undeserved gift is caught in the words ‘given you in Christ Jesus”. This, we understand, is the gospel of redemption from sin and justification before God.

As we seek to follow the apostle’s thought here, congregation, we need to back some five years, when the Holy Spirit led the apostle’s path to the city of Corinth. That city, we need to know, was relatively new; its rebuilding was begun by Julius Ceasar in 44 BC, about 90 years ago. Because of its location it was a thriving economic center, with lots of trade coming through town. The city was built on a narrow neck of land between two seas, with as result that many sailors, instead of sailing the long way around, would sail up to Corinth and literally drag their boats along a specially made north-south track from the one sea to the other – a distance of 6 kilometers. At the same time a lot of land traffic came through Corinth because that 6 kilometer strip of land connected a good size peninsula with the mainland. So it’s clear: because of trade the city prospered economically. More, because of trade peoples from numerous different cultural and ethnic backgrounds passed through the city, or even settled there; the place was cosmopolitan.

But you know, congregation, that a city with many cultures invariably has a problem with what is allowable and what is not, what is right and what is wrong, what is truth. It’s something we see today: because Canada officially celebrates multiculturalism, one cannot lift the truths of any given culture above the truths of other cultures and insist that one is right. That’s why the Canadian government refuses to speak in the name of Jesus Christ; that would lift the Christian faith above the faiths of the First Nations or above the faith of Muslims, and you can’t do that (it’s said). So there are no rights or wrongs either, except what the common good decrees. That’s Postmodernism; you can have your view, just let me have my view and let us all respect each other’s opinions.

It was the same in Corinth; that multicultural society coupled with its economic prosperity made the Corinthians very self-centered, very worldly, and not wanting to insist that anything was absolutely true. As they sought to live together in their multicultural society, they sought to be guided by Reason and by Knowledge; they let the human mind guide them as to what was acceptable and what was not. As one commentator put it: Corinth was strikingly similar in philosophy and outlook to our North American society.

Well now, some five years before Paul wrote 1 Corinthians the Holy Spirit led the apostle’s path to Corinth. Acts 18 relates what happened. As usual, Paul went first to the synagogue to tell the Jews and other worshipers of God of what God had recently done through Jesus of Nazareth (vs 4). When his labors in the synagogue were rejected (vs 6), Paul moved “next door to the house of Titius Justus” (vs 7), and focused his efforts on the heathen population of Corinth - the people caught up in their this-worldliness and multiculturalism. God blessed his work so that “many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized” (vs 8).

But it was hard going. The economic prosperity and the this-worldliness of the community made the labors of the apostle an uphill battle. Paul wasn’t a physically strong man; not that long before he came to Corinth he’d been beaten and flogged in Philippi (Acts 16:23) so that he came to Corinth weakened (1 Cor 2:3). And the message of the apostle was not attractive; he spoke of a man whom the Romans crucified and insisted that the sufferings of that crucified Galilean atoned for the sins of all who believed (2:2) – now wasn’t that a foolish message for a prosperous and self-sufficient society! How encouraging, then, the vision Paul received from Jesus Christ: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9f).

How many people came to faith as a result of Paul’s labors is not known. Some commentators have suggested that there were a number of congregations meeting in different houses in Corinth. Perhaps. At best we have to think of a two-digit, or maybe a small three-digit number. But in a city of 80,000, that’s but a drop in the bucket….

After laboring in Corinth for 1½ year (Acts 18:11), Paul moved on to other work. After going to Jerusalem and reporting to Antioch, he settled in Ephesus for three years (20:31). It was during his stay in Ephesus that he wrote 1 Corinthians.

And what does he write? After his opening lines (vss 1-3) Paul’s first point is thanksgiving. “I always thank God for you,” he exalts, “because of His grace given you in Christ Jesus.” Though it’s some five years ago already that these Corinthians came to faith through the apostle’s ministry, Paul marvels at the miracle God worked in these worldly and prosperous Corinthians, and he keeps on thanking God for His mighty work in them. That people so caught up with the hustle and bustle of this life (as the culture of Corinth demanded) - that such people should come to believe that there is forgiveness through a Galilean crucified in Jerusalem 20 years ago is such a miracle of God! More, that people who breathed the air of multiculturalism, that people who were raised on a diet of relativism –respect your neighbor’s religion and lifestyle, no matter what it is- that such people should come to confess that there is one absolute truth alone, one way only to be reconciled to God the Creator (and that’s through the blood of that crucified Galilean!) is such a miracle of God! No wonder the apostle opens his letter with those words of unending thanksgiving to God for His grace shown to those Corinthians! Yes, we can understand the reason for Paul’s thanksgiving. It’s the material of vs 5: in Christ the Corinthians “have been enriched in every way” –their thinking, their knowledge, their talk- because the Lord God confirmed the truth of Paul’s message by working faith in their hearts. How wonderful!

And as we remember Thanksgiving Day today, we realize well that we have equal reason to give God thanks. That people of our multicultural, postmodern, relativistic, affluent society –this-worldly as it distinctly is- that people of such a culture believe that there is forgiveness for their sins only through the suffering of a carpenter’s son who was crucified 2000 years ago – yes, that’s so awesome, so wonderful, such a work of God’s grace. We share wholeheartedly the thanks of Paul for the grace God has given to us in Jesus Christ. The fact that we believe, that God has worked faith in our hearts in this day and age, is confirmation of the power of God and the truth of the gospel.

I come to our second point:

2. The Surprise of Paul’s Thanksgiving.

With our first point this morning I tried to draw for you a picture of what thing were like in Corinth five years before Paul wrote this letter, the context in which the apostle preached and the Holy Spirit worked faith. That context-of-five-years-ago certainly gave good reason for thanksgiving. With our second point today I need to draw a picture of what things were like in Corinth five years later, at the time when Paul wrote this letter. That picture will prompt surprise that Paul yet gives thanks.

What the situation was? Paul, I’d mentioned earlier, had labored in Corinth for 1½ years and then had gone on to other work elsewhere. After he left, other teachers had come to Corinth to build on the foundation that Paul had laid (1 Cor 3:10 – as, for example, Apollos, 3:6; Acts 19:1). But, despite the labors of Paul’s successors, the congregation did not grow the way it should have grown; they remained immature, “worldly” – says Paul in 3:3. Part of that worldliness included that the new Christians of Corinth were quite content to be divided amongst each other, even at loggerheads with each other – with one party claiming to belong to Paul, another to Peter, another to Cephas, and another even to Jesus Christ (1:11f). They fixed their eye on people, instead of on the God who saved them. Other evidence of that worldliness lay in their practice of continued association with sexually immoral people (and there were plenty of such people in multicultural Corinth, where nothing was absolutely right or wrong). To delight in the cross of Christ and its redemption, and at the same time to condone the immorality of Corinth’s adulterous and homosexual and transgender community – numerous of the Christians of town had no problem with that. That’s why Paul had earlier written a letter to Corinth to set them straight on this matter, as we learn from 1 Cor 5:9. But the Corinthian congregation had not taken Paul’s instruction to heart. Chap 5 relates “that there is sexual immorality” in the church of Corinth, “and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: a man has his father’s wife” (5:1). And the worst was the attitude of the Corinthian Christians: they were proud of it! (vs 2). The thinking seems to have been that the Christians of Corinth divided life into two parts, the physical and the spiritual. The body was physical, was of this world and it would perish, while the soul was spiritual, was of that world and it would live forever thanks to the saving work of Jesus of Nazareth. Because they divided life into two parts, the Christians of Corinth felt free to indulge the body – for it’s only the body and will perish anyway. And how to indulge the body? Satisfying your sexual urges with the person or the means of your choice was one way to indulge the body. And if you couldn’t get what you wanted, you could take your brother to court for his money; that’s only worldly anyway (6:1-8). Joining in the feasts of town and eating food sacrificed to idols (8:1ff) was another way to do it; it’s only food, and it’s only for the body, and it will all perish anyway…. Again, I read in chap 11 of how the saints of Corinth got together in church and the plan was to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. But first the rich gathered on one side of the room with their baskets of plenty to gorge themselves, while the poor gathered on the other side with their dry crackers and got to drool while they watched the rich pig out – and then they pushed the tables together to celebrate together the atoning death of the Lord Jesus Christ….

And so I can go on. Within five short years of Paul beginning his missionary work in Corinth, within 3½ years of Paul’s departure, the church of Corinth had become thoroughly divided, thoroughly worldly, thoroughly selfish. The communion of saints did not function as it ought. Immorality had the upper hand in the congregation, there was unfaithfulness to the spouse in marriage, they used prophecies and tongue-speaking to build their own ego. There was heresy in relation to the doctrine of Jesus’ resurrection and the believers’ resurrection. Paul’s earlier letter (of 1 Cor 5:9) was pushed to one side, ignored. Etc, etc.

Paul in Ephesus got to hear of mess. 1 Cor 1:11: “my brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that ….” And Paul somehow got a letter from the Corinthian Christians, asking him a number of questions (cf 7:1; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1). So what does Paul do? As an apostle of Jesus Christ, he does the predictable; he does what he can to help the church in Corinth, and chooses to give his help by means of a letter. That letter is the 1 Corinthians letter, which the Holy Spirit has preserved for us in the Bible and given to us.

Now, what does Paul write to the Corinthians in the midst of all this mess and heresy and worldliness? Of all things, he starts with thanksgiving! Our text: “I always thank God for you.” In fact, the way the Greek is put together makes plain that Paul’s thanksgiving is an ongoing thanksgiving, and not a thanksgiving today prompted only what God did five years ago. No, Paul tells the Corinthians that he keeps on giving thanks, always, for the Corinthians. As we recall the mess that characterized the church of Corinth, we’re surprised at this thanksgiving. Ought the apostle not to lament how far this church of the Lord has fallen? Is it so wise and helpful to tell the divided and worldly Corinthians that he’s thankful for them, daily thankful?? Or must we understand his expression of thankfulness simply as a political move to get the Corinthians on his side…, before he blasts them…?

No, brothers and sisters, here is no backstroking to cushion the coming blast. The Holy Spirit, the One who moved Paul to write what he wrote, is not a man that He would stoop to that. When the Holy Spirit moves Paul to express ongoing gratitude for the Corinthians, despite their worldliness, we need to take that thanksgiving seriously and consider why it may be in place.

The thing is this. These Corinthians used to live in darkness and rank unbelief. Through the preaching of the apostle Paul, the Holy Spirit worked faith in the hearts of these Corinthians. That faith started small, weak, immature. It ought to have grown much more than it has grown in the years since Paul began his work in Corinth. But the fact that these Corinthians haven’t grown as they ought does not nullify the work of the Holy Spirit in Corinth! Though Paul sees only a small beginning of the obedience God requires of His regenerated people (and through his letter Paul can point to so many faults in Corinth), there nevertheless is a small beginning. And whose work is that small beginning? Is it the Corinthians’ own work? Is it the devil’s work? Not at all; though the beginning of the obedience there ought to be is still so very, very small, that small beginning in Corinth is still God’s work. That is why it is so fitting to praise God – not just when He first worked faith in these Corinthians, but also five years later when there was so little evident progress and so much obvious weakness. Whatever Christianity there was in Corinth was God’s work.

And since it was God’s work, Paul could be confident in relation to the future. The God who had worked a change in these Corinthians would not desert His work but bring it to completion (Ps 138:8) – as Paul also says at the end of vs 9. God “is faithful”, and since He called He will preserve – despite all the weaknesses that remain.

That brings us to our last point:

3. The mandate in Paul’s Thanksgiving.

Paul’s ongoing thanksgiving to God for the Corinthians is rooted in his conviction that the Lord God was and continues to be at work amongst those saints of Corinth. That God had not yet worked perfection in Corinth did not prevent Paul from giving thanks; he praised God for the fact that God worked there, gathered His church – even if the obedience God required was still so small.

We realize well that Paul’s reaction to God’s work in Corinth was correct. This same God is at work in Yarrow. One cannot get around it: whatever faith there is in our congregation –and there certainly is faith!- is the work of God. Whatever renewal there is in the congregation that makes us act differently than the world acts –and there certainly is that renewal!- is the work of God. Then it’s true: there is so much room for our faith to grow, and there’s so much place for our renewal to grow also; we too have but a small beginning of the obedience God requires. Like the Christians of Corinth long ago, we too are affected in our thinking by the multiculturalism of our society, we too act and speak from time to time as if there are no absolute rights or wrongs, we too are inclined to divide life into two parts, one physical and one spiritual, the body and the soul. There is undoubtedly so much we can learn from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians…. As in Corinth, the prosperity of our times does not automatically mean that we have become spiritually richer too.

Does any of that mean, though, that we can’t really give thanks today? No, congregation, no, it does not mean that! It’s true: the Lord has supplied for our material means in such an over-abundant way this past year again. Has that wealth helped us in the service of the Lord, or hindered us? It’s a question each one of us needs to answer for ourselves. And we may need to dare to conclude that the wealth God has given has actually been a snare for us…. A conclusion as that will require us to repent – as Paul also wanted of the Corinthians.

At the same, we need today to thank God wholeheartedly for His gifts. For whatever faith there is in our midst, whatever holiness, whatever godliness in our walk and talk – though it’s all so covered with sin, so weak, so little, and even so worldly- is God’s work of grace in our hearts. Our eye is to remain on Him, His work in our hearts – and that prompts to unending thankfulness. As long as our eye is fixed on Him, the small beginning of obedience that we have will slowly grow so that we become more mature in God’s service.

After all, “God, who has called [us] into fellowship with His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.”

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. C. Bouwman, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2005, Rev. C. Bouwman

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