Paul is responding in this first section of the letter to reports he has heard about the church. At the end of chapter 5, these church members were urged to judge the right people, meaning those inside the church, rather than those outside. Now, he urges them to choose the right judges when they have a dispute among themselves…
In the Bible, we see the history of a people that God has set apart for Himself. God set Adam and Eve in a beautiful garden to live in relationship with Him. He set Noah and his family in the ark to preserve them from judgment upon the world and live for Him. He called Abraham away from his home to live in a land He had chosen. He called Israel out of bondage in Egypt. He chose them out of all the nations and set them apart as His Holy people. He told them where to live, how to act, how to worship, how to govern themselves, how to exercise justice. He said “you are not to do as the nations around you, or the nations you are displacing. You are to be different, because you are My people. You are to follow My ways.” He set them apart and commanded them to live lives that were set apart from the world.
There were twelve tribes in Israel. Jesus chose 12 disciples, whom He later named apostles, showing that the Church He was founding was the new Israel, the new set-apart people of God.
That is the truth we meet in this passage. Paul emphasizes that: Since the Church has been set apart from the world through its union with Christ, we must live as set-apart people.
We are called here to do this in two ways: 1. We must judge ourselves, 2. We must repent of sin
1. We must judge ourselves (1-6)
Paul has heard that members of the church have been suing one another in the pagan courts over their grievances. Paul is not only concerned that the believers in Corinth are taking one another to court, but that they are doing so before unbelieving judges outside the church. He addresses it in 1 Cor. 6:1 by asking if any of them could dare to bring themselves to go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints. Here the unrighteous are those who are not in Christ, and are outside the church, and the saints (holy ones) are those who are believers and who have been set apart to Him. Roman law allowed Jews to settle certain disputes by arbitration among themselves. Christians were treated as a Jewish sect, and would have had this same privilege. But apparently the Corinthian believers were not taking advantage of this privilege. They were taking their disputes with one another into the pagan courts.
Paul reminds them of their union with Christ and what that means in the future by asking them in 1 Cor. 6:2…
The Scriptures teach that when we believe in Christ, we are united to Him through faith. In that union with Him, we not only receive all of the benefits of His saving work, but we participate with Him in His rule over the world. Part of His role as King is also to act as Judge. So, as we will rule the world in union with Christ in glory, we will judge the world in union with Him at the final judgment. Paul writes in Eph. 2:6 – “God has raised us up with Christ and made us sit with Him in the heavenly places.” Christ is sitting at the right hand of the Father – the place of all authority and power over the world. He sits as the Judge who is to come. By faith, we have been made to sit with Him there. In 2 Tim 2:12, Paul writes: “if we endure, we shall also reign with Him.” In Rev. 2:26, 27, Jesus promises the church at Thyatira: 26 The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, 27 and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father.
We don’t have a monarchy in our nation, but being a Christian is like being born into the royal family. As a child of the king, there is the promise that one day we will join in that reign along with our Father and family.
In our union with Christ, believers will participate in the rule and judgment of the world. So, Paul asks in 1 Cor. 6:2, if you will participate in this great judgment, are you not worthy to judge the smaller matters before that time? He is arguing from the greater to the lesser, a strategy that Jesus also liked to use. If they have been deemed worthy of the greater judgment, then certainly they are worthy of the lesser judgments until that time.
He makes a similar argument in 1 Cor. 6:3 by asking…
In Christ, believers will also participate in the judgment of the fallen angels. Arguing from the greater to the lesser again, Paul says in v. 3 if they are able to judge such heavenly matters, how much more are they able to judge the matters of this earthly life? Because of their union with Christ, believers should settle their own disputes within the Church.
So, Paul challenges their practice by asking in 1 Cor. 6:4…
In light of their high position in Christ, Paul points out how little sense it makes to go to those who are outside the church (and have no standing) to judge their disputes. In 1 Cor. 4:14 he said he was not writing those particular things to make them ashamed. But now, here in 1 Cor. 6:5, he is saying this to their shame. He wants them to see what a shame this is upon the Church, and upon the name of Christ. It is clear from the early chapters that they prized wisdom. Yet Paul points out in v. 5 that they are acting as if there is no one among them wise enough to settle disputes in the church. Rather than going to the church for counsel and direction, they are going to law against one another, and that before unbelievers, making a shameful spectacle of their sin. Paul says the Church has been set apart from the world through its union with Christ and must therefore judge itself.
This passage assumes that the church is to have its own government and judicial system. It is not to look to the world to govern it, but to God’s Word. In our church, we lay out these principles in our Book of Church Order and take this responsibility very seriously. As far as grievances in the church, our government is designed with higher and lower courts so there can be oversight, accountability, and the right of appeal. We work hard to create and maintain an environment where God’s people can have their differences addressed. But we must be willing to bring these matters to the Church, and judge ourselves.
Our culture has become extremely litigious – with the multiplication of lawyers and lawsuits. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to go to one another if we are offended, rather than to others in gossip, and to turn to the church through its elders if we cannot work it out. We are not to bring shame on the name of Christ by taking our dirty laundry to the world. We have been united to the King and Judge of the world. Therefore, we must judge ourselves, and…
2. We must repent of sin (7-11)
In the second half of the passage, Paul rebukes the Corinthians and urges them to behave according to their union Christ. He says in 1 Cor. 6:7 that it is already a defeat for them that they would go to law against one another. By doing so they have exposed their sinful bickering to the world, bringing shame upon themselves and, more importantly, upon their Lord. So Paul asks them in v. 7 why they would not rather accept being wronged or defrauded (cheated) than to bring shame upon Christ in this way. He is really asking them: whose reputation and rights and well-being do you care more about, yours, or Christ’s? They are pursuing their own interests instead of Christ’s. Paul goes on in 1 Cor. 6: 8 to say that, far from considering the cause of Christ above their own, they were ignoring His commands by wronging and defrauding one another. He emphasizes the fact that they are committing these sins against their brothers (and sisters) in Christ.
It appears that many of the Corinthians had separated their moral behavior from their intellectual beliefs and religious activity. They professed faith in Christ, and presumably attended the activities of the church, but they apparently did not make the connection between believing in Christ intellectually and obeying Him in the moral realm. Paul reminds them that these two things cannot be separated. While our behavior cannot earn us our salvation, it is an evidence of saving faith, because those who truly trust in Christ will want to please Him, and by the power of the Holy Spirit will overcome sin. So Paul asks the Corinthians in 1 Cor. 6:9: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” He warns them not to be deceived, and then he catalogs various types of sinful behavior.
There are ten behaviors listed in the original Greek, six of which appeared in the list we saw in 1 Cor. 5:10:11 – where Paul explained that he was not discouraging them to break fellowship with the people in the world whose lives were characterized by sin, but those in the church, who professed Christ, whose lives were characterized by sin. As in chapter 5, the first type of sin he catalogs is sexual sin – the sexually immoral in general. The inclusion of “idolaters” among the list of sexual sins may refer to the immoral practices of the pagan worship in Corinth. “Men who practice homosexuality” translates two terms in the Greek that refer to different roles in that practice. “Thieves” refers more to petty theft. When we get down to “swindlers” it refers to those who take advantage of the poor and weak to take their money. The rest of the list is repeated from chapter five. Again, Paul includes various types of sinners. He doesn’t say that any of these sins is any worse than the other or will be met with different consequences. The one who is characterized by greed will meet the same fate as the man practicing homosexuality, and the drunkard. None of those whose lives are characterized by these sins, or any sin, will inherit the kingdom of God, Paul says. It is expected that the true believer will repent of any sin, turn from it, so that while he may even battle it all of his life, His life is not characterized by it.
Then comes a few of the most quietly powerful words we find in all of Scripture at the beginning of v. 11 – “And such were some of you.” Some of them were characterized by sexual immorality, idolatry, homosexual practice, thievery, right down the line. They were no different from the rest of the unrighteous. But then what happened? Did they try harder? Did the “get more religious?” There are different words in the Greek that can be used for the contrast “but.” Paul uses the strongest one here, and it appears before each of these three phrases: “But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
These three terms all refer to the saving work of Christ on behalf of His people, applied to them by the Holy Spirit. “Washing” often refers to spiritual purification. In Acts 22:16, we find Paul giving his defense before the mob in Jerusalem that was after him, describing his conversion and the words of Ananias to him: “Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” The writer to Hebrews speaks of our hearts being sprinkled, our bodies washed w/pure water. This is the cleansing of our sin which occurs when the Holy Spirit applies the saving work of Christ to us. It is when we are baptized with the Holy Spirit, a baptism which is symbolized by water baptism, that we receive this spiritual cleansing. Since the Corinthians have been baptized with the Holy Spirit, and have received Him, they have been washed. They have been sanctified, which here carries the meaning: set apart as holy to God. They have been justified, declared righteous and just in God’s sight. All of this is because of their union with Christ. They have come to Him in faith and have these things “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” – that is, through all that Jesus is and through all that He has done, applied to them by the Holy Spirit.
They have come to Jesus, and are united to Him by faith. They have been delivered from sin – from its guilt and from its power to dominate them. They are no longer to live in it, but repent.
This is the hope of the gospel – that no matter what sin has overcome and characterized us in the past, in Christ we have forgiveness, cleansing, and have been set apart for God, empowered to live for Him rather than remain a slave to sin. We come to Christ by repenting (turning) from our sin – calling it wrong and seeking, by His power, to change. We must continue to repent as we walk with Christ. Apart from blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, no sin is so great that we can’t be forgiven. But no sin is so small that we do not need to repent of it.
Jesus has given us the Lord’s Supper to remind us and strengthen us in all that is ours through our union with Him and His saving work. He and His saving work are presented to us in the bread which represents His body (in which He came and lived and died, and rose again) and the wine which represents His blood, which He shed in order to wash away our sins. As we participate by eating and drinking, it is an outward sign of our faith in Jesus and what He has done and our dependence upon Him and union with Him that gives us all that we need to live for Him in this sinful world.
Jesus has set us apart for Himself by His saving work. Let us live lives which are set apart in Him, that we might glorify Him.