The nature of our works

During the Middle Ages many Gothic churches were built. Gothic churches were elaborate and beautiful buildings. They required great time and energy to build. Yet what is most fascinating about these churches is the manner in which they were constructed. A mine was established, often as much as 50 miles from the place where the church was to be erected. When the rocks were mined volunteers from all over the countryside would form a living chain from the mine to the building site. The rocks would then be passed from hand to hand all the way to the construction site. If anyone in the rock chain dropped the stone or failed to do his or her part the church could not be built up.

Today, the church is still dependent upon believers faithfully working together to build the church. If we fail to properly build Christ’s church she will never be all that God desires her to be. More importantly, the Bible declares that our future reward comes from building Christ’s church, here and now. In other words, what we do with our lives here on earth will have serious ramifications on our heavenly experience. Consequently, the time to prepare for tomorrow is today.

In 1 Cor 3:9-15, Paul describes the church as a building. He stresses the quality we should strive for in constructing each stage—from laying the foundation, through the actual construction, to the final inspection. And in this image he gives some of Christianity’s nuts and bolts, in the form of two construction tips.

  1. Make sure to build on the right foundation(3:9-11). In 3:9 Paul writes, “For we [Paul and Apollos] are God’s fellow workers; you [Corinthians] are God’s field, God’s building.” Verse 9 is what is called a “hinge verse.” It closes out 3:5-8 and opens up 3:10-15. In 3:9b, Paul transitions with the statement: “You are God’s field, God’s building.” In the previous section (3:5-9a), Paul used Apollos as an illustration. Yet, in 3:9b he deliberately changes metaphors from watering to building, because the section that follows (3:10-15) is not addressed with Apollos in mind. Rather, it is addressed with the Corinthian church in mind. In this simple phrase Paul informs us that the church is “God’s building.” What a great reminder that God’s desire is to work in and through the local church. This is a message that we need to be reminded of today. Many Christians have given up on the church. Consequently, they are critical and cynical of the church’s potential. This grieves the heart of God. As Christians who are called to build the church, we ought to be the biggest fans of the church. Today, if you have been guilty of having a cynical or critical attitude toward the church, confess your sin to the Lord. Remember, the church is God’s building, so when you say something critical about Jesus’ building you need to make things right with Him. You can do that today by praying, “Lord Jesus, forgive me for having a bad attitude about your house. Help me to see the church the way You do. Help me to be a part of the solution and not a part of the problem. I have confidence in You that You will build Your house.” This is a critical step. You and I cannot build the church until we share Jesus’ perspective and attitude.

In 3:10-11, we will learn how to build on the right foundation. Paul explains, “According to the grace of God which was given to me [Paul], like a wise master builder I [Paul] laid a foundation, and another [you, Corinthians] is building on it. But each man [you, Corinthians] must be careful how he builds on it. For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” In 3:10a, Paul is careful to state that his ministry is “according to the grace of God.” He can’t take credit for who he is or what he has accomplished because it is all God’s grace. Likewise, you and I have been called to serve God in His building, the church. Whatever we are able to accomplish is an expression of His grace. Paul states that he served “like a wise master builder.” The term “master builder” (architekton) is used only here in the New Testament. Paul intends a wider meaning than today’s “architect” who is only a designer of blueprints. After all, he has personally done the construction work of laying the foundation. An architekton is a skilled church planter who wisely constructs a strong foundation.

The foundation that the architekton builds upon is Jesus Christ (3:11). When Paul came to Corinth he determined to preach only Christ and Him crucified (2:1-2). He laid the only foundation that would last. The foundation is the most important part of the building, because it determines the size, shape, and strength of the superstructure. A ministry may seem to be successful for a time, but if it is not founded on Christ it will eventually collapse and disappear. The question for every church must be, “Is our church and its ministries built upon Christ?” By that I mean, “Do we do what we do because we love Jesus Christ and are committed to His glory?” To the degree that Jesus Christ is the foundation and bedrock our church will be successful, at least in God’s eyes.

It is worth noting that Paul urges us to be careful how we build on the foundation. The word “how” (pos) emphasizes the method or manner of building more than what is done. The point seems to be: It is not how much we do for Christ, but what we do and how we do it. It is quality over quantity. This is why I have said, “Choose one ministry and do it well.” If you and I try to do everything we will fail miserably. God calls us to find our niche and use our spiritual gift to build up the body. Have you found your area to serve? Are you serving with a desire to build on the foundation of Jesus Christ? If so, God will reward you for your faithfulness to Him. The time to prepare for tomorrow is today.

 

[Paul has urged us to make sure that we are building on the right foundation. This occurs when we build upon Jesus Christ. Once we have started the work of building on the right foundation, we must raise the question, “What is the next step?” Paul will tell us in 3:12-15.]

  1. Make sure to build with the right materials(3:12-15). God is concerned that we build with quality. The church does not belong to the preacher or to the congregation. It is God’s church (cf. 3:9). If we are going to build the local church the way God wants it built we must meet certain conditions. Looking back to 3:10b, Paul wants the Corinthians to be careful how they build on the foundation. To build properly requires using the right materials. Hence, in 3:12-13 Paul writes, “Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it[the works] is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work.” At first glance it looks like there are six different kinds of materials here. But in fact, there are only two kinds: costly or cheap, imperishable or perishable, permanent or temporary. In light of Paul’s discussion and concerns in 1 Corinthians, “gold, silver, precious stones” are quality materials, fit for construction on the foundation of Christ crucified. These materials are worthy of that foundation and fit to endure fire. Conversely, “wood, hay, straw” are inferior materials, unfit for construction on the foundation Paul laid because they are not “fireproof.” Rather, these materials are the perishable stuff of human wisdom that finds the gospel foolish. The focus is on the quality of the building. Paul urges his readers to use only the best materials—long-lasting ones, not temporal and flammable ones.

What are some examples of these two kinds of materials? I would suggest to you that a heart of service is like gold, silver, and precious stones, while spiritual laziness and the attitude, “let others do it, I’ve done my time,” is like wood, hay, and straw in God’s sight. Generosity with the Lord and with His people is gold, silver, and precious stones, while self-centeredness and stinginess are wood, hay, and straw. Coming to church with a heart of worship is the former; coming to impress others is the latter. Doing ministry only after it has been bathed in prayer is the former; doing it in one’s own strength is the latter.

A wealthy woman died one day and went to heaven. An angel then took her to her heavenly abode, which was a plain old ordinary building. Right next door to her was her gardener who had a palatial mansion. She said, “How did my gardener get a mansion and I get a plain old ordinary building?” The angel then said, “Well, we only build with the materials you send us.” If you’re sending to heaven junk, junk is then what God uses. He uses only what you send Him! Thus, the time to prepare for tomorrow is today.

Paul wants to emphasize the truth that the builders of the Corinthian church will one day have their work (even their secret or unknown activities) judged by Christ. As a result, each person will be rewarded according to his or her efforts in building up the church. This day of testing will take place at the judgment seat of Christ. The purpose of the testing is to give an examination of the worker as to the nature of his “work,” not a condemnation of the worker as to his person. In a context dealing with work and its reward, it is reasonable to understand that loss is a loss with respect to reward. The worker loses in reference to the measure of potential reward he might have received for the burned “work,” had Christ appraised it as work that “remains.”

Paul tells us that there is a fire coming and only quality building materials will survive the fire. In the Bible, the word “fire” means either hell or judgment. When it is referring to unbelievers it means hell; when it is referring to Christians it means judgment in time or in eternity. In this context fire purifies gold, silver, and precious stones, but it extinguishes wood, hay, straw. The reason that our works have to be subjected to the flames is because the natural light cannot easily tell the difference between these building materials. Not even Paul was confident that he could always separate junk from gems. From our perspective, a believer might have nothing but an impressive pile of combustible material; but when torched, nuggets of gold might be found embedded in the straw. Conversely, what we thought was a gold brick of some notable saint might just be the end of a wooden beam. Only the fire can separate the real from the fake.

If you have built or sold a home, you know how important inspection day is. Yet no matter how confident you are that your home will pass inspection, there is still apprehension that the inspector will find your craftsmanship lacking. If you have been cutting any corners the inspection day will bring it to light. This should cause each of us to humble our heart and prostrate our soul before Christ. The time to prepare for tomorrow is today.

Imagine that your father, a multibillionaire, purchases two one-acre tracts of land for you and your sibling. He pours a foundation on each piece of land and then gives each of you one million dollars, with these instructions: “I am going to give you one year to build the most beautiful home you can construct. At the end of the year, the one who builds the most elaborate house will receive twice as much of my estate as the other.” You and your sibling are thrilled with the possibility. You begin work immediately. You hire architects to draw up the plans, you ask contractors for estimates, and you establish a rigid schedule to make sure you complete your work on time. When the deadline arrives, you have a home that rivals the Taj Mahal. However, your sibling is not as industrious. Family responsibilities, work, and hobbies keep him from the task at hand. Not only that, but he has some immediate needs for that one million dollars: college tuition, a new car, and a swimming pool. The night before the deadline, he decides to get busy and construct the best home he can with little money and only a few hours of time. A grass hut is all he can manage to build. The next morning your father surveys the two homes. He praises you for your efforts and rewards you with the promise of a large portion of his vast estate. As he walks around your sibling’s grass hut, however, he expresses his disappointment. As a result of procrastination and squandering of resources, your sibling forfeited billions of dollars of future wealth. He is still in the family but he does not receive the same reward.

Many Christians have ignored the command to build carefully. As a result, they will lose out on the rewards that God had in store for them. Now you may think, “Well, that’s okay by me, just as long as I make it into heaven.” I can assure you that when you stand before Jesus Christ, you will wish more than anything in this world that you had obeyed His command. The time to prepare for tomorrow is today.

[Why is God so concerned that we build on the right foundation with the right materials? The reason Paul exhorts us so seriously about the materials we use in building God’s church is that there is going to be an inspection.]

In 3:14 Paul writes, “If any man’s work which he has built on it [the foundation] remains [survives], he will receive a reward.” The word “if” (ei) in both 3:14 and 3:15 is used in a first-class conditional clause where the condition is assumed to be true. This does not demand that both statements are true, but for the sake of argument Paul presents each statement as true. Thus, Paul states that each individual bears responsibility for his or her contribution to building upon the foundation, and will receive a reward or loss on the basis of the quality of workmanship. The phrase “he will receive a reward” means to receive wages for work done. Since God is a just and gracious God, He will ensure that each Corinthian receives his or her due. God is no man’s debtor. While the specific nature of the reward is not laid out in this passage, three areas seem to be related to rewards: (1) privileges (Luke 12:37; 2 Pet 1:11; Rev 2:7), (2) praise (Matt 25:21), and (3) positions (Luke 16:10-12; 19:17-19). These rewards all allow us to experience God more intimately and reflect His glory more effectively (Dan 12:2-3; 1 Cor 15:40-41; Rev 4:10-11).

So what is God looking for? The Bible is clear that God will reward us for our deeds (Matt 16:27;Rom 2:6; 2 Cor 5:10; Eph 6:8; Rev 2:23), our words (Matt 12:36-37; Jas 3:1-12), and our motives (1 Cor 4:4-5; 10:31; Col 3:23-24). As our perfect Judge, He will take all of these areas into consideration and render a just verdict. Therefore, the time to prepare for tomorrow is today.

 

Personally, I don’t think I will ever be asked by God, “How many people did you teach each Sunday?” But I do expect to be asked questions like, “How faithful were you to my Word? Did you teach in the power of the Spirit rather than in your own power and intellect? Did you live at home what you taught at church? And I think you will be asked similar questions. Did you honor my name in your business? Did you teach your children the truths of God’s Word? Did you love your spouse as Christ loved the church?” None of these things involve official positions in the church, but they are, nevertheless, critical issues to building the church—the family of God. Church building has as much to do with thought life, prayer life, motives, parenting, hospitality, and love for people as it does with teaching Sunday school or preaching or ushering.

Paul closes our passage by disclosing another type of builder. In 3:15 Paul writes, “If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” It appears Paul conceives of the possibility that a member of the Corinthian church could have his or her work “burned up.” The result is that such a person will “suffer loss.” This means that the Christian worker will lose his or her reward, like a workman fined of his wages for poor workmanship. This Christian will lose the measure of reward he or she might have had. This loss may be diminished praise and increased shame before Christ’s judgment seat, when the Corinthians realize how much of their lives were spent in activity of no eternal value.

Contextually, it appears that the individual in 3:15a was potentially guilty of partiality and disunity (1:12; 3:1-4), human wisdom (1:17-25), and human evaluation of calling (1:26-31). Warning is given to those who are wise in their own eyes (3:18-20) and those who boast in human leaders (3:21-22). This does not mean that he was “fleshly” in every area of his life. It is possible that he excelled in areas of individual holiness, yet failed miserably in his ministry of corporate building. Hence, this careless builder will “suffer loss” for his or her failure to build well on the foundation of the church. Paul’s concern here seems to be a wasted life of corporate service.

The loss of rewards seems to be an even greater motivation than the gain of rewards. Think back to the time when you were a child. If your dad offered to take you out to pizza if you cleaned your room, you may have been motivated to do so. However, if your dad gave you five dollars for cleaning your room and then took a dollar away every time he found it messy, this would be agonizing. The loss of reward would hurt the most. This serves as a motivation.

Christian service that has no lasting value is like junk food—it may look and taste good and fill your stomach, but when it’s melted down there is nothing left but grease, sugar, calories, salt, and fat. So the next time you go to the donut shop or the drive-through at the local hamburger stand, think of the judgment seat of Christ. When all that grease and sugar and fat are melted away there isn’t much of nutritional value left. You and I don’t want to present a life full of spiritual junk food to Christ, because it is going into the flames. We want to present Him with a life of sincere quality service that will survive the test and receive a reward.

Paul concludes this section with the statement, “but he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15b). The Corinthian believer who builds poorly will suffer the loss of his or her work and potential reward, but will be eternally saved. The phrase “as through fire” is an idiom meaning “to escape with difficulty, to have a narrow escape.” The idiom is occasioned by the reference to the fire that tests the work of the Corinthians. It is likely that the phrase had become a metaphor, like “a firebrand plucked from the burning” (Amos 4:11), comparable to “saved by the skin of one’s teeth.” This further demonstrates the solemn nature of the judgment seat of Christ.

Perhaps this analogy will help you understand how heaven will be a place of joy and regret for some Christians. Imagine last year that your insurance agent said, “I’ve been reviewing your homeowner’s policy, and I believe you are underinsured by $50,000. I would recommend that you increase your coverage.” But suppose you had said, “Let me think about it, and I’ll get back to you in a few weeks.” That very night you are awakened by the smell of smoke. Hearing the screams of your children, you stumble through the thick fog until you reach their bedrooms. Grabbing your children, you grope through the darkness, searching for a way out. But all of the exits are blocked, so you throw a chair through the window and climb through the broken glass. Once safely outside you watch in horror as your home is consumed by the flames. What emotions do you feel at that moment? Certainly you are relieved that your family made it safely through the fire. No one could place a price tag on their lives. Nevertheless, you also feel a deep sense of regret as you consider the financial loss that you are about to experience because you made a wrong choice about your insurance. Your joy of survival is tempered by your feelings of regret.

If what I have suggested of the Corinthians is correct, the particular loss that they will suffer stems from their failure to properly build on the foundation of the church at Corinth. It does not appear that the loss concerns every area of his or her life. Jesus Himself said, “And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple, I tell you the truth, he will never lose his reward” (Matt 10:42, NET, my emphasis). Like a loving father, Jesus appears to be gracious and generous with rewards for His children. Therefore, it seems improbable that a member of the Corinthian church who was building on the foundation (teacher or otherwise), would be without one single work in every area of his or her life. It seems that Paul is expressing his deep love for the church and suggesting that one who builds poorly on the church will jeopardize one’s reward.

My desire is for you realize that the time to prepare for tomorrow is today. The great reformer, Martin Luther (1483-1546), is quoted as saying, “There are two days on my calendar: ‘Today’ and ‘That Day.’” If we live like that, we can prepare for our eternal home.

Do you remember Holiday Inn’s ad a few years back? “The best surprise is no surprise at all.” Their promise was that if you visit some new place, they’ll make it seem like a place you’ve been before. This should be our heavenly experience. We should not wind up in heaven surprised that we have no works to offer Jesus. We should know, from our experience here on earth that we served our Savior and loved His church. The time to prepare for tomorrow is today.

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Team work or turf wars

(this lesson was taught over two weeks)

What does it take to be successful in the world of team sports? Contrary to popular opinion, it is not tattoos, jail time, and steroids. It is teamwork! The greatest athletes in the world are only considered successful in the ultimate sense when they win the big one—the championship. However, the only way to accomplish this in team sports is to be a team player and to play on a team that is committed to teamwork.

Right now we are in the midst of the NFL season with many weeks to decide who will continue on in the playoffs.  I can assure you the team that plays together will stay together and win the Super Bowl.

Similarly, in the church of Jesus Christ the team that serves together stays together and wins together. However, the team that becomes consumed with individual accolades will falter and be forgotten. In 1 Cor 3:1-9, Paul is going to coach us to play up to our spiritual potential. He does this by laying out two coaching tips. First, Paul says…

  1. Recognize your faulty perspective (3:1-4). Paul writes, “And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it”(3:1-2a). The word translated “and I” (kago) ties back to 2:1-5, where Paul writes about his experience in Corinth. During his 18-month ministry in Corinth, Paul preached Christ and many Corinthians believed the message of the cross. Paul writes that when he was in Corinth, he spoke to them as “infants” because they were new believers. They were brand new to the faith! So he gave them milk to drink because they were spiritual babies. This is not meant to be a derogatory remark. Every Christian begins as a spiritual infant. There is nothing wrong with this.

When was the last time you looked through family photo albums and watched family home videos? It’s astonishing to look back on the lives of our children. It’s fun to see them when they were babies and toddlers and couldn’t walk or talk. Back then we didn’t expect much of them—they were babies. There’s nothing wrong with being a baby, but to remain a baby all your life is not healthy. Something is terribly wrong! This was the case in Corinth. Paul is writing them approximately five years after he first began his ministry there. By this time the Corinthians should have become spiritual children, teenagers, or even adults. Instead, they are still babies.

But does Paul have in mind the image of children who need to grow, or that of infantile adults who need to adjust their attitude?” Many Bible students assume that by calling them “infants” Paul intends to emphasize their need to grow. Yet, Paul’s contrast is not between infancy and maturity but between infancy and spirituality. It is more likely that Paul is rebuking his readers, not because they are babes still and had not progressed further, but because they were in fact being childish—a condition contrary to being spiritual. The problem is not that they have failed to progress but that they have failed to comprehend, in particular, the message of the cross (cf. 1:18-25).

This view is confirmed in 3:2b-4, as Paul moves from the past to the present: “Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? For when one says, ‘I am of Paul,’ and another, ‘I am of Apollos,’ are you not mere men?” Paul is shocked that the Corinthians are still on a diet of milk. There has been ample time for spiritual attitudes and actions to develop. By now these Christians should be spiritual, but they are still fleshly infants. Paul expected them to be able to receive “solid food,” yet they are still on Gerber. However, the “solid food” is not advanced and complicated doctrine; it is godliness of living. The term refers to spiritual, not necessarily theological maturity. The “solid food” that Paul refers to is not deeper doctrinal truths but rather the word of the cross.

This is important to understand because many people think they are mature since they know the Bible and are deep thinkers. Nothing could be further from the truth! God is more interested in our attitudes and actions. While knowledge is certainly valuable, obedience is far more important. To what extent are you presently obeying what you know about God’s Word? To the degree that you are obedient to what you know, you are a spiritual Christian. Do your attitudes and actions presently reflect Christ? We must recognize that our attitudes and actions are a greater indication of spirituality than our ability to memorize Scripture, study the Bible, and talk theology.

In this context, behaving in the “flesh” means “living in rivalry and disunity within the church.” Much to Paul’s chagrin, the Corinthians were behaving like unbelievers (cf. Rom 8:5-9) in their speech and attitudes. They have the Spirit, but at this junction they are neither thinking nor acting as if they do. Their overall position might be spiritual but their practice of quarrelling and their admiration of pagan intellectualism is unspiritual.

In 3:3, Paul brings up two sins that can destroy the church: “jealousy and strife.” The interesting thing about these sins is that they are not considered serious sins in the church. Yet, Paul saw the spiritual danger that could tear the church apart. These sins are made manifest in 3:4, through party divisions. The apostle Paul had been the evangelist who founded the church, and there were those who were loyal to him, who trusted and respected him, who liked his style. Apollos came after him, and there were people who gathered around him because they preferred his teaching. As a result, jealousy and strife broke out. Paul says this is naive, dangerous, and contrary to everything God wants for us. It is sinful for church members to compare pastors, or for believers to follow human leaders as disciples of men, and not disciples of Jesus Christ. The “personality cults” in the church today are in direct disobedience to the Word of God. Only Jesus Christ should have the place of preeminence (Col 1:18).

It is interesting that in 3:3 Paul returns to the problem that he began to address in 1:10-17. It would seem that Paul does this to create suspense. If the Corinthians are wise and spiritual they will see the relevance of the intervening discussion about “the word of the cross” (1:18-2:16). Again, Paul is not chastising the Corinthians because they were babes in the faith and had not progressed like they should. Throughout this book he is going to delve into deep doctrine (e.g., ethical conduct, marriage and celibacy, freedom in relation to food offered to idols, the Lord’s Supper, the use of spiritual gifts in the church, and the resurrection). This book is full of theological meat. Rather, Paul rebukes the Corinthians because their attitudes were childish—completely incompatible with the fact that they were people who had the Spirit of God. They are bickering over who the best preacher is.

How should this type of division be handled? Paul explains in Titus 3:9-11: “But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned.” When Paul says we are to “reject” such a person, he means we are to break fellowship with such a person (cf. Matt 18:15-17). Paul takes seriously divisions that can creep up in the life of the church.

Consequently, in this section Paul rebukes the Corinthians for behaving in an unspiritual fashion. Apparently, he is concerned that some of us are still in the nursery when we should be in the infantry. This doesn’t happen by mere Bible knowledge. There must be a change in our attitudes and actions. Sadly, many of us think that we will grow spiritually as we age. Maturity requires time but has nothing to do with age. Maturity and spirituality are reflected in how we come together as a church family.

[After some constructive criticism, Paul turns next to a positive explanation of how his readers should view himself and his fellow workers.]

  1. Remember your role in God’s work(3:5-9). Since the Corinthians were guilty of preacher worship, Paul must cut himself and Apollos down to size. In 3:5a Paul writes, “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one.” Paul opens this section with two rhetorical questions that begin with the word “what.” By asking “what” rather than “who,” Paul focuses on the place or position to which the Corinthians’ leaders have been elevated, rather than upon the personalities of each. If the Corinthians had been answering these questions they would have responded: “My leader is my everything! My leader is my teacher, my counselor, my guide, my confidence, my pride.” Paul brings the Corinthians back down to earth. Speaking of himself and Apollos, the two greatest leaders the Corinthians have known, he says, in effect, “We are not heroes, to be adored; we are not gods, to be worshipped; we are not masters, to be blindly followed. We are simply servants of God, who by God’s grace and appointment were allowed to be instrumental in you trusting in Christ.”

Paul says he and Apollos are simply “servants.” In time, believers would attach the term “servant” (diakonos) to a church office (Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8, 12), but it began as a stock term for common laborers, like table waiters (John 2:5) and palace attendants (Matt 22:13). Thus, Paul is not claiming elevated status but is embracing lowly servility. He is saying, “Look, I’m just a waiter who busses tables. Nobody builds a movement around a food service worker! Apollos and I were just waiters God used as servants to bring food to you. So don’t try to honor us; it’s totally misplaced. Give your praise to the One who prepared the food, who understood what your spiritual needs were, and then delivered it through us. The Lord is the One who gave the opportunity for us and for you. God sovereignly placed you where He knew you needed to be to hear the gospel, and He put us there with you. Therefore, why prefer one waiter over another? This is foolish.”

This should serve as a humbling reminder to us: We are servants, waiters who wait upon God and His people. What a great reminder that we should treat waiters and busboys with respect and honor, because that is what we all are in the spiritual realm.

Paul continues his clarification in 3:6-7: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.” The point indicated above in 3:5 is illustrated in 3:6. Paul “planted” as he introduced the Corinthians to faith in Christ and taught basic discipleship truths to those who believed (4:15; Acts 18:1, 17). Apollos “watered” as he followed up Paul in Corinth, and fortified, fed, and nurtured the work that Paul had begun (Acts 18:24-19:1).

There is an operative word in these verses. It is the word “one.” This word helps explain God’s mathematics. One plus one equals one. Ten plus ten equals one. One hundred plus one hundred equals one. Regardless of how many people are serving, God is the One that makes things grow. Paul states this twice in 3:6-7. He wants us to understand that “unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it” (Ps 127:1). We should dream and plan for ministry. We should want and expect our church and our ministries to grow. Nevertheless, growth is God’s business, not ours. God is the One who causes the growth! Therefore, we must pray and trust Him for it. Are you praying for the growth and health of your church? If not, please begin doing so today.

By using the illustration of a garden, Paul helps us to understand that he and Apollos are not gardeners, they are garden tools. They are shovels and rakes. Now no one fawns over a garden tool, right? Most people don’t walk into a beautiful garden and say, “Look at that shovel!” “Look at that rake!” Instead, they focus on the garden and the gardener. Likewise, since we are mere garden tools we ought to direct people to the Gardener. He is the One whom has done all the work! The mark of a successful servant is: Does he or she point others to the Gardener (see John 3:30)?

Paul continues his illustration in 3:8 with these words: “Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor.” Again, Paul emphasizes that all servants are one. There are no celebrities. One garden tool is not better than the other. Yet, Paul does state that “each will receive his own reward according to his own labor.” In the end, servants are to do all that they do for Jesus Christ, for one day He will evaluate their lives. On that day, He will reward us according to our own labor. It should also be noted that Paul used the singular of the word “labor” or “work.” The point is: We are not rewarded for our success; we are rewarded for our faithfulness. Is your life characterized by labor and faithfulness? If so, you will receive a reward.

Paul closes this passage in 3:9 with these words: “For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” Paul first reaffirms that he and Apollos are both “fellow workers” of God. They do not work with Him” (see 2 Cor 6:1), but for Him. Hence, God wants us to glorify Him in and through our ministries.

Paul then switches his imagery from that of agriculture to that of architecture when he calls the Corinthians “God’s field” and then “God’s building.” God is the focus of this passage. His name shows up six times in the last five verses. He is the only One worthy of glory.

Back at the turn of the century, there was a plague of locusts in the plains of the United States. In a matter of a few days, that swarm of locusts swept over the states of Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas. In less than a week, they did over five hundred million dollars’ worth of damage (in the currency of that time). Locusts don’t have a king to get them organized. They don’t have a draft board to call them into ranks. By instinct the locust knows it has to be in community with other locusts. When that occurs, they are able to topple kingdoms. The wisdom of the locust is the wisdom that tells us we must have community.


 

Deep thinking with the Holy Spirit

It has been said, “Any idiot can be complicated; but it takes genius to be simple.” Indeed, the most effective oral and written communicators are those who take profound truths and make them simple. This has bearing on every area of our lives. When we communicate with others either individually or corporately, we must be clear and simple. The well-known acronym K.I.S.S. (“Keep It Simple Stupid”) applies here.

Although the apostle Paul is a deep thinker, he always strives to bring his great learning down to common folks like you and me. However, the passage that we will be looking at has endured a most unfortunate history of application in the church. Almost every form of spiritual elitism, “deeper life movement,” and “second blessing” doctrine has appealed to this text; however, each of these is nearly 180 degrees the opposite of Paul’s intent. Unfortunately, this trend continues today. By appealing to “the deep things of God” and “secret wisdom” all kinds of false doctrines are being perpetuated and widely accepted. Therefore, we must be on the alert against this passage and others like it being abused. Our goal must be to understand why Paul has written this section of 1 Corinthians and how it applies to our lives.

The book of 1 Corinthians expresses Paul’s heart for a dis-unified church to become unified (1:10). Thus far, Paul has humbled everyone including himself. He has said to the Corinthians, “Your message is foolish (1:18-25), you yourselves are foolish (1:26-31), and I am foolish (2:1-5).” Outside of that everyone and everything is just fine. Now in 2:6-16, Paul states that the only way the Corinthians and you and I can live a wise life is by having the right perspective and power. He will argue that without the light of God’s Spirit, we’ll be in the dark. Paul begins by addressing the right perspective in 2:6-9.

  1. True wisdom is cross-centered(2:6-9). In order to be truly wise and to consistently exercise a wise perspective, we must have a proper view of wisdom. Throughout this overarching section (1:18-2:5), Paul has declared that wisdom is found in “the word of the cross.” Thus, in 2:6-9, Paul can write, “Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory; but just as it is written, ‘THINGS WHICH EYE HAS NOT SEEN AND EAR HAS NOT HEARD, AND which HAVE NOT ENTERED THE HEART OF MAN, ALL THAT GOD HAS PREPARED FOR THOSE WHO LOVE HIM.’” If you are a Bible student it is worth underlining the word “wisdom.” The word “wisdom” (sophia) is repeated five times in the first three verses. The apostles (“we”) speak the message of the cross to those who are “mature.” The “mature” are those believers who recognize and embrace God’s wisdom in the cross. Since Paul does not divulge who among them is “mature,” the readers must decide for themselves whether they qualify or not. This same principle applies to us today. Are you a mature Christian? If so, how have you arrived at that conclusion? Paul argues that we are only mature if we have the right perspective on the cross. Is the cross your solution to church conflict? Is it the means of unity? Then you are mature. Is the cross your solution to your marriage and family difficulties? Is it the means of reconciliation? Then you are mature. Is the cross your solution to work conflict? Is it the means of getting along with your boss and coworkers? Then you are mature. We never move on from the cross of Christ—only into a more profound understanding of the cross.

Although in the next chapter (3:1-4) Paul will discuss those who are immature and fleshly in their Christian walk, his expectation is that all Christians will live according to the right perspective. We cannot make excuses for ourselves and assume that maturity belongs to the spiritually elite. God’s heart for you is that you press on to a cross-centered life. Will you refuse to settle for stale Christianity?

In these four verses, Paul will tell us three aspects of God’s wisdom:

The wisdom of God is eternal (2:6). The wisdom that Paul declares is “not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away.” It is not like the wisdom that may come from Oprah, Dr. Phil, or influential political officials. The wisdom they utter is here today and gone tomorrow. However, God’s wisdom is eternal. Isaiah the prophet said it best, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isa 40:8). Since God’s wisdom revealed through His Word is eternal, how can we not invest in it?

The wisdom of God is beneficial (2:7). Paul informs us that God’s wisdom is a “mystery.” The word “mystery” refers to truth that God had not revealed previously. The message of the cross is a further unfolding of God’s plan and purpose beyond what He had revealed and what people had known previously. Paul makes this clear when he writes that the cross is “the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory.” This stresses the plan and sovereignty of God. It also demonstrates that God has our good in mind—our glorification.

The wisdom of God is supernatural (2:8-9). The Jewish and Roman rulers responsible for Jesus’ death did not understand the purpose and significance of the cross, so they crucified “the Lord of glory.” The phrase “Lord of glory” implies the divine fullness. It also ties in with the saints’ glory (2:7). It is through union with Him that we will experience glory. Paul explains that the reason these authorities crucified Christ was because they lacked the supernatural wisdom of the Spirit. Paul then cites Isa 64:4. This passage is not about heaven, although it’s often used at funerals. It is clear in the context of Isaiah 64 that it means life, here and now. God wants to reveal these things to us. He has done so out of love. Trusting Him for understanding and cultivating this love relationship with Him means that we will grow in greater and greater understanding of wisdom. Yet, without the light of God’s Spirit, we’ll be in the dark.

[Paul has just said that the right perspective is to recognize that true wisdom is cross-centered. He goes on to share with us the right power in 2:10-16.]

  1. True wisdom is Spirit-directed(2:10-16). Paul will state that it is the Holy Spirit who reveals deep things to Christians. Therefore, if we want to grow to maturity in Christ we must rely upon the Holy Spirit’s power. In 2:10-11 Paul writes, “For to us [the apostles and mature Christians] God revealed them [deep thoughts] through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God.” The wonderful mysteries God has prepared for those who love Him are not knowable only by a select group of Christians. Any and every believer can understand and appreciate them because the indwelling Holy Spirit can enlighten us. However, without the light of God’s Spirit, we’ll be in the dark.

Paul informs us that the Holy Spirit searches the very depths of the heart and mind of God. He can do this because He is God—the third member of the Trinity. Paul’s point is that the Holy Spirit functions within the Trinity the way our human spirit functions within us. Our spirit is the innermost part of our being. It’s where our deepest, most private thoughts reside. To put it another way, no one knows you better than you! The reason is that you live with you. I don’t care how well your spouse knows you or how long you have been married, no one knows you like you do. No one knows your private thoughts and those deep internals struggles you keep hidden. Because we have a spirit, we are usually our own best interpreter. That’s why when two people get into an argument, one of them will often say, “Don’t try to tell me what I mean. I know what I am saying!”

Therefore, if you really want to know someone perfectly you would have to tune into his or her spirit. The Holy Spirit is tuned in to the deepest thoughts of God. He has access to the innermost workings of the Godhead. Just as no one knows the deepest thoughts of a person better than his own spirit, no one knows the deepest thoughts of God better than the Holy Spirit.

What is the difference between SCUBA diving and snorkeling? SCUBA divers want to be able to go deep under water to see all that was there. In the same way, the Holy Spirit is like a deep-sea diver who can go down into the depths and find out what’s down there. That’s why the Bible says that even when you don’t know what’s going on, the Spirit can help you because He dives down deep. He gets way down there where the action is. He goes “deep-thought” fishing to connect us to the mind of God.

Since this is true, are you dependent upon the Holy Spirit in your Bible study? In your prayer life, do you ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you God’s wisdom so that you can pray effectively? In your marriage and family, is your prayer, Holy Spirit fill me so that I can be who you want me to be?

In 2:12-13, we learn that God is pleased to reveal His deep thoughts to us. Paul writes, “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.” The moment you trusted in Jesus Christ you were given the Holy Spirit as a “pledge” of your salvation (2 Cor 1:22; 5:5; Eph 1:14). One of God’s purposes in giving you the Holy Spirit is so that you may know the things He has “freely given” to us. There is no charge attached to the Holy Spirit’s ministry of illumination. It has been provided to every believer so we can get God’s answers to life realities. We have the Spirit of God, who knows the innermost thoughts of God and can communicate these realities to us. This means we don’t need more of the Spirit; the Spirit needs more of us.

In 2:14, Paul explains why some people do not respond to the Holy Spirit: “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” A “natural man” is a person who does not have a supernatural dimension—he or she is without the Holy Spirit. Their natural values are physical and material. A person like that cannot understand spiritual things. They are controlled by feelings, moods, urges, felt needs, desires…by natural reasoning, logical choices made on the basis of goals centering on this life—success, wealth, power, and pleasure. Such a person does not “accept” the things of God for they are foolishness to him.” The term “accept” literally means “to welcome.” It is a word that was used frequently of the practice of hospitality. Thus, I think 2:14 can best be translated, “The unbeliever does not welcome the things of God.”

Paul also states that the unbeliever cannot understand the things of God. There are two different words in Greek that are translated “to understand” in our English Bibles. One means to understand intellectually, while the other is often used to mean understand experientially, or “discern the true nature and importance of something.” It is the latter word which is used here. Paul is not saying that an unbeliever cannot understand the facts of the Bible or that he cannot grasp basic theology or even that he cannot interpret Scripture correctly. Rather, what he is saying is that he cannot know the things of God experientially—he can’t discern whether those things are true or good or valuable.

The best way I know to illustrate Paul’s point here is with the concept of radio waves. There are many, many radio waves in this room. But we can’t hear them because we don’t have receivers to pick them up. Our ears are not tuned to those frequencies. The same thing is true in the spiritual realm. The unbeliever doesn’t have the spiritual receiver, the Holy Spirit, to enable him to appreciate God’s truth. He is like a deaf critic of Bach or a blind critic of Michelangelo.

Therefore, we should not get angry when unbelievers act like unbelievers. How else are they supposed to act? The deaf cannot hear, the blind cannot see, the lame cannot walk, the dead cannot move, and the natural man cannot understand the things of God. How sad it is that many Christians castigate unbelievers for sinning when sinning is merely a part of their job description. Yet, we allow believers to live any old kind of life without any rebuke, discipline, or accountability. There seems to be a terrible double standard. We should not become angry, irritated, or impatient with unbelievers. On the contrary, we should have a great empathy and love for them. While we should also have love and empathy for believers, we must stop letting believers live like unbelievers. We’ve got it all backwards. We need to understand that the only reason we ourselves aren’t still living as natural men and women is that God miraculously entered our lives. It is a gift of grace that we can now see reality. So we have nothing to be proud of; we’re not superior to natural men and women, just saved. That’s the only difference.

Paul gives a contrasting perspective in 2:15: “But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one.” We hear the term “spiritual” being used a lot today, and often very carelessly. People call themselves “spiritual” because they are seeking ultimate answers, whether in the paranormal or in New Age philosophy or in Eastern mysticism or even in their inner self. But the NT uses the term “spiritual” to describe someone who is related to the Spirit of God. Spiritual persons are those Christians in whom the Spirit has really become the fundamental power of life (cf. Gal 6:1). Paul is describing people who consistently obey the teaching of the Holy Spirit. As a result of that consistency, they have great potential for being used of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Verse 15 says, “He who is spiritual appraises all things…”

The verb “appraise” means to appraise the worth of something. In the art world, there are certain people who are fulltime art appraisers. They can look at a painting and say, “That’s a forgery. It’s worthless.” Or “That’s worth $5,000 at auction.” Or “That’s a Rembrandt. It will fetch at least $7 million.” These appraisers are well paid because they have the ability to spot the real value of a painting. Paul says that because we have the Holy Spirit, we can properly appraise the real value of things.

Contextually, this phrase doesn’t really mean “all things;” it means “all spiritual things.” Being a Christian doesn’t give one any special advantage in understanding calculus or in learning German. (I’m living proof of this.) A person’s I.Q. doesn’t automatically change when he gets saved, but his spiritual “I will” certainly does. The mature believer has a receiver for spiritual radio waves and his receiver is tuned in. He can therefore discern, appreciate, and understand the essence of spiritual truth. That means that we really can exercise moral judgment, because we have thoroughly studied the mind of the Lord in the Old and New Testaments. We have prayed about difficult issues and have examined them from every side; we have put them through the grid of biblical absolutes. Therefore, we have the courage to take a position on values and issues that the natural world is totally confused about. We have the courage to speak out on the wrongness of abortion, the destructiveness of the homosexual lifestyle, and the sins of materialism, racial bigotry, and oppression of the poor and needy.

There is another clause that follows immediately in 2:15: “…yet he himself is appraised by no man.” This phrase has been terribly misunderstood by some Christians. Some have suggested that this verse teaches that the Christian should not be judged by anyone. Yet, later in this very letter Paul will command believers to judge the flagrantly disobedient in their midst (5:3-5), to evaluate those who claim to bring words from the Lord (14:29), and to examine themselves to see if they are behaving appropriately enough to take the Lord’s Supper (11:27-32). Here, therefore, he is thinking primarily of being unjustly evaluated by non-Christians (or by Christians employing worldly standards), who have no authority to criticize believers for their misbehavior, since they themselves do not accept the standards they employ in making their judgments.

In reality, the natural world can’t figure us out. We are an enigma. They can’t understand why someone would volunteer for children’s ministry or youth ministry year after year, or give 10% of their income to the Lord’s work. They can’t appreciate why someone would want to talk about Jesus. Our lifestyle appears strange to the people of this world. We will hold convictions that other people don’t, based on a different set of absolutes. We will be kind and compassionate at times when others are cruel. We will be intolerant when other people are very tolerant. It’s all because we have insight into the mind of God.

Paul closes out this section in 2:16 with these dramatic words: “For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, THAT HE WILL INSTRUCT HIM? But we have the mind of Christ.” Here Paul quotes Isa 40:13 to remind us that we can’t know the mind of God apart from the Holy Spirit.

Fortunately, Paul writes that “we have the mind of Christ.” Going back to 1 Cor 1:10, Paul urges us to be of the same mind. This means to share the mind of Christ, which is focused on unity and community life (see John 17).

In his epistle to the Philippians, Paul urged his readers to adopt the mind of Christ (Phil 2:5). He then spoke of the death of Christ. To have the mind of Christ is to participate in the pattern of the cross. God’s heart is that we put to death our selfish ambitions and humble ourselves before one another.

In the old television detective series, Columbo, viewers were always told at the beginning of each show who had carried out the crime. Then the fun began as Columbo set about finding the criminal, unearthing information that the viewers already possessed. Watching Columbo was different from the experience of watching other mystery shows. If truth has already been made available to you, that necessarily affects your life experience and the choices and decisions you will make. As Christians, we have the opportunity to live life having been told ahead of time about truths that are hidden from the world. What we believe about life essentially informs and influences how we live and how we make decisions. The information we have about life is the basis on which we make our way in life.

Paul has declared that true wisdom is cross-centered and Spirit-directed. It is available to you today if you will merely adopt the right perspective and the right power.

Help wanted – teachers and preachers

Several years ago, a group of American tourists embarked on a Carnival Cruise Line tour. In Costa Rica, a dozen senior citizens got off the ship to take a bus tour. After sightseeing at a local beach, the seniors’ tour bus was held up by three assailants, armed with a gun and a knife. One of the men, a 70-year-old retired member of the U.S. military, overpowered one of the three muggers—who was 20-years old—by placing him in a headlock/sleeper hold. The young man never woke up from it. The other senior citizens likewise began defending themselves, causing the remaining two accomplices to flee for their lives.

Sometimes the most unlikely people use the most unusual means to protect and preserve others. I would like to suggest that this is true of the teaching ministry of the local church. The ministry of teaching is conducted by unlikely people through an unusual means to protect and preserve God’s people. Thus, teaching about Jesus Christ is one of the foundational tasks of the church. Few Christians will disagree that teaching is essential. After hearing this statement, most Christians will nod their head in agreement and offer up an internal “Amen.” But immediately thereafter, a yawn will slip out and most Christians will quickly tune out. This occurs because most of us don’t consider ourselves teachers. Yet, the sobering reality is that God calls all of us to be teachers of Jesus Christ (see Rom 10:14).

In our last two lessons in the book of 1 Corinthians (1:18-25, 1:26-31), Paul has demonstrated that God deliberately chooses foolish and weak methods and messengers to shame those who are wise and strong. Now in 1 Cor 2:1-5, Paul uses himself as a prime example of foolishness and weakness. In these five verses, we will learn that the effectiveness of the teacher and the teaching lies in one’s dependence on God’s power. However, if this is to be realized we must fulfill two objectives: (1) The content of our message must be Christ, and (2) the delivery of our message must be God’s power.

  1. The content of our message must be Christ(2:1-2). Paul writes, “And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God.“ Paul reflects back on his year-and-a-half ministry in Corinth (see Acts 18:1-18). He begins by reminding the Corinthians how he did not preach (“I did not come…”). Paul had not dazzled his listeners by his rhetorical or philosophical prowess; he had simply proclaimed the truth about God. Now this was certainly unusual in first-century Corinth. In Paul’s day, Greek orators followed certain well-established conventions when they entered a city. Great crowds flocked to hear them because they spoke in the style of traditional Greek rhetoric—with extensive quotations, with literary allusions, and with a refined style that made them seem brilliant, witty, charming, and entertaining.

Yet Paul utterly rejected this approach to preaching, although he could have done it himself. As a well-educated rabbi, he knew Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin. Trained at the feet of Gamaliel, he could hold his own in any argument. If Paul wanted to show off his intellect, he certainly knew how to do it. But he rejected that approach. Instead, he proclaimed “the testimony of God.” The word “testimony” is a legal word that refers to something one presents in a court of law. Paul was conscious that God is a Judge. He was speaking in the presence of a Judge and he was presenting His witness (2 Tim 4:1). He knew what the truth was and was announcing it boldly. Paul was not preaching his testimony about God; he was preaching God’s testimony about God (“the testimony”). His message came from God, not himself.

For many today “proclaiming” is a bad word. They say, “Don’t preach to me!” “Don’t judge!” Many preachers, afraid of being thought arrogant, avoid talking about preaching. They prefer to think of what they do as “sharing.” However, if I only make suggestions or throw out a few ideas and opinions, I would be guilty of arrogance. My opinions are no better than yours. But I am not declaring to you my words; I am declaring to you God’s very words (see 1 Pet 4:11a). Therefore, I can preach to you with authority.

But preaching is not just for pastors. You too can preach with authority to people in your life. Whether we believe it or not, there are people who are looking for a man or woman to preach God’s Word with authority. Could you host a Bible study at your state job? As a small business owner, how will you preach to your employees? Preaching doesn’t require a large crowd and auditorium. You can preach wherever God has placed you to serve Him. The only question is, “Will you answer His call and proclaim His testimony?” 

In 2:2, Paul explains why he preached as he did: “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” The word translated “I determined” means Paul made a conscious choice to do things a certain way. He didn’t fall into it by chance or by force of habit. Paul preached as he did because he chose to do it that way. That same choice confronts every Christian messenger. It’s so easy to be sidetracked by good and worthwhile things. We can preach about social issues, the political debates of our day, the crisis in the Middle East, or the decline of the family. We can tackle Bible prophecy or we can major on predestination or the gifts of the Holy Spirit. There is a place for all those things, but that place is never at the center. For Paul the choice was clear: “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” He started there and that became the center of his preaching. Once the center was in place, every other truth could be arranged around it. But Jesus must be in the middle of all things and all things must be properly related to Him.

This verse cannot be taken absolutely, as if the only doctrine Paul taught on was the crucifixion, but refers rather to its centrality in his preaching. It is not enough for us to say that Jesus was a great moral teacher. He was, but the world largely believes that already. And it is not enough to say that He came down from heaven. Many already believe that. It’s not even enough to say that He was born of a virgin. We must go all the way and declare that God Himself came down to earth in the person of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. We must say that when He died on the cross, He paid the ultimate penalty to deliver us from our sins.

Think about it: If people want to know about sports or the latest news they can read the paper (on the web) or turn on the TV. These days you can watch Fox, CNN, or other news programs. You can surf the Net and watch 500 channels or listen to the radio. If it’s news or sports or the weather or the latest world crisis, there are plenty of ways to follow the story. But if you want to know how to be right with God, if you want to know how to have your sins forgiven, if you want to know how to go to heaven, then you need the message Paul preached: Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

Note that Paul uses the perfect tense here for “crucified” (cf. also 1:23; Gal 3:1), which suggests that his focus was not as much on the historical event of the cross but on its ongoing effect for those who believe in Jesus, namely, that in this event they can find personal justification, redemption, and sanctification (cf. 1:30). The point is that the death of Jesus Christ covers everything. Jesus is the one person that fixes everything!

One final thought before we move on: To give people what they need sometimes you must not give them what they want. Most parents learn this early on. When your daughter is sick she may want another cookie, but what she needs is the medicine the doctor prescribed. If you love her you’ll give her what she needs, not what she wants. The same is true as we speak to others about Christ. They may want to hear other things; we must tell them about Jesus, for He alone can save them. Do not back down from people. Do not kowtow to others. He wants us to have a solitary focus and agenda.

[The content of our message must be Christ. Now Paul will share a second objective…]

  1. The delivery of our message must be God’s power(2:3-5). Paul again shares an autobiographical account: “I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.” Paul did not come to Corinth with any degree of self-confidence. Rather, he came “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.” Corinth was a hard city in which to minister. Paul’s reception there had discouraged him to the point that preaching was difficult, because of the inner doubts and uncertainty he faced. He wasn’t the picture of confident self-assurance that many of us may associate with the apostle Paul. He responded in a totally human fashion, which I find greatly encouraging. Like Paul, we live and serve in a difficult city. We want to serve Christ and speak up for Him but sometimes it can be downright scary. Nevertheless, we press on. Even when we find ourselves tongue-tied or just plain forget what we were supposed to say, we must strive to teach.

Occasionally, someone asks me if I get scared or nervous before I teach. The answer is yes, and it happens every single time. No matter how many times I’ve taught or how well prepared I am there is always a sense of nervousness that comes just before I stand up. I hope I don’t ever lose that, because if I do I need to stop teaching. If speaking for Christ ever becomes routine, then something has gone wrong inside your heart. We need “holy nervousness” when we witness to others lest we fail the Lord or fail the person to whom we are speaking.

I am comforted by the thought that Paul was a man like I am—a man of like passions, if you will. As I consider his life, I realize that nothing in Paul could explain his success—except God! The New Testament doesn’t give us any descriptions of Paul’s appearance, but Paul himself quoted his opponents who said of him, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible” (2 Cor 10:10). We do have this early description of Paul that comes from outside the New Testament: He was “a man of middling size, and his hair was scanty, and his legs were a little crooked, and his knees were far apart; he had large eyes, and his eyebrows met, and his nose was somewhat long.” If that is accurate, then Paul was no first-century Brad Pitt. He wasn’t much to look at and he didn’t wax eloquent in the pulpit. Imagine two members of the Corinthian church meeting each other in the marketplace: “Hey, who’s preaching this Sunday?” “Paul.” “Paul? Oh, no! I’ve invited my neighbors to church this Sunday. I thought Dr. Smartypants was preaching. Paul is just not very attractive. He is hard to understand. He’s too deep for me. And his sermons are so long.”

Yet, Paul was all about the power of the Spirit. In 2:5, Paul explains that the power of God is the word of the cross (cf. 1:18). Note the striking contrast—the wisdom of men versus the power of God. If you build on one, you cannot have the other. Paul’s concern throughout this passage is self-reliance. It’s not that he doesn’t want us to preach to the best of our ability—he most certainly does! He just doesn’t want us to rely on our own gifts and strength.

In the late 90’s a British company developed a product called “Spray-On Mud” so city dwellers can give their expensive 4×4 vehicles the appearance of having been off-road for a day of hunting or fishing without ever leaving town. The mud is even filtered to remove stones and debris that might scratch the paint. This product sold very well. When it comes to teaching there are many who are more concerned with the outside than the inside. They wax eloquent and wipe fresh pastry speech all over the place. But this type of teaching has no place in our lives as followers of Jesus. Jesus was a carpenter. He was down and dirty! The Bible was written in Koine Greek, the language of the common man. God wants us to rely on His strength to preach Christ-exalting words. When we preach or share Christ our desire should not be that others say, “What a wonderful teacher!” Our desire is that they should say, “What a wonderful Savior!”

So how can we be foolish teachers for Christ? Several biblical principles may help.

Pray for a prepared heart. Ask the Lord that He would supply you opportunities to preach His Word. Pray for boldness to be willing to walk through an open door (Col 4:3). Pray that those you speak to will be receptive.

Meditate on Scripture. As you read God’s Word, ask the Lord to speak to you. Pray for insights into the text. Think about this Scripture continually. Follow a crock pot approach. Let the Word sit, soak, and simmer in you. This will ensure that you are always prepared (1 Pet 3:15).

Listen to people. When we listen to people’s hurts we can learn a lot. Often the felt needs of people will well up sermons within us. God will actually bring a Scripture passage to mind that we can share.

Focus on the essentials. Don’t get lost in the minutia of theological details. Instead, focus on the testimony of God and Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Paul says that the power is in the gospel. Make sure that you keep the main thing the main thing.

This passage has communicated that the content and delivery of our message must be Christ and the power of His cross.

Telephone poles play a crucial role in developed countries. They support lines of communication that enable people to “reach out and touch” others in just about any corner of the globe. And in many communities, telephone poles carry power lines that make it possible for people to use lights and appliances. Think about these poles and the vast roadside forest they form. What is their shape? They look like crosses, don’t they? Telephone poles remind me of the cross of Christ. Think of the “lines” of communication and power it carries. Because of that cross, God listens to the prayers of any believer on the face of the earth. And because Jesus shed His blood on that cross for lost humanity, believers in Christ have a deep desire to “reach out and touch” others with the message of the gospel. For the apostle Paul, the cross was everything. He had one message when he wrote to the Corinthian believers: “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” The cross was the heart of Paul’s communication and the basis of his power. The next time you see a telephone pole, think about the cross of Christ and how much it means to you.