Having a SEXcessful marriage

This would make a great book title—How to Have a SEX-cessful Marriage. In our world, a book with this title could sell millions. Of course, if I ever write such a book I would have to credit the apostle Paul in the acknowledgements. If he were still living, I would also have to share my royalties with him. But truth be known, I would be guilty of plagiarism because I would simply write all of Paul’s ideas in 1 Cor 7:1-5. In this passage Paul is going to answer several questions: What is God’s answer to my sex drive? How do I handle my struggles with self-control? When sexual temptations arise, how can I defeat them? Paul answers all of these questions and more in 1 Cor 7:1-5. In a nutshell, he will command us to satisfy and protect our spouse.

In these first five verses, Paul throws his weight around and exhorts us to fulfill our sexual desires through a loving, sacrificial relationship with our spouse. Paul begins with these words: “Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman” (7:1). Chapter 7 begins a new section of 1 Corinthians. The words, “Now concerning” prepare the reader for Paul’s response to the Corinthians’ question. In the first six chapters of this letter, Paul has been dealing with sinful struggles in the life of the church in Corinth that he had heard about through Chloe’s people (cf. 1:11). But now, beginning in 7:1, Paul is going to respond to a whole series of questions that were addressed to him in a letter from the leadership of the church in Corinth. They were questions about practical issues like marriage, divorce, singleness, food offered to idols, spiritual gifts, public worship, what happens to our bodies when we die, and finally, a concern about an offering to be taken for some believers in Jerusalem who were in poverty. Paul will devote the rest of this letter to answering these questions.

In 7:1b, Paul cites a line from the Corinthians’ letter (“it is good for a man not to touch a woman”), which he intends to qualify and correct. The phrase, “it is good for a man not to touch a woman,” has nothing to do with a hug, a handshake, or any other manifestation of fellowship or friendship. To “touch a woman” is a euphemism for sexual intercourse.  Consequently, various English versions just drop the euphemism and translate “sexual relations” (NET, ESV). The phrase “to touch a woman” is translated “to marry” in the NIV, but this is weak. (The NIV does provide a better alternate reading.) Introducing the idea of marriage confuses the point that the Corinthians were promoting. The mindset of the Corinthians went way beyond issues of marriage or even celibacy. Some were promoting abstinence in the marriage relationship. The natural question is, “Why would the Corinthians not be interested in sex in the context of marriage?” We cannot know for certain, but the most likely suggestion is that there is an aesthetic group in the congregation. They believe that the highest plane of spirituality is to forgo sex.

While this idea seems a bit odd to those of us who live in a sex-saturated society, it coincides with the doctrinal beliefs in Corinth. The Corinthians adhered to a Greek philosophical dualism that prioritizes the spirit over the body. Thus, in 6:12-20, the Corinthians justified sexual immorality because what they did in the body was not as important as what they did in the spirit. But dualism can also lead to a strong asceticism. Those who esteem the soul can argue that it is best for one to deny as many physical needs as possible. Obviously, both of these extremes are unbiblical. Paul compels us to satisfy and protect our spouse.

In 7:2, Paul gives the basic command: Continue to have sexual relations with your spouse. Paul writes, “But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband.” The word “but” expresses Paul’s disagreement with the proposition quoted in 7:1. Paul vehemently disagrees that married couples should abstain from sexual pleasure. Paul is not anti-sex; he is pro-marriage! This is confirmed by his use of the verb “to have,” which is a euphemism for sexual relations. In other words, rather than abstaining from sexual relations, Paul’s expectation is that husbands and wives continue in normal sexual relations. Moreover, the word “have” is a present tense command that implies “keep.” Thus, Paul commands, “Let each man live sexually with his wife, and let each wife live sexually with her husband.” The Lord’s provision for sexual immorality is to get married and have frequent sex. Marriage is the answer to immorality of all kinds. Satisfy and protect your spouse.

Paul continues his exhortation and clarification by explaining each spouse’s sexual responsibilities in marriage. In 7:3, he writes, “The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband.” What does this verse mean? It means what every man hopes it means! For many of us this is one of the greatest verses in the Bible. It is a duty that we delight in. It is the one job that we want to spend overtime at. But before we get too carried away, I want us to notice a number of things: First, Paul begins by addressing husbands. He says it is the husband’s duty to fulfill his wife. Now many of you husbands are saying, “Now this is one Bible verse I’ll be glad to take literally.” Hold your horses! Paul begins with husbands because we are the ones that are ultimately responsible for the sexual relationship. We are the spiritual leaders! Husband, here Paul indicates that you must “fulfill” your wife. This doesn’t just mean sex. It means finding out what she needs, when she needs it, and how she needs it. Of course, I realize that you don’t have a clue how to do this. That’s where communication comes in. You are responsible for facilitating communication with your wife. Ladies, this means that you have to tell your husband how he can “minister” to you. If you do not communicate and respond to him well, he will become disillusioned and frustrated.

Second, Paul begins with husbands because they often neglect to fulfill this command. In marriage counseling, more men struggled to fulfill their duty than vice versa. A big misnomer is that women are the ones that always have a headache. This is not always true. Some men are too tired when it is time for sex. Many men are addicted to porn, which takes away a husband’s sexual drive for his wife. Often, it is just a matter of laziness. Some men know that sex can take a while and they are just lazy, so they fail to fulfill their duty to their wife. Yet, women experience intimacy through sex. Furthermore, when you deprive your wife of sex, she is left feeling like you don’t find her attractive. Husband, satisfy and protect your wife.

Third, Paul honors and elevates women. So many people like to suggest that Paul is a male sexist pig. However, I wonder if these individuals have carefully read the Bible. Like Jesus, Paul always takes a high view of women. In this context, Paul is moving away from the usual Roman norm in which the husband dominated the wife. In Christian marriages, there is a mutuality of relationship. He clearly elevates women and also declares them to be sexual creatures that have desires and needs. Husbands, this means you must meet the sexual needs of your wife. This includes her emotional, mental, and spiritual needs as well. When you put your wife’s needs first, by God’s grace, your sexual needs will be met as well.

Now, wives, this verse also applies to you. You are commanded by God to fulfill your husband’s sexual needs. Paul also makes a point here of using the word “fulfill,” meaning “to make full, to bring to completion, to develop the full potential.” The word fulfill is a present active command. This means that you should ensure that your husband is fully satisfied and vice versa. Ladies, whatever your husband wants that is not immoral or illegal, give it to him. Make sure that your marriage bed is so hot that your husband will not ever go looking elsewhere! There is nothing dirty about this; it is entirely biblical. Why should the world have the greatest sex? The greatest sex should be among married couples who are devoted to Christ. Wife, satisfy and protect your spouse.

Now, please understand, this verse teaches that sex is a delight, but it is also a duty. A “duty” is a moral or legal responsibility or obligation that arises from one’s position. It is the duty of each married person to meet the sexual needs of his or her partner. This means sex should never be used as a bribe or reward for good behavior, or as something to be withheld as a threat or punishment. It is a “duty!” The spouse who withholds sex sins against God and his or her partner.

For instance, let’s say the husband makes sexual overtures to his wife. The Bible teaches that it is her responsibility as his wife to have sex. Why? Because in this case, the husband has a sexual drive, seeking fulfillment and it’s her duty to make sure his needs are met. Therefore, whenever your spouse initiates sex in your direction, make sure you keep in mind that you are under God-given direction to meet your spouse’s sexual needs. This is what you signed up for. You made this commitment before God and mankind. Therefore, before a couple gets married, the question needs to be asked, “Are you willing to be sexually available to your spouse till death do you part?” If the answer is, “Well, I’m not so sure about that,” I would suggest that the couple postpone their marriage or not get married at all.

Let’s catch our breath and pose a question: Which of the two marital partners must be the one to decide if the sexual drives or desires are completely satisfied? The one initiating sex. In other words, the only way a husband can know if he has “fulfilled his duty” as a husband is to ask his wife, “Are your sexual needs fully satisfied? Do you feel loved?” This means, in the bedroom of a married couple anything goes—short of illegal or immoral activity.

How often should sex occur? If the average couple has sex 2-3 times a week, should Christians who are filled with the Holy Spirit and called to live supernatural lives have sex more or less frequently? I’ll give you my personal bias. The more frequent your sex, the stronger your marriage bond.

Why should married partners always fulfill their duty to their spouse? This is a legitimate question that Paul answers in 7:4. “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” God sovereignly takes something away at the point of marriage and gives it as a heavenly wedding present to your spouse. The Lord doesn’t ask you if He can take it, and the Lord doesn’t ask you if you want it. Sovereignly, the Lord takes the authority you have had over your own body as a single individual and removes it from you for as long as you live. The term “authority” in this passage literally means to have rights over or exclusive claim to. In uncomplicated terms, God gave my body to my wife and I have nothing to say about it.

Note that Paul was careful to give both husband and wife equal rights in these verses. He did not regard the man as having sexual rights or needs that the woman does not have or vice versa. So if your wife wants to feel your muscles, let her feel them. If your husband wants to grab your bottom, let him grab it. This principle applies in the sexual realm; however, I also think there is great application in other areas of life. Several examples come to mind: tattoos, piercings, facial hair, length of hair, attire, birth control, body appearance, etc. are all decisions that your husband or wife can veto. We ought to ask, “How can I look better to you? What do you want from me? How can I serve you?”

Paul frequently uses the term “body” (soma) in its broadest, fullest, richest sense. It’s everything we are physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We’re designed by God to be an instrument of communication verbally, nonverbally, emotionally, physically, and sexually. The physical expression of sex as communication is enjoyed in the larger context of verbal communication. The greatest sexual fulfillment comes gradually over the long haul in a marriage, as a couple learns to talk about anything, any time; when there’s heart-to-heart communication, not just talking at each other, but listening actively and sensitively, caring deeply about the communication. How are you doing in these areas today?

If I were to ask your spouse, what would he or she say? Would your spouse be fulfilled and pleased by how you are treating her body or his body?

Our passage closes in 7:5 with these potent words: “Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” The word translated “stop depriving” literally means “do not rob one another,” or “do not do fraud to one another.” The word means to cheat somebody out of what is properly theirs. If you withhold your body when your partner seeks sex, it is biblical fraud. We have failed to satisfy and protect our spouse.

Paul writes that we may deprive each other of sex under only four conditions. First, sex can be withheld when you both agree. You can’t decide by yourself to deprive your spouse of sex. Both of you must agree not to have sex in order to fit into this exception. Here’s how this may work in real life: Let’s say that last night your spouse rolled over in bed and made a sexual advance. Because you had a long and exhausting day, you said, “I’m really tired tonight. Would it be alright with you if we waited until tomorrow night? If not, sweetheart, you know that tonight is okay too. What would you like?”

Biblically speaking, who has the final say in this decision? The initiating partner always has the final say. If your spouse wants sex, even after hearing your request, he or she still has authority over your body. However, just because your body belongs to your spouse doesn’t mean you don’t have the freedom to negotiate! When the initiating partner hears a willing but tired attitude of acceptance rather than rejection, understanding should be forthcoming.

Second, sex can be deprived when you both agree to delay it for a time. Whenever a couple mutually agrees to deprive one another of sexual intimacy, the two must agree when they will have sex. To agree only to “not tonight” would not be following the biblical pattern. Scripture uses a very specific Greek word (kairos) for time here, which means a specific period of time.

Third, sex can be set aside to devote yourselves to prayer. This certainly presents a clear and rather unusual freedom for depriving yourself of sexual relations in modern society. The only biblical purpose for depriving yourselves of sex is to devote yourselves to sharing a spiritual focus in your marriage.

Finally, sex can be deprived until the two of you agree to come together again. The Bible quickly brings us back to the reality that sexual intimacy is to be the norm and never the exception. Always remember, we are called to satisfy and protect our spouse.

Now, there are two important realities to keep in mind. First, if you deprive each other you open yourself to attack. Paul blatantly states that in sexual matters, you must come together after an agreed upon time of sexual abstinence, or you will open yourself up to satanic attack. After a period of time without sex, you are to come together again. If you don’t, Satan will come against you with temptations to commit sexual immorality. The longer sex is postponed in the marital partnership, the greater the risk of temptation.

Please take this very seriously. Satan is not a pushover. He is real and he is powerful. He holds millions firmly in his bondage. And he is seeking more all the time. In one of his sermons, Pastor John Piper tells a story of the experience of one of his members. On an airline flight, the person sitting next to this individual turned down a meal, and when asked why he said that he was fasting and praying to Satan. When asked what he was praying for, he said, the breakdown of ministers’ marriages. If you were a Satan worshiper, and you wanted to know what the goals of your master were so that you would know how to pray, where would you go to learn? You would go to the Bible, because the Bible gives a true picture of what Satan is about in the world. And you would learn that, among other things, he is about the destruction of marriages. He is totally committed to adultery, and all the personal problems that lead to it. When you battle with sexual temptation, you battle against Satan. Not because he creates the desire, but because he so powerfully and deceptively uses the desire.

As married couples, we must guard our marriages from Satan. He is seeking to devour the marriage bed. Therefore, don’t let him into your bed. Imagine this common scenario: A couple in bed with their back turned to each other and plenty of space in between. Guess who can slither right into the marriage bed? A simple way to avoid this is being close before you drift off to sleep. Roll over and cuddle your partner every night. Put your head on his or her chest or shoulder. Play “footsies.” If these intimate moments lead to making love…wonderful. But regardless, you’ve shared some intimate moments and are taking one additional step to protect the marriage bed.

Second, you lack self-control when you deprive each other of sex. What happens to married individuals when they don’t have sex for a period of days? Satan tempts you, taking advantage of your lack of self-control. Depriving your spouse of sexual relations results in more than immediate, short-lived frustration. Continued postponement of sexual relations within a marriage places very real and unnecessary pressure on a spouse.

Sexual response and impulse touches us more than physically, it also touches us emotionally and spiritually because God made us that way. We have to avoid two opposite evils: on the one hand, the Victorian prudishness that wants to deny sex, call it something dirty, and lock it away; and on the other hand, the more modern hedonism that tells us sex is an absolute good and that we ought to pursue our sexual impulses no matter what.

If we Christians ignore sex, we will surrender it to those very cultural perversions and give the impression that sex itself is bad because it’s so abused. But you can’t fix what is wrong by simply negating or ignoring it. Nobody lives in the world of “no.” We all have to know how to say “Yes” in the right way. It’s not enough to be people who hate evil; we must also be people who love good, and we must teach our children to love good. A pastor mentioned recently that he heard a non-Christian describe Christians as “people who say ‘No’ to everything and go to a lot of meetings.” Ouch. We’re much better at saying what not to do than what to do. Sexuality is deeply perverted in our culture. But we have to do more than negate the negative. We also have to articulate powerfully the joy of God’s way, to show the beauty of holiness.

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Taking care of God’s bod

As of October 2006, there were three times as many professional tanning parlors in the U.S. as there were Starbucks. In 2013, about 20 percent of high school girls and 5 percent of high school boys had sought out some form of indoor tanning at least once in the previous year, according to the latest poll. This represented a drop from 25 percent of girls and nearly 7 percent of boys who had done so in 2009. On their own, these numbers may not seem surprising or even noteworthy. But they become dangerous when placed in the light of a recent medical discovery. Since 1975, the occurrence of melanoma—the most lethal form of skin cancer—has doubled in the United States among women ages 15-29. The World Health Organization is also taking notice. It estimates that 60,000 people die each year around the world because of excessive UV exposure, and urges youths under the age of 18 to avoid indoor tanning.

But many experts fear that teenagers will not change their behavior, even in the light of such dangerous consequences. In a Time magazine article from last August, two 16-year-old girls were interviewed. One girl said, “All the girls who are really tanned all through the year—they’re the popular girls. Guys are always complimenting girls on their tans.” Another girl who visits a tanning parlor several times a week acknowledged that she is willing to risk her health for short-term rewards. Her rationale, “It may make my skin wrinkle a little bit earlier, but I’m going to look good while I can.”

Short-term pleasure leads to long-term disaster. Nowhere is this truer than in the area of sexual immorality. For a few minutes of pleasure, countless men and women will throw their lives away. Just think for a moment about the potential consequences of sexual sin: loss of fellowship with God, divorce, disease, pregnancy, guilt, estrangement from family and friends, psychological and financial loss, damage to one’s reputation, and countless others. Indeed, there is no sin in this life with such brutal consequences. This reality ought to keep us from sexual sin. Yet, if we are honest, most of us assume that we will be the exception to these consequences. Honestly, we believe that these things will never happen to us. So we go on our own merry way, sinning. Therefore, the apostle Paul uses another approach in helping us overcome sexual immorality. He uses a positive affirmation: “Your body is God’s body.” In 1 Cor 6:12-20, Paul provides two ways that we can honor God with our bodies.

  1. Refuse to be mastered by your body(6:12). In this opening verse, Paul shares a principle that governs this entire passage. He argues that he and the Corinthians have certain freedom in Christ, but these are to be used for our good and God’s glory. Paul writes, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.” In this verse, Paul seems to be adapting and qualifying (“but”) a saying for his own purposes. Twice Paul writes, “All things are lawful for me.” There is a sense in which this is true. God’s world is to be enjoyed. Everything created by God is good, including sex. Yet, sex outside of marriage is not profitable and can lead to being mastered. Paul wants the Corinthian Christians to feel free to enjoy God’s world. But he does not want them to press their freedom so far that they do damage to themselves. Immorality breaks marriages, shatters homes, brings agonies of guilt, and damages usefulness beyond repair. We are free, but sin still has serious consequences. We must constantly ask ourselves questions about what is expedient. Will what I am planning help my health? My emotional state? My spiritual sensitivity? My understanding of God and His Word? Will it damage someone else? Will it damage another person’s conscience? Will it affect the church’s testimony?

Freedom does not mean the absence of constraints or moral absolutes. Suppose a skydiver at 10,000 feet announces to the rest of the group, “I’m not using a parachute this time. I want freedom!” The fact is that a skydiver is constrained by a greater law—the law of gravity. But when the skydiver chooses the “constraint” of the parachute, he is free to enjoy the exhilaration. God’s moral laws act the same way: they restrain, but they are absolutely necessary to enjoy the exhilaration of real freedom. [God wants to be glorified in your body and He wants the best for you, so He urges you to refuse to be mastered by your body. For your body is God’s body.]

  1. Refuse to dishonor God with your body(6:13-20). In these eight verses, Paul argues that sexual immorality is an offense against God the Father (6:13-14), the Lord Jesus Christ (6:15-17), and the Holy Spirit (6:18-20). In 6:13-14, Paul argues that sexual immorality is an offense against God the Father. He launches into this discussion by explaining the two ways to a man’s heart: food and sex. He writes, “Food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food, but God will do away with both of them. Yet the body is not for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body. Now God has not only raised the Lord, but will also raise us up through His power.” This passage is not about food; it is about sexual immorality. Nevertheless, Paul contrasts the two to emphasize how God values the human body. Unfortunately, many Corinthians did not believe in the resurrection of the physical body, so Paul devoted an entire chapter to this doctrine in 1 Corinthians 15. Here, he simply insists that food and the stomach are temporal, but the physical body is eternal. Paul states that our bodies are designed for the Lord. We can no longer talk about “my body.” Your body is God’s body. And God will one day raise your earthly body. This means what we do in our bodies in this life matters greatly to God.

In the following verses we will be especially reminded that the sexual revolution was not invented in the 21st century. Believers in this first-century church in Corinth also had to struggle with how to be faithful to God in a totally permissive society. In 6:15-20, Paul will use the rhetorical question, “Do you not know” three times. He is going to urge you and me to live out what we know. In 6:15-17, Paul will explain that sexual immorality is an offense against Jesus Christ. Paul writes, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? May it never be!” Three times in this one verse, Paul uses the word “members.” He reminds us that the moment we believed in Jesus Christ we were grafted into His body. We are now members of Christ. Hence, it is unthinkable to Paul that we would ever be sexually immoral. Since we are members with Christ, we take Christ with us wherever we go and whatever we do.

You may be saying to yourself, “Paul is talking about paying a prostitute for sexual favors. That’s disgusting. I would never do that. There’s no love involved—just lust. But there’s no way you can compare that to the relationship I have with my boyfriend or girlfriend.” Fair observation, but I don’t think it releases you. Even though there is undoubtedly a moral distinction between a one-night stand with a street-walker and a passionate interlude with a steady date, sin is still sin. I don’t think anyone would want to argue that since armed robbery is worse than shoplifting, petty theft is OK. Yes, it is true that Paul is addressing the specific issue of prostitution in 6:15-16, but the theme of the whole passage is clearly broader. The Greek word for “immorality” (porneia) deals with all kinds of sexual immorality.

In 6:16-17, Paul continues his argument and writes, “Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a prostitute is one body with her? For He says, ‘THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH.’” But the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him.” The word “joins” or “unites” (NIV) is used in each of these verses. The Greek word was used for gluing. An immoral man glues himself to an immoral woman. A believer, on the other hand, should glue himself to the Lord. Why do you think the word “glue” is used of sexual relationships? After all, aren’t many sex acts purely physical, without any real personal involvement? No. Paul says it is impossible to have a physical-only sexual relationship. There is no such thing as casual sex, inconsequential sex, or recreational sex. The sexual act is such an intimate act that it involves and affects the whole person. And he quotes the Old Testament to prove his point. In Gen 2:24, God says of the sexual act, “the two will become one flesh or one personality.” We dare not dismiss sex as inconsequential. Your body is God’s body. When you have a sexual relationship with someone who is not your spouse, you glue yourself to another instead of God.

The last three verses bring tremendous encouragement about the resources God has given us to live a life of sexual purity. It starts with two warnings in 6:18: “Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body.” Verse 18 offers the first command of our passage: “Flee immorality.” It is a present imperative and should be translated, “Keep on fleeing” or “Make it your habit to flee!” The Bible’s advice for avoiding sexual immorality is simple: stay as far away as possible from the persons and places and things likely to get you in trouble. Real men and women run! They don’t stand in and fight. How can we go about guarding ourselves from temptation? The following commitments will definitely help keep us pure.

Watch television and movies selectively. It is nearly impossible to watch anything on network or cable TV without being bombarded by sexual content or images. In 2006, Time magazine reported a 96 percent increase in TV scenes with sexual content in the past few years, according to a survey of programming from a broad sampling of shows. When you go back and see the reruns of “Cheers,” “Seinfeld, and “Friends,” you can see the steady increase in overt and covert sexual material. Now zero in on shows out today and you wonder how much more gratuitous can it get. And we tend to anesthetize ourselves to it. Thus, if you are going to watch TV, do so with a purpose. Do not just aimlessly channel surf. When you go to a theater, make sure you’ve read the reviews on the movie you are going to see. When you go out of town on business trips, it is wise to watch TV blocking out the adult movies in the hotel room.

Monitor your Internet use. Internet pornography is the most insidious sin of our day. Every man, woman, and child is vulnerable to Internet pornography. The Justice Department estimates that 9 of 10 children between the ages of 8 and 16 have been exposed to pornography online. Software Company Symantec found that 47 percent of school-age children receive pornographic spam on a daily basis. And representatives from the pornography industry told Congress’ COPA (Child Online Protection Act) Commission that as much as 20 to 30 percent of the traffic to some pornographic websites is children. We must always be on guard! Wise parents do not allow their children to have their own computer in their room. It is also appropriate to have your computer in a visible part of your house. Additionally, it is wise to put a moral filter on all computers through www.xxx.church and www.covenanteyes.com.

Find an accountability partner. It is nearly impossible to stay pure without having an accountability partner. Every Christian needs a godly person of the same sex to ask the hard questions. One such question is, “Are you feeling attracted to anyone at work, church, or anywhere else?” The goal must be to answer this question honestly. It is better to feel a twinge of embarrassment than to find yourself in an emotional or physical affair. If your accountability partner knows who you are attracted to, he or she can help keep you away from that person at church. Your accountability partner may also help by encouraging you to change jobs or change offices to flee a person who has a grip on you. Note: In accountability relationships, it is wise to occasionally ask, “Have you just lied to me?” It is so easy to justify immoral behavior in our own minds or just flat-out lie to save face.

In 6:18, Paul is putting sexual sin in a category all its own. All the sins in the world are put in one column and sexual sin is put in another. All sins are outside the body except sexual infidelity, which alone is a sin against one’s own body. While immorality is not necessarily the worst sin, sexual sin is unique in its character. Like a malignant cancer to the body, immorality internally destroys the soul like no other sin. Therefore, we must flee from it. If we allow ourselves to succumb to immorality, we will be guilty of destroying our own body and the bodies of other partners. We must purge ourselves from the sins that do bodily damage.

Paul closes our passage in 6:19-20 with the crux of his argument: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.” There are three important points in these last two verses. First, we are a temple of God. In 1 Cor 3:16-17, the local church is called the “temple.” Here, the same Greek word (naos) is used of the individual Christian. The term used in both passages for “temple” is not the word for a pagan temple, or even for the Jewish temple structure and grounds; rather, it refers to the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place for the people of God in the Old Testament. Paul is saying that God Himself is resident within us. Your body is His mailing address and P.O. Box. He dwells in YOU!

You would probably never consider committing an act of sexual immorality in a church sanctuary, right? But the fact is, as disgusting as that would be, it would be no worse for a Christian than committing the same sin anywhere else. A church building is never called a Holy of Holies, but the believer’s body is. What a difference it would make if we lived with this realization. If the body is a house for the Holy Spirit it should only be used for the very best purposes. We should not allow anything or anyone to spoil it or misuse it. We should keep it in good condition. The Christian is to have a certain “pride” in his or her body. It is a sacred house, a dwelling place for God. To glorify God is to acknowledge God, to bring Him honor, to get others to see how glorious He is.

The best place for sex education is the home. The second best place for sex education is the church. Sex education in the church might begin by seeking to cultivate a deep awareness of the indwelling presence of God.  This is a far greater motivator than the scare tactics that Christians have used down throughout time. The best motivation is to encourage Christians to seek a greater good—God’s glory.

The second word of good news is in the middle of 6:19: We have been given the Holy Spirit as a gift. We have received Him, and He lives inside of us, ready to help us in our battle against sin. One of the words for Holy Spirit in the New Testament is parakaleo, which means “counselor” or “helper.” We have been given a divine resource in the battle against the flesh and against sexual sin. We don’t have to be in bondage, because we have the power of the Spirit of God within us to supernaturally help us resist temptation. It is possible to live a life of sexual purity, especially as we rely on the Holy Spirit who gives us strength to abstain from our fleshly lusts.

Finally, we have been bought with a price, and we’re not our own. Paul’s image does not picture a slave being sold to a god and being set free, but being transferred by sale from one owner to another. Formerly, we were slaves of sin, now we are slaves to God (Rom 6:16-23; 7:6). Your body is God’s body. So we have no right to pervert or misuse our bodies sexually, because they don’t belong to us to do with what we will. We’re not the masters of our bodies anymore. Your body is God’s body. Verse 20 teaches that we have been purchased by God at tremendous cost, the blood of Jesus Christ shed on the cross for us. And that blood has cleansed us from sin. In light of this great purchase price, Paul commands us to glorify God through sexual purity, out of gratitude for what Jesus did. This means to show God off, to make Him look good.

So we have the privilege of living lives that honor God physically, emotionally, relationally—in every possible way. Being sexually pure does affect our relationships with each other, but ultimately it’s about the Lord. He is the only one to whom we owe adoration and ultimate obedience. This is an amazing reality—God can be glorified in the choices we make in expressing our sexuality. The Lord is honored when we resist sexual temptation. And He is also glorified when we express our sexuality in beautifully appropriate ways, in the marriage relationship. The call in this passage is to renounce dishonoring God with our bodies, and to rejoice in and to embrace what we’re called to, in glorifying God with our physical bodies. And God is committed to working in us to make us sexually pure, consistent, integrated, whole people.

But you may say, “Wayne, this is an impossible expectation. We live in a sexually saturated society. Lower the bar. Give me something realistic to shoot for.” My flesh might like to, but the Bible will not permit this. Instead, the Bible exhorts us to strive for perfection.

One of the greatest examples of a man of purity and conviction is former NBA player A.C. Green. At 6’9” 224 pounds, Green is the epitome of strength and stamina. He holds the NBA record for consecutive games played. He is an “iron man.” More importantly, Green was an iron man in his sexual purity. He married at the age of 38 as a virgin. In the fast and loose world of the NBA, where gorgeous young women are a constant temptation, that’s a remarkable record.

During his rookie year with the Los Angeles Lakers, A.C.’s teammates said he’d never be able to keep his vow to save sex for marriage. “We’re going to give you six weeks,” they told A.C., according to a Sports Illustrated article. “You’ll see this girl come into the Forum. You’ll start getting your paychecks.” A.C. has seen plenty of girls and paychecks—and remained abstinent all along. “Abstinence before marriage is something I very much believe in,” A.C. says. “Responsibility is the main issue, being responsible for the decisions that you make, realizing that every decision has a consequence.” Green said, “I made the decision as a teenager to be abstinent. I wanted to take control of my future. It wasn’t a popular decision then, just like it can be an unpopular decision now. It doesn’t always make me more friends. But the friends I have are true friends. True to themselves and true to me. We know each other’s goals and dreams and we encourage each other to achieve them. It isn’t easy. But every single day I say ‘yes’ to abstinence, it becomes that much easier. If you make a decision, and you practice it, that practice turns into a habit and the habit becomes a lifestyle.”

Today, Green has his own ministry that teaches abstinence in the public schools. If A.C. Green can be sexually pure living life as an NBA player, by God’s grace, we can remain pure.

Now there’s a final issue we must touch upon. It comes in the form of a question: What should I do if I have already blown it? I’m sure many of you wish you had heard this truth earlier, or perhaps even more did hear it and wish you had obeyed it. A message like this can bring painful memories to the surface and perhaps a great deal of guilt along with it. Married person, if you’ve already committed adultery; men, if you are in bondage to pornography; women, if you are living a fantasy sex life through soap operas or romance novels, let me suggest three important things you can do.

  1. Confess the sin; God is able and willing to forgive you. The first and most important one to confess to is God Himself. Sin against God is so much greater than the sin against anyone else that the other victims pale into insignificance. The question of confession to others besides God is a difficult one. However, I do believe it may be wise to write a letter to those people you have been sexually immoral with and state 1) I have sinned against God. 2) I have sinned against you. 3) Will you please forgive me? After writing such a letter, sever all ties with this person. This may bring the closure that you need.
  1. Purpose in your heart to quit now. Some people are tempted to say, “I’m already guilty. I’ve blown it. What difference does it make now? One more act of fornication isn’t going to make me any worse.” Don’t kid yourself. Sexual sin is cumulative in its damaging effects, much like carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide stays in a person’s system for a long time, with the result that a non-lethal dose can sometimes kill because of the accumulation of poison in the system. A second act of immorality is not a freebee—it compounds the sin of the first one, spreads the cancer a little further, and eats away at a little more of one’s personality and spirit. The only way to deal with such sin is immediately, radically, permanently, and in complete dependence upon God. Covenant with God that you will never let it happen again. Ask Him to give you strength. Become accountable to someone.
  1. If not guilty yourself, be willing to forgive others who are. “But you don’t understand, Wayne, my wife’s infidelity was a breach of faith so traumatic I will never be able to forgive.” “My husband’s addiction to pornography has been so degrading I will never be able to trust him again.” I have just one question for you: “How much has God forgiven you?” Was this sin in the life of your husband, wife, child, closest friend, any worse than the cumulative sins you have committed? And has God forgiven you? You may not think you can forgive, but the Lord can change your heart. Forgiveness is not just a feeling; it is a decision to do what God does for you every day!

Sexual allurement is extremely enticing and powerful. It promises nothing but pleasure and satisfaction. But it rarely delivers what it promises. It claims to be real living but is actually the way to death. I want us to take a few moments this morning and individually do business with God. No one knows your heart but you and God. If you need to confess something to God, if you need to flee, or if you need to forgive, now is the time to make a commitment to do exactly that.

Christians and lawsuits

What is “the great American pastime?” If you answered baseball, you would be correct. For decades, baseball has been called by this name. However, litigation is moving into second place. Our criminal justice system in this country is big business beyond belief. It’s also turning into a great entertainment value for the dollar. The legal frenzy that we seem to be wrapped up in is driven by some of our favorite national slogans: “I’ve got my rights.” “I don’t have to take that from you.” “I’ve got it coming to me.”

Our national motto seems to have changed from “In God we trust” to “See you in court!”

Tragically, the words “I’ll sue” are two of the most over-used words in our American vocabulary today, because everybody is suing everybody else. Children are suing parents, students are suing teachers, players are suing coaches, homosexual lovers are suing states, and spouses are suing their marriage partners. This isn’t limited to non-Christians. Christian neighbors are suing each other. Christian faculty members are now filing suit against the administrations of Christian schools. Churches are suing one another. Churches are suing their pastors, and vice versa. Brothers and sisters in the family of God are actually pressing charges, demanding their rights, sometimes to the exclusion of any attempt to reconcile face-to-face. We are a culture gone mad.

Yet, what we see today is nothing new. Two thousand years ago in ancient Greece, the church in Corinth was “sue happy” as well. Yet, the apostle Paul is going to state clearly that Christians, of all people, ought to be able to settle their own disputes. The key in doing so is to understand our true identity in Christ. When we understand who we are in Christ, we will not have to war with other believers over material possessions or legal rights. Paul’s point is that we should live out who we are. In 1 Cor 6:1-11, Paul provides two exhortations to help us live out who we are.

 

  1. Commit to settle disputes in the church(6:1-8). In this section, Paul poses eight questions in eight verses. By peppering the Corinthians with questions, he is hoping to help them clearly see that they are in contempt of God’s court. Paul is going to argue that believers should keep their civil conflicts out of the courts. When (not if) there is a conflict, it should be settled within the confines of the local church. Paul kicks off chapter 6 with his first of eight questions: “Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor [i.e., fellow Christian]dare to go to law before the unrighteous [i.e., wicked unbelievers] and not before the saints?” Paul starts this sentence in the Greek with the verb “to dare” (tolmao) to place stress on this word. (This is reflected in the KJV and NKJV.) This is a question with an edge. It is as though Paul is saying, “How dare you take your legal grievances against each other before unrighteous people!4 How could you do this? What are you thinking?”

 

Why is Paul so ticked? First of all, the Corinthians are giving God and His church a “black eye.” In Paul’s day, legal hearings constituted a large part of the entertainment business in an ancient Greek city. The ancient Greek courthouse was not a private room with a small gallery such as we have today. The courtroom was in the public square or the marketplace. In Athens (and Corinth was undoubtedly similar), a legal dispute was brought before a court known as The Forty. The Forty picked a public arbitrator, who had to be a citizen in his 60th year, to hear the case. If it still wasn’t settled it went to a jury court, which consisted of 201 citizens (if the case involved less than a certain amount of money, perhaps $1000 today), and 401 (if more than $1000). Some juries were as large as 6000 citizens over 30 years of age. It is plain to see that in a Greek city every man was more or less a lawyer and spent a lot of time deciding or listening to cases. Moreover, when someone hauled a brother or sister into court there, they weren’t just settling a dispute; they were holding the church itself up to public scrutiny and ridicule. Paul is concerned about the selfish arrogance of God’s people. The Christians in Corinth are publicly airing their “dirty laundry” throughout the city. These lawsuit-happy Christians don’t seem to care what other people think. This flies in the face of Paul’s simple exhortation that we should live out who we are.

 

Second, Paul is upset because the Corinthians have failed to recognize who they are. The decision by these Christians to go to court also reveals how little respect they have for the church’s authority and ability to settle its own disputes. Yet, back in chapter 1 Paul identified these people as “saints” or holy ones of God (1:2). He said they were enriched in Christ Jesus and were not lacking in any gift (1:5-7). In chapter 2 he said they had the mind of Jesus Christ; they could think the way Christ thought (2:14-16). So they have in their body of believers all the resources necessary to settle disputes. The Corinthians boasted of their great spiritual gifts. Why, then, did they not use them in solving their problems?

In 6:2-3, Paul continues his righteous rant with three more questions, all of which are designed to demonstrate how foolish it is for the Corinthians to throw their legal disputes before judges of the world. He makes his case by using future end-time realities to motivate the Corinthians in present prime-time living. Paul writes, “Or do you not know that the saints [i.e., believers] will judge the world? If the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more matters of this life?” In both the Old and New Testaments, we are told that believers will one day rule and reign with Christ. One element of our responsibilities will be judging the world and angels. This judgment will be delegated to us by Christ. We will then serve as His representatives in this judgment. It is still His judgment, but we are representatives who have been given authority.

 

As God’s representatives, we have been given His authority to judge in the present and in the future. Therefore, since we are going to sit in God’s Supreme Court, then surely we ought to be competent enough to decide the mundane kinds of disputes that occur among the members of our church. We should live out who we are.

 

In 6:4-8, Paul tells the Corinthians what they should do when they have strife in their church. Beginning in 6:4 he writes, “So if you have law courts dealing with matters of this life, do you appoint them as judges who are of no account in the church?” This verse can be interpreted as either a question or a command. Most English versions that translate 6:4 as a question presume that Paul is speaking of unbelieving judges. However, it is better to see this verse as a command like the NIV and KJV do. This verse would then read, “Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church!” (NIV) This fits the use of the words and the context better. Paul has just finished motivating the Corinthians to take care of their own conflicts. Now he commands them to action.

 

In 6:5-6, Paul uses an ironic taunt to berate the Corinthians. He even warns them up front that it is coming. He writes, “I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren, but brother goes to law with brother, and that before unbelievers?” Throughout this book, the Corinthians have been guilty of boasting. Here, once again, Paul humbles them and cuts them down to size. He sarcastically asks, “Are you so wise that there is no one in the church to judge legal matters? Do you actually need to go outside the church? I thought you were wise guys. Come on! Don’t you have at least one person who can judge legal matters?” Paul’s point is glaringly clear: Any Christian walking with the Lord is a better option than taking a case before an unbeliever in a secular court of law. After all, we have the mind of Christ, we have (or should have) the motivation of love, the absence of revenge, and the desire to see even the guilty restored. Christians have the advantage of adhering to the “Law book,” which focuses on biblical truth and justice.

 

Like an ice cube on a sensitive tooth, Paul continues to chill the Corinthians’ pride. He wraps up this first section in 6:7-8 by showing the Corinthians the right way to respond: “Therefore, it is already a total defeat for you that you have lawsuits against one another. Why not rather put up with injustice? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you act unjustly and cheat—and this to brothers!” Paul insists that going to court with a fellow-believer is a no-win situation—a “total defeat.” An even more shocking condition was that some of the Christians in Corinth were more than the victims of wrong and fraud. They were the perpetrators of these things (cf. Matt 5:39-41). As you know, suing often leads to cheating someone else. Say you sue someone. If he defends himself successfully, usually it still costs him thousands of dollars in court costs and lawyer fees. If he loses, it costs him not only the legal fees but also the judgment. And that doesn’t even touch the matter of his reputation. How much more is that the case when two Christians go up against one another in a secular court? Paul says the better way is to take the loss. Paul is telling us that it is better to be a victim than a victor.

 

Well, I don’t know about you, but I can think of a number of good reasons for not letting someone cheat me. First, it’s not fair. Second, I worked hard for what he cheated me out of. Third, if I let him cheat me this time without resisting, he’ll just do it again when he realizes I’m a patsy. Fourth, if I let him cheat me, I’m letting him cheat my kids. And on and on we can go giving good reasons why Jesus and Paul just aren’t very practical on this point.

But without trying to discuss all the ramifications of this Law of Non-resistance, I think we must at least see that if these passages teach nothing else, they teach that as a Christian my rights are not as important as my testimony. If I look after my testimony, the Bible hints that there is Someone who will look after my rights. After all, God is either in control or He is not. He is either the owner of the cattle on a thousand hills or He is not (Ps 50:10). If He’s not, then we’re all wasting our time here today. And if He is, then I don’t need to break my neck trying to protect my rights and my property and my reputation. God can and will take care of all that for me.

This is a powerful message that needs to be sounded loudly and clearly to a society in which we incessantly hear about “getting our rights” but rarely about being willing to suffer earthly loss in order to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven (cf. Matt 6:20). After all, we cannot take anything earthly with us when we depart from this life (cf. 1Tim 6:7-10), so why should we be so concerned about earthly rights and possessions here? We should be willing to give to one another rather than trying to get from one another. There should be no going to court with one another. If we insist on going to court it should be a court of believers in the church, not unbelievers outside the church.

 

Have you ever been cheated out of money?  What did you do?  Were you/Are you willing to forgive the money? What about suing?

In summary, what is so wrong with going outside the church for judgment? First, it indicates a deep disrespect for the leaders. It says, “The secular experts can do it better.” It looks to worldly competence rather than the judgment of Spirit-filled leaders. Second, it indicates a lack of belief in God. It is God who rules His church. It is God who put the leaders in place and who guides them. We must respect both God and our leaders enough to entrust our grievances to them.

Now I would like to wrap up this section by anticipating some questions and trying to answer them.

 

  1. Is it ever legitimate for a believer to use the secular court system? Yes. Paul had a high regard for the Roman justice system. Acts 18tells us that in the city of Corinth during Paul’s time there, the Jews had dragged him before the proconsul; a man named Gallio had accused him of treason, of preaching a religion that would undermine Rome. Gallio listened to it and said, “No, this is a minor religious dispute. This has no place in a court of law.” So Paul himself benefited from the fairness of Roman justice.

 

Furthermore, In 1 Cor 6 Paul is dealing only with civil disputes between individuals, not criminal actions or disputes with insurance companies, or class-action suits, or other kinds of legal action. The only thing that is categorically ruled out is for a believer to sue another believer. In Rom 13:4, Paul makes it clear that secular civil law courts are valid and needed. In a fallen world, people can be vicious and violent in their selfishness. Therefore, God provides a way to enforce relative social justice and check such destructive selfishness—by force if necessary (i.e., “the sword”—severe penalties for non-compliance).

 

One important clarification: Paul does not specify any criminal cases because he teaches elsewhere that these must be handled by the state (Rom 13:3-4). We must always distinguish between sins and crimes. Sins are handled by the church while crimes are handled by the state. Both are God’s governing authorities. Furthermore, when a crime has been committed, a Christian may at times be obligated to turn a fellow-Christian in and even to testify against him in court. The church does not have jurisdiction over criminal justice—that belongs to the state, according to Romans 13.

 

One time when it is permissible to sue, in my opinion, is when one is seeking protection from the state. Churches have filed class-action suits for protection of religious freedom. Right-to-life organizations have sued for the protection of the unborn. Civil rights organizations have sued for the protection of the rights of minorities. A Christian university sued for protection from what it saw as a vendetta by the IRS. Such legal steps must be weighed carefully, and must be undertaken only with due consideration of the ultimate impact on the church’s effectiveness, but at least I don’t think 1 Cor 6 rules them out.

 

  1. What about “friendly lawsuits” to gain insurance proceeds? Suppose a Christian family has a swimming pool and, God forbid, at a youth group party a teen drowns. The family who owns the pool has a $1 million insurance policy, but the insurance company won’t pay unless they are sued. It is possible to file a “friendly suit,” in which the grieving family agrees to file against the insurance company, but not seek damages from the family that owned the pool. Technically, that family is the defendant, but, in fact, the insurance company is the defendant. I do not think this is forbidden in our passage.

 

  1. Are Christians forbidden to prosecute other Christians? Paul’s statements in1 Cor 6bear on an extremely limited context. The moment we press this passage beyond this context, we run into serious difficulties. For one thing, he is dealing with financial disputes, not with issues like violent crimes. Should we say that Christians may never prosecute other Christians for child-abuse, or domestic violence? That we should not contest child-custody if the other Christian parent is guilty of sexual abuse?

 

In my opinion, we should not even use this passage as a prohibition against ever suing another Christian over financial matters. There are always unique cases in our day and age: Flagrant, chronic default of child-support by a Christian parent. A swindler who takes a Christian small businessman for thousands (unable to pay employees) and then says, “You can’t sue me because I am a Christian.” A Christian who engages in dishonest business practices and refuses to comply with the decision of other Christians to make restitution needs to be judged by the church and possibly by those outside the church. These types of cases seem to fall into a 1 Tim 5:8 domain, where a believer is capable of behaving worse than an unbeliever. Consequently, judgment must fall! This actually serves to uphold Christ’s reputation and the testimony of the church.

[In our first section, Paul exhorted us to commit to settle disputes in the church. In this concluding section, Paul reminds us that the unbelieving judges in these courts will have no part in the kingdom of God.]

  1. Live out your new identity(6:9-11). In the following three verses, Paul lists ten vices that characterize unbelieving sinners in order to exhort believers to live like saints. Paul writes for the third time, “Do you not know…” (cf. 6:2, 3)…”Do you not know that the unjust [i.e., the unbelieving judges] will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: no sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexuals, thieves, greedy people, drunkards, revilers, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom” (6:9-10).Paul reminds the Corinthians that these judges they are seeking out will not spend eternity with them. They are not brothers and sisters in Christ. Consequently, they do not have Christians’ best interests at heart.

 

Instead of warning the Corinthians, Paul exhorts his readers to not go to these unjust judges or to behave like them. An exhortation is often more motivating than a warning.

 

In 6:11, Paul informs the Corinthians that they too “were” previously like the wicked in Corinth. He writes, “Some of you were like this; but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” In spite of their serious behavioral problems, Paul insists that the identity of these Christians has changed, and he insists that they have been completely forgiven (“washed”), set apart as God’s children (“sanctified”), and declared righteous in God’s eyes (“justified”). Far from threatening their standing with God because of their sins, he affirms the security of their standing with God, in spite of their sins! How can this be? Because our standing with God is never based on our work for Him, but always and only on Christ’s work for us—and our willingness to receive it. This means you don’t have to change your moral life before you can come to Christ; you have to come to Christ the way you are before your moral life can be changed. The issue is not how bad you’ve been or how good you’ll promise to be from now on; the issue is: Are you willing to believe in Christ and let Him begin to change your life from the inside out?

 

One of the crimes that is beginning to take off in our high-tech, information-driven society is known as identity theft. This happens when someone gets hold of another person’s credit information and other personal data and uses these to make expensive purchases and carry out other transactions in the victim’s name. This crime is well named because as far as the credit and banking systems are concerned, the person using the information is the same person whose name is on the card or account. For all practical purposes, there has been an exchange of identity.

What identity thieves accomplish illegitimately, Jesus Christ has accomplished legitimately for believers. That is, He has affected an exchange of identity with you. Christ did not simply come to change your life. He came to exchange your life for His. Therefore, we should live out who we are.

 

 

Handling a scandal

What is the primary purpose of hospitals? Put simply: to help sick people get better. Therefore, the most important measure of a hospital is not its beauty, the friendliness of the staff, or its sophisticated equipment. The measure of a hospital is its ability to make hurting people better. If a hospital doesn’t do that, everything else is a waste of time. I don’t know anyone who goes to a hospital for fun and games or to admire the architecture. Everyone I know who goes to a hospital has only one question: “Can you fix what’s wrong?”

Likewise, the church is God’s spiritual hospital. It is called to open its doors to people who are sick with sin, addictions, burdens, and hurts. They are welcome to come into the church because it is God’s hospital. That means the pastors and other spiritual leaders God has appointed are physicians of the soul, under the direction of the Great Physician. If a physician diagnoses disease in your body, if the tests show that you are suffering from a malignant tumor, don’t get mad at the physician if he has to operate. That is what physicians are supposed to do. Similarly, some people who come to church don’t want to be operated on. They want to hear the music come over the speakers. They want to hear the doctors talk about the situation, but they don’t want to go into surgery.

This is ludicrous! If you have cancer you want a doctor who’s going to take your condition seriously. You don’t want a doctor who says, “You’ve got a lump… I’ve got a lump…all God’s people have lumps. Don’t let it get you down. You’re okay, I’m okay.” You want your doctor to operate…and quickly!

In 1 Cor 5:1-13, Paul writes a timeless message to a church that is on the operating table. Although the apostle Paul is not a medical doctor, he understands the need to remove spiritual cancer. Paul believes sin is a cancer that infects the church. So he urges us to purge the church of sin for the church stands or falls together. In this passage, Paul will show you a patient’s chart that reveals the disease he is suffering from and the prescribed cure.

  1. Refuse to toleraterebellion in the church (5:1-8). In the first eight verses, Paul presents two problems. There is a problem with an immoral man. But secondly, and even more importantly, there is the failure of the church to take sin seriously. In 5:1, Paul writes, “It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife.” The phrase, “It is actually reported” means that the immorality is well known, notorious, and public. This is no secret scandal; it is on the front page of the Corinthian Times. To make matters worse, the “immorality” (repeated twice in 5:1) is that of a son having sex with his stepmother. Notice, Paul does not call the woman the man’s “mother;” instead, he uses the phrase “father’s wife,” which in its Old Testament usage means “stepmother” (e.g., Lev 18:8). Furthermore, the word “has” denotes an ongoing sexual relationship. This man and woman are “living together” (“cohabiting,” NET), despite the Old Testament prohibitions of a man having sexual relations with his father’s wife. What makes this sin so abhorrent is this type of behavior was not even tolerated among unbelievers! Talk about a black eye to the cause of Christ!

This wicked report must have been incredibly humbling for Paul. Paul planted the church at Corinth and invested 18 months in the lives of these people. Once Paul left, Apollos came and followed up his work. The church was without excuse! They had been privileged to sit under the preaching of two of the greatest preachers in world history. Yet, the sad reality is: Christians continue to sin regardless of who is preaching and leading. Frequently, biblical preachers can unwittingly breed pride in the congregations they serve. The people proclaim, “Our preacher preaches the Word!” “We know the Word.” “We eat meat, not broth.” Consequently, these church members assume they are spiritually mature when in reality they are not.

Let me ask a tough question: Are you involved in some sin that, if revealed, would devastate your loved ones and destroy any ministry you have? Okay, maybe you haven’t done what this man did, but are you involved in Internet pornography, or an emotional affair at work, or abuse of prescriptions drugs, or the greedy pursuit of wealth. Whatever it is, stop today! Get into an accountability relationship. Begin practicing the spiritual disciplines of prayer and Bible study. God will grant you plenty of grace if you come clean with Him and others.

[Obviously, the sin that we have been discussing should have been an outrage to the Corinthians. In fact, your stomach is probably turning right now. So how did the Corinthians respond to this scandal?]

In 5:2, we will see that the Corinthians responded with pride and disobedience. Paul writes, “You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst.” First, it is important to see that Paul does not attack the man who is guilty of this atrocity. Instead, he rebukes the church for allowing the “immorality” to go on unchecked.

Apart from 5:5 where Paul instructs the church “to turn this man over to Satan,” he says nothing else about the man. However, four times he charges the community to remove the man (5:2b, 5, 7, 13). Indeed, both the man and the church are guilty of sin before God—the former for the act of incest and the latter for its failure to impose discipline.

It is likely that the Corinthians were boasting despite the immorality, rather than because of it. They were boasting in the social status of the son while ignoring his offense. However, this is utter nonsense! When you go to a hospital and find out you have cancer, anything else you can brag about doesn’t matter. You don’t want to brag about your bank account anymore. You don’t want to brag about the neighborhood you live in anymore. You don’t want to brag about the car you drive anymore. You don’t want to brag about your looks anymore, because all of that is irrelevant now. When you have cancer there is only one issue on your mind, and that is, “Get this mess out of my body!” What is true of the individual is true of the church. If a man or woman in our church is in sin, it doesn’t matter how much money they make, where they work, where they live, or what they drive. The only thing that is relevant is they have a spiritual cancer.

Paul is ticked because the church has not “mourned.” The question is, “What should they have mourned?” Paul expected them to grieve over the shame brought on the church by the incest. Instead of dismissing the sin or boasting in the person, God expects the church of Jesus Christ to deal with sin. God calls us to purge the church of sin for the church stands or falls together.

[The Corinthians responded poorly to this church scandal. So how does Paul expect them to respond? What is the right course of action in a case of blatant, rebellious sin?]

In 5:3, Paul writes, “For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present.” Paul may be small, but he carries a big stick—a “rod” to be exact (4:21). He is able to make the judgment while absent because he has sufficient facts. He doesn’t need to call the immoral couple in for extensive marriage counseling. The couple is having sex outside of marriage—that is all the information he needs. Paul has already judged the man, but notice he does not say anything about the woman because she is not a part of the church at Corinth. This principle of not judging those outside the church will be brought up later in 5:9-13.

Paul expects Christians to judge one another. Of course, at this point you may be recallingMatt 7:1 where Jesus said, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” This is the most quoted verses in the world today. Yet, very few people read Jesus’ words in context. Jesus says that we can judge, but first we must judge ourselves. Before we can take a speck of dust out of our brother’s eye, we must first take the Redwood tree out of our own eye. Jesus doesn’t want hypocritical judging.

In 5:4-5, Paul now specifies what the appropriate judgment on the immoral man should entail. He puts it like this: “In the name [i.e., the authority] of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord JesusI have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” To “deliver” (NASB, ESV), “turn” (NET, HSB), or “hand” (NRSV, NIV) a person over to Satan means to dismiss that person from the church into the world (i.e., the realm of Satan). The primary meaning of the “destruction of the flesh” is the purging of the man’s sinful propensity. This phrase does not necessarily refer to his physical body being destroyed. The goal is this man’s repentance and restoration to the church family. Now, if he refuses to repent, the Lord may bring financial, emotional, and physical problems. Eventually, the Lord may have to take his physical life. Yet Paul typically designates “flesh”‘ and “spirit” as the whole person, as viewed from different angles. “Spirit” means the whole person as oriented towards God, while “flesh” means the whole person as oriented away from God. The “destruction of one’s flesh” would thus belong to the same kind of imagery as in “crucify” it (Gal 5:24; cf. Rom 7:5-6). By putting this man outside of the church community, Paul is seeking to “destroy” what is “fleshly” in him, with the purpose of having the “spiritual” in him come out. The goal, then, is for this man to be “delivered/restored” or be found “healthy” and “whole” “in the day of the Lord Jesus.” Probably it saved him from a worse verdict when Christ would evaluate his stewardship of his life at the judgment seat.

I recently talked with a couple who told me that the wife’s mother and grandfather had committed adultery. This wife said, “I will not repeat this sin and pass the sin of adultery down to my children.” I said, “Good, because we won’t let you!” The impressive thing to me about this couple is that they welcome church discipline. Both the husband and the wife want the church to discipline them if they were to grievously sin against the Lord. My prayer is that this couple will be typical of other members in our church family. We’ve got to quit seeing church discipline as a negative. We’ve got to see it as a loving act of confrontation.

But you may be saying, “What he does is his business.” This may be true in our world, but it is not true in the Word! When a Christian sins, it’s not just his business. It’s our business. Would you say to a loved one who has cancer, “Well, that’s your business? It’s up to you whether you want to go to the hospital or not?” If someone is hit by a car, would you say to him while he’s lying in the ditch, “This is your business? I don’t want to interfere?” That’s not how families work. When one member of our family is in pain, all of us share the pain. That’s how the church is supposed to work.

Yet, an important question remains: Why should a church practice church discipline? There are a number of critical reasons.

To glorify God. God commands His children to be holy as He is holy (1 Pet 1:16). Consequently, the Lord disciplines us so that we can share in His holiness (Heb 12:5-11). As a father delegates part of the discipline of the children to the mother, so the Lord has delegated the discipline of the church family to the church itself (1 Cor 5:12-13; 2 Cor 2:6).

To purify the church. Sin is a spiritual cancer that cannot be allowed to grow. Sin that is not dealt with can corrupt the entire church. The health of the church requires its removal through repentance or excommunication.

To restore the sinning believer. Church discipline should focus on restoration, not judgment and condemnation (Matt 18:15; 2 Cor 2:5-8). We are not to be vultures, preying on fallen Christians. We should, however, be like divine physicians restoring those members who are out of joint with the body of Christ (Gal 6:1).

To deter the church from sin. The discipline of an individual reminds everyone that sin and righteousness are serious matters. Discipline instills godly fear, which is a significant deterrent to sin (1 Tim 5:20). Deterrence was the result of the discipline of Ananias and Sapphira, for “great fear came over all who heard of it.”

To maintain a credible witness before the world. The world observes the behavior and life of the church. When the church acts no differently than the world it loses its credibility (1 Pet 2:11-18; 3:8-16; 4:1-4). Moreover, on a practical note, church discipline is a powerful tool in evangelism. People notice when our lives are different, especially when there’s a whole community of people whose lives are different. When churches are seen as conforming to the world, it makes our evangelistic task all the more difficult. We become so much like unbelievers they have no questions they want to ask us. May we so live that people are made constructively curious.

Now that we have considered the rationale for church discipline, we need to address the question that you may be asking: “What sins warrant church discipline?” Am I going to be disciplined for doing 40 in a 35 MPH zone? Briefly, church discipline focuses on those things that clearly affect the whole body. The New Testament mentions some guidelines in specific areas of sin in the church that call for discipline.

Divisiveness. A self-centered individual who brings division within the church is to be warned twice and then removed. He or she is turning aside from the command to strive for unity in the body. Divisiveness can come from many sources, including misuse of the time and propagating wrong doctrine in nonessential areas.

Conflict between believers. When two believers do not settle a dispute privately and it spills over into the church, the leadership must become involved. The goal must always be to follow the steps of Matt 18:15-17 and preserve the bond of unity (Eph 4:3).

Doctrinal deviation. If false teaching is not swiftly dealt with the entire body will be adversely affected (Titus 1:10-11). It is critical that the church be purged of false teaching. A little false teaching can lead to a church split.

Undisciplined living. If a man does not work, he should not eat (2 Thess 3:10). God has very little patience for lazy Christians.

[The notion of church discipline goes against our modern grain. We tend to think, “Now let’s be patient and understanding. What about grace and compassion? Why do we have to put him out? Why do we need to take action in her case?” Verses 6-13 will explain.]

Paul writes, “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough?” Paul informs the Corinthian church that the primary problem is not the sin of the immoral man; rather, it is the pride of the church. He uses the illustration of a piece of leaven. Leaven is a little lump of bread dough that is saved out of the batch. It is allowed to ferment or sour, and then it’s used in the next batch of bread so that it will rise. A little bit of yeast can make a whole loaf rise. The Jews associated fermenting with rotting, so leaven became a symbol of corrosive evil.

Most interpreters assume that the leaven is the incestuous man. But this is not what the context says. Rather, what is infecting the congregation is their boasting about their toleration of this man. That is what Paul wants to get rid of among the believers in Corinth. If to accomplish this the sinful man has to be expelled (cf. 5:13), so be it. But Paul does not see the sin of this man’s immorality infecting the congregation, as though that is the rottenness; rather, what is affecting the church is the sin of their pride. If they can get rid of that sin, which is eating its way through the congregation, then they stand a chance of being a “new batch without yeast.”

I am not the best Math student, and there is a reason for that. When I was in middle school, I had a Math teacher that my class drove into retirement. During class periods several students smoked weed, rode bicycles in the classroom, and used the teacher’s answer guide to complete work assignments and tests. It was absolute chaos! I never recovered from that year. The spirit of rebellion in my class affected my ability to learn and grow.

Paul continues his leaven illustration in 5:7-8, with this exhortation: “Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” In these two verses, Paul couples the imperative to the indicative: Clean out the leaven so that you can start over unleavened bread, because that is what you are. The imperative to clean out the old leaven is predicated on the indicative: they are unleavened. In other words, Paul tells them to be who they are, to live like Christians. Who they are is revealed in what they do. What they do comes from who they are. Paul’s point is clear: Sin spreads in the church as leaven does in dough (cf. Gal 5:9; Mark 8:15). Sin always spreads and contaminates if left alone, just as poison, weeds, and cancer do. Eventually the whole moral fabric of the congregation would suffer if the believers did not expunge this sin. Thus, we must purge the church of sin for the church stands or falls together.

[Paul has warned us to refuse to tolerate rebellion in the church. But how should we live in this world with people who are rebellious and sinful? Should we judge them too? Paul answers these questions in the next five verses.]

  1. Refuse to stop reaching out to the world(5:9-13). In this section, Paul informs us that church discipline is for believers. In 5:9-11, Paul writes, “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother [lit. “one who bears the name brother”] if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler– not even to eat with such a one.” It is widely accepted that Paul wrote four different letters to the church at Corinth. However, only 1-2 Corinthians have been included in the Bible. In one of his previous letters, the Corinthians apparently misunderstood Paul. They thought he didn’t want them to have any association with any immoral person. Paul clarifies and explains that this ban only pertained to Christians. When sinners sin, they are merely doing what they are supposed to do. Sin is a part of a sinner’s job description! The difference between a sinner and a saint is that a saint doesn’t have to sin anymore.

This means that our ministry is not to spend our time judging the world. That’s left to God. It’s none of our business. Too often we preach against the wrong sin. It’s easy to stand in the pulpit and talk about what’s going on in Washington and with the National Organization of Women and the ACLU. But we are not to judge those. Don’t ever get mad at the world for acting like the world. What else are they going to do? We need to confront the sin that is within the walls of our churches, within the lives of our people. That is our ministry.

Our ministry is to be one of influence. In 1 Corinthians 9, we will see that Paul was willing to become all things to all people in order to save some. Thus, he would never recommend leaving the world. He was an influencer of his society. Likewise, Paul expects us to lead the world. We must always be careful that we don’t find ourselves in a “holy huddle,” insulated from the world. We must get out of our “Christian bubble.” Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners and He calls us to be “salt and light” (Matt 5:13-16). We need to stop cursing the darkness and instead extend the light and bless our community.

By the way, the word “associate” means “to keep intimate company with.” It doesn’t mean you don’t speak. It doesn’t mean when you see that rebellious Christian that you walk away. It doesn’t mean you become cruel and hard. But it means there is no intimate fellowship with this person. When you do talk with this wayward child, it must always be with the goal of restoring him or her.

Paul concludes chapter 5 with two pointed verses: “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES” (5:12-13). Christians have no jurisdiction over outsiders and have no business usurping a task that belongs to God alone. Those outside are left in God’s hands, and the church has the responsibility to seek to win them over, not to nag, browbeat, or seek to control them. Many of us are trying to clean up the world’s fishbowl when all God asks us to do is fish. Jesus says, “Follow Me and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt 4:19). If you’ve been spending your time trying to scour the world, put down your scrub brush, pick up your fishing pole, and go for the fish!

Now that the dust has settled and we’re done looking at this passage, you may be asking the question: “But who cares? Church discipline never really works anyway.” When many people are removed from the church, they just move down the street to another church. Or worse yet, the person may discover he or she has more time on his or her hands. After all, Sunday morning is a wonderful time for golf or shopping.

On the other hand, for those who have come to experience the church as their true home—a haven in the storm, a sanctuary of rest, a source of life and strength—exclusion would bring terrible pain. To exclude a Christian from this circle of fellowship would have made a strong statement. Garland notes: Converts to Christianity already placed themselves on the fringes of society as religious misfits. Persons expelled from the Christian community might find it difficult to be integrated into society. Unlike today, when an expelled member can join another church down the street, expelled Christians in this era could find themselves in social limbo—neither fish nor fowl.

My heart is that our church would be a church that people would miss if they were ever asked to leave. If we are truly the family of God we need to cultivate this type of community, so that if anyone is asked to leave, the person will yearn to return and be welcomed back with open arms. We can begin to foster this type of family today.

Tough Love

Do you remember the last time you were spanked? It was probably more years ago than you care to recall, but try. Perhaps you were discovered in a lie, or caught stealing candy from a neighborhood drugstore, or sent home from school for fighting. Whatever the reason, you found yourself face-to-face with an angry parent whose look of disappointment or rage let you know that your behavior was unacceptable. Still pleading for amnesty, you turned your back—or, more likely, were firmly turned until your backside was in a vulnerable position—and winced as you felt the sting of the first stroke. Other swats followed, until your bottom throbbed like it had just been attacked by a swarm of bees. But you know, despite your anger and excuses, that your mother or father had done the right thing.

If you’re a Christian you realize that correction doesn’t stop with your earthly parents. Your heavenly Father disciplines you so that you can “share in His holiness” (Heb 12:10b). But unlike your parents—who may have punished you wrongly at times—the Lord always chastens you for the right reason, in the right way, at the right time, and to the right degree (Heb 12:10-11). He never makes mistakes. And He disciplines you to show His love for you (Heb 12:6).

In 1 Cor 4:6-21, God is going to lovingly spank our spiritual bottoms through the pen of the apostle Paul. Paul lives by the principle spare the rod; spoil the church. In the passage that follows Paul will unpack two challenging truths about spiritual maturity.

 

  1. Spiritual maturity requires humility and suffering(4:6-13). In this section, Paul explains that for the Corinthians to make spiritual headway they must learn to humble themselves before God and others. Additionally, they must prepare themselves to suffer like the apostles. In 4:6, Paul writes, “Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, so that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other.” Paul informs the Corinthians that they have an arrogant attitude because they have a theological misunderstanding. As always, our attitudes and actions stem from what we believe or perceive. In this case, the Corinthians are playing games of spiritual “one-upmanship.” The phrase “what is written” (4:6) refers to the five Old Testament Scriptures that Paul has quoted in the previous three chapters. These passages place a strict limit on human pride and call for trusting God alone. The Corinthians were arrogant against each other because they were not obeying the Scriptures. Paul’s point is: Scripture is meant to form the boundary for the conduct of the Christian life. If we humble ourselves and depend upon God we will experience greater unity in our body.

This ought to motivate us to study the Old Testament Scriptures. The Old Testament is full of stories and principles that will humble us before God and man, which will lead to maintaining unity in the church. When we ignore reading the Scriptures or listening to God’s Word preached, we can become proud. Therefore, we need to increase our familiarity with the Old Testament in all of our children’s, youth, and adult ministries. We must know and apply the Old Testament. We must make sure to run ethical issues through the grid of the Old Testament. We then must make a commitment to not “exceed what is written.” We must keep it between the lines.

 

In 4:7, Paul explains why the Corinthians should not be arrogant: “For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” Paul paddles the Corinthians by asking three convicting rhetorical questions, designed to damage their egos. He reminds the Corinthians that they are not intrinsically superior to anyone else. Three times Paul uses the word “receive” to remind the Corinthians that God is the one who gave them everything they have. Consequently, they should be grateful, not boastful.

 

What explanation is there for your conversation, for your growth, and for your ministry? Who made you different, and why? It is God who revealed the gospel to you and drew you in. He is the sole explanation. This is to have a humbling effect on the heart of the Christian. These questions are an invitation to reflect on God’s grace. “What do you have that you did not receive?” This is a life-transforming question; and the answer is “absolutely nothing.” The gifts of God are everywhere in our lives, and we are not only undeserving, but ill-deserving recipients.

In 4:8, Paul shifts tone abruptly and unleashes a bitter diatribe, dripping with irony and sarcasm. He does not spare the rod; spoil the church. Listen to his words: “You are already filled [with spiritual wisdom and perfection], you have already become rich, you have become kings without us; and indeed, I wish that you had become kings so that we also might reign with you.” The first couple of clauses speak of the illusion that they need nothing more. The word “filled” means satiated or engorged. It has to do with eating a huge meal. They are so full they couldn’t eat another bite. The second phrase speaks of material wealth. They have everything they need. The Corinthians believe that they have it all. This describes their spiritual self-appraisal. They have a strong sense of having arrived in their Christian lives.

 

We face the danger of religious arrogance—believing ourselves to be spiritually filled and rich because we attend a Bible-teaching church, listen to Christian radio, spend money on a lot of resources at Christian book stores, and watch Christian television. Individually, we can pride ourselves on knowing a lot about the Bible. As fat, well-fed Christians, we can become puffed up with our own knowledge. That will evidence itself in argumentativeness when it comes to biblical or spiritual issues; that is, the love of theological debate for its own sake. Watch out for those signs of self-satisfied spirituality and impenetrable smugness.

This past year we took a church health survey. One of the findings of the survey was that 98.5% of us think we know what we believe and why. Now that can be a wonderful thing, if it is really true. But the disturbing thing is: We believe that only 75% of the church knows what they believe and why. This finding can suggest that as a church we are a bit judgmental and smug. We need to be aware of this so that we can humble our hearts before God and others. We must learn to be humble, broken, transparent, and vulnerable people.

In 4:9-13, Paul now begins to outline what his life is really like. It is a resume of suffering. If anything characterizes how he lives, it is suffering. Paul writes, “For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now.” 

 

In these five verses, Paul contrasts the apostles and the Corinthians. He explains that the apostles are a public spectacle to everyone. Furthermore, their lives will result in death. From the world’s perspective the apostles are “fools,” “weak,” and “without honor.” To make matters worse, they are hungry, thirsty, poorly clothed, roughly treated, homeless, and hard working. Who would ever sign up for this job? Very few! Paul also informs the Corinthians that the apostles understood how to respond when they were persecuted. They blessed, persevered, and encouraged. Regardless, they were still considered the “scum of the world, the dregs of all things.” The word “scum” means filth or rubbish. It’s what you sweep or scrape off of something that you’re cleaning. The word “dregs” means the scrapings-off of a plate after a meal. Paul says we’re garbage in the eyes of the world. That term has become common among young people; for instance, when they watch a highly-paid professional athlete make a mistake, they yell, “You’re a piece of garbage!”

This is what a person gets for following Christ in this life. It is not glamorous and there are few promises of prosperity, despite the teachings of Christian television. Yet, despite this seemingly discouraging resume of suffering, we need to be reminded that “prosperity has often been fatal to Christianity, but persecution never.”

 

Are you willing to follow the apostles in their suffering? Will you take on ridicule and rejection for Christ? How will you respond when your family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and acquaintances persecute you? Will you be gracious? Will you be respectful?

Paul concludes this first major section of the epistle (1:10-4:21) by reasserting his apostolic authority, which had led to his correcting the Corinthians’ shameful conduct and carnal theology. He changed the metaphor again, and now appealed to them as a father to his children. He ended by warning them that if they did not respond to his gentle approach he would have to be more severe. [We have seen that spiritual maturity requires humility and suffering. But what else does spiritual maturity require?]

 

  1. Spiritual maturity requires mimicking and mentoring(4:14-21). Paul informs us that if we are to grow spiritually we must follow an example and be an example. He writes, “I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children.” Paul wants to communicate that it is their values and behavior, not their personhoods that are unacceptable. By using the term “beloved” Paul is expressing respect as much as affection. He wants to instill in them a sense of self-worth that comes from God’s grace and power in their lives. The word in 4:14 that is translated “admonish” can also be translated “warn.” It’s what a father does in hopes that his children will see the error of their ways and change. It implies counsel and appeal. His desire isn’t to criticize and punish but to admonish and encourage. In this appeal to follow his corrective instruction he conveys a wonderful confidence that they can change and that they will want to.

 

The reason that Paul writes the way he does is because he is their spiritual father. In 4:15, Paul writes, “For if you were to have countless tutors in Christ, yet you would not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.” Paul states that the Corinthians have “countless tutors” but only one father. In Paul’s day a “tutor” (paidagogos) was the personal attendant who accompanied the child, took him to school and home again, heard him recite his lines, taught him good manners, and generally looked after him. The tutor was entitled to respect and normally received it, but there was no comparison between his relation to the boy and that of the boy’s father. Paul is saying, “I’m not your tutor, I’m your father! I have a personal, relational, familial interest in you.” Paul could make this claim because God used him to lead many of the Corinthians to faith in Christ. In our church, we need some spiritual fathers and mothers who will step up and help others grow in Christ. What if I telephoned this week and said, “I have a baby Christian who needs to grow. Can you help?” What would you say? Paul would say, “There’s only one right answer: be a father or mother.” Today, will you begin to look for one person who you can help in his or her spiritual walk?

 

Paul informs the Corinthians and us that he is still willing to be an example. In 4:16, Paul writes some surprising words: “Therefore I exhort you, be imitators of me.” Again, there is gentleness here. He is not laying down apostolic orders. He uses the word “exhort.” Exhortation doesn’t mean using a raised voice, with a finger wagging in someone’s face, saying, “You’d better shape up or else!” It literally means to call to one’s side. Exhortation means putting your arm around someone’s shoulder, walking along with them, saying, “Would you consider this? Can we talk about this?” That’s the appeal that Paul is making. He’s not boxing these people in; he’s giving them choice in the matter. He respects them.

 

However, Paul is confident in the Holy Spirit’s work in his life so he can declare, “Imitate me.” If you were to perform a word study, you would discover that the word translated “imitate” actually comes from the Greek word mimetai, from which we get the words mimic and mimeograph. Paul is urging people to mimic his life because he practices the things that he presses upon the Corinthians. If they watch him they will see that he does not glory in Greek wisdom. He does not live for human praise. Rather, he calls the Corinthians to a radically Christ like life. They are to give up their hankering for high status and accept the lowliness that Paul models. They are to welcome being regarded as fools for Christ, and as weak and dishonored. They are to return abuse with blessing, slander with conciliation, and to endure persecution (4:10-13). They are to recognize that all that they are and have comes to them as a grace-gift from God (3:10), and that they are not inherently extraordinary (4:7). They are to think of themselves as no better than menial field hands (3:5) and servants (4:1), awaiting God’s judgment to determine if they were faithful (4:5). They are to rid themselves of all resentments and rivalries with coworkers so that they can toil together in God’s field (3:5-9). They are to resist passing themselves off as wise or elite by using lofty words of wisdom or aligning themselves with those who do, and to rely instead on the power of God that works through weakness, fear, and trembling (2:1-4). The ultimate aim is not to be Paul-like, but Christ like (11:1).

Be careful to not perform a “spiritual skip” and blow right over this verse. God expects you and me to be worthy of imitation. In our marriage, family, work, school, and church, God wants us to be able to say, “Mimic me.” I recently saw a bumper sticker that said: “Dear Lord, save me from your followers.” Isn’t this sad? We should set out to change this bumper sticker to read: “Dear Lord, help me to mimic your followers.”

A young boy looked up at his grandfather and wondered aloud, “Grandpa, how do you live for Jesus?” The respected grandfather stooped down and quietly told the boy, “Just watch.” As the years went by the grandfather was an example to the boy of how to follow Jesus. He stayed rock-steady in living for Him. Yet the grandson often lived in a way that was not pleasing to God. One day the young man visited his grandfather for what both knew would be the last time. As the older man lay dying, his grandson leaned over the bed and heard his grandpa whisper, “Did you watch?” That was the turning point in the boy’s life. He understood that when his grandpa had said, “Just watch,” he meant, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” He vowed that from then on he would live as his grandfather did—striving to please Jesus. He had watched, and now he knew how to live.

Is somebody watching you? When people watch your life what do they see? What are your priorities? What are your views? Are there younger Christians who need to see that it is possible to live for Jesus every day and in every way? Challenge them—and yourself. Challenge them to “just watch.” Then show them the way.

 

One of Paul’s disciples, Timothy, exemplifies what the Corinthians are called to be. Therefore, Paul writes, “For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church” (4:17). The Christian life is spoken of as a “way” or “ways.” It is a manner of life or pattern of life, and is characterized as “the ways that are in Christ” (4:17). It is not a mere list of doctrines that we nod our heads to. It is a revolutionary way of life, or one that is intended to transform us. In order to pull off this kind of supernatural life we need mentors. Mentors are not optional, they are critical. Typically, those who are making great strides for God have mentors. To presume that you can become a mature Christian apart from learning from someone else is arrogant. Today, will you commit yourself to being a mentor and to being mentored? These are two commitments that will change your life forever. You will never look back on these decisions and say, “I wish I had not done this.” You will be changed from the inside out by investing in someone else and by being invested in.

In 4:18-20, Paul hunkers down and talks some good old-fashioned trash! Take a look at these words: “Now some have become arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I shall find out, not the words of those who are arrogant but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power.” The arrogance of the Corinthians is not in open rebellion against Paul’s authority. Their arrogant self-importance is like that of little children who have the house to themselves when the parents have slipped out for a minute. Paul warns them that the father will be coming home soon, and he had better find everything in order.

 

Some, supposing Paul would not come himself, have become inflated with self-importance. Paul warns them, “I’m on my way…you better be ready. Talk is cheap! You had better be able to back up your mouth!” Paul is saying, “Show me your power, not your talk.”

Arrogance will always misrepresent the truth, and arrogance will always fail in the end. Hot air will not avail much when action is required. Helium balloons are fun to play with the first day they are inflated. They rise effortlessly to the ceiling and remain there, colorful and out of reach. But after a few hours the helium begins to leak out and they descend to the floor. Paul is writing to a body of believers who are on a high. They are “balloon Christians.” But the time has come when they must either put up or shut up.

 

You may be thinking this is just too much. Paul is realizing a lot of pent-up anger and frustration. While it may seem like that, nothing could be further from the truth. Again, he is a spiritual father who loves the Corinthians. He simply wants what’s best for them. He knows that if he spares the rod, he will spoil the church. Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Ballard, WA likes to say, “HARD WORDS MAKE SOFT PEOPLE AND SOFT WORDS MAKE HARD PEOPLE.” This is the honest to goodness truth! If we love our church we will speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15).

 

Paul closes this section in 4:21 with these challenging words: “What do you desire? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love and a spirit of gentleness?” Paul may be small but he carries a big stick. He leaves the Corinthians with two options: the road or a spirit of gentleness. Which would you prefer? Why do you do what you do?

 

God wants us to respect Him because He is our Father. He loves us and wants what’s best for us. That’s why He will not spare the rod. Instead, He will teach us to humble ourselves before Him and depend upon Him for everything. May we follow in God’s footsteps and refuse to spare the rod and spoil the church.