Paul’s last words in 1 Corinthians

I received some good advice many years ago: “On any given Sunday, only one or two people really get it. Don’t be discouraged by the masses, instead focus on the one or two people that will truly get what you’re saying.” Today, I ask you this question: will you be one of the few that get it? Will you apply God’s Word to your life and be changed? We have finally reached the conclusion of the book of 1 Corinthians. We are about to wrap up this multiple month study. My prayer is that as we conclude this book we will all “get it.” In 1 Cor 16:13-24 Paul will suggest that love is the remedy for church ills. In this passage, Paul provides three elements of spiritual maturity.

  1. The Exhortations of Spiritual Maturity(16:13-14). In these opening two verses, Paul unveils five moral exhortations: “Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” These five exhortations are all present tense imperatives demanding continuous action. Therefore, we must recognize that God’s commands are not good advice. They are not optional. God’s commands are not like a cafeteria where we can pick or choose what we want. All five commands are incumbent upon the believer. The first four commands employ military metaphors to encourage resoluteness in the faith, while the final command summarizes the previous four.
  • Be on the alert.This command is a warning to watch out for those that seek to bring about division. Paul urges the Corinthians to be watchful regarding danger from inside as well as outside the church. Most of the problems in Corinth, and in most of our churches today, arise from within the congregation, so we must be especially alert. The expression “be on the alert” sometimes occurs with anticipation of the Lord’s coming, so that may have been in Paul’s thinking as well. We should expect the return of the Lord at any time, and our behavior should reflect the Lord’s values and should not be characterized by deeds of darkness.
  • Stand firm in the faith.This is a military image that urges the Corinthians “to hold their ground” and not retreat before an enemy. The command to “stand firm” has already served as the bookends for chapter 15 (15:2, 58). The phrase “the faith” here probably denotes both the body of Christian teachings and our own personal relationship with the Lord. Since there are many temptations out there that can cause us to depart from the faith we need to be vigilant and stand firm. Are you standing firm in the faith or are you like shifting sand?
  • Act like men and be strong. These next two commands should be taken together. The verbs are frequently combined in the Old Testament to exhort God’s people to have courage in the face of danger, especially from one’s enemies. The word Paul uses for “be strong” is in the passive in voice, meaning “be strengthened.” We cannot strengthen ourselves; that is the Lord’s work. Our part is to submit ourselves to Him. General George Patton summed it up well, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.”

The fifth and final command is the glue that holds the other four together. In 16:14, Paul exclaims,

  • Let all that you do be done in love. Paul makes his point especially clear by framing this letter’s closing: “Let all that you do be done in love” (16:14), and “My love be with you all in Christ Jesus” (16:24). This love involves both love for the Lord (16:22) and love for one another (16:24). Paul earlier challenged his readers with the fact that “knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies” (8:1). Love is the greatest motivating force for ethical behavior. The old saying is still true that “People need to know how much you care before they care how much you know.”

[What does love look like in the body of Christ? We don’t really have to speculate because Paul paints a picture of it for us in the next six verses.]

  1. The Characteristics of Spiritual Maturity(16:15-20). In these six verses, Paul shares five characteristics of spiritual maturity: service, submission, friendship, hospitality, and affection. All five of these are essential aspects of growing to maturity in the Lord and in our relationships with God’s people. In 16:15-20, Paul writes, “Now I urge you, brethren (you know the household of Stephanas, that they were the first fruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves for ministry to the saints), that you also be in subjection to such men and to everyone who helps in the work and labors. I rejoice over the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus, because they have supplied what was lacking on your part. For they have refreshed my spirit and yours. Therefore acknowledge such men. The churches of Asia greet you. Aquila and Priscilla greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house. All the brethren greet you. Greet one another with a holy kiss.” 

Let’s now consider the five characteristics of spiritual maturity.

  • Stephanas and his family were Paul’s first converts (“first fruits”) in Achaia, the province in which Corinth stood (1:16). They had given themselves selflessly to serving the Corinthians. They were probably loyal to Paul and may have been the source from which he received some of his information about conditions in this church. Verse 15 states that the household of Stephanas “devoted themselves for ministry to the saints.” The King James Version translates the verb “devoted” as “addicted.” I like this! They were serving in ministry so consistently, so regularly, that it was like an addiction; they were hooked on ministry. That’s not such a bad addiction, is it? Could anyone accuse you of this?
  • The Corinthians had a problem with submission to authority. They were competitive, stubborn, and even arrogant at times. Many in the church wanted to do their own thing. Verses 16-18 would have encouraged them to appreciate some less flashy servants of the Lord. Submission is not earned by holding an office; it’s earned by godly character and service. There’s no indication that Stephanas was a pastor, or even a church officer. He was apparently just an ordinary Christian with extraordinary love. But he deserves as much respect as pastors and elders. Mutual submission is a key theme of Spirit-filled living. All believers are to submit to each other (Eph 5:21). Service, not status, should be the basis for honor in the church. Are you submitting to the various servant leaders in our church? Do you esteem them above yourself? Do you seek creative ways to honor them?
  • Apparently, when the financial support for Paul’s missionary work dried up, Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus bailed him out. But even more meaningful is the fact that they “refreshed” his spirit. One of the finest compliments that can be paid of another Christian is to say that he or she is refreshing to be around, picks up your spirit, and encourages you to keep going. I know a lot of people in our church who are like that; I always feel better after being with them. They are a blessing to everyone they come in contact with.

Let me ask you: when you enter a room, is there more joy, peace, and love than before you arrived? When you leave, is the atmosphere and attitude better? Do you refresh your fellow-believers or bring them down? And let me ask another question: when you experience refreshment from other believers, how should you respond? Paul says, “Such people deserve recognition.” Thank them. Write them a note. Give them a hug and tell them how much they mean to you.

As a leader in our church, I occasionally have people tell me that they like our worship services but are not making friends in our church. They tend to assume it is the fault of our church. I used to take this personal until I began to notice a trend. Those individuals that approached me with this grievance didn’t want to be involved in a small group, an adult class, or in any type of service. It quickly dawned on me that that problem did not lie with us. It has been well said, “We don’t find friends, we make them.” Mobberly is a wonderful place to cultivate lifelong friendships, but we must invest in the body in order to reap the benefits.

  • Aquila and Priscilla opened up their home and hosted a church. According to the New Testament, this dynamic ministry couple lived in at least three different cities—Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome—and in all three places they had a church in their house. Furthermore, it was at their house that Paul stayed during his very first visit to Corinth, probably for more than a year and a half. There may be no greater tool for ministry than the Christian home. Because the home is a testing ground for the power of love and acceptance, it serves as a living demonstration of God’s love for those seeking to be part of God’s family.

By the way, as we consider these characteristics of spiritual maturity, it is worth noting that the entire household of Stephanas is recognized in 16:15. Parents, children learn love and service in the home, and they learn the lack of love and service there also. They learn hospitality as they see their parents practice it; they also learn to hold on to their stuff tightly as they watch parents who do that. As a parent, are you helping your children learn through observation and practice how to live out these characteristics?

Affection. Paul sees the custom of the holy kiss as a proper corrective to the cliquishness and bickering that characterized the church at Corinth. It could also serve as a remedy to the tremendous personal isolation that so many feel today. Why, then, has this custom of kissing one another on the cheek all but passed from the church? First, it faded because it was liable to abuse. Some people had trouble distinguishing holy kisses from other kinds. Second, it faded because the church became less and less of a fellowship. In the little house churches, where friend met with friend and all were closely bound together, it was the most natural thing in the world; but when the little fellowship turned into a vast congregation, and houses gave way to cathedrals, intimacy was lost and the holy kiss vanished with it. The kiss, of course, is not the important thing; a hug, or a warm two-handed handshake, or an arm around the shoulder can express the same feelings, and in some cultures might be more appropriate. The key is the love and intimacy that the gesture symbolizes. Who needs a hug or a holy kiss from you today? How will you communicate your love to others in the body of Christ? Love is the remedy for church ills.

[We have considered the exhortations and characteristics of spiritual maturity, but now Paul closes this passage and the entire book of 1 Corinthians with…]

  1. The Mark of Spiritual Maturity(16:21-24). Please notice that this third and final point is singular, not plural. In fact, in these four verses, Paul boils down everything that he has said in this passage and in this letter to a single word: LOVE. First, however, he provides a note in 16:21: “The greeting is in my own hand—Paul.” This verse indicates that this letter, like most of Paul’s letters, is written by a scribe. In our day, this is akin to an executive that dictates a letter to a secretary but signs it and adds a brief note at the bottom. The point is this: Paul picks up the quill and signs off this letter with a personal touch.

In 16:22, Paul’s personal touch is a verse with a curse: “If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed. Maranatha.” This verse is rather sobering! The word “accursed” means “devoted to destruction.” The question is: does Paul have in mind temporal or eternal destruction? Most scholars argue for the latter; however, there is no contextual reason to assume that Paul is now all of a sudden discussing unbelievers or false teachers. Rather, it seems that he is still addressing believers. True to form, some of the Corinthians do not love the Lord. Lack of love for the Lord refers to factiousness, self-seeking, strife, and carnality that practically denies one’s love for Christ. In this context it means lack of obedience to Him in such things as exalting human wisdom over the wisdom of the cross, tolerating incest, attending idol feasts, dividing over spiritual gifts, and abusing the Lord’s Supper. Those that fail to love the Lord and other believers will face God’s curse. This probably is exclusion from fellowship in the local church. The opposite of this is “Maranatha,” an Aramaic word that means, “Our Lord, come.” This is similar to John’s final words in Rev 22:20: “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Paul now prepares to close the book of 1 Corinthians. “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.” Paul concludes this strong but loving epistle with a prayerful benediction of God’s grace. This is the very same way that he began his letter: “Grace to you” (1:3). What a wonderful reminder that people need the grace of God, for without it they are hopeless. The most loving act that we can perform is to show people God’s grace. First, we must share God’s grace in salvation. This means informing people that God’s love is not based on our own merit but on Jesus Christ’s merit. We receive salvation the same way that we would receive a Christmas gift. We simply open up our hands, receive it, and then express gratitude. We must also be messengers and dispensers of grace to those who are believers. This means not only do we proclaim God’s grace in salvation, but we exemplify God’s grace in being gracious.

Paul’s parting words are found in 16:24, “My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen” The last sentence of the letter, written in Paul’s own hand, reaffirms his love for all the Corinthians—despite their failings, despite their arrogance. Although Paul knew some pretty ornery people in the Corinthian church, and some of them made his life difficult, he sends his love to all of them.

Paul wrote thirteen letters, yet this is the only one that he ends with an affirmation of his love for his readers. It’s amazing when you think of the church to which he expressed it. This was the church that resisted him the most, that was the most fractured in its love life. But he says, “I love you,” not just in himself but because of the relationship with Christ that has transformed his life. Out of that he can express his love for the church, because he knows that’s the only kind of love that lasts, the only kind of love that makes a difference, the only kind of love that’s tough enough to survive in the face of the personal rejection and insult he has experienced from this church.

Who do you need to express love to today? Who do you need to forgive? Who do you need to come alongside of? Who do you need to serve or to reach out to? Our church will advance when we show love for one another. As Jesus said, “All men will know that we are His disciples by the love that we have for one another” (John 13:34-35, paraphrase).

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Unwrap your gift and use it!

I want you to stop for just a moment and think back on all of your Christmas celebrations. When you were growing up, can you recall a Christmas where you really wanted a particular gift? In your childish ways you didn’t just request this gift, you nearly demanded it. You felt like your life would not be complete if you didn’t receive this gift. You wanted this gift so badly that you could taste it.

Imagine that instead of opening THAT gift with exuberance and gratitude you opened the package, yawned, said “ho-hum,” and casually laid the gift aside without expressing any gratitude. How do you think the gift givers would have felt? They would have been devastated after spending time and money locating this gift for you. If it was from your parents, they were excited to bless you with this gift and watch you put it to use.

Now imagine how the Lord must feel when He gives gifts to His children and they never make the effort to find out what the gifts are, never thank Him, and never put them to use. It must be incredibly disappointing to the Lord to see so many of the gifts that He has given shelved away and never used or shared with others.

Today, I’d like to see us put an end to this common phenomenon. In 1 Cor 12:1-11, Paul is going to tell you to unwrap your gift and use it to serve others. This passage addresses the topic of spiritual gifts that runs all the way through chapter 14. In these verses, Paul expresses two realities to you and me to encourage us to unwrap your gift and use it to serve others. Like a wide-eyed child in pajamas on Christmas morning, let’s begin to unwrap these verses on spiritual gifts.

  1. Jesus is the validation of spirituality(12:1-3). Before Paul launches into his discussion on spiritual gifts, he wants to focus first on the common work of the Spirit in each one of our lives. In 12:1, Paul lays down a basic introduction to the paragraph and indeed the next three chapters. Paul indicates his concern that the Corinthians not be ignorant of certain truths about the things of the Spirit. Paul writes, “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware.” The phrase, “Now concerning,” reminds us that Paul is responding to another question from the Corinthians. It is worth noting that the word “gifts” is in italics, meaning that it is not in the original text. Thus, the noun “spiritual” (pneumatikos) can be rendered “spiritual gifts,” “spiritual persons,” or “spiritual things.” It is likely that “gifts” and “persons” were so closely connected in the Corinthians’ minds that Paul used the word “spiritual” to imply both. Perhaps the question could be restated as follows: “Don’t the spiritual gifts prove that we are spiritual persons?”

Remember, the Corinthians were the most gifted church in the Scriptures while at the same time the most carnal church in the Scriptures. They were a church of divisions, immorality, and distortion in doctrine. This serves to remind us that a great spiritual gift is no indication of spirituality. It is possible to be gifted and not spiritual. In this case, the Corinthians were getting high on their spiritual giftedness instead of recognizing the source of the gift—Jesus Christ. As a result, Paul informs the Corinthians that he does not want them to be “unaware” or “ignorant.”

As we progress throughout chapters 12-14, we shall see that the Corinthians are emphasizing the gift of tongues above everything else. Therefore, Paul has to bring about order in the church and remind the Corinthians that all of God’s people have gifts and all are equally valuable to the health and vitality of the church.

In 12:2-3, Paul discusses three different responses to Christ: the rejection of the pagan, the rejection of the Jew, and the faith of the Christian. Paul is clarifying who possesses the Spirit and who does not. In 12:2, Paul reminds the Corinthians of their idolatry during their pre-Christian lives. He writes, “You know that when you were pagans, you were led astray to the mute idols, however you were led.” Many of the Corinthian believers had been pagans. These Gentiles worshipped various idols that could not speak or help. A second response is the rejection of the Jews. In 12:3a, Paul writes, “Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus is accursed’” Here, Paul speaks of the typical response of the Jews. Not all of the Corinthians were Gentiles before believing in Christ…some were Jews who did not believe that Jesus Christ was the Messiah. The final response is found in 12:3b, where Paul writes, “…and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” To say that Jesus is “Lord” is to say that He is God. In the context of the Jewish world and the OT, this confession essentially affirmed that Jesus was God. This was a counter-cultural assertion. A citizen of the Roman Empire was required to declare, “Caesar is Lord.” But Christians who believed that Jesus was the only Lord couldn’t say this. It was really a challenge to faith. Thus, Paul’s point is this: No one can say that Jesus is Lord except through the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a supernatural act.

Why does Paul bring up these three responses to Christ? He does so to refute the claims of those Corinthians who assume that they alone possessed the Spirit. Paul wants all of his readers to understand that salvation is the greater leveler. Every member of the Corinthian church who has trusted in Christ is indwelt by the Holy Spirit and is incredibly valuable to God. This is also true in our church today. If you have believed in Christ, it is because God did a supernatural work in your life.

[Paul is clear: Jesus is the validation of spirituality. Now in 12:4-11, Paul is going to explain another reality.]

  1. Variety is the spice of church(12:4-11). In this section, there are three emphases: the source of our gifts, the goal of our gifts, and the distribution of our gifts. First, in 12:4-6, we will see the source of our gifts from the triune God. Paul writes, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons.” Paul tells the Corinthians that there’s not a single gift or even a one-size-fits-all box of gifts that believers are given. In these three verses, Paul uses the word translated “varieties” three times because God loves variety. Every snowflake, every set of fingerprints, every leaf on every tree, and every grain of sand is different from every other. God never makes an exact replica. Instead, God says we are wonderfully different from one another. And He encourages diversity in His church by gifting each one of us uniquely for ministry. Yet, in spite of this variety believers are united by the same God. Each member of the Trinity (the Tri-Unity of God) has a role in spiritual gifts: the Holy Spirit distributes the gifts, the Lord Jesus places people in ministry, and God the Father empowers people to do ministry. In light of these biblical truths, there are three responses.
  1. First, you must discover what spiritual gift the Holy Spirit has given you(12:4). The Greek word for “gift” is charisma, from which we get our English words charisma and charismatic. The charispart of the word means “grace.” The ma portion of the word is the passive suffix meaning that it is grace given. They are “grace gifts” that enable a person to glorify and serve God. The one who exercises his or her gifts could rightly be called charismatic. (So charismatic is not a name for just a few of the gifts.) These grace gifts are not earned; they are not the result of hard work; they are not even ones we choose for ourselves. And they may, or may not, be related to our natural skill set. Remember, God has not gifted you to do what you want to do; He has gifted
  2. you to do what He wants you to do. The grace gift(s) that God has chosen in His sovereignty to grant you are expressions of His love. In the exercise of your spiritual gift from God you will find fulfillment

That’s why the question, “What is my spiritual gift?” is so important. Unless you know the answer, you’ll never be 100% effective in your service for Jesus Christ. You may spend your life doing something for which you were not gifted by God and so be frustrated and ineffective. It’s sort of like taking one of those big offensive linemen and putting him out at wide receiver. He can’t run and his hands are like bricks. But put him at left guard and he’s right at home, because he was born to knock other men on their backside. In the same way, some people throw up when they are forced to go door-to-door witnessing. They aren’t gifted in evangelism. But put those same people over the finances and because they have the gift of administration, they are incredibly successful. There are others who could never get up and teach a class, but they know how to lead a small group because they have the gift of pastoring. Still others work behind the scenes caring for the sick, bringing over meals, comforting those in sorrow. They have the gift of mercy, but don’t ask them to speak in public. The very thought makes them break out in hives.

So take the time to discover your spiritual gift. Begin today by carrying out these four steps:

  1. Pray specifically for God to reveal your gift.
  2. Ask mature Christians who know you what strengths they see in you.
  3. Look for open doors of opportunities to try different areas.
  4. Follow the desires of your heart.

I challenge you today to unwrap your gift and use it to serve others.

  1. Second, you must plug into ministry (12:5). Jesus died to give you the gift (charisma) of eternal life, but He also died so that you could serve Him with your spiritual gift (charisma). When you and I fail to do so, we fail to carry out one of the purposes in His death. God has given you a spiritual gift to benefit others around you. That is why it is a tragedy if you don’t know what your spiritual gift is, if you’re not in the process of finding out what it is, or if you’re not using your gift for the body. That means the body of Christ is not benefiting from your supernatural endowment. God wants to know, “Who is benefiting from the gift that I gave you?”

Now I need to state that the discovery of spiritual gifts flows out of service. Whenever you see God gift His people, it’s because He has given them a task to perform, not vice versa. The problem is that we have a generation of Christians who sit, soak, and sour every week waiting for God to reveal their gifts to them before they get busy serving. These people will never discover their gifts. Instead of “gift-hunting” these folks need to be “Spirit-hunting.”

What is more important than serving in the area of your spiritual gift? The answer is simple: exhibiting a servant’s heart. This means showcasing initiative and reliability. My wife is the ultimate servant. She rarely if ever asks me to do anything. She serves me like I am a king. But once a year or so, she asks me to do something for her. Of course, I am glad to do so. But what I really love is to do something for her when she doesn’t ask me to do anything. It could be a simple task like make dinner, fold the laundry, vacuum the house, or make a child’s bed. There is great joy in serving when you are not asked.

It is also worth pointing out that one of the greatest pleasures in this life is serving others. Research indicates that serving has an overwhelmingly positive impact on one’s spiritual growth. Furthermore, church members state that serving others has brought them as much or more joy than other spiritual disciplines. I would also add to this research my own conclusion that the only people who are ever fulfilled or content in a local church are those that are actively serving. I rarely, if ever, receive complaints or whining from those on the front lines of ministry. Hence, one great reason to serve is to live a fulfilled life.

  1. Third, you must depend upon God for the results (12:6). The Father Himself is responsible for the variety of effects. Literally, the word is “energizings.” That means, logically, that we are not responsible. It takes a great weight off of us when we are trying to serve the Lord in ministry. What we are called to is faithfulness in exercising our gifts in the places where Christ directs us. Then God takes full responsibility for the eternal impact.

Is it possible for someone to walk in the Spirit without exercising his or her gift? Absolutely not. The Holy Spirit will reveal Himself in a special way through you, through the exercise of your gift. To refuse to use your gift is to say “No” to the Holy Spirit and to deprive His church of blessing. Many of us have underestimated the consequences of refusing to serve in our personal lives. God disciplines His children for a lack of participation. Therefore, unwrap your gift and use it to serve others.

Now that Paul has described the source of our spiritual gifts, he gives the purpose of spiritual gifts. In 12:7, he writes, “But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” This is the key verse in this section. Paul again reminds us that we have been given a spiritual gift for the benefit of others. Unfortunately, too many Christians are like young children with their Christmas gifts. They have their stash, and they do not want their brothers or sisters to touch their gifts. The parents have to spend part of Christmas playing referee because of the children’s unwillingness to share a gift. In most cases, those children added nothing to the purchase of their gifts. They made no contribution to what was under that Christmas tree, yet they hoard their gifts as if they personally bought and paid for them.

Is your church stronger because of you? Nutritionists speak of “empty calories.” In order for these calories to be processed the body must use some of its nutritional resources, yet empty calories do little or nothing to nourish the body in return. Calories from other types of food, however, that only take from the body’s strength as they are metabolized, replenish it.

Do you receive more ministry from the church than you minister to it? I wonder what needs, long-term or temporary, God is going to meet by placing you here at Mobberly? Have you asked yourself that question? God intends for every member of the church body to be served by it, and there are times when even the most spiritually mature members will receive more ministry than they give. Nevertheless, the goal for each of us should be to serve in the church in such a way that it is stronger because we are there.

Everyone who really wants to can do something to strengthen the work of the church. I’ve visited many homebound or nursing home Christians who maintained a ministry even though they could never attend the church. They prayed faithfully, some even as a part of the church’s prayer ministry. Some have a ministry of encouragement through cards or calls; still others are determined to be an encourager to all who visit them. Some of our seniors tirelessly volunteer at our church. They are not retired, they are “refired” to serve the Lord. Regardless of your limitations of time, strength, or money, your church should be stronger because of you.

Are you a consistent worker or a convenience worker? Too many people have decided that they will serve in the church only occasionally and when it’s convenient. They are convenience workers rather than consistent workers. The church needs servants: people who will make long-term commitments and be dependable. The classic example is a Sunday school or Bible study teacher. She or he prepares faithfully every week and serves God in His church, loyally and steadfastly. Of course many other ministries require the same regular commitment. No church can be effective without people like this. However, there is a lack of commitment in the church. Fewer people want to commit to an ongoing ministry. More and more leaders hear, “I’ll help out when I can,” and “Call on me when you really need me.” Yet the truth is most of us want the benefits of the nursery, the benefits of teaching, and the benefits of children’s ministry without being involved.

The late Bud Wilkinson served as the chairman of the President’s Council for physical fitness during the Johnson administration. Someone once asked Wilkinson what role professional football had played in America’s physical fitness. Wilkinson responded with these words, “Absolutely none. In football you have 22 players on the field desperately in need of rest being cheered on by 50,000 spectators in the stands desperately in need of exercise!” Unfortunately, that is true in many local churches. The members see the pastoral staff as the “players” in ministry but view themselves as merely spectators. If the church is doing well, the members cheer. If the church begins to decline, the cheers quickly turn to jeers. That may make for exciting football, but it is a lousy way to run a church. Paul says God’s pattern for the church is that every member be involved in ministry.

In 12:8-10, Paul brings out the idea of the diversity of the gifts as he lists nine of them. When we look at the list as a whole several characteristics emerge: (1) The gifts would have been prominent in the worship service. (2) They are the gifts most frequently referred to by people today as “miraculous.” (3) Many of the gifts are directly related to speech and revelation. (4) It follows that we would find little continuity between these gifts and any abilities possessed before one becomes a Christian. In these verses, it is not Paul’s desire to explain what he means by each and every gift listed. They are simply enumerated to show the diversity involved in the Spirit’s work.

However, I will quickly explain the gifts without bogging down into too much explanation or controversy.

The word of wisdom: God-given insight into the mysterious purposes and workings of God.

The word of knowledge: God-given insight into what God is doing in the world.

Faith: the ability to confidently believe God for changes and spiritual growth that will enhance the purposes of God. A person with this gift is quick to believe God for things they may never see.

Healing: the faith to believe God for healing. Individuals can serve as agents of God’s healing power.

Effecting of miracles: gives a person the ability to call on God to do supernatural acts. The best use of this gift is that of believing God for miracles that will bring glory to Him and cause others to consider God’s will for their lives. This gift can refer to miraculous healings but also to the casting out of demons and other “signs and wonders.”

Prophecy: a declaration of God’s will to God’s people. Prophecy is for edification and encouragement and does not necessarily exclude teaching and doctrine (14:3, 31).

Distinguishing of spirits: the ability to know when truth or error is being spoken and whether a prophet is a true or false one.

Various kinds of tongues: the ability to speak in a Holy Spirit inspired language. It is worth noting that the gift of tongues is last in Paul’s list. This is true whenever Paul mentions tongues in 1 Corinthians. One thing we should acknowledge is that Paul considered “tongues” to be a natural part of worship; however, he did not expect that everyone would have the gift of tongues.

The interpretation of tongues: the ability to interpret tongues.

While you may not have any of these miraculous gifts, stick around until next week and you will learn about some other gifts. But don’t bog down in what your gift is…just serve.

Paul closes our passage in 12:11 with these words: “But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.” This is a great summary of this whole section. It’s also the fifth reference to the Holy Spirit as the giver of gifts. Paul emphasizes once again that every believer is spiritually gifted. These gifts are not for some spiritual elite, but the entire body of Christ. We are all gifted. We are all called by the Lord to minister with the gifts He has supplied.

Each believer, regardless of his or her gifts, ministries, and the manner and extent of God’s blessing, demonstrates the Holy Spirit through his or her life. All three of these things manifest the Spirit’s presence, not just the more spectacular ones in each category. Believers who have spectacular gifts, ministries, or effectiveness are not necessarily more spiritual than Christians who do not. Each believer makes a unique contribution to the common good, not just certain believers.

The story is told of a boy who did his household chores and left his mother this note: “For cleaning my room, $5…For washing the dishes, $3…For raking the leaves, $10…Total: $18. You owe me, Mom.” The mother read the note while the boy was at school and put $18 on the table. With it she left her own note: “For bearing you nine months in the womb, throwing up for three months, no charge. For cooking your breakfast every day, no charge. For washing and ironing your clothes, no charge. For staying up all night when you were sick, no charge. Total: Grace.” When the boy read that note, he ran to his mother and asked, “What more can I do to let you know I am grateful?”

Our salvation cost a lot, but it was no charge to us. In grace, God has given us eternity. In grace, He has given us forgiveness. In grace, He has done more for us than we could ever do for ourselves. One thing you can do to show your gratitude is to pray, “Holy Spirit, as I serve the family of God, show me how You have gifted me. Reveal to me what supernatural enablement You have given me that I can use for the common good of my brothers and sisters in the family of God.” He’ll answer that prayer every time!

Taking care of God’s family – Lord’s Supper

The most powerful title or position I’ll ever hold is “Dad.” I absolutely love being a dad to my three children. It is a privilege and a joy. I concur with Bill Cosby who said, “Nothing I’ve ever done has given me more joys and rewards than being a father to my children.” As a father, the greatest gift I can receive is when another person blesses one of my children. Similarly, the most hurtful thing anyone can do to me is to hurt one of my children. If there is anything that is capable of bringing out my wrath, it is this. What is especially hurtful is when one of my children hurts another one of my children. Worse yet, when one of my boys hurts his little sister.

Did you know that God the Father feels the same way I do? He absolutely loves being a dad. He cares about each of His children in the deepest way imaginable. But what grieves Him is when one of His children hurts another one of His children. Worse yet, when one of His children who has been given much dishonors one who has little.

We will discover that God will not tolerate divisions and distinctions within His body—the church. The reason is simple: God is dead serious about His body. In 1 Cor 11:17-34, Paul provides three exhortations for us to follow.

 

  1. Include the entire body of Christ in worship(11:17-22). In these first six verses, Paul rebukes the church at Corinth for being divided. Paul begins this section in 11:17 with sobering words: “But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse.” The conjunction “but” serves to contrast the worship events of 11:17-34 with 11:2-16. Ironically, the very equality the Corinthians were misusing in 11:2-16 was resolutely denied when it came to the observance of the Lord’s Supper. This is confirmed by the use of the verb “praise.” In 11:2, Paul praised the Corinthians because they remembered him in everything and maintained the teachings he passed on to them. But in 11:17 (cf. 11:22) he does not praise them on account of their class divisions (see 11:18). Instead, he declares that they “come together not for the better but for the worse.”

The verb translated here “come together” (sunercomai) is used five times in this passage (11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34). Elsewhere, the verb refers to either coming or going with one or more persons (i.e., to travel together with someone). Additionally, sunercomai is used in sexual contexts to describe coming together to unite in an intimate relationship. Hence, with more than a sprinkling of irony, Paul repeatedly describes the Corinthians as coming together in one location, knowing full well that their eating was anything but “together” as a unified body. Thus, the very ritual that was intended to celebrate the gospel and symbolically act out their oneness in Christ had become an occasion for splitting the church on the basis of status. This explains why Paul stated that the Corinthians “come together not for the better but for the worse.”

Paul now explains this problem further in 11:18: “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it.” The phrase “in the first place” is emphatic since no “second” follows. First and last on Paul’s mind are the “divisions” that are taking place in Corinth. It is for this reason that Paul cannot praise the Corinthians. Instead of treating one another with brotherly love and acting as the family of God, there are divisions among them. What Paul has in mind is a division between those who have more than enough to eat and drink at the Lord’s Supper and those who have insufficient quantities. This is evident from the contrast in 11:21-22 between “one who is hungry” and “one who is drunk.” In 11:22, Paul identifies a group within the church as the “have-nots,” whose members are humiliated by the actions of their counterparts. This deeply grieves the heart of God for God is dead serious about His body.

As in 11:18, Paul explains himself further in 11:19: “For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you.” “Factions” or “divisions” can have a positive side. They serve to clarify whom God approves as faithful and who are not. God’s approval (dokimoi) contrasts with what Paul had written earlier about being disapproved (adokimos; 9:27) by God. Thus, “the approved” are those who behave in a Christian manner and thus stand out from the ones who do not. Mature Christians will become evident in times of crisis.

The indictment of 11:17-19 is expanded in 11:20-22. Yet, before we read these verses we need to make sure we understand how the Corinthians are abusing the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper was usually part of a meal the early Christians shared together—the “love feast.” In Corinth, instead of sharing their food and drinks, each family was bringing its own and eating what it had brought. The result was that the rich had plenty but the poor had little and suffered embarrassment as well. This was hardly the picture of Christian love and unity. They were eating their own private meals rather than sharing a meal consecrated to the Lord. Furthermore, some with plenty of wine to drink were evidently drinking too heavily.

Now with this scenario in mind, read Paul’s words in 11:20-21: “Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk.” Paul provides a glaring contrast in these verses. Instead of partaking of the Lord’s Supper, the Corinthians devour their food while the poor go hungry. The idea here is not eating first, but refusing to share food and drink. Furthermore, the grammar suggests that the “devouring” took place during the meal itself. Thus, the wealthy members of the Corinthian church were guilty of gluttony and drunkenness while the poor went without (11:21). This notion can also be supported from the customary practice at Greco-Roman banquets where wealthy hosts—those with homes large enough to host the communal meal—would have assigned the biggest and best portions of food to the more privileged.

Nevertheless, Paul did not tolerate what was socially acceptable in ancient Corinth.

He closes out this section in 11:22 with a series of rhetorical questions, creating a strong rhetorical appeal. Paul exclaims, “What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you.” Paul is grieved at the behavior of the church; therefore, his words are flavored with a righteous indignant anger. The response of the Corinthians should be repentance. Whatever the precise circumstances, a meal designed to express unity was being so abused as to highlight the disunity of this church. The cliquish behavior of the Corinthians reflected significant social and economic differences; thus, members who brought nothing with them to the meal were being humiliated and going hungry, while those who could bring plenty to eat and drink, enjoyed their own food without sharing it. What should have been an inclusive community meal had become an occasion for simultaneously private meals. This was an affront to Christ and His gospel.

I wish divisions and partiality were problems only in first-century Corinth, but I am sure they are alive and well in the 21st century at Mobberly. Do we prefer certain people over others? Do we gravitate toward those who have money or are successful by the world’s standards? Do we only want to socialize with those who are like us? Why do we struggle so to reach out to those who are different than we are? Our prayer must be that we will not allow any kind of prejudice, whether social, racial, generational, or cultural, to control our attitudes toward anyone in the body of Christ. We must always remember that God is dead serious about His body. [As a loving and impartial Father, God calls us to include all of His children in worship.]

  1. Recapture the significance of the Lord’s Supper(11:23-26). In 11:23-26, Paul gives a brief theology of the Lord’s Supper. In doing so, he reminds us to remember that the Lord’s Supper pictures Christ’s self-sacrifice on behalf of His people. Paul writes, “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’” Twice in these verses, Paul urges the Corinthians to remember the death of Christ. By partaking of the bread and the cup, we remember that Jesus Christ took our hell that we might have His heaven. It is His “body on our behalf.” The Lord’s Supper is God’s way of getting us to keep the cross of Christ central in the life of the church. We use the Lord’s Supper to draw close to Jesus in gratitude for what He has done for the entire church through His cross. As we draw near to Him through His Supper, He will draw near to us.

Many couples renew their marriage vows on an anniversary of their wedding. Some couples plan large celebrations; others simply renew their vows before each other. Either way, this act declares a confirmation of original vows and a commitment to continued faithfulness. But we can also think of the new covenant with the tenderness and devotion of renewed marriage vows. Unlike a human marriage, however, the new covenant represents God’s declaration of His devotion and commitment, even though the other covenant partner, His people, had not remained faithful. When we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we remember what Jesus has done for us in spite of ourselves.

Paul closes this section by stating, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (11:26). The proclamation of the Lord’s Supper is to show forth the Lord’s death until He comes. By means of the Lord’s Supper the Corinthians are to show in a physical way the death of Jesus and what it accomplished for their salvation and corporate fellowship. The result should be that the Corinthians will not overindulge themselves, despise and shame others, or allow brothers and sisters to go hungry. To do less is the epitome of selfishness.

A well-known painting of the Vietnam Wall depicts a young widow and her daughter standing at the wall, reaching up and touching the name of the husband and father who died. The reflection in the polished granite is not of the mother and daughter but of the husband and father reaching out his hand to touch theirs. That is the Lord’s Supper. We arrive at the table and reach out our hands to take the bread and the cup. In response to our act of faith, Jesus touches us. The significance of the Lord’s Supper is this: We remember Christ and proclaim Him because He laid down His life for us. If you have never believed in Jesus Christ’s person and work, please do so today. [Our loving and impartial Father wants us to remember and proclaim the great sacrifice of His Son.]

  1. Judge yourself to avoid God’s judgment(11:27-32). In this section, Paul warns us against abusing the Lord’s Supper. In 11:27-29 he writes, “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly.” The opening word “therefore” (cf. 10:12; 11:33) indicates that Paul is now resuming his main discussion from 11:22. Furthermore, he is drawing a conclusion from what he has said and giving an explanation to his teaching. Since the Lord’s Supper is a proclamation of Christ’s death (11:23-26), eating and drinking “unworthily” is unconscionable. The word rendered “unworthily” (KJV) or “unworthy manner” (NASB, NIV, NKJV) is not an adjective describing the condition of the one partaking of communion, but an adverb, describing the manner in which one partakes of the Lord’s Supper. The sin of the Corinthians, for which divine discipline was imposed, was related to the manner in which the Lord’s Supper was observed.

The Corinthians are not commanded to examine themselves to see whether or not they are Christians, but to see if they are properly discerning the body of Christ. There is likely a double-entendre in 11:29 with the reference to “the body,” referring literally to Jesus’ physical body “which is for you” (cf. 11:24), and the church as the Lord’s corporate body, which was being divided by the Corinthian attitude (cf. 11:17-22). In other words, one who treats fellow believers poorly fails to discern that they are members of Christ’s church, His body. One may also fail to discern the significance of Christ’s death since by His death He created a people; and therefore one who mistreats fellow believers at the Lord’s Supper reveals that he or she has little understanding of why Christ died.

Practically speaking, this means that if you are not in fellowship with another believer strive to resolve the schism in your relationship before you partake of the Lord’s Supper. In Matt 5:23-24, Jesus told His disciples not to worship God until you have first reconciled with your brother. Fortunately, Paul provides a supplementary note when he writes, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom 12:18). It’s not always possible to attain this, but God’s goal is that there not be any outstanding balance in your fellowship bank account. Instead, we are to pursue peace.

Paul now applies the general truths of 11:27-29 specifically to the situation at Corinth. In 11:30 Paul writes, “For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep.” The judgment here is physical and it is progressive: weakness, sickness, death. The word “weak” refers to illness of any kind (depression, anxiety?) while the term “sick” refers to weakness and on-going poor health. The verb “sleep” refers to the death of a believer. Paul is dealing with illness as a physical divine judgment; but not all illness is. These verses apply only if and when the problems of weakness, sickness, and death are problems resulting from divine discipline because of unconfessed sin.

It has been said, “God has been known to give ‘dishonorable discharges.’” In other words, eventually, God says, “Enough is enough. Your time is up!” Why does God do this? For the simple reason that He loves us and wants to ensure that we are in fellowship with Him. Since pain gets our attention, He uses pain. “Sometimes Christ sees that we need sickness for the good of our souls more than healing for the good of our bodies.” But even when He resorts to this form of discipline, He does so because He loves us. God is dead serious about His body.

Paul continues his argument in 11:31-32 with two powerful truths. First, in 11:31 Paul writes, “But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged.” Paul clearly states that the Corinthians will not be judged if they judge themselves. His logic here seems to be: Judge yourselves so that the Lord will not have to. Our goal must be to judge the sin in our own lives before God has to expose it. We must humble ourselves before we are humbled or humiliated. I don’t know about you, but I have enough issues in my life to keep me busy.

Yet, we are so good at judging others. Some of us look down on people who listen to worldly music, watch R-rated movies, drink alcohol, dance, play cards, spend money on things we wouldn’t buy, etc. The ability to see sin in others and ignore it in your own heart is one of the distinguishing characteristics of a Pharisee, and being a Pharisee is so easy. It’s great to make rules to guide our own behavior, but when we extend those rules to everyone around us, we’re in danger of becoming pharisaical.

A second truth is found in 11:32 where Paul writes, “But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world.” The verbs “judged” and “disciplined” are both present tense verbs indicating on-going activity. This suggests that the goal of God’s discipline is remedial. This is the difference between discipline and punishment. Discipline is for the good of another; punishment is to extract a pound of flesh. God disciplines us because He is a loving Father (Heb 12:5-11). He desperately wants our good.

One man asked his middle child how he knew the father loved him. He was shocked with his response. He said, “Dad, I know that you love me because you always discipline me.” This is the fruit of fatherhood. God knows our biological children will never mature apart from biblical discipline. Likewise, God disciplines us so that we will mature spiritually. Apart from His discipline we will never mature. And if we are not disciplined, the Bible indicates that we are illegitimate children (Heb 12:8). Hence, we should welcome discipline as a sign that a loving Father cares about us.

Scripture speaks of three levels of God’s chastening, or discipline:

  • Plan A—Internal Chastening. In this level, God deals with us in our hearts and nobody knows it is happening except us. If God is disciplining you at this moment, that is the best way to have your problem solved. One of my daily prayers is, “Lord, humble me so that you don’t have to humble me.” If you and I can come to the place that God puts his finger on something, and you can say, “Thank you, Lord, for loving me this much,” you are judging yourself. If this level of discipline is not effective, God moves to…
  • Plan B—External Chastening. In this level the consequences of our sin become obvious because God’s discipline goes public. This is where Jonah ran from the Lord, and God chastened him. He was not weak or sick. Plan B led to being swallowed by the fish. Had Jonah not surrendered to God’s will the second time, God had another plan. If this second level of discipline fails, God will up the ante.
  • Plan C—Terminal Chastening. In this level, God calls the believer home prematurely.

The proper course of action from the Corinthians should be to honor and respect their fellow believers. Paul concludes this passage in 11:33-34 with these words: “So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you will not come together for judgment. The remaining matters I will arrange when I come.” The verb “come together” harkens back to 11:17 and serves to bracket this unit. Paul then provides a direct answer to the issues raised in 11:21. Instead of some gorging themselves while others go hungry, each should share what they have, and all should eat together. In this way the Corinthians reflect the unity of the body (“they judge rightly,” 11:29), and avert the judgment of God.

The phrase translated “wait for one another” more likely means “welcome one another.” If the Corinthians merely “wait for one another” the problem at hand is not corrected. The crisis in Corinth is that the poor are without food. The rich “waiting” for the poor to arrive and then partaking together will not remedy this difficulty. Fortunately, this translation issue is ironed out when it is recognized that when ekdechomai (“wait for”) is used of persons, it usually means “to take or receive from another” or “to entertain.” In this specific context, it seems appropriate that Paul’s command should be translated, “Care for one another!” “Receive one another warmly!” “Grant one another table fellowship!” “Show hospitality to one another!” Thus, in this context Paul is perhaps instructing the Corinthians, as his summary statement, to receive each other as equal members of the body of Christ.

The command to “eat at home” connects to Paul’s first warning that the Corinthians are worse off for having gathered together (11:17). If they are intent only on indulging their appetites, then they should stay at home. If the church’s gathering is to be meaningful it has to be an expression of real fellowship, which includes sharing.

Paul’s words in Rom 12:10 sum up this entire passage: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor.” God is dead serious about His body, so may we live out the Scriptures in obedience to Him.

 

Keeping our community out of jeopardy

Many years ago, Danny Villegas robbed a bank and was sentenced to 70 months in a federal penitentiary. Surprisingly, Villegas decided he liked prison life so much that he committed another crime, just so he could return! Villegas walked inside a Federal Credit Union in Florida and told the teller he was robbing her, adding, “You might as well call the police right now.” He then sat down on a couch in the lobby and waited for police to arrive. Villegas had worked as a roofer in Texas for five years, but had grown tired of the work. As an unemployed roofer, he decided he preferred prison over trying to find another job.

Perhaps many of us are more like Danny Villegas than we care to admit. Either consciously or subconsciously, we prefer to take the easy way out. Instead of working to bless God and others, we choose a selfish prison of our own making. Instead of giving God the worship that He alone deserves, we worship ourselves. Instead of serving others, we seek our own good. When this takes place there is community jeopardy.

In 1 Cor 10:14-11:1, Paul is going to conclude a three-chapter discussion on the freedom that God has given Christians. The passage falls into two major sections. In 1 Cor 10:14-22 there is a stern warning and in 1 Cor 10:23-11:1 there is empathic counsel on how to use our freedom to God’s glory, for the good of other people. Paul is going to tell us that true freedom is putting God and others first. Paul first supplements this idea with a warning.

 

  1. Flee idolatry or fight God(1 Cor 10:14-22). In this first section, Paul informs us that idolatry is sin because God is the only true God, and He is a jealous lover who will not share our affections with anyone or anything else. In 1 Cor 10:14, Paul begins with a straightforward command: “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.” The word “therefore” concludes the previous discussion (1 Cor 8:1-10:13) and moves toward a conclusion. Interestingly, Paul calls his readers “my beloved,” even though they are practicing idolatry. Now I can think of a lot of names by which the Corinthians could be identified or described, but “beloved” is not one of them. Yet, Paul loves these saints (cf. 1 Cor 1:2). Thus, he wants to remind his readers how precious they are to him even when he speaks harshly to them.

 

As a teacher, I occasionally feel at least a shred of guilt for going through particularly challenging portions of God’s word. My weak and sinful flesh wants to cut people slack and be especially gracious. Leaders want to be liked and to make people feel good about themselves. Unfortunately, the Bible doesn’t spin things like we do. Therefore, I have concluded that biblical honesty is the best policy. I once heard Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Ballard, WA say, “Soft preaching produces hard people and hard preaching produces soft people.” I like this! Therefore, the most loving thing that I can do is to affirm you in Christ, yet, drill us all between the eyes when necessary.

 

The command in 1 Cor 10:14 is to “flee” idolatry (cf. 1 Cor 10:7). “Idolatry” in the Old Testament was the image and worship of pagan gods. Today, in the 21st century, we’re still idolaters, but we’re just more sophisticated idolaters. Our idols appear more innocent since they are people, possessions, work, and leisure. However, if anyone or anything besides God gets our best thoughts, feelings, and energy we’re idolaters. Let me ask you a few quick questions: Do you know sports or the entertainment industry better than your Bible? If so, you will accumulate endless knowledge that will amount to nothing in eternity. Do you spend more time in your hobby than you do serving Christ? If so, you will have to answer for why Christ and His church meant so little to you during your brief sojourn on earth. Do you spend more time surfing the web than you do with people? If so, you will have neglected eternal souls that you could have impacted. Are you so driven to succeed in your job that you don’t have time to stop and pray? If so, you will never be satisfied. Are you bent on making just a little more money for yourself and your family? “If you make money your god, it will plague you like the devil.”

 

In 1 Cor 10:15, Paul writes, “I speak as to wise men; you judge what I say.” Verse 15 shows Paul’s approach to leadership. He was an apostle of Christ, yet he admonishes these sinful saints to judge his words for themselves (cf. 1 Cor 14:39-40). If this was true 2,000 years ago in Corinth, this is certainly true for us as well. God has called you and me to study the Scriptures for ourselves. He expects that we will be wise and discerning because the Holy Spirit lives inside of those that have trusted in Christ.

 

In 1 Cor 10:16-22, Paul asks seven rhetorical questions in seven verses. As 10:15 indicated, Paul is inviting the Corinthians to carefully consider his words. First, Paul uses the Lord’s Supper and Israel’s sacrificial meals as an analogy to demonstrate that God’s people have always had one God. Second, he warns Israel against idolatry. In 10:16-18, Paul writes, “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. Look at the nation Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar?” Paul informs us that any kind of idolatrous involvement contradicts our identity in Jesus Christ. Here, he shows how the communion table is a symbol of our relationship with Jesus Christ, who is the very source of our spiritual life. He is also the source of the unity that we have as brothers and sisters in His body. So when we partake together of the elements at the communion table, Paul says it involves a sharing (koinonia) with the Lord Jesus and also with our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. In 10:18, he furthers his analogy and says that the same dynamic was at work in ancient Israel as worshipers ate sacrificial meals in the temple in Jerusalem (see Deut 14:22-27). They communed with the Lord through the forgiveness associated with those animal sacrifices. So both believing Jews under the old covenant and followers of Jesus Christ under the new covenant are defined in terms of spiritual identity by what they eat together. And those meals aren’t just religious ritual…they are a picture of their relationship with the Lord of the universe. So symbolically, when we come to the Lord’s Table, we are saying in essence, we eat this just as we live by it; Jesus is our source of life and strength. This sacred meal defines who we are in Jesus Christ. We have died to sin with Him, and we have been resurrected to new life because of His resurrection life.

 

The natural response to our oneness with Christ and each other should be to avoid idolatry at any cost. In 1 Cor 10:19-22, Paul explains that mixing drinks is of the devil! Paul writes, “What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? We are not stronger than He, are we?” In these verses, Paul is contrasting eating at the Lord’s Table with eating meals in the pagan temples. It is a frightening reality that all idolatry is driven by demonic evil. The point Paul is making is that while the meat that was partaken of in these pagan sacrificial meals had no spiritual power, the meal did represent satanic evil. Demons are the spiritual force behind all idolatry, religious or otherwise. All idolatry, no matter how innocent we may think it is, is built on destructive lies about ultimate fulfillment and purpose in life. So Paul is warning these Christians that even unwitting involvement in pagan idolatry can draw a believer into participation with Satan and his demons.

 

People say, “You are what you eat.” The Christian counterpart to that is, “You are what you believe.”

Idolatry conflicts with our identity in Christ and so incurs the wrath of God. We live out our identity in Christ, so if we identify with something other than Him, then we will live that kind of life. The Christian life and the life of demons are mutually exclusive. No Christian can participate in demon activity with impunity. Christianity cannot be a mere religious hobby to us. No Christian can dip his flag or lower his colors by accommodating what he believes to another religion. Christians are all one big loaf of bread in unity with the Lord Jesus. We cannot inject other religious beliefs into that relationship. Compromise of truth and credence to other religions always weakens our faith. If we compromise truth, we had better check our insurance policy to see if it is up to date.

 

The final verse in this section (1 Cor 10:22) is particularly interesting. Again, Paul writes, “Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? We are not stronger than He, are we?” In the Old Testament, the metaphor of marriage was often used to describe the Israelites’ relationship with the Lord in the context of their flirting with idols. Idolatry was equivalent to the Israelites’ prostituting themselves to another, foreign lover, and as a result the Lord became jealous. This is to be expected. If your spouse said he or she had another love interest, your nostrils would flare, you would see red, and you would pour out your wrath. Similarly, any form of idolatrous involvement provokes the jealousy of God. All through the Old Testament, God identifies Himself as a “jealous God.” But His jealousy is not like ours. It’s totally consistent with His character. It’s also totally committed to what’s best for us. God’s jealousy comes from His loving ownership of us. He loves us too much for us to get away with whatever rebellion or idolatry we’re pursuing. He will intervene; He will crash into our life and it will be painful. He will do whatever it takes to get our attention, because the answer to the question is, we are not stronger than He is. No matter what the rebellion is or how entrenched it is, He is more powerful!

 

It goes without saying that this has not been a very tolerant lesson, but I don’t care to arouse God’s jealousy. The jealousy of God requires us to be zealous for God. The words translated “jealous” and “zealous” are the same in both the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament. The person who is jealous should also be zealous for the object of his love. You and I should be righteously zealous for God’s name and reputation.

 

You and I should be zealous for God’s people—both those who are already His and those who are not yet in the family. When Paul was preparing to establish the church at Corinth God gave him a very encouraging word: “I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:10). Well, there weren’t any Christians there yet. What God meant is that there were many who were destined to become Christians, but they needed to be evangelized. Do we have a passion for souls? Do we have a passion for making disciples? Do we have a zeal for serving God’s people? True freedom is putting God and others first.

Then, too, you and I should be zealous for God’s house, which in the New Testament is His church. Do you remember what Jesus said, “Zeal for Your house will consume me?” (John 2:17; cf. Ps 69:9) How do you rate in this area? In every church there are those whose zeal has waned and even evaporated. For many American Christians it might well be said, “Zeal for my job has consumed me,” or “Zeal for sports has consumed me,” or “Zeal for my family has consumed me,” rather than zeal for God’s house. May we focus our zeal on that which will last for eternity, when the rest of these things are burnt up on Judgment Day. True freedom is putting God and others first.

[Paul has warned us to flee idolatry or fight God. Now he will encourage us to…]

  1. Sacrifice for others or dishonor God(1 Cor 10:23-11:1). In this second section, Paul discusses how we should interact with others over issues of freedom. His counsel is: Be willing to relinquish your “rights” for the sake of your brothers and sisters. In 10:23, Paul shares an important principle: Edification is more important than our personal gratification. Paul writes, “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify.” As Christians we really do have essential freedom in matters of morally neutral things. But our behavior must be tempered with concern for others in the body of Christ. If our freedom is going to be expressed through Christian maturity, it’s going to be concerned with the spiritual benefit to others. That word “edify” means to build up or strengthen. It’s a word from the vocabulary of the construction of buildings. Paul uses it in his letters to describe the strengthening of Christian character in ourselves and other people. So when we’re faced with a decision about a particular practice, first we’ve got to ask ourselves if we have the right to do it. I would say if it’s not forbidden by Scripture, absolutely we have the right. But the next question has to be whether it’s profitable and edifying. Will this activity build people up, both ourselves and others? And again, if the answer is yes, then we can participate with full abandon.

 

A second principle is found in 10:24. Our freedom is going to express itself in serving other people. “Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor.” Paul is saying: Our thoughts should always be directed to other brothers and sisters in Christ. We should desire to sacrifice for others. Now, granted, there are two extremes when it comes to the issue of freedom: Some say, “I don’t care one iota what anyone says about what I do; I’ll do as I please. I operate on the principle of grace and am free to do as I please.” This attitude approaches spiritual anarchy. There are others who live in a spiritual straight jacket. They are afraid to sneeze without a sense of guilt. There must always be a delicate balance. But if you’re going to err, err on the side of putting your spiritual family members first.

On a flight from Atlanta to Chicago in July 2004, nine U.S. soldiers—home from Iraq on a two-week leave—were among the passengers. Before one of the soldiers boarded, a passenger traded his first-class ticket for the soldier’s coach ticket. As the plane was boarding, other passengers asked to trade their first- class seats for the coach seats occupied by the remaining soldiers. Devilla Evans, a flight attendant on the American Airlines flight, said, “It was a privilege to be flying with those two groups of unselfish people: those who would put their lives on the line to protect their fellow citizens’ freedom, and those who were not ashamed to say thank you.” True freedom is putting God and others first.

 

In 1 Cor 10:25-27, Paul will tell us that liberty in Christ will always triumph over legalism. In 10:25-26, Paul writes, “Eat anything that is sold in the meat market without asking questions for conscience’ sake; for the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains.” In these three verses, Paul majors on our freedom in Christ. He says it doesn’t matter what we eat, including food offered to idols, because neither the taking of it nor the abstaining from it will have any effect on our relationship with God. All food is a gift from God. So Paul says to enjoy life, to not be overly scrupulous. In this context, the old saying, “What you don’t know can’t hurt you” is true.

 

In 1 Cor 10:27, Paul explains how Christians should behave when invited to a unbeliever’s home: “If one of the unbelievers invites you and you want to go, eat anything that is set before you without asking questions for conscience’ sake.” This verse is one of the favorite verses of mothers all over the world. Now if only children and husbands would abide by this principle. Seriously, in context, Paul informs the Corinthians that they should not make an issue of the origin of the meat or food they are eating. They should eat all of it. Eating a piece of meat that was offered to an idol will not defile the Christian. What defiles the Christian is participating in heathen worship. If eating a piece of idol-meat does not defile the Christian, there is no need to make an issue of it. This simply exercises an overly-sensitive conscience and introduces an unnecessary affront to the hospitality of the host. Paul implies that living out this freedom means that we’re going to have evangelistic entrée into people’s lives. There are nonbelievers who will invite us into their homes, and we have complete freedom to eat with them, whatever they put before us. Paul’s solution to a potential violation of conscience is “Don’t ask!” To the extent that we’re willing to do that, we’re reflecting the life of Jesus, who ate with tax-gatherers and sinners (Matt 9:10-11). But if we are legalistic, uptight, self-righteous, self-protective Christians, “holier than thou” types, our non-Christian acquaintances won’t want anything to do with us anyway. We’re not even going to get invited to their homes. But if we live a life of freedom and openness, that will attract them to Jesus.

In 1 Cor 10:28-30, Paul raises another challenging scenario: “But if anyone says to you, ‘This is meat sacrificed to idols,’ do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience’ sake; I mean not your own conscience, but the other man’s; for why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks?” What Paul is doing in 10:28-29a is raising a hypothetical situation in which you’ve been invited to a non-Christian friend’s home, and one of your Christian friends is there as well who has a weaker conscience. And they are offended or confused by the freedom with which you’re indulging: “Didn’t you know this is idol food? Are you sure you ought to be eating this?” Paul suggests that we might decide to refrain from eating the meat so as not to risk leading that younger brother or sister in Christ into sin or confusing their conscience. But Paul makes clear that even though we may choose to modify our actions for the good of the weaker brother or sister, we are not to adjust our own conscience. Their weakness ought to make us very gracious, merciful, and sensitive toward them. But the legalism of the weaker one shouldn’t make us feel condemned or influence us toward legalism in our own lifestyle. In 10:29b Paul again defends his freedom to partake of any kind of food, especially food that he knows is a good gift from God, and receive it with gratitude. He also says he refuses to be fearful about what other people think of him. He’s not going to be controlled by that.

 

Paul is now ready to summarize this entire three-chapter unit (chs. 8-10). Paul’s use of the word “then” (oun) in 10:31 is intended to draw his discussion on the food issue to a conclusion. As a general principle, believers should do everything “for the glory of God”—and Paul particularly mentions here (understandably) eating and drinking. To do something for the glory of God means to reflect God’s glory in the way we live. Verses 31-32 again talk about the purpose of our freedom in Christ. “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God.” The aim we ought to have in using our liberty carefully and selflessly is to glorify God. These two verses wrap up everything we’ve been looking at in the preceding verses. We’re to use our eating and drinking to bring glory to God, not to cause conflict, to honor a demon, or to undermine the faith of weaker brothers and sisters. Paul’s desire was to live out his freedom in Christ, partly because of its evangelistic potential for the sake of the Gentiles and the Jews who didn’t yet know Christ, and partly so he could have an influence on the church of Jesus Christ as an apostle. His concern was having an attractively inoffensive lifestyle of freedom. Paul spoke earlier in the letter about the fact that the gospel in and of itself is offensive to some people (1:18, 23). But he didn’t want his own life to bring offense to the gospel in the eyes of anybody, Christian or non-Christian. The real fear here was that legalism, being controlling, would somehow be the offense that would keep people from the Lord Jesus. His desire was to try to live without offending in any direction, always thinking of both honoring Christ and affecting other people in how he lived. And Paul always looked in both of those directions. That’s what Paul is talking about with regard to the purpose of our freedom in Jesus Christ.

 

Paul closes the section in the last two verses with an unsettling invitation. We could ask ourselves, “Could I issue the same invitation Paul does?” He says that his own life is a pattern of freedom in Jesus Christ, and he invites other people to imitate him. In 1 Cor 10:33-11:1, Paul writes: “…just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profitof the many, so that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” Paul doesn’t mean that he was a man-pleaser (cf. Gal 1:10). His concern was that his life would be attractive so that they would be drawn to Jesus in him. “Saved” in this context probably includes Christians and means saved in the wide sense of delivered from anything that keeps someone from advancing spiritually (cf. Rom 15:1-3). Paul is not content simply to live his life as an example for the Corinthians to emulate; he actually instructs them to (lit.) become “imitators” of him. (cf. 4:16). For Paul, as an apostle of Christ, it wasn’t just a matter of preaching and teaching. It was a matter of living out the truth that he taught. And in many of those cities Paul went to, he would be the first and only Christian they would see. So watching him live his life was very important for them to understand the reality of the gospel.

Paul is asking every one of us through this entire passage, “Do you want to know what it means to live a consistent Christian life? Do you want to properly balance freedom and restraint? Do you want to be in the world and not of the world? Do you want to have a positive spiritual influence in your community, but not allow that community to mold you so you compromise what’s true and what’s right? Do you want to live a balanced life, not being driven by the extremes of legalism or it’s opposite, selfish license? If you do, then watch me, follow me, live with me. I may not be perfect, but I try to imitate the selfless life that Christ lived. I want to glorify God in what I say and what I do and in the attitudes of my heart. To the extent that I succeed, then the good news is that you can, too.”

 

 

Living for God’s approval

  1. Living for God’s Approval (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

On June 28th, 1991 I watched one of the greatest displays of strength and endurance I’ve ever seen. The location: Las Vegas. The setting: Caesar’s Palace. The event: Donovan “Razor” Ruddock vs. “Iron” Mike Tyson in a scheduled twelve round championship bout. This was a much-anticipated fight because it was the rematch that followed their highly controversial bout. In their previous brawl, the referee stopped the fight because Tyson was pummeling Ruddock.

Well, in the rematch Ruddock was out to prove that he deserved another chance. Ruddock and Tyson were pretty evenly matched in the first three rounds, but in the fourth round Ruddock suffered a broken jaw. Most people expected him to favor his jaw and fight soft, but not Ruddock. He came out fighting round after round after round against, at that time, the world’s greatest fighter and most devastating puncher. He fought eight more rounds after the broken jaw and actually finished the fight stronger than he began! The fight went the scheduled twelve rounds and Tyson won by the judges’ decision.

Although Tyson won this fight, I believe the real winner was “Razor” Ruddock. Why? Because he endured to the final bell and finished well. He overcame many obstacles and saved his best fighting for the final rounds. I want to encourage you to be a Razor Ruddock. This will require enduring to the end and finishing well.

This raises the questions: “Why is endurance so important?” “Isn’t my perseverance guaranteed?” Well, if we are to take seriously the numerous warnings and exhortations that are presented in the New Testament, we had better consider the possibility that our endurance is not so certain. While our salvation is quite certain and totally secure, our success in our Christian lives and ministries is not. That’s why the Scriptures teach that living for God’s approval requires finishing well. I’d like to take us to Paul’s famous words in 1 Cor 9:24-27. In this passage, Paul coaches us to run and fight for the prize. This simple training tip will help us live for God’s approval by finishing well.

In 9:24, Paul tells us to run the Christian race with the intent to win the prize at the end of the race. Paul writes, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize?” Paul begins with the question, “Do you not know?” Now whenever Paul uses this question he is confident that his readers already know the answer. This passage is no exception. Paul’s audience knows that in any race there can only be one winner. Fortunately, Paul uses plural verbs and the exhortation is not “you” singular but “you” plural. Paul is saying, “You all run in such a way that you all may win.” The prize is offered to each and every believer. Unlike a foot race, we’re not competing against each other. Every Christian can win the prize. That’s good news because there will always be someone faster, stronger, or smarter than us. But that’s okay, because you and I are running against opportunities God gives us, not what He gives other Christians. We are competing against ourselves.

The running metaphor works like this: When a person believes in Jesus Christ he or she becomes a runner in the Christian race. So if you are a Christian, whether you like it or not, you are a runner. Paul finishes 9:24 with these words: “Run in such a way that you may win.” This is not an apostolic suggestion or a divine option. Instead, Paul issues a command, “Run! Don’t walk. Don’t stop. Don’t sit down. Run because you can win the prize!” After all, the point of entering the race is to win the prize. The prize does not represent salvation. Salvation is a free gift; the prize is an earned reward. Paul is not discussing salvation in this context. He has been writing about his ministry as an apostle (9:1-23). Understood properly, then, the prize that Paul is speaking of is a reward that may or may not accompany salvation. The Christian’s prize is the honor and glory of eternal rewards. It is the joy of hearing Jesus say, “Well done!” (Matt 25:21, 23) This is the amazing grace of God. We receive salvation as a free gift and then the Lord blesses us on top of that with temporal and eternal rewards for faithfully serving Him. What a God!

So what does faithful running look like? Who are those who run in such a way that they may win?

  • Christians who finish their lives still growing, still serving
  • Senior saints that persist in daily prayer until the Lord calls them home
  • Husbands and wives who stay faithful to each other “until death do us part”
  • Young people who preserve their virginity until marriage, in spite of crushing peer pressure
  • Pastors who stay passionate about ministry until their last breath
  • Church members who weather the rougher patches and remain joyful, loving, and faithful

Today, you may be thinking, “I’m not running well. In fact, I’m barely in the race at all. What should I do?” The answer is: recommit to win God’s race. As long as you are in the race, run to win. Don’t just run to finish, but to win. No one just happens to make a comeback to win. Not when he is far behind. Only by believing it can happen, and with a renewed resolve to win, is a comeback accomplished. If you find yourself far behind in the race, don’t give up. Keep on running. You can still win. Don’t quit. Living for God’s approval requires finishing well.

In 9:25, Paul commends the commitment of athletes who will sacrifice everything to win a temporal prize. Listen to these words, “Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” The phrase translated “competes in the games” comes from the Greek word agonizomai. We get our word “agony” or “agonize” from it. So Paul is talking about some heavy-duty sacrificial striving here. Verse 25 also tells us that competing for the prize requires “self-control in all things.” What does it mean to “exercise self-control in all things?” Well, remember that Paul’s analogy is training for the Isthmian games. All of the events in these games were one-person individual sports. Hence, these athletes could not coast in their training; rather, they had to go all out! What did this require? It required many months and even years of sacrificial discipline and rigorous self-control. These athletes kept a strict diet. They made sure they got the proper amount of sleep each night. They trained daily for their particular events. They performed strength and cardiovascular exercises. They often abstained from drinking and immorality. They ate, drank, and slept succeeding in their particular event.

Why did these athletes go to such great lengths? They did it to obtain a “perishable wreath”—a paltry vegetable crown of celery. Of course, this crown eventually withers away. It is here one day and gone the next. Most people don’t remember who won last year’s championship. This is old news. Next season is coming up. The question becomes, “What have you done for me lately?”

Next time you drive past a soccer, baseball, or even football practice, consider the effort they are putting into the practice. If they did this because their lives were threatened we might understand. What is difficult to grasp is that they do this voluntarily. All for a trophy that will be kept in a glass case and soon forgotten in this life and most assuredly not remembered in the next. They voluntarily wanted to play, and they will torture themselves in order to win.

Now if athletes are willing to undergo this type of discipline and self-control, how much more so should we as servants of Jesus Christ? For unlike the athletic crown, our victor’s crown will affect us forever and ever. Paul states that our reward is “imperishable”—it is eternal! This means it does matter whether we gain or lose the prize. Hearing Jesus say “Well done!” is no small matter. Think about that for just a moment. Only what you and I do for Jesus Christ will last. And it will last and last and last. Forever is a long time. And we only have 70 or 80 years to invest in eternity. That is why I pray like Jonathan Edwards, “Lord, stamp eternity on my eyeballs!” We must run and fight for the prize, for living for God’s approval requires finishing well.

I realize that very few people would say self-control is one of their greatest strengths. Yet, Paul tells us that self-control is necessary if we are to win the prize. So may I ask you: In what area(s) of your life do you need to exercise self-control?

  • Do you need to exercise self-control in your media intake? Do you watch too much TV? Do you play too many video games? Do you surf the web for too many hours?
  • Do you need to exercise self-control in your leisure? Do you spend too much time working out? Does your hobby come in the way of your relationship with God and your family?
  • Do you need to exercise self-control in your friendships? Are your friends more important to you than your God? Are your friends keeping you from being all that God wants you to be?
  • Do you need to exercise self-control over an addiction? Is food a drug to you? Are you a Christian glutton? Do you drink or smoke too much? Are you addicted to sleep? Do you need to repent for laziness? Paul says, “NO” to flabby Christianity! The Christian life demands discipline!

Now again, let me clarify that the Christian life is NOT a race to achieve entrance into heaven. We are saved by grace, not by effort or discipline or obedience or good works or anything else we do. We are saved by believing, not by achieving. We are saved for good works, not by good works. Still, the Christian life is a race, a race to accomplish what God put us here for, a race to present ourselves approved unto God, a race to finish in a way so as to hear God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Living for God’s approval requires finishing well.

In 9:26-27, Paul is going to tell us how to avoid losing in our Christian race. He puts it like this in 9:26, “Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air.” Verse 26 begins with the word “Therefore.” Paul often uses this word to reflect on what he has previously said. He has just stated that “the prize” lasts for eternity. Therefore, he writes that he doesn’t run aimlessly, for only those headed toward the finish line qualify for the prize. Now, imagine the following cross-country meet. The runners take their mark; the official fires the gun and the runners all head in different directions! A sun lover runs toward the west, another fond of the mountains runs toward the east, and the third heads toward the sea. This would be ludicrous. Only those headed toward the finish line qualify for the prize.

Paul also states that he isn’t a boxer who merely beats the air. Seriously, some of us are great shadow-boxers. We make loud noises about our faith when we’re in church, but when we get out into the real world—the boxing ring—we never land a blow for Christ. In fact, many of us are so ill-prepared that we are a sitting duck for the sucker punches landed by those who deny the faith! Yet, Paul informs us that only those who stay in the ring, duke it out, and make every blow count qualify for the crown. Like Paul, we must be motivated by the gripping thought of standing before Jesus Christ and giving an account of our earthly lives. We must have a purpose and a goal to please the Lord. Living for God’s approval requires finishing well.

In Alice in Wonderland there is a scene where Alice asks Cheshire Cat, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” The cat replies, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” Alice says, “I don’t much care where…” and the cat replies, “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.” Alice says that she just wants to get somewhere, and Cheshire Cat tells her, “Oh, you’re sure to do that if you only walk long enough.” We are certain to end up somewhere. The important question you must ask yourself is, “Where am I going?”

Paul concludes this paragraph by expressing a sincere fear that he himself could fail to win the prize. Instead of running aimlessly or shadow-boxing (9:26), Paul makes this contrasting statement, “but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” With the judgment seat of Christ in mind, Paul writes, “but I discipline my body and make it my slave.” The word translated “discipline” literally means “to strike under the eye” or “to beat black and blue.” Paul beat his body into submission doing all that he could to ensure his success. He deliberately knocks himself into unconsciousness, so to speak, thus bringing his body into slavery.”

Most people, including many Christians, are slaves to their bodies. Their bodies tell their minds what to do. Their bodies decide when to eat, what to eat, how much to eat, when to sleep and get up, and so on. An athlete cannot allow that. He follows the training rules, not his body. He runs when he would rather be resting; he eats a balanced meal when he would rather have a chocolate sundae; he goes to bed when he would rather stay up; and he gets up early to train when he would rather stay in bed. An athlete leads his body, he does not follow it. It is his slave, not the other way around.

In his book Your Own Worst Enemy, social psychologist Roy Baumeister talks about an experiment with college students who practiced walking with a book on their head in order to improve posture.

These students not only learned to stand up straight, they also began eating better, studying harder, and sleeping more — without specifically focusing on progress in these areas.

Baumeister says that small improvements pave the way for big improvements.

Leadership coach Penelope Trunk agrees: “Self discipline snowballs.” Mastering one area makes it easier to master others.

Maybe that’s why Paul said, “I buffet my body and make it my slave…” He knew that small victories in self-discipline pave the way for greater victories.

If you need to develop discipline, and (like most) you have a number messy areas to choose from, start with the easiest, not the toughest.

Put the proverbial book on your head and begin walking straight.

Many of us hate the word “discipline” as much as “self-control.” Yet, Paul says both are necessary. However, being disciplined in your Christian life doesn’t mean being straitlaced, sober, and sad. It means measuring everything you do by the goal of pleasing Christ. Discipline means asking yourself, “Is what I’m doing now going to help me win my Christian race later?” If you struggle with discipline, consider a workout routine and partner.

Whether we realize it or not, each of us needs a spiritual workout partner or coach. We need to be pushed, stretched, and held accountable. If we don’t have someone like this in our lives, we will never be all that God intended us to be.

We need a workout partner or coach so that after serving Christ we will not be dealt a black eye of disqualification. Now the question that looms before us is: What did Paul mean by the term “disqualified” (adokimos)? To be “disqualified” simply means “disapproved.” It means “not standing the test.” Paul’s fear was not that he might lose his salvation, but that he may not persevere in his Christian life and ministry. The context of this passage and the rest of Paul’s writings bear this out. In Paul’s mind there’s a difference between acceptance and approval. Acceptance is the result of a one-time act of faith. Approval is the result of ongoing faithfulness. God promises us His unconditional acceptance, but He does not promise us His unconditional approval. As a father, I will always accept my children but I may not always approve of their behavior. This is also true in our relationship with God.

Paul’s ultimate goal was the approval of Christ. As Paul’s death was quickly approaching, he had these words for young Timothy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Tim 4:7-8).

The phrase translated “I have fought” (agonismai) is one word in the Greek. Interestingly, it is a form of the same word that was used in 9:25 that was translated “competes according to the games” (agonidzomenos). Both of these passages deal with the doctrine of eternal rewards. Another interesting tidbit is: 1 Corinthians was one of the earlier books that Paul wrote and 2 Timothy was the last. What is the point? Paul finished his course because he kept his eyes fixed on the prize. Paul realized that living for God’s approval requires finishing well.

In the 1986 NYC Marathon, almost 20,000 runners entered this famous race. What is memorable about it is not who won, but who finished last. His name is Bob Wieland. He finished 19,413th. Dead last. Bob completed the NYC Marathon in…are you ready for this?—4 days, 2 hours, 48 minutes, and 17 seconds. Unquestionably, the slowest marathon runner in history. Ever! What makes Wieland’s story so special? Bob ran with his arms. Seventeen years earlier, when he was serving as a solider in Vietnam, Bob’s legs were blown off in battle. When he runs, Wieland sits on a 15-pound saddle and covers his fists with pads. He runs with his arms. At his swiftest, Bob can run about a mile an hour, using his muscular arms to push his torso forward one step at a time. Bob Wieland finished four days after the start. What did it matter? Why bother to finish? Here’s why: there is great reward in just finishing the course.

Today, like Ruddock and Wieland, we can finish well. If we follow the example of the Apostle Paul and countless others, we can finish well. Therefore, my challenge for all of us today is to live for God’s approval by finishing well.

 

Getting what we paid for

My wife and I are very careful about how we spend our money. Some call us cheap, others call us frugal; I like to call us shrewd stewards of the Lord’s resources. Yet, over time I have noticed something rather discouraging. In my attempt to save money, I buy inexpensive items that quickly break down or fall apart. Whenever this happens, I tend to say, “You get what you pay for!”

However, this worn-out cliché does not always prove true. Occasionally, I buy brand-name goods that fall apart while the el cheapo merchandise lives on. It’s rather frustrating and unpredictable. Hence, I’ve learned that you don’t always get what you pay for. This is true in other areas of life as well. Hollywood can spend millions of dollars seeking to produce the latest and greatest movie, only to watch the movie bomb in the box office. At the same time, a small-time producer can spend peanuts producing a flick only to see it become the latest rage. In the world of sports, it is all too common to see an athlete sign a ridiculously lucrative contract only to be injured or have a sub-par season. Simultaneously, a rookie can sign the league minimum and have an explosive year. You can’t always judge a movie by its budget or an athlete by his salary. Furthermore, you can’t judge a servant of Christ by his pay or lack thereof.

Take the apostle Paul, for example. He chose not to receive payment from the church at Corinth. Instead, he established a church in this sin-hardened city at his own expense. He served them freely so that the gospel would have an open door to travel through. Paul’s personal sacrifices brought about great results for God’s kingdom. Likewise, we have been called to have a godly work ethic as ministers of the gospel. Some of us will be paid, others will serve as volunteers. Yet, we are all called to represent Christ and to offer Him our lives. We will learn that proclaiming Christ demands paying a price. In 1 Cor 9:1-23, Paul is going to share with us an autobiographical sketch of his ministry. In doing so, he will exhort us to follow his example. First, Paul will argue that…

  1. We must relinquish our individual rights(9:1-14). Paul builds a lengthy argument for ministers being paid. I know what you’re thinking: I picked the wrong day to come to church. Well, believe me when I say, this is as awkward for me as it is you…probably more so. Nevertheless, I will proclaim God’s Word as faithfully as I can. In 9:1, Paul begins by reminding the Corinthians of his apostolic identity. “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord?” Paul’s four rhetorical questions all expect a positive answer, and they become increasingly specific. Certainly he enjoyed the liberty that every other believer had. Moreover, he possessed the rights and privileges of an apostle. The proof of his apostleship was twofold. He had seen the risen Christ (Acts 1:21-22) on the Damascus road (Acts 22:14-15; 26:15-18), and he had founded the church in Corinth, which was apostolic work (cf. Rom 15:15-21).

In 9:2, Paul continues, “If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.” Although some may have doubted Paul’s apostleship, that should not be the case with the Corinthians. They themselves were the proof that he was an apostle. If the Corinthians deny Paul’s apostleship they deny their own existence. Paul, therefore, takes the opportunity to work that issue into his discussion at this point, hoping he can nip it in the bud. He explains that the Corinthians are the “seal” of his apostleship. A seal in the ancient world was a warm blob of wax into which a signet ring was pressed to seal a letter or package. It was an assurance that the contents had not been opened; it showed who owned the contents; and it showed the genuineness of the contents, that it was sent by the right person. Paul is saying that the Corinthians are his work in the Lord.

If you are a Christian, it is critical that you have your own “seal” of people you have impacted and influenced for eternity. Like Paul, our goal must be to see lost people trust in Jesus Christ and then grow to maturity in Him. In light of eternity, nothing else will matter.

In 9:3-14, Paul shares his apostolic rights to make his living from the gospel. His argument is based on a barrage of rhetorical questions. This seems to be Paul’s way of going for the jugular in a natural and persuasive way. By using this device, he presents rationale for his financial support. Yet, in the end, Paul will conclude that it is best for him to forgo these rights in Corinth (9:12b). But in the present discussion of receiving support for his ministry, how could accepting money from his converts hinder the progress of the gospel? There are several possible answers to this question: (1) Some people might not believe the gospel if they knew it would lead to financial obligations. (2) Others might see a contradiction between Christ’s grace being free but becoming a Christian not being free. (3) Paul perhaps did not want to become a “slave” to a patron donor who supported his ministry and who could then control the content of his preaching (“money is power”). (4) Paul wished to dissociate himself from other religious hucksters in the ancient world, some of whom made a good living from flowery rhetorical appeal.

 

Paul lives what he preached: proclaiming Christ demands paying a price. Unfortunately, the Corinthians assumed that “you get what you pay for.” Since Paul was serving for free, some questioned his credentials. In Corinth, orators, teachers, and philosophers were well paid. It was unthinkable that someone like Paul would not receive a paycheck. So Paul builds an air-tight case for remuneration and then insists that he will not make use of his rights. For Paul, proclaiming Christ demands paying a price.

In 9:3-4, Paul writes, “My defense to those who examine me is this: Do we not have a right to eat and drink?” In the context, “the right to eat and drink” is a figurative reference to financial support. It means to “eat and drink” at the expense of others. Six different times the word “right” is used in this chapter. It’s a very central issue. Paul is saying that he had a legitimate right to receive financial support from the people to whom he ministered.

Paul continues his argument in 9:5-6 by raising two other issues: “Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or do only Barnabas and I not have a right to refrain from working?” All of these questions expect a positive answer. Paul states that apostles have the right to be married and to cease to work.

Now, in 9:7-14, Paul is going to give five reasons why he has the right to be supported by the churches to whom he ministered, why he shouldn’t have to work at a trade to earn a living, so he can devote his energy to study, prayer, preaching, and teaching. He begins with an appeal to common sense in three illustrations from everyday experience in the workplace. “Who at any time serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat the fruit of it? Or who tends a flock and does not use the milk of the flock?” Paul is pointing out that soldiers don’t fight all day and then go to civilian jobs at night so that they can pay for their food, lodging, clothing, and armaments. No, the government provides all the necessary resources for them to function as a soldier. Paul makes the same point about farmers. You don’t plant a vineyard or cultivate crops for somebody for free, and then take a night job to subsidize the farming work. You expect that if you work hard in the vineyard or on the farm, you’ll be paid, perhaps in kind with some portion of the crops. He makes the same point about shepherds who care for flocks or sheep owned by other people. At least they have the right to have some of the milk. In the same way, a Christian worker has a right to expect benefits from his labor.

In 9:8-10, Paul uses the Scriptures to back up his point. Paul writes, “I am not speaking these things according to human judgment, am I? Or does not the Law also say these things? For it is written in the Law of Moses, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MUZZLE THE OX WHILE HE IS THRESHING.’ God is not concerned about oxen, is He? Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops.” Paul demonstrates a most unusual use of God’s Word. Quoting the Old Testament law regarding the treatment of oxen, he noted that Deut 25:4 commanded God’s people not to muzzle the ox while it was in the process of threshing. Instead, God commanded that the ox be allowed to eat the grain. If God cared so much about the animals who served His people, how much more must He care for the people who serve them?

If something is true on a lower scale, it is certainly true on a more important, higher scale. In other words, if mere animals are given the right to eat as they are working in the fields, certainly human beings made in the image of God have that same right. In fact, God is more concerned about getting across a principle for human beings in this text than He is about getting across a principle for animals.

Several times Paul asserts that the Old Testament was written as an example for New Testament believers (cf. 10:6, 11; Rom 4:23-24; 15:4). This is an important reminder that the Old Testament is of great benefit to each and every one of us. We should read it frequently and look for opportunities to study and preach from it. Perhaps the price that you need to pay in proclaiming Christ is to spend some time studying the Old Testament. After all, the Old Testament makes up ¾ of your Bible. In order to proclaim Christ, we must be familiar with His Bible and that of the apostle Paul.

In 9:11-12, Paul appeals to the inherent fairness of it. He argues, “If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share the right over you, do we not more? Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things so that we will cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ.” Spiritual things are intrinsically more important than physical things. The former will last forever whereas the latter are only temporary. Consequently, those who benefit from spiritual ministry should physically support those who minister to them (cf. Gal 6:6). In spite of this spiritual principle, Paul surrenders his rights because proclaiming Christ demands paying a price.

Now, in 9:13, Paul makes a reference to Old Testament Jewish history and custom pertaining to the temple: “Do you not know that those who perform sacred services eat the food of the temple, and those who attend regularly to the altar have their share from the altar?” This refers to Old Testament priests and Levites. The concept of paying God’s servants is not a New Testament notion; rather, it goes back to the Old Testament. Paul saw his gospel ministry as priestly service (cf. Rom 15:16).

Paul closes out his argument in powerful fashion by stating: “So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel” (9:14). Paul explains that the Lord Jesus taught the same right for servants to be paid (Matt 10:10; Luke 10:7). Case closed: full-time vocational servants have the freedom to be paid.

Like Paul, our staff are not asking for a raise. But there is something to think of here: I want our staff to always be free from the distraction of money. I would also suggest that there are other ways we can honor those who serve. An encouraging email, letter, or phone call would mean the world to any of our leaders. There are other creative possibilities as well (e.g., child care, providing services, etc.).

[Having argued vigorously for his right to the Corinthians’ support, Paul now proceeds to argue just as strongly for his right to give up this right. This section gives the reader a window into the apostle’s soul.]

  1. We must fulfill our individual calling(9:15-23). In these nine verses, Paul explains that his passion for lost people and for preaching the gospel consumes him. Consequently, he will go to any and every length to share Christ. In 9:15, Paul writes, “But I have used none of these things [i.e., financial provisions]. And I am not writing these things so that it will be done so in my case; for it would be better for me to die than have any man make my boast an empty one.” These are certainly strong words! Paul actually felt it was better to die than to receive any financial support from Corinth and lose out on freely boasting in the free offer of the gospel. This idea of boasting is used in Paul’s Bible—the Old Testament, of glorying in God. So when Paul uses the word “boast” in his writings, he isn’t talking about personal accomplishments. He is talking about what the Lord has done through him in spite of his weakness.

Why is Paul so adamant that he should not be paid for preaching the gospel? If he has the right, why not capitalize on it? He explains his reasoning in 9:16-17 (note the two uses of “for” that begin each verse): “For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel. For if I do this voluntarily, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have a stewardship entrusted to me.”

Paul says that he cannot legitimately boast in his ministry of preaching, because God ordered him to do it. He states that he is “under compulsion” (9:16) and has been entrusted with a “stewardship” (9:17). There is an irresistible call of God on his life, and he can’t take any personal credit for doing it. He is a man on fire for God! Hence, Paul says “woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (9:16). The word “woe” occurs frequently in the Old Testament prophets to denote coming disaster and even divine judgment. Paul felt the weight of severe consequences if he chose to forego preaching for another profession. Since God dramatically called Paul to preach, he had to proclaim the gospel. There was no reward in simply doing what God had called him to do (cf. Luke 17:10).

This leads Paul to raise a question in 9:18: “What then is my reward? That, when I preach the gospel, I may offer the gospel without charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.” Paul’s “reward” is demonstrating love to people by freely preaching the gospel. His highest pay was the privilege of preaching without pay. Of course, Paul also believes that his loving service will be recognized in the future by his Lord (cf. 3:12-14). However, Paul recognizes that we do not get rewarded for our calling in and of itself, only for the manner in which we fulfill it. Thus, Paul sacrificed much and served well so that he might one day be rewarded for his service.

Ultimately, what I want us to see is that Paul’s spirituality is evidenced by his willingness to sacrifice his rights for the sake of the gospel. One such right is that of having a full-time ministry. Let us be very careful not to assume that God’s servants can be more effective by ministering “full-time.” The great apostle Paul chose to serve in “part-time” ministry, for the sake of the gospel. I don’t think anyone would argue that Paul could have been more effective if he had been serving full-time. Likewise, there are many people in our church who could be in full-time ministry, but they are incredibly effective and fruitful in part-time unpaid ministry. Such people never ask to be paid and faithfully serve year in and year out. They have the reward of offering the gospel for free. Additionally, they will be rewarded at the judgment seat of Christ for faithfully serving the Lord. Proclaiming Christ demands paying a price.

[Paul now moves from the subject of giving up his right to financial support to giving up cultural rights.]

In 9:19-22, Paul is going to describe his passion to do whatever it takes to win lost people to Christ. Paul explains, “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.” Six times in this paragraph Paul states his desire to reach the lost. He reaches the lost by adapting his methods according to the group he tried to reach. Paul goes after anyone and everyone: (1) Jews; (2) “those who are under the law” probably includes Gentile God-fearers and proselytes to Judaism as well as ethnic Jews; (3) “those who are without law” refers to Gentiles apart from any Jewish influence; and (4) “the weak” most likely refer to Christians with weak consciences. Paul must therefore be using “win” in the broader sense of winning to a more mature form of Christian faith.

Paul’s missionary principle, of course, has practical applications. For missionaries it means learning the local language and customs to make the gospel understandable in the local environment. For those doing inner-city work it means ministering in a way that does not patronize the inner-city mentality. For those in campus ministries it means bringing to college students a message that challenges them in an academic environment and shows that Christianity is not anti-intellectual. The applications of “being all things to all people” are endless. I have known of people who share Christ in bars, homosexual clubs, and Mormon churches. If Christianity is to make a mark in the 21st century, fresh and radical methods will need to be pursued. As Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the third President of the US once said, “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”

Why does Paul go to such great lengths to win lost people? He tells us in 9:23: “I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.” The work of the gospel was the great axis around which everything in Paul’s life revolved. He made it such so he might share in its blessings.

Paul still has in mind what he said in 9:17-18. He is looking for reward. Paul lives in the way he does to become a “fellow partaker” of the gospel. The thought continues the ideas of 9:12-14. He does not “share” the financial blessings of the Corinthians. But he expects to get a “share” in the rewards of the gospel eventually. He might turn down rewards from particular congregations, but he expects that God will compensate him for that which he has lost. To become “a partaker of the gospel” means to receive its ultimate reward: to gain “the prize” that Jesus gives.

 

The designer of the famous yellow smiley face received a mere $45 for his work. Harvey Ball, a Massachusetts commercial artist, created the simple yellow face in 1963 as a morale-boosting campaign for two firms that had recently merged into the State Mutual Life Assurance Companies of America. Because Ball never copyrighted his design, he received no proceeds when the cheery icon appeared countless times worldwide. In 1971 alone, 50 million buttons were sold. After Ball’s death in April 2001, his son, Charles, said in an obituary that his father was never bitter about the small amount of money he earned from the smiley face and never regretted foregoing a copyright. He considered his greatest achievement not his famous logo but the bronze star he received for his heroism during the Battle of Okinawa.

As wonderful as that bronze star is, Jesus Christ promises us eternal reward for faithfully proclaiming Him. One day, we will stand before Him in a glorified body and He will evaluate our lives. My prayer is that when you see Him face-to-face, He looks you in the eyes and smiles a big smile and says, “Well done good and faithful servant.” Whenever you see a smiley face, please remember your life in light of the judgment seat of Christ. Proclaiming Christ demands paying a price.

 

 

We got the meats!

Texas allows motorists to make a right turn when the traffic signal is red—if the way is clear. This gives drivers liberty and keeps traffic moving. At some intersections, however, signs read, “No turn on red.” These corners are exceptions because they are potential danger spots. By turning on red at one of these intersections, a motorist could cause a serious accident.

Similarly, in the Christian life we have been given great freedom, yet there are certain potential danger spots that can cause a serious accident between brothers and sisters in Christ. In 1 Corinthians 8, we have a dangerous intersection concerning meat offered to idols. Paul had perfect freedom to eat meat offered to idols. He knew that there was only one true God and that idols were nothing. Eating meat offered to them was neither right nor wrong. But not all believers felt that way. A person with a weak conscience had believed that the meat was defiled by the idol, and therefore it was off limits. Paul recognized the need to take special care, lest by eating he would influence such a person to eat, thus violating his conscience. Concern for weaker believers kept him from exercising his liberty.

As Christians, we are free in Christ—free to engage in social practices and customs not specifically forbidden by biblical commands. Yet, the Holy Spirit may prompt us to refrain from some legitimate practices. Then the principle of love must take precedence over the principle of liberty. A mature Christian will heed the “no turn on red” sign to keep from causing a weaker believer “to have a serious accident.” In 1 Cor 8:1-13, Paul will explain that we are not only responsible for ourselves but for one another. To put a spin on the words of Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9), Paul will insist, “You are your brother’s keeper.” You do have a responsibility to look out for your brother’s welfare. With this high calling in mind, Paul lays out two principles to guide us.

 

  1. Recognize that love is more important than freedom(8:1-6). Whether Christians should eat meat which had been offered to idols was a pressing question in the church at Corinth. For Paul, however, the more important question was how such issues were dealt with by the church. It had become a matter of pride on both sides of the question, so Paul begins at that point. In 8:1-3, Paul rebukes the Corinthians’ pride and insists that love trumps knowledge. He begins his argument with these words: “Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge” (8:1a). The phrase “now concerning” clues us into the fact that Paul is once again responding to issues raised by the Corinthians in a previous letter. “We know that we all have knowledge” probably represents another Corinthian slogan (cf. 7:1). Some in Corinth were justifying their position by claiming a certain knowledge that idols were only things of human manufacture and did not represent any true reality (8:4).

In 8:1b, Paul grants the fact that believers can champion this knowledge, but such knowledge can easily lead to pride and arrogance. Paul puts it like this, “Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies.” This is one of the most powerful one-liners about Christian community found anywhere in Paul’s letters. Paul’s point is: Those Corinthians that are boasting of their freedom to eat meat sacrificed to idols are acting arrogantly, without demonstrating love and respect for their brothers and sisters. Yet the real aim of Christianity should not be knowledge but love. Knowledge apart from love makes one prideful. Hence, we must always be cautious. A famous preacher used to say, “Some Christians grow; others just swell.”

Are you “puffed up” in your knowledge? Do you look down on others who don’t know as much as you do? Paul tells you to recognize that “love edifies.” The word translated “edifies” means “to build up.” Originally, the word was used of the formation of buildings. However, Paul uses this word figuratively throughout his letters to describe the development of Christian character. The Christian life isn’t how much you know, or how strong you are, or how much Christian liberty you possess, but how much you love. You are your brother’s keeper.

One of the dangers of being a Bible fellowship is that we may be strong in knowledge but weak in love. Francis Schaeffer once said, “If we do not show love to one another, the world has a right to question whether Christianity is true.” Therefore, we must strive to remain humble at all times and manifest love to all that we come in contact with. You are your brother’s keeper.

Paul continues his challenging words in 8:2-3: “If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know.” The grammar in this sentence assumes that this is a present problem in the church at Corinth. The force of the verb tenses in 8:2 suggests a paraphrase: “If a person thinks that he has attained to some degree of knowledge, he has not yet reached the stage when he has any knowledge at all in the real sense of the word.” Paul is simply saying that if we think we are all knowing, we can be confident that we are not.

Our knowledge as finite human beings is never final—we can always know more and achieve deeper insights. Socrates once said, “Knowledge is proud that it knows so much; wisdom is humble that it knows no more.” The truly wise person clearly grasps how very limited his knowledge and understanding is, even in respect to the grey areas.

Paul adds a very unusual comment to 8:3: “but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him.” Again, the grammar makes it clear that there are those in Corinth who love God. Paul prioritizes love over knowledge. Accumulating all the facts about God that one can will not result in the most realistic knowledge of Him. One must also love God. If a person loves God, then God knows him in an intimate way and reveals Himself to him (2:10). Consequently, it is really more important that God knows us than that we know Him. When He knows us intimately, He will enable us to know Him intimately. Logically, not only will God enable those who love Him to know Him better, but He will also enable those who love Him to understand other subjects as well. Paul said this to establish the priority of love over knowledge in determining our behavior in various situations. You are your brother’s keeper.

In 8:4-6, Paul resumes his discussion of knowledge after digressing briefly in 8:2 and 3 to comment on the superiority of love over knowledge. In these three verses, Paul will staunchly argue against idols and put forth a profound understanding of God. He writes, “Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.” The expressions “there is no such thing as an idol” and “there is no God but one” (8:4) are slogans the Corinthians apparently used to justify their behavior. Paul agrees with the slogans in part, but corrects them to show how the Corinthians have misused these ideas. He explains that even though idols are fictitious gods, nevertheless, people ascribe worship to them (8:5). Yet, Paul reminds the Corinthians that there is only one God worthy of worship—God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The way the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ are spoken of together here is a clear indication of the deity of Christ. Calling Jesus “Lord” is a way of affirming His deity and oneness with Yahweh (cf. Phil 2:11). Hence, Paul is arguing that in the same way that the Godhead is one, we should seek to be one in the body of Christ. Love is more important than freedom.

[The heart of Paul’s argument, especially as it relates to Christian community, comes in 8:7-13. Even though, at least in theory, all members of the Corinthian church understand that idols have no real existence (8:1), many are unable to put this knowledge into practice. Old links between idol food and idols are impossible to forget.]

  1. Limit your freedom for the sake of love(8:7-13). In this section, Paul will challenge us to look out for our brothers and sisters because we love them and have their best spiritual interest at heart. In 8:7-8, Paul writes, “However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat.” The weak Christians in Corinth felt it was a sin to eat meat sacrificed to idols. Because of their upbringing, earlier habits, or former lifestyle, the weak still believed that they were participating in idol worship by eating the meat. The Bible suggests that some in Corinth could not shake their past. In the first century, thrifty church members saved money by purchasing marked-down meat in the market. Some church people later discovered that the meat was marked down because it had been used in the ritual worship of pagan deities in the city. Now what? Reaction was split. Some Christians refused to buy it. Others had no problem with the bargain meat.

Meat used in ritual worship was apparently divided three ways: one part was burned on the altar; another part was given to the pagan priest; and the third part was given to the one who brought it as an offering and who believed that the gods enjoyed the aroma of the burning meat. Leftovers not used by the priest were then marked down and sold at a substantial discount in the local market where it could be purchased by the people. The one who had brought the offering might also have served a portion to Christian friends at a dinner party.

The urgent questions were: Should Christians buy the marked-down meat? Should they serve it to guests? The believers of the city of Corinth disagreed.

As believers in Jesus Christ, we must be sensitive to our spiritual brothers and sisters. We must learn to defer to them when it is appropriate. For, in the end, what difference does it really make whether we eat or not?

Unity within the church. In the early years of the church, as Gentile converts began joining Jewish believers in local fellowships, an issue arose concerning the eating of meat. Greco-Roman society was saturated with idol worship, and it was common for meat sold in the marketplace to have been consecrated as a sacrifice to false gods prior to its sale. The Jews would have nothing to do with such meat, wary of “unclean” food-handling practices and believing that to partake of consecrated meat was to give tacit approval of idol worship—kind of a “second-hand” idolatry. The Gentiles rejected the notion that such meat was tainted and held that they could eat meat sacrificed to idols without endorsing idolatry—they had not actually offered the sacrifice, after all. The matter was becoming a point of contention within the church.

The church in Syrian Antioch, comprised of both Jews and Gentiles, struggled with this issue (Acts 15). The Jerusalem Council settled the matter by urging Gentile converts to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols (Acts 15:29). This decision was made not to promote legalism but to keep peace within the church. Since eating meat offered to idols was a divisive issue—carrying the possibility of scandalizing fellow believers—abstinence was expedient. Compliance with the council’s directive assured that, at the next church potluck, a Jewish believer could eat the brisket he was served with confidence, knowing it had never been part of a sacrificial cow. And the Gentile believer could not be accused of participating in idol worship.

With its ruling, the Jerusalem Council affirmed the need for deference, or consideration for the scruples of others. The principle is one of self-denial; we should be willing to lay down our personal rights for the sake of maintaining unity in the body of Christ. Spiritual growth takes priority over personal preferences.

Causing a weaker brother to sin.

The “weaker” brother is not someone who simply objects to a certain practice, but one who is in danger of falling into sin. To illustrate, let’s say there are two 1st-century Christians named Demetrius and Clement. Both are former idolaters, now saved by faith in Christ. Demetrius shuns everything to do with his old way of life, including the meat sold in the marketplace, because, for him, eating such meat would constitute a return to paganism. Clement avoids the temple and refuses to participate in the pagan festivals, but he has no problem eating the meat from the market. Clement understands (correctly) that an idol has no power to corrupt good meat, and, for him, eating such meat is a non-issue. Then one day, as both men are in the marketplace, Demetrius sees Clement eating meat that was sacrificed to idols. Demetrius is horrified, but Clement laughs it off and encourages Demetrius to eat some, too. When Demetrius hesitates, Clement cuts off a piece and hands it to him. Demetrius—emboldened by Clement’s confidence—eats the meat. Biblically, both believers have sinned. Clement sinned by violating the conscience of a fellow believer. Demetrius sinned in that he essentially returned to idolatry—at least, that’s what his conscience is telling him. More importantly, Demetrius is learning how to ignore his conscience—a very dangerous thing to learn.

The principle here is that the conscience of a weaker Christian is more important than individual freedom. Doing something “permitted” should never hinder the spiritual health of someone else.

Maintaining a pure testimony. In 1 Corinthians 10:25-32, Paul again emphasizes the believer’s liberty and what should limit that liberty. If you buy meat for your own use, don’t inquire where it came from; it doesn’t really matter whether it was sacrificed to an idol or not. “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). However, if you are invited to dinner and someone there says, “This meat was offered to idols,” then graciously refrain from eating. Since your associate obviously considers the meat to be “tainted” by the idols, do not eat it for his conscience’s sake—even though your own conscience is fine. The Christian glorifies God when he limits his freedom for the spiritual benefit of others.

Here is a summary of the Bible’s teaching on eating meat sacrificed to idols:

Eating meat offered to an idol is not inherently wrong. Meat is not “defiled” because it was taken from a pagan sacrifice. God “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17). However, some Christians consider meat offered to an idol to be defiled, and for them it is, since they must follow their conscience. Their scruples should be respected by other Christians with a stronger conscience. Love dictates that all Christians make allowances for their weaker brothers.

However, Paul does have a word of warning in 8:9: “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” The phrase “take care” is a command that we must continually obey. Christ’s interest in the weaker brother is greater than His interest in you exercising your freedom. Paul acknowledges that we have “liberty” in Christ. Christian liberty is one of the central truths of the New Testament (John 8:31-32, 36; 2 Cor 3:17; Gal 5:1). Yet, it is possible to use our liberty and become a “stumbling block” to the weak. A “stumbling block” is not an act that offends a person; it is an act that leads a fellow believer into what is sin for him or her. A stumbling block is not just anything that causes someone to be offended.

Practically speaking, there are number of illustrations that come to mind. I really enjoy Asian food. Yet, over the course of my life, I have entered into various Asian restaurants only to find idols. Now I recognize that these idols are nothing; however, I would not take a new Christian who had been saved out of Buddhism or Hinduism to such a restaurant.

Paul now illustrates his point in 8:10: “For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols?” The “knowledge” that Paul is referring to goes back to 8:1-4. Strong believers know that there is only one God (8:4). Weak believers are influenced by their past. Thus, strong believers are to act lovingly toward other believers, even weak ones, superstitious ones, legalistic ones, ascetic ones, or baby ones!

Let’s consider another scenario. Do I have the biblical freedom to stock my refrigerator with Bud Light? The answer is “yes.” However, what would happen if a young man in our church was visiting at my home and when I opened the fridge he saw a case of beer? After seeing my stash, he might think to himself, “Well, if Wayne drinks freely, then maybe I can too.” Yet, what if this young man comes from a family of alcoholics and has determined he doesn’t have the freedom to drink? My example could have a disastrous effect on him. In the end, I choose to abstain from this biblical freedom for the sake of others. I am brother’s keeper.

In 8:11-12, Paul shares these disturbing words: “For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.” By partaking in an activity I may have the freedom to enjoy, I can potentially “ruin” my brother. Paul does not mean ultimate spiritual destruction, for he calls this man a “brother, for whose sake Christ died.” The destruction for the weak brother is that he reverts to his old pagan ways. The stress is on weakening the faith and ruining the Christian life of the brother, or stunting his Christian life and usefulness. Paul takes this seriously and states that this is a sin against Christ! You are your brother’s keeper.

Paul concludes this chapter by using himself as an example. The point being: We need to remember that there is something more important than our freedom to do as we please. That something is the spiritual development of other people. In 8:13, Paul writes, “Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.” What a Christlike attitude! He exhorts us by example, “Don’t look at your freedom; look at their need.” Our first concern should not be to exercise our freedom to the limit, but to care about the welfare of our brothers and sisters in Christ. There is an emphasis on the term “brother,” which occurs four times in the last three verses. You are your brother’s keeper.

The Bible places the burden on the strong. The sin is not in exercise of your liberty, but in exercising your liberty at the expense of fellow believers. If somebody else might be hurt spiritually, a strong Christian should give up the freedom to participate. The highest principle governing my choice in disputable matters is love for a fellow believer who might disagree with me on that issue.

There are two extremes when it comes to nonessential issues. One extreme is license: If the Bible does not prohibit a practice then there is freedom under grace to participate. The other extreme is legalism: A judgmental certainty about these issues that demands total abstinence. We must educate younger and older believers in the body of Christ so that they can learn what true Christian liberty is. We must also train believers to not cause other brothers and sisters to stumble.

Giving up my freedoms sounds like I live a boring, joyless life—I may never enjoy my liberties in Christ because somebody might be hurt. Paul’s teaching requires that I defer to those who may be close by or to those who may see my actions and be hurt by them. If I deferred to all Christians everywhere, I probably would not even get out of bed in the morning! On every doubtful issue there is a weak Christian somewhere who believes my actions or ideas are sinful. It is unlikely that they all attend my church or are in my circle of acquaintances. My responsibility is to love those nearby who disagree with me and to respect the consciences of other Christians with whom I come in contact.

Freedom and discipline have come to be regarded as mutually exclusive, when in fact freedom is not at all the opposite, but the final reward of discipline. It is to be bought with a high price, not merely claimed…. The [professional] skater and [race] horse are free to perform as they do only because they have been subjected to countless hours of grueling work, rigidly prescribed, and faithfully carried out. Men are free to soar into space because they have willingly confined themselves in a tiny capsule designed and produced by highly trained scientists and craftsmen, have meticulously followed instructions, and submitted themselves to rules which others defined.

Perhaps you are thinking, “Aren’t there some Christians who just sit on the sidelines taking potshots at other Christians, trying to find some fault?” Yes, there are. In fact, I know some, even in this church. “Do you mean that I have to limit my liberty for legalists like that?” No. Paul is talking about an action which might cause a weaker brother to stumble, not just make a pharisaical Christian frown. If we governed our entire lives by the frowns we receive from legalistic Christians, we’d be living in straightjackets indeed.

But distinguishing between the legalist and the weak brother is sometimes very difficult. Discernment is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and only He can make known in any given case what an individual ought to do. We desperately need, in the words of Heb 5:14, “to have our senses trained to discern good and evil.” God does not ask us to give up our liberty to the legalist. But if a weak brother is sincerely trying to grow, he deserves every sacrifice we might make. We are our brother’s keeper.

In July 2005, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, was asked by ESPN reporter Andrea Kremer to explain his decision to ride his motorcycle without a helmet. Roethlisberger response was, “I don’t wear a helmet because I don’t have to. It’s not the law. If it was the law, I’d definitely have one on every time I rode. But it’s not the law and I know I don’t have to. You’re just more free when you’re out there with no helmet on.” Unfortunately, Roethlisberger was involved in a serious motorcycle accident in June of 2006, less than one year later. A 62-year-old woman failed to yield at a Pittsburgh intersection and Roethlisberger was thrown into the windshield of her Chrysler Town and Country. His bike was totaled, and emergency surgeons spent over seven hours repairing a broken jaw, a fractured skull, missing teeth, and several other facial injuries. After being released from the hospital, Roethlisberger apologized to the fans, his family, and his team for risking his health (and life) unnecessarily. In another interview, he was no longer focused on taking advantage of his individual freedom: “In the past few days, I’ve gained a new perspective on life. By the grace of God, I’m fortunate to be alive.” He also added that, if he ever does ride a motorcycle again, “It will certainly be with a helmet.”

Roethlisberger, who happens to be a Christian, had the freedom to ride his motorcycle without a helmet. Yet, he endangered his life and potentially many other lives. What do I mean? Well if Ben Roethlisberger, the youngest quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl doesn’t need to wear a helmet, why should I? I’m sure many people watched this interview on ESPN and considered this freedom.

Spiritually speaking, beware of repeating this type of mistake and leading a brother or sister into sin. You are your brother’s keeper.