I’m glad I’m part of the family of God
1Corinthians 16: And I love you all in the Messiah, Jesus.
Paul has been pretty hard on the church at Corinth and with good reason. On one hand, they appear to be a template for what a Christian church isn’t supposed to be. There are failures upon failures there and in this letter the Apostle is like a fireman trying to extinguish several blazes. On the other hand, he has a warm, fatherly, relationship with them. He’s not angrily ready to toss them aside. Instead, he sees them as worth redeeming. Beyond all that, I have the distinct feeling that my impression of this congregation is rather one sided. There’s plenty wrong there, but a lot of it is likely associated with their being enthusiastic about living for the Lord and, at the same time, are coming out of a clueless, immoral culture. The result is enthusiastic ignorance. Maybe that’s better than being knowledgably bored! Paul concludes his letter by restating his love for them. They may be an ignorant and frustrating crowd, but Paul claims them as his own. It’s a pretty good reminder of how things are supposed to be in the family of God. We may have a few who are sometimes a bit off the grid, (of course that doesn’t include you and me!) but we love them just the same. After all, we’re together in this family of God.
Take Away: As the old saying goes, “Sometimes I wonder about everyone but me and thee…and sometimes I wonder about thee.”
The heart of the matter
1Corinthians 15: It’s resurrection, resurrection, always resurrection.
Even a casual journey through this book of the Bible convinces us that the church at Corinth is a troubled church. Paul has received word of all that’s happening there and in this letter he takes on the most outrageous problems and promises to deal with other issues in person. Apparently, he’s saved his biggest concern for last. Some in the church are beginning to doubt the Resurrection. He warns his readers stay away from such talk and launches into a reasoned defense of this core doctrine of Christianity. At the heart of it is simply this: if there’s no resurrection, Jesus isn’t resurrected and if Jesus isn’t resurrected we’re still in our sins. Resurrection is, for believers, vitally important. Our hope of salvation is in it and our hope for eternity rests on it. All the other problems at Corinth are minor in comparison to their wavering on this key point of faith. The Apostle says he wouldn’t be out on the front lines taking the hits if he didn’t believe in the resurrection. The resurrection defeats sin in our lives today and, in the end, it defeats our final enemy, Death. I’m thankful for this reminder today. Life tends to wrap us up in an ever tightening grip. Even “being a Christian” gets loaded down with non-central stuff like committee meetings and various activities that are fine but not central. A reminder like this refocuses our priorities, taking us back to that which really matters.
Take Away: Christianity without the Resurrection is something other than Christianity.
Worship service or a wrestling match?
1Corinthians 14: When you gather for worship, each one of you be prepared….
Attending a church service at Corinth must be quite an experience. Some people are involved in a civil lawsuit against each other. There’s blatant immorality and the church has divided between the “it’s no big deal” crowd and the “it’s sin” crowd. Communion has been turned into a potluck and there’s competition, not over who makes the best apple pie, but who gets to eat the most. Now, we see that people are fighting over gets to be “featured” in the worship services. One person starts praying, maybe in a prayer language, only to be shouted down by someone else who tries to pray better. One person has a “message from God” but is shouldered out of the way by someone being more spiritual about their “message from God.” The whole thing, in Paul’s eyes, is infantile. The Apostle tries to walk a tightrope about it all. On one hand, he likes the idea that they’re excited about having the Holy Spirit work in and through them. On the other hand, this disorganized, competition-filled approach to worship has to go. Paul lays down some rules intended to calm things down. When he’s finished, their Spirit-language praying is, for practical purposes, removed from their worship services. He also rules out this business of talking over the top of one another with their competing “words from the Lord.” He tells them to get organized and to come prepared rather than making up their worship service as it goes along. Singers, teachers, and preachers are supposed to come ready to do their part. Basically, he calls them to intentional, prepared, humble, courteous, organized worship. If a person can’t handle that, they probably shouldn’t be up front in the first place.
Take Away: We want Spirit-filled worship but an indication of that isn’t people competing to be the most spiritual.
God at work in the Church
1Corinthians 12: They all originate in God’s Spirit.
One result of the “gifts contest” at Corinth is that various gifts have been elevated to the point that the “Gift-giver” has been somewhat overlooked. On the Day of Pentecost the disciples receive, not merely spiritual gifts, but the Gift-giver himself, the Holy Spirit. From that day on, the Holy Spirit has administered the gifts, bestowing them as he deems best, not for individuals, but for the Body of Christ: the Church. When the Spirit decides that the Church needs “wise council” he bestows the gift of counseling on the right person. When he sees the need for healing, he grants someone the gift of healing. If a person sees a healing take place and decides that would be a neat gift to have and starts begging for that gift, they aren’t going to get anywhere. Or, from a different point of view, if a person is given the gift of teaching and decides that their gift is the one everyone needs, well, they’re simply wrong. No individual “owns” their spiritual gift. The Church is the beneficiary of spiritual gifts, but not the dispenser of them. Paul wants the “gift oriented” congregation at Corinth to stop focusing on gifts and to start focusing on the Holy Spirit, acknowledging his authority over the Church. He’ll hand out unique capabilities and enable people to serve in various capacities in the Church as he sees is best. God, the Holy Spirit is in charge, not us.
Take Away: Let’s be “Spirit-oriented” rather than “gift-oriented.”
1Corinthians 11: I received my instructions from the Master himself and passed them on to you.
I’m not sure that the questions sent to Paul by the Corinthian church are legitimate or just a seeking of more ammunition for their church squabbles. The Apostle answers a few of their questions and then defers the remainder until he can meet with them in person. When he deals with the chain of authority from God to man to woman he bases this approach on how other churches see it. He also warns them that chain of authority or not, that there’s not a lot of value in “who’s first” debates anyway. Church dinners are a concern. He’s not really against them meeting together for a meal but he’s greatly concerned that the “haves” are meeting early so they can eat their fill before the “have-nots” arrive. On the topic of communion, Paul brings out the big guns. What he’s about to say doesn’t come from the practices of the other churches as is the case with the chain of authority. Rather, this comes from the Lord, himself. They must always receive the communion meal in reverence and in remembrance. They’re to be very careful that they “never let familiarity breed contempt” and they’re to handle the meal as a spiritual activity and not as a way to satisfy their hunger. For a person to do otherwise is to bring judgment on his or her life. As I read this passage I can’t help but compare the “that’s how all the churches do it” to “these instructions come from the Master himself.” “How the churches do it” ought to carry weight with us. God’s people have carefully thought out how to best operate as Christians, applying their faith to current concerns. As a part of the Church I’m to take those traditions and practices quite seriously. However, beyond that is the “instructions of the Master.” Sometimes God wants things done in a particular way. I might sometimes (rarely) look at “how the churches do it” and think times have changed and a different approach might better reflect my faith in today’s culture. At the same time, I’d better be very careful here. Some things come from the Master himself. I have absolutely no authority to make adjustments in those areas.
Take Away: On occasion, with the passage of decades, the traditions of the Church might change, but the Church never has the authority to ignore the specific commands of the Master.
Freedom in Christ
1Corinthians 10: I’m not going to walk around on eggshells.
Somehow, Paul ends up back on the topic of meat offered to idols. It seems that he wants to be sure his readers understand just how freely God wants his people to live their lives. He tells them that if they go to the butcher to buy meat, just buy it without worrying about whether or not it was once part of a sacrifice to an idol. He doesn’t want Christians to live their lives in fear that they’re going to somehow mess up and get God upset with them. Of course, there are common sense rules to apply. If a Christian is a guest somewhere and the host says, “Now, I’m not sure you’ll want to join me in eating this particular piece of meat, as I’m eating it as part of a fellowship meal with an idol” then it’s plain that whether or not one eats that meat is a big deal to the host. Still, Paul’s message here is that I don’t have to live in fear that I’m going to somehow accidentally say or do or eat the wrong thing and get on the wrong side of God. Rather, I’m to live the life of a person who’s loved by God and who’s free to enjoy all the good things he sends to my life. So, praise the Lord, and might I have just a bit more of that excellent pot roast!
Take Away: The Christian life is to be one of joyful, thankful, freedom.
You get what you pay for
1Corinthians 9: We who are on missionary assignments for God have a right to decent accommodations.
Frankly, the church at Corinth is every pastor’s nightmare. There’s sin in the church and the church has a bad reputation in the city. There are factions wrestling for control and leadership that isn’t leading, at least in any positive direction. Some, apparently, are questioning Paul’s authority, pointing out that he was there as a volunteer and in no official capacity. The Apostle claims his authority over them as one who has a personal commission from Christ. He concedes that he never accepted salary from them, but contends that if he had done that, it would have been his right. He reminds them that’s it’s a biblical principle that those who serve ought to be paid for their service. Now, in a strange twist, the fact that Paul served them without pay during his time with them is being used by some as reason to discount his ministry. It’s a no-win situation for Paul. If he had he accepted salary from them they’d have felt they owned him. Now since he didn’t accept salary they question his authority over them. The Apostle makes the best of it, reminding them that at least they can’t accuse him of just being in it for the money. Probably the best take-away here is that those who serve have every reason to expect financial support for doing so. At the same time though, there’s a time and place to just give away our service of the Lord. To some extent this sets us free from the domination and expectations of those we serve.
Take Away: A worker is worth his or her hire – at the same time, sometimes it’s best to just give our work away for the sake of Christ.
Giving up a free meal
1Corinthians 8: When you hurt your friend, you hurt Christ.
You’d think that today a discussion about eating meat that’s been offered to an idol can be safely skipped. However, to do so is a mistake. While the literal situation is foreign to me, the principle Paul teaches here is invaluable. In Corinth there’s lots of idol worship. Often people share a meal with their god, offering some to the idol and then having a party in the god’s honor with the rest of it. A Christian might receive a friendly invitation to the party. That’s where there’s a problem. Some Christians think it is fine to attend, that meat is meat and an idol is nothing anyway. Other Christians are just coming out of that idol worshiping culture. Not too long ago they were the ones dining with the idols and to them eating the idol’s meat is a step backwards into the old way of life. The church at Corinth has been debating this issue and now Paul weighs in on the subject. He tells them that the issue in play isn’t about meat and idols at all. Rather it’s about one Christians loving one another. Even if the more mature believer knows that idols are nothing but wood or stone he or she has the responsibility to love their fellow believer who’s still working through the issue. The principle, then, is that I’m to be willing to give up some of my “rights” for the good of my brothers and sisters in Christ. Now, I can’t resist adding here that if you know enough about this that you use this principle as a way to control me (“oh, you can’t do that because it’s against my convictions”) then you’re just trying to manipulate me. Thus, you become the one who’s guilty of disregarding this same principle. When all is said and done, I’m still left with the truth that I’m to love you enough to be willing to sacrifice a bit rather than cause you pain. If I fail here, I not only hurt you but I hurt the Lord we both serve.
Take Away: Love is the guiding principle of Christianity.
Bloom where you’re planted
1Corinthians 7: Where you are right now is God’s place for you.
The believers at Corinth have some questions about marriage and divorce. They know that when they became Christians that they left much of their old life behind, becoming new people. They have some practical concerns about how their faith impacts their new life. For instance, if a person was single when they came to Christ, are they to remain single? How about believers who are married to unbelievers? Is it better to abandon their marriage rather than be married to a person who doesn’t share their faith? Paul’s answer is “where you are right now is God’s place for you.” He leans toward singles staying single, but doesn’t command it. He leans toward people who are married to unbelievers remaining married, but doesn’t command it. An individual can be a Christian in a wide variety of circumstances. Common sense tells us that this isn’t always the case. For instance, a bigamist needs to come clean and find the best route out of an impossible situation. However, in general, we can live our lives in Christ right where we are. Beyond the marriage and divorce questions there’s a solid principle here that I can take to the bank. It’s wrong for me to think, “Right now the circumstances of my life make it unreasonable for me to be a Christian. When things change, then I’ll be ready.” If living for the Lord doesn’t work where I am right now it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Right here and right now the Lord stands ready to live in me and through me.
Take Away: God loves to work in ordinary lives in ordinary circumstances.
I’ll see you in court!
1Corinthians 6: Just because something is technically legal doesn’t mean that it’s spiritually appropriate.
One of the bones Paul has to pick with the Corinthians is that some of them have taken fellow Christians to court. He’s shocked, disgusted, and angered that Christians would drag their disagreements to court to be judged by non-believers. For one thing, it undermines the influence of the gospel. For another, it surrenders God’s way in favor of man’s way. Paul labels this action as “stupid.” This, he declares, isn’t the way Christians are to behave. Someone might respond that it’s the only way they can get justice. The Apostle says that being wronged is better than wounding the cause of Christ. It’s on this point that he makes his most powerful argument on this topic: an action might be legal but that doesn’t make it appropriate for God’s people. Out in the world filing a lawsuit might be considered business as usual, but among God’s people doing such a thing is inappropriate. I think it’s sad that Christians ever part ways. We’re supposed to be branded by our love for one another. If it happens though, we aren’t to handle things the world’s way. As Paul points out, surely there’s someone in the body of Christ that both sides respect. Surely they can turn to them for help in straightening things out. If not, sometimes it’s better to take the short end of the stick and trust God with the long term results. I feel compelled to add here that there are times when Christians are dragged into court against their will, or must seek justice in their dealings with non-believers. At such times we have every right to defend ourselves and seek justice in every legal way possible. In fact, Paul does that in the book of Acts. Even then, though, he concludes that his current legal problems are being used of God to advance his Kingdom. Again, though, just because something’s legal that doesn’t mean that, for the believer, its right.
Take Away: God’s people follow a higher way.