“Understanding the Game” (1 Corinthians 2:6-16)

It is now over 30 years ago that I was leading a youth music ministry trip to England and Scotland in the summer, working with an organization there called United Beach Mission. What, you don’t think of beaches and Great Britain in the same sentence?  Actually, our time with them was on a lovely beach along the North Sea in Scarborough, overlooked by an ancient castle. We did VBS types of beach ministry during the day and sang in churches in the evenings.

A group of British youth we met on the beach were much interested in learning and playing American football. I had taken a football along on the trip. They had seen the game on TV and found it intriguing. So, I divided them up and went over some basic rules. Knowing that none of them had any clue how to throw a football, I told them I would play quarterback for both teams.

Though they had great fun and laughed and laughed, the game only barely resembled American football. They constantly broke all sorts of rules without realizing it. If they failed to catch a pass and the ball hit the sand, they’d just pick it up and start running and tackling as if the play had not ended with the incompletion. And I could not get them to understand that they could not do forward laterals in a whole chain of tosses to each other. It was bedlam. But they went home thinking they had played a true game of football, just like the Dallas Cowboys or New York Giants. They did not know what they did not know.

And this is what life is like for the person who does not know Jesus Christ and who is not tuned into the great truths of Scripture. They think they know what life is all about, and many of them have prominent positions in the eyes of the rest of the “players” in their world and their game of life. But they don’t know the true rules; they make it up as they go; they act like they have it all figured out. But in fact, they are totally lost relative to the true, big picture. They see themselves as wise, and they see people of faith as trusting in some sort of foolishness message.

The person who is not aligned with God through Jesus Christ does not have the Spirit within. Without the Spirit alive and working in their lives, they do not have the capacity to understand the big picture of God’s work. They are blind to the notion of a creator God to whom they are accountable. The idea of a debt of sin separating man from God is foolishness to them. They see man as good, and ever getting better and wiser. There is no need for a Savior; and seeing someone who was crucified on the cross as the Son of God is ludicrous. The natural man does not understand the grand plan of God in the expanse of the gospel around the world. No, that religious stuff interferes with mankind getting better, complicating everything with moralistic judgments and objective truth. There is no anticipation of a return of Christ and day of judgment to come.

But the Christian with even a basic understanding of God’s master plan through the ages is miles ahead of those who are merely informed about science, history, math, technology, etc.  The true believer with the indwelling and illuminating Spirit of God is able to evaluate life accurately, as Paul says: explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.

Is this something to be proud of?  To boast about?  Not at all, because the capacity is all from the gracious work of God in calling Christians to be a part of his kingdom. But it does enable the obedient and dutiful Christian to play the game of life with insight and true wisdom.

1 Cor. 2:6-16 – We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7 No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” [from Isaiah 64:4]—the things God has prepared for those who love him—10 these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.

The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. 13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. 14 The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. 15 The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, 16 for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” [from Is. 40:13]

But we have the mind of Christ.

Advertisements

“The Ordinary Preacher” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

Over the years I have known and listened to speakers and Bible teachers who made enjoyable presentations. They were fun to listen to, full of colorful stories, making for an all-around pleasant experience. Yet also, some hours later (if that), I reflect upon what I heard and can only recall the fun parts of the sermon or presentation. The content was lost in a sea of oratory.

That is not what we want preaching to be. We want to hear the Word of God and be able to see how the text contains eternal truth. If it is fun, colorful, energetic, and skillfully presented, all the better. That is a good thing.

But for the Word of God to have an impact, it has to have the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit to make it come alive within the listener. It is not that one person will have the Word come alive within them to do one thing, while another person also has the Spirit direct them to an opposite application. No, there is objective truth in the Scriptures; it is more than what the listener has as an experience with the Word.

The responsibility of the preacher is to know the truth and to present it in a way that displays it to the hearer in a logical and persuasive way. Content has to carry the day, not cleverness or elocution.

As Paul continues here in chapter 2 of 1 Corinthians, he is reflecting personally on the truths mentioned in the preceding sentences – speaking of the “foolishness” (by worldly standards) of the gospel message and the very ordinary people whom God had chosen to receive and communicate this message. And Paul readily identifies himself and his style of presentation as very ordinary by worldly standards …

1 Cor. 2:1-5 – And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

Paul had come to Corinth after a series of very difficult experiences in several cities where there was great opposition. And his immediately previous place of ministry was Athens, where he had the experience of being called before the Areopagus to defend his teaching. There, the “idle babble” (as he was mockingly called) was brought before the greatest minds to hear what he had to say. When they heard he was talking about a man named Jesus who (so silly) was presented as risen from the dead, they wrote him off. Even so, a few people came to faith.

Paul likely came away from this with some measure of introspection about what he was doing and how he was doing it. Likely also he could see that where fruit did come of his efforts, it was never because of his great skills, but rather because of a work of God using the truth of his presentation to effect change in individual lives.

We don’t know for sure what Paul looked like or exactly how he presented himself as a teacher. Though a bold person of passion, nothing leads us to believe that he was uniquely gifted in oratory or commanding in physical presence. Quite the opposite. We’ll see later that the Corinthians were unimpressed with him personally, as Paul wrote of them saying, “For some say, ‘His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.’”  (2 Cor. 10:10).  As well, a second century document says of Paul that he was “a man small of stature, with a bald head and crooked legs … with eyebrows meeting and nose somewhat hooked.”1  (Not every church can have an extraordinarily handsome preacher, if you know what I’m getting at.)

So it is all about the message. The speaker needs to remember this as he works to make the message clear, relating the text to the immediate context of that Scripture passage, as well as the whole picture of God’s big story. And the listener needs to have a heart of dependence and openness to listen to the work of the Spirit in bringing the Scripture alive, also convicting of the need to apply the truth in life. If great oratory and colorful speaking skills accompany the presentation, amen!  But the life, the truth, the agent of change – it is not in the energy of the presenter, but in the message of the Word.

  1. Drane, Paul: An Illustrated Documentary (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 14.

“The Credential of Foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:18-31)

We are really into credentials in our culture. We’re very interested in degrees and certifications. We want to be sure that everyone, from doctors to plumbers, know what they are doing when we have them working for us … or on us.

And the church at Corinth was into credentialing as well, that being something of the basis of what faction they belonged to, according to what teacher or leader they honored. From verse 12: What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

Paul shoots down this sort of thinking that measured effectiveness by visible evidences of such as who was the best and most eloquent speaker, or who put on the best worship service … concluding that the real power resided elsewhere. He will now assert that the reality of success in ministry is not to be found in credentials, but rather in the power of the message of the cross.

(1:17) – For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

It was time to stop thinking about messengers, but to rather recognize the life-changing power of the message of the cross.

(1:18-25) For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

How odd to speak of the cross as powerful.

  1. The cross was the ultimately most shameful death imaginable – designed to humiliate both the person hung on it and any who would associate with him.
  2. Secular writers of the early centuries mocked the cross message that was central to the Christian faith – calling it: “a perverse and extravagant superstition” … “a pernicious superstition” … and labelling Christians as people full of “sick delusions.”
  3. The true thinkers were those who reveled in “the wisdom” of the age – as in Corinth at the time of Paul’s writing (wherein was a culture much like our own) would be popularly found in one of several rational Greek philosophies … of the Epicureans, Stoics, Sophists, or Platonists. These were the Ivy Leaguers of the day.

But again, the real power is in the truth of the sacrifice achieved at the cross, and in the spirit-infused message of this truth through the mouthpiece of an ordinary person who possesses an undeniably changed life as a result …

1:26 – Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

Here are three summary points …

  1. The world will never be sufficiently impressed with the gospel from a rational and logical point of view. There is a place for apologetics to give a rational defense, but the ultimate success will never be because it is the most rational message by human standards – there is an issue of faith involved.
  2. The power of the Gospel as evidenced in the changed life of a simple person is not only deniable, it is attractive!
  3. God especially uses the power of the message of the cross through an ordinary person. This is the sort of person God has always used – simple fishermen, converted tax collectors … you know – people like you and me.

To the natural man, the message of the cross is foolishness, and the messenger who proclaims it is a fool – especially if it is a person lacking in the human credentials du jour. But this divine foolishness, being from God, is above the most advanced human reasoning of the most learned, decorated, exalted human scholar and orator. Put this “foolish” message inside an undeniably changed life, and even the simple people of the world – people with humble backgrounds as our own – become effective communicators of the greatest truth ever, by His power.

“The Main Thing is the Main Thing” (1 Corinthians 1:10-17)

My favorite professor in Bible College was not generally the favorite Bible/theology teacher with most of the other students. He was decent on covering the meat and potatoes of whatever book of the Bible/doctrinal class he was teaching through, and everyone appreciated the basic clarity. But he had a habit of getting really wound up about certain subjects that would take him down one rabbit trail after another of passionate proclamation, replete with screaming and yelling and pounding the lectern. Clearly, he had lived through some debates with people of a variant theological persuasion, and he was fully convinced that he was correct and that they were in error. I agreed with him, as I continue to do so to this day.

These rants were totally awesome and full of fantastic information. But most students were frustrated by them and would drop their pens (yes, long before computers were invented) and wait for it to pass and for him to return to the subject at hand. Frankly, the best stuff he delivered and the most important teachings I came to understand were in the rants … and they tied into the subject at hand in important ways that were not immediately obvious.

I really loved this guy so much, and a large part of my desire to ultimately attend Dallas Theological Seminary was because that is where he had gone to grad school. If you made an effort to get to know him, he was actually a wonderfully kind person that was not at all like the lectern-pounding prof that most merely knew in that way.

Diana and I had him perform our wedding nearly 42 years ago. I’ve often said, “I’m of McGahey.”  (His last name)

There was another professor who was much-loved because of the organization of his materials. He would pass out notes that were very clear, and then he would teach through them in a methodical and likeable way. You never got lost. It was predictable. If you failed his tests, it really was your own fault. And though I liked this prof and his teaching just fine, and while there was much commendable about it, I found it to also be a bit mechanical. But many students would identify themselves as “I am of Showers.”  (His last name)

Yet another theology professor was very deep, and, very old. He certainly knew the Scriptures and had apparently been at the college even before the Apostle Paul was saved on the road to Damascus (or so it seemed). Every student was required upon entrance in the college to purchase two large notebooks of his Bible and theology notes – whether you were going to be in his classes or not. He talked like he personally knew every theologian since Martin Luther (and looked like he might well have).

Not a particularly cheerful fellow (think of Bernie Sanders as a theology teacher – yes, that’s a stretch), he was rather intimidating in class. He would randomly call upon some student to pray, which was a terrifying experience – that is because he would critique your prayer when you were done. He might say something like, “Don’t pray like that ever again and stop telling God over and over who he is; HE KNOWS WHO HE IS!”

Yet some students especially liked this professor because of his deep roots into the history of the school and the history of American theological education. And they could say, “I am of Mason.”  (His last name)

So, who was correct of those students?  Who was the best professor to follow?  Well, the answer would be, of course, that each of these professors brought different perspectives and variant strengths to the classroom. It was not so much that one was better than another; they each had a role to play in making the Bible/theology department excellent. There were fantastic things to be learned from the passions of all three (and a collection of other instructors not included in this already-extended illustration).

But that is not how the Corinthian church appreciated their varied leaders. Instead of seeing diverse strengths and shades of gray, they only saw their leaders in complete black and white, right and wrong, strong and weak. And they also wrote off people who would not follow and join their assessments and viewpoints.

In 1 Corinthians 1 and 3, Paul addresses the first of a host of problems in the church – confronting the various divisions that arose in the church community. Imagine that! Divisions in a church!  Yes, churches old and new can be known to have such challenges. And so much of the problem is that we have divisions because we have diversity; and we allow the diversity to be seen as a weakness, when in fact it is a strength!

Paul writes …

1 Cor. 1:10 – I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

When Paul makes his appeal here that they “agree with one another,” the original wording has the literal sense that they all speak the same thing.

And when he writes of his desire that they be “perfectly united,” this has the literal Greek meaning of restoring something to its proper condition. It was the word used in Matthew 4:21 when Jesus came upon James and John “mending” their nets. So picture a tangle of ropes needing to be sorted out. And that is what the Corinthians needed to do about this division in their midst.

The story that had filtered to Paul was that they were essentially divided into four camps around four teachers/viewpoints … Paul, Apollos, Cephas/Peter, Christ. We’ll speculate in chapter 3 about how they may have perceived these teachers and divided in this way. But Paul goes on to say …

1:13 – Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Paul asks a series of three rather ridiculous questions… to which the answer for each was “of course not!”  Christ is not divided; Paul didn’t die on the cross for the Corinthians; baptism is not in the name of Paul (or any other mere preacher).

The further remarks that Paul writes might seem to indicate that some of these faction followers aligned themselves particularly around who had baptized them. And Paul says he was glad that he himself had not done that much baptizing. To show that this was not the big thing, he tells them that he couldn’t really remember who he had baptized (I can relate to that forgetfulness!).  The big issue was their salvation from darkness to light by the power of the gospel, and that was accomplished only by Christ – the same fact for ALL of them. This is the big common denominator.

Paul finished this section by affirming that the calling to preach the gospel is not a call to the best eloquence and (alleged) wisdom. This does not diminish the value for excellence in style and communication, but the real issue is the substance. You don’t have to click around the radio or TV dial long to find preachers with great style, but little substance!  And the Corinthians were too focused upon style, personalities, diversity … all rather than on the gospel message.

It is inevitable that we may all like one preacher or style of presentation over another. That’s rather human. But forming alliances around one or another would be wrong and a focus upon the wrong value. And we’ve thankfully never had much of this sort of thing at TSF, even while being the unusual church that features a variety of speakers. The primary teaching here is the reminder that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. The main thing = the gospel message.

“Christian Privilege” (1 Corinthians 1:1-9)

Over time, words morph in their precise meaning and usage. We might observe such over the course of a lifetime, even seeing words take on an entirely different connotation.

It is interesting to see how the word “privilege” has morphed in the last decade.

The most basic meaning has to do with having an experience that is special or unique, like, “It was a great privilege to meet the Queen.”

Some time ago, the word began to be used of people who were elitist, especially economically. “People of privilege” were those who lived in that one wealthy section that most every town has – where wealth was accumulated, displayed, and passed down to next generations. So to have this sort of “privilege” was to have a descriptive identification that had a bit of a smear associated with it, sort of like being called a “spoiled brat.”

More recently, “privilege” has come into use in racial discussion, often in the context of identification as having “white privilege.”  This is confusing to many people, especially those who don’t really see themselves as coming from especially unique or affluent backgrounds. But the word is still directed at a wide swath of white culture, in that this racial identification gave people a head start privilege in every way – especially true in what was handed down over generations of American history and the opportunities presented.

Whereas this “white privilege” designation can be unfairly overplayed and too broadly applied, it is true that many of the historically predominant race in this country are oblivious to the abundance of their blessings, remaining also detached from the complications of being generationally a minority.

I think it is a general truth that most people underestimate their blessings and their privilege. This is especially true when one has grown up around abundance that was not personally earned, but rather inherited in the pervasive environment. Even people who have known a poorer time of life may tend to forget the full extent of the good fortune currently experienced.

As Paul opens his letter to the Corinthians, he reminds his readers of their privilege, while also reminding them of the grace through which this abundance has come to them. The Corinthians were really blessed in a big way, particularly in light of the darkness of the surrounding culture; they were a totally new and different people as a result of being called out of the world by God’s grace. The word for “church” (ekklesia) means to be “called out” … referencing a group of people who are called out to be together.

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 … Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 2 To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours: 3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

4 I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. 5 For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— 6 God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. 7 Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 8 He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Did you see the two components in this opening greeting?  Paul is telling them that they are richly blessed in wonderful ways, while reminding them also that this is the wonderful gift of what Christ has done for them and given to them. Yes, it is great stuff with a wonderful future, but it is all by the initiative of God. He is telling them that they are people of privilege.

And yes, we too are people of privilege, coming from God’s grace. It is Christian privilege. It should be something of pleasure in which we revel, yet also fully with the knowledge that is has been a great gift. There should be no pride in it, rather, great humility and a sense of gratitude. Beyond that, it gives us no high ground of judgment, that is, beyond a high understanding of truth. Yet that also should lead us to share the truth humbly with others. We’re merely beggars who were granted knowledge of an unlimited source of food; and now we tell other beggars where it might be found.

“Background of the 1 Corinthians Letter”

When Paul’s 18 months of personal ministry in Corinth came to an end, he moved on from there with Priscilla and Aquila, leaving them in Ephesus as he continued to Jerusalem. In time, Paul would write letters to the Corinthians – two of which are in the Scriptures and the focus of our study through Easter. Actually, there were at least two other letters from Paul to the Corinthians that we know of. It is all rather confusing, but let me list Paul’s Corinthian visits and letters for you here …

  • First visit of Paul to Corinth (Acts 18:1-17)
  • A letter written to them (lost to us) that they misunderstood (see 1 Cor. 5:9-11)
  • A second letter – known to us as 1 Corinthians – to address a list of problems
  • Second visit of Paul to Corinth – described in 2 Cor. 2:1 as a “painful” visit
  • A third letter – lost to us – it was disciplinary in nature (2 Cor. 7:8-9) and grieved Paul to have to write it (2 Cor. 2:3-4)
  • A fourth letter – the text of 2 Corinthians.
  • Third visit – mentioned in Acts 20:2

Of course, what we are interested in is the inspired Word of God in the two letters we know as 1+2 Corinthians, but this whole summary shows the intimate nature of Paul’s relationship with the church in Corinth. It was not like he was just in and out of the town as a travelling missionary; he really knew and loved these people, even with their many faults.

The letter of 1 Corinthians is written to address of number of problems that Paul was aware of in the church of that city. Beyond that, he also is addressing a number of questions raised by the church in order to have clarification of a proper understanding of truth.

Among issues that Paul will address (and that we’ll cover as well over the weeks ahead) …

  • Divisions, squabbling, fighting among themselves … Paul had received reports about how they had divided into camps around their favorite teachers …
  • This behavior of division demonstrated their immaturity …
  • Failure to consistently live holy lives and deal with sin … The practices of the surrounding world were too often a part of life within the church community – not confronted, with insufficient challenges toward living a different life. This therefore led also to Paul needing to answer a variety of issues concerning marriage.
  • They were insensitive regarding Christian liberties …
  • Their focus on spiritual gifts was wrong, reveling in grandiose personal expressions, rather than seeing the gifts as given to serve others …
  • Some denied the resurrection, while many others undervalued the central teaching of this doctrine …

We might tend to look back at these Corinthians and wonder how these folks could be so clueless and entirely messed up. But remember, this is still very early in the church era. They didn’t even yet have the gospels to reference, along with the writings of Paul, etc.  We’ve already referenced their geographical and cultural setting. They had been Christians for only a very short time and had no models around them of people who had walked with Christ for decades.

This is not making excuses, as Paul himself said they should have been more mature in faith; but these factors do help to give some explanation for the complications unique to this church. It is certainly true in our era that we have far fewer excuses for not growing in faith.

“The Beginnings of a Church in Corinth” (Acts 18:1-17)

When looking that the letters and epistles of the New Testament, we are always driven back to the book of Acts for primary information on the expanse of the gospel in various locations, involving also various characters. And to do this for the Corinthians, we go back to the account in Acts chapter 18.

There may well have been some followers of Jesus in the city before Paul arrived, though it is highly unlikely that they were formed together into anything resembling a church. More likely, they were struggling to maintain some footing within the synagogue in Corinth. Likely also surrounding the activities of the synagogue were Gentile peoples who may have been turned off by the licentious behaviors in this pagan city, being attracted to the monotheism of the Jewish faith. However, the pathway forward was complicated and strewn with identity obstacles.

Paul was likely interested in getting a gospel foothold in this uniquely secular city, knowing of the great need for this truth. And beyond that, with the coming and goings of people in and out of this center of trade, the gospel message would also be heard and forwarded elsewhere.

As Paul arrives, he is coming off a very difficult recent season of ministry. The response to the preaching of Christ in Athens was rather tepid, and great difficulties and conflicts in Macedonia (Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea) with the hostile Jewish element were not far past.

As Paul arrives in Corinth we see that he meets and stays with a Jewish couple – Aquila and Priscilla.

Acts 18:1 – After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, 3 and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. 4 Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.

We don’t know if they all knew each other previously, if this couple had become Christians in the past, or if their salvation was through this association with Paul. Perhaps they merely came into partnership because of the common trade of tent making (leather working). This likely also indicates that Paul needed to make some money for personal sustenance. But when Silas and Timothy arrive, they bring an offering that thereby set Paul free to concentrate on preaching.

Acts 18:5 – When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. 6 But when they opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent of it. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.

Ugh! It happens again – Jewish opposition. You can’t blame Paul for being very disgusted and exclaiming how he would focus now on Gentile ministry.

Acts 18:7 – Then Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. 8 Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptized.

There is a humorous component to this story, in that Paul ends up teaching immediately next door to the synagogue, along with Crispus (the former synagogue leader) coming to faith. Surely it was a daily irritation for the stubborn and intransigent Jews to see the life of the growing church immediately next door, including their former leader! And I could imagine how this difficulty would add to the many other wearying elements in Paul’s life. And the Lord gives Paul a timely word of encouragement …

Acts 18:9 – One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. 10 For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” 11 So Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God.

I’ve never had a vision in the night, but I have had a couple of incidents in ministry where the weariness, discouragement and opposition brought me to a point of nearly quitting it all … and God intervened with a timely and unexpected encouragement from some person or circumstance to keep me going.

But the main point I want us to remember from this passage, along with just the background to inform our understanding throughout this series, is the specific revelation from the Lord that: I have many people in this city. Isn’t God’s grace the greatest thing!!  Corinth! Many people chosen by God!

While in this unique place of ministry, Paul gets the encouragement of a positive outcome in court, seeing his opponents disgraced and driven away…

Acts 17:12 – While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews of Corinth made a united attack on Paul and brought him to the place of judgment. 13 “This man,” they charged, “is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.” 14 Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to them, “If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanor or serious crime, it would be reasonable for me to listen to you. 15 But since it involves questions about words and names and your own law—settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge of such things.” 16 So he drove them off. 17 Then the crowd there turned on Sosthenes the synagogue leader and beat him in front of the proconsul; and Gallio showed no concern whatever.

So the new synagogue leader takes a beating – this event probably also revealing some anti-Semitic sentiment in this secular city. It also set a legal precedent that this Jesus teaching was (in Roman eyes) just a dispute within Judaism rather than an illegal new religion.

Just keep on talking and preaching the Word – that was the encouragement from the Lord to Paul. Out of Paul’s talking in these 18 months in Corinth would come the effective discipling of Aquila and Priscilla. As well, many in the church at Corinth would be discipled toward the growth of a substantial body of believers.

Likewise for us, we should not be discouraged but continue to keep on speaking truth. Someone said in the Scriptures to “not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”  Oh … wait … Paul said that!  (Galatians 6:9)

Meet the Corinthians

As we enter into 16-week study on Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians, let me repeat for you here the sermon series description overview, just in the event that you did not read it on the home page or see it on the print brochure at church.

“I’m OK, You’re OK” was the name of a best-selling, pop psychology book published 50 years ago. Sounds good, but it’s lousy theology. A better title that truly describes the human condition would be, “I’m a Mess, You’re a Mess.”  And when we think of Christians who were renowned to be a mess, the “exhibit A” that first comes to mind is the church in Corinth. At a crossroads of travel on the isthmus of Greece, it was 50 miles west of the Greek capital of Athens. And in Hagerstown, we’re an hour west of another capital, also located at a travel crossroads of interstates – for better or worse. Are we a modern Corinth?  Let’s talk!  Yes, We Got Issues, but we’ll also see that we’ve got answers!

A major component of biblical study is to understand both the original audience being written to, as well as the author. So let’s review for a moment some of what we know about the city of Corinth and the Corinthian people.

Greece is shaped somewhat like an hour-glass, the two sections held together by a mere sliver of land. The mainland of Greece (which included Macedonia) was connected to the large peninsula area known as Achaia. It is easy to imagine how this narrow place where Corinth was located became a crossroads of both land and sea commerce. You can see how land traffic would flow back and forth from the southwest Greek peninsula to the northeast. And sea merchants would rather off-load and re-load cargo across the isthmus than risk the treacherous voyage around the peninsula. Smaller ships were even dragged across the land bridge.

Destroyed originally by the Romans in 146 B.C., it was rebuilt about a century later as a Roman colony. Populated first by Romans, there were Greeks as well; and varied peoples from all over the empire became a part of this very cosmopolitan and multi-cultural place not far west of Athens. This included Jews, and hence there was a synagogue.

In the same way we in America often look at Vegas as “sin city,” Corinth had something of a similar reputation in the ancient world. In Plato’s classic work “Republic,” when making reference to a prostitute, he used the expression “Corinthian girl.”  Indeed, much of the wealth and depravity in the city was due to the thousand temple prostitutes at the temple of Aphrodite. There was a phrase at that time – “to Corinthianize someone” – and it meant to lead them fully into the ways of the devil.

So Paul’s motivation to go to Corinth would certainly be to bring the gospel to this unique place of special darkness and spiritual need. Yet also, fruits of the gospel here would have the benefit of spreading from this place to regions beyond.

It was likely rather early for most of us in our growth of knowing the Scriptures that we became aware that the Corinthians are most often regarded as the most carnal and immature of the early churches in the New Testament.

You might right now be thinking, “Now hold on Pastor Randy. When I hear you saying that ‘We are Corinth; Corinth is Us, that doesn’t feel so good. You do that and then, yes, ‘we got issues.’  You’re not getting us off to a very good start here in 2019!”

Hey, I see what you’re saying. And no, I’m not saying that we compare poorly with all other churches as the worst and most problematic – as the Corinthians did relative to most of the other New Testament churches. That certainly is not true of us; quite the opposite is the situation. When I’m with pastors and we “talk shop,” I always come away from those sessions thinking I’ve got a pretty sweet deal in being at TSF.

What I’m saying is that we do, and always will, have some “issues” by the mere nature of being sinful people in a sinful world. We’re not perfect, and we’re going to have to work through some church life and personal complications at times, even as we seek to be the very best family of God that we can be.

And, speaking of family, we can’t disown the Corinthians as blood relatives in every way. And we need to recognize our same capacities for problems, especially given the reality of some surrounding, cultural similarities that are more abundant than may at first be evident. And, as we’ll conclude regularly through this series, we are well-resourced to deal with these occasional difficulties.

So, yes, we’ll admit to having some issues. But the greater truth is that we have answers.

Living the Wonder: The Breathtaking Destiny of Christ’s Love

(Randy writing)  This final of four Christmas devotionals is by our dear church friend Bill Kesecker. We thank him for these deep insights upon Scripture that dig into our souls. It is such a blessing for a church to have such wonderful servants as Bill — a guy who would be your top draft pick on your Bible trivia team, but who also humbly serves well with children and teens. Do thank him when you see him.

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.  “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than  all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!  Amen.”  –Ephesians 3:16-21 (New International Version)

You probably noticed that I switched “deep” with “high.”  I have followed John Stott’s reflections on what these four words mean in the context of Paul’s prayer, or considered whether they simply express the sweeping vastness of the love of Christ by building noun upon noun.  I think both are true; either/or just doesn’t really account for the big Gospel that Paul sees in Jesus Christ.  I think that Stott saw the flow of deep and high fitting his reasoning and sensibilities, for, if the love of Christ reaches the depths for a degraded sinner, so also the love of Christ exalts to the heights that sinner who is declared righteous in Jesus and who will be glorified for all eternity.  Well, let’s dive once more into the wonder of the love of Christ.

That’s an interesting word, glorify!  Glorification is “the final step in the application of redemption” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology:  An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, p. 829).  What’s particularly interesting is the grammar of Romans 8:29-30:  “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”  Every one of the verbs bolded is in the aorist, or past, tense in the Greek New Testament.  But clearly, if “glorified” is the FINAL step in the application of redemption, is it not yet future?  And, the answer is “Yes.”  So, how can Paul speak of a future event as past completed?!  Paul did not fail Greek class.  He knew what he was asserting.

Paul was affirming to the believers at Rome and to us that the salvation we have in Jesus Christ rests on God’s plan and work, not ours.  God can guarantee that the work that he has accomplished in Jesus could be completed, would be completed, was completed, has been completed, and will be completed.  Paul can speak of that work of salvation in us who trust in Jesus as totally completed.  Salvation rests one hundred percent on the finished, sufficient, and accomplished work of Jesus Christ!  God does go deep to find a sinner and will go high to exalt him to his very presence now and forever.

I would like to make an observation here about sinners.  I know that I have referred to the degraded sinner in these devotions.  I want to take care to note that the Gospel of Jesus puts me in every list of sins in the Bible.  It doesn’t make any difference what your or my perceptions may be about how good I am.  Bill Kesecker is not good enough to be accepted by God as righteous.  My hope is in Jesus Christ alone.  My heavenly welcome will be the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ whom I trust as my Savior and only Righteousness.  If you are measuring your life by me or by some other man or woman, STOP IT!  The comparison is empty, futile, and worthless.  Find your hope in Jesus Christ!  And, he’s looking for you right now, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10 NIV).

Frederick M. Lehman penned “The Love of God” in 1917, capturing something of Paul’s vision of the love of Christ Jesus.

The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell.
It goes beyond the highest star
And reaches to the lowest hell.
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled
And pardoned from his sin.

O love of God, how rich and pure! How measureless and strong!

It shall forevermore endure—The saints’ and angels’ song.

Let me give William Cowper one more word.  Scriptures tell us, “It is written:  ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4 NIV).  In his terrible struggles in life, Cowper learned the fragility and unfaithfulness of human needs, senses, and emotions.  Hear his advice:

God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform; he plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines, of never-failing skill; he fashions up his bright designs, and works his sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints fresh courage take, the clouds that you much dread, are big with mercy and will break in blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace; behind a frowning providence, he hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour; the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan his work in vain; God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.

–“God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” by William Cowper

Well, Friends, we’re on a journey if we are following Jesus.  It’s long, sometimes hard.  We need prayer, and this week we have looked at one of the most extraordinary prayers ever:  “that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

Remarkable!

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!  Amen.”

Living the Wonder: The Deep Dive of Christ’s Love

This devotional today is the third of four written by Bill Kesecker for this Christmas season …

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.  “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than  all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!  Amen.”  –Ephesians 3:16-21 (New International Version)

Well, the plans for going to the Grand Canyon are taking shape.  A reservation is in.  Fees have been paid.  No guarantees that I’ll be accepted for the trip, but I’m moving ahead!  God willing, I’m going down deep into the Grand Canyon!

Last summer I broke my left kneecap, after a very aggressive and tough fought round of miniature golf with two other fierce competitors.  How in the world do you break your kneecap playing miniature golf?!  You wouldn’t even make that up!  It felt embarrassing to explain!  On my next to the last visit, after the doctor had finished looking at the X-rays, I told him about my plans and asked, “Will I be able still to go to the Grand Canyon, and hike in and out?”  His words were polite; his look told more, like, “You’re OLD, you’re CRAZY.”   His eyes spoke expressively and LOUDLY!  But, his voice replied, “Yes, you should be able to do this.”  Then, he said something to the effect, “But, did you know there are 3000’ drop offs?”  I don’t know exactly why he threw that in.  I mean as long as I am not what is “dropping off” it shouldn’t really matter, should it?

But we’re talking about “deep,” aren’t we?  To grasp the depths of God’s love in Christ?  To dive in the experience a wonder, Yes?  Paul is praying for us to have power to grasp the depth of the love of Christ.  The love of Christ has a wide embrace of all kinds of people, and the love of Christ is as long as eternity to be expressed and experienced by his beloved.  The late John Stott suggested that the depth of the love of Christ would reach the most degraded sinner.  Paul would have understood that.  He had been a religious fanatic and a great sinner in the words of Don Samdahl (1 Corinthians 15:9; 1 Timothy 1:12-17), but the apostle did not revel in his degradation, but rather in the grace and calling that God placed on his life to serve him in the love of Christ, in which he did revel.

John Newton was a “degraded sinner.”  Newton, born to a Puritan mother, was a former slave trader and author of “Amazing Grace.”  An article in Christianity Today states, “Newton had been reading Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, and was struck by a line about the “uncertain continuance of life.”  He also recalled the passage in Proverbs, “Because I have called and ye have refused, … I also will laugh at your calamity.”  He converted during [a] storm, though he admitted later, “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer, in the full sense of the word.”

Nevertheless, Newton’s faith in Christ grew.  He led Bible studies in his Liverpool home after he left the sea in 1755, was ordained in the Anglican ministry, and took a parish in Olney, Buckinghamshire, England in 1764.  At the Olney parish Newton partnered with William Cowper who together collected three volumes that became known as the Olney Hymns.  “The Hidden Life” demonstrates Newton’s growth as the grace of God sought him, filled him, and enveloped him in the love of Christ.

To tell the Saviour all my wants, / How pleasing is the task!

Nor less to praise him when he grants / Beyond what I can ask.

My lab’ring spirit vainly seeks / To tell but half the joy;

With how much tenderness he speaks, / And helps me to reply.

Now were it wise, nor should I choose, / Such secrets to declare;

Like precious wines, their taste they lose, / Expos’d to open air.

But this, with boldness, I proclaim, / Nor care if thousands hear,

Sweet is the ointment of his name, / Not life is half so dear.

And can you frown, my former friends, / Who know what once I was,

And blame the song that thus commends / The Man who bore the cross?

Trust me, I draw the likeness true, / And not as fancy paints;

Such honour may he give to you, / For such have all his saints.

–“The Hidden Life,” by John Newton

“In 1787 Newton wrote Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade to help William Wilberforce’s campaign to end the practice—‘a business at which my heart now shudders,’ he wrote. Recollection of that chapter in his life never left him, and in his old age, when it was suggested that the increasingly feeble Newton retire, he replied, ‘I cannot stop.  What?  Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak (Christianity Today)?’”

John Newton knew who he was in himself.  But, John learned who he was becoming in the love of Christ.  It was not an easy journey.  It was not a clean journey of steady upward progress.  Christ doesn’t change a man as a programmer writes a code.  The walk with Christ in his love covers rough terrain with often slow and laborious progress.  We are sinners indeed, but we also hear the winsome call of Jesus, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30 NIV).

I am coming to see the Holy Spirit in messy lives.  Mine for one!  Yes, all of us!  I see Him working, empowering, rooting, establishing, making sense out of a love that escapes words, that knocks the air out of me and brings me to my knees.  I see Him more in a friend of mine.  I am a fixer, a compulsive, fallible, foolish fixer.  It’s so hard to stop!  But I must.  Being God isn’t my job in life!  Needing Jesus, though, is and must be my air and heartbeat.

I hurt my friend with all my “fixing” advice.  But I still see the Holy Spirit in him.  When you see love and patience during crushing trial and searing disappointment, and painful frustration, you know God is present.  I need to be reverent and see and often be silent.  I need to weep and mourn when he does.  To laugh and take joy when he does.  To think about and mull over the uncertainties when he does.  To pray for Light and Truth when we both need a love beyond what we have.  I need the love of Christ because he does.  So,

Amidst the roaring of the sea, / My soul still hangs her hope on thee,

Thy constant love, thy faithful care, / Is all that saves me from despair.

–“Temptation,” by William Cowper

“Dear Father of the Christ Jesus of Christmas, the depths of your love plunge deeper than our need.  You are there, though sometimes we are not certain.  I look inward too far at the emotions that seem far unlike your Son, and outward too much at the waves and turmoil of doubt and uncertainty.  Please send your Spirit to sound Jesus’ Name to me, to salve me with Jesus’ love and grace.  Empower me to grasp who I am in truth and by grace.  By faith I praise you that I am not what I was, and I trust you for what you are creating me to be through your Son Jesus.  I pray in His name, Amen.”