“Mawige is What Bring Us Together Today” (1 Corinthians 7:1-16)

There are certain teachings and doctrines that I have greater confidence in being surely correct than I am about some others. There is no uncertainty about what the Scriptures teach on the matter of Christ’s atoning work and salvation. As I read it, there is not much debatable on that doctrine.

And I feel really quite good about the matter of eschatology – the doctrine of the last times. In the broad sweep of God’s plan for the ages, I believe I understand the future, though the exact times and names of the players will not be known until it happens. And if I get to heaven before the return of the Lord, and He tells me that I totally missed it on this doctrine, I’m going to say something like, “Really?  You’re kidding me, right?”

But if in that time of review when all things become certain and clear, and He tells me I was rather messed up in my understanding of marriage, divorce, and remarriage, I think my response might be more in the category of, “Well, I’m not entirely surprised; that was difficult to know for sure in light of the many others who had very variant ideas on the subject.”

Yes, it is complicated. The Scriptures give us some very strong guidelines, as in this passage today that we turn to in 1 Corinthians 7.  At the same time, there are so many situations that introduce shades of gray that are not specifically addressed in the Word of God. Over the years of ministry in a handful of churches, we have attempted to write policies to serve as interpretive guidelines on this subject of marriage, divorce and remarriage. Even so, it is not rare to have situations come before leadership with unique circumstances that are not addressed, and the policy gives scant help in making a decision about the validity of the divorce or the remarriage.

Here are some statements we can make about this broad subject from these 16 verses today …

  • Marriage is a good thing, including the physical relationship aspect of it that provides for a fulfillment of natural desires, greatly easing opportunities for Satanic temptation.
  • Paul gives a first statement of his own preference for singleness (that he’ll elaborate upon later in this 7th chapter), though he acknowledges this perspective is not universal by any means.
  • Those believers who are married should not seek a divorce and remarriage. If divorce happens, reconciliation and singleness are the remaining options. (Yes, there are other passages that expand on this further and with more nuance, and Paul here is not talking about complicating factors like abuse, chronic adultery, etc.) The main idea here is that people cannot just decide they don’t like the other person over disagreements about chocolate cake versus white cake, and run off and marry someone else.
  • The Christian man or woman who is currently married to an unbeliever should not initiate a divorce for that reason of a faith variance. But if the unbeliever leaves, let them go. Are they then free to remarry? Some think that this is assumed from the passage, whereas others say it is not correct to make any such assumption.

This is not my favorite chapter in the Bible; I’d rather be writing today about Hebrews 11 and the heroes of faith. Beyond that, for this series, I’ve given Tim Lester the blessing of preaching on this topic since he is our highly-compensated counselor dude at church. I’m very nice. Go Tim! … Don’t mess up!

7:1 – Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. 3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

7:8 – Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

7:10 – To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.

7:12 – To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13 And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

7:15 – But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. 16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

“Bought by a Price” (1 Corinthians 6:12-20)

Appetites are natural things and part of the creative order of life. When you need nourishment, your hunger cravings tell you it is time to eat and replenish. Nothing wrong with that.

The Corinthians had an expansive view of this appetite(s) thing. As we see in this passage we read today, they had slogans that essentially communicated something like: “When my stomach says I’m hungry, I eat; and when sexual cravings come naturally upon me, I likewise fulfill them. They are both natural and normal, and therefore I have total freedom to indulge without guilt or consequence.”

Paul is going to challenge them that their thinking is entirely wrong and that there is no correspondence between these appetites. There is a categorical difference. The sexual appetite within marriage is a good thing, as by its nature it brings two people into one relationship.

But sexual immorality is not a mere physical thing. It brings two people into a larger one-flesh relationship that is far beyond the physical realm. And when one who is a believer (being united in spirit with the Lord) does this, the action is bringing Christ and the “prostitute” (mere sexual/physical partner) into a spirit relationship that is incongruously wrong.

His advice (vs. 18) is to do what Joseph did in Egypt – flee from it as fast as your running legs will take you!  The reason is that this sin is categorically different than others. Think of it as computer hardware versus software. Sexual sin affects the hardwiring and interior components.

This was illustrated one time by a professor I had in a class. Introducing this concept he said to think about what was the first time you did or experienced ______ or ______, as he mentioned a whole host of ideas. And most in the class were thinking for practically each item that they really were not sure when or where that was. Then he said, “Can you recall your first sexual experience?”  And I think everyone immediately had that memory pop up without any dredging whatsoever.

Paul concludes with a powerful thought. He reminds the readers that in knowing Christ as Savior they have the Spirit living within them as if they were the temple housing for God’s presence that goes with them. Beyond that, they should remember that this was all possible because of a price that was paid – a price that no person could ever pay, but that was paid for them by grace.

Wow, that puts a spin on it for sure. And the final exhortation is to honor God with the body as well as the soul and spirit. It all makes sense.

6:12 – “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. 13 You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” [Gen. 2:24] 17 But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.

6:18 – Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

“The Time to be Different” (1 Corinthians 6:1-11)

When I look back at one particular period of my childhood, I am surprised that I ended up being a pastor all of these years. Within the church that so many of my family attended (four generations at once), there was a huge fight that was ridiculous on so many fronts. Even watching it as a 10-year-old, I recall thinking that these silly adults were far less mature than my own circle of friends. It was embarrassing. The church split, and even now, 53 years later, it has never really recovered from that time.

Imagine a family where two brothers are in business together, let’s say in the construction industry. They have a disagreement that becomes very public and well-known. Various family members side with one or the other. As you look at it, you don’t know what to think, especially if you are friends with family on both sides of the dispute. It gets worse. They end up going to court, where the contention becomes even more public, and the settlement sets up long-term resentments. Would you want to be a part of that family?

So why would unsaved people in Corinth want to be attracted to the church when there were disputes between church members in the public arena?  That certainly wasn’t a very good testimony that the concepts being taught about knowing God through Christ would yield a better life.

Unity in the church and a testimony before the unbelieving world were issues that were bigger and more important than whatever controversies were leading fellow believers into court proceedings adjudicated by mere people of the world. This was very upside-down and shameful, according to Paul’s rebuke. Rather, these disputes should be settled within the church family. There is a role for friends, fellow saints and leaders to work together toward resolution and peace.

In fact, Paul says it would be better for the one being cheated and wrongly dealt with to, rather than continue the fight for justice, accept the situation and bring it to an end. But the Corinthians appeared to be quick to seek to take advantage of others, and likely to retaliate by upping the stakes.

This sort of behavior was not different than the rest of the world, and it called into question the reality of their faith and allegiance to the gospel truth. This was a life pattern that was not the Christian way. And just as those who had consistent life patterns of common, Greco-Roman activities of sexual immorality of varied sorts, idolatry, greediness, drunkenness, slandering others and swindling were clearly not connected to God’s kingdom, so also was this wrongful issue of public lawsuits.

Bottom line: the Corinthians needed to understand that genuine faith should yield genuine life change. They needed a commitment to be who they were now in Christ – redeemed sinners – and not who they were when lost and separated from God. And that is a timeless truth with application coming down to our own time.

6:1 – If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? 2 Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? 3 Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! 4 Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? 5 I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? 6 But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers!

6:7 – The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 8 Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters. 9 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

“It’s Complicated” (1 Corinthians 5:1-13)

As we begin this week by going to chapter 5 of 1 Corinthians, we are going to enter multiple upcoming chapters dealing with difficult and unpleasant subjects. The immediate three upcoming issues involve Paul addressing an immoral situation that was well-known within the church, the difficulty of dealing with interpersonal disputes, and the call for sexual purity.

Frankly, I’d rather not be writing about any of these things; I’d rather be addressing some deep point of theology. But the issues in the upcoming chapters are not isolated to Corinth or the first century. And some of them (particularly in the area of marriage and remarriage) do not always have simple and clear answers. As they say, “It’s complicated.”

Even so, there are issues that are truly black and white. And this first of these is confronted by Paul in 5:1-5 …

5:1 – It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this? 3 For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this. 4 So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, 5 hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.

Even in the secular world of Corinth, sleeping with one’s mother-in-law would not be acceptable behavior. Yet for some reason the church was overlooking this commonly-known sin. Likely they were proud of their tolerance (doesn’t that sound like 2019?). Rather, they should have put the man out of the church (the woman, by not being spoken of similarly, was apparently not associated with the church). The Corinthians should have been grieved by this and confronted it.

Confronting is the challenge, the difficult thing to do. It remains this way. Trust me … these situations are awful to deal with. Yet by not dealing with them, they tend to merely get worse. Sometimes it is necessary for leaders in a church to take a strong stand and say that a person’s sin needs to stop, or they need to be put outside the family of faith.

Always, the goal of church discipline and confrontation is not to be overly judgmental or condescending. The issue needs to be clearly one of sinful rebellion, and the desired outcome is to see the offender repent – to stop the sin and walk toward Christ and restored fellowship. It does not help the person to not confront the sin. Just as with disciplining your young children, you don’t do it because you like coming down on them, you do it to see their behavior corrected. It is not loving to not discipline – be it children in the home or family members in the church.

The meaning of the word for the “flesh” in this passage – speaking of the person being turned over to Satan for the destruction of it – is argued by theologians as either the physical body or the sinful nature. I can see it both ways. But in any event, it speaks of a person being put out from under the protective umbrella of the church family, thrust exposed into the storms of the world that Satan controls. The desire of this is that whatever “destruction” happens will result in the person’s soul salvation and final restoration at the end of it all … even the end of life.

But there was another reason for putting this man out of the church …

5:6 – Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? 7 Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Allowing the sin to go unchecked within the church family would inevitably lead to more of the same, though maybe not the exact same sin. The lackadaisical attitude would lower standards of holiness and righteousness to the extent that immorality would expand.

The illustration is that of yeast. We know what it does in the baking process, something that is really quite amazing. This was of course not a new illustration. It went back to the flight of the Israelites out of Egypt and the centuries of remembrance of that in the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

The application was to move forward without the “yeast” of wickedness, but with the unleavened reality of truth and righteous obedience.

And Paul’s exhortation goes beyond the one individual …

5:9 – I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.

5:12 – What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.” [from: Deut. 13:5; 17:7; 19:19; 21:21; 22:21,24; 24:7]

We know that the world will always be full of sexual immorality and the purveyors of such. Beyond that are other people habitually practicing other blatant sins that dominate them: idolatry, slanderous speech, drunkenness, financial abuse of others, etc.  We cannot avoid being around these people in the world; but in the church family, this is not tolerable. Eating with people in that culture represented acceptance, and the church services involved meals shared together. It is one thing to have some association with people who are seeking to get their lives in place, but quite another to see them as full-fledged members while ignoring their ongoing errors.

Open rebellion and sin by those fully a member of the church family needs to be confronted, as that is the loving thing to do; and those who won’t repent need to be put out of the church. That is clear.

Around churches, then and now, people come and seek to learn more about life and truth, often being seen regularly though not fully engaged in an official way. And it is not rare for these “seekers” or “immature believers” to bring some messes with them. Our policy at TSF has been to say that we want to walk in life with those who are moving consistently toward the Lord, even if far from ideal, while also growing to know and love others enough that, when they are walking away from the Lord, we speak to them of the dangerous and downward slope upon which they tread.

Yes, it’s complicated.

“Father Paul” (1 Corinthians 4:14-21)

Sometimes it is difficult to be a father. There are occasions when you look at your children and you are disappointed in their behavior and attitudes. Though it may be easiest to overlook the issues and hope that they somehow resolve, more often it takes an intervention, as difficult as that will be. Hard things may be verbalized. Punitive actions may be necessary. It is going to hurt.

The Apostle Paul saw the Corinthians as his children – the children of faith. Though many others may have come along to be instructors or presumed leaders over them, he was their father in terms of bringing the gospel of life to them in the knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Paul felt comfortable in encouraging them to imitate him and his disposition on truth and relationships. Though he could not be with them in the near term, he was going to send Timothy to them. Here was another “brother” in the faith who had grasped from Paul what it meant to believe and to live the Christian life. He had imitated Paul in terms of this new teaching and revelation, and they could imitate him.

And the Apostle hoped that by God’s grace he himself would be able to visit them at some point. But what would that be like? What would he find?  Would there still be a contingent of arrogant leaders whom he would have to rebuke?  It was Paul’s hope that he could come in love and with a gentle spirit, not with a rod of discipline. That would be up to the Corinthians and their reaction and actions upon the receiving of this letter of communication.

Again, we recall that the messy situations in Corinth were much the result of this being a very new group of Christians who were uninformed about how to live the Christian life together. Yes, they should have been more advanced than they were at this point. Yet it remains true that there were few models of mature Christians communities to follow as an example. Bold personalities in the group surely reverted easily to domineering patterns of life from their former way of life.

Yes, bold and arrogant personalities are not the hallmark only of the first century world. They can be as prevalent in the modern age, even in the church – as such can also revert to the power-mongering of a former way of life in the outside world. Life in the family of faith is not to be controlled by such patterns; rather, the model of Christ’s life of humility in serving others is to prevail. And there are times when leadership in a church needs to confront arrogant personalities who bring to the faith family the modalities of the system of this passing world. And Paul will soon be speaking about that as well.

I Cor. 4:14 – I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. 15 Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. 16 Therefore I urge you to imitate me. 17 For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.

4:18 – Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. 20 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. 21 What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline, or shall I come in love and with a gentle spirit?

“Keep Rowing, Stay Faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:1-13)

Understand that by what follows today, I’m not complaining about my life as having had it so terribly bad as a minister and pastor. Quite the opposite is the actual truth, relatively speaking. Over the four decades now of working in churches and meeting hosts of others in the same “occupation,” I’ve met few who have lived the charmed and good life of church labor that I have been blessed to enjoy.

Even so, it has not been without some incidents and criticisms, along with occasional harsh and unfair verbiage. There have been accusations at times of both doing something I should not have, or not doing something I should have. Most hurtful is the occasional “wrongful motivation accusation.”  Hey, I was not headed toward ministry as a youth in high school. Probably I was moving toward a career in financial investing or something like that … if I did not make it in Major League Baseball with the Baltimore Orioles!  Along the way, through circumstances not of my planning, I ended up in a Bible college doing music education, only to be roped into a greater interest in theology – leading to seminary and an inevitable life in the local church ministry. It wasn’t my big idea!  God said to get to work over there in that local church portion of the vineyard until He gave me another assignment. I’m still waiting for Him to come give me something else to do instead. Hasn’t happened yet.

Paul surely felt like this. He wasn’t on the Road to Damascus to become an apostle of Jesus Christ. Apollos likewise was headed in another direction. And remember that Peter was rather content with his fishing career. But God had other plans for all of them, and here they were (Paul and Apollos being referenced here in chapter 4), serving in the Corinthian church to a mixed bag of reviews across the spectrum. Paul is going to give the Corinthians some perspective on how they should see these varied servants and leaders …

1 Corinthians 4:1 – This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. 2 Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.

Let me go Greek on you for a minute. It is interesting that Paul does not on this occasion use the regular word for a “servant” that is most often used (sometimes referencing the idea of a slave). Rather on this occasion, the word is one that speaks of a rower in a boat – the “under rower” to be specific – the guy who is on the very bottom.

And when Paul writes here of themselves as being “entrusted” or “given a trust,” this is a term that speaks of the steward or manager of a household. The master/owner who had many hired hands needed a foreman sort of person to oversee all that went on. This word is a combination of “oikos” (house) and “nomos” (law or rule) … so it described the ruler of the house, under the owner. The primary responsibility of the “oikonomos” was to be found faithful in his tasks.

So Paul and Apollos were guys who were merely the most basic servants on one hand, yet also those tasked with responsibilities. And Paul was not really that worried about what the Corinthians thought of him …

3 I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. 4 My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.

Yes, God is the judge. So it does not really matter if you are wrongly accused in your work for Him. And likewise, it is not our role to be final judges on the ministry of others, especially since we cannot see and know everything. God is the best bookkeeper. He will remember all that has been done, and He also knows the exact nature of the underlying heart motivation.

4:6 – Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other. 7 For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? 8 Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you!

Whatever we have as gifts in service have come from God. There is no place for pride in judging others, though the Corinthians were rather proud and thought they had really arrived in a high place.

Paul would wish to not have the adversities of ministry and the conflicts and difficulties that came along with it. But the role he was called to play was one that positioned him for the hardships that naturally followed …

4:9 – For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. 10 We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! 11 To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. 12 We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; 13 when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment.

You would certainly not expect Paul to be so criticized and harshly treated as he was in Corinth (and many other places). Here he is – the guy who brought the life-changing gospel to the majority of these people in the first place – being written off by those people who now saw themselves as experts and authorities. Yet Paul and his teammates endured through it all, responding as Christ did to those who persecuted him.

We simply cannot expect that it is always going to go swimmingly well while serving Christ in a fallen world of sinners, not even by those redeemed who yet remain quite short of final sanctification. Opposition, even from those supposedly on the same team, is not going to be rare. But the faithful steward, the faithful “under-rower” in the boat, will continue to daily take up the cross and do the work at hand. God sorts it out in the end.

“I’m a Worm; You’re a Worm” (1 Corinthians 3:9-22)

Diana and I have owned three homes over our 40+ years. The first was a rancher in Texas that was a starter home in every way. But we hit the market just at the right time, and the gain in value made it possible for us to do one of the most bold and crazy things I’ve ever done. My father-in-law and I built a 2500-square-foot, two-story colonial home in New Jersey in a field very close to the elementary school I attended two decades earlier.

When I say that “we built” it, I mean that in the most literal sense. Other than the poured foundation, the drywall, and sanding the hardwood floors, we did every last bit of it between us (frankly he did much more, since he was the one who knew what he was doing!). My own father was totally skeptical that this would work out; he thought we were crazy to attempt this. I now find myself looking back on that and understanding his point of view more clearly.

As we were nearing the end of the construction, I can very clearly recall several occasions of doing some finishing work inside the house while violent storms were raging outside. And I remember wondering to myself, “Is this place really going to withstand this? Did we build it appropriately and strong enough? I know we used a lot of nails!” (Actually, with 2×6 exterior walls, the place was a fortress!)

The proof of the quality of any construction project comes when storms arrive, or time passes. Does it stand? What remains on the other side?

Paul picks up this analogy when talking to the Corinthians about the labors that Apollos and he and others were doing in the process of building the church of Jesus Christ. Just as in my NJ house, someone else did the foundation and others merely built upon it. Jesus Christ is the foundation of the church that others over time build upon through their labors. The quality of that construction may vary according to the diligence and care of the laborers and the composition of the materials. But a day comes when it will be revealed – a day that Paul pictures as one with fire, speaking of the Day of Judgment. There will be reward for excellence, while nothing but the smell of the fire on the clothing of those who escaped alone with nothing to show in terms of reward.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3 …

3:10 – By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.

16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.

There is great comfort in knowing that God sees and remembers our labors for him in the church of Christ. Though we may be forgotten and our efforts at advancing the truth of the gospel and the mission of the church may be lost to human memory, God does not forget nor fail to reward that service. The church universal is going to be successful. The gates of hell will not prevail against it. This is the winning team.

Also looking back many years, I will admit that there are elements of the traditional church ministry that were a part of my childhood and early pastoral years that I enjoyed and now grieve as a loss – believing we’ve sadly moved away from at least a few things that were good and healthy.

But there is one tradition that I am very, very glad to be beyond. That is the obligatory singing of the Doxology at the end of the service which gave walking time for the pastor to make his way to the central door at the rear of the auditorium for the hand-shaking of congregants as they exited.

In my New Jersey church, I had a cranky and eccentric elderly man who EVERY week sat on the center aisle about two rows from the back. As I walked past him to take my position at the door, he would reach into his pocket and pull out a wintergreen lifesaver for me. It often also contained pocket lint.

Rather than having the focus upon me or the sermon, I attempted to make the event more about asking the passing congregants about things in their lives, etc. Yet at the same time I had to keep the line moving and not irritate those who wanted to get out, but who also felt an obligation to LIE/say something to the pastor about his wonderful sermon.

Many of you will remember one of my famous professors from Dallas Seminary – Howie Hendricks – who was well-known around the country from Christian radio, Focus on the Family, Promise Keepers, etc.  He called this weekly ritual at the back door of a church “the ceremony of the worm.”  We might also recall a worm allusion from the famous hymn that speaks of Christ’s death as “for such a worm as I.”

The fact of the matter is that being rooted in Scriptural truth and the fruit that comes from it is about the message itself and not the deliverer of the message – no matter how gifted he is. The power is in the message, not the worm delivering it. To pedestalize (I just made up that word) preachers is sort of like being sent a million dollars from your grandfather on the other side of the country, but thinking little about thanking or honoring him while throwing a party for the mailman simply because he delivered the check!

But the Corinthians were doing this when they made a big deal about different public, upfront personalities around them. In these final words of chapter 3, Paul basically says, “Stop thinking you are so smart, quit being groupies, stop having a ceremony for the particular worm you like, and focus on God as the source.”

1 Cor. 3:18Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”[from Job 5:13]; 20 and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.”[from Ps. 94:11] 21 So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas[Peter] or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.

It really is all about God and his Word. The power is in the truth, quickened by the work of the Holy Spirit, merely delivered through the mouths of worms who only know anything or have any ability because God first gave it to them. So don’t be rooted in the ministry of people (especially preachers), but be rooted in the Word of God, trusting also that he will use you as an effective worm to help others.

So remember, at the end of the day, not only is our situation I’m a mess, you’re a mess, it is also I’m a worm; you’re a worm!   

“Planting and Watering” (1 Corinthians 3:1-9)

Paul returns to his confrontation of the Corinthians for their pattern of breaking into various factions around certain teachers and leaders. The passage in chapter one includes Peter/Cephas, who is not mentioned here, as well as a group who identified themselves only as “of Christ.”  We are merely guessing, but perhaps some of the following characteristics might give some idea as to how these various factions thought.

The first group that favored Paul probably liked his aggressive, type-A personality and style of getting straight to the point and doing things boldly. These were probably those who were the early-adapters to technology and iPhone applications. The git-r-done types.

The group that preferred Apollos was likely the highly-educated and sophisticated crowd. Apollos was the university dude. Surely his teaching was very deep and the crease in his trousers perfectly slick. Every word was well-spoken. He oozed classiness and gravitas.

Peter likely appealed to the blue-collar crowd – the Teamsters Union types in the transportation industries of trans-peninsular shipping. He was raw and rough, rugged and personable. Likely he also appealed to those who had a long-standing connection to the Old Testament Law – Peter coming from that tradition and having been a close associate with Jesus.

I’ll let you all sort out which of the three of these relate to the three primary teachers we’ve had here at TSF over the past decade. Maybe you’ll see Chris Wiles as the blue-collar Peter, Tim as the university dude, and me as the aggressive Apostle Paul!?!  (insert smiley face and other appropriate emojis)

And then there was a fourth group – the Christ Crowd. Probably this group was turned off by the antics of the other three factions, but due to their critical and condescending posture they inadvertently ended up having their own high-minded, erudite clique.

Whatever, it was a mess. And Paul essentially says to them: “you’ve got issues; repeat after me, ‘I’m a mess, you’re a mess.’”  Actually, here is what he specifically wrote …

1 Cor. 3:1 – Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?

What Paul is doing here is bringing to the front of their understanding that this issue of divisions among them is a spiritual one that does not speak well of their maturity. They should have been bigger and more advanced than to become bogged down by something so terribly silly as preferring one leader over another and becoming groupies.

They were still “worldly,” acting like the people around them rather than being different and living by the power of the Spirit … acting like mere infants in Christ. They thought they were so mature and that Paul had given them deep truth, when in fact, Paul had been actually rather basic. Just like a baby in our infant nursery is not ready yet for Texas Beef Brisket and would choke on it, they weren’t ready for deep doctrine (like what we’re going to have this summer with our series “The Dog Days of Deep Doctrine)!  What I’m saying is that they were not really ready to live life like Ezekiel Elliott plays football for the Cowboys!  (insert here his “feed me” video with a first down sign!)

Such quarreling was simply not the way they should be behaving. He calls it merely human, and they should be thinking and acting on a higher, spiritual plane.

To illustrate this, Paul brings these “iconic teachers” down to the appropriate earthly level so that the eternal gospel of life in Christ can be emphasized correctly…

1 Cor. 3:5 — What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor.

After some years away from growing a garden, I grew a few things this past summer. I’m always amazed when that little packet of seeds that could fit in your shirt pocket grows an entire row of plants filled with fruit. And it really grew this past year!  Should I feel really proud of myself for planting those seeds?  For watering them? (not that anyone needed to do that in 2018!)  No, the miracle is that a little seed grows into a big plant.

And so it is with the seed of the gospel message. One person may plant it with a communication about the gospel and another water it by giving some further explanation about that truth, but the real miracle is when it takes root in the life of a person and they are united into the kingdom of light and life … even producing more fruit.

A couple of times in the last year I’ve had instances of people communicating with me about how they came to Christ during my time at the previous church in New Jersey … or that they grew in some way and are now serving in ministry. One of them who contacted me is a person I can barely even remember. Diana’s uncle passed away a couple of weeks ago at age 88, and I asked her about what she knew of when he and his wife came to faith. Diana reminded me that they did it in our house in Texas 40 years ago!  I had forgotten that.

See, it’s not about the messenger, it’s all about the message. Messengers come and go; the message is the eternal and timeless Word of God embodied in the gospel message of Christ’s work. All of us – not only the career types like Tim/Trent/me – have a job to know and communicate the gospel. Sometimes we have seeds in our hands, so we plant them. Sometimes we find ourselves with the bucket or hose, and we water the plants around us. We’ll be rewarded someday for that faithfulness.

Paul says explicitly here who we all are … we are co-workers … and he finishes the metaphor about agriculture before transitioning to a building metaphor that we’ll look at tomorrow …

1 Cor. 3:9 – For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Yes, we are in it together … in the big things and the small things, planting and watering. Just be faithful today with the next opportunity at hand to serve God.

“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.

“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.