“The Middle of the Center of the Core” (1 Corinthians 15:1-11)

There have been more than a few situations in my life involving organizations that I have been a part of as either a member or leader where I’ve found myself swimming in a sea of details while realizing that the big picture had been either forgotten or disregarded. In sports, conflicts arise about who gets the most playing time, while simultaneously it seemed to be forgotten that the goal was to win, not just compete. Likewise in politics, it drove me crazy that the party spent so much time on internal posturing and authority structures, that strategizing to advance the philosophical agenda by electoral success could not find sufficient focus to make this possible. And yes, things like this can happen in churches – where squabbles about lesser matters can become a vortex into which energies and passions would flow, rather than the advancement of the gospel.

By the time we now get to the 15th chapter and near to the end of Paul’s first letter, I believe he is feeling like I’ve written just above. Whereas matters like preferred teachers, spiritual gifts, marriage, holy living, and roles within the church body are not without significance, there was something of greater magnitude to emphasize. Paul calls this focal point – the gospel message – “as of first importance.”  He’s saying to them, “Let me remind you to not lose emphasis upon that which is of the greatest significance, that being the message of Jesus and what he has done.”

This 11-verse introduction leads into the best discussion in the Scriptures about the importance and centrality of not just the substitutionary death of Christ, but equally so of the resurrection. We are lost without either. The gospel is incomplete without both. The death is the payment; the resurrection is the receipt that provides proof and validation.

And beyond this theme introduction of these 11 verses we read today, we see in verse 12 the reference to Corinth that there were some there who were apparently preaching that Christ had not literally and physically raised from the dead. This fatal error had to be addressed. Again, these two elements are the big idea, the core of the middle of the center of it all.

The eyewitness list of those who could affirm that Jesus was seen alive after the burial (the proof he had died) is very impressive indeed. If it was just Peter and “the Twelve” (that’s a title for the disciples, actually 11 since Judas was now gone), one could speculate that they made up the story. But there were many more, even 500 who saw him at the same time (presumably in Galilee). There were many others, many of whom were yet alive years later.

As well, though Paul does not take the time to give quotations, he references that all of this is not merely the stuff of experience … something totally unexpected and beyond explanation. No, this complete work of Christ was anticipated by various Scriptural passages (Isaiah 53, Psalm 16, etc.). This was God’s plan.

Again, we also see here of Paul’s profound gratitude and amazement at the magnanimous grace for which he had been a recipient. He wasn’t looking for Christ, but Christ found him and brought him into faith and truth and service. After making the list of all those who knew the gospel before he himself encountered Christ on the road to Damascus, it was humbling to think that he had not only been included but had also been charged with the great work of apostleship. He was, indeed, the last person who would be expected to have this great blessing and honor.

In any event, he concludes, it is all of God – be it he or others who hold to the gospel; and that content is the main idea that should never be forgotten. Even the opportunity to work hard, such as Paul had, was a gift from God. It is all from God.

1 Corinthians 15:1 – Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

15:3 – For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

15:9 – For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

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“Order in the Church” (1 Corinthians 14:26-40)

In our community are a handful of church structures that are around 200 years old or more. If we could go back in a time machine and attend a service of that era, we would hardly recognize what was going on. The elements of the worship would seem very odd to us. Even so, it would surely consist of some forms of worship, instruction, fellowship, and remembrance of the sacrifice of Christ. Now, multiply the time from this illustration by a factor of 10, and that is what would be needed to take you back to the church in Corinth that Paul addresses in these letters.

For a brief time when Diana and I first moved to Texas to begin my seminary studies almost 41 years ago, for a short time we attended a newly-formed church that some relatives in Dallas had been attending. It was a group of about 40 people who met in a decidedly New Testament style of meeting. There was a weekly dinner as we gathered late in the afternoon. We knew that there would be a communion observance at some point, and there would be songs, teachings, testimonies, prayers, and words of edification, but there was no established order. The idea was for everyone to come prepared in light of your spiritual gifting, looking for the Lord to lead and guide the congregation through the time of meeting. It was very interesting and there was much to applaud about the gathering, even though it was not a church where we continued indefinitely … as I later began service as a worship pastor in a large church for most of my Dallas years.

A phrase that was used in this fledgling congregation that believed this way of meeting was the prescribed and correct pattern of Sunday gathering was this: “Apostolic practice is apostolic precept.”  What this meant was that the ways in which the church gathered in the earliest years were to be understood as a divine pattern to be followed. Therefore, churches that had pastoral staffs with designated preachers, using choirs and hymnals in pre-planned services, were very contrived and manmade rather than Spirit-driven.

I don’t think we can take that from the text. We again need to understand the context and the cultural settings involved. These were indeed the earliest days of the church. The New Testament was only just beginning to be penned and circulated. There was a dependence upon prophetic words and phenomenal guidance in their gatherings. Not a lot of history could be referenced. And, as written recently in these devotionals, many of the patterns that were followed were those familiar to Jews and their experiences with the synagogue system of gathering and worship.

It was surely easy for the gatherings to become disordered, especially in the growing context of Greek background followers of Christ who came out of faith systems involving idols. We’ve already seen the abuses going on concerning the rich who came first and ate all the food and got drunk before the poorer people could arrive. So much of Paul’s writing indicates that disarray and disorder was a common situation. All of this was not glorifying to God, and it was a shameful presentation for unbelievers who might attend and witness some crazy antics going down.

Paul’s exhortation in these verses we read today was to command that things be done in an orderly and dignified fashion, considering again that thought needed to be applied toward the whole body being served by all that occurred. There was to be instruction, but not so many varied teachers and topics that the content would be watered down and lost. Though tongues and such might take place, this too was to be orderly with a continual consideration as to how it edified all those attending.

And along this line we also come to a strange paragraph about women being silent and not speaking at all, as this would be shameful. Again, consider the times and the culture. Women were largely not educated. And also again, this was Corinth where some wild things occurred with women in the idol temples. The church was to be different and distinct.

These are prescriptions for that time. Yet, timeless truths come from such passages. Yes, there is to be order in the church meeting. There will be worship, teaching, edification and people of the family of faith exercising their gifts for the common good. The focus is on God, particularly the remembrance of the work of Christ. The goal is the growth in every way of a family of God’s people who will be equipped to live different lives as shining lights in the midst of a dark and sinful world.

It has been a thought in my mind to have us at TSF gather on some occasion in the manner that I wrote of here today – a Sunday evening gathering around a meal, etc.  Everyone would be encouraged to come and share their gifts. Some of our musicians would be ready to present some group songs (or special songs) they felt led to possibly share, while also being ready to play and lead various songs that might fit with the teachings or requests of others. At some point, someone would lead us in the communion. I believe we would be enriched … so long as we did it in good order …  😊

1 Corinthians 14:26 – What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.

14:29 – Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30 And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31 For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.

14:34 – Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

14:36 – Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. 38 But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored.

14:39 – Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.

“Spiritual Gift Priorities” (1 Corinthians 14:1-25)

Few subjects over the past century of the Christian Church have been as controversial as that of the spiritual gift of tongues. After centuries of this phenomena not being practically at all an experience in churches, it has become prominent in many groups as a core value and defining belief since the early 1900s. Regarding the emergence of tongues, those who don’t believe it is valid would point to the history of their apparent disappearance soon after the apostolic age. Yet on the other hand, those who believe in this modern revival will point to the re-emergence as illustrative of a biblically-reference latter-day movement of the Spirit.

We don’t have the time in this setting to evaluate these complicated matters fully. My personal view, predominant also in our national affiliation, is that tongues were a unique part of the early church era that passed away (along with some other foundational gifts) with the completion and acceptance of the full, final, written Word of God. Having said that, I acknowledge that some of the finest Christian friends I have known would disagree with me on this matter.

Part of the controversy revolves around whether these tongues were known languages or, rather, some sort of heavenly language surrounding prayer and worship. And I would take the view, upon a full lexical study of the Greek terminology and usages of the word “glossa,” that these were known languages in use in the world.

The purpose of chapter 14:1-25 that we read today was to point out to the Corinthians what was the relative value of the gift of tongues as compared to the gift of prophesy (the communication of God’s truth). Though they highly valued tongues, Paul asserts that prophesy was far, far better by comparison. The Corinthians elevated the tongues speakers instead, as apparently those with this gift were using them even when there were none in attendance who needed the communication. As well, there was a gift of interpretation, so that those who did not hear the communication in their own language would be able to understand what those of that language were being told.

Therefore, without the need for the language and the use of the gift, the display of the gift was edifying only the speaker and no one else. It was self-oriented rather than others-oriented (as all gifts should be, and in keeping also with the love just spoken about in chapter 13). Therefore, it was merely like the jumbled noise of an orchestra warming up, or like a trumpet in battle that was blown without anyone knowing the intended purpose.

This week, some of our church family are in North Carolina and working there on disaster relief projects. It is rather clear from our relationships with these friends in the church that these are people who have a spiritual gift of serving. But they did not go to NC so that they could merely feel good inside about using their gifts. No, the focus was upon helping others. But even so, in the process of exercising the gift, there is indeed a concomitant personal pleasure, satisfaction and fulfillment that comes from it. But it is not the first and biggest idea.

Likewise, the Corinthians should not be using tongues for personal fulfillment and even aggrandizement. Paul was not disparaging the gift; he affirmed it in this passage. He is saying that they were upside-down in their thinking. No wonder they were so immature. The greater benefit for everyone would be to emphasize the better gift of prophesy – the proclamation of God’s word and truth. This would result in learning and spiritual growth. Everyone would be better served by this more appropriate emphasis.

1 Corinthians 14:1 – Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. 2 For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. 3 But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. 4 Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. 5 I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.

14:6 – Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? 7 Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? 8 Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? 9 So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. 10 Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. 11 If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me. 12 So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.

14:13 – For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. 16 Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? 17 You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.

14:18 – I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.

14:20 – Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. 21 In the Law it is written:

“With other tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” [from Isaiah 28:11,12]

22 Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24 But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, 25 as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”

“The Greatest Thing Ever” (1 Corinthians 13:1-13)

A person who came into my life during my college years was a very awkward classmate who attached himself to me … here, there, and everywhere on campus. Though obviously a good guy, he was not one whom you would especially reach out to include in your new group of social relationships. His manner of dress was decidedly out of the norm, wearing clothing of a type and style you would rather have expected to see on someone in their elderly years. He talked and talked … a lot!  And that, along with his loud laugh, was awkward also. Hey, I was trying to make friends with what I perceived to be my true social caste – the cool kids and athletes who everyone wanted to know. This guy was an encumbrance to my successful rise to elite social status.

But he didn’t give up or go away. He clearly cared about me as a person and wanted to be my genuine friend. And he persisted until I finally came around and included him in my inner circle of relationships. In the end, I just couldn’t not like a person that genuinely loved me as a brother in Christ. He has remained a lifelong friend, possibly the most pure-hearted and loving guy ever … even if still unstylish and uncool by worldly standards.

Love wins, it always does, and that’s because it is the best and greatest thing ever.

The Corinthians were very impressed with other things – like all the showy and powerful accoutrements of this new Christian faith. These folks would definitely choose, if given a choice, to go to the church experience with the celebrity pastor and loud worship team bopping away on the latest pop worship tunes with colored lights swirling through the fog of the smoke machines. They would want to be a part of the congregation that boasted of its multi-faceted and extensive outreaches to those outside the walls.

And to this fascination with the boldly visible elements of the Christian life, Paul essentially says, “Yes, that stuff is OK, but if you don’t have the foundation of love, it ain’t worth much at all. That stuff is fluff, some day it passes away.”

Among the most loved of Scriptural passages is the famous 13th chapter of Paul’s first letter to Corinth, the love chapter …

1 Corinthians 13:1 – If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

13:4 – Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

13:8 – Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13:13 – And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

We know the story of the disciple John and his exile to Patmos very late in his life, the place where he received the Revelation of Jesus Christ, the final book of our New Testament. A part of that prophecy was to speak to the church of Ephesus about their loss of the priority of love.

(These final paragraphs come from a devotional article sent out by our home office of the EFCA …)

After 18 long months on the island of Patmos, John was allowed to return to Ephesus, where he was joyfully reunited with his fellow believers. Once home, he discovered that in spite of a murderous emperor Domitian and the Lord’s assessment of the church, the gates of hell had not prevailed against the body of believers in Ephesus. According to one tradition handed down by Jerome, the elderly apostle had to be carried to the church in the arms of his disciples. At their gatherings, he would simply tell them, “Little children, love one another!”  When they asked him why he kept repeating the same message, he reportedly said, “It is the Lord’s command. And if this alone be done, it is enough!”  History tells us that John died peacefully of natural causes in 98 A.D.

I like to imagine John on board a ship leaving Patmos and sailing east for Ephesus. As the island got smaller and smaller in the western sky, perhaps John remembered and rejoiced afresh in the fact that there is a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. May we share in this remembrance, trusting that no matter what struggles we face, there is a throne that is established and occupied—and a King who will never be unseated.

“Moving from Spectators to Participants” (1 Corinthians 12:12-31)

It was great to have our former associate pastor Chris Wiles drop in on us last week, his final Sunday before beginning his new ministry at an Evangelical Free Church in Stamford, Connecticut. We are so pleased for this wonderful new direction in his life along with Erika, even as we miss his great wit and wonderfully clear communications. As we continue in 1 Corinthians 12, I recall this great post from Chris three years ago and will share it again with you here. He wrote …

Having grown up in the age of the internet, it always amazes me how technology designed for communication so quickly becomes a vehicle for self-expression. Social media, for example, was originally designed to connect college students to one another. Now it’s become something of a deafening, online buffet of inane rants and pictures of cats. One of the things I’ve seen pop up more and more are the little quizzes like, “Which Lord of the Rings character are you?” or those obnoxious “Free online IQ test” types of things. Why do we bother wasting our time with stuff like this?  It’s simple, really: we like things that make us feel special. The only thing more valuable than self-expression is self-discovery that leads to self-satisfaction.

Too often church becomes a little bit like this—maybe even a lot like this. Since the days of the big tent revival meetings, we’ve come to think of church as a bit of a spectator sport. We line the pews because we believe the church’s messages and programs will offer us a sense of affirmation and a chance at discovering our identity. When our church fails to meet these expectations, we wring our hands a bit, mention something or other about “not being fed” and head for the church just down the street. The end result is that people change churches just as casually as others change dry cleaners.

Not that American church culture doesn’t share some of the blame. In an age where people measure church success by personal affirmation, churches must compete for members with all the fervor of a fast food corporation. Over time, this leads not to a culture of discipleship, but a culture of consumer wants and fancies. All of which is predicated on the misunderstanding that church leadership is about “professionals” who do the work of the ministry so that church-goers can reap the benefits during a Sunday morning service.

BEYOND MERE CONSUMERS

In Paul’s day, the church in Corinth struggled with confusion over the role of the Holy Spirit and empowerment for ministry. Even today, it’s tempting to think of spiritual “gifts” as the things that make us unique or special. But that’s missing the essential purpose of the diverse gifts God’s people have. Spiritual gifts aren’t a mark of personal identity—at least not primarily. They are a way of understanding the question: How can I contribute?

Paul tells his readers that though the church body is very diverse, there is equally an essential unity among its members:

1 Corinthians 12:12 – Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by[c] one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. And yet I will show you the most excellent way.

The gospel removes any assumptions we might have of spiritual superiority or inferiority. No gift—no person—is insignificant. We may all contribute.

A CALL FOR PARTICIPANTS

Let’s get real for a second. Some of you have been coming to church most of your life but you come as a spectator, not a participant. You might place some of your money in the offering plate, but your time and energies are spent elsewhere.

Granted, everyone has busy seasons of life that prevent their involvement in service roles. And we get that. But there are times and seasons in which you have the opportunity to throw in with us as an active participant in the body of Christ.

We need each other—perhaps now more than ever. In an age of Netflix binges and touch screens, human interaction is at a premium. We need the members of the body working together, serving together, loving together.

We invite you to consider how you might be a greater part of our body here at Tri-State Fellowship.  There are volunteers needed in such places as the children’s ministry and the High School youth group.

Could you prayerfully consider how you might become a part of church leadership by serving the body?

“A Lesson from the Baltimore Orioles” (1 Corinthians 12:1-11)

As we move on to the 12th chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul begins to address the next topic on the “list” of issues that were questions concerning church life together. The topic of spiritual gifts now rises into focus.

This actually has much in common with the preceding topics, though it may not at first be obvious. Regarding the matter of questionable practices, Paul encouraged them to not be self-indulgent, but to have the higher view of serving others (chapters 8-10). And in terms of the Lord’s Supper (chapter 11), there was to be a focus upon unity in faith and relationship with God and others. And now, relative to gifts, the same components of unity and serving others are a common theme.

1 Corinthians 12:1 – Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. 3 Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

There was a lot of ignorance that was a part of the Corinthian’s past when they worshipped dumb idols who did not communicate. And Paul does not want them to be ignorant about this new and living faith in Christ. Just as Jesus had taught the disciples, the Holy Spirit was the personal replacement God in their lives – guiding and instructing them as they lived life and served each other. And the Spirit was not going to speak through someone to deny the person and humanity of Christ. Such an instruction would only be coming from a false teacher, and this may well have been happening and causing confusion. Likewise, accurate teaching about Jesus could only come from the work of the Spirit.

The Corinthians should know that the source of the varying and different gifts was the same. Notice here how Father, Son and Spirit are all included …

12:4 – There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

God decides who is given what gift, and though different, the source is the same. This means that with a unified source, there is a unified and thoughtful purpose in the distribution. As Paul says next, it is for the common good. The gifts listed here are illustrative and not exhaustive. Most of these gifts are those for the purposes unique to the apostolic era before the completion of the written word of God.

12:7 – Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 8 To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

This idea of varying and different gifts – given for the benefit of all when all are exercised together harmoniously – has been illustrated in many different ways. Let me illustrate as follows (writing with snow falling outside and with an inner weariness about the cold and the evils of winter) with a baseball illustration (of which there is an illustration for every contingency of life and every biblical truth) …

The Baltimore Orioles are in Florida right now in Spring Training, getting ready to play their first exhibition game this Saturday. In my world, this is far better than groundhog predictions or seeing the first robin.

It is no secret that the Orioles are currently involved in a major rebuilding effort. After a number of rather good seasons, the train came totally off the tracks last year as Baltimore posted one of the 10 worst seasons for a team in all of baseball history.

As the new baseball executive and the new field manager work together to put a winning team on the field again, they are going to need to do so with a wide variety of skills.

The team needs a variety of pitchers both left-handed and right-handed, some who will pitch multiple innings once every fifth game, and some who will more frequently pitch in specific, shorter situations. And there is a need for eight other fellows to be on the field who can catch and throw baseballs to help the pitchers do their job.

The Birds need a variety of offensive players. They need guys who are fast and who can drop base hits into open spaces, getting on base toward the goal of scoring runs. Some of these fellows will need to steal bases without getting thrown out. Other hitters need to be able to deliver hard-hit balls that go to the walls, or over them.

Everyone is needed; each skill is valuable in concert with the others. It does not help to only have pitchers and no one who can hit a baseball. And as the Orioles discovered, it does not work to build a team with too many players who only live to hit home runs, striking out most of the rest of the time … living and dying by the long ball.

Likewise in the church, all the gifts are needed. You can’t just have all pitchers teachers, or all hitters servers, or all anything else. And you likewise can’t have one category of the team church not showing up and thereby not giving their gift for the benefit of others.

You have a gift. We need it from you. You don’t have other gifts, but some of the rest of us do have them. And you need them from us. That’s why God put it together this way. He’s pretty smart.

“The Union in Communion” (1 Corinthians 11:17-34)

This past Sunday I began the sermon by talking about the mildly legalistic and very conservative roots of my church upbringing. A controversy that I remember being debated during my childhood years regarded the propriety of building a fellowship hall as a part of an addition to the church structure, as some people were adamantly opposed to seeing any sort of eating event going on in the sacred space of the church building. And a passage they used was that which we look at today in 1 Corinthians 11. They jumped to quote these lines from this Scripture: “Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in?” … and … “Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home.”

That sounds rather certain! How can you argue with that?  I remember being impressed with these verses at first glance. But this is an illustration where knowing both the historical background and the context makes all the difference.

Today, let’s go the passage to get it fresh in our minds, followed by a somewhat lengthy commentary below. The material is from the master’s thesis of a particular young man and Greek scholar in Dallas many years ago. Some of you may know him, as he is the lead pastor of a church in Maryland.

1 Corinthians 11:17 – In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

11:23 – For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

11:27 – So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.

11:33 – So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment. And when I come I will give further directions.

Here we see Paul’s most detailed teaching on the subject of the Lord’s Supper. It is often forgotten that the context of this passage is a rebuke of the Corinthian church for their perversion of this sacred memorial. Yet in this rebuke there is to be seen a fleeting glimpse of the meeting of the early church beyond Jerusalem.

The Apostle begins by telling them that their coming together was resulting in evil rather than good. Whereas the meeting should have been for their benefit, it was in fact for their harm. The report that Paul had received was that divisions and factions existed in the body. Their stated purpose in gathering – to observe the Lord’s Supper – was not in reality being carried out.

The problem appears to be centered around the rich and the poor in the church. The rich apparently came to the meeting first with their own food. Instead of waiting for the others to come (who were maybe still working), they ate and drank to the full, so that some were hungry, while others were drunk. Possibly those with Gentile Greek backgrounds even reverted to celebrating this supper like those from their heathen sacrificial feast days. Whatever, the Corinthians were not truly celebrating the Lord’s Supper.

The Apostle Paul’s rebuke in verse 22 contains three elements. First, eating and drinking was not the reason for the service of the church; this they could do in their own homes. Secondly, their actions demonstrated a lack of reverence for the meaning of the Lord’s Supper and the meeting of the church. Thirdly, they shamed the poor by not waiting for them and not sharing from their abundance. How different this was from the situation in Acts 2 where anyone who had a need was taken care of by those who had more. The conclusion of the matter was that they could all wait for one another and not emphasize the eating to such an extent.

A question we might ask is why did the early church celebrated the Lord’s Supper in the context of a communal meal?  The answer involves four known factors, to which this author would like to suggest a fifth possibility.

First, it was likely that during this time was when there was a sharing of all things in common. Certainly this involved more than food, yet as the community met together they expressed their spiritual bond to one another and to Jesus Christ over the fellowship of a common meal.

Secondly, it is a fact that to pious Jews (as were many of the earliest Christians) there was no meal that was not sacred. Before a Jew would eat even the simplest item of food, he would always pause to express his praise and thanks to God. Eating was for the Jew a religious experience.

Thirdly, the earliest leaders of the church were the disciples who had shared many meals with the Savior. These must have been memorable experiences that they vocally shared with the Christian community – reflecting on such as the feeding of the multitudes and the post-resurrection meals together.

Fourthly, and of greatest influence no doubt, is the memory of the institution of the Lord’s Supper by Jesus in the context of a common meal together. Christ’s instructions for them to remember Him by eating the bread and drinking the cup were implemented by the disciples in the same context in which it was given.

The fifth suggestion – in line with the theme of this research – is to propose that the early church communal meal may have had roots in a communal meal observed by Jews on the evening of the Sabbath in their synagogues. There is evidence that in this same era, these gathering places were used as a dining hall after the study of the Torah.

So it is very possible that the Jews who became the first Christians were accustomed to having these dinners together on the Saturday evening of their worship and instruction in the Law. They may have simply continued this on a different evening – the first day of the week, resurrection Sunday. And they may simply have changed the content of the teaching to that of the gospel as the fulfillment of the Law, adding also the new instruction of the remembrance of the Lord’s Supper.

In any event, these are the elements, then and now: worship, fellowship, unity in faith, instruction, and remembrance. Then and now, these elements make the institution of the church the greatest thing that exists on Planet Earth.

“The Ecclesiastical 5G Network” (1 Corinthians 11:2-16)

Once again in Corinthians we are today upon one of the stranger passages of Scripture that is both difficult to understand and even more difficult to apply. And, also once again, I’m reminded as to why I’ve not done repetitive sermon series on these letters, especially this first epistle.

Complicating our understanding of this passage is the cultural milieu of two millennia ago. In talking about head coverings for women, there is certainly a reality to that from the Jewish background. Less is known of the traditions of Greek women, though surely it was less likely, if at all.

Beyond this, there is quite a mixed interpretation of Greek words by scholars who have commented on this passage. And many of these terms could have a wide variety of connotations from one historical period to another, or from one place to another. How much is the passage talking about head coverings versus hair?  How much is it referencing men and women, versus husbands and wives?

Remember also that we are talking about Corinth, the “Las Vegas / Sin City” of the ancient world. Loose cultural patterns (that don’t seem like a big deal to us) may well have found their way into the meeting of the church, causing disorder and disruption.

Maybe an illustration would help at this point. Imagine if some of the ladies within the women’s ministry at TSF decided to more largely promote their place within the church family. Toward that end they decided to dress in a very colorful way with evening wear, fancy hair, and make-up applied in such a way as when going to a ball or a New Year’s Eve formal celebration. This would draw attention; and then add to that some aggressive ways of being very publicly involved in the service – actively in the worship time, while leading out loudly in prayers and praises. That might create a bit of a “scene.”  And even if it was all done with genuinely good intentions, there might be more than a bit of distraction and disorder coming from it.

There is no doubt that women had a lesser role socially in these times of antiquity, being more subordinate in all other ways. This would be true as well for even more recent history in our own cultural setting.

Yet it is undoubtedly true also that the gospel message and the life of the church family raised women to a higher standard than what existed in that culture. Many passages point to this truth.

Even so, Paul, especially among biblical writers, teaches that there is a divine order. And we see that in this passage where he says that woman came from man as a helper for him, not the other way around. There is a divine order of life administration … God > Man > Woman. And that may sound rather sexist, surely flying into the face of our current cultural conversation on the equality of gender roles. To begin to answer that, consider that there is an “administrative order” even within the Godhead … Father > Son > Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is no less divine, yet the Spirit operates in unified submission to the Father and the Son.

As well, this passage does come right out and say that men and women are fully interdependent. Each needs the other and cannot ultimately function and live successfully without the other. This is true in church life. We’d fold up as a church without the roles that women play in making the family of faith a success. And it would likewise be true that a church of all women would be lacking in all that would be needed for a successful congregation of God’s people.

As with so many topics related to the institution of the church (e.g. spiritual gifts, generations), both genders are needed and are ultimately interdependent. Gifts, generations, genders … we could call this The Ecclesiastical 3G Network. Actually, let’s expand that to a 5G – God, gospel, gifts, generations, genders. Oohh… I like that … that could be a sermon series!

1 Corinthians 11:2 – I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. 3 But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.

11:7 – A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.

11:13 – Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.

“Examples to Follow” (1 Corinthians 10:23—11:1)

We love our freedom in America. It is our heritage. In today’s culture, there is the exaltation of freedom even in areas like gender identity and relationships. And Christians who dispute the biblical veracity of these expressions and see a definition of immorality within some of these relationships are viewed as judgmental prudes who want to inhibit individual freedom.

But everyone believes in drawing some limits to freedom. Even an anarchist does not want his home ransacked because someone else feels they have the rights to do so. So where are lines to be drawn?

 

As we wrote in the previous devotional when setting up the context for this latter portion of 1 Corinthians chapter 10, the background question being addressed by Paul has to do with the freedom to eat meat offered to idols, as most marketplace meat available at that time had been. The previous passage (verses 14-22) gave the first of three answers. Paul said that the Corinthians should flee idolatry and not be eating meat in pagan temples, thereby becoming one with the demon entities behind the idol worship.

The Corinthians were very excited about their freedoms that they believed came to them by association with the gospel and their new faith community. And Paul quotes them in their exhilaration …

10:23 – “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. 24 No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.

Paul jumps on their assertion immediately by giving a “yeah, but” … stating that not everything they have freedom to do is constructive. There is a higher principle of being cognizant as to how actions affect others.

Answer #2 gives an affirmative to their own personal freedom to buy and consume meat bought in the marketplace…

10:25 – Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, 26 for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” [from Ps. 24:1]

Paul acknowledges their freedom in the context of their own homes. This is indeed a liberty that they do have. But answer #3 comes quickly on the heels of this granted liberty, setting up another scenario …

10:27 – If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. 28 But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. 29 I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? 30 If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?

The setting is this: if you are in the home of an unbeliever, along with other Christians also there as guests, feel free to eat whatever is set before you. But if another Christian of weaker faith speaks of being troubled by participating because the food had been offered to an idol, then – for the sake of the weaker brother – don’t eat the food. Paul is not saying that they needed to change their viewpoint to match that of the weaker brother, but they should yieldingly change their behavior.

Paul summarizes …

10:31 – So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32 Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— 33 even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. 11:1 – Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.

Again, it is all about the big picture. Food and drink are really not that important, there’s always more of it that causes no issues. The larger picture involves other people, both those yet to come to faith and those who are earlier along the path of growth and sanctified maturity. You don’t want to be an obstacle to those who need the Lord or to those who need to mature in faith. Don’t demand your rights, rather, seek the good of others.

Paul is not arrogant in concluding this section of thought in 11:1 by saying, Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. This has the same spirit as that great passage in Philippians 2 about the humiliation of Christ in taking on humanity to the extent of dying for our sins. This was the ultimate in others-oriented service. There, Paul said to the Philippians to have this same attitude as Christ Jesus. And here to the Corinthians it is much the same; don’t demand you own rights. As Paul was doing, set them aside for the greater good of serving others.

It is not unhealthy for each of us as Christians to ponder where we might have the very public exercise of some liberties that are harmful to either the salvation or the growth of others. And relative to whatever issue the Spirit may bring to your mind, be it alcohol consumption or something else, the question is not so much IF you have the freedom to participate. The pertinent question is if it is WISE to insist upon your liberty.

“Getting Too Corinthian These Days?” (1 Corinthians 10:14-22)

There is an old saying about the process of biblical interpretation that goes like this, “A text without a context is a pretext.”  Now doesn’t that make everything clear?!?  It is saying that the larger context surrounding the passage (or text) you’re trying to understand is absolutely essential. Otherwise, you’re just making a guess at what is being said that may not actually be correct, such as would be clear from the information of the larger picture.

It has really struck me over the course of working through these difficult passages in Corinthian chapters 8-10 of the importance of everything being understood in light of the larger context. And again, that larger context relates to the rightful exercise of individual freedoms and liberties. And the big picture application is that, though freedoms exist, there yet needs to be a larger willingness to defer at times in the exercise of those liberties in light of others, particularly brethren who are weaker in the faith.

The background question at hand again today has to do with the freedom to eat meat offered to idols, as most marketplace meat available at that time had been. And in today’s passage and the one to follow in the next devotional, Paul is going to give three answers. Answer #1 is today …

1 Cor. 10:14 – Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.

10:18 – Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? 19 Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. 22 Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?

Paul is telling the Corinthians that they should not be going to pagan temples and eating meat in those public places. Simply stated: FLEE IDOLATRY.  Just stay away from it.

The first illustration Paul uses is of the communion time in the church assembly. Drinking and eating of the cup and the bread signify unity together of the participants with the work of Christ. There is oneness, everyone understands that. In that moment we are together one body – with each other and with Christ.

The second illustration looks back to the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, as those participants were also identifying with the sacrifice and with each other.

Likewise therefore, by application, when a Christian is in the pagan temple and participating, there is an identification/unity thing going on. Paul additionally says that, no, unlike with Christ, the pagan god is not real. But what is real are the demons associated with it all – doing the work of blinding and enslaving those who are fully invested in that system.

There is therefore then no place for Christians to have a foot in one world and a foot in the other. That’s crazy; that’s inconsistent. And beyond that, the Lord’s jealousy is rightly aroused; and there is no future or strength to be had to stand against that. It certainly did not work out well for Israel when they deviated in such fashion.

So how does this apply to us today?  We’re not going to go downtown to a pagan temple and eat meat. But there needs to be some thinking that goes on in the minds of Christians as to what things they should participate in and what things need to be completely avoided. I certainly don’t think any would argue with me that a strip club is rather fully over the line into the errant category. But how about a casino?  Or drop it back a couple of notches to a rowdy tavern?  How about even a classier upscale bar?

Yes, it gets complicated; and various Christian people are going to draw the line at different places. As I wrote earlier in this discussion, the faith community around which I grew up drew the line VERY far back from any possibilities of worldly contamination. It was far enough to have honestly crossed another line and into an opposite category called “legalism.”  But, having said that, I personally think the time has come where we need to consider that our evangelical liberties pendulum has swung a bit more widely to the licentious end. Just sayin’.  Just being honest. Just being concerned. Just worried we might be getting a bit too Corinthian.