Back to Business – 1 Corinthians 16. RBT Notes, 30th November

keep-calm-its-back-to-business1 Corinthians tackles many issues, and shows the Apostle’s heart for God’s Gospel and His people. Paul explores the depths of the problems in the church at Corinth, and probes the false values which they are living for, in the place of Christ. Paul has done his work. Now the Corinthians need to get in step through a hearty Spirit-led obedience to what they’ve been taught. Obviously, the same is true of us.

If the letter’s fireworks are over, don’t think that the final chapter of this or any other of Paul’s letters is unimportant. So often, it is here that the main emphases and the lessons of the letter are pushed home a final time. Here are three:

 

Serve the needy

The first heartbeat of grace in a believer’s life is the outward look to the needs of others in Christ. Suddenly, we’re aware that others need to experience this grace as much as we do. That might be those who are outside Christ, but it is equally those who are already part of His Body, whether in our local church or elsewhere.

Paul put considerable effort into raising a collection from the Gentile churches for the relief of the poor and needy in Jerusalem. It was a genius stroke of showing the world, as well as the Jerusalem church, that the true church is one for people of all places and races. Paul knew that this gift collected from former pagans would speak of the grace which brings new life and new community. So Paul proposes a weekly collection, with the gift gradually increasing until he comes to organise its taking up to Jerusalem (vv.1-4).

What we do with our money says everything about where our hearts are. It’s easy to spend it on ourselves, or on those we know and love. It’s equally easy to save it. But can you give of your money to those who need it who you’ve never met? Can you give to strangers who are totally unlike you, apart from their shared profession of faith in Jesus? In that way, they are your brothers and sisters in Christ. Giving to them is a duty and a privilege.

This command is a challenge to the Corinthians who have shown themselves to be very proud and selfish. Giving attacks personal pride. Try it. It works.

 

Do strategic ministry

Paul outlines his travel plans and hopes (vv.5-6). That includes making more than a passing visit to the Corinthians (v.7). He wants to give them time, time which was so precious to him, in order to iron out problems and deepen relationships. People mattered to him. And ministry to them was the top priority, whether to the church or to unbelievers. That conviction filled his diary. But it also meant that he wasn’t a slave to the plans he noted in his diary, but was alive to the guidance of God. So in the same breath as he tells the Corinthians that he wants to come to see them, he tells them that “a great door for effective ministry has opened for me” (v.9), which might delay his arrival. In other words, he is so open to the grace of God that he wants to strategise his time and gifts to serve it – even when “there are many who oppose me.”

We need to learn lessons ourselves. How often do we just press on in a given direction as individuals, or even as a church, or no better reason that it looked a good idea to us, when we first made the decision? We may call ourselves principled, trustworthy or well-organised; but we might be failing to see where the Lord is leading, and therefore what we should be doing. Stay humble, be open to God’s Spirit, keep focused on Gospel service. And God will lead, even if you have to tear up the diary.

 

Honour the workers

Timothy and Apollos were dear to Paul’s heart. He wants them to be dear to the Corinthians, too (vv.10-12). It’s not hard to see that Paul is referring to strain in his relationship with his close colleague Apollos. Here it’s a case of “love always trusts, hopes and perseveres” (13.7). Whatever their past tensions, Paul is committed to serving alongside him, as he has learned that the best Gospel work isn’t done by lone rangers, but by co-workers, who deal with differences and commit to honouring one another.

Our Christian maturity is in real evidence when we “submit to such as these and to everyone who joins in the work, and labours at it” (v.17).  Whether they are leaders, co-workers, those who excel in hospitality, encouragement, prayer of whatever else, Paul’s vision is for a church where workers love each other and serve together (vv.15-24). The Gospel is too precious to be jeopardised by a church of selfish or proud people. If God can give us saving grace, He can certainly give us sanctifying grace. The message of 1 Corinthians is that we are called to be like holy like Jesus: we are to be humble, loving, persevering, and doing all things to the glory of God. How we treat each other says everything about how we relate to Jesus. This is His Body, afterall.

At the last trumpet – 1 Corinthians 15.35-58. RBT Notes, 29th November

Death is a certainty, but equally certain is the resurrection of the body. And what a body that will be! We bring our questions and our struggle to figure out just what this resurrection will be like (vv.34-41). Paul knows no more than anyone else when it comes to the details, but his convictions are thrilling, and for you and me (vv.42-44): our future is one of imperishability (no more suffering, decay or death), glory (none of the shame which is our experience in this life), and power (no more aches, pains or diseases).
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Still, we naturally strive for answers. Well, Paul continues, we will have a “spiritual body” (v.44). Don’t misunderstand Paul as implying that our body in the new state is anything less than real and physical: his contrast is with the body we have now. We have the body of our forefather Adam, a body from the dust, and bearing the marks of our fallen condition. We will one day shed the likeness of Adam, and instead “we shall bear the likeness of the man from heaven” (v.49). We shall enjoy Jesus’ sinlessness, with minds and bodies which can never sin, at home in the home of righteousness.
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For this to happen, we will one day face the most massive transformation. At the trumpet’s sound as Christ comes the dead will be raised, and we, His elect, will go to be with Christ (vv.51-52). The change will overwhelming, and astounding, as death will be destroyed and we shall live with Christ forever (vv.53-54). There is just no way we can prepare for that great day. All we know is that it will be the end of death, and the beginning of the universal victory of Jesus (vv.55-57). And that is more than enough for us to lose ourselves in worship now, before the praise of heaven to come.
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What does the resurrection mean? In a word, everything. Jesus is raised, and there is therefore not a single person who will not be raised, also. For those of us who believe, the resurrection of Christ will bring us into God’s Presence for our everlasting joy. And in the here and now, the resurrection is the great incentive to our living a devoted, hope-filled life: “always give yourself fully to the work of the Lord”. In a fallen world and a struggling church that work might not always be appreciated or be rewarded, but because of the resurrection of Jesus, “that labour is not in vain” (v.58).
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Risen to Life – 1 Corinthians 15.12-34. RBT Notes, 28th November

The resurrection. Literal, bodily. How much more attractive to some Christians if it were a myth, especially when you live in a culture which loves stories, but is set against the inconvenience of facts? And how much better if it were just a spiritual resurrection, rather than a physical one? In Corinth, you see, they were embarrassed by the fact that the body was also under God’s authority. They wanted to be able to use and abuse their bodies exactly as they wanted to (lusts of the flesh, anyone?). But if God raised the body as well as the spirit of His Son, as Paul insisted, then maybe He had some interest in their bodies, too. And if God raises the dead, maybe that speaks to our narcissistic age that God wants to have dealings with us, and that nothing, not even death, can put us out of His reach.

Don’t try to evade the resurrection of Jesus, is Paul’s message. Don’t treat is as the appendix of the body of teachings which make up the Gospel, interesting but nonessential. The resurrection of Jesus is central to the Gospel. His resurrection changes everything: it is the guarantee that there is a resurrection of us all (v.12). And, Paul reasons, if you deny that there is life after death, then you must insist that Christ Himself could not have been raised (v.13). The result of that assertion is half a gospel (if any), and a band of lying apostles who are falsely claiming that Christ has been raised (v.15).

What good, if any, is the Christian message without the resurrection of Christ? It makes us as dead and hopeless as Christ Himself would be, as well as lost in our sins (v.17). If the tomb weren’t empty on the third day, then we will one day join all those who have died before us in their mistaken trust in a Risen Christ, and our faith will have been shown to be as futile and wretched as theirs (vv.18-19).

But no! Paul thunders that Christ has been raised from the dead (v.20). More than that, His resurrection is the type of ours, since He was the firstfruits, the early and definite promise of what will one day happen to all. Now Paul contrasts Adam in the sin and death he brought to humanity with Jesus, the bringer of righteousness and life (vv.21-22). To be in Christ, therefore, means to embrace life, here as well as the life of the world to come (v.23).

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_ThomasThe Jesus who was raised is the Jesus who rules. He rules now, but in every sense He waits until the Father “has put all His enemies under His feet” (v.25).  We wait with Him, longing for that day when, at the Return of Christ, all honour is given to the Father and the Son, and the new creation is ushered in, the world of all who live because of Jesus, and who will therefore live forever.

So let us get rid of any half-hearted views of the resurrection. The tomb is empty, the Saviour lives, Christ has been raised on high, and all the word is at His command. This transforms the way we look at Jesus, but must transform the way we look at ourselves, too. Paul lived a life where he faced death gladly for the sake of Christ (vv.30-32). He deliberately shunned any notion of having a reward in this life, and staked all his faith on the reward of knowing Christ in the world to come. And for us? The time has come for each one of us to stop playing with our sins, or living for the world’s passing and empty rewards (v.34). Jesus is Saviour and Risen Lord. Our lives and our future all belong to Him. Only believe it, and live it out.

Take your stand – 1 Corinthians 15.1-11. RBT Notes, 27th November

A hostile world and a divided church are easy places in which to forget the Gospel. When life saps us, church life included, we can feel the drain happening to our faith. Paul wants to help us: this chapter is like a blood-transfusion for tired, anaemic Christians. We rediscover the gospel of new life as true, staggering, and urgent.

The Gospel is our only hope. Christianity isn’t about playing games, dealing in what-ifs and let’s-pretends. The Gospel is a life-giving message for a dying world. We’ve taken our stand on it, we need to hold to it firmly (vv.1-2). Otherwise, we’ve believed in vain.

This Gospel was declared in the Old Testament before the coming of the Messiah. Those Scriptures spoke of a Christ who would die and be raised again (vv.3-4). This dying and rising makes sense of Psalm 16, 22, 69 and the great trials and victories of the Servant in Isaiah’s songs.

The Saviour prefigured in the Old Testament is the One who did rise, and was seen my multiple witnesses (vv.5-7). Faith in a Risen Christ isn’t based on rumour, but trustworthy report. And Paul has seen the Master he commends to the Corinthians (v.9). Paul never loses his sense of amazement that he has been called to serve Christ, and never loses his consuming love for Him, nor his desire to serve Him (vv.9-10). Notice, though, that Paul never loses sight of God’s work in supplying Him with grace in the midst of his own, which is a vital lesson for all who would serve the Gospel.

Take-Your-Stand_artSo the Corinthians are faced with decisions to make, as we are, too: will we listen to Paul as having unique, apostolic authority? Will we be committed to standing, come what may, on the Gospel? And are we so convinced that a Risen Saviour is the news which demands all that we have, and all that we can offer to God, dependent upon His grace? This is what we have believed (v.11).

Sharing the Spirit – 1 Corinthians 14.26-40. RBT Notes, 26th November

Speak to strengthen

“All must be done for the strengthening of the church” (v.26). What an excellent principle for our meetings as believers. There is no mandate that we do anything as God’s people together which is not aimed at building one another up. If our sermons don’t build up, our conversations don’t encourage, our Life Group contributions don’t serve others, and our tongues and prophecies – well, perhaps we should stay at home. Paul commands that only a small number of tongue-speakers should be given a hearing, if their words have an interpreter. No interpretation, no edification, is his principle (v.28). Ministry matters, but only ministry which truly builds up.

Resist the spectacular

 Exciting as it must have seemed at Corinth when prophets stood up to bring their messages, Paul gives principles for their input which establish that the prophets are to be listened to, but not given undue licence to act and speak just as they want to. If God’s grace can’t be understood through prophets, then the prophet’s job is over (vv.29-32). Again, edification is essential. The prophets need to be assessed as to whether they are bringing an authentic and encouraging word (v.29). Nor must they be allowed to drone on, if others have something encouraging to bring (v.31). Paul wants to see orderly, considerate ministry, not a worship time dominated by long-winded ministry enthusiasts! Such gatherings must reflect the Presence of the God of peace and order (v.33). Pagans love chaos, Christians aren’t addicted to order, but we should have the maturity to recognise that order is the best place for learning and growth to flourish.

Embrace Leadership

Paul next returns briefly to the issues of gender and headship (vv.33-36).The context here is to be the assessing of the ministry of prophets (v.34). Language of “must be silent” and “not allowed to speak” strikes us harsh and, yes, let’s say it, sexist; but understanding the place of prophecy in the churches (as well as the often chaotic worship in Corinth) helps smooth things out. Paul is calling the church to observe the God-given distinctives for men and women in the church. Men are called to lead, and that includes the evaluation of prophecy. Paul wants the recognised male leaders to step up and take responsibility for the teaching ministry in gathered worship. For them to sit passively behind their wives is a coward’s way out which Paul will not tolerate. Leadership is a gift to the church, and Paul wants men and women to embrace it, with men leading and women recognising that leadership.

Paul brings them another challenge at this point to recognise his own apostolic authority (vv.36-38). There is never justification for us to follow our own convictions, however strongly held they may be, when they dishonour the church or depart from apostolic Christianity. God has given us commands, and leaders to serve those commands.

 Love the Word

The chapter closes with Paul’s enthusiasm for tongues and prophecy – despite the problems associated with them at Corinth (v.39). He wants them to pursue the correct use of those gifts (v.40). Why? Because, rightly used, alongside the few letters and maybe portions of Gospel they had at Corinth, tongues and prophecies were Word of God to the church. Ignore or abuse them, and they were missing out on what God was saying to them.

Today’s Word?

This perspective is vital for us to remember when we bring this chapter to our own day and practices. We have all of God’s Word today, which is sufficient (more than sufficient!) for our needs. This has big implications for how we view other claims of revelation. Nothing which claims to be the Word of God can ever stand if it contradicts God’s written Word. But more than that, the question must be asked, is the Word of God given to us in any other form today that in God’s enscripturated Word? I have my doubts.

My own view is that tongues and prophecy are precious gifts, but not gifts which continue in the church today. As the Apostles were men given for the church’s establishment, so these gifts were given for the time of the church’s infancy, before the canon of Scripture was completed. Far from being Spirit-quenching, I think it’s one which honours the Spirit, since it brings us back at all times to the Word He has inspired, and daily brings to us, the Word which is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119.105). God has given us His Word for the same reason He gave tongues and prophecies to the first believers, to make us strong in faith in His Son.

If we have different views on spiritual gifts, we have one calling, to live in peace together as we pursue what God has clearly revealed in His Word. On that we can and must agree, and share the joy which comes in knowing the Living God together.

 

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When the Spirit Gifts – 1 Corinthians 14.1-25. RBT Notes, 25th November

In talking about spiritual gifts Paul seeks to bring harmony in an area of contention and confusion in the church’s life. In the last fifty years we’ve managed to get more confused and contentious once more over these verses. Let’s attempt, then, to trace the core lessons here without falling out or getting more confused. The health of the church depends upon it.

The big thing about tongues is that it they’re a gift which doesn’t benefit anyone apart from the speaker: “he utters mysteries with his spirit” (v.2), and who knows what he’s saying? The contrast with prophecies, where the speaker addresses the church and not God, is obvious, and so the church is edified, rather than the speaker (v.4). Prophecy, therefore, is the superior gift.

Paul’s own burden was always to build others up, and that shaped the gifts he used (v.6). He wants all believers to have the same conviction. The conclusion of vv.7-12 is simple: “try to excel in gifts that build up the church.” Some of us have enjoyed experiences which we have identified as tongue-speaking, or have heard them in Christian worship or other gatherings, exciting or impressive as this may have been. Paul is urging us to see that the Spirit of God doesn’t want to give us impressive experiences, He wants to impress His truth upon God’s people. So prophecy is superior to tongues, as a word to the church always outweighs a personal experience which doesn’t serve others.

Paul is surprisingly robust in his criticism of the tongue-speaking he observes at Corinth: tongue-speaking involves an “unfruitful mind” (v.14), no one can say “Amen” to your tongue-speaking (v.16), the man next to you “is not edified” (v.17). It’s a picture of individual enjoyment, but corporate disengagement; hence Paul’s comment that he would rather speak five intelligible words to teach others than thousands in an uninstructive tongue (vv.18-19).

283284--600And now here’s the punch: “grow up!” is the charge of v.20. Tongues, a precious gift of God which the Corinthians are getting obsessed as well as divided by, are actually a sign of God’s judgement, Paul insists. Paul quotes a passage in Isaiah in v.21 as he sees tongues as referencing the imminent judgment of God. Just think about that: it’s a “game-changer”, as they say. But we need to think about that, Paul is saying: “tongues are a sign for unbelievers” (v.22). They are a sign that God is working in His people in ways the unbeliever doesn’t yet experience, and is alien to. They are the sign of God doing something new different, just as the foreign voices invading God’s land in Isaiah’s day were a sign of God doing something new, namely, bringing judgement.

Think of Pentecost. When the Spirit came, bringing the new age of the reign of Christ, He brought tongues to the disciples in Jerusalem, and their message was heard by all. The praises of God which came in tongues was a message of praise to God for His salvation. The work of Christ now brings challenge, the call to repent or else to face judgement. Unbelievers need to hear that message, the message of the Gospel. At the moment they are under God’s judgement, even as they listen to the tongues. They need the Gospel, and when they hear that in prophecy they can encounter the Living God in His Word, for their salvation (vv.22-25).

Tomorrow we’ll think more about spiritual gifts. For now, though, there three things to reflect on:

  1. Spiritual gifts are inferior to spiritual obedience. Even if God were at work in the Corinthians, they were called to be obedient to God’s Word. Paul teaches us that if we have any gifts, we must use them as God directs – or not at all. That call stands today, and we must apply it to our hearts. Do we only want to receive from God, but not want to obey Him?
  1. Spiritual gifts are for the good of others. Your gifting is for another’s building up. Never forget that.
  1. Spiritual gifts best practiced show unbelievers who Christ is. Paul expects unbelievers to be present when Christians are at worship. He then expects us to be worshipping and learning in ways which are intelligible to them (as the Spirit works, or course).

These three lessons teach us that God gifts His church for our service, calls us to serve one another, and plans to use our worship to bring the lost into His Kingdom. May it be so.