“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
Have you ever had a gym membership? I’m amazed at how many workout places there are just in Carleton Place! There’ are traditional gyms with weights and machines as well as places for CrossFit, Gymnastics, Martial Arts, and of course, Zumba. I have had a couple memberships but, as you can tell, I don’t anymore. When I was younger I used to work out with my dad, and then as a student I liked going to the YMCA to play racquetball, but as the studies got harder and my family got bigger I let the gym memberships slide. Now I have a home gym and lots of catching up to do.
Like today, the ancient Greeks and Romans had Gymnasiums that they would join and do very much what we do today – and more. At first it was only for wealthy aristocrats, but eventually they were open to all citizens and became an integral part of all Greek cities. They were sort of like a YMCA. They would exercise, learn skills, and develop their endurance and character. They would learn lessons in wisdom and philosophy – and then learn how to wrestle, swim, run, shoot and more – all in the nude of course. The word Gymnasium comes from the Greek word GUMNOS which means “naked” – so it wasn’t exactly like the YMCA.
Sports and physical development were as popular then as they are now, and more so, which meant the Apostle Paul could hardly help from using it as an illustration in his letters. It was something everyone would understand.
He used it when talking to his younger ministry apprentice Timothy. Listen to how he phrases this: “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (1 Ti 4:6–8).
The words Paul says in our passage today sound as much like the words of an athletic coach as they do a theologian or missionary. They are the kinds of things that coaches and spectators would shout at the runners to cheer them on during their training and competition. “Run for the prize!” “Remember your training!” “Hold yourself to a higher standard!” In fact, if you were going to be a member of these gyms or compete in the events you had to take an oath that you had done at least ten months of training, would promise follow the rules (2 Tim 2:5), live on a strict diet that had no wine or “pleasant foods”, endure the cold and heat, and submit yourself to whatever painful discipline they would prescribe.”
Sports in Ancient Greece
In ancient Greece the sports competitions were even bigger than they are today. Today we follow our favourite teams, players, runners, boxers and fighters with interest – sometimes fanatical interest (which is where the term “Sports fan” comes from) – but it had much deeper meaning back then. The training and competitions were sacred events, dedicated to whatever patron god they worshipped. The stadium was as much like a church today as a sports arena. The race or the boxing match wasn’t merely a test of strength but a trial of excellence, like the Olympics. Today, gym class is scheduled once or twice per week and the kids get short recesses to stretch a couple times a day. In ancient Greece and Rome they considered physical development as equal to scholastic education. And we don’t have a corner on worshipping athletes either. In those days the winners wouldn’t just get crowned with a wreath as a prize, but would be adulated by fans, have songs and poems composed about them, and have busts and statues carved and displayed in front of the stadium.
I’m from Edmonton so I understand exactly what was going on there. They may have had their runners and boxers, but we had Wayne Gretzky. His statue, installed 1989, stood for 27 years outside the Oiler’s arena and was then refurbished and stands outside the new one. It’s a pretty big deal where I’m from. That’s the kind of respect and celebration the winners of the games could expect – Gretzky level fame. So it’s no wonder they trained so hard.
The Christian Life
We’ve just spent the past 4 sermons talking about how to share our faith, but these are not usually the kinds of things we say when we invite our friends to church or tell then what it means to be a Christian. If your friend comes up and asks what it’s like to be a Christian you don’t usually start with, “Well, we have super high standards, are constantly training and educating ourselves, take public vows to live by a certain set of standards, purposefully practice self-denial, endure suffering, and submit ourselves to whatever painful discipline that God prescribes to us. It’s great! You should totally join us!” It would be like trying to convert people to CrossFit or P90X.
But training, discipline, sacrifice, and self-denial are a big part of the Christian life and they are spoken of all over scripture. For our remaining time here I want to take a look at what Paul is saying in these few verses and draw some application out of it, so please turn back with me to verse 24.
It says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” This is the continuation of something he’s been talking about for a while. It’s been a little while since we talked about it, but remember the context. At the beginning of chapter 8 we see that in this section Paul is talking about “food offered to idols” and the difficult situation it had created in the church. Some people thought it was ok because of their freedom in Christ while others had a really hard time with their consciences and felt it was not only wrong but a denial of their faith.
Paul addressed this problem by telling those who have no problem with it to bear with those who did and deny themselves for the sake of their brother. He says, “Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” (1 Corinthians 8:12-13)
Then, in Chapter 9 Paul uses himself and the apostles as examples of self-denial that they should follow. He lists some of the things he is allowed to have, even that he has earned because of his work, but has chosen to deny himself for the sake of the gospel. For the sake of being a missionary he has chosen to go without a lot of really good things like food, a liveable wage, and a wife and family. He gave them up so he could serve God full time.
Then, in verse 19, he says, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.” He is totally sold out for the gospel of Jesus, laser focused on living a life where preaching, teaching, and writing about Jesus is everything to him – and there’s nothing to get in the way; cutting everything out of his life that doesn’t line up with the call of Jesus on his life.
He’s like an elite athlete training for years to compete at the highest level. I’ve been long impressed with the Canadian athlete Clara Hughes. She’s an incredible athlete as well as a pretty amazing person. She’s one of only five people to have won medals in both the Summer and Winter Olympics, which she did in both cycling and speed skating. She’s translated her success into a lot of humanitarian organizations helping disadvantaged people and promoting mental health issues.
Now, all that being said, the one thing that impressed me most about her was her legs. Specifically, how different they look when she is competing in different sports or during her off time. If you see her today, her legs are – for lack of a better term – normal sized. When she was cycling her legs were big and strong, but when she’s was in full speed skating mode her legs were – again, for lack of a better term – gigantic. It was incredible to see the transformation and was an incredible reminder to me of what laser focused training can do.
When these athletes are in training for the Olympics everything matters. Every movement, every calorie, every minute of sleep, heartrate, body fat, type of food, amount of water, recreation, everything. Michael Phelps, said that when he was training and winning all his medals for swimming he did three things: slept, swam, and ate 12,000 calories per day. These athletes are single minded in their training and lifestyle.
That’s what Paul is talking about in verse 24. He sees himself as an elite spiritual athlete and sets himself up as the example. He even says in chapter 11, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. ” (1 Cor 11:1) He didn’t mean this in a prideful way, but as an apostle of Jesus, their pastor, and the one who planted their church, he was their prime example on how to live the Christian life, so he held himself to the highest of standards. He runs the race to obtain the prize, and encourages them to do the same.
Now, what this doesn’t mean is that he felt he needed to do all this in order to earn salvation. He didn’t think Jesus would turn His back on him if he stopped trying so hard. He wasn’t telling them that their place in heaven was at stake if they didn’t try harder. He didn’t say that God would love them more if they accomplished more. He wasn’t saying that their value and worth was tied to what they were able to produce. That goes against so much of what the Bible says about how God sees us. He loved us before we loved Him. He saved us before we asked for it. We were dead in our sins and He traded His Son for us. And there is nothing we can do to make Him love us more.
Now, what the Bible is saying here is that, in light of the love we have received from God in Jesus Christ and the calling that we have been given as Christians who are on a mission in this world, we should take that seriously. God’s love compels us to love others. Jesus’ sacrifice compels us to sacrifice for others. Jesus obedience compels us to be obedient too. Because we know we are saved by grace, not by works, given something we could never earn, simply because we are loved, we are compelled, driven, to show love to Jesus by serving Him and others. Because of the new nature we have been given, where once we were dead in sin and only thinking of how to gratify ourselves, now we have been given new natures that want to honour and serve the One who saved us – the one we call Lord and Saviour.
Christians take this relationship very seriously, but we never think we need to do these things to impress, bribe, or appease God.
Think of it in human terms. As a dad, we work hard our jobs outside and inside the home. We work for 5 days and then take our kids camping or spend the weekend driving them around for their clubs and events, and then turn around and go right back to work. Then when someone asks, “Why do you work so hard? Why put in all the hours? Why do you spend all that time working and then come home and do more?” The answer isn’t simply because we have to… it’s because we love our families.
Grandma invites the whole family over and spends hours and hours shopping, preparing, and serving Christmas dinner. It takes an incredible amount of money, work, time, effort, and then every pot, pan and dish in the house needs to be washed. Why did she do it? Because she’s obligated? No, because it is a joy to serve the ones she loves.
A child spends 2 hours drawing, colouring, gluing, and folding a card for someone. It’s not their birthday or anything, they just wanted to make a card for them. Why? Why make all that mess and take all that time just to give their mom or friend a card? Because of love.
That’s the motivator to run the Christian race with seriousness and dedication: our love for Jesus. But loving someone has consequences, doesn’t it? If I dedicate myself to my wife, it means I cannot have any other woman in that way. My love for my children means that I will have to deny myself certain things for their sake. My love for my church means that I won’t be able to do everything I want to do because of my obligations to them. My love for my friends means that when they need me I will put aside my own life and go to them. Love has consequences.
Love has Consequences
Jesus says something pretty serious two times in Matthew. Listen to these.
Matthew 10:22, “…you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
Now, Matthew 24:9-13, “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved…”
What did Jesus mean by “enduring to the end”? Love has consequences. Truth has consequences. Belief has consequences. Faith has consequences. Choice has consequences. Following and loving Jesus has consequences. Being a Christian has consequences and those consequences often mirror those of the athlete: high standards, loyal devotion, constant training and education, self-denial, suffering, and sometimes the painful discipline from Jesus, the “author and perfecter of our faith” . In fact, that title for Jesus is set in athletic terms too.
Let’s read that from Hebrews 12:1-2, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” , like a crowd of former Olympians watching us compete from the crowd, “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…” Why would a runner or boxer or gymnast ever add unnecessary weight to themselves? Why compete in lead shoes? They want to be light and agile so they cut all unnecessary weight so they will have the endurance to last until the end.
And while the crowd of former spiritual Olympians look at us, who are we looking to for inspiration, guidance, training, help, strength and perserverance? It says, “…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
His decision to love us had consequences. He endured great suffering and died because He chose to love us. In the same way we look to Jesus, as Paul looks to Jesus, as not only the example of what it means to follow God, but the one from whom we get our strength to endure.
Self-Control in All Things
In verses 25 it gives us one of the consequences of following Jesus, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” It’s the small things that are the difference between winning and losing a race. In the 1992 Women’s 100 Meter race the difference between first place and fifth was 1/10th of a second. In 1988 1000 Meter Canoeing it came down to a photo finish where the winner was ahead by 0.005 seconds or less than a centimetre.  That’s why they obsess over the details. The exact moment to stop exercising and eat the exact right food to have exactly enough to finish the race – but no more or it might slow them down.
“Self-control in all things.” We aren’t running to win a gold medal, but we do have an incredibly high calling. You look at your life and think that you’re doing pretty good – better than most people you know – but that secret sin that you think no one knows about will be what the enemy uses to cripple your mission and deaden your soul. That part of your personality which you know is a problem, but have just decided is part of you now, will be what keeps you from effectively sharing your faith. That habit of unforgiveness, bitterness, being critical, will keep you from being a good disciple maker. That schedule that is always out of control where you have no time for worship, rest, thinking, praying, reading, friends, or Sabbath, will be what kills you.
I’m not saying, and scripture isn’t saying, that God doesn’t love you or that you won’t be saved – what it’s saying is that if you refuse to practice self-control in that area, then you won’t be nearly as spiritually healthy, or hopeful, or happy, or peaceful, or joyful, or productive for the kingdom of God. It will be the wedge that creates space between you and God, the foothold by which Satan can climb on your back.
Train on Purpose
Verse 26 says, “So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air.” Having powerful muscles is pointless if you never use them to lift anything other than weights. Having strong fists and being able to take a punch is pointless if you never enter a fight. Being able to run for hours is pointless unless you use the strength and endurance you are building to actually do something for someone else.
An athlete doesn’t train for the sake of training. They don’t skate in circles and shoot a ten thousand pucks into an empty net because they like skating in circles and scoring pretend goals. A boxer doesn’t shadowbox and hit a punching bag for no reason. They do it so they can live out their purpose. They skate and shoot so that when the time comes they will be able to win the game. They punch bags so they can eventually win the fight.
Firefighters don’t exercise just to stay healthy, but so they have the strength and endurance to save people when it matters. Police and military officers are required to exercise and pass physical endurance tests, not so they will look good in uniform, but so they can enforce the law and help the community.
In the same way Christians don’t merely live, but we live with a purpose. We don’t merely read the Bible, but we read with a purpose. We don’t merely pray, but we pray with a purpose. We sing, serve, correct, deny, give, share, speak, eat, and all the rest with a purpose. Some of that purpose is universal for all believers: We do what we do for the glory of God and to enjoy Him forever. We do what we do to advance the kingdom of God and spread love, justice, and mercy.
But some of that purpose is specific to you. God has given all Christians a special gift and a special purpose to their lives. As Christians we work to find out what that gift is, and then we use that gift to live out that special purpose. Christians are not aimless, but are very purposeful in what we do. And not just in work, but in rest too, right?
You likely know the old story of the young woodcutter who got a job on a logging crew by showing the boss how he could cut down 18 trees in one day. He loved the job and worked hard, but it wasn’t long until he started running into problems. On day three he cut down 15 trees, and then on day five he could only do 10, by the end of the week he was only able to do 5 trees. The foreman said that if he didn’t start cutting more he’d lose his job. He begged the for another chance saying he always comes early, leaves late, and never takes breaks! The foreman asks, “Well, when do you stop to sharpen your axe?” The young man replied, “Well sir, I just can’t do that. I’ve been working way too hard to take the time to do that.”
The point is that as a Christian, even our times of rest are purposeful.
Areas of Influence
Finally in verse 27 it says, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
Think of all the massive sports failures we’ve seen. Pete Rose, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Mike Tyson, Tonya Harding, Michael Vick, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong… the names are synonymous with the heights of sports and the greats of controversies and collapses.
This was probably Paul’s greatest fear – I know it’s one of mine. He wasn’t training and disciplining and denying himself to try to win God’s approval or earn salvation or impress anyone. He was doing it because he knew his mission was critically important and that it would be the small things that he neglected that would be his undoing. And then not only would he be disqualified, but a lot of people would be hurt. He was given great responsibility and a great mission, so he took it very, very seriously, because the consequences of messing up were so extreme. The words “discipline my body” are literally “I give myself a black eye”!
Now, we’re not apostles, and we don’t have dozens of churches that would be crippled if we mess up, but we all have circles of influence that are affected by our sin – which is what the last 2 chapters have been talking a lot about.
Why do you practice self-control when you drink and spend and say and watch on tv, mom and dad? So I won’t be disqualified as a parent and mess up my kids. Singles, why do you avoid certain places that everyone says are fun? So you won’t disqualify yourself and mess up your future. There are so many examples, right?
Think about the people you have influence over, whether it’s your kids, friends, siblings, coworkers, or church family. Part of the reason you train well and practice self-denial is for their sake. So that when they are hurting, they can come to you because you are trustworthy. So when they are in need you have the capacity to help. So when they are tempted, you can help them. So when you speak to them words of criticism, they will hear because you have a reputation for fairness and love. So when they need advice or a listening ear, they will call you because they know you will keep confidences and speak God’s word to them. It’s not just about you, it’s about those around you too. Let’s close there.
 Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 279). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
 Lange, J. P., Schaff, P., Kling, C. F., & Poor, D. W. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: 1 Corinthians (p. 194). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
Last week we talked about how scary it can be to talk about our faith and some ways we can get over the fear of sharing what Jesus is doing in our life with the people around us. It essentially came down to four things: show people love before you stress about sharing the gospel with them, remember to pray and give yourself and the whole situation over to God, tell them your story and not someone else’s or a list of memorized steps and prayers, and finally, to be consistent but also patient with them and God, knowing He has it under control.
Knowing those four things takes some of the stress off the situation because it makes sharing our faith much more natural rather than forced. It’s stressful to talk to a stranger, it’s easier to talk to someone you have gotten to know. It’s stressful to have to regurgitate steps and techniques that you’ve memorized, but it’s easier when you simply tell your own story of what God has been doing in your life. It’s stressful when you think you are alone, or that all of eternity hinges on you getting this moment right, but it’s a lot easier when you know that God is with you and everything will happen in His timing.
I really appreciated Justin’s story from the video. And parts of his story line up with what I talked about and then parts of it don’t. Which isn’t surprising since everyone’s story is different, right? He had a teacher who he knew cared for him, but instead of talking to him about Jesus directly, the teacher invited this messed up drug-dealer to church – and He went! So who did the work there? God did all of it, right? The teacher was kind and gave the kid an invite, but it was God that got this rebellious teen to walk through the door of a church alone. Justin got saved his first time at church. That’s totally God, right? The teacher wasn’t even going to pray with him! He didn’t believe that God was going to save this kid on his first night at church – but He did!
And you can hear the resolve in Justin’s voice during the second part of the video, right? He feels an urgency to share his faith with the people around him. He hates the idea of people going to Hell because he hasn’t shared with them. He even feels a sense of guilt – misplaced guilt, I would say – for not sharing Jesus enough with his friend who committed suicide. It’s God who saves, not Justin, but I appreciate his passion.
But his story and his mission, though very personal for him, is also a universal one. It’s told all through scripture, and has been repeated for thousands of years. Justin was a sinner who couldn’t care less about his soul, God, Jesus or God’s people. But God was working in his heart, even when He didn’t know it. He met someone who showed him love and had the courage to invite him to a better way. God worked a miracle and gave him the choice between two roads that led either to Jesus or away from Him. He walked towards Jesus and the stirrings of his heart were explained to him by one of Jesus’ preachers. He felt compelled to renounce his sin and gave his life to Jesus by confessing not only to God, but to the one who had given him the first invitation. And now he lives his life as one with a fire in his bones that compels him to share this message with all the other people who are lost like he was.
That’s evangelism in a nutshell, and it’s the natural thing for Christians to do. The more we understand what we were saved from and who our saviour is, the stronger the compulsion to share that message.
More Forgiveness More Love
Turn with me to Luke 7:36 and let’s read it together:
“One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” [Simon was the name of the Pharisee whose house Jesus was eating at.]
“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.””
Look at what she does. She had no doubt been listening to Jesus public teaching and had been deeply moved by it, and was desperate to meet Jesus. She hears where Jesus is and drops everything to come. She runs to a place where she knows she is despised and unwelcome – to a Pharisees house. She brings something valuable to her, a very expensive alabaster jar of perfume, as an act of atonement or repentance, showing her sorrow for her sin and desire to make it right. She stands behind him, not feeling worthy to even speak a word to Jesus. She weeps. Not because she is afraid or sad, but from the grief of her sinful life, the desperation to be forgiven, and to have the destruction of her soul repaired by Jesus. One commentary I read gave a beautiful thought:
“The tears, which were quite involuntary, poured down in a flood upon [Jesus’] naked feet, as she bent down to kiss them, and deeming them rather fouled than washed by this, she hastened to wipe them off with the only towels he had, the long tresses of her own hair…”
She kisses His feet. The word here means she kissed his feet repeatedly, over and over an act of reverence, thankfulness, and humility. Jesus was her Lord, Master, Teacher, and Saviour, and she showed it publically and with great humiliation.
Contrast that with the Pharisee. Now, was Simon less of a sinner than the woman? No, of course not. His sins were just less publically known. Simon considered himself worthy of the presence of Jesus at his table – in fact, he may have even felt that he was equal to Jesus. So he didn’t even bother to show Jesus the most basic hospitality. No kindness, no greeting, no service. This woman knew she was a sinner in need of a Saviour – Simon did not.
The Pharisee was aghast that Jesus would let such a sinful person touch Him. Jesus had the reputation of being a Prophet, someone who was close to God and had a special connection to Him, someone who was holy, with special knowledge that no one else had. So Simon thought, “This guy must be a really bad prophet if he can’t even tell who this woman is. He can’t be who he says he is. He can’t be as holy or important as I thought he was. I’m a much better teacher and much more holy person than Jesus. I’d never let this woman anywhere near me!”
Jesus knew what Simon was thinking and even while the woman was still washing and anointing His feet, Jesus gets Simon’s attention and tells the parable of two people who were forgiven their debts.
He inherently knows the answer to Jesus question, right? It’s common sense. A denarii is the equivalent to the average worker’s daily wage. One person owed a year and a half’s worth of debt. So take your annual household income and add 50%. The average household income in Canada is about $76,000, so that means that the first person owed about $115,000 dollars. By contrast the other person owed about $11,000.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been forgiven a debt of any substantial size, or given a gift of something fairly expensive, but it’s a pretty amazing feeling. And, in human terms, the amount of amazing feeling you get is generally commensurate with the amount you’ve been given or forgiven. Not that I recommend playing the lottery, but think about it. Who celebrates more, the one who wins $20 off a scratch card or the one who wins the million dollar jackpot? Who feels more accomplished, the team that leads the entire season and then wins the cup, or the underdog team with the new coach, that struggled with injuries, and eeks out a second period overtime win in game 7?
In the same way, the one who knows the depth of their sins and knows they’ve been forgiven much will love much, but “he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
Are You A Sinner?
If you know you are a sinner doomed to hell by your own hand, unable to save yourself, but plucked from death and reborn anew by the amazing grace of Jesus, your love for Jesus and for God will be far more than the one who thinks they are mostly good, who believes they have earned their own place in heaven, who commands their own life, or just needs God to occasionally step in when things get a little too difficult.
In recent years, for those who still sing hymns, some churches have taken to changing the words to the great John Newton hymn, Amazing Grace, because the original version is too unpalatable. The original lyrics say, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” But, understandably, most people don’t like saying they are wretches, but they like the song, have some nostalgia for it, or like the idea of getting grace from God, so they change the words to “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved and strengthened me” or “that saved and set me free”. That’s much better, they think.
The problem with that is that we are wretches. For many years John Newton was a vile human being: A runaway, a rebel, a military deserter, and a convict. To get out of prison he begged to work on a slave ship, the vilest of positions, where his racism ran rampant and he helped to kidnap and kill people, living with complete moral abandon, working hard to tempt and seduce others to sin with him. One night there was a great storm where he thought he would die, and suddenly verses he had learned as a child sprang to mind and he begged God for forgiveness and help. God intervened and not only saved his life, but his soul. He changed his life and started to work to clean up the slave trade industry until he became so disgusted that he quit and joined the ministry. Newton took to writing hymns and poems for his church’s Thursday evening prayer service, and one of these was Amazing Grace. The guilt and shame of his former life never left him, and near the end of his life when he was getting more feeble and sick, as people kept wondering if he would retire, he would reply,
“I cannot stop. What? Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?”
John Newton knew well the wretchedness of his soul and how amazing the grace of Jesus must be that He would be willing to save him. But we have lost that these days. People today don’t like to talk about “sin that leads to death”, but instead about “brokenness that needs healing”. If they believe in an afterlife, or a sort of heaven, when you ask them if they are going when they die they will say, “I hope so. I think I’ve been a good person.”
Too many Christians don’t know if they are saved or not, because they believe that their salvation is based on how obedient or loving or good they have been, rather than on their faith in Jesus. I’m not against new music or new worship songs, but it is not good that so many have turned from singing the old hymns that said things like, “Alas! and did my Savior bleed and did my Sovereign die? Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?” “What, I’m not a worm!” we argue. “I’m a good person!”
Many will no longer sing, “I need Thee, precious Jesus, for I am full of sin; My soul is dark and guilty, My heart is dead within. I need the cleansing fountain Where I can always flee, The blood of Christ most precious, The sinner’s perfect plea.”  “I’m not full of sin, I’m a good person.” “I’m not dark and guilty, I just need a little help.” “My heart isn’t dead within me, I have lots of feelings and love.” “I’m not dirty, I don’t need a cleansing fountain.”
But that’s not how scripture teaches it. That’s not what Christians believe. God says in the Bible:
Romans 1:18, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”
Romans 3:10-18, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
And some say, “That’s only talking about really bad people. That’s not me. I’m a good person.” To which God replies in Romans 3:23, “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” .1 John 1:10, “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.” James 2:10, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death…”
To which God replies in Romans 3:23, “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” .1 John 1:10, “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.” James 2:10, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death…”
1 John 1:10, “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.” James 2:10, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death…”
James 2:10, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death…”
Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death…”
Turn with me again to Ephesians 2 and let’s read it together. This is a passage we have read many times, but we must never allow to stray far from our memory.
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
That is the condition of our soul were it not for the Amazing Grace of Jesus Christ. You and I are not good people in need of a little help. Our souls are not sick and in need of a doctor. We are not drowning and just need to grab onto a life preserver. Without Jesus we are walking corpses, dead in our sins, citizens of an enemy kingdom, children of disobedience, living out the passions of our flesh, selfishly doing whatever we think is best for us, under the rightful wrath of God.
Isaiah 64:6 uses four similes to describe what Gods sees when He looks at us: “We have all become like one who is unclean”, like a leper, rotting, infected, and infectious to others. “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” The words “polluted garment” can be translated “filthy rags” referring to the cloth used to soak up the blood from a woman’s menstrual cycle. People cannot do “good deeds” to gain
“We have all become like one who is unclean”, like a leper, rotting, infected, and infectious to others. “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” The words “polluted garment” can be translated “filthy rags” referring to the cloth used to soak up the blood from a woman’s menstrual cycle. People cannot do “good deeds” to gain
“All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” The words “polluted garment” can be translated “filthy rags” referring to the cloth used to soak up the blood from a woman’s menstrual cycle. People cannot do “good deeds” to gain favour with God any more than someone can bribe us by giving us a used menstrual pad. It says “We all fade like a leaf”, decayed, brittle and lifeless. And “our iniquities [meaning our sins], like the wind, take us away.” We have as much ability to save ourselves as a dead leave has against fighting a strong wind. The leaf doesn’t choose where to go, the wind does. In the same way, we don’t choose what we do, our flesh, our sin, our iniquity does.
It says “We all fade like a leaf”, decayed, brittle and lifeless. And “our iniquities [meaning our sins], like the wind, take us away.” We have as much ability to save ourselves as a dead leave has against fighting a strong wind. The leaf doesn’t choose where to go, the wind does. In the same way, we don’t choose what we do, our flesh, our sin, our iniquity does.
It is imperative we understand this. It affects your prayer life, your worship, your humility, your desperation for God’s word, and your passion for sharing your faith. The woman atJesus’s feet knew she was a sinner and wept at His feet seeking forgiveness and reconciliation with God, which she received. Justin from the video knows he is an undeserving sinner saved from Hell, and he is compelled to tell others. John Newton knew he was a pitiful wretch who was only saved by the Amazing Grace of God and he was compelled to tell others. I too, though I have known God all my life, was saved as a child, know that I am a depraved sinner who, left to himself, would sin myself into oblivion. I cannot judge anyone else as worse than me! But by the Grace of God go I. There is no bottom to my selfishness, greed, and sin – and praise God there is no bottom to His Amazing Grace found in Jesus Christ… and knowing that I am compelled to tell others.
Now keep reading in Ephesians 2:4:
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
The question is, do you know this? How much of a sinner do you think you are? Do you know the name by which you are saved? Were it not for God, how much of a sinner you would be? Do you know the One who has redeemed you and what you have been redeemed from? Do you thank God every day for His Amazing Grace to a wretch like you?
The one who knows the depth of their sin and realizes how much they have been forgiven will love Jesus more, pray more, worship more, and talk about Jesus more – they are motivated to share the love and forgiveness of God with others because they know how much they are loved and forgive. But “he who is forgiven little, loves little”, prays little, worship little, loves little, forgives little, and talks about Jesus little.
 Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary
If you’re a fan of Star Trek, which I am, then you’ll remember the famous quote from Wrath of Kahn where, a couple times, Spock says, “logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” and Kirk finishes with “or the one.” The first time was when Kirk was assuming command and Spock was convincing him that it was only logical for the better leader to be in charge. But at the end of the movie, when Spock is dying after saving the ship, he’s locked behind a door that can’t be opened and he and Kirk share their last words. Spock begins again, “Don’t grieve… it is logical… The needs of the many outweigh…” Kirk says, “…the needs of the few…”, and Spock finishes with “or the one.”
The dynamic between Kirk and Spock is one of the most famous in TV history. Spock was all about pure logic where Kirk was driven by his passions. In fact, in the next movie, Kirk’s passions lead him to go and find Spock again, who has come back to life (don’t ask), and when they do finally talk, Spock asks why Kirk would risk so much for him. Kirk replies with “Because the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.”
Trying to find a balance between these two is part of the challenge of living in Western society. On one hand we have to live as neighbours and citizens of the same country, so we need to agree upon some common ground – laws for example. On the other hand we also value, as our Charter of Rights and Freedoms says, “life, liberty and security”. People should be able to live freely, without oppression. And so we are always balancing the needs of the many and the needs of the one.
Now, I’m no historian, but I’ve noticed something of this switch happening in our own culture. There something pervading society these days that, though not new, is, to me, much more pronounced than it has been in the past. It’s something people are calling “Radical Individualism” and is an imbalance of what I just described. The Spock like logic of “the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the one” has been overtaken by the Kirk like passion of “the needs of the one outweighing the needs of the many.”
“Radical Individualism” is when a person or society places the rights of an individual over those of the rest of society. Instead of considering what is best for the group, the highest consideration is that of the individual need – regardless of the cost to the rest. Some people see this as freedom from outside forces – from parents, government, religions, and teachers who have been oppressing them for so long. They cast off the shackles of what everyone else wants them to be and do and chart their own path, learn their own lessons, create their own truths – and everyone in the group is expected to accept whatever anyone wants to say, do, or become.
In the past, individualism has sometimes been a good thing. Ending slavery is a good example of when the needs of the individual should have outweighed the needs of the larger group. So are laws that force companies and corporations to hire and make life easier for disabled persons. Sometimes the larger society is being selfish, or is unaware of a need, and should do what is right for the sake of the smaller group or individual. Military action is often motivated by trying to defend a smaller group from a larger one. These are good things.
However, as our society has promoted more and more individual causes they are losing the ability to be able to “identify a singly system of shared values and beliefs”. When everyone says they deserve special treatment, or claims to be a victim, then who’s virtues should prevail?
This is when tolerance gets out of control. Instead of being a respect for people’s differences and an acknowledgement of the need to respect people, it becomes an excuse to allow anyone to do anything without fear of reprisal. There’s no line that an individual cannot cross. Their own “personal morality” has higher value than the shared values or even laws of the land. And then mix in our knowledge of our own sins and desire to keep that sin in the dark and we start to think that no one has any right to impose any value on anyone else. If everyone is equally special, everyone is equally corrupt, everyone needs to tolerate everything, and everyone gets to decide what is right, then our God-given right to life, liberty, and personal freedom degenerates into “anything I choose must be right”.
And that’s Radical Individualism. I am my own highest authority, only my choices matter, the world exists for me, and therefore everything I choose must be right. Or, as we read it in the book of Judges 17:6, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
Just consider how this messes up so many parts of our world. Living only for yourself destroys marriages, families, friendships, churches, sports teams, armies and nations.
A Personal Brand of Christianity
As I said, this way of thinking isn’t new, and Christians, and most people throughout history, have not seen Radical Individualism as a good thing, but as dangerous. It is dangerous to think that our way is the right way, our thoughts are the best thoughts, our culture is the best culture, our thinking is the best thinking.
The point of that video we watched at the beginning was to humorously show what happens when churches start to buy into this individualistic mindset of thinking that what people need isn’t Jesus, but Western Christian Culture. I know a lot of people inside the church that believe that if we can just make people into good church people, then they will fall in love with Jesus. This was how global missions for a long time. Instead of going to Africa, Asia, and the rest of the world to spread the message of Jesus to people – they would spread western society. Instead of learning the language, they’d teach them English. Instead of using the culture’s type of architecture, they’d plop a European style church in the middle of their village. The idea was that if they could turn everyone into good Europeans, good Anglicans, good Catholics, then they’d be saved.
And we do the same, right? Instead of sharing Jesus with people, we share our church. Instead of sharing the Bible with them, we share our favourite preacher. Instead of telling people what Jesus has been doing in our lives, we give them a book to read. Instead of talking to them about what Jesus has said, we share a really good song we’ve heard. We invite kids to Sunday School or VBS and tell them Bible stories about how to be good, moral, little boys and girls, and forget about the part where we tell them about their sin and need for a Saviour, and if we do talk about Jesus we end up using words and concepts they simply don’t understand.
Now, I’m not saying that sharing sermons, books, songs and VBS’s are bad – but they are certainly a way that we can end up spreading our church culture, our own individual, personal brand of Christianity – instead of the Jesus of the Bible.
What does that say about our faith in the power of the Holy Spirit and the message of the Gospel? It says that we don’t think it’s powerful enough. We think we need to prime the pump by making people different before the Spirit will speak to them, before Jesus will meet them. They have to become little versions of us in order to be worthy or ready for the gospel.
Servant to All
Open up to 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. It says,
“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
This is how Christians are meant to see the world. We talked last week about the dangers of trying to be cool and self-entitlement and before that how all of our decisions have ripple effects into the lives of those around us. This is the crescendo of those lessons.
In Jesus we are “free from all”. Over and over in the New Testament we are told we are “Free”. We are no longer bound under the Law of Moses that can only condemn us. We are free from the consequences of sin. Freed from the darkness. And, since Jesus is our Lord, we are now friends with and followers of, the highest authority in the universe. His way is our only way. There is no one else we must answer to. We are “free from all”. We fear no person, organization, government, principality or power in this world because we have been made free. And that is a glorious freedom.
But along with these reminders of our freedom come a command. 1 Peter 2:16 says, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. “ Galatians 5:13 says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” With that great freedom comes great temptation towards Radical Individualism. We can become drunk on the idea of freedom.
Where once we were captive to human authorities telling us what to do, we now know that only God can command us – and are then tempted to remove ourselves from all human authorities. Where once we were enslaved to false religion and false doctrine, we now hear God’s voice ringing clearly – and are then tempted to push aside all religion, all books, and all teachers, believing ourselves to be perfect in wisdom. Where once we were slaves to guilt and shame, we now know the love and grace of God – and are then tempted to sin all the more because we know that God will always forgive us.
And when that thinking sets in we start to create our own theologies and doctrines, cut out and add to the scriptures as we see fit, and create our own, personal religious actions and systems – which we end up wanting to spread to the others that we see as enslaved. This is what it means to “use your freedom as a cover-up for evil”. It means that our freedom leads us to create an ungodly version of Christianity that looks more like us than Jesus, and we start demand that people follow us and our ways rather than Him and His.
But, the missionary Apostle Paul says, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.”
When two of His disciples came to Him asking to be the greatest men in His new Kingdom, to sit on His right and his left, Jesus says, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They thought that following Jesus meant that they would be free from the oppression of the Jewish Sanhedrin, free from their Roman oppressors, and finally be rulers of nations with only Jesus above them – but they had gotten it all wrong. Jesus’ kingdom is an upside down one. He says to them, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:22, 25-28)
He says in Matthew 16:24-26, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”
If you want freedom, it comes through the cross. If you want to gain everything, it comes through loss. If you want to be great in God’s kingdom, then you must be a servant of all. That is the direct opposite of Radical Individualism.
We are free from all, but instead we “make ourselves a servant to all”. And notice those words “I made”. It means to make the choice every day. Though Jesus was God in the flesh, Creator and Ruler of all things, for whom all things were made and will one day return – He made the choice to live as servant, even unto death. Which is the model for all believers.
All Things to All People
We then see some examples of what this meant in Paul’s life, which can help us understand what it means in ours.
“Paul never compromised the doctrines of Scripture, never changed God’s Word in order to make it more palatable to people in any given place. He never went against God’s law or his own conscience.” But, “in matters that did not violate any principle of God’s Word, Paul was willing to become like his audience in order to win them to Christ.” When someone needed to bend, he bent. He didn’t bend the world to himself, but he bent to the world.
A good theological word for this is “condescension”. God condescends to us so we can understand Him. He makes Himself low so we can know Him. Like when we talk baby-talk to an infant, or simplify our explanations to a child, God speaks in a way we can understand. As one of my favourite theologians, RC Sproul says, “God, in order to communicate with us lowly mortals, must speak to us in lisps.”
And so must Christians condescend or bend to the world around us. It’s a way we serve them. We don’t force them to come to us, but we go to them. We don’t force our language on them, we learn theirs. We don’t force our lifestyles on them, we participate in theirs. Never compromising God’s Word or our conscience, but always serving them in a way they can understand.
To the Jews he became like a Jew. What does that mean? In other words, though he was free from the Law of Moses and all the many traditions and rules they had come up with since, when he was with them he conformed himself to their pattern of life. He didn’t stand on street corners and tell everyone to stop their traditions, to give up the temple, to stop sacrificing, to change their clothes, and all the rest, but instead, he chose to participate in the traditions, went to temple, and wore the clothes so that they would be able to hear him.
People are weak and very distractible. If you look weird to them, it’s going to take a lot more time to get them to listen – if they ever will. So we suck it up and serve those around us by engaging with them in a way they can understand. For love’s sake we learn their language, their customs, and their way of life. We eat what they eat, dress like they dress, learn what they like – their sports, shows and businesses – and become conversant in it to use as a bridge of friendship and then the gospel. Again, never compromising God’s Word or your conscience.
You can’t say, “I watch Game of Thrones because everyone at work does and I want to be a good missionary.” That show is pornography and is sin to watch. Maybe it means you expand your musical range, watch some popular movies, read a book they are interested in, go to an concert or sporting event with them that you aren’t super interested in, because it’s important to them and it is a way to show them love. And that love opens a door to sharing the gospel.
He says, “To those under the law I became as one under the law… to those outside the law I became as one outside the law…” Again, never compromising God’s word or his conscience, Paul knew that he needed to live as one of the people he was trying to share the gospel with. So when he was with the Jewish people he lived as a Jew, but when he was with the Greeks and Romans, he adapted himself to them. He served them by changing himself. He didn’t make them bend to him, but instead, he bent to them. He didn’t “throw aside all restraints and live like a pagan to win pagans to Christ” but instead learned and appreciated their culture and didn’t try to force them into His own. We see that in his preaching and his lifestyle (Acts 17-18). That’s servant hearted, Jesus focused, love.
He says, “To the weak I became weak…” He means the weak in conscience, the new believers, the ones who didn’t know as much about God as he did. We’ve talked about this over the last few sermons. Paul lived a life constrained by the consciences of others. He limited his freedoms – what he ate, where he went, and how he spoke. He was delicate with them in order to guide them into deeper knowledge of Christ and a better understanding of the freedom He gives people.
This is a huge one today, and goes back to that video we watched. Instead of forcing everyone into our belief system, and mocking them for being so stupid, we come alongside them, and walk at their pace, until they are stronger.
With some people you can have a drink, make certain jokes, talk about different movies and shows, or obscure or challenging theological concepts – while with others, you simply can’t. You need to give up your freedoms and bridle your tongue for their sake until they grow more mature. Why?
“I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
We do it for the sake of the gospel. We do it so that nothing gets between us and the message we’re trying to share. We do it for the joy of seeing people come to Him and being able to worship Jesus with them. We do it to share with them the blessing of what it’s like to be a Christian.
My encouragement to you this week is to look at your life. In what ways have you embraced Radical Individualism, thinking that you are the most important person around, regardless of the needs and desires of others? In what ways have you compromised your ability to share Jesus by trying to share your own personally crafted religion instead? Are you a student of the people around you? Your spouse, your children, your friends, your family, your church, your neighbourhood, your workplace? Are you listening to them so you can talk to them about what interests them, in a way they can understand, in the hopes of building a bridge of friendship so you can share the love of Jesus? Is it possible you are so busy talking to them that you haven’t taken the time to listen to them – and that they can’t hear you because you’re not not speaking in a way they can understand?
 Life Application Study Bible – 1 Corinthians. Pg 128-129
The Pressure to Be Cool
There is a lot of pressure on everyone to be cool. And I’m sure that there are a lot of people here who think, “I don’t care if I’m cool or not. I’m not a kid anymore.” but hear me out. Being cool, by the official dictionary definition, means to be “accepted, attractive, impressive, and excellent”. If you read it off of the Urban Dictionary you get synonyms like “awesome, popular, great, okay with each other.”
Now, by those definitions, ask yourself again if you want to be cool or not. Do you want to be accepted, impressive, attractive, excellent, and okay with the people around you? Probably. If you’re still not convinced, let’s turn it around. The opposite of “cool” would be rejected, mediocre, repelling, and disliked. How about now?
I’ll say it again. There’s a lot of pressure on everyone to be cool. The problem with being cool is that it changes depending on the group you are in. Being cool to a group of engineers is much different than being cool to a group of musicians. Being cool in a Christian youth group is very different than being cool at a secular school. There are people who will walk through the Ottawa Comiccon and think they are surrounded by the coolest people in the world – while others, outside that group, would consider them social outcasts. There will be people who spend a year crafting the perfect cosplay outfit so they can look a character from a favourite game or movie, and will be showered with praise – but if they take that same outfit to a different place, they will feel embarrassed, rejected, and disliked.
I watched a very interesting clip this week from The Gospel Coalition called “The Idolatry of Youth Culture in Worship” which was all about pressure that churches feel to try to be cool. Churches get on this hamster wheel of trying to chase the newest song, coolest visuals, popular content, and most attractive spaces. People are attracted to these sorts of things too. They are attracted to the cool, new “worship artists” and “celebrity preachers” that are marketed to us from dozens of platforms, and it’s really tempting for a church to try to change themselves to try to be more cool.
The problem with the pursuit of being “cool” is that it is constantly changing. One documentary they referenced, called “The Merchants of Cool” which was about how hard companies are studying teen culture in an attempt to make money off of them. They go find the cool kids and try to figure out what the next, hot trend is going to be. One person they interviewed said at that one of the problems is that as soon as they figure out what is cool and they start to mass-market it, the very act of them marketing it makes it uncool. And so they are in a constant state of chasing the next trend, trying to keep up with the ever changing tides of coolness.
I’m sure you’ve felt this pressure at times to. The pressure to conform, to change yourself, to alter your habits and personality so that you will be more accepted, more admired, more attractive – and then the moment you do, it seems to change on you. You buy a new thing and show it off, but then something newer comes out. You dye your hair or get new clothes, but then the trend changes. You get good at a game, or watch a show, or try a new work technique, but then people stop doing it or talking about it because something new comes around.
Sometimes we don’t even know it’s happening. It’s like we’re the frog in a pot. We buy things, go places, watch things, and talk about things because we think we like them, but the truth is that we are doing it because we don’t want to be left out. Whether you are a senior or a teen, a tradesman or a homemaker, these pressures are ever present.
Something that is connected to being cool, but perhaps tangentially, is something called entitlement. The concept is simple. To feel entitled means you think you have the right to something. You believe you deserve something. You have a list in your mind of all the things you think you are owed. And when someone challenges this list, refuses to give it to you, or takes it away, you get angry or depressed.
For example, if you feel entitled to share your opinion at all times, that your voice should count for something, and that you deserve a vote, then when you are not listened to you feel very offended. If you feel you are entitled to a certain level of comfort, and then you feel discomfort, it makes you angry.
Think of the parent who comes home from a hard day at work. If they feel as though they are entitled to some peace and quiet, that the world and their family owes it to them, they will get very angry if you disturb them. Then there’s the couple that believes that for every dollar one partner spends, the other gets to spend the exact amount. She gets a haircut, so you get dinner out. He gets coffee at the drive through, so you feel entitled to get something for yourself.
Some people feel entitled to have the same level of access to technology as others, and not just teens. “My friends all have a big tv, so why don’t we. Our internet is so slow, all my friends have faster internet. All my friends have phones, so I should get one too.” It’s a sense of entitlement and we all have it to some degree. And if you don’t think so, just ask those closest to you what you think you are entitled to and they’ll tell you…
The problem with the pursuit of being cool or having an out of control sense of entitlement is that it gets in the way of the best things in life like friendship, love, and serving God.
To say I wasn’t very popular when I was growing up would be a gross understatement. I was a total reject, social outcast. And I’m not saying that for dramatic effect. I have some deep scars to this day that were given to me in grade school.
I remember I had this one “friend” named Karl (and I’m putting air-quotes around that word) who I would hang out with. He and I had some sort of kinship, but I have no idea why. He wasn’t a Christian and wasn’t really that nice to me. But Karl was good at sports and had an in with the cool kids. And being cool was really important to him. Here’s how it worked with me and Karl: If I was talking to him in the hallway, I always knew that if a cool kid came, he would drop me to talk to them instead. I still remember the day he actually pushed me away so he wouldn’t be seen talking to me in the hall. If there was a party at his house, he would invite me over a few hours before to play some Nintendo, set up the snacks and whatnot, but since I wasn’t one of the cool kids I wasn’t invited to the party, so I would leave his house before anyone got there. Karl’s pursuit of being a cool kid put a huge wedge in what could have been a much better friendship. It effected our conversations. It made me not trust him. Can you imagine how pursuing cool would have affected if he was trying to witness to me? It wouldn’t work, would it? It’s incompatible.
It’s the same with the sense of entitlement. The things that you believe are owed to you, if you don’t get them, will change the way you perceive and relate to people. If you get passed over for a promotion or a raise, how do you feel about the person who got it? What about the boss who you think you could do their job better? Feel friendly? Congratulatory? Or is there some resentment there.
Think of a trip to the store. You park your car. Are you entitled to a good spot? No. But how do you feel if someone double parks or is too far over the line to give you that close place? Mad. Why? Entitlement.
And then you go inside and all the karts are gone and you have to go back outside to get one. Are you owed a cart? No. But something inside you says, “I pay good money here and I deserve to have a cart waiting when I come.” You go through the aisles and people are in the way, taking too long, some haven’t showered, some are dressed inappropriately, others keep asking for your help to reach things, and then there’s a bunch of people you know that seem to want to chat with you. You came in for a can of beans and now you are totally worked up. You get back to your car and someone has dinged the door with theirs. How do you feel? Angry, right? Why? And what will you say, “Why can’t I just go to the store and get one, stupid thing without having to be surrounded by incompetent, annoying, smelly, idiotic, selfish people?!” What’s behind that emotion? Entitlement. You feel you are owed it.
Same thing happens at church. I’m entitled to my favourite seat. I’m entitled to have good sound and an easy time. I’m entitled help with my ministry. I’m entitled to an entertaining message. I’m entitled to be left alone, or entitled to expect to be asked how I am. I’m entitled to a cup of coffee and a cookie. And if I don’t get it… ?!
How do you think that sort of thinking effects your relationships? How do you think it affects your testimony? How do you think it effects your reputation? How do you think it affects your heart and your relationship with God? The pursuit of cool and a sense of entitlement will make you an anxious, hollow, selfish, lonely person.
Am I Not Free?
Open up with me to 1 Corinthians 9 and let’s read it together. First, I want you to remember the context from a couple weeks ago when we talked about meat offered to idols and the moral butterfly effect. If you recall, Paul is making the case that the choices we make and the freedoms we exercise are not made in a vacuum, but will have ripple effects on those around us – many which we cannot see – and encouraged people to consider others feelings and weaknesses when they make their decisions. In this case it was the decision to eat food that had been offered to idols. A mature Christian knows that the food is just food, and there’s nothing we can eat or not eat that will bring us closer to God, but not everyone knows that. There are some that will be deeply offended, or tempted, or hurt, if they see someone do that, and so scripture teaches us to be willing to go without out of love for those around us.
Now here, as Paul continues that thought, he uses himself as an example of someone who has given up a lot of things for the sake of unity in the church and the furtherance of the kingdom of God. He’s just told the Corinthians to give up eating meat sometimes for the sake of their weaker brothers and sisters, and then in verses 1-12, to drive the point home, Paul lists all sorts of things that he has the right to have, but that he’s given up for the sake of others.
“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?
Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.”
So, remember the context. Way up in chapter 8:1-4 we read about how the Corinthians are claiming that because they have the “knowledge” that food is just food, and that there really is only one God, that they should have the right to eat whatever they want. The Apostle says, “Yes, but don’t use that right, that freedom, to harm anyone else.” As verse 12 says, “Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”
And then he catches their next argument, which is what? Everyone has to deal with this, children, teens, and adults. What is our natural reaction when we look around and see a bunch of people have something that we don’t, but when we decide we want it, someone or something stops us? We argue. Our “coolness” is impacted – “But if I don’t have it, my peer group won’t accept me or will judge me poorly”. And our “entitlement” is impacted – “Everyone else has one, I’m old enough, I work hard, I deserve it.” What if it’s someone you love and trust preventing you from having it? Someone like your parents, your spouse, or God who is working against you having it? We still argue.
We lay down the same argument as Paul does in chapter 9! And that’s what Paul is doing, he’s arguing their point for him – and then going beyond their own qualifications. He says, “You may think you have the right to have that food offered to idols, but I have more right!” He is free from the law by Jesus. He has the authority of an Apostle. He has talked to Jesus face to face. He is the one who planted their church and is their leader and pastor. If anyone has the proper knowledge and freedom to eat that food, he does. But he chooses not to. Why? Look at verse 12, “… we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.”
And he has given up even more than just certain kinds of food. In fact there have been times he has gone without any food for the sake of the gospel. He has the right to a wife and family, as some apostles have, but knows that a for him a family would distract him from the gospel, so he goes without. And he really drives home the point that he has the right, the entitlement, to demand the church financially support his ministry, as many other travelling teachers and apostles have done, but instead he chooses to work a labour job making tents so the message of Jesus he presents to people remains unpolluted and free from attack. Though he has every right to pull a paycheck from them, he doesn’t so that no one can accuse him of greed or false motives.
He knows he has the right to do a lot of things, and there are a lot of pressures to make his life a little easier, but he also knows that taking those things has a cost. There were, and are, many false teachers who use religion, and the name of Jesus, as a way to make money and live rich – and there seem to be plenty of desperate, ignorant people that fall for it. Paul, and any missionary of worth, stays as far away from the church’s purse strings as they can, so that they can’t be lumped into that group.
In verse 15 we see Paul cut them off at their next obvious argument: “You’re just saying all these things so that we’ll send you more money!” He says, “But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.”
You see his point. He would rather go without than leave any room for someone to see any false motives in his presentation of the gospel. His service to God, his message, the joy of seeing people be changed by the message, and all the spiritual benefits besides, are his reward.
This is a big deal today still. The question, “What are you getting out of this?” is still a major barrier for a lot of people. The accusation, “You only do this for your own personal gain!” is still a very persuasive one. And for some people, as I’ve said, is quite accurate.
Everyone falls into this kind of thinking sometimes, it’s not just full-time ministers. Paul was commissioned by God to be a missionary preacher and teacher, but this temptation hits all kinds of people. Some people serve in the church with the hope of gaining attention for themselves, or gaining a portfolio of people to sell their products to, or so they can have their own way. Some people want to be a teacher, deacon, elder, or even pastor, because they want the title, prestige, influence and authority over others. Some people tithe to the church so they can brag about it and get tax benefits. Some people pretend to care about others so they can get all the juiciest gossip. Some people play their instrument or sing in church so they can get accolades. Some people serve others as a way to build up credit in case something happens to them later, so they can cash in their chips and get help in return.
A lot of people have been burned on the church, burned on the gospel, burned on following God, because they have met Christians who were either caught having false motives and using the gospel as a means to benefit themselves, or were trying so hard to be cool that they had completely watered down their own testimony to the point where there was no discernable difference between them and someone who wasn’t saved.
Paul exclaims that he would “rather die than have anyone deprive me of this ground for boasting.” Not that he is trying to steal glory from God, but that he has a rightful sense of joy and fulfillment in being able to look everyone in the eye and say, “I have preached with no other motive than loving people and obeying God. You can check. I’ve suffered, worked, and gained nothing from anyone. No one can accuse me of false motives, because there is no evidence of it!”
Count the Cost
So, as we close today, I invite you to examine your own testimony, your own motives, your own reputation. Why do you do what you do? Is there anything in your life that hinders people from hearing you? A bad habit, an addiction, or something you’ve chosen to do that makes it so you have to spend as much time explaining that as you do trying to talk about Jesus? Is there something in your reputation that makes it so others question whether or not you are really serving God or yourself? Do you speak your own words or His? Would anyone say about you, “That person isn’t really my friend, they’re just trying to get something out of me. That person doesn’t really care, they just want another notch on their belt. That person may talk a big game about loving, forgiving, and trusting – but I know for a fact that they love themselves more than anyone else.
Jesus said that if anyone is to follow Him they must “count the cost”, because to follow Jesus means to lose everything and gain everything at the same time. Jesus set the perfect example for us. He gave us everything and gained nothing. It says in Philippians 2:5-8,
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross…”
If you are concerned about what you are entitled to, how cool you look, how accepted you are, and spend time weighing the cost/benefit to obeying Jesus in this world, then you are not going to follow Him for very long. He says in Luke 14:26-33,
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”
This isn’t theory. Following God’s plan cost Jesus everything. It cost Paul everything. All the Apostles, except one, lived difficult lives and were martyred for their faith – and the one that wasn’t killed was boiled alive and then exiled.
Being a spiritual person will make you cool. Memorizing a few favourite passages and talking about how loving Jesus was will make you cool. And there are a lot of people that will tell you that once you get saved you are entitled to all sorts of worldly blessings. But that’s not the true gospel. The true message of Jesus is not one that is going to win you popularity points or gain you much in this world.
Jesus’ next line after talking about counting the cost is this:
“Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
People need you to be salty, which means you must taste different than the rest of the world. And every time we water down the truth of what Jesus says, water down the message of the Gospel, water down the plain reading of scripture, or allow our sense of entitlement distract us from following God, we lose our saltiness and our words, our deeds, our preaching, our friendship, and our lives are only fit for the manure pile.
So, has Jesus been telling you to give up in order to follow Him more? What barrier is there between you and those you are trying to befriend, love, serve, and share the gospel with? What keeps you from fully obeying God and them from being able to receive your love?
Please open up to 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 and let’s read it together:
“Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.
Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’ For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”
The Moral Butterfly Effect
Food is a huge topic today – an obsession even. What to eat, how much, and what it’s made of, are endlessly debated in articles, documentaries, and online. But with the advent of the global economy, the questions go even deeper. Where the seeds came from, how it was planted, cultivated, harvested, distributed and marketed is matter for much contention as well. Consider Bananas. They seems pretty straight forward, right? If I like bananas I should go to the store and buy some and eat them. But it’s not that simple. Bananas are now super-complicated.
For example, we have to consider where they were grown. Banana harvesters from Ecuador are apparently suffering great labour abuses and we don’t want to support that, do we? Then there’s the problem of banana blight. Did you know that every banana consumed in the western world descends from a plant grown by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, in England, 180 years ago? And because of that they are all susceptible to being attacked by a certain kind of fungus. This actually happened in the 1950s when a disease wiped out most of the world’s bananas and we had to change to a different type. Your grandpas bananas are not the same as yours So, when we want one, we have to ask if we want to support this kind of farming? I’m not judging, just asking.
But it goes deeper. Because of low carb and Glycemic diets and whatnot, Bananas are getting a bad rap. One article I read called it “one of the worst breakfast items we can have.” (To which I thought, “Wow, this guy would probably die if he saw of the things that we’ve called ‘breakfast’ at my house! He’d be like, “Yeah, man you should probably have a banana instead of that skittle smoothie.”)
There’s no decision we can make that doesn’t have some sort of moral consequence. Where we go, what we say, what we do, and what we don’t’ do, makes a moral ripple effect that not only hits us but spreads far and wide, affecting people we don’t even realize. Think of it as the moralistic butterfly effect. That’s what we’re talking about today.
Meat and Idols
The Christians in the Corinthian church had come across some choices people were making that were causing some moral tornados in their congregation. There were some Christians who, even after conversion, continued to buy meat from and attend parties and feasts held in the pagan temples. And since this was such a regular part of life, they wanted to know if it was ok.
Here’s a little background: In the same way that we enjoy getting together for barbecues, dinner parties, and church potlucks, it was common practice to for someone to buy or bring their meat to a temple to eat. Except these dinner parties had a very religious overtone. The meat would be divided into 3 portions – one to be burned as an offering, one given to the priest, and one given back to the offeror to eat and serve. If the priest didn’t want their portion then it would be sold in the marketplace – which meant that if you went to someone’s house, the meat they served you had likely been dedicated to one of the gods of the temple.
The teaching against participating in pagan rituals and worshipping other God’s is pretty clear in the Bible. All through the Old Testament (which was the Bible the Corinthians were reading), it repeats the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exo 20:3). God’s people are repeatedly told not to serve or worship any other so-called god. When they entered the Promised Land God’s command was to totally remove any remnant of the pagan worship (Exo 34:11-16). And he’s really serious, using words like tear down and break and destroy. It doesn’t matter how cool looking the altars are, or how much they offer you to be their partner, or how attractive their daughters are… don’t get involved with them, get rid of all of it. And this is continuously repeated, and disobeyed, all through the Old Testament.
And this question came up in the New Testament too when the Jerusalem Council, full of Apostles and headed by Peter and James, decided on whether non-Jewish people needed to follow the Law of Moses and Jewish religious rituals. They concluded,
“Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.” (Acts 15:19-20)
But if Jesus declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19) then why would the Apostles say that the Gentiles were to not eat certain foods? Because there was a split happening in the church between the Jews and Gentiles over this issue and the Apostles decided to tell the Gentiles who were worshipping in the same church with the Jews to be sensitive to their brothers so that they wouldn’t be so shocked, hurt, and offended and therefore stumble into sin and division. Every time a Gentile had a Jewish friend over it could a massive rift in the relationship. The gentile would offer a bloody piece of undercooked meat that had been blessed by a pagan priest and offered in sacrifice to the Goddess Aphrodite, and the Jew would have a full-on conscience meltdown. It went against literally everything that they believed and held dear for their entire lives! And so the Jerusalem counsel basically commanded the Gentiles to give their Jewish neighbours a break for the sake of unity.
But in Corinth, staying clear of any contact with idolatry was nearly impossible. It was literally everywhere, woven into the very fabric of society. The temples, which we’ve talked about before, were the centre of society and also acted kind of like restaurants of our time. Some meals for the trade guilds, clubs, and private dinner parties were held in the temple dining room. But it was bigger than that. Wrapped into this “temple restaurant” were all the community events and various traditional feasts and festivals on the calendar. AND the temple was also a place to do business and get some of your grocery shopping done! So the Corinthians really needed to know what to do. Did the Old Testament and the decision of the Jerusalem Council extend to them as well? Imagine that being a Christian meant you could never eat at a restaurant, have a birthday party, go to a Canada Day party, shop at the mall, visit your non-Christian friends, or conduct most business transactions ever again!
So the questions was, “Are we allowed to go to these events?” Would it be considered participating in the pagan ritual, meaning breaking commandments and offending God, or if it was no big deal because they are Christians and know better?
This may sound like an old problem, but we deal with these kinds of moral dilemmas all the time today. Certainly when we make our food decisions, like our banana illustration, but in lots of other ways also. What if a Christian is invited to participate in a non-Christian wedding? What if a bartender or casino worker gets saved – can they keep their job? Can a Christian go to Las Vegas? If our taxes go to a government that promotes unbiblical practices, should we pay them? Can a Christian go on an offensive attack when at war? How should a Christian deal with panhandlers? Can a Christian be a business partner or employ non-Christians? Or the age old, is it ok for a Christian to lie if it means they are protecting someone’s life?
These are not insignificant questions and do deserve our consideration. We ought not merely roll along in our lives assuming that everything we do, think, and say is ok with God as long as it isn’t a flagrant sin where we break one of the 10 Commandments. We shouldn’t assume that God doesn’t care about the minutia of our lives, or that God hasn’t spoken about the most righteous, wisest way to make these decisions. And, as I’ve already said, we shouldn’t simply assume that our decisions, even the “little ones”, don’t have lasting impacts and far-reaching effects. Immature people coast along assuming everything they think is right, that the most important thing to consider is whether it makes them happy, and assuming that their decisions only affect them or a small circle around them. Mature people spend time considering and studying their decisions and motives, knowing that even their smallest, most private actions can have far-reaching, unforeseen consequences.
Have you ever had that happen? Where you made a seemingly insignificant decision or one that you thought was only significant for you, only to find that when you tugged on that thread it unraveled a lot more than you thought? That happens more than you think it does.
The point is that there is much more going on than merely a singular action or decision. Each has ripple effects that expand into eternity – effects we can’t see, but God can – and so at all times, Christians try to do things God’s way – not only to simply obey him (which is important) but also because we trust that He knows better than do. That’s why it’s so important to prayerfully read the Bible because when we turn our hearts to God and follow Jesus, we can “have the Mind of Christ”.
So, what does God say about these kinds of situations, where we are faced with a moral dilemma that we’re not too sure about, seems to be fine with scripture, but maybe not… seems to be fine with our conscience, or with other people’s consciences, but not with ours… and we’re not sure what to do?
First, I want you to notice that the Corinthians asked. They were a sinful, prideful, messed up group, but there were some in the church that had the humility and wisdom to ask the Apostle what God has to say about the subject.
Most people don’t do this. Many Christians don’t do this. They either lack the humility or the wisdom to simply ask someone else about the situation. They are presented with a question, an option, a decision, or a situation, and instead of pausing for a moment and thinking, “What does God say about this? What would my parents say? What would my spouse think? What would my pastor counsel here?” they just go with their first impulse or whatever their guy says to do. Contrary to every romantic comedy, adventure or fairy-tale movie you’ve ever seen, “Follow your heart” is really terrible advice.
Can I invite you to another level of maturity and ask you to get wise counsel? This is all over the Proverbs.
“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” (Prov 12:15),
“Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” (Prov 11:14)
“Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.” (Prov 28:26) or at the very beginning of Proverbs,
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov 1:7)
The most famous of these is in Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”
How do we avoid the crooked paths? Trust God and distrust ourselves. In which ways are you to acknowledge God? Just the big decisions? No. “All your ways”.
Christians Know the Truth
So let’s look at what God says about this and then draw out some application. Read verses 1-3 again. It says, “Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.”
What’s being said here? You’ll notice some quotation marks. Greek didn’t have quotation marks, so these are the scholar’s best guess as to what the Corinthians had asked Paul in the letter they sent him. If we put the quotes from verses 1 and 4 together we get something like, “Hey Paul, all us Christians know that an idol isn’t a real god, right? We all know there’s only one God. And we all know the meat is just meat, right? And since we know all that and going to these things and eating the food should be no big deal. It’s not like we are worshipping. It’s not like we believe all this nonsense. We have knowledge that all these lost people don’t have – so it’s no big deal if we go and participate, right?”
The word “knowledge” there is key. And Paul agrees with them, to a point. Verses 4-6 say as much. The altars, pagan statues, idols, and religious stuff all around town does not actually represent any real “gods” or “lords”. The truth is that there is only one God and one way to Him, and all the other gods and ways are either made up, created by demons to deceiving people, or are man-made inventions designed to manipulate and abuse people in the name of religion. But skip to verses 7, “However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.”
That’s a very unpopular truth, isn’t it? Some people know the truth and some people don’t. Some people are right and others are wrong. It sounds arrogant to our tolerant, politically correct, culturally sensitive, ears. Now, I’m not going to get into an epistemological debate on the existence or non-existence of absolute truth or whether anyone can really know anything. Instead, I’m simply going to say that believing in truth and the existence of right and wrong reflects the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ and of the God of the Bible. It’s not our idea, it’s His.
It is Jesus who claimed to be the Son of God, the author of scripture, the fulfiller of all its promises, the light of the world, the giver of eternal life, the only one who can forgive sin, the door to salvation, “the way, the truth, and the life”, and that it is only through Him that we can gain access to God (Matthew 26:63, Mk 2:10; John 3:14-16, 4:26, 14:6, 10:28-30). It is we who simply believe Him.
There are no competing gods in heaven, battling one another for dominion over the earth, or splitting the lands among themselves (“You get worshiped by Greece, I’ll take USA, you get Saudi Arabia.”). Nor, as some people believe, does God does not represent Himself in multiple ways – to some He comes as Zeus, others Buddha, others as Shiva, others as Odin, others as Allah, others as YHWH, others as Jesus. That’s what some people believe. They agree that there is only one God, but that there are many paths to Him and that He’s totally fine with whatever path you take, just as long as you are sincere.
Jesus doesn’t leave that option open. Jesus says, “Many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many.” (Matthew 24:5) All through the New Testament the apostles warn against false teachers who come and spread false gospels and false teachings in the name of Jesus. But there is only One Jesus, One God, one Creator, one Lord and Saviour and He has been very clear in how He has revealed Himself. The only question is whether we will believe what He has revealed or if we will choose to disbelieve it.
People love visiting holy sites and it’s easy to get swept up in the beauty of the architecture or culture surrounding them. Throw in a couple of really peaceful looking, or extremely dedicated followers and it’s hard to tell them that their entire belief system is based on a lie. We want to say that a really dedicated Buddhist monk, whose life is dedicated to pursuing peace, understanding, good deeds, hard work, and the enjoyment of the world, is almost completely wrong. We want to be nice and tell them that they are like 75% right and that that’s going to count for something when they stand before God. But that’s not what scripture says, not what Jesus teaches, and not what God commands.
But this doesn’t just happen with other world religions, it happens with groups that claim to be Christian like the Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons, and other people that have “Christian” on the sign and talk about Jesus, but don’t actually teach what Jesus taught — and there are a lot of them. They talk about Jesus, use Bible verses, sing some of the same songs we do, are very passionate in their beliefs, but they are wrong and deceived and their message does not lead to salvation.
When I was growing up we didn’t use maple syrup. We put Bee Hive Golden Corn Syrup on our pancakes. Sometimes we put Aunt Jemima on there, which was good because it was like liquid butter mixed with sugar. But when I moved to Ontario I was introduced to real maple syrup and I’ve been hooked ever since. I love it! Maple season is now a magical time for my family, where we run off to the sugar bush, wander through the forest, and see how many maple treats we can eat until we slip into a sugar coma.
But have you ever had the experience of going to a restaurant, ordering breakfast with pancakes, asking for maple syrup, and then have them bring you a wonderful looking warm, brown goo — that TASTES NOTHING LIKE MAPLE SYRUP! But by the time you figure it out, it’s already been spilled all over your food and you have to eat it. It looked like maple syrup, the server implied that it was maple syrup, it poured like maple syrup, and ¾ of the people at your table are slurping it up like it doesn’t even matter, seemingly totally ignorant of the fact that what they are eating is a lie! There’s not even any Maple in it. It’s High Fructose Corn Syrup, Caramel Colour and Artificial Flavours. Why is no one else bothered by this? It’s fake. It’s not real.
In the same way, there are many religions out there that call themselves Christian or holy and claim to be the truth and the way to God – but are wrong. Christians know this.
The Principle of Brotherly Love
But, God says in verse 7, when it comes to the people around you, in your church, “…not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.”
For some people, even though they are Christians, the situation is simply too much for them. Just like the Jerusalem Council said about being sensitive to the Jews, there are some in the church who can’t handle it. For them, the eating of that meat really is a stumbling block. They are so used to believing that idols and gods are real that when they eat the food offered to the idols they really do think of it as worship to real gods and their consciences are violated. They feel guilty, they feel shame, they feel separated from God.
And there are some in the church that have a hard time only trusting in Christ for their salvation. For them, there’s a huge temptation to do what the ancient Israelites would do by hedging their bets – praying to Jesus, but also sacrificing to whatever god they thought might help – and it’s a constant temptation to them.
For others, because of their former way of life, being in that place, eating that food, is too much of a temptation because it could suck them right back into it. They need to avoid it because they are not strong enough yet in the Lord not to fall. There’s an inner struggle within them to obey God and trust Christ – and so they don’t touch any of that stuff with a 10-foot pole.
For others, their family was so bound up in it, so deceived, so destroyed by it that they hate it, because it had so much power over them – and they still feel like it has power over them, so they don’t go anywhere near it. They’d rather give up everything – parties, business partners, meat, friends, family – for the sake of their relationship with Jesus, rather than running the risk of falling back into their former lifestyle.
You see, we’re not really talking about choosing bananas or maple syrup, we’re talking about eternity and the corruption of our conscience.
Paul says in verse 8, “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” Consuming or abstaining from a certain kind of food or drink doesn’t make us any holier. Jesus was very clear in when He said, “And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him…. from within, out of the heart of man…” (Mark 7:14-15; 21-23)
It’s not whether or not you know that it’s not about the food. For you, it might be fine, but, what about your brother or sister that can’t handle it, that isn’t as mature as you, that isn’t as strong as you? It is the Principal of Brotherly Love and it overrides all that other stuff.
That’s why we are told in verses 9-11, “…but take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”
It’s the principle of brotherly love and it must factor into our thinking when we consider all of these moral quandaries. Sometimes things are cut and dry, right and wrong, biblical or unbiblical, and that makes it easy. We aren’t allowed to do it. But what if scripture doesn’t cover that clearly, or it is absolutely allowed, but it is causing troubles for those around us? Then we abstain out of love for our fellow man.
It’s not about the type food we eat, or whether we drink beer, or what movie rating we allow, or what game we play, or what we buy, or where we go. It is that if the decisions we are making are causing our brothers and sisters in the faith to stumble into sin, then we are being Satan to them! We are their tempters! And in this way we are destroying their conscience, harming their relationship with God, and sinning against Christ. It’s a really, really big deal.
There is much more we can say, because chapter 9 continues the thought, but I want to end there today encouraging you to think about some of the decisions that you’ve been making, some of the lifestyle choices you’ve made, and ask yourself if loving others even factored into your thinking. Is it possible that you are doing something with your freedom in Christ that is hurting someone else? And you who are weak in conscience, do you have friends who are putting you in positions where you are tempted, or where you are weak, and you haven’t said anything? Say something.
Let us live in the knowledge of the freedom Christ brings us, but never get so “puffed up” that we use that knowledge to do harm to someone else.
The Right Tool
Check out some of these weird tools. Maybe they’re only weird to me. Have any of you used these? Here’s my favourite, which is awesome, and it’s the Stanley #1 Odd Jobs. I absolutely love this guy’s description.
We’ve all used the wrong tool to try to accomplish a task. We are going to hang a picture and can’t find the hammer, so we grab a screwdriver and hope we can use the handle to knock the nail in. We need to turn a ¾” bolt but the only wrench we can find is metric and it’s pretty close, so we try it. Instead of gluing something properly we throw on some tape and hope for the best. But it never quite works, right? The nail is crooked, the bolt gets stripped, the tape doesn’t hold. That’s because we are using the tool to do something it wasn’t designed for.
When God creates a human being He always gives them a purpose. Most people don’t care about God’s intended purpose for their lives but spend their time trying to figure out their own idea – which sometimes gets them part way there but they never feel like they completely fit. But, when Jesus calls someone to Himself and they become His disciple, He doesn’t just save them from their sin and send them on their merry way, but sets within them a desire to live out their God-given purpose. They go from someone who was living for themselves, trying to make themselves happy, and confused about their reason for living, to a Kingdom follower who is now trying to discover why God put them on earth, what will honour Jesus, and how they can glorify God by doing obeying His will for their life.
Sure, we mess up, sin, go the wrong way, and need a lot of grace, but God is always forgiving, rebuking, training, correcting and helping us to find and live out our purpose. The Holy Spirit within us acts like a compass, steering us towards the right and away from the wrong, even giving us spiritual gifts that we didn’t have before in order follow God’s plan for us. And when we hit that groove and finally discover what we were built to do, there’s nothing like it. No matter how hard it is, or how much we have to endure, there is a supernatural power that comes upon us, a hope beyond ourselves, a greater, eternal mission, and a reason and meaning that’s bigger than us – because we are living out our purpose.
Please open up to 1 Corinthians 7:6-40. As I said a couple weeks ago, in 1st Corinthians we see that Paul was asked some important questions about what God wants from believers in regard to human sexuality and marital relationships. There were many in the church that wanted to follow God, but were being super-distracted by all the sin around them and the desires and temptations within them. They wondered if maybe they should just make a rule that all Christians everywhere should just give up on the whole marriage idea altogether because it was so corrupted and distracting, and just simply concentrate on following Jesus. Basically, they wondered if Christians should just become monks and nuns. We covered a lot of the answer last week, but we were left with a lot of other situations that weren’t covered like: What about single people who want to get married? What about the single people that don’t? What about people married to unbelievers? What about divorced people? Can they get remarried? Let’s read the rest of the passage together and we’ll draw out some application:
“Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.
To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.
To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.
Now concerning the betrothed [another word would be “virgin” or “unmarried”] , I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed [meaning parents of unmarried children], if his [or her] passions are strong, and it has to be, let him [or her] do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin. But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.
A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.” (ESV)
It is Good to Stay
Paul is here addressing a lot of situations directly, but there was an overarching theme to all of his answers. Look again. He says in verse 7, “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” And then in verse 17, “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” And in verse 24, “So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.”
There’s no way that Paul could address the many variations on human relationships, or try to write a letter that told every human being what they should do with themselves for the rest of their lives. And even if God did do that, people’s circumstances change so quickly that they would need a new letter every year! So look at the overarching theme for what God says:
Verse 8 – If you are divorced or widowed Christian, it’s good to stay as you are and follow God, but if you need to get married, get married.
Verse 10 – If you are married Christian, it is good to stay as you are and follow God, but if your unbelieving partner divorces you, then let it be so.
Verse 20 – If you are a bondservant or slave who is Christian, then it is good to stay as you are and follow God, but if you have a chance to gain your freedom, go for it.
Verse 25 – If you are unmarried, then it is good to stay as you are and follow God, but if you want to get married, get married.
Verse 36 – If you have a child who is unmarried, then it is good that they stay that way and follow God, but if they want to get married, let them.
Verse 39 – If you are married and your spouse dies, then it is good to stay that way, but if you want to get married, then go ahead and marry a Christian.
Did you catch the theme? What is God’s concern here? Over and over we see God saying that whatever the situation is, find God in it, work in it, be at peace with it, serve God in it – grow and bloom where you are planted as best you – but if the situation changes around you, or you sense that God wants you to change your situation so you can serve Him better, then go for it. One might call it “contentment” – be content with the situation you find yourself in. Another might call it “focus” – stay focused on where you are and what you are doing, don’t get distracted by a bunch of temptations, man-made rules and worldly options. My Bible entitles the section above verse 17, “Live As You Are Called”. Essentially, bloom where you are planted as best you can, until the Gardner moves you.
Recall that part starting in verse 32 about anxieties where the Apostle says: “I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife… the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”
The crux comes at the end there as this teaching is designed to benefit us and our relationship with God, not to try to restrain us or keep us from experiencing what God has for us. A lot of man-made religious rules seemed designed only to “restrain”: “don’t do this, don’t do that”, but God’s rules are designed to help us flourish – to bloom where we are planted. He wants to free us from the entanglements and anxieties of this world and help us live maturely, with “good order”, devoted to our God-give life’s purpose.
For some, God’s purpose requires you to be married, so He’ll give you desires in that direction and point you to a spouse. For others, it means bucking the trend where the whole world seems to want you to hook up with someone or get married, so you can stay single and flexible. For some, it means staying content at a job you aren’t thrilled with so it can help you do something you couldn’t do otherwise. For others it means leaving your job security so you can have the freedom to do something that God needs you for.
The idea is that we weren’t put on this planet to simply eat, sleep, work, entertain ourselves, reproduce, and die. We were created for so much more. God has given us a purpose and when we make these big and little decisions – from will I marry, what job will I get, who will my friends be, what school will I attend, what will I do in my free time, who will my business partners be, what will my hobbies be – there is a bigger picture to consider. Will they bring more anxiety and restrain me from following God’s plan for my life, or will they be beneficial, promoting good order, and securing my devotion to the Lord?
Most of us don’t think that way. We usually get as far as “Do I like it?” “Is it fun?” “Will it make me money?” “Is she pretty?” “What do others expect me to do?” “What will make me popular?” “Will it be safe?” “Will it make me uncomfortable?” God tells us to expand our thinking beyond these worldly concerns and ask bigger questions: “Will it make me a better follower of Christ?” “Will it help me serve God and others better?” “Does it fit with who God has created me to be?” “Does it help me fulfill my life’s purpose or, even if it looks good, will it distract me from it?”
What a shallow, pointless existence it would be to waste our life pursuing fun, interesting, popular things – and completely miss the entire purpose of our lives.
The Purpose Driven Life
I want now to do doing something I’ve never really done before, and that is read a large selection from a book that has meant a lot to me. This is some selections from the first few pages of Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life”, a book that has helped me in innumerable ways. Please listen as I read this to you – and then go buy or borrow this book and finish it. If you hear nothing else this morning – hear this first sentence:
“It’s not about you. The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions. If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose.
The search for the purpose of life has puzzled people for thousands of years. That’s because we typically begin at the wrong starting point—ourselves. We ask self-centered questions like What do I want to be? What should I do with my life? What are my goals, my ambitions, my dreams for my future? But focusing on ourselves will never reveal our life’s purpose. The Bible says, ‘It is God who directs the lives of his creatures; everyone’s life is in his power.’
Contrary to what many popular books, movies, and seminars tell you, you won’t discover your life’s meaning by looking within yourself. You’ve probably tried that already. You didn’t create yourself, so there is no way you can tell yourself what you were created for! If I handed you an invention you had never seen before, you wouldn’t know its purpose, and the invention itself wouldn’t be able to tell you either. Only the creator or the owner’s manual could reveal its purpose.
I once got lost in the mountains. When I stopped to ask for directions to the campsite, I was told, ‘You can’t get there from here. You must start from the other side of the mountain!’ In the same way, you cannot arrive at your life’s purpose by starting with a focus on yourself. You must begin with God, your Creator. You exist only because God wills that you exist. You were made by God and for God—and until you understand that, life will never make sense. It is only in God that we discover our origin, our identity, our meaning, our purpose, our significance, and our destiny. Every other path leads to a dead end.
Many people try to use God for their own self-actualization, but that is a reversal of nature and is doomed to failure. You were made for God, not vice versa, and life is about letting God use you for his purposes, not your using him for your own purpose.…
How, then, do you discover the purpose you were created for? You have only two options. Your first option is speculation. This is what most people choose. They conjecture, they guess, they theorize. When people say, ‘I’ve always thought life is . . . ,’ they mean, ‘This is the best guess I can come up with.’
For thousands of years, brilliant philosophers have discussed and speculated about the meaning of life. Philosophy is an important subject and has its uses, but when it comes to determining the purpose of life, even the wisest philosophers are just guessing.…
Fortunately, there is an alternative to speculation about the meaning and purpose of life. It’s revelation. We can turn to what God has revealed about life in his Word. The easiest way to discover the purpose of an invention is to ask the creator of it. The same is true for discovering your life’s purpose: Ask God….
God is not just the starting point of your life; he is the source of it. To discover the purpose in life you must turn to god’s word, not the world’s wisdom. You must build your life on eternal truths, not pop psychology, success-motivation, or inspirational stories.
The Bible says, ‘It is in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.’ This verse gives us three insights into your purpose.
- You discover your identity and purpose through a relationship with Jesus Christ…..
- God was thinking of you long before you ever thought about Him. His purpose for your life predates your conception. He planned it before you existed, without your input. You may choose your career, your spouse, your hobbies, and many other parts of your life, but you don’t get to choose your purpose.
- The purpose of your life fits into a much larger, cosmic purpose that God has designed for eternity….”
Let me close with the words of Jesus from Matthew 6:24-33 where He speaks about anxiety, worry, and focusing on the wrong things – especially focusing on a life worried about money and stuff – but as we saw in 1 Corinthians we can get just as muddled with worries about relationships and other things. Jesus says,
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
This is one of the hardest things about faith to teach and to practice. The point here is that God knows what you need and what you desire. If you think you need money, your heart is in the wrong place. God knows what you need. The question is, will you seek God’s kingdom and a righteous life first, and trust that God will give you what you need to accomplish it? Or will you leave your faith to the side and pursue the money instead.
If you think you need a girlfriend or boyfriend, or husband or wife, or a better husband or wife, then your heart is in the wrong place. Do you not believe that God knows what you need? If so, then will you seek to live out God’s purpose for you, content where you are, blooming where you are planted, trusting God will give you what you need to accomplish what He has asked you to do? Or will you cast your faith in God aside and pursue a relationship God never intended you to have? Which will bring you greater good and God more glory?
If you think you need a better job, then your heart is in the wrong place. Do you not believe that God knows what you need and desire? If so, then will you make the decision to bloom where you are planted, do the good you are called to do, be the employee God wants you to be, and allow God to decide where to put you? Or will you stay anxious, upset, resentful, and bitter that you aren’t getting your due – cutting corners and complaining, or jumping from place to place – trying to get something God hasn’t given you, that won’t lead to your flourishing? Which will bring God more glory and you more good? (James
God says in James 1:1-3,
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”
Jesus says, “…[Unbelievers] seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
A couple weeks ago I gave a sermon on the topic of sexual immorality which led to some pretty strong and varied reactions. Some people appreciated confronting the topic of pornography from the pulpit while others claimed it was.
I want you to know that whenever I preach my intention is never to be intentionally shocking or vulgar, but simply to present what scripture teaches. None of the criticism I received was that I used harsh language or was in theological error and I ran the sermon past a few people and they agreed. However, while I did present the Gospel as the answer to the problem, one criticism that did touch home was that I may have presented the problem without giving many practical solutions.
One person said, “Ok, so everything is dark, but what’s the solution? Where’s the hope?” Of course, as I said, our ultimate hope is in Christ. The only way to be free from the burden of sin and to escape the trap of sexual immorality is to admit we are sinners, fall down at the cross, and ask for forgiveness and help from God. But there is a very practical, applicable, useful tool to help with the problem of an out of control, sinful, sexually immoral appetite: marriage.
Open up to 1 Corinthians 7:1-5.
[I want to say up front that though I used a bunch of sources, I help for this sermon from one of John MacArthur’s messages called “Marriage, Divorce, and Singleness”]
“Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
Marriage in Corinth
We’ve already covered a few times the state of the culture in the city of Corinth. And the Corinthian church needed some instruction as to how they should handle living there. We can sympathize, right? Sin, it seems, has corrupted everything! And so, a believer, wanting to honour Jesus, flee sin, and be obedient to God, is often tempted to just throw everything out. They feel tempted so they figure that they will just get rid of everything. Move to the country, turn off the internet, break the TV, avoid the theatre, don’t date, don’t go to the mall, never talk to anyone except Christians… just avoid everything.
Some Christians in Corinth thought the same thing and some of them decided that the solution to avoiding the sin of sexual immorality at least would be that Christians should simply avoid marriage altogether. Corinth was a mess of immorality of all kinds, but what the city was most famous for, even in the pagan world, was how messed up they were sexually, and this affected the state of marriage too.
Weddings in ancient Greece actually looked a lot like they do today. A lot of our traditions come from them. Rich people had ceremonies, wore rings, had veils, carried flowers, even had cake.
Slaves, of which there were many in the Corinthian church, weren’t even allowed to get married, but if they did find someone they wanted to be with they could ask their owner if they could have a “tent partner” to be with sometimes. But they couldn’t commit to one another because there was no guarantee one of them wouldn’t be sold and have to leave.
In the general culture, the divorce rate was high and morality was very low. Like today, sleeping around, adultery, cheating, and serial monogamy was common. A normal citizen could even buy a wife if they wanted to. There was even, around biblical times, a sort of women’s liberation things that started, which tried to switch it around so that the women would do all the same things to the men. It was a real mess.
And so there were some big questions about what Christians should do. Keep in mind that those being saved and joining the church were coming from this culture completely. They didn’t grow up with the judeo-Christian ethic like we did – but came from a totally corrupted culture. And it was natural for them, seeking to want to be good Christians, to think that simply avoiding sex and marriage altogether would be best.
So here we see them sending a question to the Apostle Paul to ask what Jesus has to say on the subject. See verse 1: “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’” That was their solution. They had a lot of situations. They had single Christians who wanted to get married but weren’t sure if that was a good idea, Christians married to unsaved spouses and weren’t sure what to do, married people who had a bunch of sinful habits they didn’t know what to do with, divorced people who didn’t know if they were allowed to get remarried, and a whole bunch of dads with angry daughters who were being told they weren’t allowed to get married at all. There was a lot of mixed teachings about this. Everything from “There should be no marriage but just free love and sex for everyone” to “no one should ever get married or have sex ever” – and that continues today among cults and different religions, even in those claiming Christianity. So, Paul, what does Jesus say we’re supposed to do?!
Paul’s answers take each of the groups in turn. He takes on the married people first, so let’s do that. I want to talk to the single people too, but since Paul talks to the married people first, that’s how we’re going to take it.
To the Married
Celibacy and singleness is ok with the Bible and ok with God. It frees you for greater missions in God’s kingdom and allows you to remain focused on serving Him and others. The Bible presents singleness as something to be honoured and godly. But, for most people, since sexual temptation is a real problem, the solution is to get married. Singleness is good unless it leads you into sexual sin. For most people, trying to avoid sexual sin is going to be really hard, because marriage is intended to be the norm. Marriage is a gift given to us by God to be a tool to help us grow closer to Him, learn about ourselves, become a better disciple, practice all the things the Bible says about serving, forgiving, self-control, etc… but it’s also the primary way that we are to deal with sexual temptation.
John MacArthur gives 6 reasons the Bible says God gave us marriage. Procreation, Pleasure, Purity, Provision, Partnership and Picture.
God gave us marriage so that we could Procreate, literally to make babies and carry on the species. He also gave us marriage for Pleasure, because it’s an amazing experience to be with another person for life. He gave us marriage so we could Provide for someone else, living as a servant to them, and so we could have a Partner that helps take care of us. And, God gave us marriage because, as we see all through the Bible, it is a Picture of Christ and the church.
The one we are talking about today is that God gave us marriage so we could pursue Purity and be more godly as we channel our sexual appetite into the right place. Fighting our natural appetites, continually sinning, and feeling guilty and shameful all the time is not a great life, so God allows us to fulfil that appetite in a pure and godly way in marriage.
However, just like those in ancient Corinth, we all today carry sexual baggage into our marriages. Histories with sexual partners, pornography habits, romantic fantasy’s we’ve concocted, and whatever else we have going on in our brains. And both are sinners. Even if we come into the marriage completely virginal, having never seen or read anything bad, we are still sinners and that’s going to cause problems – and it does, right?
The partners have different appetites and both get frustrated. One has expectations of the other that make them feel uncomfortable or simply can’t be done. One accuses the other of being too aggressive while the other is accused of being cold and unloving. What is supposed to be a gift from God, and the means by which we escape the trap of sexual immorality, ends up being a wedge that comes between the Christian husband and wife. Which leads to anger, hurt feelings, loneliness, temptation, thoughts of divorce… and more.
What is the solution for a Christian who has committed their life to Jesus? I believe that a big part of the solution is to have a proper, Biblical understanding of sex within marriage – and how to have good sex. Our pornographic culture has corrupted sex in every possible way, and much of that thinking has seeped into our own, and so 1 Corinthians 7 gives a mini-marriage seminar.
The Power of Sex
What does the Bible say here? Well, first it frames the sexual union as a tool to escape temptation. “…because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” Marriage is good for many things. We learn a lot being married, but another way it is good is that it gives us an outlet for our sexual energies. Most people, except those gifted with the ability to be single and celibate, will find it almost impossible to avoid sexual temptation. Not only because of our inward drives but because sexual enticement is everywhere in the culture.
So it is natural for your spouse to have a sexual appetite and for them to want to have sex with you. That’s normal and good. To be sexually desirous of your spouse, and for your spouse to desire you, is a good thing. And so God says, “Since there is so much sexual immorality within you and around you, have my blessing to have sex with each other!”
Now, some people read these verses and think God says “my spouse has to do whatever I want, whenever I want it!” Nope, that’s selfish and sinful. Remember, your marriage is a picture of Jesus and the church. When has Jesus ever forced Himself on you or made you do anything? When has He made you feel He was abusive or made you feel bad about yourself? Or, for that matter, ever withheld his love because you haven’t earned it? Never. He is always inviting, loving, and seeking the best for His bride.
I know far too many married couples for which sex isn’t a joy but something that divides them. They love their spouse, serve them, enjoy them, but when it comes to the bedroom there’s a disconnect there and it drives a wedge between them and creates a lot of resentment and temptation.
One problem is that people aren’t introspective enough to be able to express how they are really feeling inside. Vulgar, simple, unhelpful, ungodly language has replaced mutual honesty and self-reflection to the point where not only is our spouse confused and upset by what we say, but even we don’t even know how we feel!
Forgive the phrase, but in my experience the most, the average person is able to come up with, especially guys, to describe their feelings is the phrase, “I’m horny. I want sex.” That’s the best they can do. Why? Because it’s what culture has taught them. Sex is an impulse to be acted upon, a means and end unto itself. We want sex so we should have sex. That’s far, far, far too simplistic and even wrong.
When the Bible says, “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.” it’s saying that a husband or wife has the right to expect to fulfil their sexual appetite with their spouse. Now, I’m not saying that it’s a no-holds-barred, do anything they want, free-for-all in the bedroom. We’ll talk about that in a minute. The idea here is that it is normal, right and godly for a husband or wife to want to have sex with their spouse, and it is abnormal, wrong, and ungodly for a husband or wife to “deprive” one another. It’s sin.
But we need to do better at expressing ourselves in this. I want you to do better in this so that you can be closer to your spouse and so that they will understand more of what is happening inside of you. The accusation is often, “My spouse always wants sex! It’s too much! There must be something wrong with them.” But more often than not, it’s not the act of sex that they want – and even they don’t really realize it.
What they really are is lonely, angry, tempted, stressed out, sad, confused or afraid. They feel unattractive, unimportant, unaccepted – and being intimate with their spouse is a very good way to repair that. Sex is reparative in that way.
You might think, “Well, shouldn’t they be praying about that? Why do I have to have sex with them to make them feel less lonely or sad or unimportant? Can’t I just read them a Bible verse and tell them to do their devos?”
Look at verse 5 and see how the Bible connects sexuality to spirituality, especially prayer. “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
The implication here is that if the marriage is being deprived of sexual intimacy then not only will the couple’s relationship with each other suffer, but so will their relationship with God! Effectively it says, “Don’t stop having sex. Don’t deprive one another. Not because the act of sex is so important, but because sexual temptation is real and that depravation will put a wedge between your spouse and God! Sure, maybe you stop for a short time of mourning or fasting or some other special spiritual occasion, but then get back together quick because Satan is right there waiting to tempt you both. And you know that you lack self-control in this area – that’s why you are married! To deprive yourself or your spouse of sex is spiritually dangerous.”
So, my hope here is that each of you do better in expressing yourselves in this, and learn more about yourself. Say you have a hard day at work or at home, things just went wrong, and nothing’s working out. You feel a tug towards sexual temptation? Why? Because it will make you feel better. So when you finally see your spouse again, do you say, “Hey, honey, let’s go have sex?” No. What you should do in that moment is share your heart “I had an awful day today. Let me tell you about it. I’m frustrated, angry, tired and grumpy. I’m all twisted up inside.” What would be a natural response from a loving spouse? Comfort, right? A hug, an affirmation that they are good at their job… but another natural response is physical intimacy.
In 2 Samuel 12:24 David and Bathsheba’s son had just died and they were both in mourning and it says, “Then David comforted his wife, Bathsheba, and went in to her and lay with her…” David sought comfort in God and then, part of the way he comforted his wife was to hold her close and be intimate with her. Sex brings comfort to people.
If our spouse feels lonely, stressed out, unimportant, or unattractive… then not only do you talk to them, affirm them, pray with them, and be with them – but also to make the choice to be physically intimate, to have sex with them, as a way to comfort and help them. Sex relieves tension, release pleasure chemicals, builds intimacy, and is an escape from the stresses of life. It’s a powerful tool to help your spouse deal with what they are going through and wipe away a lot of the cobwebs that have gathered in their soul. Offering sex to your spouse is an amazing spiritual gift to them.
And then, after being together, they will often have more confidence, energy, and joy. By removing the burden of sexual temptation, and connecting with them physically, you will have taken a huge weight off of their soul. And, in equal measure, denying them, depriving them, places a huge weight on their soul. You are sinning against them and setting them, and yourself, your marriage and your family, up for failure. It is literally your duty to take care of one another in this way so you can be free from the distractions of temptation that lead to sin.
Good Marital Sex
Now, I don’t want to leave off there, but want you to turn with me to 1 Corinthians 13, which many people call “The Love Chapter”. Contextually this comes while Paul is talking about how Christians can serve one another in church, but it readily applies to how we can serve each other in marriage as well. And, I would argue, it makes an excellent outline for how Christians should approach marital sex. What does good sex look like?
A lot of questions come to pastors about this: Can I do this or that? Is this or that allowed? He or she likes this but I don’t, do I have to? Those are good questions, but let’s look briefly at 1 Corinthians 13 as an outline for what good, godly, joyful, pleasurable, Christian sex looks like. Go to verse 4. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Let’s go through those together looking at it through the lens of marital sex.
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
Let’s go through those together looking at it through the lens of marital sex.
“Love is patient.” Good marital sex is patient. That means that you take your time, wait for your spouse to be ready, and not try to whatever you want out of it as fast as you can. Usually, one of the spouses takes longer to get “in the mood” than the other – often the woman, but not always. This means that you don’t jump right to intercourse, but spend the day sending love notes, take time to talk, do some wooing, hugging, kissing, and whatever else they like that shows love and gets their motor going. Sometimes this means being very patient while your spouse works through some physical or emotional issues too.
By the way, the other side is choosing to be receptive to this. If you are the spouse that takes a while to get warmed up, then you’ll need to choose to be receptive to their advances. Allow yourself to start you thinking of your spouse, let yourself be wooed, get rid of some distractions, and open yourself up to the other person. You’ll enjoy it a lot more if you do.
“Love is… kind”. Good marital sex shows kindness. There is no desire to hurt or subject or degrade. Kindness takes the initiative to respond to the other person’s needs. What makes them happy, comfortable, feel pleasure. We do this when we have people over to our homes, right? “What do you take in your coffee? Is the room at the right temperature for you? Can I get you a pillow? Would you like the comfortable chair?” We should have the same type of thoughts of kindness when being intimate with our spouse.
“Love… does not envy”. In other words, we are not jealous that someone else, or even our spouse, is seeming to have a better time than us. We aren’t trying to get out of our husband or wife that which we had in a previous relationship or we’ve seen in fantasies.
All of these, by the way, are the opposite of what culture and pornography teach. Remember how I said that people are using pornography as their sex education? They are learning the literal opposite of how God designed sex to work best. Pornographic sex isn’t patient – it’s immediate. There is no relationship, no wooing, no love. Everyone is ready to go 100% of the time. Pornographic sex is not kind. It’s violent and selfish. Pornographic sex is built on envy – it’s adultery with the eyes, wanting that which others have, comparing ourselves to an unrealistic ideal.
“Love does not… boast; it is not arrogant or rude”. Pornographic sex is full of arrogant, selfish boasting, turning sex into competition and conquest. Good, godly, joyful, sex isn’t trying to compete, but to mutually lift each other up! Trying to outdo each other in how you can serve and please one another. Just think of the euphemisms that culture has used to describe the act of sex. We go from “making love” to “hump” to “bump” to “knock” to “hit” to “smash”; each more selfish and more rude. Love isn’t rude, seeking to humiliate or offend, it is mean to uplift.
“Love… does not insist on its own way.” Good marital sex isn’t about getting whatever pleasure we can get out of our spouse, using them as a sexual object to fulfil our fantasies. It is exactly the opposite. Good sex is focused on the other person’s desires, comfort, and enjoyment. That’s one thing that the Bible means when it says, “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” Sure, we share our likes and dislikes, but if both parties are more concerned for the other than they are for themselves – then they will not only enjoy themselves more, but will be practicing humility and service which honours God.
“Love… is not irritable or resentful.” A lot of husbands and wives carry a lot of anger in their hearts toward their mate because of what happens in the bedroom. They are mad because they aren’t “getting enough” or because it’s “too much”. They get irritated and resent their spouse for the occasional, playful sexual touch outside the bedroom – a quick kiss, a pat on the butt – and instead of enjoying it, they get upset. If that’s happening to you, you really need to talk to your spouse about it because the issue isn’t the kiss, the hug, or the pat – it’s something deeper. There’s some anger, bitterness, hurt feelings, fear, resentment that goes way deeper.
Along with this comes the sin of using sex as a reward or a weapon. Sex between spouses is NEVER to be a reward for good behaviour and denial is ESPECIALLY never used as a weapon! Both of those are sin and will lead to spiritual danger. If you have ever tried to manipulate your spouse with sex, you are in sin. If you have ever said the words, “Fine, just do it, I’ll just lie here.” or “Fine, if you won’t do it for me, I’ll do it myself!”, I can’t tell you how terribly hurtful that was to hear. That was you sinning against your spouse. Good sex cannot have irritation or resentment in it. You need to be honest with each other, how you feel, what’s going on inside, work out that underlying problem, and then come together having forgiven one another!
“Love… does not rejoice at wrongdoing.” Most other translations say, “Keeps no record of wrongs.” If you are keeping track of how long it’s been, how many times, and how long it lasted, so you can throw that back in their face – then you are in sin. If you are holding bitterness in your heart and then giving your spouse the cold shoulder, you are in sin. If you are using your spouse’s rejection as an excuse to get your sexual fulfilment from other people – by looking where you shouldn’t or building a close relationship with someone you’re not married to – then you are in sin. You can’t use your spouses’ “record of wrongs” as your excuse to sin. It will destroy your love for them, and your ability to be intimate with them.
“Love… rejoices with the truth.” Good marital sex has its foundation in the truth! We tell the truth about how we are feeling, what we like and dislike, our fears and desires, and what’s on our hearts – and it builds intimacy and improves the sexual relationship. Before marriage we are honest about our sexual history and the baggage we are bringing in there, and then during the marriage we are honest about when we make mistakes and fall to sexual sin.
Another side of truthfulness is the sin of pretending when you are with your spouse. Either pretending they are someone else – which is adultery – or simply pretending you are feeling something you are not. Making sounds and looking a certain way because you think that’s what you are supposed to do for your “performance”. Teaching yourself to be someone you are not, or asking your spouse to be something they are not, will damage your soul and break your intimacy! Some people tell you to pretend and fantasize to make your sex better, but you can’t pretend and be truthful at the same time – and that pretending will cause bitterness and confusion and lead to a fractured relationship and bad sex.
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Good sex comes from love. Love comes from feeling safe, protected, trusted, hopeful, anticipating, and full of the knowledge that the person you are with is committed to you, never going to leave, will endure anything with you, and will persevere with you to the end – no matter what happens in life or in the bedroom. You can’t have real love if you think the other person will let you down, distrusts you, or will leave you. That’s why marital love, built on the covenant of marriage, is so much better than casual hookups. It’s infinitely deeper.
I know this is a lot to chew on today, but I really want you to think about this. We’ll talk about single and unmarried folks next week, but married people, have you been honest with yourself and your spouse about sex in marriage? Are you doing your duty to help each other flee sexual sin? Are you truly “making love” or is there a wall between you, even while you are in bed together? Talk to each other. Go read 1 Corinthians 7 and 13 and talk about it together – humbly, openly, prayerfully. I want each of you to be free from this temptation, and for you to have all the enjoyment that God wants to give you in sex – without sin getting in the way. It’s His gift to us, but it sometimes takes a lot of work. I encourage you to do that work this week.