We’ve been working through a series on Stewardship over the past few weeks. Stewardship is the word that Christians usually use to talk about how we see and use all the good things that God has given us in this world. Our jumping off point was 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 where Paul is asking the church to set aside some money he can bring with him to help out the needy church in Jerusalem, but hopefully, by now we’ve all realized that godly stewardship encompasses so much more than just our finances.
We’ve talked about a lot of subjects in this series. We’ve talked about the reputation the church has with the world around us when it comes to money, why we pass the plate on Sundays and the importance of building a habit of a lifestyle of generosity.
We’ve covered a few big Stewardship questions, the first of which is “Whose is it?”. Regardless of whether it’s our time, talents, treasure, or testimony, the first question Christians need to ask is, “Whose is it?”. The answer to that question radically our outlook. If it’s mine then I can do whatever I want – but if it’s God’s, then that means I’d better ask Him what He wants me to do with it.
That led to the study of the Parable of the Talents where we asked the second big question, “What am I supposed to do with it?” and the most general answer to that question was simply, “God wants us to do something with it that will serve others and honour Him.”
Next came a discussion of the “risk” of using what we have and how our perception of God changes how we see everything we have. If we believe God is generous, then we will be generous with others – but if we feel God is holding out on us, then the risk sharing is too great and we end up holding onto things more tightly and share a lot less.
Which brings us to last week’s message where we moved from not only talking about taking the risk to do “something” with what God gives us but how to use these gifts “best” We started with God’s gift of time and how to perceive and use it in a biblical way.
Along the way, I came up with a brief statement to challenge us and clarify what Christians believe about the use of their time, talents, treasure, and testimony. It simply says, “Everything is God’s and I am a steward of His resources. I will use what He has given me, as best I can, His way, despite the risks involved.”
Are you with me so far? If you want to get caught up on the series, head to my Art of the Christian Ninja blog and you’ll be able to read and listen to them all there.
Talents and Abilities
Today I want to talk about the stewardship of our Talents and Abilities, but first I want to show you this:
David Green said at the end there, “We do not own this company but we’re the stewards.” His son, Steve Green said, “This business has been blessed by God. He has given the family the skills and ability, the opportunity, the time, the ideas – all of these have come… from God, and so for us to lay claim to any of that would be wrong.”
And then Debbie Kinsey, “Management Ministries Coordinator” – which I don’t know what that is, but it sure sounds like an interesting position – she said she heard an employee say, “I clean restrooms and I clean floors to help David Green get the gospel spread worldwide.”
That is a group of people that have a good, Christian understanding of Christian stewardship.
Whose Am I? – Radical Individualism
It all goes back to our first question, right? Whose is it? – but in this case, it’s a little different. It’s not, “Whose is it?? It’s, “Whose am I?” All throughout the scriptures, we are reminded that everything is God’s – the sky, the seas, the animals – but we sometimes forget that we ourselves are God’s.
We live in a radically individualistic society. For a long time societies, cities and nations were built on the premise that the family, the church, our countrymen, the state, the king, or God was the highest thing of value, worth the higher honour, and the most worth protecting, that has shifted in our culture to the highest value being individual rights.
It used to be that if someone’s life was going off the rails, they were making bad decisions, they were being selfish, you could say, “Don’t you know that you’re hurting your family, you are having a bad influence on your friends, you need to change your ways because your life is having a negative effect on those around you.” That concept is more and more foreign today.
Now, we are told from a very early age that we are special, distinct from the group, that the highest consideration in our life should be our own needs, wants, desires, hopes and dreams. This is seen as breaking the bondage of the oppressive forces that have held people down for so long – parents, religion, government, teachers, and everyone that says “no”. The heroes of modern stories are less and less the ones who put themselves second and fight for others or the “cause”. Now more and more of our society’s “heroes” are the ones who break away from everyone else, do what they want, and become whatever they want to be. Instead of running toward others, they run away, and then attract likeminded others to them.
I like superhero movies and I’ve noticed that even the superhero genre is affected. Superman used to put himself at risk and fight for “truth, justice and the American way”, but now he’s brooding, distant, and seems only to fight begrudgingly. If you’ve seen the new Superman movies you’ll remember Superman’s Mom’s advice:
“I never wanted this for you. Be their hero, be their monument, be their angel, be everything they need you to be – or be none of it. You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did.”
That’s radical individualism. Even though you’re Superman, sent to earth to help people and be a good example, his mom is like, “Meh. Who cares about the world? Do whatever makes you happy, kid.”
As we’ve moved farther from God we’ve become more enamoured with ourselves. As we’ve allowed sin to dictate more and more of our actions, we’ve pushed God and others more and more to the side. As we grow more radically individual, our moral compass gets more out of whack. Think about it? What do the rise in abortions, the legalization of drugs, the crazy divorce rate, social media addiction, the destruction of our environment, the military’s consistent recruitment struggles, and the legalization of assisted suicide have in common? Radical individualism.
If the universe revolves around you, then why keep the baby if it will just be a burden to you? If my desires matter most, why not get stoned whenever I want, even when at work or driving? If my happiness and comfort is paramount why stay in a difficult marriage? Why not litter everywhere and mow down a rainforest? Why should I put myself at risk of getting shot somewhere overseas or be stationed somewhere I don’t want to live? And then, if it’s all about me, why not kill myself when I feel like I’m not accomplishing what I want to do anymore?
We Are Not Our Own
That is the absolute opposite of what Christianity teaches. The Bible teaches us that we are not our own. Listen to some of these verses: “…you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 137:13) “You clothed me with skin and flesh, and knit me together with bones and sinews.” (Job 10:11) The way you look, how your body is built, your height, eye colour, beauty and deformities are all designed by God. Same with your neighbour, your child, and your friend.
Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” That means that not only did God design us, but also made each of us able to do good works, and then prepared some things for us to do!
1 Corinthians 6:19-20 says to Christians, “You are not your own, you were bought at a price.” The Bible doesn’t present anyone in this world as free. We are either slaves to sin or slaves to Christ. Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.” (John 8:34) An unrepentant sinner doesn’t actually do whatever they want, they do what sin wants them to do – which is why it ends up destroying them. In the same way, a Christian doesn’t do whatever they want, but instead have given themselves to God. They were ransomed from hell by the death and resurrection of Jesus. He paid the price and now owns them.
Romans 6:16-18 says it this way,
“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”
The Bible doesn’t present anyone as being free in the ultimate sense (full-autonomy). No one. Everyone is in servitude to someone – either sin or Jesus. Christians recognize this and say, “I’m so sick of being tossed around and beaten by the my slave master, Sin. I am regretful of all that it has made me do and wish I could get away from him. But I’m trapped and he owns me.” Jesus says, “I will pay your ransom. I will buy you back from sin and death. I will trade my life for yours and then be your new master, your new Lord. And my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Come and be with me.” Part of being a Christian is making Jesus not only our Saviour, but our Lord. And recognizing Him as Lord means recognizing that we are not our own.
You Are a Gift
But there’s another way that we are not our own. Throughout the Bible people are presented as gifts to one another. I can’t think of anyone in the Bible that was placed on earth to be by themselves.
It was not good for Adam to be alone, so God presented Eve to him, and they were to live life together. Abraham was brought out of obscurity not to be made special, but to be the father of nations by which the Saviour would come. Joseph wasn’t made the most powerful man in Egypt because he was so talented, but so the Israelites could be saved from famine. David wasn’t made king because he was so strong and popular, but because He was a servant of God who could defend and lead his people. His successes and failures affected everyone. The times when things to really wrong in the Bible is when people get selfish. Their sin ends up spreading all over the place and ruining all kinds of things.
Consider Jesus. Listen to Colossians 1:15-18, “
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.”
That’s quite a description, isn’t it? Everything was “created through him and for him”. The word, “firstborn” there doesn’t mean Jesus was created, it’s a title. He’s the prince of all creation, the one who will inherit it all. Everything is His. He is preeminent.
Now listen to Him teaching His disciples in Matthew 20:25-28,
“Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”
Jesus, the preeminent One, says, “No one on earth, not even me, is an island unto themselves. Everyone is a gift to everyone else.” Jesus didn’t come as king of the universe, but as the ultimate servant, the ultimate gift to mankind.
That’s how Christians see themselves – not as mere individuals, but as gifts to each other. First, when we are born, we are given as gifts to our family. We cherish babies of all kinds because they are gifts to us from God. Then, as we grow, we live and serve our family, placing their needs above ours – and they do the same for us. We learn how to serve and be served as we are part of a loving family. Then, we leave our family and we are given as a gift, and receive the gift of a spouse. We get married to someone who helps in ways our family can’t – and we help them in ways their family can’t. In the ups and downs of marriage we learn how to be more holy, more selfless, more humble, more giving, more sacrificial – in short, more like Jesus. And then, in marriage we are given as the gift to our own babies, and the cycle continues.
But more than that. Throughout our lives God gifts us to more people. We are given as a gift to our country to be a good citizen. We are a gift to our church. We are given as a gift to our friends and neighbours. We are given as a gift to our workplaces, our employers and employees, to help each other flourish and find meaningful work in this world.
But as I said, this all gets messed up when selfishness and radical individualism take hold of our hearts, when we start to erect borders and walls between us and others.
- We try to erect the wall of racism, saying that our people group is better than another, refusing to help or listen to others because of a difference in skin colour or nationality.
- We erect economic walls believing that rich people are better than poor, or poor are better than rich, or the middle is better than anyone else.
- We erect walls between the sexes, chauvinism that says men are better than women, and messed up feminism that says women are better than men.
- In the church we see all kinds of these walls, like ageism where young people and old people can’t get along, even long enough to sing the same song.
The devil plays us against each other and they we do his work for him. All of these divisions are ungodly, sinful, and dangerous. Galatians 3:26-29 says to believers,
“…for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
It says, “Guys, the divisions are gone. It’s not about you. You’re all family now. So live for each other.”
The Bible says repeatedly that God has given each of us different sets of gifts to steward. Some have more time, others less. Some have more talents, others less. Some have more money, others less. Some have more experience, others less. Our job is just to figure out what God has created us to do and then go do it. And whatever that is, it’s always going to be about honouring God and serving others.
Three More Things
I just want to say three more things and then I’ll close.
God Don’t Make No Junk
First, I hope that this study helps to changes our perspective of ourselves and others. Sometimes we look at ourselves or someone else and think, “Wow, I’m useless. I’m not strong enough, not brilliant enough, not creative enough, not old enough, not young enough, not experienced enough, not put together enough. God made me wrong and I don’t really have a place in this world. If I was more like this person or that person then I’d really do good, but I’m not.”
I hope this study helps you see that no one is useless. No one is an accident. And, because of the grace of God, no one is beyond his ability to use for His Kingdom. You have strengths, even if you haven’t discovered them. You have abilities, even if you’ve buried them under a pile of sin, fear and shame. But even if you were utterly incapable of doing anything – like a newborn baby – you would still have inherent worth because you are a child of God and one of His image bearers. As they say in the South US, “God don’t make no junk.”
I thought it was really interesting when David from Hobby Lobby in the video said that he used to feel guilty because his whole family went into ministry but he had a heart for selling things in retail stores. He felt bad because he thought that God like ministers, missionaries, and Sunday school teachers better. Why? Because he had a poor understanding of what God expected of him.
If you are constantly comparing yourself to others and trying to be something God didn’t create you to be, you are going to feel like junk. And, on the other side of the coin, if you judge people by your own standards and not God’s, then you are going to see them as junk. You are going to look at your own weaknesses, and the weaknesses of others as problems, excuses as to why you and them aren’t good enough for God to use. And you will want to do what we all do with junk that has no value, that is worthless – you’ll want to throw yourself or them away.
But that’s totally wrong. As long as David thought that God only wants people to be pastors and missionaries he felt like junk. But once he figured out that God didn’t make him to be in full time ministry in a church, he finally figured out he can be in full time ministry by serving God in and through passion he has for managing retail stores and selling craft supplies. That’s amazing! And it’s true for you too. God calls very few people to be missionaries and pastors and teachers. He calls most people to serve outside the church, in their families, neighbourhoods and workplaces. And He uses people of all sorts to do it.
Moses stuttered. Abraham was old. Hosea had a super messed up marriage. David was a hothead who wanted to kill people who he didn’t like and then had an affair. Jonah ran away from his mission. John Mark ran away too. Elijah suffered from ministry burnout. Paul was blind, sick, and used to chase and murdered Christians. Timothy was so stressed out he had stomach problems. Lazarus was dead. And yet God used them mightily.
Whether you think yourself too weak, or you are that prideful person who keeps judging others as disqualified. Listen again to 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
We Will Be Judged
Second, I want you to realize that at the end of time, the Bible says that Jesus will evaluate every person, every Christian’s contribution to the life of the church and the deeds they have done. Just like the master came home and took account of what his stewards did with their talents, so will Jesus inspect what we have done with what he has given us. Listen to the words of Romans 2:6-8, “God ‘will repay each person according to what they have done.’ To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.” 2 Corinthians 5:10, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
How we use the abilities, talents and spiritual gifts that God has given us will be judged. Listen closely. Christian, your salvation is assured, because that is dependent on the work of Jesus Christ. Listen to 1 Corinthians 3:11-13, “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.”
The foundation of our salvation is built by Jesus, but the life we build on that foundation, the way we use the gifts we’ve been given according to our ability, that will be judged.
We do well when we cultivate a healthy fear of God in this area.
How to Use Them Best
The third question of stewardship, if you remember, is “How do I use it best?”, right? So how can we use our talents and abilities best? That’s a tough one to answer because they are so varied, but let me try.
If you are serving in your wheelhouse right now, you know you’re where you’re supposed to be, then great. Give me a call and talk to some Christian friends about how you can grow in that area. But if you are like a majority of people and haven’t got that figured out yet, then what I want you to do three things:
First, ask God if you are doing the right thing or if you should change? Ask Him to guide you to where you are supposed to serve Him and be open to His call. I’m only a preacher today because I decided one day to be open to a radical change. So open your heart and ask God.
The second is to explore your gifts. In other words, try different things. Take a few personality tests, a spiritual gifts inventory, and a job placement test. Volunteer for different things to try them out. If you stink at it, that’s ok. You’re allowed to make mistakes here. We still love you. What better place is there to experiment with your interests than surrounded by a loving church family, right? There are a lot of people who are serving in the wrong place either because of fear or obligation or confusion. I don’t want that for you.
And third, I want you to get brave and talk to people who care for you about what they see in you, what your strengths and weaknesses are, and then listen. Be willing to try doing what they see in you instead of dismissing it out of fear or because it’s too much work.
“For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:1-13)
Mortification of Sin
We’re jumping in and continuing on from last week, still on the topic of self-discipline and are continuing our discussion of what it means to take following Jesus seriously.
When we become a Christian and start following Jesus we are given an inward drive towards becoming more like Jesus – more holy, more righteous, more loving. “Be holy as I am holy”, God says to His people, and then gives us the help to do that.
We’ve talked before that we don’t do this in order to get saved but out of love and obedience for the One who saved us. We know we’ll never achieve perfection in this life, and that, because of our sinful nature we’re going to keep breaking God’s laws and doing wrong – but now that we are Christian we hate that sinful part of us, because it was sin that has messed up the world, our lives, and is what required Jesus to die on the cross. So we confess those sins every day in prayer, are thankful that God’s grace is so big and that the blood of Jesus covers all our sins past and future so we can be forgiven, and then we ask God for more help, more love, more patience, more kindness, more generosity, more self-control in the coming day to live better. Not just to be a holier than thou Christian prude, but because we’ve seen how sin hurts us, others, and our relationship with God.
That’s how Christians see sin. That’s why we work hard to get rid of the sins in our life – what believers used to call the “mortification of sin”. We work with God to try to mortify, or kill, or subdue, the fleshly, sinful desires inside us that cause so much trouble.
God uses some pretty serious, life and death language when speaking of how we should deal with our sin and practice self-control. Listen to Colossians 3:1-6 says, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these, the wrath of God is coming.”
So, because sin is so serious, a believer engages in a process called sanctification. To sanctify something means to set it apart for special use, to be made holy. Grandma’s special china collection is sanctified by the fact that it is cleaned and then kept carefully in a china cabinet. Your favourite hockey card is sanctified by you taking it from the collection, putting it into a special protective case, and then mounting it on the wall. You are sanctified by Jesus as you are taken from the enemy camp into his kingdom, from death to life, from slave to sin to freedom in Christ, and made one of His special people.
If you remember way back in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 it told us, “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
We cannot be righteous without Jesus. We can’t redeem ourselves. And we cannot purify or sanctify ourselves without Jesus. The Gospel of Christ tells us the consequences of our sins – death, hell, pain, suffering, fear, addiction, brokenness. It tells us that Jesus has come to save us from all that by taking the penalty for sin upon Himself, wiping out its effects by taking God’s wrath against sin for us, dying on the cross, and then rising again to show that He has destroyed sin’s power – and then invites us to follow Him. This is what it means to be born again. When we are chosen by God and accept His invitation we are immediately sanctified. Jesus’ perfect sacrifice made it so that all our sins are perfectly dealt with and if we died today we would be with Jesus forever.
But at the same time, while we still live on earth we continue to deal with the echo effects of sin all around us. So, while we are perfectly clean in God’s eyes, perfectly accepted, perfectly redeemed, we also enter the process of sanctification in order to become more like Jesus every day. We use a lot of different phrases to describe this today. We talk about growing in God or becoming spiritually mature, but whatever we call it, part of that process is the mortification, or killing, of the sinful parts of ourselves that affect our daily walk in this world. We will never become perfect, but we continue to struggle against and work towards holiness. We “put to death therefore what is earthly in [us]…”
Going Through the Motions
Now, just like today, some of the people in the Corinthian church thought that since they professed faith in Jesus, went to church, and joined in the Lord’s Supper, they could then live however they wanted. Remember the context of eating meat offered to idols and causing those around them to stumble in their faith by going against their consciences. They figured that since they were Christians, they could do whatever they wanted! Paul wanted them to be absolutely clear that wasn’t true, it was a false belief, and so he used multiple examples
This still happens today. Young people who have gone to church their whole life are especially in danger of this way of thinking. They have gone to church for as long as they can remember, can quote verses from the Bible, serve in a couple places each week, go to Youth Group or Small Group, they can answer some Bible Trivia questions and take communion each month… so they figure they’re good. They’re covered.
The Bible says, be careful. There’s a big difference between saving faith and merely going through the motions of a believer. Of course, this isn’t just about youth. I’ve seen this at all ages. People who attend sometimes, do a little volunteer work, and say they believe… maybe they even had a tearful conversion at a summer camp or walked down an aisle at a crusade – but they’re not engaged in the daily battle against sin. And they’re not just disengaged, they don’t actually care.
This is most acute when the young person turns 18 and moves out or goes off to college or starts a job and is getting paid and is then given the freedom of an adult. Suddenly it becomes clear that their faith is extremely thin, they haven’t been working on their sanctification at all, and within a short time, they are in real trouble. They weren’t Christians, they were merely covered by the grace of their Christian parents.
It wasn’t they that decided not to look at pornography, it was the fact that it wasn’t available in the house. It wasn’t they that decided not to waste hours on the internet and video games, it was their parent’s rules and schedules. It wasn’t they that decided to watch their tongue, it was the peer pressure from their Christian friends. It wasn’t they that decided reading the Bible. going to church, being cautious about friendships, and the rest was important, it was enforced in by house rules.
And when they get that first taste of freedom from those rules, their true level of sanctification really shows. Soon they are addicted, indebted, depressed, lethargic, have turned their back on the church, and have just enough understanding of God to blame and resent Him for all their problems. Again, I don’t want to pick on just young people, I’ve seen this in seniors too, where the only thing that kept them from blowing up their life was external pressure, not internal sanctification.
This too is all over scripture. The wheat and the chaff, the good seeds and bad, parable of the sower, the sheep and the goats, wolves in sheep’s clothing, whitewashed tombs, play actors (Matt. 3:12; 13:1-30; 5:15; 25:31-46; 23:25-27) are all phrases where Jesus talks about people that look like Christians to everyone else but are not really saved. These people talk about God, come to church, and receive the blessings of being a Christian without ever turning away from sin and towards Jesus.
Think of it like a strong smell. Coffee shops have a distinct smell. So do hockey and curling rinks. So does a workout gym or the Body Shop store. You’ve probably had that experience when someone comes home from a night out and you can tell exactly where they’ve been just by the smell, right? They walk by and immediately you just what they’ve been doing because they carry the smell with them. My wife used to work at a place where she always came back smelling of bagels. She’d have to change her clothes and wash her hair before it would come out. I had the same problem when I worked at the pulp mill. I always came home smelling of black liquor, which is basically the waste product from turning trees into pulp. It smells a lot worse than bagels and there were times I would have to strip down right in the doorway and leave my clothes in the garage rather than bring them in the house.
In the same way, a non-believer who comes to church and hangs around Christians can pick up their smell – their lifestyle choices, their joy, kindness, high morals, honesty, etc. but not actually have faith in Jesus at all. They can even stay so long they start to believe they are Christians without actually giving their life to Jesus.
Israel and Us
Let’s turn back to our passage. As we saw last week Paul used himself as an example of spiritual maturity and self-denial, but now he goes the other way and uses Israel as an example of spiritual immaturity. “The perfect example of believing the false notion that one can be saved and then live a faithless, God-less life can be seen in what happened to the Jews’ ancestors in the wilderness…” He phrases this as a warning, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”
“For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”
These were people who were saved by God as Christians are. They had multiple, manifold, manifest spiritual blessings. Miracles galore. Their story is every Christian’s story. They were rescued at a great cost from an oppressor, delivered from death by the blood of the lamb, redeemed from slavery, and given a new life. They were guided by God’s presence, given direction in the wilderness and darkness of life. They had a law-giver and spiritual leader to follow, just as we do in Jesus. As they trusted in God their enemies fell before them and behind them. And all along, they were given daily provision to sustain their bodies and souls. Every day they saw a new act of God’s love for them. Paul then drives the point home reminding them that Jesus is God and was the one protecting and providing for the Israelites, just like He does for us!
A People Overthrown by God
But now look at verse 5, “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” This should give us all great pause. God worked miracles, set them free from slavery, and provided for them along the way – but their hearts were not with Him. They were like the young person living with Christian parents, or the citizen living in a civil country. They had the blessings of being a child of God, surrounded by the smell, but their hearts were not with Him.
The word “most” is a pretty big understatement since out of the thousands that left Israel, only two were allowed into the Promised Land! The rest were left to wander and die in the wilderness. They were people of God, who saw God’s miracles, but died in faithlessness.
So, what happened? It is the same story from the beginning of Genesis all the way to the end. They didn’t have faith, they didn’t believe what God had said, they didn’t trust in God alone for their salvation. That’s what God desires. The path of Salvation is fairly simple. It means trusting that what God says is true and believing that His way is the only way.
It was like that for Adam and Eve, many stories of the Israelites in the Old Testament, the Pharisees and Judas in the New. God’s message was clear, they chose not to believe it, and were therefore condemned and “overthrown” by God.
In verse 6 we read, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” Sometimes people wonder why we have the Old Testament when we have the New, or what value there is in the Old Testament. It’s ancient, full of difficult things to read, and the New Testament seems so much nicer.
This verse tells us one reason why. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is immutable, unchangeable. The God who wiped out Sodom and Gomorrah, killed everyone in the flood, and instituted blood sacrifices as the only way to appease His wrath against sin is the same God who came to earth as a baby, wept over Jerusalem, died on the cross, and taught us to love our neighbours. The Old Testament was Jesus’ Bible, the Apostle’s Bible, and the first church’s Bible, and was perfectly sufficient for teaching about faith, salvation and life. The Old Testament doesn’t tell a different story, but gives us the beginning of the story and we do ourselves a disservice when we don’t study it. Paul says that the stories we read of the Israelites and how God dealt with them are examples for us that we should learn from.
So what are we to learn? There are four main sins that are highlighted. Let’s read together, and notice how serious these warnings are. Starting in verse 7: “Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
The temptations the ancient Israelites went through are the same as we go through today, and the sins they commit that separate them from God are the same too. The stories of the Bible are there to instruct us, warn us, encourage us, and teach us about ourselves and God. So I’m going to ask you to do a little digging in your soul to see if these are represented there.
The first mentioned is idolatry, which references the story of the Golden Calf when Moses went up to the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments and while he was there Aaron and the rest of the Israelites crafted an idol to worship in place of God. It wasn’t that they were simply tempted to put their faith somewhere else, it was that they actively chose to reject Yahweh, formed a false god of their own, and then “sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play”, meaning they copied in the cultural, pagan festivals they saw around them.
They did, essentially what I’ve been talking about with young people and cultural Christians. While Moses was away they threw all their beliefs out the window and then worshipped, feasted, drank and danced the way they always wanted to, showing what was really going on in their hearts.
We do the same today as we turn away from God and put our faith and trust in things of our own design – money, insurance, diet, human authorities, or when we dabble with pagan things like horoscopes or superstitions. We can make money, comfort, food, or sex our idol as we turn to it to save us from pain, guilt, shame, fear. Remember the context of the Corinthian church eating food offered to idols and realize that Paul was also speaking of Israel’s example of eating, drinking and partying like unbelievers, throwing off God’s standards and doing whatever they felt they wanted to do regardless of how it affected themselves or anyone else.
If you want to know what idols you have in your life, ask yourself: what you do and what do you reach for when you hit a crisis hits or when you want to celebrate?
The second temptation for the Israelites was sexual immorality. Pornography, lustful thoughts, wandering eyes, sexual fantasy, adultery, and the rest. For them, this was tied to their idol worship. They used the golden calf and worshipping false gods as an excuse to sin sexually. Once they had crafted a god of their own, or borrowed one from a neighbouring nation, they worshipped it as the unbelievers did – which included sexual sins. As we’ve already learned, this was a huge temptation in Corinth, but just as much in ancient Israel.
The further you wander from God, the more you believe what the world believes and act like the world acts, the easier it is to fall for the temptation toward sexual sin. We’ve already talked a lot about that so I won’t belabour the point, but notice God’s punishment here. You might think, “Well, that’s back in the olden days, God doesn’t do that now!”
Listen to the words of Jesus in Revelation 21:5-8, at the end of the Bible: “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ And he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty, I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.’”
You may think Jesus is the warm and cuddly version of God that doesn’t care about sin, lets everyone do what they want, and lets everyone into heaven, but I assure you, He’s the same as He was with the Israelites. He may wait on the punishment, but I assure you that your faith is revealed in your actions and though you may not take your sin seriously, but Jesus sure does.
Does that mean a Christian who sins sexually can lose their salvation? No. As we said before, the difference is sanctification. The difference is that you hate that sin and want to be rid of it. Do you?
The third temptation was put Christ to the test. What does that mean? It means questioning God’s reliability. It’s when we declare God unreliable and then force or demand that He proves himself to us. The Israelites “put Christ to the test” as they told Moses that God and him don’t know what they are doing, that they would surely die of hunger and thirst, that life was better under slavery, that God was holding out on them, refusing to give them their favourite foods, and ultimately that God wasn’t strong enough to defeat their enemies. Over and over they said that God had left them and demanded more and more miracles. (Numb 21, Exo 17)
The Pharisees “put Christ to the test” too. Even though they had heard of and even witnessed multiple miracles, they continued to bring false charges against Jesus, tried to trick Jesus into making mistakes, and then demanding Jesus prove Himself with more miracles (Mark 8:11, Matthew 12:38-39). They even did it as He hung on the cross.
Satan “put Christ to the test” in the wilderness as he tempted Jesus to work miracles for wrong reasons – even tempting Jesus to force God Father to prove His love and prove Jesus’ was special by jumping off the top of the temple!
Have you done this? Atheists love this game. They love mocking Christians and telling God to dance for them, write in the sky, do a crazy sign, and then claiming God doesn’t exist when He refuses to play their game. Do you do this? Do you ever tell God that you’ll believe or obey if He’ll do something for you? Do you ever put yourself in a situation where God has to act just so you can see if He’s real? Do you ever question if God is good or His ways are right, and then deny Him when things don’t go your way? The Bible is clear that is a very serious sin.
Jesus responds, “An evil and adulterious generation seeks for a sign…” Jesus never rebukes or corrects people who are genuinely seeking Him out of need, but He also knows when people are coming with wrong motives.
And the fourth temptation was what is here called “grumbling”. Grumbling isn’t simply talking to God about tough things in your life that you don’t like. God wants us to bring our frustrations, concerns, worries and all the rest to Him. Grumbling is akin to complaining. It’s that low-level murmer in the heart where you keep telling yourself how horrible your life is, how it’s out of control, how the universe is out to get you, that God isn’t helping, nothing is right, there’s not enough money, time, energy, health, or anything else. Your friends aren’t really that good, your house isn’t right, your technology isn’t good enough, your spouse isn’t good enough, your life is too hard, too hot, too cold, too noisy, too quiet… murmur murmer grumble grumble complain complain.
This one is very difficult for me and one of my greatest temptations. I’m a child of discontent and have a very critical heart. I know this about myself and I have to be very careful about it. Why? Because grumbling is spiritually destructive and debilitating. It shows a lack of faith in God, a belief that He is unloving towards you. It’s a lack of contentedness and shows a misunderstanding of grace. It is the belief that you inherently deserve more than you have and God is unfairly holding out on you. It destroys your worship, your prayer life, your relationships, and your witness to others. A grumbling spirit leads to fighting with others, and envy, jealousy, covetousness. (James 4:1-3) “I hate that person. Their life is better than my life, their job is better, the have more of what I want…. And I hate God too for not giving me what they have.” There’s a big difference between complaining to God and complaining about God. Job complained to God but didn’t sin. Israel complained about God and did sin.
What about you? Are you a grumbler?
This section ends with, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
God is faithful. He is for you. He wants your sanctification and wants you to be more holy, because more holiness leads to more joy. He wants your spiritual success and knows what you need in order to grow. He knows your breaking points. Your temptations are not unique to you and he has given you scripture, fellow believers, and the Holy Spirit within you to help you understand them and get through it. And, when you are faced with the burden of temptation, God promises two things: a way out of the temptation, and the strength to endure it. The escape may not be immediate, but He promises that if you trust Him, lean on Him, ask Him, then you will have the strength to endure the temptation and mortify that sin within you – and then grow stronger in faith and in sanctification.
 Life Application Commentary: 1 Corinthians, Pg 135.
“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.
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.”
This is the second of a two-part series on 1 Corinthians 4, so please open up to 1 Corinthians 4 and let’s read verse 1 to remind ourselves about what we talked about last week. It says, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” This verse gives the summary for the two themes that are captured in the rest of the chapter.
Last week we started off a study of what 1 Corinthians 4 has to say about apostleship by looking at the first aspect, which was that Apostles are “faithful” servants and stewards of their master Jesus Christ. We then drew application from this about the importance of our own commitment to remaining “faithful” to Jesus by not changing what He has said to us in order that we might impress people because it is He who will judge us and not anyone else.
We ended last week with the challenge to go home and ask ourselves why we say what we say and do what we do – to look inside and see if we have moved away from who God wants us to be because of the pressure to conform to those around us.
This week we are looking at the second of the two descriptors Paul uses in verse 1: an apostle is a “steward of the mysteries of God”.
It is in verse 6 Paul makes the transition from talking about the apostles being faithful “servants of Christ” to being faithful “stewards of the mysteries of God”. This is the part that people normally take issue with. Most people have a problem with those who claim to be messengers from God! And rightly so! There has been a lot of abuse by people claiming to speak for God.
Don’t Go Beyond the Bible
In verse 6 Paul says,
“I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?”
Essentially, he’s saying, “I might be using myself and Apollos as examples, but that’s not because we are so special – it just happens that we’re the people that you guys are fighting over. The only reason I’m even mentioning us is to remind you that we are of so little importance! When you’re talking about us, arguing about us, and setting us up as your leaders, you’re completely missing the point. Your sole authority is God, the Son of God, the Spirit of God, and the Word of God. You need to stop fighting about us and get back to the Bible. Since you have left the Bible and moved way past what it says, you have gotten yourselves in trouble. Stop going beyond what is written! The reason you have become puffed up, jealous, prideful, and divided, is because you stopped reading and believing in the word of God as it was given to you. Instead, you started listening to false teachers, worldly wisdom, and false apostles who invented things that gave you troubles. I, one of the real apostles, brought you the true Gospel and opened up the mysteries of God as He had told me. I told you about Jesus, the prophets, the Law, and all you needed to know, and it was all in agreement with what God had already written, and you checked me out and then received it as truth. Jesus gives it to me, I give it to you, and then you receive. But then you went beyond it! You started to boast as if you could come up with more things than I told you, that you could learn more about God than what the Bible teaches. Stop that and get back to what you received.”
Now, there are some who would give that a hearty “Amen, preach it brother”, but there is a large swath of people inside and outside the church who don’t see it that way. Where some see the Bible as the foundational, immoveable, God-breathed, bedrock document that teaches humanity everything they need to know about God, salvation, faith, life, religion and priorities – or as Ephesians 2:20-21 puts it, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.”, others see it as more of a starting point.
It was good at one time, but now we’ve moved beyond it. It is for an old era full of foolish ancients, and we are the new, enlightened, modern people who know more and better than they. Maybe there are a few things we can learn, but it’s mostly an untrustworthy jumble of religious nonsense, patriarchal bias, and religious rules that don’t apply to our more progressive and free-thinking society. The Corinthian mindset has not gone away.
I don’t intend to give an apologetic defense of why the Bible is God’s Word this morning, but I will say this – Christians believe that God’s Word is perfect, necessary, unchanging, and universal. It is not to be bargained with, but studied and applied.
We live by what 2 Timothy 3:12-17 says,
“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
You Are Kings‽
Paul says something really interesting in verse 8 that I want you to see:
“Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you!”
What we see here is some really intense sarcasm directed towards those who think they can go beyond what the prophets and apostles have revealed and discover more and better truths.
The Corinthians were actually on the verge of dismissing the apostles, and therefore the Word of God, altogether. They believed themselves to be better, smarter, holier, and more informed than those whom God had appointed as His chosen messengers.
They, like many churches and Christians today, had done a little studying of the scriptures, had listened to a few sermons, and thought they knew better. They threw out the things they thought were too old, dismissed the authoritative parts people didn’t like, updated some of the stories, edited the controversial parts, and then invented some things to make it more interesting. Just like today.
Keep in mind that the New Testament hadn’t even been written by this time. 1st Corinthians is one of the earliest New Testament letters, so this church didn’t have Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to teach them about Jesus’s life and ministry. They didn’t have the theology of Romans or Hebrews, or the any of the other letters that address important issues. Paul and Apollos had moved away but the church still had the Old Testament, which was more than enough to keep them on the straight and narrow because it tells them a lot about Jesus. But now they had their own home-grown teachers who thought they were hot-stuff, had dropped the Bible, and were coming up with all kinds of crazy things about God, the church, worship, and morality.
So Paul uses sarcasm to call them out saying, “Wow, you guys think you have everything, don’t you? You’ve moved away from the Bible, away from the one, true, apostolic faith, and have come up with your own versions of God and Jesus. You think you’ve got it all nailed down. You’re the rich, kings of the church, outranking us poor, dumb, old apostles.”
Like today, some of these false teachers had changed the gospel message so they could become more popular, and quite frankly, richer from the proceeds of their teaching. They were lie-tellers and apostolic-frauds who lived like kings while Paul and the rest of the apostles who stuck to the truth were suffering.
So next Paul contrasts their life with his. He compares what happens to those who tell the unpopular truth with those who tell popular lies.
The Cost of Apostleship
In verse 9 he contrasts how both of them stand before crowds. The liar stands before his adoring audience, drinking in their praise and filling his pockets, while the true apostles were, “exhibited… like men sentenced to death… a spectacle to the world.” Both stood before crowds, but the Apostle stood in chains, paraded through the streets as prisoners, as Jesus was before his public execution. What a prophetic word showing what would actually happen to many of the apostles.
Being a true apostle of Jesus wasn’t a one-way ticket to easy street. Because of their willingness to preach the true message of Jesus Christ as Saviour, Lord, and God, every apostle was tortured and given the choice to change their story and deny Christ. And all of them chose torture and death instead. Why? Because they knew what they were saying was the truth and they cared more about what Jesus thought than any human authority.
We have a lot of cleaned up versions of the cross around, but crucifixion was the worst possible death imaginable, and there wasn’t just one way to crucify someone. Part of the torture was that they would nail your wrists, feet, and other parts of your body, to the wood and suspend you in many different postures, just for their amusement. If they hung you right-side up, it wouldn’t be long before your arms would give out and your shoulders come out of their sockets. Most would try to put weight on the nail driven through their feet, but couldn’t last long. Some would die from sheer blood loss, others by slowly suffocating as their position and body weight prevented them from taking a full breath, while others died of exposure as they spent days hanging in open air. Many apostles were crucified.
- The Apostles Thaddeus and Simon the Zealot were crucified like Jesus.
- Peter was crucified, upside down, by Emperor Nero. Andrew was scourged, tortuously whipped, and then hung for two days on a cross until he died, preaching to passersby the whole time. James was killed publically by
- Andrew was scourged, tortuously whipped, and then hung for two days on a cross until he died, preaching to passersby the whole time. James was killed publically by
- James was killed publically by sword. Philip was scourged, imprisoned, and then crucified. Bartholomew was beaten by a crowd of unbelievers and then either skinned alive and beheaded or crucified. Thomas was attacked by the leaders of a local religion and run through with a spear. Matthew was killed by a halberd, which is a large
- Philip was scourged, imprisoned, and then crucified. Bartholomew was beaten by a crowd of unbelievers and then either skinned alive and beheaded or crucified. Thomas was attacked by the leaders of a local religion and run through with a spear. Matthew was killed by a halberd, which is a large
- Bartholomew was beaten by a crowd of unbelievers and then either skinned alive and beheaded or crucified. Thomas was attacked by the leaders of a local religion and run through with a spear. Matthew was killed by a halberd, which is a large
- Thomas was attacked by the leaders of a local religion and run through with a spear. Matthew was killed by a halberd, which is a large
- Matthew was killed by a halberd (a large axe) to the back.
- At age 94 the Apostle James was stoned by a crowd of people and then beaten to death with clubs. John, the only one who wasn’t killed, was boiled alive in oil and then sent live in exile on the island of Patmos.
- John, the only one who wasn’t killed, was boiled alive in oil and then sent live in exile on the island of Patmos.
To be called as a Christian is costly – to be called as a Christian Apostle a death sentence.
Paul knew what was coming, and had already experienced some of this. He was there at the stoning of Stephen. He had met with the apostles and had seen the persecutions in Jerusalem and elsewhere. The false apostles and fake Christians would never face that because they didn’t really follow Jesus.
Look at verse 10. The apostles looked like fools for Christ’s sake, but these fakers looked like the wise ones. The apostles gave everything up, went for days without food, were rejected and imprisoned, and were seen as weak, while the well-fed fakers stayed strong and healthy.
“To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands.”
Why? Because they were preaching the truth and they knew it. They cared more about what God said than anyone else, and they knew that they had no right to change the message, no matter what anyone did to them. Their job was to be “faithful” “stewards” of the messages God had given them. Could they have fudged some details to be more popular? Sure! Could they have rounded off some of the hard teachings so that more people would like them? Sure! Could they have said they were lying to avoid torture? Sure. But they wouldn’t! Why? Because they had met Jesus and loved and feared Him more than anyone else!
The call to Apostleship wasn’t a call to popularity and success, but to service and suffering. What did they gain? Very little on earth. They weren’t venerated or held in special esteem for any part of their lives. They lived difficult lives because they knew they had a short time to spread the Gospel before God would call them home and then they would receive their reward. They had met Jesus, talked to Him, had been forgiven and saved from death, and wanted everyone to know Him too. So they traveled, wrote, preached, and faced the worst this world had to offer, so that we might know the truth about salvation through Jesus Christ.
The fakers don’t do that. As vs 12 says, the apostles blessed those who hated them, endured persecution, and begged those who slandered them to listen to the truth. They were treated “like the scum of the earth, the refuse of all things”. The word picture there is that they had become like the stuff you scrape off the bottom of your shoe after walking through a farmer’s field, or the dirt you sweep off the kitchen floor and throw away. The word “refuse” was used to describe the sick and wretched Athenians who, during a plague, would be tossed into the sea to drown in order to appease the gods. Treated as human waste.
The Apostles gave everything up because of their love for and faith in Jesus and desire to pass that message on to us – and were treated like garbage for it, while the fakers pranced along healthy, wealthy and popular.
How Do You Want Me?
Verses 18-21 are very interesting and you can read the authority and love with which he speaks as he lays down a solid, fatherly threat. He says,
“Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?”
He writes with the heart of a father who caught his kids throwing a wild party while he was out of town. He says, “You’re acting and speaking like I’m not ever coming back and that you’re going to get away with all this nonsense! Well, unless God Himself stops me, I am definitely making a trip back and we’ll see who the real apostle is and who the false one is. Anyone can say they speak for God¸ but the proof is in the pudding – or better, the proof is in the power.”
Perhaps Paul was calling to their minds what had happened to the occult teacher Elymas when he was in Cyprus and tried to interrupt Paul’s presentation of the Gospel. It says in Acts 13:9-11, “Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, ‘You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.’ Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand.”
“So”, he asks the Corinthians, “do you want the carrot or the stick? Are you going to clean up your house before I get there so I can celebrate with you, or shall I come with rod in hand to clear out the liars, fools and enemies from among you by the power of God?”
Let me close with this: The Apostles are, as Paul says in verse 15, the fathers of our faith. They are the servants of Christ and the stewards of the mysteries of God. There are “countless guides” along the road of this journey called Christianity – pastors, teachers, preachers, elders, disciples, friends, and leaders – but there are very few fathers to our faith. Jesus made these men our spiritual fathers under His authority as our King and Lord, and so, we believers work hard to teach, preach and proclaim the truths they passed along to us – without messing with them. The words of scripture are not old words to be rejected or changed, nor do they bend to our opinions or preferences. They are revelations from God, given to ordinary men, but inspired by God Himself and held together for thousands of years as His consistent message to us about His Son Jesus Christ.
It should anger you that there are still so many false teachers today. It should drive you crazy that there are so many out there who believe lies about Jesus. And it should bring you to guilty repentance for any falsehood and hypocrisy you contain within yourself.
I challenge you to ask yourself. Are you following the full teachings of scripture? Are you willing to suffer for the truth?
If you remember last week, we learned that regardless of what the multitudes of unbelievers in this world think, there really is objective truth and objective morality, and those things were written long, long ago by God Himself. And therefore, despite all of the dramatic changes of opinion which seek to envelop us, and all the forces pulling us towards compromise, there are many things that Christians will not change.
The world around us is redefining itself at a remarkable rate.
- A hundred years ago few homes had a telephone, now almost everyone has access to the wonders of the internet in their pockets.
- In 1915 only a handful of people graduated from high school, and only 1 in 10 doctors had a college education – today you almost need a bachelor’s degree to be hired to flip burgers.
- In 1915 you could get Marijuana and Heroin over the counter from your pharmacist.
In just one generation, we have seen radical changes in the way the world looks and sounds.
- Tattoos used to be reserved for sailors, and piercings for women’s earlobes.
- Children have all but stopped going to the park and riding their bikes all over the neighbourhood – although Pokémon Go seems to have changed that now!
- Television wouldn’t even show a husband and wife in the same bed.
- We didn’t hear the first uncensored swear word until 1999.
- It took until 1971 before the sound of a toilet flush was heard on TV! Now we have Netflix and Game of Thrones.
And that’s just a little scratch off the surface. In an even shorter time, we’ve seen seismic changes in how the world views human sexuality, marriage and family, contraception and abortion, pornography and prostitution, the role of government, multiculturalism, religion, and more. And we’re not merely talking about fads and fashions, but complete reversals on these issues. What was once considered immoral, illegal, disgusting and even dangerous, is now part of our everyday mainstream media and culture.
It was incredible to me (though perhaps it shouldn’t have been) to see a woman at the US Democratic National Convention stand in front of a group of thousands of people and be applauded for having her first child aborted, and encouraging others to do the same. Or to watch prostitutes stand on the steps of the Canadian Parliament and shout how proud they are of their “valuable work”. That’s an incredible change from only a few years ago.
Christians, every day, everywhere, even in our little context here in Beckwith and Carleton Place, are faced with a dramatically and rapidly changing world. We can’t avoid dealing with it.
Last week we talked about the danger and foolishness of dealing with it by setting your moral compass by the “rulers” or authorities of this ages who’s “wisdom” is “doomed to pass away”, but we are to pursue spiritually mature thinking by staying connected to God and His Word.
In the passage of scripture we were looking at, we are reminded that today’s worldly wisdom will not only “pass away”, but those coming up with these new ideas are usually wrong. The quintessential example of how wrong they got it was that when they saw Jesus Christ, instead of seeing the sinless Son of God, they murdered him.
The passage continues and reminds us that if we want to understand what God is doing, then we have to listen to Him, because his plans are often “secret and hidden”, beyond our ability to discern through our own human abilities. No matter how much we study, we will never be able to figure out what God is doing because, as Isaiah 55:9 says, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are [God’s] ways higher than [our] ways and [God’s] thoughts than [our] thoughts.”
God’s Plan is a Revealed Plan
But that doesn’t meant that God’s plan is impossible to learn, or His voice impossible to hear. We just can’t get there ourselves. We need help. Please open up to 1 Corinthians 2:9-12.
“But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.”
There’s an important word there that we need to make sure that we see; it’s the word “revealed”. God’s will is a revealed will. God’s plan is a revealed plan. What God has “prepared for those who love him” is “secret and hidden” for most people, but it can be found by those who have received the Spirit of God.
Remember the context. The Corinthian church has been acting like a bunch of immature, unspiritual, babies, and Paul says that as much as he’d like to teach them about “secret and hidden” things of God, he can’t because they’re too immature to listen.
The reason we have Children’s Church, or Sunday School, here is so that those who are unable to understand me – who don’t have the attention span, vocabulary, or maturity to be able to sit through a sermon – can be taught about Jesus at their own level. It’s important that we do that or the children will be both confused and frustrated, and we don’t want that. We speak to them at their level.
The Apostle Paul had spent a year and half teaching the Corinthians, and after he had left, they didn’t grow more mature in their faith, but instead reverted back to acting like spiritual babies. They could barely handle Children’s Church, and would never be able to understand a real, deep, mature Christian lesson.
But, Paul says, these things are absolutely available! Anyone can learn them – but they need to be pursuing spiritual maturity in order to do it. I want to spend next week giving more details about the Holy Spirit, but today we’ll suffice with this: the only way to “comprehend the thoughts of God” is to receive, accept and walk with “the Spirit of God”.
These truths must be “revealed”. We can’t figure them out on our own, no matter how hard we try. He does this through us reading scripture and when we are in prayer – but both require submission to the Holy Spirit for it to work.
Here’s a great example:
In Matthew 16:13-17 it says,
“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’”
A bunch of people had put their heads together and came up with some great theories about who Jesus was, and it was based on a lot of study. Herod and his experts thought that Jesus was John the Baptist come back to life and that rumour spread far and wide. Others thought that Jesus was like one of the prophets of old brought back to life. Elijah had great power, and so did Jesus. Jeremiah had great wisdom, and so did Jesus, so perhaps it was him. But, as good as these guesses were, they were all wrong.
When Jesus turned to ask His group of disciples who they thought He was, it was the bold Simon Peter who spoke up.
“He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
Do you see that? Jesus says, “Peter, you got the right answer, but it wasn’t you who came up with it. It was God who gave that to you. You wouldn’t have come up with that yourself!”
And we know that because within about 6 verses, Peter takes Jesus aside to tell him that He’s never going to be killed or raised from the dead, and Jesus says,
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Matthew 16:23)
Oh, Peter! When you were listening to God you were right on, but when you started to set your mind on the things of man – the worries you had for your friend, the plans you think you have in your mind, the ways you think Jesus should work, the belief that all suffering is bad – you started working for Satan and hindering the work of God!
Over and over in his letters, the Apostle Paul reminds his readers that everything from his conversion to Christianity to the sermons he preached were not His idea, but came because Jesus acted first. He knew the Old Testament better than anyone and hated Jesus. And yet Jesus save Him and taught him the truth. Jesus shone light in the dark places so Paul could see things that his great, human wisdom and learning, could never reveal. (Gal 1:12, 16; Eph 3:3, 5)
This is something we absolutely need to understand, and is something that I’ve been talking around for a number of weeks. Our human senses, knowledge, and understanding are not enough to figure out what God is doing in our lives, our family, or this world. His truths are revealed to spiritual people in a spiritual way. It is through the pursuit of God’s Spirit, by walking with God, that we are able to discern the secrets and mysteries of His plan.
But most of us still really, really want to believe our human wisdom is enough, which is why we spend more time thinking, talking and reading than praying and meditating. We believe that our abilities are enough to comprehend the mind of God. We think that with enough thought or study or effort, we’ll be able to figure it all out and/or save ourselves without having to trouble God.
When we are presented with a problem, we tend to trust our senses, our feelings, our knowledge, and our understanding. We seek out human experts, human wisdom and human answers for questions that can only be spiritually discerned.
- We are presented with suffering, fear, sadness, and pain, and we want to know why it’s happening and what to do about it. Immediately our minds fly into “human wisdom” mode and we start to try to figure it out. How can we fix this? How can we defeat this? Where does this come from? What do the experts say? How do I feel about it? If I think enough about it, and work hard enough, then I’m sure I’ll figure it all out and be able to make a plan that fixes everything for myself and everyone else.
- Or, maybe we’re presented with fighting, disagreement, and hard-hearts. We want people to either agree with us or all get along, and what do we do? We have imaginary arguments and see if we can outwit them before they even speak. We try to find ways to make everyone happy. We build walls and fences to protect ourselves.
We are surrounded by so-called experts who are full to the brim with answers and worldly wisdom to solve our problems – but most are only digging deeper graves for themselves and their followers.
Notice that the Bible here talks about two different spirits: the “spirit of the world” and “the Spirit who is from God”. Notice also that one is lower-case and the other is capitalized.
There are two ways of confronting these difficult issues, two different spirits we can choose between to trust: one is the “spirit of the world” the other is “the Spirt who comes from God.” You can see these as two different sources of power, or two different God’s we can worship, almost; two different places to find hope and peace.
The “spirit of the world” draws its strength from multiple sources. It draws strength from the wisdom of the world and this age, supposed rulers and experts of today and yesterday. These are the humanists and philosophers who have tried to riddle out human existence without the need for God. And coupled with that it also draws strength from the demonic realm. Remember, it was Satan who first offered Adam and Eve the opportunity to be like God, knowing good and evil. It was a temptation towards human knowledge, human power, worldly wisdom, that didn’t require God. It’s the same temptation we have today when we try to solve our issues or understand this world without God’s help.
The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, comes from God. He is God. He knows the mind of God the Father, and is fully God Himself.
This is not a new message, but one that has been preached for millennia. When you are faced with something in this world, you have two choices: human wisdom coupled with demonic influence, or dependence on the Holy Spirit of God. The question is, which will you choose?
Our Hiding Place
I’ll talk more specifically about what the Holy Spirit offers next week, but for now I want you to consider how you are reacting to what’s going on around you.
The world is rapidly changing – how are you seeking to discern truth from lies, good from evil, positive changes from negative ones? Are you trying to use human wisdom, or are you on your knees before God, reading His word, and asking the Holy Spirit to reveal his truth to you and give you discernment to understand it?
Many of you are in difficult places, struggling with areas of suffering. How are you reacting to it? Are you trying to figure it out yourself? Depending on worldly experts and worldly wisdom? Are you leaning on your friends, spouse, family, and everyone else, in hopes they will give you strength – but not leaning on God? Do your struggles drive you to Jesus and His promise to give you the Holy Spirit to help you “understand the things freely given us by God”, or do your struggles drive you away from Him.
It is the immature believer that runs from God during times of confusion, fear, and struggle. It is the mature believer that runs towards Him for help. Over and over in scripture God is called a “strong tower”, a “refuge”, a “fortress”, a “rock”, a “shield”, a “stronghold” (Prov 18:10, Ps 18:2, 61:3, 2 Samuel 22:3) Over and over, God is called our “hiding place” (Psalm 17:8, 27:5, 32:7, 119:114). The place where we run to and hide when things get tough. Jesus is called the “Saviour” because He saves us!
The world says that your pains are meant to make you stronger so you can handle more things. No! Our changing world, personal struggles, and pains are meant to drive us to Him so He can be our strength and our defender. God gives them us to show us our weakness so we can learn that we need God to handle everything!
What is stopping you from running to Him?
What is keeping you from crying out to your deliverer?
What keeps you from putting aside the wisdom of the world and leaning heavily on the Spirit of God?
What keeps you from confessing your problems to your Christian brothers and sisters and asking them to call out to God with you?
Is it your pride? You want to come up with your own answers? You want to be the one who saves yourself? You want to impress everyone, including God, with how strong and independent you are? Don’t be foolish. That’s the human path of destruction.
Is it your false humility? You think you are too far gone for God’s notice? You think that your prayers are too simple? You think that you need to do something good before God will listen? Then you don’t understand the Good news of the Gospel! To God, you were dead and dumb and His enemy – and He came to save you anyway. He knows the thoughts of your heart, and knows exactly how you feel – because Jesus has felt the same way. And there is nothing you need to do to be worthy of God’s attention – because He’s a good Father who wants nothing more than to have you come to Him.
It actually grieves His heart when you think that you are either too good or too bad for Him to help. It grieves His heart when you refuse to come.
The Prodigal Son
Remember the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). The son looked at the father and said, “I wish you were dead. Give me my inheritance and I’ll pretend you are. I’m going to go live like the world. I’m going to listen to the world. I’m going to act like I’m not even one of your children. I’m going to take all the blessings you give me, and spend them only on my own selfish desires. Get out of my life, Father… I know better than you!”
And it says that after hitting rock bottom, the son got so sick of what the world was offering that he wanted to go home. But he thought he was unworthy. He wanted to come back and as a lowly servant. Like many people here, he figured his father would be angry because of how they have lived, or because of the neglect of his soul, or because he had made himself unclean, so he thought, maybe he could just scrub pots in the kitchen.
The moment his life changed was the moment he decided, “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to Him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.’”. So he went home, with a three sentence speech planned, hoping to grovel for some grace.
But how was he greeted? His Father was looking for Him. As soon as the son was in sight, his Father ran out to him, and before the son could even get his little speech out, the Father was yelling at the servants to dress him, clean him, restore him, equip him, celebrate him! He was thrilled beyond belief to have his child with him again!
That’s the kind of God we have! He is the shepherd who leaves the 99 to go searching for the lost one and rejoices when they are found. He is the woman who tears apart the house looking for the one coin she has lost, even though she still has 9. He is the God who is jealous for His people and loves it when they come to Him. And promises, that when we do, He will help us understand what is going on, why it’s happening, and where we can find comfort.
Before the word is on our tongue, He is there, restoring, cleaning, helping, comforting, and embracing us. He’s not angry – He’s thrilled you are there! The Spirit of God has been waiting for you to open up to Him.
Right now, and over the past few weeks, we’ve been working through an extended introduction to the first few verse of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. It begins as most letters began, by stating who the letter was from and who it was to. It reads:
“Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes, – To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:1-3)
To get the context for what is happening, it was important that we start out by working through the historical background of the letter, introducing who the Apostle Paul was, where he came from, and what the city of Corinth was like. It’s critically important when we study the scriptures to keep in mind the original audience and intention of the author because that helps us understand what God is trying to say to us these many years later.
But these first few verse, called the “greeting”, is much more than a standard introduction before we get into the meat of the letter. We believe that every word of the Bible is divinely inspired, or “breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16). God wasn’t wasting space or beat around the bush when He worked through Paul to write these letters, and therefore it is required that we take every single word as important.
God, through Paul, used some very specific language in His greeting to the church in Corinth, and so we’ve been taking some time to take those words apart and understand them better, because they contain concepts and truths that will keep coming up throughout the rest of the letter.
In the last couple weeks we talked about the importance of Paul reminding the church that his authority wasn’t his own, but God’s. He was an “apostle” (or “official messenger of Christ Jesus”). His job in this letter was to tell them everything that Jesus wanted to say to them. And further, he reminded them that they were “the church of God that is in Corinth.”
To drive this point home Paul uses another important word: “called”. They weren’t Christians because anything they had done, but were “called by the will of God”, “called to be saints”, who in turn “call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Paul’s mission and their existence in Corinth wasn’t their idea, but God’s – and therefore they needed to listen to what He had to say.
But there’s another word here that is critical for our understanding of not only God’s intention for this letter, but our understanding of how salvation through Jesus Christ works. Paul uses the word “sanctified”. Paul says that all Christians, or as it’s put here, everyone who “calls upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”, are “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints”.
Sanctification, for Christians, has two important meanings. We covered the first last week. The first meaning gives us our understanding of how we are saved by Jesus on the cross. Jesus took our penalty and became the final, atoning sacrifice, for our sins. Just like in the Old Testament, after we are called by God, or “consecrated”, God purifies us from sin using the blood of Jesus. God makes us fit for His presence by the death and shed blood of Jesus. I covered that last week.
Sanctification in Action
But sanctification has another meaning as well, and this is why we talked about “paradoxes” last week. Sanctification, according to scripture, is both a present reality and a life-long process. Last week I used the term “already, but not yet”. Everyone who is “in Christ”, who believes in Him as their Lord and Saviour, is already perfectly clean before God and there is nothing they need to do in order to achieve perfection. They can’t get any better in God’s eyes, because the full righteousness of Jesus has been given to them. Their ledger is clean, their record deleted, their sins cast as far as the east is from the west. They are perfect in God’s eyes.
However, the other side of sanctification is the life-long work of obeying God, killing our sin, battling our fleshly desires, and trying to become more and more like Jesus every day. Both are present in scripture, and both are a reality for Christians. Both are present in the Corinthian church as well. They were people who believed in Jesus as their saviour but continued to make mistakes were falling into darkness. And so God through Paul, in this greeting and throughout the rest of the letter, reminds them of their present reality of being sanctified saints who have received grace and peace from God. That was presently true. They hadn’t lost their salvation because it wasn’t theirs to lose.
However, they weren’t living like Christians. They had a “religious knowledge” of God, but that knowledge wasn’t being worked out in their lives. While they knew all about salvation through Jesus Christ, they hadn’t let that knowledge sink deep into their hearts and change their behaviour.
Jerry Bridges in his book “The Practice of Godliness” gives an example from 1st Corinthians about how their salvation hadn’t yet captivated their hearts:
“They knew that an idol was nothing and that eating food sacrificed to an idol was a matter of spiritual indifference. But they did not know about their responsibility to love their weaker brother.”
You see, they had faith in Jesus as the one and only God of the universe, and they had put their faith in Him to such an effect that they know understood the foolishness of idols, had turned away from pagan beliefs, and would even argue against and defy the culture around them – but their hearts weren’t soft toward their fellow believer who was struggling with their faith and had concerns, and it hadn’t changed their behaviour towards one another.
Do you see the difference? They had head knowledge of salvation, and had even given their lives to Jesus – so I believe they were saved – but they hadn’t yet reached the maturity of faith where the grace they had been shown was being poured out to others.
Perhaps you’ve experienced this – religion without grace, rules without relationship, wrath without mercy. There are a lot of people who have turned away from Christianity because of hard-hearted churches who know the truth about God, but don’t show His love.
Maybe you even struggle with this. You know the truth, read the scriptures, believe in Jesus, but instead of having that knowledge settle in your heart and change your behaviour towards those around you, you keep it all in your head or use that knowledge to beat people up.
This is where the second part of sanctification comes in. We are already made right with God through the miracle of salvation through Jesus Christ and have been turned into a new creation by His Holy Spirit, but now we must do the work that comes with living out that new reality.
To start, I want to talk about two mistakes people make when thinking about this, and then I want to make a biblical case for why we need to do the work of sanctification. Why? Because a lot of Christians get this wrong, and they get it wrong in two important ways.
The first way they get it wrong is to not take their sanctification seriously. They assume that God doesn’t care if they do the work of sanctification (Rom 6:22; 1 Thess 4:3), which we can also call pursuing “godliness” (1 Tim 4:8) or “holiness” (2 Cor 7:1; 1 Thess 4:4) or “purity” (1 Tim 4:12) or “Christlikeness” (1 Cor 11:1; Rom 8:29).
They assume that since they have the head-knowledge of salvation, then God is pleased. They believe what they’re supposed to believe, go to church, say their prayers, read their Bible sometimes, and are generally good people, so, they conclude, God must be happy with them. They compare themselves to others and think, “Well, I’m not a murderer, or a thief, or a whatever, so God must be ok with me.” They know that there are a few things they could change, like they eat, or yell, or spend, or gossip a little too much, or have a lust problem, but no one’s perfect and no one is getting hurt, so it’s not really a problem, right? So they conclude, it must not really bother God either.
This is a total misunderstanding of the holiness of God. God wants His people to be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:16), perfect as He is perfect (Matthew 5:48). He wants us to live by His standards.
“As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” (1 Peter 1:14-16)
“Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.” (2 Corinthians 7:1)
That’s God’s standard for His people. He cares very much for how we live. He knows the danger of sin and doesn’t want His children to be affected by it anymore. Just as a good parent or friend wants the best for the person they care about, so God wants the best for us. He doesn’t want us living lives of compromise and apathy towards evil.
For a Christian, every moment of every day is an opportunity to bring worship to God – there are no unsanctified moments in a Christian’s life. For a Christian, every place is holy because God is there, and every part of our life is a matter of holiness because it can be offered to God. That’s why Paul says in Romans 12:1-2,
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
God cares very much about how we live every part of our life, and that we show discernment to know right and wrong.
The second way Christians get sanctification wrong is to think that God is going to do all the work. Let me read from Bridges again,
“We Christians may be very disciplined and industrious in our business, our studies, our home, or even our minister, but we tend to be lazy when it comes to exercise in our own spiritual lives. We would much rather pray, ‘Lord, make me godly,’ and expect him to ‘pour’ some godliness into our souls in some mysterious way. God does in fact work in a mysterious way to make us godly, but he does not do this apart from the fulfillment of our own personal responsibility. We are to train ourselves to be Godly.”
I think he’s exactly right! And, I’m as guilty as anyone else for asking God to just change me and then expecting Him to do it in a miraculous way without me actually lifting a finger. “God, make me more disciplined. God, fix my marriage. God, make me a better parent. God, make me pray and read my Bible. God, take away my lust, my pride, my greed, my anger, my bitterness.” And then I say “amen”, stand up, and do exactly nothing to sanctify, or purify, or cleanse, my life. I pour the same chemicals into my body, watch the same shows, harbor the same bitterness, keep the same calendar…. I do nothing to pursue a holy and changed life, and then I blame God for not changing me.
A Biblical Case for Pursuing Sanctification
Bridges said, “We are to train ourselves to be Godly.” Where does he get that? Scripture. He’s quoting 1 Timothy 4:7. I was absolutely floored this week as I came across verse after verse that commands Christians to partner with God in the pursuit of godliness, purity and sanctification!
Let me give you a few examples. First, let’s look at 1 Timothy 4:6-16. If you’ve ever played sports – I used to play a lot of Fastball – then this is going to sound very familiar to you, because when Paul is telling his young disciple Timothy how to conduct himself as a leader in the church he talks to him like a sports coach talking to one of his players. He says, almost literally: learn the rule book, do your exercises, get lots of practice, be a good example for your teammates and give it your best. It’s standard coach stuff. Read with me:
“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. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
Over and over and over Paul reminds Timothy that even though his “hope is set on the living God, who is the saviour of all people”, he must also work hard towards pursuing a life worthy of that call. The Bible presents the Christian life as a dualism of being a partnership between the power of God and our personal responsibility. “Timothy was personally responsible for his progress in godliness” and so are we. Notice what Paul didn’t say. He didn’t say, “Trust in the Lord Jesus enough and He’ll do all the work for you. Just relax and let God clean up your life.” No, Paul embraced the paradox of sanctification, just as we must. He knew that any progress that we make in purity and godliness is certainly through God’s power, but that we also have the responsibility to keep pursuing, training, toiling, striving, and persisting in these things? Why? Because our sanctification is a natural outworking of our faith and has ripple effects on everyone around us.
Scripture absolutely pounds this home over and over. Philippians 2:12-13 shows us this paradox again,
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
The idea of putting the effort into our sanctification is found over and over.
- King David said it this way in Psalm 63:1, “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you…”
- The author of Hebrews tells the church in 12:11-14, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
- In Luke 13:24, Jesus says, “Strive to enter by the narrow door…”
- Paul at the end of his life said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4:7)
Turn to 2 Peter 1:3-10 and let’s read how Peter exhorts the church as well. He starts with a reminder of their salvation and their sanctification through Jesus Christ, and then moves straight into their personal responsibility:
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.”
We have “escaped corruption” by “His divine power”, and that gives is everything we need to pursue “godliness”. He even goes as far as to say we are “partakers of the divine nature”. You see, that’s the first part of sanctification. We are already seated with Christ!
But then he says this: “For this very reason”… what reason?… Because we are saved and sanctified by Jesus…. “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith…” What does that mean? Just like when we talked about the Corinthians, Peter is telling Christians to not only confess Jesus as Lord with their words and believe it in their minds but to allow that truth to completely change the way they live their lives.
We are not saved by pursuing godliness. No one can be saved by their own good works (Eph 2:8-9). But we show that we are called and cleansed, saved and sanctified, by making the effort to live out that faith every day. Titus 1:1 calls it the “knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness”. We know the truth, the truth sets us free, and we live in that truth.
Two Motivations to Pursue Sanctification: Fear and Love
There is so much more I want to say about this, but let me close with this. Where does the desire to pursue godliness, sanctification, purity, and holiness come from? Maybe as I’ve been speaking you’ve realized that you really don’t care about how you live and that that’s not a good thing. You don’t feel a passion for purity and holiness, but you want to. Where does that passion come from?
Or maybe you are caught in a sin today and haven’t been able to get free. You’ve tried over and over to conquer it, but it keeps getting the better of you? How can you work to defeat it once and for all?
There are many practical things I could tell you in answer to that question: Things like pray, read your bible, set up boundaries, find different friends, change your schedule, get rid of the thing that tempts you, find accountability partners, etc. But that’s not where the root of a desire for personal sanctification really lies. It’s not in our activities, but in our hearts.
Paul, throughout 1st Corinthians, gives a lot of practical advice, but he always roots it in one place: their relationship with God through Jesus Christ – and for a Christian, that comes down to two things, two polarities, of our faith: Our love for God and our fear of God.
Throughout the book Paul keeps reminding them of the love they’ve been shown, grace they’ve been given, the peace they now have, the calling they received, and the Spirit that now dwells inside them because they are God’s people. He said this as a motivation to stop sinning. “God loves you, Jesus loves you, the Holy Spirit loves you! He chose you, cleansed you, and is with you forever. Why would you work for His enemy? Why would you divide His church? Why would you insult His apostles? Why would you profane His table? Why would you hurt each other?”
That’s one of our main motivations to seek purity, holiness, godliness, and sanctification – because of the great love we have been shown by God, and our desire to love Him back. We hate sin because our Heavenly Father hates sin. We work to remove the things in our life that separate us from Him because we want to be near Him. We obey His word because He knows what’s best. We hate and work against evil and satanic things because they are an insult to God. We do good things because He has done good for us. We love because He first loved us. That’s one motivator – our knowledge of how much God loves us and our own love for Him.
The second motivator is different. It is our fear of God. Partly this means that when we are about to do something wrong, there is a sense of dread within us “produced by the realization of God’s impending judgement upon sin…. The Christian has been delivered from the fear of the wrath of God. But the Christian has not been delivered from the discipline of God against his sinful conduct, and in this sense, he still fears God. He works out his salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12)…” with a healthy fear of not wanting to incur the discipline of his Heavenly Father.
The other part of fearing God is that we choose not to sin because we respect, honour, and stand in awe of the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the Creator and Sustainer of the entire universe. He sits on the throne. He has written the rules for how we live. He created us out of dirt, and will one day return us to the dirt. He controls everything and has the right to tell us what to do.
Some Christians aren’t comfortable with this, but it is an important part of our understanding of God. In fact, it is the non-believer and the pagan that the Bible says, “has no fear of God before his eyes.” (Psalm 36:1, Rom 3:18) Proverbs says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of both knowledge and wisdom. (Prov 1:7, 9:10) When God promised to save Israel from their sins, part of his promise in Jeremiah 32:40 was,
“I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.”
And it’s the same for the church. Acts 9:31 describes the growth of the Christian church this way:
“So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.”
You see, it’s both: Christians walk in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Both of these are motivators towards sanctification, motivators to living a holy life – our love for God and our fear of Him.
If you want to kill that sin inside of you, you need to grow in both of these. Grow in your love for God – read His word, talk to Him every day, listen to sermons about how much He loves you and what He has done for you. Ask God to fill your heart with love for Him, and seek ways to acknowledge and remember His love for you every day.
And also grow in your fear of God – realize that if you don’t clean up your act, He may discipline you and that discipline can be quite severe. Remember Ananias and Saphira, who were struck dead right on the steps of the church for lying about their offering. Remember that Paul tells the Corinthians that God has actually brought a sickness because they had desecrated the Lord’s Supper.
Remember what it says in Hebrews 12:5-6,
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”
The word “chastises” there is also translated “scourges” or “whips”! God doesn’t sit idly by when His people disobey, fall to temptation, and start playing Satan’s game. No, as a good parent, He gets involved and sometimes even brings painful discipline meant to drive us away from the sin that is harming us and others. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do and He loves us. It would be cruel of Him to leave us alone.
My encouragement to you today is to take your sanctification seriously, and you can start to do that by cultivating a greater love for and fear of God. How? Read His word and take it seriously. Examine your life and ask God to point out the parts that are wrong and commit to changing them – because you love Him and because you don’t want to be scourged!
 William Law, “Call to a Devout Life”
 Practice of Godliness pg 42
 Practice of Godliness Pg 25.