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?
There are a lot of illustrations that God uses to describe His people. Jesus and Paul, likely because they lived in an agricultural culture, often used natural illustrations. In John 15, Jesus is the vine, we are the branches, God is the gardener who prunes and strengthens the branches, or burns the fruitless ones. In the parable of the four soils, Jesus compared our hearts to hard or soft soil that God was sprinkling the seeds of His Word on (Matthew 13). In Matthew 13 the gospel and believers are likened to yeast that works itself through a whole batch of dough – becoming an unseen force that changes the composition of the whole loaf. In Matthew 5 Jesus calls His followers salt and light – forces of good, preservers of life, enhancing the flavour of the world, spreading the truth for all to see. Jesus calls us a city on a hill, a net full of fish, a field of wheat mixed with weeds, a group of children, a flock of sheep, innocent doves and crafty serpents.
When Paul is teaching about how Christians can be very different but still work together, he tells us we are like different parts of a human body, and Jesus is the head (1 Cor 12). When talking about new believers he calls us babies who need milk. When we are more mature and able to wrestle with more difficult spiritual things, we are like adults chewing a tough piece of meat. When talking about the spiritual war going on around us, we are soldiers, strapping on the armor of God and preparing for battle (Eph 6). When the church is praying or singing, we are like priests who burn incense that rises to the heavens (Rev 5:8, 8:-4).
Each of these illustrations (and there are many more) are meant to help us understand the many different sides of what it means to follow God and live in this world.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been asked what it’s like to be a Christian or what it’s like to follow God, but it’s not an easy answer. “Well,”, you say, “sometimes I feel like a baby who has no idea what they are doing, but just trusting their father to take care of me. Other times I feel like a tool in the hands of a carpenter, being used to do amazing things I could never do on my own. Other times I feel like being a piece of clay spinning in the hands of a potter, where He’s gently but firmly moulding me into something new. Other times being a Christian feels like I’m a battle-hardened warrior, hurting, bleeding, covered in cuts and bruises, but standing once again to take on the enemy because I love my King and my Kingdom. Being a Christian also feels like being part of a huge family of people that you love but have never met – while at the same time, once God gets a hold of your heart, it’s like the whole world has flipped upside down and you now live in a foreign land full of strange customs that you waver between finding tantalizing, disgusting and incomprehensible. Sometimes I’m on the mountain shouting praise, other times I’m resting by still waters, and then there are times when I’m walking through the valley of the shadow of death.”
If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, then I would imagine that you’ve felt at least some of that, and you can appreciate why the Bible is so full of varied illustrations describing a believer’s experience.
Open up with me to 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, and let’s read two more illustrations that Paul gives to explain how to live the Christian life. We’ll start at verse 1 again so we can get the context:
“But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human?”
That’s where we left off last week. Let’s keep reading:
“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.”
The Format of Paul’s Letter
First, and as always, we need to remember the context. The Corinthian church had some maturity issues and God told Paul to write a letter to them explaining some things to them. Paul had planted the church during his second missionary journey, had been their pastor for a year and half but had gone on to plant other churches. He wrote this letter from Ephesus during his third missionary journey, after getting reports from a bunch of people that things in Corinth weren’t going very well. In fact, the whole letter is written in response to those reports, and to answer the questions that a delegation from Corinth had brought to him.
Chapters 1-4 address the first, and most pressing problem, that being the divisions that had cropped up in the church. You see that in 1:11 where Paul says, “it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers.” So Paul takes the first part to address that problem. Then in chapter 5 the next section starts with addressing another report Paul has received: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans…” and Paul takes two chapters to deal with that issue.
Then, starting in chapter 7 we see a list of “now concernings” where Paul addresses the questions the delegation brought him. In 7:1 we read, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote:” and Paul answers their questions about marriage. In 7:25, he says, “Now concerning the betrothed…” and answers questions about unmarried people. In 8:1 he says, “Now concerning food offered to idols…”, in 12:1 we read “Now concerning spiritual gifts…”, in 16:1 we read, “Now concerning the collection for the saints…” and in 16:12 we read, “Now concerning our brother Apollos…”
Paul is writing a letter to a group of Christians that shows concern for their spiritual health, condemnation of their reputation for sin, and then gives counsel about how they need to alter their understanding and their behaviour to become more in line with what God wants them to do. And this ties right into Paul’s illustrations in chapter 3.
To build the foundation of the rest of the letter, Paul wants to make sure that they understand two very important things: First, they need to understand the truth of the gospel, which they had forgotten. So he reminds them in 1:30 that “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” isn’t found anywhere else other than in Jesus Christ. He reminds them that the human wisdom they’ve been listening to is foolish, and that all that they require to be right with God has been done through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. They don’t need any more special knowledge, or crazy experiences, or demonstrations of power, or anything else. Their salvation is by their faith in Jesus Christ. Period. In other words, God has done all the work.
Which is why what Chloe’s people says they are doing bugs him so much. The church wasn’t full of the love of God, but instead was full of strife and jealousy, splitting into factions, and putting their favourite preacher up as their de facto leader. A servant of God doesn’t want any of that. It breaks God’s heart and a Christian’s heart to see people divided. But to hear that they are using your name as a point of division would be even more painful.
Little side-bar here. God hates it when his people are divided. Literally hates it. Listen to these words from Proverbs 6:16-19,
“There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.”
In light of that, what do you think he felt about this discord ridden, strife-filled church, full of people who were abusing one another? He hated it. And so did Paul. God really hates it when His people can’t get along because it is then that they are most unlike Him and are actually playing into the hands of the Enemy.
And so Paul, to remind them that dividing into factions over their favourite preacher was sinful and ridiculous and then says, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.”
His point is that humans, even amazing ones like Paul or Apollos, are a just tiny, miniscule, little parts of accomplishing God’s will for the world. What is Paul? A servant, a worker; that’s it.
Paul’s first, brief, illustration is that the church is like a field and Paul and Apollos are just field hands. God tells them where to go, gives them the tools to dig, gives them the seed, and then causes the rain to fall, the sun to shine, and the seed to grow. It is ridiculous to try to elevate any preacher or teacher, no matter how gifted, to any kind of level, because their contribution to the church is negligible compared to the work of God. Billy Graham, Charles Spurgeon, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Paul and Apollos were all merely farm hands.
Each of these men were sinners who God chose to use for a time, not because of their ability, but despite their disabilities. More often than not, their great abilities actually became a problem for them!
- Billy Graham was born in the Southern US, a hard-core American, who was reluctant to get saved and wasn’t much for public speaking, but God called him anyway.
- Charles Spurgeon was a British man who was a gifted speaker, but was often in physical agony and suffered crippling depression, sometimes barely able to stand in the pulpit because of the weight on his heart and the pain in his body, but God used him anyway.
- John Calvin was from France, and by all accounts I’ve read, was a super-intellectual hermit who loved books way more than people (and was kind of a jerk), but opened his heart to God and God used him anyway. More than once people had to convince, cajole and even threaten Calvin just to get him to leave his books and obey God’s call to preach.
- Martin Luther was a foul mouthed, blue-collar, superstitious, German, with no understanding of the Gospel, who only decided to become a monk because he was almost hit by lightning, but one day God opened his eyes to see salvation is by grace through faith alone, and though he struggled with his many personality weaknesses for his whole life, God used him anyway.
- The Apostle Paul was a Christian killer before he met Jesus.
All these men, regardless of how different they and their contexts were, had two things in common: 1. God called them to work His fields and 2. They knew that it was God who gives the growth.
Paul is adamant (and if you read any of the biographies of these great, Christian men, so are they) that they are responsible for very little of the success of their ministries. In fact, it usually came by total surprise – and sometimes, despite their terrible failures. And because of this, they knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that whatever good they had done in their lives was solely attributed to the work of God.
Sure, they sowed some seed by preaching the gospel, and watered by teaching the people the Bible – they are “God’s fellow workers” in that way – but it is God who really did all the work, not them. And what’s amazing is that God is still going to give them the “wages according to their labour”. Even though they have no power over the growth, maturity or harvest, if they have done the work faithfully, they will receive their reward. That’s an amazing grace.
No Magic Formula
Here’s the thing: There is no magic formula you can use to cause someone to get saved, grow in maturity, or grow a church.
There’s no magic words you can say to a non-Christian or backslidden child, spouse, parent, or friend that will suddenly make them want to put down their sin and turn to Jesus. I know this is a struggle for some of you. You have a friend, family member, or work mate that you feel drawn to share your faith with, that you want to see in the kingdom, that you know needs God’s grace – but they won’t receive it.
And you blame yourself. You think, “If only I had the right words… more answers… knew more about the Bible… had a better testimony… shared it differently… then they’d be saved by now. If I was part of a cooler church or acted a little cooler, or knew more cool shows, then they would listen to me. If I was way more holy and less sinful, had less temptations, fasted more, prayed more, studied more, then they would turn their life over to Jesus.”
You think that the reason that they aren’t Christian is your fault – and that’s just not true. There is no magic words or perfect system that will change someone’s heart. It is God who gives the growth, not you.
In the same way, there is no magic formula, no perfect system, no mystical biblical secret to growing a church or church minstry. It’s not about how comfortable the chairs are, whether the music is great, the sound system rocks and the visuals are stimulating. A church with a gym or classrooms or coffee shop or bookstore may get some folks through the door, but it won’t guarantee that anyone becomes a follower of Jesus.
All the things we try at this church, from the welcome bags to the website to the bbq’s and coffee time and small groups are fine, but they aren’t a guarantee our church will grow or that the people within it will become more mature believers.
I can preach all day long, the deacons can build you the nicest building in the world, the coffee can be the tastiest ever, and the band could win awards – and it won’t mean anything unless God gives the growth.
Ask any farmer how much power they have over their land. They can choose the best seed, but they can’t make it rain. They can buy fancy irrigation systems, but they can’t make the weather warm. They can build greenhouses, buy a water system, and control the climate, but they can’t make a bad seed grow a good plant.
And even if they get everything right – seed, water, soil, temperature, sunlight, protection from bugs and blight – they still can’t make the plant grow. All they can do is create the environment or the conditions in which a plant should grow. God still brings the growth.
God’s Fellow Workers
So, that being said, we are still “God’s fellow workers”. Just because God does the work of saving and growing people, doesn’t mean we are abdicated from our responsibilities as a worker. Every single believer here today has been given the great commission to “go… and make disciples” (Matthew 28:18), to “proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15), to be God’s “witnesses… to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8).
We have been told to scatter our seed far and wide. For some that means telling people with your words because you are evangelists. For others, this means living such a life that others see it in you and want to know what you have. Listen to the words of Peter to wives with unbelieving husbands, “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.” (1 Peter 3:1-2) “Won without a word…”
Sometimes sowing seed means talking, other times it means influencing people by your conduct. As a church we need to do a better job of sowing seeds in both these ways – not through fancy outreach programs or rearranging the furniture, but through personal evangelism, sharing our individual stories, and being more careful with our conduct.
God doesn’t just call us to sow seeds, but also to water them. In other words, we need to be diligent to do all we can to – as I said before – create the environment or the conditions in which a plant should grow.
This means you are careful to make sure you, your spouse and your children, have time to read the bible, pray, and serve within their giftings. It means encouraging them to connect with God the ways in which they meet God best – not just ways that work for you.
This this means you create a home environment that has the conditions to help everyone who lives there to grow in faith, love and obedience to God. This doesn’t just mean hanging cute posters on the walls and saying grace before meals, but, that every part of your home is turned over to God. Your TV, internet, movies, games, conversations, your daily schedule and weekly calendar, everything.
Look how Deuteronomy 6:4-9 tells the people of God to remind their families about following God:
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Every part of their lives was to be saturated with the presence of God.
This also means allowing your spiritual authorities to guide you (parents if you are a kid or your church elders if you are an adult), submitting to their authority as it reflects scripture. When they set a boundary, work to live within it. When they challenge you, do your best to face it.
Let me conclude with this: We can’t make anyone grow, but we can work as God’s servants to spread seed and create the conditions by which someone can grow. God allows us to work with Him on that.So evaluate your heart.
- Are you fulfilling the mission God has given you in your daily life to spread seed and water those God has given you? If not, then ask forgiveness and ask God what ways he wants you to spread seed – with words and without words.
- Also, are you feeling unnecessary guilt because the person you are talking to about the faith isn’t saved? Let God be the one who gives the growth. Release control to God and accept that all you can do is love that person like God does.
- Also, evaluate your home. Is it an environment that builds up the faith of those who live there or a field full of spiritual landmines just waiting to be stepped on?
- Do you have hidden things you hope no one finds?
- Are your conversations godly?
- Are you working hard to build proper priorities into your home?
- Do you have a high standard of godliness?
- Or, is your home a bastion of false religion?
- Do you embrace the joy of the Lord, and all the freedoms He has given you, or are you teaching those in your home how to follow rules, but not build relationships?
Let’s open up to 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 and read it together. We already studied verses 1-3 last week, but I want to read them again to remind us of the context:
“But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human?”
If you remember last week, I said that the first verses of chapter 3 are a summary of what Paul has been talking about generally for the past couple chapters, and a transition into some more specific language about God has shown him are some major challenges in this church.
On the broad stroke he tells them that there are two types of people in this world – the “spiritual people” and the “natural” (or “fleshly”) people, which he calls “merely human”. His main concern is that this church, supposedly full of Christians who believe in Jesus as their Saviour and Lord, are not acting like “spiritual people” – knowing right from wrong, good from evil, holy from unholy, helpful from dangerous – but are instead, being driven by their carnal, animalistic, desires.
The majority of the rest of the letter is Paul contrasting the way of the Spirit of God with the way of the flesh – and trying to convince the church to turn away from the natural desires which are destroying their souls and allowing the Spirit of God to guide their conscience and choices so they can be liberated from of the effects of sin and embrace their freedom in Christ.
These out of control drives are seen all through the letter. Listen to the list Paul gives:
- In chapters 3, 8, and 10 we see them getting jealous of one another, fighting amongst themselves. There is no gentleness, patience, or humility, but are instead are acting like wolves fighting over a piece of meat – each one wanting what the other has, refusing to share, growling and barking at the rest, and then sitting in victory over those who are starving. This causes them to divide into packs and, without their consent, set up their pastors as de facto leaders of their factions.
- In chapter 4 we see them acting like foolish sheep or strutting peacocks, prideful to the point of believing they know more than the apostles.
- In chapter 5 and 6 we them acting like animals in heat, their sexual appetites out of control to the point where they engaging in prostitution and becoming more perverse than even the pagans around them.
- In chapter 6 we see them cockfighting for public amusement as they sue each other in public court.
- In chapter 11 we read about them strutting and preening like cats or birds, showing off for all to see. We also read of them turning into drunken monkeys, humiliating themselves and others during their sacred events.
- In chapter 14 they are screeching crows making much noise but having little of value to say.
This church was more barnyard or zoo than a collection of spiritually enlightened followers of Jesus, and it grieved God and their Pastor, the Apostle Paul. Why? Because they had been told the truth, but were now living the lie. They had been shown what life was really like, seeing behind the spiritual curtain that the world doesn’t even recognize is there, and had turned away from it. Because they had been called to so much more than merely pleasing their fleshly desires. This church, full of people who wanted to know God, who believed in Jesus, who wanted wisdom and knowledge – which were all good things – had gone feral. They were being, as verse 3 and 4 say, “merely human” – and that’s not enough.
Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength
Humans are created as multi-faceted beings. The great commandment says we are to love God with our “Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength” (Mark 12:30), and without getting too dogmatic about it, this gives us a good place to talk about the different facets, or different sides, or aspects, of being human.
- Our strength is our physical body.
- The mind is our capacity for our conscious thought.
- Our heart is the seat of our emotions. The soul is that part of us that goes beyond the physical and allows us to connect to God.
- The soul is that part of us that goes beyond the physical and allows us to connect to God.
God says that we are to worship him with every part of our being – our bodies, thoughts, emotions, and spirit – not just part of it. We cannot merely give God our thoughts – thinking of Him, believing in Him, studying Him, memorizing things about Him, learning and teaching about Him – but keep our bodies to ourselves to use however we would like.
We cannot give God our physical side – denying our fleshly desires, beating our bodies into obedience, waking early and working hard – but not give to Him our spiritual selves by refusing to pray and denying Him worship as we work.
We cannot connect to God with our soul and mind and strength, but then keep our emotions to ourselves, allowing our feelings to drive us wherever they will.
This was the main problem with Corinth. They had given their minds over to God, believing Paul’s words and putting their faith in Jesus as their Saviour – and they had given their souls over to God, admitting that they were sinners, wanting to meet and worship the One, True, God – but they had not done it fully, and they had not turned over their Heart and Strength – their emotions and their bodies. They wanted to keep those to themselves.
Their feelings and their physical desires were still big influences in how they made decisions. They lived by their feelings, lusts, cravings, and desires.
I really want to park on this concept of being driven by our emotional and physical desires because it’s so key to understanding our world and the Christian life. We are driven by our desires – and that’s not always a bad thing.
When our physical bodies are hungry or tired, they send a signal to our brains to tell us that we need to sleep or eat. That’s a good thing. That desire is helpful. When something happens to us – whether it’s something good like meeting a friend or something bad like getting into a fight with that friend – we have been given emotions that kick in to allow us to process the situation. That’s a good thing.
God has given us internal signals that tell us to pay attention – a gut instinct that says you should do something, an internal lie detector when dealing with a shifty salesman, a feeling of foreboding when walking in the dark, or a sense of excitement before a big event – and they are good things.
We have the capacity to think through things, remember details, mull over problems, imagine solutions, invent entire worlds and conversations and possibilities, all in our minds – and that’s a good thing.
Many of the thoughts, feelings, sensations and longings we have inside of us are God-given and good. We should desire to be loved and cared for. We should want to be safe from pain and danger. We should be creative. We should be attracted to other people. We should want to get away from repulsive things.
Before the fall, when Adam and Eve were in the garden, they had natural desires in all four areas of their being – and they were good. They loved each other. They felt hunger and thirst and physical attraction. They used their minds to name creatures and make conversation. They had a desire for meaningful work. They wanted to walk and talk with God.
So, what I’m not saying is that desires are all bad. But what I am saying is that all our desires need to be evaluated for their truthfulness and turned over to the Holy Spirit. Why? Because of sin.
Sin has caused us our desires to get out of whack. All four facets of our being have been affected.
- Our bodies are now attracted to things that are dangerous.
- Our biochemistry and environment are out of whack and create some big problems with our bodies, feelings, and thoughts.
- Our souls are bent away from God and want nothing more than to usurp Him, place ourselves on the throne of the universe, and declare ourselves gods in His place.
- Our bodies are prone to give us false information, get addicted to any number of things, and cause us to crave activities and things that cause harm to us and others.
- All manner of influences, from social media to the demonic forces, are working hard to play with our emotions so we can be manipulated for their benefit.
- We are surrounded by lies, innuendo, gossip, and misinformation, and therefore have a hard time knowing what we think about certain topics – that is, if we haven’t already burnt our brains with either chemicals or dulled them through entertainment.
- Our souls are either dried out, or are in a constant state of “drying out”, which drives us to find the waters of purpose, joy, hope, love, and meaning somewhere; the desperation often causing us to take in the polluted waters the world offers, rather than seek out the pure waters of the Gospel.
The world uses their desires as an excuse as to why they do what they do. Whether it’s making a case for addiction, anger problems, sexual sin, or greed, you’ve heard the arguments before:
- I was born this way, so therefore I must live this way.
- My feelings are so strong in this area that they cannot be denied.
- Anyone can do whatever they want, so long as there is consent and there is no harm done.
- I am free to say whatever I want because I have the right to express my feelings.
- No one should stop anyone else from pursuing their dreams.
- How can something be wrong if so many people agree that it’s good?
- The greatest way of living is if everyone is free to do whatever makes them happy.
In other words: if I believe it, feel it, or think it, then it must be true, and therefore must be good, and therefore must be done.
That’s simply not true. Morality does not change based on our feelings or opinion. Morality has been given to us as a gift from God. He is the One who wrote it on our consciences and in His Book, and it is for us to line up to His standards – not for us to create our own.
Not that this is a new way of thinking. This is a quintessential human problem, not only prevalent in the ancient Corinthian church, but well before it and continues to be popular today – even in churches.
The War Within
All through scripture we read about the war within us, the battle between our flesh and our spirit. And one important lesson we get from these passages is that it is a battle, and we are meant to engage in combat. God gives us hundreds of reasons not to believe our fleshly desires when they are steering us towards sin: they will destroy our bodies, harden our hearts, soften our abilities, corrupt our mission, dull our senses, and create barriers between us and God and us and the ones we love. God also gives us hundreds of ways to avoid being driven by these desires. He gives us personal help by the presence of the Holy Spirit, but also teaching about how to arrange our lives wisely and carefully and get our priorities straight. He tells us in no uncertain terms where the boundary is between right and wrong, and then gives us ways and means to evaluate everything in between.
But we must engage in that battle. We must realize that what we think and feel isn’t always good, right or best. We must admit that we are sinful creatures with sinful natures, with flesh that desires the things we shouldn’t want and makes it harder to pursue the things we should want. We must admit that our souls have been corrupted, and that we are not yet perfected in Christ, and therefore we cannot trust all our gut feelings and personal interpretations of what we think God has said. And once we have admitted that – which is essentially admitting that we need God’s help – we must commit our lives to God, ask for His help every day, and enter into the battle.
God, in 1st Corinthians, is telling us that our natural selves will lead us to danger – and then gives evidence of the consequences of what they’ve already done. But, it says, when we listen to God’s Word and God’s Spirit, as it is given to us in the Bible, in prayer, and through the church, we will have the capacity to enter into the battle and be victories.
Later, in chapter 9, Paul will say,
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way as to take the prize. Everyone who competes in the games trains with strict discipline. They do it for a crown that is perishable, but we do it for a crown that is imperishable. Therefore I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight like I am beating the air. No, I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”
Paul has an incredibly important reason to win the battle of the flesh vs the spirit. He knows that his ministry, his connection to Jesus, and the reputation of the Gospel for most of the believing world, rests on his personal holiness and character. If he looses touch with God, gets prideful, or gets caught sinning, then all that he has worked for would be sorely damaged. So he works hard to make sure his desires are turned over to God.
The Wolf You Feed
Let me close with an old, but apt illustration. It is a Cherokee legend, but it is loaded with truth:
Once, and old man and his grandson were walking through the woods when the grandfather turned to the young man and said, “Young one, inside all of us there is a battle raging between two wolves. You have felt it even in your young years, and I have felt it all my life. One of the wolves is evil – he is anger, envy, greed, regret, arrogance, resentment, lies, hatred, and ego. The other is good – he is love, joy peace, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, compassion, truth and faith. Everyone has this battle going on inside them.”
They walked a little further in silence, until the young boy stopped and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf will win?”
The wise, old man simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Now, you and I may not have the weight of the missionary work for an entire generation on our shoulders – but nonetheless, we have some important incentives to evaluate our desires and engage in the battle against our natural selves – to feed the right wolf.
- Your spiritual life and connection with God depends on this. The more sin we have in our lives, the less connection we have to God, the less we will hear Him; the less wisdom, love, and peace we will have.
- Your family depends on it. The more we allow ourselves to be driven by our human nature, the more we mess up our marriages and children. They are watching us – and if we don’t care about what we see, hear, say, do, and think – then neither will they.
- Our church depends on it. We need maturing, passionate, faithful believers in this church. We need people who are listening to God, obeying His Word, and living out their spiritual gifts. The teachers should be teaching, the leaders leading, the encouragers encouraging, the prophets preaching, the administrators administrating, the healers healing, the wise governing, the merciful helping. But if you are being driven by your natural desires for wealth, fame, power, lust, or comfort, then you won’t have the time, energy, ability or desire to live out what God has called you to do in this church.
- Your community depends on it. They don’t need more nice, busy, shallow, disengaged, mindless consumers. They need godly people who are working hard to listen to and obey Jesus.
So my final question is this: Are you engaged in the battle? When was the last time you questioned why you do what you do, go where you go, post what you post, buy what you buy, watch what you watch, think what you think, feel what you feel, pray what you pray? Are you constantly evaluating the desires of your heart, soul, mind and strength – or are you merely human? Which wolf are you feeding?
When I was growing up, my grandparents had a crab apple tree in their front yard, and every time we went to visit them, my brother and I would see the tree and hope the apples were ready to eat. It was actually quite frustrating for us because we found the readiness of crab apple trees is notoriously difficult to predict. I’m not sure if you’ve ever had an unripe crab apple, but if you have, it’s a memorable experience.
They are uncomfortably hard to chew, and as for taste, they have an extremely intense and unappetizing mix of bitterness and sourness that makes you not only never want to take another bite, but uproot and burn the tree, scattering its ashes so as to never be spoken of again.
But! For that extremely brief period of time when they are ripe – in Alberta anyway – just before they freeze and/or turn to mush, they are actually really, really good. A unique taste right off the tree and extremely good for homemade jelly.
We visited our grandparents quite often, and, as I said, each time we were there we would ask if the crab apples were ready. It was most often “no”, but occasionally – whether because they didn’t know or because they enjoyed our suffering – they would say, “I’m not sure, why not go try one?”
Then the games would begin. I, being the older brother, would do my best to get my younger brother, James to take a bite – while he used all his wits and whining to make me do it.
The scripture we’ve been going through for the past while reminds me a lot of that crab apple tree. Before I went on holidays we were stuck at the end of chapter two, talking about the difference between mature and immature Christians. The Corinthian church, though they were Christians –saved people with the Holy Spirit dwelling within them – had not progressed in their faith, but had actually regressed and were living like spiritual infants.
Hearing about this frustrated the Apostle Paul, because he had been their pastor for a year-and-a-half and hadn’t been gone for very long. He had moved on to plant other churches, but even from far away, was hearing reports about how messed up the church in Corinth was. And so, God inspired Paul to write a letter to them, chastising them for their immaturity and instructing them on what needs to change.
Anyone who has experimented with crab apples knows how Paul must have felt. He planted that tree in Corinth expecting it to grow, mature, bear fruit, and for that fruit to be sweet – but instead, the fruit is bitter, sour, wooden, wormy and disappointing. He longs to be able to praise them for their faithfulness and maturity, for turning away from the sinful world they live in so they can bear the fruit of being disciples of Jesus – but he can’t. Instead of being believers who are light and salt in a city lost in the darkness of paganism and moral corruption, loving God, His Word, and each other – they have instead become more like the city, more immoral, have dimmed their light, lost their flavour, and were acting like immature, children.
In chapter 2 it says that that they had stopped living as spiritual people, and had started to live as “natural” people. Essentially, they had given up their connection to God’s life and truth, in favour of seeking out other sources. They had turned away from Jesus as the “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30), which we read about in chapter one, and had tried to find wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption elsewhere – and in that search, had corrupted themselves to the point that they were no longer even able to tell good from bad, evil from holy, saint from sinner, godly from demonic. We see at the end of chapter 2 that they had had lost their “spiritual discernment” (2:14), their ability to “judge” things properly (2:15), and had given up the “mind of Christ” (2:16), in favour of other voices they thought would be just as good.
All of that cut Paul deeply, but I also believe it grieved God’s heart too. God loves His people and hates to see them wander away from Him, because He knows it will only hurt them. And so this letter is written to explain where they have gone wrong, and to try to call them back.
Let’s open up to 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 and read it together
“But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?”
Let’s take this apart a little.
In verse 1 we see Paul summarizing the argument he’s been making for almost the whole of the letter so far: the Corinthians aren’t acting like Christians, but like unbelievers. He contrasts two different types of people: the “spiritual people” and the “people of the flesh” – in fact he uses that phrase twice – but follows it up with “as infants in Christ.”
This tells us something important – that the people he was addressing were Christians. This letter was inspired by God and written to a church full of saved people. They were corrupted, sinful, wandering, foolish, carnal, jealous, angry, people – but they were Christians. How could this be?
Because our salvation is not based on our obedience to God, nor our personal holiness, nor our ability to be good, but upon believing in the finished work of Jesus Christ as the crucified and resurrected Saviour of our souls.
Jesus was the one who obeyed all the laws, fulfilling every one. Jesus is the one who perfectly loved the Lord God with all His heart, soul, mind and strength, and perfectly loved His neighbour. Jesus did everything that God commanded of Him, and then offered Himself up in exchange for any sinner who would believe. He would be the once and for all sacrifice, the final payment for sin so that no other payment would ever need to be made. All that is necessary for salvation is to believe in Him.
When the Philippian Jailer asked Paul “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”, the answer was, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:30-31)
Right after the most famous passage in the Bible, John 3:16, where we read about Jesus as a gift: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”, we read John 3:18, where Jesus says, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” And then a little later in John 5:24, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.”
Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” God is not stingy with the requirements for salvation. He doesn’t demand that we jump through hoops, make grand displays, shave our heads, or sit in sackcloth and ashes, before He saves us. He doesn’t require us to get baptized, join a church, talk to a pastor, walk down an aisle, raise our hand, or anything else. What God requires of us is simply to believe Him that His Son, Jesus Christ, lived perfectly, died on a Roman cross, truly rose from the dead, and took the punishment we deserved.
That’s the Christian invitation. Will you accept that Jesus is the Son of God who came to give His life for yours, to conquer death, to settle your accounts before God, so you could be with your Father in Heaven? If you do, you’re in.
Belief is Harder
In a sense, even though this puts all the work on Jesus’s shoulders, and makes it a free gift that only needs to be accepted, having faith is in some ways harder than doing what other religions teach. Your admittance into the Kingdom of Heaven will not be judged on your actions, but on what you believe – which is actually a much deeper requirement.
Other religions, cults, and even aberrant (or heretical) forms of Christianity, simply give you a laundry list of requirements and behaviours that you must accomplish or align to, and if you achieve a certain percentage of them, then God (or Karma, or the Universe, or whatever) is happy. Follow our religious rituals and rules properly and then you’re life will be weighed out by a cosmic force, and then you’ll see where you end up.
That’s actually a lot easier than God’s requirement for “belief” or “faith”. It’s easier to follow a list of rules than it is to allow your understanding of the universe to be so radically altered that you actually change the way you think about God, yourself and everything else. Following a religion is shallow, believing in Jesus is deep. Checking boxes so you can call yourself a good person is simple, turning your heart, soul, mind and strength over to Jesus because you believe He is the Lord of your life is hard. Saving yourself by following your own personal idea of how to be a good person and get to heaven is easy because you can make excuses and change your requirements anytime you need to, but humbling yourself before God and following Jesus because you believe His way is the only way, is harder. Judging yourself and others by your personal religious beliefs makes you feel proud and superior to others, judging yourself and others by what you believe Jesus says, brings both deep humiliation and deep appreciation for God’s grace.
The Corinthians were saved people. They believed in Jesus as their Saviour. They were a mess, but they were, as Paul says in verse 1, “in Christ” – and that’s all that is necessary for salvation: belief.
Faith Changes Everything
However, we’re not just trying to get people saved, are we? No, we are saved unto something. The Apostle Paul doesn’t want mere belief, or dead faith. God didn’t plant the crab apple tree to have its growth stunted so it could bear only bitter fruit. He planted it so that it would grow bigger, stronger, and bear fruit that He and everyone else could take and eat and call good.
When Paul planted the seed of that church, he wanted to see it sprout. When Apollos preached there afterward, he wanted to help it grow. But it didn’t.
The Bible never stops at belief, or faith, in God. The demons believe God exists, but that isn’t enough for salvation, is it? The demons believe that Jesus is Lord of all and even Saviour of the World, but they are not saved. Why? Because the Christian faith isn’t just about believing the fact that God exists, or believing the fact that Jesus died and rose again, but having that belief, those facts, take over every part of our lives. That’s why the Bible, Old Testament and New, is so full of teachings that tie our faith in God to a changed life.
This is Paul’s message to the Corinthians is, “I want you to become spiritual people, but you are living as ‘people of the flesh’, carnal people who, instead of being obedient to God and controlled by the Holy Spirit, are controlled by your own natural desires. You may believe in Jesus, but your behaviour looks no different than the world. Your thought patterns are not mature, biblical and godly, but look just like the world’s. You claim to be followers of Jesus, but you think and act like pagans. When I came to you, I fed you with milk because you were spiritual babies, and that was appropriate, but you were supposed to grow up!”
In his letter to Titus (2:11-15), who was a Christian leader who he had sent out to check up on the churches he had planted, combat false teaching, and appoint elders before he moved on, he says this,
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority.”
Do you see the ebb and flow of salvation with a changed life? The grace of God appears and brings salvation – which trains us to put down the things that are ungodly. We are waiting for the blessed hope, the coming of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ – who redeemed us from lawless and works to purify us. He bought with His blood so we could be His own, and we show we are His by being zealous for good works.
Even Now You’re Not Ready
In Titus, Paul is talking to a mature church leader who is given some deep teaching and then commanded to go and declare and exhort and rebuke others, but in Corinth, Paul is talking to spiritual babies. In verse 2 he says, “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh.” How does he know that they’re still “of the flesh”, acting like spiritual babies? Verse 3 says, “For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?”
There’s a bunch of reasons he’s going to get into in the rest of the letter – from their sexual sin to their acceptance of pagan worship practices – but he starts with how they are treating each other. Their church is full of “jealousy and strife”.
How does he know that they are not maturing in their faith? The first reason he gives is because of their attitude towards one another. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
Paul’s argument is that since there is “jealousy and strife” among them, then they are acting like “people of the flesh” and are “behaving only in a human way”. This is a deep, cutting accusation.
In Galatians 5:19-21 we read the opposite of the “fruit of the Spirit”, which are called “the works of the flesh” which include: “sexual immorality… idolatry, sorcery… drunkenness, [and] orgies”, which we would all agree are worldly and sinful, but also included in the list “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, [and] envy” – all relational words. Then scripture says, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
This is how sour the fruit of this church was – they were acting like those who are still on the side of the kingdom of Satan and bound for hell. Paul says, “I can’t address you as mature Christians, and your fruit is terrible, because you are still living by the desires of your flesh, living carnal lives, driven by worldly wisdom, and treating each other the way unbelievers do.”
The point of today’s message, and what I believe God is saying here, is twofold.
First, that we understand that we are saved by our faith in the grace of God alone, not by anything we can do – but that that belief must change our lives. If you’re a new believer or a young person, then it is to be expected that you will struggle with the things all new believers struggle with.
- How can I put down the sinful habits I’ve built up?
- How can I learn how to turn to God instead of my vices?
- How can I build healthy boundaries in my life in order to combat bad influences, but still let my light shine?
- How can I discipline myself to read the bible and pray regularly?
- What does my relationship with God mean in relation to my wife, kids, friends, family, school, past, present, future?
- How can I live a life that honours Jesus, and still enjoy the good things in this world?
- How can I get over bitterness, laziness, or prejudice?
- What does God want me to do with my life?
- What are my gifts? What am I supposed to do at church?
- What messed up things have I believed about God, His people, and the world, that I need to change in favour of discovering the truth?
All of these are really important questions, and ones that every new believer has to go through. But that’s the point – we go through them and then continue our journey into deeper things. We allow our belief in Jesus as our Lord and Saviour to open us to the influence of the Holy Spirit within us, so that we become more like Jesus every day.
That’s called maturing, and it’s something that most Christians don’t do. One of my favourite bible teachers talks about the “unnatural man” called the carnal Christian. He sees it as a bad hybrid, an unnatural joining of light and darkness, hot and cold, good and evil. He says,
“The carnal Christian is the one who hasn’t grown up spiritually, and it is evident that he lacks spiritual discernment – not because he doesn’t have the Holy Spirit within him, but because he is not growing in grace and in the knowledge of Christ…. This is a consequence of his relationship to the Word of God…. This unnatural man, this carnal Christian, is a babe in Christ. He has an ability but no desire…. Unfortunately it is on this level that most church members are living today. How can we identify the carnal Christian? It is the Christian who is using the weak arm of the flesh. He uses carnal methods to obtain spiritual goals…. Their motto is: Do what comes naturally. Let the flesh have its way.” (Thru The Bible with J Vernon McGee, Vol 5, 1 Corinthains, Pg 16-17)
He’s right. Many of the Christians I have known and have served, have the ability to grow, but no desire. They live as children of the world, but claim to be followers of Jesus. They come up with all kinds of human, worldly, carnal methods to try to obtain things that can only be given by God. They try to combat spiritual problems with worldly wisdom. They seek human answers to spiritual questions.
This is the first issue, the lack of maturity in the Christian church – and the lack of desire for maturity – which creates carnal Christians, lukewarm church, and people who live as spiritual babies for their whole life, doing more damage than good for God’s Kingdom.
The second point is connected to the first: that we must engage in actively choosing to live as spiritual people and not as natural ones. Another translation of our passage today said it this way, “You are jealous of one another and quarrel with each other. Doesn’t that prove you are controlled by your own desires?”
That’s exactly right.
“By remaining immature and allowing that immaturity to divide them, they were wreaking havoc on the church…. James wrote, ‘What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?’” (Life Application Bible Commentary, 1 &2 Corinthians, Pg 48)
Christians aren’t to be controlled by their fleshly desires or their carnal thoughts, or it will lead to trouble in all of their relationships! We are to turn those thoughts over to God and allow the Holy Spirit to control and change our desires. Whenever we choose to be guided by our own wisdom or natural desires, we run the risk of doing things simply to gratify our sinful nature. And that is dangerous.
So, my closing question to you today is this, are you maturing as a Christian – whatever phase you’re in – or are you stuck in spiritual infancy, repeating the same old sins over and over again? When God comes to evaluate your fruit, does it taste like it has maturing in godliness where your life lines up with your beliefs? Or does it taste of hypocrisy, where you’ve claimed to be a believer, but you are still behaving in a fleshly way?
I encourage you to do something difficult: ask those closest to you about this. Ask your parents, children, spouse, and Christian friends if you are walking in step with what you say you believe. Ask them if they have seen you mature and grow over the past year, or if you seem exactly the same (or worse) as you were last year and the year before.
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.
We like doing things ourselves, right? I think almost everyone here today takes pride in the skill and abilities they have, what they can accomplish, and how, for the most part, they don’t really need anyone’s help to get by. Sure – as I said last week – some of us are willing to admit our weaknesses and need for God for spiritual things, but when it comes to practical things – like home repair, cooking a meal, fixing a car, building a shed, manipulating a computer, or making clothes – we’re still pretty fond of the fact that we don’t need anyone’s help to do it.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Being a do-it-yourselfer is good. Actually, in scripture, God praises the one who learns skills and then applies them with diligence. It’s not only those who know the Bible and practice spiritual disciplines that get kudos, but God also shows His pleasure with those who work hard at growing their business, playing music, build, manufacture, teach, explore, or make art. During the building of the Tabernacle in Exodus 35, God called on all people who knew to spin yarn and linen, work metal, grow plans and herbs, carve wood, and more.
There were a couple of men in particular that God blessed to be able to do all kinds of practical things. It says,
“Then Moses said to the people of Israel, ‘See, the LORD has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft. And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with skill to do every sort of work done by an engraver or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, or by a weaver—by any sort of workman or skilled designer.” (Exo 35:24-29)
Sometimes Christians look at men and women who know lots about the Bible, or write, or are able to preach, or teach Sunday school and assume that’s what God wants all believers to try to live up to – but it’s not true. God needed a lot of skilled workers to build His temple and serve His people, and Bezalel and Oholiab were specially gifted by God to be craftsmen. And it’s the same in today’s church. We need all kinds of people in this world, this community, and this church.
If they would have said, “Since I’m just good at doing artistic stuff and am not a priest or a lawyer or a holy man, then I can’t work for God.”, they would have been disobeying God. All the time that these men spent alone in their sheds, planning, carving, pounding, moulding, and polishing – and apprenticing others how to do the same – brought glory to God and helped the worship of the entire nation of Israel.
And the priests would be sinning if they were to look at them and say, “I can’t believe you’re wasting your time banging metal together and weaving strings! You shouldn’t be an artist or hunter or shepherd or politician or soldier – you should quit all that and start doing important things!”. That would go against what God built and asked them to do.
God has given skills to some people that others will never have – because He decided they should have them to use them for His glory and the good of humanity. Many of Jesus parables aren’t based in the spiritual realm but in the practical side of life. He tells stories about farming, banking, housekeeping, construction, wine-making, baking, fishing, management, and law – and we never get a hint of Jesus disparaging or minimizing any of these occupations. It is the priest and the religious expert who get blasted by Jesus, not the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker.
Working in The Spirit’s Power
Why am I telling you this? Well, first, it’s important, but I also think it relates to our passage in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. Let’s read it and then I’ll riddle it out for you:
“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
The simple message today is that there are some things in this life that God offers to partner with us on and some things that He is required to do all by Himself.
If you remember Paul’s story you will recall that Paul was a skilled guy with some of the best training the ancient world had to offer. Before he ever knew Jesus, his name was Saul, and he was already a formidable intellect, an unmatched student, and a force to reckoned with. He spoke multiple languages, had memorized huge quantities of not only scripture but also secular teachings, and was one of the most skilled lawyers in the world. He was a powerful speaker and no one could match his devotion or his resolve. He had the ferocity of a shark, the skill of a fox, the wisdom of an owl, the memory of an elephant, and the determination of a pit-bull. People feared getting on the wrong side of Saul.
When Jesus turned Saul’s world upside down, he became Paul the missionary. And did Paul still use his great powers for the sake of spreading the gospel? Sometimes, yes. He gave unparalleled speeches before great worldly counsels, brought wisdom and insight to the apostles, and figured out more theology than almost anyone ever. Even the Apostle Peter said that some things in Paul’s writings are so complicated that they require a great deal of study and effort to understand (2 Peter 3:16). He was a true genius.
And yet, if you remember the story of Corinth, when Paul came into town the first time, he wasn’t he mighty man of God we might think he was. No, he was a man at the end of his rope. Saul the powerful persecutor had become Paul the broken and persecuted. He was alone, exhausted, rejected, afraid, and perhaps even ready to quit being a missionary altogether. But God had met him in a special way, had strengthened Him, encouraged him, and told him to keep preaching.
Paul’s message to the Corinthians wouldn’t be like his message to the Athenians or the Jews, or anyone else. Instead of turning all his mental and intellectual powers towards convincing people about the truths of Jesus’ claims to be Lord, God and Saviour, he decided to keep things very simple and leave the convincing up to God.
When Paul came into Corinth, he had only been an active, traveling missionary for about 4 years, but he had learned some valuable lessons during that time. One main thing he learned was that he needed to speak to people in a way they understood. He tells the Corinthians later that
“I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law… that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law… that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” (1 Cor 9:19-23)
Paul learned the importance of contextualizing his message to his audience. Which was one reason he made the decision not to “proclaim to [the Corinthians] the testimony of God with lofty speech and wisdom”. As we’ve said before, that would have been a distraction to them.
But he had learned another lesson too: that the success of his work wasn’t dependent on his intelligence or abilities but on God’s blessing. His missionary journey had broken him down, and as he taught the Corinthians, he didn’t sound like one of the greatest teachers in the world – instead, he was weak, fearful, and even trembling. He didn’t use a lot of arguments and illustrations and human wisdom (what he calls “plausible words of wisdom”), which would have impressed them, but instead, he abandoned all of that and “decided to know nothing among [them] except Jesus Christ and him crucified”.
He didn’t talk about the idols in town and draw illustrations from them. He didn’t give them history lessons or impress them with poetry and quotes from great philosophers – which he certainly could have, and that’s how the most popular teachers spoke. Instead, he kept it simple: Jesus of Nazareth is God incarnate, and the only way of salvation. He lived a perfect life, died at the hands of sinners, and rose again to conquer death, hell and sin, and offers forgiveness to anyone who would turn from their sins, and believe that He is their Lord, God and only Savior.
I’m sure there were many discussions and many challenges, but instead of trying to impress them with his great knowledge, win them with powerful arguments, twist them in circles with his intellect, he simply talked about Jesus Christ who died on the cross to save sinners.
He left the persuasion up to the Spirit of God. If God wanted the Corinthians to become Christians… if God wanted to plant a church in this pagan town… if God wanted to turn people in this crazily sinful city into disciples of Jesus… then God would have to do it.
Paul would be obedient and preach – but He wouldn’t try to do anything else. Not only was he was too tired and broken, but he had learned that if he tried to do it in his own strength, it would blow up in his face – especially in Corinth, the seedbed of Satanic influence. If he used his own strength, then maybe they would become disciples of Paul – but not Jesus. He wanted their “faith” to “rest not in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.” And so he left the persuasion of souls up to God, by leaving any demonstration of power up to the Holy Spirit.
Working With God
And so, I say again: The message today is that there are some things in this life that God offers to partner with us on and some things that He needs to do all by Himself.
God doesn’t need us to do anything. He is perfectly capable of doing whatever He wants, but sometimes He prefers to accomplish His will through His people, so He invites us to work with Him. He gives us skills, abilities, gifts, time, energy and opportunity – and then says, “Ok, go do the thing I just set up. I’ll go with you to make sure it works.”
It’s like when your three year old wants to help you build something. You buy the pieces, do the planning, make the measurements, organize the equipment, and figure out the best time to do it – and they hold the flashlight, pound in the final nail, or get to paint a little part of it. And then later, they can tell all their friends, “See that thing over there? I built that!” Are they right? Of course not. But what does mom or dad say? “Great job! What a big help you were! Do you want to do something else together?”
I think God is like that sometimes. He does 99.99% of the work, and then says, “Ok, now, I’ll do this last part with you. Go build this thing. Finish this up. Talk to that person. Draw that picture. Make that meal. Give them that book. Fix that thing.” And it takes a bunch of our energy and effort and time, but we finally finish, and then, when something incredible happens as a result, we sit back and think, “Wow, see that over there? I did that!” Are we right? No, of course not. But what does God say? “Great job! What a big help you were! Do you want to do something else together?”
I think it’s like that when we partner with God. Christians who walk with God a long time start to realize this and more and more turn the glory back to God. They realize that it wasn’t them that did anything, but God working through them. They may have partnered with God in obedience, but it was really God who gets the glory.
That’s similar to what Paul was doing. He knew that he was supposed to preach and teach. It was his job and he was using the skillset God gave him. Just like Bezalel and Oholiab were good at arts and crafts, so Paul was good at talking. He was called and built for that purpose, and would be disobeying God if He didn’t do his job.
But He knew that whatever happened, it was God’s show. He knew that the more he depended on his own abilities and strengths, the less God would shine through Him. The more they saw of Paul, the less they would see of Jesus. And so he resolved, especially in his weakened state, to show as little of Paul, and as much of Jesus, as possible.
Things Only God Can Do
We have to realize, as Paul did, that there is nothing of eternal we can do without God, and there are a lot of things that are completely outside of our control. And, if we want God to act (to demonstrate His Spirit and His power), then we need to stop trying to do it for Him.
It would be like the three year old taking the pencil out of the adult’s hands and saying, “I’ll plan out this project.” Or taking the skill-saw away and saying, “Stand back, dad, I’ll cut this wood.” Or saying, “Get out of the kitchen. I’ll figure out how to make Thanksgiving dinner myself! Last year you made something I didn’t like, so this year I’m going to do the whole thing on my own.”
That’d be crazy, right? A toddler can’t do that. They’d get hurt, hurt someone else, ruin the project, and likely burn down the whole house. “Here, let me wash that phone for you.
“Here, use this wrench to cut that wood.” “Here, let me decorate that car for you.” A child absolutely needs to depend on the adult to get the job done right and safely.
It’s the same with us. There are things that we simply cannot do, that require a demonstration of the Spirit, and a movement of the power of God. And if we try to do them, we just mess it up! There are a lot of things that I could list, but consider these for a moment:
As much as we want to argue and convince people that we are right, we cannot change people’s hearts – only God can do that. Faith is a gift from God, not a skill we can teach. The Gospel and all its implications can be defended and explained, but it takes God changing a heart before it will be embraced.
Or pride. We cannot kill the pride within us – only God can. We can pretend to be humble, but even then we start to get prideful about how humble we are! Only God can truly humble us.
We cannot remove fear from ourselves. We can do all manner of worldly things to try to control fear or even ignore it – but we cannot remove it. Only God’s perfect love can drive out fear.
We cannot stop worrying, and we cannot take away anyone else’s worry. We can give someone money, but we can’t remove worry from their hearts. We put someone in a safe place, assure them of their security, but nothing but a miracle from God can remove their worry.
We cannot generate love for someone, or make ourselves be able to truly forgive someone. We can chose to perform loving actions, and choose to forgive, but only God can ignite a love within us so strong that it overcomes our own hatred, bitterness or selfishness.
We cannot learn to hate our sin – that requires a miracle from God. We will make excuses for our sin, say how much we need it, explain it away, or bury it in a dark place so only we can see it. Even if it makes us sick, destroys our family, hurts our body, and destroys our minds, we can’t make ourselves hate it so much that we want to be free of it. Only God can do that. Only the power of the Holy Spirit can show us how hateful sin is. Unless God does that, we – and anyone we are praying for – will stay in their sin.
Let me give you two quick applications:
First, in all you do, partner with God. Sure, we can work with our hands, serve our family, fix something, and do a million other things without even thinking about God – and the unbelieving world does that all the time – but we can also do those things in partnership with God, which makes them an act worship and gives them everlasting value. That’s why scripture says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men…” (Col 3:23), “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor 10:31) “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col 3:17) When you acknowledge the presence and the partnership of God in whatever task, it will bring a new meaning to all you do.
Second, and more importantly, realize that you are also utterly dependent on God for everything in your life. Don’t live as a “religious Christian” for spiritual things, but a “practical atheist” the rest of the time. You will not be able to see a demonstration of the Spirit’s power if you are trying to do everything yourself and fix all your own problems. You are designed to need God, therefore stop being too foolish or prideful to ask.
It’s not your job to hold it all together, to be strong for everyone, to fight the good fight alone, or pull up your own socks. The more you exercise your control, the less you are giving to God. The more you work in your own strength, the less you will get from God. The more you try to figure it out in your own wisdom, the less wisdom you will get from God. If you’re trying to calm the storm, then you’ll never turn to Jesus who can do it for you. If you’re trying to make everyone safe and secure, you’re refusing the help of the one who can actually protect you. If you’re trying to plan your future without talking to God, you are performing a hopeless task.
There’s a great line in a song from Casting Crowns that says, “I’m on the throne, stop holding on and just be held.” That’s a great line and an important truth. It’s not your job to hold on by your own power – what you need to do is acknowledge that in order to see God’s power at work in your life, you need remember that you just need to be held by Him.
One would think that it would be universally true that no one likes looking like a fool, but that’s not really the case is it? There are countless websites, YouTube channels, gifs, tv shows and blogs that are solely dedicated to watching people do foolish, dangerous, stupid or ridiculous things – and they get thousands, even millions of hits and earn the content creators quite a lot of money. It would seem that today, acting like a fool, is not only popular but quite lucrative. Just the other day I watched a video where a guy filled a swimming pool with 1500 gallons of Coca-Cola, threw in some mentos and ice to make it cool and bubbly, and then proceeded to jump in. And then, just for good measure, they included some “tech destruction” by ruining a $2000 dollar flying quad-copter camera by crashing it into the pool. It made no sense.
Every single comment I read, from top to bottom, was about how stupid and wasteful it was – and yet, last time I looked, they had almost 5 million subscribers and the video had 22 million views. Foolishness, silliness, and stupidity, it would seem, is quite a popular pastime.
I’m not going to say that I’m immune from it. I’ve done some stupid things in my life. Sometimes to impress people, other times because I simply wanted the experience. I once drove my father’s car 212 km/hr down a long, steep hill on a highway out of town. That was dumb and I could have died. I once helped duct-tape a friend to a lawn-chair and throw him in the back of a car so we could take pictures of him in various, sketchy, locations. He still bears the scars from how tightly we taped him. Another time I ate nothing but Little-Caesar’s Crazy bread for three straight days, just to see what would happen. Actually, nothing happened and I enjoyed every minute of it.
That’s one kind of foolishness, and it seems to be one that a lot of people enjoy, but maybe there’s a different kind of foolishness that isn’t quite so popular; a feeling that no one wants to experience, and where even the most extroverted YouTuber dares not go. The section of scripture we are going to look at today uses the word “folly” and “foolish” a lot, but it certainly can’t mean “silliness”, “goofiness” or “simple stupidity”.
Open up to 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 and let’s read it together and then take it apart a bit to see if we can understand what God is trying to teach us here.
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
The Mines of Moria
The word for “foolish” or “folly” here both come from the same root word, MOROS. The word “folly” is actually the word MORIA, and if there are any Lord of the Rings fans here you’ll remember that word. It was the underground mining city where the Dwarves dug too deeply to extract more and more treasure from the earth until they accidentally awoke a demon called a Balrog. Their foolish greed literally drove them to dig their own tunnel to hell. In Tolkien’s made-up language MORIA means “Black Abyss”, but there’s no doubt Tolkien intended a double meaning for Christian readers who had studied the concept of the deeper meaning of folly in the Bible.
If you recall, the wizard Gandalf, was the guide for the group and was trying to get them to the Land of MORDOR to get rid of the ring, was something of a Christ-figure throughout the books. He didn’t want to go MORIA because of what had been awoken by the dwarves – the evil, or utter foolishness, of a society dedicated to an all-consuming greed – embodied in the danger of facing the Balrog.
As they try to sneak their way through the mines, everything inevitably goes wrong (just as Gandalf thought it would) and they are forced to make a break for the Bridge of Kazad-Dum, the very long, straight and narrow bridge to safety, without any kind of rail, spanning a great fiery chasm, where they would all have to cross single file. (Sound familiar?) It was on this bridge that Gandalf was forced protect those under his care by having them cross first and then turn to confront the demon, shouting “You Cannot Pass!”, breaking the bridge in half, sending the Balrog tumbling into the chasm, saving his friends.
Now, let me nerd-out a little bit more because Tolkien digs really deep her into his Christ-figuring. Before he breaks the bridge he shouts out some very specific warnings at the demon. He says, “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udun. Go back to the shadow! You cannot pass.”
Most people think it’s strange that the good-guy, Gandalf, would be a “servant of fire” and a “wielder of a flame”, but when you dig deep, you see here that this is no mere occurrence of fighting fire with fire. In Tolkien’s universe, The Secret Fire is the “Light of Creation that burns at the centre of the earth” and “Anor” is the name of the sun. He’s looking at the demon and saying, “Your dark fire, your destructive ‘flame of Udun’ (which is Tolkien’s version of Hell), will do you no good against me because I have access to the greater powers of light and creation.” [Or in today’s vernacular: “Hey demon, you better check yourself, before you wreck yourself.”]
This whole situation here, without question, is meant to show us a picture of salvation through Jesus Christ. They journey through a land of foolishness who releasing all the powers of Hell in their greed leading to a battle between a demon and the One who has the power of the Light of Creation.
It’s basically the beginning of the Gospel of John in storybook form!:
“All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:3-5)
Jesus says in John 8:12, “I am the light of the world.”
But that’s not where the Gospel of John’s opening chapter ends. By the third chapter, we read about the cost of what it takes to bring the people trapped in the black abyss of MORIA, the land of total foolishness, back into the light. It requires the only One who has lived in perfect light to go into the darkness, do battle with sin and evil, and cast the darkness itself into the abyss? How? By living a perfect life, and then dying in place of foolish sinners.
In John 3:13-21, Jesus says,
“No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
I have no doubt that’s what Tolkien was illustrating in this scene in Lord of the Rings. Gandalf had to die at the hands of the Balrog so his followers could escape the deep dark of MORIA.
But if you’ve seen the movie, or read the books, you’ll remember the last words that Gandalf said before he slid into the abyss: “Fly, you fools!”.
Interesting last words, aren’t they? His final message was to call them fools and command them to “fly”, or “run”, or “get out as fast as you can”. Why? Let me read it to you,
“With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished. But even as it fell it swung its whip, and the thongs lashed and curled about the wizard’s knees, dragging him to the brink. He staggered and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss. ‘Fly, you fools!” he cried, and was gone. The fires went out, and blank darkness fell. The company stood rooted with horror staring into the pit. Even as Aragon and Boromir came flying back, the rest of the bridge cracked and fell. With a cry Aragorn roused them. ‘Come, I will lead you now!’ he called. ‘We must obey his last command. Follow me!’”
Here we see the disciples, lost, afraid, alone, in the dark, and frozen with fear. It was the final command of their saviour that got them to move. “Get out of this dark place as fast as you can. Get away from the land of Darkness. Fly from the land of Foolishness. Do not stay a moment longer, or your enemies will find you again. Remember, you fools, that you must flee this danger, not stand in the darkness. I have saved you at the cost of my life! Why do you stand there in the darkness waiting for the enemy to surround you? Fly, you fools!”
Aragorn takes up the charge and leads the group out of MORIA. Perhaps he is the figure of the Apostle Paul here, taking up the commands of Jesus and reminding the disciples to obey their Lord as he does. In fact, later in 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul says just that, telling them, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”
Jews and Greeks
With that picture in mind, let’s go back to 1 Corinthians 1 though and talk about that deeper form of foolishness I hinted at before, but let’s remember the context. It says in verse 22,
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles…”
The Jews and the Greeks both hated the idea of looking like fools. Not the silly, goofy kinds of fools we see on YouTube, but the kind of fool that no one wants to be. For the Jews, a fool was a sinner who had no access to the power of God, where a wise man was righteous and lived with God’s blessing. All through the Bible, we see demonstrations that the only way a Jew will change their minds is if God Himself comes down with fire, lightning, plagues and miracles. And even then, it doesn’t last long until they need to see more miracles.
That’s something they continued to request of Jesus. When He came back to the town of Cana where he had changed water into wine, he hadn’t stepped two feet into town before they came running up to him asking for another miracle. His reply was a frustrated,
“Will you never believe in me unless you see miraculous signs and wonders?” (John 4:48 – NLT)
After feeding the 5000 and walking on water to get to the other side of the sea of Galilee, the crowds caught up to Jesus and “said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’” In other words, “What does God expect of us? What great deeds must we do? What laws must we obey? What impresses God the most?”
“Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’”
All God requires is faith in Jesus. The works-oriented Jews couldn’t accept this. God must want more than just believing in Jesus as Messiah? He must want more than faith? What about circumcision, keeping the festivals, washing hands, going to the temple, making sacrifices…? There’s no way that God merely wants us to believe in You as Messiah, Jesus?
“So they said to him, ‘Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform?'”
We’ll believe you only if you do a powerful miracle again. Feed us again like you did yesterday. Do something spectacular and then we’ll believe you.
That’s why Paul says that Jews demanded signs. They weren’t going to change their beliefs unless they saw a work of power.
For the Greeks, the worst kind of fool is the one who is taken in by a liar; the fool who listens to the wrong teacher or puts their confidence in the wrong place. Athens, the greatest city in Greece was named after Athena, the goddess of wisdom. No Greek ever wanted to be the fool who reported wrong, ridiculous, outrageous things that no one else could understand or believe.
For them, the concept of the Almighty, Invisible God coming down in the form of a dirty, human, baby, was impossible to believe. That God would choose to live and work and sweat as a man, get hungry and thirsty and tired, was ridiculous. That a Creator would become one of his Creations was insulting. And perhaps worst of all, that that the God/man would die, and then somehow be raised from the dead, was borderline insane. Believing, teaching and sharing Christian beliefs made you sound like a crazy person.
Afraid to Look Like Fools
And yet, that’s the gospel; “…a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Gentiles.” This stumbling block became a problem in the Corinthian church and echoes the same problems that many churches, and many Christians, have today.
They become ashamed of Jesus and ashamed of the true gospel, so they change their beliefs to make themselves look less foolish for believing it. They are afraid to look like fools in front of their family, their friends, their culture, their workmates, their teachers or fellow students. They don’t want to look foolish to the scientific community, or even other religions, but instead of completely giving up on their faith, they change it to sound less foolish.
In Corinth, they were pressed on all sides to compromise. They lived in a pantheistic culture, with many gods, and yet the Bible teaches that there is only one. So they compromise a little to allow for the existence of other gods alongside their own.
The other temples had incredibly popular forms of worship that included ritual sex, prostitution, orgies, homosexuality, and other perverse things. And yet God was very clear about the rules for sex. But they thought that if they compromised their sexual integrity, perhaps it would be easier to get people to come to church.
The other religions in town had ecstatic performances with crazy exhibitions. The attendees would start drinking and the worship leaders would put on a huge display with instruments and dances, and stripping, and screaming, and blood, and more. Madness was an important aspect of their worship – and it was quite a show to behold.
And yet Paul tells the Corinthians that Christian worship services are to be orderly, respectful, one person speaking at a time, and then only those who have the spirit of God upon them and know what they’re talking about. He tells them that if they have no idea what’s going on in church, to save their questions for when they get home so that others aren’t distracted. That’s a HUGE difference! What a weird service that would be to all the newcomers! Every other temple and religion around them gets a good show, some crazy performance, and some sensuous perversion – and we have to sit here politely, sing some songs and listen to people take turns talking? No way, God! No way, Paul! That’s not how our culture worships!
So, to look less like weirdos, and more like the world around them, they changed things. But not just the way thy performed their worship services, they altered the very core of their faith. They didn’t want to sound silly to the intellectuals, so they compromised on the resurrection of Jesus. They didn’t want to seem closed minded, so they compromised on how salvation works and allowed other teachings like following the law, or having special knowledge, or a crazy experience, to be required for salvation alongside belief in Jesus.
In that short, two-year period when Paul had gone from Corinth to Ephesus, the fear of looking like fools to the people around them had gripped them so tightly that they had compromised almost everything so they could fit in. They changed the gospel. They ignored or altered God’s expectations. They refused to confront sin. And, to look cool and popular with the people of Corinth, they even tried to build bridges towards the other religions in the hopes of showing how similar they were. Does that sound familiar – because it’s still happening today.
And so, with a cry Paul seeks to rouse them saying, “Come, I will lead you now!… We must obey Jesus’ command. Follow me!” And what was Jesus’ command? A lot like Gandalf’s: “Fly, you fools! Run from sin! Don’t compromise the gospel. Don’t stay in the darkness MORIA. Don’t dwell in the land of fools. Don’t try to build bridges to the demons. Don’t befriend the orcs. Only a fool would do that. Fly! Get out of the darkness. Don’t dwell here anymore! You have been saved and are now children of light – live like it! (1 Thess 5:5)”
Christ The Power and Wisdom of God
But, in a great twist of irony, Paul never tells them that seeking great knowledge, deep wisdom and spiritual power is bad. No, we are meant to seek these things! But that all that they are seeking is truly found in Jesus! He tells these people who are thirsting for power and wisdom, not to stop searching, but to search where it may be found – in God.
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?”
He’s asking the question: “Where do you intend to turn for more wisdom or learning or than God can provide you? Where will you find the one who can debate with God and win?” “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
He asks them to consider what they know about God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ:
“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”
It’s almost a challenge to find a better plan than the one set out by God through our salvation through Jesus Christ. I defy you to find a better, more comprehensive, more gracious, more powerful, more wise, more helpful, more all-encompassing, more hopeful message than the message of Jesus. Everything that the world has come up with – all of its religions and medicines and solutions– fall utterly short of what God has provided in Jesus Christ. You may feel like fools in your culture, the ways of the enemy, the ways of the world, are what is truly foolish.
You WILL Look Like a Fool
And so the simple conclusion today is this: Remember that if you are a follower of Christ, then you are going to look like a fool to the world and they will mock you. The Christian salvation message doesn’t make sense to those whose hearts are hard towards God.
One last Lord of the Rings reference (I promise). When the company gets out of MORIA they end up with the elves – the immortal, wisest and fairest of all beings – and the king of the elves, the wisest of all, says, “If it were possible, one would say that at the last Gandalf fell from wisdom into folly, going needlessly into the net of Moria.” His Queen quickly corrects him saying, “Needless were none of the deeds of Gandalf in life. Those that followed him knew not his mind and cannot report his full propose…”
I read you that to say, that when you are following Jesus, even the wisest person in the world may consider you a fool – because sometimes God chooses to make us look like fools as He works out His full purpose in our lives, and in this world. You cannot follow Jesus with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and be fully accepted by the world. You cannot follow Jesus with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and not end up being considered a fool by some. By following Him you have made yourself incompatible with the way the world acts and thinks.
You will speak differently, have different priorities, and relate to people differently. You will use your time differently and see your work differently than those around you. They will be driven by different desires than you. You will sacrifice things that they would never consider giving up, and you will do things that they would never consider doing. And they will call you stupid for it. They’ll call you a doormat, or a bible-thumper, or a goody-two-shoes, an idiot, or a weakling. They’ll call you a fool because in their eyes you are one.
You have to remember that the closer you walk with Jesus, the more foolish you will look to the world around you. You have to be ok with that. Jesus said in Matthew 5:11-12, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” In other words, God people get mocked and mistreated. They always have and they always will.
In John 15:18-19 Jesus said this,
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”
Don’t be surprised when following Jesus, sharing the Gospel, believing the Bible and obeying God makes you look foolish and causes the world to mock, persecute and hate you. That’s how it’s always been. Jesus was the most perfect, most loving, and most just man ever – and they mocked Him and killed Him. It’ll be the same with you. So remember you’re going to look like a fool when you follow Jesus, but God’s foolishness is wiser than any man’s wisdom. Don’t be ashamed of it. Jesus is the power and wisdom of God and the one way by which we are saved.
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.
Last week we started a new series on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and I talked about the two principle players involved , that being Paul and the city of Corinth. The two things that I hope you walked away with last week was Paul’s passion for spreading the love of God found in the true Gospel of Jesus Christ and how badly Corinth needed to hear it.
Corinth was basically the internet come to life. A huge amount of people from every nation, background and belief system, gathered in a city dedicated to spreading opinions and information (and misinformation), making money in commerce and manufacturing, religious ideas shouted from every temple and street corner, and a non-stop stream of sexual filth. Like I said: the internet, come to life.
Paul Has a Hard Time in Athens
This week we’re going to continue giving the back story to 1st Corinthians by talking about what was happening when the church was first planted. This will help us gain some appreciation for the relationship that Paul had with the church, the city, and (hopefully) establish some context for some of the things that Paul will say in his letter.
It was during Paul’s second missionary journey that he came into the city of Corinth for the first time, and was so struck by the place that he decided to stay for a year and a half. We’re going to spend most of our time today in Acts 18 today, but before we go there, I want you to turn back a page and take a look at where Paul had just been coming from – which was the city of Athens.
Athens was like Corinth in some of the ways we talked about last week: pagan and pretty messed up. But, while Corinth’s fascination was all forms of sex, Athens’ preoccupation was talking. There was nothing more that the people of Athens enjoyed more than listening to philosophers, teachers, lawyers and religious experts from around the world. And this town was full of religious opinions of every sort. Read Acts 17:16:
“Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.”
The words “his spirit was provoked” are a strong word picture speaking of a sudden and violent emotion, a combination of anger and grief. It’s the Greek word from which we get our word “Paroxysm”. As he wandered through town he was deeply troubled by how lost these people were.
It’s not that they weren’t intelligent people. Athens was a university town, at one time the centre of the political, educational and philosophical universe. Four hundred years before it had been the home of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and Epicurus. Now, however, it was a much small city of only ten-thousand, stuck trying to relive their glory days by spending their time doing not much more than arguing and philosophizing about the mysteries of the universe. They would generate a lot of heat – but very little light.
They cared more about talking than finding the truth. They had statues dedicated to every god in almost every religion under the sun but didn’t know the One, True God. Paul’s tour of town let him see just how lost they were.
Paul spent some days talking in synagogues and in the marketplace, trying to share the story of Jesus but met with very poor results. He had no partners in town, no fellow believers, no ministry assistants, and nothing he said or did was helping anyone learn anything more about Jesus.
“Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, ‘What does this babbler wish to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.” (Acts 17:18)
Read that with as much dripping condescension as you can muster. Such arrogant pride and hard hearts. Paul was one of the most intelligent, wisest, most skilled teachers in history, but their hearts were so hard and their ears so closed that all they heard was babbling.
But apparently his “babbling” was interesting enough to some people that they invited him to come and speak at the Areopagus at Mars Hill, the seat of the highest court and one of the most important lecture hall and discussion places in the world. The most significant conversations about law, philosophy, and religion were brought to these thirty people on this esteemed counsel. It wasn’t that they much cared about what Paul was saying, they were just interested in hearing something new.
“Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” (vs 21)
At least this was something. This was to be Paul’s moment in Athens. Surely this would lead to some hearts being changed and a church being formed. Paul preached a great apologetics sermon that day, one that has been studied by generations since. But it had almost no effect. Paul poured out his heart, soul, mind and strength before this crowd and almost nothing happened.
“Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.” (vs 32-33)
A few people responded in faith, both men and women, but the rest scoffed him out of the building – and out of town. They believed no one sane would think that people come back from the dead and Paul stood there as this counsel of the highest intellectuals in the world laughed at him. A few wanted to hear him again – maybe out of genuine interest or maybe because they were bored.
Paul Comes to Corinth Exhausted
I tell you all this because I want you to realize how Paul was feeling when he came into Corinth the first time.
Prior to coming to Corinth Paul had faced a lot of discouragement. In Philipi his ministry had started strong, but then was nearly ruined by Jewish opposition and Paul ended up beaten with rods and thrown into jail. Then he went to Thessalonica where things went ok at first, but then more opposition arose who attacked the family that was hosting the church meetings. He left town and went to Berea but the troublemakers from Thessalonica followed him and caused even more trouble, and ran him out of town – alone.
Paul had entered Athens tired and discouraged, but after this huge disappointment, facing public rejection and embarrassment, he left Athens utterly exhausted. He was physically, emotionally and spiritually done and then he travelled alone for a long while until he reached Corinth.
In 1 Corinthians 2:3 it says that when Paul was teaching in Corinth he was “…in weakness and in fear and much trembling…” He was done. He had none of his former fire left. He wasn’t the bold man standing before crowds and proclaiming the name of Jesus – he was utterly spent. His message wasn’t complex and intellectual, but simple and spoken from weak legs and trembling lips. But remember where he was – the internet come to life – surrounded by pagan temples, a tonne of false teaching, and crazy amounts of sin. I wonder what it must have been like for Paul when he stumbled into town. If Athens threw him into paroxysms, what must Corinth have done?
Oh, and by the way, Paul was totally broke too. No friends, no support, no energy, no money.
Aquila and Priscilla
Now, let’s turn to acts 18 and see what God does:
“After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.”
How cool is that? Let me explain. Paul comes into town and has absolutely no money – but he does have some skills. He’s knows how to sew animal leather together to make tents and canopies. Paul needs some money for food and somewhere to stay, so his first stop is the local trade guild. In other words, he went to the union office and asked for a job. These folks were good at taking care of their own and found Paul a job right away.
In God’s providence, Paul’s tent-making job not only gave him a way to make ends meet but also introduced him to some like-minded people who would become life-long friends Aquila and Priscilla.
Aquila and Priscilla had been through some rough times too. They had been living in Rome when Emperor Claudius had unilaterally kicked all the Jewish people out of Rome in 49AD. They met Paul in Corinth two years later.
What happened in Rome was that Emperor Claudius was sick of the constant disturbances surrounding someone named “Chrestus”. A lot of scholars believe that this was a mangled spelling of the Latin word for Christ and that Claudius had gotten sick of the constant fighting between the followers of Jesus and the Jewish synagogues. So much so that he literally banished all of them from his city!
It’s an easy leap to thinking that Priscilla and Aquila were Christians who had been kicked out of Rome two years before and had decided to go to the big city of Corinth to make some money as tentmakers. When they came to work the next day they were likely just as surprised as Paul was that they had found a fellow believer in Jesus Christ!
God Wants People Together
Let’s just pause there for a second. It’s important that we notice something important here in the life of Paul, because it tells us something about our own lives and how to get through the seasons that God sometimes puts us through.
I know you know that sometimes God puts us through some pretty difficult stuff. Paul went through all kinds of hard things during his missionary travels. This is not an exception to the rule, but is standard operating procedure for the life of a believer. All of God’s followers will go through some tough times – and that’s part of God’s plan.
Sometimes those difficult things will come from inside us as we battle with temptations, doubts, fears, depression, anxiety, or other mental and emotional issues. Sometimes difficult things will happen to us out of the blue, like a sudden death, tragedy, illness, or natural disaster. Sometimes we bring hard times on ourselves through our own actions; as a result of our own sinful behaviour or are simply a result of the choices we’ve made. And sometimes trouble comes from other people sinning against us through emotional, physical, or mental abuse, being treated unjustly, lied to, or forgotten.
All these things happened to Paul and other faithful followers of God. A lot of theologians believe Paul had a natural predisposition towards depression, and we know of many others in scripture who suffered the same way. He faced shipwrecks and famines that he had no power over, and often found himself facing struggles that he brought on himself through his own decisions. And of course, he faced persecution and abuse from many people – and was often forgotten or betrayed by his fellow ministry workers.
This is normal. Jesus Himself, the One whom we are to follow and pattern our lives after, went through some incredibly difficult times too – on all these levels. Temptation was His constant companion and we know He had times of deep sadness. He lived through tragedies and disasters. The decisions He made often brought Him more and more trouble and made Him more enemies. And we certainly know that He was abused by others and abandoned by those closest to Him.
Sometimes, this is what the life of a believer looks like – a life of suffering. Sometimes God puts us through seasons in our life where everything gets darker and harder and more painful. So what are we to do?
What did the faithful of God do? What did Jesus do? What did Paul do? He did two things. He kept talking to Jesus and He kept walking with other people. The reason that Paul was alone in Athens was because he got run out of town and left Silas and Timothy to take care of the brand new church he had just planted. He would have done it himself, but his presence was causing more harm than good, so he left.
His time alone clearly had a difficult effect on Him. His strength failed more quickly and his energy became low. He preached in Athens, but had no effect, and no one to share the experience with. When he came to Corinth he was totally wrecked – but what did God do?
God miraculously provided Paul with a couple of Christians to talk to – in the middle of Corinth! There were no Christian churches in Corinth, and the Apostle Paul had never been there! These three believers coming together was no coincidence. It was the Holy Spirit of God drawing His people together to care for one another.
Paul kept praying and talking to Jesus, but he wasn’t meant to be alone and God knew it, so He worked it out, two years before, that there would be a couple of Christians in Corinth waiting for Paul to show up during a very low period in his life.
We all need people. We all need the church. When the author of Hebrews writes to the believers who were going through great persecution he says:
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Heb 10:24-25)
Some people’s response to stress is to tell the world to go away. They drop their friendships, stop going to church, avoid deep conversations and refuse invitations to meet. But that is a trap of the devil. God knows we need one another, which is why He provided Aquila and Priscila for the exhausted, discouraged and lonely Apostle Paul – and provided Paul for the hurting and spiritual lonely Aquila and Priscila.
Once church father named Ignatius says,
“When ye frequently, and in numbers meet together, the powers of Satan are overthrown, and his mischief is neutralized by your likemindedness in the faith.”
Satan wants to get you alone, God wants you to meet together regularly with fellow believers! All Christians are a member of the body of Christ, and it is unhealthy for us to amputate ourselves from the body!
This theme continues as we read Acts 18. We are going to see opposition pop up, and then God provide more and more people to partner with Paul, Aquila and Priscilla, to keep their spirits up and the Gospel message flowing through Corinth.
More Opposition to the Gospel
“When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus.” (Acts 18:5)
Another translation says that when Silas and Timothy arrived, it gave Paul the chance to “devote himself exclusively to preaching”. We can already see Paul’s strength coming back.
He took some time to rest and work with his new friends, preaching some Saturdays at the local synagogue, but when Silas and Timothy came to town, Paul was finally ready to go again. His friends had helped him and now he had even more support. And his support system was even greater than just those around him since Silas and Timothy had likely brought Paul some money from the other churches so he could devote his full time to preaching. The wind was at Paul’s back now and He was ready to go and buckled down to convince the local synagogue that Jesus really was the Messiah – but it wasn’t going to go well.
“And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.’” (Acts 18:6)
As usual, the stubborn Jewish leaders wouldn’t listen and stirred up trouble against Paul. They started to abuse him verbally, and maybe even physically.
Can you imagine the flashbacks Paul must have had? “Oh no… this is Philipi and Thessalonica and Berea all over again!” His heart starts to beat hard, fear begins to grip him, and – based on what we are about to read – I think Paul was about to quit. He was done.
He had a few Christian friends around, but once again he was the focal point of trouble for them. People were getting hurt and his preaching was the reason. How much more could he take? But keep reading and see what God does: “And he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue. Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.’ And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.”
“And he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue. Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.’ And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.” (Acts 18:7-11)
When Paul was at his weakest, utterly dependent on God’s Spirit to do all the work, God broke forth in Corinth! Titius Justus gets saved and just happens to have a great big house, likely an entire compound, right next to the synagogue. Then, Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue that had just kicked Paul out, and a very influential man, sucks up his pride, gets saved and starts coming to church at Titius’ house. That’s a huge win! But not just Crispus, his entire household! The Christian church and Paul’s support system is really starting to grow now, but Paul isn’t seeing it.
Next, we read that the Corinthians start to hear about Paul’s message and start to flock to this new church in town and listen to Paul teach about Jesus. Paul is steal preaching from great weakness, keeping it simple, but after he says amen and looks up to see all the new people, Paul isn’t excited about this growth – he’s going home to Priscilla and Aquila’s house terrified. Anxiety wracks his mind. His health is failing. The encouragements of his friends aren’t helping. He’s ready to bug out. Along with all this growth is a lot of opposition from the Jewish synagogue next door, and Paul’s very worried. Soon that controversy would reach the ears of the proconsul Gallio, the leader of the whole province of Achaia.
Not Just People, But God
And here we learn our second lesson today. We don’t just need people – we need God. You likely know the feeling of being surrounded by people that love you, but feeling sad and alone anyway. Maybe you even know the feeling of having success in life and work, but feeling terrified that it will all come crashing down around your ears.
Paul knew that feeling, which is why God showed up like he did. Paul didn’t just need people in his life, he needed the voice of God. We all need both, don’t we? And yet, some of us fight against one or the other – or both!
We fight against our need for others and try to take on the world alone, and that sets us up for all kinds of difficulty, so God tells us to make sure that we are in a relationship with others. Alternatively, sometimes we even fight against our need for God. Our whole being cries out that that there is something bigger than us in this world and we need something greater than ourselves to make it through, but for some reason we refuse to get down on our knees and admit we need Him.
We refuse to ask God for help believing we must provide for ourselves. We refuse to read the Bible thinking that we have all the wisdom we need to make decisions. We refuse to submit to the Lordship of Jesus because we think we know better than Him. Our souls say we must yield, but we don’t. Why? Pride. Selfishness. Our love of sin.
But we are designed for both. We need to love both vertically and horizontally. We need to love God and be loved by Him. And we need to love others and be loved by them. That’s the power of being part of a good, Christian church family. We are a people who have committed to love vertically and horizontally: to love god and each other.
I believe that’s why God appeared to Paul in that vision. He wasn’t going to hear it any other way. It reminds me of another prophet that was overwhelmed with his job – a young man named Joshua. God said to him something very similar to what Paul heard:
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)
God message to Paul, Joshua, and all of us is the same. You need not fear because you are not alone. I’m with you wherever you go.
Everyone needs to hear this, though precious few will accept it. Perhaps today we need it more than ever.
- Marriages and families are crumbling to adultery and divorce.
- Fatherlessness is epidemic.
- The proliferation of materialism and pornography has created a culture of shallow people who no longer have deep relationships.
- Men are afraid of having deep, male friendships for fear of being labelled as weak or gay.
- Men can’t have friendships with children for fear of being labeled as pedophiles.
- Women are afraid of other women out of fear of being betrayed.
- Young people no longer respect and seek wisdom from their elders, and older people have written off the next generation.
- Men and women, both young and old, because of the gender wars of feminism and chauvinism, have almost lost the ability to talk to one another.
- And most of us, even self-proclaimed Christians, have written off God and rarely speak to Him, listen to His Spirit speaking to our hearts, or read the book He wrote for us.
We have a deep need for God and each other and very few are willing to take the risk to build those relationships. But we need to.
God Secures Safe Passage for the Gospel
Let me close with the end of the story of the planting of the church in Corinth. Let’s read the last few verses together, starting in verse 12:
“But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal, saying, ‘This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law.’ But when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, ‘If it were a matter of wrongdoing or vicious crime, O Jews, I would have reason to accept your complaint. But since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves. I refuse to be a judge of these things.’ And he drove them from the tribunal. And they all seized Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal. But Gallio paid no attention to any of this.” (Acts 18:12-17)
What happened? God was at work again. Gallio’s ruling that Paul’s planting of a Christian church wasn’t breaking Roman Law stood as the precedent for the next ten years. God, through all this trouble at this little church in Corinth, and all of Paul’s heartache, was securing a strong foundation for the Christian church to spread all over the Roman Empire. Christianity, from that point on, would be considered a sect of Judaism and protected under Roman Law. Had Gallio found Paul guilty, every governor in every province where the missionaries would go would be under arrest for being Christians. Instead, God used this controversy to secure safe passage for the global missionaries of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the next decade.
So there’s my closing points today. When Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) this is what he meant. You will have trouble and you need help from God and others to get through it! Even the troubles we face will be used for God’s glory and the building of His kingdom. And even in those troubles God will bring people together and bring more people to Him. That’s what God does and I encourage you from the bottom of my heart to relent to how God does things.
- Accept that this world has trouble, but also accept that God doesn’t want you to face that trouble alone!
- Embrace the community of believers around you.
- Learn to learn to love and depend others.
- Meet often in each other’s homes and take care of one another.
And as we do all of that, let us always stay in faithful contact with Jesus Christ, who is ultimately the One who saves us and brings us into relationship with God and others.
Welcome to the first week of our series on 1st Corinthians! I’ve been really excited to start this series for two reasons. First, I really enjoy teaching books of the bible, and second, because I believe that the content of this series is going to be not only extremely interesting, but also very helpful.
As we go through this book and study its context and background you are going to see a lot of echoes of the present. Some people accuse the Bible of being an old, complicated, out of touch book for super-religious people and theologians locked in monastic towers, unable to speak to the issues and trials of modern life — but that’s an impossible conclusion to come to when we take the time to read and study it. And that truth is exemplified in 1st Corinthians.
The society that the church in Corinth was living in and the issues it was facing are the same issues we face today. The world in which they lived in is eerily similar to our world today. Sometimes, as a preacher, I have to dig a little deeper to find the application for our life today – but that won’t be the case for 1st Corinthians. It’s blatantly obvious in every chapter.
But before we get into our study of the book itself, it’s really important that we get some context.
The Apostle Paul
The first think you need to know about 1st Corinthians is that it is a letter written from the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth around 55 AD, about 25 years after the resurrection of Jesus Christ and 20 years after Paul’s conversion to Christianity. Here’s a quick bio on the author:
Paul, who was also known as Saul of Tarsus, was a Jewish man born in the city of Tarsus, the capital city of the Roman Province of Cilicia. He was a Jewish man, but he had Roman citizenship, which explains why he went by two names (Acts 22:3). He was born as the Hebrew Saul (SHAAL) and then later when he became a missionary to the gentiles, he dropped the Jewish name and went by his Roman name PAULUS.
Saul had the best of both worlds education-wise. His parents allowed him to be trained in the Greek education system, but at home he was also taught the importance of his Jewish heritage and the Torah. He was even taught how to work with his hands, sewing animal skins together to make tents. He describes himself in Philippians 3:5-6 as “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
At some point in Saul’s life he had embraced his Jewish heritage and found that he had a deep love for the Law of Moses, and found his way into being trained as a Pharisee – the keepers of the Law. Saul quickly rose to the top of the class and was taken for training under the very well respected teacher, Gamaliel – the grandson of the famous Rabbi Hillel, one of the most important scholars in Jewish history. He is closely associated with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud – the foundational commentaries on Jewish Law and History. These werethe guiding documents for the Pharisees, a group dedicated to obedience not only to the Law of Moses, but also the Oral Laws and commentaries written in the Mishnah and Talmud. The Pharisees were the most trained, most hard-core religious people in the Jewish world – and young Saul was thriving under their training, setting himself apart as a man of extremely zealous passion for keeping God’s Word.
When Jesus was being born in Bethlehem, Saul wasn’t even a glimmer in his father’s eye yet, and was about 25 years old when Jesus died on the cross. Jesus would have been teaching in Galilee while Saul was growing up and being trained by Gamaliel and the school for Pharisees in Jerusalem.
With all the confrontations that Jesus had with the Pharisees, especially during Passion Week, there is no doubt that Saul knew about Jesus’ teaching – and had learned to hate Him as much as the rest of the Pharisees did. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Saul was in Jerusalem at the same time as Jesus was, possibly even in attendance with the Sanhedrin crowd that condemned Him to death.
As the Christian church started to grow after the resurrection of Jesus, Saul’s hatred of the church was growing as well. The leaders of this break-away group, called the Apostles, were following in the footsteps of their leader and stirring up all kinds of trouble, winning converts away from the Pharisees and teaching that this Galilean carpenter from Nazareth was the Son of God and Messiah, the Christ! Saul, an expert in the Law and Prophets, a Pharisee of Pharisees, hated these people who called themselves “The Way”. There was only one way, his way!
Paul the Hunter of Christians
The first introduction we get to the young man Saul comes in Acts 7 at the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. After Stephen had spoken about Jesus and accused this group of being stubborn and blind to the truth, it says in verse 54,
“Now when they [The Pharisees and the rest of the Sanhedrin] heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he [Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.”
The stoning of Stephen was the dam-bursting event that allowed all the pent-up hatred against Christians to finally be let loose. It was open season on the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem and the man they wanted in charge of rounding them up for imprisonment, trial and death was Saul, their brightest, most popular, and most zealous member.
Saul spent about a year actively hunting, imprisoning, condemning and probably even killing Christians. He also expanded his hunt far beyond the city of Jerusalem. We read the next chapter of Saul’s story in Acts 9:1-6, and find Saul travelling hundreds of kilometers in his pursuit of the followers of Jesus:
“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’”
In that single moment Jesus sends Saul’s whole world crashing down around him. Jesus literally stops Saul in his tracks and confronts him with his hatred, pride and sins. Saul gets up, blinded, and spends three days without eating or drinking, trying to absorb this new reality.
Then God sends a Christian named Ananias to help him, teach him, heal his blindness, bestow the gift of the Holy Spirit, and to baptize him into the Christin faith. Ananias calls him “Brother Saul” and gently ushers him into this new world of faith in Jesus Christ.
After that meeting Saul spent some time telling the Jews in the synagogues of Damascus what had happened to him, but wasn’t well received by anyone. He left Damascus and spent a few years in solitude, away from the Pharisees, away from Christians, away from everyone, wandering Arabia in an extended time of reflection, prayer, study, and meditation on all that had happened. He was forced to re-evaluate everything he thought he knew about God, Jesus, the Bible, and the Christians he had been hunting, and it took a long while. He needed to humble himself before Jesus, ask forgiveness and do some learning. He was no longer the darling of Jerusalem, the biggest man on campus, but simply a new follower of Jesus Christ, the one who saved him even though he had been the greatest enemy of His followers.
Fast-forward the story a little: After his time away Saul went to Jerusalem to talk to the Apostles and tell them that Jesus had chosen him to be an apostle too. The apostles were wary at first, but willing to listen. The Jews, however, were angry that their greatest weapon had turned on them and tried to kill Saul.
The Apostles decided send him back to Tarsus to lay low for a while. He stayed in Tarsus teaching about Jesus for about 10 years before the apostles sent Barnabas came and got him so they could work together on a mission trip to spread the gospel to new places while collecting funds to help people during a time of great famine.
Saul’s time with Barnabas would set the pattern for the rest of his life. His whole world had been changed by meeting Jesus Christ and He wanted everyone in the world to know about it. His Christian life would be lived on the road as a missionary to the gentiles. Yes, he still loved the Jews, and spent time telling them about Jesus too, but his upbringing, education, training, and passions made him a perfect missionary to non-Jewish people.
His first missionary journey would take three years, from 46-49 AD. His second missionary journey would take two years, from 50-52 AD. It was on this second journey that Saul, who was now going by Paul, would visit Corinth for the first time and stay for 1 and a half years.
These missions cost Paul much. His love for Jesus, the Gospel and His church gave Paul much heartache as he watched partners desert him and the churches he planted get attacked and fall into believing lies about him and Jesus. It took a toll on his body as well as he faced beatings, imprisonment, stoning, lashes, shipwrecks, starvation, and more. But nothing would stop him from telling everyone he could about the love and forgiveness he’d found in the resurrected Jesus Christ.
It was during his third journey, as he was staying in Ephesus for two years, that he wrote his letters to the Corinthians after receiving some news about their troubles.
The City of Corinth
Ok, so that’s some backstory for the man who wrote the letter, now let’s work on a little of the backstory for the city of Corinth. I told you before that the world the church in Corinth was living in and the issues it was facing are very similar to the issues we face today; let me explain what I mean.
To live in the city of Corinth was to live in the coolest city in the world. This was the newest, trendiest, most modern, exciting and wealthiest town around. It had been destroyed a couple hundred years before, but was rebuilt by Julius Caesar in 46BC and quickly regained its prominence. By 27 BC (only 80 years before Paul got there) it had been named the capital of the province and by the first century had cemented its place as the most influential commercial centre, and an important manufacturing centre in Greece.
Their success came from their location. The city was a harbour town, located on a little strip of land that connected mainland Greece and Achaia. The weather often made it too dangerous to go around the whole of the rest of the land, so the Corinthians had a system where they would place ships on large wooden platforms and drag them across a stone road to drop them on the other side. Today they’ve simplified the process by digging a huge canal.
Corinth was a brand new (or rather refurbished) city with lots of money, people and things to do. Scholars estimate that the population of Corinth during the time of the apostles was somewhere between 500,000-700,000 people including Roman citizens, Greeks, foreigners and slaves. People would come from all around the world to witness the Isthmian Games, second only to the Olympics in their prominence.
When you think of Corinth, think of a twenty-first century “inner city” like downtown Toronto; an overcrowded, ethnically diverse, materialistic, urban concentration of people, bursting with upper-class professionals and down-and-out street dwellers. And just like our inner cities today, it was full of opportunities to sin.
Unlike today, however, all their activities were masked it all with a veneer of religion. Corinth had as many temples and places of worship as downtown Toronto has Tim Hortons’! There was a god and a temple for everyone. As a strong commercial centre they drew people from everywhere. You could worship the gods of Egypt, Rome, and Greece all at once – or even head to the Jewish Synagogue.
Corinth was a religious, hedonistic, self-indulgent, decedent city, full to the brim with people, money, commercialism and moral decadence, but they had one overriding obsession: sex. It was such a part of the culture that Plato used the term “Corinthian girl” as shorthand to refer to prostitution and the rest of the ancient world would describe sex-obsessed, promiscuous people as “living like Corinthians”.
One place that everybody went (except the Jews of course) was one of the most famous temples in the ancient world: the Temple of Aphrodite, which stood high near the rim of the mountains so everyone could see it from the harbour. Whether you lived there, was a visiting tourist, or simply a sailor waiting for his ship to make the journey across the road, everyone – regardless of their personal, religious convictions worshipped at the Temple of Aphrodite.
When you think of Corinth, think of it as all the worst parts of the internet coming to life – and the Temple of Aphrodite was pornography central. This cult was dedicated to the glorification of sex. Some scholars believe they had as many as thousand girls kept there as consecrated priestesses, or sacred sex workers, who would come in great, ritualistic processions, dressed in fine clothes and crowns on their heads, to excite the crowds of men so they could make their choice, throw money into the collection or not, and take the temple priestess to have sex as an act of worship to the goddess of love, beauty, pleasure and fertility, Aphrodite. Some scholars believe that it was law in the land that every woman who lived in the city had to take their turn as priestesses in the temple, whether they wanted to or not. (Herodotus)
In the centre of town, for the even more perverse, stood the Temple of Apollo which also glorified sex, but this time it wasn’t with women, but with men and boys. Corinth was a monument to immorality of every kind. Slavery, greed, the pursuit of power, paganism and sexual immorality drove the economy and lifestyle of all the lived there.
Another internet-like thing was the proliferation of teachings, opinions and pseudo-intellectual nonsense that streamed through town. Throughout Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we read about four things that the Corinthian church wanted more than anything: “Spirituality”, “Wisdom”, “Knowledge” and “Power”, and though Paul taught that all these things were found in a relationship with Jesus Christ, God wasn’t working fast enough – or in the way they wanted Him to – and they were falling into their old habits to find it.
The celebrated Greek philosophers and teachers that everyone in town flocked to listen to, called Sophists, told everyone in town that to obtain super-spirituality, and great wisdom, knowledge and power, what they must do is separate their mind from their body by seeking out the biggest, wildest, most ecstatic experiences that they could. The crazier they got, the greater the physical pain or pleasure, the more insane the experimentation, the wilder the experience, the closer they would be to the gods.
This was the mindset in Corinth when Paul came to town in 51 AD. (Acts 18)
Parallels of Today
Can you see any parallels to today? It’s not too hard is it? When Paul walked into Corinth 2000 years ago he may as well have been walking into any modern day city in North America. The society around us is just as obsessed with money, power, trendiness, and sexual experiences as they were then. And our church, and the church in North America, is faced with the same temptations as they were.
The Corinthians needed the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They were utterly lost in their sin and were desperate to hear what Paul was saying about a new way of salvation. We’ll cover the story next week, but while the Jews argued with Paul, the gentiles of the city flocked to hear the message of Jesus Christ. Their hearts were full of guilt and shame, and hearing about salvation through Jesus must have been like getting a breath of fresh air or a clean drink of water while living in a garbage dump.
But even though they readily embraced the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that didn’t mean their troubles were over. They were still very new Christians and were constantly surrounded by opportunities to compromise their faith and morality. They were bombarded by temptations to try to be cool, to follow the latest trends, to seek out spiritual experiences, to give in to physical pleasures, and to live for themselves rather than others.
There were Jewish and pagan teachers who came into their church and made a lot of sense to them, but were trying to pull them away from faith in Jesus and into pagan or Jewish worship practices instead. They were told that they either needed to follow the Law of Moses completely, or that since they were saved by Jesus and that they were new, spiritual creatures, they could do whatever they want with their bodies. They’d either be forgiven or it didn’t matter to God anyway. This was extremely confusing and very tempting to them!
That’s where Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians comes in (1 Cor 1:1-2). This church that Paul had spent a year and a half planting and caring for was falling apart. As he was staying in Ephesus, he started to receive news that things were going badly. First came a delegation of men sent to bring Paul a list of questions and to talk him into coming to Corinth to fix things. Then came some people from a woman named Chloe’s house who came to tell him even more problems.
And all of these various thoughts, teachings and temptations were causing a huge division in the church. Some people wanted to go with what Paul had said, others wanted to listen to the new teachings, some wanted to go back to the Law of Moses, while others wanted to incorporate some of the things from the temples of Aphrodite and Apollos into the church. No one knew what was best anymore, everyone wanted their own way, and no one was getting along.
Paul was stuck in Ephesus, but to help in the meantime, he wrote some letters – four in fact. We don’t have the first or the third letter – they were lost, but we do have the second and fourth – we call them first and second Corinthians in our Bibles.
These letters are written to a confused church who wants to obey God and love each other, but are living in morally chaotic land full of voices that are telling them a thousand different things. They need some truth and so they write to their Apostle for answers.
So that’s the first part of the introduction to Corinthians and we’ll leave it there for this week. What I want you to do before we come back next week is to read 1st Corinthians all the way through. It’s only 16 chapters, so that’s only a little over two chapters per day. As you read, I want you to keep what we’ve talked about today in mind – Paul’s passion for spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the context in which the Corinthian church was living.
You’ll notice as you read that Paul keeps coming back to that: the truth of the Gospel, the importance of living in the love of Jesus, and all the implications that has for our daily life.
Festival of Dangerous Ideas
Today is Easter Sunday, the day that the Christian church has set aside for hundreds of years – dating back to the third century – to celebrate and remember the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ! This event is the single most important event in the history of humanity!
To start today, I want to show you a clip that I found online that comes from an annual event in Australia called the “Festival of Dangerous Ideas”. This is a group that brings leaders and thinkers from around the world together to discuss and debate big ideas.
For example, in 2009 they had famous atheist Christopher Hitchens present the topic of “Religion Poisons Everything” and then Cardinal George Pell talked about how “Without God we are Nothing”. In 2012 they had talks entitled “All Women Hate Each Other”, “A Foetus is Not a Person” and “The Devil is Real”. So that’s the type of environment we’re talking about here. A group of intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals all gathered together to see who can either inform or offend the most people with their chosen position.
This clip is from 2013 and comes from the Q&A portion and I want you to listen to the answers from three of the panelists. First you will hear from Gay Activist Dan Savage, then Feminist icon Germain Greer, and finally, Journalist and Author Peter Hitchens.
Before I play though, let me quickly relate a little of Peter Hitchen’s fascinating story. He’s a Christian author, and he’s at this “Festival” to represent the Christian side of things, but the story of his coming to faith is almost as dramatic as the Apostle Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.
His brother is the famous, and recently deceased atheist author I just mentioned who spoke on “Religion Poisons Everything”, and at one point both brothers agreed that belief in God was ridiculous. Peter was literally a hard-core, Bible-burning, Marxist.
The story goes that while on holiday with his girlfriend in France, they went to view a famous painting called “Last Judgement” (by Rodgier Van der Weyden), when upon looking at the painting, suddenly the question, “What if I have to face judgement someday?” crept into his mind – and stuck there – sending him on a path of discovery that would bring him to faith in Jesus Christ and conservative Christianity. In 2010 he wrote a book called “The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me To Faith” as a counterpoint to his brother’s book “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” which was written the year before.
So, with all that in mind, take a look at this clip:
The answers to that question: “Which idea would most change the world for the better?” were incredibly varied. The first guy, Dan Savage, who is a professional sex therapist wants to practice population control and maybe even kill all babies for 30 years. The second person, Germaine Greer, is a radical feminist who believes that all men hate women and desire to enslave them, says that the best thing that we could do for this planet would be to throw off all moral constraints and embrace ultra-individualism.
Both of those answers, by the way, simply come down to being “If you want to create a better world, let everyone do whatever they want without consequences.” It was maddening to listen to the applause for those answers – loud applause for population control and mandatory abortions – and then hear absolute silence after Hitchens gave his answer about Jesus.
Hitchens’ answer, obviously, is the one that I want to focus on today, because he gives the right answer! Let me read his answer again:
“The most dangerous idea in human history and philosophy remains the belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and rose from the dead and that is the most dangerous idea you will ever encounter… Because it alters the whole of human behaviour and all our responsibilities. It turns the universe from a meaningless chaos into a designed place in which there is justice and there is hope and, therefore, we all have a duty to discover the nature of that justice and work towards that hope. It alters us all. If we reject it, it alters us all as well. It is incredibly dangerous. It’s why so many people turn against it.”
He’s absolutely correct. There is no more dangerous, life-altering, world-changing, perspective-shifting, truth in all the universe than the belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died on a cross and rose from the dead. Believing that changes everything about everything.
If it’s true, then that means that there is a God, the Bible is true, there really is a definitive moral law (right and wrong does exist and we don’t get to make it up). It means that this is not all there is, and that we need to stop living in the moment, but live in the light of eternity. And that God has judged humanity as sinners, condemned us to Hell, and anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus for salvation is truly doomed. Christianity is no mere cultural belief or part-time religious hobby– it’s a worldview-shattering truth.
The Resurrection As Fact
That’s why Christians vehemently reject the idea that Jesus was simply a good, moral teacher who had some great ideas about how to make the world better. Jesus wasn’t like one of those people at the “Festival of Dangerous Ideas” who stands up, pontificates on a few points, comes up with a few interesting ideas, and then slides out of history to allow the next thinker to build on His ideas.
No, Christians teach and believe that Jesus Christ is the third person of the Trinity, the Son of God, equal in majesty and authority with God the Father. And that at one point in history, Jesus, who was never created, but existed eternally, came into His creation, adding to Himself the flesh of a human being, so He could perfectly identify with us.
Because of God’s love for us, He sent His Son to be born as a baby, grow up to be a man, live a perfect life, and then die for the sins of all who would believe. Because He’d never broken God’s law, He did not stand under the judgement of God. Out of love for us, God laid the punishment for sins upon Jesus, exchanging His Son for us on the cross. He took the punishment we deserve. On Good Friday, God poured out all His wrath against sin onto His innocent Son, so that we, the guilty could be spared. Sin brought death and separation from God, so sin needed to be dealt with, and God dealt with it by having Jesus die for us instead.
And to prove, once and for all, that He had destroyed the consequences of sin and conquered death, Jesus rose from the dead and promised that anyone who would put their faith in Him as their Lord and Saviour, would rise from the dead as well. Anyone who does not is required to face their own judgement and punishment from God, which is Hell.
This belief is foundational to our whole worldview; it’s the bedrock that we base our life, faith and existence upon. It is the beginning of our entire way of thinking and the reason for our hope. That’s why we make sure that everyone knows that when we talk about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we aren’t talking about an idea, but an historical fact! Our faith in Jesus and Christian worldview isn’t held together by how strongly we believe – but on how strong the evidence is for what we believe. Our love for Jesus isn’t based in a theory, an idea, or a philosophy, but on the true and risen Lord Jesus Christ.
Remember the Resurrection
1 Corinthians 15 shows us how foundational this belief is.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthians church, he was writing to a church with a lot of issues: sexual immorality was rampant, they were taking each other to court, they had huge flaws in their theology and were divided into factions, some people were literally starving while others were getting drunk during the Lord’s supper, and I could go on… it was a mess.
So, after taking 14 chapters to teach and correct a whole bunch of these problems, Paul does something critically important – he reminds them of their foundation of their faith. They were wandering around, straying from their convictions, getting into trouble, splintering the church, and ruining their witness, and Paul in Chapter 15, like a referee at a basketball game blows the whistle loud and calls them back to the centre. Let’s read what Paul says:
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.”
What’s happening here? Paul is telling them that they have stepped off of the firm foundation and are walking into quicksand. Some false teachers had crept into the church and had started chipping away at their faith in the resurrection, which had caused them to forget the cost of their salvation, which caused them to start to believe that how they lived really didn’t matter, which resulted in all kinds of problems.
The point here is that everything we do as Christians has its roots in the resurrection. What we believe about this life and the afterlife affects every decision we make, every relationship we have, and how we set our priorities. The issue here is that we start to wander from our faith in God and obedience to His Word when we start to forget that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a true, historical fact. It is much easier to neglect our souls, live for ourselves, and pretend God doesn’t see what we’re doing, when we distance our minds from the belief that Jesus Christ really did live, die and rise again.
And I totally understand, 2000 years after the event, living in a country thousands of miles away, in a completely different era, that it’s difficult to keep that truth in our minds. Every day we are presented with a thousand distractions and reasons to live like it is all just a fairy-tale for weakminded people who can’t deal with their own problems. I get that.
And that was already happening in the Corinthian church, only 30 years after the resurrection! So the Apostle Paul blows the whistle and calls everyone back to centre so they can reset their minds and hearts. He tells them they need to “hold fast” to what was preached or they’re going to get themselves into trouble. Don’t be swayed by other messages and untruths, or you will be in danger of having a false and useless faith! You won’t be saved because you don’t believe the right things!
This isn’t just a big deal, it’s the biggest of deals! We must deal with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and remember its consequences every day. The passage continues:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received…”
Notice that for a second – he’s about to talk about something that is “of first importance”. This is the number one thing that must be gotten right, above and beyond everything else. He received the knowledge from Jesus and the apostles and then delivered it to the Corinthians, and they had let other things distract them. Paul calls them back to the most important thing. And what is that:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…”
The number one thing that Christians need to remember and hold fast to is the reason for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ death wasn’t an accident, it was planned. The whole of the Old Testament points to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. His sacrifice wasn’t an afterthought. – it was the plan all along! From Genesis to Malachi, the plan was for Jesus to die for sin, be buried in the ground, and then rise again on the third day.
Evidence for the Resurrection
How sure was Paul that Jesus died and then rose again? 100%! This wasn’t just a hope or a story, but was historical fact. How do we know this? Because of what Paul says next:
“…he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
Do you see how the most important fact about Jesus is not that He is a good teacher, but that He’s resurrected Christ? Paul calls the Corinthians back to the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection so they would get their hearts right with God. Later, the Apostle Peter would say something similar when he wrote,
“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16)
In other words, “Guy’s we’re not making this up! We saw this with our own eyes! This is a true report! You need to change your lives, change your heart, alter your course, and come to Jesus because He really does exist, He really is the Son of God, He really did die for your sins, and He really did rise from the dead, and He really is coming back to judge everyone!”
Sometimes Christians forget why we tell others about Jesus. It’s not so that we can grow our church, get more money in tithes, or make the world a nicer, more moral place. We’re not just sharing nice stories so people can deal with this difficult world. We talk about Jesus because the Gospel is true! He’s alive right now, He’s making salvation available, and judgement day is coming! We’re sharing the truth!
Evidence and Counter Arguments for the Resurrection
Not everyone believes that though, do they? And so, quickly, like Paul did for the Corinthians, I want to go through a few of the evidences for the historical, factual resurrection of Jesus Christ. When you start to doubt or to forget, you can come back to a few of these to remember that your life isn’t based on “cleverly devised stories and myths”, but on the person of Jesus Christ. And for this exercise we are going to assume a few things:
- First, that Jesus was an historical person. This is something that everyone (Christian and non-Christian) agrees with, so that’s not a problem.
- Second, we are going to assume that Jesus really did die on the cross – another nearly undisputed fact, despite what Dan Brown would have us think.
- Third, we are going to assume that the biblical account of Jesus’ death and resurrection are the best historical documents we have for understanding this event – and that’s also true. Critical historians of all stripes – believers and non – all accept that the gospel accounts are accurate in their historical detail. They may disagree about the mystical parts and the conclusions that the church gleaned from them afterward, but most agree that the details are historical.
What we are going to concentrate on is the empty tomb. If Jesus did live, and did die, then the only question that remains is: did He rise again? Paul’s answer is: He appeared to Peter, the apostles, and 500 other people, and himself, so ask us. We can’t do that, so we’ll do the next best thing – we’ll look at the evidence.
Here’s some possible explanations for the empty tomb that have come up through the years and some counter arguments to them.
The Swoon Theory
First is what people call the “swoon theory”. This is the idea that Jesus was merely unconscious when He was laid in the tomb, and later woke up and went to find the disciples to claim He had risen again.
The evidence against this one is fairly straight forward. First, the Roman solider in charge of killing the prisoners decided not to break Jesus’ legs because he knew Jesus had died. (Mark 15:44-45) Then he took a large, sharp spear and stabbed Jesus through the ribs and into his heart, letting out blood from the heart and water from the protective sack surrounding it. (John 19:32-34) No one walks away from that.
Next, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wrapped Jesus body cocoon-style, head to toe, in tight linen and 75 pounds of powdered spices. It’s very difficult to believe they wouldn’t have figured out he was still alive. And even then, if they didn’t notice, it would have been impossible for Jesus to have gotten out considering His injuries and blood-loss.
Finally, there is no way that a beaten and bloodied, mostly dead Jesus would have inspired his believers put their faith in Him because He had been resurrected and conquered death. They’re not that gullible.
The Wrong Tomb
The next theory is that the women and disciples went to wrong tomb. This is unlikely too. According to Matthew 26:61, the two women were there when He was placed in the tomb and it’s very implausible they forgot which one it was. And according to John 20, Peter and John went to the tomb too, and it’s really, really unlikely that between the four of them none of them knew where Jesus was buried.
Thieves or the Apostles Stole the Body
Another theory is either thieves or the apostles themselves stole the body. This is doubtful considering that there were a bunch of Roman soldiers sealed the tomb and then were stationed outside of it to make sure that exact thing didn’t happen. (Matthew 27:65-66) Furthermore, the testimony that Jesus rose from the dead and they met Him, was a real problem for His followers. People make up stories for their own benefit. People lie to achieve something. The apostles didn’t get any earthly benefit from relating the story that Jesus rose again. They were rejected by their people, beaten, abused, tortured, and eventually killed for their belief in Jesus’ resurrection. At some point, if it was made up, they would have said so. It wasn’t worth the trouble they got into. The only reason they kept teaching that Jesus rose again was because it was true and He had changed their entire life.
The Key to Hope and Faith
And, going back to our passage in 1 Corinthians, that’s the whole point. The resurrection of Jesus Christ changes everything! It means that salvation is real and available. It means that Jesus has all the power to fulfil His promises to give us hope, a future, a purpose in this world, the presence of the Holy Spirit, daily help to meet our needs, and to bring us into eternity with Him. The resurrection means everything, and without it we are nothing.
Listen to how Paul says it:
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:12-19)
If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then we are here for no reason, we misrepresent the truth, we have no salvation, and there death is still something to be feared. If Jesus didn’t rise again, sin is still victorious, death is still our enemy, evil still rules the day, and everyone who died has been condemned to Hell.
As scripture says, if we only believe in Jesus for the benefits that come in this life, then we should be pitied – because we are the greatest of fools. We deny ourselves pleasures, sacrifice for others, humble ourselves, face persecution and argument, and talk about hope, love and faith – and for what? If it’s all a lie, and no one is raised again, then what’s the point.
I asked someone who recently came back to Christianity after falling away for some years, “What was that like to wake up every day without God, without heaven, without salvation, without Jesus, without hope?” Their answer: “It was terrible.”
And they were right. Life without Jesus, without the resurrection, is terrible. But life in the light of the resurrection is worth living – and more than that – worth giving our lives for.