We’re just beginning a new series on the Gospel of John. Last week we did a bit of an overview of who John was, and his audience was, how John’s gospel fits in with the other three, and that the major theme is introducing and defending who Jesus really is. He’s writing decades after the other three gospels were written. The Apostle Paul had written his letters to all the churches many years before and had already died.
The people reading and hearing this book about Jesus were now 50 years away from when the actual events occurred. Many of them lived far away from Jerusalem, where they took place. And many of the people who saw the life, death and resurrection had already died, so the information about Jesus was almost all second-hand. But John hadn’t died, and when he was quite old, maybe 90 years old, the Holy Spirit compelled him to write his own eye-witness account of his experiences with Jesus, addressing not only the false-teachings about Him, but also giving another side to the story, another aspect that would complement the already existing gospels to give a much bigger, much clearer picture of Jesus so no one would be able to doubt who He really is.
Why Context is Important
You might be asking, why is all this context so important? Why not just jump into chapter 1 verse 1 and get going with what the book actually says instead of spending so much time on the background. My answer is because doing that leads to mistakes in interpretation. Context is critically important to our understanding of the Bible.
We sometimes have the unfortunate habit of actually disconnecting Bible verses from the Bible. Many of you likely have a bible verse on your phone, on a mug, a shirt, or your wall at home. And while that’s good to do, for the most part, it can sometimes lead to pretty serious misunderstandings of what God actually meant in that verse.
My favourite version of this, for example, is how many times you hear people quote Matthew 7:1 where Jesus says, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” I’ve heard this used, most often, as the reason why everyone should mind their own business and never, ever, tell someone that something they are doing is wrong.
Is that what it means? No. That takes it out of the context. What about John 5:24 where Jesus says, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” What about Luke 17:3 where Jesus says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him…” Obviously “Judge not” doesn’t mean “never judge”. So what does it mean? Well, let’s look at the context. In Matthew 7, Jesus is giving the Sermon on the Mount and is just about to say, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (7:5). In other words, Jesus isn’t saying, “Don’t ever judge”, He’s saying, “don’t judge like a hypocrite”. Don’t be unduly harsh or arrogant in how you look at other people’s sins, or God will do the same thing to you. In other words, when you judge, because you will absolutely need to judge right and wrong, good and evil, wise and foolish… do so with as much generosity and grace as God has given you.
That’s just one, obvious example of what is called “proof-texting”, and it comes from not understanding the context of the verse. And in not understanding it, we apply it wrong. And when we apply it wrong, sin isn’t confronted and people are left miserable in the clutches of the enemy. We don’t want to do that, so before we study any book of the Bible, before we start taking apart the chapters and verses and words, we always spend time talking about the background of the whole book.
Who wrote it? Who were they writing to? What genre of book is it? Why did they write it? Is it poetry, history, proverb, instructions, allegory, a letter addressing a certain topic? That will change how you read it, right? When was it written? Before the Babylonian exile or after? Before the destruction of the Temple or after? Before Jesus or after? That matters because it all helps in interpreting what God was saying to the people who originally heard the message and how we should be reading it today.
Context, CLRA, & the CBOQ
Let me give you another example, this time with a bit more contemporary controversy. Right now, in the CBOQ (our denomination, the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec) there are a few churches who are now accepting members, teachers, leaders, and elders who are actively part of the LGBTQ community. This all came to a head a few years ago when Danforth Baptist Church in Toronto, which is associated with the CBOQ, released a statement saying they will no longer consider “sexual orientation or gender identity” when choosing leaders for their church.
This has caused division in the churches of the denomination. Some are in favour it, others are against it, and some don’t know what to think. The more conservative churches that are against the idea of LGBTQ leadership in the church formed a coalition called CLRA or the “Covenant Life Renewal Association” and came to the leadership of the CBOQ demanding action be taken against Danforth and other churches that would follow their example. So, for about three years now the leadership of the CBOQ has been trying to figure out what to do – and stalling. They’ve refused to take a stand on the issue and it has frustrated the conservative wing greatly – to the point where some have left or are considering leaving the CBOQ altogether.
I’m actually headed to a meeting this coming Thursday where I’ll be part of something I’ve never heard of happening before. Two different denominational leaders, one from the CBOQ and the other from the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptists (FEB), will be giving separate presentations to the same group of pastors and church leaders. First, the president and former president of the CBOQ will give an update on how the committee is dealing with the LGBTQ issue (which I do not expect to go very well, considering I recently received an update email from the committee where they just kicked the can down the road a bit farther). Then, in the afternoon, Steve Jones, the National President of all of the whole Fellowship Baptist denomination will explain how they dealt with the LGBTQ issue and then give information to anyone who wants to transfer to their denomination. It is absolutely wild to me that two denominational presidents will be in the same room with the same pastors giving pitches about their denominational stances on this issue.
Consequently, this could be a very important week in the life of our church. Why? Because in our church we believe that as much as we love people in the LGBTQ community, as welcome as they are in our church and ministries, and as much grace and generosity we want to give them, we must draw the line where God draws it. And that means that people who live and promote an LGBTQ lifestyle cannot be members, leaders, or teachers in our church.
We don’t say this because we believe that we are better than the people in the LGBTQ community. We don’t hate them or think they are undeserving of God’s love. We hold to this standard because this is what the Bible teaches and no matter what culture says or what pressures we face, “We must obey God…” (Acts 5:29)
What does all this have to do with context? Well, it goes back to that statement made by the Danforth church and what brought about the big split in the CBOQ. I want to read part of it to you so you can see how it went down.
It begins, “Because God has welcomed us into his family through faith in Jesus Christ and calls us to pursue love and justice for all, Danforth Church is welcoming and inclusive of all people regardless of age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, family makeup, social status, income, ability, or physical or mental health.” With that, we wholeheartedly agree. Everyone is welcome at our church and at the feet of Jesus.
Then they get into their statements and they need to be read very carefully. Statement 1 is, “We share and uphold the values of love, justice and equal rights for all people, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, family makeup, social status, income, ability, or physical or mental health; and we desire to reflect the heart of God and the attitude of Jesus Christ towards those who have been marginalized”. That sounds good, and upon first glance seems right on, but it really needs some clarification.
We totally agree with the idea of everyone being worthy of love and justice and that we should love the marginalized like Jesus does – but what do they mean by “equal rights for all people”? For example, they say that they believe that people of any “age” should have “equal rights”. Does that mean a 3-year-old should have the same right to vote as a 21-year-old? Should a 3-year-old be allowed to borrow money, get a tattoo, or quit school if they want to? Probably not, so “equal rights” sounds nice, but really needs some clarification.
Statements numbers 2, 3 and 4 is where things really become problematic. Number 2 says, “We find our agreement in the core and primary beliefs of the Christian faith reflected, for example, in the Nicene and Apostles Creeds; and we accept a diversity of views among us on many other theological and/or disputable matters….”. Certainly, those creeds give the basic outline of the Christian faith. I’ve taught both of them here. But they are certainly not comprehensive statements of everything we believe. For example, neither creed covers murder or greed or lying. It doesn’t say they’re right or wrong. Is murder one of those “disputable matters” we should “accept a diversity of views” about? Probably not. But it’s not in the Apostles Creed, so…. In the same way, why would we say that something as foundational as human sexuality and gender, which are also not covered in the creeds, are “disputable”?
The third statement goes even farther saying, “We acknowledge that the cultural, social and religious contexts of the scriptures are significant in our interpretation of biblical passages and that humility is required in holding positions on secondary and/or disputable matters…” There’s our word for today: “context”, except it’s using it the exact opposite way we are using it today. What they are saying is that because the bible was written in a different culture, with different social norms, and different religious contexts, it must therefore no longer be applicable to today – and we can, therefore, dismiss much of what the Bible says and interpret it much more broadly because it was written for a different people at a different time.
These are the same people who argue that the Bible doesn’t have anything to say to contemporary audiences about human sexuality and gender because it was written to a bunch of backwards people in ancient times. I hear the argument all the time that if Christians believe homosexuality is wrong, then they shouldn’t be eating shellfish or wearing polyester-cotton blends either because the Bible forbids those too – and we’re hypocrites for picking and choosing which verses we obey.
They grab verse like Leviticus 19:19 which prohibits wearing cloth of two kinds of material and equate it to verses in 1 Corinthians and Romans and 1 Timothy that teach homosexuality is a sin. But that’s terrible biblical interpretation! That’s worse than the “judge not” proof-texting we were talking about before. It’s a non-argument for anyone who knows anything about the Bible.
The laws about not eating shellfish or wearing mixed cloths or all the other ones about how to treat menstruating women or not boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk were laws given specifically to the nation of Israel, not everyone. It was partly to make them look weird and different from the rest of the nations around them – to show their holiness, their set-apartness. In fact, many of the food laws specifically say that they are for the Israelites and not everyone.
I don’t want to get into the whole thing right now, but in the Bible, you will see three different kinds of laws: Civil Laws given specifically to the Israelites, Ceremonial Laws that defined how they practiced worship, and Moral Laws based which are universal for all people.
When Jesus came, He expanded the kingdom to include gentiles who don’t have to follow the Civil Laws of Israel, and He fulfilled all the Ceremonial Laws, creating a new way to worship God that wasn’t based around the Temple anymore. The only Laws left, and which are universal for all people, for all time because they are based on God’s nature and not one group of people, are God’s Moral Laws. Part of Biblical interpretation is understanding these different kinds of laws and which ones are applicable to believers today.
So, are blending cloths on the same interpretive level human sexuality and gender? No. Not even close.
But are the fact that these laws were written to an ancient culture significant? Yes, as is the fact that they are being taught to and interpreted by people who live thousands of years later in different cultures all over the world. So yes, culture is significant. Part of my job as a preacher is to grapple with the texts so I can “understand the principles and imperatives within” and then present them to a contemporary audience in an understandable way. That’s my job. That’s been the job of Bible preachers and teachers forever. Figure out what God was saying and then sharing the meaning and application for today.
But, when I’m looking at a verse I do not have the right to contradict what God is saying because it disagrees with my current, contemporary context. Regardless of how much our society wants to reinterpret morality, humans do not get to dismiss something that God plainly teaches as truth-for-all-time just because they don’t want to believe it anymore.
I was reading another pastor’s interpretation of the Danforth Statement and he pointed out how ironic it is that Danforth would say that Christians must come by our interpretation of biblical passages with “humility” – because they’re not using the word in a biblical way. What they mean is that a humble person should never think they really know what the Bible means. That somehow, as Michael Krueger said, “To be uncertain is to be humble. To be certain is to be arrogant.”
But that’s not biblical humility. Biblical humility says, “God has been crystal clear about some things and I’m going to believe it and obey it regardless of what I feel about it or what pressures I face from society.” In the words of Isaiah 66:2, “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” Or 2 Corinthians 10:5, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…” In John 14:15 Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commands.” That means that Jesus has clearly commanded us to do specific things. In Luke 11:28 Jesus said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
That means we study, study, study, using all the resources at our disposal to figure out the clear meaning of what God is saying in any given passage and then work hard to do what He says. That’s biblical humility. If you can make a good, biblical argument for something – then Christians should teach and obey it. If you want us to support LGBTQ, don’t appeal to culture or feelings, appeal to scripture. Let God’s Word be the final voice to speak on the issue.
That’s not what Danforth is doing. Let me read statement 4 so you can see how they believe people should interpret the will and word of God. “We hold that people have the right and responsibility to seek and hear God for themselves, and to determine and respond to God’s will for their lives within the context of the Biblical values of love, faithfulness, monogamy, respect and integrity, and within a community of accountability…”
Again, on the surface, this seems to be something we can agree with. God does meet people as individuals, and each believer does have access to the same Word and the same Spirit, and each is invited to pray and be led by God. But the context and application of this statement are dangerous. The implication here is that a person’s “seeking and hearing” can be divorced from proper, biblical interpretation. They cherry-pick words like “love, faithfulness, respect, and accountability”, but they neglect to say that every believer’s interpretation of God’s will must come under the authority of His revealed Word. We can’t just go off and make up a god of our own design, or pick and choose the biblical values we like while getting rid of the ones that make us uncomfortable.
And that’s what Danforth and the other churches like them are doing, and that’s why Jason and I are headed off to a meeting in Hamilton this week. Because clear biblical interpretation and obedience to God’s word are critically important – and we only want to be associated with groups that hold to that standard.
We weren’t able to get much into John today, because of this discussion of the context and the meeting on Thursday, but we’ll get into it more next week, and then I hope to start in chapter 1 verse 1 the week after. But before I close this message I want to read a passage of scripture that perfectly summarizes the issue that we’ve been talking about today: interpretation, misinterpretation, contextualization, and pressures that preachers, and really all Christians, face when it comes to obeying God’s word. It comes from 2 Timothy 3-4.
2 Timothy is from the Apostle Paul to his protégé Timothy as Paul was sitting in a Roman prison, awaiting death. He’s writing to Timothy about persevering in the gospel and care for the churches, even in spite of great suffering from outside and within. Paul figures this may be the last message he may ever give to young Timothy and tells him to keep on fighting for the faith. Paul speaks of many who used to call themselves faithful followers of Jesus, but who have abandoned him and the gospel because of persecution and compromise.
He writes to Timothy about suffering being normal for all believers and how the only way to persevere is by God’s power. He says the only way to access God’s power is to know God’s Word and to believe the true and only Gospel of Jesus Christ. He says that the only way to know the Gospel is through the scriptures. He says that those who believe those scriptures will persevere, but those who do not will show themselves by leaving the faith. So he entreats Timothy to keep preaching, keep teaching, keep studying, and to deal with all false teaching as though it is deadly cancer that needs to be cut out or the church will die.
Even at the close of the letter, Paul asks Timothy to come and visit him one last time and to bring his books with him so Paul can keep studying and writing until the very end. The gospel, the Word of God, is constantly under attack and Paul wants to keep helping believers to rightly interpret the scriptures so they won’t believe lies and lose their connection to God.
In truth, I want to read the whole of the book, because it is one, solid argument from front to back about what we are talking about today – the importance of rightly studying God’s word – but we don’t have time. So, as I read, listen to how Paul speaks of the dangers of misinterpretation and the importance of studying so we can know the truth.
“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men.
You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. 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.
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
That’s what I want to do, and what I want for each of you as well. I don’t want you seeking out people to tell you what you want to hear. I want you to know the truth about by that truth be set free. I want all of us to stand on the firm foundation of the Word of God, to preach and teach His Word, to be sober-minded, endure whatever suffering comes as a result of our beliefs and to fulfil the ministries and good works God has given us to do.
Welcome to the 60th sermon in of our study of the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians! We started this series in April of 2016 and we’ve covered a lot of ground over the past couple years, but after long last, we’ve reached the final section where Paul is wrapping up the letter with his final greetings and instructions. Let’s open up there and read 1 Corinthians 16:5-24.
“I will visit you after passing through Macedonia, for I intend to pass through Macedonia, and perhaps I will stay with you or even spend the winter, so that you may help me on my journey, wherever I go. For I do not want to see you now just in passing. I hope to spend some time with you if the Lord permits. But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.
When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord, as I am. So let no one despise him. Help him on his way in peace, that he may return to me, for I am expecting him with the brothers.
Now concerning our brother Apollos, I strongly urged him to visit you with the other brothers, but it was not at all his will to come now. He will come when he has opportunity.
Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. 14 Let all that you do be done in love.
Now I urge you, brothers—you know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints—be subject to such as these, and to every fellow worker and laborer. I rejoice at the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus, because they have made up for your absence, for they refreshed my spirit as well as yours. Give recognition to such people.
The churches of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord. All the brothers send you greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss.
I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen.”
This is one of those sections of the Bible that, on the surface seems like a weird one to study. What sort of life-changing message can we get from some 2000-year-old travel plans, a list of weird Greek names, and a signature? This seems like one of those sections that we should skim through and move past to get onto meatier stuff. After all, we’re only one page-flip away from 2nd Corinthians which is chock full of memorable and life-changing verses.
But, as Christians, we believe that when 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable …” it means that even sections like this one – and other boring ones like genealogies and number lists – are also somehow “profitable” to our souls. This isn’t addendum, but is, in fact, the Word of God meant to teach us about something.
So, as we read it we must open ourselves to what God wants to say, pray about it, do a little study, read a couple of commentaries, and then a whole lot of things start to spring forward.
The Church is God’s Gift
Actually, the more I dug into this one the more I got out of it. It was tempting to turn this section into a mini-series of its own, but I won’t. Though I think it would be interesting, I think it’s time to be done with 1 Corinthians and move on to something else.
If I had to summarize this final section, the general message, and the application of it for us today – though there are many others – I would say it this way: church relationships can get complicated.
When we come into a personal relationship with Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, we are given a lot of gifts – freedom from sin, the presence of the Holy Spirit, a new outlook on life, spiritual gifts – but one of the biggest gifts we’re given is the church itself. All through the Bible, we see that when God gets hold of someone’s heart He not only restores them to Himself, but also to His people. At the birth of the Christian church in Acts, we see the Holy Spirit empower the disciples to spread the message, but the message of salvation doesn’t lead merely to individual life changes but the creation of a new society. The Acts 2 believers didn’t just have a new, personal faith in Jesus, but devoted themselves to each other.
Jesus said to His disciples in John 13:34–35,
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
And then 1 John 3:14 says,
“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers.”
“The brothers” there refers to our church family. One way we know we love Jesus is that we love our church family. And a few verses later we read the same concept started in the negative. In 1 John 4:20 it says,
“If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”
So conversely, one way we know that someone doesn’t actually love Jesus, or isn’t really saved, or is in unrepentant sin, is that they distance themselves from or even talk negatively about other Christians.
When the church started to face greater persecution and started falling apart, which we read about in the book of Hebrews, one of the first things that started happening was that the believers started distancing themselves from each other. As the flock was disbanding out of fear and inconvenience, the author of Hebrews says in 10:23-25,
“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
He says, “Don’t give up hope, don’t give up the faith, trust in God – and one way to demonstrate that faith is to take care of each other, encourage one another, and keep meeting together. And as things get worse meet together even more!
Museum vs Hospital
But this isn’t often our natural inclination, is it? We live in a radically individualistic society already, one that doesn’t want to submit themselves to any groups – whether they be marriage, schools, political groups, or churches – but when it comes to days of trouble or trials or dealing with difficult people many people’s usual habit is to back away, isn’t it?
When trouble comes to us or to those around us, one temptation that often comes is to run away. We go through a difficult time and lock ourselves in our room and refuse to come out. Men and women go from partner to partner unwilling to face tough times with them. Couples go to their own wedding with a prenuptial agreement in their back pocket outlining what happens if they decide to leave. Men abandon pregnant women because being father is too hard. We join a club for fun and leave when things don’t go our way. A friend starts to become too needy, too dramatic, too complicated, and we stop asking how they’re doing, stop taking their calls, and hide them on our Facebook feed so we don’t have to see it. Most people tend to run from what they perceive as “negativity”.
This happens with Christians too as people hop from church looking for one feeds their wants and desires, but has zero drama and costs them nothing. “Church hopping” or “church shopping” is so popular that the Christian satire blog, “The Babylon Bee” has dozens of articles making fun of it.
One was entitled, “Local Family Commutes 700 Miles To Attend Church That Meets Their Exact Specifications” Another gave “8 Steps to Finding the Right Church” and includes things like, “Make sure the worship band plays only the genre you like”, “If the preacher doesn’t have 20,000 twitter followers, you’re in the wrong place”, but it was number 7 that jumped out at me. The satirical advice was, “Pick a church where everyone pretends to be happy. If anyone breaks down sobbing or insinuates that they need prayer for some sort of malady or ill fortune, everyone will understand if you excuse yourself to check out the other church down the road. You want a place where no one will burden you with their personal struggles. You don’t need that negativity in your life!”
The reason that satire works is because there’s a hint of truth in it. People tend to run from sickness, sadness, and “negativity”, but the truth is that the church is full of it. I know that’s not a popular statement, and it’s easily misconstrued, but it’s the truth.
Remember Luke 6:27-32 when the Pharisees saw Jesus hanging out with the tax collector named Levi, the one who would later be called the Apostle Matthew? Turn there. It says,
“After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And leaving everything, he rose and followed him. And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’”
To eat with these people told everyone that Jesus considered them to be important, good contacts, even friends, and that blew minds of the men who were supposedly experts in religion and God’s Law. They wouldn’t be caught dead at that table! But how does Jesus answer?
“And Jesus answered them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.’”
In other words, Jesus didn’t come to gather a bunch of hypocritical people who, as the Babylon Bee article said, “pretend to be happy”, He came to call to Himself those who admit that they are sick. And what do you call a building where a bunch of sick people gathers in order to get well by a physician? A hospital. The church is a hospital.
Some people see the church as a museum, a clean place full of precious pieces of untouchable art. Each individual person and family protected from the other behind glass/ Everyone standing with their hands in their pockets because they don’t want to negatively affect anything around them. As each person look around all they see is rules, signs, protective ropes and security systems. Each family, each person, each artwork putting on their best face, trying to project an image that looks good so more people will want to come to the museum. That’s the mission of the museum. House perfectly preserved, untouchable beauty to attract people.
And that’s how a lot of folks see the church. They think, “The only way people are going to be attracted to Jesus is if I look good, look on top of things, look financially successful, look like I’ve never been tempted, never sinned, never had a bad thought, never argued with anyone.. that I serve perfect, act perfect, that my kids are perfect, my clothes are perfect – and then God will be happy with me, happy with the church, and send more people to our museum.”
And what happens when people come into that museum? Have you ever taken a kid to the museum? What are the rules? Dress nice, hands in pockets, don’t touch anything, don’t talk too loud, and pretend like everything in it is interesting even though it’s actually boring, confusing or weird. Has any kid you’ve ever met ever wanted to go to the museum for their birthday party? (The Children’s Museum in Gatineau doesn’t count!). Why? It’s uncomfortable.
Another question: What happens if you sneeze at the museum? You apologize, you feel awkward as your indiscretion reverberates off the walls – people give you the stare to think, “Hey, don’t you know that we’re in a museum! No noise! No sickness! No nothing! Just walk around with your mouth shut and look happy!” Sometimes the way we do church sends the same message.
But Jesus didn’t come to gather pieces of art for display, he came to call the sick and heal them. The church is not a museum. It’s a hospital full of people that need care. What happens in a hospital? Chaos. People with all kinds of maladies, from broken bones to cancer to mental illness to addiction are all stumbling through the door in need, desperately trying to get help. People come in their grubbiest sick clothes because they really don’t care how they look – they just want help. They aren’t trying to look cool, they’re not hiding their pain, they’re not pretending, they know that if they want help they need to say what’s wrong.
How do you feel in a hospital, surrounded by sick people? If you’re like me you feel a few things. Sometimes, if you’re really sick, you don’t really care what’s going on. You’re so worried about your own mess or whoever you’re looking after that you don’t really care about other people. You couldn’t care less that you haven’t showered or you’re carrying around a bag of barf and a urine sample. Pride is out the window. You just want the physician to come to help you.
Sometimes, when it’s not so urgent, you band together with the other people in the waiting room, right? You share stories, you ask what’s going on, you empathize with the mother who has the colicky baby, or the poor guy that came limping in, or the old person that is having a hard time with their documentation. You’re not judging anyone, you’re not mad at anyone for being at the hospital. Your pain brought you to a place where you need help, but it surrounded you with people who also need help – and it’s natural to start to realize that some of them are worse off than you and it should compel the empathy inside you to grow.
Have you ever sat in a clinic where you are brand new and come across someone who has been going there a while? You go to chemotherapy, or physio, or some kind of medicine or treatment for the first time and you’re nervous, confused, hopeful, scared, and you wonder if anyone has ever gone through this – and then someone sits next to you and says, “Hey, are you in for the same thing as me? Yeah, I’ve had that treatment, I’ve been on that medicine a couple times. It was no fun at first, but it works. I found it easier to take if I mixed it with juice. And don’t forget to drink water because I forgot and that messed me up. Oh, and it’s going to make you sore and tired, so be prepared for that. But after a while it really does work.”
There’s no judgment, no pride, no competition, is there? No, just two people that admit they need help from the same doctor coming together to share and support.
There are a great many illustrations for salvation, but one of the best is that our sickness is sin, the diagnosis is terminal, and Jesus is the Great Physician who is not only the doctor, but the cure. The only requirement He has is that we admit that we are sick and come to Him alone for the remedy. He does not save those who do not admit that they are sick. He despises hypocrites who put on the holier-than-thou, “I’m fine”, museum act.
Which means the people Jesus calls together are going to become a hospital church full of people in various stages of sickness and treatment, right? So it makes sense to treat each other as such. I’m in need of Jesus, you’re in need of Jesus. I’m a sinner, you’re a sinner. And sometimes, just like sick people, we need to give more help, more time, more love, more patience than other times. If someone limps in the door and says, “I’m sick.” We welcome them, introduce them to the Great Physician, and then help them, right? We don’t tell them to go fix themselves before introducing them to the doctor, right? We don’t turn away or pretend we’ve never been sick! We embrace them because that’s what Jesus did for us.
What does this have to do with our passage today? I want you to take a look at the subtext of what Paul says here. Turn back to our passage in 1 Corinthians 16:
In verses 5-9 we read about Paul’s travel plans. What’s going on there? Remember, the Corinthians have just sent envoy after envoy, with question after question, because their church was in crisis after crisis, and they needed Paul to come. What does Paul say, “I want to come but I can’t right now. I will come and stay for a while, but for now I need to be in Ephesus. There are a lot of good things happening and a whole lot of problems, and I need to be here.”
That’s not what the Corinthians wanted to hear, was it? Sometimes people don’t come when we call – even the Apostle Paul to Corinth. Paul needed to stay in Ephesus? Why? Because God was working and so was Satan. The Corinthians had to be patient.
Sometimes our whole world is falling apart and the person we call on to help doesn’t come. That can cause bitterness, anger, resentment, to grow in our hearts. We get mad at God for not making that person help us, we feel foolish for asking the wrong person, or angry at the person for not coming, which tempts us to react in a sinful way.
- “I was in trouble and the pastor or deacon or small group leader didn’t come – so I’m going to gossip about them and call them names behind their back.”
- “I needed help and I reached out to my friend, but they said they couldn’t right now – so I’m going to never speak to them again.”
- “I pulled away and no one noticed soon enough – so that proves no one cares and I’ll do something to harm myself.”
It’s hard sometimes, but the truth is that the only person we can really count on to show up when we need Him is Jesus. The only one who knows what we’re going through and promises help is Jesus – but He requires that we admit that we’re sick, that we need Him, and that means prayer, reading scripture, worshipping, and waiting on Him.
But what did Paul do? He sent Timothy. That’s a good thing, right? “I’m sorry, I can’t help you right now, but I’ll send along someone that will be able to.” But look what it says about Timothy in verse 10:
“When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord, as I am. So let no one despise him. Help him on his way in peace, that he may return to me, for I am expecting him with the brothers.”
Paul was strong, powerful, authoritative, respected. Timothy was, in a word, fragile. This wasn’t a warning to protect Timothy from the bad people in Corinth – but a warning to the church themselves to be nice to poor Timothy! He was young, timid, and had been through a lot already in his young life. He was the son of a mixed marriage, his father died when he was young, and he was chosen by Paul at a very young age. Timothy became one of Pauls’ right-hand guys, but his job often meant heading to troubled places either before Paul could get there or after Paul had stirred the pot. And it had gotten to him. He was a stressed out dude that even had stomach troubles. I feel for Timothy because I’m a lot like him right now.
As you all well know, sometimes church leaders, or parents, or teachers, even though they know what they’re doing, even though they are trying to do the work of the Lord, end up becoming very fragile because of things going on in their life. They used to be stronger, but now they can’t take a lot of pressure. They fall apart more easily. They need more naps and less confrontation. They need to be treated more gently. You can almost hear Paul saying, “Timothy is a godly leader and he’s going to say some things you don’t like, but I know how mean you guys can be. So be nice to Timothy! I want him back in the same condition I sent him!”
Isn’t it interesting that the Corinthian church, which had so many troubles and needed so much strong leadership, was sent timid Timothy? And that, with a warning! Oftentimes it’s the fragile, weak leader, or weak parent or weak friend that God uses in our lives the most. They aren’t ever-present, they aren’t super-strong, and they get overwhelmed easy – but they’re exactly the right person and God uses them. Why? Because they know they need Jesus. They’re not going to try to be Jesus for you, they’re going to point you to Him. They’re going to know how you feel. They’re going to be able to sympathize with your struggles like no one else. And in their weakness, they realize how much they need the Great Physician to do the work for them. They don’t have confidence and strength in themselves, they aren’t going to tell you to buck-up and try harder – they have learned to put their faith and gain their strength from someone greater than them – and that’s what you need.
And look at verse 12,
“Now concerning our brother Apollos, I strongly urged him to visit you with the other brothers, but it was not at all his will to come now. He will come when he has opportunity.”
Apollos was the exact opposite of Timothy. The phrase “now concerning” meant that the Corinthians asked about Apollos. I wonder if it was, “Hey Paul, if you can’t come, can you send Apollos?” Apollos was actually from Corinth and was not only an amazing preacher, but a super-popular travelling speaker, very smart, powerful in speech, and bold in his demeanor. He had actually gone on tour, defending Christianity and teaching all over the place. He was like Ravi Zacharias from last week. He was so good that some people thought that Paul was jealous of Apollos because he was so popular.
What is so interesting here, and sort of funny, is that the Apostle Paul “strongly urged” Apollos to go to Corinth and Apollos said “No! Well, maybe I’ll go if I feel like it.” I find that amazing. Timid Timothy was Paul’s shell-shocked, PTSD ridden foot soldier, sent into battle after battle – while Apollos was more like a James Bond style spy, wandering around in fancy hotels, hanging out with cool people, and doing whatever jobs came up.
Sometimes, even when you’re the Apostle Paul, people don’t do what you want. Sometimes the one you think would be right for the job says no, and you end up with someone you wouldn’t have chosen. And that leads to temptation, right? You want to resent the Apollos you wanted and dump on the Timothy you didn’t. You resent the teacher, the parent, the child that doesn’t meet your expectations. You asked God for an Apollos spouse, an Apollos friend, an Apollos partner, but you got a Timothy. Which leads to sinful comparisons: “Apollos wouldn’t have done that. Apollos wouldn’t have said it that way. Apollos would have listened to me. Apollos would clean his room. Apollos would let me use the car. Apollos would treat me the way I want to be treated. And here I am stuck with you, timid, Tummy-Ache Timothy.”
But the truth is that God didn’t want Apollos there. God wanted Timothy there. Tummy-Ache Timothy was the right person for the job. Your weak or sick parent, child, teacher, pastor, brother, sister, friend, husband, or wife – is the right one, and God can use them to do things that Apollos never could. The question is whether you trust that God knows what He’s doing.
There are, of course, more names there, but let’s close with verses 13-14,
“Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.”
This is the end of the letter and a final summary of what he’s been saying. He addresses them like soldiers on the battlefield, or for our illustration today, nurses and fellow patients on the ward.
“Be watchful” means “stay awake” or “be on guard”. They had let all kinds of sickness and infectious and germs into their hospital church because they weren’t paying attention, weren’t on guard, weren’t doing best practices, and had fallen asleep on the job, and people were getting spiritually sicker and sicker. The command here is to wake up.
“Stand firm in the faith” means “Remember the foundation of the gospel.” They had not only let infections and germs run rampant among them, but they had lost the medicine! God the Father, Jesus the Saviour, and the Holy Spirit were always available to them but they had gotten so distracted by sin and had put their faith in so many other remedies that they had forgotten Jesus. Paul says, “You know the only treatment is pure faith in Jesus. Go back to that.”
“Act like men” means “stop being such a chicken and start doing the right things”! These caregivers had become too afraid, too distracted by sin, too overwhelmed by the enemy, to be able to help anyone. When they tried, they failed, because they were trying in their own strength – so they stopped trying. So Paul says, “Get back in there and help some people! Pray like you mean it, serve like you mean it, love like you mean it, worship like you mean it, study like you mean it!”
“Be strong”, means not in yourself obviously, but in God. This isn’t about pulling up your socks, it’s about reorienting yourself to the One from whom you get your strength. Remember one of the first things Paul said in chapter 1, “God chose the foolish, weak, and low things on purpose.” (1 Cor 1:26-31) In other words, God works most among the sick because that’s where He gets the most glory because that’s where people know they need Him most.
And if there was any doubt about where the strength comes from we see it in verse 14: “Let all you do be done in the love.” Our greatest strength isn’t in our personality, our bodies, our cleverness, or our words, it’s in our ability to love God and love others, because He first loved us.