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Eleventh Sunday after Trinity: 1 Corinthians 15:1-10

The epistle reading for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity begins one of the most elegant passages of Holy Scripture, because Paul demonstrates that God will certainly raise us from the dead.  Some in the congregation claimed that there was no resurrection, much like the Sadducees (Matthew 22:23; Acts 23:8) or Greeks (Acts 17:32).  Paul goes on to show that if there is no resurrection, then Christ Himself has not been raised from the dead.  If Christ has not been raised, then there is no Christian hope whatsoever.  Jesus Himself proves beyond all doubt that God will raise us up on the Last Day.

This short reading from the beginning of the chapter serves as the preface to this argument.  It is the Gospel which Paul preached to them.  Interestingly, this Gospel appears here as a thing, so to speak.  It is something preached, which means that it can be handed on.  It is something received, which means that it goes from one person to another.  It is something to stand on, which means that it exists as an external hope.  It is something which saves, and who can save themselves even in a worldly sense?  To hold on to this Gospel is to hold on to the Word.  To reject the resurrection is to eviscerate the very Gospel.  Such a denial literally destroys everything in the process.

Paul points to some of the things which he passed on to the Corinthians.  Statements like this occur in other places of Scripture, such as the response for firstfruits in Deuteronomy 26:5-11.  Likewise, telling future generations what the Lord has done in the past carries forward the hope of Israel (Deuteronomy 6:20-25; Psalm 78:4-8).  This is also why Paul emphasizes that these things happened “in accordance with the Scriptures.”  God is faithful in His promises.  As He has done in generations past, so will He do in generations to come.  Past faithfulness proves future promises.

Through Christ would have been vindicated even without appearing to anyone, He appeared to them “by many proofs” following His resurrection in order to strengthen them (Acts 1:3).  Paul does not list all of them here, and the fact that the appearance to the five hundred at once shows up nowhere else in Scripture shows that even the Gospels do not record all of them.  Paul alludes to them for the same reason that the Gospel writers only allude to a few:  they serve a rhetorical point.  Here, after appearing to so many, Jesus also appears to Paul last of all.  He is one “untimely born,” or perhaps stronger, “miscarried,” because prior to his dramatic conversion he persecuted the Church.  Instead of coming to the fullness of time, being born as the others had into the faith, Paul violently rejected Christ, only to be converted through pure grace.  It is likewise only by grace that Paul proclaimed that message, and only in grace can Paul claim to have worked harder than anyone.

Yet whether the Gospel came through those worthy to be called apostles, the ones timely born, or through those unworthy like Paul, it came by grace all the same.  The message of the Gospel does not depend on the messenger, though this does not negate the need for holiness.  Paul boasts in the grace of God, not in his sin, which he recognizes as making him a spiritual miscarriage.  Despite that, the faith remains the same.  Christ has been raised from the dead so that we too will be raised from the dead.  Christ died for our sins so that our sins would not hold us in the grave.  Grace abounds so that God is glorified in all things.

Quinquagesima: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Few passages of Scripture are as well known as 1 Corinthians 13, and few are as abused and misunderstood.  The language of love resonates with a mindset which interprets it either romantically (as when it is used at many weddings) or as the height of a tolerance which reduces everything to indifference.  1 Corinthians 13 is not a call to a warm feeling, but for Christians to bear with one another in Christ.

The Corinthians, seemingly always divided, fought over the question of spiritual gifts.  Through the Holy Spirit, the Lord gives gifts to men for the purpose of building up the Church.  All of these gifts are different, and no one has the same gift.  This should not be confused with salvation, for then there is no difference.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  But in terms of spiritual gifts, the Lord gives as He wills, for His own glory.  The grain which falls on good soil differs in its abundance, though the seed is the same (Matthew 13:8).

However, does this difference in gifts mean that there are higher and lower gifts?  Paul answers yes.  There is such a thing as “higher gifts,” and he states rather clearly in 1 Corinthians 12:28 that God gave the gifts apostles first, prophets second, and so forth.  Prophesy, better understood in terms of preaching, is greater than speaking in tongues (when the latter is not interpreted), because then the Church is built up in the Lord (1 Corinthians 14:5).  Nor is it a sin to seek after the higher gifts of God when it is done for the edification of the Church.  “Are all apostles?  Are all prophets?  Are all teachers?  Do all work miracles?  Do all possess gifts of healing?  Do all speak with tongues?  Do all interpret?” (1 Corinthians 12:29-30).  The question is not whether there are higher and lower gifts.  In our desire to be egalitarian, we try to put them all on the same level, which is not what the Word says.  The real question is what does that mean for the unity of the Church?

The great temptation with the gifts of God is to use them as an opportunity for pride.  Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body.  To use a different example, because I do not preach, therefore I am not a part of the body.  Because I do not exercise leadership, I am not a part of the Church.  The Lord’s gifts are twisted into an occasion for sin, and division results.  This is not what the Lord intends in giving His gifts to His Church.  He intends the body to be built up together into Christ, to grow as one into her Head (Ephesians 4:15).

Love, therefore, in 1 Corinthians 13 is Christian love, the love which builds up rather than tears down.  Paul’s ultimate point is that all of the spiritual gifts are meant for building up for a time, but love endures even into the new heavens and the new earth.  If I spoke even the language of the angels, but despise my brother in Christ, I am no better than noise.  If I could move mountains by faith, but can’t be bothered with all of these other Christians, it makes for a nice show, but is nothing else.  Christian love is not self-serving, but other-serving, and the gifts of God serve the Church and not the one who possesses them.  All of these gifts will come to an end, when the Church no longer needs to be built up.  The partial building will eventually be complete, and then what need is there anymore for architects and masons?  This does not mean that their work was useless or pointless.  When Christ returns, their work will be tested by fire, revealing what sort of work they have done (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).  Nor does it mean that all distinctions are abolished, as noted above.  What it means is that “since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the Church” (1 Corinthians 14:12).

Septuagesima: 1 Corinthians 9:24–10:5

The congregation at Corinth struggled with the problem of meat offered to idols.  Some, knowing rightly that idols are in fact nothing in themselves, felt that they could partake of this food in good conscience.  Others, misinformed and therefore weak in their conscience, felt that it was a sin.  Unfortunately, the stronger Christians disparaged their weaker brothers, indulging in that meat without regard to their welfare.  Therefore, Paul clarifies that “food will not commend us to God” (1 Corinthians 8:8).  “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13).  This is not a relativistic “go with what you feel,” as if, to use a contemporary example, one should drink alcohol in order to avoid appear to be a legalist.  The stronger must bear with the failings of the genuinely weaker brother even by forsaking what is his by right so that his brother is built up and not torn down.

Paul then clarifies what he means throughout 1 Corinthians 9.  He has the right in Christ to eat and drink.  He has the right in Christ to marry a “believing wife.”  He has the right in Christ to gain his whole living by the Gospel.  The Lord does not prohibit him from doing any of these things.  Yet he forsakes all of them, because he would “endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:12).  We would do well as Christians to heed Paul’s words.  Just because we have the right to do something does not mean that it is wise to do it.  Freedom in the Lord can be easily abused, to the detriment of the body.  Paul is not arguing for an unbridled license in all things.  Such is not the way of Christ.

Paul uses imagery common to his own day.  Because the ancients were fond of athletic competition, which frequently accompanied every major celebration, it provides an opportunity to explain what he means.  In a race, all of the runners seek after the prize, but only one obtains it.  He does not obtain it by doing whatever he pleases.  The athlete who has no self-control is either lazy or he plays for the crowd rather than focusing on the task at hand.  Such a man “runs aimlessly,” as if he was “boxing as one beating the air” (1 Corinthians 9:26).  Yet the glory which worldly runners seek is a perishable wreath, the fading crown of an earthly glory.  The one who exercises discipline in the heavenly race will receive a crow which will never fade away.  “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).  Therefore, we are called to discipline our bodies, forsaking even what is ours by right, just as an athlete must give up his freedom in order to train for winning the race.

His transition into 1 Corinthians 10 seems disjointed unless one considers the wider context.  For the sake of the weaker brother, Paul and every Christian must forsake his liberty.  Those who run the race discipline their bodies and “keep it under control,” or more literally, “enslave it,” so that they would not be disqualified.  Yet the sons of Israel were in fact disqualified from running because of their idolatry, the very same problem which the Corinthians now faced.  All of them had the same blessings from God.  God led them by the cloud and brought them through the sea.  They all ate the same spiritual food and drank from the same spiritual drink, which is Christ.  The sons of Israel had all the same blessings which we now share, and yet because of their lack of discipline, they were overthrown.  They thought they had freedom in the Lord, because they regarded themselves as stronger than Him.  Partaking in something which causes us to look down upon our weaker brothers is not walking according to the Spirit.  It is a dangerous occasion for idolatry.  Nothing, however lawful it is in itself, is worth the cost of our brother’s soul.

The Law in 1 Corinthians 10

Among the many causes of the divisions at Corinth, one of the most prominent questions dealt with meat offered to idols. Paul clearly says that the meat itself is not the issue. “We know,” he says, “that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one'” (1 Corinthians 8:4). The primary issue is how those who recognize this truth deal with those who are still struggling. Knowledge which causes one to look down on his brother is not knowledge at all, but merely what appears to be knowledge. Knowing God rightly walks in the way of love, forsaking even what is lawful in order to build up the knowledge of another. Food does not commend us to God any more than not partaking in that food. “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Corinthians 10:24).

It is within this context that Paul addresses the wider question of idolatry in 1 Corinthians 10. Meat sacrificed to idols is nothing in itself, but that does not give free license. Even the conscience of an unbeliever comes into view. Partaking of meat sacrificed to idols, especially when those who offer it are explicit about this, carries with it the potential of destroying another. “But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience” (1 Corinthians 10:28). Participating with the unbeliever means participating in the table of demons, not the meat all by itself, but some were not able to make such a distinction in their minds because of their former experience.

It is for this reason that Paul uses the example of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. They lacked nothing in terms of the gifts of God. Were they not delivered from Egypt, baptized into Moses in the Red Sea, eating the bread of angels (Psalm 78:25)? Did Christ not sustain them in the great and terrifying wilderness where there was no water (Deuteronomy 8:15)? What did they lack which the Lord had not given them (Deuteronomy 8:4)? Yet they too indulged in their false knowledge which puffs up rather than builds up, and God destroyed them in the wilderness. “Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than He” (1 Corinthians 10:22)?

All of this, therefore, helps clarify one of the purposes of the Law. The Holy Spirit does not record the judgments of the Lord as a way of merely informing us. The Old Testament is not a history lesson that gives us bits of trivia to remember. “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). Their judgment has become our lesson. The Law of God builds up and instructs the Christian, even in the examples of God’s wrath. You who would tear down rather than build up, look to your fathers. Will you be any different than they?

But it is also worth noting that such instruction is not merely negative. The fear of the Lord is not fear of punishment, but the fear of a son toward his father. Using the Law as an example in this way is not using a rod, but a guide, for “these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Corinthians 10:6). The examples of God’s judgment, held before us in the Scriptures and in the present age, build us up in holiness, because they call us away from the works of darkness. More than this, they are occasions for joy, because as David says, “The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked. Mankind will say, ‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth'” (Psalm 58:10-11). “Moreover, by [the rules of the Lord] is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward” (Psalm 19:11).

Third Sunday in Advent: 1 Corinthians 4:1-5

Factionalism was one of the primary problems within the Corinthian congregation, and Paul addresses this issue first within his letter.  This division, however, stemmed at least in part from the influence of those who questioned the authority of Paul (1 Corinthians 9:1-7).  Such false teachers attempted to undermine Paul to make their own authority appear all the greater.  Therefore, Paul addresses the problem of division by carefully clarifying the nature of his authority as an apostle, from which we may also learn the nature of authority within the Church in general.

Paul’s authority does not center in his rhetorical ability.  “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:2).  If anything, like Moses (Exodus 4:10), Paul was not particularly impressive in terms of speaking (1 Corinthians 2:3; 2 Corinthians 10:10).  However, this is for their benefit, “so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:5).  Such wisdom was not worldly, but from the Spirit, and as such belongs to those who are of Christ, apart from all worldly considerations.

Nor does Paul’s authority center in his own person.  The Corinthians had forgotten this, and their factionalism arose from considering the man too highly.  “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” (1 Corinthians 3:5-7).  Paul’s work in laying the foundation is of much value, to be sure, but it is ultimately God working through Paul that makes this work what it is.  Paul is a skilled master builder, laying the foundation which is Jesus Christ, and the Judgment will reveal the nature of that work (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).

Therefore, one must regard Paul and those who bear authority in the Church as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”  A high calling, but one that bears high responsibility, since the value of stewards depends on how faithfully their exercise their office.  Joseph rose to prominence in his master’s house because the Lord was with him (Genesis 39).  The dishonest steward lost his position from squandering his master’s possessions (Luke 16:1-13).  Stewards of Christ demonstrate their faithfulness by rightly handling the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15), bringing out of their treasure what is new and what is old (Matthew 13:52).  They continue in what they have been taught, being equipped for every good work through the power of the living Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:10-17).

But the judgment of faithfulness is not a matter of the world, either.  “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4).  And if the faithful are incompetent to judge such cases, as it were, why would the world be any better (1 Corinthians 6)?  Not that Paul must answer to the Church regarding his faithfulness, but to his own master, the Lord.  But when the Lord comes to judge the world, then the nature of what he has build will be revealed.  Paul has labored for a time in darkness, but the light of Christ will make all things plain.

As with Paul, so also with those entrusted with smaller responsibilities.  The guardian of the remote post is not thereby relieved of his duty or relaxed in its rigor.  The value of his labor in the Lord too will be judged by fire.  Will it be flammable, built upon the wisdom of men?  The appearance of such wisdom is always impressive, but ultimately devoid of power.  It is self-serving and desires only to be noticed.  Or will it endure the test, built upon the mind of Christ?  While such wisdom may come with rhetorical ability, it will prove itself by its fruits.  It builds up those who hear it, even at the cost of making those who bear it a “spectacle to the world,” fools for Christ (1 Corinthians 4:8-13).  But it is ultimately worthy of imitation.  The arrogant fool who delights in worldly wisdom has only talk, but “the kingdom of God does not consist in talk, but in power” (1 Corinthians 4:20).