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Click here for the reading: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13.

The irony of this passage’s use at weddings is that marriages are among the good gifts of this life that will pass away along with prophecies, languages, and knowledge. The things now so highly and rightly prized are ours for a time and for a purpose. We have husband or wife to love and to cherish until death us do part. We have prophecy to proclaim the oracles of God as we find them in Scripture. We have languages to speak the Word of God in people’s own languages. We have knowledge to proclaim the knowledge of the Lord throughout the earth.

But this must all pass and shall pass. All this will be eclipsed. It will not be burnt up and destroyed, but it will be swallowed up and surpassed. Death will end along with all these things, when we are changed in the twinkling of an eye at the Lord’s command. I cannot fixate on my marriage or anything I have to exclusion of the love of God because everything except the love of God shall be subsumed. The weight of glory will overwhelm all else.

The reason love can bear and believe and hope is that only love knows what remains. Only love knows the fruitlessness of all effort apart from the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Only love comprehends how futile and petty our fixations and our resentments and our bickerings are. Only love recognizes that Christ shall truly be all in all, and for His sake, love believes and bears everything for the sake of and in view of the Day of the Bridegroom’s returning.

Paul’s words are not saccharine sentiments, tiresomely sweet and unnatural, wrapped in a sickly pink paper packet. His words flow easily and purely from love’s spring. In Christ there is already resurrection and life and perfection. In Christ there is already victory over sin and death, and in Christ death is already mocked. Knowing this, how can care and fixation and bickering and self-aggrandizement consume me? Am I Christ? Am I the firstfruits of them that sleep? No, we are in all things more than conquerors over sin and death and everything else solely through Him Who loved us and gave Himself up for us.

So love can be patient. Love can be kind. Love can believe and bear and hope. Love can wait as long as it has to. Love knows what’s coming and how partial and petty and light this life will prove to be when the weight of glory and the splendor of Christ enter in. Love knows we shall not all sleep but we shall all certainly at long last be changed. Then we shall know all as we are even now fully known by Him. Love knows Him, and love never ends.

Click here for the reading: 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5.

With greater foresight than his forefathers Paul considered that he could fall along the way. Paul does not often employ sports metaphors probably because a pious Jew would have little knowledge of the nude contests of pagan antiquity carried out under the benediction of strange gods. The metaphor he uses in 1 Cor. 9 would be well-known to everyone because the Greek cycle of four years, the Olympiad, was named after the winner of the medium-distance footrace at the Olympic Games. The dedication to their sport and the singleminded pursuit of glory those athletes famously displayed are commanded by the apostle here.

If someone displays dedication, singlemindedness, and laudable devotion to his task in something that perishes with use, something that comes and goes again, why would a Christian be less demonstrably dedicated, singleminded, or laudably devoted in the attainment of eternal life? The crown that awaits him fadeth not away, so where is his intensity, his drive, his refusal to be distracted in the pursuit of the glories of the resurrection to life? Self-control in earthly things is laudable, but how much more in refraining from anything that would put an obstacle in the way of salvation?

Paul’s body is not neutral. He must keep it “under control.” Like an athlete his body can be his own worst enemy. Lust, sloth, and devotion to ease all prove eager jailers for the Christian, waiting to lock him down and lock him in to their demands. Paul is master over these things and considers them real dangers because should he not practice this self-control and discipline of his body, he the great preacher of Christ could be “disqualified” like a runner who had coached others but could not himself compete well.

Paul’s forefathers, who are our forefathers (10:1) in following Christ (10:4), exemplify failure and disqualification. God “was not pleased” with them and their ways, their testing and their quarreling and their grumbling and their weak-minded suspicions. They were baptized into Moses, but we who are baptized into Christ could also be overthrown. They ate the same Spiritual food and drank the same Spiritual drink, but we who eat the Spiritual food and drink of the Lord’s Supper could also be overthrown. The graces of manna and water from the rock did not overturn the reign of blasphemy and evil suspicion in their hearts and minds, and they fell as evildoers. Woe to us if we likewise fall! Woe to us if we likewise blaspheme and presume upon God’s grace!

Paul opens up the Scriptures and the hearts of the fathers to show that beneath their idolatry and blasphemy was the desire of evil (10:6). Blasphemy and idolatry come forth from the deeper well of evil desire, and the discipline of Paul’s body is the purification of desire – the pruning back of the otherwise wild growth of desire so that it does not choke out the seed of the Word.

Click here for the reading: 1 Corinthians 1:26-31.

Boasting has to do with human accomplishments, but baptism has to do with divine choices. God did not pick the strong. God did not pick the wise. God picked the weak. God picked the foolish. All those categories are human ones – this man is weaker than that one, this man is foolish, while that one is smart – and other categories can be conceived of and preached about. Those categorizations are not false – the modern error that all difference between human beings is unreal. Those categorizations simply do not matter eternally; those categories are not “your calling, brothers.”

Boasting is excluded because it has nothing to do with God’s calling. Even in a city so wealthy and worldly as Corinth, God had not chosen many wealthy or many strong or many well-educated for Himself. Paul does not say God could not choose such people nor that such people are morally inferior to the poor or the weak or the uneducated. Paul is not speaking about God’s being a respecter of persons. Rather, God has worked in such a way in Christ so that He should shame the wise and the strong. Why? “so that no flesh [ESV: human being] might boast in the presence of God.”

This will bring to nothing the things that are. Already, in our preaching, the truths of Judgment Day are made known: what you are is not what you should be. All that you’ve done is not equal to what you ought to have done. You must become somehow completely different. You must die and be born again. At Judgment Day such preaching is too late. Yet now it is not too late. Now is a good time for boasting to be excluded and for what is to be shown for how little it truly is.

God has already done this in Christ. Christ became poor and foolish according to the light of human reason that in Him we might become rich and wise. This is why Christ has become the sole source of so much for His people: wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. Paul is not confused about the ordo salutis. He is speaking of Christ as an unending fountain of everything needful. The one who has nothing will receive everything from Christ.

More than this, Christ was made nothing so that we might have everything in Him. There is no Sunday like the Baptism of our Lord for preaching the blessed exchange: what Christ did not have, He took from us for our sakes – such things as sin, foolishness, and death. What Christ did have, He gave to us for our sakes – such things as righteousness, wisdom, and life. Only people who know they are in need of life will receive it from Christ in baptism. Only people who know they are in need of wisdom will receive it from Christ through His Word. He has come to call the sick, not those who have no need of a Physician.

Click here for the reading: 1 Corinthians 4:1-5.

Paul addresses the divisions among the Corinthians with authority, but also as their spiritual father. Many regarded him as an inferior teacher and thus as someone whose teachings could also be ignored. How does the spirit of division show itself today? Why is factionalism a threat to the Gospel? How should we approach such division, and how should we not approach it? What is at the root of such division in the body of Christ? Why does Paul list divisions among the works of the flesh in Galatians 6?

The primary issue in this passage is how some of the Corinthians regarded Paul. Since he was not as impressive as some of the other teachers, some turned away from what he had taught them. After all, these other teachers were much more compelling! However, Paul reminds them that it doesn’t matter what they think about him. What matters is that he is a servant of God. Since the world constantly pressures us to conform, what does it look like to care more about what God thinks about us? On the other hand, how can this reality be used to justify bad practices or attitudes? Consider the example of the Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1 and how they show what it means to fear God above all things.

The value of a steward is not dependent on his skill or his knowledge, but rather on his conduct. Should he prove unfaithful or negligent, then even the most talented steward is worthless to his master. Paul is therefore not a people-pleaser, because they are not his master! What are specific ways that show we care most about what others think? What are specific ways that show we care most about remaining faithful? How does 1 Peter 2-3 address the question of faithful conduct?

Even if Paul were to stand before the judgment of men, he is not aware of anything against him. This does not acquit him before the judgment of God, but Paul is blameless before the world. What is the difference between being blameless and being sinless? Why is blamelessness a requirement of those who desire to be pastors? Why ought all Christians be blameless before the judgment of the world? What else do we learn about being blameless in passages like Psalm 15?

Just as Advent looks toward the coming of the Lord in judgment, Paul reminds the Corinthians that the Lord will reveal the truth of our hearts on that day. God will judge each according to what he has done and will give to each his commendation or his condemnation. Why should we not always judge a man’s faithfulness by what we see? Why is factionalism based on appearances rather than truth? In what ways do we engage in premature judgment, especially on the actions of fellow Christians? How do Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 relate to this passage?

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.

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).

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.

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).

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).