True Spirituality: A Study in 1 Corinthians

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1. Introduction and Background to 1 Corinthians

Major Outline of 1 Corinthians

Before we begin our study of the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, it would be good for us to view the book as a whole as summarized in this outline:

1:1-9

Introduction: Salutation (verses 1-3) and Thanksgiving (verses 4-9)

1:10–4:21

Dealing With Divisions / Unholy Separation

5:1–6:20

Dealing With Sin / Biblical Separation

7:1–10:33

Questions Answered: Commitments (7) and Convictions (8-10)

11:1–14:40

Church Conduct—Diversity Without Divisions

15:1-58

The Doctrine of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

16:1-24

Conclusion—Getting Personal

Introduction

A number of years ago, one of the seminary students in our congregation left for a summer ministry in the South. During that week, we received word that his car had broken down on the way and that he was stranded. It was reported as a matter for prayer, but in jest, someone suggested the church send “Bob” to fix the car. My response was that, while I may be able to “heal the sick” (automotively speaking), I am not able to “raise the dead!”

While a student in seminary, I became friends with a student who was a veterinarian. I always teased him by telling him his ministry could be preaching in a church that was going to the dogs. I wonder just how one would feel about being sent to a church like the one in Corinth, as described in the two epistles of Paul to the Corinthians. Frankly, from a purely human point of view, the situation in Corinth appears to be hopeless.

And yet when we read these introductory verses to this epistle, Paul is positive, upbeat, and optimistic. His prayers concerning this church are filled with expressions of thanksgiving. How can this be? How can Paul be so positive and optimistic as he communicates with this church? One thing is certain—it is not because of the godly conduct of many of its members.

Paul’s first words to the Corinthians are not just a repetition of a standard form, a kind of “boiler plate” greeting, as though he were using a pre-packaged computer program which needed nothing else but to fill in the name of the church. The salutation of this epistle provides us not only with a demonstration of Paul’s optimism and enthusiasm in writing to these saints, it also indicates how he can be so positive about this troubled body of believers. More than this, it begins to lay a theological foundation for Paul’s ministry and teaching as it will be given throughout the epistle. This salutation tells us not only how Paul feels about this church, but why he feels as he does. Gordon Fee has this to say about the importance of these first nine verses of 1 Corinthians:

With the elaborations of this letter Paul begins a habit that will carry through to the end. In each case the elaborations reflect, either directly or subtly, many of the concerns about to be raised in the letter itself. Even as he formally addresses the church in the salutation, Paul’s mind is already at work on the critical behavioral and theological issues at hand.1

The Founding of the Church at Corinth

At the end of Paul’s so-called first missionary journey with Barnabas, the Jerusalem Council met to decide just what should be required of Gentile converts (Acts 15:1-29). When Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways, Paul took Silas with him and set out on what was to be called the second missionary journey of Paul (Acts 15:36-41). They began by revisiting some of the churches that had been founded on the first journey, delivering to them the decision of the Jerusalem Council (16:4-5).

After being divinely prohibited from preaching in Asia (Acts 16:6) and Bithynia, Paul, Silas, and Timothy ended up at Troas, where Paul received the “Macedonian vision” (16:9-10), which brought them2 to Philippi where a number were saved and a church was established. From Philippi, Paul and his party went to Thessalonica, then to Berea, and finally to Athens (Acts 17). From Athens, Paul went to Corinth, an ancient city of Greece, the seat of government of the Roman province of Achaia. It was in Corinth that Paul first crossed paths with a Jew named Aquila and his wife Priscilla. Like Paul, this man was a tent-maker. He and his wife had fled from Italy because of a command from Claudius that all Jews must leave Rome (Acts 18:1-3). Every Sabbath, Paul went to the synagogue, where he sought to evangelize Jews and Greeks (18:4). Eventually he was joined by Silas and Timothy, who had just arrived from Macedonia. Apparently they brought a gift from the Macedonians which enabled Paul to fully devote himself to the Word, so that he gave all of his efforts to preaching Christ (18:5).

As usual, Paul’s preaching prompted a reaction from the unbelieving Jews, so that he left the synagogue and began to concentrate on evangelizing Gentiles (18:6-7). Paul moved his headquarters to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a Gentile God-fearer who lived next door to the synagogue (18:5-7). Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, became a believer along with the rest of his household. Many other Corinthians were also being saved as well and were submitting to baptism (18:8). The Lord appeared to Paul in a vision, assuring him that there were many more souls to be saved in that city and that he was not to fear. He was to speak out boldly, rather than to hold back for fear of trouble (18:9-10).3 As a result, Paul extended his ministry in Corinth, staying a total of 18 months, a considerably longer period of ministry than usual.

Paul’s lengthy ministry was facilitated, in part, by Jewish litigation and by the precedent-setting ruling of Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia (18:12-17). The Jews seized Paul and brought him up on charges before Gallio. They accused him of being neither a faithful Jew nor a good citizen. They accused him of speaking and acting against the law. Paul did not even get the opportunity to speak in his own defense. Before he could open his mouth, Gallio gave his ruling. This strife between Paul and the Jews was but another instance of the in-fighting which was so typical of the Jews. Gallio was fed up with it and with them and was not about to be used by these Jewish zealots to prevail over their Jewish rivals. This was not a matter for his judgment. He threw them and their case out of court.

From all we are told of him, Gallio was a pagan who cared nothing for the Jews, the gospel, or Paul. And yet his ruling was a landmark decision, officially legitimizing and protecting those who preached the gospel throughout the entire Roman Empire. Judaism was an official religion, recognized and sanctioned by the Roman government. The Jews were seeking to convince Gallio that Paul was really no Jew and that the preaching of the gospel was not the practice of Judaism. Thus, they inferred, Paul was a threat to the stability of Roman rule. They argued that neither Paul nor any other Christian should be allowed to preach the gospel under the permission and protection of the Roman law. When Gallio refused to rule on this matter, calling it a Jewish squabble, he was declaring Paul’s preaching of the gospel to be the practice of Judaism. Christianity, Gallio’s ruling indicated, was Jewish and thus protected by Roman law. Thus, Paul’s ministry was legal, and any Jewish opposition could not claim Rome as their ally.

Gallio drove them away from his judgment seat. The Jews were furious, and in retaliation they seized Sosthenes, the leader of the synagogue, and began to beat him in front of the proconsul. He looked on with disdain, not at all impressed or concerned. This Sosthenes seems to be the same person who is with Paul as he writes to the Corinthians (1:1).

The City of Corinth

Secular history only verifies and clarifies the impression of the city of Corinth which we gain from the pens of Luke (Acts) and Paul (1 and 2 Corinthians). It was a great city in many ways. Politically, Corinth was the capital city of the Roman province of Achaia, a territory including nearly all of Greece. That is why Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia, was in Corinth and heard the charge against Paul. Geographically, Corinth was so strategically located it could hardly do other than prosper. The city was situated on a plateau overlooking the Isthmus of Corinth, two miles distant from the Gulf.4 Nearby was the Acrocorinth, a 1900-foot mountain that was perfectly suited as a citadel for the city. This fortress was so secure it was never taken by force until the invention of gun-powder.5 It also contained an inexhaustible water supply in the fountain of Peirene.6 At the summit of Acrocorinth was the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. At the base of the citadel stood the temple of Melicertes, the patron of seafarers.7

Located on an isthmus, Corinth became a crossroads for both land and sea trade. By looking at a map, one can quickly see that Corinth is situated between two large bodies of water and two land areas, and these are virtually surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea. Were it not for the isthmus on which Corinth was founded, the southern part of Greece would be an island in the Mediterranean Sea. Goods exchanged between the north and south would normally be shipped by land through Corinth.

Much of the sea trade of the Mediterranean from east to west also passed through Corinth. To the west of Corinth was the port city of Lechaeum on the Gulf of Corinth. On her east was the port of Cenchrae on the Saronic Gulf. These were ports of call for ships that sailed the seas. Travel across the isthmus and through Corinth was generally considered safer than the 200-mile voyage around Cape Malea, the most dangerous cape in the Mediterranean.8 So dangerous was this journey by sea that the Greeks had two sayings well known to sailors in those days: “Let him who sails round Malea forget his home,” and, “Let him who sails round Malea first make his will.9

To avoid the distance and danger of the journey around the Cape of Malea (now called Cape Matapan10), goods would be unloaded at one port, transported across the four-mile strip of land (through Corinth), and reloaded on the other side. Smaller ships were actually transported with their cargo over the isthmus by means of rollers. Consequently, the isthmus was named the Diolkos, “the place of dragging across.”11 Nero had planned a canal to join the Aegean and Ionian seas, and he even began construction in A.D. 66. The three and one-half mile canal was finished in 1893.12

Corinth thus became a great commercial center. Luxuries from all over the world were available, and the vices of the world were also to be found there. These evils did not all have to be imported, however, for the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was nearby with 1,000 cult prostitutes who sold themselves in the name of religion. The Greeks had a proverb about the city which tells a great deal about its moral decay: “It is not every man who can afford a journey to Corinth.13 Those who were worldly wise used the verb “corinthianize” to describe an act of immorality. “Corinthian girl” was known to be a synonym for prostitute.14

Estimates of the population of Corinth range from 100,000 to 600,000. The diversity of peoples who lived in this city is explained by her history. In Paul’s day, Corinth was a very old and yet a very new city. “Signs of habitation date back to the fourth millennium B.C.15 Alexander made Corinth the center of a new Hellenic League as he prepared for war with Persia.16 In 146 B.C., the city was destroyed by Roman soldiers because it led the Greek resistance to Roman rule. All the males of the city were exterminated, and the women and children were sold for slaves.17 The city was rebuilt by Julius Caesar 100 years later, and it eventually became the capital of the province of Achaia. Many of those who settled in Corinth were not Greeks. A large number of Roman soldiers settled there after retiring, having received their freedom and Roman citizenship in addition to grants of land.18 A variety of nationalities settled in Corinth, enticed by the prospects of economic prosperity. A good number of the immigrants were Jews.

Being a relatively recent city with newly acquired wealth brought problems, for there was the absence of an established aristocracy which would have provided a much more stable society. Farrar spoke of Corinth in this way:

… this mongrel and heterogeneous population of Greek adventurers and Roman bourgeois, with a tainting infusion of Phoenicians; this mass of Jews, ex-soldiers, philosophers, merchants, sailors, freedmen, slaves, trades-people, hucksters and agents of every form of vice … without aristocracy, without traditions and without well-established citizens.19

Every two years Corinth presided over the Isthmian Games, a contest in which all the Greek city-states took part. At these games, the sea-god Poseidon was specially honored.20

The Occasion for Writing 1 Corinthians

After Paul had completed his 18-month ministry in Corinth, he set out for Syria with Priscilla and Aquila. On reaching Ephesus, Paul ministered for a short time, promising to return if the Lord willed (18:19-21). He left Priscilla and Aquila there and journeyed on to Caesarea, Jerusalem and Antioch (Acts 18:18-22). After strengthening the churches in Asia Minor, Paul returned to Ephesus for a much more extensive ministry. He stayed in Ephesus, teaching in the school of Tyrannus for two years. While in Ephesus, he seems to have received unfavorable reports about the Corinthian church which prompted him to write his first letter to this church, a letter which was not preserved as a part of the New Testament canon (1 Corinthians 5:9-11).

Later, while Paul was still ministering the Word in Ephesus, he heard from some of “Chloe’s people” that divisions were beginning to emerge among the Corinthian saints. In addition, Paul was informed of a case of gross immorality in the church, one with which the church had not dealt. Instead of feeling shame and sorrow over this sin, at least some of the saints were proud of their tolerance (chapter 5). He heard also of Christians taking their fellow-believers to court, seeking to have pagans pass judgment on spiritual matters (chapter 6). Paul was also told of unbecoming conduct at the Lord’s Supper (chapter 11) and of doctrinal error concerning the resurrection (chapter 15). A three-man delegation consisting of Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus also arrived from Corinth (16:17) bringing a letter which inquired of Paul about marriage (7:1), virgins (7:25), food sacrificed to idols (8:1), spiritual gifts (12:1), the collection for the saints (16:1), and Apollos (16:12). It was while he was in Ephesus that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians in response to the reports and questions he received there.21

Paul’s Preamble
(1:1-3)

1 Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, 2 to the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

That Paul should write such a letter as this should come as no surprise to us and certainly not to the Corinthians. After all, Paul had already written one epistle which was not preserved for us. Paul was the one who first came to Corinth with the gospel. Many of the members of the church in Corinth were the fruit of his ministry (1 Corinthians 9:2; 2 Corinthians 3:1-4). Paul wrote with apostolic authority. By the will of God, he was chosen and called as an apostle. He wrote with full authority. His words were not to be ignored.

Paul addresses his epistle to the church at Corinth and then proceeds to define the church. This is a very important definition to which we should give our full attention. First, Paul wants us to be assured that the church belongs to God. How often we hear churches identified in terms of who the pastor is. That is ______’s church, and we fill in the blank with the pastor’s name. When we do so, we indicate our deep and fundamental difference with Paul who believed that the church belongs to God. God is the One who brought the church into existence through the shed blood of His Son, Jesus Christ. God is the One who sustains His church. It is God’s church.

Generally speaking, the term “church” is defined in terms of two categories: (a) the local church and (b) the church universal. The local church is understood as that body of believers who gather regularly in one place. The “universal church” consists of all believers in every place and in the whole course of church history.

I do not wish to differ with these two definitions of the church. They are probably useful ways of considering groups of believers. But the “local church” and the “universal church” are not entirely consistent with Paul’s use of the term as he employs it in the New Testament. Here, the church is defined as (a) “those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling,” and (b) “all who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 2).

We might be inclined to think of this first category as “the local church.” In a sense, it is. But when Paul speaks of the church, he simply refers to a group of believers. Sometimes this group is a “house church,” a group of believers meeting in a certain person’s home (Romans 16:5, 19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 1:2). These “house churches” may have met in a larger gathering, as did the saints in Jerusalem (see Acts 2:46). Then, Paul referred to the “city church,” that is, the group of all believers in a particular city (see Revelation 2 and 3), or the church at a particular city (Acts 11:22; 13:1; 18:22; Romans 16:1). This is the way Paul referred to the Corinthian church, the “church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1). Finally, Paul speaks of the church as all those living at one time, who have trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation.

I fear our view of the church is either too narrow (the local church—our church) or too broad (all those who have ever lived and trusted in Christ for salvation). We pray for our missionaries, the missionaries we have sent out from our local church, or more broadly, from our denominational group. A few churches share with those in need within their own fellowship or local church. When the new believers (the church) at Antioch heard a famine was coming upon the world, they enthusiastically began to prepare to give to their brethren in Judea. They understood, even at this early stage in their growth and maturity, that the church is bigger than the local church.

When we hear of disasters taking place around the world, do we immediately begin to consider the impact on our brethren, our fellow members of the world-wide church, and act accordingly? I fear we do not, at least to the degree we should. With such rapid communications in our time, we could easily and quickly learn of the trials and tribulations of fellow believers, no matter where they are in the world. And our ability to respond is also significantly easier than it was for the saints of Antioch. Let us begin to think of the church in Paul’s terms, rather than in the narrower terms to which we are accustomed.

In this broader sense of the church, we see that Paul’s epistle, though addressed to the saints at Corinth, was also written to the church at large. Look once again at the first two verses of Paul’s salutation: “Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, to the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.”

This broader element in Paul’s salutation is important because it reminds us that “church truth” is “church truth.” That is, Paul’s teaching to the saints at Corinth is just as applicable and just as authoritative for the church at Philippi, or Ephesus, or Dallas. Too many have tried to avoid Paul’s teaching in his Corinthians Epistles by insisting he is speaking to a very special and unique problem found only in Corinth. This simply does not square with Paul’s words. His instructions to the Corinthians apply to every other saint:

16 I exhort you therefore, be imitators of me. 17 For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church (1 Corinthians 4:16-17).

33 for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. 34 Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says (1 Corinthians 14:33-34).

It has also been pointed out that in addressing the church at Corinth, Paul does not distinguish any one believer or group of believers from any other. We shall soon see that the Corinthian church was plagued with the dilemma of divisions. Here, Paul does not address the church other than as one group of believers, equally lost as unbelievers, and now equally saved through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, Paul is careful to emphasize that the standing of the saints in Corinth and elsewhere is solely the result of the grace of God manifested through the Lord Jesus Christ. There are no grounds for boasting, except in the person and work of Christ.

Paul’s Thanksgiving
(1:4-9)

4 I thank my God always concerning you, for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, 5 that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, 6 even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, 7 so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8 who shall also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Somehow, an expression of thanksgiving is not what I would have expected from Paul at this point in time. Here is a church that has begun to listen to false teachers and who is challenging Paul’s authority. Here is a church which condones immorality and “unconditionally accepts” a man whose sin shocks the unbelieving pagans of that city. Here is a church whose personal conflicts are being aired out before unbelieving eyes in secular courts. How can Paul possibly give thanks?

Paul does not give thanks for the sins and failures of these saints. Paul gives thanks to God for what He has done and for what He will ultimately do for His children. Paul first gives thanks for the “grace of God,” which He has given the saints in Christ Jesus (verse 4). Grace is unmerited favor, and we must surely agree that these saints—not to mention ourselves—are unworthy. The good things which have already been accomplished, and all those good things yet to be accomplished, are manifestations of God’s infinite grace, bestowed upon those who are unworthy.

Paul gives thanks for the sufficiency of God’s grace to the saints as articulated in verses 5-7.

5 That in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, 6 even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, 7 so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

God’s grace to the saints in Corinth and everywhere was boundless. He enriched them in everything. They were enriched in all speech and all knowledge. This was achieved through the preaching of the “testimony of Christ,” as it was confirmed in each and every believer. The Corinthians had no critical need for which God had not made provision through the apostolic preaching of Christ. Were there false teachers who indicated the Corinthians were lacking and that they needed more of something? They were liars! God had already provided all that was necessary for “life and godliness” in Christ (see 2 Peter 1:2-4). No gift was lacking in the church. God had provided just the right gifts for the growth and maturity and ministry of the saints in Corinth. If the church at Corinth was failing, it was not due to any failure on God’s part to provide for their needs, but rather a failure on their part to appropriate these means.

Finally, Paul expressed his thanksgiving for the faithfulness of God and the resulting assurance that He would complete that which He had begun in the Corinthian saints (verses 7-9). Elsewhere, Paul put it this way:

6 For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).

12 For this reason I also suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day (2 Timothy 1:12).

These saints were eagerly awaiting the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ (7a). Their salvation had not only the past and present benefits, referred to earlier, but a future hope. As motley a crew as this Corinthian church proved to be, their salvation and security were God’s doing. Consequently, Paul had great confidence concerning this church and the future of each saint. Paul thanked God because He would confirm these saints to the end. What God had started, He would finish. They were secure, and their hope was certain, just as Peter also writes:

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, 5 who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Peter 1:3-5).

While these Corinthian saints may not consistently be faithful, God is faithful. It is through His faithfulness that each believer has been called to salvation. It is because of His faithfulness that we will persevere and enter into His kingdom, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

No wonder Paul is thankful. In spite of the stumbling and sin which is evident in the Corinthian church, God has saved the saints there. He has sufficiently provided for their every spiritual need. He has purposed to present them faultless when He establishes His kingdom. Paul therefore is assured that his ministry is not in vain, because the salvation and sanctification of the saints in Corinth and elsewhere are the work of God. The God who called these saints and destined them for glory is the God who called Paul to be an apostle and to minister to these saints. Paul’s work is not in vain, for his work is ultimately God’s work.

Conclusion

Paul is writing to a very troubled church, a church which exists in the midst of a very corrupt city and culture. In spite of this, Paul has a very confident mood as he addresses the saints at Corinth and around the world of his day and ours. I notice that in spite of the weaknesses and willful sins of these saints, Paul does not begin by questioning the reality of their conversion, but by affirming the present and future benefits. There are texts which do question the reality of the faith of persistently wayward professing believers, but this is not one of them. These saints need to be reminded of the certainty of their salvation. The certainty of their salvation rests not within themselves, but in the One who called them and the One who will complete all that He has begun. This certainty also assures Paul that his continued ministry to this church is not in vain.

This book of 1 Corinthians should cause us to reject the myth of the perfect New Testament church. We often refer to ourselves at Community Bible Chapel as a “New Testament church.” We are that in the sense that our church is patterned after the principles set down in the New Testament. We have no one “pastor,” who is the head of the church, but we recognize that Christ is the only Head of the church. We are governed by a plurality of elders. We have a weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, and we encourage believers to exercise their spiritual gifts in a way that edifies the whole body. We do not wish to imply by the expression “New Testament church” that we are a perfect church or even that we are a good church at all times.

So often Christians look back to the New Testament times as though the church in those days was nearly perfect. If you read the Book of Acts the way I do, there is a wonderful period of bliss in the infancy of the church, but this lasts only from late in chapter 2 to the end of chapter 4. In chapter 5, a couple is struck dead for lying to the Holy Spirit. In chapter 6, there is strife between two groups of Jews over the care of their widows. And by the time we get to the Corinthian church, it is far from perfect and hardly what could be called good. The final words of our Lord to the seven churches of Asia in Revelation 2 and 3 are not complimentary either. The church was not perfect in New Testament times, and neither is it perfect today. The same sins which Paul exposes in 1 and 2 Corinthians are present and evident in evangelical churches today. And so Paul’s words of admonition and correction are just as applicable to us today as they were to the saints of his day.

We deceive ourselves if we think we can retreat within the church walls to escape the evils of the world. The Corinthians Epistles inform us that the world too easily and quickly finds its way into the church. The church is not the place where we go to escape from sin; it is the place where we go to confront our sin and to stimulate each other to love and good deeds. The church is not a Christian “clean room” where we can get away from sin; it is a hospital, where we can find help and healing through the ministry of the Word and prayer.

The church is not the place which is kept holy by keeping sinners away. It is the place where newly born sinners are brought, so that they can learn the Scriptures and grow in their faith. All too often, new believers feel unwelcomed by the church. The church is afraid of newly saved sinners because they do not really understand holiness or sanctification. Let us not strive to preserve the purity of the church by keeping out the newly saved pagans. Let us strive to preserve the purity of the church by throwing out some of the professing saints who boast only of the time they have put in at the church but whose profession of faith is hypocritical (see 1 Corinthians 5).

If there was hope for the Corinthians, then there is hope for anyone. The first nine verses of this epistle are saturated with reason for hope. Do you know someone who is hopelessly lost, who is not just disinterested in the gospel but adamantly opposed to it? Then take hope from the two men from whom this letter is sent. The apostle Paul was once Saul, the Saul who stood by and held the garments for those who stoned Stephen, the Paul who went from city to city seeking to find Christians whom he could arrest and even put to death. This man is now willing to give his life for the sake of the gospel.

If I understand the text correctly, Sosthenes is another Saul. In Acts 18, we are told that Crispus, the synagogue leader in Corinth, came to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It appears that Sosthenes is his replacement. I understand him to be the leader of the opposition to Paul and the church in Corinth. At his instigation, it would seem, charges were brought against Christianity before Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia (Acts 18:12-17). When Gallio refuses to hear this case, it is clear that Paul and the church have won. In frustration and anger, the unbelieving Jews turn on Sosthenes, their leader, beating him as Gallio watched, unmoved. Now, Sosthenes is a traveling companion of Paul’s, a brother in the Lord. Two of the most hostile unbelievers are now brothers in the Lord. Is there hope for the lost? There most certainly is!

If there is hope for the lost, there is also hope for those who are saved but whose life falls far short of the standard set by the Scriptures. Here is a church that seems almost beyond hope. There are divisions, immorality, and opposition to the apostle Paul and to apostolic teaching. Is Paul discouraged? Does Paul give up hope? No! Paul’s first words to this church are those of hope and confidence. Paul’s confidence and hope are not in the Corinthians, in their good intentions, or in their diligent efforts. His hope is in the One who called him and who called the Corinthian saints as well. His hope is in the fact that God has abundantly provided for every spiritual need in that church. His hope is in the faithfulness of the God who started the good work in these believers and who is committed to bring it to completion.

Have you ever felt that a loved one or a friend were hopeless? They may be a believer, but their life is a mess. This epistle reminds us that there is hope for such a saint. Have you ever felt that you were beyond help, beyond hope? This epistle is for you. Its first words to you remind you of the character and the work of God in the saints, through the work of His Son, Jesus Christ. Cease trusting in yourself, in your good intentions, in your efforts, and once again place your trust in the One who alone can save and sanctify. Heed Paul’s words of warning and of instruction. If there is hope for Saul and Sosthenes and for saints at Corinth, there is hope for anyone.


1 Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company [reprint], 1993), p. 28.

2 It seems that here at Troas Dr. Luke joined the party, for beginning in Acts 16:10, Luke changes from the third person (he, they) to the second (us, we).

3 This is certainly not the typical impression which we have of Paul. We think of him as a kind of religious pit bull, who simply cannot be stopped or silenced. This vision strongly implies that Paul was fearful and that without God’s encouragement, Paul may have held back for fear of Jewish reprisals.

4 A Rupprecht, “Corinth,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Merrill C. Tenney, General Editor (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), I, p. 960.

5 Ibid.

6 F. F. Bruce, The New Century Bible Commentary: I and II Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), p. 18.

7 Ibid.

8 William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), p. 2.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 D. H. Madvig, “Corinth,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, rev. ed., Geoffrey W. Bromiley, General Editor (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., I, p. 773.

13 Barclay, Corinthians, p. 3.

14 ISBE, I, p. 773.

15 Ibid, p. 772.

16 Ibid, pp. 772-773.

17 Ibid, p. 773.

18 “When a Roman soldier had served his time, he was granted the citizenship and was then sent out to some newly-founded city and given a grant of land so that he might become a settler there. These Roman colonies were planted all over the world, and always the backbone of them was the contingent of veteran regular soldiers whose faithful service had won them the citizenship.” Barclay, Corinthians, p. 4.

19 Quoted by Barclay, p. 4.

20 Bruce, Corinthians, p. 18.

21 See 1 Corinthians 16:8.

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2. Multiplying Divisions (1 Cor. 1:10-31)

Introduction

During my school teaching days, I referred to one of my superiors as an “unbeliever” in correspondence with another Christian. Through a sequence of events, this “unbeliever” read my letter and was greatly offended by what I said. Though he was a religious man, one could not think of him as a Christian. My relationship with this man was greatly impaired, and another Christian gave me this advice: “Bob, ________ is a very proud man. The only way to reach him with the gospel is to appeal to his pride.” Even at the time, I knew this advice was unbiblical, and now, studying Paul’s words in the early chapters of the Book of 1 Corinthians, I am even more convinced that my friend was wrong—dead wrong!

The first nine verses of 1 Corinthians 1 are Paul’s introduction to the entire letter. In these verses, we have been told that Paul is the author and that he is accompanied by Sosthenes. Paul’s epistle is addressed not only to the saints in Corinth but to all saints everywhere. Paul expresses his thanksgiving to God for the Corinthian saints, for the sufficiency of God’s provisions for them, and for the certainty that God will complete what He has begun in them by calling them to faith in Jesus Christ. Based upon this foundation, Paul now moves on to reiterate the call to Christian unity (verse 10). He then points out the ways in which this unity has broken down in the Corinthian church (verses 11-12). In the remainder of this chapter (1), and in the next three chapters (2-4), Paul shows how disunity is a contradiction of the gospel and how unity is a manifestation of the gospel.

The lessons Paul has for the saints of his day are most applicable to our own lives as well. The conflicts which existed then are still very much with us today. We have conflict and strife in the church, in the home, and at work. Paul will have us see that not only are such divisions contrary to the gospel, they should be set aside by the gospel. The gospel strikes at the heart of inter-personal conflicts, then and now. Let us listen and learn, for the lessons Paul has for us here are those which we should apply moment by moment.

A Biblical Challenge Regarding Corinthian Conflicts
(1:10-12)

10 Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree, and there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. 11 For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. 12 Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.”

Paul does not begin with the problem of divisions but with a positive exhortation to maintain Christian unity.22 Paul’s call to unity in verse 10 sets the standard. His exposure of divisions in the church at Corinth in verses 11-12 shows a specific deviation from God’s standard.

I am most reluctant to challenge the translation of the text of Scripture, especially in a version like the NASB, which attempts to be literal in its rendering of the original text. Here, however, I must raise the flag. Paul is not exhorting the saints to “all agree” on every subject, as our translation suggests.23 We will soon come to chapters 8-10, which deal with matters of conscience. Paul expects Christians to disagree as to matters of conscience. He will speak of the diversity of spiritual gifts which are evident in the church, and he does not suppose that this will result in total agreement because our gifts influence our perspective and our viewpoint.

Literally, we see from a marginal note that the text reads, “to speak the same thing.” Paul calls upon Christians to “speak the same thing.” This is quite different from agreeing on everything. When Christians have different convictions, they are not to dispute with one another over them (Romans 14:1). Rather they are to keep their convictions to themselves (14:22). We are not to speak about them in a way that disputes with others about them or which seeks to impose our convictions on others. If we are exhorted to “speak the same thing” so as to practice and promote unity, then we must speak about those truths which all Christians share.

I like what I know of Barbara Bush. I do not know if she is a Christian, but I think she is a woman of integrity. While her husband was in the Oval office, Mrs. Bush did not speak publicly about her views on abortion. I do not agree with her position on abortion, as I understand it. And from all I can tell, Mr. Bush does not agree with her. But while he was in office, she did not speak publicly about her position. She did not “agree” with President Bush, but she did “speak the same thing”; that is, she spoke of those things on which they did agree, rather than on those matters where they differed. Christians are to do likewise in the area of differences, when these areas are not fundamental areas of Christian doctrine.

Paul further defines unity as the absence of schisms. Gordon Fee writes,

Although the Greek word for ‘divisions’ (schismata) is that from which we derive the English word ‘schism,’ it does not in fact mean that, at least not in the sense of a ‘party’ or ‘faction.’ The word properly means ‘tear/rent’ (cf. Mark 2:21) or the ‘plowing’ of a field. The best illustration of the present usage is found in the Gospel of John (7:40-43; 9:16; 10:19-21), where various groups are said to have divided opinions about Jesus, meaning they were arguing with one another as to his significance. Thus Paul does not refer to distinctly formed groups of ‘parties’ here, but to divided opinions over their various leaders, which according to v. 11 and 3:3 have developed into jealousy and quarrels.24

Two further qualifications of unity are indicated by Paul. We are to be made complete “in the same mind” and “in the same judgment.” For Paul, maturity is not just an individual matter but a corporate growth. Maturity here is the process of the mending of relationships25 that takes place through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Maturity and unity are inseparable. Those who are truly growing in Christ are those who are both growing up and growing together:

11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ. 14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love (Ephesians 4:11-16).

Having the “same mind” refers to the more general “disposition” or “way of thinking” of the Christian. Fee has this helpful insight when he indicates the Greek term rendered “mind”:

… here means something close to ‘disposition’ (J. Beam, TANT IV, 958) or ‘way of thinking’ (BAGGED), cf. 2:16, where in contrast to the people of the world who do not have the Spirit, Paul says, ‘But we have the nous Christ,’ which in this case means something closer to the actual thinking or plans of Christ.’26

To have “the same mind” is to have the same outlook or perspective. To have “the same judgment” is to agree as to a particular decision, to agree on a particular issue.27

When the apostles and the rest of the 120 saints gathered in the upper room (Acts 1:12-14), they were all like-minded. They were one in spirit and in focus. And when they (rightly or wrongly) selected Matthias as the replacement for Judas, they came to the “same judgment.” They reached a particular decision with unity. The same kind of decision-making process can be seen in Acts 6:1-6 and 15:1-35. Paul likewise desired that they would unanimously agree on some particular judgments which he had indicated, such as the excommunication of the wayward brother in 1 Corinthians 5.

If we were speaking in musical terms, Paul is not calling for the church to sing in unison—everyone singing the same note at the same time—but rather he is urging the entire church to sing the same song, in harmony. This is what Christian unity is about. Unfortunately, the Corinthian saints were not living up to the standard Paul set for them. There were quarrels and divisions in the church, which he had heard about from “Chloe’s people.” The situation in Corinth can be summed up with these characterizations of the conflicts which were evident there:

(1) There are problems of division in the church which are wide spread and widely known. The strife and contention in the church is prevalent. When Paul speaks of this problem he says, “each one of you is saying …” (verse 12). This probably does not mean each member, without exception, but those who are not guilty of this evil are the exception and not the rule. The problem is so prevalent that it seems to be well-known. Even as far away as Ephesus, Paul hears of this matter.

(2) The quarrels and dissension are due to a party spirit on divisions which focus on personalities—individuals with which certain members have identified—to the exclusion of others. Every one of Paul’s examples is of a person who identifies with a particular person, and thus who stands aloof from others.

(3) Each of the divisions focuses on leadership. Each of the personalities—Paul, Apollos, Cephas, and Christ—is viewed as the one leader that the individual member has chosen to follow. Each says, “I am of Paul or of Apollos or Cephas or Christ.”

(4) In Paul’s example, none of the leaders named is viewed as responsible for the problem or of encouraging any to follow them and not other true apostles (or Christ). The problem as it is introduced here is a “follower problem” rather than a “leader problem,” in that the followers are at fault. Paul’s emphasis will change on this matter as time goes on, but no New Testament writer ever fails to hold individuals responsible for whom they choose to follow. There appears here to be an unholy devotion to godly men.

(5) We should bear in mind that the problem here is just being introduced in the first chapter of Paul’s first (preserved) epistle, and the problem Paul identifies is in its incipient (early and undeveloped) form. As time passes and as Paul’s epistles continue, the problem will more fully develop and manifest itself. A problem in its earliest form may look very different from the problem in its full-blown manifestation. Expect further developments on this matter as we continue our study of the Corinthian epistles.

(6) This example which Paul sets forth is largely hypothetical. The problem is not really one of loyalties and allegiances to different apostles, but of loyalties to leaders who are never named in 1 or 2 Corinthians. Paul will make this abundantly clear in chapter 4, where he writes,

6 Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that in us you might learn not to exceed what is written, in order that no one of you might become arrogant in behalf of one against the other (1 Corinthians 4:6).

(7) The root problem underlying the Corinthian quarrels and factions is pride. We see this clearly stated by Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:6 (above). Some are “becoming arrogant in behalf of one against the other.” But this same pride is evident in our text as well. “Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ’” (1 Corinthians 1:12). The first three hypothetical examples take pride in the leader they have chosen to follow. The last takes pride in thinking he or she is following Christ. But each is proud in feeling superior to the rest of those referred to in Paul’s example.

(8) The most dangerous group of all in these four examples is the last. Surely Paul means for us to assume “guilt by association” here in verse 12. Paul uses the same words, only changing the name in the case of the last group. It is true that we all should be followers of Christ. But we should not be proud of ourselves for doing so. This fourth group is no less proud or arrogant than the others who are condemned. I am afraid that I understand Paul all too well in this fourth example. Those who think of themselves as being “of Christ” also think of the rest as not being “of Christ.”

Exclusivism is wrong, even the exclusiveness of those who think themselves superior to all other believers because they follow Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or Christ. Those who boast of their following Christ are effectively declaring themselves to be the leader. Those who are “of Christ” do not need Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas. They do not need an apostle. They can discern Christ’s mind by themselves without any outside help from others. These autonomous folks are the most frightening group of all, and Paul makes this clear.

Paul’s Correction for Corinthian Conflicts
(1:13-17)

Paul’s rebuke and rebuttal to the Corinthian sin begins at verse 13 of chapter 1 and continues on through chapter 4. In this lesson, we will only deal with his four lines of argument which are found in the remainder of chapter 1.

Christ, or Men?

      The Priority of Christ Over Men (Verse 13)

13 Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

In a nutshell, Paul takes us to the core question: Is salvation about the work of men or about the work of Jesus Christ? All four of the groups mentioned by Paul in verse 12 were man-centered. The fourth group was a little more subtle about it, but all of these individuals took pride in themselves, based upon their perceived allegiance. Paul wants to make the point clear and unmistakable: Our salvation is totally about Christ’s work. Those who are man-centered need to be reminded of the gospel and of their salvation, to recall that salvation is Christ-centered. Christ has not been divided, so how can His body, the church, be divided? It was not Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or any other mere man who died on the cross of Calvary; it was Christ whose shed blood cleansed us from all sin. Baptism testifies to this fact. All of the Corinthian saints were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. They were not baptized in the name of any man. This is because salvation is through Christ alone, and not through mere men, even if they were apostles.

      Paul’s Priority of Preaching Over Baptism (Verses 14-17)

14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 that no man should say you were baptized in my name. 16 Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, that the cross of Christ should not be made void.

Baptism is a very prominent theme in these verses, mentioned six times here by Paul. I take it that some, at least, took pride in the person who baptized them. Some people appear to have been proud and looked down on others who were not baptized by as great a celebrity as their baptizer. Paul lets the air out of the tires of these proud name droppers by telling them that baptism is not a celebrity affair, and compared to the preaching of the gospel, baptizing is a lower priority to him. Do they take pride in the one who baptizes them? Paul is glad he has not made baptizing a priority, and thus that he has baptized very few of the Corinthians.

It is thus evident that Paul viewed his preaching of the gospel as having a much higher priority than baptizing new converts. It can hardly be overlooked that Paul saw salvation as something which occurs independently of baptism. Baptism is important. It is the believer’s public identification with Jesus Christ. But baptism is not viewed as the means of one’s salvation; rather it is the outward manifestation of salvation. Paul rejects the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Otherwise, if he thought baptism was the means of salvation, he would have made it a much higher priority than he did. People are saved by believing the gospel, and it was Paul’s priority to preach it. Baptism took second place to preaching in Paul’s life and ministry.

We find the same principle of the priority of proclaiming the gospel applied more broadly than just to baptism. It is applied by the Lord Jesus to the working of miracles.

29 And immediately after they had come out of the synagogue, they came into the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was lying sick with a fever; and immediately they spoke to Him about her. 31 And He came to her and raised her up, taking her by the hand, and the fever left her, and she waited on them.

32 And when evening had come, after the sun had set, they began bringing to Him all who were ill and those who were demon-possessed. 33 And the whole city had gathered at the door. 34 And He healed many who were ill with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and He was not permitting the demons to speak, because they knew who He was.

35 And in the early morning, while it was still dark, He arose and went out and departed to a lonely place, and was praying there. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for Him; 37 and they found Him, and said to Him, “Everyone is looking for You.” 38 And He said to them, “Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, in order that I may preach there also; for that is what I came out for” (Mark 1:29-38, emphasis mine).

In past years, I have been involved with the ministry of Prison Fellowship conducting in-prison seminars in various prisons in different parts of the country. I found it an exciting experience to join with Christians of different denominational and theological circles in these seminars. Prison Fellowship has made it clear that proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ is the primary goal and not the promotion of secondary practices or doctrines. When we make proclaiming Christ our priority, we find we can work together in unity, even though we may differ in secondary matters.

Conversely, when we wish to be perceived as better than others, we do not emphasize what we hold in common, but what is uniquely us, our distinctives. In an election year, when have you ever heard a political candidate say that he agrees with his opponent? Churches which seek to compete with other churches, or look down on other churches, must do so in terms of their differences rather than in terms of their unity and commonality.

The subject of the closing words of verse 17 Paul picks up in a little while, but for now Paul sets down two powerful arguments against the kind of pride which elevates “silver tongued orators” whose methods are those of worldly wisdom and power which appeal to the lost and ungodly. In verses 18-25, Paul argues that the gospel negates pride in a believer because the gospel is antithetical to human pride, human wisdom, and human power. In verses 26-31, Paul wages another attack on human pride by reminding the saints of who God has chosen to save, and that few saints are those who will ever win acclaim and status in a lost and pagan culture.

The Cross of Christ Has No Status to the Lost
(1:18-25)

18 For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE.” 20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. 22 For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

The Corinthian Christians were characterized by quarrels and a party spirit. In verse 13, Paul indicates what he constantly emphasizes elsewhere, namely that divisions are contrary to Christ and to the gospel. Why then do Christians get caught up by quarrels and strife? The answer seems straightforward and simple: pride. Pride causes a person to desire to think of himself as being superior to others. If one can identify with a leader whom he perceives to be superior to all others, then he, as a follower, can feel superior to those who follow someone else. In verses 18-31, Paul points to two characteristics of the gospel which serve as a death blow to the human pride found in the Corinthian church, and, unfortunately, in every church.

In verses 18-25, Paul reminds the church that those who are status seekers will never gain recognition and status from the unbelieving world. The gospel does not appeal to human pride; it cannot even co-exist with it. The gospel informs us that there is only one thing to do with pride—crucify it.

The “word of the cross,” that is, the gospel, is not a status symbol to unbelievers; it is an offense. For those of us who “are being saved,”28 the gospel is the power of God (see also Romans 1:16). For the unbeliever, the cross is a shame; for the Christian, the cross is glorious.

The conflict between divine wisdom and power and the secular world’s view of these matters should come as no surprise. Throughout history God has worked in ways that the world would never have imagined or believed. God’s purpose in history is not to glorify man but to glorify Himself by demonstrating the foolishness of man’s wisdom. The text which Paul cites in verse 19 is but one indication of God’s intention of proving man’s wisdom to be folly. He refers to Isaiah 29:14 to show that God has always worked in a way that is contrary to human wisdom. Would human wisdom have chosen an insignificant people like the Jews to be the nation among whom God would dwell? Would human wisdom have chosen the land of Palestine over other places on earth? Would human wisdom have led the Israelites to be trapped between the Red Sea and the on-coming Egyptian army? Would human wisdom have instructed the people of God to use their power to help the weak, rather than to use their power to take advantage of the weak? Would human wisdom have purposed to save Gentiles through the rejection and failure of the Jews, rather than through their triumph? Would human wisdom have declared that the coming Messiah was to be born of a virgin?

In verse 20, Paul asks a series of questions. Where is the wise man, the scribe, the debater of this age? I think he means where are they in the church, in the outworking of God’s plans and purposes? Paul would have the Corinthians look around them to see where the intellectual and scholarly giants are. By and large, those so highly esteemed in the world are absent from the church and absent so far as the outworking of God’s purposes in human history. And even when God may draw one of the “greats,” He first humbles them. Nebuchadnezzar is but one example (see Daniel 1-4).

Does the world think that God’s wisdom is foolish? God has set about a course that will prove man’s wisdom to be foolish. God will use foolishness to prove the ungodly to be fools. Since the world has not come to know God through its wisdom, God will make Himself known to some through means which the world regards as foolish. God has chosen the cross of Christ as the means whereby men may be saved from their sins.

Jews and Gentiles may agree on few things, but they mutually hold that the cross of Christ is foolish. The Jews are into power through signs and wonders. All through our Lord’s life, they wanted to see signs and wonders. They expected their Messiah to be a wonder worker, here to do their bidding. Even the disciples bought into this frame of mind, so that Peter rebuked the Lord for speaking of His cross (Matthew 16).

The Gentiles were into a different kind of power—mind power, human wisdom. They took pride in following great intellectual thinkers or powerful orators. The message of a humble carpenter’s son, who died as a common criminal on a Roman cross, was not that which the Gentiles sought. And the straight-forward proclamation of this “word of the cross” by means that were far from entertaining or impressive was not popular either. To those who are called, this humanly unimpressive gospel is good news, and the proclamation of the cross of Christ is a manifestation of the wisdom and the power of God.

There are two radically different views of the same gospel. The view of the unbeliever, whether Jew or Gentile,29 is that the gospel is foolish and weak. The view of the Christian is that the gospel is the wisdom and the power of God. Even that which seems to the unbelieving eye to be God’s weakness and foolishness proves in the end to cause man’s wisdom and power to pale in insignificance.

Those Whom God Has Saved Have No Status Either
(1:26-31)

The Corinthian saints were status seekers. Paul wanted them to see how foolish this was in the light of divine wisdom and power and how inconsistent status-seeking is with the gospel. First, Paul challenges his readers to take a good look around the church to note who was not present among them. This he did in verses 18-25. Glaringly absent in the church are those people who hold positions of status in the secular world, in accordance with secular values. The church is not made up of wise men, scribes, and debaters (verse 20). Now, in verses 26-31, Paul wants the Corinthians to give thought to who is present in the church.

“Look at yourselves,” Paul challenges the Corinthians. Granting the possibility of a few exceptions, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the rule. By and large, the church is not composed of the wise, the mighty, or the noble, when judged by fleshly (unbelieving) standards (verse 26). Instead, God has chosen to save the foolish, the weak, the base and despised, the “nobodies.” The word “chosen” in verse 27 is very significant, because it underscores that God chose those on the lowest rung of the social ladder. It was not that these were all that would come to God; it is that these are those whom God ordained to come to Him. It was not that God could do no better; it was that God chose not to do better.

Following the principle set down in verse 19, Paul explains why God selected the undesirables of this world for salvation. God has purposed to nullify the wisdom of the wise and to humble the proud. He has chosen to do so by employing means and people that the world rejects as weak and foolish and worthless. God chose the foolish things of this world to shame the wise, the weak things of this world to shame the strong, the base and despised things to humble that which is highly esteemed (verses 27-28).

God has not done this because the weak and foolish are any better than the powerful and the proud. He has set aside the highly regarded and employed those things which are disdained so that all the glory might come to Himself and not to mere men. This is the concluding point Paul makes in verses 29-31. If God were to achieve His purposes through the worldly wise and powerful, we would be inclined to give the praise and glory to the men He has used rather than to God. This world believes the “shakers and the movers” are the ones who make things happen. Even the church seeks to evangelize and train those whom the world regards as “most likely to succeed.” But God chooses the opposite, those whom we expect to fail (or, more accurately, those we already deem to be failures), so that when His wisdom and power are evident, there are no wise and powerful men to take their bows before men. Instead, men must bow before God, giving all the glory to Him. To God be the glory, great things He has done!

Conclusion

Obviously, there are just as many divisions in the church today as there were in Paul’s day. Some of us might argue that there are more divisions today than in his day. The thing that amazes me is the dramatic difference in the way we deal with those divisions and strife. In the church and in Christendom in general, the vast majority of cases are dealt with psychologically. This is the first level of appeal. If all else fails, turning to God and His Word is the last resort.

What is the root of this evil of divisions? The secular world, and a distressingly large number of professing Christians, would answer this question without a moment’s hesitation: poor self-esteem. This alleged “malady” is said to be the root of crime, of moral evils (many of which are no longer a crime), and of inter-personal conflicts. It should come as no surprise that Paul’s “root problem” is just the opposite of the secular world. Paul indicates that the root of the Corinthian conflicts is pride. It is not that the believers in the church think too little of themselves; they think too much of themselves. It is not “poor self-esteem” but “inflated self-esteem” that is the problem.

Why are these secular “cures” being embraced by the church? Why when we seek to heal conflicts and strife do we turn to a psychology book rather than to 1 Corinthians? When Paul deals with strife among the saints, he begins at the beginning—the gospel of Jesus Christ. His introductory words have already taken us to God and to His sufficient provisions for salvation and godly living. Now, after setting the standard of Christian unity, Paul seeks to correct the ungodly divisions in the church. He does so by turning us immediately to the gospel. Our salvation is Christ-centered and not man-centered. How then can Christians divide themselves from other Christians on the basis of the men whom they have chosen to follow? We were saved in the name of Jesus Christ; how is it that we now take pride in the names of the men we follow?

In the past, I have advocated “biblical thinking,” and I still do. But this text has forced me to see that Paul’s thinking goes even deeper. Paul is a model for us in what might be called “gospel thinking.” Baptism is a command of our Lord, and it is an important part of our obedience to Christ. But Paul makes it clear that proclaiming the gospel takes a higher priority in his life than performing baptisms. The Bible teaches us many truths, but the one truth which stands above all is that of the gospel. If any other truth begins to overshadow the gospel, something is wrong.

Notice with me how the gospel colors Paul’s thinking in almost any situation. In Acts 20:24, we see that Paul refuses to take the “advice” of the saints to avoid going to Jerusalem. Paul knows that “bonds and affliction” await him there, but Paul’s consuming desire is to fulfill his mission of proclaiming the gospel. Preaching Christ is more important than saving his skin. In Philippians 3:15, people who have “a different attitude” Paul leaves to God to change their hearts. However, in Galatians 1, Paul has a scathing rebuke for those who have “a different gospel” (see verses 6-10). When Paul is imprisoned, and some use this fact to further themselves at his expense, Paul rejoices because even in this, the gospel is preached (Philippians 1:12-18). In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul documents his right as an apostle to be supported by the churches where he ministers. He purposefully sets aside this right for the sake of the gospel (see verses 15-23, especially verse 23). When Paul encourages the saints in Corinth to give to the poor, Paul appeals to the gospel for their motivation in giving (2 Corinthians 8:9).

Over and over and over again, it is the gospel which provides the standard, the basis, the motivation, and the guiding principles for Christian living. The gospel is not merely that truth which we believe in order to be saved; it is the truth which we are to seek to grasp more fully day by day, and the truth which we are to live out in our everyday lives. As Paul put it,

6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, 7 having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude (Colossians 2:6-7).

Paul gets to the root of the problem of division and strife when he goes to the gospel, for the gospel is the key, the basis for all human relationships:

32 And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. 5:1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; 2 and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma (Ephesians 4:32-5:2).

1 If therefore there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, 2 make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. 3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; 4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. 5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:1-8).

12 And so, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; 13 bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. 14 And beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful (Colossians 3:12-15).

Pride is not the root of all evils (see 1 Timothy 6:10), but it is the root of many evils, including strife and division in the church. Pride was the cause of Satan’s downfall (see Isaiah 14:12-14; Ezekiel 28:1-19). Pride and wisdom are closely linked. In his pride, Satan tempted Adam and Eve in the garden. God had reserved certain knowledge for Himself, and that knowledge was there on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God forbade Adam and Eve to eat of this tree, to gain this knowledge. Eve saw that fruit, that knowledge, as desirable, and sought it by eating the fruit even though this required disobeying God. And the result of this act was division and strife, from that point onward in history. Man does not want to admit that only God is all-wise. Man seeks wisdom because he wishes to bolster his pride.

It was pride that prompted David to stay at home when he should have gone to war. As a result, he committed adultery with another man’s wife, and he tried to cover this sin with murder. As a result of David’s pride, he numbered the troops of Israel, and thereby brought upon his people the wrath of God. It was pride that God warned the nation Israel about, knowing that these people would eventually take credit for that which God had accomplished by His grace. Pride is a great evil, and it has for all of history been a prominent factor in human strife and division, even among the people of God.

Paul spotlights pride as the root problem among the Corinthians. He does not advocate months or years of therapy. He does not see the need to know the childhood, the background, or the individual struggles of each Christian. All they need to know is the gospel. It is by means of the gospel that God removed the conflict, the enmity, between sinners and Himself. It is also by means of the gospel that the enmity between men is removed:

11 Therefore remember, that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands—12 remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, 16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. 17 And He came and preached PEACE TO YOU WHO WERE FAR AWAY, AND PEACE TO THOSE WHO WERE NEAR; 18 for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, 20 having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:11-22).

The gospel is incompatible with human pride. When saints strive with other saints out of pride, the cure is not to enhance their pride, to improve their “self-esteem”; it is to remove that pride. The self-esteem of the saints does not need to be commended; it should not even be criticized. It needs to be crucified. Do you wonder why our Lord instructed His church to remember His suffering and death every week by the observance of the Lord’s Table (communion)? You should not. Communion is the commemoration of the work of Christ, the gospel. Communion is not simply a remembrance of an act which our Lord accomplished in the past; it is a way of life which we are to emulate every day of our lives.

How often, when men seek to evangelize the lost, or when they attempt to motivate Christians (and unbelievers) to give or to serve, do they appeal to human pride. They glorify certain tasks and positions, so that people will fill them for that glory. They publicly laud the gifts or service of people, so that they will be proud of their contribution. Gospel thinking requires us to do just the opposite. In order to be saved, we must confess our sin and admit that we are unworthy of God’s gift of salvation. We must humble ourselves and accept the free gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ. We must cease trusting in our goodness, in our works or efforts, in our worthiness, and cast ourselves on the sinless Son of God who died in our place, bearing the penalty for our sin, and giving to us His righteousness as a free gift. The gospel which saves is the gospel which humbles, and that humbling gospel is the basis for Christian unity and harmony. If you have never accepted the gospel message, and the gift of salvation in Christ of which the gospel speaks, I urge you to do so this very moment.


22 In Matthew 19, the scribes and Pharisees quiz Jesus about divorce. Under what circumstances can a man divorce his wife? Jesus’ response is to emphasize the rule and not the exceptions. It is not that exceptions do not exist. But to focus too much on the exceptions can undermine the rule. So here Paul wants to begin with the rule. He then cites specific examples where the Corinthians have departed from it (and these areas are not exceptions to the rule; they are examples of the rule).

23 Robertson and Plummer indicate that, “The expression is taken from Greek political life, meaning ‘be at peace’ or (as here) ‘make up differences.’” Archibald Robertson and Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1971 [reprint]), p. 10. Leon Morris quotes Bishop Lightfoot: “This ‘strictly classical’ expression ‘is used of political communities which are free from factions, or of different states which entertain friendly relations with each other.’” Leon Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), pp. 38-39.

24 Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary, F. F. Bruce, General Editor, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987 [reprint, 1993]), p. 54.

25 The term used here by Paul is a colorful one. Robertson and Plumber (p. 10) tell us, “It is used in surgery for setting a joint (Galen), and in Greek politics for composing factions (Hot. v. 28).” In the New Testament, it is employed for the process of mending fishing nets (Matthew 4:21).

26 Fee, p. 53, fn. 29.

27 “… nous, as is shown in ii. 16, denotes the Christian way of thinking in general, the conception of the gospel in its entirety; the gnome, according to vii. 25, refers rather to the manner of deciding a particular point, what we call opinion, judgment.” Frederic Louis Gadded, Commentary on First Corinthians, Kregel Reprint Library (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications [reprint], 1977), p. 63.

28 Paul speaks here of our salvation as an on-going process, and not just as a historical event.

29 It has been observed that Paul divides the whole world into two categories. These are not the categories of “Jew” and “Gentile,” but of believer and unbeliever.

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3. True Wisdom (1 Cor. 2:1-16)

Introduction

While I was a high school teacher in a medium security prison, the opportunity arose to very naturally explain the essence of the gospel. Never before have I received the reaction I did that day from two men in particular. They found what I was saying incredibly stupid as, in a very distinct “New Joisey” twang, one inmate exclaimed to the other, “Ain’t that somethin’ man? Ain’t that somethin’?” This man’s reaction to the gospel was far more honest than most, for a great many non-Christians feel exactly the same way about the gospel but are simply too polite, or too afraid, to say so. In the confines of that prison, those two men could have cared less about what I thought of them, and so they very plainly expressed exactly what they thought of my religious beliefs.

In the first chapter of his first Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul exposes and then confronts the problem of divisions within in the church at Corinth. He renounces divisions as contrary to the gospel. Further, Paul implies that the underlying problem is pride. Individuals took pride in the one whom they chose to follow. As Paul later says, they have “become arrogant in behalf of one against the other” (4:6). In verses 18-31 of the first chapter, Paul argued that pride and the gospel are incompatible. The world will never esteem the gospel or those who embrace it because it is contradictory to all they highly esteem. The Jews, who are impressed by power, wanted signs (of power). A crucified Christ was certainly not a demonstration of power but of weakness. The Greeks were impressed by intellectualism, by wisdom. To them, there was nothing wise about the gospel. It was foolishness to believe that faith in a crucified criminal could save anyone from their sins.

Paul has challenged the Corinthian saints to look around the church and observe that those most esteemed by the world are strangely absent in the church. By and large, the church is not composed of wise men, scholars, and debaters of the day. The church is not made up of the cultural elite. In verses 26-31, Paul urges the saints to look around them in the church to see who is present. The church is not made up of the upper crust of society but rather the rejected and despised of society. Of course there are exceptions, but the rule is clear: “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are” (verses 27-28). This is so that no man may boast, but God may receive the glory for what He accomplishes through those most unlikely to succeed in this world.

One might conclude from what Paul has said that the gospel really is foolish and weak. Not at all! This is only the way the world perceives the gospel. In chapter 2, Paul reveals that weakness and simplicity are not the end of the story but the beginning. It is through the weakness of proclaiming the gospel that the wisdom and power of God are made manifest. The world regards God’s wisdom as foolish because it is incapable of comprehending or accepting its truths. God’s wisdom is a mystery which the unsaved cannot grasp, and no one would have known apart from divine revelation. Through His Spirit, God has revealed Himself to men. The Spirit who searches the depths of God has been given in a special way to the apostles. Through these inspired men, divine thoughts have been translated into divine words. Those who possess the Spirit by faith in Christ can appraise the spiritual truths of Scripture; those who are unsaved, and thus without the Spirit, cannot. No wonder they think God’s wisdom is foolish. They cannot understand it—or God. But we who have the Scriptures and the Spirit have the mind of Christ.

Paul’s Conduct at His First Coming
(2:1-5)

1 And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. 2 For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4 And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.

The Corinthians now look upon Paul somewhat like a teenager views his or her parents. Paul is not wise but simplistic. He lacks the charm and charisma which makes his spiritual children proud of him, and thus they have begun to listen to others who have a higher level of esteem, especially by their peers. Paul seeks to correct their wayward thinking by reminding them that he is the same Paul who came to them at the beginning, preaching to them the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was through his simplistic message and methods that the Corinthians, once pagans, became saints. Paul now reminds them of his message and manner when he first came to them which resulted in their salvation.

When he came, Paul did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom. He did not come with “high fullutin” words or thoughts, nor did he employ oratorical embellishments which would draw attention to himself and to his methods. Paul came with a simple, straightforward approach which sought to make the message, not the messenger, primary. He came to them “proclaiming the testimony of God” (verse 1). That is, he came to them preaching the gospel in simple terms, without sensationalizing it.

In verse 3, Paul turns his attention from his message and method to his mind set. He describes the attitude with which he came to the Corinthians with the gospel. If the charlatans of that day had lived in our own time, they would have worn expensive clothing, had a recent face-lift, a self-assured manner, and an omnipresent smile. They would have exuded confidence and composure. But this would not be so with Paul. When Paul first came to Corinth, he worked as a blue collar laborer making tents with Aquila. His mind set was characterized by his threefold description: weakness, fear, and much trembling. He may have come with a physical weakness, for it does seem as though Paul suffered from some physical affliction (see 2 Corinthians 12:7-10). In addition, I believe Paul came to Corinth with a clear sense of his own limitations, knowing that the salvation and sanctification of men could only be accomplished by the miraculous intervention of God.

Paul also characterized his coming as “in fear and much trembling.” We know there were fears, as Luke indicates to us. After previous persecution in other cities, Paul came to Corinth where he again faced opposition. But the Lord appeared to Paul with these words of assurance: “Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent; 10 for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9b-10).

I have always thought of Paul as a kind of “pit bull” evangelist. Some dogs have no courage at all, while others may sound awesome but when threatened or harmed they protect themselves by backing off. Still other dogs—like the pit bull—will continue to fight until they are dead. How easy it is to think of Paul in this way, as invincible and undaunting. But Luke’s words indicate otherwise. Paul was a man of like passions with our own. He too had fears. But our Lord’s words of assurance enabled him to press on in spite of his fears.

The expression, “fear and trembling,” seems to mean more than just “fear” and “trembling” combined.

33 But the woman fearing and trembling, aware of what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him, and told Him the whole truth (Mark 5:33).

15 And his affection abounds all the more toward you, as he remembers the obedience of you all, how you received him with fear and trembling (2 Corinthians 7:15).

5 Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ (Ephesians 6:5).

12 So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).

21 And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, “I am full of fear and trembling” (Hebrews 12:21).

The expression seems to convey the realization on the part of the person fearing and trembling that he or she is of a lower rank, a lower position than the one who is feared. The woman who had been healed by touching Jesus (Mark 5:33) seems to have realized not only that she had been healed, but in being thus healed, she came to recognize the greatness of the One who produced the healing. Slaves should submit to their masters with fear and trembling, recognizing that God has put them under the authority of their masters. We are told by Paul to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling,” knowing that it is ultimately not our working or even our willing, but God’s sovereign work in us which causes us to will and to work His good pleasure.

Pride was the underlying reason for the divisions in Corinth. People took pride in following the right leader, the leader who spoke words of wisdom with oratorical skill who also had status and esteem among the unbelievers. Paul speaks of himself as a humble man, a man with no confidence in his own abilities, in his own message or methods, but whose trust is in God alone. Paul proclaims Christ, knowing that apart from the working of God in the hearts of men, nothing eternal will happen.

Paul’s actions in Corinth were purposeful, not accidental or haphazard. It was not that Paul was ignorant or uneducated, nor was it that Paul only knew about Christ and Christ crucified (verse 2). Paul determined that this was all he would know while ministering in Corinth (or anywhere else). He chose to limit his knowledge to those truths which would save men from their sins and transfer them from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. Even though many would be impressed by his knowledge in areas which the unbelievers believed to be wisdom, Paul determined not to know such things and thus not to preach them.

Paradoxically, Paul came to the Corinthians in weakness, fear, and much trembling so that the power of God might be demonstrated (verse 4). If Paul’s human skills were dominant in his preaching, Paul’s power would be displayed. But when Paul came in weakness proclaiming a message men deemed foolish and men were converted, it was evident it was the result of the supernatural power of God and not the merely human power of Paul. Paul has much more to say on this subject later, especially in 2 Corinthians 12, but for now we should note that Paul’s weakness was not a hindrance to the demonstration of God’s power but the means through which God’s power was displayed. God’s power is manifested through human weakness.

Paul did not want to make disciples; that is, Paul did not want people to be his followers. His goal was for men and women to trust in Jesus Christ for salvation and to become His followers, His disciples. If men were converted because of Paul’s wisdom and because of his persuasive skills, they could then be led astray by anyone who was wiser and more persuasive. Paul’s desire was that men would place their faith in God and in His power (verse 5).

God’s Wisdom and the Wisdom of This Age
(2:6-9)

6 Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; 7 but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom, which God predestined before the ages to our glory; 8 the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory; 9 but just as it is written, “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, And which have not entered the heart of man, All that God has prepared for those who love Him.”

At verse 6, Paul changes from the first person singular (“I”) to the first person plural (“we”). Verses 1-6 spoke of Paul’s mind set, message, and methods when he first came to Corinth with the gospel. Now in verse 6, Paul speaks for more than just himself. I understand the “we” to refer principally to the apostles.30 As further developments in this epistle and 2 Corinthians will show, the real struggle was not with Corinthian cliques, each of which had chosen to follow a different apostle, but with those in Corinth who had turned from the apostles to other teachers, of which some will prove to be “false apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:12-15).

What characterizes Paul that is so offensive to some of the Corinthians, causing them to follow other leadership? It is Paul’s “simplistic” devotion to Christ crucified. Paul has chosen to be a kind of “Johnny-one-note,” and the note he continues to play is offensive to both Jews and Gentiles. Consequently, for a Corinthian Christian to identify with the apostle Paul is to embrace that which is foolish and weak to the unbelieving mind, whether Jew or Gentile. To identify with Paul and his preaching is to become a fool in the eyes of the world, which has no status. And so some are tempted to identify with new leaders whose methods and message are far more acceptable. Associating with them gives one a much higher status.

Paul does not deny that his message and methods are foolish; rather, he emphasizes this is so. But in moving to the first person plural (“we”), Paul links himself, his message, and his methods with all of the other apostles. Paul’s message and methods are no different from those of his fellow apostles. He speaks with and for all the apostles as he admonishes the Corinthians.

At verse 6, Paul makes another shift in his emphasis. Up to this point, Paul has granted the fact that his gospel is foolish and weak. Now he begins to clarify and expand his instruction. The apostolic gospel is foolish and weak to unbelievers, but it is neither foolish nor weak in the sight of God. Neither should it be regarded as foolish nor weak in the sight of the saints. In verse 6, Paul insists that the apostles do speak wisdom. This wisdom is not for all, however. There are two groups from whom apostolic wisdom is withheld. The first group is those who are immature (verse 6). In chapter 3, verse 1, Paul plainly tells the Corinthians they are “men of flesh,” “babes in Christ,” and in verse 3, he contends that they still remain in the same condition. Did the Corinthians chafe because Paul’s message was too simple? It was because the simple things were all they were able to grasp. The problem was not with Paul or his colleagues; the problem was with the Corinthians.

The second group from whom apostolic wisdom is withheld is those who are unbelievers (2:6). Paul says the wisdom the apostles preach is not of “this age.” Consequently, the rulers of “this age” are not able to grasp it. Even those who are the wisest and most powerful people of this age are unable to grasp it. This is evident at the cross of Calvary. There, at the cross, the rulers of this age rejected Jesus as the Messiah as God’s means of salvation. God’s “wisdom” was never more clearly manifested to men than in the person of Jesus Christ, but the best of this age were not able to see it. It is obvious that they did not receive this “Wisdom” because they crucified Him.

Paul’s words here help us to distinguish between God’s wisdom and worldly wisdom. God’s wisdom was revealed in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ at His first coming, but the world rejected Him and the wisdom He manifested. The wisdom of God is “eternal wisdom,” a wisdom established in eternity past yet to be fully implemented when Christ’s kingdom is established on the earth. The wisdom of this world is “empirical wisdom,” based upon that which can be seen and heard and touched. The wisdom of God is otherwise. It is not seen by the naked eye, it cannot be heard with the ears, it cannot be fathomed by the natural mind. It surpasses even man’s imagination. It is other worldly. This should not come as a surprise to the Christian, for the prophet Isaiah indicated as much in the citation which Paul includes in verse 9.

Let me pause to reflect further on this concept of the “other worldliness” of God’s wisdom. Do we not tend to think of heaven as an extension of earth’s joys? Most people who believe in heaven think of it as the place where they will be reunited with their family and friends. And yet, when Jesus spoke to the Sadducees, he chided them for their ignorance because they supposed marriage would continue on into eternity (Matthew 22:23-33; see also 1 Corinthians 7:25-35). Are we perplexed when we find prophecies which describe things of which we have never seen nor heard? For example, there are Ezekiel’s wheels (see 1:16, 19-21; 3:13; 10:2-19; 11:22), and there are the “living creatures” of the Book of Revelation (Revelation 4:6-9; 5:6-14; 6:6; 7:11; 14:3; 15:7; 19:4). Nothing in this life can be compared with such things. Heaven is not just an improved earth; it will be “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1) where there will be no sea (21:1), no temple (21:22), no need for sun or moon (21:23-25; 22:5). The streets, we are told, will be paved with gold. This may be a way of telling us that what we value most highly on earth will have little or no value in heaven. Heaven, that biblical “new age,” is nothing like the present age, and thus no mortal can conceive of what it will be like. The things of God are other worldly, and thus we cannot even guess as to what they will be like.

How God’s Wisdom is Revealed
(2:10-13)

10 For [But]31 to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. 11 For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man, which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God, 13 which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.

Paul has just shown us why God’s wisdom, the wisdom which the apostles proclaimed, is rejected by the great but unbelieving men of this age. Men of this age are limited to temporal, human wisdom. They cannot grasp God’s eternal wisdom. They cannot see, hear, or comprehend the things of God. How then can mere mortals ever know God’s wisdom? The answer is found in verses 10-16. In verses 10-13, Paul expounds the doctrines of inspiration and revelation whereby God has made his wisdom known through the apostles who have inscripturated the “depths of God.” In verses 14-16, Paul turns to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, enabling him to comprehend the things of God which He revealed in the Scriptures through the apostles.

How can men know of a God who cannot be seen and whose provisions are beyond human thought? The answer: through the Holy Spirit, who has imparted the knowledge of God to and through the apostles in the New Testament Scriptures. The Holy Spirit is the “Spirit of God.” Just as man’s human spirit knows the deep thoughts of the man, so the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, knows the intimate things of God. When the Lord Jesus was on the earth, He spoke many things to His disciples which they did not understand or even remember. Jesus told them that after His departure, He would send His Spirit. The Holy Spirit would not only call the things He had spoken to their remembrance, He would also enable them to understand them so that they could record them for others. In addition, the Spirit would reveal things to come, things of the coming age:

25 “These things I have spoken to you, while abiding with you. 26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:25-26).

12 “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. 14 He shall glorify Me; for He shall take of Mine, and shall disclose it to you. 15 All things that the Father has are Mine; therefore I said, that He takes of Mine, and will disclose it to you” (John 16:12-15).

Paul has already spoken of the wisdom of God as a mystery (1 Corinthians 2:7). A mystery is something God reveals concerning the future, which is not fully grasped before its fulfillment because it is beyond human comprehension. The apostles played a unique role as “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1). After God has completed a work that was formerly a mystery, He fully discloses that mystery through one of His apostles. Paul was surely one of the great “mystery apostles” in that it was his privilege to speak of several mysteries. In the Book of Ephesians, Paul spoke of the privilege God had given him as an apostle to reveal some of these mysteries (Ephesians 1:3-14; 3:1-13; 5:32).

In 1 Corinthians 2:10-13, Paul describes the fulfillment of our Lord’s promise to His disciples (remember that Paul was divinely added as the twelfth apostle). Man, Paul is saying, could never know God on his own. But God has chosen to make Himself known through His Word and through His Spirit. His Spirit was given to the apostles in a special way so that the things of God might be inscripturated, divinely inspired and recorded as a part of the Bible. The apostles have been given the Spirit in this unique way so they “might know the things freely given to us by God” and might communicate them to us. The Spirit superintended this process by “combining spiritual thoughts (“the depths of God,” verse 10) with spiritual words” (the words of Holy Scripture).

Here is a very crucial difference between the apostles and the false apostles. The apostles claimed to speak for God, and they did! False apostles claimed to speak for God, and they did not! God can be known intimately because He has chosen to disclose His innermost thoughts and being to men by means of His Spirit working through the apostles, resulting in the New Testament Scriptures. To reject the apostles and their teaching as the “wisdom of God” is to reject God, for they are the only ones through whom God has chosen to disclose Himself. Is the gospel simplistic? It is because God’s way of salvation is simplistic—one way (see Matthew 7:13-14ff.; John 14:6). To reject the apostles’ teaching is thus to reject the God who disclosed Himself to men through them.

There may be a secondary interpretation of Paul’s words in verses 10-13, but, if so, it is surely secondary. Many interpret these verses as speaking of God’s direct disclosure of Himself to men, through His Spirit. I do not think so. I believe these words make sense only as interpreted above. This same thought is taught by Peter as well in 2 Peter 1:16-21. The work of God the Spirit in the lives of Christians in general is spoken of in the closing verses (14-16) of 1 Corinthians 2.

Spiritual Insight: The Haves and the Have-Nots
(2:14-16)

14 But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. 15 But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no man. 16 For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:1-16).

God has disclosed Himself to men through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit knows the intimate things of God and, by inspiring the apostles, has translated spiritual thoughts about God into spiritual words—the New Testament. In the Old Testament period, God revealed His Word through the prophets. In the New Testament times, this revelation came through the apostles. Yet the unbeliever seems blinded to the truth contained in God’s Word. How can this be? How can some find in the Bible a rich source of revelation which enables them to know God more intimately, while others find the Scriptures a senseless mixture of writings which cannot even be understood? Why are some drawn to the Scriptures and others repulsed by them?

The difference may be summed up in terms of the presence or the absence of the Holy Spirit. We see in verses 10-13 that Paul speaks of the Spirit’s work in conveying God’s thoughts to men by inspiring the apostles to convey spiritual thoughts through spiritual words, the words of the New Testament. Now, in verses 14-16, Paul writes of the work of the Spirit, enabling men and women to understand the Scriptures and thus to know the mind of God.

Previously, Paul has divided mankind into two groups: (1) those who trust in the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary for their eternal salvation and (2) those who do not. Another way of viewing these two groups would be: (1) those (unbelievers) who do not possess the Holy Spirit, who cannot understand the wisdom of God as revealed in the Scriptures, and (2) those who do possess the Holy Spirit, who therefore have the capacity to understand the Scriptures.

The first group Paul refers to as “the natural man” (verse 14). The “natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God.” The natural man, who is not indwelt by the Holy Spirit, cannot understand the Scriptures (“the things of the Spirit of God”). God the Holy Spirit conveyed the “deep things of God” to the apostles, who by the Spirit’s inspiration, recorded them as Scripture. The Scriptures are thus “the things of the Spirit of God,” the things which the Spirit of God has originated and communicated. How can one “devoid of the Spirit” (see Jude 19) grasp the things of the Spirit? No wonder the wisdom of God seems foolish to the unbeliever. They cannot fathom anything which falls within the realm of the Spirit.

More than a year ago, Dr. Jim Lopez visited our family while interviewing for a position at the University of Texas Medical School in Dallas. A part of his interview process involved making a presentation of his research. After Sunday dinner, he wanted to “run through” his presentation one last time, and so we set up the slide projector in the living room. I must confess I did not understand a word Jim said. It was completely over my head; it was a different world. Both of our cats perched on the coffee table beside the slide projector and were fascinated with the slides. Jim’s research was done with rats, and the cats found the slides of great interest.

True wisdom cannot be grasped by those who are unsaved, by those who do not have the Spirit of God dwelling within them illuminating the truth of the Scriptures so they can know the deep things of God. True wisdom speaks of things which pertain to a future age and of things which no man has ever seen, or heard, or is even able to imagine. The only way this kind of wisdom can be known is for men to trust in Jesus Christ so that their spiritual eyes may be opened to see the wonders of the wisdom of God and the world to come.

The Christian is the one who is called “spiritual” (verse 15) here by Paul. Most often, we understand the term “spiritual” to refer to those who are mature, who manifest the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. Paul seems to use it here to refer to those who possess the Spirit, who live in the realm of the Holy Spirit because they have trusted in Jesus Christ. The one who possesses the Holy Spirit is able to grasp and to appraise both temporal and eternal matters. The Book of Proverbs, for example, is divinely inspired and provided so that we may see life clearly from God’s point of view. The prophetic books have been given to us so that we may look at the eternal dimension of God’s plan. Thus, Paul can say that the Christian who possesses the Holy Spirit is able to “appraise all things,” things earthly and things eternal, things pertaining to this age, and things pertaining to the next.

While the Christian—“he who is spiritual”is able to appraise all things and thus to understand the beliefs and the behavior of the unsaved, the unsaved (“natural”) man is unable to understand the Christian (“he who is spiritual”). No wonder Christians are misunderstood and even persecuted. No wonder they are considered foolish and weak. This is the best the unaided mind of the natural man can do.

In verse 16, Paul closes our chapter with the words of Isaiah 40:13: “For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:1-16). These words sum up the difference between the non-Christian and the Christian. God has revealed Himself to all men in the person of Christ and in the Scriptures (see verses 10-13 above). The Scriptures make no sense to the unbeliever. This is because it is impossible for the unbeliever to grasp the things of God apart from the Spirit of God. Who can know the mind of the Lord? No one can, apart from the ministry of the Holy Spirit in revealing the Word of God through the apostles and in illuminating the Scriptures to the individual believer. Note that the words of verse 16 indicate not only the natural man’s ignorance but also his arrogance. Who would think that any man could instruct God? But this is precisely what the unbeliever does think. This is why they think the Christian is foolish and weak.

In contrast to the unbeliever, who is oblivious to the mind of God, the Christian can say confidently, “We have the mind of Christ.” The “we” may refer either to the apostles, who alone can speak the “mind of Christ,” or more generally, of all the saints who possess the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures. It is through the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit that the “mind of Christ” is conveyed to the saints. The Christian has both the Word of God and the witness of His Spirit, the Author of that Word. What more can one ask for than this?

This final statement sums up the vast difference of opinion which exists between Christians and unbelievers over “wisdom.” The unbeliever is incapable of understanding God’s wisdom and so is confined to a very limited, distorted temporal wisdom. The Christian has the means for knowing the mind of God and thus has access to the wisdom of God. The Christian should not be surprised by the reaction of the unbeliever to the preaching of the gospel. And the Christian should not forsake the vast wisdom God has made available to us in order to pursue the wisdom which the world seeks.

Conclusion

What a blow this chapter strikes at human pride. Paul’s coming to the Corinthians was far from prestigious. He came in weakness, fear, and much trembling. He came with a message offensive to both Jews and Greeks. He refused to “know” anything other than the crucified Christ, for he came to bring the message of salvation. His message was not one of superior wisdom, one that would appeal to the intellectual curiosity or headiness of the Corinthians. His method of presentation was not one that would naturally draw a crowd or attract a following. From a merely human point of view, Paul did everything wrong when he went to Corinth. But what happened? A number of his readers came to faith in Jesus Christ because of Paul’s mind set, message, and method!

How could Paul do everything wrong (from a worldly point of view) and yet sinners be converted and a church born? In verses 1-5, Paul indicates that he purposed to come to the Corinthians as he did so that the Corinthians’ faith would “not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God” (2:5). How does this happen? How is the faith of men and women turned God-ward by a mind set of weakness and humility and by a message and method which runs contrary to human wisdom? The answer is implied here and clearly stated later by Paul:

9 And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

In God’s economy, divine wisdom is foolishness to the secular mind; divine power is weakness to the unbeliever. Paul’s weakness and simplicity were not obstacles to divine wisdom and power; they were the means through which God’s wisdom and power were demonstrated. Had Paul come with self-assurance and confidence preaching a “wisdom” applauded by the world, through a method which ranked with the best secular communicators, the best that could have happened was that men would place their confidence and trust in Paul. But when Paul came as he did, only God could convince and convert the Corinthians, and their faith must therefore be in God, not in Paul.

How does this happen? How can human weakness be transformed into divine power? How can human foolishness become divine wisdom and pagan sinners become saints? The answer: The Word of God and the Spirit of God. The gospel is the means by which men are saved: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). And how can the gospel become the “power of God for salvation?” Again, the Spirit of God:

7 “But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper shall not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. 8 And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment; 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; 10 and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you no longer behold Me; 11 and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged” (John 16:7-11).

The Corinthians had become mesmerized by men and by human wisdom. They were wrong. What had saved them was the Word of God and the Spirit of God, working through humble men who proclaimed a straightforward, simple message of Christ crucified, even though their message and their methods were unappealing to unsaved men.

If the Word of God and the Spirit of God were sufficient to save the Corinthians, Paul makes it clear to them that the teaching of the apostles does convey wisdom, but a wisdom of a different order (verses 6-9). It is a wisdom which even the cultural elite (“the rulers of this age,” verses 6, 8) could not comprehend. Indeed, when wisdom was personified in the person of Jesus Christ, they crucified Him. Why would the Corinthians be so enamored with secular, human wisdom? It cannot lead us to God; indeed, it will turn us from God. Human wisdom cannot comprehend God or the things which He has for men. Human wisdom is of no eternal value, and its temporal value is limited.

At verse 10, Paul turns us once again to the Word of God and the Spirit of God. What men could never have known about God (see verse 9), God has chosen to reveal to men. This He has done through His Spirit. His Spirit knows what no man can know about God. His Spirit took these spiritual thoughts, spiritual realities, and translated them into spiritual words, the words of Scripture. This He did by His Spirit, who inspired the apostles who were the human authors of the New Testament.

Men can come to know God in only one way—through His Word and through His Spirit. There are many different beliefs about God, but there is only one true God. This is the God who has revealed Himself to us in the Bible. All views of God which originate with men, rather than with God, are false. All views of God which come from some other source than the Bible are false. How often I hear people say something like, “Well, I like to think of God as… .” It does not matter how you would like to think of God. Paul’s words inform us that the way we think about God is certain to be wrong, for true wisdom comes from above, not from below. True wisdom flows from God to men, not from men God-ward. The Bible reveals to us a God that we would not have imagined, a God whom we would not have wanted, a God whom we would not have received. Apart from the Spirit of God and the Word of God, we could never have come to know God.

If anyone can appreciate this truth Paul is teaching, it is the teacher. Think about Paul. He was a devout Jew, deeply religious, committed, and sincere. But he was dead wrong. When God revealed Himself to Paul (it is always God who initiates a relationship with man and who initiates the revelation of Himself to man), everything suddenly changed. Indeed, all was reversed. The things he once prized, thinking they won him favor with God, Paul now counted as “dung” (Philippians 3:1-11). Now Paul is a new man in Christ. Now he has come to know God through His Word and through His Spirit. That is what Paul wants for each one of us.

If you have never trusted in Jesus Christ, you do not know God. You cannot know God apart from Christ, and you cannot know Christ apart from His Word and His Spirit. Hell will be populated with countless souls who served a “god” of their own making, and such “gods” are not God at all but only idols of our mind. We cannot know God through our own wisdom or insight. We cannot see, hear, or touch Him. But He has revealed Himself through His Word, the Bible. By the ministry of His Spirit, we can come to know God personally as the One who has provided for the forgiveness of our sins and for eternal life. God has revealed Himself in His Son, who died on the cross of Calvary, bearing the penalty for our sins. He has raised Him from the dead, as proof of His satisfaction with the work of Christ. All we need do is to believe the One whom God sent, that we are sinners, deserving eternal punishment, and that through the death of Christ, we have been punished and raised to newness of life. I urge you to view God through the pages of Holy Scripture and to trust in His provision for salvation in Jesus Christ.

My Christian friend, do you believe wisdom comes only from God, through the Scriptures, by means of the Spirit? If so, where are you seeking daily wisdom, the wisdom to understand the events and crises of daily living? Where are you seeking a knowledge of God and of His “mind”? Where do you go to learn of the glories of the coming age and of His promised kingdom? Do you read the Bible, or books about the Bible, or do you read “Christian books,” sparse with references to the Word of God or the Spirit of God? God has revealed Himself through His Word and through His Spirit, and we do well to take heed:

1 God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, 2 in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world (Hebrews 1:1-2).

1 For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 2 For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, 4 God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will (Hebrews 2:1-4).

1 Therefore, putting aside all malice and all guile and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, 2 like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, 3 if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord (1 Peter 2:1-3).

16 For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. 17 For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased”— 18 and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. 19 And so we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. 20 But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21 for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God (2 Peter 1:16-21).


30 Would the Corinthians segment themselves into factions; would they distinguish their groups by individual leaders? Paul speaks of and for the apostles as a group, with no distinction. There may be divisions in the church concerning apostles, but there is no dissention among the apostles.

31 It is baffling to see the translation “for,” chosen as the reading of preference by the translators of the NASB. The KJV, NKJV, NIV, and Berkeley versions, and even J. B. Phillips’ paraphrase all begin verse 10 with “But.” The editors of the NASB do indicate in a marginal note that some Greek manuscripts read “but.” The fact is that most all of them do so with very sparse support for the reading they have selected. In addition, the context calls for a more decisive break here, indicating the beginning of a new paragraph.

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4. Substandard Saints (1 Cor. 3:1-4)

Introduction

I probably read the automobile section of the Want Ads more often than most. In addition to the year, make, and model of the car, certain bits of information determine whether I call the owner32 to ask for more information. Normally, good automobiles are identified by labels such as, “cream puff,” “immaculate,” “like new,” “showroom condition,” “pristine” or “spotless.” The losers’ category, from which I usually buy, are labeled “basic transportation,” “cheap,” “rough,” “good work vehicle,” “mechanics special,” “needs TLC,” or even “ugly.” A friend once owned a Vega (so did I, but I repented), and I offered to write the newspaper ad when she decided it was time to sell. Since it was Thanksgiving, I suggested the ad read: “Here’s a real turkey! Only 39 cents a pound.”

Other labels are not clear about the quality of the car for sale. Recently a Honda was advertised as, “One very old owner.” I know what “one owner” means, but I could not grasp what the seller meant by “very old.” Were they elderly and no longer driving very much or very fast, or had the car been driven by someone whose driving skills had deteriorated so much the car had reached a premature demise?

Labels are also a part of the Christian’s vocabulary, and not all are biblical. As we approach the third chapter of Paul’s first recorded Epistle to the Corinthians, we find several labels, and one is the source of fairly intense debate among evangelicals. The label, “carnal Christian,” is based upon the rendering of our text in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 by the King James Version:

1 And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. 2 I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able. 3 For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? (1 Corinthians 3:1-3, KJV, emphasis mine).

The King James’ rendering of “carnal” comes from the influence of the Latin Vulgate translation. The Latin word chosen to translate the Greek word, sarkinos, is equivalent to the English rendering, “carnal.” This is probably not the best rendering because of the nuances of the term, which the translators of the NASB changed to fleshly, and the NIV version to worldly. J. B. Phillips focuses on the contrast Paul makes with those who are spiritual and renders the term unspiritual.

There are several good reasons for restricting our study to only the first four verses of chapter 3 and the topic of the “carnal Christian.” First, the debate over the category of the “carnal Christian” is heated, with broad implications for good or evil. Second, the label, “carnal Christian”—whatever it means—is one Paul uses to describe the condition of many of the Corinthian Christians. This is a most important point. The first and second Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians are about “True Spirituality,” the title I have chosen for this series. Paul defines true spirituality, contrasted with the “carnality” of the Corinthians, and with their understanding of spirituality. Understanding what Paul means by “carnal” becomes crucial to our grasp of his two Epistles to the Corinthians. With this in view, let us carefully and prayerfully consider the “carnal Christian” summarized in our text.

The Context of Our Text

Paul lays the foundation for this Epistle in the first nine verses of chapter 1. He indicates his letter is not only written to the saints at Corinth but to all the saints (verse 2). He assumes that his readers are true saints, and, therefore, he gives thanks to God because he knows God has abundantly provided for their salvation, sanctification, and future glorification. Paul’s confidence is not in the Corinthians, but in the God who saved them and who will perfect them (verses 4-9).

At verse 10, Paul begins to deal with the problem of divisions within the saints. He first exhorts them to live in unity (verse 10), and then indicates he is aware of factions emerging in Corinth which seem to focus on following a particular leader (verses 11-12). Paul strongly rejects such divisions as contrary to the gospel (verse 13). He then speaks of his own ministry, and the fact that preaching the gospel takes priority over such secondary matters as baptism, important though they may be (verses 14-17).

Verse 17 serves as Paul’s transition to his next line of argument. He says his preaching is not done in “cleverness of speech,” because this is detrimental to the proclamation of the cross of Christ. (If the cross is the good news that, in Christ, God has enabled men to die to all they were as unbelievers, how can Paul preach in a way that seeks to capitalize on human skill and ability?)

Men and women who boast that they are followers of a certain prominent leader (“I am of…”), or of Christ Himself, are exhibiting pride. Paul reminds his readers in verses 18-31 that the preaching of Christ crucified is diametrically opposed to worldly pride. He therefore encourages his readers in verses 18-25 to look around the church and remind themselves that the culturally elite, in whom the world takes pride, are strangely absent. This is because the gospel is an offense to them, appearing to them as foolish and weak. Conversely, they are attracted to worldly wisdom and power.

In verses 26-31, Paul tells his readers to look about them to see whom God has chosen to save. As they look to their left and to their right, and in the mirror, with few exceptions, they must note that God has chosen those whom the world’s elite despise and reject. God chooses to save the weak, the foolish, and those who are “nobodies.” Through them, He accomplishes His purposes so that God’s power is revealed, and He receives the praise and the glory, rather than men.

In the first five verses of chapter 2, Paul reminds his Corinthian readers that they were saved through weakness and foolishness. When Paul first came to them in Corinth, his mentality, his message, and his method were those the world’s elite disdain. He came in “weakness and in fear and in much trembling,” (verse 3), having purposed to know nothing the world regards as wisdom, but only Christ, and Christ crucified (verse 2). He came preaching simply, with no secular techniques of human persuasion (verse 4). He did so because God’s power is demonstrated through human weakness, and men’s faith then rests in God rather than men (verse 5).

Just because the world regards the gospel as foolish does not mean Paul and the other apostles have no wisdom to teach. Paul does teach wisdom, but only to those who are mature in Christ (2:6). Paul’s kind of wisdom cannot be grasped by those who are “wise” in this present age. Paul drives his point home by reminding us that God’s wisdom has been revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. What did the rulers of His day do with Him? They crucified Him (verse 8). If the culturally elite (the “wise” of this age) had been able to grasp divine wisdom, they could not have missed it in Christ. But if they crucified our Lord, the Lord of glory, we must not deceive ourselves into thinking they can be won through worldly wisdom and worldly methods. Paul further drives home his point by turning our attention in verse 9 to the words of Isaiah. These words buttress Paul’s argument, informing us that the natural senses cannot discern the things of God, the eternal wisdom pertaining to things yet to be revealed.

If men are not capable of knowing God by their own efforts, how can God ever be known by men? Paul answers this dilemma in verses 10-16. Of His initiative, God chose to reveal Himself to men through His Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God alone knows the “depths of God” and has revealed them through the human authors of the New Testament, so that in these Scriptures the “wisdom of God” is revealed, which men cannot otherwise know (verses 10-13). The same Spirit who converted the “spiritual thoughts” of God into “spiritual words” (i.e., the New Testament Scriptures) also enables believers to understand the wisdom of God. The natural, unconverted man, does not have the Spirit within, and thus he cannot understand the Scriptures. The Spirit indwells the Christian, the “spiritual man,” and thus he is able to understand this current age and the mysteries of God revealed in Scripture concerning the coming age (verses 14-16).

The Corinthian saints have begun to look down upon Paul (and the other apostles) and the gospel message he preaches because it is simplistic (Christ crucified). And it is proclaimed in a way which does not stimulate or appeal to the flesh. The Corinthians have turned from Paul and his kind of preaching to others, whose “wisdom” and “power” are of this world. Their excuse for turning from Paul to other men and another “wisdom” is that Paul fails to measure up to the new standard set by the cultural elite, whose message and methods appeal to the lost.

Paul has a big surprise for the Corinthians in chapter 3. Do they think Paul is the problem? They are wrong! Paul has already hinted at the real problem. In chapter 2, verse 6, Paul writes, “Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature.” Now Paul tells the Corinthians they are not mature. The reason he cannot speak words of wisdom to them is because they are “carnal.” We are back once again to the word “carnal” (or “fleshly,” or “worldly”). If we are to understand this text and the message of Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians, we must deal with this term.

The Great Debate Over Carnality

C. I. Scofield’s note in the Scofield Bible articulates a definition of the “carnal man,” which some embrace and others eschew:

Paul divides men into three classes: psuchikos, ‘of the senses’ (Jas. 3:15; Jude 19), or ‘natural,’ i.e. the Adamic man, unrenewed through the new birth (John 3:3, 5); pneumatikos, ‘spiritual,’ i.e. the renewed man as Spirit-filled and walking in the Spirit in full communion with God (Eph. 5:18-20); and sarkikos, ‘carnal,’ ‘fleshly,’ i.e. the renewed man who, walking ‘after the flesh,’ remains a babe in Christ (1 Cor. 3:1-4). The natural man may be learned, gentle, eloquent, fascinating, but the spiritual content of Scripture is absolutely hidden from him; and the fleshly, or carnal, Christian is able to comprehend only its simplest truths, ‘milk’ (1 Cor. 3:2).33

A strong rebuttal to Scofield’s interpretation comes from a pamphlet by Ernest C. Reisinger:

Many who regularly occupy church pews, fill church rolls, and are intellectually acquainted with the facts of the gospel never strike one blow for Christ. They seem to be at peace with his enemies. They have no quarrel with sin and, apart from a few sentimental expressions about Christ, there is no biblical evidence that they have experienced anything of the power of the gospel in their lives. Yet in spite of the evidence against them, they consider themselves to be just what their teachers teach them—that they are ‘carnal Christians’. And as carnal Christians they believe they will go to heaven, though perhaps not first-class, and with few rewards.

That something is seriously wrong in lives which reveal such features will readily be admitted by most readers of these pages; no argument is needed to prove it. But the most serious aspect of this situation is too often not recognized at all. The chief mistake is not the carelessness of these church-goers; it is the error of their teachers who, by preaching the theory of ‘the carnal Christian’, have led them to believe that there are three groups of men,—the unconverted man, the ‘carnal Christian’ and the ‘spiritual Christian’… all those who accept this [‘carnal Christian’] view use 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 to support it. Consequently, if it can be established that the preponderance of Scripture teaches only two classes or categories of men—regenerate and unregenerate, converted and unconverted, those in Christ and those outside of Christ—the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching would be confronted with an insurmountable objection. It would be in conflict with the whole emphasis of Scripture and of the New Testament in particular.34

Is Carnality a Legitimate Category?

Virtually all admit that while Paul has just (2:14-16) divided the world into two groups—those who are “spiritual” (saved, who possess the Spirit) and those who are “natural” (unsaved, and thus who do not have Spirit)—he now speaks of three categories in chapter 3, verses 1-4:

Certainly there is such a thing as a carnal or worldly Christian, but the ‘carnal Christian’ theory has in recent years taken on some fairly weird extremes that bear little relation to what this chapter actually says. When we remember that this is the only place where the New Testament uses this language, we are forced to recognize that it is important to get the interpretation of the passage right.35

I also recognize that there is a sense in which Christians may be said to be carnal but I must add that there are different degrees of carnality. Every Christian is carnal in some area of his life at many times in his life. And in every Christian ‘the flesh lusteth against the Spirit’ (Gal. 5:17).36

First Corinthians 3 is not the only place in the Bible where Christians are referred to as those who fall short of the goal of being “spiritual”:

11 Of whom we have many things to say, and hard to be uttered, seeing ye are dull of hearing. 12 For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. 13 For every one that useth milk is unskillful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. 14 But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil (Hebrews 5:11-14).

1 Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted (Galatians 6:1).

The writer to the Hebrews uses very similar terms to Paul’s as he speaks of those to whom he is writing as not able to handle the spiritual “meat” of his teaching on Melchizedek. Their immaturity causes them to still be dependent on others and to continue to require “milk.” In Galatians 6, Paul instructs “spiritual” Christians that they are to come to the aid of those “caught” in a particular sin. Such a saint is not spiritual. There must be some category into which he or she can be placed, since the category of “spiritual” simply does not fit.

To those of the “either/or” school, I have a few things to say. The “either/or” school is that group of people who think—yea, who insist—that things must be either one way, or they must be another. Ernest Reisinger seems to say that we must have either a two-fold division of mankind (saved and unsaved, “spiritual” and “natural”), or we must have a three-fold classification.37 But one thing is for sure: in Reisinger’s mind, we cannot have both.

Life simply is not this way, and neither are the Scriptures. The Pharisees pressed Jesus with this question: “Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?” (Matthew 22:17). Do we pay taxes to Caesar, or do we give to God? Jesus answered that men should do both. We are to give to Caesar what is his and to God what is His. Is God sovereign, or is man responsible to do certain things? Is man a two-fold or three-fold person? Was the promised Messiah of the Old Testament to be God or man? Some questions cannot be answered in an either/or fashion. Are there two categories of men, saved and lost? Yes. Are there three categories of men, saved and spiritual, saved and carnal, and unsaved? Yes.

Perhaps the best analogy is how Jesus dealt with divorce. In Matthew 19, the Pharisees ask Jesus what grounds for divorce are acceptable to Him. Their question is not sincere, and the Pharisees, as conservative as they were, hold a much more liberal view on this issue than did our Lord. I understand the New Testament to teach that our Lord did allow for divorce, but for very few reasons. Our Lord’s response is very instructive. Paraphrased, Jesus’ answered: “I refuse to talk about exceptions, because for you, divorce has become the rule, and keeping your marriage vows the exception. There are exceptions, but you have so abused these that one can divorce for the most casual and insignificant of reasons. I want to emphasize the rule; I want to speak about the ideal, and the ideal is that one man and one woman remain husband and wife until one of them dies” (see Matthew 19:4-6).

The ideal is that all Christians should be “spiritual.” Every Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and every Christian should walk in the Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 2:14-16, Paul speaks of but two categories of men, those with the Spirit and those without. Now, in chapter 3, Paul introduces a sub-category of those who are saved and indwelt by the Spirit: those who are saved, but who do not live in accordance with who they are and what God has adequately provided for them to be. Whether this category is called “sub-standard saints,” “carnal” or “fleshly” or “unspiritual” does not matter that much. We simply must recognize that Paul must deal realistically with unspiritual saints, and yet he does not want to set aside the broader division of men into simply two categories.

The “carnal” issue is not just an academic matter to be debated only by theologians, which has little or no relevance to the daily life of the saint. The “carnal Christian” is not that far removed from the experience of the “spiritual Christian,” whose daily life manifests the constant battle we face between the flesh and the Spirit (Romans 7:14, 18-19, 24-25; 8:1-4; Galatians 5:13-24). The “spiritual” Christian and the “carnal” Christian both struggle with the pull of the flesh and its opposition to the Spirit. The difference between the “carnal” saint and the “spiritual” saint is that the “carnal Christian” is losing the battle, and the “spiritual Christian” is, by the grace of God, holding his or her ground.

A few concluding remarks may be helpful about the “great debate” raging over this matter. First, the issue is not whether there is a legitimate category which can be labeled “the carnal Christian.” The issue is broader, encompassing matters of “lordship salvation” and “eternal security.” While all grant that there may be a person who could be called a “carnal Christian,” the debate is over what implications and applications are drawn from this. Reisinger speaks for many of his colleagues when he objects to those who use the concept of the carnal Christian to justify, or inadvertently encourage, professing Christians to live a life of minimal commitment and obedience to Christ, all the while confident that they will get to heaven (though perhaps not “first class”) because they at one time made a profession of faith.

I agree with Reisinger and others that this abuse of the doctrines of the grace of God is deplorable. Nevertheless, abuse of a particular doctrine does not prove that doctrine to be wrong. In Romans 5, Paul concludes by saying that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). Some had concluded this meant one could, and even should, sin that grace might abound (6:1). Paul is horrified at this thought and strongly rejects it. But the perversion of this doctrine in its application by some does not prove that the doctrine itself is wrong. We must beware of rejecting the category of the carnal Christian just because some abuse it.

Characteristics of the Carnal Christian—Part I
(3:1-4)

1 And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to babes in Christ. 2 I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, 3 for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? 4 For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men?

In college, I took education classes to prepare to be a school teacher, and we always snickered about the professors who taught elementary education, which was my specialty. They had become so accustomed to dealing with little children that they treated their college students like elementary school students. They even had us file out of class like we were still in kindergarten, and often talked to us as if we were children.

That is the way the Corinthians feel about Paul. He is too elementary and too simplistic. They are insulted by his message and his methods. In these first four verses of chapter 3, Paul exposes the reason for his content and method of preaching. It is not that Paul is incapable of going deeper or grasping secular wisdom. Neither is the problem that apostolic preaching has gone as far as it can go. The problem is that his readers are carnal, fleshly. Paul must deal with them in an elementary fashion because, figuratively speaking, they are still elementary school students. These “kindergarten Christians” want to boast that they are taking graduate level courses.

In some sense, all could agree that the Corinthian Christian falls short of the mark. By whatever label, the Corinthian Christians are childish and immature, incapable of in-depth teaching. Granting the term “carnal” for the moment, what does Paul mean by it? What picture should come to mind when we hear the term “carnal Christian”? These first verses tell us a great deal about the characteristics of a carnal Christian. The rest of the book (and 2 Corinthians) has much to add to the topic. For now, let us make some initial observations about the carnal Christian.

(1) In general terms, the carnal Christian is the Christian whose thinking and actions are prompted by the flesh. Conversely, the spiritual Christian is the saint whose attitudes, thinking, and actions are due to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The spiritual Christian’s life indicates that he or she is walking in the Spirit, in accordance with the promptings (leading) and the power of the Holy Spirit. The carnal Christian possesses the Spirit, but he or she chooses to follow the promptings of the flesh and to walk in the power of the flesh.

(2) Because the carnal Christian lives in accordance with the flesh, at times it may be hard to distinguish him from the unsaved, “natural,” man, who also thinks and walks according to the flesh. The difference between the carnal (Christian) man and the natural man is that the former has the means to live a godly life, while the latter does not. The difference between the carnal man and the natural man is that the former is saved and going to heaven, while the latter is lost and doomed for an eternity apart from God.

(3) Carnal Christians are babes. When Paul first came to Corinth, he had to speak to these pagans as to “natural men,” that is, as unbelievers, who did not possess the Spirit. Spiritually speaking, he proclaimed the gospel at an elementary level. Even after they were saved, Paul still had to speak to the Corinthians as babes, as brand new believers. Paul soon begins to spell out some of the specifics of babyhood, and other characteristics of immaturity emerge throughout the epistle. But first, let us ponder what babies are like, and then compare this to the spiritual realm.

Babies are little; they are immature and must begin to grow up quickly. The Corinthian newborn saints are immature babies who need to grow up. Babies are weak and vulnerable. They are completely dependent upon others for their food, cleaning, clothing, protection. Being weak, vulnerable and dependent, babies take a great deal from others, but they do not give to others. There is no “give and take” with babies; we give, and they take. As babies begin to grow up, they become more independent. Every parent knows about the “terrible two’s”! Children have trouble getting along with other children because they are self-centered and selfish, and so they fight and squabble over toys and attention.

(4) Carnal Christians are little babies who stay babies; they never grow up. We must be careful when we think about “carnal Christians” as babies, because newborn saints may have their weaknesses, but they also have their capacities. You and I know that new Christians, baby Christians, often put us to shame. They have a zeal for the lost, and they share boldly about their new-found faith. They have a deep sense of that from which they have been saved. They have a hunger for the Word, often devouring it as they discover its riches for the first time.

Paul is not critical of the Corinthians for being immature after their conversion at the time he first came. Paul’s criticism stems from their having remained children. They have not grown up and matured into adult, serving saints. Growth is normal and natural, and when children do not grow up, it is considered a tragedy. Spiritual growth is expected also, and when it does not happen, it is abnormal:

11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ. 14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love (Ephesians 4:11-16).

1 Therefore, putting aside all malice and all guile and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, 2 like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, 3 if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord (1 Peter 2:1-3, see Hebrews 5:11-14).

Paul simply states that the Corinthian believers have never grown up. It is not wrong for them to digest only simple truths as newborn babes, but it is wrong for them to fail to grow up and not to take solid food. To stay immature is sin. The Corinthians are guilty of this malady.

(5) Carnal Christians are “Wimps in the Word.” The Corinthian Christians are only able to handle “milk” when Paul is with them. Their condition has not changed because there is no growth toward maturity, no movement from “milk” to “meat.” What is “milk,” and what is “meat”? Paul does not spell this out for us in our text, but the writer to the Hebrews does:

13 For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. 6:1 Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 of instruction about washings, and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment (Hebrews 5:13–6:2).38

According to these words, “milk” would be those elementary truths necessary for salvation, and the taking of one’s first steps in his or her walk in the Spirit. When the Christian moves from “milk” to “meat,” he is not moving from “Christ crucified” to “deeper truths.” He is moving from a basic grasp of the meaning of Christ crucified to a deeper understanding of Christ, and thus of the gospel and the implications for godly living. Gordon Fee puts it this way in his commentary on 1 Corinthians:

The argument of 2:6-16 implies that for Paul the gospel of the crucified one is both ‘milk’ and ‘solid food.’ As milk it is the good news of salvation; as solid food it is understanding that the entire Christian life is predicated on the same reality—and those who have the Spirit should so understand the ‘mystery.’ Thus the Corinthians do not need a change in diet but a change in perspective. As Morna Hooker nicely puts it: ‘Yet while he uses their language, the fundamental contrast in Paul’s mind is not between two quite different diets which he has to offer, but between the true food of the Gospel with which he has fed them (whether milk or meat) and the synthetic substitutes which the Corinthians have preferred.’39

Put simply, both the “milk” and the solid food, the “meat” of the Christian’s diet is the Word of God, centered in Christ crucified. The Corinthian Christians are feeding on “junk food” at best. As I understand Paul’s words, it is not that the Corinthian saints are still trying to digest the “milk” of the Word. They have turned up their noses at “milk” and are seeking truth (“wisdom”) from those teachers who give them “food” that appeals to their fleshly natures.

The carnal Christians of Paul’s day disdain doctrine, as they do in our day. They do not want any diet which requires study, hard work, and thought. D. A. Carson describes them this way:

They are infants still and display their wretched immaturity even in the way that they complain if you give them more than milk. Not for them solid knowledge of Scripture; not for them mature theological reflection; not for them growing and perceptive Christian thought. They want nothing more than another round of choruses and a ‘simple message’—something that won’t challenge them to think, to examine their lives, to make choices, and to grow in their knowledge and adoration of the living God.40

A very substantial “market” exists in the Christian community for sermons, tapes, radio and television talk shows, and Christian gurus who predigest truth for us and then tell us exactly how to do everything. The books on Christian marriage, child-rearing, facing life’s problems, and handling money are endless. It is not that all of these books are wrong (though some are); it is that we must everything predigested for us. We seem incapable of thinking for ourselves.

What is the goal of education? What is maturity? Our goal is not to teach people in a way which causes them to come back again and again with every new question, every new wrinkle to their problems. Our goal in education is to provide people with the tools, the methods, and the motivation to learn for themselves. We are never completely independent of others, nor should we be, but as we grow up in the Word, we should become less dependent. We should not have to be told every “answer,” because we should begin to find the answers for ourselves. In this sense, “milk” is the product which has been produced by someone else, the nourishment we get “second hand.” A mother’s (breast) milk is the result of her proper diet, and the baby lives from what the mother has produced. Solid food is the food we will eventually have to get for ourselves. We have too many “pablum solutions” available upon purchase and too few people able or willing to search out the truth for themselves. The plethora of books, tapes, and materials can be either a blessing or a curse to us, depending on whether they help us learn to find the truth in the Scriptures, or whether they give us an excuse not to search out the truth for ourselves from the Scriptures. There is little doubt as to which is the best:

1 My son, if you will receive my sayings, And treasure my commandments within you, 2 Make your ear attentive to wisdom, Incline your heart to understanding; 3 For if you cry for discernment, Lift your voice for understanding; 4 If you seek her as silver, And search for her as for hidden treasures; 5 Then you will discern the fear of the Lord, And discover the knowledge of God. 6 For the Lord gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding. 7 He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; He is a shield to those who walk in integrity, 8 Guarding the paths of justice, And He preserves the way of His godly ones. 9 Then you will discern righteousness and justice and equity and every good course (Proverbs 2:1-9).

(6) Carnal Christians are not those who think of themselves as carnal, but those who think of themselves as spiritual. The “carnal Christian” Paul speaks of is not the stereotypical “carnal Christian.” Neither is that person the one described earlier by Reisinger:

Many who regularly occupy church pews, fill church rolls, and are intellectually acquainted with the facts of the gospel never strike one blow for Christ. They seem to be at peace with his enemies. They have no quarrel with sin and, apart from a few sentimental expressions about Christ, there is no biblical evidence that they have experienced anything of the power of the gospel in their lives. Yet in spite of the evidence against them, they consider themselves to be just what their teachers teach them—that they are ‘carnal Christians’. And as carnal Christians they believe they will go to heaven, though perhaps not first-class, and with few rewards.41

I must be fair to Reisinger and say that he refuses to accept this characterization as a legitimate example of the “carnal Christian.” To him, the “carnal Christian” is one who struggles over one particular sin:

In endeavouring to understand how Paul thinks of those he addresses in 1 Corinthians 3 we must bear in mind the designation he gives to them in chapter 1. He says they are ‘sanctified in Christ Jesus’, they are recipients of ‘the grace of God’, enriched by Christ ‘in all utterance, and in all knowledge’ (1:2-5). They are rebuked in chapter 3, not for failing to attain to privileges which some Christians attain to, but for acting, despite their privileges, like babes and like the unregenerate in one area of their lives.42

I agree with Reisinger that the Scriptures do not give comfort or encouragement to professing Christians who manifest no evidence of spiritual life. I further agree that the typical description of the “carnal Christian” is flawed. More strongly than Reisinger, it appears, I feel there is a legitimate category we can designate with the label, the “carnal” Christian.

In my study of the “carnal Christian” in Corinthians, I have reached the surprising conclusion that Paul has a completely different kind of person in mind than we do when he refers to those who are “carnal” or “fleshly” in his epistles. The carnal Christian is not the person who once made a profession of faith, who has done nothing since. The carnal Christian is the person we think of as spiritual—the kind of person who thinks of himself (or herself) as spiritual:

So this is what Paul means by a ‘worldly’ Christian, by a ‘carnal’ Christian (if we adopt older English). Paul does not have in mind someone who has made a profession of faith, carried on in the Christian way for a short while, and then reverted to a lifestyle indistinguishable in every respect from that of the world. After all, these Corinthian believers are meeting together for worship (1 Cor. 14), they call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (1:2), they are extraordinarily endowed with spiritual gifts (1:5, 7; 12-14), they are wrestling with theological and ethical issues (1 Cor. 8-10), and they are in contact with the apostle whose ministry brought them to the Lord. Far from being sold out to the world, the flesh, and the devil, they pursue spiritual experience, if sometimes unwisely. 43

The “carnal Christian” is one who may well be regarded as “spiritual” by others:

1 “Write this to the angel of the Church in Sardis: These are the words of him who holds in his hand the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: I know what you have done, that you have a reputation for being alive, but that in fact you are dead” (Revelation 3:1, Phillips).

Notice what is said to the “carnal” saints at Sardis. They are not rebuked for having done no works. God indicates that He is aware of their deeds. It seems the saints in Sardis have a reputation for being “alive” (I think we could say “spiritual” and not miss the point) on the basis of their works. But in spite of this apparent evidence, God exposes them as being “dead,” not “alive.”

In the same chapter, we see that the saints in Laodicea also thought they were “spiritual,” but God informed them that they were not:

14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this: 15 ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I would that you were cold or hot. 16 So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. 17 Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, 18 I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire, that you may become rich, and white garments, that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see. 19 ‘Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; be zealous therefore, and repent” (Revelation 3:14-19).

How can this be? How can the ones who consider themselves as “spiritual,” and whom others consider as “spiritual,” be the very ones God designates as “carnal”? The answer: we have the wrong criteria for judging spirituality. Our judgment is based upon outward acts, upon appearances of spirituality. But Jesus warned about making judgments on the basis of externals: “And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). The “false prophets” of whom Jesus warned are those who performed very impressive works, and yet Jesus calls them those “who practice lawlessness”:

15 “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 “You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they? 17 “Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 “A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. 19 “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 “So then, you will know them by their fruits. 21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. 22 “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23 “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:15-23).

Immediately after this, Jesus goes on to emphasize that those who are “wise” (an interesting word in relationship to the Corinthians) are those who do what He has taught:

24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine, and acts upon them, may be compared to a wise man, who built his house upon the rock. 25 “And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded upon the rock. 26 “And everyone who hears these words of Mine, and does not act upon them, will be like a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand. 27 “And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and it fell, and great was its fall” (Matthew 7:24-27).

Addressing the “carnal” Hebrew Christians, the writer to the Hebrews indicates that their immaturity is due to their lack of use of the Word, while the mature are those who are wise concerning good and evil because they have put their biblical knowledge to use. “But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14 emphasis mine).

What is the difference between the “works” of those who are unspiritual (even unsaved), and the “works” of those who are “spiritual”? The answer is amazingly simple. The works of those who are “fleshly” or “carnal” are those prompted and empowered by the flesh. The works of those who are spiritual are prompted and empowered by the Spirit. Seemingly spiritual people may hustle and bustle around the church, doing so much they appear to put others to shame, while in reality their works are fleshly. The “fleshly” Christian may even prostitute his or her spiritual gifts, employing them in self-serving and self-promoting ways. There is no question but what the Corinthian church is well-endowed with spiritual gifts, and yet Paul’s description of the meeting of the church implies that the gifts are being misused. Prophets, teachers and tongues-speakers, seem to be pushing and shoving to get a hearing when the church gathers. People are grandstanding their gifts.

We are amazed that God may choose to use the ministry of “carnal” Christians in spite of their sin. I am reminded of the Philippian church and those who used Paul’s imprisonment as an opportunity to undermine his ministry and authority, while at the same time promoting themselves. Even so, Paul rejoiced because some seem to have been saved by the gospel proclaimed to them by self-serving “preachers”:

12 Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, 13 so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, 14 and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear. 15 Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; 16 the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; 17 the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice, yes, and I will rejoice (Philippians 1:12-18).

Being carnal is not indicated by the absence of what might be called “good works,” but the absence of the Spirit in these “good works.” Can you imagine the shock wave that hits the church at Corinth as the saints read and reflect upon Paul’s letter? Paul is not only calling many of the Corinthian saints carnal, he is calling those carnal who are most highly regarded (and followed?) as those who are spiritual. We must brace ourselves for one more surprise concerning the carnal Corinthians. The carnal Corinthians are not only those who are regarded as spiritual, who think themselves to be spiritual; they are also those who have the audacity to claim that Paul and his fellow-apostles are “carnal”:

1 Now I, Paul, myself urge you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am meek when face to face with you, but bold toward you when absent! 2 I ask that when I am present I may not be bold with the confidence with which I propose to be courageous against some, who regard us as if we walked according to the flesh. 3 For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh (2 Corinthians 10:1-3, emphasis mine).

Conclusion

Some can be called “carnal Christians.” Carnal Christians are “fleshly Christians,” believers in Jesus Christ whose thinking and actions are rooted in the flesh rather than in the Spirit. “Spiritual Christians” are those who mortify the flesh, and walk (albeit imperfectly) in accordance with the promptings and power of the Holy Spirit. Carnal Christians are not proficient in the Scriptures because the wisdom of God is not known through fleshly wisdom but through the Spirit (see 2:14-16). Spiritual Christians seek to plummet the depths of the wisdom of God revealed in His Word through the enablement of the Holy Spirit. Further, they seek to apply the teachings of the Scriptures through the power of the Spirit.

The two Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians deal with the fruits of carnality. Paul seeks to point his readers to “true spirituality.” As we continue on in our study, we will gain insight into why “spiritual saints” are often considered “carnal” and why “carnal Christians” are thought to be “spiritual.” We will become increasingly aware that times have changed, but people have not. The pages of Paul’s epistles read like the pages of our daily newspaper.

Salvation is a radical change. It is not merely adding Christ to our life; it is not just “inviting Christ into our life.” Salvation is the change from death to life, from darkness to light. Salvation is accompanied by repentance, the turning away from all that we once depended upon for eternal life, from all that we once held precious as non-believers. Salvation turns one’s life, one’s values and thinking, upside-down and inside-out. Certain instant changes do occur at conversion, but many of the changes take place in the life-long process of sanctification, that process by which we are being transformed into the image and likeness of Christ. The “carnal Christian” resists this change. While he or she is more than adequately endowed with all that is necessary for growth in godliness, they fail to appropriate these resources and, in so doing, become carnal. Over time, they lose not only their appetite for the “milk of the Word,” but they begin to seek their spiritual nourishment from the well of “worldly wisdom,” which is no wonder since this wisdom is amiable to the flesh. The cross of Christ requires the mortification, not the indulging, of the flesh.

Two of the Christian’s greatest resources are the Word of God and the Spirit of God, as Paul emphasized in chapter 2. We must saturate our minds with the Word of God, so that our thinking is transformed (Romans 12:1-2; Ephesians 4:17-24). We must also apply the truth of God’s Word so that our senses are, by application of the truth, trained to discern between good and evil (Hebrews 5:12). To comprehend the Word of God, and then apply it, we must rely upon the enablement of the Holy Spirit. We are to “walk in the Spirit,” to avoid succumbing to the magnetic pull of the flesh (Galatians 5:13-24). We are to “sow to the Spirit” so that we shall “from the Spirit reap eternal life.” Spiritual growth is possible only by the grace of God, but this does not mean we must be passive in the process, or—worse yet—we should seek to pervert God’s grace into an excuse for sin (Romans 5:20—6:2, 15-23; Jude 4).

If there is any “key” to the spiritual life, surely it is summed up in terms of the Word of God and the Spirit of God. How great is our need to grow up as Christians and to become increasingly dependent upon God’s Word and His Spirit.

I wonder into what category the apostle Paul would put our church and each of us. If Paul calls those “carnal” who are thought to be “spiritual,” what of those whom we would call “carnal”? I think we must turn to Paul for his own words: “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you— unless indeed you fail the test?” (2 Corinthians 13:5). This passage is not meant to encourage Christians who fall short of the mark, some who may be called “carnal.” Paul is not trying here to assure us that we will get to heaven no matter how sinful our lives may be. He is trying to convince us that we may be “carnal,” no matter how “spiritual” we or others may think we are. The proper application of this text is repentance, not relief.

21 Therefore putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. 22 But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; 24 for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. 25 But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does (James 1:21-25).

The danger of dispensationalists is to make unfruitful, fleshly Christians comfortable in their carnality (or even in their unbelief), confident that a one-time profession secures them a place in heaven. The danger of the reformed theologian is legalism. Those who strongly hold that “fruits of repentance” must be evident in the lives of those who profess faith in Christ also tend at times to equate these “fruits” with external acts of “righteousness.” Spirituality must not be judged on the basis of externals, but on the basis of the work of the Spirit in the life of the individual. As Paul will say shortly, spirituality is not really something we can judge at all, but something we must leave to God. Let us not concern ourselves so much with the “carnality” of others, as with the carnality in our own lives.

May we not fail the test, but from our study of this epistle and from the rest of God’s Word, may we continue to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen” (2 Peter 3:18).


32 One of the first things I try to determine is whether this car is being sold by the owner. My first statement is, “Hi, I’m calling about the car you have advertised in the paper.” If they respond, “Which one?”, I know I am dealing with a “wheeler-dealer” of some sort, which almost always ends the conversation.

33 Scofield’s note at 1 Corinthians 2:14.

34 Ernest C. Reisinger, “What should we think of ‘THE CARNAL CHRISTIAN’?” (Printed by Hazell Watson & Viney Ltd, Great Britain, n.d.), pp.1, 8.

35 D. A. Carson, The Cross & Christian Ministry: An Exposition of Passages From 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), p. 69.

36 Reisinger, p. 8.

37 “Consequently, if it can be established that the preponderance of Scripture teaches only two classes or categories of men—regenerate and unregenerate, converted and unconverted, those in Christ and those outside of Christ—the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching would be confronted with an insurmountable objection. It would be in conflict with the whole emphasis of Scripture and of the New Testament in particular.” Ernest C. Reisinger, p. 8.

38 Verses 1 and 2 of Hebrews 6 spell out the curriculum for the elementary grades of our spiritual instruction. This seems to be done in related pairs. “Dead works” are to be repented of for us to have “faith toward God.” The Old Testament ceremonial “washings” did not sanctify, but rather the Holy Spirit, who was (at least initially on some occasions) received by the “laying on of hands.” The “resurrection of the dead” is a truth foundational to the gospel and to the certainty of the “eternal judgment” of the wicked.

39 Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987 [reprinted, 1993]), p. 125.

40 Carson, p. 72.

41 Reisinger, p. 1.

42 Reisinger, p. 11. It is perplexing that Reisinger can suppose that a “carnal Christian” is losing on but one front in his or her life. In my understanding, a “carnal Christian” will be losing the war with the flesh on most fronts. In fact, there may be hardly any war going on at all.

43 Bibliographic information unavailable.

Passage: 

5. A Different Look at Leadership (1 Cor. 3:5-17)

Introduction

Christianity has had its share of “Pied Pipers,” those charismatic (in personality) individuals who seem to be able to lead a group of followers anywhere they wish. We are all too familiar with the names of men like Jim Jones and David Koresh, and we wince at the memory of what they did to their followers, not to mention the name of our Lord. Then there are some whose sins have devastated others, and at times have wrought financial havoc for many Christian ministries.

It is not just the “way out” fringes of Christianity which are plagued with leaders who have nearly total control over the lives of their followers, but whose personal lives are out of control. I know of several men whose failures have caused great damage to the church and to the cause of the gospel. There seems to be one common element in these disasters—the men who fell were so powerful, and their control so great, that they seemed almost “unstoppable.” The reason for this: these leaders were so elevated and revered in the minds of their followers that they were considered beyond the temptations and sins of mankind. When men are elevated too highly in the minds of their followers, the people begin to think their leaders are infallible, that they are above the sins we see in ordinary people. And so they refuse to believe the evidences of sin, even when they are compelling. Even if they are guilty of known sin, no one seems to feel sufficiently qualified to attempt to rebuke or correct them.

The problem of esteeming leaders too highly starts very subtly and innocently. It begins with a deep respect and appreciation, often because this individual has led them to Christ, or that he (or she) has significantly contributed to their spiritual growth. This one person is given excessive credit for the work of God and elevated to a position of authority above what should be given to men. Allegiance to this leader becomes a status symbol in which followers take great pride. Out of this misguided allegiance, they feel obligated to ignore or even oppose other Christian leaders.

This is precisely the problem at Corinth, as described in its incipient stages in the early chapters of 1 Corinthians. But by the time we reach the end of 2 Corinthians, it is a much more developed and dangerous matter. People are not attaching themselves to one apostle as opposed to the others; they are attaching themselves to false apostles, who are not servants of God, but servants of Satan:

12 And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. 13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. 15 It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (2 Corinthians 11:12-15).

Paul exposes the problem of divisions (1:10-12) and indicates that these are contrary to the gospel (1:13-17). He writes that the gospel does not divide saints from one another, but it does divide true believers from the unsaved. To the lost, the gospel is both foolish and weak, and they are in pursuit of “wisdom” and “power.” This is the reason so few of the cultural elite are found in the congregation of the saints (1:18-25), and also the reason those who make up the church can be identified as the non-elite—indeed the rejects of society. When God saves and uses the weak, the foolish, and the insignificant to accomplish His purposes, the glory must go to Him (1:26-31).

Those who identify themselves with a certain leader do so in pride, confident that his (or her) message and methods are highly esteemed by the culture of that day. Paul reminds them that this was not the way they began their Christian life. He came to them in weakness, fear, and much trembling. He did not come with a “powerful” message or method of presentation, but with the simple proclamation of Christ crucified. While that message and method may not have won the praise of the lost, it was the means of their salvation (2:1-5).

Paul is not willing to concede that his message is really foolish and weak; it only appears that way to the lost. And no wonder, for the lost are unable to grasp the wisdom of God. It is only for those who are saved and who are mature in their faith. The unsaved find God’s wisdom completely beyond their comprehension. Left to themselves, lost men will never know God (2:6-9). What men can never know about God by their own reasoning or searching, God chooses to reveal to men. He does so by means of the Holy Spirit, who inspires and enables the New Testament writers to put the “spiritual thoughts” concerning the deep things of God into the “spiritual words” recorded in the New Testament Scriptures (2:10-13). The natural man, devoid of the Spirit, can never know these truths, even though revealed in the Scriptures, but the Christian, enabled by the Spirit, has the “mind of Christ,” enabling him to understand this present age and the one to come (2:14-16).

The “problem” the Corinthian Christians have with Paul is really their problem, not his. Their failure to grow up through the Word to mature Christians causes them to turn from the “milk of the Word” and return to the teachings of men and the wisdom of men. The carnality of the Corinthian Christians is not evident by their lack of religious talk or activity, but by shallowness in their knowledge and practice of the Word of God, and in their distorted dependence on one person, whom they proudly claim to follow (3:1-4).

Now at verse 5, Paul commences to show the folly of exalting one leader so highly that all others are rejected. He will do so in verses 5-17 by the use of three analogies. In verses 5-9, Paul speaks of the church as a farm, and the apostles as farm workers. In verses 10-15, Paul speaks of the church as a building under construction. Paul is the “master builder” who has laid the foundation. Others now work to complete the building on his foundation. He speaks of the standard for building and the rewards for those who build well. Finally, in verses 16 and 17, Paul speaks of the church as a temple, the dwelling place of God, and the severe consequences for defiling it.

Our text is one we must carefully study (as with all Scripture), for it is misused as a proof-text by many:

Here is another paragraph that has suffered much in the church (cf. 2:6-16; 3:1-4): from those who would decontextualize it in terms of individualistic popular piety (i.e., how I build my own Christian life on Christ), to certain Protestants who have used it as grist for the Calvinist-Arminian debate over the security of the believer, to those in the Roman Catholic tradition who have found in it the single piece of NT evidence for the doctrine of purgatory. Paul addresses none of these issues, not even indirectly. His concern is singular, that those currently leading the church take heed because their present work will not stand the fiery test to come, having shifted from the imperishable ‘stuff’ of Jesus Christ and him crucified.44

Let us listen well, for we are all builders. Paul’s words offer great encouragement to us to be good builders, as well as a reminder that our building must be on the foundation laid by the apostles, and according to the standards Paul has set down. The quality of our work will be revealed at the coming of our Lord. The rewards are great, but so are the consequences for living in such a way as to defile the dwelling place of God.

The Apostles and God’s Farm
(3:5-9)

5 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Notice that Paul speaks of himself and Apollos alone, omitting Peter for the moment (compare 1:12). Paul is the first to come to Corinth with the gospel, followed later by Apollos. These were the two apostles most intimately associated with this church. Contrary to the translation found in the new and the old King James Versions (which render “Who?”), Paul begins his question with the word “What?”. By asking “What?” rather than “Who?”, Paul focuses on the place or position to which the Corinthians’ leaders have been elevated, rather than upon the personalities of each. “To what position or place have you assigned your leader?” Paul asks.

Their answer to Paul’s question is something like: “My leader is my everything! My leader is my teacher, my counselor, my guide, my confidence, my pride.” Paul brings the Corinthians back down to earth. Speaking of himself and Apollos, the two greatest leaders the Corinthians have known, he says, in effect, “We are not heroes, to be adored; we are not gods, to be worshipped; we are not masters, to be blindly followed. We are simply servants of God, servants who by God’s grace and appointment were allowed to be instrumental in your coming to Christ.” These two men are the means by which many of the Corinthians came to faith, but they point these folks to Christ, to trust in Him and to follow Him, to be His disciples. Whatever was accomplished by their coming, it is God who accomplishes it; it is God who is Master; they are but servants. How then can the Corinthians place them on a pedestal?

God did not choose either Paul or Apollos to be the single instrument to achieve His purposes in Corinth. Each has his own task, his own calling. Paul, as the first to come to Corinth, is the seed planter; Apollos, who follows, is the “waterer.” The ministry of each, Paul and Apollos, is dependent upon the other. They are not competitors or rivals, but teammates, fellow-workers. They work in complementary roles, rather than competitive roles. Both are engaged in the same work, in the same goal of making disciples, those who trust in and follow our Lord Jesus Christ. They are “one” (verse 8), so how can their alleged followers and supporters (“I am of Paul, … I am of Apollos”) be divided?

Both unity and diversity can be seen in the complementary ministries of Paul and Apollos. Both serve the same Master; both are engaged in accomplishing the same task. Both are brothers in Christ. But each one has his own unique calling and contribution to make to the overall task. Each will receive a reward, granted according to his own labor. This is not spiritual socialism, where each member contributes what he wills and all are rewarded alike, regardless of their faithfulness, diligence, or personal sacrifices.

Verse 9 plays a critical role in this passage by serving as a transition from the analogy of the “farm” to that of “construction.” When Paul says, “For we are God’s fellow-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building,” he is telling us two very important things. First, he is indicating that all the saints belong to God, and none of them belongs to any apostle. Second, he distinguishes himself and Apollos, as apostles, from all the rest of the saints in Corinth. He and Apollos are apostles; the rest are not. The translation of the King James Version best expresses this: “We [the apostles] are laborers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building.” The apostles play a unique role in the founding of the church, a role not to be duplicated by any other. In a unique way, the apostles did “labor together with God” in their intimate contact with Him, and in being witnesses of His resurrection, but especially in the “laying of the foundation of the church” by being the human authors of the New Testament Scriptures. This occurred through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as previously described by Paul in 2:10-13. Paul speaks of this apostolic foundation in his epistle to the Ephesians:

19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, 20 having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22).

The writer to the Hebrews also speaks of this unique group of men through whom God chose to reveal Himself in the New Testament Scriptures:

1 God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, 2 in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. 3 And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Hebrews 1:1-3).

1 For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 2 For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, 4 God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will (Hebrews 2:1-4).

God has spoken in various ways and at various times. He has spoken through the prophets. But the Word we hold in our hands, the Bible, was given to the saints of various ages as God spoke His inspired Word in such a way as to permanently record it for men of a later time. The “word spoken through angels” (2:2) is the Old Testament. The word spoken through His Son (1:2) is that which the apostles heard, and which they, by divine inspiration, recorded. God accredited these “foundation layers” by enabling them to perform “signs and wonders and various miracles” and “by gifts of the Holy Spirit” (2:4). Paul claims this same apostolic authority, and thus he played a significant role in laying the foundation:

11 I have become foolish; you yourselves compelled me. Actually I should have been commended by you, for in no respect was I inferior to the most eminent apostles, even though I am a nobody. 12 The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles (2 Corinthians 12:11-12).

As Paul moves on to his second analogy, that of “God’s building” which is under construction, he underscores the necessity of building upon this foundation and of not forsaking it for another.

God’s Building
(3:10-15)

10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. 15 If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.

Before we look at Paul’s words here, let us take note of Peter’s words in his first epistle, words which closely parallel those of Paul:

1 Therefore, putting aside all malice and all guile and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, 2 like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, 3 if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord. 4 And coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected by men, but choice and precious in the sight of God, 5 you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:1-5).

Let us look also at a different but related image from Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians:

11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ. 14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love (Ephesians 4:11-16).

These texts show how the same basic topic of the church is addressed by means of a variety of images. Peter speaks of individual spiritual growth as the result of dependence on the Word of God, and then moves on to the corporate growth of the church as God places individual believers (“living stones”) into the structure. This “spiritual house” is the dwelling place of God, and the temple from which spiritual worship is offered to the glory of God.

Like Peter does in 1 Peter 2, Paul speaks of “church growth” in Ephesians 4. Be warned, however, for it is nothing like the “church growth” of today. Paul’s imagery in Ephesians 4 is not that of a house or a temple, but of a body. The apostles’ task was to equip the rest of the body to fulfill their individual tasks (as enabled by their spiritual gifts) within the body, so that the whole body grows up to maturity, the standard and goal of which is “the Head,” Jesus Christ. The whole body grows up to the image and character of Christ as each member of the body carries out his or her assigned task.

Paul speaks of this “growing” of the church, the body of Christ, in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. The church is likened to a building which is under construction. Paul calls himself a “wise master builder,” who has laid the foundation on which others build. When Paul refers to himself as a wise master builder, it is with a very deliberate goal in mind. The Corinthians think themselves wise, and they consider Paul and the other apostles simple, foolish, and weak. Their thinking is wrong! Paul is wise whether or not the Corinthians believe it to be so.

In verses 5-9, Paul spoke of himself and of Apollos. Now, Paul speaks only of himself. He is a wise master builder. This word “wise” (unfortunately obscured by the rendering “skillful” in the NIV) is purposeful and pointed. The Corinthians think themselves to be wise, and Paul to be foolish (see 4:10). But it is they who are foolish, and Paul and the apostles who are “wise.” If they would be wise, let them recognize Paul’s unique role as a “wise master builder,” and let them build only upon the foundation he has laid. Paul is not boasting in his role, for this is “according to the grace of God” and not according to his innate abilities (3:10).

Here, Paul speaks not in the plural (“we,” “us”) of himself and Apollos, but only of himself (“I”). Paul distinguishes himself from Apollos. Paul is the one who planted; Apollos is the one who later waters (3:6). Paul alone is the foundation-layer in Corinth, and others like Apollos built upon that foundation. Apollos is a powerful and eloquent speaker, a man mighty in the Scriptures (Acts 18:24), but also a man who built upon the foundation Paul laid in Corinth. Paul came first to Corinth with the gospel as the sower of the seed. Apollos is the one who watered. Paul laid the foundation in Corinth, and Apollos and others built upon it. You will remember that it was Priscilla and Aquila, those whom Paul taught, who “explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). Since Priscilla and Aquila are students of Paul, it seems self-evident that Apollos learns second-hand from Paul. He builds on Paul’s foundation.

In the previous example of the “farm,” the apostles like Paul and Apollos are primarily in view. It is their work which Paul seeks to show as “one work,” pressing toward a common goal, so that the apostles are working in cooperation with each other, rather than competing with one another. Now, in verses 10-15, the entire church is in view. At the outset Paul refers to his work, that of laying a foundation on which others will build. It is a unique work, a work reserved for apostles like Paul, and for those who articulate the gospel in the New Testament Scriptures. Paul’s work of “foundation laying” is represented as a finished work, as a work which is not to be repeated, and most certainly not to be revised. Even he cannot change the foundation he has laid:

6 I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7 which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed (Galatians 1:6-9).

The Apostle Paul looks upon his mission of laying the foundation for the Corinthian church as complete. What remains is for the saints at Corinth (and elsewhere) to engage themselves in completing the construction. The proper function of each worker is Paul’s primary focus. In construction terms of our own day, Paul gives us three general guidelines. First, we must build according to the building code. Our city of Richardson, Texas, has a building code, a very strict one. One must follow all kinds of rules when building. For example, if my memory is correct (and the code hasn’t changed), electrical wiring must be stapled within 12 inches of the box, where an outlet or switch is placed. God’s “code” for building is the “foundation.” No building can take place that is not on the foundation; that is, not in accord with the foundation. The apostles’ doctrine (the New Testament Scriptures) is the building code, according to which we build (minister).

Second, the builder must use the best materials. Not only are we to be careful to build according to the code (on the apostles’ foundation), we are to build with the best materials. Some materials are cheap, but they don’t last. The church is God’s building, built not only to last for time, but for eternity. The materials which last are those which are eternal. That which is eternal is of God, of His Word, and of His Spirit. As these well-known words express, “Tis only one life, T’will soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.”

Third, the builder must build skillfully. A friend of mine is a master craftsman. His woodworking is perfection. When he needed a new house, he did not have time to build it himself, so he had a contractor build it for him. A good friend advised him not to go out to “see how it was coming” until after it was finished. He was right. My friend could not have endured watching his home being built the way they are so often built today. I have gone to the construction site to see countless nails which missed their mark, not even close to the joist or rafter they were supposed to strike. God does not want His building built sloppily. He is the “building inspector,” watching every stage of construction, every bit of labor we invest. Thus, Paul exhorts us to build well.

As is evident in verses 13-15, there is good reason to take Paul’s urging seriously. The “building” will have its final inspection when our Lord returns. It will be tested by fire, and that which endures will be the basis of each builder’s rewards. If his work remains, he receives a reward. If his work does not remain, there will be no reward:

12 If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. 15 If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).

Paul is not talking about salvation here. This is not a proof-text for the doctrine of purgatory. Paul is saying that a Christian’s works may be burned up by the fire of divine judgment, but not the believer. The believer will be saved, but only by the “skin of his teeth.”

Someone might think Paul’s words encourage the “carnal Christian” to live a careless, self-indulgent life, knowing he will get to heaven regardless. A very few Christians whom I have known actually dare to state: “I know that if I sin as I plan to, I may not get any rewards in heaven, but I know I will get to heaven, and that’s all that matters.” They think that they are getting the “best of both worlds.” How foolish! How dangerous! Paul’s next words are aimed right at those who might try to pervert his teaching in practice, so that a life of sinful self-indulgence is based on the “comfort” of his words in verse 15.

Don’t Tamper With the Temple
(3:16-17)

16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.

What a sting Paul’s words, “Don’t you know … ?” must be in the ears of the Corinthians! They are so wise. They know so much. Yet Paul asks with seeming bewilderment, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit lives in you?45 The building described by Paul as under construction in verses 10-15 is “God’s building” (3:9). And now, as Paul indicates, it is God’s temple, His dwelling place. While elsewhere Paul speaks of each individual believer as God’s dwelling place (1 Corinthians 6:19), here he speaks of the whole church as God’s dwelling, through the Spirit. We are not the temple, but we are a temple, a place where God dwells. Because God dwells there, the temple is holy, and it must remain holy.

Since this is the case, we should understand the seriousness of the implications for defiling God’s temple. When we live godly lives, in obedience to His Word through the power of the Spirit, we display God’s glory (1 Peter 2:9). In so doing, we are good workers, building up the church in accordance with our calling. But when a Christian fails to fulfill their mission, then they become a detriment to the church. In the symbolic terminology of Paul, we “destroy” (NASB) or “defile” (KJV) the temple of God when we are not building well.

The consequences for such defilement are severe, because we are defaming the reputation of God by defiling His temple. Those who would do damage to God’s dwelling place should expect severe consequences. Paul does not hold back when he warns, “If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are” (verse 17). Just what does this mean? We know from the preceding verses (especially verses 13-15) that a Christian will not lose his salvation, but that he will lose his reward. Lest one feel too smug and secure in sin, however, let him ponder the meaning of the word “destroy” in verse 17. Paul does not seek to comfort any Christian who purposes to sin willfully. This passage cannot be construed to encourage a sinful, carnal, lifestyle, unless it is greatly distorted, for Paul’s words of warning are clear.

Conclusion

Just how does one defile the temple of God? Paul gives a very strong word of warning for defiling the temple, but he does not define for us just how one defiles it. Let us pursue this matter as we conclude our study of this text.

(1) A person can “defile the temple of God” by doing the things for which Paul rebukes the Corinthians. One can defile the temple by dividing it up into little groups and factions. One can defile the temple by forsaking the simplicity of the gospel and seeking wisdom elsewhere. He can defile the temple of God by sexual immorality (chapter 5) or by taking a brother to the law court (chapter 6). God’s temple can be defiled by divorce (chapter 7) or by causing a weaker brother to sin through the insensitive use of your rights as a Christian (chapters 8-10). One can defile the temple of God by misconduct at the Lord’s Supper and the meeting of the church (chapters 11-14). One can also defile the temple by false teaching (chapter 15).

(2) A person can “defile” or “destroy” the temple by failing to perform their part in its construction. Can you imagine a building under construction where there are whole sections missing? A partially constructed temple is a reproach to the God who dwells within. According to Ephesians 4, each believer contributes to the building up of the body (the temple in our text). The body does not function as it should unless every member of the body is doing its part (Ephesians 4:15-16). When Christians fail to fulfill their part in the construction program, the temple is adversely affected.

My reader friend, let me ask you a pointed question. If, as Paul teaches in our text, every Christian is to build upon the foundation of the apostles, if each believer is to build skillfully, using only the best materials, then how is your contribution to the building going? Do you know what part you are to play? Do you know what part of the temple is yours to build? You cannot build well if you are not building at all. If you are not building at all, you are defiling the temple.

We live in a consumer age. By and large, the church growth movement caters to members, or seekers, as consumers. It finds out the kind of church people want to attend, and then seeks to provide this kind of church. Consequently, some churches may have many of their pews filled, but with people who expect, even demand, to get what they want from the church in terms of services, yet at a bargain price—at little or no cost to themselves. They want to get much and give little.

Paul knows nothing of this kind of church. Paul knows only of the kind of church where every member is a worker, and where there is no such thing as a shirker. Paul’s words here have a very clear inference. He assumes we know that we have an obligation to build the temple, to play an active role in the building up of the church, the body of Christ. Why then in most churches do a few members give much, some members give a little, and many to most members do not give at all? Why does the church have so much trouble getting volunteers to teach in Sunday School, and to help with the many tasks in the church? It is simply because many consider themselves a part of the church (rightly or wrongly), but fail to grasp the fact that God requires every member of it to be a working member, contributing to the growth and ministry of the church.

(3) We defile the church when we do not build on the foundation of the apostles, or when we fail to build well. Not only are we obliged to be an active contributor to the construction of God’s temple, we are to build well. We are to build upon the foundation of the apostles. That foundation is referred to as the “apostles’ doctrine” in Acts 2:42. It is now what we know as our New Testament. If we are building, we are to build well. This means that we must know the foundation well, for all of our building must conform to it, conform to the “code” the Bible sets down. Some people seem to think that “working hard” in the church is enough. Paul would not agree. We are to work hard, but only in compliance with, and in submission to, His Word, the Bible. For the builder who would work so as to please God and to obtain His approval and reward, he or she must build in accordance with sound doctrine, the apostles’ doctrine. Workers must work in accordance with sound doctrine. Doctrine is therefore important to every Christian, and not just for the theologians.

Sound, apostolic doctrine is foundational. Using the construction analogy, sound doctrine is not enough. A building consists of more than a foundation. But a building is only as good as the foundation on which it is constructed. Sound doctrine is not required just for those who teach; it is required as the basis for each and every ministry which takes place in the church. Those who show mercy should do so in accordance with sound doctrine. Those who give must give in accordance with sound doctrine. For example, they must not give to the support of those who are false teachers (2 John 7-11). Those who serve should serve in accordance with sound doctrine. Those who “love” must love within the confines which sound doctrine defines:

9 And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; 11 having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God (Philippians 1:9-11).

Sound doctrine is the basis for all ministry. We dare not seek to serve God apart from sound doctrine.

At Community Bible Chapel, those in leadership positions have spent many hours laying out a curriculum for adult and youth education. We believe that if sound doctrine is foundational and fundamental to all ministry and to spiritual growth, then we must offer teaching which provides the essentials for sound doctrine. But this must also include a commitment on your part to take advantage of this teaching. You need not get all of your teaching in our church, but you do need to get it somewhere, and from a source that is based upon the Scriptures. Do you know the subject matter which is essential to having a firm foundation in doctrine? Do you have a curriculum for your own program of spiritual growth? My fear is that most of us are better prepared for our retirement than we are for our present growth and ministry. This is a responsibility which you must assume, along with us.

When we serve in a sloppy, haphazard fashion, we defile the church. I frequently hear people ask, “How do we motivate people to serve in the church?” I think Paul has answered this one for us already. We teach them that they will stand before God and give an account of their ministry, and that they will be rewarded or put to shame on the basis of their faithfulness. But another question is asked as well: “How do we get people to serve well, to serve with excellence?” All too often, those who do serve minister in a way that may pass as “volunteer labor,” but which would never be acceptable in the work place. Paul’s words should do the trick. Paul tells us that we are going to be judged on materials and craftsmanship. A sloppy job for God is most certainly going to defile the temple of God, and this is a most serious matter.

(4) Disunity and divisions are destructive and defiling to the church, and thus a most serious matter. Divisions, often the result of following a particular leader and rejecting all others, are a very serious offense, an act of destruction and defilement so far as the upbuilding of the church is concerned. For saints to be divided and to oppose one another is a tearing down of the church, not a building up of the temple of God. Let us see the evil of divisions, and also the serious consequences which it brings to us personally.

May God grant that we see the crucial role which the apostles played in New Testament times, by laying the foundation for our faith and ministry in the Scriptures. This was a one-time, once-for-all role, one that does not need repeating. And may God grant that each of us may see the crucial role which we have to play in the building up of the church. May each of us do our task, and do it well, to the glory of God and to our benefit as well. And may we see that divisions are destructive to the church, and thus taken most seriously by God.


44 Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary, F. F. Bruce, General Editor (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 1987 [reprint, 1993]), pp. 136-137.

45 Paul employs this question ten times in 1 Corinthians (3:16; 5:6; 6:2, 3, 9, 15, 16, 19; 9:13, 24), and only 1 time elsewhere (Romans 6:16).

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6. A Call to Repentance (1 Cor. 3:18-23)

Introduction

Four key words sum up the problems Paul addresses in the church at Corinth:

(1) Divisions. There are divisions in the church at Corinth. Paul contends that there must be unity, for it is Christ alone who has saved us, and we who trust in Him are all one body. Paul reminds his readers that while leaders in the church may have different tasks to perform, all are engaged in the same cause.

(2) Leaders. The existing divisions had been made on the basis of personalities, those whom the Corinthians chose to follow as their leader, those to whom their followers belong. Paul is about to show that leaders are merely servants; those who think of themselves as “belonging” to a certain group need to be reminded that all the leaders in the church of our Lord belong to them, and not the reverse.

(3) Pride. The Corinthians boast in their leaders, in whom they take great pride. The Corinthians do not take pride in what they themselves are, or in what they are doing, but in the status and success of their leader. They are proud vicariously. Paul undermines and attacks human pride by pointing to the kind of people God generally excludes (the cultural elite), and those whom He includes (the weak, the foolish, the nobodies). The things of God are foolish to the world, and the things of the world are foolish to God. The gospel is not about the indulging of the flesh, but about the mortification of the flesh. The gospel spells death to human pride, for all that is worthy of praise is the work of God and not of men.

(4) Wisdom. Status in Corinth seems to be determined more on one’s intellectual standing than on one’s wealth. Those whose teaching is regarded highly by the secular community as being “wise” are most highly esteemed. The one who is highly skilled in speaking and persuasion is even more highly esteemed. Paul reminds his readers that divine wisdom is incomprehensible to the natural (lost, unsaved) man. Divine wisdom does not come from the great thinkers of this age. God reveals His wisdom through His Word and through His Spirit.

In chapter 3, Paul comes right to the heart of the matter. The problem in Corinth is not Paul’s problem, but the problem of the Corinthian saints. Paul is unable to speak God’s wisdom to the Corinthians because they are too immature, too unspiritual (“carnal”) to handle it. The Corinthians’ carnality is evident in their inability to handle teaching and doctrine which has not been predigested by someone for them (“milk”). Indeed, even the “milky” truths are looked upon with scorn, because they seem so elementary and simplistic. Not only is the carnality of the Corinthians evident in their spiritual appetite (and digestion), it is evident in the factions which exist in the church, factions centered upon certain leaders.

Up to verse 18 of the third chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul has “laid a foundation” for his bottom line, which begins at verse 18. For the first time, Paul calls upon his readers to do something, to change something. The key word is the word “let” (3:18, 21; 4:1). His readers are challenged to stop deceiving themselves and to become fools (3:18). They are to cease boasting in men. They are to look upon Paul and his fellow-apostles in a new way (4:1f.). Our focus in this lesson is the final verses (18-23) of chapter 3.

Verses 18-23 are a call to repentance. Although the word “repent” is not found in these verses, the concept of repentance is very clear. To repent is to turn around or to change one’s mind. Paul calls for the Corinthians to change their thinking and their actions regarding wisdom and regarding their leaders. The errors so prevalent in the Corinthian church are just as evident in the church in our day as they were to Paul so long ago. Let us listen to Paul to see how we must repent if we are to be truly spiritual.

Wising Up By Becoming a Fool
(3:18-20)

18 Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become foolish that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, “He is the one who catches the wise in their craftiness”; 20 and again, “The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless.”

The Corinthians are an arrogant and conceited bunch, who take great pride in their wisdom, a fact which becomes increasingly clear in this epistle (see 4:6-10). Paul’s first words in verse 18 must sting, for he addresses the Corinthians as self-deceived. To keep on as they are thinking and behaving, the Corinthians prove themselves to be unwise—indeed to be downright foolish—at least in the sight of God.

Paul calls upon us to “fess up” to our error, to acknowledge that by thinking ourselves to be wise, we are foolish and self-deceived. He instructs us to forsake wisdom” and to embrace “folly”; in so doing we will be wise. We find our Lord employing a similar kind of argument in the Gospels.

24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. 25 “For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it. 26 “For what will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26).

Paul is not telling us that every foolish person is really wise. Neither is he calling upon us to forsake every kind of wisdom but a certain kind of wisdom. He is not requiring us to become foolish in every sense of the term, but to become foolish in a particular sense. We can only understand what Paul means here in context. The one who “thinks himself wise in this age” is proud and takes pride in the wisdom of this age, rather than in the wisdom of God. To become truly wise—wise as God views wisdom, wise in those divine and eternal matters which God reveals through His Word and His Spirit—we must forsake worldly wisdom and embrace what the world regards as folly. In simple terms, we must become foolish by embracing the simplistic and “foolish” truths of the gospel, of apostolic doctrine, of Christ crucified. We must embrace that which the world has rejected as foolish.

The Corinthians had been saved by believing the “foolish” message proclaimed by Paul, the message that Jesus Christ died on the cross of Calvary for our sins, and was buried and then raised from the dead, ascending into heaven and being seated at the right hand of God. They had been saved by the preaching of Christ crucified when Paul came in weakness, fear, and much trembling, proclaiming the simple truths of the gospel in a straightforward fashion. Since Paul’s departure, some saints have begun to look down upon Paul, his message, and his methods. They are being tempted to follow others whose message has a worldly appeal, messengers whose style is eloquent and impressive.

Paul now calls upon the Corinthians to repent, to change their minds, and to turn around. Once again, as after their salvation, they are to regard the world’s wisdom as folly, and God’s folly (the gospel, the preaching of Christ crucified) as true wisdom. They must admit their folly and turn back to the gospel as first proclaimed by Paul, and later confirmed and corroborated by Apollos and others.

Paul now cites two Old Testament passages as proof texts to show that worldly wisdom is folly and that God’s “folly” (in the eyes of the world) is true wisdom. The first quotation is from the Book of Job: “For it is written, ‘He is the one who catches the wise in their craftiness’” (verse 19b; see Job 5:3). This quotation is most interesting. These are the words of Eliphaz, one of Job’s “friends.” Paul quotes a man who is later rebuked by God for being wrong: “And it came about after the Lord had spoken these words to Job, that the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, because you have not spoken of Me what is right as My servant Job has’” (Job 42:7).

How can Paul cite these words as a proof text? Eliphaz, like his friends, was not wrong in what he said about God; he was wrong in how he applied this truth to Job. Eliphaz was accusing Job of being “crafty,” and thus explained Job’s sufferings as divine judgment for sin. This was not the case (see Job 1:1, 8). God does trip up the wicked by employing their own cunning (wisdom) to be the means of their downfall:

16 For their feet run to evil, And they hasten to shed blood. 17 Indeed, it is useless to spread the net In the eyes of any bird; 18 But they lie in wait for their own blood; They ambush their own lives. 19 So are the ways of everyone who gains by violence; It takes away the life of its possessors… 29 Because they hated knowledge, And did not choose the fear of the Lord. 30 “They would not accept my counsel, They spurned all my reproof. 31 “So they shall eat of the fruit of their own way, And be satiated with their own devices. 32 “For the waywardness of the naive shall kill them, And the complacency of fools shall destroy them (Proverbs 1:16-19, 29-32).

The “wise” of this age are not so smart after all. God allows the wise to carry out their schemes, but He employs their cunning schemes (their wisdom) to bring about their own downfall. The gallows which proud Haman built, on which he planned to hang Mordecai, became the very instrument by which the king ended Haman’s life. In the Gospels, the scribes and Pharisees deemed themselves to be “wise” in the interpretation of the Old Testament. In their “wisdom,” the scribes and Pharisees orchestrated the crucifixion of our Lord. This cunning, which resulted in the crucifixion of Christ, also resulted in the guilt and condemnation of these leaders, unless of course they repented and acknowledged Jesus as their Messiah.

Do you see why Paul can use this verse to undergird his point that the world’s wisdom is really folly? Eliphaz thought himself wise. He, in his “wisdom,” appointed himself as Job’s counselor. Eliphaz was dealing with Job as though he (Job) were foolish and needed to wise up. The truth was that Eliphaz became the illustration of the very truth he misapplied toward Job. Eliphaz was tripped up by his own wisdom.

The second quote Paul employs comes from the Psalms: “And again, ‘The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless’” (verse 20; see Psalm 94:11). It is interesting that the Psalm actually reads: “The Lord knows the thoughts of man, That they are a mere breath.” Paul’s citation is significant in that it varies slightly at two points. First, Paul exchanges the word “wise” for the word “man.” In the context of the Psalm, it becomes clear that the unbelieving man thinks himself wise, when he is really foolish (see verses 2, 4, 8). And so the reasonings or thoughts of unsaved man are the reasonings of one who thinks himself wise. Second, Paul uses the rendering “useless,” while the translators of the Psalm use the expression “mere breath.” The thoughts of arrogant (wise) men are futile, or useless, because they are temporal rather than eternal. Man’s thoughts are restricted to “this age” and God’s thoughts are eternal. Man’s thoughts, even if true in this age, are not true in the next. They pass away. Merely temporal truths are thus “useless” truths, so far as eternity is concerned.

Paul has shown us why the pursuit of worldly wisdom is foolish. Worldly wisdom is merely temporal; it will not last. Man’s reasonings are useless so far as eternity is concerned. But man’s reasonings are not just useless; they are destructive. They not only lead us astray, but actually become the means of tripping us up, of causing us to stumble. Man’s wisdom is destructive. It is no wonder that we should forsake worldly wisdom, and pursue the wisdom of God which comes through the Word and the Spirit.

Boasting and Belonging
(3:21-23)

21 So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, 23 and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.

Paul now calls for a second act of repentance, closely linked with the forsaking of worldly wisdom. We are instructed to forsake boasting in men. There is no question but that the Corinthians boast in their leaders, in the men to whom they belong:

Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:12).

For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men? (1 Corinthians 3:4).

Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that in us you might learn not to exceed what is written, in order that no one of you might become arrogant in behalf of one against the other (1 Corinthians 4:6).

The situation in Corinth is neither new or novel. Throughout history, men have found their “identity” or “significance” in groups. They take pride in belonging to a certain group, a certain leader. We see this in the gangs which roam the streets, and in the young people who kill innocent, unknown victims just to be accepted by the gang. Cults are another example of the same problem. Certain charismatic (in personality, not necessarily in theology) leaders attract a following of people who need a sense of identity, of belonging. Some of these followers will believe anything they are taught and do anything they are told by their leader. Their pride is not in themselves, per se, but in the one leader they have chosen to follow above all others. These people become proud and arrogant, and they boast in a mere man—their leader.

Paul pulls the rug out from under this practice in verses 18-20 by proving the “wisdom of men” to be folly. If we turn away from the wisdom of men and embrace the foolishness of Christ crucified, we will surely cease to boast in these “wise” men. These men in whom the Corinthians boast are revered for the worldly wisdom they teach. Now, if their teaching is shown not only to be worthless, but destructive, these men lose their attraction.

But this is the reason Paul has already supplied. When he calls upon his readers to cease boasting in men in verse 21, he gives yet another reason for doing so: “For all things belong to you…” What does Paul mean when he tells us that all things are ours—and how does this undermine boasting in men? Let us seek to understand what Paul is telling us, for it is a significant part of his “bottom line” in these verses.

Let’s go back—way back—in the Bible to identify some crucial differences between true wisdom, God’s wisdom, and that which is false. True wisdom, as Paul indicates in 2:10-16, is that which God has revealed in the Scriptures, and continues to illuminate through His Spirit. God’s wisdom is that which He has revealed. That which He has not revealed is outside the bounds of our “need to know,” and thus purposefully concealed from us.

When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, the “wisdom of God” was simple: “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die’” (Genesis 2:16-17). The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was “hidden wisdom,” that which God indicated men were not to know. Satan virtually called God’s wisdom a lie, succeeding in getting Eve to seek that knowledge which was forbidden.

From the fall onward, true wisdom and false wisdom have been carefully distinguished. True wisdom is that which God has revealed in His Word; false wisdom is that which He has concealed: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

In the Book of Proverbs, both true and false wisdom are symbolized by a woman. False wisdom is portrayed by the imagery of a prostitute, the “strange woman.” True wisdom is personified by a noble woman, sometimes referred to as “dame wisdom.” Notice the contrast in Proverbs between these two women and the wisdom they offer to men. Madam Folly offers the naive young man a secret encounter:

1 My son, keep my words, And treasure my commandments within you.2 Keep my commandments and live, And my teaching as the apple of your eye. 3 Bind them on your fingers; Write them on the tablet of your heart. 4 Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,” And call understanding your intimate friend; 5 That they may keep you from an adulteress, From the foreigner who flatters with her words. 6 For at the window of my house I looked out through my lattice, 7 And I saw among the naive, I discerned among the youths, A young man lacking sense, 8 Passing through the street near her corner; And he takes the way to her house, 9 In the twilight, in the evening, In the middle of the night and in the darkness. 10 And behold, a woman comes to meet him, Dressed as a harlot and cunning of heart. 11 She is boisterous and rebellious; Her feet do not remain at home; 12 She is now in the streets, now in the squares, And lurks by every corner. 13 So she seizes him and kisses him, And with a brazen face she says to him: 14 “I was due to offer peace offerings; Today I have paid my vows. 15 “Therefore I have come out to meet you, To seek your presence earnestly, and I have found you” (Proverbs 7:1-15).

Madam Folly preys upon the naive. She “lurks,” for her work is not done in public. She seeks out the vulnerable and offers him an experience with the unknown. She appeals to his ego, flattering him until he surrenders, to his own destruction. This is not so with Dame Wisdom. She does her work in public. She publicly offers her wisdom to any who will receive it. She does not flatter; instead, she speaks to those who need her as “fools” and those who are “naive.” She offers truth, and a truth which leads to fullness of life:

1 Does not wisdom call, And understanding lift up her voice? 2 On top of the heights beside the way, Where the paths meet, she takes her stand; 3 Beside the gates, at the opening to the city, At the entrance of the doors, she cries out: 4 “To you, O men, I call, And my voice is to the sons of men. 5 “O naive ones, discern prudence; And, O fools, discern wisdom. 6 “Listen, for I shall speak noble things; And the opening of my lips will produce right things. 7 “For my mouth will utter truth; And wickedness is an abomination to my lips. 8 “All the utterances of my mouth are in righteousness; There is nothing crooked or perverted in them. 9 “They are all straightforward to him who understands, And right to those who find knowledge. 10 “Take my instruction, and not silver, And knowledge rather than choicest gold. 11 “For wisdom is better than jewels; And all desirable things can not compare with her” (Proverbs 8:1-11).

When our Lord presented Himself as Israel’s Messiah, we should not be surprised that He did so by publicly teaching (as in the Sermon on the Mount). He did not seek to gain followers on the fringes of Judaism, but He went to Jerusalem and taught in the temple. He engaged the teachers and leaders of the nation, and showed their teaching to be in error.

Paul and the apostles taught publicly on the teaching of divine wisdom. As he traveled from city to city, the first place he went was the synagogue, where he began to proclaim Christ crucified. It is true that unbelievers did not grasp or accept his message, but this was because they were blind, not because Paul was being secretive or vague. While Paul and the other apostles proclaimed the Word of God openly, the false teachers specialized in the unknown or in the obscure. They gained their reputation and following by teaching what was new and novel, and the reason was that it was not true, and it was not wise. But it did appeal to many of the unsaved.

16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was beholding the city full of idols. 17 So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present. 18 And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. And some were saying, “What would this idle babbler wish to say?” Others, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,”— because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? 20 “For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; we want to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.) (Acts 17:16-21).

As we read the epistles of Paul and Peter, we find that the church was constantly plagued by false teaching, and this teaching concentrated on the vague and the unknown. It focused on what God has not spoken, rather than on what He has revealed:

3 As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus, in order that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, 4 nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith. 5 But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6 For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, 7 wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions (1 Timothy 1:3-7).

7 But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness (1 Timothy 4:7).

3 If anyone advocates a different doctrine, and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, 4 he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, 5 and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. 6 But godliness actually is a means of great gain, when accompanied by contentment (1 Timothy 6:3-6).

3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

16 As also in all his [Paul’s] letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16).

Now, in the light of what we know about false teaching and false teachers, let us seek to grasp what Paul is saying to us in 1 Corinthians 3:21-23. False teachers, in order to draw a personal following, must teach “truth” unique to them, which is not being taught by others. They must have a distinctive message. This message cannot be the gospel, or the apostles’ doctrine, because every Christian teacher would teach these truths. They must teach a “higher” truth, a truth which results from speculative teaching on obscure issues. These matters appeal to the curiosity of some. In gaining this “inside information,” the followers of such a leader consider their understanding of truth above that of the rest. It allowed men to become proud and to look down on others, like Paul. Whatever novel truth a given teacher emphasized, he alone would be the source of that truth. No wonder the Corinthians take pride in men. Their spiritual “gurus” are finding all kinds of “truth” which others do not, and (due to their ignorance and inferior teaching) cannot see. The only way to be in this inner circle of “truth,” this gnostic (from the word “to know”) cult, is to “belong” to the group, especially to its leader.

But suppose there is no such thing as the “truth” these false teachers peddle so persuasively? Suppose, as Paul has just indicated in verses 18-20, that this “worldly wisdom” of the false teachers is really worthless and destructive? What appeal do these leaders have now? None! The church does not have an exclusive “inner circle” of the informed and an “outer circle” of the ignorant. The truth of God (like wisdom in Proverbs) is proclaimed to all, and all are urged to embrace that truth. The truth belongs to every believer. Indeed, the teachers (if they are teachers of divine wisdom) belong to the whole body. Teachers do not own their followers; the saints own their teachers, each and every one of them!

A word of explanation may be helpful at this point. In the text, the different teachers to whom Paul refers in verse 22 are all apostolic leaders. These are not false teachers at all. That is correct. But in verse 6 of chapter 4, Paul indicates that these well known and highly regarded leaders are being used symbolically to refer to other unnamed leaders. As Paul’s teaching in his Corinthian Epistles continues, it becomes increasingly clear that a number of these cultic leaders are false apostles, false teachers, who are seeking to lead men astray from the truth (see Acts 20:28-32; 1 Corinthians 14:37; 15:31-38; 2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:1-2; 11:12-15). I have gone beyond Paul’s immediate meaning, because it is all too clear where he is going. In these early chapters of 1 Corinthians, Paul already sees the divisions in the church as the seed bed of heresy, and so it will be.

It is not just the teachers who belong to the Corinthians. In verse 22, Paul moves on from “Paul,” Apollos,” and “Cephas” to a larger category, that of “all things” (verse 21): “For all things belong to you, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, 23 and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.” In what sense do the world,” “life or death,” “things present or things to come” belong to us? What does Paul mean by these words?

D. A. Carson, an excellent scholar, poses this explanation:

The five things that follow “Paul or Apollos or Cephas” represent the fundamental tyrannies of human life, the things that enslave us, the things that hold us in bondage … The world squeezes us into its mold (compare Rom. 12:1-2). It demands so much of our attention and allegiance that we seldom devote thought and passion to the world to come … Similarly, this present life clamors to be treated as if it were worthy of ultimate respect … And at the end of this life there is only … death, which hovers over us, the ultimate specter … Thus the constant urgency of the present and … the vague promises and threats of the future combine to divert our attention away from the God who holds both the present and the future in his hands.46

Carson’s interpretation has much to commend it. I would take a slightly different slant, but one that does not really contradict his explanation. Paul’s words here are not unique to the New Testament, for he has used several of them elsewhere:

37 But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39).

In Romans 8, Paul is trying to be all-inclusive. He is seeking to convince us that there is absolutely nothing which can separate us from the love of God. “Death and life” and things present and things to come” are opposites, encompassing everything in between. I think Paul has the same general intent in 1 Corinthians 3. The “things” he lists are, no doubt, the things which seem to own us, or which would try to do so. They are also the things to which we can voluntarily belong by making them our master.

I see a link between the people and the things Paul lists together, which is the key to understanding his meaning. The Corinthians think their leaders are the one and only avenue through which “wisdom” and the things” (the content of their teaching or wisdom) they want can be obtained. False teachers appeal to the flesh by offering people what they want (see 2 Timothy 4:3-4; 2 Peter 2 and 3). These vulnerable saints think the only way they can get what they want is through their leaders, so they gladly belong to them. Paul is saying that all true teachers belong to the saints already. All of God’s revealed truth, His revealed wisdom, belongs to the whole church, not some elite group of knowers (gnostics). Besides this, all things belong to the saints. No one has a “corner on the market” of what God has for His own. They are owned by all of His children, and accessible to all as well. The wisdom teachers of this age have nothing to offer the saint, nothing with which to tempt him. Forsaking true wisdom to pursue false wisdom is like forsaking your place as a son of the world’s richest man to live with a homeless beggar, who says he knows the key to obtaining wealth. Does this sounds a little like the prodigal son?

How are all these “things” ours? Why do we possess “all” things? It is not due to our wisdom, to our social standing, to our status. It is the result of belonging to Christ. We belong to Christ, Paul reminds us, and Christ belongs to God (verse 23). Since all things belong to God, we possess them in Christ. How foolish the thinking of the Corinthians is! They are looking upon the simple teaching of Christ crucified as shallow and elementary. They are beginning to seek “wisdom” and “standing” in mere men, and in the wisdom of this world. That wisdom is worthless and destructive. God’s wisdom and wealth has been provided for us in Christ. To forsake Christ is to become poor and foolish, even though we consider ourselves rich and wise (see Revelation 3:14-22). Being rooted and grounded and growing in Christ is being truly wise and truly rich:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ (Ephesians 1:3).

1 For I want you to know how great a struggle I have on your behalf, and for those who are at Laodicea, and for all those who have not personally seen my face, 2 that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:1-3).

Conclusion

As I conclude my messages, I usually focus on application. I will do so in this message as well. But let us not lose sight of the fact that this text is Paul’s application. These verses are Paul’s bottom line, his way of indicating what we should do with what he has taught us. What then has Paul instructed us to do? Basically, he has called on us to repent, to change our minds regarding wisdom and men. We are to cease taking pride in the wisdom of men, in the wisdom of this age. We are to regard the wisdom of this age as folly. We are to embrace God’s wisdom which the world regards as folly. We are to return to the simple message of the gospel—the message of Christ crucified—as the wisdom of God and the foundation for our ministry.

I fear that we do not distinguish sharply enough between the two “wisdoms” before us that call upon us to believe and to act according to their doctrine. The Book of Proverbs makes it clear that such a distinction is not only valid, it is imperative. The Book of James makes the same strong distinction:

14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. 15 This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. 18 And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace (James 3:14-18).

In his excellent book, entitled, God in the Wasteland, David F. Wells makes a strong distinction between these two wisdoms. He sums up this distinction in this paragraph:

There are, then, two opposing ways of thinking about the world that can be found in the West today. The one belongs to those who have narrowed their perception solely to what is natural; the other belongs to those whose understanding of the natural is framed by the supernatural. The one takes in no more than what the senses can glean; the other allows this accumulation of information to be informed by the reality of the transcendent. The one indiscriminately celebrates diversity; the other seeks to understand life’s diversity in the light of its unity. The one can go no further than intuition; the other pierces through to truth. The one presumes that everything changes and that change is the only constant; the other measures the things that change by the standard of things that are changeless. The one looks only to the shifting contents of human consciousness, which differ from one individual to the next; the other holds the individual consciousness up for comparison to the larger realms of meaning in which are rooted those things that are common to all human nature. The one acknowledges no ultimate certainties; the other places the highest value on ultimate certainties. All of these differences arise from the simple fact that the one perspective receives its meaning from God and the other does not.47

First Paul calls on us to renounce the secular wisdom of this age and to view life through the divine wisdom which God provides through His Word and His Spirit. This does not say that Christians should not be deeply engaged in the search for knowledge and truth. It does say that for the Christian, wisdom begins with God and ends with Him. As the writer of the proverb says, “There is no wisdom and no understanding And no counsel against the Lord” (Proverbs 21:30). When we study nuclear physics, astronomy, or computer science, we begin with the foundation which God has laid. We test all claims to truth by the standard of God’s truth, the Word of God. When divine wisdom contradicts human knowledge, we know which to question and which to trust.

Too many Christians are seeking truth in the opposite direction. They begin with human understanding and reasoning, and then look to the Bible for an illustration or a proof text. The wisdom of God is the foundation on which all of our building should take place, and the standard for all that we think and do. Let us carefully consider the vast differences between divine wisdom and the wisdom of this age. Let us beware of placing our trust or our pride in the wisdom of men; let us embrace the wisdom of God, knowing that it alone is true wisdom.

The second area of repentance which Paul calls for is the change of mind and action which characterizes us in terms of our boasting in men. The wisdom of men is foolish and destructive. The wisdom of God belongs to all the saints, and it is not mediated to us by any one man who is the key to certain knowledge unknown and unknowable to others. All truth belongs to us, and all those who teach the truth of God belong to us, the saints. We do not belong to our teachers; they belong to us. We do ourselves a great disservice by devoting ourselves to only one human leader.

Jesus made it clear that men are not to usurp the position and the prerogatives which are His alone (Matthew 23:1-12). Jesus did not choose one apostle, but twelve. He did not instruct the church to have only one leader, but a plurality of leaders known as elders. The position of “pastor,” as it is practiced today, is unknown to the New Testament writers. We find churches today structured in a way that directly contradicts the teaching of Paul—churches established on the basis of allegiance to one man.

Men are exalted in other ways above and beyond that which they should be. Those of us who teach the Scriptures often use Greek, Hebrew, and theological terms in a way which sends an entirely wrong message: that no one can study or teach the Scriptures who has not learned Hebrew, Greek, and theology. So we have a whole congregation of people who feed on “milk,” the truth processed and delivered by the preacher, but who cannot chew on any meat of the Word themselves. We often seek to develop leadership in the same ways the world does, and we honor those who gather a personal following. We sanctify this by saying, “A leader is one who has followers.” A biblical leader is a man who, in obedience to God’s direction and calling, leads. He may or may not have many followers. Jesus did not have many followers in the end, and neither did Paul. We must not judge “leaders” by how many people follow them.

Certain practices and teachings in the church of our time should be carefully thought through in the light of Paul’s teaching in our text. One of the current buzz words in leadership circles is “mentoring.” We should be very careful that mentoring does not degenerate into “mentoring” We are not to train men to become followers of men. We are to teach and encourage men and women to be followers of Christ. How easy it is in the name of mentoring to violate Paul’s instructions to us from our text. “Accountability” is another popular concept, which can easily be distorted into an undue attachment and devotion to a mere man.

Finally, Paul’s words should cause us to see the folly of following one man to the neglect (and even rejection) of others. How easy it is to find our identity and our status linked with one person. When we do this, divisions arise within the church of our Lord. I am not a charismatic Christian, but I do think we might learn some things from good, solid charismatic teaching and practice. Likewise, charismatics could gain by learning from us. Pre-tribulational thinkers could learn some things from the “post-tribbers,” and vice-versa. Arminians could learn much from those of us who are Calvinists, and we may learn some things from them. Isolating ourselves to the point where our identity is summed up by one person, or one perspective, deprives us of the wealth God has for each of us. “All” things are ours. Let us learn from many of those gifted to teach, and not just one or a few. We can learn through radio, tapes, and reading, as well as by a broader contact with believers. Let us make use of the vast wealth God has given to us in Christ.

The teaching of our text poses two extremes of which we should repent. The first extreme is that of going too far afield, seeking truth from human wisdom, when we should search for it in the Word of God. The second extreme is in being too narrow, in limiting ourselves to but one leader, one perspective, one source of wisdom. May God keep us from these extremes, and enable us to seek true wisdom as taught in the Scriptures and expounded by a large number of those whom God has gifted to teach and to lead us.

For Further Thought

“There is an exquisite compass of vision here that is tragically lost when all of our Christianity means nothing more than ‘finding fulfillment’ or seeking personal peace or—worse yet—identifying with the ‘right’ party or Christian guru. We are God’s, and that transforms everything. If we truly understand this, there are no tyrannies left. We will want all that God has for us, both in this life and in the life to come. And that means we will never reduce the God-sized dimensions of biblical Christianity to all that can be embraced by just one Christian teacher or worker, no matter how able or wise. Factionalism is utter folly. Not only does it hurt the church, it impoverishes all those who embrace it, for it cuts them off from the wealth of the heritage that rightly belongs to all the children of God.”48

“If leaders are too greatly elevated in the popular mind, they can do almost anything, and large numbers of their followers will trail along unquestioningly. We marvel how many educated Germans followed Adolf Hitler without protest; we marvel how many religious people followed Jim Jones to their death. But examples that are not so extreme may be more difficult to detect. It is possible so to lionize some Christian leader that we start making excuses for his or her serious, perhaps even catastrophic, faults. What we must remember is that the leaders are no more than servants. Meanwhile, God loves his church, and he holds accountable those who seek to build the church.”49

“What might this mean for us today, in practical terms? … But it does mean that if you are, say, a Lutheran, you must not cut yourself off from what is right and good in the Wesleyan, Reformed, charismatic, Anabaptist, and other lines. (And of course, I could have rephrased that sentence in any combination.) At the local church level, it will not do to lionize one particular leader (preferably recently retired or deceased!) at the expense of all the others. Ultimately, to do so is to assign him or her almost tyrannical powers. Not only does it breed factionalism, it ignores the vast heritage and wealth that are ours simply because we are Christians and we belong to God. And, in the sense already expressed, what belongs to God belongs to us. Must we have fights over church music? We should have the best, the most God-centered, the most truthful, the most edifying. But must it all be in one style? Is there nothing to be gained from wide exposure to the company of saints in many parts of the world who have expressed their adoration of the Savior with richness of hymnody we can never exhaust, but which we ignore to our detriment?”50


46 D. A. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker Books [Inter-Varsity Press], 1993), pp. 86-87.

47 David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), p. 45.

48 Carson, p. 88.

49 Carson, p. 82.

50 Carson, p. 89.

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7. Follow the Leader (1 Cor. 4:1-21)

Introduction

The Corinthian church has a leadership crisis. Small cliques have attached themselves to leaders in whom they take pride. Highly regarded in the secular world, these leaders are chosen because of their message and their methods. Their content is thought to be the essence of wisdom. Their methods are powerful. Viewed simply from the standpoint of numbers, the church may be experiencing significant growth.

From Paul’s statements in the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians, one would suppose that each clique is a personal following of one of the apostles, of Paul, Apollos, or Peter. We should already have concluded that the apostles themselves are not the problem. They are not competing with one another for positions of power and prominence.51 If we think the rivalry at Corinth is between the followers of certain apostles like Paul or Apollos or Peter, Paul has a surprise for us in chapter 4. Here, in verse 6, Paul indicates that the real cliques have been established around personal allegiance to certain unnamed men, who are not apostles. As the two Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians continue to unfold, it becomes increasingly clear that some of these leaders are spiritual (1 Corinthians 14:37-38), and some are not even believers, but rather “false apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:12-15).

In contrast to the “leadership” of these cult-like leaders, we find the Apostle Paul. In chapter 4, Paul speaks of himself, along with his fellow-apostles, and informs the Corinthians about the way in which he and his colleagues should be regarded (4:1-5). He then exposes the real leadership problem at Corinth, outlining the dramatic contrast between the way the Corinthians view themselves and the way they view Paul (4:6-13). Verses 14-17 express Paul’s emotional appeal to the Corinthians to heed his instruction and to follow his leadership. The final verses (18-21) contain a warning for those who will not repent of their error. Paul will come to them, and if need be, he will come with “ a rod.”

The Context of our Text

After his introductory words (1:1-9), Paul brings up the problem of divisions among the Corinthians. From 1:10—3:9, Paul approaches the problem in terms of principle. He shows that the basis for the divisions in Corinth is contradictory to the gospel as it is expounded in the Scriptures. In 1:10—3:9, Paul attacks the Corinthian schisms theologically; now, beginning at 3:10, Paul spells out specific corrective measures which must be taken to set this matter right. Here, Paul is not only calling for repentance, but spelling out the form repentance must take.

Paul indicates in 3:10 that each Christian must be careful how he or she builds upon the foundation which Paul has laid. The ministry of each believer is described as the construction of a portion of “God’s building” (3:9). Each believer is a workman, assigned with the construction of a certain portion. Each must build on the foundation Paul has laid. Both the materials and the workmanship of each believer must be of the highest quality. If the workman’s work endures, he will receive a reward from God (3:13-14). If the workman’s construction is detrimental and destructive to the “temple of God” (verses 16-17), Paul warns that God will destroy this workman. It is clear from the context that this does not refer to his eternal damnation (see verse 15), but it must surely speak of earthly judgment (5:5), and of loss of eternal rewards (3:15).

In 3:18-23, Paul warns the Corinthians not to deceive themselves by thinking themselves to be wise in this age. This worldly wisdom is “folly” to God and actually the means of our own downfall (3:19-20). We must therefore become truly wise by becoming a fool in this age (3:18). Knowing that the wisdom which comes from men is foolish to God, one must certainly cease boasting in men (3:21-23), as though they are the means to divine wisdom. Rather than taking pride in belonging to a certain group and a particular leader, the Corinthians should rejoice that in Christ they possess all things, and they belong only to God.

Now, in 4:1-5, Paul sets down yet another manifestation of the repentance which God desires and requires from the Corinthians. Let us listen well to these words of the Apostle Paul, knowing that what God required of the Corinthians, He also requires of us. Let us seek not only to discern the strong words of this apostle, but also his warmth of heart and his gentle spirit. Here is a man who is a model leader, a model for all to follow.

Simply Stewards
(4:1-5)

1 Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy. 3 But to me it is a very small thing that I should be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. 4 For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. 5 Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.

The Corinthians had given themselves to one leader, a leader whom they elevated to the place which rightly belongs only to our Lord. Speaking for himself and for the other true apostles, Paul seeks to revise their perception of leaders. Even those whom God had appointed as apostles are to be regarded as servants, not as masters. Paul made this point earlier in chapter 3, verse 5: “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one.”

In this verse (3:5), Paul employs the first of three Greek terms for a servant, which he will employ in reference to himself and the other apostles. Diakonos is a common term for servant, which on a few occasions refers to the office of deacon. The term for servant in 4:1 is hyperetes,52 which refers to a slave who was seated under the deck of a ship and was one of a number of rowers, by whom the ship was propelled. It is not a position of status, and thus Paul employed this term to emphasize the humble service of the apostles. The third term, oikonomos, is rendered “steward.” The steward was also a slave, but one given a higher authority, under his master:

The oikonomos (oikos and nemein) was the responsible head of the establishment, assigning to each slave his duties and entrusted with the administration of the stores. He was a slave in relation to his master (Luke xii. 42), but the epitropos or overseer (Matt. xx. 8) in relation to the workmen.”53

Thus the Corinthians must take their leader off the pedestal on which they had placed him (or her). Even apostles are mere men, who have been chosen and appointed by God to be His servants, and to whom He has given authority to serve as “stewards of the mysteries of God.” These words are pregnant with meaning, but we will only mention several important nuances. First, the apostles are servants. Servants do not own things; they are owned by their Master. As servants, the apostles did not own or possess their followers as the false teachers seemed to do, and as their followers even boasted (“We are of …”). As stewards, the apostles had a certain authority to act in behalf of their Master, but they are still slaves, servants of Christ. As slaves and stewards, the apostles are not intent on pleasing men (see Galatians 1:10), but on pleasing the Master. The Lord is their Master, and He will be their Judge. They will give account to Him for their stewardship, and the standard for judgment is their faithfulness in fulfilling their stewardship.

In verses 3 and 4, Paul now pursues the matter of the judgment of himself and the other apostles as God’s stewards. He is conveying to the Corinthians the inherent weaknesses in human judgment. Paul informs them that he is not overly influenced by their judgment of his faithfulness to his calling as an apostle. He does so, not by directly attacking their ability to judge him, but rather by pointing out his own limitations in judging himself. If Paul cannot rely completely on his own self-evaluation, then how can he be heavily influenced by the judgment of the Corinthians, whose knowledge of Paul is much more limited? Paul can search his conscience to see if there is something worthy of an indictment, but even if his conscience gives him a clean bill of health, his conscience may be ill-informed. Consequently, the only One who is completely qualified to judge Paul is his Master. It is the Lord who examines him.

If human judgment is fallible, then Paul can rightly instruct the Corinthians to refrain from making final judgments, which should be left to God. This he does in verse 5. “Therefore” indicates that the instructions Paul gives here are the conclusion (or the application) of his argument in verses 1-4. When he says, “do not go on passing judgment,” we know that the Corinthians are passing judgment, and Paul is instructing them to cease doing so.

How can Paul instruct us to cease judging, when we know there are times when we must judge? What is wrong with the Corinthians’ judging that might not be wrong with other judgments? Let us pause for a moment to consider what the Bible as a whole has to say on the subject of judging. We are required to judge many things. Let me mention some of them. The Book of Proverbs is written to enable us to discern character, and various character types are vividly described: the naive, simple or gullible, the fool, the sluggard, and the scoffer. Contrasted with these is the wise. We are to deal with a person according to their character, and thus we must judge character, based upon the descriptions given in Scripture. We are to judge sin, which is clearly defined in the Scriptures, and clearly evident in our life (1 Corinthians 11:17-31) and in the life of another (1 Corinthians 5). We are also to make judgments on spiritual matters involving believers (1 Corinthians 6). We are to judge the doctrinal truth of what we are taught (Acts 17:10-11).

There are also things we must not judge. We are not to judge the convictions of a brother in the Lord, since these are not matters of biblically defined sin, but of liberties (Romans 14:4). Neither are we to judge or speak against a brother in any matter which the Scriptures have not defined as sin, and for which we have no biblical support. To do so is to place ourselves above the Word of God and to pass judgment on God’s law and God, the Lawgiver and the Judge (James 4:11-12).

When God calls upon the saints to judge, they do so in God’s behalf (Matthew 18:18-19). When we wrongly judge, we judge in God’s place (James 4:11-12). In our text, Paul is forbidding men to judge in God’s place, passing judgment upon those things which God alone can judge. The judgment which does not belong to men is that which will be done by our Lord in the day of judgment, when He returns to the earth to establish His kingdom (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). We dare not “go on passing judgment” before “the time” (4:5). The judgment Paul forbids is God’s judgment, a judgment to be carried out by God in His appointed time. This judgment is God’s judgment alone, because it is that which only God can perform.

Verse 5 characterizes the judgment of which Paul speaks: it is divine judgment, the judgment God Himself will pronounce. Here is the judgment of believers in Jesus Christ, not the judgment of unbelievers. The outcome of this is not punishment, but rewards. In order to exalt one leader, the Corinthians find it necessary to judge and condemn the rest. Paul speaks of rewards, of God’s praise, for all. It is a future judgment which will occur when the Lord comes. It is the final judgment, the final verdict, when all the results are in. Our judgment is temporal and incomplete; it is not final, nor can it be. Let me seek to illustrate what this means. During the recent elections, television networks continued to give updated results, as the precincts closed and votes were counted and reported. After a while, certain trends became apparent, and winners were “predicted” and announced as such. While such predictions are usually accurate, the final outcome cannot be determined until all the precinct voting places have closed and all the ballots have been counted. Our judgment is not the final verdict. Such pronouncements belong only to God.

When God passes judgment in that coming day, it will result in praise. That praise will be given for things unknown and unknowable to us.54 Paul tells us that God’s judgment will occur when He reveals or brings to light “things hidden in the darkness” and when He discloses “the motives of men’s hearts.” These “heart motives” and “things hidden in the darkness” are not just the wrong and sinful things invisible to the human eye, but also the wholesome and commendable things we cannot see or know. Only God can reveal these things, and reveal them He will! Until then, we do not have sufficient information on which to make a final judgment.

Paul instructs the Corinthian saints to cease judging their fellow servants because they do not have sufficient data on which to base a judgment now. The arrogant, boastful Corinthians who are judging actually think they are wise enough to judge in God’s place. They base their judgments on outward appearances, a very dangerous thing to do (see Luke 16:15). No wonder we will soon find Paul insisting that all do not possess gifts which produce visible results (1 Corinthians 12:29-30). These are the gifts the boastful Corinthians hold in such high esteem, because those granted such gifts are able to produce visible results, and thus judged spiritually superior by their fellow-saints.

One thing remains vague in what Paul says, something we must infer from the context: what are the Corinthians judging about which they are told to cease passing judgment? It seems evident that it is making a final and decisive judgment on the success and quality of the ministry of an apostle of our Lord. Paul warns these Corinthians (who are themselves “servants” of Christ) not to keep on passing judgment on the service of those servants who are apostles, and in so doing condemning apostolic leadership, while choosing to follow a particular favorite leader. Just who these individuals are becomes more and more clear as Paul’s epistles fill in further details.

A Surprising Revelation
(4:6-13)

6 Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that in us you might learn not to exceed what is written, in order that no one of you might become arrogant in behalf of one against the other. 7 For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? 8 You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become kings without us; and I would indeed that you had become kings so that we also might reign with you. 9 For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. 11 To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; 12 and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; 13 when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now.

Centuries before the days of Paul and the Corinthians, Nathan the prophet provided us an excellent example of indirect confrontation. David had sinned greatly, not only by taking Bathsheba in an adulterous act, but by also attempting to cover up his sin of the thinly-veiled murder of her husband. When Nathan confronted David, he did not immediately accuse him of his sins. Instead, he approached David with the story of a poor man whose only lamb was taken away by a very rich man. David was incensed and demanded that this “sinner” be brought to justice. Only then did Nathan disclose that this story was but a parable, and that the guilty man was none other than King David. David confessed his sin and was forgiven, although serious consequences followed. The indirect approach of Nathan was effective as it committed David to a righteous course of action in principle when it did not appear to relate personally to him. Once David embraced the matter in principle, Nathan spelled it out to the king in very personal terms.

Paul does something very similar in the first chapters of 1 Corinthians. The Corinthians have a problem of divisions in the church, divisions based upon undue attachment to a particular leader, one that leads to the rejection (or at least disdain) of other leaders. The leader they follow is a great source of pride to these cultic cliques. They boast of belonging to a particular person as their leader. Paul first deals with the matter in principle, contrasting the gospel, weak and foolish in the eyes of the unbelieving world, with the false wisdom and power of those who are considered leaders in the secular world.

Paul also addresses the problem of divisions at Corinth in terms of personalities: Paul, Apollos, Cephas [Peter], and Christ (1:12), and then later just in terms of himself (Paul) and Apollos in 3:4-5. Paul and Apollos are not competitors but co-workers, in the kingdom of God. Each has his unique role to play. Paul was first at Corinth, and so he speaks of himself as the one who sowed the seed of the gospel there. Later, Apollos arrived at Corinth, and so Paul speaks of him as the one who waters (3:6). Both are laboring in the same cause of the gospel. Both are “one.” And each has his own distinct role to play, just as each will receive his own rewards. There is unity in diversity as seen in the relationship of Paul and Apollos. How can any attempt be made to play them against each other?

Now in verse 6 of chapter 4, Paul has a surprise for his readers. The problem is not between the apostles, or even between any who might claim to be followers of a particular apostle as opposed to the rest. Paul speaks of the apostles—particularly of himself and Apollos because both ministered at Corinth—in a figurative way. The apostles are used as a kind of parable or analogy. From what he has said about his relationship with Apollos, Paul hopes to turn the Corinthians from the folly of attaching themselves to one leader, while opposing the rest. He speaks of himself and Apollos so that they might learn in themnot to exceed what is written,” which in turn will keep them from boasting in one man over and above another.

For the moment, let us dwell on Paul’s general statement, and then move on to the particulars of Paul’s argument in support of his general statements. The real problem at Corinth is not between any of the apostles or their alleged followers. The real problem is divisions and cliques which center about others. Paul’s teaching to this point in the first Epistle to the Corinthians is intended to draw men’s attention and commitment to the Scriptures, to “what is written.” The Corinthians departed from the Scriptures, and in so doing, proudly boasted of their attachment to a certain leader and their disdain for others. In verses 1-4 of chapter 3, Paul exposes the carnality of the Corinthians and offers as evidence of their condition their weakness in handling the Word and their attachment to men. Now, Paul indicates that carnal Christians attach themselves to men because they have gone beyond the Scriptures to find truth and wisdom.

In a general way, these Corinthians have become arrogant in behalf of one against another. In verse 7, Paul becomes much more specific: the Corinthians have become arrogant against the apostles. Verses 7-13 are a graphic description of how the Corinthians look at themselves and, in contrast, how they look at Paul and his fellow-apostles.

Paul raises three very crucial questions in verse 7 which, if answered correctly by the Corinthians, will expose the seriousness of their self-deception and sin. Paul first asks, “Who regards you as superior?” Who is their judge? If the Corinthians are so high and mighty, who thinks this? Is it the unbelieving community? God is their judge, not the corrupt Corinthians of that day. Paul asks yet another question: “What do you have that you did not receive?” Do the Corinthians boast in their abilities? Where did these abilities come from? If they were given, and they were, then they were given by God. If the Corinthians are boasting in their God-given gifts, then they are boasting in God’s place. They have the wrong judge, and they have the wrong object of praise. Men have taken the place of God.

There is then a third and final question: “If all that the Corinthians possess is a God-given gift, then how can they boast, as if it were not a gift?” The Corinthians think themselves so wise. They are arrogant and boastful. Yet, if they are so wise, how can they be so foolish as to take credit for something they were given, as though they were not the recipients of a gift? They have forgotten—or worse yet, they have forsaken—grace. These all-wise Corinthians are self-deceived.

In verse 8, by divine inspiration and enablement, Paul virtually reads the minds of his audience and describes the way they look on themselves. They are “already” filled; they have “already” become rich. Indeed, they have become kings. These Corinthians are much like the Laodiceans of Revelation 3: “Because you say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked’” (Revelation 3:17).

The word “already,” used twice by Paul in verse 8, is most enlightening. It indicates that in their minds, the Corinthians have “already” arrived. It will soon be clear that Paul and the other apostles have not. How can this be? How can the carnal Corinthians think they have arrived when the apostles have not?

In effect, the Corinthians think that they have already” entered into the kingdom; they have “already entered into the full benefits and blessings of Christ’s work at Calvary. They are not unlike a number of professing Christians today, who argue that all of the blessings resulting from Christ’s work on the cross are our present possession, and that all we need do is have the faith to claim them. They claim to possess them and look down upon all who do not. They also claim that those who do not possess them suffer and are afflicted in this life and do not experience success and the good life here and now.

Such thinking contradicts the clear teaching of our Lord and of his apostles. Jesus clearly speaks of suffering and adversity in this life, and the glories of His kingdom in the next, as did all of the apostles:

18 “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. 19 “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).

“These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ; so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; 28 in no way alarmed by your opponents—which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God. 29 For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, 30 experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me (Philippians 1:27-30).

10 That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11 in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:10-11).

And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12).

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; 13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation (1 Peter 4:12-13).

How can these Corinthians miss the fact that if we identify with Christ in this age, we will suffer rejection, persecution, and affliction, but with the assurance of entering into the blessings of His kingdom when He comes? The answer is quite simple. First, Paul has already told us that these Corinthians need to learn not to “go beyond what is written.” They are wrong because they have forsaken the Scriptures as the only source of divine truth. Second, they have twisted the Scriptures pertaining to prophecy and future things. Like many others in New Testament times (not to mention our own), they have distorted the doctrine of the resurrection, future judgment, and the blessings of Christ’s kingdom:

Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? (1 Corinthians 15:12).

That you may not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come (2 Thessalonians 2:2).

Men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and thus they upset the faith of some (2 Timothy 2:18).

3 Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, 4 and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:3-4).

If the Corinthians, boasting in their worldly wisdom, think they have arrived, they are equally convinced the apostles have not. Judgmentally, they look down upon the apostles in their suffering and humble service. Paul paints the picture of the Corinthians, sitting “on high” looking down from their lofty heights, disdaining the apostles who are a shame and a reproach to them. Paul says God has exhibited the apostles before the world as those condemned to die, as those being led to their execution. They are a spectacle to angels and to men. The apostles are fools; the Corinthians are wise. The apostles are weak; the Corinthians are strong. The Corinthians are distinguished; the apostles are without honor (verse 10).

Paul’s description of the apostles in verse 11 sounds remarkably like a description of the lowest rung of our own social ladder today. It also sounds like the men and women I have seen in prisons and in the skid road missions in various parts of this country. They are hungry and thirsty, poorly clothed, roughly treated, and homeless. Though not said, it takes little imagination to picture the contrasting condition of the Corinthians. In today’s terms, the Corinthians are like many of the televangelists of our time. They are well fed, impeccably dressed, highly esteemed (this may be changing), often possessing several expensive homes, indeed, mansions.

Even more amazing is the response of Paul and his fellow apostles to the abusive treatment of the world, and even some in the church. This response is described in verses 12 and 13. Rather than living like kings off of the saints, Paul labors with his own hands. He is not supported by those whom he serves; rather, he supports them (Acts 18:3; 20:33-35; 1 Corinthians 9:1-23; 2 Corinthians 11:7-9; 2 Thessalonians 2:9). When the apostles are reviled, they give a blessing in return. When persecuted, they endure. When slandered, they seek to conciliate. In spite of this—or perhaps, because of this—they are regarded as the scum of the world, the dregs, the bottom of the social barrel.

In some ways, those who have raised teenagers may identify somewhat with Paul’s words. Parents invest their lives in their children. They do without so their children might have what they need. In the early days of childhood, the children depend upon their parents; they cling to them. But when the teenage years arrive, teens begin to think of their parents as a liability, rather than an asset. They prefer to be seen apart from their parents than with them. This is the same way the Corinthians look upon and treat Paul, only worse.

A Fatherly Appeal and a Word of Warning
(14-21)

14 I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15 For if you were to have countless tutors in Christ, yet you would not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. 16 I exhort you therefore, be imitators of me. 17 For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church. 18 Now some have become arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I shall find out, not the words of those who are arrogant, but their power. 20 For the kingdom of God does not consist in words, but in power. 21 What do you desire? Shall I come to you with a rod or with love and a spirit of gentleness?

Paul’s response to the Corinthians is nothing less than amazing, an example of what he has just said in verses 12 and 13. Paul is a model leader. He is a very different leader from those whom some Corinthians are choosing to follow:

19 For you, being so wise, bear with the foolish gladly. 20 For you bear with anyone if he enslaves you, if he devours you, if he takes advantage of you, if he exalts himself, if he hits you in the face. 21 To my shame I must say that we have been weak by comparison. But in whatever respect anyone else is bold (I speak in foolishness), I am just as bold myself (2 Corinthians 11:19-21).

The unholy leaders whom some find so appealing are authoritarian leaders. They are men who lead in the same way the pagans ruled over others (see Mark 10:42). They push people around, and their followers love it.

Paul’s words in verses 14-17 are a dramatic contrast to this kind of leadership. He does not seek to shame them, or put a guilt trip on them. Guilt is profitable when it is a response to sin, and when it leads to repentance. But the fuel on which the ministry and life of the church runs is not guilt, but grace. Paul’s epistle is not written to shame the Corinthians, but to warn them of the direction in which they are heading, and to urge them to turn around. Paul speaks to them not as a “lord,” but as their father, and that he is, for many came to faith through his ministry.

Paul could command them to follow certain rules, but here he exhorts them to follow him, to follow his example (verse 16). While Paul cannot be present with the Corinthians, he does send his finest gift—Timothy (see Philippians 2:19-24). Timothy will remind them of what they have already seen and heard from Paul. He will remind them of Paul’s conduct (his ways) and of his teaching, which are in Christ. Paul’s preaching is fleshed out by his practice. Paul can not only say, “Do as I say,” but also, “Do as I do.” Paul practices what he preaches. Timothy will remind the Corinthians of these matters. Furthermore, Timothy’s reminder of Paul’s teaching and conduct will be exactly the same message as he and Paul teach in any other church: “Just as I teach everywhere in every church.” This is a very important statement, which contradicts all those who tell us that Paul’s words to the Corinthian church are uniquely fashioned for this one situation, but not for other churches. That is not what Paul says. His teaching and his practice are consistent in every church.

Are there those who will not heed Paul’s gentle plea for repentance? Are there those who have somehow become bold in Paul’s absence, convinced that they will never see him again? With Paul gone, some Corinthian leaders are beginning to reign roughshod over their followers. How bold they are in Paul’s absence! For such folks, Paul has a stronger word of warning: “Look out! I am coming soon, and when I come, I will be as tough as I have to be.”

Paul’s intent is to come as quickly to Corinth as he can. His desire is that the saints there have heeded his written warnings and made right the things in which they are wrong. If such is the case, Paul can expect to come and be warmly received, forgetting the sins of the past. But if there is no repentance, if those who oppose him persist, Paul will come in power, and he will then use his apostolic authority to deal with them. The eloquent speech of these leaders will not be enough when Paul arrives, for he will expose their lack of real spiritual power.

Timothy will come shortly. But soon, Paul is coming to Corinth. How do they want him to come? Do they wish to have him come with love and a spirit of gentleness, made possible by their repentance? Or, do they wish him to come with the rod of correction? The choice is theirs.

Conclusion

Paul’s words to the Corinthians are for us as well, and they have much to say. Let me conclude by suggesting some of the implications of our text.

(1) Paul’s words speak volumes on the subject of leadership. I hear a great deal about leadership in the church these days. Sadly, most of what is said is from the secular wisdom of this world. We seem to hear more from Peter Drucker than from Jesus or from Paul. What is said that “sounds” spiritual is usually secular at its core—with a sugar coating of spiritual terminology, proof-texted by some passage, strained beyond its meaning or intent.

Paul attributes the leadership which many Corinthians follow to the secular wisdom and power of the day. These are the leaders whose followers disdain and even reject the apostles. Paul’s leadership is described as a radical contrast to this worldly-wise leadership. We are told that a leader is “one who has followers.” Leadership, by this definition, is not a matter of divine calling or of Christ-like character. Paul must have overlooked something very important, then, when he spelled out the qualifications for leaders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Peter too must have missed the mark in the fifth chapter of 1 Peter.

If I could take up the text of 1 Corinthians 4 and wring it out like a wet rag, it would virtually ooze with Christ, “Christ crucified.” In verses 1-5, Paul speaks of himself and the other apostles as servants and stewards, and he urges the Corinthians to hold up on judgments they cannot and should not be making. I find this reminiscent of our Lord:

Jesus therefore said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me” (John 8:28).

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me; for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me” (John 8:42).

“For I did not speak on My own initiative, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me commandment, what to say, and what to speak” (John 12:49).

“Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works” (John 14:10).

“Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24).

47 “And if anyone hears My sayings, and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. 48 “He who rejects Me, and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day” (John 12:47-48).

Were the apostles homeless? So was our Lord:

57 And as they were going along the road, someone said to Him, “I will follow You wherever You go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Luke 9:57-58).

Are Paul and his apostolic colleagues despised and rejected, the scum of the earth? So was the Lord Jesus Christ. Are they exhibited as those condemned to death? So was our Lord:

3 He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face, He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. 4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. 6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him (Isaiah 53:3-6).

When the apostles are abused, mistreated, and wrongly accused, do they respond graciously, seeking reconciliation? So did our Lord.

18 Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. 19 For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. 21 For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, 22 who COMMITTED NO SIN, NOR WAS ANY DECEIT FOUND IN His mouth; 23 and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; 24 and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. 25 For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls (1 Peter 2:18-25).

The apostles are simply living out the life of Christ: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). This is exactly what we are called, and even commanded, to do. Paul instructs the Corinthians to be imitators of him (1 Corinthians 4:16). In the context of his words, we see that he is calling upon us to suffer for Christ’s sake, to “take up our cross daily,” and to follow Him. The cross is not merely the means by which we are saved; it is the basis for our sanctification, and it is the paradigm for our daily lives. The foolishness and the weakness of the gospel is that which we not only embrace to be saved, but which we embrace as the model for our lives. No wonder Paul forsakes secular leadership principles and turns us to Christ. To do this is not drudgery; it is a joy and a privilege:

29 For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, 30 experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me (Philippians 1:29-30).

8 More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, 9 and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, 10 that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11 in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:8-11).

(2) Paul’s words caution us about seeking to please men, rather than God, and striving to do those things which appear to be successful and worthwhile. There is a time to judge ourselves and others. But here Paul warns of the danger of judging others. He even warns of the danger of judging oneself. The Corinthians want to possess those spiritual gifts which are verbal and visible, the gifts many think are the best. Paul shocks them by challenging their system of evaluating the importance of the gifts in chapter 12. He seeks to encourage those with seemingly insignificant gifts that they indeed play a most vital role in the body of Christ. Let us be careful that we do not gauge our effectiveness on the basis of what others say, or even on the basis of what we think or feel. Our task is not to succeed, but as servants and stewards to fulfill the calling which God has given us. Our work may not seem successful, significant, or effective, but neither did our Lord’s word win the approval of men. Paul too looks a miserable failure. But today is not the time to judge the results of our ministry, and we are not the ones to judge such things. Let us leave these matters to God and faithfully continue to fulfill our stewardship.

(3) Paul’s words exhort us to live in the light of the second coming. To Paul, what we do in the present is very important, but only when considered in the light of eternity. The Corinthians err in assuming that they presently possess those blessings God provides and promises for the future. They fail to understand that those who are men and women of faith must be willing to suffer for Christ’s sake in this age, so that they can enter into His glory in the next. This is the theme of the Book of Hebrews, and the point of all those named in the “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11. The unbelieving world, with its “wisdom” and “power” is all of this age. The Christian’s “world” includes this age and the one to come. We are to live in this age in the light of the next. The unbeliever lives only for the present. Eschatology (the doctrine of future things—prophecy) has very important implications for godly living in this present age.

(4) Paul’s teaching in the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians is an example of godly leadership and a model for us in dealing with problems in the church. The church at Corinth has many problems, but in the light of eternity, we probably have just as many in our own church today. Paul could have come on like gangbusters, wielding his apostolic authority by naming names and calling out orders. He could have gone straight to Corinth and “had it out” with the problem people. Paul’s dealings with those in the wrong at Corinth are an example of his instructions to Timothy in handling problem people at Ephesus:

21 Therefore, if a man cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work. 22 Now flee from youthful lusts, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. 23 But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels. 24 And the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, 25 with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will (2 Timothy 2:21-26).

How could Paul be more gentle than he is with the Corinthians? He exposes the problem and then deals with it in principle, rather than in terms of personalities. When he does name names, they are only figurative analogies so that the real culprits remain unnamed. Finally, Paul clearly exposes the problem: little groups of arrogant Christians are proudly following leaders who use secular means and who proclaim a secular message, turning believers from the truths of the Word and the simplicity of the gospel. These folks have come to think too highly of themselves and too poorly of Paul and his fellow-apostles. And yet even now, Paul admonishes them as their father, seeking to bring about repentance and reconciliation without the use of more aggressive means. Only as a last resort does Paul threaten the use of these more forceful means. Here is a different breed of leader, a leader who is like Christ, and a leader whom all of us should seek to imitate. Let us learn to deal with problems as graciously as Paul.

(5) Finally, Paul’s teaching in chapters 1-4 lays the foundation for what he is about to say in chapters 5 and following. There are many specific problems in Corinth which need correction. The next matter Paul must address is incest in the church (chapter 5). Why does Paul not begin with this problem? It is because right thinking precedes right conduct. The Corinthians are misbehaving because they are weak in their grasp of the Word. Paul’s first four chapters are about the right foundation. The Corinthians must see that God’s Word is true wisdom, and that God’s power is displayed through human weakness. They must understand that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the foundation for all life and ministry in the church. Christ crucified is the foundation and the standard for all church life. And the good news of the gospel is that which humbles us, breaking our pride and arrogance. Only when these fundamental matters are set straight does Paul move on to address particular problems. Right thinking precedes right conduct. Right thinking comes from the Word of God as we are illuminated and empowered by the Spirit of God. May we be men and women of the Word, filled with His Spirit.


51 One could not have said this of the disciples before the crucifixion and ascension of our Lord, for in those days of His earthly ministry, they were competitive with each other (see Mark 9:33-37; 10:35-45).

52 It is significant that this term is employed by Paul, especially in the light of Paul’s testimony in Acts 26:16: “‘But arise, and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister [hypereten] and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you.’” The first words our Lord spoke to Paul on that Damascus road characterized his ministry as an apostle as that of lowly service. No doubt this influenced his choice of words in verse 1. “The word [hyperetas] originally denotes those who … in the lower tier of a trireme, and then came to mean those who do anything under another, and hence simply ‘underlings.’” Archibald Robertson and Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1971 [reprint]), p. 74.

53 Archibald Robertson and Alfred Plummer, p. 74.

54 Knowing that the final judgment of our service comes from the Lord when He returns, and that it is based upon things we cannot see or know at present, helps to explain two texts in the Gospel of Matthew. This principle Paul sets down concerning the future judgment of men explains why both believers and unbelievers are surprised and taken back by the final judgment of God. In Matthew 7:15-23, our Lord revealed that many self-righteous religious leaders would be rejected as unbelievers by our Lord, much to their surprise. In Matthew 25:31-40, those believers whom our Lord commends for their righteous deeds do not even remember what they have done for the Lord or realize that such deeds were acts worthy of divine rewards.

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8. Church Discipline: Taking Sin Seriously (1 Cor. 5:1-13)

Introduction

When a friend’s car began to behave in a strange manner, I volunteered to bring it home to take a look at it. I took my daughter, Jenny, and a friend by this fellow’s house and exchanged cars with him, which meant I had to drive his car past the girls’ school on the way home. Just as we approached the school, the car began to behave very badly, missing and backfiring noisily so that we sounded like a very troubled version of Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang! As we passed by the school, I looked back in the mirror just in time to see my daughter and her friend, without any signal, dive down into the seat. They did not want anyone to see them in that old, sickly car. The car was no status symbol—I would have ducked myself, but someone had to drive.

If likened to an automobile, the church at Corinth is a wreck. The engine barely runs (on just a few cylinders), the transmission slips, and the wheels are about to fall off. The irony is that the Corinthians drive about in this car with heads held high. They are proud of their car (church), and they let everyone know it.

In the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians, Paul introduces a shameful problem in the church. The Corinthians proudly attach themselves to certain leaders, whose teaching seems to disclose a “wisdom” not known or taught by other teachers, and certainly not by Paul or his fellow-apostles. These cliques and factions are undermining the unity of the church and are a denial of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In chapters 5 and 6, Paul calls attention to two other problems plaguing the church: immorality and lawsuits.

Chapter 5 is not actually about the immorality of one church member, as much as it is about the pride and passivity of the entire church in response to this sinner. It is not until the end of chapter 6 (verses 12-20) that Paul exposes the evil of immorality. We see then that chapters 5 and 6 are a unit. Chapter 5 introduces the matter of immorality and the obligation of the church to exercise discipline. Chapter 6 takes up the issue of Christians taking each other to law courts (verses 1-11), and then concludes with Paul’s teaching on immorality.

We might look at chapters 1-6 in this way. Chapters 1-4 address “in house” sin, sins that are not recognized or regarded by the unsaved. These first four chapters speak of divisions which are neither biblical nor godly, those based upon leaders, pride, human wisdom, and power. Chapters 5 and 6 deal with sins which are being practiced in public, while the world looks on in amazement. Chapter 5 exposes a situation in which the Corinthians should divide; that is, they should separate themselves from one who professes to be saved, but who is living in sin. Not only those in Corinth, but others elsewhere are aware of the immorality of this man in the Corinthian church, and even the pagans are shocked. In the first 11 verses of chapter 6, Paul shows how unholy divisions have been taken into the public view, when believers are taking each other to court to settle their differences. In verses 12-20, Paul returns to the issue of immorality to show why this is such a great evil.

A Shocking Sin
(5:1)

It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife.

Even though far removed from the Corinthians, news reaches Paul of immorality in the church. Paul’s introductory words, “It is actually reported…,” are instructive. The translation “actually” expresses Paul’s shock and dismay. But the same term is rendered “commonly” in the King James Version. The emphasis here falls on the fact that the immorality in the Corinthian church is common knowledge. Thus, the New Jerusalem Bible renders Paul’s words, “I have been told as an undoubted fact.…” I am inclined to think Paul intends us to get both of these nuances. Paul is shocked that immorality is taking place in the church, and that this fact is such common knowledge that no one doubts it.

It is bad enough that Paul hears of immorality in the Corinthian church, but what Paul has yet to say is even more disturbing. While it is possible, even likely, that immorality is commonplace in the church, Paul turns to a specific instance. It seems that this is a “worst case scenario;” that is, there are other cases of immorality in the church which may have been known to Paul, but the specific instance he refers to is the situation in which a son has taken his father’s wife. Paul’s words seem to inform us that this is not a “one night fling,” because he says, “someone has his father’s wife.” The sin is still going on as Paul writes! Whether or not the father is alive is unclear. Whether this man is married to his father’s wife is also not clearly indicated. Neither are we told that the woman is a professing Christian. We do know that Paul does not instruct the church to cast the woman out, but only the man. It is very clear that a man is living immorally with his father’s wife, something which would be shocking to an Old Testament saint (Leviticus 18:8; Deuteronomy 22:30; 27:20), something which was forbidden by the apostles (Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25), and something which is considered taboo by the pagan Corinthians.

Sin Has Spread Throughout the Church
(5:2 )

And you have become arrogant, and have not mourned instead, in order that the one who had done this deed might be removed from your midst.

The sin of this one man is but the tip of the iceberg. Other cases of immorality (acceptable to the Gentiles!) can no doubt be revealed. But while Paul is distressed by the sin of this one man, he is even more disturbed by the sinful response of the church. They have “become arrogant,” and at the same time, are virtually doing nothing to correct this matter. Paul is distressed by the arrogance of the saints at Corinth. We have already been told of their arrogance in the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians. Now Paul speaks of it in relationship to this case of immorality.

We could understand this arrogance in relation to this sin in the church in several ways:

First, the Corinthians may be proud of this man’s sin. In the secular world, this “pride in sin” is evidenced by those who parade their sins publicly on television talk shows. Something similar may be happening at Corinth. Remember that in the pagan religions of Corinth, immorality was practiced as a part of their heathen “worship.” The Corinthians could have redefined the rules so that this sinful act is looked upon as enlightened Christianity. Do you think this suggestion is groundless? I encourage you to read about the false teachers in 2 Peter and Jude and to read the accounts of the teaching and lifestyle of David Koresh on his compound just an hour’s drive from Dallas, Texas.

Second, the Corinthians might be puffed up and proud, not because of this man’s sin, but because of the “loving way in which they deal with him.” In this therapeutic age when the church is often looked upon more as a “support group” than a “holy temple,” church members refuse to discipline members and continue to embrace sinning saints, even when it is clear they have no intention of repenting of their sins, and even when they publicly persist in their sinful ways. If this is the case in Corinth, they would love the expression of our day, “unconditional acceptance.” I have never seen this expression in the Bible, but I often hear it on the lips of Christians. It is a banner some hold high. It is a banner some hold with pride.

Third, the Corinthians may be proud and arrogant, not because of this sin or their response to it, but in spite of this sin. We have already been informed about the pride of the Corinthians. Of what are they so proud? Well, they take pride in their leaders, in their message, and in their methods. They take pride in their “wisdom,” a wisdom which is worldly that looks down on the simple message of Christ crucified and the apostles who proclaim it. It may just be that these saints are so proud that they cannot or will not acknowledge or act upon the sins which are public and undeniable. J. B. Phillips seems to understand the Corinthians’ pride in this way, for he renders Paul’s words, “Are you still proud of your church?” The New English Bible reads, “And you can still be proud of yourselves!” Pride is the result of turning from the truth. Pride keeps one from seeing the truth. The Corinthians maintain an attitude of pride when the situation should produce mourning.

The last part of verse 2 indicates that while the Corinthians should excommunicate this man from the church, they have not done so. Paul also gives us insight into why the Corinthians do not act and what would change this. These saints are proud when they should be mourning. Pride is what keeps the church from expelling the wayward and willful saint. Mourning is what should be taking place in the church, and if it does, the saints will expel the immoral man.

When my wife has gone to school for the day, I am left at home alone. Our cats know that when my wife leaves and the front door closes, a whole new set of rules are in place. Our cats love to jump up on the table. If there is a clothes basket filled with clothes, so much the better. What they really love is a basket full of warm clothes, just out of the drier. I almost never make the cats get down. When I do, it is because Jeannette is home. But those cats look so cute all curled up in a clothes basket. I’m proud of our cats, and that is why I don’t correct them, even though I know that what they are doing is wrong.

Now, if one of our cats broke its back and was in terrible pain, Jeannette and I would mourn. We would be deeply saddened by this malady. And even though it would break our hearts, we would take him to the vet and have him put to sleep. I do not seek to correct that in which I take pride. I do seek to correct any situation which causes me to mourn. Sin should cause the Corinthians to mourn, but it does not. Instead, as strange as it may seem, these saints continue to be puffed up with pride. One can hardly expect a proud church to commence the painful process of correction. At this point, Paul simply says that this person should be removed from their midst. In the next verses, we shall see the form that Paul expects correction to take, the correction in which Paul himself is a participant.

Paul’s Response In Absentia
(5:3-5)

3 For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present. 4 In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

What a great excuse Paul has for not getting involved in this ugly situation in Corinth. After all, he is far removed. What can he do? Well for one thing, Paul can write a letter. For another, he can act even from a distance. Paul describes the discipline process in verses 3-5, and he speaks of himself as an active participant. He thereby sets the example and hopes the Corinthians will follow.

Paul may be physically absent, but he is never spiritually absent. This is true not only of the Corinthian church, but of the other churches (see Colossians 2:5). Paul’s references to his prayers (see Romans 1:9; Ephesians 1:17; Philippians 1:3-5; 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3, etc.) and his personal knowledge of people in churches where he has never yet visited (e.g. Romans 16) are indicative of his spiritual presence beyond his physical local church. Many of the Corinthians are Paul’s spiritual children (see 4:14-16). He not only writes to them, but he makes every effort to obtain reports of how they are coming along. When word of problems in Corinth reaches Paul, he does not allow his absence to keep him from doing the right thing. He is with these saints in spirit, and so while the Corinthians have not yet done anything to correct the situation, Paul informs them that he has taken action. He has already acted as though he were present. He has done what he would do if he were present, and what those who are present should do. In following Paul’s example, they will carry out the kind of discipline which the Scriptures require.

15 “And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 “But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 17 “And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer. 18 “Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20 “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst” (Matthew 18:15-20; see also Galatians 6:1-2; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15; Titus 3:10-11).

This text in Matthew 18 is our Lord’s instructions to His disciples—the apostles—among whom Paul has been added as the replacement of Judas. What our Lord commanded the apostles, they were to instruct the churches, so that church discipline would be an on-going practice throughout the history of the church. More than any other text, Matthew 18 spells out the process of discipline. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5 closely parallel those of our Lord. Let us consider some of the key elements of church discipline, as taught by our Lord and reiterated by Paul in our text.

(1) Church discipline is a process. Here, in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul speaks of the final step of discipline. Matthew 18 spells out the full process of church discipline, from the private rebuke of a single saint, to the collective expulsion from the congregation by the whole church. The reason Paul deals only with the last step of this process in 1 Corinthians 5 is that the willful rebellion of the sinner is evident, and his sin has already become public knowledge. Discipline must be as public as the sin.

(2) Church discipline is the obligation of the whole church. Paul speaks of the discipline process taking place when “you are assembled.” Our Lord instructed that the matter be told “to the church” (Matthew 18:17). In the Matthew text, it is assumed that this will happen after the wayward individual has been privately confronted. In the case of the immoral man in the church at Corinth, the matter has already become a matter of public knowledge. Consequently, the correction must be as public as the sin. We see in the Scriptures that the final step of discipline is taken by the entire church, when they have assembled. The Lord promises His special presence when such a gathering is assembled for discipline:

19 “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20 “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst” (Matthew 18:19-20).

How often this text is misapplied, as though our Lord is referring to just any gathering of two or three saints. In the context, the gathering of but two or three is sufficient for the Lord to be specially present in this most difficult duty.

(3) Church discipline involves all of the local church, and it has implications for the church at large. Paul calls for the whole Corinthian church to be involved. This is a most difficult assignment, for the Corinthian church is divided into various factions that seem unable to work together on anything. Church discipline should be exercised in unity. But Paul goes even further than requiring the whole church to participate in this act of discipline. Paul, acting with the church in this matter, strongly implies that church discipline should be exercised more generally, by all the churches. In our day of great mobility and many churches to attend, someone who is under discipline usually finds it easy to simply attend elsewhere. It seems that word of discipline needs to be communicated to other churches, and that other churches have an obligation to honor that act of discipline if the wayward party attempts to “move his membership” to that church. It also suggests that newcomers to any church should be interviewed, to be certain that they are not under discipline elsewhere.

(4) Church discipline is to be done in the name and in the power of our Lord. The church acts on behalf of the Lord in carrying out discipline. This is why the Lord’s presence is promised in discipline. This is why Paul speaks of acting “in the name of the Lord Jesus” and in “the power of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:4). We act on God’s behalf, and thus when we act, God acts as well (see Matthew 18:18-19).

(5) Church discipline delivers the sinner into the power of Satan. Church discipline expels the wayward and unrepentant saint from the church, from participating in its worship (i.e., the Lord’s Table), and from fellowship with individuals or small groups of believers. In so doing, the sinning saint not only loses the positive benefits of being a part of the church body, but is placed in the very dangerous position of being vulnerable to Satan’s attacks. In Paul’s words, the one who is disciplined is “delivered to Satan” (see also 1 Timothy 1:20). Satan is a destroyer, a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (see 1 Peter 5:8). When the church expels a wayward member, that person is given over to Satan, knowing that he delights in destruction. It is not a pretty picture, nor is it something any church should take lightly. When we deliver one over to Satan, we are simply giving the unrepentant Christian what he has chosen. To remain in sin is to be in the bondage of Satan (2 Timothy 2:24-26). To be disciplined is simply to hand that one over fully to Satan. Discipline confirms a choice that the sinner has already made.

(6) While Satan has the power to destroy the flesh, he does not have the authority to destroy the spirit. At Satan’s request, he was given the authority to attack Job, but this authority has always had boundaries. Given God’s permission, Satan could do so much to Job and no more (see Job 1:12; 2:6). Satan does not have the power to spiritually destroy one who is saved by the blood of Jesus Christ:

27 “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; 28 and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand. 29 “My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29).

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? 33 Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; 34 who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 Just as it is written, “For Thy sake we are being put to death all day long; We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:31-39).

Satan’s destructive powers and desires extend only as far as the flesh:

“And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

“And the nations were enraged, and Thy wrath came, and the time came for the dead to be judged, and the time to give their reward to Thy bond-servants the prophets and to the saints and to those who fear Thy name, the small and the great, and to destroy those who destroy the earth” (Revelation 11:18).

(7) Church discipline is only for those who are saints or for those who profess to be saints. Paul makes it very clear in verses 12 and 13 that church discipline is for those who are inside the church, and not for those who are outside. The Lord makes the same point in Matthew 18:15, where He begins, “If your brother sins. …” The final outcome of church discipline is that a believer who willfully remains in sin is treated as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer (18:17). Association with the believer under discipline is to be terminated, but he is still to be regarded as a brother, and not as an enemy (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15).

(8) Church discipline is not a final judgment which condemns one to eternal hell, but one which has the goal of the sinner’s repentance and final salvation. Church discipline is to be exercised for the highest good of the sinning saint. Consequently, Paul makes it very clear that “turning one over to Satan” in church discipline is not a final act of condemnation, but an action taken with a view to the wayward saint’s repentance from sin in this life, or at least his spiritual salvation in the next. Discipline is a severe mercy, which is painful to those who discipline, and to the one disciplined. It is mercy in that it seeks the highest good of the wayward saint.

A Biblical Mandate for Church Discipline
(5:6-8)

6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? 7 Clean out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

In verse 2, Paul indicates that the response of the Corinthians to this great sin is just the opposite of what it should be. They should mourn and then remove this one from their midst. Instead they are puffed up with pride and do nothing about this evil. Paul wants to be absolutely clear that the arrogance of the Corinthians is not good. Why not? Because it is destructive. We surely know it is harmful to the man living in sin. But now Paul seeks to show us how destructive failing to deal with sin is to the church. He does so by an Old Testament ritual, which was fulfilled in Christ, but also has much application to the New Testament saint.

Paul turns his readers to imagery of leaven, and the way a little bit of leaven can change the whole lump of dough in which it is found. The sinner whom the Corinthians embrace and fail to put out of the church is likened to a little leaven placed in a lump of dough. If left there for long, it changes the whole batch of dough. If this sinner is allowed to remain in the fellowship of the saints at Corinth, he will contaminate the entire church, just as Achan brought harm to the entire nation of Israel (see Joshua 7). By removing this man from their midst, the church at Corinth not only seeks the sinner’s restoration, they also promote their own purity.

Now Paul begins to fine tune this leaven and lump analogy, turning to a specific celebration in the Old Testament. Paul reminds his readers of the feast of unleavened bread, which was to begin immediately after the Passover lamb was sacrificed:

1 “Observe the month of Abib and celebrate the Passover to the Lord your God, for in the month of Abib the Lord your God brought you out of Egypt by night. 2 “And you shall sacrifice the Passover to the Lord your God from the flock and the herd, in the place where the Lord chooses to establish His name. 3 “You shall not eat leavened bread with it; seven days you shall eat with it unleavened bread, the bread of affliction (for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste), in order that you may remember all the days of your life the day when you came out of the land of Egypt. 4 “For seven days no leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory, and none of the flesh which you sacrifice on the evening of the first day shall remain overnight until morning” (Deuteronomy 16:1-4).

After the Passover was celebrated, the Feast of Unleavened Bread commenced. The Israelites were to go throughout their dwellings, seeking to find any leaven and remove it. They were to eat unleavened bread. Leaven is a symbol of sin, and the Passover lamb was a prophetic foreshadowing of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul calls Him “Christ our Passover” (verse 7) and reminds us that He has been sacrificed. If Christ is our Passover and He has been sacrificed, what is to follow, given the Old Testament prototype? The leaven is to be removed. Since Christ has been sacrificed, we are not to harbor sin in our lives, but to seek to identify sin and remove it. Week after week when we celebrate the Lord’s Table, we are commemorating the fulfillment of Passover. This is no mere ritual; it is a reminder of what should follow the sacrifice of the Lamb—cleansing in the camp! The leaven in the Corinthian church (the camp) is this sinner. He must be removed. What better time and place is there than in the meeting of the church, where the Lord’s Table is celebrated?

Paul is not content to allow us to think that Christ’s atoning death, celebrated at the Lord’s Table, should only be applied to this man and his expulsion from the church. In verse 8, Paul broadens the application, indicating other forms of “leaven” which are all too evident in the church. The “old leaven” (this sinner who needs to be expelled) and the “new leaven,” that of malice and wickedness, must be put away. Malice and wickedness refers to that whole spectrum of “sacred sins” which are harbored and even nurtured in the church. They must go, and in their place there should be the “unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (verse 8). We are to put off the hypocrisy and the false wisdom we have embraced and return to purity of motivation and of doctrine.

Clarification on Separation
(5:9-13)

9 I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; 10 I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world. 11 But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler— not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? 13 But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves (1 Corinthians 5:9-13).

This is not the first letter Paul has written to the Corinthians. Paul indicates in verse 9 that he has previously written to the Corinthians on the subject of separation. In that first letter, he instructs them not to associate with immoral people. Paul’s previous instructions include unbelieving sinners of all kinds, those who are immoral, those who are covetous, those who swindle, and those who are idolaters. The Corinthians either misunderstand or twist Paul’s words to mean something other than what Paul intends. They, like the Jews of Jesus’ day, equate holiness with separation from unbelievers. When he writes to the Corinthians, Paul is not instructing them to avoid contact with unbelievers. There is no way to avoid contact with unsaved sinners, other than by means of death. The only way to avoid “the world” is not to live in the world. Besides this, our task is not to avoid sinners, but to live among them in such a way as to reveal Christ to them:

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how will it be made salty again? It is good for nothing anymore, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 “Nor do men light a lamp, and put it under the peck-measure, but on the lampstand; and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:13-16).

9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a HOLY NATION, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul. 12 Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may on account of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation (1 Peter 2:9-12).

The Christian must live in the world and rub shoulders with it in order to be a witness to the lost. What a Christian cannot do is participate with the world in sin. We are to be in the world, but we are to be unlike the world, living out the life of Christ as lights in a dark place:

3 But do not let immorality or any impurity or greed even be named among you, as is proper among saints; 4 and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. 5 For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. 7 Therefore do not be partakers with them; 8 for you were formerly darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), 10 trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 And do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; 12 for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret. 13 But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light. 14 For this reason it says, “Awake, sleeper, And arise from the dead, And Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:3-14).

Paul does not mean for the Corinthians to try to keep the church out of the world, but to keep the world out of the church. He means that those who profess to be saved must live like one who is saved. A person should not be embraced as a believer whose profession and practice are in contradiction. The Corinthians are not to associate with a person claiming to be a Christian, who continues to live in sin. Immorality is not the only basis for church discipline; there is also covetousness, idolatry, slanderous speech, drunkenness, or swindling. Fellowship with someone who falls into this category is forbidden. This does not simply mean that this person is excommunicated from the meeting(s) of the church; it also means that individual believers must withdraw any manifestations of fellowship. This includes the sharing of a meal, which in biblical times was an intimate act of fellowship (see Revelation 3:20).

Church discipline is a form of judging, which is not only permitted but required of the church when professing Christians willfully disobey God's Word and reject attempts to correct them. Outsiders are not a legitimate recipient for church discipline.  They do not profess Christ, and separating from them would only serve to prevent Christians from sharing their lives and their faith with those who are lost.  It is those who profess faith, and yet persist in sin, who should be the focus of church discipline.  We should separate from them when all disciplinary efforts have been rejected.

This last expression, “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves,” is virtually a quotation of Deuteronomy 17:7 from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament:

2 “If there is found in your midst, in any of your towns, which the Lord your God is giving you, a man or a woman who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, by transgressing His covenant, 3 and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the heavenly host, which I have not commanded, 4 and if it is told you and you have heard of it, then you shall inquire thoroughly. And behold, if it is true and the thing certain that this detestable thing has been done in Israel, 5 then you shall bring out that man or that woman who has done this evil deed, to your gates, that is, the man or the woman, and you shall stone them to death. 6 “On the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses, he who is to die shall be put to death; he shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. 7 “The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst (Deuteronomy 17:2-7, emphasis mine).

The expression is similar to that found elsewhere in the Old Testament:

7 “If a man is caught kidnapping any of his countrymen of the sons of Israel, and he deals with him violently, or sells him, then that thief shall die; so you shall purge the evil from among you” (Deuteronomy 24:7).

What Paul calls for in the New Testament church is not significantly different from what Moses communicated to the nation Israel. After all, in the Old Testament, God dwelt in the midst of His people, and thus the Israelites were required to remove sin and sinners from their midst. In the New Testament, Paul informs the Corinthians that God now indwells His temple, the church. They too must remove sin from their midst, because a holy God indwells them. In both cases, it is recognized that removing the sinner may include death. This is a most serious step, one which we will take only when we take sin and God’s commandments seriously.

Conclusion

Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5 are sobering. They are meant to be. He has already written, “If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are” (1 Corinthians 4:17). Now, the Corinthians are reminded of their duty to play a part in this process by removing the wayward and willful sinner from their midst. Our text raises a number of issues. Allow me to summarize some of them.

Whatever happened to sin? Years ago, a secular psychiatrist, Dr. Karl Menninger, wrote a book entitled, Whatever Became of Sin. Even this man realizes that evils have become too “psychologized,” and that a simple diagnosis of “sin” is needed. I can imagine the kinds of diagnosis we would have today for the malady of this Corinthian man, living with his father’s wife. We could delve into his past and probably find some excuse for “abuse.” Some would argue that he must have some kind of genetic predisposition (biological predestination?) for this kind of conduct. Others would argue that his conduct is normal, and that the problem in the church is with narrow-minded church members. Those who buy into the therapeutic mentality would prescribe long, intensive (and expensive) therapy. Many, I am sure, would tell us that this man’s problem is “poor self-esteem.” The cure is for him to “feel better about himself.” This would certainly mean that church discipline would be considered harmful, rather than helpful. For Paul, the diagnosis is simple, and so is the prescription. The problem is the sin of immorality, and the prescription is to remove him from the church. When the Bible is the standard for conduct, and it is viewed and used for defining sin and righteousness, the diagnosis of this man’s problem is not that difficult.

Whatever happened to discipline (church and otherwise)? The Corinthian church fails to exercise discipline on the immoral man to whom Paul is referring. At the same time, Paul accuses the church of being arrogant. How can this be? I can think of one way. To exercise discipline is to acknowledge that you have done all that you can, and that you have failed. If we are thinking clearly as Christians, we realize that there is nothing spiritual which we can accomplish. We cannot save anyone; we can only proclaim the message of Christ crucified, and know that God, through His Spirit, will draw those to Himself whom He has chosen. We cannot bring about the sanctification of a believer. Once again, we can, as faithful stewards, do what God has given us to do, but we cannot produce the results. In Paul’s words, we may plant or water, but it is God who gives the growth.

In our arrogance, we can sometimes convince ourselves that, given enough time, we can turn someone from their sin. There is a great deal of emphasis on counseling in our culture, and even in the church. There is a place for counsel, but we often give ourselves and our system of counseling too much credit. We don’t want to admit failure, and so we refuse to take that final step of “removing the wicked person from ourselves.” Just a little more time, we suppose, and we can correct this person’s thinking. Church discipline is based upon the recognition that we have done what we can in the context of the church, and that God can turn that wayward person to repentance apart from us and apart from our ministry, whether that be teaching, or helps, or exhortation.

The church has unconsciously begun to think of itself as a “support group.” There are no doubt some senses in which we do function as a “support group.” But the support group mentality is a very dangerous one. Support groups can cause individuals to put their trust in “the group” rather than in God. Support groups often pride themselves for “being there,” no matter what the wayward one has done, or will do. The support group purposes to always “be there,” while the church purposes not to be there indefinitely for the one who refuses to heed a rebuke and to turn from willful sin.

The therapeutic movement within Christianity has propagated a term which, to my knowledge, is never found in the Bible. Those who frequently employ this term advocate a practice which is antithetical to the duty of exercising church discipline. The term is “unconditional acceptance” or “unconditional love.” The assumption is that we must love one another unconditionally. There is a sense in which this is true, of course. But we are not to “love” others unconditionally in terms of the way they wish to define love. To exercise discipline on a wayward saint is to love that person and to seek their highest good. To unconditionally accept that person is to never refuse to have fellowship with them, thinking which directly opposes Paul’s teaching in our text. “Pop” psychology and “pop” theology must never set aside biblical commands. Paul’s words to the Corinthians in chapter 5 end with a clear command. When called for, we will either obey this command, or we will sin.

Whatever has happened to church discipline? I have seen very little of it. Even when such discipline is taken, all too many church members are tempted to second-guess the church and to privately continue to fellowship with the one under discipline. This is a most serious matter, for if I understand the Scriptures correctly, to do so is to become a partner with that person in his or her sin.

Church discipline is one of those very clear duties of the church and of the individual Christian. Why, then, is it not practiced more often? I have previously suggested that arrogance may be one cause. I would also suggest that these days fear may now be a cause for not taking disciplinary action. We may be afraid to take a stand against sin because we are afraid of rejection. We may be afraid of appearing to be narrow and unloving. We may be unwilling to lose the friendship and the fellowship of those we love. Some church leaders are afraid of being sued for taking disciplinary action against a church member. It can and does happen. I suspect that it will happen more and more in the coming days.

Sometimes we are afraid that the work of God will be thwarted by church discipline. In several instances of which I am aware, a Christian leader was the brother in sin. That leader, when rebuked, would not repent. Sadly some faithless saints responded: “But the work that God is doing in this person is so great, we can’t afford to jeopardize it by exercising discipline.” God’s work is bigger than any man or any organization. God’s work is making sinners holy, to His glory. When a leader continues in sin, the church should discipline him publicly, as an example to all (1 Timothy 5:19-20). When any saint is placed under discipline, it serves notice to the world that the church does not accommodate sin.

Finally, the popular teachings and practices of the “church growth movement” have tended (whether consciously or unconsciously) to discourage church discipline. The church growth experts tend to measure the success of a church in terms of numerical growth. This movement seeks to attract unbelievers to the church by being “seeker-friendly,” by making unbelieving “seekers” (here is an oxymoron—see Romans 3:10-11; Ephesians 2:1-3) feel comfortable with the church and with the Christian message. How can this possibly be in the light of Paul’s teaching in chapters 1 and 2? The message of the cross is foolish. Divine truth concerning God is incomprehensible to the lost. Men and women are not saved by getting comfortable with God, but by becoming uncomfortable by the conviction of the Holy Spirit that they are sinners, that God is righteous, and that judgment awaits the sinner (John 16:7-11). When God struck Ananias and Sapphira dead for their deception, the unbelieving world was not comfortable; in fact, it caused them to stay away from the church. Nevertheless, many were being saved (see Acts 5:11-16). Sinful men should not and cannot be comfortable in the presence of a holy God, save through the cleansing of their sins by the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Men and women cannot come to faith without first becoming uncomfortable about their sin and God’s judgment. That is what being saved is all about—being saved from the wrath of God upon sinners.

Our duty to discipline provides a strong incentive for preventative action. We all know these words addressed to parents in the Old Testament:

6 “And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart; 7 and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. 8 “And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. 9 “And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:6-9).

We know this command comes from the Lord, and that we, as parents, should keep it. The following command is further motivation to obey the command to teach our children the way of the Lord:

18 “If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, 19 then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his home town. 20 “And they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ 21 “Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear of it and fear” (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).

If we lived in Old Testament times, and knew that we must stone our own child for being disobedient and rebellious, it would give us good reason to be diligent in performing those duties aimed at preventing such rebellion and disobedience in our children. Parents today—Christian parents—do not even spank their children. Many of them are proud of this fact, as though such discipline is brutal and primitive. It does not matter that the Scriptures teach us that spanking our children is one55 means of dealing with sin. Spanking provides a lesson that informs our children that sin has very real, very painful consequences. Hell, my Christian friend, is not going to be a “time out.” There may be occasions when a “time out” is appropriate, but there are also times when painful physical consequences are experienced. No, I do not advocate beating a child. No, I do not defend those who abuse their children. Yes, there is a time to spank, and most of us have forgotten when it is. If we will not spank a wayward child, when would we possibly “deliver someone over to Satan for the destruction of their flesh”?

Now for the bottom line. Why would we discipline a wayward saint, when we will not discipline ourselves? I find myself very passive and quiet about those sins in others which are present in my life as well. As we shall soon see in 1 Corinthians (e.g., chapter 9), the Corinthians have very little self-discipline. This being the case, why would we expect this church to be strong on discipline? If we would discipline others, we must first discipline ourselves. This discipline is not that which comes only from within ourselves (see Colossians 2:20-23), but which comes from the Spirit of God (see 2 Timothy 1:7; 2 Peter 1:4-7).

In the past, I have been involved in prison ministry, and on more than one occasion I have seen a commitment to take sin seriously. I was told of one occasion when a particular inmate was acting inappropriately toward a young woman volunteer, who came with a group to minister to the inmates. A number of these inmates were new Christians, who were serious about their own Christian walk and about obeying the Lord Jesus. They talked among themselves about this one inmate, who was acting inappropriately. They talked about 1 Corinthians 5, and concluded that they should “discipline” the sinning inmate. Given their violent past and their lack of depth in the Scriptures, they thought this man should be put to death and were actually ready to do it. Fortunately, a more mature Christian helped them come to a more accurate understanding of church discipline. But the fact is that these men were serious about sin and about obeying the Scriptures. Would that you and I were as serious about sin as they were! We must begin by taking up our cross, by mortifying the flesh daily. Then, and only then, will we be willing and able to deal with sin in the lives of others.

God takes sin seriously. That is why the cross of Calvary was necessary. God took our sin so seriously that He sent His Son to die in our place, to suffer the punishment for our sins. The good news of the gospel is that while God takes our sin seriously, and while our sin must be judged, He has judged our sins in Christ. To enter into this forgiveness, all we need do is to receive the gift of salvation which God offers to us by faith in His Son. When we see how seriously God has taken our sins, we see how serious we must be about sin as well.


55 Listen well. I am not saying that spanking is the only way to deal with disobedient children. I am saying, on the basis of the Word of God, that it is one means of doing so. To reject this means entirely is as wrong as constantly resorting to spanking as the only way to deal with children. Let us not err in either direction.

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9. Courting Sin (1 Cor. 6:1-11)

Introduction

Years ago when I was a seminary student, we lived in an apartment beside the seminary’s parking lot. Late one night I was working on a paper, and I went outside to try to wake up in the crisp night air. As I sat on the back steps of our second floor apartment, I saw a car drive into the parking lot, pull up close to one of the buildings, and then turn off the headlights. No one got out of the car. Somehow, that seemed a little unusual to me. After a little while, I went down to the parking lot and got close enough to the car to see four heads silhouetted in the dim light of the parking lot. There had been a number of burglaries in the recent past, and it occurred to me that these four fellows might not have noble intentions.

I went home and called the police, trying to make this matter sound as casual as possible. I told them where I lived and that a car with four men was parked in the seminary parking lot. I informed them that I was aware of nothing illegal taking place, but that it did look a little suspicious in the light of recent burglaries in the neighborhood. I asked if they might have a squad car just cruise by and take a look when convenient.

No more than a couple minutes later, four squad cars converged on the scene, quickly locating the suspicious car and surrounding it. I watched the scene, taken back by the dramatic scene for which I was responsible. I then began to feel guilty. Suppose nothing was wrong, or suppose I had created all this trouble for nothing. A few days later, I mentioned the incident to a professor friend. He told me what had happened. Three of the four men in the car were seminary students. The fourth individual was a man whom they had concluded was demon-possessed. They were in the process of trying to exorcise the demon when the police arrived.

My professor friend and I could not help but laugh at what must have happened. Can you imagine trying to explain to the police what you were doing there in the middle of the night? Can you see the looks on the faces of the policemen if you told them you were casting out a demon? When I asked my friend what he would say, he replied, “I’d lie!” I know what he meant. There is no way that these policemen could possibly understand what was taking place in that car.

This story illustrates the fact that the world of the policeman is a vastly different world from that of the preacher. No doubt preachers would have some difficulty grasping the world of the policeman, but I can assure you the policeman would have an even more difficult task understanding the spiritual world in which the preacher lives and operates. This is exactly the point Paul tries to make as he rebukes the Corinthian saints for taking one another to court. The secular, legal world of the courtroom is vastly different from the spiritual realm of the church. And yet Christians who have disputes with other Christians are looking to worldly judges to settle their differences. Paul’s words to the Corinthians could not be more applicable to Christians today. We live in an age when law suits are more common than they have ever been in our history. Christians are taking fellow-Christians to court. Even churches are being sued. One prominent pastor indicated that the church in which he had been ministering had four lawsuits pending against it at the time he stepped aside to assume other responsibilities. Let us listen to Paul and learn what the Spirit of God has to say to us in this text.

The Context of our Text

The first four chapters of 1 Corinthians focus on the problem of fleshly divisions within the church. Little factions, each with their own leader, have arisen. Worldly wisdom has been embraced in place of the wisdom of God in Christ. Pride is one of the distinguishing marks of these Corinthians. In their false pride, the Corinthians have begun to judge Paul (and other apostles) unfairly, and to look down upon him, his ministry, and his message. Paul has gently rebuked these saints, and at the end of chapter 4, he urges them to heed his admonition so that he will not have to come to them “with a rod” (4:21).

While the Corinthians are wrongly dividing over petty distinctions, they are unwilling to separate themselves from one who is persisting in sin, a sin so abominable that even the pagans are shocked. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul rebukes the church for failing to exercise church discipline on a man who is living with his father’s wife. Paul informs the church of his action, even from afar, and urges them to follow his example. They have somehow misunderstood his previous letter, supposing that he is teaching that Christian separation is a separation from unbelieving sinners. Paul corrects this misconception by insisting that the separation he advocates is a separation from professing Christians whose practice is heathen.

Chapter 6 takes up the issues Paul has spoken of in chapter 5. In the first 11 verses of chapter 6 (our text), Paul addresses the sinful divisions of the Corinthian saints which have made their way into public view in the civil courts. The divisions Paul speaks of theoretically in chapter 4 are now addressed specifically in chapter 6. Verses 12-20 continue Paul’s instruction concerning the Christian and the laws of the land. If the Corinthians are seeking to deal with their disputes according to civil law in verses 1-11, they seem to be looking to the same law to define morality. And so Paul seeks to show the Corinthians the “higher road” of morality, which comes not from civil laws but from the gospel.

Paul’s Indictment
(6:1)

Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints?

Are the Christians in Corinth thinking and behaving in terms of civil law? Then Paul will present them with an indictment in verse 1 of chapter 6. Paul has been exceedingly gentle in the previous chapters, only indirectly introducing the problem of divisions in the church. Now, Paul is becoming very specific and reveals that he is most distressed. The blood must be rushing to Paul’s face as he writes, “How dare you go to law before the unrighteous when you have a dispute with a fellow-believer and not go before the church?”

Several things cause Paul to be greatly distressed by the Corinthians’ conduct. First, disputes are erupting between believers in the church. The saints are at odds with one another. The term “neighbor” in verse 1 may appear to be general, but in the context of the entire passage it is clear that Paul is speaking specifically of Christians who are taking fellow-believers to court (see verse 6). Second, these disputes between believers are being taken to the secular courts by these Corinthian believers. Third, unrighteous (that is, unbelieving) judges are being asked to arbitrate between Christians. Fourth, when these disputes are taken before unbelieving judges, the whole ugly ordeal is carried out before the curious eyes of unbelieving spectators. The world gets to watch these Christians fight with one another in court. Fifth, these disputes have not been taken to the church, where they belong.

I understand all of what Paul has been saying in verse 1 in the light of our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 18:15-20 and Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 5. If a brother has a dispute or an offense with another brother, this should first be addressed personally and privately, one to one. If this does not bring about reconciliation and harmony, then one or two witnesses must be brought along. If this does not result in repentance and reconciliation, then the matter should be taken to the whole church. If the belligerent party does not heed the admonition of the whole church, the wayward saint must be expelled from the fellowship of the church.

Disputes between believers should be resolved as privately as possible within the church, unless the wayward saint chooses to disregard the church, in which case that individual should be publicly excommunicated. Instead of these two individuals at Corinth going through this process, they have taken their grievances to the local courts to seek a judgment from an unbelieving judge. Paul is shocked and greatly distressed by this approach.

The Church, Not the Courts
(6:2-6)

2 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts? 3 Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, matters of this life? 4 If then you have law courts dealing with matters of this life, do you appoint them as judges who are of no account in the church? 5 I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren, 6 but brother goes to law with brother, and that before unbelievers?

Paul asks a sequence of questions of the Corinthians, which indirectly expose the pathetic condition of the saints at Corinth. Five times in this chapter Paul asks the question, “Do you not know…?” This strikes a very hard blow at the pride of the Corinthians, who think themselves so very wise, and Paul so very naive and provincial in his thinking.

Paul begins, “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” They most certainly should know this:

21 “I kept looking, and that horn was waging war with the saints and overpowering them 22 until the Ancient of Days came, and judgment was passed in favor of the saints of the Highest One, and the time arrived when the saints took possession of the kingdom… 27 ‘Then the sovereignty, the dominion, and the greatness of all the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be given to the people of the saints of the Highest One; His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all the dominions will serve and obey Him’” (Daniel 7:21-22, 27).

And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28).

And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years (Revelation 20:4).

Paul assumes they do know it, and that their actions are completely contradictory to their theology. If these saints are going to reign with Christ and participate in the judgment of the world, how in the world can these Corinthians turn now to the unsaved for judgment? If the righteous will judge the unrighteous at the second coming, how can the Corinthian Christians now be looking to a heathen to judge the righteous?

Paul asks a second question in verse 3: “Do the Corinthians not know that they will be judging the angels? And, if so, why is it that they are not now able to judge in the trivial matters of this life?” Both the Old Testament Scriptures and the New are clear that the saints will judge the world. However, there is no clear statement in the Old or New Testaments (other than this statement by Paul) that the saints will judge the angels. It is not a great reach to infer this, however. The saints will reign with Christ when He comes and establishes His kingdom. When Christ judges the world, we will participate. Through our Lord, God will also judge the angels (See Isaiah 24:21-22; 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6; Revelation 20:10). If this judging of the angels is also a part of our Lord’s reign, and if we shall reign with Him, then we too will judge the angels. Furthermore Paul, as an apostle, is given the authority to reveal that which is a mystery in the Old Testament. If these Corinthians have begun to trust in other (false) apostles, then perhaps it is time they reconsider their source of authority and revelation. If they are listening to Paul, they would know such things.

Verse 4 is understood in a number of different ways, depending upon the translation.56 I prefer the translation (paraphrase) of J. B. Phillips: “In any case, if you find you have to judge matters of this world, why choose as judges those who count for nothing in the church?”

Paul drives home the point he makes in the questions of verses 2 and 3. If the saints will judge both the world and the angels at the coming of Christ, why in the world do they turn to the world’s judicial system to pronounce judgment in a dispute between two believers? Especially is this true after what Paul has already written:

14 But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. 15 But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no man. 16 For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:14-16).

Given their inability to comprehend or appraise spiritual things, the judgment of worldlings cannot count for much in the church. If this is true, why would church members turn to them for judgment in spiritual things?

In chapter 4, Paul assures the Corinthians he is not trying to shame them by what he says: “I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children” (1 Corinthians 4:14).

Now, in chapter 6, Paul does try to shame them, and rightly so! They should be ashamed of themselves for taking their disputes before unbelieving judges, as unbelievers look on in amazement, or amusement. We are often told by some alleged psychological experts of our day that there is a great difference between guilt and shame, and that shame has no place in our dealings with others. Hogwash! Shame should be our response to guilt. We should feel ashamed for those things for which we are truly guilty before God. While the guilt for our sins is forgiven through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, we still look back on the evil things we did with shame (see Romans 6:21). Those who seek to rid us of shame should be ashamed.

Paul asks the Corinthians if there is not one wise person among them who is qualified to judge the dispute between these two Corinthian saints. What a blow to their pride! These are the ones who are so wise, so very wise. These are the ones so quick to judge Paul and find him wanting. These very saints can proudly follow one leader and condemn the rest. Where are these Corinthian critics when they are needed? Why is no one able to judge such mundane matters? Instead, the saints are at one another’s throats, all the while as the world looks on. The Corinthians are great at being judgmental; they are absent when there is a need for judges.

About Winning and Losing
(6:7-11)

7 Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? 8 On the contrary, you yourselves wrong and defraud, and that your brethren. 9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God.

For the competitive Corinthians, life is all about winning and losing. Lawsuits are certainly about winning and losing. Paul makes a most troubling announcement: any Corinthian Christian who takes another believer to court has already lost. Going to court with a fellow-believer is a no-win situation. The better way is to take the loss. Imagine Paul telling us that it is better to be a victim than a victor. Is Paul saying that it is better to be wronged, better to be defrauded?

How can this be? Looking at Paul’s words from the dark side, just what keeps the Corinthian saints from taking the loss, from being the victim? The only reasons I can think of are all bad ones. We don’t want to take a loss because of our pride. We don’t want to let the other person get the better of us. We don’t want to lose. If we are materialistic, we don’t want to lose money or possessions, which are more precious to us than our relationships with fellow-believers. Those who are self-centered and self-serving do not want to have any of their rights violated. We protect and exercise our rights, no matter what the cost to others.

Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian Christians can only be understood in terms of the utterly different value system of the Christian, as opposed to that of the unbeliever. When Jesus invited men to follow Him, they were instructed to “take up their cross daily” to follow Him. Thus, the Christian is a person whose life is dominated and directed by the cross of Calvary. It was on the cross of Calvary that our Lord was wronged, and this brought about our salvation. The wrongful death of Christ is established by Peter as the model for the Christian in 1 Peter 2, verses 18-25.

This is the reason our Lord taught His disciples not to retaliate, but to return good for evil (Matthew 5:43-48). This is what Paul teaches as well (Romans 12:17-21). Jesus taught that if a man forces you to go a mile, you should go two miles instead (Matthew 5:41). The one who asks of us should receive from us (Matthew 5:42). Our goal in life is not to accumulate possessions or to protect and preserve them. We are to give all these things up, gladly. Our attitude should not be to seek our own interests ahead of others, but rather to seek the interests of others ahead of our own (Philippians 2:1-8). This being the case, we should be willing to be wronged and defrauded, especially for the sake of the gospel and for the testimony of the church.

It is a terrible thing for one Christian to take another to court. Even worse, the defendant is a crook. In verses 1-7, Paul addresses the plaintiff, the one who feels offended or ill-treated. Paul urges the plaintiff to take his grievance to the church and to suffer loss rather than damage the reputation of the church and hinder the gospel by exposing the sins of a brother to the world. Love, after all, covers a multitude of sins (Proverbs 10:12; 1 Peter 4:8). But now Paul turns to the defendant, who may have a smirk on his face. How comforting to hear Paul rebuke his adversary. But when Paul gets to him, he is not gentle.

If the plaintiff must be willing to be wronged and defrauded, this certainly is not an invitation to the others to wrong and defraud. Some of these Corinthians are crooks, and they prey upon (not praying for) their own brothers in the Lord. For such as these, Paul has something to say: “Crooks don’t go to heaven!” Would we not agree that heaven is not a haven for sinners, but a blessed sanctuary for those who have been saved, those whose sins have been forgiven, those who have forsaken their sins? It is true that the Corinthians were once sinners, those whose lifestyle was sinful. But that was the past, and this is the present. The Corinthians were a horrible bunch as unsaved sinners. Paul’s list is not complete, but it is broad and all-inclusive.

“Don’t kid yourselves about this fact,” Paul warns, “because sinners will not inherit the kingdom of heaven.” Sinners include those who commit sexual sin outside of marriage (idolaters), those who serve other gods of various kinds (idolaters), those who commit sexual sins against their partner in marriage (adulterers), passive (effeminate) and active (homosexuals) sexual deviates. Those excluded from heaven are thieves, those who lust for what others possess (the covetous), alcoholics (drunkards), those who speak against others (revilers) and con artists (swindlers). This is a sampling of those whom no one expects to find in heaven, and rightly so. Heaven is a holy place, because God dwells there. Consequently, unholy people will not be there.

The Corinthian church includes those who are characterized by all of these sins. But when they were saved, this became a past, which should be forgotten and forsaken. Salvation includes repentance. Repentance means that we not only agree with God that we are sinners, doomed to eternal torment, and that Christ’s righteousness will save us, but also that we turn from a life of sin to a life of righteousness. Of course this does not mean that we will live a life of sinless perfection. But neither does it mean that we can keep on living in sin, as we once did while we were unsaved. Salvation is the process of turning from darkness to light, from death to life, from sin to righteousness. Salvation means that we should never consider continuing on in sin, even though God’s grace is greater than all our sin (see Romans 6:1ff.).

This is a sobering thought, is it not? The gospel is about sinners who are turned from sin to righteousness. The gospel is about turning away from the sins which once dominated us. It is one of the greatest comforts for the Christian. What we were as unbelievers, we are not now as Christians. Our sins of the past are not only forgiven, they are forgotten by God. When men and women are released from prison, they are often thought of as criminals, even though they have paid their debt to society. Regretfully, many are still criminals because prison has not produced repentance. At best, former prisoners are ex-offenders. But the Christian who was once a thief is not just an ex-thief; he is a new creation. The old things have passed away, replaced by what is new (2 Corinthians 5:17). What we once were as an unbeliever, we will never be again. There are no second-class citizens in heaven, based upon what was once one’s practice as a sinner.

We find another great comfort here in Paul’s words: no sinner is too far gone for God to save. Granted, Paul does not here include “murderers,” but this is not because murderers cannot be saved. It is because there are no murderers in the Corinthian congregation. As we meet as a church today to worship our Lord, there is a man with us who was a murderer, more than once. He was given a 500-year sentence. He even escaped from prison once. That man is a brother in Christ, a new creature. He is not an ex-murderer; he is a new creation in Christ. Some people think homosexuals are the lowest people on earth. Some of the Corinthians were once homosexuals, but they are no longer. There is hope for every kind of sinner, and when that sinner repents of his sin, he need never turn back.

Paul has a very different view of the relationship of the past to the present than that popularly held by many psychologists and psychiatrists today. In the psychological world of our day, what one was in the past determines what he is in the present. This is why so much time and money is spent digging up the past. It makes a great excuse for sin in the present. Paul’s thinking is just the opposite for Christians. What we were in the past does not determine what we are today, because the cross of Christ separates us not only from our sins but from our past. Christ stands between us in the present and us as we were in the past. What we were is not what we are. The cross of Christ is the reason why we can be now what we were not then. The cross of Christ is the reason Christians cannot and must not be crooks. It is not because Christians cannot sin, but because they must not sin. For a Christian to be a crook is for a person to return to that wicked state from which he (or she) was delivered by the grace of God in Christ.

When we were saved, we were completely saved, severed from our past identity and given a new identity. We were washed, cleansed of our sin and our guilt. We were sanctified, set apart from sin unto holiness. We were justified, legally declared righteous through the righteousness of Jesus Christ, imputed to us by faith. All of this transpired in the name of Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

Let us be clear on what Paul says here. Paul rebukes the Corinthian saints for failing (or refusing) to resolve their disputes with one another within the church. Paul wants his readers to see the folly of taking spiritual matters before unbelievers, who can have no grasp of the real issues. Paul knows, as the Corinthians should, that the legal system deals with the protection of men’s rights and the seeking of one’s self-interest, while the gospel is about the surrender of one’s rights and the seeking of the best interests of others. If the dispute cannot be resolved within the church, Paul advocates that the offended party suffer the loss, for the sake of the gospel. In no case should any Christian think that breaking the laws of man or God is something a person can continue after coming to faith in Christ, as though this doesn’t matter. Crooks do not go to heaven; saints do.

Why is Paul taking this situation in Corinth so seriously? Why, in the light of his gentleness in the first four chapters, does Paul suddenly become agitated about lawsuits between Christians? First, the issue is the unity of the church, the body of Christ. The church is one body, and believers are all brothers. The focus of each believer is to build up the body of Christ, which means that he must build up individual believers. Taking a fellow-believer to court is not what edification (building up) is about. Generally, we take another person to court to take him apart, not to build him up. The church is a temple, the dwelling place of a holy God. To destroy the temple (by attacking its members) is to invite divine destruction (3:16-17). Lawsuits in Corinth are a denial of the gospel. To continue to act an we formerly did, as sinners, denies the radical change the gospel makes. We were sinners; we are now saints, a holy nation, declaring the excellencies of Him who saved us (1 Peter 2:1-11). As Christians, we cannot persist in thinking and acting as we formerly did, apart from Christ.

Unreconciled relationships have an adverse affect upon our worship, and there must be reconciliation before we can worship in unity and harmony:

23 “If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering” (Matthew 5:23-24).

5 Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus; 6 that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 15:5-6).

Paul knows, as our Lord taught as well, that the process of litigation is the opposite of the process of reconciliation:

25 “Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, in order that your opponent may not deliver you to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. 26 “Truly I say to you, you shall not come out of there, until you have paid up the last cent” (Matthew 5:25-26).

Reconciliation is the goal of the Christian. Retribution or restitution is the goal of litigation. Reconciliation can be commenced immediately; litigation drags on endlessly. Reconciliation is pursued privately, and becomes no more public than is necessary. Litigation is public. Jesus therefore instructs His followers to seek reconciliation before, and instead of, litigation. Once the process of litigation has commenced, it is nearly irreversible, and the two litigants become irreconcilable. I have seen marriage partners repent and be reconciled through biblical counsel and rebuke. I have yet to see a reconciliation take place in the divorce courts. The law may do well at defining separation, but it does not do well at uniting. No wonder Paul is so distressed at what is happening at Corinth.

It seems that the Corinthians do not ignorantly or innocently pursue the resolution of their disputes in the law courts of that day. I believe these saints purposely avoid taking their dispute to the church. They do not want to deal with this matter on a spiritual level. They do not wish to reconcile. They most certainly do not want to be confronted with their sin and challenged to repent. They do not wish to run the risk of being under church discipline. They want to protect their rights and their possessions. They want to get ahead of their opponent, not to take a loss. The law courts held “clout” and could force a person to act in a certain way. The church only has spiritual authority, which to the carnal saints is another form of weakness. They want to make something happen, and so the process of seeking reconciliation in the church is carefully avoided, and the secular courts are chosen instead.

Several principles are either taught or assumed in our text, which I shall enumerate.

(1) The Christian’s values and guiding principles are diametrically opposed to those of the world, and thus they are incomprehensible to the unbeliever. Christians march to the beat of a different drum. We do not live for the present, but for the future. Our actions in time are governed by the future certain realities of the kingdom of God, as declared in the Scriptures.

(2) Unbelievers are unable to judge spiritual matters, and they should not be asked to do so. Because the views and values of the unbeliever and the Christian are so vastly different, non-believers are simply not suited to the task of judging believers in spiritual matters.

(3) The Christian’s citizenship is not in this world, but in the next. The values and guiding principles of the Bible must take priority over the values and guiding principles of this age. The “wisdom” of the Christian must be the wisdom of God, the wisdom of the cross of Christ, the wisdom of the Bible, and not the wisdom of this age. We are therefore guided and governed by the Scriptures. The Scriptures teach us to obey the laws of the land, but always as subordinate to the laws of God.

(4) The Christian’s responsibilities take priority over his rights. The essence of the Christian life is “taking up our cross,” of “dying to self,” and serving God by serving others. Our goal is neither to promote our own interests or to preserve them, but to sacrifice these for the cause of Christ.

(5) Spiritual issues are very different from legal issues, although the two are related. Spiritual issues take priority over legal issues. This is the reason the Christian is instructed to stay out of court if at all possible, even if it means taking a loss to do so.

(6) When Paul teaches Christian doctrine, it is not isolated from Christian practice, but directly linked to practical matters. Paul does not teach doctrine in isolation. He teaches doctrine as the basis for our actions. Doctrine is the basis of godly living and practice. Thus, when Paul teaches us about the doctrine of Christ’s kenosis, His “emptying” of Himself, he does so in the context of strife and contention in the Philippian church (see Philippians 2:1ff.). Doctrine is not meant to be heard and filed away; it is meant to be lived.

(7) The litigation process does not facilitate reconciliation and harmony, but is counter-productive to it. This is the reason we are urged to avoid litigation if at all possible.

(8) The legal battles referred to in 1 Corinthians 6 are a concrete example of the divisions which existed in Corinth, as first mentioned by Paul in chapter 1. Strained relationships, relationships not reconciled in the church, are the cause of all sorts of other sins. Husbands and wives, children and parents, struggle with unreconciled relationships. Many of the problems we face can be found to originate here with unforgiving, unrepentant hearts. The gospel is not only about man’s reconciliation with God, but also about man’s reconciliation with man (see Ephesians 2:11-22). To be reconciled with Christ is to be reconciled with men. Our calling as Christians is to be reconcilers (2 Corinthians 5:17-19), and this will not happen in the secular court room.

Having set down some of the pertinent principles which govern our handling of conflicts in the church, we must make some attempt at answering some very hard questions. Is the Christian never to go to court under any circumstances? Does this apply to civil proceedings or to criminal proceedings as well? Should a Christian ever “press charges” against a fellow-believer? These are very difficult questions, for which there are not always black and white answers. Allow me to make a few comments on these issues for your consideration.

We know from the Scriptures that Paul has several encounters with the court system of his day. When Paul is brought before Gallio, it is in Corinth (see Acts 18:12-17). There, Gallio’s decision is reached and announced before Paul can even speak a word, and the result is a landmark decision. Gallio rules that Christianity is Jewish, and thus men like Paul can proclaim the gospel under the same protection of the Romans that the Jews enjoy. Later, when Paul is arrested in Jerusalem, he appeals his case to Caesar, knowing that a fair trial is impossible in Jerusalem or Caesarea (see Acts 25:6-12). We do not know the outcome of his trial for certain. The Book of Acts ends with Paul in Rome, and we know a few more details from Paul’s “prison epistles,” such as Philippians.

It is not wrong for Paul to appear in court in these cases, so we must conclude that while Christians are urged not to take one another to court, this is not the same as saying that a Christian should never appear in court. A Christian may find that his or her spouse files for divorce in a civil court, and we may have no other choice but to respond (failure to respond brings its own foreknown results). It would seem, at least in my way of viewing the New Testament teaching on divorce, that a Christian may even have the option to file for divorce in the case of immorality (see Matthew 5:32). When another party chooses to sue us, we have little recourse, other than to make our best case before the court. In this day and age, churches are being sued much more frequently, ironically, sometimes because they have exercised church discipline.

What Paul seeks to forbid in our text is Christians looking to the secular court system to resolve spiritual conflicts between themselves. There are times when two Christians appear in court when neither is attempting to harm the other. For example, one Christian might accidentally run into the car of another believer. His insurance company may try to withhold payment, even though he admits guilt. In such a case, the two parties might appear in court, but it is the two parties’ insurance companies seeking some kind of legal judgment. I know of one case where a property deed was altered, and the property in question belonged to a Christian camp. The property was donated by a Christian, who allegedly altered the deed. In this case, the ownership of the property had to defined, and it could only be done in court (or so I was told).

It may be necessary to go to court to protect the interests of someone other than ourselves. Suppose you were appointed the guardian of two young children, and a relative was illegally trying to gain control of the property of these children, property for which you were given responsibility? In such a case, you might have to act through the court system to protect the interests of the children. When we are acting in a fiduciary capacity, and not for self-interest, legal action may be necessary for us to serve others well.

It is possible that while one cannot take a brother to court apart from church discipline, it might be required after church discipline. You will remember from our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 18 that once the whole church has sought to turn a man from his sin and been ignored, the church is to excommunicate him, treating him as a “Gentile and a tax gatherer.” As I understand our Lord’s words, the person is to be dealt with as though he were an unbeliever.57 If this person were, let’s say, sexually molesting his little girl, a concerned Christian mother might have to seek a custody hearing or might even request an injunction. Once again, this cannot be for revenge, but for the best interests of both the husband and the child.

It should be said that some Christians get into legal troubles, troubles which necessitate them going to court, because they do not seek proper legal counsel before making agreements or commitments. Lawyers are not just in practice to get us out of trouble; they are also there to keep us out of trouble. Sometimes we may get ourselves into trouble because we want to appear spiritual, and so we agree to do things without defining the details. Differences and disagreements which result from such agreements are unnecessary, and the result of our own carelessness.

There may be a time to involve both a lawyer and a Christian brother. (If you are fortunate, you may find a good Christian lawyer who meets both of these requirements.) As I understand and have observed the legal system, a person accused of a crime may very well need to be represented by one who is an expert in the law. The court system is set up in such a way that both the prosecution and the defense do their best to prove their case. The prosecution is not going to try to defend the one they are accusing. To fail to have an attorney when accused of a crime seems foolish in most instances. At the same time, spiritual issues need to be addressed, and an unbelieving lawyer is not capable of dealing with these matters. A similar situation is evident when visiting someone who is hospitalized with very troubling symptoms. This person needs the best medical help he can find. On the other hand, he and his family members and friends need prayer and biblical encouragement. While there are cases in which we must choose between a lawyer and a Christian who is wise in the Word, there are also many times when we need both. Sometimes we must choose the courtroom or the church, but at other times we must not lose contact with either.

I must admit that in the past I would have said that Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6 are to be applied to civil cases, and not to criminal matters. The list of offenses Paul gives us in verses 9 and 10 include those matters which are morally wrong (adultery, covetousness) and those which are criminally wrong (e.g. swindlers, thieves). There may be times when the Christian chooses not to press criminal charges against a fellow-believer. There may also be times when this is done for the good of that believer and for the good of society. Violent physical abuse may be an occasion where pressing charges is in order, especially after church discipline has been carried out. There are no nice and neat answers to such troublesome matters, but we do have spiritual principles to guide us. In the final analysis, we should act in a way that we believe takes God’s Word seriously, which promotes the gospel, and which brings glory to God.

Do not ever forget that the courts before which we may stand now are not the “court of final appeal.” God alone will bring justice to this earth. It is before God whom we must all stand. If we are wronged in this life, be assured that God will make things right in the next. The ultimate judgment is the one which we should regard as the final judgment. How awesome it will be for sinners to stand before God to give an account for rejecting Jesus Christ as God’s provision for sinners to be saved, to be cleansed, to be sanctified, to be justified. For those of us who have been forgiven, let us count it a privilege to forgive those who wrong us.

One more thing which is very important must be said. The Corinthian Christians end up in the civil courts because their conflicts were not dealt with in their early stages. Conflicts are like cancer: the sooner we get after them, the sooner we will be healed, and the more likely it is that the consequences will not be devastating. There are those who are reading these words whose relationships are in trouble. Husbands and wives, be reconciled to each other. If you cannot resolve your conflicts by yourselves, do not seek to solve them in a court of law, but follow out the principles of Matthew 18. The sooner conflicts are addressed, the more likely the cure. Parents, don’t wait until it is too late to try to heal broken relationships with your children. Believers, you know who has something against you, or against whom you have some kind of grudge. Seek out your brother, and heal that relationship. It will be not only for the good of the gospel, and the glory of God, but for your good as well.


56 In reality, it is probably one’s understanding of the meaning of the verse which dictates the translation.

57 This must be qualified, however, in the light of 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15. The willful saint is to be treated as an outsider but still considered (in heart) as a brother. The brother is to be shunned, not despised.

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10. The Relationship Between Spirituality and Sexual Morality (1 Cor. 6:12-20)

Introduction

The previous owners of our church building did not believe in orthodox Christianity. As I heard the story, interest and attendance were lagging, so they decided to ask various members of their congregation to share about their occupations. One Sunday, an exotic dancer was scheduled to share about her work. Since we live nearby, I happened to drive by the church building as that meeting took place. The place was very crowded, though I didn’t know why at the time. Now, I call it their version of a “body life” meeting. The dancer’s body brought the place to life, or so it seems.

It never ceases to amaze me how some who profess to know and serve God can be so lax (or even worse) when it comes to sexual morality. One of the common characteristics of a cult is a distortion (in one way or another) of sexual morality. For some, it is the denial of any sexual pleasure, while for others it is the indulgence in all sorts of sexual encounters. David Koresh and his following of Branch Davidians, for example, were known to have a very bizarre system of sexual behavior.

Mr. Koresh and his followers might have felt very comfortable in the Corinthian church. You will recall that in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul rebuked the church for failing to discipline a man who was living with his father’s wife. The Corinthian pagans were shocked by such conduct, and yet many in the church became proud over their handling of this matter. Paul instructed the church to put this man out of their assembly, thus placing him within Satan’s extended reach (to destroy his physical body), and also disassociating the church from this wayward saint and his willful sin.

It is not strange that Paul deals with immorality in 1 Corinthians 6, since he introduced the subject in chapter 5. The question is, “Why did Paul interject the matter of Christians taking fellow-believers to court in 6:1-11?” It almost appears as though the first 11 verses of chapter 6 are out of place. I don’t think so. Some time ago a friend of mine spoke to a group of socialites in New York, engaging in conversation with a particular young intellectual. My friend said to him, “Your problem is that you don’t know the difference between legality and morality. Some sins are not crimes. And some crimes are not sins.”

The Corinthians appear to have the same problem. They appear to equate morality with legality. For many of them, whatever is legal is moral. This appears to be the reason Paul returns to the subject of immorality after introducing the Corinthian lawsuits. The Corinthians are becoming too wise for Paul and for the apostolic preaching of the cross of Christ. They are submitting themselves to other teachers, whose message and methods are far more prestigious and popular in their secular culture. If the Corinthian Christians are living according to human judgment, then why not take their disputes before unsaved judges, who judge only according to human wisdom? If they are to accept the legal opinions of Corinthian judges regarding disputes among believers, why not also accept the legal definition of morality? Why not let legality determine morality? If one can accomplish such a gigantic logical leap, then a Christian can do virtually anything any pagan Corinthian can do. Among the things they can do is visit a cult prostitute.

But I am not willing to let the Corinthians off quite this easily. While they are in error about the relationship between legality and morality, they also make a very grave mistake concerning the relationship between spirituality and morality. The teaching of the Bible is entirely consistent on this relationship. True spirituality results in morality, in godliness. True spirituality turns one away from immorality. Paul has just said as much:

9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

The Corinthians no longer see it this way, which is the reason they become proud of conduct which shocks even pagans (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-2). They have twisted spirituality to such a degree that their version of spirituality is the basis for immorality, rather than the basis for holiness.

The immorality Paul deals with in our text is sexual immorality. Specifically, Paul addresses sexual immorality with a prostitute. It seems this particular form of immorality is widely accepted as normal and moral, as well as legal. We should remember that prostitution in Corinth is a “religious act of worship.” Corinth takes pride in the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, which has 1,000 cult prostitutes. In the name of religion, men can indulge their fleshly appetites. The Greeks have a proverb about the city of Corinth, which tells us much of its moral decay: “It is not every man who can afford a journey to Corinth.”58 Those who are worldly wise use the verb “to corinthianize” to describe an act of immorality. “Corinthian girl” was a synonym for a prostitute.59 For a Corinthian saint, concluding that whatever is legal is also moral leaves him a great deal of latitude. There isn’t much he can’t do under this definition of morality.

The Structure of our Text

The structure of our text may be viewed from at least two vantage points. In verses 12-14, Paul focuses on a statement of the Corinthians’ doctrinal basis for their immorality. This is either a false or distorted premise held by the Corinthians, which Paul proceeds to correct. Verses 15-20 deal with the problem of immorality from the perspective of the ignorance of the Corinthians—what they don’t know (or choose to forget). Thus, three times in these verses we find, “Did you not know…?” Paul turns their attention to what they should know and its implications for sexual morality.

There is yet another way of understanding the structure of our text. Verses 12-20 give the biblical basis for sexual morality, and specifically why sexual immorality is wrong for the believer. Verse 12 explains why sexual immorality is wrong for the Christian: it is an obstacle to one’s spiritual growth. Verses 13-20 demonstrate that immorality is an offense against God:

Verses 13-14

Sexual immorality is an offense against God

Verses 15-17

Sexual immorality is an offense against the Lord Jesus Christ

Verses 18-20

Sexual immorality is an offense against the Holy Spirit

I believe we will discover that Paul’s curriculum in dealing with sex is not what we would find being taught in the public schools. However, it is what every Christian must know, and what we should proclaim to our children and practice in the sexually indulgent world of our time.

Sexual Immorality—Sinning Against One’s Self60
(6:12)

All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything (NASB).

“Everything is permissible, for me”—but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me”—but I will not be mastered by anything (NIV).

“I am free to do anything,” you say. Yes, but not everything is for my good (New English Bible).

“For me there are no forbidden things”; maybe, but not everything does good (New Jerusalem Bible).

In interpreting verses 12-14, we must first determine whether the statements Paul gives are his own theology, misunderstood and misapplied, or the twisted theology of the Corinthians. As indicated by the quotation marks employed in the NIV and by the other translations I have cited, many take the foundational statements of these verses to be the theology of the wayward Corinthians. This is the way I choose to understand them as well, even though there may be a measure of truth in them. That the Corinthians’ theology is a distortion of Paul’s should not be surprising.

The premise on which the Corinthians seem to base their immorality is that whatever is legal is also moral. All things, they claim, are lawful for them, which seems to mean in practice that they are free to do anything that is not against the law. It may well be that the Corinthians attempt to justify their theology on the basis of Paul’s teaching—teaching such as this:

14 For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace. 15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! (Romans 6:14-15).

It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery (Galatians 5:1).

Paul’s dealing with the problem of immorality here is brief. He could argue with the premise, “All things are lawful…,” but he does not. Paul’s brevity should be understood in the light of several facts. First, Paul spent considerable time in Corinth. He does not need to teach the Corinthians as much as to remind them of what he has taught them already. Second, Paul is planning to return to Corinth, where he can deal with these problems face to face. Third, since this is a letter, Paul does not have unlimited space in which to write, so he goes to the very heart of the issues, confident of what he has taught and what he will teach when he returns.

Without debating the issue of what things are permissible (although surely not all things are permissible—there are many prohibitions in the New Testament, as well as in the Old), Paul points them to a higher standard. Whatever that list of “permissible” things may be, not all permissible things are advisable. If one is buying a house, it is not enough to know that a certain list of homes is for sale (these are all possible purchases). Certain houses are a wise investment, and others will prove to be a waste of money. A Christian must therefore determine his conduct on some higher, more selective standard. The standard is clearly stated by Paul: “Not all things are profitable” (verse 12). But how does one know what conduct is profitable or unprofitable? Paul clarifies the matter by his second statement: “I will not be mastered by anything” (verse 12).

Paul’s teaching in our text is but an abbreviated version of what he has taught in Romans 6. The Christian dare not feel free to “live in sin,” because he or she has “died to sin” when joined by faith to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Dying to sin is symbolized in Christian baptism. By going under the water, we proclaim in a symbolic way that we died in Christ, and were buried. By coming forth from the water, we proclaim that we have been raised from the dead, in Christ, now enabled to live an entirely new life. To continue to live in sin is to deny everything we believed when we were saved, and everything we symbolically proclaim when we were baptized.

As Christians, we have been freed from our bondage to sin so that we may now serve God in righteousness (see Romans 7:1-6). We are therefore to put away the old sinful practices that once enslaved us and to live a life of righteousness, through the power of God which is in us. Our aim as unbelievers was to indulge our own fleshly lusts, and in doing so, we were actually enslaved to sin and to Satan (see also Ephesians 2:1-3). Now, having been freed from our bondage to sin, we must not return to our former lifestyle. Any practices which enable the flesh to gain mastery over us must be avoided, even if they are not forbidden by Scripture. The writer to the Hebrews (could it be Paul?) says much the same thing:

1 Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2).

To a marathon runner, everything which is not a “wing” is a “weight.” One of our church members is running in a marathon race this very day. There is nothing wrong with a laptop computer, but I guarantee that Al Angell is not carrying a laptop with him. He may carry one when he travels on an airplane, but he does not carry one in a marathon race because it doesn’t enhance his ability to win the race.

Paul further explains the statement, “not all things are profitable,” with the additional statement, “I will not be mastered by anything.” Paul’s words address a matter about which our Lord taught:

20 “But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; 21 for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. 22 “The lamp of the body is the eye; if therefore your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. 23 “But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! 24 “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. 25 “For this reason I say to you, do not be anxious for your life, as to what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; nor for your body, as to what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body than clothing? 26 “Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?” (Matthew 6:20-26, emphasis mine).

According to our Lord, one must choose between the “treasures” of this life and the “treasures” of the next. To treasure the things of this life is to have a “bad eye,” and thus to fail to see things clearly. (You will remember that the Corinthians are not thinking too clearly.) Then, changing images, Jesus warns that one can serve only one master, not two. If God is our Master, then we dare not seek to serve another. But the “other master” is not a person, but things, the things of this life—eating, drinking, bodily needs. If we are preoccupied with such things, we cannot focus on our one Master, and on His coming kingdom.

In the light of our Lord’s teaching, Paul’s words are applied to a very practical application—sexual immorality. The Corinthians think of a brief visit to the prostitute as a casual thing, something with no long-term commitments (like an “affair”). How can such a casual relationship hurt? Paul’s response reveals a very different perspective of sexual immorality. Does the male ego look upon such a liaison as a conquest? Not so! Immorality is a moral surrender which leads to bondage. It is not the man who masters the woman, but the prostitute (and the sin she promotes) which masters the man.

Think about Samson in the Old Testament for a moment. Who better than he illustrates the mastery of the prostitute over the man? Samson was the strongest man on the earth at that time. He could easily snap the bonds placed around him. He could kill a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey (Judges 15:14-16). But Samson was not in control; it was the woman of his life. And so, not once, but several times, he gives in to the seductions of a woman. Samson was in bondage. He was mastered. This is so for all who choose this path (see Proverbs 7:6-27).

A very popular word today used even in Christian circles is the psychological word, “addiction.” Virtually every malady known to man is described as an “addiction.” Men and women, under the bondage of sexual immorality are said to have a “sexual addiction.” Alcoholism is spoken of as an addiction, one for which the individual under bondage is hardly seen to be responsible (after all, it was genetically predestined). Food is an addiction. And now, co-dependency is an addiction. Where will these addictions end? I think I know. They end with a new Master, Jesus Christ. We can serve but one master. When that Master is our Lord Jesus Christ, all other “masters” must be set aside.

Paul refuses to engage in any practice which will prove to be “addictive,” any practice which will come to master him, rather than facilitating him in his service of the Master. The application of the principle Paul sets down is very important. This is where error and false teaching can arise. If certain practices really are permissible, then these are liberties, which the Christian might enjoy, but need not enjoy. Paul spends more time discussing this in chapters 8-10. Some practices have no grip on some Christians, but they become the source of bondage to others. We should never practice those liberties which might enslave us. We should not practice those liberties which might encourage a weaker brother to follow our example, and thus become enslaved through his weakness.

But what about those things God has intended for our enjoyment? Is it wrong for the Christian to enjoy fishing, or golfing, or watching the Dallas Cowboys on TV? Some would go too far and tell us that if we are enjoying life, something is wrong, such as those to whom Paul refers in 1 Timothy 4:

1 But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, 3 men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods, which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; 5 for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:1-5).

False teachers speak not from the leading of the Spirit but from the deceptive doctrines of the evil one, communicated through his demonic activity (compare this with 2 Corinthians 11:13-15). They seek to prohibit Christians from enjoying the things God has given us to enjoy. All too often, those thus deprived of the pleasures which come from God, become the ones who overreact by casting themselves into fleshly indulgence.

The solution to the problem of being mastered by the flesh is not the avoidance of all pleasures in the flesh:

20 If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21 “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” 22 (which all refer to things destined to perish with the using)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? 23 These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence (Colossians 2:20-23).

The solution is to avoid those fleshly pleasures God identifies as sin, and those we know to be enslaving (“addictive” for us), and to gratefully enjoy the blessings of God with thanksgiving, seeing life’s pleasures as a gift from God:

4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; 5 for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:4-5).

17 Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. 18 Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed (1 Timothy 6:17-19).

16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. 17 Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow (James 1:16-17).

Sexual Immorality—An Offense Against God
(6:13-14)

13 Food is for the stomach, and the stomach is for food; but God will do away with both of them. Yet the body is not for immorality, but for the Lord; and the Lord is for the body. 14 Now God has not only raised the Lord, but will also raise us up through His power.

One must decide where the Corinthian’s theological position ends and Paul’s commentary begins. I am inclined to understand these verses in this way:

The Corinthian’s Position:

 

Food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food

but God will do away with both of them.

Paul’s Correction:

 

Yet the body is not for immorality, but for the Lord; and the Lord is for the body.

14 Now God has not only raised the Lord, but will also raise us up through His power.

The Corinthian position is not hard to grasp. It is a completely “this worldly” view of life leading to a lifestyle of sexual morality. Remember, this passage is about sexual morality, not about food.61 The logic is simple, even though it is erroneous. The purpose of food is to fill the stomach, to meet its physical needs. The nature of the stomach is that it requires food; its purpose is to process food. Food and the stomach are physical entities, and thus they will perish. But God will do away with them. Our Lord taught that it is not food which defiles a man, and thus all foods are clean (see Mark 7:18-19). One is thus free to eat of any food, knowing that food and the stomach are made for each other. Beyond this, food and the stomach have no eternal function because God will do away with them, so one may eat what he likes without guilt.

The unspoken inference is that the Corinthians apply the very same logic to the body and its sexual design and appetites to sexual liaisons with prostitutes. “After all,” I hear more often than I wish to say, “I’m only human.” “God made me a sexual being,” the Corinthians reason. “He made me to need sex. So when I have sex with a prostitute, it is simply meeting my physical needs, just as I eat when I am hungry. And what difference does it make what I do in this body anyway, since God is going to do away with it?”

I differ with a number of biblical scholars, who do not include the statement about God doing away with food and the stomach as being the creed of the Corinthians. I think it is very much their theology. Paul corrects this error in verse 14 by confidently claiming that God will raise up our bodies from the dead, just as He raised our Lord from the dead. But this is precisely the problem—some of the Corinthians do not believe in the resurrection of the dead, which is why Paul devotes chapter 15 to this subject.62 You will see that the resurrection of the dead is a problem area in a number of other churches as well (see Acts 17:32; 2 Thessalonians 2:2; 2 Timothy 2:18). Denying the resurrection of the dead is a denial of the “day of the Lord,” a day of judgment on sinners. To deny a coming future judgment is the foundation for advocating a sinful lifestyle now (see 2 Peter 3). Paul waits until chapter 15 to defend the doctrine of the resurrection. But for the moment, he declares it with confidence as the basis for sexual morality in this life, contrary to the theory and practice of some of the Corinthians.

Paul exposes the error that God will simply do away with fleshly things like the body, with no future or eternal consequences. In addition, Paul sets down a very different standard regarding our physical body and its appetites. In Paul’s words, the “body is not for immorality;” the body is “for the Lord,” and “the Lord is for the body.” God did not create the body with its sexual capabilities and drives to satisfy these desires indiscriminately. God made man’s physical body for His purposes, ultimately to bring glory to Himself. This is Paul’s bottom line in verse 20: “Therefore glorify God in your body.” We are not to use our bodies to serve ourselves, but to serve God. The sexual dimension of our makeup is to be exercised only within the bonds of marriage. In our marital relationship, including the sexual union which is holy within marriage (see Hebrews 13:4), we are to symbolically represent the union of Christ and His church. Sex has a holy function, which is to be carried out only in the context of marriage.

Paul has yet another thing to say, something which some find difficult to understand. Paul writes that “the Lord is for the body.” We cannot live without eating, but most of us don’t need to worry about death by starvation. There is an important lesson here which we see throughout the Bible. Life does not really come from food. Life comes from God, from knowing Him and from obeying His commandments. When our Lord was tempted for 40 days and nights in the wilderness, He did not eat for that period of time. One of Satan’s temptations was for our Lord to make stones into bread. It is as though Satan were saying, “If you are the Messiah, then you must live to fulfill your mission. You cannot let yourself starve out here in the wilderness, so create bread from these stones, even if it means disobeying God.” Our Lord’s answer, rooted in the theology of the eighth chapter of Deuteronomy and in the experience of Israel in the wilderness, was that “man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

God is the ultimate source of life, not bread. God preserved the Israelites in the wilderness with bread from heaven. Jesus told the Jews who wanted mere physical bread that He was the bread of God, come down from heaven to give them life. He was “the bread of life” (John 6:32-35). He was the “water” which would give the woman at the well everlasting life (John 4:13-14). When His disciples urged Jesus to eat, Jesus responded that His food was to do with will of the Father, who sent Him (John 4:31-34). Our life is but a vapor, and the life which we experience moment by moment comes from God. Our bodies need God more than they need food. He is the source of life, both physical and eternal (see John 1:1-5).

No wonder Paul can live out his life in a way that does not indulge his bodily desires, but denies them (see 1 Corinthians 9:24-27). No wonder he lives so dangerously and suffers physically in his ministry (see 1 Corinthians 4:9-13). No wonder he can say that to live (rejected and persecuted) is Christ, and to die is gain (Philippians 1:21). No wonder the false teachers cater to the desires of the flesh, while Jesus and His apostles call upon men to take up their cross, and to crucify the flesh and its desires.

12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, 13 and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God (Romans 6:12-13).

12 So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—13 for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live (Romans 8:12-13).

Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry (Colossians 3:5).

Sexual Immorality—An Offense Against our Lord
(6:15-17)

15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? May it never be! 16 Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a harlot is one body with her? For He says, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him.

Sexual immorality is an offense against God, from whom, through whom, and for whom are all things (including our bodies—Romans 11:36). Sexual immorality is also a sin against the Lord Jesus Christ. The Corinthians err in thinking too little of their spiritual union with Christ and in taking too lightly their sexual union with prostitutes.

Paul’s argument in verses 15-17 rests on the incompatibility of two unions: (a) the Corinthians’ union with Christ, and (b) their union through sexual intercourse with a prostitute. Note Paul’s words later in 1 Corinthians where he refers to the union of the believer with Jesus Christ by saving faith:

12 For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14 For the body is not one member, but many… 18 But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. 19 And if they were all one member, where would the body be? 20 But now there are many members, but one body… 27 Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it (1 Corinthians 12:12-14, 18-20, 27).

When we trust in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sins and for eternal life, we are united with Christ. But there is another union, which is incompatible with our union with Christ—the union of a man with a prostitute. This “union” is referred to in verse 16. Paul buttresses his argument by citing Genesis 2:24, a text to which our Lord also refers (Matthew 19:5; Mark 10:8). Paul refers to this same text in Ephesians 5:31, there in relationship to the holy union of a man with his wife. To have sex with someone—even a prostitute—is no casual matter, Paul reminds us. To have sex with a prostitute is to become one with her. How can one who has been joined with Christ now join with a harlot? Only by “taking away the members of Christ” to do so (verse 15).

At least some of the Corinthians hold the view that what one does in the body has no relationship to what one is and does in the spirit. Paul directly contradicts this error. The one who joins himself to Christ becomes one in spirit with Christ (verse 17). The one who joins himself to a harlot becomes one flesh with her. Paul insists that one cannot be one in spirit with the Savior and one in the flesh with a harlot. Thus, what is done spiritually does directly relate to what is done in the body. We dare not think of ourselves as spiritual when what we are doing in our bodies is immoral:

1 If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. 3 For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. 5 Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. 6 For it is on account of these things that the wrath of God will come, 7 and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them (Colossians 3:1-7).

Sexual Immorality—A Sin Against the Holy Spirit
(6:18-20)

18 Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.

We have just seen that Paul links our spiritual identity in Christ with our conduct in our physical bodies. The spirit and the body are inseparably linked in orthodox Christian doctrine and teaching. Paul establishes yet another link between the spiritual and the physical in verses 18-20. Body and Spirit are directly related to each other because the Christian’s body and God’s Spirit are inseparably linked at the time of our salvation. The union of the Christian and the Person of Christ occurs at the time of salvation, and it is brought about by the Holy Spirit: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13).

The Spirit not only accomplishes the union of the new believer with Christ, the Spirit actually indwells the Christian from the moment of his salvation. According to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:19, our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Before, in chapter 3, Paul indicated that the Holy Spirit indwells the church, the corporate body of Christ:

16 Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? 17 If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; see also Ephesians 2:19-22).

Now, Paul speaks of the individual believer as the temple of the Holy Spirit. Both, of course, are true without any contradiction. To use one’s body as an instrument of sin by having a sexual union with a prostitute is a most despicable sin. It is a uniquely defiling and wretched sin, as Paul indicates by the words of verse 18: “Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body.”

How is sexual sin uniquely a sin against the body, while other sins are just sins we commit in the body? Let me seek to illustrate this by using the analogy of a fine automobile. If I owned a magnificent Rolls Royce, there are many ways I could sin in that car. I could, for example, exceed the speed limit. I would be sinning in the car, but not sinning against it. If I were to rob a bank and use the Rolls for a getaway car, I would once again be sinning in the car. But if I needed a load of cow manure for our flower garden, and I opened the doors and shoveled that manure into the car to transport it from the barnyard to my home, that, my friend, would be sinning against the Rolls Royce.

Our bodies have been created by God (see Psalm 139). They have been created as the temple of the Holy Spirit, and as instruments by which we can serve and glorify God. Our bodies are not our own, but a stewardship entrusted to us by God, so that we might serve and glorify Him. Since the Christian has died to sin in Christ, and has been raised in Christ to newness of life, we dare not use our bodies as instruments of unrighteousness, but we must use them as instruments of righteousness:

12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, 13 and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God (Romans 6:12-13).

In the words of our text, each of us must “therefore glorify God in our body” (verse 20).

Consequently, sexual immorality is not an option. Sexual immorality is a sin of the highest order. If we are to live in a manner consistent with our calling, we must “flee immorality” (verse 18). Paul not only means we are to avoid immorality, we are to flee from it. We are to avoid it like we would a deadly snake. We are not to see how close to sin we can get; rather we are to see how far away from sin we can stay. Sexual immorality is sin, and it should be avoided with zeal.

Conclusion

Some may wish to restrict the application of Paul’s teaching in our text just to the prohibition of sex with a prostitute. I do not think we dare narrow the application in such a way. After all, it is Paul who applies an Old Testament text on oxen to meeting the needs of those who preach (see 1 Corinthians 9:4-14)! I believe Paul addresses sexual immorality with a prostitute because this is a very common sin in Corinth, even among the saints, and it is a sin the church does not take seriously enough. Paul takes the most “casual” sin (in the minds of the Corinthians) and shows it to be utterly sinful; how much more are any other sexual sins condemned? Just because one is saved and spiritually alive is no reason to take our actions in the flesh lightly.

We should be greatly informed by the way Paul engages in “sex education.” The term, “sex education” is highly charged with emotion on the part of some Christians, and rightly so. I simply point out to you what Paul’s curriculum consists of in 1 Corinthians. Paul does not describe in intimate detail the nature and practice of immorality. To do so might become a temptation for us. Paul does not seek to prevent sexual immorality among Christians by frightening them with the physical adverse consequences, like pregnancy, AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases. Paul, as always, goes back to the gospel. Paul’s argument for sexual morality is rooted in sound doctrine, specifically the doctrines which pertain to salvation. The gospel is the basis for sexual (and every other kind of) morality.

Note also that Paul could very quickly deal with the Corinthians’ immorality by simply referring to the rules. Not only is sexual immorality forbidden by the Old Testament law, it is forbidden by our Lord and by the Jerusalem Council. In Acts 15, sexual immorality was one of the four things specifically forbidden to the Gentiles (see “fornication” in Acts 15:19-21, 28-29). Immorality was “against the rules,” but Paul wants the Corinthians not just to keep the rules, but to consciously serve God by doing that which is consistent with our calling, with the gospel, and with sound doctrine. It is necessary to keep the rules, but let us do so for the right reasons. Here, Paul gives us the reasons for sexual purity.

The problem of sexual immorality in the Corinthian church is due, in part, to the fact that such conduct is not considered sinful or illegal by the pagan Corinthian culture. The Corinthians seem to live more in conformity to the standards of their culture than to the standard set by Christ. If a certain practice is legal, some Corinthian Christians seem to think it is moral. The Bible has a much higher set of standards than this. If something is illegal, it is almost always immoral for the Christian (except for those few times when the law forbade what God commands—e.g. Acts 5:29). When the laws of the land allow certain forms of conduct, we must ask ourselves if that practice is permitted in the Scriptures. For example, the law may allow immorality, but the Bible forbids it. Then there are those things which both the law and the Bible allow. These “liberties” may or may not be advisable for the Christian. The use of any Christian liberty should be subject to the following questions:

(1) Does this practice contribute to my own spiritual growth and maturity?

(2) Does this practice contribute to the growth and maturity of fellow-believers?

(3) Does this practice further the gospel?

(4) Does this practice glorify God?

Liberties are those things which the Bible says I am free to do. If any matter is really a liberty, it is something I am as free not to do as I am free to do. I should be free not to do anything which is a liberty. If I am not free, it is not really a liberty. If I am not free, then in Paul’s words, I am “mastered by” it. Let’s assume that eating popcorn is a Christian liberty. If I cannot control my appetite for popcorn so as not to eat it, then I am in bondage to popcorn. I know of people who say something like this: “Oh, I can quit ______ing any time I want. I’ve done it a hundred times.” Whatever we can’t stop doing is probably something which masters us. Paul’s commitment is not to let his body master him, but to become the master of his body:

24 Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. 25 And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; 27 but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

Our text has something very definitive to say on the subject of abortion. One of the classic arguments of the pro-abortion movement is that “the woman’s body is her own private possession,” so that no one (not even government) can tell her what to do with her body. Of course, the pro-abortion movement views the unborn child as merely a part of the woman’s body. Thus, the woman is free to do whatever she wishes with that unborn child, including killing it. Paul’s words deny the very premise on upon which the pro-abortion position is based:

19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

The woman’s body is not her own, not to mention the child she carries within. She is not free to use her body as she chooses. The Christian should realize that the body is not to be employed for self-gratification (most often, immorality is the cause of an unwanted pregnancy), but for the glory of God. Paul’s words in our text will certainly be judged “foolish” by those who wish to live in sin.

Our text reminds me that it is only the Christian who values sex highly enough. The unbelieving world likes to look down on the Christian, as though we have no appreciation for sex, as though we think sex is evil, or at least unspiritual. The truth is that only a Christian can appreciate the true value of sex. In the Bible, the sexual union is a part of the marriage relationship, and this relationship portrays or symbolizes the union of Christ and His church. If sex is a kind of symbol, and what it symbolizes is the ultimate value—the ultimate good—then sex is a most benevolent gift and privilege. It is a great blessing.

The Christian sanctifies sex by restricting it to the sanctity of the marriage bed (Hebrews 13:4) and only to one’s spouse. Those who degrade sex make it common. The word “profane” and the word “common” are nearly synonymous in the Bible. Those who restrict sexual intimacy to their marriage partner value it most highly. Those who indiscriminately engage in sex make it common and profane.

Let me illustrate. My wife has a set of special dishes. These dishes are more expensive and more beautiful than our other dishes. The special dishes are saved for special occasions. They are not used as often as our “everyday” dishes. Nobody gets upset if an everyday dish is dropped and broken. But there is a little more consternation if a special dish is broken. That which is most precious is used with greater discrimination than that which is common or profane.

I have a fairly large collection of tools. Most of my tools I am willing to loan out to others. Some are restricted to a much smaller group. My micrometers, for example, are not generally available for borrowers. This is because they are delicate, precise, and expensive tools. I do not want these tools abused, and so I restrict their use. On the other hand, I’ll loan a crescent wrench to virtually anyone. What is most valued is most restricted; that which is least valued is commonly available. God values sex, and so should we, which is why it is restrictive for the Christian. A prostitute makes sex profane, common.

A book in our library is entitled, Need, the New Religion.63 In the self-indulgent society in which we live, need has become a compelling reason for our actions. If we think we “need” something, then it is only reasonable that this need be met. The vast majority of the advertising before us on television and in other forms of the media, seeks to convince us that we have a need, and that their product is the answer to this need. What every man and woman needs is the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of eternal life, through faith in the shed blood of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. There is no higher need. And the only fulfillment of this “need” is salvation. God calls on us to acknowledge that Jesus Christ is His only begotten Son. We must admit that we are sinners, in need of forgiveness and justification by God’s grace alone. All other needs pale into insignificance in comparison to this need. Let us look to Christ to satisfy this need, and every other need as well. Jesus Christ is all we really need. And having Him by faith, we shall turn away from sexual immorality.

Is it possible that you have already fallen, that you are already guilty of sexual immorality? There is forgiveness through the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. The good news is that those who have made themselves sexually “unclean” can be cleansed completely. This can be seen in the forgiveness granted the woman at the well in John 4, or in the forgiveness of the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8). It can also be seen in the saints at Corinth:

9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Perhaps Paul’s words can best be summed up by Paul, as he writes to the Philippians:

17 Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us. 18 For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, 19 whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things. 20 For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; 21 who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself (Philippians 3:19-21).


58 William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), p. 3.

59 D. H. Madvig, “Corinth,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, rev. ed., Geoffrey W. Bromiley, General Editor (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979), vol I, p. 773.

60 See also Romans 6:15-23, esp. v. 16; 2 Peter 2:19; John 8:34.

61 Having made this distinction, one must also recognize that “eating,” “drinking,” and “being merry (e.g. immorality),” are often inter-related, as Paul will point out elsewhere, such as in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 and Titus 1:10-16. Notice also that the reverse is true. Asceticism denies foods and sex (1 Timothy 4:1-5). Peter, in his second epistle, also indicates that fleshly indulgence encompasses foods and immorality (see 2 Peter chapter 2).

62 See 1 Corinthians 15:12, where the denial of the resurrection by some Corinthians is clearly indicated by Paul.

63 Tony Walter, Need, The New Religion, (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1985).

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11. Sex and the Spiritual Christian (1 Cor. 7:1-7)

Introduction

When my friend Craig Nelson and I were in India, we decided to speak from the Book of Genesis, alternating messages between us. We first spoke on Jacob and his wives (his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and their two handmaids, Zilpah and Bilhah—see Genesis 29 and 30), entitling that message, “The Battle of the Brides.” After teaching the story of Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers from chapter 37, we came to chapter 38 and the story of how Judah unknowingly becomes a father through Tamar, his daughter-in-law. We then came to chapter 39 and the story of the temptation of Joseph by Potiphar’s wife, who eventually falsely accuses Joseph of rape.

After the second or third message, a friend informed us that one of the men had walked out during the meeting in protest. Craig and I were shocked. What had we said that was so offensive? We were told that we were talking too much about sex. This man did not want us to meddle with his sex life. We simply spoke about sex as often as the subject came up in the Book of Genesis.

If you think about it, you will have to agree that sex is a subject frequently addressed in the Scriptures, both Old Testament and New. Though the Bible handles this subject matter much differently than the secular world, it does have much to say on the subject. I can only think of one reason for matters pertaining to sex to be so frequently discussed in the Bible—sexuality must be very closely related to spirituality.

The beliefs and practices of the Corinthian saints seem to vary greatly when it comes to matters of sexual values and conduct. We have already been introduced to the liberal extreme in chapters 5 and 6. In chapter 5, Paul rebukes the church at Corinth for failing to exercise church discipline on a man living in an incestuous relationship with his father’s wife. In the second half of chapter 6 (verses 12-20), Paul confronts those who feel that having sex with a prostitute is not contrary or detrimental to one’s spiritual life. There are those in Corinth whose sexual values are shocking, even to the pagan Corinthians (see 5:1).

In our text, it seems that for some believers spirituality is a pretext for sexual immorality, while for others spirituality means abstaining from sex altogether. In chapter 7, Paul turns his attention to those who seem to regard all sex as dirty, and who therefore advocated celibacy. For those who are single, it means staying single and, unlike today, celibate as well. For those who are married, it seems to mean that these couples should also refrain from sexual relations.

The Corinthian Error and the Culture of that Day

In the matter of sexual conduct, the Corinthians live in a very troubled world, not unlike the world of our own day. The ancient world of Paul’s day has a very distorted view of women, sex, and marriage. A. W. Verrall, the great classical scholar, once said that one of the chief diseases of which ancient civilization died was a low view of women.64 The Greeks were not known for sexual purity:

Prostitution was an essential part of Greek life. Demosthenes had laid it down as the common and accepted rule of life: “We have courtesans for the sake of pleasure; we have concubines for the sake of daily cohabitation; we have wives for the purpose of having children legitimately, and having a faithful guardian for all our household affairs.”65

The Roman sexual ethic was no better:

But at the time of Paul, Roman family life was wrecked. Seneca writes that women were married to be divorced and divorced to be married. In Rome the Romans did not commonly date their years by numbers; they called them by the names of their husbands. Martial the Roman poet tells of a woman who had ten husbands; Juvenal tells us of one who had had eight husbands in five years; Jerome declares it to be true that in Rome there was a woman who was married to her twenty-third husband and she herself was his twenty-first wife. We find even a Roman Emperor Augustus demanding that her husband should divorce the lady Livia when she was with child that he might himself marry her. We find even Cicero, in his old age, putting away his wife Terentia that he might marry a young heiress, whose trustee he was, that he might enter into her estate, in order to pay his debts.66

One would hope the Jews would be exemplary in matters of sex and marriage, but this simply is not the case.

In Paul’s day Judaism reverenced neither women nor marriage. “It was Josephus who wrote, ‘The woman is worse than the man in everything’ (Josephus, Contra Apionem, 2, 201). No wonder, in the light of such harsh attitudes, that the Synagogue prayer book has the man offer the daily prayer, ‘I thank Thee, O Lord, that Thou hast not made me a Gentile dog nor a woman.’”67 In the age of the coming of Christianity, even with Judaism the marriage bond was in peril. So great was its peril that the very institution of marriage was threatened. Jewish girls were refusing to marry at all because the position of the wife was so uncertain.68

Even in our own time, the ancient ritual of “female circumcision” is practiced. This surgical procedure (if one dares to dignify it by such terms) is of no benefit to the woman, but imposed upon the female so that she may never have the enjoyment of sex. It seems that in the minds of those men who impose this on women, it is the woman’s place to give pleasure to the man, but never the woman’s place to receive pleasure from the man. Sadly, among pagans and Christians alike, there is a similar (if less brutal) belief strongly held by some today. The man expects his wife to give him sexual pleasure at any time, but he feels little or no obligation toward fulfilling his wife sexually.

Paul’s words concerning sex and marriage were desperately needed in his day and no less needed in our own day. Let us listen to the finest sex education available to men—a word from God on sex and marriage, through the Apostle Paul.

An Overview of the Teaching
of the Bible on Sex and Marriage

Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:1-7 are in response to a question asked by some of the Corinthian saints who correspond with him. Paul is required to address a group of Corinthian saints who have adopted an extreme view of sex and marriage. Paul’s words in the first seven verses of chapter 7 should be understood in light of the broader teaching of the Bible concerning sex and marriage. Before devoting our attention to the distorted views of sex and marriage which some of the Corinthians hold, let us remind ourselves of what the Bible as a whole says on the subject.

In Genesis 2:18, we read that God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone: I will make him a helper suitable for him.” Being alone, that is, being single, was not good, and so God created a helper suitable for Adam, a wife to be his companion and counterpart. From the Book of Proverbs, we know that God designed marriage and sex not only as a means for bringing children into this world, but also as God’s appointed means for a man to find pleasure in his wife:

15 Drink water from your own cistern, And fresh water from your own well. 16 Should your springs be dispersed abroad, Streams of water in the streets? 17 Let them be yours alone, And not for strangers with you. 18 Let your fountain be blessed, And rejoice in the wife of your youth. 19 As a loving hind and a graceful doe, Let her breasts satisfy you at all times; Be exhilarated always with her love (Proverbs 5:15-19).

In the New Testament, we are told that Jesus attended a wedding and then miraculously provided wine when their supplies were exhausted (John 2:1-11). The Apostle Paul assumed that elders and deacons would be married, with children (1 Timothy 3:2, 12). Paul also encouraged younger widows to marry (1 Timothy 5:14). He claimed the right as an apostle to “lead about a wife” (1 Corinthians 9:5). The writer to the Hebrews also held marriage in high esteem, and the proper realm for sexual enjoyment between husband and wife. “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Hebrews 13:4).

In the Bible, marriage is viewed as the norm, and the single life as the exception. Marriage is viewed as holy, righteous, and good. Those who seek to prohibit marriage as something evil are identified as false teachers by Paul (1 Timothy 4:1-5). When we approach 1 Corinthians 7, we must do so confident that marriage is a good gift from God, a gift many Christians gratefully receive and enjoy.

A Touchy Issue
(7:1)

Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman (NASB).

Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry (NIV).

It is generally assumed that the Corinthians wrote a letter to Paul asking his advice on certain matters. Beginning with the statement, “Now concerning the things about which you wrote…” in 1 Corinthians 7:1, Paul continues to go back to their questions (not necessarily in the order they raised them) and to give his answer. It seems good to ask our own question, like the little lady in the TV commercial who asks, “Where’s the beef?” Where’s the question? Paul does not say, “Now concerning the things you have asked,” but rather, “Now concerning the things about which you wrote….” There is a considerable difference here.

Some people ask a question which is not meant to be enlightening. Many questions are asked in a way which cleverly “teaches” the one who is asked or others who are listening. Some seek to undermine the teaching or authority of the one asked. This is surely the purpose of the questions the scribes and Pharisees asked our Lord. But here, we should recognize that we are assuming something not specifically stated. Were the Corinthians really asking Paul questions? And, if so, were their questions sincere?

I raise this issue because of what Paul has already told us in his letter to the Corinthians. There are divisions in the Corinthian church. Various little groups have their own leaders and their own doctrines. Each group takes pride in itself, in its leader, and in the “wisdom” it possesses. Those in one group look down on those in another, because they are not so wise nor so persuasive and powerful, nor well esteemed by the pagan world of that day. One thing many Corinthians share is their disdain for the Apostle Paul. They believe they are wise, and Paul is foolish:

8 You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become kings without us; and I would indeed that you had become kings so that we also might reign with you. 9 For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. 11 To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; 12 and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; 13 when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now (1 Corinthians 4:8-13).

In the light of Paul’s assessment of his standing in the hearts and minds of the Corinthians given here, it seems we should be very careful about assuming too much when we come to those things the Corinthians have written to Paul. Are they—wise as they are—trying to enlighten Paul? It is indeed possible.69 Are they writing to Paul as their spiritual father and mentor, wanting to hear and to heed his wisdom? It is not very likely. I am therefore inclined to view their communication with Paul with some suspicion. Paul may very graciously avoid giving us any greater detail than to specify the issues raised by their communication with him, whether rightly motivated or not.

We know from Paul’s words in chapter 5 that when a man is found to be living with his father’s wife, the church does not mournfully exercise church discipline; rather, they become proud (5:2). Some Corinthians are proud as a result of sin and their response to it. When Paul raises the issue of sex and marriage in chapter 7, he is dealing with the opposite extreme in the church … those who have overreacted to fleshly lusts, seeking to overcome them by asceticism. These folks are just as proud of their asceticism as the others named in chapter 5 are of their fleshly indulgence.70 Perhaps these ascetics have become so smug they assume Paul will applaud them. After all, when it comes to sexual abstinence and remaining single, Paul stands out among the apostles, and among those in the churches (see 1 Corinthians 9:4-5). They may not agree with Paul on many matters, but these ascetics seem to want Paul’s endorsement here. Paul’s words in response to their communication will shock them. They will not get what they expect nor what they want. They will get much more than they asked.

Before attempting to interpret Paul’s words in verse 1, we must pause to point out that the translation of the NIV is inaccurate. The expression, “not to touch a woman,” is a reference to sexual intercourse, not marriage, and thus the NIV is in error when it translates as it does.

The idiom ‘to touch a woman’ occurs nine times in Greek antiquity, ranging across six centuries and a variety of writers, and in every other instance, without ambiguity it refers to having sexual intercourse. There is no evidence of any kind that it can be extended or watered down to mean, ‘It is good for a man not to marry.’71

The Corinthian ascetics would not sanction sexual immorality. Indeed, they would not sanction sex. They feel that sex is dirty, whether within marriage or without. This tells us more about the ascetics than it does about biblical morality: “To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled” (Titus 1:15). Having concluded that all sex is evil, these folks follow out the implications of their false doctrine. If all sex is evil, then it is evil to enjoy sex in marriage. Husbands and wives should abstain from sex, unless for the bearing of children (if that). And those who are single should avoid the “temptation to have sex” by avoiding and abstaining from marriage. Paul cannot and will not endorse such a view.

What is most impressive in chapter 7 is the gentleness of the Apostle Paul. He is certainly practicing what he preaches. Remember these words Paul wrote to Timothy about dealing with those who are in error:

23 But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels. 24 And the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, 25 with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will (2 Timothy 2:23-26).

How easy it would have been for Paul to come on strong with these Corinthians. Instead, he gently seeks to show them the error of their thinking and conduct. He clearly distinguishes between his personal convictions, his counsel (advice), and his authoritative apostolic commands (see 7:6-7, 40). His approach is to introduce the issue at hand and then gently correct the errors. In later chapters (e.g. 8-10), Paul’s initial gentleness leads to a very clear and forceful conclusion.

The ascetics of the Corinthian church have over-reacted to the immorality of that day, concluding that all sex is dirty and should be avoided, even within marriage. When Paul says, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman,” I think he is repeating the position held by the Corinthian ascetics. This was their slogan. Paul repeats the statement, not because he agrees with it in its entirety, but because he agrees with it in part. He will shortly set out to clarify the circumstances in which celibacy could serve a beneficial purpose. I am going to advance to verses 6-9 at this point to suggest just how sexual abstinence could be beneficial. I do this because the main thrust of verses 1-7 is to address the role of sex within marriage. Later verses will expand upon the benefits a celibate lifestyle can produce.

The Benefits of Staying Single
(7:6-9)

6 But this I say by way of concession, not of command. 7 Yet72 I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that. 8 But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. 9 But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn.

The first thing we should observe is that celibacy does have its benefits. When celibacy (abstaining from sex, and thus from marriage) contributes to the cause of Christ, it is depicted positively in the Bible. Our Lord spoke positively of celibacy:

11 But He said to them, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 “For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it” (Matthew 19:11-12).

Paul speaks positively of it as well in 1 Corinthians 9 in reference to his choice and to that of Barnabas also to remain single (1 Corinthians 9:4-6). Finally, in the Book of Revelation we are told that the 144,00 will be celibates:

3 And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders; and no one could learn the song except the one hundred and forty-four thousand who had been purchased from the earth. 4 These are the ones who have not been defiled with women, for they have kept themselves chaste. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. These have been purchased from among men as first fruits to God and to the Lamb (Revelation 14:3-4).

When Paul speaks of sexual abstinence and celibacy, he does so in a very carefully defined manner. Notice the qualifications Paul sets down regarding sexual abstinence:

(1) Paul does wish that all of the Corinthians could be single (and thus sexually celibate). Paul indicates his “wish” that all men were as he. It is clear that this could not and should not be. Paul simply desires that men might be free from distractions in order to devote themselves to serving God (see also 1 Corinthians 7:34-35).

(2) Paul does not seek to impose this on the Corinthians; he indicates this is his wish, stated by concession and not as a command (oh, that we might be so honest). The ascetics seem to have imposed their view of spirituality upon all. Paul does not represent his preference as a biblical imperative, but as a personal preference which God has allowed him to express as such. Unlike many of us, Paul carefully distinguishes between those commands which are from Christ, and must not be ignored, and the counsel he offers which men can (and perhaps should) disregard. I am reminded of Paul’s advice to Apollos, which Apollos declined to accept and apply:

12 But concerning Apollos our brother, I encouraged him greatly to come to you with the brethren; and it was not at all his desire to come now, but he will come when he has opportunity (1 Corinthians 16:12).

(3) This distinction between concession and command is not an indictment against the inspiration of the Scriptures, but an affirmation of them. Some might question why anything we find in the Scriptures is less than a command, but this is the very nature of convictions. When Paul indicates that a certain view or preference of his is not by divine revelation, and therefore not binding on his readers, he is demonstrating personal integrity by not trying to give the impression that his desires are God’s desires. By doing so, he also underscores the fact that the rest of the Scriptures are inspired and authoritative:

14 You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them; 15 and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:14-17).

If any of Paul’s statements are less than a “thus saith the Lord,” we can count on Paul to tell us so.

(4) Paul does not speak of celibacy as a spiritually superior state but as a less distracted state, a way of serving our Lord with greater focus and consistency. The Corinthian celibates surely thought of themselves as more spiritual and were proud of their celibacy. They must have looked down on those who were married. But it doesn’t take a Harvard graduate to recognize that many singles today who know Jesus Christ as Savior are not serving God with the intensity and focus of some who are married and have families.

(5) Paul sees this singleness and celibacy as a matter related to one’s gift and calling. Unlike most students of the Scriptures, I am not saying that celibacy is a spiritual gift. I am saying that celibacy is related to one’s gift and calling. If one were to conclude that there were such a thing as “the gift of celibacy,” it would have to be from this passage, and quite frankly, this passage does not compel one to reach this conclusion. Consider the reasons that there does not seem to be such a thing as a gift of celibacy:

  • Nowhere else in the Bible is celibacy identified as a spiritual gift. There are several texts in Scripture where various spiritual gifts are enumerated. In none of these texts is celibacy listed as a spiritual gift.
  • In 1 Corinthians 7:7, Paul does not call celibacy a gift. Paul simply says each one has his gift, “one in this manner, and another in that.” The expression, “one in this manner, and another in that” is unusual, if Paul means for us to conclude that celibacy is a spiritual gift. One would have expected him to say, “one has this gift, and another that,”73 or something to this effect. Paul seems to be speaking about the manner in which different gifts are exercised and not what the particular gift may be.
  • If celibacy were a spiritual gift, it differs from all the other spiritual gifts. Every other gift is related to a function. Every other gift can be converted to a verb. The gift of helps entails helping. The gift of teaching entails teaching. The gift of exhortation entails exhorting. Just exactly what does the gift of celibacy do? So far as I can tell, it does nothing other than to prevent one from having sex.
  • If I correctly understand those who believe celibacy is a gift, then the gift of celibacy is the absence of sexual desire. If not the absence of desire, celibacy is an added measure of self-control. Those whom I have heard speak of celibacy as a gift do not define it very carefully. Usually it would seem as though the one who is celibate is the person who does not desire sex or marriage. I have never met such a person, at least as far as the absence of sexual desire is concerned. There are many people who may not wish to marry, but few of them claim to lack sexual desire. How does the absence of sexual desire (if there is such a thing) minister to the body of Christ? If there were a gift of celibacy, I know of a number of people who are widowed or divorced who would welcome such a gift, but I have never seen it.
  • I understand celibacy to be the conscious choice to control one’s sexual desires and to remain single so that one’s gifts and calling may be more effectively utilized. Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ. Apostleship, along with other gifts, was bestowed upon Paul at the time of his conversion. It would have been difficult, if not impossible, for Paul to carry out his calling if he had been married and the father of a number of children. Can you imagine a family man going from city to city, living in one home and then another, sometimes being self-supporting, and other times living on the gifts of others? Can you see Paul’s wife and family being cast into prison with him, or being left alone without any support? Celibacy was the ideal state for a man like Paul, who had his gifts and calling. I think that is what Paul means when he says, “… each man has his own gift, one in this manner, and another in that.” We might paraphrase Paul’s words in this way: “Each man has his own gifts and calling, which are carried out in one manner or another, some serving God through marriage, and some serving Him through remaining single.” Some ministries are conducted much better in the context of marriage and the family. Paul would have trouble, for example, showing hospitality. Whether one chooses to marry or to remain single should be determined on how that person’s gift and calling can best be fulfilled. For some, this will mean marriage (and all that comes with it, like the pleasures and responsibilities of sex); for some it may mean celibacy (with the freedom and undistracted life that comes with it).

Staying single (and thus sexually inactive) may be the calling of some. If it is your calling, it is for the glory of God and for the promotion of the gospel. But the single life and sexual abstinence is not the rule, as Paul knows. And so in verses 2-5, we find Paul speaking of the role of sex in marriage.

Sex and Spirituality in Marriage
(7:2-4)

2 But because of immoralities, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. 3 Let the husband fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

Notice the three-fold parallel structure in verses 2-4 which stress the mutuality of sexual pleasure and sexual duty:

  • Let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband (verse 2).
  • Let the husband fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband (verse 3)
  • The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does (verse 4).

Paul does not stress the submission of the wife to her husband here, as though it is his role to get pleasure from his wife, and her role to give pleasure to her husband. There is mutual submission here,74 so that both the husband and the wife are to subordinate their interest (pleasure in sex) to the interest of their mate. Consider the guiding principles for what we might call “Spirit-filled marital sex.”

(1) The norm is that Christians will marry and that as a Christian couple, the husband and wife will enjoy regular sexual relations. The ascetics are absolutely wrong in thinking and teaching that sex is unspiritual and thus inappropriate even within the bonds of matrimony. Consistently abstaining from sex in marriage is not only unnatural, it is unholy.

(2) A healthy sex life is a preventative for immorality. A healthy and pleasurable sex life between a husband and wife is a normal and natural release of sexual tension, and thus it is helpful in the prevention of sexual immorality. Good sex in marriage is not a guarantee that there will be marital fidelity. If one mate is unfaithful to the other, it does not necessarily mean that the offended spouse has failed to satisfy the other. David certainly had enough wives to satisfy his sexual appetites, but he committed adultery anyway. The lusting eye is never satisfied. Nevertheless, Paul speaks of sexual relations in marriage as a preventative for sexual immorality outside of marriage: “Because of immoralities, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.” The ascetics are wrong. To abstain from marital sex proves to be a temptation; to enjoy marital sex promotes edification.

(3) Both husband and wife should eagerly engage in the sexual act as their duty, both to God and to their mate. It is not just the wife who is commanded to give herself to her husband; the husband is likewise commanded to give himself to his wife. In fact, the husband is first commanded to give himself to his wife, and then the wife to her husband (see verse 3).

(4) Both husband and wife should not only give themselves for sex, but each should seek to produce the ultimate pleasure for their partner. Reaching the ultimate pleasure in the sexual union is what best insures against immorality. Frustratingly unfulfilling sex to one partner or the other will also tempt one to be immoral. The “use me” mindset in sexual intimacy falls far short of the mark which Paul sets for us here. The duty of the husband is to satisfy his wife sexually, just as the duty of the wife is to satisfy her husband. This is the best one can do to stay sexually pure and to encourage one’s mate to do likewise.

(5) Neither the husband nor the wife has the authority to deprive75 their mate sexually. If I have not said it clearly enough, I will say it bluntly here: it is wrong to deprive one’s mate of the pleasures of sexual intimacy. There is nothing spiritual about avoiding sex. I think I should also say that there is nothing particularly spiritual about demanding sex either.

(6) Those Christians who have been forcibly making a celibate of their mate by withholding sex are commanded to stop sinning in this fashion. Paul’s command to “stop depriving one another” in verse 5 strongly implies that a number of Corinthian Christians are already withholding sex from their mates. Paul tells us that withholding sex from your mate is sin, a sin which must be repented of, and a sin which we must correct by obeying our Lord’s command through Paul. Paul spoke of the benefits of staying single by concession, rather than by command. But the instruction to husbands and wives to sexually fulfill each other is a command, not a wish or a suggestion. To refuse to change in this area is to willfully disobey one of God’s commands.

(7) Sexual abstinence is to be a rare and temporary exception to the norm of regular sexual union. There are obviously times when normal sexual relations are temporarily interrupted. In the Old Testament, a man was not to have sex with his wife during her monthly period (see Leviticus 15:19, 24; 18:19). Here, Paul speaks of the temporary interruption of a couple’s marital sex life to facilitate prayer. The reason should be obvious, especially for parents with children in the home. Bedtime seems to be the only “private” time two parents have. This means that besides sleep, closing the bedroom door affords the opportunity to enjoy sexual intimacy; it also affords the opportunity for prayer. Frankly, it is difficult to have both prayer and sex on the same agenda, especially if the prayer is urgent and extended. For a bachelor, Paul seems to understand married life very well.76

Paul sets down some very stringent requirements regarding the cessation of normal sexual relations in marriage. First, the decision to abstain from sex must be mutually reached by the husband and the wife. There must not be a unilateral decision made by one spouse. Second, a cessation of normal sexual relations should only take place for matters of great urgency. I understand Paul’s words in verse 5 to refer to specific, urgent matters of prayer, and not normal prayers. The King James Version may well be the original text, and it includes fasting with prayer.

Third, normal sexual relations should be resumed quickly, so that Satan may not take advantage of their lack of self-control. This statement should have really irritated the Corinthian ascetics, who thought of their sexual abstinence as the epitome of self-control. Not according to Paul! Sexual abstinence did not strengthen these saints in their battle with the flesh and with Satan; it weakened them, and it made them vulnerable.

Unfortunately, I have known of situations in which “prayer” was the excuse of one mate for avoiding sex with the other. Who can be more pious than one who gives up sex for prayer? And who can be so unspiritual as to criticize anyone for neglecting their sex life to enhance their prayer life? It is the ultimate spiritual “lion in the road” (to use an expression from the Book of Proverbs). A “lion in the road” is a compelling reason (excuse) for avoiding what one really doesn’t want to do. If the truth were known, a healthy sexual relationship between a man and his wife may facilitate a richer prayer life. I say this on the basis of Peter’s words in 1 Peter 3:7 “You husbands likewise, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with a weaker vessel, since she is a woman; and grant her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.” Surely “living with one’s wife in an understanding way” includes the sexual relationship. A sexually frustrated and irritated mate is not a good prayer partner.

Conclusion

The church at Corinth did not write to Paul about divisions and factions, about false wisdom or pride, about leaders who looked down on Paul and his gospel. They wrote to Paul about sex, and specifically, about abstaining from sex. They do not want advice from Paul on their sex lives; they only want his endorsement. But if they had wanted advice on matters of sex, do you think they would have expected wise counsel from Paul? How can a man who is both a bachelor and a preacher teach these “worldly wise” folks anything about sex? They must believe they know it all. They may have been the Dr. Ruth’s of their day. But, wonder of wonders, God chose to give the finest sex education available, the best counsel on sex in marriage, through Paul. Once again, the wisdom of God is vastly other than the wisdom of men!

I wish I could have seen the looks on the faces of the Corinthian ascetics as they heard Paul’s response to what they have written. These folks must be so puffed up with pride at their self-control and victory over fleshly desires. While they differ with Paul in many matters, surely they think Paul will applaud them for maintaining that sex is dirty and should be avoided, even in marriage. They do not want Paul’s advice or instruction, only his endorsement. What they receive is something entirely different. Paul agrees that abstaining from sex can be beneficial, but only in the most restricted applications. Instead of applauding them for abstaining from sex in marriage, Paul instructs them to engage in sex with their spouses as a duty. This must not be done with gritted teeth, and the goal of each mate should be to satisfy the other.

The Corinthian ascetics think that spirituality is antithetical to the enjoyment of sex within marriage. Paul wants his readers (which includes us) to understand that spirituality encompasses every aspect of one’s life, including sex. If you are married, have you ever thought of whether your sex life is Spirit-filled or not? You should. Paul is teaching husbands and wives that servanthood is the fundamental ingredient to satisfying sexual intimacy in marriage. How many times have you read these words penned by Paul in his Epistle to the Philippians:

1 If therefore there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, 2 make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. 3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; 4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. 5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:1-8).

How often have you considered Paul’s teaching here as governing your sexual relationship with your spouse? If marriage is a reflection of the union Christ has with His church, then how would we think the physical union of a man and his wife is not of great importance to God? True, this is a “private” matter, between man and wife, but why would we think the angels would not be watching and learning (see 1 Corinthians 11:10)? Sex is not “dirty;” it is a gift of God, which is to be enjoyed in the confines of marriage and to portray the most precious “union” of all, the union of God and His church.

God has uniquely fashioned the man and the woman so that they are very different. I do not mean different in the biological sense, but different in their makeup. Husbands tend to respond very quickly; wives are not as quickly stimulated and not by the same kinds of things. I have heard it said by some that men and women are mismatched, sexually speaking. And so they are, by divine design. Sex cannot be mutually satisfying without real love. In this sense, biblical sex is “making love.” And love is manifested in sacrifice. Only as both the husband and the wife sacrifice their own interests (sexually speaking) is the other satisfied. Sacrificial servanthood is the key to Spirit-filled sex.

I want to be very clear here that we are not just talking about some kind of technique, which, if followed, brings maximum pleasure to the one who employs it. The husband should be sensitively attuned to his wife, seeking to bring her fulfillment. But this is not just because it is the way he will find his own fulfillment. Love-making in marriage seeks to bring pleasure to one’s spouse at one’s own expense. There is a lot of talk about “maximum sex,” but sex should never be approached selfishly as the means to the ultimate goal of self-satisfaction. “Taking up one’s cross” applies in the board room and in the bedroom.

In his Epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul specifically deals with sex as a part of the believer’s sanctification:

3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, 5 not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. 7 For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. 8 Consequently, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8).

Sanctification includes the avoidance of sexual immorality (verse 3). It also involves the Christian relating to his or her spouse sexually in a way that is distinctly Christian and not pagan (verses 4-5). It is clear that we may sin in the matter of sex, and that God is the avenger is such cases (verse 7). God has not called us to impurity but to holiness, and this holiness will be evident in the way we sexually relate to our spouse (verse 7). To reject Paul’s “sex education” is to reject the Spirit of God (verse 8).

I am not amazed that the unbelieving world, sex-and self-crazed as it is, finds frustration more than fulfillment in the bedroom. I am deeply distressed that many Christians are living defeated lives in relation to sex. Some are simply not having sex, usually due to the disobedience of one of the two partners, and sometimes due to the apathy of both. Some are engaging in illicit sex, either by means of pornography or illicit sexual unions outside of marriage. Others find sexual stimulation in the workplace by telling off-color stories and by suggestive dress and talk. The newest temptation is “cyber sex,” illicit sex by means of the computer. I don’t think I will tell you all of the ways this can be done. Hopefully, I do not know them. Here is a definite area of danger, and I hope that you can see that it is totally self-serving.

Paul’s teaching in verses 1-7 present us with two apparent problems. First, Paul speaks of marriage and sex as a preventative to immorality: “But because of immoralities, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband” (verse 2). These words seem to suggest that Paul views sex and marriage in a less than noble way. Is sex only a preventative and not a pleasure for the Christian? Paul’s second statement raises similar questions: “Let the husband fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband” (verse 3). Is sex only a duty and not a delight?

I would say first that in our fallen world and culture, sex is viewed primarily in terms of selfish pleasure. Sex, apart from biblical servanthood, is self-centered pleasure seeking. I would like you to consider sex in the light of the “great commandment” of the Bible:

34 But when the Pharisees heard that He had put the Sadducees to silence, they gathered themselves together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 “This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 “The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:34-40).

The whole Law can be summed up by two commandments: (1) love God with all of one’s being, and (2) love your neighbor.

How does one love God? Peter tells us how we are to conduct ourselves in relation to God:

14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, 15 but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; 16 because it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” 17 And if you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each man’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay upon earth; 18 knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers (1 Peter 1:14-18).

Loving God requires being holy. Being holy means not being conformed to those lusts which once dominated us as unbelievers. Immorality is one of the sins which characterizes the Corinthians (see 1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Thus, the Christian should fervently desire to avoid immorality. And so when Paul speaks of marriage and sex as a preventative for immoralities, why should we think Paul is taking sex lightly? Righteousness is the higher goal, and marriage (and sex) are a means to this goal. Paul does not think little of sex; he thinks more highly of righteousness. Isn’t being godly a higher goal than being sexually fulfilled? The problem is not with Paul; it is with us. We value sex more highly than pleasing God.

The second dimension of the great commandment is that we should love our neighbor as ourself. How does this relate to the subject of sex within marriage? Our wife (or our husband) is our neighbor. We are to love our spouse as we love ourself (see also Ephesians 5:28-32). To do so, we must put the (sexual) interests of our mate above our own. Living by the law of love makes it my duty to sexually fulfill my spouse. Is my duty demeaning, something for which I should apologize? It is my duty to keep the commandments of my Lord. Is this demeaning? Not at all! The goal for which I should strive is to see my duty as my delight. This is the way David and other godly men approached God’s law (see Psalm 40:6-8; see also 119:9-16, 24, 137-144).

I would like to suggest to you that sex is similar to worship. Indeed, in the pagan cultures (such as with the Canaanites in the Old Testament and the Corinthians in the New) sex was a part of worship (see also Exodus 32:1-6 and 1 Corinthians 10:6-8). And no wonder, for making sex a part of worship assured the “worshippers” of instant satisfaction.

I fear that we approach worship in a way that is all too similar to the way many approach sex. Some, who feel like worship does not satisfy or fulfill them, are inclined to avoid it. We evaluate worship more in terms of what we have gained than in what we have given. I would remind you that the operative term when it comes to worship is sacrifice, not fulfillment. I would further say that worship (like sex) is not so much about seeking pleasure for ourselves as it is about giving pleasure to God.

Sexuality and spirituality are very closely related. Paul calls for each of us who knows God through Jesus Christ to elevate our sexuality to the standard God has set, to make sexuality an expression of our spirituality to the glory of God, and ultimately for our good.


64 William Barclay, The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958), p. 199.

65 Barclay, p. 201.

66 Barclay, p. 202.

67 Cited by Gary Inrig, Life in His Body (Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1975), p. 156.

68 Barclay, pp. 200-201.

69 “Rather than a friendly exchange, in which the new believers in Corinth are asking spiritual advice of their mentor in the Lord, their letter was probably a response to Paul’s previous Letter mentioned in 5:9, in which they were taking exception to his position on point after point.” Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary, F. F. Bruce, General Editor, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987 [reprint, 1993]), pp. 266-267.

70 Is it possible that some who were proud in chapter 5 are proud because the immorality of this man living in an incestuous relationship made their asceticism look pious? Maybe they do not put out sinners so that the pseudo-righteous look pious.

71 Gordon D. Fee, p. 275. Fee goes on to say of verse 2, “Second, there is no known evidence that the idiom ‘to have a wife’ means ‘to take a wife.’ In fact this idiom is common in biblical Greek and usually means either to ‘have sexually’ (Exod. 2:1; Deut. 28:30; Isa. 13:16) or simply to be married or to be in continuing sexual relations with a man or woman (see esp. 5:1 and 7:29; cf. mark 6;18; John 4:18).” Fee, p. 278.

72 I have serious doubts about the choice made by the translators of the NASB here. The King James Version (and the Greek texts which underlie it) seem to give the correct rendering of “For” and not “Yet.” Verse 7 is thus an explanation of Paul’s statement in verse 6.

73 Thus, the New English Bible actually paraphrases, “I should like you all to be as I am myself; but everyone has the gift God has granted him, one this gift and another that.”

74 Compare Ephesians 5:21 with 5:22-33.

75 “The use of the verb ‘deprive’ is especially striking. This is the same verb used in 6:7-8 for the man who had defrauded another. It is a pejorative word for taking away what rightfully belongs to another…” Fee, p. 281.

76 There are some, of course, who argue that Paul had once been married. This conclusion is the result of several inferences. It begins with Paul’s statement in Acts 26:10 that he “cast his vote” against some saints who were on trial for being Christians. The first assumption is that Paul must have been a member of the Sanhedrin to be able to “cast his vote.” The next assumption is that all those on the Sanhedrin had to be married (this does not come from the Scriptures). Therefore, it is concluded that Paul was once married and was either divorced or widowed. This is possible, but in no way is it a fact which the Scriptures compel us to assume. One way or the other, it really isn’t important.

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12. The Relationship Between Spirituality and Sexuality (1 Cor. 7:8-16)

Introduction

As I was driving home from a funeral, I happened to notice a billboard advertising the services of a lawyer or group of lawyers. I may have missed some of the small print because I was trying to watch the road, but the billboard read something like this:

Traffic tickets—$45
Divorce—$25

Imagine that! It is easier to take care of a failed marriage by divorce than to handle a traffic violation. I am sure divorce is not as easy or as cheap as this sign might lead us to believe, but the reality is that divorce can rather readily be obtained. I wonder how many people pass by that sign and say to themselves, “For a mere $25, I could solve my problems.”

Christians are now resorting to the divorce courts nearly as often as those who profess no faith at all. A few years ago, divorce was looked down upon by our culture. Now divorce is accepted. It may even be accurate to say that divorce is advocated as the better way for those whose marriages are a mess. The church used to oppose divorce. Then, in some “exceptional” cases, it came to endorse it. Now it seems, divorce is simply accepted as a fact of life.

Moral conditions in Paul’s day are at an all-time low. In some circles at least, divorce is more the rule than the exception:

But at the time of Paul, Roman family life was wrecked. Seneca writes that women were married to be divorced and divorced to be married. In Rome the Romans did not commonly date their years by numbers; they called them by the names of their husbands. Martial the Roman poet tells of a woman who had ten husbands; Juvenal tells us of one who had had eight husbands in five years; Jerome declares it to be true that in Rome there was a woman who was married to her twenty-third husband and she herself was his twenty-first wife. We find even a Roman Emperor Augustus demanding that her husband should divorce the lady Livia when she was with child that he might himself marry her. We find even Cicero, in his old age, putting away his wife Terentia that he might marry a young heiress, whose trustee he was, that he might enter into her estate, in order to pay his debts.77

It is not surprising that the subject of divorce arises in this epistle. The city of Corinth is morally corrupt. Immorality is common practice and generally accepted. Immorality is not shocking to the saints. They somehow are able to embrace a man living immorally with his father’s wife (chapter 5), and Paul finds it necessary to prove that having sexual relations with a prostitute is wrong (chapter 6). Where there is immorality, divorce is not far behind. In addition to immorality in the church at Corinth, divisions and rivalries are also commonplace (1:10ff., etc.). Is it any wonder that division takes place within marriages? If one Christian has no hesitancy to take another to court (6:lff.), should we be shocked that a marriage made in heaven is being dissolved in the law courts?

If divorce is only regarded as the “lesser of two evils” in Corinth, that is bad enough. But a segment of the church goes so far as to view divorce as the spiritual thing to do. Some Corinthian ascetics hold that sex is dirty, even within marriage. The next step is to look upon marriage as evil, something not unheard of in the churches (see 1 Timothy 4:3). If sex and marriage are unspiritual, does this mean that a “spiritual Christian” should seek to be loosed from the bonds of marriage? And what of those who find themselves married to an unbeliever? Paul has written in chapter 6 that the union of a Christian with a pagan prostitute has very serious spiritual implications (6:16ff.). Is a Christian sinning every time he has sexual intercourse with his unbelieving spouse?

Our text is penned by the Apostle Paul to correct the misconceptions and false doctrine some Corinthian church leaders are teaching and some Corinthian Christians are embracing regarding sex and marriage. Paul addresses three different groups in verses 8-16. In verses 8 and 9, Paul writes to those who are unmarried. In verses 10 and 11, the apostle addresses those marriages in which both partners are Christians. Finally, in verses 12-16, Paul writes to those Corinthian Christians whose mates are unsaved.

Paul’s words in verses 6-16 are spoken from three different perspectives, which the apostle clearly identifies, and which we need to keep in mind as we attempt to interpret and apply them. First, Paul speaks from the standpoint of his own personal convictions and preferences in verses 6 and 7. He begins by saying, “But this I say by way of concession, not of command” (verse 6). He then goes on to express that he wishes that all men were as himself. Paul is single as a matter of personal conviction. He desires that all might remain single, like himself, but he knows better. He does not speak with apostolic authority, and those who do not follow his advice are not regarded as disobedient to a divine command. This same perspective is carried on in verses 8 and 9, where Paul reiterates the potential benefit of remaining single and yet urges single saints to marry rather than to burn.

Second, Paul speaks as an apostle of Jesus Christ, who is simply repeating the instructions of the Lord Jesus in verses 10 and 11: “But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, …” (verse 10). Paul is simply reiterating Jesus’ teaching on divorce when he instructs both the Christian husband and the Christian wife not to initiate divorce.

Third, Paul speaks as an apostle of Jesus Christ, but of matters on which our Lord did not give instruction in verses 12-16:But to the rest I say, not the Lord, …” (verse 12). As I understand Paul’s words here, he is saying that he speaks only for himself, and not for the Lord. Paul is saying that his teaching here is apostolic instruction, with full apostolic authority. The difference here is that the subject matter was not taught by our Lord. Paul speaks for our Lord, but he is not repeating instructions which the Lord gave His apostles while on earth. The reason is quite simple. The Jews cannot conceive of a mixed marriage, the marriage of a believer and an unbeliever (or, at least, between a Jew and a Gentile). In Jerusalem and the land of Israel, such a possibility would sound incredible, so why would anyone teach those in a mixed marriage about marriage? But in Corinth, mixed marriages are inevitable after Paul and others proclaim the gospel. No doubt most of these mixed marriages occurred because one of the two unbelieving partners is saved after the commitment of marriage has been made.

With these thoughts in mind, let us listen carefully to Paul to learn what he has to say about marriage and divorce. His words are just as applicable to our own day as to his.

One Sure Solution For Divorce—Don’t Marry
(7:8-9)

But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn (1 Corinthians 7:8-9).

Paul’s words here must be understood in light of the overall teaching of the Bible on marriage and celibate single life. The Lord Jesus, a defender of the sanctity of marriage, says this on marriage and staying single:

9 “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” 10 The disciples said to Him, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.” 11 But He said to them, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 “For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it” (Matthew 19:9-12).

The Jews of Jesus’ day take divorce lightly. They see it not as a kind of necessary evil, but as a right. The only differences between liberal and conservative Jews on divorce are over the reasons for a divorce. The liberal Jews feel divorce can be granted for virtually any reason (see Matthew 19:3). Conservative Jews feel divorce is not quite so easy to obtain, nor can the basis for a divorce be so trivial. Jesus shocks them all with His conservatism, even His disciples.

Jesus refuses to allow His opponents to control the agenda. They do not ask Jesus about the morality of divorce; they only want Him to reveal His views on what grounds are sufficient for a divorce. Jesus refuses to concentrate on the exceptions, but rather dwells on the rule. God never commanded men to divorce. At the very most, God reluctantly allows men to divorce for very limited reasons, due to the hardness of men’s hearts. Jesus goes back to the garden and sets before His questioners God’s ideal for marriage: One man, married to the same woman, for life. What God joins together, no man should dare to separate.

The disciples of our Lord are shocked. They seem to have no idea that Jesus takes such a hard line on divorce. If this is the way it is—that a man should not really enter into marriage thinking he can get out of that union by means of a divorce—then maybe one should not marry at all. Maybe a man should remain single. Jesus does not correct His disciples for reaching this conclusion. Instead, Jesus actually encourages the disciples along the line they are thinking. Jesus makes it clear that His words will not be accepted or applied by many, but that some have, and others will take His teaching seriously. Some men are born as eunuchs, and thus sex (and by inference, marriage) is not a likely alternative. Other men are made eunuchs by men. Perhaps unwillingly, some men are castrated and prohibited from the pleasures of sex and the joys of marriage. But there is a third group, a group which Jesus clearly commends—those who voluntarily choose the celibate lifestyle, not for their own selfish reasons, but for the sake of the kingdom of God. Those who are able to accept and apply this same commitment are encouraged to do so. Jesus, like Paul in our text, advocates staying single as a way of serving God, which some should embrace.

One perspective is that some who are single should contemplate making this a permanent state. But Paul also gives what may initially appear to be contradictory counsel to Timothy, who is ministering to the saints in Ephesus:

11 But refuse to put younger widows on the list, for when they feel sensual desires in disregard of Christ, they want to get married, 12 thus incurring condemnation, because they have set aside their previous pledge. 13 And at the same time they also learn to be idle, as they go around from house to house; and not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things not proper to mention. 14 Therefore, I want younger widows to get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach; 15 for some have already turned aside to follow Satan (1 Timothy 5:11-15).

While Paul gives instructions concerning the permanent support of a very select group of elderly widows in verses 3-10, he specifically prohibits supporting younger widows in verses 11-15. Instead of instructing young widows to stay single, he encourages them to remarry. His logic seems to flow in this manner. If permanent support were provided for younger widows (something like welfare or social security today), then many would be “tempted” to stay single. To be supported by the church, they would rightly feel obliged to make a pledge to stay single (not unlike the vow a nun takes in the Catholic church). As time passes, this young woman would begin to feel the tug of her sexual passions (verse 11). In the words of Paul from 1 Corinthians 7, this young widow would begin to “burn.”78 When a certain Mr. Wonderful comes along, this woman would be tempted to despise her commitment to Christ and to break her vow, thus bringing condemnation upon herself. Further, fully supported by the church, some young widows would be tempted to become busybodies, since they would have a lot of time on their hands. They have neither a family to care for nor a job to consume their time and energies. And so, Paul instructs, let younger widows marry.

Here we have the two extremes. On the one hand, the single life is commended, by our Lord and by the Apostle Paul. On the other, marriage is commended, both by our Lord and by Paul. How can we reconcile these seemingly conflicting instructions?

A similar apparent contradiction is found in the words of our Lord concerning discipleship. On the one hand, Jesus invited men and women to follow Him, to become His disciples. On the other hand, Jesus almost seems to discourage potential followers from becoming His disciples. Both appear to be happening in this text in Luke’s Gospel:

57 And as they were going along the road, someone said to Him, “I will follow You wherever You go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” 59 And He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Permit me first to go and bury my father.” 60 But He said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” 61 And another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” 62 But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:57-62).

Jesus does want men and women to be His disciples, to follow Him. But He does not want half-hearted followers. He knows our hearts, and how easily we can be turned from the path of discipleship. He knows the difficulties and demands of following Him. And so when He invites people to follow Him, He clearly sets out the demands of discipleship. He discourages the faint-hearted from starting on a course which they will not complete. Thus, He both invites people to follow Him, and He discourages people from following Him. The result is that those who do follow Him are more likely to endure, for they have counted the cost of discipleship.

The same is true of purposing to stay single. The Bible encourages some to stay single, as the most effective way to serve God. Yet the Bible also discourages men and women from staying single, knowing that many who commit themselves to such a life will not keep it and will bring condemnation upon themselves. The result is that those few who choose to follow Christ by staying single are those who are most committed to doing so, and thus are the most likely to persevere in their commitment to a celibate single lifestyle.

The satisfaction of our God-given sexual desires within the context of marriage is wholesome and good. There is no intrinsic merit in the suppression of sexual desire. If sexual fulfillment (a definite “good”) is voluntarily set aside for the purpose of ministering to others, even as our Lord did, then celibacy is better. If one’s service as a celibate is one of constant preoccupation with sexual desires, marriage is the better way. It is surely better to marry and be sexually pure than to fall into sexual immorality.

I am convinced that Paul’s words here are not intended to keep most Christians from marrying nor to place a stigma on those who do. Yet they have great value for every Christian who is not yet married. While it is less true today than in times past, marriage has been considered the norm, and any who did not get married felt a strong pressure to do so. The implication of Paul’s advice here is that no Christian should assume that marriage is the path God would have for them. Both the benefits and the liabilities of marriage should be carefully weighed. Can a couple say with genuine conviction that God has led them to marry and that their marriage will enhance their ministry rather than restrict it? There would be fewer divorces among Christians if couples gave more consideration to the cost and commitments of marriage before saying, “I do.” While some Christian young people may be reluctant to admit it, strong sexual passion is a very good reason for marriage, but let them be certain to marry a godly mate.

Before leaving these verses, let us consider the practical implications of what Paul has just said. He certainly indicates that marriage is not sin. In fact, marriage may be instrumental in keeping a saint from sin. Remaining single can be a very beneficial means to serving God, for those who have the self-control to handle their sexual passions. Yet it can prove to be a temptation greater than some can handle, if they lack sufficient self-control.

Paul’s teaching is liberating in the sense that it removes the social stigma some feel if they remain single. In my college days, this stigma created what was known as “senior panic,” the phenomenon which occurred primarily among senior class single women who saw no immediate prospects for marriage. To those who are single, Paul’s words mean they can rejoice in the freedom being single gives them to serve God. Neither those who are single, nor those who are married, should see themselves as any more spiritual than the rest. Whether single or married, we are to serve the Lord and to seek His glory. Being single or being married should be viewed the way Paul looks at living or dying in Philippians 1. Either option has its benefits and blessings. Consequently, there is no need to agonize over one’s marital state, but rather we should seek to serve the Lord, whether married or single.

When I counsel with couples who are looking toward getting married, I like to challenge them to consider Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7. Paul puts marriage into perspective in this chapter. He makes it clear that marriage is neither unspiritual, nor is it heaven on earth. Marriage is a liberty which some Christians will exercise to the glory of God, but which some Christians may forego to the glory of God. Marriage is not the key to happiness, to significance, even to spirituality. A person who thinks they cannot be happy without marriage is the man and woman who should seriously consider staying single as an option. The one who will most benefit from marriage is the one who does not feel compelled to marry to find happiness or joy in this life. In the Christian life, it is the one who gives up his life who gains it.

Counsel For Christian Couples
(7:10-11)

10 But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband 11 (but if she does leave, let her remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not send his wife away.

There are two distinct groups in Corinth who need counsel regarding the Christian and divorce: (1) Christian couples, where both husband and wife are believers in Jesus Christ; and (2) “mixed marriages,” where one of the two partners has come to faith in Christ after marriage. Verses 10-11 address the first group. It may be that the ascetics who so forcefully condemned sex (see 1 Corinthians 7:1) also forbade marriage. This is most certainly the case in Ephesus:

1 But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, 3 men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods, which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; 5 for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:1-5).

This may also be the teaching in Corinth, which is held by some. If this is the case, it is easy to see why Paul must speak to the Christian couples in Corinth concerning divorce. If staying single is what it takes to be spiritual, then does this mean Christian couples should terminate their marriages? If such action is considered spiritual, does this provide an easy (even spiritual) out for those who are weary of their marriage? Divorce is certainly a culturally acceptable option in Corinth. Paul’s words to Christian couples regarding divorce are clear, concise, and authoritative.

Paul’s words on divorce can be summed up by several statements, enumerated below:

(1) Paul’s teaching on divorce is not his own, but that of the Lord Jesus Christ. Whatever we make of Paul’s other statements, nothing could be more clear in verses 10 and 11 than that Paul teaches with the authority of our Lord. Paul is teaching what Jesus taught. Those who like to read Paul’s instructions as those of an eccentric bachelor dare not do so here.

(2) Paul’s teaching here is addressed to Christian couples, those marriages in which both husband and wife trust in Jesus Christ.

(3) Paul’s teaching in these verses is mutual—what he teaches the husbands, he applies as well to the wives. Paul is not a chauvinist here (or elsewhere). He repeatedly states that what is good for the husband is good for the wife, and vice-versa.

(4) Paul teaches both Christian husbands and Christian wives that they are not to initiate a severing of their marital union. This statement requires some clarification and expansion. No Christian mate can control the actions of the other. Thus, it is possible that one mate may forsake the marriage, even though he or she is a believer. Paul speaks to each in terms of the sphere of their control and responsibility. They, on their part, are not to sever the marital union. This initiation of a severance is not to be taken in a narrow sense. Paul is not just forbidding the Christian spouse to file for a divorce first. He is not just prohibiting one mate from packing up and leaving the other. He is instructing each mate to do everything in his or her power to keep the marriage alive and well. A mate who disobeys Paul’s teaching in the previous verses may withhold sex from the other partner and thus tempt him or her to be unfaithful, or to initiate the divorce. We should never be the cause of our partner’s departure.

Further, when Paul forbids terminating the marriage, he forbids both separation and divorce. All too often, I hear Christians acknowledge that divorce is forbidden, and then proceed to encourage someone in a troubled marriage to separate. Their thinking is that divorce is one thing, and separation is quite another. I believe Paul clearly differs. Paul employs two different terms in verses 10 and 11, when he forbids the termination of marriage. In the NASB, the first term is translated “leave,” with a marginal note which indicates the literal meaning is “depart from.” The same term occurs at the beginning of verse 11. This same word is employed by our Lord in His teaching on divorce: “Consequently they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matthew 19:6, emphasis mine). But when Paul speaks specifically to husbands at the end of verse 11, he employs a term which is rendered by the expression, “send her away” (with a marginal note indicating the alternative, “leave her”). In the vernacular of our times, Paul is forbidding women both separation and divorce.

In Paul’s day, it may be technically true that both women and men could obtain a divorce. Practically speaking, however, I am convinced it is much easier for the husband to divorce his wife than for the wife to divorce her husband. In my opinion, the woman’s escape from an unsuccessful marriage would often be by simply leaving, without any divorce. The husband would more likely, more easily, and more frequently be the one who divorced his wife. Either way, Paul does not distinguish between separation and divorce.

I have seen a number of Christian couples separate, and I must say that it is not only unbiblical, it is counter-productive. Separations do not pave the way for reconciliation; they pave the way for a divorce. Quite frankly, those who separate are happier apart. Life is easier. The tensions and conflicts are removed, but the problems with the relationship are not solved. Very often, the mate that separates justifies their actions by insisting that they don’t intend to divorce, but nearly always this is the outcome. All too often, separation is employed as a bargaining tool, as a means of forcing the other partner to do what the separating partner dictates.

Paul sees a marital union where the two partners live separately as a broken union, and even worse, as a broken vow. So does our Lord. In the words of our Lord, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” To live apart is to live in disobedience.

A question may now be in your mind: “Is it never permissible to leave, even when the wife is in physical danger?” It may be permissible, even advisable, for a wife to temporarily leave, so as not to expose herself or her children to physical harm from an abusive (often when drunk) husband and father. Leaving for the evening or for the night is not the same as separation, however. The motive must be carefully considered. Very often, the danger is not as great as feared or represented. Abuse has become a “lion in the road” for many, a compelling excuse for disobeying God’s command. It may be that the wife should call the police. Certainly she should follow the teaching of Matthew 18:15-20. But too often the “violence” which seems to justify the wife’s separation is the result of provocation on the part of the “abused” partner.

(5) In these verses, Paul mentions no exceptions to his prohibition on terminating marriage. Paul’s words are clear and emphatic to Christian couples: “Don’t divorce and don’t separate—period!” He gives no exceptions here. This does not necessarily prove that there are no exceptions, no reasons why a Christian can divorce. It does underscore the fact that divorce is, at best, the exception to the rule, and Paul is here emphasizing the rule. It is much the same in Matthew 19, where the scribes and Pharisees quizzed Jesus on the reasons for divorce. Jesus knew that His questioners had made the exception the rule, and thus he refused to talk about exceptions, but rather stressed the ideal, as viewed from the original marriage of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God intended a man and a woman to be joined together as one flesh for life. What God has joined, let no man separate. So it is with Paul. In a city and a church where divorce is not only permissible, but where some think it “spiritual,” Paul does not wish to emphasize the exceptions to the rule. Even where divorce may be an alternative, it is only permitted as a kind of necessary evil, given the fallen state of sinful men.

(6) Paul does not mean for us to view the first part of verse 11 as an exception, although many Bible students interpret his words as an exception. Someone is sure to object to my contention that Paul makes no exceptions in this passage. It may appear that this is exactly what Paul does when he writes,

10 But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband 11 (but if she does leave, let her remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband),…

Some view this parenthetical statement in verse 11 as a kind of exception to what was written in verse 10 and the latter part of verse 11. We are told that Paul knew some would not (or could not) keep this command.79 In answer to the hypothetical question, “What if I do get a divorce, anyway?,” Paul is thought to have responded, “Then at least remain single, or be reconciled to your husband.” I find it difficult to accept this view even though the translations of both the NASV and the NIV seem to reflect it.80 Why does Paul make such a strong statement forbidding divorce for a Christian couple only to parenthetically undercut his instruction by suggesting an alternative course of action for those who decide not to obey? I cannot believe Paul is saying, in effect, “Don’t ever divorce; but if you do anyway, then don’t remarry unless it is to your estranged mate.”

This is exactly the kind of logic we strongly protest today. When our children are taught sex education in the public schools, at best they are told, “Don’t have premarital sex, but if you do, use a condom.” We argue that advocating the use of condoms is accepting and even advocating premarital sex. I agree. And I would point out that viewing Paul’s teaching in verse 11 as an exception also encourages the divorce which Paul has just prohibited.

There are at least two solutions to the problem of interpreting Paul’s words at the beginning of verse 11. First, we can stress the passive voice of the verb “to separate” (Greek, choridzo) so that the initiative taken is by the other mate: “If it should happen that you are divorced (by the other), then don’t marry again; or be reunited with your mate if possible.” A second possibility is to see the grammatical construction as exceptional, and stress the fact that this separation or divorce is not a hypothetical possibility for the future, but a historical fact: “But if she is separated from him she should either remain unattached or else be reconciled to her husband” (Phillips); “But if she be already separated from him…” (Conybeare). The latter solution is held by a number of biblical scholars, including Bishop Ellicott: “The apostle, in case such separation should already have taken place, anticipates the difficult question which might then arise by parenthetically remarking that in such a case the woman must not marry again, but ought to be reunited to her former husband.”81

It is easy to understand why such a question has arisen in the church. What about those who have already divorced? It is too late to avoid a divorce. So what should they do now? Paul’s words are intended to help such people make the best of their situation. They should not remarry, for that would be adultery. They must remain single or be rejoined to their former mate.

Paul’s position on divorce is but a reiteration of our Lord’s teaching on the subject. Among Christians, divorce should not even be considered as an option. Granted, divorce is permissible in the case of immorality, but it is never something in which God delights; it is something God tolerates, due to the hardness of men’s hearts. Divorce is not a license for the wicked to sin by forsaking their vows and their mate; it is a protection for the “innocent” partner, making legal provision for their remarriage. If the other partner chooses to disregard biblical teaching, they may pursue a divorce, which is beyond the obedient Christian’s control. If the disobedient partner divorces and marries another, I believe both Paul and our Lord would agree that the “innocent party” (or at least the offended party) has the freedom to remarry for two reasons: (1) the marital union has already been broken by the other party’s adultery, and (2) remarriage to the partner who initiates the divorce is impossible once that partner has married another (Deuteronomy 24). Like Jesus, Paul would have every Christian seriously consider the possibility of living the single life. If one marries after this consideration, it should be based on a clear conviction that the marriage will promote God’s purposes and enhance the ministry of both (compare Matthew 19:10-12 with 1 Corinthians 7:1, 6-9, 25ff.):

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).

A Message For Those With Mixed Marriages
(7:12-16)

12 But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, let him not send her away. 13 And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, let her not send her husband away. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. 15 Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. 16 For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?

The “super spiritual” ascetics must have a hand in this matter. They might be willing to grant that a marriage between Christian mates should (or at least could) be maintained (preferably without sex—see 7:1-5). But for a Christian to be married to an unbeliever is another matter. How can a Christian remain in a marriage union with an unbeliever? Does the Old Testament Law not forbid mixed marriages? Does Paul not teach the same (see 1 Corinthians 7:39; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18)? How then can a Christian be married to an unbeliever?

There is a great deal of difference between entering into a marriage with an unbeliever—and staying in a marriage where one’s mate is an unbeliever. Paul’s teaching elsewhere speaks to those who have not yet entered into an unequal yoke.82 Here, Paul speaks to those who are already married. The assumption is that there was not an unequal yoke at the time of the marriage, as both were unbelievers. Now, one has come to faith in Jesus Christ, and the result is that the marriage union is not the same. But the principle which should guide the believer who is married to an unbeliever while unsaved is three times repeated in the following verses:

Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And thus I direct in all the churches (1 Corinthians 7:17).

Let each man remain in that condition in which he was called (1 Corinthians 7:20).

Brethren, let each man remain with God in that condition in which he was called (1 Corinthians 7:24).

In contemporary terms, marriage is a pre-existing condition. Such conditions as those in which one is found at the time of conversion should be maintained as a believer.83

Paul gives pointed application to this principle in verses 12-16. In verses 12-14, Paul urges the believing marriage partner to do all he or she can to preserve the marriage. This is because the teaching of the ascetics is exactly opposite the truth. The believing partner and the children of this mixed marriage are not defiled by the presence of the unbeliever. To the contrary, the unbelieving partner and the children of the union are “sanctified” by the presence of the believing partner.

Just what does Paul mean by the term “sanctification”? This is a matter of considerable discussion. It is generally agreed that Paul is not teaching that the unsaved partner is somehow saved by the faith of the other. Some go to considerable lengths to find scriptural grounds for infant baptism,84 a most difficult feat. Paul seems to desire to communicate in general terms that there are spiritual benefits for the one who chooses to remain married to a believing partner, even though this person is unsaved.

The term “sanctify” is often used in a general way, not referring to salvation. In I Timothy 4:5, Paul teaches that foods once prohibited (and still forbidden by some) are “sanctified” by means of the Word of God and prayer (cf. also Acts 10:9-16). In the Old Testament, contact with the “holy” altar rendered the things which touched it holy: “For seven days you shall make atonement for the altar and consecrate it; then the altar shall be most holy, and whatever touches the altar shall be holy” (Exodus 29:37; cf. Leviticus 6:18). Those who came into close proximity with God’s people experienced God’s blessing: “And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3); So the LORD said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare the whole place on their account” (Genesis 18:26). Because of Joseph, Potiphar and Pharaoh were blessed (Genesis 39:5, 47:13-26).

I take it then that the unbelieving husband or wife participates in what might be called the fringe benefits of the salvation of the believing mate.85 If the unbelieving partner were not “sanctified” by the marital union with the Christian, there would be serious consequences for the children resulting from the union. In Paul’s words, “Otherwise your children are unclean” (verse 14). Paul reasons that if marriage to an unbeliever in some way defiles the believing mate, it must also defile the children of that union. But since the unbeliever is blessed in the believer, so also are the children. Remaining married to an unbeliever has no negative connotations for the believing partner or the children, but there are distinct advantages for the unbeliever. There is, therefore, no good reason for the believer to seek to dissolve the marriage. All of this, however, is contingent on the desire of the unbeliever to remain married (cf. verses 12-13). What is the Christian partner to do if the unbeliever wishes to terminate the marriage? Verses 15 and 16 answer this question:

Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. For how do you know, 0 wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, 0 husband, whether you will save your wife? (1 Corinthians 7:15-16).

Paul makes no attempt to instruct the unbeliever; he only seeks to reassure the Christian whose mate wishes to dissolve the marriage. While the believer should not initiate a divorce, neither should the Christian aggressively attempt to resist it when initiated by the unbeliever. In circumstances where the unbeliever acquires a divorce, the believing partner is no longer under bondage (verse 15). Just what is meant by this is a matter of dispute. Certainly the believer who is divorced is no longer bound to the duties of marriage. So too the believer is no longer under obligation to maintain the marriage. I understand that Paul is saying, beyond this, that the believing partner is loosed from the marriage (especially in the case where the unbeliever remarries) and is morally free to remarry if so desired. If the unbeliever who has pursued the divorce has married another, there is no way the original husband or wife could remarry that one (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). If the unbeliever should wish to be rejoined to the believing partner, there is the question of whether or not that believer should now become unequally yoked to an unbeliever, and to have an unbeliever as the head of the home. I take it that Paul assumes the unbeliever has divorced in order to remarry, and under these conditions, the Christian is clearly free to remarry, “only in the Lord” (verse 39).

The reason the Christian should not “put up a fight” to resist the divorce seems to be twofold: First, the Christian “has been called in peace” (verse 15), and second, forceful efforts to save a mate by resisting divorce are likely to be unfruitful (verse 16). Paul does not say that the Christian is called to peace, as many versions suggest, but that we have been called in peace (the Greek-word is en, not eis). Those who say that we are called to peace may be overlooking the words of our Lord:

“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life shall lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake shall find it” (Matthew 10:34-39).

The gospel often creates adversity and animosity. If the world hated our Lord, it will also reject us (John 15:18-19).

Paul is calling our attention to the manner in which we were brought to the Lord. There is a sense in which our salvation was neither peaceful nor gentle. Paul’s conversion, for example, was not a peaceful experience. He was stopped dead in his tracks and dramatically turned about—converted (cf. Acts 9:1-19). Before we are saved, our spirits may be deeply troubled, convicted by the Spirit of God. Our lives may be in shambles and chaos. God aggressively draws us to Himself. Nevertheless, those instruments through whom the gospel is proclaimed are usually gentle. It is not by means of their forcefulness or pushiness that we are converted. This is especially true when it comes to the conversion of an unsaved mate:

In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior. And let not your adornment be external only—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, and putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God (I Peter 3:1-4).

The meaning of Paul’s words comes to this: “If your unbelieving mate is willing to live with you, don’t you in any way attempt to terminate the marriage. There is benefit for all if he remains. But if he or she is determined to depart, don’t create a situation of strife and turmoil, for this kind of setting is not that which enhances your witness. Surely you don’t think that a fight over the divorce will save the lost, do you?” 86

Conclusion

This text teaches us that God takes marriage seriously, and so should we. It is, in part, because God ordained the institution of marriage, and He did so as a permanent union of a man and a woman, a union which no one should separate. We should not initiate separation or divorce because our Lord and His apostles thus commanded us.

There is another reason why marriage is so important. Marriage is a symbol of something much greater. If you remember the story in the Book of Numbers (15:32-36), a man was caught gathering wood for the fire on the Sabbath. The people inquired of Moses as to what they should do. I do not think it was because the Law was unclear, but rather because they may have thought the punishment for such an act was too severe. Moses instructed the Israelites to stone the man. Why was God so harsh as to require a man’s life for gathering wood? The Sabbath was the sign of the Mosaic Covenant. To break the Sabbath was a capital crime because it symbolized the breaking of the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai.

In the same way, marriage is a symbol.

22 Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. 24 But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her; 26 that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless. 28 So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; 29 for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, 30 because we are members of His body. 31 For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh. 32 This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. 33 Nevertheless let each individual among you also love his own wife even as himself; and let the wife see to it that she respect her husband (Ephesians 5:22-33).

How spiritual it seemed to the ascetics of Corinth to forsake their marriages and to live the life of a celibate. The only problem is that marriage is a divinely ordained institution, an institution God ordained at the beginning of creation, an institution whose true meaning and significance was not realized until after the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ (this is why Paul calls it a “mystery”). The way Christians conduct themselves in marriage is a picture to the world of the relationship of Christ and His church (those believers in Christ who make up His body, the church). For one to forsake his or her mate is to portray a false message of Christ’s faithfulness to His bride, and the faithfulness of the bride to Christ.

Some pride themselves for not obtaining a divorce, while looking down upon those who are divorced. Such pride is ill-founded. Let me indicate two reasons why this is so. First, divorce is not always the result of sin; it is sometimes the result of righteousness. Verses 14-16 speak of a divorce which is initiated by the unbelieving partner in a marriage. The implication is very clear that the reason the unbeliever is departing from the marriage is that the other partner is a believer. The unbeliever no longer wants to remain in the marriage because of the righteousness of the other partner. We dare not think or imply that wherever there is divorce there is sin on the part of both partners. Neither partner is ever free from sin; but there are divorces that are the result of righteousness, and not of sin, at least on the part of the believing partner.

Second, a marriage that merely exists, but which lacks the love, intimacy, and joy of a godly marriage, is an offense to the One who first instituted marriage in the Garden of Eden. Quite frankly, there are all too many marriages like this, both outside and inside the church. The marriage may be legally intact, but the relationship is virtually dead. Divorce is like a death certificate—it pronounces someone to be legally dead. A decree of divorce pronounces a marriage to be legally dead. There are a good many marriages around—even in the church—which are functionally dead, even though they have never been legally declared dead by a certificate of divorce. While divorce is often a sin, a sub-standard marriage is likewise a sin. Our Lord intended Christian marriage to reflect the love and intimate relationship which exists between Jesus Christ and His bride, the church (the body of all true believers). Texts like Ephesians 5:22-33 spell out the responsibilities of both the husband and the wife, so that the spiritual union of Christ and His bride may be displayed through the earthly relationship of a husband and his wife. When a marriage is dead or dying, it reflects badly on our Lord and His relationship with His church. This is a most serious offense. Let no one take pride for having avoided divorce who has likewise avoided striving in the power of the Spirit to manifest Christ in their marriage.

Don’t be so sure that your marriage is as healthy as you think. Many of those with whom I have dealt in this ugly matter of divorce have not had so much as a clue to the desperate condition of their marriage—until it was too late. How is your communication with your mate? Are you able to talk frequently and openly with your spouse about deeply personal matters? Or is your conversation just over routine things—what’s for dinner, who’s picking up the kids, and so on? Complacency and taking the other for granted is lethal to a marriage. Do not assume that your marriage is going as well as you would like to think.

Our text challenges those who are single. Many of those who are single are “unhappily unmarried.” They have not chosen to live their lives to the glory of God by remaining single; they are single because no one has made them a better offer (of marriage). Paul challenges every single person to be content in their single state. The single person should not see marriage as the key to happiness or fulfillment, just as the married person should not see the single life as the key to happiness. People who are content with their present state are those who have the greatest freedom to choose marriage or the single life, and who can be content with either, knowing that in either state, they can serve and glorify God. The one who is desperate to marry is in danger of jumping at anything, of grasping at any straw. The one who is content as a single will take a more careful look at the possibility of marriage, knowing it is not something which they must have to be happy and fulfilled.

The fact that marriage is a permanent commitment which is not meant to be broken should cause every person considering marriage to enter into that union as a life-long covenant. If, as our Lord’s disciples reason, it is better “not to marry,” then this is just one more cause for considering the bonds of marriage most carefully. And if divorce is not God’s “escape hatch” for unhappy marriages, and permanence is the standard, this should provide a strong incentive for every Christian to strive to make their marriage work, and if it is not working, to endeavor by God’s grace to mend and reconcile the relationship. Being married is something like owning a car: If you can’t replace it, then the only option is to maintain it.

There are undoubtedly those who may read this message who have already gone through divorce. You must know that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), and you should know as well that our Lord permits divorce in very restricted circumstances. Neither our Lord nor Paul ever encourage anyone to divorce. Having said this, it may be that your divorce was unbiblical. The good news is that God forgives sinners. He dealt graciously with a woman caught in the act of adultery:

3 And the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the midst, 4 they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. 5 “Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?” 6 And they were saying this, testing Him, in order that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down, and with His finger wrote on the ground. 7 But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And again He stooped down, and wrote on the ground. 9 And when they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the midst. 10 And straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” 11 And she said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go your way. From now on sin no more” (John 8:3-11).

Paul has just reminded the Corinthians of their past, and that it is past:

9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

For those who have sinned as unbelievers, the cross of Christ makes us new creatures, with a bright future and a forgiven past:

Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come (2 Corinthians 5:17).

If we are believers in Jesus Christ and have sinned as Christians, our sins may be forgiven, by simply repenting of them and confessing them to God:

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

I must warn you that having heard Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7 makes you more accountable for your actions regarding marriage and divorce. The most dangerous sin of all for the Christian is the sin which is willfully committed, on the presumption that God is obligated to forgive us. The presumptuous sin is one which is committed with the presumption that God must forgive us for our sins, even the ones which we are about to do, knowing they are rebellion against God. This is the kind of sin I believe the writer to the Hebrews warns against:

4 For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame. 7 For ground that drinks the rain which often falls upon it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; 8 but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned (Hebrews 6:4-8).

26 For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” 31 It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:26-31).

Let us then sum up what Paul has said to us in the verses we have considered: Those who are truly spiritual will give serious thought to whether or not they should marry. The crucial issue is not our happiness, but our holiness, and bringing glory to God by serving Him. Christian couples should not think of divorce as an option, as an “out” from an unhappy marriage. Each partner should be committed to the other, seeking to grow together in love and intimacy, thereby glorifying God through their marriage. Those who are married to an unbeliever should do everything they can to maintain the marriage, knowing that this union can be a blessing to the unbelieving mate and the children of that union. If the unbeliever insists upon leaving the marriage, we must not seek to preserve the union by force, knowing that it is God who saves, and that He does so in peace.


77 William Barclay, The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958), p. 202.

78 The “burning” of which Paul speaks is most likely the burning of unfulfilled sexual passion. This is a picturesque way of describing the tremendous sexual frustration of a celibate Christian and the distraction from ministry this creates. In II Corinthians 11:29, Paul employs the same term, “to burn” (Greek, puroo), to express his intense concern over the spiritual welfare of another Christian who is led into sin.

Some think this burning in verse 9 refers to the penalty faced by those who try to remain celibate, but as a result fall into sexual sin. There may be evidence to support the fact that the Jews believed the flames of Gehenna were for the immoral. For example, Bruce cites from Jewish sources, “… where the wise men say, ‘Whosoever multiplies conversation with a woman…will in the end inherit Gehenna.’… Or elsewhere, where Rab says to R. Judah as they are walking along a road and see a woman walking ahead of them, ‘Hurry up and get in front of Gehenna’ (i.e. get in front of that woman so that, out of sight, she may also be out of mind).” F. F. Bruce, I and II Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), p. 68. As interesting as it may be, this conception of “burning” does not appear to be what Paul is referring to in this passage.

79 Leon Morris, for example, says that Paul’s statement in verse 11 envisages the possibility of disobedience to this injunction (or perhaps of the action of the husband).” Leon Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), pp. 108-109.

80 The NIV and the NASV have rendered verse 11 as the grammatical construction would usually be taken. There are exceptions to this, however, and this seems to be the place for one of them. Why would Paul instruct a Christian couple not to divorce, fail to mention so much as one exception, and then give the impression that there is an alternative course of action for any who would choose to disobey his instruction?

81 Charles Ellicott, ed., St. Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians (London: Cassell & Company, n.d.), I, p. 57. The translation and explanation which I favor can be found in Henry Alford, The Greek Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1968), II, P. 523; The Twentieth Century New Testament (Moody Bible Institute), as cited in The New Testament from 26 Translations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967); and W. Robertson Nicoll, ed., The Expositor’s Greek Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974 [reprint]), II, p. 825. From fn. 2 above, it is evident that Morris also leaves room for this interpretation.

82 I do not understand the principle focus of Paul’s words here to be marriage, but rather to refer to unequal associations with unbelievers in doing the work of God.

83 There are qualifications and exceptions to this principle, but this is the guiding principle, and exceptions are just that—exceptions.

84 Cf. Frederic Louis Godet, Commentary on First Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1977 [reprint]), pp. 34lff.

85 “But it is a scriptural principle that the blessings arising from fellowship with God are not confined to the immediate recipients, but extend to others.…” Morris, p. 110.

86 The Greek expression used in verse 16 is employed at times in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, in a way that suggests hope for a positive result, almost with the sense of “perhaps” (cf. 2 Samuel 12:22; Esther 4:14; Joel 2:14; Jonah 3:9). Because of this, some commentators think Paul is encouraging the saved mate to persevere, striving to save the marriage so as to save the lost partner. Bruce, for example, takes this position (p. 70). In the context of this verse, Paul is saying that one ought not resist the departure of the unbelieving mate, so the opposite sense is implied.

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13. Spirituality and the Status Quo (1 Cor. 7:17-24)

Introduction

Today we begin a new year, the time when many reflect on the past, and purpose to do some things differently in the future. These changes are often referred to as “New Year’s resolutions.” One of the reasons we make resolutions is that in our nation, we have the freedom to make changes. Think of the many ways in which Americans have the option to change. We can change jobs, or churches, houses, or cars. Many Americans change their life’s mate by divorce and remarriage. Upward mobility gives those who are hard-working (and fortunate) the chance to change their social and economic status. Some people even choose to change sex!

Change is a vital part of American life. Why do millions of Texans (and those in other states as well) choose to buy lottery tickets? They hope to spend a very little amount of money and make a great deal of money by winning the lottery. The underlying reason people try to win the lottery is that becoming rich will enable them to change their way of life (which is not always for the better, as history has shown).

Much of politics is about change. It may not be accurate to make these distinctions between the two dominant parties—Republican and Democratic—but rather between political conservatives and political liberals. Liberals like to think of themselves as progressives, and therefore tend to be much more inclined to seek change. Conservatives think of themselves as those who “conserve” what is best, rather than moving from one experiment to another. Conservatives do not want change, but stability. If they want change, it is to return to values, policies, and structures which have been set aside by the liberals.

The current theological debate among evangelicals is over what is called the “lordship salvation issue.” Believe it or not, the debate is really over change. One side of the debate seeks to defend their understanding of grace (as opposed to “law” or “works”) by insisting that one can be truly saved, and yet not manifest outward changes of conversion. The other side, seeking to distinguish “living faith” (a faith that produces works) from “dead faith” (a faith without works—see James 2:14-26), insists that there must be some change in a person’s life if we are to be confident that genuine conversion has occurred.

Our text is about change—but not just any change. Paul is not resisting just any kind of change here. He is speaking of a preoccupation with changing one’s status. Paul cannot be opposed to all change, for conversion is a radical change.

Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come (2 Corinthians 5:17).

1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest (Ephesians 2:1-3).

But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:13).

For you were formerly darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light (Ephesians 5:8).

And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions (Colossians 2:13).

Salvation is a radical change, from darkness to light, from death to life, from being under condemnation to being justified. What starts at salvation continues through the process of sanctification:

5 Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. 6 For it is on account of these things that the wrath of God will come, 7 and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, 10 and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him (Colossians 3:5-10; see also Ephesians 4:17-24).

In this sense, the Christian should never be content with his or her spiritual status, but should always be pressing on to greater maturity:

10 That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11 in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. 13 Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; 16 however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained (Philippians 3:10-16; see also 2 Peter 1:2-11).

The change Paul speaks about is social in nature, rather than spiritual. At the beginning of this Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul calls the Corinthians’ attention to their humble state at the time of their calling:87

26 For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; 27 but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, 28 and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, 29 that no man should boast before God (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).

In spite of their humble beginnings, the Corinthians have become puffed up and arrogant. There are cliques and factions, and the Corinthians take pride in their leaders and in their superior wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:11-12; 3:3; 4:6-7). The Corinthians have even come to look down upon Paul. They look upon themselves as having arrived, and they disdain Paul because, to the world, he appears to be weak, foolish, and dishonored (4:8-13). They are no longer content to be “weak” or “foolish,” even though this was their condition when called. They are no longer willing to hold to apostolic doctrine alone as the truth, but are impressed with that which the world regards as wisdom. Is it any wonder that Paul finds it necessary to instruct these status-seekers to be content with their worldly status because change is irrelevant?

In the immediate context of chapter 7, Paul has been writing to the Corinthians concerning sex, marriage, and divorce. The ascetics in the church at Corinth seem to take pride in the fact that they disdain and avoid sex altogether. Their banner seems to be, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (verse 1). They apply this principle to those who are married. From this extreme, it is only a short distance to disdaining marriage altogether, so that some Christian couples are seriously considering divorce. And those involved in mixed marriages feel even more justified in abandoning their marriages. In verses 8-16, Paul instructs Christian couples to avoid divorce or separation, and he urges the Christian partner in a mixed marriage to do everything possible to preserve the marriage. The believing partner is not defiled in so doing, but is a blessing to the unbelieving mate and the children.

Paul’s words regarding change, recorded in verses 17-24, follow immediately. When Paul completes this paragraph, he immediately returns to the subject of marriage throughout the remainder of the chapter (verses 25-40). While it may initially appear that Paul’s teaching on change in verses 17-24 is some kind of digression, nothing could be further from the truth. The first word of verse 17, “only” connects the paragraph to something earlier, but in a way that contrasts with it.88 Paul is thus linking this paragraph with his previous instruction. Furthermore, it is not difficult to see how Paul’s teaching on change relates to what he has taught earlier in the chapter. Some of the Corinthians suppose that changing their relationships will make them more spiritual. Wouldn’t a Christian couple who abstains from sex altogether be more spiritual than a couple who enjoys a sexual relationship? Wouldn’t one who forsook marriage for the higher calling of serving God be more spiritual than one who remains fettered by marriage? Paul’s answer is an emphatic “No!” The spiritual Christian is the one who maintains the marital commitments in which he or she was found at the time of their salvation.

The Structure of the Text

The structure and emphasis of our text are very clear, as evident in the arrangement below:

17 Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And thus I direct in all the churches.

 

18 Was any man called already circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? Let him not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God.

20 Let each man remain in that condition in which he was called.

 

21 Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. 22 For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.

24 Brethren, let each man remain with God in that condition in which he was called.

Three times Paul repeats the principle that Christians are to remain in the condition in which they were found at the time of their salvation, with only slight variations. Interspersed are two specific illustrations of the principle. The first is that of circumcision; the second is that of slavery. Let us consider this principle and its implications for twentieth century Christians.

Keeping Within One’s Calling
(7:17-19)

17 Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And thus I direct in all the churches. 18 Was any man called already circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? Let him not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God.

Paul’s words are a command, one he says is universal and taught by him in every church. Christians are to remain in that condition in which they were called. This most certainly does not mean that a converted bank robber continues in a life of crime, nor that a converted prostitute persists in her trade. You may remember that our Lord told the adulterous woman, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). But Paul is saying to those who have become status conscious not to fix their attention or their energies on an upward change of status.

Paul emphatically states that God has sovereignly assigned each believer with a station in life, and it is from this station that they are to serve Him. Our “place” in this world is not a matter of chance, or simply the result of racial or economic or social bias (though these may well be factors). Our place in this world has been assigned to us by none other than our Lord. We know that place because it is the station in life we held at the time of our calling to faith. And this “calling” is to service, as well as to salvation.89 This calling is to serve God where we are. When our Lord delivered the demoniac from his bondage, this man pled with Him to accompany Him when He departed. Our Lord denied this request, instructing him to, “Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19).

As a general rule, we have been called at a certain point in time, within a particular culture, and with a particular social station in life. It is in this setting that we are to begin to live out our faith and to fulfill our calling. That is precisely what Paul did. Throughout his life (as described in the Book of Acts), Paul continued to bear testimony to Christ and to his own conversion, not only to Gentiles, but to Jews, in particular to radical Jews who opposed the gospel, Jews just like Paul himself once was.

How amazing and assuring it is to realize that God has prepared us before our conversion to be, and to do, what He has purposed for us after our conversion. All of the events and factors which shaped us as unbelievers are a part of the divine plan, a part of our calling. Dr. S. Lewis Johnson was for many years the chairman of the New Testament (Greek) Department of Dallas Theological Seminary. He chose to major in Greek when he was an unbeliever in college. He did so because this subject best freed up his schedule to pursue golfing. God orchestrates the shaping events and elements in our lives before we are saved, to equip us to minister when we are saved. Knowing this, we ought not attempt to bury all that we were at the time of our conversion, but rather to build on it.

Paul illustrates his point by turning to the issue of circumcision. Circumcision is a status symbol for the Jews. One is highly regarded or disdained (by Jews) simply on the basis of whether one has been circumcised. On the other hand, there have always been Gentiles who are biased against those who are Jews. Circumcision is no status symbol (nor was the Star of David) in Germany when Hitler ruled. Consequently, while there may be a pro-Jewish faction in Corinth,90 there is likely an anti-Jewish faction as well. Those who seek the approval of this group will not want circumcision. But if they are already circumcised, they might be tempted to try to remove the evidences of circumcision. In fact, some actually underwent a surgical procedure to attempt to mask their earlier circumcision.91

Paul counters the inclination to change one’s status by undergoing or concealing circumcision. It simply does not matter. Some of the Corinthians have come to measure spirituality in terms of circumcision, whether by its presence or its absence. Paul teaches us that spirituality has nothing to do with circumcision. Circumcision was a sign of the Abrahamic Covenant, instituted during the life of Abraham (Genesis 17:1-14), and it was also required by the Law of Moses (Exodus 4:26; Leviticus 12:3). It was required of those Gentiles who wanted to enter into the religion of Israel (Exodus 12:44, 48). Circumcision was a symbol of what should and must take place in the heart (Deuteronomy 10:16). God promised to circumcise the hearts of His people, so that they would love His Law and obey it from the heart (Deuteronomy 30:6). The New Testament makes it clear that circumcision as a rite has been superseded by the reality which it symbolized:

9 For in Him all the fulness of Deity dwells in bodily form, 10 and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; 11 and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. 13 And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, 14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. 15 When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him. 16 Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God (Colossians 2:9-19).

Circumcision is of no value because that which it foreshadows has come through Christ. It may have some value for those of Jewish descent, who minister to Jews (Acts 16:1-3), but it is prohibited for any who seek to be circumcised by this “work” to their faith, or to place themselves under the Law of Moses, or to avoid persecution from the Jews (Galatians 2:1-3; 5:1-12; 6:11-16). Thus Paul can say of circumcision, “For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Galatians 6:15). To seek to change one’s status by means of circumcision or uncircumcision is simply a waste of time and effort. Stay the way you were when you were saved!

The Jews understand circumcision to be a sign of one’s commitment to the Law of Moses. This is why the Jews are so adamant about circumcising the Gentiles (see Acts 15:1-2). Once again, Paul shows that the symbol of physical circumcision is of no real significance; but what is significant is the reality to which it points: “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God” (verse 19, emphasis mine). This is entirely consistent with Paul’s teaching elsewhere. In Romans, for example, Paul stresses that it is not circumcision per se which matters, but obedience to God’s commandments:92

25 For indeed circumcision is of value, if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26 If therefore the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 And will not he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law? 28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh (Romans 2:25-28; see also Galatians 6:12-13).

The danger is that we may find ourselves more committed to the outward symbol than to the inner reality. This kind of externalism leads to an undue concern with outward appearances, and to a false set of standards regarding spirituality. Our Lord attacked this kind of externalism: “And He said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God’” (Luke 16:15; see also Matthew 6:1-18). The symbol of circumcision is of no great matter; the substance of circumcision is. Therefore, the one who was circumcised when saved should stay circumcised, and the one uncircumcised when saved should stay uncircumcised. Both the circumcised and the uncircumcised believer should value that which circumcision symbolizes.

The Status Quo and Slavery
(7:20-24)

20 Let each man remain in that condition in which he was called. 21 Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. 22 For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. 24 Brethren, let each man remain with God in that condition in which he was called (1 Corinthians 7:20-24).

The principle which underlies verses 17-24 is repeated by Paul in verse 20, in its simplest form: “Let each man remain in that condition in which he was called.” Paul then seeks to illustrate this in relationship to the institution of slavery. Circumcision has to do with spiritual or religious status (or, in the minds of some, ethnic or racial status); slavery has to do with social status. In no earthly society of which I am aware are slavery or servanthood places of status. Our Lord overturned the relationship of status and service. He became a servant to save us, and because of this, God elevated Him to a position of even higher status (Philippians 2:5-11). Our Lord did not view menial service too demeaning for Him to perform (John 13). In fact, our Lord spoke of Himself as the One who would serve His followers in the kingdom of God (Luke 12:37).

Like the previously mentioned circumcision, slavery is an outward, earthly condition which is irrelevant to one’s spiritual standing before God. If one was called while a slave, this should not be a matter of great concern, consuming one’s mental and physical energies. On the other hand, it is possible for some to obtain their freedom. If this is the case, then one should take advantage of this opportunity. Freedom from slavery affords additional opportunities for ministry.

I am reminded of Joseph, who due to circumstances largely beyond his control, became a slave in the land of Egypt. During his years as a slave, we find Joseph effectively serving his masters and His God. So far as the biblical record is concerned, the only time Joseph made any effort to bring about his freedom was when he spoke to the butler, asking him to remember him in his incarceration (Genesis 40:14-15). We also know that this attempt did not produce Joseph’s freedom, either from jail or from slavery. Indeed, Joseph remained a slave of Pharaoh to the day of his death. Had winning his freedom been Joseph’s preoccupation, he would have had little time or energy to minister to others as he did.

If the secular world and falsely spiritual saints view slavery only from an external perspective, Paul gives a completely different perspective in verses 22 and 23. The first thing Paul wants the Corinthians to understand is that slavery or freedom have nothing to do with one’s status before God. The one who is called by Christ while a slave is, in reality, the Lord’s freedman. The ultimate slavery is our slavery to Satan, sin, and death. Salvation sets us free (Luke 4:18; John 8:31-36; Romans 6:20-23). In Christ, both the freedman and the slave have been freed from sin and death, and thus they are equal. This is precisely Paul’s point in Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Many people distort Paul’s teaching in this verse. He is not saying that all earthly distinctions have been eliminated in Christ. There are still distinctions between slaves and free men, between male and female, even between Jew and Greek. But, in Christ, all these different categories of men and women are one in terms of their standing before God. All men are one in their sin and condemnation; all who have trusted in Christ are one in their standing before God, clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Because of this, Paul can tell slaves and free men that they are equal in the sight of God, and that changing their status regarding slavery will not change their spiritual standing before God.

But Paul does not stop here, having shown that believing slaves and believing free men are all equal in God’s sight, freed from sin and its consequences. He goes on, speaking to slaves and free men, showing that in reality both are “slaves.” If both are free in Christ, they are also both slaves to Christ. As the Israelites whom God freed from their Egyptian slavery became God’s slaves, so both slaves and free men, saved by the blood of Christ, and freed from the power of sin and death, are slaves of Jesus Christ. This is nothing to be ashamed of; it is something of which to boast. No wonder the apostles often spoke of themselves and others as bondslaves of Christ (Romans 1:1; Galatians 1:10; Colossians 1:7; 4:7; 2 Peter 1:1).

When all is said and done, and all the externals are stripped away, there are no class distinctions in Christ. Because of this, a Christian slave need not be obsessed with gaining his or her freedom. There is no corresponding command for free men, instructing them not to agonize over being free, or informing them that they can become slaves without sinning. Who would want to become a slave? But a command is given that those who have been emancipated in Christ should not return to enslavement to men. Paul does not speak of becoming a slave in the literal sense here. He is speaking about becoming men’s slaves in a different way. His words are explained in the first chapter of his Epistle to the Galatians:

6 I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7 which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed. 10 For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ (Galatians 1:6-10).

As I understand the situation in both the region of Galatia and in the city of Corinth, the Galatians are further down the path toward heresy and apostasy than the Corinthians. Both the Galatians and the Corinthians are accused of listening to false teachers who seek to proclaim another gospel (Galatians 1:6-10; 2 Corinthians 11:4, 12-15). Both groups seem to have a problem with division and strife (Galatians 5:13-21; 1 Corinthians 1:10-12; 3:4; 4:6-13). Both groups seem to be very sensitive to the approval or disapproval of men (Galatians 1:10; 6:12; 1 Corinthians 1-3).

Jesus taught us that “no man can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). Paul is saying essentially the same thing. Those concerned with winning men’s approval are those who will seek to improve their worldly status, by circumcision or uncircumcision (depending on the group whose favor they seek), or by striving to extricate themselves from the stigma of slavery. But in seeking man’s approval, they must abandon seeking to please God, for the two are incompatible. By seeking to win man’s approval, the Corinthians are enslaving themselves to the values of an unbelieving world (or a carnal church).

The Corinthians, like all saints, are saved by the blood of Jesus Christ. As such, they were bought at the price of the precious blood of the Savior (see 1 Peter 1:17-21). They were redeemed from slavery, so how can they return to bondage? If the approval of God is our goal, and not the esteem of men, then matters like circumcision and slavery will not consume us. We will simply seek to serve God wherever He has placed us.

Yet one more thing should be said about this statement in verse 23, found earlier in chapter 6, verse 20. The word “price” only partially conveys the idea inherent in the original text. This same term is employed by Paul in 1 Timothy 5:17 “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” The term “honor” in 1 Timothy 5 is also inadequate in and of itself. “Honor” refers not just to respect, but to money, as most commentators point out. Honor is shown to the elder who rules well by paying him well. In our text, the price paid is indicative not only of the value (and thus honor) which is due or Lord, but which comes to those who have trusted in Him for salvation. I believe that in a subtle way, Paul is saying something like: “Why would you possibly seek the honor and esteem of men, by conforming to their values, when God has bestowed the greatest honor on us by saving us with His precious blood?”

Conclusion

Faith in Christ brings many changes. Some are immediate, and others are progressive. But there are also changes which should not be sought; in particular, Christians should not seek to change things which do not matter, just to win the approval of men. We must recognize that God has ordained the condition we were in at the time we were called to faith. It is in this setting that we should seek to serve Him, and to bear witness to His grace.

But what if God’s will is for us to change our circumstances? First, we should look upon this as the exception, and not as the rule. Secondly, rather than spending much fruitless energy agonizing about such changes, we should simply trust God to bring about those changes, or make it obvious that such change (on our part) is His will. I am reminded of the teaching of our Lord on this subject of “upward mobility”:

7 And He began speaking a parable to the invited guests when He noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table; saying to them, 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him, 9 and he who invited you both shall come and say to you, ‘Give place to this man,’ and then in disgrace you proceed to occupy the last place. 10 “But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you. 11 “For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted (Luke 14:7-11).

If God chooses to elevate us, He most certainly can and will bring it to pass. We do not need to seek our own advancement. We should leave this to God. And we should understand that in the divine economy, “moving up” (in the world’s terms) is not necessarily advancing. The way “up” in God’s economy is “down.”

What Paul is seeking to teach us in our text may be summed up in one word, which is not found in our text, but which permeates its teaching—contentment:

And some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14).

Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:10).

Not that I speak from want; for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am (Philippians 4:11).

3 If anyone advocates a different doctrine, and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, 4 he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, 5 and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. 6 But godliness actually is a means of great gain, when accompanied by contentment. 7 For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. 8 And if we have food and covering, with these we shall be content. 9 But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith, and pierced themselves with many a pang (1 Timothy 6:5-10).

Let your character be free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

Contentment is the confidence and quiet peace which enables the Christian to accept our lot in life and to serve God in our circumstances, knowing He is the One who appointed them—for His glory and for our good.

It is here that the “good life gospeleers” lead many saints astray. They do not teach or encourage men to accept their circumstances and to joyfully serve God in them. They assure men that God does not want any of His children to experience pain or sorrow or the lack of anything we desire. They tell us that if we but have sufficient faith and employ the right techniques, God is obliged to give us what we want, and to remove us from difficulty and adversity. They are wrong, dead wrong. The things which they promise here and now are most often things God has promised us then and there, in His kingdom. In the light of the weight of the glory which is to be revealed, the trials and tribulations of this life seem inconsequential:

16 Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. 17 For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, 18 while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

Some of us are trying to change things in our lives which God does not want changed. The changes God desires in our lives are not so much in our circumstances, but in our character. If we are “walking in the light” as we should be, then we will continually be in His Word, and we will see sins that need repenting of and commands that require our obedience. Let us not seek to change what God has arranged. Let us change that which God has condemned (sin), putting off the deeds of the old nature, and putting on the deeds of the new.

For those of us who are waiting for things to change before we serve God, Paul’s words instruct us to get going now. Are you waiting for a less demanding job, a schedule that is more open, a bigger house or paycheck? Recognize that God has called you where you are, and He has also purposed for you to serve Him where you are. Let us not wait for things to change before we are obedient to our calling.

Some of us devote a great deal of energy seeking to change others. I simply challenge you to consider whether we are trying to change things which God has called us to change. As I understand the Scriptures, there are a whole lot more sins in this world that we are to expose by godly living than we are to change by political action or other external pressure. Let us be very careful to consider what we are to change.

I am once again impressed that Paul’s teaching is always rooted in the truths of the gospel. The gospel is not a truth used to enter the faith, and then set aside. The gospel is the standard for our conduct. The gospel is the basis and the means for all that we do (see Colossians 2:6). How can Paul tell an uncircumcised Christian that circumcision isn’t important, nor is uncircumcision? It is because salvation is the process by which spiritual circumcision occurs. Salvation is the substance of which circumcision was merely the shadow (see Colossians 2:8-11). Paul can likewise tell the slave that while the outward social status of being a slave may not be changed, it is not that important since both slave and master are equal in Christ. Both are free from the bondage of sin and death; both are slaves of Jesus Christ. It is the gospel which equalizes believers, so that none is better than any other in their spiritual standing with God. All men are equal in falling short of the glory of God and in falling under the sentence of death and divine condemnation. All Christians are equal in that their standing with God is the righteousness of Christ. A failure to grasp or to appropriate the gospel leads to the problems before us. The gospel is the answer to each and every problem Paul addresses in our text.

If you are reading this message, and you have not yet trusted in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and for the gift of eternal life, then the gospel is the solution to your problem. Repenting of your sins and turning to faith in Jesus Christ is the most important change you will ever make. It is the one change which every human being on the face of the earth must make in order to dwell in God’s heaven. God often brings trials and adversity into men’s lives to bring them to the place where they are willing to change, to the point where they are willing to forsake their sinful life, and to embrace God’s only means of salvation. Is your life one of chaos and confusion? Are you weary of the burden of your sins? Do you fear death and facing a righteous God? Then the gospel is the good news of a change which will determine your eternal destiny. The gospel is the good news that our sins are forgiven by Jesus Christ, who died in the sinner’s place and who offers His righteousness and eternal life. All you need to do is to acknowledge your sin, and your need of forgiveness, and to trust in what Jesus Christ has done in your place, and you will be saved. Here is the one change you most desperately need to make. I urge you to do so today.


87 In this sense, Paul’s words are not that different from those of Moses, centuries before, who reminded the Israelites of their humble beginnings (see Deuteronomy 7:7-8; 8:11-14; 26:1-11).

88 “This sentence is tied to what precedes by the excepting conjunction ‘nevertheless,’ which itself refers back to the exception in v. 15ab.” Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), p. 309.

89 This is evident in the conversion of Saul, where he is informed of his calling as a witness to the grace of God, to both Jews and Gentiles, including kings (see Acts 9:15-16; 22:12-21; 26:14-18).

90 As there most certainly was. See 2 Corinthians 11:22-23.

91 “The Jews, of course, insisted upon circumcision, and during the Maccabean struggle the performance of the rite had assumed a paramount place. The uncircumcised were, for them, outside the covenant of God. They were cut off from the blessings God had for His people. In a sense circumcision could be said to be everything. For many of the Gentiles, on the other hand, circumcision was something to be looked down on. It was the mark of the religion of a despised people. For them it was a sign of emancipation when, as sometimes happened, a Jewish youth, by undergoing a surgical operation (e.g. I Macc. i. 15), tried to efface the marks of his circumcision in order to take his place in the wider world of Hellenistic culture.” Leon Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1966), pp. 112-113.

92 There is a world of difference between the commitment to obey God’s commandments (some of which are in the Law of Moses), and placing oneself under the Law of Moses as a means for obtaining righteousness and salvation. Paul applauds the former and condemns the latter. Some dispensationalists obscure the difference.

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14. Undistracted Devotion (1 Cor. 7:25-40)

 

25 Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy.

26 I think then that this is good in view of the present distress, that it is good for a man to remain as he is.

   

27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you should marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin should marry, she has not sinned.

 

Yet such will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you.
29 But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened,

   

so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none;
30 and those who weep, as though they did not weep;
and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice;
and those who buy, as though they did not possess;
31 and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it;

 

for the form of this world is passing away.
32 But I want you to be free from concern.

   

One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; 33 but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided.
And the woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband.

 

35 And this I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is seemly, and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.
36 But if any man thinks that he is acting unbecomingly toward his virgin daughter, if she should be of full age, and if it must be so, let him do what he wishes, he does not sin; let her marry. 37 But he who stands firm in his heart, being under no constraint, but has authority over his own will, and has decided this in his own heart, to keep his own virgin daughter, he will do well. 38 So then both he who gives his own virgin daughter in marriage does well, and he who does not give her in marriage will do better.
39 A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 40 But in my opinion she is happier if she remains as she is; and I think that I also have the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 7:17-40).

Introduction

Distractions can be devastating. A mother who is driving her children to school turns her attention for just a moment to arbitrate a squabble between her children or to fasten a child’s seat belt, and fails to heed a stop sign. A businessman driving to the airport takes his eyes off the road for just a moment to dial a number on his mobile phone or to change the tape in his stereo, and fails to observe a stalled car directly in his path. Following alcohol and drugs, I would guess that distractions are one of the major contributors to automobile accidents.

Some of us are more susceptible to distraction than others, but all of us are easily diverted from our mental focus. For example, you and I would both be distressed to know how many times in this sermon your attention will drift from our text and what I am saying to something else, like the football game which starts half way through this sermon, or the dinner warming in the oven, or the guests coming this afternoon, or the ministry group meeting tonight. We are constantly forced to refocus our minds, which drift so easily.

In our text, Paul seeks to help his readers minimize the distractions which so easily focus our hearts and minds on earthly things, rather than on things eternal. Specifically, Paul wants each of his readers to view their marital status and ambitions in the light of eternity. In the context of 1 Corinthians 7, Paul has been responding to the Corinthians’ questions about marriage and spirituality. It seems apparent that there are some ascetics in the church who teach that sex is dirty and should be abstained from, even in marriage. The inference, whether stated (as in 1 Timothy 4:3) or implied, is that marriage is a less than spiritual institution. Consequently, Paul advises those who are single to stay that way, if they have the self-control to do so (verses 8-0). To those already married who might be thinking about terminating their union, Paul says, in effect: “Don’t even think about it.” Those marriages in which both partners are believers are not to give marriage or separation a thought. If someone has already separated or divorced their believing mate, they are to either remain single or to be reconciled and reunited with their spouse (verses 10-11). To those married to an unbeliever, they should not initiate a separation or divorce, because their presence in that marriage is a benefit to both their mate and any children born of that union (verses 12-14). If the unbelieving mate opts to end the marriage, the believer should not seek to force the unbeliever to change his or her mind, since salvation does not come about by force, but in peace (verses 15-16).

Distinguishing Between a Command and Counsel
(7:25)

Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy.

In verses 25-40, Paul gives his advice and the practical applications of the principle he has set down three times in verses 17-24. But before he does so, he clearly identifies his words in verses 25-40 as his counsel, and not as his command. We tend to think of Paul as an aggressive, “take charge” kind of man. We might think that his every word is a “thus saith the Lord,” which we dare not disobey. Paul does give commands, which he expects us to obey, but when he does so, he makes it clear that this is the case (1 Corinthians 7:10). When his words are an expression of his personal convictions and preferences, he indicates this as well (7:6-7, 25). Paul gives this counsel in verses 25-40 in response to the questions posed to him by the Corinthians (7:1). His “advice” has therefore been solicited.

While Paul indicates that he is giving his advice, he also encourages his readers to take that advice seriously. While setting aside Paul’s advice is not a sin (verses 26-28), one will do well to take Paul’s counsel seriously. Paul indicates that while his advice may not be applied the same way by all, it should be regarded as reliable counsel. He tells us that his counsel is “trustworthy” (verse 25).93 His counsel is not Paul’s personal opinion, given independently of divine enablement, but is the fruit of divine mercy which was given to him. This man, who may never have been married, can give wise counsel on the subject because of God’s mercy shown to him. Let no one therefore take his words lightly.

Sometimes, I must confess that I (along with other preachers and teachers of the Bible) am guilty of passing off my convictions and preferences as though they were co-signed by God. When one reads or expounds the Scriptures, one speaks with Scriptural authority. When one speaks his opinion, that is another matter. Here, Paul is being straightforward about the fact that he is giving advice and not laying down a command. If the Corinthians choose to do other than what Paul recommends, they are not sinning (7:28). If Paul is clear to tell us when he is not giving us a command, surely we dare not attempt to pass off our ideas, preferences, or prejudices as though they are a word from God.

One’s Marital Status in the Light of Present Problems
(7:26-28)

26 I think then that this is good in view of the present distress, that it is good for a man to remain as he is. 27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you should marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin should marry, she has not sinned. Yet such will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you.

One of the difficulties in dealing with this passage is determining what Paul means by certain terms and expressions. For example, what does Paul mean by the expression, “the present distress,” in verse 26? In verse 29, what does he mean by the statement, “the time has been shortened”? I have chosen to understand the introductory statement of each paragraph as being parallel to his concluding statement in the same paragraph. I have attempted to convey this understanding by the arrangement of the passage at the beginning of this message.

By taking the approach of seeing Paul’s introductory statement as meaning virtually the same thing as his concluding statement, I find I am able to understand what Paul means. The “present distress” of verse 26 is further explained and defined by the expression, “trouble in this life,” in verse 28. The statement, “the time has been shortened,” in verse 29 is explained by the later expression, “the form of this world is passing away” (verse 31). And finally, “to be free from concern” (verse 32) is to “secure undistracted devotion to the Lord” (verse 35).

Paul takes up the phrase, “it is good,” employing it twice in verse 26 to introduce the matter at hand. You will recall that this chapter begins with the statement, “Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman.” The ascetics in the church at Corinth think they have an endorsement from Paul concerning their distorted view of spirituality. Paul starts with a statement which seems to agree with them. There is some common ground, but not that much. As Paul’s argument in chapter 7 unfolds, he repeats the expression, “it is good,” to show that his understanding of goodness differs greatly from the ascetics. The two-fold “it is good” of verse 26 puts the reader on notice that Paul is further clarifying his initial statement in verse 1, and thus he is correcting the teaching of the ascetics. To them, it is good for married partners to abstain from sex in marriage, and even to forsake their marriages. Paul will say in verse 27 that “it is good” for married couples to stay that way. Paul does not defend the ascetics in our text, but demonstrates their error.

Paul’s advice in verses 26-28 is predicated on the fact that there is some kind of present distress. The nature of this “distress” is understood differently by Bible students. I am inclined not to take the expression in a narrow fashion (that is, some particular situation in Corinth as Paul writes, which passes), but rather in a more general sense. I take it that Paul is referring to “trouble in this life” as he states in verse 28.

While we have no indication of a particular problem in Corinth at the time of this epistle, we do have a great deal of revelation on the matter of a general distress which all Christians should expect to experience by virtue of their identification with Christ:

18 “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. 19 “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).

21 And after they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:21-22).

And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12; see also Romans 8:18-25; 1 Corinthians 4:11; Galatians 1:4; 1 Peter 4:12-14).

I understand Paul to be saying that while unbelievers have always resisted and rejected the prophets, the coming of Christ has intensified men’s opposition toward God, and specifically toward those who love and serve Him. This distress or trouble is life-long. One who is a follower of Christ should expect and endure it. But when one marries and has children, the distress is even greater because now it is not just we who suffer, but our family as well. Paul wishes us to limit our exposure to those pressures which might tempt us to back off from a bold profession of the gospel. Thus, one who is single should seriously consider staying that way.

Can you imagine Paul being married with children and seeking to carry on the ministry we see described in the Book of Acts? Those who can expect opposition and persecution should consider staying single. I cannot imagine a single Christian seeking marriage and a family if the description of Paul’s circumstances is what he or she might expect as well:

11 To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; 12 and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; 13 when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now (1 Corinthians 4:11-13).

Verses 27 and 28 speak not only to the single saint, encouraging him or her to remain single, but Paul also addresses the married believer, advising that one not seek to be loosed. Once one is married (with or without children), it is too late to reduce one’s exposure by seeking to terminate the marriage or to abandon one’s family. Paul does not here emphasize his words to those already married; he is emphasizing his counsel to those who are single and eligible to marry. This is because Paul has spoken with greater authority in prohibiting the Christian from pursuing divorce or separation (verses 10-16).

Christians can be assured of facing trouble in this life. Marriage and a family only multiplies the troubles one may expect; thus those who are single should consider the option of remaining just as they are. If they choose to marry, they have not sinned, but they have increased their troubles in this life. Mark Twain once said something like this: “It’s easier to stay out than to get out.” Paul does not even give us a way out of marriage, but he does say that while “getting out” is not an option, “staying out” is. Paul’s opponents, the ascetics, forbid marriage (1 Timothy 4:3); Paul simply encourages the saints to seriously consider the single life as a lifestyle, for the glory of God and the advancement of the gospel.

Marriage and the Shortness of Time
(7:29-31)

29 But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none; 30 and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess; 31 and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away.

The Super Bowl will soon be upon us, and I know many will be watching the playoffs when they get home. Football fanatics know all too well what the “two-minute offense” is. It is the offensive strategy employed when time is short. When a football team is behind in the final two minutes of the game, this is no time for running the ball. This is a time for sideline passes and for running out of bounds to stop the clock. In this paragraph, Paul urges his readers to live out their lives like they were in a “two-minute offense.” The time is short, and every decision we make should be made in the light of the shortness of time and the urgency of our task.

The basis for Paul’s exhortations here is the “shortness of the time.” The NASB translates it, “the time has been shortened” (verse 29), and then further clarifies in verse 31, “the form of this world is passing away.” How has “the time… been shortened”? It is possible that Paul simply means to say, “the time is short,” which is the way the NIV translates the expression. It is also possible, however, that Paul means to say that the first coming of our Lord has somehow brought matters to a head, to a conclusion, so that we now are assured that the end is near. If not, then we are at least informed once again that the end is near:

11 And this do, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. 12 The night is almost gone, and the day is at hand. Let us therefore lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light (Romans 13:11-12).

11 Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come (1 Corinthians 10:11).

26 Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself (Hebrews 9:26).

17 And the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides forever. 18 Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have arisen; from this we know that it is the last hour (1 John 2:17-18).

3 Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near (Revelation 1:3).

One of the great dangers which confronts the Christian is losing sight of the shortness of the time:

“But if that slave says in his heart, ‘My master will be a long time in coming,’ and begins to beat the slaves, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk” (Luke 12:45).

3 Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, 4 and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:3-4).

We must live in the light of the nearness of the return of our Lord, of the inauguration of His kingdom, and thus of the end of this present age.

In verses 29b-31a, Paul spells out several specific areas in which to apply our belief in the shortness of the time.

  • so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none ; (family)
  • and those who weep, as though they did not weep ; (pain/suffering)
  • and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice ; (pleasure)
  • and those who buy, as though they did not possess ; (possessions)
  • and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it ; (power)

The first area of application is that of marriage: “so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none.” This is not an instruction for men to neglect their wives! Paul is not speaking so much about what husbands are to give to their wives as about what they are to expect from them. We must understand and apply Paul’s words here in relation to what he has written in Ephesians 5. Husbands are to care for their wives as Christ cares for His church. We are thus to nourish and cherish them, not neglect them. This is why Paul advises those who are single to stay that way, because if each fulfills their role, they will sacrificially care for the other. The demands of this sacrificial care are set aside only by staying out of marriage, not by neglecting the wife in marriage, or by ending the marriage.

Yet another dimension to Paul’s teaching seems primary in this text which places so much emphasis on this present age which is so brief as opposed to the coming age. We are to value all things in terms of how long they last and on how much benefit they provide. We should be willing to forego temporal things of limited benefit, if by doing so we gain eternal things of infinite value. Marriage is temporal, not eternal:

29 But Jesus answered and said to them, “You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures, or the power of God. 30 “For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:29-30).

Nothing earthly should take precedence over that which is eternal. Human relationship, while important, should never take priority over our devotion to God:

26 “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26).

Here is a truth which is not very popular and which is hardly ever mentioned in evangelical churches, because “family” has been elevated to a place where it conflicts with our devotion to God. Let us take the words of our Lord and of the Apostle Paul most seriously. Family must not be “first” in the life of the Christian, even if it is first in many churches. Paul wants us to walk the narrow line of keeping marriage and family in its proper place. We must not look down upon it, forbidding or forsaking marriage as the ascetics do. Neither should we elevate marriage and family above its proper place, as a gift of God for this life only.

The second area of application is to sorrow and suffering: “and those who weep, as though they did not weep.” Our hedonistic age places too much value on pleasure, and therefore does everything possible to avoid pain. The psychological talk shows have more than their share of tear-filled voices, telling of their woes, and of warm, compassionate therapists telling the sufferer that they can “feel their pain.” The problem with pain is that some masochists love it and seek to bring it upon themselves, as though it were a virtue to suffer needlessly. Then there are the hedonists, who will do anything to “stop the pain,” including suicide. Eternity gives us a very different view of earthly pain.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

And He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

Earthly sorrows will be put aside in heaven; thus when God calls upon us to suffer for the sake of His name, we should rejoice in it, knowing that it is insignificant in comparison to the heavenly glory which is to be ours:

16 Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. 17 For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, 18 while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

The third area of application Paul cites is that of pleasure: “and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice.” The ascetics seem to disdain all pleasure as sinful; the hedonists of Corinth see no sin in perverse pleasures. Once again, Paul seeks to strike a happy medium. He does not instruct the Corinthians to avoid everything which causes one to rejoice or to take pleasure in it. He simply warns them that earthly pleasures fall far short of eternal rejoicing. The pleasures of the wicked are short-lived, and they lead them headlong to destruction (see Psalm 73:1-20; Proverbs 6:6-27; Luke 6:25). The legitimate pleasures of this life should be enjoyed and received gratefully from the hand of a loving and gracious God, and they should be employed to the glory of God (1 Timothy 4:4-5; 6:17-19). As John Piper recently emphasized in his writings, finding pleasure in this life is not wrong; what is wrong is finding pleasure apart from God. All earthly pleasures, other than those focused toward God, are but the “passing pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25). We are to recognize earthly pleasures as short-lived and not find them the essence of this life or the next. When we do rejoice, let it be in those things which are worthy of our rejoicing:

“Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven” (Luke 10:20).

Fourth, Paul applies the shortness of the time to materialism: “and those who buy, as though they did not possess.” The truth of the matter is that we do not really possess anything in the first place. When God brought the nation Israel into the land of Canaan, He made it clear that this was His land, not their land. He informed them that the Canaanites had been evicted from the land because of their sin and warned that they too would be evicted if they did not live according to His commandments (Leviticus 25:23; Deuteronomy 4:23-31; 9:4-6). Especially in the New Testament, Christians are taught that they are stewards of the possessions God has placed in their care. Jesus challenges His disciples to sell their possessions and give to the poor (Luke 12:33). He tells the story of the rich fool, who sought to save all of his possessions (Luke 12:16-21). He teaches His disciples to lay up treasures in heaven and not on earth (Matthew 6:19-20). Paul tells Timothy to remind the rich that their abundance comes from God, and that they are to be “rich in good deeds,” being “generous and ready to share” (1 Timothy 6:17-19). Jesus warns about greed when He says,

“Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).

The things we now possess will either be used up, worn out, or stolen here (Matthew 6:19), or they will be burned up at the end of the age (2 Peter 3:10-12). We had better not think of anything we purchase as our permanent possession. The “time is short” (verse 29), and the “form of this world is passing away” (verse 31), so we had better not put too much stock in “things. “

Finally, in verse 31 Paul seems to sum up the whole matter of our attitude toward this world and our relationship to it.

And those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away.

Paul’s use of the term “use” seems to imply two things. First, it implies that the things of this world are not ours, but God’s, and that we are only stewards, entrusted with them:

11 “If therefore you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous mammon, who will entrust the true riches to you? 12 “And if you have not been faithful in the use of that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? (Luke 16:11-12).

Second, the term “use” here seems to have the sense of “take advantage of,” or use to one’s own personal advantage. Third, the term “use” requires a choice to be made, either to “use” the thing in question, or not to use it. Fourth, the term “use” here implies a temporary use, a use that has a limited life. A battery may be used for a time, and then its usefulness ends. Paul wants us to think of “using” the things of this world as a temporary use, a use that will end. The way we “use” what the world offers to us determines what we will have “laid up in heaven.”

From time to time, someone will call and say something like: “Bob, we have two tickets to the Dallas Cowboys football game this afternoon; do you think you could use them?” The use of these tickets is offered to me. They were not mine, but I can make use of them if I choose to do so. Making use of them may not make a better man of me, or further the gospel, but doing so could be a lot of fun. The Christian lives in this life, knowing that he or she is simply preparing for the next. While were are here in this world, we seek to “lay up treasure in heaven” (Matthew 6:19-21). We know that God “richly supplies us with all things to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). We also know that while some things the world offers to us are lawful, all of these are not profitable (1 Corinthians 6:12). Some may hinder the gospel or the spiritual walk of a fellow-believer. Some may be detrimental to our walk. This means that we should not make use of everything which the world offers to let us use. We should use this world thoughtfully and selectively.

The unbeliever’s outlook is vastly different. It is summed up by the beer commercial: “You only go around once, so grab all the gusto you can get.” Christians know they “go around” in this life only for a short time, and that we “go around” the next life for all eternity. Because everything this world offers to us does not contribute to the kingdom of God, we choose not to grab all the gusto we can get. We choose not to fully use all the world offers. This is the reason Paul later informs the Corinthians of those rights and liberties he has chosen not to use:

12 If others share the right over you, do we not more? Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things, that we may cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:12).

15 But I have used none of these things. And I am not writing these things that it may be done so in my case; for it would be better for me to die than have any man make my boast an empty one (1 Corinthians 9:15).

18 What then is my reward? That, when I preach the gospel, I may offer the gospel without charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:18, emphasis mine).

Peter agrees, when he writes:

Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God (1 Peter 2:16).

We should not seek to go through our life in this world “grabbing all the gusto” we can lay our hands on. We are free to make use of those things which are lawful, but our higher calling challenges us to set aside temporary pleasures and to strive for those things which last. We should therefore not seek to “use” everything this life offers to us, but to “use” those things which promote the gospel and the growth of the saints, including ourselves.

The writer to the Hebrews said of Moses,

24 By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; 25 choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; 26 considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward (Hebrews 11:24-26).

Not all of the pleasures we are to pass up are sinful pleasures. Paul calls on us to give up some of the legitimate, lawful pleasures of this life for the sake of the kingdom of God. His final words underscore the fact that these liberties are “passing pleasures;” they are a part of the “form of this world which is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31).

Our Lord underscored that the things of this life often “pass away” in this life:

19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 “But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; 21 for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

Peter goes even further, reminding us that those things which may endure through this life will suddenly come to their end at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ:

10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. 11 Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, 12 looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! 13 But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:10-13).

God’s Word does not pass away (Matthew 24:35), and neither do people (see Luke 16:9; 1 Thessalonians 2:19). We should gladly give up the use of those things which are temporal and which do not benefit us in eternity, so that we may carry out our task and calling in this world.

And the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides forever (1 John 2:17).

Marriage and Undistracted Devotion
(7:32-35)

32 But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; 33 but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. 35 And this I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is seemly, and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.

In the previous verses, Paul called upon the Corinthian Christians to consider marriage in light of the shortness of the time and in view of the fact that the “form of this world is passing away.” Marriage, after all, is not an eternal institution, but one divinely provided for men and women in this age, rather than in the age to come (see Matthew 22:30). Marriage is a right, a liberty, which can be either exercised or set aside. Paul has just challenged the Corinthians to consider the possibility of remaining single, not because this makes one more spiritual than others, but because it may enhance their service in these shortened days.

Now in verses 32-35, Paul continues to advocate staying single, but from the standpoint of one’s devotion to God. In verse 33, Paul introduces this segment with an expression of his desire to help the Corinthians be “free from concern” (verse 32a). In verse 35, Paul ends the segment by indicating that his intention has been to help them “secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.” Staying single is one way that some Christians can reduce distractions from their devotion to the Lord.

Jesus put the matter this way, speaking of distracting concerns about material things: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). Paul is saying the same thing, using marriage as the distraction. The one who is unmarried, Paul tells us, is concerned about the things of the Lord, about how he can please the Lord. The one who is married has a kind of “conflict of interest.” The man who is married is obligated to please his wife. This is not wrong, for the Christian husband pictures the love and care of Christ for His church as he cares for his wife (see Ephesians 5:22-33). The Christian woman who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, about being holy in body and in spirit, while the woman who marries now has the obligation to please her husband.

Remaining single provides an opportunity for the Christian to serve the Lord unreservedly, without the conflicting obligation of attending to the needs of one’s spouse. But staying single does not automatically produce this result, as the ascetics may teach or imply. I see a lot of Christian singles in the church today, and very, very few of them are devoting themselves to serving God and others. I fear that most of those who remain single are not in this condition out of commitment to comply with Paul’s advice in our text. Those who are single by choice may well be in that condition for the wrong reasons. It may be that a person is single out of fear, fear that marriage may not work. Statistics seem to underscore such fears. It may be that a person has remained single to avoid the commitment of marriage. It may be that one stays single for sinful and immoral reasons, even practicing their immorality with other singles in the church. Some have remained single because they are too selfish to give themselves to another. Staying single is not automatically the spiritual thing to do, but it most certainly can be an opportunity to devote oneself to the Lord.

Several years ago I conducted a wedding service, and I used verses 32-35 as the text of my message. It may seem strange to you—it certainly did to those at the ceremony. In truth, this text not only encourages someone who is single to seriously consider staying single, it also is a text which can greatly benefit those who marry. Remember that Paul has a lot to say in this chapter about staying in that condition in life in which we were called. Those who feel they have to change their circumstances to be happy, or to be spiritual, really do not understand what the Christian life is all about. I believe those most happily married are those who did not feel they had to marry to be happy. Those who feel that life is not what it ought to be unless they are married expect too much of marriage, and will consequently never be as content in marriage as they could be. Just as those who give up their lives are the ones who gain it, and those who lead do so by serving, those who are happily married could be happy unmarried. This is because their primary goal in life is not to be happy, but to be holy, whether this means staying single or getting married.

Specific Applications
(7:36-40)

36 But if any man thinks that he is acting unbecomingly toward his virgin daughter, if she should be of full age, and if it must be so, let him do what he wishes, he does not sin; let her marry. 37 But he who stands firm in his heart, being under no constraint, but has authority over his own will, and has decided this in his own heart, to keep his own virgin daughter, he will do well. 38 So then both he who gives his own virgin daughter in marriage does well, and he who does not give her in marriage will do better (NASB).

36 If anyone thinks he is acting improperly toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if she is getting along in years and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. 37 But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. 38 So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does even better (NIV).

You will note from these two translations that biblical scholars interpret Paul’s words in verses 36-38 in two distinct ways. The problem we face is how to understand Paul’s words “his virgin.” The NASB translators understand Paul to be referring to a father’s virgin daughter, while the translators of the NIV believe Paul is speaking to a young man who is engaged to be married to a virgin. In the East, often the parents choose the marriage partner for their child, and so one can mentally picture a father reading what Paul has written and responding, “Paul, what should I as a father of a young woman do? Should I heed your words by refusing to let my daughter marry? What if she is already engaged?” The young Christian Corinthian man who has already become engaged before Paul’s letter arrives might ask, “Should I go ahead and get married, or should I break my commitment to marry?”

In either case, Paul’s response is essentially the same as his teaching to those who have not committed themselves to another for marriage: “If you are able to take the heat for standing firm in your convictions not to marry your daughter to another, then do so; if not, do not agonize about it. It is not a matter of sin, but simply a matter of “good” and “better.” The same answer is applied to the young man who is engaged to marry a young woman: “If you conclude that marriage is the proper course for your life, then don’t agonize over this, do it; you have not sinned in so doing. If, on the other hand, you are able to gracefully reverse your decision, and you have the will power to do so, then release yourself from this commitment and remain single. The one who marries does well; the one who does not marry does even better.”

A Word to Widows
(7:39-40)

39 A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 40 But in my opinion she is happier if she remains as she is; and I think that I also have the Spirit of God.

Paul has almost completely covered the territory. He has spoken to those who are married, whether in a mixed marriage (one partner is a believer, the other is not), or those equally yoked. These are to stay married, and not even to think about divorce. They are not to deprive each other sexually, which would only tempt them to sin. Those who are unmarried should consider the spiritual benefits of remaining single. Those who are engaged (or who are planning their daughter’s marriage) should feel free not to proceed with marriage, but they should not feel guilty about marriage either. Now Paul turns to the only category which is left—widows (as distinguished from virgins).

Those who are married should consider themselves bound to that partner until death separates them. If a woman’s husband dies, she is then free to marry because the union is broken by death. The only condition placed on this widow is that she marry another believer. Nevertheless, Paul encourages such a widow to give due thought to remaining single, for the same reasons he has outlined above. These words of advice are an expression of Paul’s opinion, but failing to heed them is not sin. It is not just Paul’s opinion, he suggests, but counsel which he believes comes from the Spirit of God. It is, we might say, inspired advice.

Conclusion

Chapter 7 is a kind of self-contained unit. In this chapter, Paul shows the relationship of one’s spirituality to sex, celibacy, marriage and the single life. Paul deals with this subject in stark contrast to the ascetics of Corinth. I believe they set down rules for all to keep on this matter of sex and marriage. To them, one could hardly be spiritual if they enjoyed sex, even though in the confines of matrimony. Their hard and fast rules, without exceptions, are very different from Paul’s counsel. On some matters, there is no room for concession or compromise. Those who are married are to stay married. Those who are married are not to abstain from sex in that marriage, except for unusual and very limited circumstances. But when it comes to whether one should marry, Paul all of a sudden turns from laying down rules to giving advice. He does not demand that the Corinthians take his advice, and even tells them that they do not sin by acting contrary to his counsel. Rather than attempt to add weight to his every word, Paul indicates when he is speaking with full apostolic authority and when he is giving his opinion. Paul is not nearly as dogmatic and authoritarian as some in the Corinthian church (see 2 Corinthians 11:19-21).

This text reminds us of the freedoms we enjoy in the Christian life, and that we should not always look to the Bible or to others in authority to inform us of the content of God’s will. Some Christians want everything in black and white. They want nice simple rules, with all of the decisions of life about the will of God nicely summed up for them. In effect, they do not want to believe that they have the freedom to choose between acceptable alternatives. They want God to map out their life so that they do not have to make agonizing decisions. This text reminds us that many of life’s decisions are our responsibility. Paul gives advice. He tries to help us in thinking about the issues involved. But in the final analysis, Paul calls on us to decide what we will do. It is my opinion that when we decide between two morally acceptable alternatives, God is not as concerned with which we choose, as He is with why we choose as we do.

Paul’s teaching here makes it clear that what we do in this life must be determined in the light of eternity. Our choices should not be made on the basis of what “feels good,” or on what makes me “happy,” but on what pleases God and furthers His kingdom.

At the beginning of chapter 7, Paul seems to agree with the ascetics. In a sense, he does agree, for he goes on to extol the virtues of remaining single. But his reasons for doing so are so very different from those of the ascetics. The ascetics judge one’s spirituality by outward, external appearances. Paul calls for Christians to consider remaining single, so that we might serve God more devotedly and without distraction. Our decision about whether we should marry should not be made solely on the basis of what we are free to do, but on the basis of what course of action best enables us to serve God. Let us not lose sight of the fact that the time is short, and the days are evil. Let us make those choices which best advance the gospel and which enable us to serve God wholeheartedly.


93 The Greek word which the NASB here renders “trustworthy” is used by Paul a number of times. In the pastoral continued … epistles, it is used of sayings which are “faithful” or “reliable” (see 1 Timothy 1:15; 3:1; 4:9; 2 Timothy 2:11; Titus 3:8).

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15. The Great Divorce—Separating “Truth From Love” (1 Cor. 8:1-13)

Introduction

Years ago, there was a television program which gave contestants the chance to identify an object. The hitch was that these objects were not seen from a normal perspective, but from a microscopic or very close up view. It could be a sponge or a flower or something else, but because it was so close up, it was very difficult to identify. I had great difficulty “seeing” our text for the same reason: I was looking at it too closely. To understand 1 Corinthians 8, we need to back off and seek to understand Paul’s teaching here from a broader perspective. Several observations, made from a distance, should contribute greatly to our understanding of this text:

(1) Meat offered to idols is specifically prohibited for Gentile saints, which must certainly include the saints at Corinth.

28 “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: 29 that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell” (Acts 15:28-29).

20 And when they heard it they began glorifying God; and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; 21 and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. 22 “What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. 23 “Therefore do this that we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 24 take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses in order that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law. 25 “But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication” (Acts 21:20-25).

Some Jews wanted to impose many rules and regulations on the Gentile converts, but the Jerusalem council determined that only four requirements would be made. One of these was a prohibition against eating meat offered to idols.94 Eating meat offered to idols is not a Christian liberty.

(2) While Paul initially appears to grant the premise that eating meat offered to idols is a matter of liberty in chapter 8, this same permissiveness is not found at the end of Paul’s argument on the subject.

14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to wise men; you judge what I say. 16 Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? 17 Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. 18 Look at the nation Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar? 19 What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons, and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. 22 Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? We are not stronger than He, are we? (1 Corinthians 10:14-22).

(3) Paul’s approach to correcting error in 1 Corinthians is to grant his opponents some slack at the beginning of his argument, only to show they are wrong by the time he concludes. This is a most significant point and is the key to understanding much of this epistle. In chapter 7, verse 1, Paul appears to agree with the ascetics, who think that sex is wrong: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” The ascetics seem to have taken this as a global principle, so that Christians were abstaining from sex in marriage, were seeking to abandon their existing marriages, and were instructing those who were single that they could not marry (see 1 Timothy 4:3). As Paul’s argument in chapter 7 develops, he commands married partners not to cease sexual relationships for any extended period of time, he instructs married couples not to leave their marriage partners, and he makes it clear that eligible singles are not sinning if they choose to marry.

In 1 Corinthians 11-14, Paul deals with spirituality, spiritual gifts, and the roles of men and women in the church. Some leap on the fact that Paul mentions women praying and prophesying as a possibility, as though this proves that he condones such practice. What they ignore is that this reference to women praying or prophesying with an uncovered head is found at the beginning of Paul’s argument, and not at the conclusion. By the time Paul reaches the end of chapter 14, we know those who possess certain gifts, or who are prominent in their public participation in the meeting of the church, may not be so spiritual. We find that the most verbal and visible gifts are not of the greatest value, but the unseen gifts. Women are not given permission to lead and to assume visible and verbal ministries in the church meeting, but are to remain silent.

What Paul allows to stand initially in his argument, he may eventually prove to be wrong. This is the case in 1 Corinthians 8-10. In chapter 8, he allows those Corinthians who view themselves as being more spiritual than others to retain this false notion momentarily. But by the end of chapter 10, those who think they have the liberty to eat meat offered to idols are shown up for what they are. The “weaker brethren” of chapter 8 seem to be the “stronger brethren” in chapter 10. Those supposedly “weaker brethren” who refrained from eating meat offered to idols were not only in compliance with the decree of the Jerusalem Council, but with the teaching of Paul.

The background of our text may be summarized in this way. The question of eating meat offered to idols is not new, but a question which was raised shortly after Gentiles began to come to faith in Christ. The apostles and early church leaders at Jerusalem considered the matter and concluded that Gentile Christians should not eat meat offered to idols, along with avoiding blood, things strangled, and fornication. A group of Corinthian Christians, thinking themselves to be wiser than the apostles, developed a reasoned argument that meats offered to idols could be eaten. They even went so far as to look down on those who refrained from eating idol-meat. These meat-eaters seem to have taken pride in their superior knowledge and spirituality. Paul has some things to say to these stronger brethren. Using their own premises, Paul will show that they have fallen short of true spirituality.

It is this broader perspective of chapter 8 which resolves some of the apparent problems in its interpretation and application, and which makes sense of Paul’s teaching. This text may seriously reverse or revise some of our “convictions” and cause us to look at our liberties in a different light.

The Relationship Between Love and Knowledge
(8:1-3)

1 Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies. 2 If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know; 3 but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him.

Paul sets the stage for his teaching on meats offered to idols in verses 1-3. In these three verses, addressed to those who prided themselves for their higher knowledge and who indulged themselves in the name of liberty, Paul lays down four foundational truths which they need to grasp. If these truths were understood and applied, the error of these libertines would be recognized as such and abandoned.

(1) Christian knowledge is common knowledge, available to all. There was an ancient heresy known as gnosticism which plagued the early church. Gnostics prided themselves in possessing knowledge not known by all. This secret knowledge was not found in Scripture, but outside of biblical revelation, and it was handed down orally to those “in the know.” Paul denies that there is any such knowledge outside of the Scriptures and known by the spiritually elite. He writes, “Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge” (1 Corinthians 8:1a). Knowledge is not restricted to the few but is available to all.

In the Book of Proverbs, error and deceptive knowledge is personified by “Madam Folly.” This woman is symbolized by the prostitute, who appeals not to the head but to the hormones; she appeals to fleshly pride and sensual desires. Her appeal is secret and sneaky. She lurks in the dark alleys, and she whispers her offer of illicit knowledge (Proverbs 7:6-27). Truth and wisdom is personified in Proverbs by a gracious and intelligent woman, Dame Wisdom. She publicly proclaims truth to all who will hear and learn, speaking openly in broad daylight and in the most public place (see Proverbs 8:1-21). True knowledge is offered to all, while false wisdom is secretly and seductively presented to the naive.

(2) Even true knowledge, which is wrongly interpreted or applied, can puff up the pride of the knower, while genuine love places others ahead of self and seeks to build them up.95 The “knowledge” which these “stronger” Corinthian brethren possessed was producing the wrong effect. True love is not puffed up with pride, and it does not serve self-interest (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). Knowledge is not opposed to love, but is to be closely associated with it, as we can see in the Scriptures:

And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2).

But just as you abound in everything, in faith and utterance and knowledge and in all earnestness and in the love we inspired in you, see that you abound in this gracious work also (2 Corinthians 8:7).

And to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fulness of God (Ephesians 3:19).

But speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ (Ephesians 4:15).

And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment (Philippians 1:9).

That their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself (Colossians 2:2).

But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith (1 Timothy 1:5).

But you followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, perseverance (2 Timothy 3:10).

Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart (1 Peter 1:22).

The elder to the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in truth; and not only I, but also all who know the truth (2 John 1:1).

Grace, mercy and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love (2 John 1:3).

(3) Those who suppose themselves to fully know only reveal their true ignorance (verse 2). Our knowledge in this life is partial, and even that which has been revealed by God is never perfectly grasped (see 1 Corinthians 13:8-13). Those who speak arrogantly of what they know are ignorant and self-deceived, often deceiving others as well (Romans 1:28-32; 2:17-23; Galatians 1:8; Colossians 2:18; 1 Timothy 1:7; 2 Peter 2:17-19). In 1 Corinthians, Paul does not hesitate to tell us when he is speaking the command of the Lord (7:10; 14:37), and neither does he fail to tell us when he is speaking his personal opinions or convictions (7:6, 25, 40). Over-confidence is often an indication of ignorance, while humility is the outgrowth of knowledge.

(4) Christians are not to boast in knowing, but to rejoice in being known by God, and this is the result of loving God (verse 3). When Jesus sent His disciples out to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God, they returned, rejoicing over the mighty works God had accomplished through them. Jesus gently corrected them saying, “… do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven” (Luke 10:20). Here, Paul tells Christians that they should not rejoice in knowing, but in being known by God. Salvation surpasses any sheepskin (diploma) we will ever obtain. Moreover, the way that we are known by God is not because of our knowledge, but because of the love which God has produced within us for Himself. Once again, love takes priority over knowledge. What a humbling truth Paul has put before these all-knowing, stronger saints. If knowledge was the most important thing of all, and if they knew more than others, than they were the spiritual elite. But they have sought to excel in a category which is subordinate to love.

Transforming Truth into Error
(8:4-6)

4 Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. 5 For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.

It comes as no surprise to hear that false teaching leads to various kinds of evil. But it is also possible to pervert the truth:

1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? 2 May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? (Romans 6:1-2).

For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ (Jude 1:4).

Even Satan sought to use the truth in such a way as to tempt our Lord to do what was evil (Matthew 4:1-11).

In verses 4-6, Paul supplies us with the doctrine—true doctrine—which the “stronger” Corinthians twisted in order to justify eating meat offered to idols. The doctrine which all Christians “know” is that there is but one God. This is one of the foundation stones of the Christian faith. It is emphatically laid down in the early chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy:

6 “‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 7 ‘You shall have no other gods before Me. 8 ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. 9 ‘You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, 10 but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments’” (Deuteronomy 5:6-10).

4 “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! 5 “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 “And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart; 7 and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. 8 “And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. 9 “And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).

There is but one God. He is the Creator and Sustainer of all things. He is the One from whom all things come, and for whom all things exist (1 Corinthians 8:6). While there is but one God, He exists in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Here, Paul speaks only of Father and Son as the one true God, but it is clear that while he distinguishes Father and Son, he also considers them as One. The Father is the One from whom all things have come; the Son is the One through whom all things are, and through whom we exist (verse 6). Contrary to the objections of the Jewish religious leaders of our Lord’s day, the deity of our Lord was not a contradiction to the existence and worship of God as the only God.

From this foundational truth concerning God, a truth universally accepted by all Christians, the Corinthians sought to build an argument which rationalized the eating of meats offered to idols, even though this was forbidden by the Jerusalem Council. Heaping inference upon inference, these “wise” and “spiritual” saints justify their self-indulgence. Paul traces their reasoning from the truth of God’s exclusive existence as God to the error of eating meats offered to idols.

If there is but one God (and all Christians know this to be true), then there are no other “gods.” Idols are symbols or representations of these “no-gods.” These “no-gods” exist only in the minds of their heathen worshippers, and not in reality. Thus, since there are no other gods than God, idols really have no meaning or significance—they represent nothing. Idols are something like confederate money—they have nothing to back them up, so they are worthless. If idols are nothing, then the foods offered to them are of no significance either. Meats offered to gods which don’t exist are thereby assumed to have no negative or profane contamination by their use in false worship. If this is so, as some of the Corinthians have reasoned, then meats offered to idols are certainly free of moral contamination, and thus can be eaten without moral qualms. Those who fail to think on this high level are obviously weaker Christians, whose scruples are not to be taken into account. And if these “weaker Christians” follow the example of their “stronger brethren,” then they are so much the better for having done so, even though their consciences are pricked by eating this meat.

Jeremiah said it well: “The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9). Through twisted logic and compounded inferences, some Corinthians have turned the truth of God into a lie. They have made orthodox doctrine the basis for their sin. In verses 7-13, Paul will show these “stronger” brethren that they have become puffed up with knowledge, but they have failed to show love for their brothers.

Before we move on to these verses, let us pause for one moment to look back on the truth on which these Corinthians based their practice of eating idol-meat. The truth that there is but one God is emphatically taught in Deuteronomy 6 and 8. But God never intended that men should perform the “great divorce” … separating truth from love. The Corinthians error was based upon a lack of knowledge, not an abundance of knowledge. The Corinthians lacked love, but this love was linked to knowledge and doctrinal teaching. Look once more at what God commanded the Israelites:

4 “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! 5 “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 “And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart; 7 and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. 8 “And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. 9 “And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).

The truth that God is One, that He is God alone, was taught to the Israelites. It was truth which they desperately needed to know and to practice by shunning every form of idolatrous worship and practice. The truths which God taught the Israelites through Moses were to be on their hearts. In the Bible, the “heart” is not just the seat of the emotions (the “bowels” are more closely identified with emotions), it includes the mind and the will of the individual. The Israelites were not only to know of God’s exclusive existence, they were to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27). In their love for God, they were to teach their children to do likewise (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Love and knowledge were not to be divorced; they were to be interwoven. No one knew and taught this more than the Apostle Paul: “But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5). The “great divorce” which these Corinthians had brought about by their teaching and practice was the separation of love and knowledge. Paul has shown how their “knowledge” has been twisted to excuse and even encourage sin; now he will show them how their “love” is lacking as well.

Lacking in Love
(8:7-13)

7 However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. 8 But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat. 9 But take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? 11 For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. 12 And thus, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, that I might not cause my brother to stumble (1 Corinthians 8:7-13).

If the “knowledge” of some Corinthians was defective, so was their love. Having dealt with their “knowledge” in verses 4-6, Paul moves on to show the deficiency of their love in verses 7-13. It may be that these Corinthians prided themselves on their love, as well as their knowledge. Somehow, they were puffed up with pride over the fact that they continued to embrace and support a member who was living in an incestual relationship (chapter 5). Paul will show that their love no more meets God’s standards than does their knowledge.

The Corinthians were using their (defective) knowledge to the detriment of one who appeared to be a weaker brother. Paul will show them that one who loved his brother would surrender any right which would be detrimental to the weaker brother. For the time being, Paul allows some false assumptions to stand unchallenged. He allows the idol-meat eater to think he is more spiritual, and that the one who has scruples over eating such meat is the “weaker brother.” Paul argues, using the theology and assumptions of the allegedly “stronger brother.”

While some saints with superior knowledge seem to have the right to eat idol-meat, there are others who have not come to this same knowledge. How, then, does the one with “knowledge” respond to the one without it? Specifically, what does a man do about eating idol-meat when a “weaker brother” believes it is wrong to eat such meat? This weaker brother cannot so easily disassociate the idol-meat from the idol, or from the heathen worship associated with it, due to his past involvement in such worship. If this brother with his “weaker conscience” were to eat such meat, he would do so without faith, and thus he would sin.

Paul now makes a very important point in verse 8. Meat is really a matter of indifference. Contrary to the thinking of the “stronger brother,” eating such meat doesn’t make him more spiritual. Conversely, if one were not to eat such idol-meat, it would not in any way diminish his standing before God. It is a sort of “Heads, I win; tails, you lose” proposition. I don’t gain anything by eating idol-meat, nor do I lose anything by refusing it. Anyone who makes a big deal of idol-meat has failed to grasp this fact. The writer to the Hebrews has something similar to say on this matter: “Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings; for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were thus occupied were not benefited” (Hebrews 13:9).

While neither eating meat nor abstaining from it changes my spiritual status, what I do with this meat can have a great impact on my brother. If something is a true liberty, I can partake of it in good conscience, just as I can abstain from it in good conscience, for I am not doing what I believe to be wrong. But a truly weaker brother does not have the same liberty. He does not see eating this meat as a liberty, but as a sin. If he views me as the stronger brother, then what I do is an example for him to follow. If I am more spiritual by eating idol-meat, then my weaker brother assumes he will be more spiritual for following my example. But since his conscience is not clear with respect to idol-meat, eating of it will be a sin for him.

When I insist on exercising my liberty, in spite of the fact that others do not have this liberty, I am encouraging my “weaker brother” to sin. In verse 10, Paul employs a very well-known term, which is translated “strengthened” in the NASB (“emboldened,” KJV, NIV, Berkeley; “encouraging,” J. B. Phillips). The word is seldom used in this negative sense by Paul, but is most often positively used with the meaning “edified” or “built up.” Eating idol-meat is reverse edification. It builds up or strengthens others, encouraging them to sin. True love, Paul has just said in verse 1 “edifies” (the same root word). Eating idol meat so as to encourage a weaker brother to sin is not walking in love! It is, instead, putting a stumbling block in his path (verse 9).

In verses 11 and 12, Paul shows that eating idol-meat is not only a sin against a brother, it is a sin against our Lord. Here is how Paul’s argument plays out in these verses. Christ died for sinners, to save them from their sin and to sanctify them. Christ’s work on the cross of Calvary was to set men free from their sin, and to present them holy and blameless to the Father. Christ’s work on the sinner’s behalf was for their edification, for their spiritual birth, growth, and maturity. When a thoughtless, self-serving saint insists on eating idol-meat, he knows that his “weaker brother” will be encouraged to follow his example. But in so doing, the weaker brother is not edified; he is caused to stumble. Insisting on my right to eat idol meat may cause a fellow saint to stumble, falling into sin, and in causing this, I find myself working at cross purposes with Christ. I am therefore not only sinning against my weaker brother, I am sinning against my Lord. This is a most serious offense indeed.

In verse 13, Paul sets down a principle which establishes the relationship of love to knowledge and Christian liberties. No liberty should ever be exercised when it acts contrary to love. No liberty of mine should be a spiritual detriment or hindrance to my brother in Christ. If I love my brother, I will gladly forego any liberty which will cause my brother to stumble. If eating meat (any meat, not just meats offered to idols) would cause a weaker brother to stumble, then I should gladly be willing never to eat meat again. No right should be exercised which is contrary to love, and love always seeks to edify.

Conclusion

I would like to suggest that we take a good, long look at these two categories of the “stronger” brother and the “weaker” brother. As I understand chapters 8-10 and Romans 14-15, the stronger brother is the one whose grasp of the Scriptures may free him from unnecessary prohibitions. The stronger brother is quite often the one who understands his Christian liberties. But if the “stronger” brother is to be a spiritual saint, he must also be willing to set aside those liberties. To exercise one’s liberties at the expense of a weaker brother is certainly not spiritual.

The stronger brother is also the one who recognizes those things which are contrary to God’s Word. In the case of meats offered to idols, the stronger brother must be the one who knows they are forbidden, and who therefore abstains from eating them. The “weaker brother” would be the one who concluded that eating idol-meats was a Christian liberty, in spite of the decree of the Jerusalem Council. From Paul’s final words on this issue in chapter 10, I think we must conclude that the more spiritual brother is the one who abstains from idol-meats, grasping its evil associations.

All too often today, the “weaker brother” is defined as the one who does not grasp his Christian liberties. While alcoholism and drunkenness are surely wrong, drinking a glass of wine is not forbidden. When a “tee totaler” saint insists that another Christian must not drink even a glass of wine, he should also be willing to accept the label of the “weaker brother.” The one who insists you cannot exercise a liberty is the one who is weak and poorly informed. The one who insists that another must refrain from a matter of liberty because that liberty is offensive has missed the point of the Scriptures. You may find smoking offensive, but you are not a “weaker brother” unless you are so weak that you will follow the example of the one who lights up. Most of those who insist that others refrain from alcohol or tobacco (because partaking of them is sin) are not those who are truly weak, and who will violate their consciences by following the example of the one who partakes.

For those matters which are liberties, the one who is truly spiritual will be willing to forego them if exercising his liberty is at the expense of another. The knowledge which informs us of a liberty must be subject to the love which puts the interests of our brother before our own.

I think it is safe to say that many, if not most of us, are of the intellectual Christian stripe, while there are many others who are the “loving Christian” type. We know that our Lord does not want knowledge without love (see Revelation 2:1-7). We know as well that He does not want us to love apart from knowledge (Philippians 1:9; 1 Timothy 1:5). Let us seek to “know God” and to “love Him.” Let us not divorce love and truth. Both are essential, and each contributes to the other.

What Paul has written here in chapter 8 should in no way be misinterpreted to mean that he is opposed to theology. His Epistle to the Romans is a theological masterpiece, surveying the doctrine of salvation. Paul warns us about those who teach false doctrine (1 Timothy 1:3; 4:1; 6:3) and encourages us to be nourished with sound doctrine (1 Timothy 4:6). Jude spoke of our obligation to “contend earnestly for the faith, which was once for all delivered to the saints.” Peter warned us of those who distort the teachings of Paul (2 Peter 3:16). Our Lord warned of those who would teach the precepts of men as though they were divinely revealed doctrine (Matthew 15:9). We are expected to be students of theology and to be precise in the doctrines which we hold.

Having emphasized the importance of theology and sound doctrine, we must also recognize our limitations in this area. Our theology can only go as far as God’s revelation. We know there are many things which God has not revealed (Deuteronomy 29:29; Acts 1:6-7; 1 Corinthians 13:9, 12), and we must be careful not to “fill in the blanks” which God has purposely left open. All too often, we spend more time trying to supply the missing pieces, rather than concentrating upon what God has revealed. False revelation frequently majors on God’s silence in Scripture. Students of Bible prophecy often try to lay out the scheme of the end times when God has deliberately been vague, sometimes by failing to tell us things we would like to know and at other times telling us future events in terms too symbolic to understand.

We need to be very careful not to trust our own logic and reason, as opposed to God’s clear commandments. Those who hold to infant baptism, for example, reach their conclusions totally by way of analogy and inference. They conclude that parents should baptize their infant children, although there is not one New Testament command to do so, and not one clear example of it being practiced by the early church. While I appreciate much of the teaching and insights offered by those who hold to a reformed or covenant theology, I am greatly troubled that none of their foundational covenants are specifically named as such in the Bible, and that the covenants which are identified (the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New covenants) are not given proper emphasis. Inferences and human logic should never take precedence over divine decrees and commandments. Some of the Corinthian saints were able to set aside the decree of the Jerusalem Council and eat meat offered to idols, based upon their reasoning by heaping inference upon inference, starting with divine truth and ending in disobedience. Paul instructs us to subordinate our reasoning (often puffed up and distorted by our pride) to divine commands: “We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

There are two vastly different kinds of reasoning—one we should avoid like the plague, and the other we should practice and perfect. The first kind of reasoning is the reasoning of unbelief leading to disobedience. The second is the reasoning of faith unto obedience. Eve practiced the former; Abraham the latter.

God instructed Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, warning them that to do so would result in death. Satan questioned Eve in such a way as to cast a doubt on God’s character and on His command. She was forbidden to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He was to trust God and to obey Him by giving up an illicit means to knowledge. As she looked at this one forbidden tree, she came to look upon it as desirable, and thus she ate of it. Eve trusted in her own reasoning, and she consequently disobeyed God.

Abraham reasoned unto obedience. Abraham knew that God had promised this son in his and Sarah’s old age, when they were “as good as dead,” so far as bearing children was concerned. Nevertheless, he knew that God was the Creator, the One who called what did not exist into existence. He contemplated his own body and that of his wife Sarah, dead as they both were so far as bearing children, and chose to believe God’s promise, in spite of what he saw (Romans 4:16-22). Late in his life, Abraham was commanded by God to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham once again contemplated the situation in the light of who God was. He knew that when he and Sarah were as good as dead with regard to bearing children, God gave them a son anyway. Their son was born as from the dead. And so, when God commanded him to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham knew this son was the means to fulfill God’s promises. He also knew that God was able to bring life to (or through) the dead, and so he reasoned from his walk with God, and from the Word of God, that God was able to raise even the dead (Hebrews 11:19). Abraham reasoned by faith unto obedience. This is the kind of reasoning God wants of us. He does not want Christians to stop thinking; He wants Christians to think biblically, to think with a renewed mind, so as to have sound judgment, and thus to obey God’s commands (see Romans 12:1-3f.). We Christians do not think too much; we think too little, and when we do think, we often think humanly, unto unbelief and disobedience. Let us think more, with a renewed mind, and according to God’s Word, unto obedience to His commands.


94 There is discussion in the commentaries as to what the Greek term, rendered “meat offered to idols” means, but it is important to note that precisely the same Greek term Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 8:1 is what Luke employs in Acts 15:29. Whatever some Corinthians considered their liberty, the apostles and church leaders forbade.

95 That is Paul’s point here, it seems, but in Philippians 1:9, Paul indicates that love must be informed lest it degenerate to mindless sentimentalism.

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16. When a Right May Be Wrong (1 Cor. 9:1-23)

Introduction

Years ago, I found it necessary to deal with the Social Security office in Austin. When I phoned to describe my situation and to seek an answer as to what I should do, the woman who took my call began trying to find a category in which to place me. Certain options were open to those classified as “ministers,” and this was the category about which I was inquiring. Immediately, the woman asked if I was an “ordained minister.” When I told her “No,” she was obviously troubled. I believe she then asked if I was the “pastor” of the church where I served. Again, I had to say “No,” to which she responded, “When you get to be a real minister, call me back.”

The Corinthians have the same problem with the classification of an “apostle.” The Corinthians could well say to Paul, “When you get to be a real apostle, contact us again.” Some of the Corinthians have several problems with Paul’s apostleship. The first is Paul’s message. Paul’s message is simplistic (Christ crucified), and it is one that does not find general acceptance. Second, Paul’s methods are unappealing. He does not (indeed, he will not) use the persuasive techniques of some, which many find appealing. His speech is far from eloquent, and this is by choice. Finally, Paul does not charge for his services. They think that no one worth their salt would teach and preach for nothing, because after all, you get what you pay for!

Paul’s apostleship is under fire, but this is not Paul’s primary reason for writing 1 Corinthians 9. This ninth chapter of Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians is the centerpiece of three chapters devoted to the question they raise about eating meat offered to idols (see 8:1). In reality, there is really nothing to inquire about concerning this matter, because the Jerusalem Council has decreed that meats offered to idols are forbidden for the Gentile saints (see Acts 15:28-29; 21:25). Paul chooses not to mention this, but to temporarily grant the premise of some that meat offered to idols is permissible for the “strong” Christian. Even if the knowledge of the “stronger brother” freed him to eat idol-meat, love should constrain him to avoid it for the sake of his “weaker” brother. Since foods do not determine one’s standing before God, eating this meat does not make one the better for it, nor does abstaining from eating it hinder one’s walk with God. The Christian who walks in love will abstain from any liberty which hinders another believer.

Now, in chapter 9, Paul presses further this option of refraining from one’s rights by illustrating it from his own life and ministry. He first sets out to prove, without a doubt, that he is an apostle and that as such, he has the right to eat and drink at the expense of those to whom him ministers. Having done so, he then explains why he has chosen to refuse this right, at great personal cost. Not being supported at the expense of those to whom Paul ministers is 1) the basis for anticipated rewards related to his ministry and, (2) a means by which the gospel can be proclaimed more effectively.

Paul’s practice in this matter of eating and drinking at the expense of others is given to the Corinthians and to us as an example. It sets the benchmark for those who are truly spiritual. Let us listen and learn, and then put these truths into practice, motivated by love for the Savior and for our fellowman.

Paul’s Apostleship Declared and Defended
(9:1-2)

1 Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? 2 If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

Paul makes two claims here, which are the basis for rights he will surrender in his service to the Corinthians as a servant of Christ. He does not need to defend one of these claims; the other will be extensively defended. The first claim is obviously not challenged by the Corinthians. Paul is a free man and not a slave. As a free citizen of the Roman Empire, he has great liberties. In verse 19, Paul tells his readers that in spite of his freedom, he has made himself a slave to all men.

The second right Paul claims is that of an apostle. This claim is challenged or doubted by a number of the Corinthians, some of whom claim apostolic authority themselves:

5 For I consider myself not in the least inferior to the most eminent apostles. 6 But even if I am unskilled in speech, yet I am not so in knowledge; in fact, in every way we have made this evident to you in all things. 7 Or did I commit a sin in humbling myself that you might be exalted, because I preached the gospel of God to you without charge? … 12 But what I am doing, I will continue to do, that I may cut off opportunity from those who desire an opportunity to be regarded just as we are in the matter about which they are boasting. 13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:5-7, 12-13).

Because of the simplicity (Christ crucified) of Paul’s message and of his method of delivery, some are ashamed of Paul and seek leadership from others, who have a more popular method and message. They also question Paul’s apostolic authority because he does not charge for his services.

Paul’s words in the first verses of chapter 9 are intended to remind the Corinthians that Paul truly is an apostle, with full apostolic authority. He is an apostle on a par with the other 11 apostles of our Lord. Some (including myself) go so far as to say Paul is God’s replacement for Judas, and thus the 12th of the 12 apostles. The apostles are men who were witnesses to the resurrection of our Lord (see Acts 1:21-22; 2:32; 3:15, etc.). Paul too claims to have “seen” the resurrected Lord Jesus. His unique conversion experience makes him a witness of the resurrection, like the other apostles (see Acts 9:1-9; 22:14). Paul’s first words in this epistle concern his divinely appointed apostleship: “Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother” (1 Corinthians 1:1).

If anyone should be convinced of Paul’s apostleship, it is the Corinthians. They are the fruit of his apostolic labors. He is the one who came, sowing the seeds of the gospel. Those who are now looked up to as leaders are reaping the fruits of what Paul has sown. As an apostle, he came preaching Christ crucified, and as a result of his ministry, many of the Corinthians come to faith. They are the seal, the proof,96 of his apostleship. Others might question Paul’s apostleship, but surely not the Corinthians.

Paul’s Rights as an Apostle
(9:3-6 )

3 My defense to those who examine me is this: 4 Do we not have a right to eat and drink? 5 Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? 6 Or do only Barnabas and I not have a right to refrain from working?

Paul’s apostleship is under attack. Some are actually examining him (verse 3). This term is used of Jesus being examined by Pilate (Luke 23:14), of Peter and John on trial (Acts 4:9), and of Paul being interrogated by the Romans (Acts 28:18). We know that Paul is also being examined by the Corinthians:

3 But to me it is a very small thing that I should be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. 4 For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord (1 Corinthians 4:3-4).

It should not come as a surprise that the all-wise Corinthians set themselves above Paul, judging his spirituality (2 Corinthians 10:1), his ministry, and even his apostleship.

The Corinthians are Paul’s work (9:1), and thus it is only right that he should be supported by them. Paul does not speak of “support” or “money,” but rather of his “right to eat and drink.” Supporting an itinerate preacher is primarily a matter of giving him room and board (see Acts 16:15; 3 John 5-8). Paul uses “food and drink” for good reason, because the issue at hand is the eating of meat offered to idols. Paul first claims the right to “eat and drink at the expense of the Corinthians, and then explains why he refrains from doing so. Throughout this chapter, the imagery of eating and drinking is maintained in Paul’s examples and proof texts.

Paul’s right as an apostle to “eat and drink” extends not only to himself, but to a wife. As an apostle, he has the right to be married and to take his wife along with him as he proclaims the gospel. Those to whom he ministers have the obligation to provide both he and his wife with food and drink. This, as Paul points out, is the case with all of the other 11 apostles. Only Paul and Barnabas have chosen not to exercise this right.

Paul’s words here, linking his right to eat and drink and his right to “lead about” a wife, strongly imply one of the reasons Paul chooses to remain single. If Paul does not exercise his right to be provided with his meals (and lodging), then he is in no position to support a wife. He is willing to “pay the price” of his convictions, but he does not wish for a wife to suffer the hardships he has chosen to endure.

Being an apostle then is having the right to be supported by those to whom he ministers. His right to “refrain from working” (at a secular job) enables him to devote himself to those to whom he ministers, his “work in the Lord” (verse 1). All of the other apostles except Barnabas have chosen to exercise the right to be supported and to lead about a wife. Paul and Barnabas have gone above and beyond the call of duty. They have chosen not to exercise their rights in these matters.

Paul’s Apostolic Rights Supported
(9:7-12a)

7 Who at any time serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard, and does not eat the fruit of it? Or who tends a flock and does not use the milk of the flock? 8 I am not speaking these things according to human judgment, am I? Or does not the Law also say these things? 9 For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing.” God is not concerned about oxen, is He? 10 Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops. 11 If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we should reap material things from you? 12 If others share the right over you, do we not more?

In verses 7-12, Paul amasses an overwhelming collection of proofs for his right as an apostle to be provided food and drink by those to whom he ministers. In verse 7, Paul cites three examples from the secular world of work to show that the worker in each case expects to eat of the fruit of his work. In each of these three cases, the occupation is a biblical image applied to the Christian minister. In Ephesians 6, Paul speaks of the Christian life in terms of spiritual warfare and describes God’s provisions in terms of the armor of the soldier. Israel is likened to a vineyard, the people of God as vine tenders (see Isaiah 5; Matthew 20:1-16; 21:33-46). The image of the shepherd is applied not only to our Lord (e.g., John 10), but also to those who minister (see 1 Peter 5:1-5). In verses 8-12a, Paul turns to the Old Testament Law, as setting down the principle of support. A little later, in the next paragraph, Paul offers further proof. There, Paul turns to those engaged in temple ministry (verse 13). The final proof, which is sufficient on its own, is the teaching of our Lord Himself (verse 14).

Paul turns to three occupations in which the worker labors with the expectation of eating or drinking from the fruit of his labor. The soldier does not have time to produce his own rations,97 and so they are provided for him. The keeper of the vineyard expects to eat some of the grapes and to drink some of the wine he has labored to produce. The shepherd tends the flock with the expectation that he can drink of the milk of the flock. In every case, the laborer expects to eat or drink some of the fruits of his labor.

These are basically secular examples. Some might object that Paul is not speaking so much from divine wisdom, as from that which is merely human. Paul therefore turns to the Old Testament Scriptures, particularly to the Law of Moses, where we read this instruction: “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing” (Deuteronomy 25:3-4).

One hardly expects this text to bear upon the situation in Corinth. It is an Old Testament text, not a New Testament instruction. It is addressed to the ancient Israelites, as they are about to possess the land of Canaan. It is a command which was handed down to the Israelites by Moses, recorded in the Law of Moses. It is a passage which refers to oxen, not to preachers. The only thing it appears to have in common with Paul’s topic in our text is that it is a reference to food—food for the oxen.

Paul’s use of this Old Testament commandment is most instructive, not only for its teaching, but as an example of Paul’s method of interpreting and applying the Old Testament Scriptures. Paul indicates that his use of this text is not an indirect or secondary application of the text, but a direct application. He informs us that God did not give this command because of His great compassion on animals (though He is compassionate toward His creatures), but rather as an instruction primarily for us. He is speaking “altogether for our sake.” Since the ox labors by treading the grain, producing food for man, it should not be muzzled, so that it may partake of the food which is the fruit of its labors. In other words, this commandment was given to the Israelites to teach them the principle that the “laborer is worthy of his wages,” and should therefore benefit from his labors by being allowed to eat some of the grain.

By the way, this principle which God set down for the Israelites, and which Paul sets down for the Corinthians, is practiced by the more progressive and successful businesses of our time. It is known as “profit sharing.” If an auto worker is only paid a certain amount of money per hour, he may lack the motivation to work hard and to produce as many cars (at as high a quality) as possible. But when this same worker is given a share of the profits, he is motivated to produce qualitatively and quantitatively, because the better he does his job, the more he will benefit from his labors.

The laborer should labor in hope, in the expectation of benefiting from the fruit of his labors. The plowman, who prepares the field for sowing, and the thresher (the ox), should both benefit from their labors. In all of the examples Paul has named so far, the laborer has benefited directly from the food which his labor has helped to produce. The ox labors to thresh the grain, and thus is given the freedom to eat some of the same grain. In Paul’s case, it is different. He labors among the Corinthians in spiritual things. He has the right to benefit from them in a material way. If he labors in the greater (spiritual) work, then surely he will do so in the hope of benefiting in the lesser (material) work of the Corinthians. Paul reminds them that they are already practicing this principle. At the time of Paul’s writing, some who labored among the Corinthians were also being supported materially by the saints. If these late comers (the reapers) can expect to benefit materially from the Corinthians, how much more so the earliest comers, the sowers, like Paul and Barnabas?

Paul’s Rights, His Rewards, and the Gospel
(9:12b-23)

Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things, that we may cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ. 13 Do you not know that those who perform sacred services eat the food of the temple, and those who attend regularly to the altar have their share with the altar? 14 So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel. 15 But I have used none of these things. And I am not writing these things that it may be done so in my case; for it would be better for me to die than have any man make my boast an empty one. 16 For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel. 17 For if I do this voluntarily, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have a stewardship entrusted to me. 18 What then is my reward? That, when I preach the gospel, I may offer the gospel without charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. 19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. 20 And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. 23 And I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow partaker of it (1 Corinthians 9:12-23).

This right, clearly established by God in the Old Testament Law of Moses, evident in the world of Paul’s day, and practiced by his fellow apostles, Paul (along with Barnabas) chooses to set aside rather than use it to his advantage. He does this at great personal expense, and thus Paul states in verse 12 that it is necessary for he and Barnabas to “endure all things.” Paul’s refusal to exercise his rights results in the adversities and difficulties he has already described in chapter 4: “To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure” (1 Corinthians 4:11-12). Paul’s decision to set aside his right to support is costly. It is a cost he purposes to endure, and this for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

How does declining financial support remove a hindrance to the advance of the gospel of Christ? For one thing, Paul’s work as a tent-maker puts him in touch with the lost. Preachers often live in a kind of seclusion, finding it difficult to get close enough to the lost to be a testimony. Working in the secular work place puts one in contact with people, heathen people who need to hear the gospel. Working in the secular work place gives one the opportunity to be a witness by the quality of our work and of our relationships. Not seeking or taking funds from people is something which takes the world by surprise. We all know that many unbelievers, not to mention many Christians (including most of us), roll our eyes when we hear the televangelists on television asking over and over for money. Paul is a man who not only refuses to exercise his right to be supported by the Corinthians, but often labors so that he can support the needy. In doing this, Paul sets himself apart from many of the religious charlatans of his day and causes people to look upon him and his message with a measure of respect.

If Paul has not already made his point about having the right as an apostle to eat and drink at the expense of the Corinthians, Paul now gives two final proofs of this right in verses 13 and 14. The first is his reference to the temple workers, who by virtue of their labor obtain a share of the temple offerings. Whether this is in the pagan temples of that day, or whether in the Israelites temple in Jerusalem, the right of those who labor in this religious work is obvious.

The final argument Paul offers in support of his apostolic right of food and drink is the teaching of our Lord Himself: “So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel” (verse 14).

The question the scholars ask is this: “Where does our Lord teach this?” I think His teaching of this principle is very clear in His sending out of the disciples:

1 And He called the twelve together, and gave them power and authority over all the demons, and to heal diseases. 2 And He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God, and to perform healing. 3 And He said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, neither a staff, nor a bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not even have two tunics apiece. 4 “And whatever house you enter, stay there, and take your leave from there. 5 “And as for those who do not receive you, as you go out from that city, shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” 6 And departing, they began going about among the villages, preaching the gospel, and healing everywhere” (Luke 9:1-6).

1 Now after this the Lord appointed seventy others, and sent them two and two ahead of Him to every city and place where He Himself was going to come. 2 And He was saying to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest. 3 “Go your ways; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. 4 “Carry no purse, no bag, no shoes; and greet no one on the way. 5 “And whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house.’ 6 “And if a man of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him; but if not, it will return to you. 7 “And stay in that house, eating and drinking what they give you; for the laborer is worthy of his wages. Do not keep moving from house to house. 8 “And whatever city you enter, and they receive you, eat what is set before you; 9 and heal those in it who are sick, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 “But whatever city you enter and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your city which clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you; yet be sure of this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ 12 “I say to you, it will be more tolerable in that day for Sodom, than for that city” (Luke 10:1-12).

Our Lord Himself is supported in His ministry (see Luke 8:1-3), and He likewise expects His disciples to be supported by those who benefit from their preaching and ministry of healing. The church is taught by the apostles that it is obligated to care for the needs of those who minister the Word of God (see Galatians 6:6; 1 Timothy 5:17-18).

Paul refrains from receiving this support from the Corinthians for two primary reasons, which he articulates in verses 15-23. First, Paul refrains from exercising his right to be supported because his resulting sacrificial service will bring him a reward. Paul is called as an apostle. As such, it is his duty to proclaim the gospel, a duty of which he was informed at the time of his conversion. For him to carry out his duty by preaching the gospel is not service worthy of a special reward. We are expected to fulfill our duty (see Luke 17:9-10). When we exceed the speed limit, we can expect to be given a traffic citation and to pay a fine. But when we obey the speed limit, we have no right to expect a police officer to pull us over, praise us for our obedience, and then reward us with a $20 bill. Our duty is what we are required and expected to do, for which there is no hope of reward.

The rewards come when we act “above and beyond the call of duty.” A number of years ago, a plane crashed shortly after take off in Washington, D. C. It was a cold winter day, and there was ice on the Potomac River into which the plane crashed. A number of rescue workers rushed to the scene, and quite of few of the passengers were rescued. None of the emergency workers were cited for their bravery, even though they risked their lives to rescue some of the crash victims. One man was singled out for praise by the media. This man happened to be nearby when the airplane crashed. He was watching the rescue efforts from one bank of the river when he noticed a women in the icy water in front of him. Many of the media were there, cameras rolling as people were sinking in the frigid waters. They didn’t seem to think of throwing down their cameras and jumping into the river to help someone. But this man did jump into the river, risking his life to pull the woman to shore. He was praised for his actions because they were not required; they were above and beyond the call of duty.

A Christian is not really free to refrain from proclaiming the gospel. It is our duty to do so. When we tell others about Christ, we should not expect to be rewarded for doing so. If we wish to be rewarded, we must do something above and beyond our duty. Paul’s duty is to preach the gospel, and his right is to be supported in so doing. But when Paul chooses to set aside this right to food and drink, he enters into the realm of voluntary sacrifice, and thus into the realm where he can anticipate a divine reward. Surrendering our rights is a basis for rewards, and so Paul gladly surrenders his right to be supported.

Paul’s second reason for setting aside his rights to food and drink is to promote the gospel. Once in verse 19 and again in verse 23, Paul tells us that this is his reason for abstaining from the free exercise of his right to be supported:

19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more.

23 And I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow partaker of it (1 Corinthians 9:19, 23).

The first statement, in verse 19, is a reference to Paul’s freedom. He is not a slave. He is, indeed, a “native Roman citizen,” a man born free as a Roman citizen, as opposed to those who have purchased their citizenship, or to those who are slaves and have no rights as Roman citizens (see Acts 22:22-29). This liberty and these rights, Paul gladly surrenders, thus becoming the slave of all men whenever this advances the cause of Christ.98

In verse 23, Paul again draws attention to the fact that he sets aside his liberties or rights when doing so is for the sake of the gospel. The gospel is an offense to the unbeliever, and only when chosen of God and quickened by the Spirit will men be able to get past the offense of the gospel to be saved. Whatever liberties Paul can sacrifice, he will sacrifice, in order to advance the gospel. As much as possible, Paul will accommodate the Jews, so that they might come to Christ. Likewise, when Paul is among the Gentiles, he refrains from any liberties which they find offensive, so that they might more easily hear and heed the gospel. To those under the Law, he seeks to conduct himself in a way that does not offend their sensitivities, so that they might come to Christ. To those Gentiles not under the Old Testament Law, Paul likewise adjusts his conduct, so that they might not needlessly be offended, and turn away from the gospel as they turned away from him.

What Paul is saying here in verses 19-23 is similar to what the writer to the Hebrews writes:

1 Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2).

There are “sins which easily entangle us” in our Christian walk. These must be put aside because they are sins. But other things are not sins; they are encumbrances. These hinder us from excelling in the race we are running. Thus the author urges us to set these encumbrances aside.

Paul is saying nearly the same thing, or at least applying the same principle. If the goal of the Christian is the salvation of souls, then the Christian should willingly set aside anything which hinders this goal. Some of our rights or liberties as Christians may actually be hindrances to the goal of winning souls. For Paul, being married and being supported by the church were hindrances to his mission as a called apostle. Consequently, he happily set them aside, knowing that this not only enhances his ministry, but increases his rewards.

It is vitally important for you to understand that in verses 19-23 Paul is not teaching: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Paul is not speaking about the sins of others with which he is willing to participate. Paul is talking about accommodating himself to the weaknesses of the lost, by surrendering any liberties which might prove offensive to them and thus hinder his preaching of the gospel. One might be invited to make a gospel presentation in a retirement home. One could go with drums, guitars, and an electronic keyboard. But it is possible that an organ or piano accompaniment would be received more readily. Why insist on your rights, when practicing them might needlessly alienate someone who is lost, keeping them from hearing the gospel? Paul is willing to sacrifice the free exercise of any liberty if doing so will further the gospel. Never will Paul think of committing a sin in order to identify with the lost. One does not need to win an alcoholic to Christ by getting drunk with him, or to convert a drug addict by getting high with him. It is one thing to commit a sin in the name of furthering the gospel; it is quite another to sacrifice a liberty for the sake of the gospel.

Conclusion

It may be needless to say, but I will nonetheless say it again as I conclude this message: This passage proves that Paul has the right to be supported in his ministry, and that he also has the privilege of not exercising it, for his own benefit (his reward) and for the advance of the gospel. This text does not teach that individuals or churches have the right not to support those who preach.

In our text, Paul has spent a great deal of time defending his right as an apostle to be supported (to eat and drink) by those to whom he ministers. He has spent no time attempting to defend his status as a free man (not a slave). Why is there this emphasis on his rights as an apostle? First, because his apostleship is being challenged by some in Corinth, especially by those who are false apostles (see 2 Corinthians 11). Paul will not give ground on the matter of his apostleship, because he will not surrender the truth of the gospel to those who would change it. Second, Paul emphasizes his rights as an apostle because these rights are the most evident and least disputed. Aside from Paul and Barnabas, all of the other apostles not only support these rights, they exercise them in their ministries. If anyone wishes to challenge Paul on the matter of being supported, they will also have to take on Peter and all the rest of the 11. The “liberty” to eat idol-meats, claimed by some Corinthians and exposed by Paul in chapter 8, is based on very thin reasoning, which is directly opposed to the decree of the Jerusalem Council (which includes the apostles). Paul wants his “right” to be understood as indisputable, before he goes on to decline it for the sake of the gospel.

(1) Paul’s use of the Old Testament in our text has much to teach us about the role of the Old Testament Scriptures in the life of the New Testament saint. We dare not write off any portion of the Old Testament Scriptures as irrelevant to our lives. Paul tells us that this passage in Deuteronomy 25:4 was “altogether” written for our edification and instruction. He directly applies it to his right to support as an apostle. While we are not Israelites, living in the promised land under the Mosaic Covenant, the commandments found in the Law of Moses are nevertheless applicable to us. Behind the commandment, there is a principle, and that principle should not be overlooked or set aside.

Let me seek to illustrate what I mean from another Old Testament command, given three times in the Law of Moses: “You shall bring the choice first fruits of your soil into the house of the Lord your God. You are not to boil a kid in the milk of its mother” (Exodus 23:19; see also 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21).

This Sunday has been set aside by many evangelical churches as the “sanctity of human life Sunday,” because of the slaughter of millions of unborn children through abortion, legalized by the decision of the Supreme Court over 20 years ago in the case of Roe v. Wade. This case, incidentally, was filed in Dallas by a couple of young law students. “Roe” is a pseudonym for the woman who was denied an abortion and then filed suit against the prosecutor, Henry Wade.

One may not immediately see the relevance of this ancient command to abortion, but it is very real and direct. The Israelites were commanded never to boil a kid in its mother’s milk. Now what were the chances in ancient times that this would ever happen? This command, like the command not to muzzle the ox, was given to teach a very important principle. God did not care any more for the mother goat or the young kid than He did the ox. God wanted to teach an important truth. A she goat or cow becomes “fresh” (that is, she begins to give milk) when she delivers her offspring. The mother’s milk is provided to preserve the life of the offspring and to promote its health and growth. To boil a kid in its mother’s milk is to “profane” the milk by causing it to serve a purpose exactly the opposite of what God intended. How can one destroy the life of a kid with the very milk intended to preserve and promote its life? It would be a great travesty.

The mother’s womb is a haven for the unborn child. It is a place of safety, a place where the life of the unborn child is protected from danger. The womb is the place where the child who has been conceived can grow to the point where it can enter into the world and live independently of the mother’s body. How horrid to think that there are now abortion clinics which prosper by invading this place of safety, this sanctuary of human life, and destroy that life. How unnatural it is that the mother who has given life to this unborn child now sets out to destroy it, when her body is designed to protect it. This ancient commandment, which seems so out of place in the modern world, stands before our society to condemn it for the evil of abortion.

(2) Paul teaches us that we should willingly forego the exercise of any right which would prove to be a hindrance to the gospel. We can see this principle at work in the person and work of our Lord. It was evident in this incident, recorded by Matthew:

24 And when they had come to Capernaum, those who collected the two-drachma tax came to Peter, and said, “Does your teacher not pay the two-drachma tax?” 25 He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect customs or poll-tax, from their sons or from strangers?” 26 And upon his saying, “From strangers,” Jesus said to him, “Consequently the sons are exempt. 27 “But, lest we give them offense, go to the sea, and throw in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a stater. Take that and give it to them for you and Me” (Matthew 17:23-27).

Jesus, as the Son of God, had every right to consider Himself exempt from the temple tax. He had every right not to pay this tax. And yet, He did pay it, lest the exercise of His rights hinder the preaching of the gospel. His message brought much offense to the Jews, but He would not add to the offense by the exercise of a right which could easily be set aside.

The greatest example of the principle of setting aside one’s rights for the sake of the gospel is seen in the incarnation of our Lord and in His sacrificial death for the sins of men:

5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).

Some wrongly conclude that what our Lord set aside in His coming to the earth was some portion of His deity. Jesus is fully divine and fully human. He did not set aside any of His deity to come to this earth as a man; He simply added perfect humanity to His deity. When Paul speaks of our Lord emptying Himself, He does not mean that Jesus became less than the God He was in heaven, seated at the Father’s right hand. He means that when Jesus came to the earth as the God-man, He surrendered His rights as God. He did not cease to be God; He set aside His rights as God. And because of this, you and I, along with every believer, have been forgiven of our sins and entered into eternal life. It is at this point of sacrificing His rights that our Lord, like Paul, enters into the place of blessing and reward. And so Paul speaks not only of our Lord’s resurrection and ascension, but also of His being highly exalted with a name higher than any other name. Jesus, who surrendered His rights and stooped lower than any Old Testament saint could ever imagine, was also exalted higher than any could imagine, as a result of His sacrifice.

It is the surrender of our Lord’s rights which makes salvation possible for you. Have you received the gift of salvation which our Lord’s sacrifice made possible? If not, I invite you to receive His gift of salvation now. You simply need to confess that you are a sinner, deserving of God’s eternal punishment, and to receive by faith the forgiveness of sins and divine righteousness which our Lord accomplished through His death, burial, resurrection and ascension to the Father. And if you have received this gift, then you are obligated to walk in our Lord’s steps, willingly setting aside your rights, for the advancement of the gospel (see 1 Peter 2:18-25).

(3) In the light of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9, many of the things he has written earlier come into sharper focus. In chapter 4, Paul speaks of his suffering and humiliation, contrasted with the pride and lofty attitude of the Corinthians. We can now see that Paul experienced what he did for the sake of the gospel. Those Corinthians who began to look down on the gospel because of Paul are dead wrong. Paul’s attitudes and actions are completely consistent with the gospel. To distance themselves from Paul is to stand apart from the gospel as well.

In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul speaks of the Corinthians going to court with one another. We can now understand why. They are intent not only on practicing their rights, but in protecting and preserving them. Law courts are about rights. If the Corinthians will not sacrifice their rights for the good of their brethren and for the advancement of the gospel, we would expect to see them in the courts, where rights can be protected. Later in chapter 6, Paul writes that while all things might be lawful, all things do not edify. We now can see that chapter 9 is a much fuller explanation of his words in chapter 6. Anything which causes a weaker brother to stumble (chapter 8) or which hinders the advancement of the gospel should be set aside.

Paul’s words in chapter 7 about marriage and about staying single also come into sharper focus. For one to follow Paul’s example regarding support, it would be a virtual necessity to remain single. When one sets aside the right to support, he nearly always sets aside the right to “lead about a wife.” Marriage is a privilege, a right, and as such, it is also that which can be set aside, for the edification of others and for the promotion of the gospel. No wonder Paul can speak of not seeking to gain the full measure of all that life has to offer. And no wonder Paul can speak as he does in chapter 7 about being content with the status of a slave. Even one born free, as Paul was, should be willing to make himself the slave of men by surrendering those rights which hinder the gospel.

(4) Paul’s teaching in chapter 9 sheds light on those who insist upon exercising their alleged right to eat meat offered to idols in chapter 8. For many, the requirements of the Law or of any New Testament commands, are the high water mark of spirituality. To keep the rules is to be spiritual. To exercise every right not forbidden by the rules (or made possible by finding a way around the rules) is also the epitome of spirituality. Avoiding what is prohibited and begrudgingly doing what is commanded is as far as the legalist will go. The Law is the stopping place for the legalists, who will then indulge themselves in their liberties. For Paul, it is just the opposite. The requirements of the Law are the starting point. The bare minimum is what the Law requires or forbids. To abide within the Law is not proof of spirituality or the basis for rewards. Rewards can be hoped for only when one goes above and beyond the requirements of the Law (is this not what Jesus speaks about in the Sermon on the Mount?). One should think of acting sacrificially only when one willingly gives up the exercise of a right, for the sake of a brother or for the sake of the gospel. Those who think themselves spiritual for keeping the rules are wrong. The Law set the starting point, not the stopping point.

Let me seek to illustrate what I mean. The Law called for men to tithe. I do not wish to get into all the intricacies of what contributions the Law required. You should know, however, that in addition to the required offerings and gifts, there were the free-will offerings. Those who believe in tithing often take pride in the fact that they give their 10 percent. As I understand Paul’s words in our text, giving what is required is not a basis for rewards. Our rewards begin when we willingly choose to give sacrificially, beyond the tithe. This is what the Corinthians do, and this is why Paul commends them for doing so (see 2 Corinthians 8:1-15). It is also why Paul indicates that what he encourages them to do is not a command—it is beyond the requirements, entering into the area of true sacrifice (see 8:8).

(5) Paul’s words should be seriously pondered by those enamored with the teachings of the church growth movement. This movement has the lofty goal of drawing men and women to church and to faith in Christ. The trouble with this movement is that growth in numbers becomes the measure of spirituality and success. Too many churches who pursue church growth are willing to sacrifice the gospel to get growth. Is the Lord’s table offensive or unappealing to the lost, they say? Then let us do away with it, or hide it away in some obscure time and place, so that the lost will be attracted to church. Are the doctrines of God’s holiness, man’s sin, and eternal torment unappealing to the lost, they say? Then play them down. Seek to lure the lost to faith without these essentials, and let them learn the “fine print” of the gospel later. Although Paul speaks to us about surrendering our rights for the sake of the gospel, we are more inclined to surrender the gospel for the sake of our rights. Let the church growth movement (and all the rest of us) take heed!

(6) Paul’s words also challenge the current mindset that those who are spiritual are those who have a “full-time ministry.” I cannot tell you how many times I have seen and heard words and actions which betray the presence of a two-story spirituality. Those who are really spiritual go to seminary or devote themselves to full-time ministry. If this is so, then Paul must not be all that spiritual. No wonder some Corinthians challenge his spirituality (2 Corinthians 10:1-2). Paul’s spirituality is evidenced by his willingness to sacrifice his rights for the sake of the gospel. One such right is that of having a full-time ministry. Let us beware of false standards of spirituality. Let those who think they will be more effective by ministering “full-time” pause to reflect on Paul’s “part-time” ministry, for the sake of the gospel.

(7) Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 9 sheds new light on the matter of pleasing God. Pleasing God does not result from merely keeping the rules. Pleasing God comes from personal sacrifice, for the glory of God, the good of others, and the advance of the gospel. Many Christians talk about “knowing the will of God.” What they really want is a rule book, much like that of the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They want to know what is right and what is wrong. They want to avoid only what is sin and to enjoy everything else. They want the Christian life all spelled out in terms of do’s and don’ts. They want to know all the don’ts, so that they can indulge themselves in the do’s. Paul informs us that God is pleased when we “just say no” to the things which could be a “yes.” God is pleased when we choose to refrain from a right because of our love for God and for our brother, and because we do not want to hinder the advance of the gospel. This is why I believe God does not lay down more do’s and don’ts. He wants to give us as many liberties as possible, and then to see what we are willing to sacrifice for the gospel and for His glory. Pleasing God goes far beyond keeping the rules. Pleasing God begins when we have kept the rules, and when we start to sacrifice our rights for the sake of the gospel. May God cause us to reflect on this text, and on its many implications for our lives, for our good and His glory.


96 “A ‘seal’ was important in an age when many could not read. A mark stamped on clay, or wax, or some similar substance, was first of all a mark of ownership, and then a means of authentication.” Leon Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1966), p. 132.

97 The term employed here does not just refer to money, which the soldier is paid, but to “that part of a soldier’s support given in place of pay [i.e. rations]… .” Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, p. 471.

98 We must also point out that Paul sometimes insists on his rights as a Roman citizen, but this is only when it is for the good of the gospel (see Acts 16:35-40; 22:22-29).

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17. Lessons From the Present and the Past (1 Cor. 9:24-10:10)

Introduction

My Dad told me one time that a preacher comes across better when he has that “lean, hungry look.” I think my Dad has something there, and unfortunately I wish I had that look now as I attempt to expound these verses in the ninth and tenth chapters of 1 Corinthians. I feel something like the woman in a weight loss group, who made this confession. She had lost a great deal of weight and was very pleased with herself. One of her bad habits had been stopping at a donut shop every morning on her way to work. There, she consumed more than her share of fat grams and calories. Now that she had gotten control of her eating, she was elated. On the way to work one morning, she was passing by the donut shop where she had failed so many times. On an impulse, she turned in to the shop. This time, it was going to be different. She was going to order a cup of coffee, and nothing else, and prove to herself that she finally had control of her eating.

She ordered her cup of coffee and sat down to drink it. There, across the table from her, was a man who was not showing the same self-control. He was drinking coffee and eating donuts covered with powdered sugar. Suddenly, he stood up and left the table—leaving one sugar-covered donut sitting on the table right in front of her. It was too much! She could not let this donut go to waste. She snatched it up and snarfed it down, dropping tell-tale evidences of the sugar all over the front of her dress. Then, to her horror, the man returned. He had not left at all, but only gotten up to refill his cup. How could she deny that she had eaten his donut? How could she explain?

All of us struggle with self-control. So do the Corinthians. In our text, Paul draws together all of his previous admonitions concerning the character and the conduct of the Corinthian saints. There are divisions and strife, with many looking down upon Paul as an apostle and upon his simplistic gospel of Christ crucified. There is immorality openly practiced by some of the saints, and some so vile that even the pagan Corinthians are shocked. Christians there are defensive of those things they consider their liberties, and they look to the secular law courts to protect their legal rights. Some Christians in Corinth are seeking to deal with immorality.

In the immediate context, Paul has been dealing with the question of meats offered to idols. This issue is first raised in chapter 8. For the moment, Paul allows their premises to stand unchallenged. These are: (1) they have the right to eat meat offered to idols since there is only one God; (2) they are wiser and stronger than those who have scruples against eating such meats, and (3) because this is their right, they have no reason not to exercise it. Paul deals with the last premise first. In chapter 8, Paul indicates that their right to eat meat, based on their “knowledge” is to be set aside for the sake of their “weaker” brethren. To insist on exercising their rights by eating such meat to the detriment of their brother is not walking in love.

In the first 23 verses of chapter 9, Paul contrasts his attitudes and actions with those who insist on eating these meats. He conclusively proves his right to “eat and drink” at the expense of the brethren to whom he ministers by citing biblical support from the Old Testament law, from secular life, from the practice of his fellow-apostles, and from the teaching of our Lord. In spite of his undeniable right to “eat and drink” at the expense of others, Paul sets this liberty aside, so that his ministry of the gospel will be enhanced. They insist on exercising a “right” which is wrong, and no right at all; Paul sets aside a “right” that is indisputable.

At verse 24 of chapter 9, Paul begins to approach the subject of eating meats offered to idols from a very different perspective. His point is powerfully made, but it goes even beyond the issue of eating certain meats. Paul’s words in our text apply to every one of the problems of the Corinthian church mentioned in chapters 1-9. Paul will show his readers that the Corinthians’ problems are not new, but simply a repetition of the problems faced by the ancient Israelites, as they made their way from Egypt to the promised land. He will also sum up all of these common problems and show that they have a common denominator, that all are sins of self-indulgence.

The problems of the ancient Israelites to which Paul refers, and the problems at Corinth which Paul has exposed, are precisely the same problems you and I face as Christians today. Let us listen to Paul’s words and learn, for to do so will avoid much needless failure in our Christian lives.

All … but One …
(9:24-27)

24 Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. 25 And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; 27 but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.

The Corinthians who feel free to eat meat offered to idols thought that they were wiser and more spiritual than their “weaker brethren.” It is their superior knowledge on which their liberty to eat idol-meat is based. Paul’s words in our text must sting: “Do you not know … ?99 If this is not enough, he will also say in verse 1 of chapter 10, “I do not want you to be unaware, brethren … .” These smug saints prided themselves on their knowledge of the Old Testament, as seen from Paul’s words in chapter 8, verses 4-6. But they are ignorant. Paul takes them back to some important lessons they missed. But first Paul introduces this concluding section by an illustration from the Isthmian games.100

Many run as contestants in a race, but there is only one winner. We know that to be true from our own experience with the Super Bowl. The San Diego Chargers found little consolation in coming in second. They are as deflated as the Dallas Cowboys, who lost to the San Francisco Forty-Niners the week before. Every contestant in the race seeks nothing less than to win the race. Only one runner receives the prize. The Corinthians should do no less than the contestants in the Isthmian games—they should run in such a way as to win.

Paul is not talking about salvation here. He is not urging the lost to work hard in order to reach the goal of winning their salvation. He is challenging the Corinthian saints to strive to fulfill their calling as saints. Paul’s words here should be understood in the light of his words elsewhere, along with those of Peter:

3 Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 4 No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier. 5 And also if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules (2 Timothy 2:3-5).

5 But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. 6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; 8 in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing (2 Timothy 4:5-8).

1 Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, 2 shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; 3 nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. 4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (1 Peter 5:1-4).

Races are not won automatically. The athlete who wins outperforms his fellow-athletes, who also want to win. The athlete who wins the race is that individual who most wants to win, who purposes to win, and who is willing to pay the price for winning. The thing which sets a winning athlete apart from the rest is his self-control. This self-control is not simply evident in the race, nor is it restricted only to the realm of athletics. The winning athlete disciplines every area of his life so that he may win the race. The winning athlete will not stay up late watching television or going out, because his body needs rest. He will not eat like everyone else, because many foods will only make him fat and flabby. Every aspect of the athlete’s life is disciplined, so that he may win the prize.

If such discipline characterizes the athlete in the Isthmian games, how much more should the Christian be willing to exercise self-control to “win the race” set before him? In the Second Century A.D., the crown awarded the winner of the race was of pine or of withered celery.101 The Christian strives to win an eternal, unfading crown. How much more effort and sacrifice should we be willing to make in order to win so great a crown?

All … but Two
(10:1-5)

1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; 3 and all ate the same spiritual food; 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness.

From the Isthmian games held near Corinth, Paul turns to the first generation of Israelites to leave Egypt, cross through the Red Sea, and begin to make their way toward the promised land. These ancient Israelites of Old Testament times are the counterparts of the Corinthians and Christians today. Paul refers to them as “our fathers” (10:1). While there are differences between Israel and the church, Paul wants his readers to sense the continuity. Their experiences are not that different from our own, and their failures are just like ours.

There were those in Corinth who looked upon themselves as “strong” in the faith, and who looked down upon others as “weak.” Those who think themselves “strong” are those whom Paul is showing to be weak, and whom he will shortly warn that their over-confidence may lead to their own downfall (10:12). These Corinthians, like their Jewish counterparts (see Matthew 3:8-10; Romans 9:1-5f.; 11:17-24; Galatians 2:15), seemed to think their privileges guarantee that they would not fall, and that they would surely “win” the race before them. Paul turns their attention to the first generation of Israelites to leave Egypt, showing that while they were granted blessings which closely parallel those of the New Testament saints, they nevertheless fail to enter into the promised land. Their bodies were strewn throughout the wilderness, and while all those who left Egypt experience God’s divine provisions, only two finished their course by entering into the promised land (see Numbers 14:30-32).

In the first five verses of chapter 10, Paul follows the same general theme he has introduced in 9:24-27, where he points out that in a race, all run, but one wins. Now, in 10:1-5 he turns to the ancient Israelites and points to the blessings which all experienced; yet most failed to enter the land, dying instead in the wilderness. The first blessing was that of divine deliverance, or we might say salvation. All were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea. In so doing, the Israelites escaped from their captivity, and the army which pursued them perished. As the Israelites looked back upon the Red Sea, through which they had just passed and which now caves in upon their enemies, they must have thought to themselves, “We’re saved.” The New Testament parallel is the salvation from sin and death through our identification with Christ by faith.

The second blessing which all the Israelites experienced was that of “baptism.” Essentially, baptism refers to identification with something. The term was used of a garment which was immersed in a die, which identified with it by taking on that color. The Israelites of old were “baptized” too, in a sense. They were enveloped by the cloud and also by the sea as they followed Moses. As water baptism (by immersion) symbolizes our identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection (see Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27), so Israel’s immersion in the cloud and in the sea symbolized their identification with Moses, the one who is a prototype of the Messiah to come (see Deuteronomy 18:15).

Israel’s third blessing was a counterpart to the Lord’s Supper or communion. At communion, we eat of the bread, and we drink of the wine. The bread symbolizes the sinless body of our Lord. The wine symbolizes the blood which He shed on our behalf, cleansing us from sin. The Israelites of old were blessed with eating and drinking which foreshadowed the communion we now celebrate by eating the bread and drinking the wine. They all ate of the spiritual food. This food was the manna, which God miraculously provided for the Israelites for 40 years. Our Lord indicated that He was like this manna, only vastly better, because He was the “bread which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world” (John 6:33).

The Israelites of old also had their own “spiritual drink.” This drink was the water God miraculously provided over the years which they spent in the wilderness. Jesus spoke of Himself as the source of this “water” (see John 4:7-15; 7:37-39). Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:4 are indeed surprising. Here, Paul identifies Christ as the “spiritual rock which followed” the Israelites in the wilderness. This is a most amazing statement. There are any number of fantastic explanations of what Paul means. The simplest way to understand Paul is to recognize that he is not speaking of a physical rock, but of a spiritual rock. Christ was the source of the water, particularly on those occasions when Moses struck the rock. But more than this, Paul wants us to know that Christ was ever present with His people in their wilderness trek. He was there to care for His people, to meet their need for water.

God supernaturally provided for all of the true needs of all the Israelites during their 40 years in the wilderness. He divinely provided for their salvation, for their protection, and for their guidance, by the cloud and by leading them through the sea. He “baptized” them, identifying them with Moses, His divinely appointed leader. God provided for the food and water which these Israelites required while in the wilderness. Yet in spite of all these divine provisions, the Israelites failed to enter into the land. Only two of all those wilderness wanderers ever entered the land of Canaan. Even Moses was not permitted to enter the land. Even though God provided for their essential needs, they did not please God, and they did not enter the land. Many left Egypt; all partook of divine blessings and privileges; only two entered the promised land.

Divine blessings and privileges do not guarantee that one will “win the race.” No one can ever say that they failed to finish the race because they were not adequately provided for. Those who failed to enter into the promised land are those who failed to appropriate God’s provisions. More than this, those who failed to enter into the promised land were those who lacked self-discipline, and who fell due to their self-indulgence. In verses 6-10, Paul will identify those specific sins which plagued the ancient Israelites, resulting in their failure to please God and to possess the land of Canaan. Each of these failures is a sin of self-indulgence, and each points to a sin which is prominent in the Corinthian church of Paul’s day, as well as in our church today.

Israel’s Besetting Sins
(10:6-10)

6 Now these things happened as examples for us, that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved. 7 And do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to PLAY.” 8 Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. 9 Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. 10 Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer.

In verse 1, Paul speaks of the Israelites as “our fathers,” stressing the continuity of the people of God, Old Testament and New. Now, in verse 6, Paul writes that the experiences of “our fathers” is for us. He may even be saying that their experiences are examples of us.102 Again, in verse 11, Paul stresses the importance of these Old Testament stories as they directly bear on our lives. The overall lesson to be learned from Israel’s wilderness wandering is that we should not crave evil things. Craving evil things is that self-indulgence which keeps us from “winning the race” and which kept the Israelites from entering the land of Canaan. Self-control is the discipline we impose on our flesh so that we can win the race. In verses 6-10, we will see that Paul links the experience of the ancient Israelites directly to the experience of the Corinthians (and us). They lacked self-control, and they craved evil things. Each of the failures Paul highlights from the history of the first generation of Israelites is a failure of self-indulgence. And each of the failures is associated with eating and drinking, with food. Food—that is, meat offered to idols—is still the issue at hand, and Paul now shows us what we can learn about food and self-indulgence from the Israelites of old.

The first offense of the Israelites, as we have already mentioned, is “craving evil things.” This seems to be a general heading under which the other failures are listed as specific transgressions. This “craving” of evil things is linked with eating:

1 Now the people became like those who complain of adversity in the hearing of the Lord; and when the Lord heard it, His anger was kindled, and the fire of the Lord burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. … 4 And the rabble who were among them had greedy desires; and also the sons of Israel wept again and said, “Who will give us meat to eat? 5 “We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic, 6 but now our appetite is gone. There is nothing at all to look at except this manna.” 7 Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its appearance like that of bdellium. 8 The people would go about and gather it and grind it between two millstones or beat it in the mortar, and boil it in the pot and make cakes with it; and its taste was as the taste of cakes baked with oil. 9 And when the dew fell on the camp at night, the manna would fall with it. … 34 So the name of that place was called Kibroth-hattaavah, because there they buried the people who had been greedy (Numbers 11:1, 4-9, 34, emphasis mine).

13 They quickly forgot His works; They did not wait for His counsel, 14 But craved intensely103 in the wilderness, And tempted104 God in the desert. 15 So He gave them their request, But sent a wasting disease among them (Psalm 106:13-15, emphasis mine).

How tragic is this description of the Israelites in the wilderness. It was not that they lacked food to eat, for God provided for their bodily needs. They grumbled because they found God’s provisions unsavory. They wanted something tastier, something spicier. And in so doing, they came to despise God’s provisions and to longingly look back to the days of their slavery, as though they were the “good old days,” simply because they then had tastier food. The unbridled craving, the fleshly desires of the Israelites which they sought to satisfy, led to their death in the wilderness. Self-discipline would have enabled them to finish their course, to win the race.

The second failure of the Israelites in the wilderness was that of idolatry; “And do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to PLAY.’”

1 Now when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people assembled about Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 And Aaron said to them, “Tear off the gold rings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 Then all the people tore off the gold rings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it into a molten calf; and they said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” 5 Now when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” 6 So the next day they rose early and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play (Exodus 32:1-6).

What is interesting about Paul’s words in reference to idolatry is that when he refers to the incident described above in Exodus 32:1-6, he does not mention the fashioning of the golden calf, but only the fact (described in verse 6) of Israel’s sitting down “to eat and to drink,” and then their rising up “to play.” The idolatry of the Israelites was clearly prohibited, and it was a most evil thing which they did. Paul seems intent upon pointing out not only their idolatry, but what accompanied it. Their idolatry was associated with eating and drinking. They offered sacrifices to the idol, and then they sat down to eat and to drink of these foods, which were a part of the heathen sacrificial service. Following this meal (including the eating of idol-meat), they arose to “play.” They were not playing “ring around the rosey”; the “play” which is referred to here is sexual in nature. And so both the eating and drinking of things involved with idol worship and immorality were a part of Israel’s idolatry. One further note should be made concerning this idol worship of the Israelites, which Moses described in Exodus 32:25: in their worship, the Israelites had cast aside all self-control. Their worship was not only heathen, it was unrestrained indulgence. There was no self-discipline here, and this is the kind of self-indulgence which kept the Israelites from entering the land.

The third failure of the Israelites of old is that of immorality: “Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day.”

1 While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. 2 For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3 So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the Lord was angry against Israel. 4 And the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of the people and execute them in broad daylight before the Lord, so that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” 5 So Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you slay his men who have joined themselves to Baal of Peor.” … 9 And those who died by the plague were 24,000105 (Numbers 25:1-5, 9).

The important thing to note here is that, once again, immorality is viewed as a part of the package of idolatry. The Israelites fell into immorality with the Moabite women as they joined with them in their idol worship. The people “ate and bowed down to their gods” (25:2). Here they were, sinning so as to be laid low in the wilderness, and this sin of immorality was linked with idolatry and with the eating of idol-meat.

The fourth failure of the Israelites in the wilderness according to Paul was that of “trying the Lord” or “putting the Lord to the test.” “Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents.”

There were at least ten such occasions when the Israelites put the Lord to the test (see Numbers 14:22). Some of these incidents are recorded in the Old Testament:

1 Then all the congregation of the sons of Israel journeyed by stages from the wilderness of Sin, according to the command of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, and there was no water for the people to drink. 2 Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water that we may drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3 But the people thirsted there for water; and they grumbled against Moses and said, “Why, now, have you brought us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, “What shall I do to this people? A little more and they will stone me.” 5 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pass before the people and take with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand your staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink.” And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he named the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us, or not?” (Exodus 17:1-7)

18 And in their heart they put God to the test By asking food according to their desire (Psalm 78:18, emphasis mine).

Putting God to the test was demanding that God meet their perceived needs, in the way which they demanded. The question of Exodus 17:7 sums it up: “Is the Lord among us, or not?” The way the Israelites determined God’s presence among them was by “counting their blessings.” If they were thirsty, they demanded that God satisfy that thirst, or they threatened not to believe He was with them. According to the psalmist, they demanded that God supply them with the food they craved to prove He was among them.

The specific instance Paul has in mind is recorded in the Book of Numbers:

5 And the people spoke against God and Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food.” 6 And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and you; intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us.” And Moses interceded for the people. 8 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he shall live.” 9 And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived (Numbers 21:5-9).

Here, the specific cause for Israel’s grumbling was the menu. They put Moses on notice that they were sick and tired of the food God provided. The result was the plague of fiery serpents, whose poisonous tongues (so to speak) were illustrative of the tongues of the Israelites (compare Psalm 140:3; Romans 3:13).

You will remember that Satan’s first temptation of our Lord was an effort to entice Him to cause stones to become bread. God had led Him into the wilderness to be without food or water. Satan’s assumption was the same as the Israelites—if God was really with someone, they would not lack anything they needed or desired. Consequently, Satan sought to persuade our Lord to make stones into bread. Later on in His wilderness testing, Satan sought to convince our Lord to jump from the pinnacle of the temple, reminding Him of the biblical assurance of angelic protection. Jesus, still dealing with Satan from the context of the early chapters of Deuteronomy, reminded Satan of the evil of putting God to the test, of trying to make God jump through our hoops. Once again, Israel’s sin of putting God to the test was closely associated with eating and drinking.

Finally, the ancient Israelites failed by grumbling: “Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer.”

2 And the whole congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3 And the sons of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:2-3).

41 But on the next day all the congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You are the ones who have caused the death of the Lord’s people.” 42 It came about, however, when the congregation had assembled against Moses and Aaron, that they turned toward the tent of meeting, and behold, the cloud covered it and the glory of the Lord appeared. 43 Then Moses and Aaron came to the front of the tent of meeting, 44 and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 45 “Get away from among this congregation, that I may consume them instantly.” Then they fell on their faces. 46 And Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer and put in it fire from the altar, and lay incense on it; then bring it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone forth from the Lord, the plague has begun!” 47 Then Aaron took it as Moses had spoken, and ran into the midst of the assembly, for behold, the plague had begun among the people. So he put on the incense and made atonement for the people. 48 And he took his stand between the dead and the living, so that the plague was checked. 49 But those who died by the plague were 14,700, besides those who died on account of Korah (Numbers 16:41-49).

In Exodus 16, the grumbling of the Israelites was about food. They recalled the “meat” they had eaten in Egypt and grumbled against Moses and God for leading them into the desert to starve them to death. The incident Paul seems to have in mind is recorded in the 16th chapter of Numbers. Korah, Dathan, Abiram and 250 others from among the leaders of Israel rose up against Moses, protesting against his prominence and authority. In the events that followed, these rebels were swallowed up alive by the earth, along with their families (16:28-35). God’s act of discipline, performed at the hand of Moses, did not strike fear into the hearts of the people, who on the following day grumbled against Moses, blaming him for the deaths of those who had perished for their rebellion (16:41). Only the intervention of Moses and Aaron stopped the plague which commenced against the grumblers, but not until after 14,700 perished (16:49).

This incident is especially pertinent because the grumbling of the Israelites was occasioned by the exercise of divine discipline. The Israelites blamed Moses for the deaths of those who rebelled against God. In the church at Corinth, a man is known to be guilty of living in sin with his father’s wife, yet the Corinthians do nothing about it. Rather than mourn over this sin, they are proud of it (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-5). Paul, even though at a distance from them, exercises discipline on his own, and urges the church to follow his example. If the church at Corinth is anything like the people of God in Moses’ day, they will grumble over Paul’s response to sin in the church. And thus the Corinthians find yet another point of contact with the ancient Israelites.

Conclusion

Now the real issue is out in the open. It is not really about what is right, or even about one’s rights; the issue is self-indulgence. All of the problems which have been exposed in the Corinthian church are really matters of self-indulgence. The little cliques are based upon some kind of mental self-indulgence; attaching oneself to a leader who is slick, smooth, and prestigious means that one gains status in the eyes of his (or her) peers. Often, I fear, “leaders” whom the Corinthians choose to follow are false teachers (see 1 Corinthians 4:6; 2 Corinthians 11), whose appeal is fleshly indulgence (see 2 Peter 10). The man living in an incestual relationship (chapter 5), and those sleeping with prostitutes (chapter 6), are indulging their flesh, as are those who go to court to protect their “rights” (chapter 6).

The problem with the ascetics, who advocated abstaining from sex and marriage, is that their self-flagellation often leads to greater immorality (see 1 Corinthians 7:5). The kind of legalistic self-abuse which the ascetics and legalists impose does not really deal with the flesh. In the first place, many practice a form of “self-denial,” which is but a mere outward appearance. They do it to appear spiritual and thus win the applause of their peers, thereby indulging themselves in man’s praises. While the outward appearance is that of self-control, the old lusts are not really dealt with, for they are still deeply imbedded on the inside:

2 “When therefore you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing 4 that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you. 5 And when you pray, you are not to be as the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners, in order to be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 6 But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you. 7 And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition, as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:2-7).

25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25).

23 These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence (Colossians 2:23).

While self-abasement is futile and fraudulent, Paul is consistent with the rest of the Bible in calling us to a life of discipline. Discipleship is, after all, founded on discipline, not only in its terminology, but in its essence and expression. When Jesus preached, He did not offer an easy path nor did He promise earthly prosperity. He spoke of taking up one’s cross and of selling one’s possessions and hating one’s family. He was careful never to give the impression that following Him was going to be easy. He did not conceal the “cost of discipleship.”

But more than this, Jesus Himself practiced the very self-discipline and self-denial which He advocated, and which Paul requires in our text. From the very beginning, Jesus knew that He had come to this earth to serve, rather than to be served, and He gave His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). He consistently purposed to fulfill His calling and to carry out the will of His Father. The fulfillment of His calling was to die a most agonizing death on the cross of Calvary, and thus to make atonement for our sins. Never was there anyone who better exemplified the will and self-sacrifice to win better than our Lord. And it is because He completed His course that you and I may fulfill our calling as well. Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the grave is the basis for our sure victory as well.

Our Lord’s temptation in the wilderness, described by both Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-12), is best understood in the light of those Old Testament events which Paul calls to our remembrance in our text. Throughout that 40-year period, the Israelites were constantly stiff-necked and rebellious. They continually sought to indulge their fleshly appetites, and as a result, they often rebelled against God and were stricken with various disciplinary plagues. Except for two men, Joshua and Caleb, the entire generation which crossed through the Red Sea failed to enter the land of Canaan.

Our Lord’s temptation in the wilderness was a deliberate “replay” of that period of time. As Israel, God’s “son,” was brought forth from Egypt, so was our Lord (Matthew 2:13-15; see Hosea 11:1). As Israel was tested in the wilderness for forty years (Deuteronomy 8:2), so was our Lord. But where Israel failed, our Lord triumphed. It is not by virtue of Israel’s faithfulness that we have hope, but by virtue of our Lord’s faithfulness. Israel was allowed to hunger and thirst (Deuteronomy 8:3), but they craved evil things and demanded that God give them what their fleshly appetites desired, loathing His provision of manna and water. Jesus was content to be hungry and to thirst, refusing to turn stones into bread. Our Lord succeeded where Israel failed. His success is the basis for our salvation, and thus for our successfully finishing our course. This is the case with Paul:

7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; 8 in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

It can also be the case for us. This is the basis for Peter’s exhortation of the elders in his first epistle:

1 Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, 2 shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; 3 nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. 4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (1 Peter 5:1-4).

The Old Testament is strewn with the wreckage of those whose lives were ruined by self-indulgence. Our Lord and Paul not only call us to a life of self-discipline and self-denial, they model it for us. Let us purpose to win the race, to finish the course which God has set for us. Let us deny ourselves and discipline our bodies, for our own good, for the good of our brethren, and for the advancement of the gospel.


99 This is similar to the question our Lord asked the Jewish religious leaders: “Have you not read … ?” See Matthew 12:3, 5; 19:4; 22:31.

100 The Isthmian games were “held every two years under the patronage of Corinth and second only to the Olympics.” They “were extravagant festivals of religion, athletics, and the arts, attracting thousands of competitors and visitors from all over the empire. Its sponsors and greater athletes were honored in Isthmia itself by monuments, statues, and inscriptions. Paul would have been in Corinth during the Games of A.D. 51 (in the Spring). Since there were no permanent facilities for visitors until the Second Century A.D., they had to stay in tents. Broneer (pp. 5, 10) conjectures that Paul would have had ample opportunity to ply his trade and share the gospel with the crowds visiting the Games of that year.” Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary, F. F. Bruce, General Editor (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987 [reprint, 1993]), p. 433, fn. 1.

101 Fee, p. 437, fn. 20.

102 Fee (p. 451, fn. 7) indicates that the original expression may just as well be rendered “examples/types for us” as “examples/types of us.” Surely we can see ourselves in the attitudes and actions of the Old Testament saints.

103 In the Greek Translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), the texts in Numbers 11 and Psalm 106 employ the same root word as Paul has employed twice in 1 Corinthians 10:6. In verse 25, the psalmist speaks of their grumbling, as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 10:10.

104 Notice that the psalmist also mentions the Israelites putting God to the test, as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 10:9.

105 There are all kinds of explanations offered for the discrepancy of 1,000 souls between Paul’s account and that of Moses in Numbers 25. It may be worth noting that Paul gives the number as 23,000 who died in one day. Moses tells us that a total of 24,000 died. Perhaps 23,000 died in a 24-hour period, but there were 1,000 more who died after the initial 24 hours passed.

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18. Lessons We Must Learn From Our “Fathers” (1 Cor. 10:11-14)

Introduction

I had just finished preaching in a humble Methodist church in Baroda, a city in the state of Gujarat in north-western India. The pastor invited me upstairs to the humble dwelling where he and his wife lived, above the church. While we were drinking a cup of tea, a couple appeared at the door. They were invited in and asked to join us at the table. I could tell that they were having trouble. The pastor asked me if I would mind assisting in counseling them. This couple began to pour out their story. They could not speak a word of English. The pastor would translate, as I sought to counsel them. I will never forget the sense of “sameness” in their situation. The culture was vastly different from my own in the Western world. Their language was a complete mystery to me. Yet even before hearing the translation provided by the pastor, I gained a fairly accurate sense of what was going on between this couple. The husband drank, and this was obviously a part of the problem. He was angry with his wife, and she was not that happy with him.

I was struck by the “sameness” I sensed as this unusual counseling session began to unfold. There were so many differences between this couple and their culture and mine, and yet their problems were really the same ones I constantly face in counseling with couples in America. Neither great distances in space nor in time change men. This is why seemingly sophisticated Christians in America can read the ancient accounts of Israel’s experiences in the wilderness and learn much from them.

Some Corinthians had raised the question of whether or not they were permitted to eat meats offered to idols. In chapter 8, Paul allowed his readers the luxury of assuming, for the time being, that they were correct in thinking that “strong” Christians could eat meat offered to idols, and that those who had scruples about such meats were “weak.” Even if these supposedly “strong” saints did have the right to eat meats offered to idols, they would be wrong to do so, Paul taught, when their liberty became a stumbling block to the weak. Knowledge should not take precedence in such matters, but love. Love would never exercise a liberty at the expense of a brother. Even if these “strong” saints were right doctrinally in assuming they had the liberty of eating meats offered to idols, they were found wrong by love’s standards when they insisted on exercising their rights at the expense of their brother.

In chapter 9, Paul drew the Corinthians’ attention to a genuine right (as opposed to their incorrect liberty to eat idol-meats): the right to be supported as an apostle and a minister of the gospel. After supplying overwhelming support for this right, Paul reminds his readers that he refused to exercise it in his ministry to them. While they of all people should be supporting him, Paul chose not to be supported, but to provide for himself by working with his own hands. He did this so that no one could ever accuse him of putting his own interests above those to whom he ministered. He refrained from receiving support so that his preaching of the gospel might incur the least resistance from those who heard it.

Having contrasted his decision to forego his right to be supported with the insistence of some Corinthians on exercising their rights regardless of its impact on others, Paul now turns to the root problem of the Corinthians, the lack of self-control. Self-indulgence lay at the root of every other Corinthian problem mentioned up to this point. The solution to self-indulgence is self-control. Paul begins by showing how self-control sets the winner of the race over and above all the rest of the runners. He then turns back to the time of Israel’s wilderness wanderings, to show that self-indulgence was the cause of the nation’s failure to reach the promised land. The same failures which prevented the first generation of Israelites from reaching the promised land are those which endanger the church today.

From the failure of the Israelites in the past, Paul draws two lessons for the readers of his Epistle. The first is a word of warning, recorded in verses 11 and 12. If so many Israelites failed to reach their goal despite God’s presence and provisions, we too should not presume that we will stand in times of testing. Second, Paul gives a word of encouragement and instruction in verses 13 and 14. He assures us that while falling seems to be the rule in Israel’s wilderness wanderings, it need not be. He cites several reasons for us to be encouraged in the midst of our trials and tests. And then he concludes by instructing us to flee from idolatry. Now the cat, so to speak, is out of the bag. Paul in no way sanctioned the eating of meats offered to idols in chapters 8 and 9. Finally, beginning at verse 14, he explains why idol-meats are deadly and dangerous, and thus prohibited. It will not be until our next lesson that we will consider verse 14 in the light of the verses which follow it. For now, we will seek to understand it in the light of those verses which precede it.

Our passage contains one of the most well-known and often quoted verses in 1 Corinthians:

No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Nearly all of us understand this verse in isolation rather than in the light of its context. In this lesson, we will seek to understand this verse in context. Let us look to this passage to warn us and to encourage us, so that we will purpose to run to win, and so that we will flee from every form of idolatry.

The Structure of Our Text

Our text contains two major elements: (1) Paul’s admonition or warning, in verses 11 and 12; and, (2) Paul’s encouragement and instruction in verses 13 and 14. Verse 11 lays down the premise of Paul’s lesson in verse 12, introduced by “therefore.” Verse 13 establishes the foundation for Paul’s command in verse 14, once again introduced by the word “therefore.” The structure of these verses can thus be summarized:

  • The link between Israel’s experience and the Corinthian’s conduct—verse 11
  • Paul’s warning, based upon Israel’s failures, as recorded for the church—verse 12
  • Israel’s failures need not be our own, due to the faithfulness of God—verse 13
  • Paul’s command to flee from idolatry—verse 14

Other Crucial Texts

Our text should be interpreted and applied in the light of two other biblical passages which bear on the same subject. Allow me to bring these texts to your attention as we begin this lesson:

1 “All the commandments that I am commanding you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the Lord swore to give to your forefathers. 2 And you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. 3 And He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord. 4 Your clothing did not wear out on you, nor did your foot swell these forty years” (Deuteronomy 8:1-4).

2 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. … 12 Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. 14 But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. 15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death (James 1:2-4, 12-15).

A Lesson to Learn From Our Link With Israel
(10:11-12)

11 Now [all]106 these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. 12 Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.

The moral failures of the ancient Israelites brought divine judgment. In each of the instances of Israel’s sin, there was a dire consequence of divine judgment. Paul means for us to understand that only two of the Israelites who escaped from Egypt and passed through the Red Sea entered into the promised land, while the rest died in the wilderness. But he is not focusing here on those who died of old age in the wilderness, but on those who were smitten of God for their sin, those who were “laid low” (10:5), “fell” (10:8), and “were destroyed” (10:9, 10). In the light of all this, I understand Paul’s words in verse 11 to read this way, “Now all these things happened as an example to them, and they were written for our instruction, … .” When God struck some of the nation dead for their sin, it was meant as a lesson for the rest. It was an example to all the rest, not to follow their peers in sinning against God by indulging themselves. The principle underlying Paul’s words is expressed in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs: “When the scoffer is punished, the naive becomes wise; But when the wise is instructed, he receives knowledge” (Proverbs 21:11).

In addition to instructing the Israelites not to sin, the recording of these events made it possible for those in future generations to learn from Israel’s mistakes as well. According to the NASB, Paul writes, “… and they were written for our instruction.” This translation is surely amazing. In the Book of Romans, Paul also referred to the Old Testament Scriptures when he wrote, “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4, emphasis mine). Here, the Greek term which is rendered “instruction” is the normal term for instruction, which we would expect. But in 1 Corinthians 10:11, the term is not that which we would expect to find to convey the idea of instruction. It is, rather, the term which Luke uses of Paul’s words in Acts, and which Paul employed in 1 Thessalonians 5:12 and 14. “Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears” (Acts 20:31, emphasis mine).

12 But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction,107 13 and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another. 14 And we urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men (1 Thessalonians 5:12-14, emphasis mine).

Surely we can see that “admonition” or “warning” is what Paul had in mind here. The sins of the Israelites in the wilderness, which provoked God to wrath, should have instructed the people of God in ancient times and served to warn us today. The fine points of these words may be disputed, but the main point Paul wishes to make is that we should be warned and sobered by the sins of our “fathers” (see 10:1), and the wrath of our Father.

The apostles do not make the distinctions between the Old Testament and the New which some do today. Some think that because the Old Testament Scriptures were penned before the coming of Christ, they do not measure up to the New Testament Scriptures. Some dispensationalists minimize the importance of the Old Testament, and even the Gospels. They link the Old Testament texts with “law” and contrast them with the New Testament Scriptures which they associate with “grace.” Paul finds (and condemns) legalism, whether it is found in the Old Testament period or the New. Paul, and Peter as well, believe that the Old Testament Scriptures were written for the benefit of the New Testament saint:

4 For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope (Romans 15:4).

8 I am not speaking these things according to human judgment, am I? Or does not the Law also say these things? 9 For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing.” God is not concerned about oxen, is He? 10 Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops (1 Corinthians 9:8-10).

6 Now these things happened as examples for us, that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved (1 Corinthians 10:6).

10 As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful search and inquiry, 11 seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look (1 Peter 1:10-12; see also 2 Timothy 3:13-17).

The final statement of 1 Corinthians 10:11 is noteworthy: “upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” We are those upon whom the ends of the ages have come. So were the Corinthians, and they lived nearly 2,000 years ago. How could they and we both live at the “ends of the ages”? From the perspective of the Old Testament saint, the last days would begin with the coming of the Messiah. They, of course, did not distinguish between His first and His second comings. When Jesus came to the earth, died on the cross for lost sinners, and then was raised from the grave and ascended to the Father, the last act of God’s eternal plan commenced. It is a long act, I grant, but it is the final act. As Peter reminds us, a thousand years is as one day with God (2 Peter 3:8).108

The writer to the Hebrews looks on the coming of Christ as the consummation: “Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Hebrews 9:26). The coming of Christ was, to this inspired writer, the “consummation of the ages,” or in Paul’s words, the coming of the “ends of the ages.” When Paul writes to the Roman believers, he underscores the urgency of watchful living, in the light of the shortness of the time:

11 And this do, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. 12 The night is almost gone, and the day is at hand. Let us therefore lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts (Romans 13:11-14).

When we lose sight of the shortness of the time and the fact that we live in the end times, we are tempted to think we have lots of time, and thus we become sloppy and sluggardly. This is the very thing our Lord warned against:

42 And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and sensible steward, whom his master will put in charge of his servants, to give them their rations at the proper time? 43 Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes. 44 Truly I say to you, that he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 45 But if that slave says in his heart, ‘My master will be a long time in coming,’ and begins to beat the slaves, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk; 46 the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him, and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and assign him a place with the unbelievers” (Luke 12:42-46).

Consistent with Paul’s view of the people of God, verse 11 underscores the continuity of God’s program, Old Testament and New. Here in chapter 10, Paul has referred to the ancient Israelites as our “fathers” (10:1). He has likened their salvation and sanctification in the wilderness to ours. He has previously (9:9-10; 10:6) and now (10:11) indicated that our experiences are very much the same, and that we can learn much from those people of God who lived long before us. And now, by speaking of the “ends of the ages” having come, Paul seems to be saying that while Israel’s liberation from Egyptian slavery was an early chapter in God’s plan for the ages, we are those in whose days the events of the last chapter are taking place. It is one program, in which both Old Testament Israelites and New Testament believers play a part.

The warning, to which Paul referred in verse 11, is spelled out in verse 12: “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” We must understand to whom Paul is referring when he warns the one who “thinks he stands.” Several observations should help us to grasp the meaning of Paul’s words:

(1) The terms “stand”109 and “fall”110 are not used casually elsewhere in the Scriptures, nor are they here. To “stand” is to persevere in the faith; to “fall” is to fall from the faith.

(2) The one who “thinks he stands” is thinking wrongly, for he is in the greatest danger of falling.

(3) The one who wrongly thinks he stands is often the one who thinks he stands strongly. Those who are most confident that they stand are those who feel strongly about it. The unbelieving scribes and Pharisees had no doubts about their salvation, wrong as they were (cf. Matthew 7:20-23). Our level of confidence about our security is not necessarily indicative of our actual salvation. How we feel about something does not determine how things really are. How things are should affect our feelings on the matter.

(4) The one who thinks he stands is the one who thinks himself to be “strong.” Chapter 8 spoke of the “strong” and the “weaker” brothers. The “stronger” brother of chapter 8 is certainly the one who “thinks he stands” in chapter 10.

(5) The one who thinks he stands is also the one who thinks he can (eat idol-meats). Paul is really turning the tables here. He allowed the one who ate idol-meats to continue to view himself as the stronger brother from chapter 8, until now. Now Paul warns these “stronger” brethren, who were confident that they were spiritual enough to eat idol-meats and not fall, that they are the ones most likely to fall. Spiritual pride leads to over-confidence, and over-confidence in one’s own standing and abilities sets one up for a big fall.

The Israelites of old were warned against such smug self-confidence. The Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ day were also self-righteous and self-confident. They thought that having Abraham as their forefather, that being set apart by God, that being the stewards of the revealed Word of God, proved them to be better than others, and thus they began to think of themselves as invincible. A drunken man will often get in a wreck, not only because his perception and reactions are impaired, but because he thinks he actually has greater abilities than he does. Those who carry firearms on their person or in their cars often are involved in violence because they become over-confident in their weapon.

The events in the history of Israel (our fathers, verse 1) which Paul has reviewed in the first 10 verses of chapter 10 should humble all of us, for even though divinely delivered, divinely provisioned, and constantly in God’s presence, they failed and they fell (verse 8) in the wilderness. The warning Paul sounds here is not just of the danger of falling, but of the severe consequences for falling, as seen in the events which took place in the wilderness. Let the “strong” Corinthians take heed and beware. Their attitude was self-defeating and self-destructive.

Israel’s Past as the Basis for Our Encouragement
(10:13-14)

13 No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it.

In the early chapters of Deuteronomy, Moses reviews the experiences of the first generation of Israelites, who were delivered from slavery, and yet who failed to enter and possess the promised land. If Israel’s failures drive home a solemn warning to us, cautioning us against smug self-sufficiency and security, God’s faithfulness to this wayward people should afford us a great deal of comfort. Man fails, but God is faithful. The amazing thing is not that God destroyed some in the wilderness, but that He did not destroy everyone instantly, and that He brought the Israelites into the land. In spite of one failure after another on the part of the Israelites, God was faithful to His promise. God did not allow the failures of His people to cause His promises to fail.

In verses 13 and 14, Paul has some very encouraging words for the Corinthian saints, and for us. His encouragement is based upon two foundational truths: (1) that all temptation is “common to man”; and, (2) that God is faithful to us in relation to our temptations. Let us consider these matters more fully, beginning with some observations related to self-indulgence and temptation.

Foundational Principles

(1) God never tempts men to sin (1 Corinthians 10:13; James 1:13). James says it as clearly as it can be said: “ God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt any one” (1:13b). Paul very carefully words verse 13 to say that temptation may overtake men, but there is no indication that this temptation comes from God.

(2) The same Greek word (peiradzo) is translated “tempt” and “test” in the New Testament. In one sense, temptation is very different. Temptation never comes from God, but from our own flesh, or from Satan.111 (James 1:12-14; Matthew 4:1-11; 1 Corinthians 7:5). God does “test” us, to prove and to enhance our faith. Temptation has as its goal sin and death (James 1:13-15). Testing has as its goal our purification and sanctification, and eternal life (James 1:12; 1 Peter 1:6-9). Testing leads to faith and obedience; tempting leads to doubting God and disobeying His commandments.

Having pointed out the great difference between “testing” and “tempting” in the Bible, let us also take note of the similarities. Both temptation and testing are prompted by trials and adversity.112 Both tempting and testing expose what is in our hearts (Deuteronomy 8:1-2; James 1:12-15). The same circumstances which result in unbelief and disobedience for one person, produce a deeper faith and greater obedience in another. If Paul has shown the difficulties of the wilderness to have resulted in failure and divine discipline in our text, the writer to the Hebrews commends men and women in the “hall of faith” who trusted God and obeyed His Word in chapter 11, the great faith chapter of this Epistle.

(3) It is in times of adversity that we may persevere through the time of testing and grow stronger in our faith, or we may surrender to temptation and sin. Suffering and adversity is the context for both testing and growth and for temptation and sin. The difference is who we are, and what is within us. Somebody once said that suffering is like boiling hot water; it makes a potato soft and an egg hard. Because the Israelites had hard hearts and stiff necks, their adversity seemed almost always to lead them to doubt God and to disobey Him. For Paul, suffering and adversity was a context for service, and a means of knowing Christ more intimately (see 1 Corinthians 4:9-13; 9:1-23; Philippians 3:10).

(4) The only way to know how the term peiradzo should be understood is by understanding the context in which it is employed. In the examples below, the context indicates how we should translate and understand the word as it is employed in each instance:

1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1).

6 And this He was saying to test him; for He Himself knew what He was intending to do (John 6:6).

5 For this reason, when I could endure it no longer, I also sent to find out about your faith, for fear that the tempter might have tempted you, and our labor should be in vain (1 Thessalonians 3:5).

17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac; and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son (Hebrews 11:17).

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you (1 Peter 4:12).

Temptations Are “Common to Man”

Paul’s words, “common to man,” are pregnant with meaning, meaning on which we must meditate and reflect, meaning which is spelled out in other biblical texts.113

(1) Temptation is “common to man,” and as such, it will overtake the Christian. The Christian is not above being tempted (after all, our Lord was “tempted” by Satan.114) We should probably go on to say that being tempted is not a sin. Sin occurs when we allow our fleshly lusts to respond to temptation.

(2) Christians are human, and thus they were not exempt from being tempted nor prevented from falling. Paul warns those who wrongly think themselves strong, because they are capable of falling; indeed, they are the most vulnerable to temptation and falling.

(3) Temptation stems from, and appeals to our humanity; that is, from our fleshly desires (see James 1:13-15; 4:1-3).

(4) Temptation is the enticement to choose to do what our flesh desires, even though it is wrong. Temptation appeals to our fleshly desires, and we must decide whether to indulge our flesh or not. Satan does not overpower us, forcing us to sin; he tempts us, seeking to persuade us to choose to sin.

Let me try to illustrate what I mean. Suppose I am walking down the street and a man approaches me with a gun, demanding that I give him my wallet. I have not “yielded to temptation” by giving him my money; I have been forced to give up my wallet. But a con artist works to get my money in a different way. He does not use force to make me give him my money; he uses subtlety and deception to cause me to want to give him my money. The con man appeals to my fleshly lusts.115 Usually, my sinful lust is greed. I think that if I give him my money, I will get even more money, and so I gladly hand him what I have. I almost force him to take my money! Satan is not an armed robber as much as he is a con artist. The devil didn’t make me do it; the devil tempted me to want to do it.

If we could be forced to do evil, it would not be sin. When we are enticed or tempted to do evil, and we choose to do what is wrong, we do sin. The person who is raped is not guilty of immorality in the Bible. The rape victim is pitied, because it was not a matter of choice; the adulterer is stoned.

(5) We don’t have to sin when we are tempted, but when we yield to temptation we become enslaved to sin. We are never forced to sin, but we choose to yield to temptation. In Paul’s words to the Romans, we “present ourselves to someone as slaves for obedience,” thus becoming “slaves of the one whom we obey” (Romans 6:16; cf. Ephesians 3:1-3).

The Israelites of old were enslaved to their cruel taskmasters, the Egyptians. When God brought them out of Egypt, He freed them from their bondage. When they faced difficulties on their journey to the promised land, they began to look back upon their slavery in Egypt as the “good old days.” They began to see life in Egypt as the good life. They actually wanted to return to their bondage. In Romans 6, Paul draws a spiritual parallel in the life of the New Testament Christian. When we are saved by faith, we are freed from the bondage of sin. When we choose to yield to temptation and to return to the sinful ways of our former lives, we are choosing to return to slavery.

(6) Because no temptation comes to us except those which are “common to man,” none of our temptations are unique to us. Throughout human history, men have grappled with the same temptations which plague us today. Some have failed and fallen in these temptations, and some have persevered and endured. Often, we are “tempted” to think that the trials we face are totally unique, unlike those anyone has ever faced before. When we think this way, we have already begun to formulate an excuse for our failure and sin. Many have faced the same temptations before. Many have failed, and by this we should be warned. Many have overcome, and by this we should be encouraged.

(7) Being human (“I’m only human …”) is not an excuse for yielding to temptation, nor is it an excuse for our sin.

Let us now seek to determine the more precise meaning of the first statement which Paul makes in verse 13 in the context of 1 Corinthians. All of Israel’s failures, to which Paul has referred in 10:6-10, are in response to the difficulties into which God has led the Israelites under Moses. God was not “tempting” the Israelites, but “testing” them (Deuteronomy 8:1-2). As a result of Paul’s teaching regarding the failures of the first generation of Israelites to leave Egypt, the Corinthians should conclude that their “trials” could hardly be compared to the adversity faced by their “fathers.” Further, the Corinthian saints should recognize that any trial or temptation they might face would not be unique, but would find its precedent in the events recorded in the Old Testament Scriptures. In other words, no test or temptation which the Corinthians would ever face was new, but rather it was the common experience of many who lived before them. The Corinthians did not need to repeat the sins of their fathers, but they could learn from them so as to avoid the same mistakes.

Right now, I am learning to use a new piece of software on my computer. Frankly, I am having some difficulties. One of the ways the software company helps me deal with my problems is to set up a bulletin board, where the problems faced by others are described, along with their solutions. I can learn from the mistakes of those who have gone before me. My problems are not new, and thus I can learn from those who have been down the same path ahead of me.

Paul’s words, “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man,” have another encouraging message for me. The problems, tests, and temptations which I must face in my Christian life are truly “human problems.” Think about this for a minute. We are tested and even tempted with regard to our humanity. The Israelites were tested with regard to eating and drinking, to following divinely appointed leaders, and obeying God’s commands. The testings of our Lord were tests of His humanity. When Satan tempted our Lord, it was in the context of His doing without food or water for many days. Satan sought to entice our Lord to provide Himself with food, even though God had led Him to do without it. Satan sought to tempt our Lord to test God’s faithfulness by forcing Him to rescue Him (by plunging from the pinnacle of the temple). Satan sought to tempt our Lord to establish His rule by submitting to him, rather than by submitting to the Father and undergoing the suffering He had appointed on the cross of Calvary. Our Lord’s temptations were, so to speak, human temptations, temptations rooted in His humanity.

If every trial and temptation (lumping them all together) which comes upon us is a trial of our humanity, then Christians should be most encouraged, because God has provided divine enablement with which we can not only escape from sin, but by means of which we may endure temptation and trial, to the glory of God and to our own spiritual growth. This divine enablement is the subject to which Paul now turns in the remainder of verse 13.

Trials, Temptations, and the Faithfulness of God

And God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it.

In the first part of verse 13, Paul addressed the subject of sin and temptation from the standpoint of our humanity. Now, he speaks of sin and temptation from the perspective of our union with Christ. For those who have come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ, we have much more than human gumption to enable us to overcome temptation. We are now united with Him who was tempted to the limit, yet who did not sin: “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). The One who was “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” is the One who is faithful, and who provides the means for our not only surviving testing and temptation, but thriving in the midst of it.

One can hardly overstate the significance of God’s faithfulness to this matter of testing, trials, and temptation. When we surrender to temptation, it is usually due to doubt. In the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden, Satan first cast doubt in her mind concerning God’s faithfulness. Though God had said that eating of the forbidden fruit would surely bring about death, Satan assured her that she would not die. Eve was deceived so that she doubted God’s faithfulness, and she trusted Satan. She obeyed the one she trusted.

When the Israelites were being led through the wilderness, they surrendered to temptation and fell into sin because they doubted God’s faithfulness. They doubted that God was with them, and so they demanded that God perform miracles to prove Himself and His presence among them. They doubted that God could sustain them in the wilderness, or that He would safely lead them to a land of “milk and honey,” so they sought to replace Moses and to elect another leader who would take them back to Egypt. We sing the song, “Trust and Obey,” and in doing so, we should see that obedience does stem from trust, just as disobedience flows from a lack of trust. Those who are listed in the “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11 are those who obeyed God because they trusted in Him and in His promises, in spite of what they saw at the moment. The faithfulness of God is the foundation for trusting and obeying Him. And God is faithful.

The faithfulness of God is evident in several ways as we come to times of testing and of temptation. First of all, God is faithful to keep us from any situation in which we would have no choice but to fall. God never puts us in situations in which we must fall. He will not allow us to be tested or tempted beyond our capacity to stand. When our Lord was tested, He was tested to the ultimate extreme. When we are tested, it is a measured testing. Some, like Job, face greater tests than others. But whatever tests and trials come our way, we can be sure that God has allowed them, knowing that we are not being tested beyond our ability to stand. That ability does not come from within us, but from Him:

24 Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy, 25 to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen (Jude 1:24-25).

Let us be very careful to note here that God never promises us that we cannot fall, but rather He encourages us that we need not fall. The Book of Jude contains a great deal of warning, for there are many false teachers who are denying the gospel. Jude writes the words above to assure us that God is the source of our strength, so that we need not fall into sin. But the book is also an encouragement to guard the purity of the faith, and to make use of the resources which God has provided. We will not fall when we trust and obey, when we appropriate the resources which God Himself has provided.

There is a reason we can be sure that our trials and tests are not beyond our ability. With every test, God provides “the way of escape.”116 Paul does not speak of “a way out,” but rather “the way out.” I am inclined to think that Paul has employed the definite article (“the”) here to underscore the fact that there is a “way out,” and that this “way out” is not ambiguous, but specific. Every temptation and trial which comes into our life comes with its “way out.”

We need to be precise here, as I believe Paul is. The “way of escape” is mentioned as an encouragement, so that we are assured that we do not have to fail. It is not pointed out as an incentive to live carelessly, but as an encouragement to those who fear that enduring the trials and temptations of life is impossible. God has not promised to get us out of trouble, if we carelessly wander into it. Too many times, I have heard people misuse this promise as an excuse to toy with temptation. We continue to pursue a course of action we know to be wrong, falsely confident that God will bail us out of trouble at the last moment. To live in this way is to “put God to the test.”

Neither is the “way of escape” a promise that God will remove us from our trials. The question is, “What is it that we escape?” Some seem to think that Paul is promising that we will escape testing and tribulation. This is not the case, as many, many biblical texts make clear.117 Israel did not escape the hardships of the wilderness, because these were a crucial part of the test which God was giving His people. What God promises Christians a way of escape from, is sin. Sin was the rule, rather than the exception for the Israelites. Their persistent failure should serve as a warning to those who are overconfident. But it is not intended to cause us to throw up our hands and give in to sin, as though it were inevitable. With every test, and with every temptation, God provides “the way” to escape sin, often without escaping the pain and hardship of the situation. This is certainly Paul’s meaning, because he concludes by saying, “… that you may be able to endure it.” God provides the means to escape sin while enduring the test.

What form does this “way of escape take?” How will we know what it looks like? How will we recognize this way of escape? Broadly stated, the way of escape is to love God and therefore to trust and obey Him. Did the Israelites grumble against Moses and Aaron, and therefore against God? They were “baptized unto Moses” by the cloud and by the sea. The “way of escape” was to follow the leaders whom God had appointed, remembering how God had already delivered them through these same leaders.

Did the Israelites “try the Lord” by demanding that He provide for them in a certain way? The way of escape was to trust in the Lord, and to pray that He would provide for their real needs. Did the Israelites act immorally? What was the solution? One solution to immorality was a godly marriage. This is precisely what Paul says. Marriage is a preventative to burning. Further, the Israelites would not have engaged in immorality if they had faithfully obeyed His commandments, which not only forbade immorality but also those things which are often associated with it. Did the Israelites suffer divine judgment for idolatry? The Law forbade idolatry, and further, the Law prescribed how the one true God was to be worshipped. Did the Israelites want to have a visible “god” which they could see with their eyes? Let them escape by knowing that God is invisible, and that He cannot be fashioned by human minds or hands. Did the Israelites “crave evil things”? Let the Israelites learn to exercise self-control in their lives, so that fleshly self-indulgence is not the pattern of their lives.

All of a sudden, the argument begins to come full circle. Some of the Corinthians, thinking themselves to be both “wise” and “strong,” insisted on exercising their “right” to eat idol-meat, regardless of the fact that the apostles had forbidden it, and that their “weaker brethren” were hindered by their “liberty.” The bottom line reason for the insistence of some to practice their liberties was that they were self-indulgent, and they could not say “no” to their fleshly appetites. When one develops a lifestyle of self-indulgence, any denial of fleshly appetites seems like a horrible deprivation. The Israelites of old expected to get to the “land of milk and honey”without breaking a sweat, without paying a price. In New Testament terms, they knew nothing of the lifestyle of the disciple. They were unwilling to deny themselves in this life, in order to enter into the blessings of the coming age. Instead, they demanded that God provide kingdom blessings now, and threatened to turn back to Egypt if God didn’t bless them with prosperity and ease.

The Christian is to view the Christian life as the athlete viewed the race. There was a goal to reach and a price to pay in order to reach it. An athlete attains the prize only if and when he or she is willing to deny fleshly appetites and bring them under control. Those who serve the flesh are enslaved to it, and thus to Satan. The Christian must strive to make their physical bodies serve them as they seek to fulfill their calling. The more self-indulgent we are in our daily lives, the more we react to trials and testings, and the greater the temptation when we experience trouble. Being a disciple is about being disciplined, so that we deny fleshly lusts in order to serve God and others.

Conclusion

It may seem inappropriate, but the analogy is clear and compelling, so I will mention it here. Many Christians are very distressed (and rightly so!) over the way our culture deals with sexual immorality. If we as a nation were characterized by self-control, rather than self-indulgence, we would deal with AIDS and other STD’s by practicing abstinence. But that is not the spirit of the age. And so we find authorities urging people to “use protection,” rather than to exercise self-control. We advocate the use of condoms rather than abstinence.

Some of the Corinthians were just like this, and so are many, many Christians today. We look at the gospel as “protection,” and the promises of God’s Word in passages like ours, as the basis for loose living, expecting God to bail us out of trouble. Paul is telling us that God’s “way of escape” is His divinely-provided means for escaping from sin by fleeing from it, rather than by flirting with it and expecting a miraculous deliverance.

The “way of escape” which God promises us should not be thought of in terms of a miraculous intervention on God’s part, due to deliberate folly on our part. Jesus was tempted by the Devil in the wilderness, and there He “escaped” from sin. Satan was so bold as to seek to distort the promise of divine protection, making it instead a reason to put God to the test. God promised to protect His own, did He not, and especially His Messiah? So then, Satan reasoned, why not use this promise to check out God’s faithfulness, by our Lord casting Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, causing God to miraculously intervene? Our Lord refused, and it should not be difficult to see why. The promise of divine protection should never be misapplied as a pretext for carelessness or even precipitous actions, which would require a miraculous intervention of God. Such actions seek to force God to act, making Him submit to our will, rather than us submitting to His.

The “way of escape” should not be thought of in terms of spectacular, miraculous interventions. Some such events do happen, but these are due to circumstances beyond the control of the Christian. For example, Daniel (in the case of his prayers) and his three friends (in the case of their being ordered to bow down in worship of the king’s golden image) had no choice but to disobey the king’s orders, if they were to be obedient to God. They endangered themselves by being obedient to God, while being disobedient to men. Even in these instances, they did not demand that God miraculously rescue them, although they knew He was able. The rescue of these saints was miraculous and spectacular, but they did not deliberately endanger themselves to force God to come to their rescue.

The “way of escape” is often much more mundane than it is miraculous. For those who are unmarried, and “burn” with sexual passion, the solution may be marriage. This was Paul’s counsel in 1 Corinthians 7:9. For those who are married, and who find themselves “oppressed” by an insensitive husband, or “harassed” by a nagging wife, the way of escape is not divorce, but bearing one’s cross silently, as our Lord did (see 1 Corinthians 7:10-14). In the most general terms, the way of escape is to love God and man, and to trust and obey Him.

The “way of escape” in many cases should come early, and not late; it should be a preventative course of action, rather than a prescriptive course of action. An alcoholic knows that there are certain people and certain places that are too dangerous. You don’t have to walk by the liquor store, or to call up those with whom you drink. Better to stay out of trouble than to get into trouble, expecting God to rescue you. Developing a lifestyle of self-discipline and self-control is one of the best “escapes” there is. That is what Paul is challenging us to do, to realize our own vulnerability to sin, and then to purpose to fulfill our calling in Christ, and therefore to pay the price which it requires.

If the Christian life is one in which we “take up our cross and follow Christ,” if it is a life of discipline and of denying fleshly lustsand it isthen surely our efforts to evangelize should not seek to deceive unbelievers by “luring them” or should we say “tempting them,” to trust in Jesus Christ for fleshly self-indulgence. Jesus was very clear on this to those whom He invited to follow Him.

34 “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. 37 He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. 38 And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. 39 He who has found his life shall lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake shall find it” (Matthew 10:34-39).

42 And calling them to Himself, Jesus said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. 43 But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

57 And as they were going along the road, someone said to Him, “I will follow You wherever You go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” 59 And He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Permit me first to go and bury my father.” 60 But He said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” 61 And another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” 62 But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:57-62).

Why is it then that when we proclaim the gospel, we tend to disguise or set aside the fundamental issues of sin, righteousness, and judgment? Why is it that we say we are appealing to “seekers,” but those who are “seeking” are looking for some form of self-indulgence? They want God as the means to better relationships, a healthier self-esteem, ridding them of psychological pain, and taking them out of suffering. They want the very kind of gospel which the “good life gospeleers” offer. The problem is that it is “another gospel.” Let us seek to proclaim to lost sinners a gospel which saves men from sin and judgment, but which calls men to a life of discipleship, a life of taking up one’s cross, not a life of self-indulgence.

And let us, as Paul has earlier urged, purpose to “finish our course,” to “finish the race” which God has set before us, willing to endure trials and difficulties, willing to pay the price. Let us remember that our Lord was our example, in that the cross comes before the crown. The cross is the way to the crown. Let us choose then to take up our cross, and follow Him. To win the race is to bring glory to God, to build up believers in their faith, and to win the lost to Christ. Let us not fail to win because we cannot say no to fleshly lusts. And let us run the race, knowing that the time is short, for we are those “upon whom the ends of the ages have come”:

8 Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. 9 For this, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law. 11 And this do, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. 12 The night is almost gone, and the day is at hand. Let us therefore lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts (Romans 13:8-14).


106 A considerable number of Greek manuscripts include the word all. This all would include not only all of the incidents referred to by Paul in verses 1-10, but all of Israel’s experiences.

107 Here, the editors of the NASB give a marginal note, indicating that “admonition” may be the proper rendering. In verse 14, the same Greek term is now rendered “admonish.”

108 Peter says this in response to those who lived in his day, who reasoned that since such a long time had passed, the second coming of our Lord was suspect (see 2 Peter 3:3-4).

109 See Matthew 12:25; Romans 5:2; 11:20; 1 Corinthians 15:1; 1 Peter 5:12; Jude 1:24; Revelation 6:17.

110 See Isaiah 8:14-15; 28:13; 31:3; Jeremiah 50:32; Romans 11:11; 14:4.

111 Satan is thus called “the tempter.” See Matthew 4:3; 1 Thessalonians 3:5.

112 We are also tested by prosperity, but that is another topic altogether.

113 Especially critical passages are Psalm 106:6-39; Proverbs 24:10; Acts 14:21-22; Romans 5:1-5; 1 Timothy 4:7-16; 2 Timothy 2:1-13; Hebrews 11; 12:1-13; James 1:1-18; 1 Peter 1:6-9.

114 Satan sought to tempt our Lord; it was his intent to tempt our Lord and to cause Him to fail. In one sense Jesus was “tempted” because this was what Satan sought to do. In another sense, this whole temptation event served only to demonstrate that Jesus could not be tempted, He was “untemptable.” The reason is that in His perfect humanity, there was no fleshly lust which was attracted to Satan’s self-indulging proposals.

115 Some con artists take advantage of our gullibility or our ignorance, but this is not the point I am trying to illustrate here.

116 The Greek term, here rendered “way of escape,” is used but once by Paul in its verb form (“cast out”), and employed only one other time in the form it is found in our text. There, in Hebrews 13:7, the term is used of the “end” or “outcome” of the lives of the leaders whom the saints are to follow.

117 See footnote 8.

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19. Table Talk (1 Cor. 10:14-33)

Introduction

A few years ago, my parents spent a year in Taiwan, where my dad taught in an American school, and my mother assisted. They came to know a young Chinese man whose name was Johnny. He did not know English very well, and my dad agreed to teach him—from the Gospel of Matthew. Johnny was saved at chapter 16. Over time, they got to know Johnny quite well. He began to speak of having them over for dinner, and that he had something very special to serve.

One evening, my dad and Johnny were walking home and were passing through an alley when a dog began to bark incessantly. Johnny finally yelled something at the dog in Chinese, and suddenly it was quiet. As they continued on, my dad pressed Johnny to tell him just what he had yelled at the dog. Johnny told him that he told the dog to shut up or he would eat him. Johnny was serious. As Johnny began to speak more often about the meal he planned to serve my folks, it came out that the special dish was a dog. As politely as they could, my folks explained that in America we looked at dogs as our friends, and so we would not think of eating one. That seemed to put the matter to rest.

What we eat really does matter a lot to us, doesn’t it? When one of our children was asked to spend the night at the home of a friend, our daughter had one important question to ask: “What are we having for dinner?” The answer to this question was usually the determining factor in her decision. The Corinthians seemed to have divided over what certain people ate for dinner. Some Corinthians felt they were free to eat any meat whatsoever, even meats offered to idols. They were so liberated in their thinking and behavior that they had no scruples about eating idol-meats at a meal that was part of a pagan religious idol worship ritual. Other Corinthians were much more particular. In fact, some were so sensitive on this matter that they would not eat anything without first knowing its origin. Every meal must have been like an inquisition, with the host being grilled (pardon the pun) concerning the origin of the meat being served.

The issue of meats offered to idols was first introduced in chapter 8. There, Paul did not debate the question of whether or not a Christian was at liberty to eat idol-meats, but allowed the assumption of some to stand that idol-meats were a matter of Christian liberty. Some seemed to be eating this meat and making a point of it, even though it caused some to stumble and follow their example, but still with pangs of conscience. In chapter 8, Paul sought to establish the principle that while one’s knowledge may cause him to conclude that he is free to eat idol-meats, love for the weaker brother should prompt him to forego his rights in deference to the one who may be caused to stumble.

In chapter 9, Paul uses himself as an example of this kind of love. Instead of referring to the dubious liberty of eating idol-meats, Paul cites a much clearer liberty, one universally agreed upon without dispute—the right of an apostle to be financially supported in ministry. In spite of a host of authenticating proofs of this liberty, Paul reminded the Corinthians that he refused to exercise it, knowing that this would not only enhance his eternal reward, but that it would also promote the proclamation of the gospel. Out of love for God and men, Paul refused to exercise a liberty which would be detrimental to his calling as an apostle. And so the principle laid down in chapter 8 is now illustrated in particular in 9:1-23.

In 9:24–10:19, Paul sought to expose the root problem behind some of the Corinthians’ insistence of eating idol-meats and to propose a better way. The underlying problem behind the eating of idol-meats was a lack of self-control. Many of those who refused to forego their right to eat idol-meats and insisted on eating these meats regardless of the negative impact on others, were those who simply lacked the self-discipline and self-control to deny themselves any sensual pleasure, including that of eating a certain piece of meat.

Paul first illustrated the need for self-discipline by likening the Christian life to the running of a race in the Isthmian games. While many contestants run in such a marathon, only one person will win the race. The one who wins the race is the person who has purposed to do so and who is prepared to pay the price for victory. The price of victory is self-control in every area of one’s life. Self-indulgence is not the way to win races; self-control is.

Turning from the athletic events of his own day, Paul moves on to the history of the first generation of Israelites to leave Egypt, and the lessons which can be learned from their failures in the wilderness (10:1-13). They partook of divine provisions, similar to our own. They experienced divine deliverance (salvation) from their bondage in Egypt, as we have been saved from our bondage to sin. They had their own baptism, which identified them with Moses, as we have a baptism which identifies us with Christ. They ate and drank of the “spiritual food and drink” which God provided in the wilderness, just as we eat and drink of the bread and the cup in communion. Christ was present in their midst, as He is present in ours. Yet in spite of all these divine provisions, the Israelites failed to “finish the race,” let alone win it. They all perished in the wilderness because they succumbed to the temptations of the flesh. They failed in exactly the same ways that the Corinthians did and that we continue to do today. They gave in to their craving for evil things, they acted immorally, they worshipped idols, they put the Lord to the test, and they grumbled; for each of these, a number of the Israelites perished as a result of an outbreak of divine wrath. The remainder of that generation died in the wilderness without entering into the land of Canaan.

We are to learn several important lessons from our “fathers,” the Israelites of old. We can learn from them when we realize that they, and we, are all a part of one eternal plan for mankind. They lived their lives as the first chapter, and we find ourselves living out the final chapter. We share our humanity with them, and thus not only their failures, but their victories are directly applicable to us. We should be warned about being over confident in our own strength, realizing that an entire nation failed to reach their appointed goal, with the exception of two men. We should be edified by seeing that their areas of failure are the same pitfalls we face today. But even though we are admonished by Israel’s failures, we should also be encouraged by the faithfulness of God, which is evident in Israel’s history. While the Israelites failed, God was faithful, and He saw to it that His purposes and promises were fulfilled, in spite of Israel’s failures. We need not fail. We need only to embrace the “way of escape” which God, in His faithfulness, brings with every trial and temptation.

Verses 14-33 spell out Paul’s bottom line in the matter of idol-meats. In these closing words of instruction and counsel, Paul practically applies what he has been teaching in principle by addressing three situations which the Corinthians would face: (1) The question of whether a Corinthian Christian should eat idol-meat at a meal that is a part of a heathen worship ritual (verses 14-22). (2) The question of whether a Corinthian should eat meat purchased at the meat market, the origins of which are not known (verses 25-26). (3) The question of whether a Corinthian Christian should accept a dinner invitation from an unbeliever (verses 27-28).

Interspersed in these verses are the general guiding principles which should govern every decision pertaining to idol-meats, and any other question regarding our conduct in a pagan world. Let us listen and learn from our “fathers,” as we are instructed from the inspired Word of God.

Dining With the Devils
Eating Meat in a Pagan Worship Ritual
(10:14-22)

14 Therefore, my beloved,118 flee119 from idolatry. 15 I speak as to wise men; you judge what I say. 16 Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? 17 Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. 18 Look at the nation Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar?120 19 What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons,121 and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. 22 Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? We are not stronger than He, are we?

For some, the logic of 1 Corinthians 8:4-5 gave them license to eat idol-meats, and under virtually any set of circumstances. Paul takes a very different approach to this matter in the verses above. Paul first sets the scene in verse 14. The “therefore” of verse 14 connects what he is about to say with what has just been said. The ancient Israelites engaged in idolatry, for which they were severely disciplined. If the Corinthians should learn anything from their ancient “fathers,” it was that idolatry was not only wrong, it was deadly. The Corinthians should do what their fathers failed to do—flee from idolatry. Now just exactly what does this mean, to “flee from idolatry”? Paul will explain what he means in the following verses.

But before we get to these verses and their instruction to us, let us pause for a moment to savor the word “beloved” in verse 14. Here is a group of Christians who are far from what they should be. They not only look down upon Paul and the other (true) apostles, they are beginning to look down on the gospel. I can think of a lot of names by which the Corinthians could be identified or described, but “beloved” is not one of them. What we see here is that while many of the Corinthians had little regard for Paul, he still loved these saints. What he is about to say to them is written with the kindest of intentions, the deepest of affections. He is speaking to those whom he loves.

Paul does not patronize his readers either. They thought themselves to be wise and strong. They thought less of Paul. But in spite of this, Paul speaks to them as though they were wise. He informs them that they will have to reach for what he is about to say, and he encourages them to critically consider what he is about to say to them. What he will say can bear scrutiny and reflection. What others may be saying won’t.

In verses 16-22, Paul sets the table, or rather two tables, side-by-side. The Lord’s table is the table around which the Corinthians gather every week to commemorate the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord by partaking of the symbols of the bread and the wine. Some of the Corinthians have felt at liberty to sit at another “table,” the table which is served as a part of a heathen ritual, at which idols are worshipped, and to which sacrifices are made. The things which are eaten at this table have been sacrificed to the idol, or they are at least a part of the heathen ritual. In dealing with this matter, Paul establishes several principles upon which he bases his conclusion.

(1) To partake of the cup at the Lord’s table is to symbolically partake of what the cup represents. To partake of the cup is to symbolically commemorate the fact that we have become partakers in the shed blood of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins which it accomplished, through faith in His atoning death on the cross of Calvary. This is what Jesus taught before His death.

47 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh.” 52 The Jews therefore began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” 53 Jesus therefore said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. 54 He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 “For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. 56 He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also shall live because of Me. 58 This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate, and died, he who eats this bread shall live forever” (John 6:47-58).

The drinking of the cup symbolizes the believer’s participation in the work of Jesus Christ by faith in His shed blood for the forgiveness of sins. The cup symbolizes the New Covenant, which was inaugurated by His death, burial, and resurrection.

(2) To partake of the bread at communion is to symbolically proclaim that we have identified with our Lord’s body. We have identified with Christ, not only in His incarnation, and in His bodily death, burial, and resurrection, but we have identified ourselves with His “body,” the church. The one loaf symbolizes one body, of which all Christians have partaken and are thus a part. When we partake of the bread, we remind ourselves of our union with His body, but also in His incarnation, and in His spiritual presence now, through the church.

(3) Communion commemorates our union with the person and work of Jesus Christ. It commemorates our union with Christ by faith at the time of our salvation and for all eternity. It commemorates our union with Him in His bodily death, burial, and resurrection. It signifies our union with the church, His body. Communion symbolizes our union with Christ, then (at the cross of Calvary) and now (in His body, the church).

(4) There is more than one “communion.” The Old Testament saints had communion, too. Eating of what has been sacrificed on the altar not only unites the one eating with the sacrifice, it unites him with those who share in the meal with him. The Old Testament saints had their own form of communion at which they ate a portion of what had been sacrificed. The sacrificial meal joined the participant to the sacrifice and to those who shared with him in eating of it.

(5) The pagan ritual of eating a meal, of which a portion is that which was sacrificed in heathen worship, was a “communion service” as well. The heathen worshipper is celebrating a communion service when he eats of what was sacrificed to an idol. In eating the things sacrificed to the idol, he is identifying himself with the pagan sacrifice and all that it means. Those who eat the meal together identify not only with the pagan sacrifice, but also identify themselves with all those sitting at the table with them.

(6) When the pagans worship idols by sacrificing to them, they are worshipping demons. Here is an amazing fact, which the Corinthians had overlooked. There are no other gods. Idols are nothing, because they represent gods which don’t exist. But false worship is not thereby rendered harmless and insignificant. This is where the Corinthians went wrong. Paul says that the worship of idols is the worship of demons. Is this some new truth, a mystery not revealed until Paul’s writing? Far from it!

7 “And they shall no longer sacrifice their sacrifices to the goat demons with which they play the harlot. This shall be a permanent statute to them throughout their generations” (Leviticus 17:7).

17 “They sacrificed to demons who were not God, To gods whom they have not known, New gods who came lately, Whom your fathers did not dread” (Deuteronomy 32:17).

37 They even sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons (Psalm 106:37).

The Corinthians who reasoned that they were at liberty to eat idol-meats did so based upon principles they derived from the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy (see 1 Corinthians 8:4-5). What they failed to take into account was the rest of the book, where it is clear that idol worship is not trivial, but the worship of demons.

(7) When Christians participate in the pagan sacrificial meal by eating the idol-meats, they unite themselves with the pagan sacrifice and with the heathen with whom they are eating. Just as biblical communion unites the meal-sharer with the sacrifice, and with those sharing in the meal, so the one who participates in a pagan festive meal becomes a sharer in the heathen sacrificial altar, and a co-participant with those eating the meal. One does far more than have dinner when one attends a pagan sacrificial meal.

(8) Christians cannot become partakers of two tables, for one is the table of the Lord and the other is the table of demons. Just as no man can serve two masters (Matthew 6:24), neither can a Christian participate at two religious tables or partake of two sacrificial meals. The Lord’s Supper, and all that it symbolizes, is diametrically opposed to the “table of demons.” It is amazing that some Corinthians could so casually explain away their presence at the table of demons, while at the same time regularly observing the Lord’s table. The inconsistency is intolerable.

(9) When the Corinthians eat idol-meats while participating in pagan idol worship, they provoke the Lord to jealousy. Paul has instructed the Corinthians to “flee idolatry” in verse 14. Now we know exactly what he means. To sit at the table of demons and to participate in this pagan worship by eating idol-meats is to practice idolatry. This is exactly the way the ancient Israelites fell into idolatry, by joining themselves with the pagans at their “table.” No wonder God gave the Israelites such strict food laws; this kept the Jews from eating with the Gentiles, and thus from participating in their idolatry.

Idolatry is a most serious offense to God, even if it was not a serious transgression to the Israelites or to the Corinthians. The Israelites were “laid low in the wilderness” (10:5) because God poured out His wrath by various plagues. The Israelites were to have learned from the example of those who died. The Corinthians (and us) were to be warned by the outpouring of God’s wrath on idolaters. To practice idolatry is to provoke the Lord to jealousy, and this is a most serious situation. Those who were so cavalier in eating idol-meats at pagan celebrations should certainly be shaken by Paul’s words.

Is Market Meat Idol-Meat?
(10:23-26)

23 All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. 24 Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor. 25 Eat anything that is sold in the meat market, without asking questions for conscience’ sake; 26 for the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains.122

There are two major divisions in verses 14-33, verses 14-22 and verses 23-33. Verses 14-22 address the subject of meats offered to idols in the context of one’s relationship to God through Jesus Christ and symbolized by one’s partaking in communion. Verses 23-33 address the subject of idol-meats in the context of one’s relationship to his own conscience and to others. The two questions of (1) eating meats purchased in the market place, and (2) of accepting a dinner invitation from an unsaved acquaintance, are both addressed in this second section. But both at the beginning (verses 23-24) and at the end (verses 31-33) of this section, Paul underscores the guiding principles which should govern our actions with regard to these questions.

Paul’s words in verses 23 and 24 should sound familiar to us because they are not new:

12 All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything. 13 Food is for the stomach, and the stomach is for food; but God will do away with both of them. Yet the body is not for immorality, but for the Lord; and the Lord is for the body (1 Corinthians 6:12-13).

The context in which verses 12 and 13 (above) are found is that of lawsuits between Corinthian believers. It seems to me that in this context, Paul may be using the term “lawful” in relation to secular laws, not divine law. On this lowest level of morality (there are many sins which are not crimes), one still must ask whether an action which is legal is one which edifies. But immediately following verse 12, Paul begins to speak about matters of biblical morality, and not just of legality. He speaks first of foods and then of sexual immorality, the same subjects which are again picked up by Paul in chapter 10. When Paul repeats the words of chapter 6 in chapter 10, we should not be surprised. The principle of profitability (or edification) underlies the teaching of the entire book. We find it in chapter 6, again in chapter 8, now in chapter 10, and again in chapters 12-14. The law of love obliges us to act in a way that benefits or edifies our brother, and, if possible, the lost (by leading to their salvation).

The man or woman who does not purpose to “win the race” (9:24-27), who does not purpose to deny fleshly lusts and to overcome trials and temptations, is the one who is intent upon indulging the lusts of the flesh. The one who lives their life to indulge themselves is the person who is willing to sacrifice the well-being of their neighbor for their own self-satisfaction. The Christian is to be the person who is willing to sacrifice his or her own self-satisfaction in order to become a blessing to others. Before Paul gives specific instruction on the two questions before him in verses 23-33, he first sets down the guiding principles, principles he will repeat again at the end of this text. Having reiterated the guiding principles, Paul now sets out to answer the two questions, explaining how the command, “flee from idolatry,” applies to market meats and invitations to dinner from unbelieving acquaintances.

Can the Christian eat meat purchased in the market place, knowing that it could possibly have been sacrificed to an idol? The issue at hand seems to be as follows. The Christians purchased their food supplies at the market place. In addition to fruits and vegetables, this included meat. It was possible that some of the meat sold in the market place had been offered to an idol. It appears that the question pertains to meats whose origins are not known and are not immediately apparent. Should the Christian buy no market meats because of the possibility of obtaining idol-meats? Or, should the Christian seek to satisfy his sensitive conscience by inquiring about the origin of the meat? In this case and the next, Paul seems to change his focus. In verses 14-22, Paul was addressing those “liberated” saints who had no qualms at all about idol-meats and felt free even to participate in the pagan ritual meals where the sacrifices were made. Paul’s purpose in these earlier verses was to quicken the consciences of those who were far too casual about idolatry. But now in verses 23-33, he seems to be speaking to the other extreme, to those who were overly sensitive about eating any meats with “a bad or dubious background.”

I have been in some of the market places of the eastern world, especially in some of the remote villages of India. I have to confess that I had great interest in what was being purchased there. (I was not buying the food, but I often accompanied the person who was doing the shopping.) My questions were not those which some of the Corinthians asked. I wanted to know just what kind of meat it was. I also was interested to know how long it had been dead. The flies which swarmed over the dead carcasses were not doing much for my appetite. I was most concerned about whether I would live after eating these meats, and how they would taste on the way down. At least some of the Corinthians were interested in where these meats had been before they reached the market. Were these meats in any way involved in heathen worship? If so, should they be eaten? How hard should one try to find out about the origin of these meats?

Paul’s answer is really quite simple. In today’s jargon, Paul would have said, “Chill out; relax!” The fact is, it didn’t really matter. Biblical separation required that the Corinthian Christians have no part in the idol worship of their pagan peers. It was not necessary that the meat they ate have no such association. Whether or not a Christian should knowingly purchase idol-meats is not asked or answered. But when the origin of the meat is not known, the Christian is not to make an issue of it. They are not to “ask questions.” Such questions, I believe, would only be distractions, and Paul’s desire was to “secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.” Some Christians are so meticulously “straining at gnats” that they are “swallowing camels” pertaining to holiness.

Are the Corinthians concerned about the immediate origins and associations of the meat they purchase? They need not be. And the reason is to be found in the ultimate origin of such food: God created it. If God created it, we know it is good. And if we partake of it gratefully and with prayerful thanksgiving, we can be sure that it is sanctified:

1 But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, 3 men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods, which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; 5 for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:1-5).

Should I Dine With My Pagan Neighbor?
(10:27-28a)

27 If one of the unbelievers invites you, and you wish to go, eat anything that is set before you, without asking questions for conscience’ sake. 28 But if anyone should say to you, “This is meat sacrificed to idols,” do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience’ sake;

Now, Paul provides us with another specific application to his instruction to “flee from idolatry.” Does “fleeing from idolatry” mean that I should never go to dinner with an unsaved neighbor, for fear that I might be served idol-meats? The assumption here seems to be that the invitation is to the home of an unbeliever and not to a heathen temple, where the meal would be a part of a heathen religious ritual involving idols. This case seems quite similar to the one preceding it in that the apprehension of the Corinthian Christian is the possibility of eating meat which could have been offered to an idol.

As we read Paul’s words here about eating a meal at the table of an unbeliever, we are reminded of what Paul has already said on this point, as recorded in 1 Corinthians 5:

9 I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; 10 I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world. 11 But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler— not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? 13 But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves (1 Corinthians 5:9-13).

Biblical separation does not require the Christian to avoid all contact with unbelievers. It does not even prohibit the Christian from enjoying the hospitality of an unbeliever by accepting a dinner invitation. Biblical separation is not meant to keep the Christian isolated from the world (which we are to evangelize), but to keep us separate from those who profess to know Christ and who live like pagans.

Paul’s answer is similar to his response to the previous question: “Don’t ask!” The Corinthians should not make an issue of the origin of the meat or food they are eating. They should eat all of it.123 Eating a piece of meat that was offered to an idol will not defile the Christian. What defiles the Christian is participating in heathen worship. If eating a piece of idol-meat does not defile the Christian, there is no need to make an issue of it. This simply exercises an overly-sensitive conscience and introduces an unnecessary affront to the hospitality of the host.

The law of love does require an exception to this instruction, however. If one’s host volunteers that the meat has been offered to an idol, then the Christian should refrain from eating it. When the host makes an issue of the origin, it is because it is important to him, or because he thinks it may be important to his guest. If the host informs you that the meat is idol-meat, he thereby indicates that this is important to him and to you. For his sake, do not eat of the meat. And if there happens to be another Christian present whose conscience is weak in this regard, the Christian should refrain from eating the meat for his benefit.

It is not all that clear just who might inform us that the main dish is idol-meat, but whether it be an unbeliever or a weaker brother, we should refrain from eating the meat for their sake. If they did not consider eating the meat a problem, they would not have brought the matter up. If no one makes a point of the origin of the meat, then the question should not be raised by us. The origin of the meat, once again, does not really matter.

Perplexing Words
(10:28b-30)

28 But if anyone should say to you, “This is meat sacrificed to idols,” do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience’ sake; 29 I mean not your own conscience, but the other man’s; for why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience? 30 If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks?

The general sense of what Paul is saying is clear, but the specifics are a matter of some speculation. It seems as though we must distinguish between the one who informs the believer about the idol-meat and the “other man” whose conscience is affected. The first seems not to have any personal hesitation about eating the meat, but assumes that the Christian would or should. The second seems to have personal qualms of conscience, and for his sake the Christian should refrain from eating the idol-meat.

Paul now asks two questions in the second half of verse 29 and in verse 30. First, Paul asks why his freedom should be scrutinized and restricted by the conscience of another. Second, he seems to asks why, even though he can partake of the meal with thankfulness, he should be spoken against as though he were doing wrong. I am inclined to understand these as the questions which prompt Paul not to partake of idol-meats, after their presence at the table has been pointed out. He does not wish to offend the conscience of another, and so any indication that another guest would have his conscience wounded by his eating is sufficient reason not to eat the idol-meat. Even though he could eat that meat with thanksgiving, he will not do so because he would be evil spoken of for having done so by another. In either case, Paul stands to lose much more by eating than he could possibly gain by eating.

Guiding Principles Reiterated
(10:31-33)

31 Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God; 33 just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of the many, that they may be saved.

Having expressed his commitment not to eat idol-meats at the table of an unbeliever under certain circumstances, Paul now concludes by explaining his response in terms of two guiding principles, principles which should guide every Christian concerning the exercise of their Christian liberties. The first principle governs our actions in terms of our relationship to God. The next governs our actions in terms of our relationship to men.

The goal of history, and of God’s eternal plan, is to bring glory to Himself. The guiding principle by which the exercise of every liberty must be determined is that whatever we do, it must bring glory to God. Eating everything set before us at the home of a heathen can bring glory to God because our presence is to be a manifestation of His excellencies to lost men:

9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a HOLY NATION, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).

It may be by our witness at the dinner table that we are able to share our faith and be instrumental in leading lost souls to faith in Christ.124

The second guiding principle is that our every action should be done for the edification and upbuilding of others. For the lost, we should act in a way that most facilitates the gospel and the salvation of the lost. For those who are saved, our actions should be those which build up our brothers and sisters in their faith, and which enhance their daily walk with Him.

Conclusion

We have come full circle, as it were, in Paul’s dealing with the subject of meats offered to idols. Some of the Corinthians thought they had this matter well in hand. Based on the truth that there is but one God, the God whom we worship and serve, they concluded that idols were nothing at all. They were so confident about this that based on their superior knowledge, they “dined at an idol’s temple” (8:10), even though this had a detrimental impact on other brethren. To begin with, Paul instructed these saints that even if they did have the right to eat meat offered to idols, their love for their brethren should compel them not to exercise it. He then illustrated this by pointing out how he set aside his right to be supported, so that his proclamation of the gospel might be enhanced (9:1-23). Then, from 9:24–10:13, Paul exposes self-indulgence as the real reason the Corinthians refused to forego the dining pleasure of eating of idol-meats. The Corinthians didn’t set aside the eating of idol-meats because they were not in the habit of denying their fleshly appetites.

The grand finale comes next. Paul had allowed the assumption to stand unchallenged that the Corinthians could eat idol-meats, even by dining in an idol’s temple (8:10). Now, that assumption must fall, and fall it does. Paul shows the inconsistency of sitting at the Lord’s table in their Christian worship, and then sitting at the table of demons in their fellowship with unbelievers at an idol’s temple. One cannot symbolically commemorate partaking of the work of Christ on Calvary and also participate in the worship of demons. Dining at an idol’s temple was not a liberty at all, but a sin of the most serious order. These meat-eaters who ate dinner at an idol’s temple were wrong across the board.

In our text we find, once again, the summation of the Old Testament Law and of our guiding principles as New Testament Christians boiled down to two basic commands: Love God and love our fellow man.

35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:35-40).

8 Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. 9 For this, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:8-10).

In verses 14-22, Paul addressed the subject of idol-meats from the perspective of our love for God. If we love God, we will not engage in idolatry, which provokes Him to jealousy. Instead, we will refrain entirely from eating meats in the context of heathen idol worship. Our union with Christ, commemorated by our communion at the Lord’s table, prohibits us from entering into an illicit communion at the table of demons. In verses 23-33, Paul wishes us not to be distracted from our devotion to Christ by an obsession with the origin of every piece of meat we may eat. But when others point out that the meat set before us is idol-meat and we know that they would be hindered by our partaking of it, we forego that liberty for their benefit.

If those who ate idol-meats at the idol’s temple were wrong in what they were doing, those who were overly sensitive about idol-meats were also in need of correction. They were to “lighten up,” and quit making the purchase of meat or the acceptance of a dinner invitation an occasion for an inquisition. It was not the meat itself which was the source of defilement, but the environment in which the meat was eaten. It was wrong to eat that meat as a participant in the heathen ritual, but it was not wrong to eat the meat as the guest of an unsaved neighbor. The only time to abstain from eating the meat outside of the idol’s temple was when someone made a point of informing you that this meat was offered to idols.

We live in a culture characterized by self-indulgence. The advertising industry is constantly urging us to buy what we do not need, but what they say we should want. Merely wanting something is all the reason we need for justifying getting it. Credit cards enable us to buy what we don’t need with money we don’t have. We have all too few examples of denying ourselves for the moment in order to have real pleasure in the future. This is what the Christian life is all about. It is about our identification with Christ, who denied Himself and suffered in our place so that we might be forgiven, and that we might live eternally in fellowship with Him. His death on the cross of Calvary not only procured our salvation, it provided us with a pattern for this life. Let us walk in His steps, taking up our cross, for the joy that is set before us.

In the specific context of our text, let us be very certain that those things we consider Christian liberties are really matters of liberty. And if indeed we do have the liberty to enjoy certain things, let us be willing to set aside the momentary pleasure we might gain from the exercise of our liberty for the good of our brother, the sake of the gospel, and the glory of our Lord.


118 A term of endearment, employed six times by Paul in his Corinthian Epistles. See 1 Corinthians 4:14.

119 Used by Paul only in 6:18 (immorality—becoming one flesh with a harlot); 10:14 (idolatry); 1 Timothy 6:11 (false doctrine, disputes, greed); 2 Timothy 2:22 (youthful lusts).

120 See Exodus 12:43-49; 24:9-11; Deuteronomy 14:22-27.

121 See Leviticus 17:7; Deuteronomy 32:17; Psalm 106:37; Revelation 9:20.

122 See Psalm 24:1; 50:12.

123 Mothers may delight to find this verse and use it, and perhaps they should. Why does Paul tell his readers to eat everything placed before them? I think it is simple. To do otherwise is to needlessly offend your unsaved neighbor. To fail to eat what is served is an offense to your host, and thus an unnecessary hindrance to your witness. Do you not like what is served (I say this with fear and trembling)? Be master of your body and sacrifice your own selfish interests and eat it, all of it! I do not think I am going too far with Paul’s words.

124 Someone might ask why this opportunity to be a witness to the lost might also justify sitting at the table with the lost, while they participate in a heathen sacrificial ritual. The answer is quite simple. In so doing, we would deny the gospel and our union with Christ by sharing in the table of demons. But when the dinner table is in the home of the unsaved, and when we are not denying the gospel, then we can be a witness. We can surely witness to harlots, drug dealers, and thieves as we encounter them in the course of our lives, but we can hardly be a Christian witness by becoming one of them.

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20. Spirituality and Spiritual Gifts (1 Cor. 11:1-3)

Introduction

A Roman Catholic priest told this story in Readers Digest a few years ago. He was serving at the cathedral at Notre Dame and at the end of his day was making his way out to his car, apparently through a rather dark alley. From the shadows, a man approached, sticking a gun in the priest’s ribs and demanding that the priest hand over his wallet. As the priest reached into his coat pocket, the robber saw his clothing and realized he was a clergyman. Shaken, the once confident robber asked incredulously, “Are you a priest?” “Yes, yes I am,” replied the priest. “I don’t rob priests!” the man quickly assured him. “Well, thanks, thanks a lot!” the priest responded with relief. His hand still in his pocket where he had reached for his wallet, the priest said, “Here, have a cigar,” offering a cigar to the robber. “Oh no, I couldn’t do that,” the penitent thief replied, “you see, I’m a Catholic too, and I’ve given them up for lent.”

In the words of our Lord, this thief was “straining gnats and swallowing camels”:

23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! 25 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also. 27 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 Even so you too outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:23-28).

The thief who would not consider robbing a priest would readily rob anyone else. He might even have been taking drugs, but he would not think of having a smoke, at least for a little while. Here we find a classic example of “straining gnats and swallowing camels.” The scribes and Pharisees did the same thing. They were meticulous in attending to the details of the Law, but they missed the main point of it all. This is why the prophets were sent, one after the other, to keep pointing out the essence of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23; see Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8).

All of us tend to get into a rut, doing the same old things and hardly remembering why we do them. I believe this is what had happened to the Corinthian saints. They were still doing the things they had first done—conducting baptisms, meeting weekly as a gathered assembly, observing communion, and the women were still covering their heads. But already these saints were beginning to lose sight of the big picture. In our text, Paul sets down one of the guiding principles for the traditions he had established during his time with them, and perhaps in the letter he had previously written to them (1 Corinthians 5:9).

The verses we are about to consider are among the most troublesome in this epistle. For everyone who is honest, this is a difficult text to interpret. I can well remember when one of my most respected professors (the head of the Old Testament department) published an article on this chapter, which some hoped would be the definitive work. As it turned out, there was not only a strong resistance to his position, but even he renounced his work. Lest you think I am poking fun at this godly scholar, let me also confess I have taught this passage several times over the past 20 years, and I usually come to a different conclusion each time I teach it!

For many today, this text is the cornerstone in their theology of the role of women in ministry in the church. This should be a foundational text, but those who are most inclined to turn here for a validation of their theology turn to the wrong place, for the wrong reasons, and with the wrong conclusions. Because this text is a battleground for evangelicals, we need to spend a little time laying the groundwork for our study in this exposition and in those texts which follow. Several introductory comments will help the reader to understand where I am coming from.

Introductory Comments Concerning Paul and His Teaching

(1) Chapters 11-14 flow easily from what Paul has already written in chapters 1-10. There is no abrupt shifting of gears when moving from chapter 10 to chapter 11. At chapter 11, Paul makes his transition from the subject of participating in illicit idol worship to the conduct of the church at worship in chapters 11-14. If chapters 8-10 had to do with suppers where idol-meats were eaten, chapters 11-14 deal with the meeting of the church and its celebration of the Lord’s Table.

One could probably sum up the problems of the Corinthian Christians with one word: self. Seeking status for themselves, the Corinthians had divided into factions, each of which prided themselves on the status of their leader and the sophistication of his style. The Corinthians were into self-satisfaction so that all kinds of evils were practiced and tolerated. These included what appears to be incest in chapter 5 and immorality with prostitutes in chapter 6. These self-serving Corinthians were so into fulfilling their own desires that they fought for their rights in secular law courts, before unbelieving judges, and before the unbelieving world which looked on with wonder. Those who sought to correct the problem of rampant immorality did so by teaching the opposite extreme. They advocated the avoidance of marriage and of sex within marriage. These saints were so caught up in self-indulgence they did not have the discipline to say no to their fleshly lusts. They would eat idol-meats and even participate in their heathen idol worship ceremonies. They would insist on going to idol temples, even though this caused other Christians to stumble.

By and large, the self-indulgence Paul has exposed in chapters 1-10 has been outside the church. Now, at chapter 11, Paul turns to the evidences of self-seeking when the saints gathered as a church for worship and edification. Much of this self-seeking had some kind of spiritual label, which gave a semblance of spirituality. But it does not take a biblical scholar to conclude from Paul’s words in chapters 11-14 that it was mere selfism with a very thin spiritual veneer. The saints who gathered to observe the Lord’s Table did not wait for those who could only come late nor did they share their food with those in need. They indulged themselves so that they became drunk, and the celebration of the Lord’s Table was shamefully observed. When it came time for teaching and singing and edification, it seems as though every Corinthian, man or woman, was determined to speak or to perform, and much of their participation seems to be grandstanding. The sins formerly exposed outside the church meeting earlier in this first epistle of Paul’s to the Corinthians are now exposed in the context of the church meeting in chapters 11-14.

(2) Paul’s teaching here is consistent with his teaching elsewhere, with that of the Old Testament, the apostle Peter, and with the practice of our Lord. Too many professing Christians look down upon Paul and his teaching concerning women as though he were a hillbilly from the Ozarks, a narrow-minded chauvinist who sought to pass off his prejudices as apostolic instruction. Paul claims that his teaching and practice are consistent with the Old Testament “law” (14:34), and with his teaching and practice elsewhere (1:2; 4:14-17; 11:16; 14:34). Peter’s words in 1 Peter 3:1-6 mirror what Paul has written here and elsewhere.

There is little new or unique about Paul’s teaching on the roles of men and women except for one thing–the possibility that women might be able to pray or prophesy publicly in the church meeting. Nowhere else is this possibility mentioned, and so we must seek to explain Paul’s words in verse 4 in light of his teaching to the contrary everywhere else the subject of the woman’s role in ministry and worship is discussed. The wonder to me is how so many professing Christians can think of Paul’s words concerning women praying or prophesying in verse 4 as the rule, rather than as the exception.

(3) Paul’s words here concerning women and worship are not merely his own opinion but are his apostolic instruction, concluding in instructions from Paul which he calls the “Lord’s commandment” (14:37). It is amazing how many wish to be “Pauline” in their theology when it comes to justification by faith or the inspiration and authority of Scripture, but who suddenly look down upon Paul as a narrow-minded chauvinist when it comes to the role of women. We cannot pick and choose from Paul’s teaching. It is true that Paul does give his opinions elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, which are not binding on us (see 7:6-7, 25, 40). He clearly informs us when this is the case. But when Paul comes to the role of men and women and the principle of headship in our text, it is not opinion which he offers, but principles which culminate in clear-cut imperatives. If one is inclined to take Paul lightly here, let him remember Paul’s concluding words in chapter 14:

34 Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. 35 And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. 36 Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only? 37 If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. 38 But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 39 Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues. 40 But let all things be done properly and in an orderly manner (1 Corinthians 14:34-40).

(4) Paul’s teaching in this passage is not just restricted to the Corinthians living in that place and time; it is for all Christians. Those who cannot deny the clear teaching of the apostle, but who do not wish to abide by that teaching, find an escape by restricting Paul’s teaching on sexual roles to that time and place, and not our own. Paul is writing to the Corinthians, but in his introductory words in chapter 1, verse 2, Paul indicates he is writing to all the saints, to those “who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul repeatedly emphasizes the global nature of his instruction and its universal implications (see 4:16-17; 11:16; 14:34). Paul’s principles and precepts are therefore as much for our benefit as they were for the Corinthian saints so long ago.

Introductory Comments About Hermeneutics

Many of the errors made in interpreting this passage (and others) are the result of two problems: (1) preconceived notions as to what Paul can and cannot teach on the roles of men and women in the church; and (2) the use of an improper method of interpreting the Scriptures.125 The first error is the result of presuppositions (“My mind is already made up, so don’t confuse me with the facts.”), and the second has to do with hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is a fancy, five-dollar word for the science of interpretation. The text we are expounding is one of the most debated passages in the New Testament. Unbelievers reject Paul’s teaching here immediately. But believers too are very reluctant to take Paul’s words at face value. Some parts of this passage are simply hard to understand even though we desire to do so; others are hard to understand because we can see where Paul’s teaching is leading, and we do not really wish to go there. As we begin our study of chapter 11, I want you to know the guiding principles of interpretation I will seek to follow in this exposition.

(1) We must always interpret the “unclear” texts of Scripture in light of those which are “clear.” I must stress here that this principle of interpretation is held by virtually all conservative evangelical Christians, as well as others. The real question is: “Which texts are clear and which are unclear?” Too often our presuppositions prevail here, and we decide the “unclear” texts are those that teach something with which we disagree. The clear texts are those which appear to be proof texts for our own preferences. If we are honest, I think we would have to acknowledge that 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 is one of those passages which is unclear in some of its particulars. This is precisely why so many scholars have differed over its interpretation, even in those days when there was not strong cultural pressure to reject much of Paul’s teaching in this text.

(2) Paul’s teaching in this passage must be interpreted in light of Scripture and not in light of the culture of that day. A number of the commentaries assume we must understand, interpret, and apply Paul’s words in our text in light of the culture of his day. The simple fact is no one really knows the culture of that day that well. Furthermore, any number of cultures were represented in that cosmopolitan city, not just one. If the student of Scripture can only understand what he reads in light of the culture of that day and time, derived from some source other than Scripture, we are of all men most to be pitied. Historical background and cultural insight gained outside the Bible may be helpful and illustrative, but it is not crucial to interpreting and applying the Scriptures. If so, those jungle peoples who are given a copy of the Bible translated by Wycliffe missionaries cannot be expected to rely upon their Bibles alone, because they must have other facts to understand the message of any text.

I believe the Scriptures give us all the information we need to be able to read, understand, interpret, and apply any passage in the Bible. I am not advocating we ban or burn our Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias or that we cease archaeological excavations. I am simply saying that if all we have in our hands is a Bible, that is enough. A concordance can be of help, too. Enlightened by other texts and illuminated by the Holy Spirit, we can interpret and apply the Bible to ourselves and to our times.

(3) Chapters 11-14 are a unit, and every passage in this segment must be interpreted and applied as a part of this unit. Paul is a very logical thinker and writer. Paul is developing an argument for the entire book as each chapter unfolds. Each of the sub-sections (like chapters 8-10 and 11-14) also has an argument that is progressively developed. If we are to understand Paul’s teaching, we must do so by interpreting each portion in the light of the larger argument. Beyond this, if Paul’s epistles are the inspired Word of God, then what Paul teaches on the roles of men and women in ministry must be consistent with what he has written elsewhere in other epistles.

(4) We should interpret Paul’s words in chapter 11 (and elsewhere) in the light of Paul’s style of developing his argument. In the most general terms, the first 16 verses of 1 Corinthians 11 are Paul’s “introduction,” and the final verses of chapter 14 are the “conclusion” to his teaching on the conduct of men and women in the church meeting. One would hardly do justice to Paul’s argument by drawing too many conclusions from Paul’s introduction, and yet this is precisely what happens. Let Paul merely mention the possibility of a woman praying or prophesying in church, and many are willing to conclude that this is acceptable, even though Paul prohibits women to speak in the church meeting (even to ask a question) in chapter 14. Let introductions be introductions, and let Paul’s conclusions be our conclusions.

Having made these introductory comments, we need to understand the unique way in which Paul deals with the Corinthian problems. We need to understand the way Paul develops his arguments so we can interpret his teaching clearly. I am suggesting we now apply what we should have already learned about the way Paul develops his argument in 1 Corinthians 1-10, so that we can rightly discern his argument in chapters 11-14.

Paul does not deal with the Corinthian errors head-on as he does the heresy he confronts in his Epistle to the Galatians. In chapter 7, Paul begins with a statement that would have been on the lips of some of the ascetics in the church: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (verse 1). It would seem, on the face of it, that Paul is agreeing with the ascetics by referring to the celibate lifestyle as ideal. But as he develops his argument, we can see that marital sex is, for some, a preventative for immorality, and abstinence (in marriage) a cause of immorality. While the ascetics seem to have prohibited sex and marriage altogether (see 1 Timothy 4:1-3), Paul does not prohibit marriage and sexual intimacy in marriage. He does, however, encourage those who are single to consider the single and celibate lifestyle in order to serve the Lord without distraction (7:25-35).

In chapter 8, Paul appears to accept the position and practice of some Corinthians, who not only ate meats offered to idols but did so in a pagan idol worship ceremony (8:10). These idol-meat eaters not only indulged themselves in this meal, they did so knowing they would be a stumbling block to weaker brothers in so doing. And all the while these idol-meat eaters thought they were “strong” and more “spiritual” than those who refrained from such meats. By the time we reach the end of chapter 10, Paul has brought the whole matter to its conclusion, forbidding any believer to act in a way that hindered another, that became a sharer in demonic things, and which was contrary to the glory of God and the proclamation of the gospel. The appearance of chapter 8 (that idol-meat eating is permissible, and even preferable, for the Christian) is blown away by the reality of chapter 10. No one would think of casting aside the apostolic command not to eat idol-meats (Acts 15:28-29; 1 Corinthians 10:14-22) by claiming that Paul’s words in chapter 8 contradicted this command. And, likewise, no one should dare to cast aside clear apostolic commands to women based upon the fact that Paul speaks of the hypothetical possibility that a woman might pray or prophesy with her head uncovered. Paul’s conclusions on such matters are clearly recorded in his conclusion of chapter 14.

(5) The commands of Scripture always take precedence over our inferences drawn from the Scriptures (see Matthew 28:20; 1 Corinthians 4:6; 2 Corinthians 10:5). In Matthew 23, Jesus accused the scribes and Pharisees of “straining gnats and swallowing camels”; that is, they were knit pickers on little trivial details while they missed the main point of it all. The number one “camel” for me is a command from God. After all, the whole law was first summed up by Ten Commandments and then by just two. When Jesus commands me to love my enemy, my task is not to try to reason my way out of it, but to do it. No matter how many “justifications” I find in the Bible for not taking this command seriously, the command stands, and I obey or disobey. The first command which was given to Adam and Eve did not make sense to Eve, and both she and her husband disobeyed. No set of reasons was an adequate excuse. I am not saying there is never any exception to any command, but I am saying I must take commands most seriously of all. Paul put it this way:

4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. 5 We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, 6 and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete (2 Corinthians 10:4-6).

To somewhat paraphrase what I understand Paul to be saying, we are in a spiritual conflict, and one of our chief weapons is the Word of God (the sword of the Spirit). While we can reason our way to nearly any conclusion (sprinkling that conclusion with an ample portion of biblical references), we are to take every thought, every doctrine, every theory, and subject it to Christ, specifically to obeying Christ’s commands. Jesus’ great final command is about obedience to His commands:

18 And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, emphasis mine).

If my reasoning and exegesis bring me to the point where I must choose to follow my reasoning (and thus disobey Christ’s command), or to obey Christ’s command, I should have little doubt as to which prevails.

Notice then that there are no commands in verses 1-6. The commands will be found later in chapters 11-14, with Paul’s final words in chapter 14 packed with them. Commands are the bottom line of Scripture, and Paul will not get to the bottom line in this introductory text in 11:1-16, but in chapters 13 and 14.

As we shall soon seek to demonstrate, those efforts to interpret our text in light of the culture of Corinth are destined to fail. Not one of Paul’s arguments is based upon the culture of his day, but upon the principles and traditions laid down by the holy prophets, including Paul.

An Invitation to Imitation
(11:1)

1 Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.

Paul has already given the Corinthians much to imitate. In the immediately preceding context, Paul calls on everyone to willingly surrender any right or liberty which does not edify (10:23), and specifically he claims that he seeks to please all men in all things, refraining from seeking his own profit in order to pursue that which is profitable to others (10:33). Here is something worth imitating, but there is yet more to come. In chapter 11, Paul will praise the Corinthians for remembering him in everything. They are to imitate and to obey Paul by following those things he teaches and practices in regard to the church (see also 4:14-17).

Unexpected Praise
(11:2)

2 Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.

We must admit that praise is not something we expect from Paul when writing to the Corinthians. After all, they are doing so many things wrong! Yet, in spite of this, Paul starts off in a very positive manner, commending the Corinthians for remembering him in everything and by holding firmly to the traditions which he taught them. Just what are these traditions? Some commentators believe we cannot know what they were. I think the Bible gives us a pretty clear idea as to what some of these were. Consider the following texts in which these same terms, “tradition” or “traditions,”126 are employed:

15 So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

6 Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep aloof from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us (2 Thessalonians 3:6).

The verb form of this word is frequently found in the New Testament, and it is informative as well:

4 Now while they were passing through the cities, they were delivering the decrees, which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them to observe (Acts 16:4).

2 Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you (1 Corinthians 11:2).

23 For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread (1 Corinthians 11:23).

3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3).

21 For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment delivered to them (2 Peter 2:21).

What are the “traditions” Paul delivered to these Corinthians which they remember and persistently observe? They are the inspired, apostolic instructions, which were handed down to the churches regarding doctrine and practice. The traditions are the gospel message and the commandments which accompany it. In the context of chapter 11, the “traditions” are the head covering of women, the observance of communion, and the regular meeting of the church, all of which are discussed in chapters 11-14.

The Guiding Principle
(11:3)

3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.

The “but” of verse 3 is significant. Paul did sincerely praise the Corinthians for remembering him in all things by keeping the traditions he had given them. They were going through the right rituals and practices, and this was commendable. But they were not doing so in the right spirit; they did not keep the traditions with an understanding mind, with a firm grasp of why they were doing what they were so faithfully doing. And so Paul sets out to remind them of a principle which gives meaning to the traditions they were so faithfully observing. That principle is the principle of headship. In verse 3, Paul applies the principle of headship to three relationships: (1) God the Father and Jesus Christ, the Son; (2) Jesus Christ and all mankind; and, (3) the man as the head of a woman.

Before we look at these three examples of headship, let us first pause to reflect upon what headship means. I will restrict the meanings of the term “head” to those which can be found in the Scriptures. To begin, let me summarize the scope of the meaning of this term “head”:

(1) To be the “head” is to be the source. We speak of the “headwaters” of a river, and we mean the place where the river begins, its source.

(2) To be the “head” is to be the one with ultimate authority. The head man is the man in charge, the man with final authority. The head waiter or the head of the household is the one in charge.

(3) To be the “head” is to be preeminent above others. To be preeminent is to get the glory. To be the head is to be the one who is most prominent, the one who has the preeminence. Anyone knows that in an organization, the underlings dare not upstage the one in charge, the head of the organization.

Christ is the head of the church because He brought it into existence. He is the head of the church because He sustains the church. He is the head because the church serves Him. He is the head in that He is preeminent in the church and in all creation. Paul includes all these elements in his Epistle to the Colossians:

16 For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created by Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. 18 He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything (Colossians 1:16-18).

The man, Paul writes, is the head of a woman. Paul does not say men are the head of women, but he speaks of a one-to-one between a certain man and a woman. In effect, Paul is saying that the husband is the head of his wife (Ephesians 5:23). The expression, “the man” singles out one man, and then states that he is the head of “a woman,” a particular woman, namely, his wife. I believe the reason Paul states the principle in more general terms is because both in the creation of Adam and Eve, and in their fall and the curses, Adam and Eve both represent mankind as a whole; Adam represents both husbands and males, while Eve represents both females and wives. No woman, married or not, is to exercise headship over men. On the other hand, a particular man should be careful about taking headship too far, as though all women were subject to him. You will recall that Paul instructs wives to be subject “to their own husbands,” and not to men in general. In the church meeting, however, I believe that men are to exercise headship in the church (see 1 Timothy 2:8-15).

Finally, God is the head of our Lord Jesus Christ. When Satan tempted our Lord, he sought to persuade Him to act independently of His Father (see Matthew 4:1-11). Jesus repeatedly emphasized that He was not acting independently of the Father, but that He was doing the will of the Father (John 5:19, 30). Everything our Lord claimed as His own was that which He had been granted by His Father (Luke 10:22, 29; John 5:26-27; 6:27; Revelation 2:27). It was the Father’s will that the Son die on the cross of Calvary, and the Son of God submitted to the Father in His incarnation and in His atoning death (see Matthew 26:39; Acts 2:23; Philippians 2:8). In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul indicates that after all of the enemies of our Lord have been defeated (the last being death), then the Lord Jesus will hand over authority and dominion to the Father:

25 For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. 26 The last enemy that will be abolished is death. 27 For He has put all things in subjection under His feet. But when He says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is evident that He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him. 28 And when all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, that God may be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:25-28).

Conclusion

While we have only made our way through the first three verses of chapter 11, we have already come to the “camel” of this chapter. For many, verses 4-6 are the focal point for their study, because it is here that some find a proof text for women exercising leadership in the meeting of the church. But the structure of this chapter should indicate that verse 3 lays the foundational principle (the “camel,” as it were), and verses 4-16 deal with the “gnats.” I do not mean to say these “gnats” are unimportant; I simply mean that verse 3 contains the guiding principle which governs all of the particulars, such as head coverings.

To those who would major on the minors by ignoring verse 3 and rushing on to verses 4-6, I would say you have failed to let Paul’s reasoning guide your own. And to those who throw their hands up in despair, so perplexed by verses 4-16 that they doubt anyone can ever understand them, do not miss what is patently clear here because of what is not clear. The principle of headship is the “camel” of chapter 11. It is clear, and it guides us in dealing with the particulars of verses 4-16. Even though we may not all agree on these later verses as to their meaning and their application, let us all agree on the principle.

The principle of headship is a unifying principle. It explains and encompasses all of the particular instructions Paul and Peter give to men and women regarding their dress, demeanor, and deeds in the church meeting. Let me illustrate. In 1 Timothy 2, Paul implies that women should not pray publicly, and he clearly forbids women to teach or to exercise authority over men in the church gathering. He also instructs women about their dress. They are to dress modestly and to avoid certain elaborate hair styles or jewelry.

The principle of headship makes sense of all these instructions. Paul forbids public teaching and leadership over men because men are to exercise headship, and thus men are to be those who exercise authority over the church. For a woman to teach or to lead the church is to usurp that headship which has been delegated to men. But what does a woman’s dress have to do with headship? Everything. Headship is not just about authority, but about preeminence—glory. A woman does not need to speak to have preeminence. All she needs to do is to dress in a way that is striking, that draws attention to her “assets.” In Paul’s day, it would seem that very little of a woman was exposed other than her head, and thus Paul and Peter warn about fancy hair styles and jewelry because these accentuated the woman’s beauty with reference to her head. In our day, there is much more to be seen by all, and in accentuating these the woman can attract attention to herself and thus gain preeminence. If everyone’s eyes turn to a woman as she enters the room, it is likely she has done something to attract that attention. So it is not just by a woman’s silence, but by her spirit and by her attire that she submits to the headship of her husband, and of her Lord.

The principle of headship guides us in our application of particular commands. Throughout the Scriptures, pleasing God is not just a matter of “keeping the rules” but of obeying God’s commandments in the light of His principles. Thus, the scribes and Pharisees received a rebuke from our Lord for their meticulous obedience in regard to some commands, but in a way that neglected “the weightier provisions of the law, [the principles of] justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). This is what our Lord was seeking to show in His teaching of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The scribes and Pharisees were into the rules but had lost the reasons, and thus they were willing to obey only the letter of the law and not the spirit of the law. When the scribes and Pharisees accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath by healing, Jesus pointed out the principle that the Sabbath was for man’s benefit and not man for the Sabbath. Jesus did not violate the spirit of the law by healing on the Sabbath. The psalmist of 119 exemplifies the right spirit, for he diligently seeks to discover the reasons behind the rules. We should do likewise. The principle of headship is the reason behind the rules which Paul and Peter set down regarding the ministry of men and women in the church.

There are few diseases as deadly as the disease of legalism. This disease occurs when we dutifully observe the rules as mere traditions but forget the principles, the reasons, which lie behind them. This obviously happened to the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. It seems to have been happening to the Corinthian saints of Paul’s day, which necessitated these chapters (11-14) we are studying. And reluctant though I am to admit it, this legalism also is evident in us today. When we “follow the rules” (the “gnats”) but forget the “reasons” (the principles, the “camels”), we have become legalists, and we must repent. The principle of headship should put many of our practices in a whole new light.

The teaching of Paul on headship is most interesting when considered in the light of his previous instruction concerning idolatry in chapters 8-10. Idolatry is man seeking to reshape God into an image with which man is familiar and comfortable and over which man has control. Biblical Christianity is exactly the opposite. Christianity is about God reshaping man into His image:

17 Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. 18 But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).

11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13).

God is shaping us into conformity with His image, and this is so that we may reflect His glory to both men and angels (1 Peter 2:9; 1 Corinthians 11:10; Ephesians 3:8-11). If our duty and privilege is to reflect God as He is to men, then obedience to His commandments and instructions related to His headship is no small matter. To ignore, disregard, or disobey His Word in the matters about which Paul is writing is to distort the image of God; it is another form of idolatry.

Our submission to His headship by understanding and obeying His instructions regarding the proper functions of men and women in the church is vitally important in yet another way. Submission to the headship of our Lord is not just an issue, not even just an important issue; submission to our Lord’s headship is the ultimate issue. It was the issue when Satan rebelled against the headship of God (Isaiah 14:12-14; Ezekiel 28:11-15). It was the issue when Satan orchestrated the rebellion of Adam and Eve against God’s headship. It was also a mechanism of the fall, because Eve rebelled against Adam’s headship. When Satan tempted our Lord, he sought to entice Him to act independently of His Father and thus to rebel against His headship.

The establishment of the kingdom of God is about our Lord’s headship, about our Lord’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven (see Matthew 6:10; 1 Corinthians 15:20-28). It is an inexplicable part of the gospel which the apostles preached (see Acts 2:14-40). Sad to say, it is often excluded from the gospel we preach and apparently from the “gospel” which the Corinthians preached. The gospel is not the message of a weak and powerless God, who needs our cooperation and who desperately pleads for our obedience. The gospel is the announcement that Jesus Christ is God’s Messiah, the King. It is our duty to fall before Him in humble worship and obedience. When we preach the gospel, it must be as an ambassador who represents the One who is the “head of every man.” This headship of Christ includes all mankind, believers and unbelievers. Those who do not submit to His headship now must ultimately do so when He comes to subdue His enemies:

32 “This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses. 33 Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear. 34 For it was not David who ascended into heaven, but he himself says:

‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at My right hand,
35 Until I make Thine enemies a footstool for Thy feet.”’
36 “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:32-36).

5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).

The question is not if you will submit to our Lord’s headship and bow the knee to Him, but when and how. You may submit to His headship now by trusting in Jesus Christ as God’s Messiah, as the King of Israel, who took your sins upon Himself, who suffered and died in your place, and who was raised from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father. You may gratefully and joyfully submit to His headship as a child of God, reborn through faith in His Son. Or, you may reject His headship now, only to reluctantly bow the knee to Him when He returns as your adversary, when He comes to punish His enemies. He is Lord of all, a fact which brings comfort and joy to every believer, and one which will strike terror into His enemies.

May each of us submit to His headship by trusting in Jesus Christ alone for our salvation. And may each of us who has trusted in Jesus Christ as our “Head” submit to His headship by practicing the principle of headship through the roles which He has assigned to us.


125 Or it may be improperly using a proper method of interpreting the Scriptures. I would be using the wrong tool if I attempted to tighten the wheel lugs on my car with a pair of pliers. I would be misusing the right tool if I used a torque wrench, but set it at twice the suggested number of foot pounds, thus breaking the wheel stud.

126 The verb form of this term is often used to refer to the betrayal of our Lord. In the Gospels, traditions are the dearly held beliefs of the Jews, which they hold in opposition to the Scriptures. Paul also used this term in the same negative sense (Galatians 1:14).

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Passage: 

21. Headship and Head Coverings (1 Cor. 11:3-16)

Introduction

When I was actively involved in prison ministry a few years ago, a seminar in which I participated was held in a large maximum security Texas prison. Approximately 200 men had assembled in the chapel where we met. Chapel gatherings are considered potentially dangerous because prisoners are carefully segregated so particular inmates are not able to have contact with certain other inmates. Old grudges had unfortunately been settled in or around the chapel, as just one year earlier one inmate had been murdered at the entrance to the very chapel where we were meeting. Because it is important to distinguish the guards from the inmates by their appearance, the inmates in the Texas prison system wear white. The guards uniforms are a contrasting color, clearly distinguishing them from the inmates. When outsiders visit a prison, we are asked to be careful not to wear the same color as the inmates. During one of the services, I took off my coat and sat down with the inmates in the center of the chapel. Ed Williamson, then State Director of Prison Fellowship, noticed I was nowhere in sight and began looking around the chapel to identify me. Since I had taken off my coat, I no longer looked different from the other inmates. In my white shirt, I was lost in a sea of other white uniforms. I simply did not look any different from anyone else. Distinctions can be very important.

Our God is a God of distinctions. This is apparent at the very outset of the Bible. Until now, I have never really appreciated that the first 19 verses of Genesis 1 are about divine distinctions or separations.

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

6 And God said, “Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water.” 7 So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. 8 God called the expanse “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day. 9 And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.

11 Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. 12 The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening, and there was morning— the third day.

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made two great lights— the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. 17 God set them in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth, 18 to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day (Genesis 1:1-19, NIV, emphasis mine)

The account of Genesis 1:1-19 is not one in which God calls the creation into existence, out of nothing, but one in which He takes a formless, chaotic mass and transforms it into something beautiful and good in His sight.127 God brought about our world by separating one thing from another. He separated day and night, light and darkness (vss. 3-5). He separated the waters so that there is a water-laden atmosphere above and also the seas below (verses 6-10). God further distinguished between the land and the seas (verse 10). He distinguished between the different varieties of vegetation and of animals (verses 11-13). He distinguished times (days, years) and seasons (verse 14-15). From the very beginning, God made Himself known as a distinguishing God.

The Old Testament Law continued to emphasize this dimension of God’s nature as a distinguishing God.

19 “‘You are to keep My statutes. You shall not breed together two kinds of your cattle; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor wear a garment upon you of two kinds of material mixed together’” (Leviticus 19:19)

5 “A woman shall not wear man’s clothing, nor shall a man put on a woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God.” … 9 “You shall not sow your vineyard with two kinds of seed, lest all the produce of the seed which you have sown, and the increase of the vineyard become defiled. 10 You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together. 11 You shall not wear a material mixed of wool and linen together” (Deuteronomy 22:9-11).

The Israelites were not to cross breed different kinds of cattle or crops (Leviticus 19:19; Deuteronomy 22:9). They could not plow with two types of animals harnessed (unequally yoked) together (22:10). They were not to wear garments made of materials that contained mixed fibers (Deuteronomy 22:9, 11). Women were distinguished from men in a number of ways. The sign of the covenant with Abraham (circumcision) was restricted, by design, to men (see Genesis 17:9-14). A woman who bore a girl child was unclean for 14 days, while a woman who bore a male child was unclean for only seven days (Leviticus 12). Women were not to wear a man’s clothing nor were men to dress like a woman (Deuteronomy 22:5). God distinguished the “clean” from the “unclean,” making yet another set of distinctions which the Israelites must observe. In the Exodus, God distinguished the Israelites from the Egyptians and Himself from all other “gods.” God purposed to keep many things separate, and He employed the Law to communicate what things God had separated that men must not join together.

Our text in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 is really about a particular distinction God has prescribed, which we are obliged to maintain—the distinction between men and women. In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, this divinely ordained distinction between men and women is to be maintained in a very specific way. At certain times, the woman is to have her head covered, while the man is to have his head uncovered. This distinction is important to God, and to Paul, and thus it should be important to us as well. I believe this distinction is to be observed today, most likely in the very same way Paul instructed the Corinthians to observe it in his day. If you think these words have little to do with Christians today, I must warn you this is not the case. Let us listen carefully to what the Spirit of God has to say to Christians today about maintaining male-female distinctions.

Preliminary Comments

We must always be careful to “handle accurately the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). This text requires us to be especially careful. As we begin this study, a few introductory comments should help to explain why caution is required:

(1) No one should dare to claim they have this passage fully under control. I have taught this text before, and I have changed my mind on some of the particulars. Nearly 20 years ago, I preached on this text in the meeting of the church shortly after we began to meet as a church. I can remember passionately concluding that this text teaches that women should cover their heads when they come to worship. Up to that time, a small handful of women did cover their heads during our worship. I was somewhat more than casually interested to see how many more women would come with heads covered the next week. To my surprise, not one woman came with her head covered the next Sunday who had not already been doing so. One of the brothers asked me about this, perhaps thinking the elders would take some action to require women to wear head coverings. I told him that if any conclusion were to be drawn from the lack of response to my message, it probably would have more to do with how convincing my sermon was than with how spiritual (or unspiritual) the women were.

I must warn you, though; I am going to try again. And, to be honest, I am going to teach this text a little differently than I have in the past. Because this text presents us with a number of difficulties, we should be very cautious about making it a proof text for views which are contradicted elsewhere in the Scriptures. As we shall see, this passage need not be understood in a way that contradicts or changes anything either Paul or Peter have taught elsewhere on the relationship between men and women in the church.

(2) I think we all should be honest enough to admit that while we may not dare claim that we have this text completely under control, neither are we completely objective when we seek to interpret and apply it. We all have our biases, and they may show here. Not only do we have our own individual biases concerning the issues Paul raises here, but our culture is vehemently opposed to any teaching which distinguishes between the roles men and women may play in ministry and in worship. No wonder so few are willing to face this text squarely.

(3) The topic of head coverings must not be one of the fundamentals of the faith as it is only mentioned once, but it is important because it is a matter of obedience, it is symbolic of submission to male headship, and it can be a source of contention and division (verse 16). A number of other texts teach on the relationship between men and women, on headship and submission, but this is the only text in which one of the apostles seems to require women to wear a head covering. If this is the only text about head coverings, it would probably be unwise to look upon head coverings as a fundamental of the faith, something which determines one’s salvation or spirituality. But because it is a command from the pen of the inspired apostle, and an issue which can divide the saints, it is important. It may not be a “camel,” but it is a fairly good sized “gnat” we dare not ignore.

(4) The matter of head coverings is one over which diversity is evident in our church. There are some women in our church who, out of a sincere desire to obey the teaching of this text, cover their heads during the worship service. Whether or not we agree with them, we should respect their convictions and their courage to live by them. I do not know of any who wish to draw attention to themselves or who think themselves holier than others. There are a good number of women in our church who do not cover their heads. Some may not do so because they have never thought (or been taught) about head coverings. It is my belief that most of those who do not cover their heads do not do so because they are not convinced the Scriptures require them to do so. I respect those who do not simply follow others, but act in accordance with their own convictions. If there are any who refuse out of rebellion (as there could be in our times), I do not know of them.

My teaching may not necessarily reflect the views of all the elders of our church nor should what I am teaching be regarded as a requirement laid down by the elders for women in our worship. There will be no “veil police” in the foyer next week to check for compliance on my conclusions. In truth, I hope no woman will act on this text until she is “fully convinced in her own mind.” I would rather have each individual study this matter carefully, think and meditate on it, and then come to a firm conviction. And then, do what you believe God requires of you. I would hope that any woman who decides to wear a head covering does so because she has been a “Berean Christian” and searched the Scriptures and her own heart on this matter. I will tell you I have reached some fairly strong convictions on this matter. I am not as clear on all the particulars of the application of Paul’s teaching.

For all of us, the first question should be, “What does the Bible instruct me to do?” The second question is, “Will I do it?” The order of these two questions should probably be reversed. We must first be willing to do whatever the Bible teaches us. When we have a willing heart which seeks to please God, we will be more clear-eyed as to what the Bible does require of us. Many who “can’t see it” are those who would not do it if they could see it. Let us all approach these important verses with a heart that is willing to obey.

29 “’Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me, and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever!’” (Deuteronomy 5:29)

33 Teach me, O Lord, the way of Thy statutes, And I shall observe it to the end. 34 Give me understanding, that I may observe Thy law, And keep it with all my heart (Psalm 119:33-34).

16 Jesus therefore answered them, and said, “My teaching is not Mine, but His who sent Me. 17 If any man is willing to do His will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it is of God, or whether I speak from Myself” (John 7:16-17).

To help us with our study, I have set out the structure of the passage on the following page.

The Structure of the Passage

Introduction (vss. 1-2)

1 Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. 2 Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.

The principle of headship (verse 3) and its immediate application (vss. 4-5)

3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. 4 Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying, disgraces his head. 5 But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying, disgraces her head; for she is one and the same with her whose head is shaved.

The practice of head covering defended, in the light of the principle of headship (vss. 6-10)

6 For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. 7 For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 8 For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; 9 for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. 10 Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.

  • Keeping your head when it comes to headship—let’s not go too far (vss. 11-12)

11 However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God.

  • Head covering defended from a more human perspective (vss. 13-15)

13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with head uncovered? 14 Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering.

  • The last word, for those who would debate this matter— there are no exceptions (vs. 16)

16 But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God.

Headship and Head Covering
(11:3-5)

3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. 4 Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying,128 disgraces his head. 5 But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying, disgraces her head; for she is one and the same with her whose head is shaved.

In verse 3, Paul has highlighted the principle of headship in three dimensions: (1) the headship of Christ over every man; (2) the headship of the man over a woman, and (3) the headship of God the Father over Jesus Christ. Verses 4 and 5 move us from the principle of headship to its practical implications. The underlying assumption of the apostle in our text is that a head covering is the required symbol of a woman’s submission to the headship of her man. Since the man is to symbolize the headship of Christ, he is not to have his head covered when he prays or prophesies. So in verse 4, Paul writes that if a man were to pray or prophesy with his head covered, he would symbolically deny Christ’s headship over men, which the man is to reflect in his spiritual acts of worship conducted with an uncovered head, whether in the church gathering or elsewhere. Thus, to pray or prophesy with a covered head is to bring shame upon Christ, his Head.129 The woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered does not distinguish herself as a woman, but acts as a man would. She thereby symbolically claims headship in her activities, dishonoring her “head,” the man in authority over her.130

The Principle of Headship Demonstrated
The Practice of Head Covering Demanded
(11:6-10)

6 For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. 7 For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 8 For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; 9 for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. 10 Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.

Paul clearly senses the need to make his point, and make it he does. Even those who would debate the issue of head covering must admit that Paul has done his homework. Verses 6, 7, 8, and 9 all begin with the word “for,” indicating that each verse supplies us with another line of proof of the need for women to wear a head covering. Verse 6 argues from the premise that it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut off. Some feel that this premise (i.e., it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut off) can be demonstrated from the culture of Paul’s day.131 And, we can see that it is true today as well, with a handful of bizarre contradictions from the entertainment world. Women who have lost their hair due to chemotherapy do not take long to buy themselves a wig. On the other hand, most men and women take male baldness in stride.

The humiliation of cutting off one’s hair can be easily documented in the Old Testament Scriptures. When the ancients wished to shame an individual, they would remove some or all of his beard and/or hair (2 Samuel 10:4-5; Isaiah 7:20; 15:2; 50:6). When men wished to symbolize humiliation and defeat, they cut off their own hair (Jeremiah 48:37; Ezekiel 27:31; 29:18; Micah 1:16). Thus, anyone who reads the Old Testament would understand that shaving off the hair was a disgrace. If some women in Corinth were brazen enough to refuse to wear a head covering, let them play out their rebellion and shame to the full. Let them not only pray or prophesy with an uncovered head, let them also cut off all their hair, as a token of defeat and shame. If, on the other hand, a woman recognized that shaving the head was a disgrace, let her also recognize that having an uncovered head was shameful, and so let her cover her head.

In verses 7, 8, and 9, Paul gives us three reasons the woman’s head should be covered, all of which establish another basis for the headship of the man over a woman. In verse 7, Paul claims that it is the man who is to have his head uncovered, since he has been divinely ordained and commissioned to reflect the image and glory of God by exercising headship (by his leadership and prominence).132 The woman, on the other hand, is the glory of the man. The woman’s function and high calling is to seek to bring glory to her husband; the man’s function and high calling is to seek to bring glory to God.

Does this seem unfair and unjust? Does it appear, as some maintain, to demean the woman? Then perhaps we need to remind ourselves of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit is subject to the Son. He does what the Son desires, and He seeks to glorify the Son, not Himself (see John 16:13-15). The Son does nothing on His own initiative, but seeks to bring glory to the Father (see John 5:18-33; 8:38, 49-50; 10:25; 17:1, 24-26). There is no inequality in the Godhead. The Son and the Spirit, though subordinate in their roles, are equal in their essence. Their delight is to bring glory to their Head. We are called to imitate them in delighting to bring glory to the one to whom we are subject, in obedience to God’s command.

In verses 8 and 9, Paul turns back the pages of history, going to the creation of man in the garden of Eden. It was the man, Adam, who was the source of Eve’s life. Eve was bone of Adam’s bone, and flesh of Adam’s flesh, because she was fashioned from a portion of his body. One dimension of headship is that the “head” is the source of that over which he has headship. It was Adam whom God designated to exercise headship over Eve, and thus it is the man whom God has instructed to function as the head of the woman. And, while on the subject of creation, Paul presses on to remind us that Eve was created for Adam’s benefit. He was not created for the benefit of Eve, but Eve was created for Adam. Once again, Paul points to the origin of mankind to defend the principle of male headship and the practice of head covering by women.

In verse 10, Paul reiterates the necessity of the woman’s head being covered, representing it as the appropriate response of women to male headship which he has just documented in verses 6-9. Submission to male headship requires a head covering for the woman, just as the expression of headship obligates the man to have no head covering.

The last phrase of verse 10 comes like a bolt out of the blue. Unexpectedly, Paul adds yet another reason why women should cover their heads “with [a symbol of] authoritythe angels: “Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.” The angels? What does a woman’s head covering have to do with the angels? Paul does not tell us. He expects us to be able to figure it out. Let us set our minds to understanding what Paul expects every Christian to grasp. First, we know that what God is doing on earth is a part of His plan to display His glory to the celestial beings:

8 Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. 10 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 3:8-10).

The angels, fallen or unfallen, are not only watching what is taking place on earth, they are actively involved (see Job 1 and 2; Daniel 10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-3; Ephesians 6:12; 1 Timothy 4:1-3; Hebrews 13:1-2; 1 Peter 1:10-12). In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul has informed those who would partake of idol-meats while eating in a pagan idol temple that they are sitting at the table of demons. The angelic powers are very much involved in the affairs of this world.

Some have suggested (on the basis of texts like Genesis 6:1-4) that angels have taken on human form and have entered into sexual unions with women. They think the reason Paul instructs the women to have a head covering is so angels will not be tempted to repeat this sin. We know Satan is a fallen angel and that his demonic force is made up of fallen angels (see Isaiah 14:12-14; Ezekiel 28:12-15; Matthew 25:41; 2 Peter 2:4; Revelation 12:9). So far as I can tell, it is still possible for angels to fall (Revelation 12:4?). If this is the case, the angels would do well to watch women submit to the headship of their man, just as the angels must submit to God. Since the celestial beings are witnesses to and participants in the outworking of God’s marvelous plan on earth (Daniel 10; Ephesians 3:8-10; 6:12; 1 Peter 1:10-12) what we do, even when it appears to be in private, is of great cosmic importance.

Some have made a point of the fact that Paul uses the word “authority” in verse 10 and not the word “submission.” Why did Paul not say, “Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of submission”, instead of, “Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority”? F. F. Bruce really reaches when he writes,

Here, as elsewhere in this letter, ‘authority’ is probably to be understood in an active sense: the veil is not a sign of the woman’s submission to her husband’s authority … nor even of her social dignity … and immunity from molestation … ; it is a sign of her authority. In the synagogue service a woman could play no significant part: her presence would not even suffice to make up the requisite quorum of ten (all ten must be males). In Christ she received equality of status with man; she might pray or prophesy at meetings of the church, and her veil was a sign of this new authority … .133

It seems impossible to reach this conclusion from the evidence of the text. First, this passage is about the headship of the man over a woman and its implications for Christian men and women. Authority is not the only dimension of headship, but it is a prominent one, and here it is clearly the man who is in authority, not the woman. Further, the head covering must be used consistently as a symbol. The absence of the head covering symbolizes the authority of the one whose head is not covered. This is why it is shameful for a woman to have her head uncovered. The presence of a head covering is a symbol of submission, of being under authority, and thus it is appropriate for the woman but not for the man. How then can Bruce change the symbolism of the head covering to represent authority, rather than submission to authority?

Although I strongly differ with Bruce’s conclusion, there is at least an element of truth in his position, one which I believe is implied in this text and more clearly taught elsewhere. It is only when we are under the authority of our “head” that we have authority. Jesus had great authority, and yet He constantly acknowledged that He was under the authority of His Father. The centurion said to Jesus, “I, too, am a man under authority” (Matthew 8:9). He understood that our Lord’s authority came from being under authority. In this sense, it is the woman’s submission to the headship of her man which gives her authority.

Don’t Lose Your Head Over Headship
(11:11-12)

11 However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God.

Every truth is capable of being perverted, in principle or in practice. Paul wants to be very careful that his teaching on headship does not give the men in the church a big head. Nowhere has Paul indicated that men are to exercise headship because they are stronger, smarter, more spiritual, or better leaders than their wives. We husbands are the head of our wives because of creation and the teaching of Scripture. Our headship is symbolic and not due to our superiority. Men should not feel either smugly superior or independent of134 women. Because of the unique characteristics of each, men and women are, so to speak, co-dependent upon each other. Have you ever seen a child born by the action of just one parent? Eve was brought forth from Adam, it is true, but from that time on, each of us has been brought into this world through a woman. While men are to initiate, to lead, to provide and protect their wives as their head (see Ephesians 5:22-33), they are never to forget that ultimately all things come from God. Headship should humble us, not cause us to become puffed up with pride.

Further Proof for Head Coverings
(11:13-16)

13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray135 to God with head uncovered? 14 Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him,136 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God.

When women worship without a head covering, it is shameful because it is one of the practical applications of the principle of headship (11:3-5). Women who worship with uncovered heads are not far removed from those whose heads are shaved, and this is clearly shameful (11:6). A man symbolizes his headship role by worshiping with his head uncovered because he is the image and glory of God, while a woman must have her head covered because she is the glory of man (11:7). Because Adam was the source of Eve, men are divinely assigned the role of headship over their women (11:8).137 And because Eve (woman)138 was created for Adam’s (man’s) sake, it is evident that man is the head of a woman (11:9). The submission of the woman to her man is also a lesson to the angels (11:10).

Now to these reasons already stated by Paul, he adds his closing arguments in verses 13-16. The previous arguments Paul has presented in favor of head coverings are what we might call “external evidences.” These are arguments based largely upon biblical precedent. Now Paul asks his readers to simply look within themselves and to admit that head covering is a “natural”139 conclusion.140

Paul appeals to his readers in a way that we might paraphrase like this: “Be honest, now, don’t you think it improper when a woman prays with her head uncovered?” We should think it improper if we thought rightly about it. Looking about, one may say that throughout history the norm has been for men to have shorter hair than women. “‘In the sculptures of the catacombs the women have a close-fitting head-dress, while the men have the hair short’ (Vincent).”141 There are those exceptions, but they are exceptional. Normally, women can be distinguished from men by the fact that they have longer hair, while men have shorter hair. Paul presses the matter: “Doesn’t this tell you something?” It indicates that if hair already serves as a covering for the woman, something hanging down from the head, that a head covering is proper for the woman, too. The reverse is also true, though not stated. Since men do not normally have their hair serving as a covering, this must tell us that men do not need a head covering, even though women do.

There are those who argue that a woman’s long hair serves as the only covering she requires. The Greek preposition anti more often conveys the idea of substitution, but not always. Here, Paul is saying that her hair serves as a covering,142 which is further evidence for the fact that a head covering is appropriate.143 Paul can hardly mean that a woman’s long hair serves as a substitute for a head covering. Paul’s words in verse 6 simply do not allow it: “For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head.” Far from saying that since the woman has her hair for a covering, she needs no other covering, Paul argues that if she will not cover her head, she might as well shave off the hair so that now she has no covering at all! Furthermore, since long hair serves as a natural covering for all women, the submission of a godly woman is hardly evidenced by being just like every other woman. The voluntarily worn head covering sets the submissive woman apart from all the rest.144 Finally, if a woman’s long hair is her glory, and the woman’s calling and intent is to bring glory to her husband, she veils her head so that her glory is veiled, thus calling attention to her husband’s glory and not her own.

This issue of head coverings seems to have been a matter of debate in the Corinthian church and could well have been the source of some of the divisions in the church. Knowing that his teaching on head coverings may still be resisted and debated, Paul ends with one final thrust in verse 16. For those who would be contentious over this issue, let them know that there is no other145 practice in any of the churches. For anyone to disregard and disobey Paul’s teaching is for them to set themselves outside the traditions of every New Testament church. It is not just Paul’s traditions but rather the consistent teaching and practice of every church. To disregard this instruction is to stand alone in disobedience and defiance.

Conclusion

Before we attempt to sum up Paul’s message and its implications for us, we must first call attention to a wrong conclusion which many evangelicals have reached, claiming that Paul’s words in verse 5 require it. This conclusion is plainly stated by F. F. Bruce and has been taken up recently by many others:

That there was liberty in the church (for it is church order, not private or domestic devotion, that is in view here) for women to pray or prophesy is necessarily implied by Paul’s argument: he does not suggest that there is anything undesirable about their doing so (whatever the injunction of 14.34 means, it cannot be understood thus), but requires them to do so with their heads covered.146

It would seem that the symbol of head coverings is still understood as essential by Bruce, and we would surely think that Schreiner agrees:

Nothing is clearer in verses 3-9 than that Paul wants the woman to wear a head covering because such adornment appropriately distinguishes women from men. Indeed, the focus on male headship over women in verse 3 shows that Paul wants women to wear a head covering in order to show that they are submissive to male headship.147

It does not take long for us to learn that while head covering was certainly applicable for Paul’s day, it is no longer appropriate for our own:

For Paul the issue was directly tied to a cultural shame that scarcely prevails in most cultures today.148

Paul was concerned about head coverings only because of the message they sent to people in that culture. Today, except in certain religious groups, if a woman fails to wear a head covering while praying or prophesying, no one thinks she is in rebellion. Lack of head coverings sends no message at all in our culture.149

And so, when all is said and (not) done, we end up with this as the final outcome of Paul’s teaching:

The principle still stands that women should pray and prophesy in a manner that makes it clear that they submit to male leadership. Clearly the attitude and the demeanor with which a woman prays and prophesies will be one indication of whether she is humble and submissive. The principle enunciated here should be applied in a variety of ways given the diversity of the human situation.150

Women everywhere are freed from Paul’s requirement of head coverings, and they can demonstrate their submission to the principle of male headship any way they think best.

Let us step back momentarily to think about what has been concluded in general. I understand Paul’s teaching on the role of women to have at least these four major components:

(1) The conduct of Christian men and women is to be governed by the principle of male headship in the home and in the church.

(2) The principle of headship requires that women not be preeminent, that they not exercise authority over men, that they do not teach or even speak publicly in the church meeting.

(3) The principle of headship requires that when women pray or prophesy, they must do so with their heads covered, to indicate their submission.

(4) The principle of headship is to be followed in the ways prescribed above, and this is to be done uniformly, that is without any exception, throughout every church.

Paul expected the saints to embrace the principle of male headship and to practice it by women refraining from functioning like men and from looking like men, by wearing a head covering. The outcome of Bruce’s conclusion is that the principle of headship is apparently accepted, but without any of the practices required by Paul (as outlined in points 2-4 above). Paul’s commands regarding the function of women (exercising authority, teaching, speaking publicly) are set aside by an inference based on verse 5, and Paul’s command regarding head coverings is set aside as merely cultural. And so while Paul called for the same action in every church, we are told that women may exhibit their submission to male headship, not by refraining from headship functions, and not by wearing a headship symbol, but in any way they may choose. If Paul’s instruction were likened to a Thanksgiving turkey, what is left of Paul’s teaching could be likened to a few bones, which will be placed in the trash. The principle of headship is not flatly denied; it is just functionally cast aside.

Assuming the interpretation described above is wrong, then how do we deal with the particulars of our text so that the details of this passage are explained and the point of this passage harmonizes with Paul’s commands elsewhere? I would like to deal with this text by first pointing out the “camels” which it contains—the broad, guiding principles which should always govern our practices. Then, secondly, I will attempt to deal with some of the “gnats,” the particular practices which these principles imply or require.

The Guiding Principles of This Passage

(1) The guiding principle for every disciple of our Lord should be: “Just say yes!” I confess, I am making a play on words based upon the current phrase, “Just say no” (to drugs). There are times when we should, “Just say no.” But there are also times when we should, “Just say yes” to the commands of our Lord. Jesus spoke often about His commandments:

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

15 “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15).

21 “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him” (John 14:21).

10 “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love” (John 15:10).

It is clear that the disciples are to keep the Lord’s commands and that when we set out to make disciples, in obedience to our Lord, we must teach them to obey all that Christ has commanded us (Matthew 28:20). Paul’s teachings on the role of men and women in the church are the command of Christ:

36 Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? 37 If any