31. Paul’s Closing Words (1 Cor. 16)
The April 1982 issue of Money magazine contains a report on how various churches responded to increasing costs and decreasing donations from members. Entitled “The Squeeze on Churches and Synagogues,” I would suggest another more appropriate title: “Shaking Down the Sheep.” After I have mentioned a few of the fund-raising methods this article cites, I think you will agree with my proposed title.
A synagogue in suburban Minneapolis took some of its members to court to collect their unpaid pledges. The judge ruled that their pledges (ranging from $167 to $1,000) were legally binding, even though these people had left the congregation. A Catholic Church board asked its members to contribute half of the savings gained from a recent federal income tax cut.
Bake sales, bazaars, and bingo games have all become accepted means of providing the church with additional funds. Professional fund-raisers are often employed, and denominational headquarters supply their clergymen with fund-raising kits (one can only guess what these kits contain). A few have even resorted to blackmailing some of the wealthier “black sheep” in their congregations. Fund-raiser Francis Harvey put it this way, “Priests give them a chance to do a little good with the money they gained by doing so much bad.” Some may think twice before confessing their sins again. Because some of the members drop out due to the high cost of worship, recruiting new members has become a science, making the efforts of door-to-door salesmen look amateur and half-hearted. Some churches even lower their “rates” to attract new members.
The words above were written in 1982 in my introduction to a sermon which I preached on this same text in 1 Corinthians 16:1-4. Since then, some new twists have been added to the fund-raisers’ bag of tricks. One that many Christian colleges employ is hiring students to contact parents of present and past students, along with others, to ask for contributions. If they were raising funds for their students, I would hardly quibble over the fact that they are soliciting help for the poor. But the latest and most irritating fund-raising scheme is the one which suggests you change your phone service to a particular vendor so their organization will receive a certain percentage of your payment. I wonder what they will think of next.
Believe it or not, the mail just arrived, and I know what they will think of next. A Christian institution sent us two cards, with a bar code and the name of a certain chain of supermarkets. Now, whenever we go to the checkout counter (this assumes we will now do our shopping there), we simply have the clerk run our card past the scanner, and this institution will receive a small portion of the total purchase amount.
All of these kinds of fund-raising are the reason so many think Christians are a bunch of hucksters, simply trying to hustle people out of their hard-earned money. I must admit I too have become skeptical. A few years ago, my wife and I and some other folks from our church attended a banquet held by a Christian institution. At the end of the banquet, cards were passed out, the lights were turned down low, and we were asked to make a financial commitment—a generous one. I felt used. Every time some people reach out to pat me on the back, I wonder if they are only finding an excuse to get their hand closer to my wallet.
The apostle Paul was not reluctant to talk about money. He was not even reluctant to ask for money, but Paul would hardly be a member of any charitable fund-raiser’s group—nor would he be invited. Paul’s method of fund-raising is a far cry from what most of us have come to expect. Before we consider Paul’s instructions concerning a charitable contribution, let us first consider the kind of man Paul was, especially in relation to money.
The Man Who Instructs Us About Money
Let’s face it, one of the reasons we have become cynical about religious (and other) fund-raising is that there are a lot of crooks hiding behind their Bibles or clerical collars. If ever there was a man who had the right to be heard when it comes to money, it is the apostle Paul. His mentor (to use a contemporary term) was a man named Barnabas. Barnabas was a most noble saint, who set an example for the church in Jerusalem when it came to giving: “And Joseph, a Levite of Caprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means, Son of Encouragement), and who owned a tract land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:36-37).
This is the man who took Paul under his wing when Paul was first saved, when none of the apostles wanted to have anything to do with him (see Acts 9:26-27). When Agabus and other prophets came down to Antioch from Jerusalem to announce that a great famine was about to come upon the inhabited world, the newly formed church at Antioch took up a collection for the saints in Judea, and these funds were sent with Barnabas and Saul (Paul, Acts 11:27-30) to the saints in need.
Paul knew full well that, as an apostle, he had the right to be supported financially by those to whom he was ministering. Paul chose to waive this right, preaching the gospel at no cost to the Corinthians so that the gospel might not be hindered (1 Corinthians 9:1-23). Thus, when Paul came to Corinth, he worked as a tentmaker along with Aquila. And when Paul finally ministered full-time to the Corinthians, it was because of the financial support he received from the Macedonians (Acts 18:1-5; see also 2 Corinthians 11:7-9; Philippians 4:15, 18). This practice was not the exception, but the rule. Paul purposed not to be a burden to the churches where he served by requiring them to support him. In the midst of warning the Ephesian elders of false teachers, Paul reminded them that his hand was never in their pockets:
33 I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothes. 34 You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me. 35 In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20-33-35).
It was not Paul who had gotten fat from the Corinthians. If anything, the Corinthians were taken advantage of by the false apostles (see 2 Corinthians 11:20). Paul, on the other hand, was “poor” in their midst:
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).
Paul’s Instructions on Giving
1 Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so do you also. 2 On the first day of every week let each one of you put aside and save, as he may prosper, that no collections be made when I come. 3 And when I arrive, whomever you may approve, I shall send them with letters to carry your gift to Jerusalem; 4 and if it is fitting for me to go also, they will go with me.
Joe Bayly, a fine Christian writer who passed away a few years ago, wrote a book on death, based somewhat on the tragedies which had come to his own family. The book was first released with the title, The View From a Hearse. That’s not the kind of title which sells books, so when the second edition was published, it came with the new title, The Last Thing We Ever Talk About. Death, the title indicated, was the last thing we ever talk about. If Paul were the author (as he is of 1 Corinthians), the title would have to be, The Next to the Last Thing We Ever Talk About. The last thing Paul talked about was money. Some Christians and others seem to wish we would never talk about money, especially when it comes to our responsibility toward others. These verses are here because the Corinthians needed to hear them, and I suspect we need to hear them just as badly. Let us listen then, and learn about giving God’s way.
The Connection of Verses 1-4 to the Context
Verses 1-4 of chapter 16 flow very logically out of Paul’s teaching on the resurrection in chapter 15. Paul concluded by assuring the Corinthian saints that due to the resurrection of our Lord, and thus the resurrection of the dead, our labor and toil is not in vain in the Lord. No wonder Paul can now speak to his readers about making a contribution to the poor. This is one of the ways the Christian can “lay up treasure in heaven” (see Matthew 6:19-21). Furthermore, the contribution to the saints, which Paul has instructed the Corinthians to prepare for, is that which will be delivered after he arrives at Corinth, so Paul’s discussion of his travel plans logically follow in verses 5-9. Giving to the poor is an eternal investment, which will be delivered to the saints after Paul has returned to Corinth.
The Need Which Required a Contribution
There are all kinds of people seeking contributions. We do not have to drive very many blocks before we find men (and sometimes women and children) sitting or standing beside the freeway with signs announcing their need for money. But the need which occasions Paul’s instructions is a special one. Since our text does not give us a great deal of detail about this need, let me turn your attention to those texts which give us more insight about the need in Jerusalem.
First, we know from other texts the need was that of the Jewish church in Jerusalem and Judea. Paul, as he stood before Felix, told the governor why he had gone to Jerusalem:
17 Now after several years I came to bring alms to my nation and to present offerings (Acts 24:17).
23 But now, with no further place for me in these regions, and since I have had for many years a longing to come to you 24 whenever I go to Spain—for I hope to see you in passing, and to be helped on my way there by you, when I have first enjoyed your company for a while— 25 but now, I am going to Jerusalem serving the saints. 26 For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution to Jerusalem for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem (Romans 15:23-26).
Second, we know from the early chapters of Acts that the saints in Jerusalem gave generously of their means to meet the needs that existed among the poor among them (see Acts 2:43-47; 4:32-37; 6:1-6). The stoning of Stephen brought about a persecution which forced many to flee from Jerusalem (see Acts 8:1-2). The means of meeting the needs of the poor saints in Jerusalem had been depleted in the church that was there.
Third, it appears that at the same time things were becoming tough for the Jewish saints in Jerusalem, things were also becoming very difficult for Jews elsewhere. The famine which Agabus and other prophets predicted took place during the reign of Claudius (Acts 11:28). It was Claudius who, during his reign, ordered the Jews out of Rome (Acts 18:2), which is why Priscilla and Aquila met up with Paul in Corinth. Jewish believers elsewhere in the world were having hard times of their own, so they were not able to do much to help their brethren in Jerusalem and Judea.
This text from the Book of Hebrews (written to Jewish saints) seems to best describe the situation in Jerusalem and Judea, which created the need for outside help from Gentile churches:
32 But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings, 33 partly, by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated. 34 For you showed sympathy to the prisoners, and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and an abiding one. 35 Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward (Hebrews 10:32-35).
Guidelines for Giving
(1) Paul was not reluctant to speak about money more than once. As you read verses 1-4 of chapter 16, it is quite obvious that this is not the first time Paul has spoken to the Corinthians about money. Paul’s words in these four verses assume prior knowledge. He speaks of “the collection for the saints” in verse 1, but he does not say which saints or what the need is. This strongly suggests that Paul’s words in these verses are a follow-up to something he has already said to the Corinthians about this collection. From Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5:9, we assume that Paul has already written one epistle to the Corinthians, before 1 Corinthians. And, in Paul’s next epistle to the Corinthians, he will speak much more thoroughly on this matter (2 Corinthians 8 and 9). Paul speaks of giving more than once, and we might safely say that Paul spoke to the Corinthians about money every time he wrote them. I fear those who do not want to hear preachers talk about money very much are often those who do not give very much. I would also say I have probably not spoken very much about money, perhaps because I know how unpopular this subject is.
(2) Paul is open and direct when he speaks about money. Is there any question what Paul is talking about in these verses in 1 Corinthians? Is there any doubt that he wants the Corinthians to give money? All too often people after our money today do not tell us up front what they want. We may have a strong sense of suspicion about what is coming, but they do not tell us. Paul is direct and up front about what he expects of us concerning giving.
When Dr. Haddon Robinson, a friend of mine, lived in Dallas, he was associated with several Christian organizations. He would sometimes be involved in fund-raising for one or more of these organizations. I always respected how open and above board Dr. Robinson was about what he was doing. He would call a man and say something like: “Hello, Fred, I’d like to invite you to breakfast, and I’m going to pay. But I’ve got to warn you that I’m going to ask for some of your money.” That’s honest. Paul was direct and open about money.
(3) Paul is speaking about only one area of giving here, but I believe the principles we find here apply to all Christian giving. Paul is not writing to help raise the annual budget for the church at Corinth. He is not writing about missionary support, although he could have (see 3 John 5-8). He is not seeking to enhance the building fund. He is not even writing about our giving to the poor in general. Paul is writing to the Corinthians about a specific church, the church in Jerusalem, which is greatly impoverished. Paul is writing to instruct the Corinthian saints to give money to the saints in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem saints are not specifically identified here, but they are elsewhere (see Acts 11:28; 24:17; Romans 15:25-32). Paul does not name the Jerusalem saints because these Corinthians already know about what collection Paul is writing. Paul has given more details to them earlier (see number 1 above).
(4) Paul’s instructions here apply more broadly than just to the Corinthians. This epistle, while specifically written to the church at Corinth, was also addressed to the Christian community at large (1 Corinthians 1:1-2). What Paul commands here, he teaches elsewhere as well (1 Corinthians 4:16-17; 11:16; 14:33-34). Specifically, Paul indicates to the Corinthians that his instructions on giving are the same as those he has already given the churches of Galatia (16:1).
(5) Paul’s instructions concerning our obligation to our poor brethren are consistent with a long tradition of biblical revelation on this matter. The Old Testament Law required the Israelites to contribute to the needs of their brethren and others (Leviticus 19:9ff.; Deuteronomy 15:7-11). Psalms and Proverbs had much to say on this matter (Psalm 112:9; Proverbs 14:21, 31; 19:17; 21:13; 22:9; 28:27; 31:20). The prophets had a great deal to say about Israel’s duty to the poor, and their oppression of the poor was one of the reasons God brought judgment upon Israel (Isaiah 10:2; 58; Jeremiah 2:34; 5:28; Ezekiel 16:49; 18:12, 17; 22:29; Amos 4:1; 5:11-12; Zechariah 7:10). Our Lord also taught about our obligation to the poor (Matthew 19:21; Luke 14:13; 19:8), as did the apostles (Romans 12:13; Galatians 2:9-10; 6:10; James 2; 1 John 3:15-18).
(6) Paul’s instructions regarding this collection for the poor were given as a command. Paul says he is instructing the Corinthians to do what he “directed” the Galatians to do. The word “directed” is a strong word, used of military orders (Acts 23:31; 24:23), of the instruction of our Lord (1 Corinthians 9:14), and of the directives of Paul with full apostolic authority (1 Corinthians 7:17; 11:34; Titus 1:5). There are two imperatives (commands) in our text; one in verse 1 (“so do you also”), and the other in verse 2 (“let each one of you put aside and save”). This matter of giving to the poor brethren in Jerusalem was not an option, but a duty.
(7) Here Paul’s instruction to give is to every single Christian believer. Some things are optional for Christians, but this is not. Some things are presented as a matter of personal conviction; this is not. The instruction given to the churches is that “each one of them is to put aside and save” (16:2), to be able to contribute toward the needs of the saints in Jerusalem. Most churches would not have a lack of funds if all of their members gave, even if some could not give much.
When considering that Paul commanded every Corinthian saint to set aside funds for the poor, I was reminded of two texts in the Book of Acts describing the generosity of the saints to the poor:
44 And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; 45 and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. 46 And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart (Acts 2:44-46, emphasis mine).
32 And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. 34 For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales, 35 and lay them at the apostles’ feet; and they would be distributed to each, as any had need (Acts 4:32-35, emphasis mine).
Notice the unity and charity which characterized the first church in Jerusalem. The generosity was all-inclusive. What one saint did, all the saints did. And no one was excluded who was in need. That which Paul commands in 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, the early church spontaneously practiced in Acts 2 and 4. Participation was 100 percent in the early church, and Paul called for the same participation at Corinth and elsewhere.
(8) Paul did not set down a rule as to how much each must give. There are no numbers or percentages given which must be met—no quotas. Paul left the amount to be given up to each saint. The Corinthians were not instructed to give what they did not have but to give out of their prosperity.
(9) Paul expected the collective total of all the gifts to be substantial. This is implied by the fact that they were given a period of time to save up for this contribution. It is further implied by the fact that some Corinthian men were expected to accompany this gift to Jerusalem.
(10) Paul instructed the Corinthians to consider their contribution consistently and to determine what they would give on the “first day of every week” (16:2). A friend commented to me after this message that if you set aside a certain amount on the “first day of the week,” you will not spend it later on in the week. It is often sadly true that we spend all we want with the promise to God that He can have all that is left. The “first day of the week” was the day our Lord was raised from the dead (see Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2) and also the day on which the church met (Acts 20:7; see Revelation 1:10). I do not think that they were to decide what to give at church so they could put money in the offering plate. They were told to set the money aside at home. I believe Paul wants them, and us, to make our decisions regarding our responsibilities to our poor brethren in the context of the cross of Christ, of His gift of salvation, and of our worship and praise. What better day to decide how to use the money God has entrusted to us than the Lord’s day?
(11) Paul refused to employ pressure or persuasive tactics to increase the amount the Corinthians gave. Paul wanted the monies to be saved up so that no collection would be made in his presence. They were not giving to Paul but to God. He instructed the Corinthians to give, but he did not use gimmicks to motivate giving. Saving up to give over a period of time not only allowed the Corinthians time to give generously, it also gave them time to give this money purposefully. Our law now gives us three days in which to change our minds regarding a purchase we have made. Paul gave these believers weeks to think about what they were doing so their charity would be purposeful and not something they would later regret.
In reflecting upon Paul’s fund-raising methods, it occurred to me that Paul raises funds in the same way he preaches the gospel—in a way that the world would call foolish and ineffective. The world would change the gospel message to make it more appealing. They would employ persuasive techniques and worldly wisdom to obtain better results. Paul preached a “foolish” gospel in “weakness and fear and trembling,” so that the results would have to be the work of God (see 1 Corinthians 1:18–2:5).
Think about it for a moment. What is the most difficult sales pitch to reject? It is the face-to-face presentation of someone we know and love. We find it a little easier to say no on the phone, and it is quite easy to throw a sales-oriented letter into the trash. Paul wrote a letter so they would not have to give when he arrived and saw them face-to-face. Paul really wanted their decision to give to be divinely prompted, rather than prompted by human persuasion. Paul set aside the means and methods which the world knows to work well in fund-raising.
(12) Paul employed every possible means for assuring the Corinthians that the monies given would be used just as represented. Unfortunately, many funds which are raised for charitable purposes are used for less noble causes. Candidly, too much of the monies raised goes into the pockets of those who raise the funds. Some who are corrupt simply pocket the money they have raised under false pretenses. (This is the case, I believe, in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, when Tom and Huck come across a huckster who is merely “missionarying.” The con man they come across is allegedly raising funds for the “salvation of the heathen,” but in reality, he is simply ripping off gullible souls.
Paul’s intent and desire was to raise funds and then distribute them in a way that avoided any appearance of impropriety. Speaking of Titus in 2 Corinthians 8, Paul indicates how important it is that donated funds be handled in a seemly manner:
17 For he not only accepted our appeal, but being himself very earnest, he has gone to you of his own accord. 18 And we have sent along with him the brother whose fame in the things of the gospel has spread through all the churches; 19 and not only this, but he has also been appointed by the churches to travel with us in this gracious work, which is being administered by us for the glory of the Lord Himself, and to show our readiness, 20 taking precaution that no one should discredit us in our administration of this generous gift; 21 for we have regard for what is honorable, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men (2 Corinthians 8:17-21).
I understand Paul’s words in our text to assure his readers that none of the donated funds will ever go into his pocket, even when being transported to Jerusalem. When the gifts are gathered to take to Jerusalem, some men of the Corinthians’ choosing will take the funds, and Paul will send a letter of introduction and explanation with them. If deemed appropriate, Paul will accompany them. Paul’s method minimizes the dangers which arise when larger amounts of money are collected. Each one stores up his or her own contribution at home. When the funds are gathered, a delegation of trusted men take the funds and transport them personally. These men do not let the funds out of their possession until they have handed them over to the church leaders who will distribute them (see Acts 11:30).
Money is not the most important thing; in fact, it is a very little thing (Luke 16:10). But how we handle money as a stewardship determines how much responsibility we will be given in the really important things (Luke 16:11-12). As a church, we have attempted to implement the principles set down by Paul and others in the Bible. We have a printed position paper on contributions at Community Bible Chapel, and we endeavor to follow it consistently. In the past few weeks, we have been reviewing the way that monies are handled in our church so that there might not be even a hint of any possibility of impropriety in this area. I would also say that those people who handle the funds in our church are men and women of the highest character and who conscientiously and meticulously maintain financial records. At the same time, it has always been our policy and commitment to maintain the highest level of confidentiality, so that who gives, and how much is given, is not known by me nor by any of the elders.
You will observe that in our teaching hour, no offering plate is passed. This is because we believe the offering should be taken at the worship hour, our meeting of the church. We believe our giving should be a part of our worship. If you are a Christian, we urge you to give, not only for the benefit of this body and its ministry, but for your own benefit (see Philippians 4:17). If you are not a Christian, we urge you not to give.
There is nothing you can do to earn God’s favor or to contribute to your salvation. Spiritually speaking, we are bankrupt and have nothing to offer God but our debts. Jesus Christ paid our debt on the cross of Calvary. If we acknowledge our debt (our sins), and receive God’s gift of salvation through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven our debts and given eternal life. Our sins are forgiven by His death and resurrection. His righteousness is transferred to us. We are born again. That is the gift of salvation which we offer to you.
10 Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water” (John 4:10).
24 Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:24).
15 But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. 16 And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. 17 For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ (Romans 5:15-17).
23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).
15 Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! (2 Corinthians 9:15)
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8).
Our text sets before us several challenges as a church and as individuals. Let us consider several areas of application. In one sense, these four verses place before us a very unique situation. These Gentile believers at Corinth had the privilege and responsibility of giving to their Jewish brethren in need. This Jewish church was the instrument through which they heard the gospel and were saved. They received a spiritual blessing from the Jerusalem saints, and they could respond in gratitude with a material gift (Romans 15:27). There is no way we can precisely reproduce that which Paul set before the Corinthians.
Nevertheless, we do have opportunities to respond to Paul’s instructions. The church is not just the “local church,” but the body of Christ. The body of Christ certainly includes those who profess faith in Christ around the world. At this very moment, Christians are living in very similar straits to the Jewish saints of Jerusalem and Judea in Paul’s day. Amazing as it may seem, in this age of instant communications, we are less aware of our impoverished and persecuted brethren than were those in Paul’s day, for whom the speed of our current mail system (which e-mail users now refer to as “snail mail”) would boggle their minds. We are obligated to be aware of the needs of our brothers and sisters in distant places and to minister to their material needs. In my personal opinion, this is a weakness in our church and in most other churches. Let us pray and ask God to forgive us and show us how we can minister as we should in this area of responsibility.
Paul’s challenge to every believer to set aside and give is one we should take seriously. First, if you are one who has falsely assumed that others should carry your financial obligation here, you are wrong. I urge you to repent and to purpose before God to give something regularly no matter how small the amount. For most of us, Paul’s words about saving up to give sound strange. No wonder! We are all so dependent upon credit and so deeply in debt we think we do not have anything to give. Some Christian organizations have taken their cue and are now accepting contributions by credit card contributions. Let us consider whether our indebtedness is furthering the kingdom of God, and give thought to beginning a savings account for the purpose of meeting needs. I have to tell you that when I think I do not have anything to give, I tend to look the other way when needs are before me. If you and I had a savings account designated for meeting the needs of others (and if there were money in this account), we would begin to look for needs rather than to look the other way. May God use Paul’s words in these first four verses to convict us, and better yet, to change us, so that we gratefully comply with Paul’s instructions.
Paul’s Personal Plans for the Future
5 But I shall come to you after I go through Macedonia, for I am going through Macedonia; 6 and perhaps I shall stay with you, or even spend the winter, that you may send me on my way wherever I may go. 7 For I do not wish to see you now just in passing; for I hope to remain with you for some time, if the Lord permits. 8 But I shall remain in Ephesus until Pentecost; 9 for a wide door for effective service has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.
Paul turns very naturally to his travel plans, since he has just given instructions concerning the gift the Corinthians were challenged to make to the poor in Jerusalem. He indicates in verses 2 and 3 that when he arrives in Corinth, he does not want to have a collection taken, but rather that their gift be set aside in advance of his arrival. On his arrival, he would compose letters to accompany the gift and the Corinthians who carried it to Jerusalem. And so, having given his instructions concerning this gift, Paul writes next of his travel plans.
Paul had other reasons for telling the Corinthians about his plans for the future. For one, Paul’s absence was a point of contention, as we can see from these passages in 1 and 2 Corinthians:
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 (1 Corinthians 4:18-19).
15 And in this confidence I intended at first to come to you, that you might twice receive a blessing; 16 that is, to pass your way into Macedonia, and again from Macedonia to come to you, and by you to be helped on my journey to Judea. 17 Therefore, I was not vacillating when I intended to do this, was I? Or that which I purpose, do I purpose according to the flesh, that with me there should be yes, yes and no, no at the same time? 18 But as God is faithful, our word to you is not yes and no (2 Corinthians 1:15-18).
23 But I call God as witness to my soul, that to spare you I came no more to Corinth. 24 Not that we lord it over your faith, but are workers with you for your joy; for in your faith you are standing firm (2 Corinthians 1:23-24).
3 And this is the very thing I wrote you, lest, when I came, I should have sorrow from those who ought to make me rejoice; having confidence in you all, that my joy would be the joy of you all (2 Corinthians 2:3)
Paul’s opponents made a great deal of Paul’s absence. Just as the enemies of our Lord sought to deny the certainty of His return (see 2 Peter 3:3-4), so some of Paul’s enemies insisted that he wasn’t coming back to Corinth (1 Corinthians 4:18-19). Paul’s words about his travel plans make it clear that, while he does not know exactly when he is coming, he is coming.
There seems to be yet another reason why Paul talks about his travel plans. Some of the Corinthians think of themselves as “super-spiritual” and Paul they consider as “carnal” (see 1 Corinthians 4:6-13; 2 Corinthians 10:1-2). I have the impression these “super-spiritual saints” gave the impression they constantly walked on cloud nine. I can almost hear them saying in connection with their every action and with their future plans, “Oh, yes, the Lord told me to … .” I believe Paul’s approach to the guidance of God and future events is the standard, a standard by which we can discern the normal from the exceptional and the truly spiritual from the pseudo-spiritual.
If anyone had a “direct line” to God (as far as guidance is concerned), it would have to be Paul. On a number of occasions, God gave him special revelation. Certainly the appearance of our Lord to Paul on the road to Damascus was dramatic (see Acts 9:1-19a; 23:1-16; 26:2-18). At the time of his conversion, Paul was told, in general terms, what he had been called to do and assured that the Lord would appear to Him again:
15 And I said, “Who art Thou, Lord?” And the Lord said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But arise, and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you; 17 delivering you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, 18 to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified in Me” (Acts 26:15-18; see also 9:13-17; 22:14-15).
In the Book of Acts, Paul receives a revelation from the Lord on several occasions. In addition to his initial vision of the risen Lord on the road to Damascus, Paul is given the “Macedonian vision,” whereby he and his traveling party are directed to cross over to Macedonia (e.g., Philippi; see Acts 16:9). Then at Corinth, the Lord appears to Paul in a vision after opposition from unbelieving Jews forces him to cease his ministry in the synagogue and move next door to the house of Titius Justus:
9 And the Lord said to Paul in the night by a vision, “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.” 11 And he settled there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them (Acts 18:9-11).
And when it seemed that Paul and his shipmates would perish in the storm, an angel of God appeared to him with a word of encouragement:
21 And when they had gone a long time without food, then Paul stood up in their midst and said, “Men, you ought to have followed my advice and not to have set sail from Crete, and incurred this damage and loss. 22 and yet now I urge you to keep up your courage, for there shall be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. 23 For this very night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood before me, 24 saying, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and behold, God has granted you all those who are sailing with you.’ 25 Therefore, keep up your courage, men, for I believe God, that it will turn out exactly as I have been told” (Acts 27:21-25).
To these personal revelations can be added the prophecies of others pertaining to Paul and his ministry (see Acts 11:27-30; 13:1-3; 20:23; 21:10-11). The great and grand revelation to which Paul refers is his “near death” experience recorded in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4. If anyone could boast in visions, it was the apostle Paul. And yet a careful reading of the Book of Acts and Paul’s epistles seem to send a clear signal to us that these visions and divine appearances were not normative but exceptional. Paul’s every decision was not made on the basis of an unusual revelation. I believe verses 5-9 of our text in 1 Corinthians 16 indicate the way in which Paul normally made his decisions and plans. This is the more normal way that Paul found divine guidance. The way Paul dealt with his plans regarding his return to Corinth provides us with a pattern for discerning the guidance of God.
Consider the following observations from our text which are instructive for us:
(1) We would do well to remember that Paul is in Ephesus as he writes this letter. Ephesus is in Asia Minor, across the Aegean Sea from Macedonia where the cities of Philippi and Thessalonica are located. Largely south of Macedonia is the Roman province of Achaia, where the cities of Athens and Corinth are located. Paul could not get from Ephesus to Corinth without considerable travel and without crossing the Aegean Sea. A number of factors entered into Paul’s travel plans. For example, sea travel was only safe and available during certain seasons.
(2) Paul gave thought to the future. Paul made tentative plans for the future. Some might suppose that our Lord’s words, “take … no thought for the morrow …” (Matthew 6:34, KJV), indicate that we should not even think about the future. It is clear in the context (and other translations) that what Jesus forbids is undue worry about how our needs will be met in the future. Paul does think about the future because he is seeking to be a good steward of the time and opportunities God has given him. As he considers the future, he is not consumed with anxiety because he knows that whatever happens, God’s will will be done, for His glory and his (Paul’s) good (see Philippians 1:12-26). Peter likewise is looking to the future as he writes words that remind his readers of crucial truths, even after his death (see 2 Peter 1:12-15).
(3) Paul did not claim to have received any direct divine guidance which communicated God’s travel plans for his next visit to Corinth. The supernatural guidance Paul occasionally received was not normative. Paul’s words here do not indicate any sense of need for such guidance on his part or any distress that such guidance was not given. Paul speaks as though he is confident that he will know when and how to reach Corinth when it is necessary.
(4) While not stated clearly, it seems that Paul expected to be guided progressively concerning his next visit to Corinth. I realize I am reading this into the text, but this is the way God guided Abram to the promise land. He did not tell him where he was going but led him along the way. And when he was there, God informed him this was the place of promise (see Genesis 11:27–12:9). The guidance which brought Paul to Corinth on his first visit was similar. Many Christians want to have God’s guidance in advance, something like the trip pack the American Automobile Association (AAA) provides on request to its members. God expects us to walk by faith, and thus He leads us progressively as we obey what He has already given us to do.
(5) Paul knew and communicated his desires and intentions regarding his future visits. While Paul does not have any fixed plan for his next visit to Corinth, he does inform the Corinthians of his desires and intentions. These not only assure the saints at Corinth that he intends to come, but that he cares about them and wants to come. His expressed desires and intentions tell the Corinthians he cares about them. The fact that he does not want his visit to be too short (verse 7) conveys the same affection. After all, who wants to stay for a long visit with people you do not like?
(6) As secure and certain as Paul’s eternal future was (as indicated in chapter 15), Paul did not presume upon God concerning the certainty or the safety of his plans in the temporal future. Paul’s teaching on the resurrection, and its relation to the coming kingdom of God, was intended to instill a confidence and certainty in the second coming. While Paul is absolutely confident about his safe arrival in the kingdom of God, he does not presume to know all the particulars of God’s plan for his temporal future.
(7) Paul did not make commitments regarding the future which he was not sure he could keep.
(8) Paul did not presume upon the future but kept his plans subject to the will of God. This is consistent with the warning given to us by the apostle James, who wrote:
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow, we shall go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” 14 Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that.” 16 But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. 17 Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do, and does not do it, to him it is sin (James 4:13-17).
The future, our future, is in God’s hands. We know Him who holds our future, but we dare not presume to know our future. We therefore must not plan in such a way that we deny the sovereignty of God over history and over our own personal plans.
(9) Paul’s refusal to make detailed plans for the future was based upon his belief in the sovereignty of God over history and of our human inability to predict God’s plan for our future. Paul would not agree with the theology of a song by Doris Day popular a few years ago: “Whatever will be, will be.” This is true, but in a sense different from what the songwriter meant to convey. He probably saw life as a series of unpredictable events which happened by chance rather than by design. Paul’s view of the future is that history is in the hands of a sovereign God. The reason he does not presume to know the future is because the sovereign God who controls history is known to be One whose plans and purposes are vastly above our own mental grasp. We could not begin to even imagine what God will do or how He will do it:
8 “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. 9 “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
33 Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! 34 For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, OR WHO BECAME HIS COUNSELOR? (Romans 11:33-34).
6 Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature, 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, 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” (1 Corinthians 2:6-9).
When it was revealed through various prophets that Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem would lead to his arrest and confinement, his Christian friends sought to dissuade him from continuing on to Jerusalem. What they did not understand was that it was God’s plan to use Paul’s arrest and appeal to Caesar to facilitate the proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles and to kings, just as He had indicated at his conversion (Acts 9:15; see Acts 20:22-23; 21:10-14; 21:27ff.).
(10) Paul delayed his visit to Corinth because he was convinced that God’s will was for him to remain on at Ephesus. There was a great need and opportunity for him where he was, in Ephesus. A “wide door for effective service” had been opened to Paul (verse 9), and thus he was not about to leave Ephesus at this time in order to visit Corinth. I find it interesting that Paul did not say, “God has opened a wide door for effective service.” I think this is what he believed and what he wants us to understand. For Paul, it was not necessary to say that God led him to do this or that every time he made a decision. It seems that Paul is careful not to credit God with one of his decisions unless he is certain it was God who directed him.233 Too many Christians give God credit for their own decisions, some of which are not always good ones. When we have made a decision for which we do not have clear divine guidance, let us take credit for that decision personally and not try to sanctify it by saying God told us to do it that way.
A few years ago, I had a friend who was not a Christian. He liked to hunt, and so did his brother-in-law who was a Christian. The two went on a moose-hunting trip, and they had agreed to be gone for a certain number of days. When those days ended, they still had not killed a moose. And so they had to decide whether to give up and go home or to hunt longer. My non-Christian friend told me that his brother-in-law went back down the trail a way and prayed about whether to go home or to keep hunting. (Incidentally, he then decided God wanted him to keep hunting. They each ended up with a moose.) My friend said to me, “Why couldn’t he just decide whether he wanted to keep hunting or not? Why did he have to pray about it?” I know that he was not a believer, but he raised a good point. Sometimes we want divine guidance when we simply ought to make a decision ourselves. And sometimes we claim divine guidance (“God wanted me to get that moose!”) when we did make the decision ourselves.
The “wide door for effective service” for Paul was not what we might have expected. The “wide door” was opened for Paul at Ephesus. Paul has already indicated to us something about his ministry at Ephesus:
30 Why are we also in danger every hour? 31 I protest, brethren, by the boasting in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily. 32 If from human motives I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, what does it profit me? If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die (1 Corinthians 15:30-32).
His ministry in Ephesus bore much fruit, but it also brought about much opposition and danger as we can see from Luke’s account in Acts 19. And so we must derive from this opposition and danger our next principle.
(11) God’s guidance is not only evidenced by opportunity but also by opposition. Too many Christians seem to think God’s will is evident in that which is successful, fulfilling, warm and fuzzy. There was a great opportunity at Ephesus and a great need for Paul’s ministry. But that opportunity included opposition. Where God is at work, we can expect Satan to be as well. God is directing us toward godliness, and godliness leads to difficulties (see 2 Timothy 3).
(12) When Paul cannot personally come as soon as he hopes, he does see to it that others will come, so that the Corinthians are not left without godly ministry (see vss. 10-12). We will take up this matter in the next verses, but suffice it to say that Paul’s concluding words indicate that when he could not be in Corinth, he encouraged others to go so that these saints would be taught and encouraged in their faith.
Concerning Timothy and Apollos
10 Now if Timothy comes, see that he is with you without cause to be afraid; for he is doing the Lord’s work, as I also am. 11 Let no one therefore despise him. But send him on his way in peace, so that he may come to me; for I expect him with the brethren. 12 But concerning Apollos our brother, I encouraged 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.
Jesus spoke these words to His disciples, shortly before His betrayal and crucifixion:
20 Remember the word that I said to you, “A slave is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. 21 But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me (John 15:20-21).
If they were true (and they surely were) in relation to Jesus and His disciples, they would also be true in principle in relationship to Paul and Timothy. Timothy was Paul’s “child” in the faith. If the Corinthians thought little of Paul, then most certainly they would think no better of Timothy. No wonder Paul has instructions regarding the Corinthians’ reception of Timothy, who came in Paul’s place.
How different these two men appear to be. Some think Timothy lacked confidence and was somewhat reticent to act or speak decisively. This may not necessarily be true.234 Apollos appears to be a powerful and dynamic speaker. He was, we are told, “mighty in the Scriptures” (Acts 18:24; see also verse 28). Timothy was an assistant to Paul, going where Paul sent him (see Philippians 2:19ff.; 1 Timothy 1:3). Apollos was much more independent of Paul in his ministry. Paul, who encouraged Timothy not to let anyone “look down on his youthfulness” (1 Timothy 4:12), now writes to the Corinthians instructing them not to despise him. Paul expects the Corinthian saints to receive Timothy as they ought to receive him, and they should likewise send Timothy on his way (verse 11), just as Paul hopes to be sent on his way by them (verse 6).
While Paul could direct Timothy to visit Corinth, and it would very likely happen,235 this was not the case with Apollos. Paul and Apollos were brothers in Christ and fellow-apostles. There is no evidence of any personal friction between these men, but their ministries were independent. Just as Barnabas felt that Paul was needed to minister to the church at Antioch (see Acts 11:25-26), Paul now felt that the ministry of Apollos at Corinth might be profitable. And so he informs the Corinthians that he urged Apollos to accompany other brethren who were on their way to Corinth (verse 12). Paul indicates that he urged Apollos as strongly as he could (“I encouraged him greatly,” verse 12). He also indicates that Apollos felt, just as strongly, that it was not the time for him to go to Corinth. And so, Paul writes, Apollos will come when he has the opportunity.
Two things strike me about these verses concerning Timothy and Apollos. The first is the strong sense of unity and cooperation between Paul, Apollos, Timothy, and others. This is in contrast to the factions and competition which existed among leaders and followers alike in Corinth (see chapters 1-3). Rather than undercutting the ministry of others, Paul stayed on where he was and encouraged other men to minister at Corinth. Rather than criticize or cut down these men, he commends them highly to the church at Corinth. What a contrast to the Corinthians! Were the leaders at Corinth seeking to build their own empire? Did they find it necessary to undermine the ministry of those they considered their competitors? Not so with Paul. What more could Paul have said or done to enhance and strengthen the ministries of men like Timothy and Apollos?
The second thing that strikes me about Paul’s reference to Apollos is Paul’s respect for other Christian leaders and their perception of God’s leading in their lives. We have already witnessed that Paul did not claim miraculous or spectacular guidance with respect to his plans to visit the Corinthians in the future. He expressed his desires and intentions but with a sensitivity to the fact that God’s will might not confirm to his plans, and that his plans would have to change. Here, Paul indicates his humility in reference to the plans of Apollos. He thought a visit by Apollos would be good; Apollos disagreed. Paul accepts the judgment of Apollos as God’s leading. He is not so arrogant as to assume that his sense of what Apollos should do is God’s will. The Corinthians seemed to love to be told what to do, to be pushed around by their power-hungry leaders. Paul was not like this; Paul would not be like this.
Summing It All Up
13 Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. 14 Let all that you do be done in love.
These two verses may not seem to say much at first glance, but they appear to sum up the application of all that Paul has been saying in this epistle. The resurrection of the dead assures us of the second coming of our Lord (chapter 15). Just as our Lord warned the disciples to be on the alert and not to be surprised by His return, so Paul gives the same admonition.
42 Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming. 43 But be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have been on the alert and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. 44 For this reason you be ready too; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will (Matthew 24:42-44).
2 For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. 3 While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like birth pangs upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. 4 But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day should overtake you like a thief; 5 for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; 6 so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober (1 Thessalonians 5:2-6).
One could hardly say the Corinthians were “on the alert.” Some were denying the resurrection of the dead. They were surely not living as though the Lord’s return was at hand and as though He would judge men according to their deeds. They did not even recognize God’s judgment among them at that time (see 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). They were tolerant to one living in shocking sin (chapter 5), taking one another to court (chapter 6), and participating in heathen idol-worship rituals (chapters 8-10). It was time for them to wake up.
The Corinthians were challenged by Paul to “stand firm in the faith.” It is all too obvious that false teachers were among them. The gospel message, by which they were saved, was being looked down upon as something less than the new “wisdom” that had been introduced (see 1 Corinthians 1-4; 2 Corinthians 11). Fundamentals of the gospel (i.e., the resurrection of the dead) were being forsaken (chapter 15). Another gospel was tolerantly accepted (2 Corinthians 11:4). These saints needed to stand firm in the faith which Paul and the other (true) apostles had delivered to them.
The Corinthians were challenged to “act like men.” Now this is a most interesting and enlightening statement. What does Paul mean by this? It is not hard to grasp in the light of chapters 11-14. There was a role reversal going on in Corinth. Women were casting off the symbols and the substance of their femininity (see chapter 11). At the same time, it looks like the men were relinquishing their roles and responsibilities as men. I think Paul is challenging the men to assume their God-given responsibilities and to assume the leadership in the church and in their homes.
Also, the Corinthians were encouraged to “be strong.” How ironic. These Corinthians despised weakness. This is what they did not like about the gospel or Paul (see 1 Corinthians 1:18–2:6; 4:6-13; also 2 Corinthians 11-12). God uses the weak things to demonstrate His strength. By thinking and acting like those who were “strong,” the Corinthians were showing themselves to be spiritually weak. Paul was urging them to “be strong” in the Lord, and this would mean forsaking their human, culturally-approved “strengths.” These people, who thought themselves strong and Paul weak (2 Corinthians 13:9), were the ones who needed to be strong.
Finally, Paul exhorts the Corinthians to do everything they do in love (verse 14). Here we find one of the vital ingredients of the Christian life obviously missing in the church at Corinth. Paul had to devote an entire chapter to its description (chapter 13). These saints were obviously lacking in love, toward God and toward men. Love would radically change the church at Corinth. Wow! Here is 1 Corinthians in a nutshell.
A Look at Leadership
15 Now I urge you, brethren (you know the household of Stephanas, that they were the first fruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves for ministry to the saints), 16 that you also be in subjection to such men and to everyone who helps in the work and labors. 17 And I rejoice over the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus; because they have supplied what was lacking on your part. 18 For they have refreshed my spirit and yours. Therefore acknowledge such men.
The church at Corinth was divided, and one of the principle reasons was because of its leaders. We believe in plurality of leadership, but not like the multiple leaders at Corinth. There, each leader had his (or her) own little following. The church should be led by a plurality of leaders, but they should operate in unity and harmony, governing the whole church and not little segments of it. In his next letter to the Corinthians, Paul is going to reveal the shocking fact that some of its leaders are “false prophets,” who are actually serving Satan:
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. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their deeds (2 Corinthians 11:12-15).
If the church at Corinth has the wrong kind of leaders, Paul will not end this epistle without first pointing out to them the kind of leaders they need. Verses 15-18 focuses on three particular leaders, Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus, as the kind of men who should be in leadership in Corinth. It seems fairly evident that these men were not among those who were in official leadership positions. Or, if they were, they were not typical of the others who were in leadership there. And so Paul turns his attention to these men, commending them to the Corinthians as leaders who should be acknowledged as such. Consider briefly the things Paul commends about these men.
(1) These were men who were among the first to be led to the Lord through Paul’s ministry at Corinth. Paul called these men the “first fruits of Achaia” (verse 15). This would mean, among other things, that these were the oldest believers at Corinth, not necessarily in terms of their age but in terms of their “spiritual age.” Paul could be much more certain about these men, who were converted and discipled under his ministry, than about others whose spiritual births may never have occurred at all. In setting down the qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy, Paul restricted new converts from leadership roles. They were too immature and too inclined to be puffed up with power and pride, just like Satan (3:6). The men Paul recommends are the oldest saints in the city.
(2) The leadership of Stephanas was demonstrated within his own household. Paul speaks not only of Stephanas but of his household. It would seem they have all come to faith. It would further seem from Paul’s words that they, like Stephanas, have devoted themselves to ministry to the saints (verse 15). In both 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, we find that Paul requires elders and deacons to be evaluated in terms of their leadership within their own homes (see 1 Timothy 3:4-5, 12; Titus 1:6). The “household” of Stephanas was evidence to the apostle Paul that this man was a spiritual leader in his home, and thus he had proven his ability to lead in the church.
(3) The leadership of Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus was servant-leadership. Paul commends these men as leaders because they have served the church at Corinth, just as they have served him. They are men who help and labor in the work of ministry to the saints. The pseudo-leaders helped themselves, and they made their followers serve them (see 2 Corinthians 11:20-21).
(4) These men, whom Paul commends as true leaders, served the church and Paul by coming to him in Ephesus. They may, in their coming, have brought gifts to Paul in Ephesus. What we do know is that by their coming to Paul, they “refreshed his spirit,” just as they had “refreshed the spirits of the saints in Corinth” (verse 18). The pseudo-leaders at Corinth were undermining the spiritual health and vitality of the saints there; not so with these men. These men edified the saints at Corinth. I wonder also if these men did not come to Paul with the questions Paul answered in his epistle and with the problems Paul referred to and sought to correct (compare 1:11).
When Paul tells the Corinthians to “acknowledge such men,” I believe he is nominating, as it were, not only these three men but others who were like them. The term “acknowledge” is literally the word “know.” The same word is employed by Paul in 1 Thessalonians:
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, 13 and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, emphasis mine).
Appreciation and respect are certainly due such men, but Paul seems to have more in mind. I believe that he is indicating to the church that these men should be formally recognized as leaders. It is the Holy Spirit who makes men elders (Acts 20:28), but it is the church which formally recognizes this divine appointment (compare Acts 13:1-3). Here is the kind of leadership the Corinthian church needs. Here is the kind of leadership every church needs, and it is our task to identify and recognize such men.
19 The churches of Asia greet you, Aquila and Prisca greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house. 20 All the brethren greet you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. 21 The greeting is in my own hand—Paul. 22 If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be accursed. Maranatha. 23 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. 24 My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen.
When Paul gives his closing words of greeting, he speaks for himself and for others. He is in Ephesus, a city of Asia, and so he greets the Corinthians for the Asian saints. Aquila and Prisca (Priscilla) are present with Paul in Ephesus, as they were with Paul in Corinth (see Acts 18:1-3), and so Paul includes a special words of greeting to the Corinthians from them.
I find Paul’s words in verse 21 amusing. We might very easily pass them by as insignificant, but I believe they are important. If his words were paraphrased in the terminology of our culture, he would be saying, “I, Paul, greet you with my own handwriting, and not by the use of my word processor.” Of course, there were no computers or word processors in his day, but there was a human equivalent, called an amanuenses. These were ancient secretaries who took dictation from the writer. I believe Paul writes with his own hand (as he often indicates) to validate his epistle as coming from him personally. He expects them to recognize his handwriting as his own. Furthermore, I believe he does so to show them how much he cares for them. There is something about a personal note that no fax, e-mail, or mail merge letter can reproduce. Paul has gone to considerable effort to communicate with these saints, because he cares deeply about them.
Lest anyone think this is just a “warm fuzzy” closing, let them take note of the somber words of verse 22: “If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be accursed.” Paul very clearly distinguishes between saints and unbelievers. The difference he indicates here is that saints “love the Lord,” and (by inference) the rest do not. Upon those who do not “love the Lord,” Paul pronounces a curse. Since he is writing to the church at Corinth, I do not think he is cursing the unbelievers of Corinth in general; I believe that Paul is pronouncing a curse upon those who falsely claim to be saints but who in reality are unbelieving sinners. These are the ones living in sin and promoting it in the church.
Paul’s pronouncement of a curse on those who do not love the Lord are virtually the same words found in 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 (Galatians 1:6-9, emphasis mine).
Let all such people find no comfort in Paul’s epistles or in their “ministries.” They are under the curse, as the Scriptures clearly indicate (see Galatians 1:6-9; 2 Peter 2 and 3; Jude 1:1-16).
Some think it matters little whether you attend one church or another. Paul’s words should be sobering. There are those, even within the local church, who do not know our Lord, and who seek to lead others astray from following Him. Paul cannot pronounce a blessing on such people, but a curse, and so he does.
Upon those who are of the household of faith, Paul pronounces this blessing: “The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you” (verse 23). For those who have trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation, there is the blessing of God’s grace. That grace is initially experienced in the forgiveness of our sins, and it is subsequently to be experienced by the Christian every moment of every day. And it is with this blessing and the assurance of his love that Paul concludes this epistle.
233 I would remind you of these two very different statements both made by Paul. “But this I say by way of concession, not of command” (1 Corinthians 7:6). “But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord …” (1 Corinthians 7:10). Let us be as clear in what we claim as divine guidance as Paul is.
235 Robertson and Plummer do question whether Timothy actually ever reached Corinth. They point out that while we can read of the visit of Titus to Corinth in 2 Corinthians, there is no mention of Timothy’s visit. 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]), pp. 390-391.