C.S. Lewis writes about heaven in his little book, The Great Divorce (the book is not about marriage or divorce, it is about heaven and hell). The main character arrives in heaven and witnesses many different interesting, joyful and fearful things. At one point, he sees a procession coming toward him. Angels are dancing around a person who is approaching, throwing flowers on the ground as they go. A choir of boys and girls stride alongside, singing the most beautiful music ever heard. Dozens of bright and beautiful animals also attend this celebrity. The person is a woman, clothed in brilliant light, beautiful beyond imagination. The main character in the book immediately assumes this must by Mary, mother of Jesus.
“Is it?…is it?” I whispered to my guide.
“Not at all,” said he. “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith, and she lived at Golders Green.”
“She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance?”
“Aye, she is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”
This is one of the points that Paul is making as he writes to the Corinthians. Apparently the Corinthians were proud of themselves spiritually, and they were drawn toward things that looked good on the outside. That was one reason that had begun to follow human leaders – they liked the way it looked to be associated with people they felt were successful or of good reputation.
But Paul is reminding them that God doesn’t work the world does, and he doesn’t evaluate things the way the world does. As the Holy Spirit said to Samuel:
Do not look at his appearance or his stature, because I have rejected him. Man does not see what the Lord sees, for man sees what is visible, but the Lord sees the heart. (1 Sam 16:7)
This is a major theme throughout the entire Bible, and Paul is reminding the Corinthians of this. Throughout Biblical history, God chose differently than most people would have. He used Jacob, the second born (and in those days the first born was considered to be most important, while other siblings were mere accessories). He chose Judah, not Reuben the first born of Jacob. He also chose Joseph, the 11th of twelve brothers. He chose Moses, the youngest of three siblings, a man who was not much of a speaker, to lead the people of Israel. He used a prostitute, Rahab, to help the invading Israelites, and she became an ancestor of the greatest king of Israel, who was himself the eighth brother in an ordinary family. He chose a teenage girl to be the mother of messiah. He chose a bunch of under-educated, thick-headed fisherman to bring to the world the eternally significant news of salvation through Jesus Christ. As Paul writes, God has consistently chosen the foolish, the weak, the despised and the things of no account. Jesus himself painted the same sort of picture of God’s kingdom:
At that time Jesus said, “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because You have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to infants. (Matt 11:25)
But many who are first will be last, and the last first. (Matt 19:30)
The greatest among you will be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matt 23:11-12)
In addition, the Corinthians themselves were not much account, when you got right down to it. Paul reminds them of this. He may be trying to poke a hole in their pride, but I think he was also encouraging them to put their confidence in God’s work, not in outward appearances, not in human leaders, and not in themselves.
Paul does not exclude himself from all this. In chapter 2, he says that he belongs in the category of foolish, weak and despised in the world’s eyes. If you remember from the first message on 1 Corinthians, Paul did in fact, arrive in Corinth shaken by his recent experiences in Macedonia. He isn’t just being polite – from all that we know, he would have been physically weak from travels and beatings, and emotionally fragile from the rejection and hatred that had been directed at him almost everywhere he went. Paul is reminding them that it was not his preaching or wisdom or impressive personality that led them to Jesus – it was the power of the Holy Spirit.
I think all this is very important to us in America in the 21st century. In America, we love winners. We love success. We often think that bigger must mean better. Let’s be honest here. Don’t you believe that the CEO of Wal-Mart is doing better than the owner-operator of a local appliance-repair store with two part-time employees? And by “doing better” don’t we really mean running a bigger operation, and making more money? But the small-time owner might be much happier than the CEO. He might have a better marriage, and have better relationships with his kids. He might have more significant positive impact on the lives of those around him, than the CEO. But we are inclined to judge only on external successes, and those are mostly judged on size and money.
Some of you have become aware that your pastor now drives a clean, nice-looking Mercedes-benz. People might observe that and say “He must be doing all right.” I hear people make those kinds of judgments about others all the time. But think about it – what kind of conclusion is that? Does the Mercedes say anything about my marriage? Does it say anything about my happiness, or how close I am to the Lord? Plus, most of you don’t know how much or little I paid for it. As it happens, the car is 16 years old with 142,000 miles. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy with it, but as measure of how anyone is really doing in life, a car is flat-out ridiculous.
I’m tempted to do the same thing as a pastor. I can start to think big churches are doing well, just because they are big, and I wonder about small churches – just because they are small. The church that Jesus left behind him was small. Paul started a bunch of churches, but most of the evidence suggests that they were all quite small.
Sometimes we get ourselves a tiny bit of depth, and we go beyond what looks good and start glorifying what sounds good. I think this is why so many people are led astray into the prosperity gospel. It sounds good to say that following Jesus is a way to get health and wealth in this life. You can build a big following quickly that way. Others sit and listen to preachers or mentors who put on a great show, but when it’s all over, there was very little substance to it. People in Germany used to say that when they listened to Adolf Hitler, they were mesmerized, but if they were told in cold factual, unemotional terms what Hitler actually said, they were appalled and repelled.
I take two things from this. First, I should be encouraged if I feel sometimes like I am of no account and insignificant in this world. God uses people like that. The world’s evaluation is meaningless. If I am small, weak, foolish, no-account, then I just might be useful and important in God’s kingdom.
Second, I need to learn to evaluate things the way God does, not the way the world does. Paul talks about this in chapter 2, verses 6-16. Paul says we can’t understand God’s way of thinking through human wisdom and learning and logic. He says instead, that we need revelation. Revelation is simply God revealing his Truth to us. Paul says this happens through the Holy Spirit. We can’t get it for ourselves by logic or judging with the world’s standards and tools. We need to ask for it and receive it from the Holy Spirit. We need to ask God to show us his way of looking at things. And we get that perspective because the Holy Spirit lives inside of us, and reveals spiritual truth to us.
There are many things we can learn without God’s revelation. We can learn the laws of gravity, and calculus1 and how to make soup without special revelation from God. But if we want to see ourselves and others the way God sees us, we need revelation. If we want to know what God is up to in our lives, we need it. If we are to be effective in blessing others with God’s love and grace, we need His revelatin through the Spirit.
Now, I want to make some things clear. God’s ultimate, special-revelation is the Bible. He revealed his truth to the human writers of the Bible, and they wrote it down. All other revelation must be judged by the Bible. In other words, if you have a revelation that adultery is not sinful, it is not a revelation from God, because God’s ultimate revelation, the Bible, already tells us that adultery is wrong.
But we are supposed to live in a daily relationship with Jesus through the Holy Spirit. We should expect the Spirit to speak to us and reveal truth to us. (John 14:25; 15:26; 16:13-15)
When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth. For He will not speak on His own, but He will speak whatever He hears. He will also declare to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, because He will take from what is Mine and declare it to you. Everything the Father has is Mine. This is why I told you that He takes from what is Mine and will declare it to you. (John 16:13-15)
The bible and the daily interaction with the Spirit work together. According to Paul in this passage, without God’s spirit, we wouldn’t really even get what the Bible is saying. We need the Spirit in us, doing what Jesus said he would do, which is to explain and teach us all that Jesus said. Without the Spirit, and His revelation, the Bible won’t make much sense to us.
As we consider these things today, let the Spirit reveal his truth to you. Maybe he is calling you out for judging by outward appearances and getting caught up in the standards of the world around us. Maybe he is speaking to you about feeling small and insignificant. Maybe he is just encouraging you to get closer to Him, so that you will know him better.
1Actually, I’m not sure that I could learn calculus without God’s special revelation.