Closing Potpourri


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1 Corinthians chapter 16 is kind of a potpourri of closing thoughts, some of them apparently even kind of random. Even so, it is important for two reasons.

First, it is a window into the documentary heritage of the bible. There are certain groups of people who claim the bible was made up by people who wanted to control others through religion. They say the New Testament was gathered and edited by people with an agenda; that it was not inspired by God. Personally, if I was making something up, I’d leave 1Corinthians 16 out. It doesn’t look edited or shaped at all. In fact, it shows us what 1 Corinthians actually is: a letter, written by a real person to other real people. I believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the letter; I believe that the Holy Spirit has, and will continue to, use the words of this letter to teach God’s people and draw them closer to Jesus. In short, I believe that the ultimate source of the letter is the Spirit of God, and it remains supernaturally meaningful and powerful and authoritative. But that does not change the fact that the means the Holy Spirit used in this instance was one real historical person, writing a letter to other real historical, people.

Very shortly after they were written, the letters of the apostles, and their writings about the life of Jesus (which we call the gospels) were copied and shared with all the churches. Many, many copies of each of these documents were made within a short period of time. Within about two hundred years, these writings had all been gathered together into one group of documents which we call the New Testament. Each document in the New Testament had to have a clear historical connection to a known apostle, and each one had to be in wide use throughout virtually all churches in the known world at the time. Each one also existed in multiple copies, so the copies could be checked against each other for accuracy.

There are other pseudo-Christian documents that survive from the period. Generally, only a few local churches had these, and they cannot be traced back clearly to any apostle. There are very few copies of these, compared to early copies of New Testament writings. Those documents were not included in the New Testament. Every couple years, the National Geographic Society trots one of these out as if it were a major new discovery (bible scholars have known about them for almost a thousand years). They call them “The Lost Gospels” or do some sort of article or TV show about the missing books of the New Testament. This is nothing more than extremely poor scholarship sensationalized to gain readers and viewers, and possibly to push an anti-Christian agenda.

My point is, when we look at 1 Corinthians 16, we see the New Testament for what it is. It is very hard to read this chapter and maintain that it was made up a hundred years after the fact. This passage is far too haphazard and far too personal either to be made up, or to be left in by editors who had a religious agenda.

There is a second reason why I want to look at 1 Corinthians 16. Romans 15:4 says

For whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction, so that we may have hope through endurance and through the encouragement from the Scriptures.

When Paul wrote that, he was talking about the Old Testament, but it applies equally to the New Testament. The idea is that even in a chapter like 1 Corinthians 16, there are things that can instruct and encourage us. There are three things I want to pick out of this chapter with that in mind.

Verses one through four are about a collection that was being taken to help out the Christians in Jerusalem. We know that there was a famine that hit Palestine in the mid 40’s. Times were very different then, it may have taken years or even decades for the region to recover, and so other Christians were still trying to help out their brothers and sisters in that area. I want to pay particular attention to something Paul says: “Each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income.” The entire bible affirms the two principles contained here.

The first principle is that we should give some of our money and resources to God’s work. We learned in 1 Corinthians 9 that an essential part of this work is preaching and teaching His Word , and God intends some people to devote their full time to it. Other people need to give for that to happen (1 Corinthians 9:14). That principle is affirmed many times in the Old Testament as well. In addition, the New Testament encourages churches to provide material help to widows and orphans – that is people who had no options when it came to income. Finally, here we find the principle of helping other believers who are need due to circumstances beyond their control.

The second principle is that of proportional giving. Paul says to set aside an amount in keeping with income. In other words, a percentage. This is both important and useful. It is important, because it means that everyone can and should give. If you only make $100, you can’t afford to give $100. But you can afford $10. However, if you make $1000, you can afford $100.

Jesus affirmed this principle himself. In Mark 12:41-44 he observed a widow who gave two copper pennies. He compared her to others who were giving large amounts. He said:

“I assure you: This poor widow has put in more than all those giving to the temple treasury. For they all gave out of their surplus, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she possessed — all she had to live on.”

In other words, he wasn’t that impressed by people who gave because they had extra. He was touched by proportional giving. Sometimes we wait and see what we have extra, and decide what we can afford to give after everything else is taken care of. My problem, when I do that, is that I never have extra. But when it comes to giving, the entire bible in many and various ways encourages us to give to God first, and to do it as a percentage of what we get. Paul knows this, and so he tells them to set aside money each week in proportion to their income.

The next thing I want to pick out these verses for our instruction and encouragement is that Paul takes time here to name several leaders. He lists Timothy, Apollos, Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus. He tells them to treat Timothy well, and help him. He says of them all:

…They have devoted themselves to the service of the saints. Submit to such as these, and to every fellow worker and laborer.

…Give recognition to such men..

Remember how this letter began? Paul chastised them for following leaders instead of Jesus, and starting sects based upon the personalities of their leaders. Now, he tells them to recognize leaders, listen to them and give them respect. He doesn’t want them to form cliques around leaders, or to elevate them to cult-status. But he does want them to recognize that God has chosen certain people to teach and lead them, and he wants the Corinthians to be humble enough to learn from those people, and to contribute to the the disciple-making effort under their guidance.

I find two opposite extremes to be quite common among Christians. There are some who venerate leaders and elevate them far beyond what they should be. “Pastor John says this, so that’s the way it is.” I’ve seen people believe things that are unbiblical, simply because a charismatic leader told them it was true. That extreme is wrong. Our faith is in Jesus, not human leaders. But I’ve also seen Christians who have contempt for any kind of spiritual leadership. These people are not humble and teachable. They fail to recognize that some folks  are called to teach the bible and give spiritual guidance to God’s people. So in the first part of this letter, Paul warns them about the first extreme. Now he warns them about the second. There is a place for spiritual leaders. Those who are not called to that ought to be teachable enough to listen to and receive God’s help through those who are called to lead.

The last things I want to point out from this text come from verses 13-14. Paul gives them a rapid fire set of final thoughts: “Be watchful, stand firm in faith, act like men, be brave, act in love. When it says “act like men” I think what Paul really means is, “it is time to grow up in your faith.”

Remember how Paul began this letter. These Corinthians have all that they need – in Jesus Christ. In Jesus they are complete, they are wise, they are spiritually gifted, they have all things. The bulk of the letter, Paul spent pointing out how they were failing to live their lives out of who they are in Christ. Instead they were living out of their own flesh and their own efforts. So now Paul closes by saying, among other things: get steadfast about your faith – it’s time to give up these flesh-patterns and this self life. It’s time to grow up. Growing up means that they should be living out of the fullness that is in Jesus, not the emptiness and vain effort that comes from their flesh.

 it’s time to give up these flesh-patterns and this self life. It’s time to grow up. Growing up means that they should be living out of the fullness that is in Jesus, not the emptiness and vain effort that comes from their flesh.

That’s terrific advice for us too. For each one us, I bet there are areas for each one of us where we need to grow up. It’s time to stop living for ourselves; to stop pretending that life is about us. Instead, let’s grow up. Let’s be steadfast in our faith, be bold, be courageous and live out of who we are in Jesus.

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