BODY LIFE

body of Christ 2

 

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Experiencing Life Together #11. Body Life (1 Corinthians 12:12-31)

I learned an important lesson when I was a camp counselor: Never throw an unwilling camper into the lake, especially if one of his buddies is standing on your foot. I learned this lesson the hard way, for although the camper was unharmed (albeit, wet), his friend’s weight on my foot, combined with my momentum, broke the bone of my little toe.

The truth is, I had never paid much attention to my ‘pinkie” toe up until that point in my life, other than to clean lint off of it. For the next few weeks however, I began to learn what an indispensable appendage that smallest piece of my body is. For one thing, what it lacks in size, it makes up for in intensity. I have learned that there is a kind of “nerve layer” that is part of any bone in your body. When the bone is broken, that nerve layer becomes very distressed, no matter how small the bone is. A bone is a bone, no matter how puny and silly looking, and pain is painful, no matter where it originates. Second, I learned how important the health of my little toe is to the rest of my body. My injury interfered greatly in ordinary physical activities. I couldn’t do many things that I normally did, like running, jumping, throwing campers in the lake – even walking was quite difficult and painful for a while. I had to limp in an odd sideways sort of way that eventually caused a great deal of pain to the rest of my foot, and my ankle. I contorted into even stranger methods of motion to ease that pain, and eventually my back became seriously out of line- all because of one tiny little bone in my foot.

Even beyond the ways my puny little toe affected the rest of my body, the injury had ramifications for my greater existence in society. For more than a week I couldn’t even drive a car (it was the toe on the right foot). This had all sorts of implications, not least of which was my inability to get to the Laundromat. For a while I had to stand downwind of everyone. My little toe may even have had a hand in destiny, as it was a certain lovely young camp counselor by the name of Kari Perina who finally offered to help me in my distress, and run me into town for laundry and errands (‘this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship’).

My point is this: though my pinkie toe seems insignificant, even unnecessary, I found I could not get along without it. And when I had to try to operate without it, it affected almost every aspect of my life (I’m not even going to mention bathing).

The Apostle Paul is attempting to make the same point in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, although without the enriching personal experience of a broken toe. This is a passage that is vital to the understanding and practice of house-church ministry. There is an atmosphere, a context for house-church ministry, and that context is what I like to call “body life.” A house-church group really doesn’t work properly unless all members participate in body life and use the gifts and blessings God has given them.

Paul calls the church “the body of Christ’ and he expresses four main truths that this reveals. The first truth is that just as in a physical body, each part belongs to the others. We all have been called to “one Lord one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:5). Paul describes the superficial differences that were predominant in his day: (Jew-Greek, Slave-Free) and asserts that that these are indeed superficial. In Jesus, we all belong to each other. The differences that we may be tempted to point to might include rich-poor, white-colored, expressive-quiet, or any one of a number of things. These differences are not as deep as the truth that if we are in Christ, we are all parts of the same body.

The second Truth is that while we are part of the same body, we do not all have the same function. Each part is distinct. As Paul writes:

“If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.” (1 Cor 14:17-19).

We are not all given the same personalities, talents and traits. We are given our differences so that the Church may function as a healthy body, with all systems operating correctly. There was a time, shortly after the accident I described above, when I felt like my whole body was one huge, throbbing toe. Believe me, it was not a pleasant experience. Trust me, the whole body was not meant to be a toe. In the same, way, we in the body of Christ are supposed to be diverse in our personalities, gifts, backgrounds, races and life situations. These differences do not mean that we don’t belong – but they do mean that we each have a different function to fulfill in touching lives according to God’s pattern.

Third, each part of the body is indispensable. As I illustrated in the beginning, even the smallest part is essential to the well-being of the whole body. As Paul writes:

The eye cannot say to the hand “I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you? On the contrary, those parts that seem to be weaker are indispensable….

But God has combined the members of the body and given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. (12:21-22, 24-25)

The body of Christ needs all of its members to be functioning properly to be healthy. If one part is sick, the entire body is affected. Have you ever thought of Tabitha, the believer from Joppa? We will never know until we get to heaven, whether she spoke in tongues or not. We have no idea whether God used her to bring prophecy or healing. But we do know that she was used by God to help the poor, and this gift was so indispensable to the body of believers in Joppa, that God raised her from the dead to continue using her (Acts 9:36-41).

The fourth main truth that Paul expresses about the church as the body of Christ is that each part needs to work together. This is very similar to the truth he expresses in Ephesians 4:16, where he writes: “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love as each part does its work (emphasis mine).

To put it in very direct terms, I will offer a free rendering of what Paul is trying to get at:

If the whole church were the pastor where would the house-church leaders be? If the whole church were house-church leaders, where would the administrators be? What about those who minister in prayer, or who visit the sick? The deacons cannot say to the house-church members, “we don’t need you,” and those who lead worship cannot say to those who sing, “we don’t need you.”

Are you starting to get the picture? God has a plan for each and every member. If you are a part of this church (or any church) God has a special reason for you to be here. He wants to use you to touch lives in a way that he cannot use any other part of the body. It certainly will require some working together, and perhaps you alone cannot make much of a difference, but without you, the entire body will be affected. This is great news. You are special, unique and absolutely indispensable. In the body of Christ, you are somebody. You also have a responsibility to participate in body life, so that God can use you. You might decide that you cannot be used, or that you are to insignificant. But if you decide that you do not want to be used, or you do not make yourself available to be used, you like my little toe, could end up affecting the very backbone of the body. Now, you don’t need to become anxious over your responsibility. You can only function as part of the body and do your piece, as you depend upon the power of the Holy Spirit. You need only to be willing and available and God will see to it that the details of how you are used work out.You should not be anxious, but instead, rejoice that God sees you as important in his plan to touch the lives of other people. Rejoice that He will give you the wisdom and power you need to be a properly functioning member of His body- even if you are just a little toe.

Your church might need your wisdom, given you speak up. We might need your prayers. Perhaps it is your willingness to serve, or your skill with tools, or your solid dependability, or your education, or your administrative ability. I hope you get the picture: the list is endless. You are somewhere on it. Don’t be the broken toe, remember that each part of the body needs the other parts.

Closing Potpourri

1 CORINTHIANS PART 29. 1 CORINTHIANS 16:1-24


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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.

Resurrection of the Body

1 Corinthians #28

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We have been talking about the resurrection. We have learned that it is central to the Christian faith. We have also learned that it is important to keep in mind that this life on earth is only a small part of the eternity that the Lord has prepared for us. Now, Paul uses 1 Corinthians 15:35-58 to speculate a little bit about what the resurrection will be like.

Paul notes that some people have questions about resurrection: how does it happen? What kind of body will we have? Once we start thinking about resurrection, there are many other questions that come up also. Will we know each other? Do the dead have some sort of consciousness even before the physical resurrection that is to come?

Before we get too far into it, I want to make something quite clear. The bible does not give us detailed answers to questions like these. As we have seen from 1 Corinthians 15, the bible is very positive that there is eternal life through Jesus Christ, and that eternal life includes a physical resurrection. But what exactly we will look like, what exactly we will do for eternity, whether or not our pets will be there – these types of questions are not answered in definitive detail. There are some things in the bible that suggest answers to some of our questions about resurrection and life after death, but a lot of it boils down to what I might call “informed guessing.”

Paul explains part of the problem in verses 36-38

What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.

We are like seeds, sitting in a seed packet, wondering what happens after we are planted, but having no point of reference. I’m growing zucchini squash in my garden right now. The seeds are smooth and flat, roughly the size of a fingernail, but oval shaped. There is kind of beveled border all around the edge of the seed. The seed is cream colored. Now, that seed is pure zucchini. There is nothing in the seed that is anything other than zucchini. It contains every part of the DNA of a full zucchini plant. And yet, the seed is nothing at all like the whole plant – in fact it isn’t even very much like the zucchini squash. The plant is green. It grows to over two feet tall, and more than four feet around of spreading green stalks and leaves. The flowers are long and yellow or orange. The zucchini “fruit” is a foot long or more, with white flesh and dark green skin. The seeds do not change their essential nature. The DNA of the grown plant is the same as the DNA of the seed that dies to produce the plant. Yet the plant is so much more than the seed. And no matter how long you took, you would never be able to imagine the plant merely from examining the seed.

Another illustration comes from the caterpillar and the butterfly. The caterpillar is nothing at like a butterfly. It is slow and ugly and it must crawl on the ground. The butterfly is pretty. It flies, flitting nimbly from flower to flower. And yet the are the same. The caterpillar becomes the butterfly.

This explains some things. We are like seeds talking to each other about what our mature plants will look like – but there is nothing in our experience or knowledge that will help us understand.

So Jesus said in one place that there will be no marriage in heaven. I’m always a little ambivalent about that. What’s wrong with marriage? We will be resurrected, we will have physical existence, and yet things will be entirely different – as different as a seed from the mature plant. It would kind of like the seeds asking if they get to hang out in the little seed envelope with other seeds, once they are mature plants. It’s as if we are caterpillars, wondering if we’ll still get to eat our favorite leaves after we become butterflies – but we haven’t even dreamed of the possibility of drinking nectar from flowers. The kinds of questions we have probably don’t even apply.

Jesus had a resurrected body. This is just pure speculation now – don’t make a doctrine out of what I’m about to write. But it may be that we can learn something from the records we have of Jesus after his resurrection. His body looked human – it had two arms, two legs and so on. And yet, on multiple occasions, those who had known him well failed to recognize him. (John 20:10-15, 21:4, Luke 24:13-32). In those instances, Jesus said something or did something to open their eyes to who he was. So apparently our bodies don’t have to look like our earthly bodies if we don’t want them to. Maybe we can appear in whatever form we choose. Obviously, the wounds on Jesus’ hands were not visible to the disciples who walked with him for hours on the road to Emmaus, or they would have made some comment. And yet, when he chose, he made those wounds visible to Thomas.

Jesus ate food, made a fire and walked around in his resurrection body. That all sounds pretty normal. He also passed through locked doors and moved instantly to other places far away. That sounds kind of fun to me. My personal feeling is that Jesus’ resurrection body is operating in more dimensions than we can perceive. Our bodies operate in the three dimensions of space, and we also interact with the fourth dimension of time. Respectable scientists have theorized that there as many as ten different dimensions in the universe. My belief is that Jesus’ body operated (and still does) in space and time, but at the same time, it also operates in dimensions that we can’t perceive. Maybe our bodies will be like that.

Paul does tell us one thing one. He says our resurrected bodies will be “imperishable” or “incorruptible.” The word “perishable” or “corruptible” has several nuances of meaning. (In Greek it is phthora; fqora) It can mean something that ultimately decays and rots. But it can also mean moral decay, moral corruption. We all know (and Paul points out) that our present bodies decay. We all know that we are morally corruptible. But, Paul says that will not be the case after the resurrection. Our bodies will not decay and break down. Our moral will, the pure heart that is given to us by Jesus, will not ever be corrupted.

Paul says what we sow now is sown in corruption, dishonor and weakness. He isn’t blind to what’s going on here on earth. But the resurrection will be in incorruptibility, in glory and in power. Our present bodies aren’t suited to live forever. Our present soul suffers the effects of sin. But our future body will be indestructible. In the future, our souls will also be indestructible – safe from sin and corruption.

Verse 44 mentions a “natural body” and a “spiritual body.” Clearly the “natural body” refers to what we have now. But the spiritual body does not mean that it is all spiritual and we won’t have physical existence. We have already seen clearly that the Bible teaches there is a physical resurrection. The term “spiritual body” is almost an oxymoron. But clearly, by using the word body, Paul has something physical in mind – but something spiritual also. I think what he means is this. Our spirit has already been perfect in Jesus Christ. We are already – in spirit – cleansed from our sin, holy, blameless, powerful, righteous and so on. At the resurrection, our bodies and souls will upgraded to match that spiritual condition of perfection.

I have always wondered about some other things. Do we go to be with Jesus as soon as we die, or are we “unconscious” of time, so to speak, until the physical resurrection? I don’t think I can give you an answer beyond all doubt, but there are some things in scripture that seem to point to the idea that as soon as we die, our spirits go be with Jesus (if we trust him) or to hell (if we rejected Jesus).

In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus told a parable about two men who died. The point of the parable is not to describe heaven or hell, so we need to be careful not to be overly dogmatic here. However, the parable reveals an afterlife where those who have faith wait for the end in bliss, while those who reject God suffer torment. Since Jesus told the parable, it seems to me that he does not object to that view of what happens right after someone dies.

Matthew 17:1-8 describes how Jesus was transfigured, and the disciples saw him as he met briefly with Moses and Elijah. Obviously, at that point, Moses and Elijah had been dead for many hundreds of years. Just as obviously, the physical resurrection of Jesus had not yet happened, nor has the physical resurrection at the end of the world. But there are Moses and Elijah – in existence, interacting with Jesus. Now the point is not the continuing awareness of Moses and Elijah – the point is that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. However, it suggests (though it does not prove) that people are spiritually alive and aware even before the resurrection at the end.

The book of Revelation records this scene:

When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the people slaughtered because of God’s word and the testimony they had. They cried out with a loud voice: “Lord, the One who is holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth? ”So a white robe was given to each of them, and they were told to rest a little while longer until the number would be completed of their fellow slaves and their brothers, who were going to be killed just as they had been. (6:9-11)

Another verse in revelation says this:

“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit,” they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”(Rev 14:13)

And finally, one more:

13Then one of the elders asked me, “Who are these people robed in white, and where did they come from? ” 14I said to him, “Sir, you know.” Then he told me: These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15For this reason they are before the throne of God, and they serve Him day and night in His sanctuary. The One seated on the throne will shelter them: 16They will no longer hunger; they will no longer thirst; the sun will no longer strike them, nor will any heat. 17For the Lamb who is at the center of the throne will shepherd them; He will guide them to springs of living waters, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Rev 7:13-17)

All this seems to come before the final resurrection. I think sometimes we confuse this continuing spiritual existence with the physical resurrection from death. I’m not sure it matters all that much, because it’s all pretty good for those who trust Jesus, and pretty bad for those who don’t.

Peter writes that in the “day of the Lord” the heavens and the earth will be destroyed (2 Peter 3:10). Revelation 21:1 affirms that, and declares that God will make a new heaven and a new earth. What is the point of the new earth if we don’t have bodies?

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea no longer existed.I also saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband. Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look! God’s dwelling is with humanity, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away. Then the One seated on the throne said, “Look! I am making everything new.” He also said, “Write, because these words are faithful and true.”And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give water as a gift to the thirsty from the spring of life.

Paul closes with these thoughts:

Death has been swallowed up in victory. Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting? Now the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! Therefore, my dear brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the Lord’s work, knowing that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

RESURRECTION–PART 2

1 CORINTHIANS #27. (1 COR 15:12-34)

 

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Sermon from Tom Hilpert on Vimeo.

I want to clear up a little possible confusion about this passage. In our English translations, Paul keeps talking about the resurrection from “the dead.” This makes it sound almost like resurrection from the “world of the dead.” In fact, in Greek, they had a term for that world – they called it Hades. Some people may assume that what Paul is saying is that we aren’t left in “the world of the dead” – Jesus saves us from Hades or hell. This makes the whole thing sound like just a “spiritual” resurrection. We might have the idea that resurrection means we become happy ghosts. But all throughout this passage Paul uses a very specific term for “dead.” The word he uses is pronounced “nekros.” We still use this term in science and medicine – necrosis is the death of living tissue. Necrotic tissue is flesh that has died. So Paul is not talking here about rescue from Hades. He is talking about bringing dead and rotten flesh to life.

We so often misunderstand what the Bible teaches about resurrection. Is there a spiritual resurrection as well? The short answer is, yes, there is also a spiritual resurrection – and if you trust in Jesus, you have already received it. Your spirit will remain alive for eternity. It is already made perfect by Jesus. There is a direction and flow to resurrection – it starts with the spirit, and flows into the soul; ultimately, it is supposed to show up in the way we live our lives.

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (2 Cor 5;17)

20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:20)

1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)

4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, 5 made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! 6 Together with Christ Jesus He also raised us up and seated us in the heavens (Ephesians 2:4-6)

We get all tied up looking for the transformation of the physical. And I think that is why we fail so often to live like Christians. We are starting with the wrong end. God’s plan is ultimately to kill the flesh – to let the whole body become necrotic – so that he can raise it again with a perfection that matches the perfection we already have in spirit. That is the resurrection Paul is talking about here. He has already spoken of the spiritual resurrection earlier. In fact, if you remember, he began the entire letter by talking about how in Christ they were already complete. In Christ, their spirits were already raised in perfection. Their problem has always been that they are not letting that fact dominate their lives. So now Paul ends by speaking about how that perfection will ultimately come to our body as well.

The two resurrections – the spiritual and the physical are connected. Paul’s point here is that the physical resurrection of Jesus proves both of them. If Jesus wasn’t physically raised, then he was just like anyone else. He died, not for our sins, but for his own. He was not vindicated by God. If Jesus wasn’t raised physically then there is no physical resurrection, and there is no spiritual resurrection either.

Paul says two things in this passage that really catch my attention. First, he says this:

If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone. (15:19)

And yet, Christian churches and leaders in the United States are increasingly emphasizing this life over and above our eternal future. I understand some of this. Faith is not simply buying a ticket to heaven that we don’t have any use for until we die. Forgiveness of sins starts now. Right now, we are free from condemnation. Right now, we can receive power to live the way were made to, to be fulfilled in our purpose for life. Right now, we have a purpose for this life – to help the Lord in his disciple-making quest. Right now, the power of God is available to us to heal our bodies, our emotions and our relationships. Right now, God answers prayer and works in us and in the world.

But none of it means anything unless there is indeed a resurrection waiting, and an eternal future where both our spirits and our bodies are pure, uncorrupted and indestructible. This life is just the prelude. It is the count-in before the song starts, the ads before the movie, the opening ceremonies before the game. It isn’t the real thing. It is part of it, but it is not the main event.

Brothers and sisters, let us not treat it as the main event. Let us not get distracted. We have all kinds of grace and many blessing from the Lord in this life. But this life is not all there is. And this life is only an infinitesimally small piece of our eternal future. This life is not the point, not the meaning. And if we seek God primarily because we want his blessings in this life, we are to be pitied more than all people.

There is something else Paul says. He writes: “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.” The idea is this: “Let’s party hard, because it’s all going to end soon.” Our society, by and large lives by this motto. We look for the short term fix, the short term reward, the short term pleasure. We are used to meals in moments, and fruit out of season. We don’t look beyond the next five minutes.

This “party hard, live in the moment” attitude is a symptom. We live this way, because, by and large, we don’t really believe in resurrection. Christianity has always been more readily accepted by people who live in severe poverty or oppression. That is because they don’t have the option of thinking that life is great, and that everything should be about the here and now. People who are near death, also tend to be more open to the message of Jesus. You may have heard the expression “there are no atheists in foxholes.” I might add “or in cancer wards,” or any number of places where death is very real and possibly imminent. Some folks use that phenomenon to suggest that our faith is mere wishful thinking. I think it is exactly the opposite. When you know death is near, you have to confront the fact that this life always ends. No one gets out alive. There is no room for the wishful thinking that we can just have a good time now and not worry about what comes later. The only wishful thinking is the idea that we can ignore death, that we don’t need a resurrection.

Paul tells the Corinthians, “Come to your senses and stop sinning, for some people are ignorant about God. I say this to your shame.”

We need to come to our senses as well. There is so much more to life than this life. Yes, eternal life starts now. Yes God is at work in us and through us and for us right now. But our purpose will not be fulfilled in this life. We are destined for something so much more glorious and amazing. Your physical life began in the womb of your mother. You really were alive there. The way you grew and developed in the womb was important, and it had a profound impact on who you are today. But the womb was just the beginning. Not much of the entire amazing experience that we call “life” can be found inside a uterus.

Today, we are still in the womb. Yes, we are truly alive. Yes, what we do here and the choices we make will shape our future beyond this life. But the real life is still waiting for us out there. Let’s keep our hopes fixed upon Resurrection.

 

RESURRECTION

1 CORINTHIANS #26 (1 Corinthians 14:35-15:11)

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There is something 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 that I want to deal with briefly. Paul writes:

As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

We have already covered the overall topic of gender relationships in depth when we looked for two weeks at the first part of chapter 11. If you missed that, please go back and read or listen to those two messages. You won’t get the full understanding by only reading this sermon. Even so, I want to cover this passage briefly, because it causes trouble for many modern readers of the bible, especially in Western culture. It also gives us a good practical example of how to interpret the bible, especially when you don’t understand something, or when the bible appears to contradict itself.

Paul has already acknowledged that is appropriate for women to pray and prophesy in church (1 Corinthians 11:1-16). Now he says they should keep silent. What is going on here? First, when we interpret the bible, we give the Holy Spirit the benefit of the doubt. In any other book we read, we start with the assumption that the author will try not to contradict himself. So in general, if a statement appears contradictory, in order to understand it, we try first to see if there is a way to interpret it that is not at odds with what has already been said. Not only should we give the Holy Spirit a chance, but we ought to also give Paul (the human instrument of the Spirit in this case), some credit for being the obviously intelligent person he is. Is he likely to contradict himself so blatantly just a page or so later in the same letter?

Therefore, plain common sense shows us that “women must keep silent” does not apply to absolutely every situation in church. We already know it doesn’t apply to women prophesying and praying. So there must be some specific context that Paul is talking about here, where women should keep silent. What would that context be? (Men, insert the joke of your choice here, but you laugh at your own risk…)

In all seriousness, the context of this statement is Paul’s description of an orderly worship service. We already know that women can pray and prophesy, so it isn’t the worship service in general where women must keep silent. Paul describes a few different people speaking, and then he says: “let the others evaluate what is said.” Remember, at that time, there was no New Testament yet. So it was a more difficult thing to determine if a prophecy or word was really from the Holy Spirit or not. Therefore, after someone spoke, Paul wanted the Corinthians to discuss what was said, and evaluate whether or not it seemed to really come from the Lord.

Reading this statement in context, it seems that this “evaluation discussion” is where Paul would like the women to keep quiet. From chapter 11 we learned that God created men and women to fulfill different roles: like dancers have different parts in a couples’ dance, or players have different positions on a football team. Paul describes those roles in terms of submission (for women) and headship (for men). We already covered what this means in our study of 1 Corinthians 11, but I simply want to remind us that biblical submission doesn’t mean subservience or devaluation, and biblical headship does not mean domination or control.

Paul connects this idea of women being quiet during the “evaluation discussion” to biblical submission. If you remember from chapter 11, God holds men uniquely accountable for the spiritual direction of their churches and families. Even though Eve was the one who took the apple and committed the first sin, Adam was the one who was held responsible for leading the human race into sin. So, when the church was basically deciding theology, it made sense that the ones who would be held responsible (the men) were the ones who ought to make the decision, and provide the final evaluation. When we also consider the word “to keep silent” might also be translated “hold your peace” our picture is more complete. Women indeed may have something to say about doctrine, but men are the ones who will be held responsible. So when it comes to a discussion of doctrine, women should hold their peace. Paul adds that if they have questions or concerns, they should share them with their husband at home. Once again the picture here is of a gender-dance, or a team. Everyone has something to contribute, but it is all done in order and with a recognition of how God made us to be, and what our roles are.

—-

Let’s move on now, to chapter fifteen. This is one of the longest sections in the whole letter, and Paul devotes it all to discussing the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Apparently, some of the Christians at Corinth were suggesting that there was no resurrection from the dead. Paul says this in verse 12:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?

It isn’t clear exactly what these skeptics were saying. They may not have been denying that Jesus rose – but at the very least they were claiming that there was no resurrection for anyone else. And it is possible that they even scoffed at the idea of Jesus rising from the dead. Remember, these are people who claim to be Christians. Paul spent more time with this church than any other church he started, except in Ephesus. Sometimes when I read his letters to them, I wonder what went wrong.

By the way, this kind of weird heresy has been repeated at various times in history by those who claimed to be Christians. Karl Baarth, one of the most influential Lutheran Theologians of the 20th Century, believed in the resurrection, but claimed it didn’t matter whether or not Jesus was actually raised. His protege, Rudolf Bultman, went the whole way, and claimed that Jesus was not. I always wanted to meet them and ask them, “So why do you call yourself a Christian and what is the point of your faith?”

So Paul goes back to basic Christian doctrine. This is it in a nutshell – Jesus Christ died for our sins. He was buried. And then he was raised from the dead. This is the message given by Paul and all the apostles. It is the bedrock of the Christian faith. Without the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, there is no such thing as Christianity. So he writes to the Corinthians, that this is:

…the gospel I proclaimed to you; you received it and have taken your stand on it. You are also saved by it, if you hold to the message I proclaimed to you — unless you believed for no purpose. (verse 1-2)

Paul is writing to them maybe twenty-five or thirty years after Jesus was raised from the dead. Today (in 2011) it would be as if I wrote to you about the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981. Many of us were alive, and we remember hearing about it right after it happened. We could certainly still find and talk to many of the people who were there when it occurred. The man who shot Reagan is still alive. Many of the secret service agents and other government workers who were there, are still alive.

At the time of Paul’s letter, the resurrection of Jesus was similarly recent. Paul says, besides himself, there were more than five hundred people who saw Jesus alive after his death, burial and resurrection. Most of those eye-witnesses to the resurrection were still alive when Paul wrote. The Corinthians had apparently met Peter, who was one of the witnesses.

I think we forget that we have this kind of evidence for the resurrection. Yes, it was a long time ago. But so was Julius Caesar, and Cleopatra, and Alexander the Great – and we believe the events we are told about in their lives.

Jesus’ resurrection changed everything – for us, as well as for those first-century Christians. There is a real hope beyond this world. Our entire faith is based upon it. Any meaning in life depends upon it.

 

Tongues. 1 Corinthians #25 (1 Cor 14:1-25)

…to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.” (1 Corinthians 12:10)

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This week we come to the oft-maligned, oft-spoken about, gift of tongues. Simply put, the gift of tongues is a gift which God gives to a believer, that allows that person to speak out, or pray in, a language unknown to that person.

Just like there are apparently three distinct kinds of prophecy, the New Testament seems to describe three distinct gifts of ‘tongues’:

a. When someone speaks out in tongues, others hear it as a language belonging to another part of the earth (i.e. Chinese). Its use here is in evangelism and missions. The first use of tongues that the New Testament records was on the day of Pentecost, when the apostles received the Holy Spirit. They spoke out in tongues, and people from all over the civilized world heard them speaking in their own dialects. Both the wonder of this phenomenon and the message it contained, brought many people to faith in Jesus (Acts 2:1-13). This was a gift from God, for the apostles had not known the languages they were speaking.

b. A special word from God to a group of believers. In the case of this kind of gift of tongues, It must be accompanied by an interpretation. There is no way the special word can be understood without the interpretation. This is the ‘normal’ public use of tongues. Paul describes this in 1 Corinthians 14:13 and 14:27-28. Apparently, at times, believers were inspired to speak out loudly in tongues. Then they, or someone else present, would receive the meaning of what was said, from the Lord. I know that several people in our church have witnessed this at times in a powerful way.

c. A private, spiritual “prayer language.” This is the ‘normal’ private use of tongues. It is useful here if the individual is at a loss for words to pray or praise with, or for prayer for a very difficult situation, or simply to help draw a person closer to Jesus. Scripture describes this in Romans 8:26-27 (the Spirit interceding with intercessions that are beyond our capability to express) and in 1 Corinthians 14:1-18, where Paul clearly describes tongues as prayer from the Spirit, not the mind, which builds up the individual Christian and should not be used in public assemblies.

In general, most of the gifts described in this passage do not “belong" to individuals, but are given to us to bless other people with. It seems that the gift of tongues is a little bit different. The fist two gifts of tongues (see a. and b. above) are gifts that are given on a situation-by-situation basis. For example, Ted Hilpert received the gift of interpretation of tongues once, but he would not describe himself as an Interpreter. The gift was given him in just one specific instance, and has not been given since. Years ago I met a retired Lutheran Pastor named Herb Mirud (who has since gone to be with Jesus) who prayed out loud in tongues on a mission trip to Mongolia, and the Mongolians heard him speaking their language. That was the only time such a thing happened for him.

However, the third kind of tongues – the personal ‘prayer language’ that builds up the individual believer, appears to be given to those who have it, for life. The reason for this is that it is an a gift that builds up the individual so a person can use it anytime. It might also be used by one person to pray for another, and again, this can happen anytime the person decides to use it. It is a grace of God given to people to help them pray with their spirits, and not just with their minds.

There is great value in God’s gift of tongues to the church, but for some reason, tongues has been one of the most controversial topics in the church for the past forty years or so. Tongues has been maligned by all sorts of people, misunderstood, and misused. I believe this has happened in large part because of the persistent rejection of the Bible’s teaching about tongues by many charismatic and Pentecostal churches. I believe that if we who accept the supernatural workings of the Holy Spirit, taught and practiced the scriptural principles given concerning tongues, other Christians and churches would not be so quick to malign the work of the Spirit in this way.

Charismatics and Pentecostals typically make two errors regarding tongues. The first, and most dangerous theologically, is the belief that the gift of tongues is the sign of a sort of “second salvation". Some Pentecostals teach that if you do not speak in tongues, you have not been ‘fully’ saved. This view proposes that there are two stages of salvation. They would say (and I do NOT agree) that Faith in Jesus is the first, the Baptism of the Holy Spirit is the second. For them, exhibiting the gift of tongues "proves’ that you have been fully saved (in both stages). There is absolutely no Biblical justification for this teaching. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul uses tongues as an example of a gift that not everyone has. In 1 Cor 12:30, Paul asks, “Do all speak in tongues?” The question is rhetorical, because answer in Paul’s mind is obviously “no.” A teaching related to the ‘second salvation’ falsehood, is the idea that if a person does not speak in tongues, he/she has not received the Fullness of the Holy Spirit (or the ‘Baptism’ of the Spirit). This false teaching is answered by the same scriptures I have just mentioned.

I believe that the pervasiveness of the “second salvation" idea is one of the reasons why tongues has caused so much confusion and strife. People who hear this kind of false doctrine are naturally upset, for the teaching implies that if you do not have the gift of tongues, you are not a ‘complete’ Christian, or at the very least, you are a lesser Christian. Those who know they are saved, (but have not been given tongues) come out of an experience with this kind of church with a distaste for the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in general, and for the gift of tongues in particular.

The second error, committed by almost every charismatic church I have ever been in, is the rejection of Paul’s instructions for the use of tongues in worship. Throughout 1 Corinthians 14, Paul instructs us about tongues, its use and its place. Paul sees it as of great value in the life of the individual, but of little value in either the small group or large group unless interpretation is present. There is nothing unclear about his instructions:

If anyone speaks in a tongue, two-or at the most three-should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God. (1 Cor 14:27-28)

Charismatic churches across the board have willfully ignored this clear instruction as well as the reasons the Bible gives for the instruction. Let us examine the reasons given for being careful about the use of tongues in public:

a) An episode of tongues without interpretation is unintelligible, and is of no value for

building up the church as a whole (1 Cor 14:2,4, 6-17)

b) Tongues without interpretation are disastrous for evangelism (1 Cor 14:23).

c) Many people speaking in tongues simultaneously, and/or without interpretation is disorderly, and does not reflect God’s character, or the Holy Spirit’s desire for order in worship (1 Cor 14:33).

And yet, if you step into virtually any Charismatic worship service, at some point, you will hear the whole congregation speaking out or singing out in tongues, all at the same time. Many people describe this as a beautiful sound of praise. Sometimes, I am inclined to agree. But that does not deal with what Paul teaches here. I have heard people say that since everyone is praising God, this is just fine. That argument makes no sense to me. It is in contradiction with all three points made by these passages (above). Paul writes:

What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. (1 Cor 14:15-17)

His final thought about the matter is this:

If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. (1 Cor 14:27-28)

I sometimes wonder if many charismatic churches even know that these verses are here! Don’t get me wrong. I believe the gift of tongues is a wonderful blessing from the Lord. I personally have the third gift of tongues (the “prayer language” gift). I use it regularly. Paul says, “now I wish that you all would speak in tongues…” and I agree that it is a valuable thing. But it seems like Charismatic churches try to “prove” that they are charismatic by abusing and misusing this gift, and it grieves my heart. If you are right about something, but you resort to telling a lie in order to prove your point, in the end you only hurt your cause, even though you are correct. Charismatic churches are right to value the gift of tongues. But they hurt the work of the Holy Spirit when they so flagrantly ignore what the Bible says about where, when and how the gift is to be used. Since so many churches have flagrantly ignored scripture’s instruction in this manner, is it any wonder that the gift causes controversy?

However, simply because tongues has been misused, does not negate the fact that God offers a true gift, and the gift has great potential for benefit. Understanding the good side of tongues is just as important as being aware of the dangers.

Jackie Pullinger was a missionary to Hong Kong in the 1970s. She ended up working with many heroin addicts. She didn’t know anything about helping people kick the heroin habit. So she prayed for the addicts to receive the gift of tongues (the prayer-language gift), and then told them to pray in tongues for 15 minutes a day. When they did that, they were able to come out of addiction with no additional help.

Another friend of ours prayed in tongues to help when she experienced panic attacks, which can’t be tamed by logic. Others use it to strengthen their prayer life, or in spiritual warfare.

But I think there is even more to it than that. Paul writes that tongues is also a “sign for unbelievers” (1 Cor 14:22). What is that all about? I think it is a little like this. If you hear a group of people speaking in a foreign language, it is an indication to you that those people come from another place. Now, not all Christians, speak in tongues, but many do. This is a sign that all Christians are citizens of another place. We don’t actually belong here. Once Jesus owns us, we “ain’t from around here” any more. Our true home is in heaven (Hebrews 11:13-16).

While I don’t believe that the gift of tongues is given to all Christians, any more than the gift of prophecy, I do believe that many could have it, if they simply ask. After you ask, you need to give God your voice. What I mean is, go someplace private, and open up your mouth and vocalize. If God has given you the gift of tongues, you’ll find sounds that seem to be words coming out. Don’t worry too much about what language it may sound like.

I have heard dozens of languages in my lifetime. About one third of the world’s languages come from the Island of New Guinea, where I grew up. When you don’t know them, some of them sound like people just pretending to talk a foreign language – but they are really communicating with each other. So, when you first start praying in tongues, you may feel like it couldn’t possibly be a real language that God understands. I say, if earthly languages can sound funny, so can heavenly ones.

One time someone approached a pastor I knew and said, “I don’t get this gift of tongues. When I hear people praying in tongues, it sounds to me like baby talk.”

The pastor said, “Yeah. I think that’s exactly what it is.” His point was, even if that’s all it is, isn’t that great? Parents and grandparents love to hold a little baby who babbles and coos at them. I think God loves to hold us, even if that’s what we’re doing to interact with him when we pray in tongues.

What’s Love Got to do with It? 1 Corinthians #24

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1 Corinthians 13:1-13.

1 Corinthians chapter 13 might be the most famous chapter in the Bible. It is often read at weddings, even when the people getting married aren’t really Christians. And truthfully, most people who aren’t believers like this chapter, and they might even feel that they agree with it. Certainly Christians like this passage also. I have used this passage when preaching at weddings. I have heard other preachers read it, and replace the word “love” with the name “Jesus.” Certainly this does tell us about love in marriage. Obviously, it teaches us about God’s love.

However, in order to understand any bible passage thoroughly, we need to pay attention to the context. Because we’ve been going through 1 Corinthians, if you’ve been with us for a while, you know the context here. This was written to the Corinthians. They were dividing over various preachers. They were suing each other. They were accepting flagrant, open, unrepentant sin. They were making a mess of the Lord’s supper. Paul just spent some time trying to make sure that they would not be ignorant of spiritual things. He told them all about prophecies, miracles, healings, tongues, words of knowledge and discernment. He admonished them to see themselves and each other as indispensable members of the body of Christ. And then he says this: “And I will show you a still more excellent way.” And then he writes what many people call “The love chapter.”

What we need to understand therefore, is this: the love chapter was written first and foremost to Christians concerning how they should love each other in the church community. It’s good to apply this to marriage. It isn’t wrong to apply this to loving all people. It’s helpful to understand God’s love in the light of this chapter. But we must understand that the primary application is to understand this and put it into practice in our own church. This is about how we relate to fellow-believers in our church community. I will suggest some other ways that this is relevant, but to really get it, let’s not lose sight of the context.

The New Testament uses three different Greek words that are translated “love.” There is eros (from which we get the English “erotic”) which is romantic or even sexual love. There is also philia which is brotherly love (hence “Philadelphia” is the “city of brotherly love”). But the word which Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 13 is agape (pronounced uh-gah-pay). It means unconditional, unselfish, sacrificial love. This is the word almost always used to describe God’s love for us. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is telling Christians to love each other in this way.

The apostle John writes to fellow Christians:

For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. (1 John 3:11)

John uses the word agape. In fact, throughout 1 John, he reiterates how important it is for Christians to agape (love) one another. He basically says Christianity consists in trusting and loving Jesus, and loving our fellow Christians.

This is not the only place in the New Testament that gives us that command. Jesus said:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

Jesus’ word is also agape. Read it carefully. He is saying that it is of prime importance that we love one another. We often jump over this detail, but he makes a distinction between his disciples and the world. He doesn’t say that that others will recognize us as his disciples because we love them – but because we love each other. Of course we should show love to people outside the church. But too often we concentrate on that, and we lose sight of the fact that the command of Jesus to love those inside the church.

We may think this it could hurt our outreach if we are focused on loving each other. However, I suspect that when we are good at loving each other, the church will have a lot more appeal for people who aren’t part of it yet. Who wants to join a church where the members are always talking badly about each other? Who wants to join a church where everyone is cold to each other? And I think that until we do truly practice love for each other within the church, our ability to love those outside it is limited. Love starts at home.

The first point Paul makes is basically this: all the talent and effort in the world is pointless if we don’t engage in genuine love for each other. Paul has just finished talking about prophecy; words of knowledge and wisdom; tongues; and the spiritual gift of faith. He says all of these are worthless without love.

Notice that even things that look like love (giving away your goods and possessions, giving your body to the flames) can be done without actual love. This means that love is not just action. There is an inner commitment that distinguishes love from religious actions. I think if we look at this passage objectively, we can see that love is not just a feeling either. No feeling lasts forever – part of the nature of emotions is that they change. But Paul says agape love perseveres. He says love will still be present after the end of this world. What he is describing here simply just doesn’t fit a mere emotion. I like to define it this way: Love is a decision and commitment to value another person greatly. If it is a decision and a commitment, it doesn’t depend on how we feel. Neither does it depend on what the other person does.

Think of it — Jesus probably did not experience loving feelings while he was being crucified. People were spitting on him and mocking him, yet his death on the cross was the ultimate expression of how much he valued those very same people, as well as us. It didn’t matter what he was feeling. It didn’t matter what the people were doing to him. He was living out his commitment to value us.

Love is a decision and commitment to value another person greatly. This is not how our culture defines it. When I was a youth worker I once asked a group of teenage boys to define love. After a little thought, one of them said “Christie Brinkley.” Unfortunately, he was in tune with our culture. Our movies, our television, our music and to some extent even our books, all seem to offer the unified message that all there is to love is eros – romantic/sexual love. Once in awhile we may catch the hint that there is some other sort of love – philia – friendly, or brotherly love. There is another common expression of love in our culture which I call “selfish” love. In selfish love, I experience feelings of love because what you do for me makes me feel good. With this kind of love, you hang out with someone because generally, you feel good when you are with them. But basically, our culture thinks love is feeling. We have to identify this, and then reject it. Eros love is primarily a feeling. It has its place in marriage. But even marriage can’t be sustained only by sexual feelings. A lasting marriage needs the solid foundation of agape, which is not a feeling, but a commitment to value and honor another.

I won’t spend a lot of time on every aspect of love that Paul lists here, but I want to pick out just a few of the qualities that he names, not necessarily in any particular order:

Love is patient. One thing I’ve noticed about my fellow-Christians is that they aren’t as great as me. I want them to get with the program. I want them to grow and mature. I want them to quit fooling around with their lives and really live entirely for Jesus. I want them to quit swearing, quit getting drunk, quit falling into temptations. I want them read their bibles every day, to be consistent in coming to small groups, to be consistent coming to Sunday worship. But the truth is, God has been so patient with me in all these areas. We can be patient with each other when people don’t seem to change as fast as we want.

Some years ago I counseled with a couple who wanted to get married. There were some obstacles. The timing wasn’t quite right. The woman called me during this time, very anxious. She seemed almost desperate to get married right away. I said, “What are you worried about? If your love won’t last for two years while you wait for these things to get worked out, then you’d be better off not getting married in the first place. But if what you have is real love, you’ll still have it in two years.”

I want to be straightforward with some of the young people who read these sermon notes also. If you are in a relationship and you feel like you can’t wait until you are married until you have sex, then understand, that feeling is not love. Love is patient. If your boyfriend or girlfriend can’t wait, then understand – he or she is not motivated by love. Love is patient!

Paul also says love is not envious. That one nailed me just this week. As a man I sometimes fall into the trap of feeling like I’m validated (or not) by how successful I am. A pastor I know in our area is younger than me. He started a church about the same time as New Joy was started. I just heard again this week about how well his church is doing. I know he’s doing pretty well financially too. But agape love is not envious of the good fortune or success of others. I should be happy that God is using him. Just as I was writing this, I paused to ask the Lord for forgiveness, and to give me agape love for my fellow pastor, and brother in the Lord.

That brings me another point. As a standard of behavior, we cannot possibly hope to obtain agape love through our own human effort. We need the Holy Spirit to give us his love to love others with. He will, if we ask him, and receive it willingly.

Another thing Paul says about love is that it “keeps no record of wrongs.” In other words, love results in true forgiveness. There is no resentment or ongoing bitterness in it. This is very important when it comes to relationships in churches. Because of Jesus, God holds no record of your wrongs. How then can you, who have been so completely forgiven, refuse to let go of the wrongs that have been done to you? If you get close to people – and in church, we are supposed to get close to each other – we will get hurt from time to time. We must learn to forgive, and let those hurts go.

Paul writes in verse 7 that loves endures all things. Looking at the Greek, it might be put like this: “love always perseveres.” We don’t give up on each other. We don’t say “that’s it, I’ve had it with you, we’re done.” No, agape love perseveres through all things. This is related to what Paul says when he writes: “love never fails.” Another way to put it might be this: “love never falls from grace; it never loses its position or compromises its virtue.”

Erotic love, friendly love and selfish love are all real, and they contain parts of what love in general can be (although the Bible makes it clear that the expression of erotic love is to come within marriage only). It is tough going when you love someone who never makes you feel good. It is normal to value people with whom you have positive experiences. It is only natural to seek as a mate someone who is physically attractive to you. But these kinds of love so venerated by our culture, cannot ultimately last without agape, and they can become quite self-oriented. People have divorced their spouses to seek erotic love elsewhere when the glow faded for a time. When the sexual urge is satisfied, or at the very least in those times when the partner somehow becomes less attractive, erotic love is out the window. Others have divorced, or cut off friendships simply because “he didn’t make me feel good any more, and I need to do what is best for me” or because “the spark was gone.” This sort of love only lasts as long as you are able to perform for each other. As soon as you stop doing things that make me feel good, I will no longer feel love for you, and vice versa. In the final analysis, without the rock solid basis of a decision and commitment to value someone, (that is, agape love) all other forms of love are conditional.

Agape love can be hard work – anything that is not self-oriented can be hard work. To value someone when you do not feel particularly fond of them is not the easiest thing in the world. To serve someone when you feel almost as tired as they do, is not always immediately rewarding. But the minute we go back to relying solely on how it feels is the minute we abandon true Biblical love.

True love is not a noun, but a verb. Love is an action word. It is not really about all those nice feelings. When you truly love, you will get those neat feelings from time to time, but the substance of love is not in those feelings. The true stuff of love is in the commitment to value others.

This is the way God loves us. This is how we can be loved, even when we know that we are not loveable. God has made an ultimate commitment to us, to value us above all else. He was willing to die for the sake of that commitment. His love does not depend on us doing things to please Him or make Him feel good. His love does not depend on the attractiveness of our personality, or on any physical beauty. His love depends solely on His own will, and His will eternally is to value us and treat us as of great worth. As the writer of Hebrews says:

Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged. (Hebrews 6:17-18)

God loves us with an unchanging commitment. The only way we can ever learn to love others in that way is to receive God’s love, and let Him love others through us, and allow Him to make good on our desire to make a commitment to value others.