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.

The Dance. 1 Corinthians 11:3-16

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There are seven passage in the New Testament which teach clearly and openly about the roles of men and women in the church and in the family. This is one of them. There is a great deal to explore in this passage. Too much for a single, ½ hour sermon. So I will break this up over two weeks. Please understand, if you only read this message, you are missing out on half of the message, and your understanding of what I am saying will be incomplete. Please do not quote me or assume you know what I am saying until you have heard or read both messages.

There are typically two responses to passages like this one. The first is to simply accept it without any real study. This usually results in rules that say women should wear hats or head-coverings, and women should “keep in their place” (meaning they have very little real input in church or family). I call this approach Traditionalism. I don’t think it does justice to what the bible really says.

The second reaction is to recognize how different this teaching is from our culture today, and find some way to interpret it that ends up either being meaningless, or even meaning the opposite of what it actually says. I call this approach Evangelical Feminism, and I think this also ends up failing to really appreciate what the Bible says. In fact, I think Evangelical Feminism lays the foundation that ends up in plain old heresy.

I am not saying that my parents taught me this, but I grew up basically thinking along Evangelical Feminist lines. In my teen years I heard some ways to dismiss the teaching of this passage and others like it. Basically, I accepted the argument that this passage is specifically and only for the culture of Corinth in the 1st Century, and it really doesn’t apply to us anymore. I categorically rejected any notion that there were some roles that should be held only by men or some that should be held only by women.

I was in college before I heard anyone seriously argue that these passages actually mean something in today’s world. I didn’t like the person who made the argument, and I dismissed it out of hand. A few years later, some people that I truly respected told me that they believed there was something to this, and the six other passages which teach about gender-roles. I began to be a bit more open, but I still maintained Evangelical Feminism.

Finally in seminary I looked into it for myself, and I was humbled to find out that I had been careless in my approach to the Bible about this subject.

The fact is, I think most Christians end up at either extreme. Traditionalists use passages like this to repress and even oppress women. Evangelical Feminists do theological gymnastics to make the same passages meaningless, and end up re-writing the Bible to say whatever suits them. But there is a middle road, the way of Truth.

It is true, part of this passage is just cultural application. But part of it is the teaching of important eternal truths. And we should bear in mind that this is just one of seven passages, all of which teach the same eternal truths about men and women.

The cultural aspects have to do with hairstyle. Paul says:

If it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head.

The question is, what if it is not a disgrace for a woman to have short hair? The fact is, Paul seems to be basing his application instructions upon the hairstyles of his time. Again he writes:

14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?

The question arises again – is long hair a disgrace to men? That appears to be a fairly superficial thing that changes with the times.

However, we make a grave mistake if we say that this entire passage is merely a discussion of how Christians should wear their hair in 1st Century Corinth. In fact, if we dismiss the whole passage as cultural, we have greatly weakened the biblical case for two vital ministry roles that are open to women.

Paul’s teaching here is quite clear: women can and should pray in public, and women can and should prophesy in public. This is the only New Testament passage that explicitly endorses women in these ministries. So if we say the whole thing is cultural, then the idea of women prophesying and praying is also only a cultural accommodation to the 1st Century.

The fact is, we have two things going on this passage:

  • First, there is the teaching of a universal truth about men and women

  • Second, there is an application of that truth to 1st Century Corinth.

The specific application (in this case, hairstyles during worship) may or may not be relevant today, but we still need to seek to apply the universal truth to our situation.

The universal truths expressed here are basically this:

  • The male gender is the spiritual head of the female gender, just as Christ is the spiritual head of the church and the Father is the spiritual head of Christ (v. 3).

    • This is a result of how we are created (Genesis 1:27). It is demonstrated in Genesis 2, by the fact that Eve was created to be a helper-companion to Adam, to fulfill him and to join with him in caring for the world (v. 8-10).

  • Even so, men and women are not independent of each other – they need to work as a team (v. 11).

  • In worship and in the conduct women’s ministries, these truths should be reflected in some appropriate way (v. 10).

This is exactly the same basic message that we find in the other six New Testament teaching passages which deal explicitly with gender roles. For example, Ephesians 5:22-23:

Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of the body.

This idea of “headship” is troubling to us in the Western World in the 21st century. But it is an often repeated idea in the Bible. Here, Paul connects the idea both to the nature of God (v.3) and also to how we were created(v.8). If we look at these two things, we might gain a better understanding of what exactly this relationship means.

The bible describes God as a Trinity: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He is one God. There are not three Gods, but only one. The bible also teaches that he exists as three persons at the same time. So the Father is God, but he is not the Son or the Spirit. The Son, Jesus Christ, is God, but he is not the Father or the Spirit. The Spirit is God, but he is not the Son or the Father.

The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equal to each other. We worship all three persons as one God. We pray to all three. There is not one that is “better” than another one – they have the same God-nature.

Even so, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have different roles. It was Jesus Christ, the Son who took on human flesh and walked physically in this world. It was he who died for us, not the Father or the Spirit. It is the Spirit who lives in our hearts and imparts the power and life of God to us, not the Father or the Son. It was the Father, who sent the Son, not the Son who sent himself. It was the Father who said “this is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

The fact that the Son has the role of the Son does not make him less important than the Father. The Spirit’s role does not make him more important than the Son. They are equal, but different.

So when Paul says, “and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God,” it does not mean inequality. What it means is that men and women have different roles. Like the Trinity, Men and women are equal. Like the Trinity, men and women are different. Men and women were made for different roles.

Paul makes reference to Genesis in 1 Cor 11:8. There are two passages from the first part of Genesis that I want to briefly consider. The first is Genesis 1:27

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (emphasis mine).

We were made in the image of God. We have just seen that God exists equally and the same in nature, but different in personality and role. It seems clear that Paul is referencing this exact idea. The fact that “God is the head of Christ” has nothing to do with equality – it is about role. In the same way “man is the head of woman” is not about equality. It is about role.

In addition, we see that the different roles of the Trinity give the Father, Son and Spirit opportunities to give each other honor and glory. The Son gives honor and glory to the uniqueness of the Father. The Father lifts up the Son above all things. The Spirit gives glory to both. This giving of honor and glory to the each other does not erase the distinctions between the three Persons. Even though the Father glorifies the Son, and they are equal, they are still different, and live out of their different roles. In fact, they could not honor each other in this way unless they really did have different roles. Their different roles provide an opportunity for them to honor, bless and love one another. The Father does not relinquish his Fatherhood, or change the Son into the Father. He gives him glory as the Son. The Son does not glorify the Father for coming to earth, but for being the Father. All three Persons, acting out their different roles, complete the Trinity, and they work together as a team for a common purpose.

In the same way, because men and women are different, and have different roles, we have the opportunity to honor and love one another in special ways. When we erase those differences and those roles, we also erase the opportunity for men to honor women as women and for women to honor men as men. There is unique glory and honor in being female. There is unique glory and honor in being male. But if we say that men and women must be not only equal, but also the same, we are eliminating those honors.

Paul also references Genesis chapter 2, which describes Adam being created first, and getting lonely, and being unfulfilled, even in sinless paradise. Eve is then created, to fulfill Adam, and to assist him in the mission of humanity, which at that time was to manage God’s creation. The Bible uses the term “helper-companion” to describe Eve’s role.

If Eve had nothing unique to bring, why was Adam lonely? If Eve had nothing unique to bring, then why did God make her? It wasn’t just about reproduction. God certainly could have designed that differently. So woman was created to fulfill a unique role, one that man could not fulfill, the role of helper-companion. In the same way, woman was not created to fulfill man’s role. That would imply that either man or woman is redundant. But woman is not a redundancy, nor is man.

We have a situation today where there is great confusion about this. In many places, Eve, instead of seeking her unique created purpose, is trying to do Adam’s job. Meanwhile, Adam, for the most part, is happy to let Eve do it, because he is too cowardly to risk a fight, and he is prone to be passive anyway. I believe that is the reason that New Testament teaches explicitly about this subject no less than seven times.

The other thing we have done is to separate the genders. We act as if we have a whole bunch of independent missions in life which are not necessarily connected. A man has his ministry, and a woman has her ministry. But Paul disagrees. He writes:

11 In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman.

The teaching of 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 is a correction to the independence we try to have from each other. Here is a summary of what we have learned so far:

  • Men and women are created in the image of God to be equal

  • Men and women are created in the image of God to be different and have different roles. The spiritual role of men is “head” and the spiritual role of woman is “helper companion.” (*We have not yet considered how to apply this).

  • Men and women are created to function as a team.

A few months ago, as I was praying about this whole topic, I felt like the Holy Spirit gave a me word. The word was “dance.” After that, I watched “Dancing with the Stars” a few times, to try and understand what He might be getting at. I think “Dance” describes very well the Lord’s plan for relationships and roles between men and women.

  • First, a couple’s dance is usually more appealing and attractive than just one person dancing by himself or herself. This goes along with Paul’s insistence that men and women are not independent from each other. Both are necessary in this spiritual dance.

  • Second, them and women have different steps in a dance. If the woman did the same steps as the man (or vice versa) the dance would not be beautiful. It would chaotic. In the same way, this reflects that fact that men and women have different roles. The steps each one takes, complements the actions of the other.

  • The man leads the dance. And yet, one of his primary goals in leading is to show off the beauty and grace his partner, the woman. His leadership does not make him better, or even necessarily draw attention to himself. We found this same principle at work in the Trinity. The Father does not glorify himself, but glorifies the Son. The Son glorifies the Father. So in the gender-dance, leadership is a role, but it does not mean that the leader is better or more valuable.

Please check back next week for the second part of our study of this passage.

Communion: Remembrance, Or More

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Paul finally returns to the question that began his rambling: is it OK to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols? In actually answering this question, he provides us with some interesting and important teaching on another subject also: the significance of the Lord’s Supper.

Theologians call it the Eucharist. Some regular people call it the Lord’s Supper. Others call it communion. Honestly, I like the term Communion, and I’ll share why in just a moment.

Paul compares idol worship to true Christian worship. He says:

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? (1 Cor 10:16)

I think it is quite obvious that Paul is referring to the Lord’s Supper. The word “participation” here is also translated “sharing.” The Greek word is koinonia. It is often translated “fellowship,” but especially it is the main word for “community” or “communion.” What Paul means is that to eat the bread and to drink the wine is to enter into community with Jesus. When you are in community, it means that you have relationship with those in the community. It means that you interact, you communicate. People in community are committed to each other at some level. So as we participate in communion, we are connected with Jesus in some way. There is some kind of commitment implied between us and the Lord. There is some kind of communication that takes place between Him and us.

There is also community among the people who take communion together:

Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread (1 Cor 10:17)

Paul further explains by mentioning the temple sacrifices practiced by the people of Israel. In every sacrifice except the burnt offering, the worshipers would bring an animal to be killed. Part of the animal would be burned on the altar, symbolically giving it to God. Part of it would be given to the priests and temple workers to eat. The rest of it would be eaten by those who came to worship. In other words, eating the sacrificed animal was an act of faith, an act of worship and an act of community. You wouldn’t even be there to eat if you didn’t have faith. You wouldn’t be there if you didn’t belong somehow to the group that was offering the sacrifice. Eating and drinking connected you to God and to those with whom you ate. In the same way, says Paul, eating and drinking communion is an act of faith, an act of worship and an act of Christian community. It connects us with the Lord, and it connects us with each other.

Now,There are three widely held differing views about Communion. The first one, held generally by Roman Catholics, is called “transubstantiation.” They believe that when the priest/pastor speaks the words spoken by Jesus, the bread and the wine miraculously turn into the actual flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. After all, Jesus said “this is my body, this is my blood.” Thus, the significance of communion in this view is that you are physically imbibing Jesus.

Another view is held by many Baptists, Methodists and others. They would say that communion is all about remembrance. After all, Jesus said “do this in remembrance of me.” So they would say that significance of communion is that it reminds of Jesus and his sacrifice for us. 500 years ago, during the time of the Reformation, the Roman Catholic church was saying that communion (which they called and still call “mass”) was actually a ceremony wherein Jesus sacrificed himself for us again. In other words, every mass was a new sacrifice of Jesus’ body and blood. Partly in reaction to this, many reformers rejected any idea of anything “mystical” about communion. To avoid the clearly unbiblical idea of re-sacrificing Jesus, they maintained that there was nothing at all to communion except a remembrance.

A third perspective has traditionally been held by Lutherans. They would say, “yes, it is a remembrance.” They would also say when Jesus says “this is my body, this is my blood” he is saying that when we do this, he is offering us his presence in some way. They reject the idea of a “re-sacrifice” but they point to verses like these in 1 Corinthians and say “there is something more here than only remembering.” There is, in fact, communion with Jesus and with other believers.

The reason I share this is because you may have had questions about communion. Sometimes, people are concerned about what happens to the bread crumbs or the extra wine. Are we throwing pieces of Jesus on the floor, or dumping him down the sink? That concern, of course, comes out of the Roman Catholic view that the bread and wine physically turn into Jesus. I don’t think so. I think communion bread crumbs are like any other bread crumbs.

Some of you may have heard of, or experienced “close communion.” Churches who practice close communion do not allow just anyone to receive communion. You must be a member of the church or denomination. The idea behind this makes sense. If communion is indeed a participation in community with Jesus and other believers, you should be a part of the community. If you don’t trust Jesus, it doesn’t seem appropriate to participate in communion. And if you don’t trust Him, you aren’t truly part of the community of those who do.

Even so, I think “close communion” goes a little too far. That is why I usually say something like “if you trust Jesus, you are welcome to receive the Lord’s Supper.” Who am I to determine if you really trust Jesus or not? Only you and the Lord really know if you trust Him. So I leave it up to every individual to decide if it’s appropriate for him or her to participate in communion. But it is something I think we should all take seriously. There should be no pressure to take part in communion if you aren’t sure you believe.

I want to point out that Paul’s words here indicate that when we participate in communion, there is something that happens here beyond the daily connection that believers already have with Jesus through the Holy Spirit. Paul is writing to people who believe, and that means they have the Holy Spirit. It is clear from 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14 that the Corinthians have also been filled with the Holy Spirit. Even so, he indicates that in communion, there is some connection with the Lord that is different from our day to day Christian faith of walking with Jesus through the power of the Spirit.

I think the Roman Catholic idea that we are taking in the physical flesh and blood of Jesus is more than the Bible actually says. But I also think the idea of some of the reformers, that it is only a remembrance, is less than what the Bible says. Paul is speaking here of some kind of connection that takes place through the eating of the bread and the drinking of the wine. This connection is not carefully defined, but it is clearly indicated. What is all amounts to, is that through communion, we can be connected to Jesus, and to each other, in a special way. The traditional Lutheran way of saying this is that it is a “means of grace.” It is a special way in which God’s grace can touch us. Lutherans (and others) tend to forget, however, that it is also a special way in which we are also connected with each other – with fellow believers.

So, going forward, as we participate in communion I want to encourage you to receive it in the understanding and in the faith that through the eating and drinking, God wants to connect with you in a special way. I often think of it as a tangible touch from the Lord. As my body touches the bread and the wine, so God’s grace just as truly touches me. At the same time, I also encourage you to bear in mind that as we take it together, we are connected to each other in God’s family. We are in community together.

It is from this understanding of Communion that Paul concludes his thoughts about eating food sacrificed to idols. Remember, there are three contexts in which the Corinthians might encounter meat sacrificed to idols: in the meat market, at a dinner party, or at the temple sacrifice ceremony itself.

Paul says not to worry about whatever they buy in the meat market. God is the only God, and everything is his, so enjoy the good cheap meat. When it comes to eating at someone else’s house, Paul’s attitude is similar. Go head, enjoy. However, he says even then to be careful of the conscience of of the people you are eating with. If there is another Christian present who might be compromised in faith if you eat it, then don’t eat it. Paul makes it clear that there is nothing wrong with it, but that we should be concerned about the conscience of others.

But the third context is different. The temple sacrifice is a little like communion. It is a participation in worship. It is a joining with others in their religion. And, says Paul, it is a participation in demons. This is just a side note, but Paul clearly says here that there are demonic powers behind some of the pagan worship. Elsewhere in the New Testament (particularly in the book of Acts) we have seen that demons have some limited power to enact “miracles.” So even though there is no other God, pagan worship is not harmless.

Paul finally ends this section with a terrific summary:

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.

1 Corinthians #13. Paul’s Example

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As always, it is important to study the bible in context. Remember that last week, Paul was tackling the issue of whether it was OK or not to eat meat that had been sacrificed to pagan idols. In chapter 8, he more or less bypassed that question, and said, “the point is, not what you are free to do, but how your actions affect your fellow Christians.”

Chapter nine, our text for this week, is a continuation of that theme, however Paul continues it with very personal examples. He describes for the Corinthians how he himself has refrained from exercising his freedom in order to encourage them in their own faith.

As we saw in the first section of the letter, and particularly in chapters 3 & 4, a little bit of Paul’s personal frustration comes out here. Paul went to Corinth and ministered to these people. He sacrificed so much that they never even knew about. And now, they sort of disrespect him. His underlying attitude is a little bit like this:

Don’t you see that I myself am free? I am an apostle, for Pete’s sake, and if anyone disputes it, at the very least I am your apostle. I’m free to do all kinds of things that I refrain from doing – and I refrain from them for your sake. The least you can do is have a little concern for your fellow believers.

So the main point is really a continuation and an illustration of what he said in chapter eight: that they ought to be willing to adjust their behavior in order to encourage and strengthen others in the church. In addition, however, because of the illustrations, Paul uses, there is much valuable teaching here about other subjects as well. Since we got the main point last week, this time we’ll look at the specific subjects that Paul brings up in chapter nine.

In Paul’s frustration with the Corinthians, he begins to enumerate exactly what his rights and freedoms are. First, he reiterates that he is an apostle, a leader in the church. The implication is that they owe him some respect, and that they ought to willingly support and follow his leadership. The New Testament is full of instructions for believers to listen to, and follow their spiritual leaders:

The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.1 Timothy 5:17

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account, so that they can do this with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you. Hebrews 13:17

Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. James 3:1

Paul is an apostle, and especially, he is their apostle. They owe him their respect, though clearly, by his tone here, he has not insisted on it previously, nor have they really given it to him.

Next, Paul adds that he has the right to be married. This is another right and freedom that he has not insisted upon. In fact, he gave up that right in order to more fully dedicate his life to preaching the gospel (remember 7:8 & 7:32-35). It is a right that he chose not to exercise so that he could better serve people like the Corinthians.

I just want to mention a historical note here. As I’m sure you are aware, the Roman Catholic church forbids ordained priests from getting married. Sometimes they use the example of Paul, and the things he wrote here, and in 1 Corinthians 7 as justification for that. However, Paul’s entire point here is based on the fact that he could get married if he chose to. This passage in fact, teaches that pastors/priests and church leaders are certainly free to marry. And the Roman Catholic doctrine, though it cites biblical passages, actually came from the Pope, not the bible, and the Pope did not make that decree until around 1000 AD.

Paul’s next right is the right to financial compensation for his work as a teacher and preacher of God’s Word. I might as well just get this out in the open: obviously, this part of text is somewhat personal for me. I make my own living by preaching and teaching the bible. I might get a few hundred extra dollars from writing every year, but my profession and livelihood come as a pastor. I also want to say that I feel tremendously blessed that this is so. In addition, I am not teaching on this because of some lack that I feel from New Joy Fellowship. This is in the text for this week, and so I want to teach it faithfully, as I try to do every week, no matter what the topic is.

I have heard some Christians (not many, but certainly some) suggest that this text means that there should not be any such thing as a paid pastor, or at least, not one who makes his whole living from teaching God’s word. But just as it was with Paul’s words about marriage, the entire point Paul is making depends on the fact that he does have a right to be paid for preaching. In fact, he makes the case quite strongly. He says the claim is from the scriptures (meaning, for him, the Old Testament) and not from human authority. It can’t get much clearer than verse 14:

In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.

This isn’t the only place Paul teaches this. He writes to Timothy (keep in mind, the term “elder” is interchangeable with “pastor”):

The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” (1 Timothy 5:17-18)

There is clearly a principle here that God’s people have responsibility to financially support those who are called to preach the Bible. I say that not in an angry, demanding way, but rather in a sort of happy wonder that I get to do this for a living, and that it really is a good and righteous thing.

Paul’s point is that he had a right to receive a salary from the Corinthians, and yet he never did. This is not to say that Paul never received financial compensation from any church. It is almost certain that the church at Antioch helped support his missionary efforts. We know that at on more than one occasion he received financial support from the church at Philippi (Philippians 4:14-20). Even when he was at Corinth, after Silas and Timothy arrived, Paul stopped making tents (his other profession) and devoted himself fully to preaching (Acts 18:5). This means that someone was paying for his food, lodging and other expenses. It just wasn’t the Corinthians.

The following is a succinct summary of what Paul is saying overall:

But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. (9:15)

Again, his arguments depend on the fact that he actually has these rights, and that the normal thing would be for him to make use of them. Remember the context is about what freedoms or rights the Corinthians have. Basically, Paul is saying “Look at me! Look at all I’ve given up for you. Why don’t you take the same attitude towards each other?”

In verse 19-23, Paul expounds on the lengths to which he is willing to go so that people could become faithful disciples of Jesus. Though he is free, he’ll act like a slave. Though he is a Jew, he’ll become as a Gentile; though he is free from Jewish law, he’ll behave according to it. His whole focus is on how he can bring someone closer to Jesus. His heart is focused on heaven, and the reward he will have there (see 1 Corinthians 3:1-23, and the accompanying sermon notes [1 Corinthians #4]), and so he is willing endure discomfort here and now for the sake of others. He’s running to win the prize (verses 24-27).

There is a great missionary principle here. Paul never compromised on the message of the gospel. But he is willing to present it in different ways that are culturally relevant to those whom he is trying to reach.

Now, I want to offer a brief explanation here. I had a conversation with someone last week about chapter 8. If we don’t think about this carefully, it sounds like we need to submit to any stupid little rule in order to not put any obstacle in front of our fellow Christians. It seems almost like someone with a bunch of petty spiritual neuroses could control the way we live. We’ll talk about this a little more at the end of chapter 10, when Paul wraps up the whole discussion. But I want to point out now, the issue is not whether you offend someone – the issue is whether your actions hurt their conscience.

Suppose someone thinks it’s a sin to wear blue-jeans in church. Unfortunately, I’ve learned that this is not a hypothetical situation. Now, if you wear blue-jeans, and this causes the other person to also wear them – while he believes in his heart it is wrong – then you have injured his conscience. For his sake it would be better to stick with the dockers.

But often times people who have these ridiculously restrictive ideas are not in danger of violating their own conscience. They just want you to behave according to their conscience. If you don’t, it won’t change their behavior or their mind. They’ll think you’re sinning in Levi’s but they would still never put on a pair. In that case, wearing blue jeans will not damage the person’s conscience – it will just offend him.

Paul himself didn’t back down from offending people. Such people are not weak, but rather proud. Paul’s main focus here is to tell us to care for each other, and encourage one another in faith, and not do anything that would endanger the faith of someone else.

1 Corinthians Part 1. 1:1-9. The Foundation

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We are going to begin a new study this week. We will be looking in some detail at the first (surviving) letter Paul wrote to the Corinthians. As we do this, it will helpful to have a little cultural and historical background about the city of Corinth and the church there.

Corinth was situated on the narrow neck of land (isthmus) that joins the Peloponnese peninsula (say that five times fast!) to the rest of Greece. If you look at a map of Greece, the Peloponnese is the big mass that looks a bit like a four-fingered hand sticking south into the Mediterranean sea. One of the most famous cities on the Peloponnese is Sparta. From the ancient city of Corinth, at the narrowest isthmus of the peninsula, if you looked to the West and North you would see the gulf of Corinth; to the East and South is the Saronic gulf. The land between these two bodies of water is less than four miles wide at that point. The Romans tried to dig a canal there, but they found out it was solid rock. A canal was not successfully completed until 1893. Even so, in ancient times, ships would come in to both sides of the isthmus, and send their goods over the four miles of road to the opposite side, and thus save the time and risk of a much longer trip around the Peloponnese. The people at Corinth even developed a system for hauling smaller ships across the short stretch of land, completely loaded.

Because of the shipping advantages, and because anyone traveling to or from the Peloponnese had to pass through there, the city of Corinth became a major commercial center. It even has a modern day claim to fame in the realm of agriculture. A certain type of fruit flourished in the soil nearby, and even today we call it the “currant” a name which is derived from “Corinth.” Long before the time of Christ, Corinth was famous for its temple of Aphrodite – the Greek goddess of love. It is said that at one time more than 1,000 prostitutes worked for the temple. The Romans destroyed the city in 146 BC, and then re-built it about 100 years later. It quickly regained its status as a major trade center, and though the temple of Aphrodite did not return, Corinth was still a watchword for sexual immorality. In addition, the Corinthians hosted the Isthmian Games – much like the Olympic games, but held on different years. These games were immensely popular, and continued uninterrupted even after the Romans destroyed the city, and on after they rebuilt it.

Scholars estimate during the time of the New Testament the city of Corinth was home to about half a million people. So what Paul encountered in Corinth was this: a large city in which people of many different races and economic levels mixed; a place where you might make a fortune, or where you could find ways indulge your sensual desires; or where you might make a name for yourself as a famous athlete. It was a place to pursue your personal dreams and ambitions, and a culture in which pride was more evident than humility. It was not a place known for strong moral character. If I may be so bold, in some ways it was a little bit like America in the 21st century.

Paul arrived in Corinth a little the worse for wear. He’d been kicked out of three cities in a row (Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea). After that he’d been to Athens, where he wasn’t very successful at starting a church. Then he came to to Corinth. He met a Jewish couple – Priscilla and Aquila – who had been expelled from Rome along with most Jews there. They may have already been Christians – that part is not quite clear. Paul did his usual thing, preaching in the Jewish synagogue. As usual, a few Jews received the message, and then trouble started, and he began preaching to the Gentiles. But this time, Paul heard from the Lord in a dream. The Holy Spirit said to him:

Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.

So Paul ended up staying in Corinth peacefully for about eighteen months, and when he left, it was by his own choice, not because he was driven away. Priscilla and Aquila went with Paul when he left, and then they parted ways at Ephesus. The couple met another man of God, named Apollos. After giving Apollos some further instruction, they sent him to do more work with the church at Corinth.

At some point, Paul wrote a letter to the Corinthians that was lost. Paul refers to this letter in 1 Corinthians 5:9. He apparently wrote another letter in between 1 and 2 Corinthians, which was also lost (there are references to it in 2 Corinthians). So, out of four letters from Paul to Corinth, we have two. This is not any cause for theological concern. The Holy Spirit preserved for us the writing that he wanted preserved.

Sometime after his first, “lost” letter, the Corinthian Christians sent a letter of their own to Paul, with some questions about various matters. At roughly the same time, some people from Corinth visited Paul – they may in fact, have personally delivered the letter. From the letter, and from the visitors, Paul learned some things about the Corinthian church that disturbed him. In response, he sat down and wrote the letter which we call 1 Corinthians.

The first three verses of the letter are a fairly typical greeting: virtually all of the letters in the New Testament have greetings that are similar to this. However, there are slight differences in the opening of each letter, and the differences here, taken together with verses 4-9, seem to have a purpose.

The fact is, Paul is going to write some things in this letter that are not very complimentary to the Corinthian Christians. He has to take them task for causing unnecessary divisions; for sexual immorality; for devaluing the word of God through Paul’s own ministry; for suing each other; for abusing spiritual gifts; for abusing the Lord’s supper; and for disorderly worship. Sadly, the Corinthians Christians have begun to compromise with their culture and they’ve screwed some things up in a big way.

Paul knows all this, and has it mind as he begins writing. But he has something else in mind also. That other thing on his mind is the great grace and love and power that are in Jesus Christ. Ultimately, the spiritual reality of the situation is not based upon the behavior of the Corinthians. It is based upon the character of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

Paul uses the name “Christ Jesus” or some variant of it nine times in the first nine verses. He makes additional references to Jesus (as “he” or “him”) three more times in the same verses. He reminds the Corinthians that he himself is called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by God. He tells them that they have been made holy, and are called to remain holy, only in Christ Jesus. He reminds them several times that Jesus Christ is their Lord. Their grace, their knowledge, their spirituality are all given to them by and through faith in Jesus Christ. They have been enriched in every way in Jesus. They lack nothing – in, and because of, Jesus Christ.

One of my greatest struggles as a parent has been to effectively convey this dual message: I love you no matter what. Nothing you do or don’t do could make me love you any more. Nothing you do or don’t do, could make me love you any less. And, at the same time, I want you to change your behavior.

This is kind of what Paul wants to convey. The Corinthians need to change their behavior. They are living in ways that are destructive to themselves and to others. They are becoming ineffective as witnesses for Jesus.

And yet, Paul wants to make sure they know that in and through Jesus Christ, they lack nothing. In Christ Jesus, they are complete. It is not about their performance – it is about God’s grace, love and power, given through Jesus Christ and received through faith. Yes, they need to address some things about how they are living their lives in the world. But in the spiritual realm, where their spirits are alive and connected with God through faith in Jesus, they have already been made perfect and complete. The task is to bring that power to bear on the way they live their lives. Paul closes this opening section like this:

He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.