Archive for the ‘First Corinthians’ Category

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First Corinthians: Gifts and the Body

January 26, 2008

Paul turned to the next topic of inquiry, spiritual gifts. Perhaps the Corinthians had asked Paul about which gifts were greater, or perhaps whether people without visible spiritual gifts were true Christians. There were apparently even some controversies about whether certain gifts were really from God. It is likely that there were controversies such as these, which Paul began to address.

1Co 12:1-3 Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant. You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

Paul began by reminding the Corinthians of their idolatrous past. Since they had been so foolish in the past, and so easily duped into worshiping a dumb idol, he was not surprised that they could not distinguish what comes from the Spirit and what does not.

“Jesus is Lord” was the distinguishing mark of a Christian. It was not merely the words but the life behind the words that told the story. Jesus himself said, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” But in the days of the early church, merely saying “Jesus is Lord could bring terrible consequences. In some places, the unbelieving Jews may have been requiring people to curse Jesus in order to be accepted in the synagogue. Paul himself, prior to his conversion, had arrested Christians and tried to force them to blaspheme (Acts 26:11). And in years to come, the Roman government would require Christians to curse Jesus (or to pronounce “Caesar is Lord”) or be put to death. In such circumstances, surely it was only by the power of the Holy Spirit that a person could be so bold as to say “Jesus is Lord.”

Whatever gift one of the Corinthians might have received was not a reward for wisdom or righteousness. Instead the gift was, literally, a gift. The gifts were given as a tool to benefit the whole church. This key point Paul would make repeatedly in chapter 14:

1Co 12:7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

Paul enumerated eight different gifts of the Spirit which were found among the Corinthian church. All of the different gifts were needed by the body. Drawing an analogy to the physical body, Paul demonstrated how foolish it is for people to act like someone with a different gift is not needed or not significant. Even more, how foolish it would be for everyone to try to have the same gift, to the exclusion of all the other gifts needed in the body!

1Co 12:27-31 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way.

The sentence translated in the NIV as “But eagerly desire the greater gifts” can also be translated as “But you eagerly desire the greater gifts.” Instead of a command (imperative mood), it could be an observation (indicative mood). In my mind that fits the sense of the passage better, because Paul just chastised them for all wanting the same gifts:

1Co 12:17 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?

The gifts were not distributed according to the wishes of men, but as the Spirit determines:

1Co 12:11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.

However, since they were determined to pursue what they thought were the greatest gifts, Paul “became all things to all men” in this case, saying in effect, “Ok, if that’s the way you want to be, then let me tell you what is the greatest gift you should be pursuing.” Thus Paul introduced his instructions on love.

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First Corinthians: The Lord’s Supper

January 26, 2008

As Paul began correcting the Corinthians about their assemblies, he first addressed divisions and the Lord’s Supper:

1Co 11:17-19 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.

It is possible that in verse 18, Paul referred to the same divisions he addressed at the beginning of the letter (1 Cor 1:10-12) But I think it is more likely that he was talking about the divisions in the partaking of the Lord’s Supper. If the former, then it seems unusual that he spent so little time on it, offering no real corrective teaching. The divisions related to the Lord’s Supper were between those who had food and those who did not.

1Co 11:20-22 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!

In ancient Corinth, there was a social custom of covered dish dinners. A group would come together, each person bringing a dish to share, and everyone would eat together. This sort of meal was also practiced by the early church, called the Agape, or Love Feast, and it was the setting in which they partook of the Lord’s Supper. However, the practice had become corrupt in the Corinthian church. Apparently the well-to-do members were eating together, and not sharing with the poor who had no food. In this way they aggravated the division between rich and poor in the congregation.

In correction of their impropriety, Paul taught them the meaning of the Lord’s Supper:

1Co 11:23-26 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

The Lord’s Supper is a remembrance of Jesus. Our Lord said “This is my body, which is for you.” The very body of Jesus was “for” us. Note that when Jesus said this, he was still in his body–and it was quite obvious that the bread and his body were two different things. He wasn’t teaching that the bread was his literal body. Instead, he was teaching us how to remember his body, which was given for us. Likewise, with the cup of wine, he gave us a way to remember the gift of the new covenant, given at the cost of his blood. In partaking of the Lord’s Supper, we proclaim that he died to redeem us from our sins. What a holy message, and what a sacred memorial!

In contrast to the holiness of the Lord’s Supper, the Corinthian church was behaving in a self centered and self indulgent manner at the so-called Love Feast.

1Co 11:27-32 Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.

The Corinthians were partaking of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. They needed to examine themselves, to recognize their sin, and to repent. Perhaps they were failing to remember the body and blood of Jesus when they partook. If they remembered, wouldn’t they be humble and extend grace to their brothers and sisters? Or, perhaps Paul meant that they were oblivious to the other members of the church, the body of Christ. They needed to recognize that they were just a part of the body, along with all the others. They needed each other, and they should be concerned about the needs of one another. Paul would talk more about that subject in chapter 12.

1Co 11:33-34 So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment. And when I come I will give further directions.

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First Corinthians: Trouble in the Assembly

January 26, 2008

1Co 11:17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good.

Having addressed the Corinthians’ inquiry regarding the contentious issue of head coverings, Paul began to deal with a new topic: the assorted problems occurring in their assemblies.

Before examining these problems, we should note that none of the preceding discussions involved the assembly. In particular, the discussion of women’s head coverings was NOT in the context of a discussion of propriety in worship (contrary to the uninspired section headings found in the NIV). The topic of coming together as a church is not mentioned in the letter prior to 1 Cor 11:17. In that verse, Paul introduced (as a new topic) the subject of the congregational assembly with a startling charge: their assemblies were doing more harm than good!

There were two serious problems to be addressed regarding the assembly. First, Paul addressed the divisions evident in their observance of the Lord’s Supper. (1 Cor 11:17-34) Then he spent the next three chapters (1 Cor 12-14) correcting them on the matter of spiritual gifts. At the end of chapter 14, he gave specific instructions about how to conduct an orderly assembly. We will spend the next several posts examining Paul’s instructions about the Christian assembly.

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First Corinthians: Head Coverings

January 25, 2008

What I am about to say here is not the most popular view of the passage. I was persuaded to this view by my two daughters after they studied the subject in some depth. I am well aware of contrary views, having read many of them. I have been unable to get around the plain meaning that I think I see in this chapter. I invite you to consider a perspective which you will not hear in many places these days.

How we got here

Paul began the letter addressing divisions in the church. Then he admonished the church to expel an adulterer. Next he challenged them about lawsuits among believers, and about sexual immorality. Then he turned his attention to a list of questions he had received from the church.

The first of those questions was on the subject of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Next was a question on the subject of meat sacrificed to idols.

Moving on

As Paul transitioned to the next topic, he wrote:

1Co 11:2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you.

Apparently this was in response to some comments accompanying the list of questions. Amidst all the problems, there were some areas in which they were worthy of praise. They remembered some things Paul had taught and were remaining faithful to those teachings. It is easy to miss the good when focusing on problems.

Paul then turns to their next inquiry. It seems that there was a controversy about the practice of head coverings (1 Cor 11:16). Just as in Paul’s day, this teaching is controversial today. Let’s take a methodical approach to understanding what Paul said. As we go along, try to answer these questions:

  • What did Paul expect the members of the Corinthian church to do regarding head coverings?
  • What were his reasons?
  • Were his reasons valid when he wrote them?
  • Do his reasons still apply?

The basic instruction was not complicated. Women should wear a head covering (Gk κατακαλυπτεται, cover by hanging down from the head) whenever praying or prophesying. Nothing is said about the time or place where this instruction applies. So it meant wherever and whenever a woman prays or prophesies, she should cover her head.

To emphasize the point, Paul said that if a woman would not comply, her hair should be shaved off. And if she would be ashamed to have her hair shaved off, she should comply with the teaching on head covering.

Some people attempt to sidestep the issue of head coverings by saying that the woman’s hair is her covering (taken from 1 Cor 11:15). However, that cannot be what Paul was talking about. Verses 5 and 6 make no sense if the covering is her hair. Furthermore, in verse 15, Paul says that her hair is given to her as a περιβολαιου (a wrapper, something wrapped around.) But in verses 5-6 Paul said she needs a κατακαλυπτεται (something covering, hanging down from the head.) Although English translation often use the same word in both places, the original Greek used two different words. It is evident from early church writings that those who were native speakers of Greek did not think Paul was saying her hair is sufficient covering.

Paul proceeded to explain to them why women should wear head coverings when praying or prophesying, but men should not. (1 Cor 11:3-16) He offered the following reasons:

1) God is the head of Christ; Christ is the head of man; and man is the head of woman.

Modern western culture does not embrace that teaching. But Paul asserts that it is so, and it is supported by many other passages of scripture. (Eph 5:22, Eph 5:24, Col 3:18, 1 Tim 2:11-12, 1 Peter 3:1, 1 Peter 3:5-6). If we accept those passages as authoritative, then Paul’s first reason still stands.

2) Man was created in the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.

This follows from the first reason. God is the head of Christ, but Christ brings glory to God. Christ is the head of man, but man brings glory to Christ. Similarly, while man is the head of woman, woman brings glory to man. The purpose behind creation has not changed since Paul wrote these reasons, so this point also stands today.

3) Woman came from man.

Eve was created from the rib of Adam. (Gen 2:21-22) The creation account has not changed since Paul wrote this, so this reason still stands.

4) Woman was made for man.

Eve was created as a helper suitable for Adam (Gen 2:18) Note that, by inspiration, Paul interpreted that to mean Eve was created “for” Adam. Again, the creation account has not changed since Paul’s time, so the reason still stands.

5) Because of the angels

Angels are actively interested in Christians. (Heb 1:14, Heb 12:22, Heb 13:2, 1 Pet 1:12) Angels are witnesses to what Christians do and say. (1 Tim 5:21) Those angels who reject authority are fallen and doomed. (2 Peter 2:4, Jude 1:6) Submission to authority is apparently a very sensitive issue among the remaining good angels. Whether or not this explanation conveys Paul’s original meaning, we have no evidence that his reason applied only in his day.

6) Nature teaches that long hair is inappropriate for men, but is the glory of women.

Paul may have been referring to the tendency for women to have longer and thicker hair than men. Or he may have been referring to a universal tendency across cultures. It does seem consistent, in many different cultures, that long hair is characteristic of women and short hair of men. Regardless, we have no basis for thinking Paul’s reasoning is less applicable today than it was when he wrote it.

What do we do with this?

It seems plain that Paul expected the women in the first century Corinthian church to wear head coverings whenever they prayed or prophesied. I’m not aware of any credible Bible scholar who disagrees with that. The disagreements generally come in another form.

1) Some believe Paul was just wrong in saying this. That would mean his writings are not verbally inspired by God. If that were correct, then we could not rely on the Bible, and therefore we would have no reliable standard for truth regarding what God has done and what he calls on us to do. We would be left with the varying opinions of man. I don’t think God has left us there. I believe Paul was exactly right when he wrote these things — no matter how much I don’t like what he said.

2) Some people believe what he wrote only applied to the Corinthian church, because of some unique characteristics of that church and its environment. I don’t think that is a viable conclusion, because Paul ended the section by saying:

1Co 11:16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice–nor do the churches of God.

3) Some people believe that Paul’s teaching on this subject applied in his day, but no longer applies because our culture is different from the culture of his day. I don’t accept that reasoning for a couple of reasons. First, our culture is not so different from Corinth. This teaching was contentious in Paul’s culture also, but it still applied despite the culture. Second, the reasons Paul listed for the practice have not become unsound. If they were sufficient to prove the point in Paul’s day (and remember, Paul wrote them by inspiration of the Holy Spirit), then they are sufficient today. It seems that some people just don’t think the reasons are strong enough. To hold that position, I think one has to find fault with God.

I know some women who believe the instruction about head coverings only applies when you are praying out loud. They take “prays or prophesies” in verse 5 to mean speaking a prayer or a prophecy out loud, with others present. That may be right, or it may at least be close to right. We’ll say more about this when we get to chapter 14.

As I said at the beginning, I know this is not the predominant view today among Christians. I do not consider this an issue that should divide Christians. Romans 14 should be applied here. The women I know are practicing their convictions, some on one side of the question and some on the other. The greatest danger is for those women who, deep inside, believe as I do but do not practice it. I hope at least this has helped some people to wrestle with a passage we often avoid.

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First Corinthians: Conclusion on Meat and Idols

January 25, 2008

Flee from idolatry! The Corinthians appeared to be heading down the same path that the Israelites had taken after leaving Egypt. They were immoral and inconsiderate of one another. They quarreled about their leaders. And they toyed with idolatry. Just as God’s wrath was displayed against those Israelites, it would be displayed against the Corinthians if they did not repent.

Sharing a meal together carried deep meaning. Eating food at another person’s table created a bond of closeness between the two. Partaking of the Lord’s Supper likewise creates a bond between Christians and Christ. And eating meat sacrificed to an idol created a bond with the idol. It would be unthinkable to create a bond between Christ and an idol! So a Christian must not partake both with Christ and with an idol. Those who had worshipped idols in their former lives, who were confused about the true nature of idols, must not partake of the meat that had been sacrificed to an idol.

But a Christian who recognized that an idol is nothing creates no bond merely by eating the meat. That Christian was free to eat the meat without any conscience issues. However — and this was Paul’s main point — that Christian still needed to defer to the conscience of others rather than eating the meat in their presence. They should give up their rights rather than injure another Christian.

1Co 10:31-11:1 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God — even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.

Paul had set a wonderful example in this. He had earned the right to call them to the same kind of compassionate service. How much stronger would our churches be, if we would place the spiritual needs of one another above our own comfort and pleasure!

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First Corinthians: Warnings from the Israelites

January 23, 2008

Some of the Corinthian Christians were eating meat sacrificed to idols, in disregard for those brothers and sisters whose consciences would not allow it. Paul admonished them to give up their rights, refraining from meat, rather than to cause a brother or sister to stumble. In chapter 9, Paul showed from his own example how Christians should give up their rights for the benefit of others. He concluded that thought with:

1Co 9:27 No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

Being disqualified for the prize was a sobering warning. As Paul moved into chapter 10, he reminded them of some other children of God who had been disqualified.

1Co 10:1-5 For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert.

These Israelites seemingly had a lot going for them. They had witnessed the breathtaking miracles of God to free them from slavery to Pharaoh. They had witnessed the parting of the Red Sea, and had walked through it on dry ground. They had been led through the desert by God in the form of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. They had received manna and quail from God in the desert. They had drunk water from a rock. Yet they had not responded to God’s deliverance appropriately. So they were disqualified for the prize. They died in the desert.

What had they done that displeased God? They had indulged in drunken revelry. They had practiced idolatry. They had committed adultery. They had challenged God and his servant Moses for leading them into the desert. They had grumbled against God and Moses.

The sobering thing for the Corinthian church was that they had been doing many of the same things. They were getting drunk at communion. They were toying with idolatry and meat sacrificed to idols. They allowed members to commit adultery. Some of them were starting to reject Paul’s inspired teaching and were beginning to turn back toward the philosophies of Greece and Rome. They were headed down the same road as the Israelites.

Paul urged them to take warning from those Old Testament examples:

1Co 10:11-13 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

In view of those warnings, Paul returned to the original question about meat sacrificed to idols. We will examine Paul’s conclusion on the subject in the next post.

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First Corinthians: Chapter 9, Paul’s Rights

January 23, 2008

In chapter 8, Paul had appealed to the church to be considerate of others, and therefore to refrain from eating meat whenever it might cause a brother or sister to stumble:

1Co 8:9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.

Paul had been setting a tremendous example of sacrificing his own rights for the benefit of others. In chapter 9, he held up himself as an example to inspire the Corinthians to give up their rights out of concern for the needs of others.

In the first 18 verses, he reminded them that he had given up his right to financial support as he preached the gospel to them. As an apostle of Christ, he certainly had the right to be supported financially by those who received his message. Not only that, but he also had the right to bring along a wife, and the right to support for her as well.

1Co 9:14 In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

Note that it was not the congregation’s option whether to provide his support. The congregation was obligated to offer support, because the Lord commanded it. Likewise, churches today have the obligation, by command of the Lord, to support financially those who preach the gospel.

However, Paul did have the option to decline financial support. And he elected to give up his right to their support, so that he could receive the reward for preaching voluntarily.

1Co 9:15 But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me. I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of this boast.
1Co 9:16 Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!
1Co 9:17 If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me.
1Co 9:18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it.

Paul gave up other rights as well. Although he was free, he made himself a slave to all — not for his own benefit, but so that they could be saved. Although he was free from the Jewish Law, he became as one under the Law so that he could save some. He accommodated those under the law, and those not under the law, the weak, and the strong. He did all this so that some of them could be saved. Rather than clinging to his own rights and his own personal interests, he gave those things up for the benefit of others.

Paul did not view the Christian life as an easy road. Instead, to him it was like training for a strenuous competition. He did it “for the sake of the gospel, that I might share in its blessings.” He did it “so that after I have preached to others, I will not be disqualified for the prize.” Paul didn’t just see this as a good idea. He believed that if he were not willing to push himself like that, he just might be disqualified.

Contrast Paul’s attitude to that of these Corinthians. They were clinging to their right to eat meat, even though by doing so they were causing others to sin. They had been unwilling to give it up. In fact it seems they loved eating meat more than they loved their brothers and sisters. Pride, comfort, and pleasure were their top priorities. Paul was setting a much different example.

Which example most resembles us today? Do we readily give up our own rights and convenience for the benefit of others? Or do our lives basically revolve around our own personal needs and comforts?

Having pointed to himself as a positive role model, Paul turned in chapter 10 to a negative example from the Old Testament. The resemblance between these Corinthians and those Israelites would be a wake-up call, driving Paul’s message home. The gospel calls for a response — one much different from the way these Corinthians were living.