Do you ever read something and think, “I’ll pretend I didn’t see that”?
Some homework set by a teacher at the last minute that you’d rather your children didn’t have to do.
An email sent at 5.25pm inviting you to some drinks after work.
A new “no-right-turn” sign on a route you drive every day.
We all get tempted to put our fingers in our ears from time to time. Pretend we didn’t hear something that is somewhat inconvenient.
At times, the Bible can be like that. Sometimes, God says things to us that we’d love him to unsay.
1 Corinthians would certainly have been like that for the original recipients of the letter. The letter would have been read aloud in one sitting, one Sunday morning when they were all gathered together. It’s not hard to imagine a stunned silence, broken as one member says: “Well, I can tell you where we’ll file that letter”.
We’ve been working our way through this letter since Easter, and it’s a choppy ride. There are some magnificent moments. Chapter 15 on how Jesus secured our future for all eternity – that’s just wonderful!
But there have been some awkward topics, too, that challenge us.
- the way they show off in worship.
- the way they trample on new Christians who have come from a background of the Greek religions,
- the way some are happy to worship Christ on Sunday and go to other temples on other days,
- the way they divide around human personalities,
- the fact they boast about their tolerance of incest within their congregation,
- the court cases,
- the way some members are using the services of temple prostitutes,
- the asceticism that leads to both abstinence within marriage and a skyrocketing divorce rate,
- and the way their bring and share Communion lunches have become a chance for the wealthy to bring posh-nosh that they stuff their faces on in public.
You can see how this would have been somewhat awkward to have read.
And different bits of it have been uncomfortable for us at times, too. Paul puts his finger on issues in churches today, areas where Christ asks his church to be counter-cultural.
I’m sure the Corinthians would have been tempted to pretend they never heard this. We may be too.
But that would be a big mistake. The way Paul rounds his letter off is designed to make sure they don’t do just that. So it’s also helpful training for us, in how to respond when we find bits of the Bible we wish weren’t there.
The passage divides into three sections, where the editors of our pew Bibles have put the headings. I’m going to be very brief indeed about verses 19 to 24. I’ll say more about that next week. I’ll be slightly less brief about verses 1-4, and spend most time on verses 5 to 18.
Paul has 3 more things to say to us before he finishes his letter.
Give thoughtfully and worshipfully
First, give thoughtfully and worshipfully. Give thoughtfully and worshipfully.
Verse 1 to 4, start with a phrase we’ve met several times in this letter: “Now about…” Here’s the next topic that the Corinthians had asked Paul about in their letter to him. “Now about the collection for the Lord’s people”.
The area around Jerusalem has been hit by a particularly nasty famine. Paul has organised a whip-round, and the Corinthians what their part was to be.
The money will be taken by people that the church considers trustworthy. This is so important. Only people who have proved themselves trustworthy should handle church money, and always a group, never one person on their own with a pile of bank notes.
But his main instruction for the Corinthians is in verse 2: “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.”
This part of 1 Corinthians is also counter-cultural. The idea that we give a few pounds for a good cause is nothing radical. Lots of people buy the Big Issue, chip in for Children in Need or Comic Relief, support their local schools, and give generously to a cancer charity as they leave a funeral. But the idea of planned, sacrificial giving, as a significant proportion of your income is alien to many people.
Here’s how to turn the intention to give into actual giving.
Firstly, give thoughtfully. If they leave it until Paul comes to visit, and then go hunting down the back of the sofa, they’ll never find more than a bit of loose change. The key is to decide how much you want to give. There’s no hard and fast rule, but those who earn more should give more. And then set it aside, once a week, every week. Don’t leave it to chance.
Nobody should feel pressurised to give. Instead, decide how much you can give and still be doing so gladly, then plan to make it happen. For many, this means setting up a standing order so the money they’ve planned goes out. It’s not left to chance.
Give thoughtfully. And second, give worshipfully. He could have told them each to pick a day of the week when they’d do this. Monday, perhaps. Or Friday. But, no: They’re each to do it on the first day of every week. On Sunday.
Sunday is the day Jesus rose from the dead. Sunday is the day Christians gather together to worship the risen Jesus. If Paul asks them to set their money aside each Sunday, that must be because giving the money is part of their worship.
God has paid the price for us to become his chosen people. Jesus died on the cross for our sins. He’s gathered us together, every Sunday, to proclaim his greatness and to be renewed in our commitment to love and serve him. And that weekly renewal of commitment is symbolised as we give our money to the work of the Lord.
So you lose something by giving with a standing order. It’s planned, but we lose the symbolic act of giving as part of our worship each week.
It’s hard to give seriously, intentionally, sacrificially. Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians will help us. We need to plan to do it. We do it as part of our worship of the Lord. Give thoughtfully and worshipfully.
If you want information on how to give to support the work of the church financially, we can get that information to you.
Submit courageously and lovingly
Second, from verses 5 to 19: Submit courageously and lovingly. Submit courageously and lovingly.
These verses don’t feel desperately exciting. It feels like the meat of the letter is done, and there’s a string of greetings and personal news.
But every part of the Bible is in there for a reason: God speaks through all of it. And the key to verses 5 to 19 is the bit in the middle that is not just greetings: Verses 13 and 14: “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love.”
These two verses contain 5 pithy commands, that sum up the 3 responses Paul is hoping for from his letter.
The first two together are a command to stand firm. “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith”. The Corinthians were being blown off course. By the way they lived they were denying the Lord Jesus who had saved them. They need to stand firm. They need to be on their guard against anything that might lead them away from Jesus, from his transforming work in their lives, and from the Paul Jesus sent to teach them.
The next two also form a pair, a command to be courageous. “Be courageous. Be strong”, he says. Living distinctively for Christ requires great courage. If you’re living in a way that makes you look weird to the world around, it’s hard to keep doing. The pressure to conform is massive. In the ancient world, and in many countries today, that translates into pain, prison and death. But even without that, it requires great courage to keep living for Jesus in a world that has different values.
And then instruction number 5, be loving: “Do everything in love”. Here’s the heart of where the Corinthians were going wrong. When we looked at chapter 13, we saw that it wasn’t a poem about love, but an exposé of their utter lovelessness. Far more concerned with what they’re entitled to than with what might benefit others. Far more concerned about safeguarding their pleasures, their possessions, their reputation. The thought of giving up status and significance to serve other people is off their radar. They were driven by a basic concern for number one.
That’s verses 13-14. Stand firm. Be courageous. Be loving. What the Corinthians need to do with this letter, in a nutshell. What we need to do with this letter, in a nutshell.
And verses 13-14 are jammed in in the middle of verses 5 to 19 like a climbing bolt in the middle of a rock-face. They give us a hold on this section, and tell us why it’s here. They’re in the middle like the cherry on top of the cake.
The rest of this section, 5 to 19, discusses 4 people that Paul and the Corinthians both knew. Each one is brought into the room to help the Corinthians see that they cannot sweep this awkward letter under the carpet. They need to live it out. They need to stand firm, be courageous, be loving.
Let me take us through each of these 4 individuals.
First, in verses 5 to 9, there’s Paul himself. He shares his travel plans. He won’t be coming to Corinth straight away. He could come now, but he’d only be able to stay briefly. He’d much rather delay his visit, so he can come and stay for a good while with them. Back in chapter 4, he said that he’d change his plans if he had to. If the Corinthians don’t fall into line, he’ll cancel all the other worthwhile things he would like to do, and get the next train out of Ephesus to Corinth.
Now, they might think the fact that Paul hasn’t come in person shows he doesn’t care. Here’s their excuse to sweep this letter under the carpet. It was written by someone who couldn’t be bothered to come in person. He sent an email instead of popping round. It was written by someone who didn’t love them, who didn’t think they or these issues really mattered.
Paul knocks that excuse right out of the park. If he has to, he’ll drop everything and come. The reason he’s not coming is not because the Corinthians don’t matter but because he’s doing good work for the Lord. He’d rather they valued other people hearing about Jesus, and fixed things themselves, and didn’t need Paul to come in person and knock some sense into them.
Then we meet Timothy in verses 10-11. These verses would actually be rather amusing if the issues behind them weren’t so serious. Timothy is the one who’s going to carry this letter to Corinth. Paul underlines that he’s doing the Lord’s work as he does that. This letter is Jesus doing business with the Corinthians. Timothy is to be welcomed when he arrives for just that reason.
I imagine Timothy was quaking in his boots as he came over the hill and saw the city below. I imagine he would have gladly swapped this assignment for any other one, assuming he knew what was in this letter. The phrase that comes to mind is “don’t shoot the messenger”. This letter was probably going to go down in Corinth like a ground-glass sandwich, and Timothy was the one to bring it.
Just listen to what Paul actually says in verses 10 and 11: “When Timothy comes, see to it that he has nothing to fear while he is with you, for he is carrying on the work of the Lord, just as I am. No one, then, should treat him with contempt. Send him on his way in peace so that he may return to me. I am expecting him along with the brothers.”
He’s basically saying: “I want him back in one piece!” “I’m expecting him back!”
Then we meet Apollos in verse 12.
Now, Apollos was the really, really good preacher that some of the Corinthians decided they preferred to Paul in chapters 1 to 4. They loved him. And they tried to drive a wedge between him and Paul. “We love Apollos, but Paul is just awkward. He says things we don’t like, but I could listen to Apollos all day”.
We get that little phrase again at the start of verse 12: “Now about our brother Apollos”. The Corinthians had asked about Apollos in their letter to Paul. They wanted him to come back to Corinth, spend some time with them.
So it could get a little awkward when this letter arrives from Paul, and Apollos isn’t with it. He stays with Paul. What was Paul thinking? Was Paul trying to prevent them seeing Apollos. Did he not want Apollos to put across his version of Christianity? It’s like having a hustings before a General Election. If the sitting Member of Parliament had identified their closest rival, and ensured they couldn’t’ attend, that would be very dodgy. Naughty Paul!
Maybe they’re inclined to throw this letter in the bin because Apollos would have said something more palatable. Once again, Paul knocks it out of the park. Apollos chose not to come. In fact, he and Paul talk regularly, and Paul tried to persuade him to come. Possibly Apollos could even see that he would be a divisive influence if he did go. Paul assures them he’ll visit as soon as he gets an opportunity.
Then lastly, we meet Stephanas in verses 15 to 18.
Corinth is stacked full of people who dislike Paul and his message. Paul’s distinctly out of fashion. Here’s another reason they could chuck Paul’s letter in the bin. Paul’s an outsider with funny ideas. Better to listen to the local church leaders from Corinth. They know the local scene.
Only Stephanas is different. he and his household were the first people to become Christians in the whole region that Corinth is in. They’re the most longstanding Christians in the church, massively influential and respected.
Stephanas and two others have actually come to visit Paul in Ephesus. It’s reminded Paul what things used to be like with the whole Corinthian church. Stephanas is a Corinthian homeboy, and he’s mighty fond of Paul. And now he’s coming home to Corinth, accompanying Timothy and the letter. Paul’s saying: “Even if you won’t take it from me, and even if you won’t take it from Timothy, let’s hear it for Stephanas. Let him be the hero you clearly think he is.”
Each of these 4 characters is deliberately brought into the room.
Your faced with a difficult decision. Let’s say: We’re currently travelling some distance to drop our kids at school every day, and a place has come up at the one just round the corner from home. Do we put them through the upheaval and move them?
You know in your gut that it’s right to do it, but it’s going to be tough. You don’t want it to be the right answer. You ring your mum for advice, she says to change schools. You ask your own best friend since school days. She says to change schools. You chat it through with the taxi driver who’s taking you to the station. He reckons it’s right to go for it. Everyone you ask says the same thing.
Paul has written a tough letter to the Corinthians. To put this thing into practice, to do what Paul says will require enormous courage, great stickability, and will mean putting other Christians above themselves. Every bone in their body will tell them to chuck this letter in the bin.
So Paul parades various people they know well. He brings them into the room. Paul says: “Do it!”. Timothy says “do it!”. Apollos says, “do it!”. Even Stephanas, one of their own says, “do it!”
There’s nothing for it: This letter doesn’t go in the bin. It can’t. Instead, hard though it is, they need to submit themselves to Paul’s teaching in this letter – let his teaching shape their thinking and reform their living. At times, it won’t be pleasant. But all the evidence points in the same way.
Submit courageously and lovingly.
It’s nearly time to wrap this up, but let me add a brief comment on verses 19 to 24. He says to love longingly. Love longingly.
Paul has used a secretary to actually write this letter. It’s dictated. But in verse 21 he picks up the pen to sign off in his own hand.
This bits even more personal than the rest of the letter.
You know how the Christmas cards come pre-printed with the words: “Happy Christmas”. You mean that – it’s why you’re sending your friend the card. But you add in your own hand: “Hope 2019 brings you some better news”, then sign it. It’s what our church hall architect has written in my card for the past 9 years.
Here’s his personal touch. Verse 22: “If anyone does not love the Lord, let that person be cursed! Come, Lord!” Two hallmarks of the genuine Christian, that chimes with everything he’s said in this letter.
The genuine Christian loves the Lord Jesus.
The genuine Christian longs for Jesus to come back.
Love longingly. I’ll say more about that next Sunday morning, if you’re here.
Other than another look at verse 22 next week, we’ve reached the end of this long letter.
More than anything, it’s a letter about Jesus. He loved us enough to die for our sins. He rose again from the dead, and he will return to bring about a glorious future for his people. In the meantime, he rules this and every church. He calls us to love him above all else, and to long for his return.
Is that a way of life that you’re on board with. If you’ve never set out on that journey, why not start today. It’s so easy to become a Christian. Jesus has done all the hard work: You just have to ask him if you can join in. If there’s nothing stopping you doing that today, please do so. It’s a thrilling life with a wonderful future.
For those of us who are following the Lord Jesus, we’ve discovered in this letter that he calls us to follow him, even if that goes against the prevailing culture. That requires us to stand our ground, it requires courage, it requires us to love our fellow Christians.
At times we’ll find Jesus telling us things we don’t want to hear. Today has been teaching us how to respond when that happens. We don’t put our fingers in our ears, and listen to someone more palatable. We courageously follow Jesus wherever he leads us.
So two questions for us as we finish this letter. (And maybe you want to listen again to some of the sermons – they’re all on the church website).
Number 1: Which lesson have you learnt from 1 Corinthians that you most want to put into practice? Write it down as soon as you get home, and pray about it throughout next year.
Number 2: Which lesson have you heard from 1 Corinthians that you wish you hadn’t heard? Write that down too, and pray about that throughout next year. Ask God for help to take that bit out of the bin, and into practice.
Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!