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What If There Was No Heaven?   1 comment

What if there was no heaven? John Lennon asked us to imagine it and he didn’t think it would be hard to do. He thought it would bring peace on earth.

“Imagine there’s no heaven/It’s easy if you try/No hell below us/Above us only sky.”

Image result for image of heavenHave you ever allowed yourself to think about that question. I think about it every time I hear Lennon’s song. What if everything I believe is a fairy tale, or worse yet, a malicious lie? What if Lennon was right? Of course, if there really is no heaven and the resurrection is a shame, life itself is an exercise in existential futility.

Which was Paul’s whole point in 1 Corinthians 15:12-34. If the bodily resurrection is only an empty dream and this life is all there is, Christians are to be pitied. We’re living in the world where you only go round once in life, so you’d better grab all the gusto you can, but we don’t because we believe a lie. Without the resurrection, our world is compassed about by “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”  Fortunately, since Christ was raised from the dead, and His kingdom culminates in the defeat of death, we don’t actually live in existential futility.

Christ’s resurrection provides hope

Paul claimed that if we have no future, we have no forgiveness of our sins in the past, and we have no advantage over unbelievers in the present.

15:12 Now if Christ is being preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? (1Corinthians 15:12)

Paul used so much ink on the topic of the resurrection because some Corinthians argued that there was no future physical resurrection. They denied that believers will experience resurrection. Paul argued since Christ has been raised, resurrection obviously is possible, but more, it is an essential part of our faith. However, before Paul could drive home this point, he conceded the possibility that Christ has not risen.

But if there is no resurrection of the deadthen not even Christ has been raised. (1Corinthians 15:13)

Paul disclosed seven disastrous consequences if there is no resurrection from the dead.

And if Christ has not been raisedthen our preaching is futile and your faith is empty. Alsowe are found to be false witnesses about Godbecause we have testified against God that he raised Christ from the dead, when in reality he did not raise him, if indeed the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raisedthen not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is uselessyou are still in your sins. Furthermorethose who have fallen asleep in Christ have also perished. For if only in this life we have hope in Christwe should be pitied more than anyone. (1Corinthians 15:14-19)

First, if there is no resurrection Christ has not been raised from the dead. For the sake of debate, Paul granted there was no resurrection of the dead. Logically, no one has or ever will rise from the dead, which means that not even Christ has been raised, because He was a human being like you and me.

The erroneous Corinthians were not denying the resurrection of Christ per se, only the future resurrection of believers, but you really can’t have it both ways. You can’t believe in the resurrection of Christ and deny the eventual resurrection of believers, for resurrection is a single package. Thus, Paul introduced Doubt #1.

Second, if there is no resurrection our preaching is stupid (15:14).

There are some highly distinguished religious professors who do not believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“As a child, I took it for granted that Easter meant that Jesus literally rose from the dead. I now see Easter very differently. For me, it is irrelevant whether or not the tomb was empty. Whether Easter involves something remarkable happening to the physical body of Jesus is irrelevant.” Marcus J. Borg and N.T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998), 129-131.

Dr. Borg won many awards when he was a professor of religion at University of Oregon. Despite his education and giftedness, Dr. Borg was wrong. The gospel Paul preached at Corinth proclaimed Christ’s literal resurrection (15:3-5). Paul reminded the Corinthians that they had received this gospel, stood on this gospel, and were being saved by this gospel (15:1-2). Thus, as far as Paul was concerned, if there is no resurrection there is nothing worth preaching! This remains true today. Eloquence, persuasion, humor, and passion make for wonderful sermons, but if the speech does not contain the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it cannot accurately be labeled “preaching”. Every thing stands or falls on the truth of the assertion that God raised Christ from the dead.

Third, if there is no resurrection our faith is worthless (15:14, 17). Regardless of how vibrant the outworking of faith, the core of Christian belief and life is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If Christ did not rise from the dead faith has no foundation; it is empty and useless. The gospel is not good news but a hoax that has no real power to change lives or to do anything else except to deceive.

Fourth, if there is no resurrection we are false witnesses of God (15:15). Those who proclaim that Christ rose from the dead speak in God’s name what they know to be untrue. Christianity is not a system of philosophy or a moral code, but the declaration of what God has done in Christ. If the dead are not raised then the whole gospel is a sham and those who preach it are liars.

Fifth, if there is no resurrection we are still in our sins (15:17). In Romans 4:25, Paul asserted Jesus was raised “for our justification.” In other words, if Jesus failed to rise from the dead we are still dead in our sins.

Sixth, if there is no resurrection those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished (15:18). If Christ has not been raised, then those who “fall asleep in Christ” are no different from unbelievers, who are consigned to ruin (1:18). Who wants to think of their relatives and loved ones who have trusted in Christ rotting with nowhere to go?

Seventh, if there is no resurrection we are to be pitied more than all human beings (15:19). I’m sure you’ve probably heard some people say even if Christianity is not true, the Christian faith is still the best way to live. “Even if it turned out Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead and there was no such place as heaven, I would still have no regrets about living the Christian life.” You might have said that yourself at some point. Yet, the apostle Paul absolutely disagreed with that position. He wrote in 15:19, “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” If Christ has not risen, Christians are the most miserable people in the world.

When drug companies develop a new product, they run tests with two groups of people. They give one group the new tablets, and they give the other group an identical-looking product that is a dummy. They do this to verify the efficacy to their new drug. The mind is powerful, and some people feel better just having taken a tablet, although the tablet has no substance that could change the body. It’s all in their minds. If Christ has not risen, Christians are like people who have swallowed the placebo. They are confessing some change that has no substantial basis. Like the dummy drug, such faith would not do anything except within the individual minds of these people. In medical research, the placebo group is still dying of cancer. In the faith realm, Christians are still headed to the worm farm and nowhere else.

Christ’s resurrection guarantees victory

According to Paul, Christ’s resurrection makes the resurrection of believers both necessary and inevitable. Those “in Christ” must arise since Christ arose. Christ’s resurrection set in motion the defeat of all God’s enemies, including death. His resurrection demands our resurrection since otherwise death would remain undefeated.

But now Christ has been raised from the deadthe firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1Corinthians 15:20)

“But now” are two of the sweetest words in the Bible, for they are often followed by words of comfort and hope. “But now” Christ has been raised from the dead as the “first fruits” of those believers who have died. The imagery of “first fruits” links with the Feast of First Fruits in the Old Testament. At the beginning of the grain harvest, the Israelites brought the first sheaf harvested and dedicated it to the Lord. This offering assured the Israelites that the rest of the harvest would follow. Christ is the “first fruits” of the resurrection—the first person to be raised from the dead permanently. His resurrection assures us that someday there will be a complete harvest.

For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also came through a man. For just as in Adam all dieso also in Christ all will be made alive. (1Corinthians 15:21-22)

Adam’s sin brought death (see Romans 5:12-21) and Jesus Christ’s resurrection offers life to those who believe. The word “all” is used twelve times in 15:22-28. Consequently, some argue that all people will eventually be saved. This is typically called “universalism.” However, the “all” that will be made alive with Christ refers only to those who have fallen asleep in Christ. Paul was only speaking about the Christian dead, not about a general resurrection.

The imagery of “first fruits” implies that Christ’s resurrection sets in motion a series of events that will culminate at His coming.

But each in his own order: Christthe firstfruitsthen when Christ comesthose who belong to him. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Fatherwhen he has brought to an end all rule and all authority and power. (1Corinthians 15:23-24)

Every Christian is going to receive a brand-new body, but every one must wait his or her turn! The key word here is “order.” The word translated “order” (tagma) is a military term that refers to rank or order. Paul was describing a military parade passing by, with each corps falling into position at the proper time. Throughout history, different Christians fall into their place in the parade at their appointed times.

For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be eliminated is death. For he has put everything in subjection under his feet. But when it says “everything” has been put in subjectionit is clear that this does not include the one who put everything in subjection to him. And when all things are subjected to himthen the Son himself will be subjected to the one who subjected everything to himso that God may be all in all. (1Corinthians 15:25-28)

Paul quoted Psalm 110:1 and Psalm 8:6 to support his arguments about the Messiah’s reign. The point Paul made is that God empowers Christ to accomplish His purposes. Christ is equal to the Father but chooses of His own accord to submit to His Father so that He might receive glory.

Christ’s resurrection gives purpose

Otherwisewhat will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at allthen why are they baptized for them? Why too are we in danger every hour? Every day I am in danger of death! This is as sure as my boasting in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord.  If from a human point of view I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, what did it benefit me? If the dead are not raisedlet us eat and drinkfor tomorrow we die.  (1Corinthians 15:29-32)

I don’t know about you, but verse 29 has got to be the most confusing verse in the entire New Testament. Paul’s words here are so difficult that scholars have devised around 40 proposed interpretations. I decided not to bore people with an analysis of the various interpretations, but just touch lightly on a couple of the more controversial theories. Mormons, for example, have baptized millions upon millions of dead people by proxy in Mormon temples so that they might be saved, including Christians, pagans, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and even avowed atheists.

As a result of this belief, the Mormon Church has amassed the greatest collection of genealogical data anywhere in the world, with billions of names in millions of family trees traced back as far as they can find even scant records. Hundreds of full-time employees do the research, which is recorded on over a billion pages of documents, all stored in a multi-million dollar underground vault system in a canyon near Salt Lake City. Now the information is available on the internet. After researchers come up with new names, hundreds of volunteers go through baptismal rites, hour after hour, day after day, in some fifty Mormon temples. They don’t hold services in those temples, you know; they are only for secret temple rites, including proxy baptisms. Many of your ancestors have been baptized in absentia in a Mormon temple, without either their consent or yours or mine.

All of this activity is based upon this one verse of Scripture which when you examine it, proves to be a very shaky foundation for such a practice, which flied directly in the face of Scriptures that clearly teaches that after death comes judgment (Hebrews 9:27), not a second chance if someone happens to be baptized for you. Therefore, I believe this verse deserves careful re-examination.

Theory – When new believers in Corinth were baptized, they credited their salvation to the gospel message they had heard or received from one or two of the apostles whom were now dead. They did this because they wanted these deceased apostles to receive greater reward in eternity for the work they had done. This seems to be the best view for four primary reasons. First, this interpretation is based upon a literal understanding of the terms “baptism,” “for,” and “the dead.” Baptism refers to a literal act for new believers; the word “for” means “for the benefit of;” and the phrase “the dead” is identified with physically dead people (see 15:6). Second, the Corinthians liked to associate themselves with the ministry of certain apostles (1:12-13; 3:4). This would explain why some of them were baptized “on behalf of” some deceased apostles. Third, some of the Corinthians did not believe in a resurrection (15:15-16). In refuting this, Paul referred to their practice of baptizing for the dead. Their practice contradicted their beliefs. Lastly, Paul had previously mentioned eternal rewards (3:13-15), the Corinthian desire to bring honor to the apostles (1:13-17), and how the Corinthians themselves would be part of Paul’s apostolic reward when he stood before Christ (3:10; 4:14-15). This reward can only be received in the resurrection, and if the Corinthians wanted the dead apostles to receive the reward they were ascribing to them by baptizing new believers for these apostles, resurrection was necessary.

Paul nowhere denounced the practice of baptizing for the dead, which is one reason I think the Corinthians were claiming “I am being baptized as a ministry from Apostle X.” I think Paul would have scoffed at the idea that a proxy baptism on behalf of someone already dead had any effect at all. We know from other Pauline writings that he view baptism as a symbol of joining Christ in His death, burial and resurrection. He didn’t see any saving grace in baptism. It was merely a first step of obedience in the Christian life … which means it would be silly to do it after someone was dead.

Paul wrote this letter from Ephesus One case of Paul’s dying daily was fighting with “beasts” at Ephesus (15:32). It is nearly certain that the “beasts” are not wild animals. As a Roman citizen, Paul would not have fought with wild animals. Furthermore, he would have likely mentioned these beasts in all of his lists about his own personal suffering. It’s likely Paul wrote about the many who opposed him in Ephesus. It would make no sense for Paul to face his opponents head-on and endanger his life if there were no resurrection.

“Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

This is a quote from God’s people who are suffering in the midst of an Assyrian siege (Isaiah 22:13). They figured they had nothing to lose since they were going to be destroyed. If there is no resurrection then we might as well live for the present, in unadulterated hedonism.

So, of what use is the resurrection. Paul explained the reason he served God was because of his personal assurance of the resurrection of his body. Paul went through incredible suffering and pain in the course of his ministry. He was tortured, ship-wrecked, temporarily blinded, stoned — If there were no resurrection of the dead, he would be foolish risking his life for nothing. Paul’s boast in the Corinthians referred to the fruit of his apostolic labor and suffering (9:1-2). Paul felt deeply attached to this church. Note the expression of Paul’s basic satisfaction with his Corinthian converts despite the many things for which he had to rebuke them.

Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals.” Sober up as you should, and stop sinning! For some have no knowledge of God – I say this to your shame! (1Corinthians 5:33-24)

Paul commanded the Corinthians to stop being deceived. He then quoted a well-known cliché. “Bad company corrupts good morals.” God’s people are susceptible to deception, especially from friends and fellow church members. It is dangerous to keep company with fellow Christians who are not characterized by consistent Christian living. Hanging around with people who claim to know Christ, but who are themselves far from the Lord can be more dangerous than spending time with non-Christians. We are inclined to be vulnerable to inconsistent thought and actions, to let down our guard, if the Christians around us are materialistic, sensual, loose talking, freethinking, irreverent persons. Remember, water flows downhill. Birds of a feather flock together. If we lay down with dogs, then we will get up with fleas. It is inevitable that evil companions warp good morals. This is why we should care about who our children “hang out” with. Similarly, you need to be careful about who influences you.

Paul commanded the church to be sober-minded and to stop sinning. Some of the Corinthians had been duped into believing that this life is all there is—you only go around once. Paul says such people have no knowledge of God. They are agnosia (“ignorant”) of God. We get our English word “agnostic” from this Greek word. Paul was saying, “Some Christians can live like functional agnostics.” Beware of such people! The crying shame of the church today is the glaring difference between what we believe and how we behave. There is little correlation between doctrine and deeds or creed and conduct with some Christians. High talk and no walk is a problem. We quote the Bible by the mile and live it by the inch.

What you believe about the resurrection controls how you live your life, how you spend your money and use your time—how you invest yourself. People who think wrongly invariably behave wrongly. Yet, you and I must remember, we will one day stand before the Lord to answer for our lives. We should live accordingly.

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Providing Structure   Leave a comment

When I was a kid, my parents subscribed to co-housing. Fairbanks, Alaska had a housing shortage and my parents were renting a larger sized house, so for about a year, two of their friends shared the house with them. We had seven children under one roof. The husbands were all in and out working at remote camps. Two of the women worked outside of the home and one stayed home and cooked and cleaned and child-wrangled.

Image result for image of an orderly church serviceRaising seven children can’t be an easy job. The enormity of this task was compounded by Alaska’s cold climate. She couldn’t just send us outside. So, she had to institute some rules, some of which I remember:

Don’t throw things in anger, look the parents directly in the eye when they’re speaking to you, obey when sent to do something and don’t stomp, whine or argue, use your indoor voice, don’t make disgusting or obscene noises in public (that was the boys), don’t interrupt others when they’re speaking, take your shoes off at the door, don’t touch the walls (rented house), turn off the lights if you’re the last one to leave it, don’t flip light switches on and off, on and off.

I remember those rules because the adults took them serviously and there were consequences for disobedience. The rules were there to turn chaos into order.

Paul was the spiritual parent of the Corinthian congregation and in many ways he is our spiritual parent as well. Like any good parent, Paul communicated his “house rules”. He insisted there must be order in the church. If chaos and confusion reign supreme, worship will not build up the body of Christ. While worship can be creative and free, it still needs to be orderly. In our subject passage, Paul shared two directives that will help us maintain order in the church.

Pursue order in worship

What should you do thenbrothers and sisters? When you come togethereach one has a songhas a lessonhas a revelationhas a tonguehas an interpretationLet all these things be done for the strengthening of the church. 1 Corinthians 14:26

Speaking across the centuries, Paul tells us how to have an orderly worship service. Addressing the Corinthians, he began with a general principle. The first expression in this verse, “What is the outcome then?” is one of Paul’s typical methods of summing up a discussion before moving on to the next section. Before he concluded this topic of spiritual gifts, he wanted to give a general perspective on their use in the worship setting. His counsel was for all of God’s people to come prepared to participate. When the house churches in Corinth met for worship, it was normal for everyone to come ready to contribute. Some would bring a song they had written, some a teaching, some a revelation and some a tongue or an interpretation. These five gifts are not exhaustive list of all spiritual gifts. Paul was merely saying that he longed for God’s people to come to church ready to build up the body.

Paul concluded with a command: “Let all things be done for edification.” The gifts that manifest themselves during worship must be done for the strengthening of the church. The corporate worship service is not a time for self-edification, showing off, or entertainment. It is a time for edification or strengthening of the body. Congregational worship is not about the individual, it is about the body.

Individual Christian must come to receive and to give. There can be no passive listeners. Is that your mentality when you come to church? Do you come to participate or to spectate? Historically, the church has usually grown the fastest in small, informal fellowships. These may be fledgling “church plants” or small groups within larger more established congregations. The church grows in health and size when people recognize their spiritual gifts and get involved. Do you know your gift? How are you presently using your gift in the body?

If someone speaks in a tongueit should be twoor at the most threeone after the otherand someone must interpret. But if there is no interpreterhe should be silent in the churchLet him speak to himself and to God. 1 Corinthians 14:27-28

Having recognized that the Corinthian church members were particularly dense to God’s guidance, Paul provided regulations on how tongues should manifest themselves in the corporate worship service, and those regulations have come down to us. Paul had rules for speaking in tongues in the congregation:

  • No more than two or three should speak in tongues in a given service
  • Only one person should speak in tongues at a time
  • No one should speak unless an interpreter is present and identified. A tongue speaker can control his gift. The interpreter can be the tongue speaker, but the interpreter must be identified before one speaks in a tongue or the speaker should hold silence, not just hope there is one. Of course, if there is no interpreter present, the tongues speaker doesn’t have to stifle his or her gift, he or she simply must use it silently.
  • There will be no audible tongues in public church meetings. This goes back to the problem of uninterpreted tongues and their ability to build up worship.
  • In small groups or adult fellowships, ask permission and consider who is present. If there is no interpretation, then there is no legitimate word from the Lord by tongues at that moment. This is not meant to stifle the use of gifts, but to instill order within corporate worship.

Two or three prophets should speak and the others should evaluate what is said. And if someone sitting down receives a revelationthe person who is speaking should conclude. For you can all prophesy one after anotherso all can learn and be encouraged. Indeedthe spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is not characterized by disorder but by peace. 1 Corinthians 14:29-33

After providing regulations on tongues, Paul offered some restrictions on prophecy:

  • Limit prophesying to two or three speakers. The mind can only absorb so much at any given time.
  • The church is to weigh carefully what is said. Certainly, when prophecy is taken to include Spirit-filled preaching, it seems clear that the ordinary “layperson” is often in a better position to determine how well or accurately the preacher has communicated than are fellow-preachers, who are absorbed in the fine points of the theology or technique of the message. The word used here is diakrino, meaning “to evaluate carefully.” Sometimes this could take days. A prophecy might be controversial, and the elders may need some time of prayer to determine its validity. (See 1 Thessalonians 5:211 John 4:1).
  • One prophecy at a time. Prophesying is to be done in turn. If one person desires to speak, he or she should be given the floor. Paul made clear that there was to be no speaking over another person’s words. If this control is lost, a prophecy is not of God. I suspect Corinth had a problem with certain people monopolizing “prophecy time.” Paul insisted all may prophesy one by one (not in the same worship service, of course), it is only fair that everyone who has this gift should receive the opportunity to exercise it at one time or another. Paul declared that people can control themselves. A sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence is order and courtesy. The entire purpose of prophecy is to strengthen, encourage, and comfort the entire congregation.

Paul concluded by sharing a crucial principle worth bearing in mind: “God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” The procedures in the worship service shouldn’t be disruptive but orderly. Paul had already stated one reason for this principle — unbelievers will be turned off to the church if there is pandemonium through a free-for-all exercise of tongues. More importantly, orderly worship reflects the character of God.

Respect God-ordained authority

As in all the churches of the saints, the women 13  should be silent in the churchesfor they are not permitted to speak. 14  Ratherlet them be in submissionas in fact the law says. 14:35 If they want to find out about somethingthey should ask their husbands at homebecause it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church. 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35

Paul provided a number of thoughts on how we can respect the authority that God has put in place.

What is the role of women in ministry? I wrote a study on that a while ago, so I’m not going to address it in detail here. I don’t think 14:34-35 is a blanket denial to women of a public ministry in the church. I go to a church where the music leader is a woman. I can read in Acts where women were deacons. In chapter 11, Paul clearly acknowledged that under certain situations a woman may pray or prophesy in public. So, what’s up with him writing that women are to keep silent in the churches — that they aren’t permitted to speak, but must subject themselves to the rules of men? He said if women desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home for it’s improper for a woman to speak in church. Paul indicated that this was common practice in the churches of the 1st century.

So, what’s up with him writing that women are to keep silent in the churches — that they aren’t permitted to speak, but must subject themselves to the rules of men? He said if women desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home for it’s improper for a woman to speak in church. Paul indicated that this was common practice in the churches of the 1st century.

So which is true – women can be deacons and leaders as seen in Acts, but they are to be silent and only ask questions at home?

Sometimes you have to get deep in the details. The Greek verb translated “to be silent” (sigao) doesn’t mean they can’t speak at all in the local church. The word has contextual limits. The restriction may be temporal or topical. In the former, someone is to be silent while someone else is speaking. In the latter, the one who is silent doesn’t speak in a certain manner or on a certain topic, but he or she can speak in other ways and on other issues. Thus, Paul was restricting speech designed to critique prophetic utterances, but that didn’t other forms of verbal participation. Paul forbid women to speak in church only in regard to the judgment or evaluation of prophetic utterances. Evidently, he believed that this entailed an exercise of authority restricted to men only.

Why? Again, you have to look at the Greek. I am not a Greek scholar, but I own a bunch of books written by Greek scholars.

The word “subject” was a military term describing the chain of command. Scripture uses it in reference to Jesus and is a universal truth for the church. All of God’s people are to practice Biblical submission. That’s not just women, that’s men, children, elders, pastors. It applies to all Christians.

In that context, Paul commanded women to respect the God-ordained authority of their husbands. What sort of situation might produce a challenge between the views of husbands and wives? Since both men and women could prophesy (see 11:4-5), it is entirely possible that a husband and wife might say different or even contradictory things, and this could lead to an argument in front of the rest of the church body. Or if when one prophet spoke and the church evaluated what was said (14: 29), once again a husband and wife could end up in an open, public disagreement as to the content of that prophecy. Paul considered it disgraceful to damage the witness of the church in the eyes of the culture around them.

14:36 Did the word of God begin with you, 16  or did it come to you alone?

If anyone considers himself a prophet or spiritual personhe should acknowledge that what I write to you is the Lord’s command. If someone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 1 Corinthians 14:37-38

The Old Testament does not teach that women are to remain silent at all times in worship, but it does endorse male headship in the home and in worship, consistent with Paul’s teaching here and elsewhere. Man was created first, then the woman was created to be a helpmate for him. It was in that order, not the other way around. In a matter of authority, the woman’s authority over creation involves her own voluntary submission under the authority of male leadership.

Paul sought to humble the arrogant Corinthians with a short and not entirely sweet point. An imperative appears in each verse. Paul gave a stern warning: anyone who ignores the advice/command he had just given will not be recognized as a leader, not by the congregation, but by God, Who will ignore these individuals and accomplish His work without them.

Paul turned to his summation for this section. Again, we should desire prophecy and refuse to forbid tongues. However, tongues operate best in a small group context where believers know one another. Ideally, each member of the group knows the other members’ spiritual gifts. Hence, if you know someone has the gift of interpretation, there is freedom for you to speak in tongues. We need balance on this matter of speaking in tongues. Many Christians error in extremes: everyone speaks in tongues or no one speaks in tongues. The whole focus of this chapter, I believe, was to discourage the public use of tongues, but for a higher reason than just to control people.

So thenbrothers and sisters, be eager to prophesyand do not forbid anyone from speaking in tongues. And do everything in a decent and orderly manner.

1 Corinthians 14:39-40

Paul’s final words in this section sum up the overarching concern for congregational worship. The word translated “order” is a military term for falling in rank. Paul only used this word in one other context and it is translated “stability or firmness.” When the body of Christ functions the way it should, there will be a sense of stability that will encourage people to come back or more. We should strive for order within the churches, seeking to edify the whole congregation while not sliding into the “frozen chosen” stance where we seem not to allow God to work at all.

If people experience God’s presence in worship, they will come back, they will tell their friends, they will long for it. It’s all here—conviction of sin, a dissection of the heart, and awareness of God’s presence. God wants His church to come together and experience all that He has for her. Will you be a part of all that God wants to do?

 

Put Your Ministry Where Your Mouth Is   Leave a comment

It’s safe to say that email is the communication mode of choice in the 20-teens. It’s quick, you don’t have to spend time in idle chatter and you get a receipt that says whether it was delivered and opened. Yet, e-mail is not always the best form of communication. It’s sometimes misunderstood even by people we know pretty well. As the sender, we understand what we meant, but the recipient may not “get” our point or they might read into the e-mail something we never intended.

Image result for image of speaking in tonguesBack when I worked in social work, I appended a wry comment to a response to a coworker’s email. It was meant to be funny and I am known to be quippy. Imagine my surprise when I had to explain my email to the Human Resources officer because my coworker thought I was commenting on her sex life. For the record, I never discuss other people’s sex lives (unless they give me express permission to discuss it on this blog and then I change their names to protect their privacy. The HR officer was pretty sure that was what I meant and the coworker actually ended up apologizing to me, but it made me a lot more cautious of trying to make a joke over email. The inability to include body language and voice modulation in email should cause all of us to carefully read our e-mails and pause before we respond and hit the SEND button.

Likewise, reading a letter to a church that was written 2,000 years ago can be challenging. It’s easy to misunderstand the author’s intent because we may not be aware of what was taking place in the life of the church. Often, God’s people jump to conclusions before carefully studying a biblical passage. Have you been guilty of this? I know I have been. I think we all have. Then, there’s a whole lot of people fairly unfamiliar with the Bible who google Scripture passages and take them out of context to try to score some points in online haranguing sessions.

Christians, our aim must be to understand Scripture in the way God intended. We must try not to read our own traditions, preferences, or experiences into God’s Word. Scripture should inform our choices, not the other way around. This is especially important when it comes to the controversial areas of worship and spiritual gifts.

What does the Bible teaches about what a church worship service should look like? 1 Corinthians 14 gives us some insight into that question. It also calls some of us to task for how our churches currently conduct this important gathering.

If there’s an overriding message for today’s lesson it’s “Put your ministry where your mouth is.”

Clear communication is critical in the church

Paul highlighted prophecy and tongues as important spiritual gifts, but he gave prophesy the greater significance.

Pursue love and be eager for the spiritual giftsespecially that you may prophesy. 1 Corinthians 14:1

Image result for image of prophesyFirst and foremost, Paul commanded the churches to pursue, strive for, and seek after love. This command “pursue” (dioko) means “to pursue or persecute.” It is a strong word that serves to remind us that love can be an elusive thing. We do not find real love by wishful thinking or halfhearted effort. We must pursue it eagerly every day if we are going to find it operating in our lives as it should. As a church, if we make love our top pursuit we will discover that our capacity to minister to those around us grows with every passing year.

Paul then commanded the church to “desire earnestly” spiritual gifts, particularly prophecy. To prophesy is “to proclaim divine revelation” or “to speak on behalf of God.” Prophecy is not necessarily preaching or teaching, but it has elements of both. It can be both spontaneous and prepared. Paul suggests in this passage that all God’s people can exercise prophecy. When we gather for worship, we ought to pray that the Lord will give us a word for someone in the church (see 14:26). Hence, we all come to church to minister. It’s not just the pastor who does this.

Apparently, the Corinthian church had exalted the gift of tongues above the prophetic gift of the proclamation of truth. Paul wanted to restore a healthy balance to the public worship life of that congregation by comparing and contrasting speaking in tongues and prophesying, while explaining why he put prophecy above tongues in terms of importance.

For the one speaking in a tongue does not speak to people but to Godfor no one understandshe is speaking mysteries by the SpiritBut the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement, and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds himself upbut the one who prophesies builds up the church. I wish you all spoke in tonguesbut even more that you would prophesyThe one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tonguesunless he interprets so that the church may be strengthened. 1 Corinthians 14:2-5

Some observations:

  • Paul held a high view of speaking in tongues and considered it a viable spiritual gift. Some are critical of tongues because of its divisive nature, but my own belief (drawn from Paul’s words here) are that the only problem with tongues is when Christians abuse the gift and behave in an immature and prideful way. Tongues is a good gift that God has given His church for its edification. The problem doesn’t lie with the spiritual gift, but rather with those who misunderstand and misuse what God has graciously provided.
  • The gift of tongues that Paul referred to in this context is a private prayer language. Ooo, I feel the Southern Baptist Convention looking my way with displeasure. Sorry if that upsets some non-charismatics, but Paul wrote that he would like to see all the Corinthians inspired by the Spirit to speak in tongues, but presumably only in the privacy of their own homes and only if they had been given this gift (see 12:28-30).
  • The gift of prophecy is for today (see 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22). Not in the sense of authoritative, inerrant revelation from God, but as a word of “edification, exhortation, and consolation” (14:3). The words “prophet”, “prophecies”, “prophesy”, and “prophesying” are used over 200 times in the New Testament. The whole notion of prophecy and prophesying is a big part of the New Testament. It’s not a minor doctrine. It’s a major teaching of the New Testament.
  • Paul’s primary concern was the edification of the body of Christ (the church). A form of the word “edify” is used four times in this passage. This is the foremost reason why spiritual gifts were given to us (see 12:7). It is important to note that Paul was not being critical of tongues speakers edifying themselves. He was not opposed to edifying oneself. This is one reason we come to church on Sunday, to strengthen ourselves. When we exercise our spiritual gifts, we edify ourselves in a similar way. Nevertheless, there is a double meaning to the word “edify” in this context. Since arrogance was such a problem the Corinthian church, it seems that some were getting puffed up over their use of tongues. Paul’s wish that everyone would speak in tongues is still a genuine desire, but in public worship, we should only engage in what builds up the church. Edification is the benchmark by which we measure what goes on in public worship.

Nowbrothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongueshow will I help you unless I speak to you with a revelation or with knowledge or prophesy or teachingIt is similar for lifeless things that make a soundlike a flute or harpUnless they make a distinction in the noteshow can what is played on the flute or harp be understood? Iffor example, the trumpet makes an unclear soundwho will get ready for battle? It is the same for you. If you do not speak clearly with your tonguehow will anyone know what is being said? For you will be speaking into the airThere are probably many kinds of languages in the worldand none is without meaning. If then I do not know the meaning of a languageI will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. 1 Corinthians 14:6-11

Paul explained the problem with uninterpreted tongues is no one benefits from something that he or she can’t understand. Paul wanted to be sure that what occurs in the worship service is profitable for all attendees, so he emphasized gifts of clear communication. Paul wanted everything to be done for edification… strengthening … of the church body, not just select individuals who wanted to look good.

Paul gave three analogies or metaphors that expound on the necessity of intelligibility in congregational worship.

  1. In order to be understood or appreciated musical instruments must play a discernible melody. If the musicians playing the flute and harp don’t give a clear distinction between the notes, the audience will not understand the tune.
  2. On the field of battle, bugle calls must be clear enough for soldiers to distinguish “Advance!” from “Retreat!” Trumpets or bugles were often used to summon people to battle or to give a signal for when to charge the enemy or when to stop fighting because the battle was over. Presumably there were different note patterns for each command. But if the trumpeter sounded either an unclear note pattern or a muffled sound so that the soldiers could not clearly distinguish what was being played, they would become confused and not know what they were supposed to do.
  3. Foreign languages remain unintelligible to those who have not learned them. The one who speaks in tongues without interpreting is speaking into the air. It is important to understand that these verses merely serve as an illustration. Paul was not saying the gift of tongues in this context is a foreign language. He was simply trying to say that tongues must be interpreted or they are of no value to those who can’t interpret.

Applying all three of these illustrations, Paul said that it is not the mere sound of speaking that is important, but whether the sounds can be understood by the hearers.

It is the same with youSince you are eager for manifestations of the Spiritseek to abound in order to strengthen the church. 1 Corinthians 14:12

Paul again commanded the church to seek those gifts which would build up the body, particularly prophecy.

Look around your church on Sunday and ask yourself if the congregation you attend matches that instruction. If it doesn’t, that okay, because Paul provided the solution to the problem of uninterpreted tongues.

So thenone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. If I pray in a tonguemy spirit praysbut my mind is unproductive. What should I do? I will pray with my spiritbut I will also pray with my mindI will sing praises with my spiritbut I will also sing praises with my mindOtherwiseif you are praising God with your spirithow can someone without gift say “Amen” to your  thanksgivingsince he does not know what you are saying. For you are certainly giving thanks wellbut the other person is not strengthened. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you, but in the church I want to speak five words with my mind to instruct othersrather than ten thousand words in a tongue.  1 Corinthians 14:13-19

What must a person do if God has given him or her the gift of tongues? Paul exhorted those who speak in tongues to pray that they will be able to interpret their own tongues and those of others. He then explained that he prayed and sang in his native language(s) and his prayer language. He sought to experience the best of both worlds—the spirit and the mind. Yet, he was still sensitive to ensure that during the worship event, people understood what was happening. Turns out, my Baptist buddies, Paul was an avid tongues speaker, but out of consideration for others he left his prayer language at home.

Mature thinking is critical in the church

Paul sought maturity in public worship.

Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinkingInsteadbe infants in evilbut in your thinking be mature.  1 Corinthians 14:20

Paul wanted the Corinthians to stop thinking like selfish, prideful children with regards to the gifts. They should be naïve infants with regards to evil, but mature believers in the worship service.

Citing a prophecy from Isaiah 28:11-12 (see also Deuteronomy 28:49), Paul wrote:

It is written in the law: “By people with strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to thispeople, yet not even in this way will they listen to me,” says the Lord. 1 Corinthians 14:21

The point of this Old Testament quotation is that if Israel would not hear the Lord through the prophets, they would not hear even when He spoke in foreign languages to them through foreign people. Why then, Paul asked, the emphasis on tongues in the Corinthian congregation?

So thentongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelieversProphecyhoweveris not for unbelievers but for believers. 1 Corinthians 14:22

I suspect this is one of those Jewish rabbi rhetorical questions that Paul sometimes slipped into his writing. It would be confusing to read it any other way because it seems to say the very opposite of what we would expect Paul to say. In Paul’s mind, tongues are a sign for believers and prophecy is a sign for unbelievers. How do I know that? I read the next few verses. (Context is everything!)

So if the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and unbelievers or uninformed people enterwill they not say that you have lost your minds? But if all prophesyand an unbeliever or uninformed person entershe will be convicted by allhe will be called to account by all. The secrets of his heart are his heart are disclosedand in this way he will fall down with his face to the ground and worship Goddeclaring“God is really among you.” 1 Corinthians 14:23-25

The effect of Christian prophecy on the unbeliever is threefold:

  • He will be convicted of sin (see. John 16:8)
  • he will be called to take account of his sins and examine his sinful condition
  • and he will have his sinful heart and past laid open to inspection (see John 4:16-19)

The triple use of “all” in verse 24 emphasizes that all the church through its prophetic message plays a part in bringing the unbeliever to this place of conviction. For the unbeliever in the church service will recognize that God really is present and dealing with him.

In the modern churches there are two competing groups: evangelicals and charismatics. Both groups are similar, but they do have a different flavor and for many, many years, they were somewhat hostile to one another.

Brad and I are evangelicals. He prays in a spiritual language in his place of solitude (otherwise known as our basement). I do not. God has not given me that gift and I don’t feel deprived because I can’t exercise it. We sometimes worship with charismatic friends who are generally okay with Brad not praying in tongues in their prayer meetings, but some of them get a little pushy with me because they feel I am missing out on something or refusing God’s guidance. Meanwhile, our Baptist friends are concerned that Brad prays in tongues when he’s alone (or sometimes in my presence). Not so much younger Baptists, but a lot of the older ones.

I believe God wants us to move beyond segregation by spiritual gifts to tolerance and even acceptance of the gifts of others. God would have His churches reconciled on this subject. He is calling the two halves of the churches back together again, not just to endure one another, but to delight in one another’s uniqueness and profit from it. God is calling us to a higher level of unity than ever before. He is asking us to embrace the full diversity of the body of Christ.

Remember, in heaven, there won’t be any evangelicals or charismatics. There will only be Christians worshiping with Jesus. We should get used to it now, because we will be worshiping Him in our own ways in heaven.

Love is Eternal   Leave a comment

Love Never Fails
(13:8-13)

Love never endsBut if there are propheciesthey will be set asideif there are tonguesthey will ceaseif there is knowledgeit will be set aside. For we know in partand we prophesy in part,  but when what is perfect comesthe partial will be set aside. When I was a childI talked like a childI thought like a childI reasoned like a childBut when I became an adultI set aside childish ways. For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will see face to faceNow I know inpartbut then I will know fullyjust as I have been fully known. And now these three remain: faithhopeand loveBut the greatest of these is love.  (1Corinthians 13:8-13)

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul set out to show the superiority of character over charisma. Christian love overwhelms spiritual gifts.

  • Verses 1-3, Paul stated even the most highly prized gifts, exercised to the ultimate level of success, but without love, are of little value to the one who is gifted or to the one who is the recipient of his ministry.
  • Verses 4-7, Paul described love in a way which defines it in very practical terms and also shows the Corinthians’ lack of love.

In our subject passage for this week, verses 8-13, Paul reasoned love is superior to all the spiritual gifts because love outlasts them. Love never fails; spiritual gifts do fail.

The statement, “love never fails,” nicely links Paul’s words in verse 7 with those which follow. Love “never fails” because it always bears up, always has faith, always hopes, always endures (verse 7). Furthermore, love “never fails” because it is eternal.

The word “fail” is the translation of a word which literally means to fall. This same word is used to describe the fatal “fall” of the young man from the third story window during Paul’s really long sermon in Acts 20:9. Ananias and Saphira both “fell” dead when confronted by Peter (Acts 5:5, 10). Paul employed this term when he spoke of the 23,000 who “fell” dead in the wilderness due to their immorality (1 Corinthians 10:8; Exodus 32:28). In other words, love does not die; it does not come to an end. Love is like the Energizer Bunny that keeps going and going and going …

In contrast to love, which does not come to an end, spiritual gifts do come to an end. Paul said they fail. He wrote of the demise of the three spiritual gifts considered most valuable by the Corinthians. Gifts of prophecy will be done away with; tongues will cease; knowledge will be done away (verse 8). Knowledge and prophecy in this age are partial and incomplete. But when “the perfect” comes, this will render the “imperfect” obsolete.

My husband is a repairman. Often when he is called out in the middle of the night because someone has no heat, he will repair the boiler/furnace temporarily. He keeps used parts on hand to effect those repairs. He will then return the next day when he has secured the brand new part to make permanent repairs. Consider the late night repair to be “imperfect” until he makes the “perfect” permanent repairs.

Paul contrasted the permanence of love with the temporary nature of all spiritual gifts. I know there’s debate about how some gifts may be temporary in nature, but I don’t see that in Paul’s writing … and neither do the Bible commentators I read in research here. I guess the gift of tongues is singled out because of a subtle distinction in the Greek text. One Greek word is employed to refer to the passing of prophecy and knowledge, translated in the NASB by the expression “done away.” The cessation of tongues is depicted by a different term, rendered “cease” in the NASB. While the verb employed for the passing of prophecy and knowledge is passive in voice, the term used in reference to tongues is middle in voice. This subtlety is interpreted by some scholars to mean tongues will cease after the days of the apostles before the cessation of prophecy and knowledge.

“They shall make themselves cease or automatically cease of themselves.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931), IV, p. 179.

All Christians should be knowledgeable and honest enough to say that the so-called “cessationist” position (certain gifts—especially tongues—came to an end at the close of the apostolic age) is based upon inferences rather than upon clear statements. Yes, I am a Baptist who does not speak in tongues, but I don’t agree with the “cessationist” position. It is one thing for the Bible to say tongues will cease; it is quite another to say tongues have ceased. Doctrine based upon clear, uncontradicted statements is to be held more dogmatically than doctrine based upon inference. I too hold certain beliefs based upon inference, but I desire to acknowledge them as just that. In 1 Corinthians 14:39, Paul pointedly prohibited us from forbidding others to speak in tongues. This is not an inference but a command. So, there you have it. I don’t speak in tongues because God hasn’t given me that gift, but I believe He has given others that gift. I’ve seen very.few people who exercise the gift do it properly, but the only argument I have against that is 1 Corinthians 14, which also tells me not to forbid others from speaking in tongues. Therefore, ….

I don’t embrace the cessationist position, but I also believe God is not obliged to give the gift of tongues anyone today. There are certain vital and necessary functions in the church, for which there are accompanying general commands. All are commanded to give, to help, and to encourage. All may not be gifted in these areas, but it seems necessary that there be some who are thus gifted. All are not commanded to prophesy or to speak in tongues. I don’t think tongues are necessary for the work of God, but I don’t deny the possibility of tongues. I also question the practice of tongues by some Christians. Not all that is called tongues is biblical tongues, and much of what is practiced as tongues (whether genuine tongues or false) is not practiced as the Scriptures require. In spite of this, a blanket rejection of the possibility of tongues cannot be biblically sustained.

Paul showed love to be superior to all spiritual gifts because it is permanence. Spiritual gifts are not permanent because they are not perfect. Spiritual gifts are partial. We know in part, and we prophesy in part. Prophecy is never wrong or inaccurate; it is simply incomplete. Peter wrote of the prophets of old who spoke of the sufferings and glories of the Messiah who was yet to come and whose own writings puzzled them because they were incomplete (1 Peter 1:10-12). Paul was privileged to fill in some of the gaps of the Old Testament Scriptures by unveiling certain mysteries (Ephesians 3:1-13). Nevertheless, his revelations were partial. He did not reveal all that we would like to know. Because of this, his letters raised unanswered questions, and false teachers were quickly on hand to distort his writings (2 Peter 3:14-16).

God used th prophets of old to reveal all He wanted us to know—but not all there is to know nor all that we would like to know. When “the perfect” comes, the imperfect will no longer be necessary. The imperfect will be done away with. I doubt the completed canon of Scripture is “the perfect” which will come (13:10) is the completed canon of Scripture. More likely, Paul meant the kingdom of God for which we eagerly wait. Only then will we know fully, just as we are now fully known (see verse 12).

In verses 11 and 12, Paul told the Corinthian Christians, and us, that we should view spiritual gifts as we do the toys of our childhood. We kept some of our kids’ toys for when friends bring their children to our house and while they still delight small children, our kids themselves have moved on to other “toys” … musical instruments, cars, etc. Childish toys are great when we are children, but they should hold little attraction for adults.

Paul’s illustration taught an important lesson to the Corinthians and also gently rebuked their pride and arrogance. Did they think they were wise? Of course, they did (see 4:6-21)! But their wisdom and understanding were partial. In the light of eternity, such knowledge will be set aside as imperfect. Did the Corinthians believe they saw things clearly and that their perception of matters was accurate? Paul let them know their knowledge was sketchy compared to the perfect knowledge which will be ours in eternity.

Our perception of truth and reality is like looking in a cheap, old mirror which only imperfectly reflects reality. Our modern mirrors are so much better than those of Paul’s day. His mirror was probably like the “mirrors” at a highway rest stop. Many states use metal “mirrors” in their restrooms to cut down on vandalism. Those mirrors make it very difficult to see yourself clearly. The Corinthians did not see as clearly as they thought, either. At best, their knowledge was partial. They shouldn’t have clung to their spiritual gifts with pride and thought too highly of themselves. They should have possessed and appreciated all the gifts as temporary provisions of God, seeing them as partial and inferior to what eternity holds for us.

Paul declared love is not only better than any or all of the spiritual gifts, but that it is even greater than faith and hope. Spiritual gifts fail, while love lasts. Faith, hope, and love all “abide” (verse 13). While love is greater than spiritual gifts which do not last, love is also greater than faith and hope, which “abides” and “endures.” Faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). It won’t be necessary in heaven because we will be with God face-to-face. Hope too seems to be temporal.  “For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it” (Romans 8:24-25). Faith is necessary for salvation because it waits for God to reveal His plans, but that level of trust in the unknown will be unnecessary when we’re with God in Heaven. We won’t need to hope for eternity any longer because we will already have received it. But love will still be there. Love is not something to look down upon as inferior to spiritual gifts and wisdom. It holds greater value than anything else.

Something of such great value must not only be esteemed, it should be sought. Jesus told the parable of the “pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:45-46). When the merchant found the one pearl of great value, he gladly sold all he had to purchase it. Paul told us that love is that “pearl of great price.” It is the thing of great value. The Corinthians, knowingly or not, sacrificed love in their pursuit of certain spiritual gifts (see chapter 8). Paul showed this was contrary to eternal values, since love is the greatest. One does not wisely sacrifice that of the greatest value for something of lesser value.

The first verse of chapter 14 is Paul’s “bottom line,” the application he wants his readers to accept and accomplish. In saying love is the greatest, Paul is not belittling spiritual gifts. He merely seeks to put spiritual gifts into perspective. Spiritual gifts are a gracious provision of God, but they are never to be pursued or practiced at the expense of love. Love is to be pursued as the “pearl of great price,” but the spiritual gifts are not to be neglected. Love is the attitude of heart which adds value to the gifts.

A former pastor of mine was descended from the Bach family of musicians, so it was a family requirements that he learn to play an instrument and many of the men in his family were accomplished fiddlers (he grew up in the Ozarks). He learned the notes and fingering and bow work, but he just wasn’t that good. He tried (and his sons wished he wouldn’t), but he couldn’t make a good violin “sing purdy.” Spiritual gifts are like the violin. They are good. When employed by immature, carnal, self-seeking Christians, however, spiritual gifts produce an unpleasant sound. When spiritual gifts are employed by spiritual Christians, those who walk in love, the gifts they exercise are beautiful; they are edifying to others. Love is one ingredient that can never be absent without being noticed. The Corinthians might have professed to pursue and practice love, but they were lacking in it.

Christian love is a huge topic, but you can summarize Paul’s teaching on the subject with two main statements:

  1. Love should be our priority
  2. Love should be pursued

Love as a Priority

Spiritual gifts have little value apart from love. Spiritual gifts do not abide, while love does. Love is even superior to faith and hope, which do abide.

This truth is not unique to Paul. The teaching of the entire Old Testament and of our Lord Jesus Christ can be summed up by one word—“love.” (See Matthew 22:34-40; Romans 13:8-10; John 13:34-35; John 15:12-13; John 15:17).

Love was the goal of Paul’s instruction:

But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith (1 Timothy 1:5).

Peter and John referred to love as the highest level of Christian growth, and Paul spoke of it as the basis for edification (see 1 Peter 1:22-23; 1 John 4:7-11; 2 Peter 1:5-7; Ephesians 4:1-3, 14-16).

Love is to be a high priority for the Christian, but it is so quickly and easily lost. Certainly love was lacking in the church at Corinth. The church at Ephesus all too quickly lost its first love and did not even seem to know it (see Revelation 2:1-5.

THE PURSUIT OF LOVE

Love is not automatic. It’s quickly lost, and it comes about only when we make it our priority and pursuit. How does one pursue love? We begin by reading God’s Word and meditating upon it. This epistle was written not only to the saints at Corinth but to all the saints, including us (see 1:1-2). The first thing we gain from God’s Word is an accurate definition of love. Our society does not have the same definition of “love” as the Bible says Christians should hold. The Bible is the only source of truth which defines what love is and does.

As the Word of God speaks to us of love, we should recognize our lack of love, and repent of it. Surely as Paul’s description of love’s conduct begins to unfold in verses 4-7 of chapter 13, it became increasingly clear the Corinthians lacked love. As we meditate on these verses and many like them in God’s Word, our lack of love must be recognized and repented from as the serious sin it is. This is what Jesus called for in His letter to the Ephesian saints in Revelation 2 and it is what He requires of us today.

Having recognized our lack of love and repented of this deficiency, we must now look to God alone as the source of love. Love does not originate within us. We love as a result of God’s love for us. We are to keep ourselves in this love (1 John 4:19; Jude 1:20-21). 

If we are to keep ourselves in the love of Christ, we must never stray from the cross of Christ, because that is where God’s love for us was poured out (Romans 5:3-8).

The love we have received from God came in the form of a cross—sacrificial love. That is the kind of love we are to manifest toward others (John 15:13; Ephesians 5:25-27).

The way we demonstrate love toward God and toward others is by obeying His commandments. This is why the Old Testament law can be summed up in two commandments, both of which are the expressions of love. Legalism is man’s attempt to keep God’s law without love. Love is that state of heart which seeks to please God by keeping His commands. In chapter 14, verse 1, Paul instructed his readers to pursue love, and the rest of the chapter tells us how that is to be done. We pursue love by exercising our gifts in a self-sacrificial way that endeavors to edify others. If most of the church today ignores the instructions Paul laid down here, we can conclude the problem begins with a lack of love toward God and toward others. Love is not so much a warm and fuzzy feeling as the grateful disposition to please God and others at our own expense, by keeping His commandments as initially laid down in the Old Testament and clarified in the New.

Just a reminder that I’m speaking primarily to Christians because this epistle was written primarily to Christians, but now I want to say something to those who have not yet acknowledged their sin and trusted in the sacrificial death of Christ for the forgiveness of their sins. You cannot express the love of God until you have first experienced it. This is why some Christians scoff at you when you try to lecture them about love. Christian love is impossible for those who have not yet accepted the love of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ. I urge you to consider the awesome reality of God’s love, expressed toward you in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. Even while we were sinners, Christ died for us, to bear the penalty for our sins, and to give us His righteousness, as we place our trust in Him by faith. May you trust in Him this very hour and thus come to experience His love.

Christian Love Has No Sell-By Date   Leave a comment

It bears all thingsbelieves all thingshopes all thingsendures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:7)

Paul spoke of four different qualities of love, all linked to each other by the word rendered “all things.”, which seems to fall short of communicating what Paul is saying. Love does not, for example, believe everything. It is not “love” for a mother to believe her child when he denies getting into her freshly made pie, when the meringue has formed a mustache around his mouth. Paul had just written that love “does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth” (verse 6). While we tend to read these as separate phrases, they are dependent upon one another and should be understood in context. How could he inform the Corinthians that “love” accepts everything as truth, believing whatever one is told and not contradict that earlier statement?

Image result for image of love enduresInstead, what it means is love is always characterized by certain qualities, without exception. Throughout history, man has sought to excuse disobedience or sin by convincing himself that his situation is an exception. Jesus was asked if a man could divorce his wife for any reason at all (Matthew 19:3). His response was a refusal to dwell on the exceptions. He focused instead on the rule. He knew that for the Pharisees, the exception had become the rule. This is why Paul had already excluded any “loopholes” in the Bible, by insisting that whenever we succumb to temptation, it is not because we had to (The “I’m only human” defense), but because we failed to act upon God’s divinely provided “way of escape”:

No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it (1 Corinthians 10:13).

And so Paul informed his readers that there are four things love never ceases to possess and to practice, four things which can always be expected from genuine love.

(1) Love always bears up under adversity (“bears all things”).

Love had endurance. It can continue no matter what the opposition.

Edwards points out that the Greek term employed by Paul has two senses:

The term used here by Paul “… means originally ‘cover over,’” … then, “contain as a vessel.” From this latter meaning two metaphorical uses of the word are derived, either of which may be here adopted:

  1. that love hides or is silent about the faults of others;
  2. that love bears without resentment injuries inflicted by others.

(T. C. Edwards, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (London: Hodder and Stoughton, n.d.) p. 347)

I do not believe we are forced to one choice or the other. It is completely within the realm of possibility that Paul meant us to understand this word in terms of its broader range of meaning. If true, we can see two major dimensions to love’s consistent capacity to “hold up” rather than “fold up.”

Firstlove bears up silently; that is, love covers sin with a cloak of silence. Sin is shameful, and love does not wish the sinner to be shamed more than necessary. Noah’s son, Ham, broadcast his father’s shame to his brothers when Noah was drunk and naked in his tent. His brothers “covered” Noah’s nakedness in a way that prevented them from viewing his shame (Genesis 9:20-23). Peter reminds us that Jesus suffered silently, not responding verbally to the abuses hurled upon Him, and that this pattern of silent suffering is to be followed by all the saints (1 Peter 2:18–3:15; 4:8).

Matthew’s Gospel sheds further light on this matter of our silence when Jesus teaches His disciples about church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20). We are to go privately to a brother who has sinned against us, and if he repents as a result of our rebuke, the matter is settled, never to be made public. If, however, this wayward brother resists and refuses to repent, then the matter once dealt with in the strictest privacy must now be dealt with in a way that becomes more and more public. After all efforts to turn the wayward brother from sin have been rejected, the whole church must be notified of his sin, and he must be publicly ex-communicated. Love always seeks to keep the sin of a wayward brother as private as possible, but this does not mean we cannot and should not be confronted publicly, if all private efforts have failed.

Second, love always bears up, no matter how great the persecution, suffering, or adversity. Job’s wife “tempted” him to sin by urging him to “curse God and die,” thus bringing his suffering to a conclusion. Love never caves in or collapses under duress. Love always holds up. Should we attempt to deceive ourselves by thinking otherwise, Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:13 jolt us back to reality.

Third, love always has faith (“believes all things”). Love never forsakes faith. The word translated “believes” in this verse is a verb, and the noun which shares the same root is very often translated “faith” in the New Testament. Of all the many times Paul employed the verb found here in our text, virtually every time it is used in a context which indicates the one who “believes” is the one who “has faith.” It is often used of those who have come to faith, those who have become “believers” (see 1 Corinthians 1:21; 3:5; 14:22). Only once in Paul’s epistles does this verb refer to a belief in something other than the truth of the gospel:

For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part, I believe it (1 Corinthians 11:18, emphasis mine).

Love always believes; it always has faith, even when life seems to be crumbling about us. Adversity is never an occasion for unbelief. Paul, imprisoned and awaiting a verdict from Caesar, was filled with faith, trusting that his death would either bring him into the presence of God or that his life would be used to draw others nearer to God (Philippians 1). Suffering is not an excuse for the failure of faith; rather, it is an occasion where love and faith may be demonstrated.

I know that faith, hope, and love are often mentioned together or are found in very close proximity to each other. I’ve come to appreciate the very close association that exists between love and faith. When Jesus summoned the four fishermen, Peter and Andrew, James and John, why did these men leave their nets, their boats, and even their fathers to follow Jesus? Was it because of their faith? Partly, but I think they were drawn to Jesus out of love—His love for them and theirs for Him. These disciples did not understand a great deal about Jesus and His gospel until after His death, burial and resurrection. What kept them following Him before these things were clear in their minds? Faith, in part, but also love.

Love always has faith. Our love for God and our trust in His Word should give us unlimited faith in Him. Those men and women whom we love we must also trust, but within limits. We dare not believe everything we are told. In Deuteronomy 13, Moses warns the Israelites concerning those who would lead them astray. Included among those who might mislead us are those we call our “loved ones” (see 13:6-10). Love is never a license to uncritically accept all we are told. The love we find in the Bible is based on the truth (see Philippians 1:9-10; 1 Timothy 1:5).

Our faith must not be in our fellow man, but in God. No matter how bad things may be, no matter how much grief others may dish out to us, we should have unlimited faith in God. We should have faith in His promises to sustain us, to keep us from falling, and to perfect His work in us. We should have faith that God is using our trials and tribulations to strengthen our faith (Romans 5:1-11James 1:1-18) and to bring about our good and His glory (Romans 8:28). Paul found great consolation in his sufferings for Christ’s sake because it enhanced his sense of identity with Him and his love for Him (see Philippians 3:8-11Colossians 1:24-29).

All too often I see a kind of cynicism in Christians that is not compatible with faith. Of course, we believe in the depravity of man. We know this world is passing away and that the unbelieving world’s efforts to bring about the improvement of man’s moral and spiritual nature are doomed. We know a genuine and permanent peace will never be negotiated or brought about on this earth, apart from the return of our Lord and the establishment of His kingdom. Nevertheless, we can have faith that God will bring about His purposes for this earth and that He can save those who are seemingly hopelessly lost in their sins (such as Saul of Tarsus). We can be optimistic about what God will accomplish through us in this world. Love, true love, always manifests faith.

Fourth, love always has hope. Faith is believing in what is ultimately real and true but not immediately seen (see Hebrews 11:1). Faith believes God is going to give us that which our eyes do not and cannot see but which God has promised to us. Hope is our longing and desire for those things which are future, which by faith we believe we shall receive.

For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it (Romans 8:22-25).

The concept of hope is frequently found in Paul’s writings. Hope enables the Christian to face even the most adverse circumstances, hoping for the promised blessings which will follow. “Hopeth all things is the forward look. The thought is not that of an unreasoning optimism, which fails to take account of reality. It is rather a refusal to take failure as final. Following on from believeth all things it is the confidence which looks to ultimate triumph by the grace of God.”

We can fairly readily grasp the relationship between faith and hope, but what is the relationship between hope and love? It seems to me that we hope for what we really love. I think we see this kind of hope in the life of Jacob. When Jacob fled from home (really from his brother Esau), he went to live among his relatives in Padan Aram. Finding his uncle Laban, Jacob stayed with him, falling in love with his younger daughter, Rachel. Jacob worked for seven years to earn the dowry for Rachel, only to discover that Laban had given him Leah instead. It took another seven years of labor before Jacob had paid the dowry for Rachel. And yet we read these words concerning Jacob’s attitude toward the delay in obtaining Rachel for a wife: “So Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her” (Genesis 29:20). Jacob’s love for Rachel gave him both hope and endurance.

Of course there is a sense in which our love for others should give us hope for them. We love the children God has given us, and as they grow up, we have hope that God will save them and that they will grow up to be true disciples of Jesus Christ. Our hope, however, is not in them so much as it is hope for them. We have hope for our children because ultimately our faith and hope are in God. We have hope that God will accomplish certain things in them.

Many of the Corinthian Christians were Paul’s spiritual children (1 Corinthians 4:14-15). In spite of all the abuse he had taken from these, his children, Paul had great hope for them (see 1 Corinthians 1:4-9; 2 Corinthians 1:7; 2 Corinthians 9:11-15; 13:6-14).

Man’s hope may be wrongly placed (see 1 Timothy 6:17), but the only true source of hope is God, and particularly the Lord Jesus Christ (see Psalm 33:171 Peter 1:21Psalm 31:24; 38:15; 42:5, 112 Corinthians 1:101 Timothy 1:1). Christians should be characterized by hope in the midst of adversity, and it may well be this hope which opens the door for sharing our faith with others: “But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15). True love is characterized by a consistent hope. Love always hopes.

Fifth, love always perseveres (“endures all things”). Some have been troubled that the first description of love (“bears all things”) is too similar in meaning to Paul’s last description (“endures all things”). I believe these two things are related, just as “faith” and “hope” are related. I see the “bearing” of things related to the intensity of the trial or offense. “It was more than I could handle,” someone excuses. “How much am I supposed to put up with?” another asks. Perseverance or endurance do not focus so much on the intensity of the trouble as the duration of it.

Love, Paul wrote, does not run out of time. Love lasts. This point will be taken up in the following verses. No matter how difficult the trial, love bears up under it; no matter how long the trial, love perseveres. This was not the case when the Corinthians divorced one another (chapter 7) or when one believer took another to court (chapter 6). There is a world of difference between a Christian asking the question, “How long?” and the Christian throwing in the towel with the excuse, “Too long!”

This, by the way, are what marriage vows are all about. When a man and a woman love each other and enter into covenantal marriage by the taking of vows, they promise to love each other, no matter what. And when they repeat their vows to each other, they commit themselves to loving their mate, “until death do us part.” Love does not put time limits on its own existence, even when things get rough.

What Love Is & What It is Not   Leave a comment

What Love Is Like
(13:4-7)

Love is patientlove is kindit is not enviousLove does not bragit is not puffed up. It is not rudeit is not self-servingit is not easily angered or resentful. It is not glad about injusticebut rejoices in the truth. It bears all thingsbelieves all thingshopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

Image result for image of long-sufferingPaul declined to give a technical definition of love. He provided us with a description of love, one especially pertinent to the Corinthians. The first two statements describing love in verse 4 are general. Paul then advanced to things not characteristic of love. These just happen to be some of the characteristics of the Corinthian saints. I doubt that’s a coincidence. Finally, Paul concluded in verse 7 with four characteristics of love, none of which are selective or partial. The Corinthians’ conduct in these areas was very much partial and incomplete. These four verses teach us what love looks like and that the Corinthians lacked it.

LOVE IS PATIENT

Paul began his description of love in verse 4 with the words, “Love is patient.” Although I love modern translations of the Bible, sometimes the King James Version has it better and this is the case here. It renders it “suffereth long” (“suffers long,” NKJV).

Long-suffering is that quality of self-restraint in the face of provocation which does not hastily retaliate or promptly punish; it is the opposite of anger, and is associated with mercy, and is used of God, Ex. 34:6 (Sept.); Rom. 2:41 Pet. 3:20. Patience is the quality that does not surrender to circumstances or succumb under trial; it is the opposite of despondency and is associated with hope, 1 Thessalonians 1:3; it is not used of God. (W.E. Vine)

We should not be surprised to find that God is described by the term “long-suffering” (see Exodus 34:6; Romans 2:4; Romans 9:22; 1 Timothy 1:16; 1 Peter 3:20; 2 Peter 3:9, 15).

Pre-King David exemplified long-suffering. King Saul persistently sought to kill David, once he knew he would someday replace him as king of Israel. David not only endured this persecution graciously, refusing to take the king’s life when given the chance, he actively sought to do good to Saul. David was both long-suffering and kind.

Longsuffering is named as one of the “fruits of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22). We are commanded to be “patient” or to manifest “long-suffering” toward others (see Ephesians 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:14).

I can imagine the Corinthians cringing as they read Paul’s words since they clearly fell far short of what God required of them regarding long-suffering. The Corinthians found it unbearable to wait for those who could not arrive before they started to eat the meal at the church’s fellowship gatherings. Paul had to command them to wait for one another. Had love been present in Corinth, it would have prompted them to wait (see 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). And when one Corinthian Christian irritated another, the response was, “I’ll see you in court!” (see chapter 6). This is not patience!

Before we begin to feel too smug, we are not doing all that well either. Christians in our part of the world are not inclined to endure ill-treatment from anyone. Putting up with ill treatment is what long-suffering is all about. We are to put up with one another: “Bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you” (Colossians 3:13). We should be willing to endure ill treatment from unbelievers and believers alike, even as our Lord did (1 Peter 2:18ff.; see also Matthew 17:17Acts 13:18). Let us not forget all that Paul put up with from the Corinthians (see 4:6-21).

A lot of modern Christians really need to develop thicker hides when it comes to the slights and offenses others impose on us. The word “abuse” is one of the great “excuse” words of our day. Let me be very clear that there are certain kinds of abuse no one should put up with, such as sexual abuse. However, the categories of abuse seem to multiply daily. For example, there is verbal abuse and mental abuse. But now, Christians seem to think that whenever the “abuse” word arises, every Scriptural command is put into a different category, one which does not apply. Turning the other cheek is out because that would be tolerating physical abuse, regardless that Jesus silently endured verbal abuse as a pattern for all Christians (1 Peter 2:18-25). Somewhere Christians must make up their minds to suffer at least certain kinds of abuse from others. I’m a big believer in individual rights, but I think they need to be balanced (by the individual, not the government) with long-suffering.

LOVE IS KIND

If long-suffering (or patience) is the passive side of love, kindness is the active side. Kindness is the opposite of “having a chip on one’s shoulder.” A chip on one’s shoulder predisposes one to hostile action with only the slightest provocation while kindness predisposes one to helpful action which only requires the hint of a need before it takes action. The “good Samaritan” did not need to be prodded into action nor did he seek to find a “way of escape” from his obligation as a neighbor. When he saw the man lying in the road in need, he willingly did all in his means to help (Luke 10:30-37).

David is one of the most striking examples of kindness. He loved Jonathan, one of his closest friends. After Jonathan died, David wished to demonstrate his love toward his deceased friend. Since Jonathan was dead, the only way to show kindness to Jonathan was through his offspring. David was delighted when he was informed that Jonathan had a living heir. His surviving son, Mephibosheth, was crippled in both feet. In one sense, this was even better for David’s purposes, because this man’s handicap presented a need David could meet. By David’s decree, Mephibosheth henceforth ate regularly at the king’s table (2 Samuel 9). David’s love manifested itself in kindness, a predisposition to do good to others.

Kindness is characteristic of God and should thus characterize the Christian (see Luke 6:35; Romans 2:4; Ephesians 2:7; Ephesians 4:32; Titus 3:4-7; 2 Timothy 2:24; 1 Peter 3:8). The Christian is commanded to be kind (Ephesians 4:32), and thus, failing to show kindness is disobedience. Kindness is also a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Paul reminded the Corinthians of the kindness which he manifested toward them even though they were unkind to him (see 1 Corinthians 4:6-212 Corinthians 6:1-13). Kindness was surely lacking in the Corinthian church.

Kindness is not the spirit which produces strife and divisions in the church (chapters 1-3). It was not the response of many Corinthians toward Paul or the other true apostles (chapter 4). It surely was not kindness that caused the church to embrace a man living in sin (chapter 5). Neither is it kindness which compelled two believers to square off with each other in a secular law court (chapter 6). Kindness did not cause one spouse to withhold sex from the other (chapter 7). Kindness did not prompt one believer to assert his or her alleged rights to the detriment of another (chapter 8). It was not kindness that motivated some Corinthians to indulge themselves before their brethren arrived (chapter 11). Kindness didn’t make one believer look down upon the gifts of another (chapter 12) or cause certain individuals to assert themselves in the church meeting for their own personal gain (chapter 14). When the Corinthian saints were described, kindness is not the first word which pops into my mind.

According to Paul, love is demonstrated by two general characteristics:

  • long-suffering in the face of adverse treatment by others, and
  • kindness toward those who abuse us.

Long-suffering endures ill treatment without responding in a retaliatory fashion, and kindness seeks to do good to those who delight to cause us harm. That is what love is like. Now, in the second half of verse 4 through verse 6, Paul lets us know what love is not like. If these characteristics exist in Corinth—or in our church—we need to confess our lack of love.

LOVE IS NOT JEALOUS

Jealousy is a term which conveys “earnest desire.” It can be a good desire or a bad desire. In our text, the desire is bad. We might define jealousy here as “a sadness or sorrow on my part, due to the success of another.” Jealousy causes me pain when someone else feels pleasure. It is the kind of feeling a person feels when his or her competitor wins.

Perhaps it is the feeling a Miss America Pageant contestant has when, as one of the top finalists, she hears the girl standing next to her pronounced “Miss America.” Both girls, not to mention their parents, have sacrificed many years for this moment. Music lessons, diets, exercise, contests, clothes have all played a significant part in her life. She has made many sacrifices to win this coveted title, only to have the girl next to her win. All the other contestants manage the semblance of a smile on their face and kiss the winner, but it is hard to believe there is not the feeling of jealousy, a regret that the other person has succeeded, at their expense.

Asaph confesses his jealousy of his fellow Israelites in Psalm 73, and David warns of being jealous of the wicked in Psalm 37:1. Cain is jealous of Abel’s acceptance (Genesis 4:1-8), and Haman is jealous of Mordecai’s success (Esther 6). Saul is jealous of David and his success (1 Samuel 18:7), so much so that he seeks to kill him. The scribes and Pharisees are jealous of Jesus’ popularity and power over the people (Matthew 27:18). Peter is concerned about John’s fate in comparison with his own (John 21).

Jealousy is incompatible with love for a very good reason. Love seeks the benefit and well-being (edification) of another, so much so that it is willing to make a personal sacrifice to facilitate it. When others prosper at our expense, this is precisely what love intends. Jealousy is not consistent with love. Jealousy would rather prosper at the expense of the other, and so when another prospers, jealousy results where love is absent.

The gospel is the supreme example of love, in contrast to jealousy. God made the ultimate sacrifice by going to the cross to bring about our salvation. The Lord Jesus sacrificed Himself for our salvation, paying the ultimate price of His own blood. If this kind of sacrifice was required to bring about our salvation, how can we regret God’s blessing on others? Ironically, because Christians are a part of the body of Christ, the prosperity of one member is not at the expense of the rest of the body, but for the benefit of the whole body (see 1 Corinthians 12:26).

Someone might protest, “But isn’t God jealous? Why can’t Christians be jealous if God is a jealous God?” There is a great difference between our jealousy and God’s. God is jealous over that which belongs to Him. We are jealous over that which belongs to someone else and not to us. God is jealous over what He has; we are jealous over what we do not have that someone else does have. There are times when we can exemplify godly jealousy (see 2 Corinthians 11:2), but this is not what Paul has in mind in our text.

Jealousy was rampant in the church at Corinth. The Corinthians were jealous of the gifts and ministries of their fellow-believers. Some despised their own gifts and calling and wish to have the gifts and ministries of others. They seemed to be jealous of those visible and verbal ministries. They even seemed to be jealous of Paul’s time which he spent in ministry to others. In both 1 and 2 Corinthians, Paul had to speak to the issue of his absence which some seemed to resent.

Sadly, Christians today manifest the same kinds of jealousy. We are jealous of the (apparent) success of others in business and in the church. Some can be jealous of those who are given a leadership position in the church. We can be jealous of those who appear to be (or at least claim to be) more spiritual than we are. I see a great deal of jealousy in the ministry. Ministers may be jealous of the success of others in ministry, of their radio ministry, or the opportunity to speak in the Bible conference circuit. Some may be jealous of the salary, the prestige, or the size of church others might have. All of this betrays a lack of love and the sacrificing, servant spirit which love engenders.

Jealousy may be among us in other ways. First, we may be guilty of provoking people to jealousy by distorting the gospel which we preach and share with others. Consider these words of the apostle Paul:

If anyone advocates a different doctrine, and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain.  But godliness actually is a means of great gain, when accompanied by contentment (1 Timothy 6:3-6).

LOVE IS NOT ENVIOUS

Paul specifically identified envy as one of the evils in this text (verse 4). I believe Paul established a connection between envy and greed and a distorted gospel. People may come into (or at least along side) the faith because they are given false expectations of what their conversion will produce. Some approach the Christian faith as a means of “getting ahead” in life, seeing the gospel as a “means of great gain.” This is certainly possible when one listens to the “health-and-wealth gospel” preachers who abound today, trying to lure people into the faith (or into their congregations or list of supporters) by promising them prosperity if they join their ranks.

When Jesus invited men to follow Him, He did not make sweeping promises of prosperity. Instead, He sought to dispel any misconceptions about His ministry by stressing discipleship and its cost, and by talking in terms of “taking up one’s cross.” Some in churches today who envy the success of others may have been tempted to do so by those who promised them prosperity rather than the forgiveness of sins and eternal life through Jesus Christ. Let us preach the gospel as Jesus did and never seek to lure people into the faith with unBiblical bait (see 1 Corinthians 4:1-22 Corinthians 2:17; 4:1-2).

LOVE IS NOT ARROGANT AND DOES NOT BOAST

Arrogance and boasting are the reverse side of the coin. Jealousy is my sinful response to the prosperity of others. Arrogance and boasting are my sinful response to my own prosperity. Arrogance (or pride) takes credit for my “success,” as though it were due to my own merit or superior efforts. Boasting is letting other people know about my success in a way that tempts others to be jealous of that success.

Arrogance and boasting are not Christian virtues; humility is a virtue. Arrogance is a character trait of Satan. In Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28, political leaders were rebuked for their arrogance in a way that suggests a close kinship to Satan himself. It is not possible to take pride in that which we are given, apart from merit or works. We cannot boast or take credit for the gift of salvation, our spiritual gifts or ministries: Grace pulls the rug out from under pride and boasting. Paul once took great pride in his performance as a Pharisee, but not after he was saved. As a Christian, Paul saw his contribution to the work of God in a new light (Philippians 3:1-10). Our calling is not to “enter into the glory” of our Lord, the glory yet to come; rather, we are to enter into His sufferings(Colossians 1:24-29; 1 Peter 4:12-14). 

The Corinthians were arrogant (1 Corinthians 4:6, 18, 19; 5:2; 8:12 Corinthians 12:20) and boastful (1 Corinthians 1:29, 31; 3:21; 4:7; 5:6; 9:15-16; 15:312 Corinthians 7:4, 14; 8:24; 9:2-3; 10:8, 13, 15-17; 11:10, 12, 16-18, 30; 12:1, 5-6, 9). Where do we see pride and boasting manifested in the churches today?

Pride and boasting are found wherever the most coveted gifts and ministries are present. People who mean well may compliment those with outstanding gifts, and their words may become flattery. Praise leads to pride and pride to arrogance.

I see pride manifested often around the family. Those who may have prayerfully and diligently (though not infallibly) sought to raise their children in the “discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4) may be broken-hearted because of the outcome, at least as judged at the moment. Meanwhile, those whose children appear to have turned out “right” may, without knowing it, be inclined to take credit for those results. In truth, good parenting is never a guarantee of good children. God is sovereign in the election and salvation of our children, and He is under no obligation to save them because of any work or merit on our part. When our children walk with the Lord, it is solely due to the grace of God and not to our good parenting. We, as parents, are obligated to be faithful in the rearing of our children, just as we are to be faithful in proclaiming the gospel. But faithful parenting, like faithful proclamation, does not assure us of the results.

The most pious forms of pride and boasting seemingly give God the credit for our works because it makes us sound so spiritual, while all the while mentally patting ourselves on the back as if we deserve any part of the credit for what God does through us. Many of us have discovered that we have nothing worth boasting about in ourselves. We nevertheless find ways to boast in a second-hand manner. The Corinthians, for example, boasted in their leaders: “I am of Paul, Apollos, …” etc. We can do the same: “I go to _________’s church.” Or we can boast in our church or denomination: “I go to a New Testament church that teaches the Bible.” “Our church is serious about Bible study or Bible doctrine.” “Our church believes and teaches the full gospel.” Many of these statements may be desirable and even true, but our attitude can be one of pride, our speech boasting.

LOVE DOES NOT BEHAVE BADLY (ACT UNBECOMINGLY)

The Corinthians were not behaving well. There were divisions and factions, immorality enough to shock the pagans, lawsuits, and some church member were actually participating in heathen idol worship celebrations. Corinthians weren’t waiting for the rest, before they began to observe the Lord’s Supper. The Corinthians were uncouth jerks, really. This is not what love is all about. Love is about behaving in an appropriate manner. It is about conduct befitting the circumstance.

I cannot go on without pointing out some ways Christians behave badly, all in the name of “spirituality.” Often “spiritual considerations” become our “lion in the road,” not only excusing bad behavior, but, in our minds, demanding it. One way is found in evangelism. Many of us use the gospel as an excuse to be pushy or overly aggressive with others. We confront, buttonhole, badger and bully others, all in the name of soul-winning. Who can fault the faithful “soul-winner”? But Jesus never intruded, never forced Himself upon an unwilling, uninterested victim. Soul-winning is no excuse for running roughshod over people so we can put another notch on our evangelistic gun belt. “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person” (Colossians 4:6).

Being “Spirit-led” is another pretext for bizarre behavior. Much of the conduct of the Corinthians in the church meeting was not Spirit-led but merely compulsive self-assertion. And it’s no different today. A friend who was a fairly new Christian reported about her first visit to a charismatic church, ending her email with “I don’t think I’m going to go to church if I’m required to lose my mind to do it.” Fortunately, she reached out to the right Christians who were able to steer her to churches that don’t want to scare the visitors. Let us never blame God for our bad behavior. If we truly love God and others, let us not act badly, whether excused by pious language or not. Love does not act unbecomingly. Love is conduct which is winsome, which draws people to us, and which prompts them to ask us about our faith (see 1 Peter 3:13-15).

LOVE IS NOT SELF-CENTERED (DOES NOT SEEK ITS OWN)

The Corinthians were completely self-absorbed. They measured themselves by their gifts and ministries and didn’t think of themselves as a part of the body of Christ. They had marvelous “self-esteem,” but they disdained Paul and the other apostles. They were so self-centered they were willing to demand the freedom to practice their alleged liberties, even if it destroyed a weaker brother. They asserted themselves in the church meeting with little or no regard for others and for edification.

The church of our day is not really different. The word “self” is found often on the lips of professing Christians. We are told that our first priority is to love ourselves so that we can then love others, which is pretty unBiblical, but also illogical and foolish. How can we be so gullible as to embrace this kind of error? Love is a matter of prioritizing. I am to love God above any and all others; He has first priority. I am to love my husband above all mankind, just as Christ has set His love on His church. I am to love my neighbor and even my enemy. That is, I am to put the interests of others above my own (see Philippians 2:1-8). If I love myself first, I cannot love my neighbor, because loving my neighbor means putting him first. I am to love my neighbor as myself; that is, I am to love my neighbor in the same ways I find it natural to love myself (see Ephesians 5:28-30).

Some Christians see self-love for what it is, but there are other forms of self-absorption, and some people are self-centered in other ways. Some put themselves first by continually leveling blame or guilt toward themselves, rather than accepting and appropriating God’s forgiving grace. Others wallow in self-pity, constantly meditating on the ways others have abused them. Any preoccupation with self is self-centered and contrary to the way of love. Let us not forget that ours is the way of the cross; the Christian life is about dying daily and the mortification of the flesh. Too many Christians try to coddle that which needs to be crucified.

LOVE IS NOT PROVOKED

This Greek term, rendered “provoked” in the NASB, is used in Hosea 8:5 and Zechariah 10:3 to depict provocation to anger. The term is by no means used only with a negative connotation. In Acts 17:16, it describes how Paul’s spirit is so provoked within him that he begins to preach to the idol-worshiping inhabitants of Athens. In Hebrews 10:24, the writer urges the saints to “stimulate one another to love and good deeds.” Here in 1 Corinthians, Paul uses the term to describe a short-fused person who is easily and quickly provoked to take action which is not edifying to either party. Love does not “blow its cork,” “lose its cool,” or “blow a fuse.” Love does not have a chip on its shoulder, looking for some tiny straw of offense so it can ventilate all its anger and hostility.

The Corinthians are obviously provoked in a number of areas … enough to take their brethren to court, to divorce their mates and to start the Lord’s Supper without waiting for all to arrive. Today, Christians are provoked by minor offenses and leave the church or take some form of retaliatory action. Some are provoked by their mates and act in a destructive way to their marriage. Parents may be provoked by their children or children by their parents (see Ephesians 6:4). There are all too many abusive parents or mates, whose explosive anger cannot be predicted or avoided but only dreaded.

Having warned of being very careful about becoming too quickly provoked, I must add that some saints really need to get upset about what they see in the world around them. We ought to be angered at sin, but in our anger, we should act appropriately and not explosively (see Ephesians 4:26). There is a time for righteous indignation, but let us be certain it is truly righteous wrath and not just human anger with a pious label (James 1:19-20; 3:13-18).

LOVE DOES NOT KEEP NOTES ON PAST OFFENSES

Paul tells us that love “does not take into account a wrong suffered.” We find it hard to forget it when people offend us, often storing up such grievances.’” Some saints seem to have photographic memories when it comes to offenses against them. One little irritation brings to mind an entire file of previous offenses, carefully annotated and documented, sometimes with date-stamps. This kind of mental bookkeeping only serves to fuel resentment and certainly does not facilitate true reconciliation.

LOVE DOES NOT REJOICE IN UNRIGHTEOUSNESS, BUT REJOICES WITH THE TRUTH

Finding out what a person enjoys—what gives them pleasure and causes them to rejoice—may be very revealing about the character of that person. All too often, I find myself enjoying something not really righteous. Some humor is funny, but not particularly righteous. Paul said love looks to the truth of God’s Word to define that which it can enjoy, that over which it can rejoice.

Secular entertainment offers a good illustration. Many movies set us up to take pleasure  in unrighteousness. Often the villain is characterized by incredible violence and cruelty. All through the movie, he does things designed to cause us to hate him with a passion. We don’t want him to be caught and sent to prison. We don’t want him to be convicted and given the death penalty. We want this person to die in the worst conceivable way. And so, in the end, the individual gets his reward, dying the most painful, violent death the film writer can conceive. And we find ourselves watching this man die with great pleasure. Often, the hero responds with equal unrighteousness and violence, but we cheer him on because he’s the “good guy”. Very often, he’s the one who kills the villain and we applaud heartily. We rejoice in unrighteousness.

Gossip is yet another area where most all of us fail to live up to the standard Paul set for us. Many Christians actually take pleasure in gossip. Suppose someone in the church has gifts or a ministry we covet. If we think this person’s success is at our expense, then the failure of that person is something in which we could take pleasure. Someone comes along and shares a rumor: “Did you know so and so was supposed to have … ?” We are too quick to believe the worst. We want to take pleasure in that person’s moral assassination. We gladly listen to the rumor and even pass it along to others. If we wish to look especially pious in the process, we share it as a “concern” or a “prayer request.” All the while we take great pleasure in the process, which is unrighteous (see 2 Corinthians 12:20; compare Matthew 18:15-201 Timothy 5:19-20).

LOVE TAKES NO PLEASURE IN UNRIGHTEOUSNESS. LOVE SETS ITS MIND ON WHAT IS RIGHT:

Rather than comment on this, I thought I’d leave us with the quintessential Bible passage on the subject.

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things; and the God of peace shall be with you (Philippians 4:8-9)

Here is the way to unity. Love dwells on what is right and then does what is right. This is the way to peace.

A More Excellent Way   Leave a comment

A friend tells me that he thinks 1 Corinthians 13 may be the most misunderstood chapter in the Bible, because people don’t read it in context. It is sandwiched between Chapter 12 and Chapter 14, which both discuss spiritual gifts within the church. If that’s the gem setting, it casts the message of the chapter in a different light. Because I can’t cover three chapters in one post, I had to break it up, but you can read it for yourself in one go.

And now I will show you a way that is beyond comparison. (1Corinthians 12:31b)

The Way of Love

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angelsbut I do not have loveI am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophesy, and know all mysteries and all knowledgeand if I have all faith so that I can remove mountains, but do not have loveI am nothing. If I give away everything I ownand if I give over my body in order to boastbut do not have loveI receive no benefit.

Love is patientlove is kindit is not enviousLove does not bragit is not puffed up. It is not rudeit is not self-servingit is not easily angered or resentful. It is not glad about injusticebut rejoices in the truth. It bears all thingsbelieves all thingshopes all thingsendures all things.

Love never endsBut if there are propheciesthey will be set asideif there are tonguesthey will ceaseif there is knowledgeit will be set aside. For we know in partand we prophesy in part, but when what is perfect comesthe partial will be set aside. When I was a childI talked like a child, I thought like a childI reasoned like a childBut when I became an adult, I set aside childish ways. For now we see in a mirror indirectlybut then we will see face to faceNow I know in partbut then I will know fullyjust as I have been fully known. And now these three remain: faithhopeand loveBut the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:1-13)

Introduction

Image result for image of christian loveI find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe the Corinthians deliberately chose to abandon Christian love. I believe they were so caught up in certain spiritual gifts that they had unconsciously abandoned true love. They were something like Samson after Delilah cut his hair. Samson leapt to his feet, fully expecting to be able to handle the Philistines, not knowing that God’s power had departed (see Judges 16:18-21). The Corinthian church was like the church at Ephesus which had lost its first love (Revelation 2:1-7).

Why is love important? Why do Christians need to study it more intently?

  • The whole Old Testament Law is summed up by the one word, “love” (see Leviticus 19:17-18Matthew 19:19).
  • Love sums up the Christian’s responsibilities in the New Testament (Romans 13:9).
  • Love is the capstone, the crowning virtue, the consummation of all other virtues (Galatians 5:22-232 Peter 1:5-7Colossians 3:12-14).
  • Love is the goal of Paul’s instruction (1 Timothy 1:5).
  • Love is the distinguishing mark of the true Christian (John 13:35).
  • Without love, the value of spiritual gifts is greatly diminished (1 Corinthians 12:1-3).
  • Love is greater than any of the spiritual gifts and is even greater than faith and hope (1 Corinthians 13:13).
  • Love endures suffering under persecution, and Christians will be persecuted (Matthew 24:102 Timothy 3:12).
  • Love is easily lost, without one’s even being aware of it (Revelation 2:1-7).
  • Love is misunderstood and distorted by the unbelieving world.
  • Love is vitally important to Christians, for it should govern our relationships with other Christians, especially those with whom we strongly disagree.

So why did Paul decide to address love right in the middle of an ongoing discussion of spiritual gifts? I think it was because the church at Corinth greatly resembled the churches of today. In the Corinthian church of Paul’s day, and in the evangelical church of our own day, strong polarization exists between charismatic Christians and non-charismatic Christians. As the charismatic movement has grown, it has become more diversified, thereby rendering many generalizations about it reductionistic, but its fair to say both charismatics and non-charismatics often cherish neat stereotypes of the other party.

As judged by the charismatics, non-charismatics tend to be stodgy traditionalists who do not really believe the Bible and who are not really hungry for the Lord. They are afraid of profound spiritual experience, too proud to give themselves wholeheartedly to God, more concerned for ritual than for reality, and more in love with propositional truth than with the truth incarnate. They are better at writing theological tomes than at evangelism; they are defeatist in outlook, defensive in stance, dull in worship, and devoid of the Spirit’s power in their personal experience.

The non-charismatics themselves, of course, tend to see things a little differently. The charismatics, they think, have succumbed to the modern love of ‘experience,’ even at the expense of truth. Charismatics are thought to be profoundly unBiblical, especially when they elevate their experience of tongues to the level of a theological and spiritual shibboleth. If they are growing, no small part of their strength can be ascribed to their raw triumphalism, their populist elitism, their promise of short cuts to holiness and power. They are better at splitting churches and stealing sheep than they are at evangelism, more accomplished in spiritual one-upmanship before other believers than in faithful, humble service. They are imperialistic in outlook (only they have the ‘full gospel’), abrasive in stance, uncontrolled in worship, and devoid of any real grasp of the Bible that goes beyond mere proof-texting.

Of course, both sides concede that the caricatures I have drawn admit notable exceptions; but the profound suspicions on both sides make genuine dialogue extremely difficult. This is especially painful, indeed embarrassing, in the light of the commitment made by most believers on both sides to the Bible’s authority. (D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), pp. 11-12.)

But, while all Christians now share in the “unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:3; compare 4:5; 2:14-22; 1 Corinthians 12:13), we do not all share in the “unity of the faith” (Ephesians 4:13). This is because we only “know in part” (1 Corinthians 13:9-12). We Christians disagree, in part at least, because our knowledge is partial and incomplete. We don’t know what we don’t know and we tend to disagree over those things we do not fully know, even though we may believe we do know. Love is the means God provided for us to live in harmony and unity, even though there is a diversity of doctrine in matters which are not fundamental. Paul’s instructions on love then become absolutely vital to our Christian walk and unity.

What is distinctive about Christian love? It’s important to answer that question before looking further at Chapter 13. We overuse that word “love” in the modern world so that the meaning of the word is sort of fluid. And, yes, there are different Greek words for our single English word love and they all have different nuances of meaning, but I’m not going to get into that in this study. Paul provided us with a definition of Christian love in the writing of Chapter 13.

He didn’t instruct us about the importance of distinguishing between Greek words for love. He began in verses 1-3 by showing that spiritual gifts have only minimal value, unless they are exercised in love. In verses 4-7, Paul didn’t attempt to give us a very technical definition of love; instead, he described love in a way which makes it very clear what Biblical love looks like. His description makes it glaringly evident that the Corinthians had indeed lost their first love, even more quickly than the Ephesian saints (compare Revelation 2:1-7). If verses 4-7 contrast the behavior of true love with the conduct of the Corinthians, verses 8-13 contrast love with all spiritual gifts, showing that while all of the spiritual gifts are temporary, Christian love is eternal, outlasting even faith and hope. If we measure the value of something by how long it lasts, love comes out on top. Love is the “better way” (see 12:31) beyond all comparison.

I’m going to break the study up into segments over the next few weeks, but before doing that, I want to make a few observations.  Paul took what are considered to be the greatest gifts anyone could possess, starting with tongues (the “ultimate gift” for the Corinthians and many charismatics today), and granted that each could be exercised to the fullest possible extent. Even then, these spiritual gifts would be of limited value unless exercised out of a heart of love.

Tongues is the ability to speak in unlearned earthly languages as seen in Acts 2. Or is it? If you go back to that Biblical passage (Acts 2) and read it without a preconception, you quickly realize that the miracle was not that the disciples spoke in tongues, but that the hearers understood what they were saying in their own language. Peter could not have preached in more than one language. It would be a physical impossibility to speak in more than one language at the same time. Yet, hearers from all over the Mediterranean understood what he said.  So, while the disciples did speak in tongues that day, it may not be the sort of tongues we are familiar with today. And, even if it were, Paul declared, if this were done apart from love, it would not be profitable to men: “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

Can you imagine listening to a cymbal or a gong hour after hour? I actually can because my nephew played the drums. Babysitting him was hell. Hour after agonizing hour of drums pounding away. Some instruments are not good alone. Rather than being enjoyable, they can be irritating. A tongues speaker without love could speak long and loud, enraptured by the sound of his own voice, but apart from interpretation, there would be no value to those who hear or even to the speaker (see 14:14-17). Exercised in love, and in accordance with the restrictions set down by Paul, tongues could be edifying. But without love, tongues would be irritating.

How do I know? I have worshiped with charismatics on-and-off throughout my Christian walk. In very few groups is any interpretation offered. In one prayer meeting a woman erupted into an ecstatic utterance that sounded a great deal like an old-style coffee percolator. I got nothing spiritual out of that meeting, though occasionally I have been in groups where interpretation occurred and it was very uplifting.

Any gift exercised primarily for the benefit of the one who is gifted is a prostitution of that gift, and the end result of that kind of “ministry” is not edification but exasperation. Love seeks to serve others to their benefit and at the sacrifice of the one who serves in love. This kind of ministry blesses others. Self-serving, self-promoting ministry is a pain to others, something to be endured at best.

The Corinthians wrongly measured their own significance by the gifts they possessed. Were this false assumption granted even for a moment, without love, the greatest gift, exercised to the fullest measure, really makes the exerciser a nobody.

Luke 7:36-50 illustrates this truth. There, everybody who was considered important seems to have gathered at the dinner Jesus attended at the home of Simon the Pharisee. A woman regarded as a “nobody” came, uninvited, and washed the feet of our Lord. Simon the Pharisee took note and, in his heart, thought less of Jesus because He allowed this woman to touch him. He thought, “If Jesus knew who she was and what a sinner she was, He would have nothing to do with her.” But Jesus turned the tables. This woman went away forgiven and saved. She who was a “nobody” was a “somebody” in the kingdom of God, simply because she loved her Lord. The one who was least, but loved, was the greatest. Those who were the greatest, without love, were the least.

Look at Jonah, the prophet. He enjoyed the kind of “success” of which the prophet Elijah could only dream. Elijah wanted to convert the nation Israel. He “failed” because this was not God’s purpose for him. So, too, Isaiah “failed” by secular standards of success. But when Jonah preached, the entire city of Nineveh repented. It was a success Jonah did not want. It was a success that made Jonah angry with God. Who could leave the Book of Jonah liking this loveless prophet? He was nothing because he lacked love.

In addition to the gift of prophecy, Paul wrote of the gift of faith. Faith, exercised to the ultimate measure of success, would be a faith that could not only move mountains but remove them (compare Matthew 17:20; 21:21). If one had this kind of faith, yet lacked love, he would be a nobody.

If I possess the greatest of gifts and exercise them to the fullest degree, yet without love, I am nobody. I am nothing. These words must have struck the Corinthians with considerable force.

In verse 3, Paul speaks of gifts in terms of the greatest imaginable sacrifice. “And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.” Paul spoke of great personal sacrifice that would gain one favor and approval by his peers (compare Matthew 6:2-4). The ultimate sacrifice is made, either by giving up all of one’s possessions for the sake of the poor, or by the giving up of one’s life as a martyr. Because love is sacrificial (see Ephesians 5:25), some might be tempted to conclude that “great sacrifice” (giving up all one’s possessions or one’s life) was proof of great love.

Paul disagreed. People give away their possessions for any number of reasons, and many of those reasons can be self-serving rather than sacrificial. So what if I bequeath all my wealth to a charitable organization upon my death. I can’t take my money with me anyway. Even if I deprive my children of any inheritance, it really doesn’t mean I’m generous. I’m dead. The bequest doesn’t affect my life. People have set themselves on fire for causes they believe in and I’ve heard pundits ascribe that action to a love motive. I’m not confinced. Ultimate sacrifices can be made apart from love, and if they are loveless, they are of no eternal benefit to the one making the sacrifice.

Benefits and blessings may occur through the loveless exercise of spiritual gifts, but these benefits are greatly reduced when love is lacking. The Corinthians were obsessed with the value of spiritual gifts, equating the social status of the gift with the significance of the one who possesses it. Paul sought to elevate love, the fruit of the Spirit, above the gifts of the Spirit.

Sherry Parnell

Author of "Let the Willows Weep"

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