Archive for the ‘#divisions’ Tag

Body Language   Leave a comment

For just as the body is one and yet has many membersand all the members of the body – though many – are one bodyso too is Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one bodyWhether Jews or Greeks or slaves or freewe were all made to drink of the one Spirit. For in fact the body is not a single memberbut many.  If the foot says“Since I am not a handI am not part of the body,” it does not lose its membership in the body because of that. And if the ear says“Since I am not an eyeI am not part of the body,” it does not lose its membership in the body because of that.  (1Corinthians 12:12-16)


Related imageHave you ever tried to go a day without using your non-dominate hand? Most of us who are right handed don’t use our left hands for much requiring dexterity, but I think if we didn’t have use of it, we’d be at a serious disadvantage to all the people with two hands.

Now, imagine if you lost that hand entirely. You couldn’t get it back. Yeah. Most of us, if we had a choice, would not choose to cut off a limb, and if we had a functioning limb, we wouldn’t choose not to use it … except as some weird writer exercise.

The Corinthian Christians don’t seem to have seen it this way. In a spiritual sense, they effectively cut off every member of the body except those who had a certain kind of gift and ministry. The Corinthians didn’t esteem all of the spiritual gifts, but seemed fixated upon only one or a few gifts, while disdaining the rest. As a result, those who didn’t possess the prize gift(s) concluded they had nothing to contribute to the church body. Others who did possess the highly regarded gift(s) felt smugly independent of the rest of the body.

Paul used the term “body” nearly 20 times in Chapter 12. He indicated the church is Christ’s body, the image of which should be illustrative of the nature and function of the church. One of the serious problems facing the Corinthian church was disunity. Paul didn’t hesitate to bring up the problem of factions at the outset of the letter (1:10). These divisions were certainly related to allegiances to certain leaders (1:12, etc.), but they may are also tied to what we might call strengths and weaknesses (1:18-31). Divisions were so intense they had even resulted in lawsuits brought before secular courts (6:1). The Corinthian Christian who thought he was wise and knew so much was the one who believed he was free to participate in heathen idol worship ceremonies without any concern that his doing so might cause another saint to stumble (8:1-13).

Paul wanted the Corinthians to stop thinking and acting like their behavior didn’t affect anyone else and to begin to act with a sense of corporate identity and responsibility. In athletic terms, Paul wanted the Corinthians to begin to think and behave like a team, rather than like a bunch of spiritual “Lone Rangers”. Paul introduced the imagery of the body to correct the Corinthians’ misconceptions concerning spiritual gifts.

Many images are employed for the people of God … a priesthood, a race, a nation, and a temple (see 1 Peter 2:4-9Ephesians 2:11-22). God’s people are referred to as a vine or a vineyard, which is to produce fruit (Isaiah 5John 15, etc.). The people of God are described as the bride, or wife, of God (see Isaiah 62:5Jeremiah 2:32-35; Hosea; Revelation 21:2, 9; 22:17). We are also likened to a flock of sheep, of which God is the Shepherd (see Psalm 23John 10; 21:15-17), and elders are under-shepherds (1 Peter 5:1-4).

Only the Paul referred to the church as a body. I’m going to attribute it to his traveling companion Luke, a physician. The church of Jesus Christ is His body. Every believer, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, is joined to the body of Christ by the baptism of the Holy Spirit (verse 13). There is one body into which every saint is baptized. There is but one people of God. The distinction between Jew and Gentile is abolished in Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22).

The imagery of the church as the body of Christ underscores the unity of all believers (Ephesians 4:3-6). It shows how evil and counter-productive the divisions in the Corinthian church were. My identity is found in Christ, because I am a part of His body. My righteousness is Christ’s righteousness. His death is mine; His resurrection and new life, mine (see Romans 6:1-11). As a Christian, I cannot think of myself only as an individual. I must perceive myself as a part of the church … as a part of Christ’s body. To identify with Christ by faith is also to identify with His body, the church. No wonder Paul so quickly joins himself to fellow-believers (see Acts 9:19, 26). As a wife merges her identity with her husband, becoming one flesh, so the believer merges his or her identity with the body of Christ, the church. Those who fail to identify themselves with the body of Christ are disobedient in their refusal (see Hebrews 10:25).

Ah, but while we are one body, we have many functions. The Corinthian church was blessed with the full spectrum of spiritual gifts (see 1:4-7). Yet, in spite of this very broad range of gifts granted to this church, only a few select gifts were valued. Carrying forward with the metaphor of the body, if the Corinthian church had its way, the entire body would be only one organ.

If the whole body were an eyewhat part would do the hearing? If the whole were an earwhat part would exercise the sense of smell? But as a matter of fact, God has placed each of the members in the body just as he decidedIf they were all the same memberwhere would the body be? So now there are many membersbut one body. The eye cannot say to the hand“I do not need you,” nor in turn can the head say to the foot“I do not need you.” On the contrarythose members that seem to be weaker are essential, and those members we consider less honorable we clothe with greater honorand our unpresentable members are clothed with dignity, (1Corinthians 12:17-23) 

Repeatedly, Paul emphasized that the body is one, but the members are many (see verses 12, 13, 14, 18, 20, 27). Christian unity does not mean uniformity. We’re not factory made. While there is only one body of Christ, there are many different members, many different limbs and organs, each of which has a unique role to play in the body. Paul emphasized that each member has a role that is essential to the health and ministry of the body, the church.

As a member of the church, the body of Christ, we find we are a part of a much greater whole—we belong to an organism whose “head” is Christ and whose function is to represent Christ to a fallen world. As a member of the universal church, we also find our true identity as an individual. The body imagery illustrates the individuality of every Christian. Each believer is, in body terms, an individual organ or member. Each believer is uniquely gifted with a blending of spiritual gifts and is given a particular function within the body. No two saints have the same place in the body. Thus, each believer is unique. In one sense, the Christian is inseparably joined to the whole body, and in another, each believer is absolutely unique in the body. We have our identity with Christ’s body and in His body.

Notice how this union with Christ’s body shaped Paul’s view of his own ministry, particularly of his sufferings:

but our presentable members do not need this. InsteadGod has blended together the bodygiving greater honor to the lesser member, so that there may be no division in the bodybut the members may have mutual concern for one another. If one member sufferseveryone suffers with it. If a member is honoredall rejoice with it. (1Corinthians 12:24-26)

Paul saw himself as inseparably joined to the body of Christ. He viewed his ministry as Christ’s ministry. He viewed his sufferings for Christ as Christ’s sufferings. He saw his message as that of Christ and the power by which he ministered as His power, manifested through him. Paul summed up this matter in his own words to the Philippians:

For I know that this shall turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I shall not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Philippians 1:19-21).

Most of the Corinthian Christians wanted to be something they were not. The “foot” wanted to be a “hand” (12:15); the “ear” wished it were an “eye” (12:16). The matter of spiritual gifts and placement in the body of Christ is not something we control. Our spiritual gifts, our place of service in the body, and the results of our ministry are all divinely determined (12:4-6).

When we are discontent with the gift(s) God has given us, our protest is against the Holy Spirit of God, the sovereign Giver of gifts. To question either the Spirit’s goodness, or His infinite wisdom in giving us our gifts, is like my foot deciding it will no longer listen to my brain. While biologically possible, it’s not to my foot’s benefit. The Holy Spirit knows what the whole body of Christ needs far better than we do.

Spiritual gifts are “graces” sovereignly bestowed upon believers. Spiritual gifts, like salvation, are not a matter of merit. Gifts are not earned; they are sovereignly graced upon us. Because of this, those who take pride in their gifts reveal their own foolishness and ignorance (see 1 Corinthians 4:7).

Those who mistake gifts as an evidence of spirituality or of status are wrong, and those who mistake their gift as a symbol of insignificance are just as wrong in that they demean the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

This sovereign gracing is amply evidenced in the Book of Acts. Where are gifts ever given as a reward for service? Where are particular gifts granted because men sought them? In Acts 2Acts 8Acts 10, and Acts 19, the baptism and the gifts of the Holy Spirit were not sought; they came as a surprise to those who are granted them. I think that because the Corinthians highly valued a very few gifts and disdained the rest, these prized gifts were sought and perhaps even falsely pretended. I see Christians today trying desperately to obtain certain gifts, and I have to ask why. If they are sovereignly bestowed, why must we strive to get them?

A New Set of Standards

Now you are Christ’s bodyand each of you is a member of it. And God has placed in the church first apostlessecond prophetsthird teachersthen miraclesgifts of healinghelpsgifts of leadershipdifferent kinds of tongues. Not all are apostlesare they? Not all are prophetsare they? Not all are teachersare they? Not all perform miraclesdo they? Not all have gifts of healingdo they? Not all speak in tonguesdo they? Not all interpretdo they? But you should be eager for the greater giftsAnd now I will show you a way that is beyond comparison. (1Corinthians 12:27-31)

There’s a real surprise of our text! The imagery of the body amazingly illustrates that the most visible, most attractive parts of the body are not the most important. I have a friend whose son was born with a birth defect … he lacked a rectum. While you can live without a hand, you can’t live without the functions involved with rectum. The “child” is now an adult and living an active life, but it took dozens of surgeries to correct his problem and every one of those surgeries were necessary for him to live. Conversely, I have cousins who were born deaf. While that complicates their lives, they have never been in fear of death from their disability. Getting a cochlear implant is a voluntary procedure. Similarly, the more attractive gifts of singing and preaching get all the attention in churches, but most churches would find it difficult to function without the janitor and the treasurer. While often we think these people are not really gifted, the gifts of administration and helps are found in the New Testament listened right along with preaching and prophesying (but not singing, which might give you some pause).

Paul rebuked these status-seeking saints at Corinth when he turned their value system upside-down. The body illustrates what he is teaching. Those members of the body which are of the least importance are those to which we devote the most attention and effort. We paint our toenails, put rings on our ears, and noses! We put rings and jewelry on our fingers. Truthfully, we can live without ears (or hearing), eyes (or seeing), fingers, hands, legs, toes. The least needed members of our body are the ones which are most visible and to which the most “glory” is given. Yet, they are the lesser gifts. Those gifts which are most visible, most vocal, most glorified in the Corinthian church were, in reality, the least important gifts. The Corinthians had been storing up sand in their safety deposit boxes and using gold for stepping stones.

The most important gifts, like the most important organs, are those which are not visible or spectacular, those of which we are least conscious. You cannot see my spleen, my kidneys, my liver, or my heart, but I cannot live without them. They do not get a lot of attention, but they are the most vital members of my body, whether others value them or not.

The concept of the church as the body of Christ should change our way of thinking of ourselves and of the church.

Within the body of Christ, we are far too individualistic in our thinking. We are far too competitive in our thinking and actions, so that the advance or success of others is viewed as a personal setback for us. We must begin to think cooperatively, realizing that the success of other saints is our victory, and, more importantly, our Lord’s victory. We need to strive not only for our own growth in Christ, but for the corporate and collective growth of the entire church (see Ephesians 4:11-16).

The concept of the church as the body of Christ should cause us to think in terms of the local church, but also beyond the local church.

The “church” is the body of Christ, but in the New Testament the “church” is often bigger than just one local church. Paul spoke of “the church” as those believers in a certain political or geographical setting (e.g., the seven “churches” of Asia in Revelation 2 and 3). In contemporary terms, there are many local churches in towns across America, but we might also think in terms of the collective of several churches that is in a particular town, the entire body of believers in a town. We speak of the church “in America” or “in Russia”. In prison ministry, we speak of the church “behind the walls.”

Just as individual believers think and act competitively, so local churches can fall into the same error. There should be ways in which we, as individual believers and as a local churches, express our identification with the larger “church.” Southern/Great Commission Baptists express this through our Cooperative Program, but all too often, even that fails to expand our minds beyond the four walls of our own congregation. We fixate on a handful of people killed in a mass shooting in some American city, but we ignore the deadly virus killing hundreds of thousands in Africa, for example. There isn’t the same degree of concern or involvement, yet African Christians are part of the body of Christ. They depend upon us, as we depend upon them. We should avoid isolationism in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ.

While there is a sense in which the body is to support and provide for the needs of each individual member, let us never forget that this is not the primary purpose of the church. 

Too many people attend church to have their “needs met.” Too many people leave churches, complaining that the church has not met their needs. The church is to build up itself in love, but the goal of the church is to live out the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, to His glory. We, the church, are the body of Christ. This means we, as the church, are to carry on His ministry in the world today. The church ministers to itself, to build itself up so that it may carry out its mission, and that mission is living out Christ in a fallen world. We have become so preoccupied with the church’s ministry to us as individuals that we have failed to concentrate on the church’s mission to the world, and our obligation to sacrifice ourselves in ministry to and through the church to the world. The question is not, “What is the church doing for me?” The question should be, “What can I contribute to the church to participate in its fulfillment of its mission and calling?“

Christians who are a part of the church, the body of Christ, need to understand that while differences may be the basis for division and strife in the world, these differences are by divine design and are intended to enhance our dependence upon one another, and thus to illustrate true Christian unity.

Unity is not evidenced by uniformity but by harmony and interdependence as each individual saint carries out his or her unique function in the body. That which results in division in the fallen world in which we live should be the occasion for unity and harmony in the church. We should not all want to look alike or function alike, but each should function as God has made him or her, so that the body is benefited by our presence and ministry. As God made Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female, one in Christ, we need to demonstrate this unity in diversity, because we are one body.

The concept of the church as a body calls into question one of the important operating principles of the modern day “church growth movement.” 

For most of my Christian life, I have attended churches that lacked homogeneity, but that is not the standard practice of American churches. In fact, homogeneous groupings are considered “best practices.” The principle goes something like this:

  • Birds of a feather flock together.
  • People are more comfortable around “their kind.”
  • There’s statistical evidence that the churches which are growing the fastest are those whose membership is largely of the same racial, social, and economic class.

The churches of today are encouraged to appeal to, or target, a particular segment of society. Rather than apologize for this, they are assured they will enjoy the fruits of success. I think that flies in the face of the imagery of the church as the body of Christ. I think it’s an affront to the gospel itself. We shouldn’t seek to present a look-alike face to the world. That condemns us to our own cultural values and way of thinking. We should strive to be different, as God intended, with each church member contributing our unique gifts and ministries which He has given, to the edification of the church and to the glory of God.

Pride Leads to Tripping   Leave a comment

Centuries before Paul confronted the Corinthians, the prophet Nathan provided an excellent example of indirect confrontation. David had sinned greatly, taking Bathsheba in an adulterous act, then attempting to cover up his sin with the thinly-veiled murder of her husband. When Nathan confronted David, he did not immediately accuse him of his sins. Instead, he approached David with the story of a poor man whose only lamb was taken away by a very rich man. David was incensed and demanded that this “sinner” be brought to justice. Only then did Nathan disclose that this story was a parable, and that the guilty man was none other than King David. David confessed his sin and was forgiven, although serious consequences followed. The indirect approach of Nathan was effective as it committed David to a righteous course of action in principle when it did not appear to relate personally to him. Once David embraced the matter in principle, Nathan spelled it out to the king in very personal terms.

Image result for image of pride as tripping hazardPaul did something very similar in the first chapters of 1 Corinthians. The Corinthians had a problem of divisions in the church based upon undue attachment to a particular leader that led to the rejection (or at least disdain) of other leaders. The leader they followed was a great source of pride to these cultic cliques. They boasted of belonging to a particular person as their leader. Paul first dealt with the matter in principle, contrasting the gospel, weak and foolish in the eyes of the unbelieving world, with the false wisdom and power of those who are considered leaders in the secular world.

I have applied these things to myself and Apollos because of you, brothers and sisters, so that through us you may learn “not to go beyond what is written,” so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of the one against the other. For who concedes you any superiority? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as though you did not? Already you are satisfied! Already you are rich! You have become kings without us! I wish you had become kings so that we could reign with you! For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to die, because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to people. We are fools for Christ, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, we are dishonored! To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, poorly clothed, brutally treated, and without a roof over our heads. We do hard work, toiling with our own hands. When we are verbally abused, we respond with a blessing, when persecuted, we endure, when people lie about us, we answer in a friendly manner. We are the world’sdirt and scum, even now. (1 Corinthians 4:6-13)

The real problem at Corinth was not between any of the apostles or their alleged followers. The real problem was divisions and cliques which centered on others. Paul’s teaching to this point in the first Epistle to the Corinthians was intended to draw men’s attention and commitment to the Scriptures, to “what is written.” The Corinthians departed from the Scriptures, and in so doing, proudly boasted of their attachment to a certain leader and their disdain for others. In 1 Corinthians 3:1-4, Paul exposed the carnality of the Corinthians. The evidence of their condition could be seen in their weakness in handling the Word and their attachment to men. In 1 Corinthians 4:6-13, Paul indicated that carnal Christians attach themselves to men because they have gone beyond the Scriptures to find truth and wisdom.

The Corinthians had become arrogant against the apostles. Verses 7-13 are a graphic description of how the Corinthians looked at themselves and, in contrast, how they looked at Paul and his fellow-apostles.

Paul raised three very crucial questions in verse 7 which will expose the seriousness of their self-deception and sin.

Who regards you as superior?” Who was their judge? Who esteemed the Corinthians as so high and mighty? Was it the unbelieving community? God was their judge, not the corrupt Corinthians of that day.

What do you have that you did not receive?” The Corinthians boasted in their abilities. Where did these abilities come from? If they were given (and they were), then they were given by God. If the Corinthians were boasting in their God-given gifts, then they were boasting in God’s place. They had the wrong judge and the wrong object of praise. Men have taken the place of God.

“If all that the Corinthians possess is a God-given gift, then how can they boast, as if it were not a gift?” The Corinthians thought themselves so wise, but they were arrogant and boastful. If they were so wise, how could they be so foolish as to take credit for something they were given, as though they were not the recipients of a gift? They had forgotten (or forsaken) grace. These all-wise Corinthians are self-deceived.

The minds of the Corinthians were not mysterious to Paul. He virtually read their minds and described the way they looked at themselves. They were “already” filled; they had “already” become rich. Indeed, they had become kings. These Corinthians were much like the Laodiceans of Revelation 3: “Because you say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked’” (Revelation 3:17).

The word “already” indicates that in their minds, the Corinthians had “already” arrived. It will soon be clear that Paul and the other apostles have not. How can this be? How can the carnal Corinthians think they had arrived when the apostles had not?

In effect, the Corinthians thought they have already” entered into the kingdom; they had “already entered into the full benefits and blessings of Christ’s work at Calvary. They were not unlike a number of professing Christians today, who argue that all of the blessings resulting from Christ’s work on the cross are our present possession, and that all we need do is have the faith to claim them. They claim to possess them and look down upon all who do not. They also claim that those who do not possess them suffer and are afflicted in this life and do not experience success and the good life here and now.

Such thinking contradicts the clear teaching of our Savior and of His apostles. Jesus clearly speaks of suffering and adversity in this life, and the glories of His kingdom in the next, as did all of the apostles (see John 15:18-19; John 16:33; Acts 14:22; Philippians 1:27-30; Philippians 3:10-11; 2 Timothy 3:12; 1 Peter 4:12-13).

How ccould these Corinthians and modern-day prosperity gospel acolytes miss the fact that if we identify with Christ in this age, we will suffer rejection, persecution, and affliction, but with the assurance of entering into the blessings of His kingdom when He comes? Paul already told us that these Corinthians needed to learn not to “go beyond what is written.” They were wrong because they had forsaken the Scriptures as the only source of divine truth. Second, they had twisted the Scriptures pertaining to prophecy and future things. Like many others in New Testament times, including our own, they had distorted the doctrine of the resurrection, future judgment, and the blessings of Christ’s kingdom (see 1 Corinthians 15:12; 2 Thessalonians 2:2; 2 Timothy 2:18; 2 Peter 3:3-4).

If the Corinthians, boasting in their worldly wisdom, thought they had arrived, they were equally convinced the apostles had not. Judgmentally, they looked down upon the apostles in their suffering and humble service. Paul paints the picture of the Corinthians, sitting “on high” looking down from their lofty heights, disdaining the apostles who were a shame and a reproach to them. Paul said God has exhibited the apostles before the world as those condemned to die, as those being led to their execution. They were a spectacle to angels and to men. The apostles were fools; the Corinthians were wise. The apostles were weak; the Corinthians were strong. The Corinthians were distinguished; the apostles were without honor.

Paul’s description of the apostles in verse 11 sounds remarkably like a description of the lowest rung of our own social ladder today. It also sounds like the men and women Brad and I have seen in prisons and rescue missions. They are hungry and thirsty, poorly clothed, roughly treated, and homeless. It takes little imagination to picture the contrasting condition of the Corinthians. In today’s terms, the Corinthians were like many of the televangelists of our time. They were well fed, impeccably dressed, highly esteemed, often possessing several expensive mansions.

Rather than living like kings off of the saints, Paul labored with his own hands, not supported by those he served. He supported his ministry with his labor (Acts 18:3; 20:33-35; 1 Corinthians 9:1-23; 2 Corinthians 11:7-9; 2 Thessalonians 2:9). When the apostles were reviled, they gave a blessing in return. When persecuted, they endured. When slandered, they sought to conciliate. In spite of this (or perhaps, because of this), they were regarded as the scum of the world, the bottom of the social barrel.

Self-Deception   Leave a comment

Four key words sum up the problems Paul addressed in the church at Corinth:

Divisions. There were divisions in the church at Corinth. Paul contended that there must be unity, for it was Christ alone Who has saved us. Chrisitans are all one body. Paul reminded his readers (then and now) that while leaders in the church may have different tasks to perform, all are engaged in the same cause.

Image result for image of teaching silos

Leaders. The existing divisions had been made on the basis of personalities. The Corinthians had chosen who to follow as their leader. Paul meant to show that leaders are merely servants. Those who think of themselves as “belonging” to a certain group need to be reminded that all the leaders in the church of Christ belong to them, and not the reverse.

Pride. The Corinthians boasted in their leaders, taking great pride in them. The Corinthians did not take pride in what they themselves were, or in what they were doing, but in the status and success of their leader. Paul undermines and attacks human pride by pointing to the kind of people God generally excludes (the cultural elite), and those whom He includes (the weak, the foolish, the nobodies). The things of God are foolish to the world, and the things of the world are foolish to God. The gospel is not about indulging the flesh, but mortification of the flesh. The gospel spells death to human pride, for all that is worthy of praise is the work of God and not of men.

Wisdom. Status in Corinth seems to be determined more on one’s intellectual standing than on one’s wealth. Those whose teaching was highly regarded by the secular community as being “wise” were most highly esteemed. The one who was highly skilled in speaking and persuasion was even more highly esteemed. Paul reminds his readers (past and present) that divine wisdom is incomprehensible to the natural (lost, unsaved) man. Divine wisdom does not come from the great thinkers of this age. God reveals His wisdom through His Word and through His Spirit.

In chapter 3, Paul comes right to the heart of the matter. The problem in Corinth was not Paul’s fault, but the problem of the Corinthian saints. Paul was unable to speak God’s wisdom to the Corinthians because they were too immature, too unspiritual (“carnal”) to handle it. The Corinthians’ carnality was evident in their inability to handle teaching and doctrine which had not been predigested by someone for them (“milk”). Indeed, even the “milky” truths were looked upon with scorn, because they seemed so elementary and simplistic. Not only was the carnality of the Corinthians evident in their spiritual appetite (and digestion), it was evident in the factions which existed in the church, factions centered upon certain leaders.

Up to 1 Corinthians 3:18, Paul “laid a foundation” for his bottom line, which begins at verse 18. For the first time, Paul calls upon his readers to do something, to change something. The key word is the word “let” (3:18, 21; 4:1). His readers are challenged to stop deceiving themselves and to become fools (3:18). They are to cease boasting in men. They are to look upon Paul and his fellow-apostles in a new way (4:1f.). Our focus in this lesson is the final verses (18-23) of chapter 3.

Guard against self-deception, each of you. If someone among you thinks he is wise in this age, let him become foolish so that he can become wise. For the wisdom of this age is foolishness with God. As it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness.” And again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” 1 Corinthians 3:18-20

The Corinthians were an arrogant and conceited bunch, who took great pride in their wisdom, which becomes increasingly clear as this letter continues. Paul’s first words in verse 18 must have stung, for he addressed the Corinthians as self-deceived. To keep on as they were thinking and behaving, the Corinthians proved themselves to be unwise—indeed to be downright foolish—at least in the sight of God.

Paul calls upon Christians of all time to “fess up” to our error, to acknowledge that by thinking ourselves to be wise, we are foolish and self-deceived. He instructs us to forsake wisdom” and to embrace “folly”, which will make us wise. Jesus employed a similar kind of argument in the Gospels (see Matthew 16:24-26)

The Corinthians had been saved by believing the “foolish” message proclaimed by Paul, the message that Jesus Christ died on the cross of Calvary for our sins, and was buried and then raised from the dead, ascending into heaven and being seated at the right hand of God. They had been saved by the preaching of Christ crucified when Paul came in weakness, fear, and much trembling, proclaiming the simple truths of the gospel in a straightforward fashion. Since Paul’s departure, some saints had begun to look down upon Paul, his message, and his methods. They were being tempted to follow others whose message had a worldly appeal, messengers whose style was eloquent and impressive.

We tend to forget that Paul was a highly trained Jewish rabbi before his conversion to Christianity. He reminds both the Corinthians and us of this fact by employing two Old Testament passages as proof texts to show that worldly wisdom is folly and that God’s “folly” (in the eyes of the world) is true wisdom. “For it is written, ‘He is the one who catches the wise in their craftiness’” (verse 19b; see Job 5:3). These are the words of Eliphaz, one of Job’s “friends.” Paul quoted a man who is later rebuked by God for being wrong: “And it came about after the Lord had spoken these words to Job, that the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, because you have not spoken of Me what is right as My servant Job has’” (Job 42:7).

How can Paul cite these words as a proof text? Eliphaz, like his friends, was not wrong in what he said about God; he was wrong in how he applied this truth to Job. Eliphaz was accusing Job of being “crafty,” and thus explained Job’s sufferings as divine judgment for sin. This was not the case (see Job 1:1, 8). God does trip up the wicked by employing their own cunning (wisdom) to be the means of their downfall (see Proverbs 1:16-19, 29-32).

The “wise” of this age are not so smart after all. God allows the wise to carry out their schemes, but He employs their cunning schemes (their wisdom) to bring about their own downfall. The gallows which proud Haman built, on which he planned to hang Mordecai, became the very instrument by which the king ended Haman’s life. In the Gospels, the scribes and Pharisees deemed themselves to be “wise” in the interpretation of the Old Testament. In their “wisdom,” the scribes and Pharisees orchestrated the crucifixion of our Lord. This cunning, which resulted in the crucifixion of Christ, also resulted in the guilt and condemnation of those leaders if they did not repent and acknowledge Jesus as their Messiah.

The second quote Paul employed comes from the Psalms: “And again, ‘The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless’” (verse 20; see Psalm 94:11). It is interesting that the Psalm actually reads: “The Lord knows the thoughts of man, That they are a mere breath.” Paul’s citation varies slightly at two points. First, Paul exchanges the word “wise” for the word “man.” In the context of the Psalm, it becomes clear that the unbelieving man thinks himself wise, when he is really foolish (see verses 2, 4, 8). The reasonings or thoughts of unsaved man are the reasonings of one who thinks himself wise. Second, Paul uses the rendering “useless,” while the translators of the Psalm use the expression “mere breath.” The thoughts of arrogant (wise) men are futile, or useless, because they are temporal rather than eternal. Man’s thoughts are restricted to “this age” and God’s thoughts are eternal. Man’s thoughts, even if true in this age, are not true in the next. They pass away. Merely temporal truths are thus “useless” truths, so far as eternity is concerned.

So then, no more boasting about mere mortals! For everything belongs to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future. Everything belongs to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. (1 Corinthians 3:18-23

Paul instructed us to forsake boasting in men. There is no question but that the Corinthians boasted in their leaders, in the men to whom they belong (see 1 Corinthians 1:12, 3:4; 1 Corinthians 4:6).

The situation in Corinth was neither new or novel. Throughout history, men have found their “identity” or “significance” in groups. They take pride in belonging to a certain group, a certain leader. We see this in street gangs, the mob, the military and cults. Certain charismatic leaders attract a following of people who need a sense of identity, of belonging. Some of these followers will believe anything they are taught and do anything they are told by their leader. Their pride is not in themselves necessarily, but in the one leader they have chosen to follow above all others. These people become proud and arrogant, and they boast in a mere man as their leader.

Let’s take the Biblical Way-Back Machine to identify some crucial differences between true wisdom, God’s wisdom, and false “wisdom”.

When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, the “wisdom of God” was simple.The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was “hidden wisdom,” that which God indicated men were not to know. Satan virtually called God’s wisdom a lie, succeeding in getting Eve to seek that knowledge which was forbidden. Really, since that time, true wisdom is that which God has revealed in His Word and false wisdom is that which He has concealed (see Deuteronomy 29:29; Proverbs 7:1-15; 8:1-11).

When Jesus presented Himself as Israel’s Messiah, He did so by publicly teaching (as in the Sermon on the Mount). He did not seek to gain followers on the fringes of Judaism, but He went to Jerusalem and taught in the Temple. He engaged the teachers and leaders of the nation, and showed their teaching to be in error.

Paul and the apostles taught publicly on the teaching of divine wisdom. As he traveled from city to city, the first place Paul went was the synagogue, where he began to proclaim Christ crucified. It is true that unbelievers did not grasp or accept his message, but this was because they were blind, not because Paul was being secretive or vague. While Paul and the other apostles proclaimed the Word of God openly, the false teachers specialized in the unknown or in the obscure. They gained their reputation and following by teaching what was new and novel, and the reason was that it was not true, and it was not wise. But it did appeal to many of the unsaved (See Acts 17:16-21; 1 Timothy 1:3-7; 1 Timothy 4:7; 1 Timothy 6:3-6; 2 Timothy 4:3-4; 2 Peter 3:16)

False teachers, in order to draw a personal following, must teach “truth” unique to them, which is not being taught by others. They must have a distinctive message. This message cannot be the gospel, or the apostles’ doctrine, because every Christian teacher would teach these truths. They must teach a “higher” truth, a truth which results from speculative teaching on obscure issues. These matters appeal to the curiosity of some. In gaining this “inside information,” the followers of such a leader consider their understanding of truth above that of the rest. It allowed men to become proud and to look down on others. Whatever novel truth a given teacher emphasized, he alone would be the source of that truth. No wonder the Corinthians took pride in men. Their spiritual “gurus” were finding all kinds of “truth” which others did not or couldn’t see. The only way to be in this inner circle of “truth,” this gnostic (from the word “to know”) cult, is to “belong” to the group, especially to its leader.

But suppose there is no such thing as the “truth” these false teachers peddle so persuasively?  Suppose, as Paul indicated in verses 18-20, this “worldly wisdom” of the false teachers is really worthless and destructive? What appeal do these leaders have now? None! The church does not have an exclusive “inner circle” of the informed and an “outer circle” of the ignorant. And, yeah, I may be speaking to some churches that exist today.

According to Paul, the truth of God (like wisdom in Proverbs) is proclaimed to all, and all are urged to embrace that truth. The truth belongs to every believer. Teachers of God’s truth wisdom belong to the whole body. Teachers do not own their followers; the saints own their teachers, each and every one of them!

A word of explanation may be helpful at this point. In the text, the different teachers to whom Paul refers in verse 22 were all apostolic leaders. You can’t really say they are false teachers. But in verse 6 of chapter 4, Paul indicated that these well known and highly regarded leaders are being used symbolically to refer to other unnamed leaders. As Paul’s teaching in his Corinthian letters continues, it becomes increasingly clear that a number of these cultic leaders were false apostles, false teachers, who were seeking to lead men astray from the truth (see Acts 20:28-32; 1 Corinthians 14:37; 15:31-38; 2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:1-2; 11:12-15). I have gone beyond Paul’s immediate meaning, because it is all too clear where he is going. In these early chapters of 1 Corinthians, Paul already sees the divisions in the church as the seed bed of heresy.

D. A. Carson, an excellent scholar, poses this explanation:

The five things that follow “Paul or Apollos or Cephas” represent the fundamental tyrannies of human life, the things that enslave us, the things that hold us in bondage … The world squeezes us into its mold (compare Rom. 12:1-2). It demands so much of our attention and allegiance that we seldom devote thought and passion to the world to come … Similarly, this present life clamors to be treated as if it were worthy of ultimate respect … And at the end of this life there is only … death, which hovers over us, the ultimate specter … Thus the constant urgency of the present and … the vague promises and threats of the future combine to divert our attention away from the God who holds both the present and the future in his hands.

In his excellent book, entitled, God in the Wasteland, David F. Wells makes a strong distinction between these two wisdoms. He sums up this distinction in this paragraph:

There are, then, two opposing ways of thinking about the world that can be found in the West today. The one belongs to those who have narrowed their perception solely to what is natural; the other belongs to those whose understanding of the natural is framed by the supernatural. The one takes in no more than what the senses can glean; the other allows this accumulation of information to be informed by the reality of the transcendent. The one indiscriminately celebrates diversity; the other seeks to understand life’s diversity in the light of its unity. The one can go no further than intuition; the other pierces through to truth. The one presumes that everything changes and that change is the only constant; the other measures the things that change by the standard of things that are changeless. The one looks only to the shifting contents of human consciousness, which differ from one individual to the next; the other holds the individual consciousness up for comparison to the larger realms of meaning in which are rooted those things that are common to all human nature. The one acknowledges no ultimate certainties; the other places the highest value on ultimate certainties. All of these differences arise from the simple fact that the one perspective receives its meaning from God and the other does not.

First, Paul calls on us to renounce the secular wisdom of this age and to view life through the divine wisdom which God provides through His Word and His Spirit.

This doesn’t say that Christians should not be deeply engaged in the search for knowledge and truth. It says that for the Christian, wisdom begins with God and ends with Him. As the writer of the proverb says, “There is no wisdom and no understanding and no counsel against the Lord” (Proverbs 21:30). When we study nuclear physics, astronomy, or computer science, we begin with the foundation which God has laid. We test all claims to truth by the standard of God’s truth, the Word of God. When divine wisdom contradicts human knowledge, we know which to question and which to trust.

Too many Christians are seeking truth in the opposite direction. They begin with human understanding and reasoning, and then look to the Bible for an illustration or a proof text. The wisdom of God is the foundation on which all of our building should take place, and the standard for all that we think and do. Let us carefully consider the vast differences between divine wisdom and the wisdom of this age. Let us beware of placing our trust or our pride in the wisdom of men; let us embrace the wisdom of God, knowing that it alone is true wisdom.

Jesus made it clear that men are not to usurp the position and the prerogatives which are His alone (Matthew 23:1-12). Jesus did not choose one apostle, but twelve. He did not instruct the church to have only one leader, but a plurality of leaders known as elders. The position of “pastor,” as it is practiced today, was unknown to the New Testament writers. We find churches today structured in a way that directly contradicts the teaching of Paul—churches established on the basis of allegiance to one man.

Men are exalted in other ways above and beyond what they should be. Those of us who teach the Scriptures often use Greek, Hebrew, and theological terms in a way which sends an entirely wrong message that no one can study or teach the Scriptures who has not learned Hebrew, Greek, and theology. Thus we have a whole congregation of people who feed on the truth processed and delivered by the preacher, but who cannot chew on any meat of the Word themselves. We often seek to develop leadership in the same ways the world does, and we honor those who gather a personal following. We sanctify this by saying, “A leader is one who has followers.” This is wrong. A Biblical leader is a man or woman who, in obedience to God’s direction and calling, leads. He may or may not have a lot of followers. Jesus did not have many followers in the end, and neither did Paul. We must not judge “leaders” by how many people follow them.

Certain practices and teachings in the church of our time should be carefully thought through in the light of Paul’s teaching in our text. One of the current buzz words in leadership circles is “mentoring.” If that is pointing Christians to God’s truths, great, but we must not to train people to become followers of other people. We are to teach and encourage men and women to be followers of Christ. “Accountability” is another popular concept, which can easily be distorted into an undue attachment and devotion to a mere man. This is how our friend who inspired this series sought to lead other men astray – through “accountability”.

Finally, Paul’s words should cause us to see the folly of following one man to the neglect (and even rejection) of others. How easy it is to find our identity and our status linked with one person. When we do this, divisions arise within the church of God. Although I do not speak in tongues, I think Baptists might learn some things from good, solid charismatic teaching and practice. Likewise, charismatics could gain by learning from us. Pre-tribulational thinkers could learn some things from the “post-tribbers,” and vice-versa. Arminians could learn much from Calvinists as well as the other way around. Isolating ourselves to the point where our identity is summed up by one person, or one perspective, deprives us of the wealth God has for each of us. “All” things are ours. Let us learn from many of those gifted to teach, and not just one or a few. We can learn through radio, tapes, and reading, as well as by a broader contact with believers. Let us make use of the vast wealth God has given to us in Christ.

Don’t Follow Pied Pipers   Leave a comment

Christianity has had its share of “Pied Pipers,”  — charismatic individuals who seem to be able to lead a group of followers anywhere they wish. We wince at the thought of Jim Jones or David Koresh and what they did to their followers, not to mention the name of Christ. Then there are some whose sins have devastated others, and at times have wrought financial havoc for Christian ministries.

Image result for image of church following pied piperIt is not just the “way out” fringes of Christianity which are plagued with leaders who have nearly total control over the lives of their followers, but whose personal lives are out of control. I’ve seen it happen in respectable churches where people should know better. One common element in these disasters is that these men who fell were so powerful and so in control that they seemed almost “unstoppable.” They had been so elevated and revered in the minds of their followers that they were considered beyond the temptations and sins of ordinary mankind. Their followers refuse to believe the evidences of sin. Even if they are guilty of known sin, no one seems to feel sufficiently qualified to attempt to rebuke or correct them.

This is precisely the problem at Corinth. Those who identified themselves with a certain leader did so in pride, confident that his (or her) message and methods was highly esteemed by the culture of that day. Paul reminded them that this was not the way they began their Christian life. He came to them in weakness, fear, and much trembling. He did not come with a “powerful” message or method of presentation, but with the simple proclamation of Christ crucified. While that message and method may not have won the praise of the lost, it was the means of their salvation (2:1-5).

Now at verse 5, Paul commenced to show the folly of exalting one leader so highly that all others are rejected. He used three analogies to illustrate his point.

First, he compares the church to God’s farm.

What is Apollos, really? Or what is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, and each of us in the ministry the Lord gave us. I planted,  Apollos watered, but God caused it to grow. So neither the one who plants counts for anything, nor the one who waters, but God who causes the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters work as one, but each will receive his reward according to his work. We are coworkers belonging to God. You are God’s field, God’s building. (I Corinthians 3:5-9)

Notice that Paul wrote of himself and Apollos alone, omitting Peter for the moment (compare 1:12). Paul was the first to come to Corinth with the gospel, followed later by Apollos. These were the two apostles most intimately associated with this church. I like the NET Bible’s translation here because it puts the emphasis on the position, rather than the personality, of the Corinthian leaders. The King James renders the Greek as “Who?”, but the textual critics and translaters at the NET believe “What?” is the more precise translation that focuses on the place or position to which the Corinthians’ leaders have been elevated, rather than upon the personalities of each. “To what position or place have you assigned your leader?” Paul asked.

They apparently thought their leader was above all others. Paul brought the Corinthians down to earth by basically saying “We are not heroes, to be adored; we are not gods, to be worshipped; we are not masters, to be blindly followed. We are simply servants of God, appointed by Him to speak the gospel in Corinthi.” Whatever was accomplished by their coming, it is God who accomplishes it; it is God who is Master; they are but servants. How then can the Corinthians place them on a pedestal?

God did not choose either Paul or Apollos to be the single instrument to achieve His purposes in Corinth. Each had his own task, his own calling. The ministries of Paul and Apollos were dependent upon the other. They were not competitors or rivals, but teammates, fellow-workers.

Both unity and diversity can be seen in the complementary ministries of Paul and Apollos. Both served the same Master; both were engaged in accomplishing the same task. Both were brothers in Christ, but each had his own unique calling and contribution to make to the overall task.

Verse 9 plays a critical role in this passage by serving as a transition from the analogy of the “farm” to that of “construction.” When Paul wrote “For we are God’s fellow-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building,” he told us two very important things:

  • All the saints belong to God, and none of them belongs to any apostle.
  • He distinguished himself and Apollos, as apostles, from all the rest of the saints in Corinth. He and Apollos are apostles; the rest are not.

The apostles played a unique role in the founding of the church, a role not to be duplicated by any other. In a unique way, the apostles did “labor together with God” in their intimate contact with Him, and in being witnesses of His resurrection, but especially in the “laying of the foundation of the church” by being the human authors of the New Testament Scriptures.  (See Ephesians 2:19-22; Hebrews 1:1-3; Hebrews 2:1-4; 2 Corinthians 12:11-12 for supporting passages).

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master-builder I laid a foundation, but someone else builds on it. And each one must be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than what is being laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straweach builder’s work will be plainly seen, for the Day will make it clear, because it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test what kind of work each has done. If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward. If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:10-15)

In this passage, the church is likened to a building which is under construction. Paul called himself a “wise master builder,” who had laid the foundation on which others built. When Paul referred to himself as a wise master builder, it was with a very deliberate goal in mind. The Corinthians thought themselves wise, and they considered Paul and the other apostles simple, foolish, and weak. Their thinking was wrong! Paul was wise whether or not the Corinthians (or we in modern times) believed it to be so.

Paul distinguished himself from Apollos in this passage. In the prior paragraph, Paul was the one who planted; Apollos was the one who later watered. Now, Paul alone is the foundation-layer in Corinth, and others like Apollos built upon that foundation. Apollos was a powerful and eloquent speaker, a man mighty in the Scriptures (Acts 18:24), but also a man who built upon the foundation Paul laid in Corinth. Apollos was trained in the gospel by Priscilla and Aquila, who were students of Paul, therefore, Apollos learned the gospel second-hand from Paul. He built on Paul’s foundation. Paul’s work of “foundation laying” is represented as a finished work, as a work which is not to be repeated.

Paul looked upon his mission of laying the foundation for the Corinthian church as complete. What remains was for the saints at Corinth (and elsewhere) to completing the construction. The proper function of each worker is Paul’s primary focus.

Paul was not talking about salvation here. This is not a proof-text for the doctrine of purgatory. Paul was saying that a Christian’s works may be burned up by the fire of divine judgment, but not the believer. The believer will be saved, but only by the “skin of his teeth.”

Some argue that Paul’s words encourage the “carnal Christian” to live a careless, self-indulgent life, knowing he will get to heaven regardless. A very few Christians think that they can get the “best of both worlds”, free to sin and yet be forgiven and saved. How foolish and dangerous! Paul’s next words are aimed right at those who might try to pervert his teaching in practice, so that a life of sinful self-indulgence is based on the “comfort” of his words in verse 15.

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If someone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, which is what you are. (1 Corhinthians 3:16-17)

The Corinthians thought they were very smart and yet Paul demanded “Don’t you know …?” The building described by Paul as under construction in verses 10-15 was “God’s building”. Paul now explains that the church is God’s temple, His dwelling place. While elsewhere Paul spoke of each individual believer as God’s dwelling place (1 Corinthians 6:19), here he spoke of the whole church as God’s dwelling. We are not the temple, but we are a temple, a place where God dwells. Because God dwells there, the temple is holy, and it must remain holy.

We should understand the seriousness of defiling God’s temple. When we live godly lives, in obedience to His Word through the power of the Spirit, we display God’s glory (1 Peter 2:9). We are good workers, building up the church in accordance with our calling. But when a Christian fails to fulfill their mission, then they become a detriment to the church. In the symbolic terminology of Paul, we “destroy” (NASB) or “defile” (KJV) the temple of God when we are not building well.

The consequences for such defilement are severe, because we are defaming the reputation of God by defiling His temple. Those who would do damage to God’s dwelling place should expect severe consequences. Paul did not mince words when he warned, “If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are” (verse 17).

We know from the preceding verses (especially verses 13-15) that a Christian will not lose his salvation, but that he will lose his reward. Lest one feel too smug and secure in sin, however, let him ponder the meaning of the word “destroy” in verse 17. Paul did not seek to comfort any Christian who sins willfully. This passage cannot be construed to encourage a sinful, carnal, lifestyle, for Paul’s words of warning are clear.

We today live in a consumer age. A lot of the church growth movement caters to members, or seekers, as consumers. It’s like a marketing program that finds out the kind of church people want to attend, and then seeks to provide that kind of church. Consequently, some churches may have many of their pews filled, but with people who expect, even demand, to get what they want from the church in terms of services, at little or no cost to themselves. They want to get much and give little.

Paul knew nothing of this kind of church. Paul knew only of the kind of church where every member is a worker, and where there is no such thing as a shirker. Paul’s words have a very clear inference. He assumed we know that we have an obligation to build the temple, to play an active role in the building up of the church as the body of Christ. Why then in most churches do a few members give much, some members give a little, and many to most members do not give at all? Why does the church have so much trouble getting volunteers to teach in Sunday School, and to help with the many tasks in the church? It is simply because many consider themselves a part of the church (rightly or wrongly), but fail to grasp the fact that God requires every member of it to be a working member, contributing to the growth and ministry of the church.

Not only are we obliged to be an active contributor to the construction of God’s temple, we are to build upon the foundation of the apostles. While in those days, the churches had to remember Paul’s words or perhaps refer to a letter, we have the New Testament. To build well, we must know the foundation well, for all of our building must conform to “the code” the Bible sets down. Some people seem to think that “working hard” in the church is enough. Paul wouldn’t agree. We are to work hard, but only in compliance with, and in submission to, His Word, the Bible. For the builder who would work so as to please God and to obtain His approval and reward, he or she must build in accordance with sound doctrine as taught by the apostles.

Doctrine is therefore important to every Christian, and not just for the theologians, because it is foundational. Sound doctrine is not required just for those who teach; it is required as the basis for each and every ministry which takes place in the church. Those who show mercy should do so in accordance with sound doctrine. Those who give must give in accordance with sound doctrine. For example, they must not give to the support of those who are false teachers (2 John 7-11). Those who serve should serve in accordance with sound doctrine. Those who “love” must love within the confines of sound doctrine (Philippians 1:9-11).

Sound doctrine is the basis for all ministry. We dare not seek to serve God apart from sound doctrine.

Divisions, often the result of following a particular leader and rejecting all others, are a very serious offense. For saints to be divided and opposing one another is a tearing down of the church, not a building up of the temple of God. Let us see the evil of divisions, and also the serious consequences which it brings to us personally.

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