Archive for the ‘Bible Study – 1 Corinthians’ Category

A ‘secondary’ issue

How we interpret, view or experience the gifts of the Spirit are not, in the end, what defines whether we are Christian or not. However, it is possible for teaching on this topic to be done and practiced in a way that obscures the Gospel, and gives more glory to leaders than to Jesus. This was something that Paul was seeking to address in his first letter to the Corinthians, when he demolishes the notion of spiritual elitism among leaders (Chapters 1-4). The focus of a Christian as they gather with other Christians is not to be, ‘How can I have a great worship experience and receive some spiritual blessing?’ but, ‘How can I glorify God by loving my brothers and sisters and speaking the word of Christ to them?’

Churches can abuse spiritual gifts by either ignoring and neglecting them altogether, or by going to extremes and attributing to the Holy Spirit things that are actually the working of the flesh – or worse. However, your church’s position on and practice of the gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12 should not be the ultimate decider for you on whether to join, stay or go; rather their position and practice of the Gospel should. Is the Gospel of the cross of Jesus proclaimed clearly, regularly and faithfully, or is it ignored, distorted or obscured by other things?

Paul spends most of his time in 1 Corinthians 12-14 discussing the two gifts of Tongues and Prophecy.

Speaking in Tongues

The issue of tongues (among other ‘spiritual gifts’) is dealt with in depth by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12-14. In his letter, Paul is confronting a culture based very much on experience, with a call to the church to have a culture based on the Word of God. And so in this discussion about tongues, he calls the Corinthians to look maturely at the Scripture the see what the biblical teaching is:

20 Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. 21 In the Law it is written: “With other tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” 22 Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. (1 Corinthians 14:20-22)

Paul quotes Isaiah 28 here, which we will look at in a moment; however behind the Isaiah passage is an earlier reference in Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy 28:47-50

Moses predicts the time when Israel/Judah, because of their hard hearts and idolatry, will be overrun by a foreign nation, surrounded by people speaking a language they do not understand.

Language was very important to the Hebrews, because God had entered into relationship with them by speaking His word and His Law, calling them to listen and obey. God spoke their language. His words were written down, and accessible to them so they could hear, obey and have life. (Deuteronomy 30:11-16)

So a sign of God’s judgement upon His people was when all around them were speaking unintelligible languages; to be in a place where you are not hearing God’s words, but words of foreigners that you don’t even understand.

Isaiah 28:7-13

By the time of Isaiah (around 700 BC) the revelation of God had been reduced by the priests – who were corrupt and drunkards – essentially to simplistic, infantile babbling. The Hebrew reads, ‘sav lasav sav lasav, kav lakav kav lakav, ze-er sam ze-er sam’ and while these are real Hebrew words, they are most likely the prophet mocking the teaching of the priests – an equivalent of the English, ‘Blah, blah, blah…’

God’s judgement upon this people who want to neither teach or hear the truth, is that God will speak to his people through other languages – ie. the word of God will become unintelligible to them not just because of their own hard hearts, but because God will obscure it through judgement. People outside Israel will be hearing, understanding and speaking God’s word, while His own people will not.

This prophecy was partly fulfilled in the exile, through which most of the scattered Jews lost their Hebrew language over several generations. (Eventually the Scriptures were translated into Greek – the Septuagint – so that non Hebrew-speaking Jews could read them.)

Israel was called to be a blessing and light to the nations. Instead, by their disobedience they were misrepresenting God to the nations. God’s intention is to keep his promises to Abraham, and so the blessing will still go out to the nations, but it will be through the action of judgement upon Israel that it will happen. The way Paul describes it is, ‘“God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear, to this very day.’ (Romans 11:8), and ’Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in…’ (Romans 11:25). So, tongues is to be a sign of both judgement and blessing, depending on where you stand!

Mark 16:17

While this is doubtful that this is an original part of Mark’s Gospel, we can nevertheless take it as an indication of the understanding and experience of the early church. One thing characterising believers is that they will ‘speak in new tongues’ – ie. that they will not be only ethically/linguistically Hebrews. This conforms with the command in 15 to preach the Gospel in the whole world.

Acts 2:1-8, 12-13

Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. People from other nations who spoke other languages were hearing God’s words spoken in their language, while others (13) couldn’t understand them, and assumed they were drunk. It’s to this second group that Peter appears to address his speech (15), and his message is primarily one of judgement than Gospel! (23, 36, 40). It’s important to note that the languages the Apostles spoke were known human languages, understandable by those who were native speakers, not a mysterious, angelic language that no human being could comprehend. This sets the precedent for the rest of the cases of tongues in Acts – it’s what we are to understand in the two other places where tongues are recorded to have occurred.

Acts 10:44-48

This is essentially the ‘Gentile Pentecost’ – Peter affirms that his Gentile listeners have received the Holy Spirit because they were praising God in their own language – The Gospel was ‘indigenised’ in that the Gentiles did not use Hebrew or Aramaic in their language of worship.

Acts 19:1-7

This is another ‘mini Pentecost’, for people who were disciples of John the Baptist (‘disciple’ here doesn’t automatically equal ‘Christian’). Luke hints a this being a pentecostal event by mentioning that there were ‘about twelve men in all’ (7) – he would have no real reason to mention this number apart from its resonance with the twelve Apostles on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14). More significant though than these men being followers of John the Baptist, was the location – Ephesus – which became a key centre for spreading the Gospel across Asia (modern day Western Turkey).

1 Corinthians 12-14

The only other book in the New Testament that mentions the phenomenon of tongues is 1 Corinthians. Some important background is helpful for understanding why the issue needs to be addressed for the Corinthians: Firstly, Corinth was known as a very multicultural city. The church there was correspondingly dominated by Gentiles – most if not all of whom would not have spoken Hebrew or Aramaic. Secondly, Corinth prided itself on its spirituality, and pagan worship, particularly involving sensuality, sexuality, and ecstatic spiritual experiences. Some of the pagan worship involved ‘speaking in tongues,’ in which the worshipper claimed to be communicating with gods, angels or spirits. For the pagans, truth and enlightenment came through experience, rather than revelation; through their own engagement in rituals rather than by God speaking clearly to their minds and hearts through the words of Apostles, Prophets or Scripture. This led to a ‘spiritual elitism’ in which participation in these ecstatic rituals were a mark of deeper spirituality.

Some of this had translated into the church, to the extent that some Christians were considered more spiritual than others because they manifested the ‘spirituals’ (translated ‘gifts of the Spirit’ or ‘spiritual gifts’ in English bibles, even though the word ‘gift’ is not in the text). In 1 Corinthians 12-14 Paul makes the key points that a ‘spiritual’ person is not someone with greater spiritual capacity, but one through whom the Holy Spirit is at work, manifesting Himself in ways that glorify Jesus – ie. by enabling someone to say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ (12:3) and build up Jesus’ church, which is what Jesus promised in Matthew 16:18:

 ‘On this rock [Peter, who confesses Jesus to be the Christ] I will build my church, and the gates of hades will not overcome it.’

The fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work is ultimately love (Chapter 13), not spiritual power or prestige, nor the ability to perform miraculous acts. The way the Corinthians were to show love in the context of their public gatherings was to ensure that all who came would be able to hear God’s word spoken clearly, so that even non-believers there would know the reality of God’s presence and would worship Him (14:25).

Three correctives for Corinth… and us?

So Paul gives some correctives to the Corinthian practice of tongues, by referring back to the Old Testament teaching about tongues that we looked at earlier.

  1. ‘Tongues’ are not an ecstatic, trancelike experience of communicating with angels, but speaking in a human language that the speaker at least can understand. The popular idea of tongues being a  ‘personal prayer language’ is not taught anywhere in the Bible. Some may feel this is discounting the miraculous work of the Spirit; however such a view does not rule out someone speaking in a language they have not learned (as on the day of Pentecost), of someone being enabled by the Spirit to translate the words, or of the speaker being empowered by the Spirit in what they say – which is Paul’s main point – ie. that it is the Spirit at work, not the people, which makes all of it ‘miraculous’.
  2. Spiritual maturity is demonstrated not in being able to manifest the Spirit in spectacular ways, but in clearly communicating God’s word in a way that all can understand. So, in the case when a member of the congregation speaks in a language that is not commonly spoken by the rest of the church, they have a few options: have someone else interpret (12:10), interpret themselves (14:13), or not speak publicly in that language (14:28). By not following these principles, a person who speaks publicly in tongues is essentially being selfish (14:4) rather than loving (13:1). If something brings division and damage to the body of Christ, it is not a work of the Spirit, no matter how much the person insists it is.
  3. Speaking in tongues when there are non-believers or enquirers present will not communicate the Gospel, but rather judgement, since the original Biblical purpose of tongues was a pronouncement of judgement upon people who refuse to hear! The non-believer will come away from the meeting with the truth hidden from them since they didn’t understand what was being said, and their conclusion will be ‘these Christians are out of their minds!’ (14:22-23) Speaking in tongues without interpretation will hinder, not facilitate the spread of the Gospel. So out of love for these enquirers, all that is spoken in church should be done so it can be clearly understood by all who are present.

 

Spiritual gifts are for the body, not individuals

The picture Paul is painting for the Corinthians in chapters 12-14 is not one where each individual has their own ‘package’ of gifts, dispensed to them by the Holy Spirit, which then becomes their special ‘ministry’. Rather, it is of the church as a corporate body, to which God gives the Holy Spirit, who manifests Himself in the context of the community in various ways (12:7). The whole setting of chapters 11-14 is ‘when you come together’ (11:17,18,20,33, 14:26), and in this context the Triune God is present, with the Spirit giving (4), the Lord Jesus serving (5) and the Father working (6). Each of these words touches on the unique roles of each member of the Trinity in salvation, yet all are a united work of the one Triune God, and because the work of the Holy Spirit in this age is to make known to us the Son and the Father, we can use the overall title ‘gifts of the Spirit.’ This is important to see: the Holy Spirit does not work in a way that does not bring to us the full reality of the Triune God’s presence among us as His people.

Prophecy: ‘Speaking the truth in love’ (Eph. 4:15)

The other implication of this passage is that as God – who is Love – is giving, serving and working amongst us, this is primarily demonstrated in us giving, serving and working in love. Chapter 13 is a picture of God’s people truly reflecting His own character. ‘Love never fails…’ (13:8), whereas prophecies, tongues and knowledge will cease/be stilled/pass away. Some have taken this to be a reference to a point in history when these ‘sign gifts’ stopped; but Paul is rather referring to the transient nature of these gifts – they are words spoken in a set time, which apply for a certain context and moment in time; love, however, is universal and timeless in its application. Prophecy, tongues and knowledge serve their limited purpose and then become obsolete, but love, as an expression of faith and hope, continues and will have the real eternal impact.

So God wants the Corinthians (and us) to consider how these ‘transient’ gifts may best be used to express that which is lasting – faith, hope and love. And because the central activity of the church gathering together is to hear the Word of God, it become a no brainer that the most loving way a person can contribute to the meeting is to ensure that God’s Word is clearly spoken, heard and understood. We must put aside and personal ambition to be seen as ‘spiritual’ – as if somehow God’s powerful work amongst His people is somehow because of our piety or ability to be in touch with God more than others. Our first ambition should be to be practicing love in the form of chapter 13, and only then, if appropriate, to seek to exercise the ‘gifts’ that we believe the Spirit is giving us – and even then, He gives the gifts only to extend our action of loving one another.

This is why Paul gives primacy to prophecy over tongues. Tongues serve a specific purpose, yet to exercise them could easily be unloving for both our brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as any non-believers present. Prophecy, however, is a clear speaking forth of the Word of God in the ‘lingua franca’ so that everyone present can understand.

So, what is prophecy?

1. The foundation of the Apostles and Prophets (Eph. 2:20)

The Jews understood that all that was spoken by the godly people of their history – ie. the Old Testament scriptures – was prophecy. The most common reference to prophets and prophecy in the New Testament is in this sense – the Word of God given in the scriptures. This is a form of prophetic ministry that has finished. John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets, who came in fulfilment of the last words of Malachi, the last of the ‘inscripturated’ Prophets:

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” (Malachi 4:5-6)

John the Baptist, as the ‘returned Elijah’ stood as a representative of all the prophets, and pointed people to Jesus as The Prophet of whom all the prophets spoke – Jesus is not merely the last prophet, but he is also the last prophecy through whom God has spoken completely and finally. The prophets told us about God; if we have seen Jesus we have seen God face to face. Jesus then sent his disciples out and called them not prophets but ’Apostles,’ commanding them to teach not a new revelation, but simply ‘all that I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:20). This is the content of the New Testament – the Apostles’ teaching put into writing for future generations.

So this aspect of prophecy – the revelation of God, and all that He wants us to know about His plan of salvation, and how it is completed in Jesus Christ – has come to an end with the completion of the New Testament canon. And so many take the final words of Revelation to be applicable to the whole of the Bible:

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. 19 And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll. (Revelation 22:18-19)

Some argue that this type of prophecy was what was occurring in the Corinthian church (and possibly other New Testament churches). Most of the New Testament documents had not been written yet, and they may not have had access to those that had. During this period, God kept His church in the truth through the live teaching of the Apostles, and through ‘word gifts’ such as prophecy, tongues, knowledge, etc. These gifts became less vital as the scriptures – OT and NT – were distributed throughout the churches. We know that the early church placed great emphasis on the written scriptures because we currently have tens of thousands of ancient New Testament manuscripts – around 1000 time more than any other ancient document.

2. ’Speaking the very words of God’ (1 Peter 4:11)

Joel’s prophecy, fulfilled on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:16-21) promises that all of God’s people – young and old, male and female – will be commissioned to prophesy:

‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.’ (Acts 2:17-18)

No longer will it be a seperate group or ‘class’ of people who have the Holy Spirit, but anyone who calls on the Name of the Lord through faith in Jesus is drawn into the ministry of the Kingdom, where they become,

…a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)

An individual believer is caught up into the royal, priestly and prophetic ministry of the church; in the context of the church community we are involved in preaching, teaching, singing, encouraging and proclaiming – all things which involve speaking the Word of God. In this sense, the ministry of prophecy is alive and well whenever we do these things; we are ‘prophesying’.

William Perkins, an English Puritan, described what he understood a prophet to be in his 1606 book, ‘The Art of Prophesying:

“First of all he is someone who can expound and explain the covenant of grace, and rightly lay down how this reconciliation is accomplished. Secondly, he is someone who can properly and accurately apply the means for its outworking. Thirdly, he is someone who has authority to proclaim and declare it when it is effected. In these three ways he is God’s interpreter to the people.”

3. ’The Holy Spirit said…’ (Acts 13:2)

The New Testament also allows for and records another type of prophecy.

In Acts 11:27-30 some prophets predicted a famine, which spurred the church in Antioch to take up a collection to help their fellow Christians in Judea. In Acts 13:1-4 God uses prophets to communicate that Paul and Barnabas should be set apart and sent into mission. In Acts 15:30-33 two prophets, Judas and Silas, encouraged gentile Christians when they received a letter with special instructions from the Apostles in Jerusalem. And in Acts 21:10-11 the prophet Agabus predicts Paul’s arrest.

This appears to be a form of prophecy in which God spoke specifically and practically into the the church for a given time and situation in a way that enabled them to be on about the work of the Kingdom. They were occasions in which the church needed a word that was more precise than the general Biblical revelation, in order to help them discern God’s will for them in a specific context.

Some also believe that this form of prophecy has also become obsolete with the completion of the New Testament; I believe the biblical case for this claim is weak. As we saw, Paul’s description of prophecies as transient in 13:8 highlights the limitation of a prophetic word given in a church meeting to both time and application; it’s a stretch to say that all prophetic ministry must have ceased since the end of the first century.

Love and order (1 Cor. 14:26-40)

Paul’s emphasis in these chapters is not so much on the nature of prophecy, as on its appropriate use in the church. Prophecy (along with tongues and other gifts) should not dominate, but be part of the various ways the Holy Spirit enables people to serve (26-29). Prophecies should be given with humility and a sense of accountability and collegiality (29-33). Prophets and their prophecies should be submitted to the authority of Christ and the revelation of the Gospel given to the church through the Apostles (which for us is the New Testament) (36-37). And it should be done in a way that is ‘fitting and orderly’ (34-35, 40) – ie. not causing chaos, confusion or offense for believers or non-believers.

There are four wise responses we should have to anyone who claims to have a ‘prophetic word’ either for us personally or for the church:

  1. Test what they say with the Scripture.
    God will not give a revelation that adds to, takes away from or changes His revelation given in the Bible and in Jesus Christ; and ultimately it should point clearly to Jesus and lead people to honour Him. Hold onto it loosely until you have been able to affirm this; this is often best done by speaking with others who know the Bible well.
  2. Wait.
    If a prophecy is given as a prediction of something to happen, the proof of the truth of the prediction is in its fulfilment. This was the Old Testament test of a true prophet (Deuteronomy 28:20-22, Jeremiah 28:9). Be prepared to see God at work, but don’t pin all your hopes on the prophecy; and ask yourself, ‘How can this encourage and enable me to serve and glorify God more faithfully, and love His people more earnestly?’
  3. Move on.
    Remember that prophecy is limited, but faith hope and love continue forever. God may be speaking to you in a way that is for this time and place, but the definition and design of your life and calling is found in the truth already revealed in the Bible, which is as living and active as any ‘life’ prophecy. Don’t build your life’s foundation on one incident of prophecy, but on the sure and certain revelation of the Gospel of Jesus.
  4. Rejoice.
    If this is truly God’s word to you or your church, then it demonstrates that God cares for you such that He brings His word ‘up close and personal’ in order to build you up and make you more like Jesus, and also that someone in the church is willing to love you by bringing this word to you (even if it is difficult or scary for them). Whatever the outcome of their ‘prophecy’, be ready to acknowledge the positive of their desire to see you moving forward in God’s purposes for you.
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follyAt home I have on the wall a jigsaw puzzle I received when I was 15 – with 3000 pieces. Because it took me so long to complete, I glued it to a board and hung it on the wall. Each piece of this puzzle, on its own, is not much to look at. You would never be able to tell what the big picture is by looking at just one piece. However all together they form a beautiful picture worthy of hanging on our living room wall.

There is something wrong with this jigsaw puzzle though. In the process of several house moves, one piece on the bottom left hand corner has come off, and has been lost forever. (Bizarrely, it also happens to be the face of an unfortunate man being strangled by a grumpy, Monty Python-esque woman). Most people who see it don’t notice, but because I know it’s missing, and because I spend countless hours building the picture, I always feel slightly disappointed when I look at it, and I always notice the empty spot. Without this piece, the Jigsaw is incomplete.


 

¹²For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. ¹³ For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)

Paul is starting a discussion about roles and gifts in the church. He introduces the metaphor of a body, which has many members, but is one body. We might expect him to say, ‘so it is with the church’, but instead he says, ‘so it is with Christ.’

What point is he making?

When we see Jesus referred to as ‘Christ’ (or ‘Christ Jesus’) the emphasis is not so much on the person, as on the office he fulfilled – the Christ, or Messiah. He is speaking here not about my personal relationship with the Father through Jesus, but my participation in the revolutionary change that Jesus has made by coming as the Messiah – the promised king who would be the fulfilment of all of God’s promises, beginning with Abraham, to bring blessing to every nation on earth. We are part of something much bigger than our local church or neighbourhood – this is something with global implications!

In the Old Testament the promise of the Messiah focuses less on personal individual salvation, and more on the restoration and regathering of God’s people from all the corners of the earth. For example, in Daniel:

¹³“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.

14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. “ (Daniel 7:13-14)

This, ‘son of man’ is this promised one – both human and divine – who will establish God’s Kingdom. God’s people in exile in Babylon were to look forward in faith to this saving king, but they were also to understand the implications for them:

15 “As for me, Daniel, my spirit within me was anxious, and the visions of my head alarmed me. 16 I approached one of those who stood there and asked him the truth concerning all this. So he told me and made known to me the interpretation of the things. 17 ‘These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth. 18 But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever.(Daniel 7:15-18)

What good is a king unless He has citizens in His kingdom over whom He rules? The arrival of the King means peace, security and prosperity for those living under His rule. Jesus came not only to assert God’s rule over the universe, but to restore human beings to the position we were given in creation –  rulers over all that God has made. In the book of Revelation, almost every time Jesus appears in the visions, he stands side-by-side with those whom he has redeemed by his blood.

And so to talk about Jesus as the Christ/Messiah means understanding that He is the king over His people, who are the ‘Messianic Community’.

This is why Paul says here that the unity and diversity in the human body is a picture of ‘Christ’. Jesus has redeemed people from every tribe and tongue and nation, from every strata of society and walk of life. His gathering us together is about much more than creating a community in which we feel comfortable and supported; this is His plan to establish the Kingdom of God in every corner of creation and to bring every creature in heaven and earth to a place where they bow the knee and declare Jesus is Lord to the glory of the Father.

The way in which the Messiah was promised to restore God’s people to live under God’s rule was to pour out the Holy Spirit, not just upon leaders, but upon every person. The fulfilment of this promise began on the day of Pentecost. Jesus’ death and resurrection was not an end in itself – it was with this aim. By paying for our sin and redeeming us from the judgement of death He has now made us into a suitable dwelling place for His Spirit. He died for you so that He may fill you with His Spirit.

That is why Paul goes on in verse 13 to talk about the work of the ‘One Spirit’. In the first half we are in the Spirit – ‘In one Spirit we were all baptised,’ and in the second half the Spirit is in us – ‘all were made to drink of one Spirit.’ We are a ‘Spirit saturated’ people, and He brings a profound unity that cuts across race and social status – probably the two biggest things that have divided – and continue to divide – human beings throughout our history.

The cross has broken down the dividing walls of hostility that human beings build between ourselves, by destroying the wall of hostility that was there between us and God. This is a radical thing, and is contrary to the way the world sees reconciliation. The root cause of human division is the fact that we are in rebellion against God – we want to take His place; to become God, ourselves. And when two or more people, each of whom wants to be God, meet each other, there is going to be conflict. So the solution to human hostility is not to try to work it out between each other, but for each to be first reconciled to God. Only then will we be able to come in humility, together before the cross, and be unified.

We live in a country – a world – that is always threatening to fall apart through division and hostility, as each person and each group tries to assert their rights over and against others. The work of Christ is the only way in which people who hate one another can be brought to truly love – because they know that God first loved them. And the Church is designed to be a showcase of this blood-bought unity.

As the church we may at times fees small, insignificant and ineffective. We may hear the world tell us that we are out-of-date, irrelevant and obsolete, and that we have nothing to say to them. We may hear them accuse us of being divided and hypocritical. However Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed – a tiny, seemingly insignificant seed which, when planted, grows and exceeds all expectations by becoming a large tree that overshadows the entire garden (the mustard plant is normally a shrub, not a tree!) (Matthew 13:31-32). As we gather each Sunday, and as participate in the life of our church week by week, we are participating in something that has universe-changing implications.

Romans 8:19-21 tells us:

“…the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:19-21)

We cannot and should not ever understate the privilege it is to be a part of what God is doing through Jesus the Messiah. If you ever wake up on Sunday morning, or come home from work before your evening home group, feeling discouraged or without motivation, wondering if church is worth the effort, simply remind yourself that you are part of God’s total universe restoration project; the freedom of all creation will be accomplished by God through your freedom in Christ.

This is not just interesting, abstract theology for us to sit and ponder. Paul is unpacking these things in the context of talking about how we live and relate to one another in the church. See verse 27:

‘You (plural) are the body of Christ’ – the big picture.

‘Individually members of it’ – the phrase in Greek means ‘you have a share as members’ – something like shareholders in a company are all joint owners of the company – not a customer, but an owner. Without each shareholder, the company is not complete.

And notice that he does not go on to say, ‘There are now some optional things that you could be involved in, if you want to.’ Rather, he says, ‘God has appointed…’ or ‘set in place’. (28) all the different people with their roles and gifts within the body. He knows how build His church, and He puts each piece in place – in its right place. So our question of ourselves should not be, ‘Am I going to be involved in the life of the church?’ but, ‘How does God want me to be involved? Which piece of the big picture am I – and am I willing to walk in joyful obedience to God and take up that role?’

God says that each of us is just as important as everyone else in completing the big picture of what He is doing in this world through Jesus his Messiah. He is sovereign over all things, and so our failures will not ultimately ruin his plans – however, why would we not want to be a part of this exciting work that He is doing, into which he invites us to be a part – to be shareholders?

Following this passage is the famous chapter on love – 1 Corinthians 13. Most often we may hear it quoted in the context of a wedding, however it is really about us loving and serving one another in the church. And it is is the key to all of this. You may not yet have a clear answer to the question, ‘What role am I to play in the life of the church?’ but you can be sure of one thing: God is calling you to this: to love one another. This is to be our main focus, over and above the specifics of tasks and jobs. If we focus on loving one another as Christ loved us – by laying down His own life for us – then we will find ourselves beginning to fit into the place Jesus has for us in His church.

1 Corinthians 7:25-31, 1 Peter 1:13-25

Our world recently has had no shortage of crises that have had some impact on us.

The Christians during the first century were no stranger to crises; in fact a significant proportion of the New Testament exists to some extent because of various crises happening either in the church, in the world, or both. Jesus was very clear that the time between his first and second coming – what we call ‘the Last Days’ would be a time of turmoil and tribulation, with God’s people by no means being immune from trouble. Christians are assured that we will be in a battle – a battle with a world which is hostile to Him; a battle with circumstances that comes from living in a world that is under a curse and is full of chaos, danger and confusion; a battle with others within the church who distort or water down the Gospel, or grasp for power; and a battle with the devil and with our own sin.

We are in a privileged position at the moment in Australia, where by and large life feels pretty stable. We all have access to our basic human rights, and can feel relatively secure with a stable government system, a wealthy economy, good law and order, and no major conflicts with our neighbours. For the majority of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world this is not necessarily the case. Many of them are born into crisis situations, and will die never having left them.

We should not become complacent to think that our comfort is going to continue forever for us or for our children or grandchildren. Recent events with terrorism happening on our own shores have reminded us that we live in a bubble – and some are fearful that this bubble will burst more easily and sooner than we might think.

And all of us also, no doubt, have experienced – or are experiencing – crises on a more personal level – in our family, work, community, finances or health. So, how should we view – and respond to – crises?

1 Corinthians 7:25-31

In our first passage, Paul is having a conversation with the Corinthians about the place of marriage. In the midst of this conversation he refers to a principle that should not only shape their approach to marriage, but to all of life:

‘The present form of this world is passing away.’ (31)

This is the reason he gives for why, ‘those who have wives [should] live as though they have none, those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods…’ (7:30) summed up I with the phrase, ‘…those who deal with the world as though they have no dealings with it.’ (31)

At first glance Paul’s words here might seem a little extreme. Is he calling for Christians to dissolve all their marriages, get rid of all their possessions, and live a life of complete detachment from all desires – as if there is something wrong with this physical world and bodies in which we live? When he says ‘the appointed time has grown very short,’ is he implying that Jesus will return within their lifetimes – even within the next week or so, and so they should simply sit and wait for His appearing, and to make any plans for the future is pointless and wrong?

A look at the context of Paul’s comments – both within the letter of 1 Corinthians and in the historical setting – will help us to understand not only what Paul was saying to the Corinthians, but also what God is saying to us, particularly at times of crisis.

What is ‘the world’?

Firstly, we need to understand what he means when he uses the word, ‘world’. Today this word can tend to mean simply the physical reality of the planet in which we live – our location within the universe. Sometimes the Bible uses it in this sense. But in this context, ‘the world’ is referring to the human world, the reality of human life and civilisation and its social, political, religious and moral systems. In and of itself it is not necessarily a negative term, however because of sin and human rebellion it most often is negative – ‘the World’ is a humanity that is living in organised, sophisticated rebellion against God, and whose culture – despite occasional glimpses of goodness and truth and beauty – is by and large striving to topple God from His throne and to set itself up as the masters of the universe. This is the world about which Jesus warned his disciples, ‘in this world you will have trouble,’ but then immediately comforted them by saying, ‘but take heart! I have overcome the world.’ (John 16:33) It is the world about which one day we will see the truth that, ‘the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.’ (Revelation 11:15)

‘The present crisis’

Secondly, in verse 26 Paul mentions ‘the present distress (or crisis)’. The Corinthians were facing some kind of crisis that was having a significant impact on their lives, causing them to have to think carefully and wisely in their decisions about what would normally be ‘everyday things’ such as marriage, business and leisure. Most likely, this ‘crisis’ was a famine which we know impacted this region around the time that Paul wrote this letter. With a shortage of food also came a degree of social unrest, as people developed uncertainty about their future, mistrust of authorities, and competition with their neighbours. Corinth was a wealthy city, but would nevertheless have been impacted by this famine.

The ‘world’ in which the Corinthians lived was, it seemed, crumbling.

So Paul’s advice about who should and shouldn’t get married is in the context of a particular time of crisis. Getting married was a big event, one that required many resources and much time. The Corinthians were to remember what it meant for them to live as God’s people, and how this living reflected the power of the Gospel. At the end of chapter 15 Paul tells them to ‘be steadfast, immoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’ He goes on in 16:1 to straightaway talk about the need for them to make a collection to help their much poorer brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. He is calling them to be other-person-centred, to think of the needs of others before their own, and so to put on hold some of their own activities for the moment in order to demonstrate God’s generosity to others.

A wake-up call

It is in times of crisis that we are called to reassess our priorities. God’s actions of judgement upon the world are also a mercy and a gift, designed to shake us out of our complacency; to make us wake up to how much we have become engrossed in the things of the world instead of the things of the Lord.

I have recently returned from a trip to New Zealand, where we did a tour of Christchurch and heard stories of the 2012 earthquake. We heard of neighbours developing a closer sense of community as they were drawn to work together to support one another. Apparently some people who used to sleep naked now wear pyjamas, since when an earthquake strikes at night you don’t even have time to put your clothes on. We also heard of the controversies that have arisen as people debate how the city should be rebuilt, with many complaining about the Anglican church not being willing to spend nearly 200 million dollars and 6 years to repair the cathedral (maybe some of those people might also complain that the church has too much money and should be spending their resources on feeding the poor instead of making moral judgements and trying to convert people.)

We had boarded the plane for New Zealand unsure of what was going to happen with bushfires burning in the Mt Lofty Ranges just 20 km from our own home. But even at that time, there was an almost overwhelming response of generosity from people offering accommodation and assistance to those affected by the fires. Possibly the magnitude of this response had something to do with the shock we had felt as a nation just weeks earlier with the Martin Place siege; people realised the importance of standing together as neighbours.

Now, these are examples are of non-Christian communities! These are people who do not necessarily know anything of the power of the Gospel to transform and reconcile. Yet these people are nevertheless people made in the image of God, and while crises can often bring out the worst of people’s selfishness and sinfulness, they are also marked by glimpses of how we should be. God, in what theologians call ‘common grace’ at times enables people to act in a way that is contrary to their own sinfulness, maybe so that people will stop and take stock, and say to themselves, ‘Hey! What just happened – what I did, or what someone did for me – seems to resonate with my humanity. I know that this is the way I should be all the time – so what am I not like it all the time? Why do I by default operate out of selfishness and greed? Is there any way that I might be able, somehow, to attain to this picture of goodness and generosity that I have just glimpsed?’

So we should be willing to welcome crises, knowing that the Father only ever gives good and perfect gifts; and our first response in these times should be, ‘Father, what are you teaching me in this? How are you using this time of trouble to make me more like your Son?’

Looking towards the End

While Paul is referring to this very specific situation here, he deliberately uses the kind of language that is also used to refer to the end of the age, the time of Jesus’ return. ‘distress’ is often associated with the last days. ‘The appointed time has grown very short’ and the present form of this world is passing away’ speak of the expectancy of a soon to come resolution to the turmoil of this life; the kind of language used by someone who is expecting Jesus’ return to be just around the corner. Paul wants them to think not just of their immediate situation, but in light of eternity. Times of crisis remind us that this world does indeed have a ‘use by date’. It is a kingdom that is being shaken, and will one day be completely overtaken by the reign of God the Father through His Son. Crises remind of who is truly King, and enable us to look forward with hope to the goal He has for us and His creation.

And so the reason for the Corinthians to make wise choices about how they live their lives is not simply a moral or ethical one on its own – as if there is some abstract moral standard that makes something right or wrong in itself. Rather, it is about Who deserves – and receives – the glory. And the One who deserves the glory is the One who is the true King of all things. This is a big focus in this letter – and in fact in the whole scriptures. We are created to be for the praise of the glory of God. Ethics and morality is not about conforming to a certain standard; it is about loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength – or in short, doing all things to the glory of God. Loving God is not about a warm mushy sentiment, but living in such a way that makes much of him, so that people see our lives and say, ‘God is good! God is love! God is gracious! God is my Father who is working all things together for good! God is worthy of all my worship!’

The power of the Cross

We will only be enabled to live such lives when we are able to say, ‘The world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.’ (Galatians 6:14) And we will only be able to say such thing when we have a vision of the cross of Christ. This leads us to our second passage.

1 Peter 1:13-25

In this passage Peter sums up some general principles that Paul applied when giving advice to the Corinthians about marriage: being prepared for action, making wise, sober decisions, all in the light of the promise of Jesus’ return. (13) We are to desire to be holy – not for the sake of holiness in and of itself, but because ‘he who called you is holy’ – in other words, we should desire to have lives that bring glory to God be reflecting His character in our actions. And he reminds us that this world is not our home – we are to see ourselves as ‘exiles’ living temporarily living in the kingdom of this world until we see His kingdom break in.

What is the secret to living this kind of life – one of integrity, love and certainty in hope? It is simply knowing something: verse 18-20 We have been ‘ransomed… by the precious blood of Christ.’ This phrase in itself contains enough significance for a whole series of sermons, but we will look briefly at it, to see what kind of vision of the cross enables us to face crises with a confidence and hope that far outweighs anything this world has to offer.

Firstly, we have been ransomed.

This means that we were once slaves. This is terminology that comes from the slave market; a slave could be given their freedom by having someone pay all the debts they owed, effectively purchasing them and then setting them free. We were once slaves – slaves to sin and to our sinful desires, and slaves to the world and its systems, unable to resist all the empty promises of happiness and power and self-fulfilment that it offers. The world, the flesh and the devil – our three greatest enemies were once our masters, and when they said, ‘jump’ we said, ‘how high?’. Jesus has set us free from these masters by cancelling the debt that stood against us, and for which God, in His justice, had rightfully handed us over to. He has come and fought against the strong man, and has overcome him, and he now has possession of all that is in his household, including us. We are now free. Our citizenship in this world has been replaced with citizenship in heaven, and we no longer have to conform to this world and its demands and desires because we know that the world is passing away.

Secondly, the ransom was at the cost of his own blood.

Jesus taught his disciples, ‘…whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?’(Mark 8:35-36) He said these words as the one who had already stood in front of the devil, who had offered him all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshipping him, and said, ‘“‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve’ (Luke 4:8). He then did just that – lived a life of total obedience to the Father, that took him to the cross to make that redeeming payment for our sin. This not only shows us the magnitude of our sinfulness – that it requires the blood of the eternal Son to atone for it – but also the great assurance we can have in our freedom, that we have truly been crucified to the world and the world to us. It is not just a metaphor; it actually happened that day at Calvary.

Thirdly, this blood bought ransom is precious.

It was not merely sufficient, something that just got the job done. And it was not just costly – worth a lot. It is precious – a word that means honourable, or held in high esteem. The Father looks at the obedience of the Son culminating in his willing death on a cross and says, ‘That is precious to me! This is the thing that I hold as supremely important over all things, that my Son has given himself as a ransom for sinners.’ That is what is meant in part by the phrase, ‘He was foreknown before the foundation of the world’ (20a). The Father created the world, knowing – in fact pre-ordaining –  the corruption and turmoil that would enter into it, because His goal was that His Son would be honoured and glorified above all things because of his willing incarnation and death to save sinners. Knowing the inestimable worth of Jesus’ sacrifice to the Father should make it of inestimable worth to us also. It should make the crises of this world fall into their proper perspective, when knowing him is far more precious to us than anything in this world that we may lose.