All in All: The Message of 1 Corinthians

Rather than spend a lot of time introducing 1 Corinthians, I thought I’d comment on a few things about the setting of the letter as well as to help give you a good pair of lenses by which to view the letter.

Concerning the Corinthian church…
The apostle Paul planted the church in Corinth on his second missionary journey which you may read about in Acts 18:1-17. One of the things we learn from Acts is that Paul had a hard go of it. In fact it was difficult enough, that he may have considered abandoning the effort. However, we read in Acts 18, that Jesus appeared to Paul to comfort him, saying, “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack or harm you, because I have many people in this city.” Though this may not have been all Jesus told Paul, it was significant and encouraging enough that Paul remained, and in the midst of more opposition, continued to preach. Eventually, Paul was publicly charged with sedition by the Jews before Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia. Though Gallio dismissed the charges, Sosthenes who was both a convert to Christianity and the synagogue ruler was beaten before the town.

Concerning the occasion and content of 1 Corinthians…

Paul, at the writing of 1 Corinthians, is living in Ephesus. He had written an earlier letter which they misread, and have both written back to Paul and sent members of the church with the letter of questions regarding the current circumstances. In addition, Paul has received verbal reports of trouble and unrest in the Corinthian church. Both to answer their questions and to deal with his own concerns for them, Paul has written the church. 
In 1 Corinthians, there are a number of questions and issues which Paul raises and speaks to that may sound very obscure, outdated, irrelevant, or just ridiculous such as his discussion on gender roles and head coverings. As you read, resist the urge to discount what he is saying. Reflect on the context of the circumstances into which he is writing, understand, and then seek to apply it to today. Just because he is speaking to a specific circumstance does not mean it is irrelevant. Indeed there is much in 1 Corinthians which could’ve been written today.
Among those questions which Paul addresses are the following:
  1. The ongoing denial and refusal to confront or repent of sexual sins,
  2. Division and bi-partisanship (Peter, Paul, Apollos, Christ…),
  3. How a Christian is to handle conflict, 
  4. Spiritual-gift snobbery; super-apostleship, elitism, giftedness,
  5. Idolatry and compromise with the culture,
  6. Significant confusion about their view of the people especially as how their view relates to the dignity of the human body.
Lastly, Concerning what you need to need to know about Corinth and the church in Corinth…
There are peculiarities to the specific situation which, if we understand them, we will better be able to apply the letter to our lives. Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Corinth is a CROSSROADS. The city is situated at the isthmus which joins the southern half of Achaia with the European mainland. At this point the isthmus is 3 miles wide, and narrow enough that dragging your cargo ship along a causeway from the Aegean to a gateway to the Adriatic was thought to be a brilliant idea which of course they did.
  2. Corinth is NEW. It had recently been destroyed in the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean and rebuilt as a Roman colony.
  3. Because of there was not a long-standing social order. Corinth was a city of serious OPPORTUNITY. Corinth had been repopulated by Roman citizens and freedmen and so, it did not have time to develop an established noble class. Because the social order was determined more by merit than by class, Corinth was a place of great potential for an unconnected Roman citizen or a freed-man.
  4. This new city of great opportunity attracted many who were DRIVEN TO SUCCEED. Achievement and notoriety become extremely important for multitudes of achievers who need to set themselves apart from other gifted achievers. This is a kill or be killed, entrepreneurial city.
  5. Because of the urgency of opportunity and success, Corinthian culture was all about the IMMEDIATE. ‘Right now’ is the most important time and consequently the immediate is more REAL than any long-term commitment or discipline this leads to financial, relational, and moral blindness and compromise as its citizens are driven to ‘get it while you can’. 
  6. All this money and opportunity grew an AFFLUENT AND EXCLUSIVE society. Corinth was highly focused on the outward appearance and both the display of your material wealth as well as your social connection demanded that you work your relationships to your advantage by getting into some circles while keeping others out of yours.
  7. Lastly, Corinth was a PROMISCUOUS. society. As  a center of opportunity and affluence the society was decadent. In fact, to Corinthianize became a bi-word for the decadence of the wealth and moral permissiveness which worked in its citizens.
  8. All of these traits were being brought into the church.

I hope this helps. You can read 1 Corinthians in 45 minutes. Take some time and do that while keeping these thoughts with you. See you Sunday!

All in All: The Message of 1 Corinthians was originally published on Grace Presbyterian Church

Foolish Consistencies: Ecclesiastes 8:2-9

Here are some of my thoughts from this week’s sermon, The Wise Heart.
Considering the fools folly, here is what is true about the fool:
  1. The fool never vows. He does not bind himself to others in promises, but rather says, “I shall do what I want to do on my own terms.”
  2. The fools presumes upon other’s patience. He behaves as if it is everyone else’s privilege to patiently put up with their foolishness.
  3. The fool is self-centered. He says, “I will obey on the condition that after I define the terms of our relationship and require that you put up with my foolishness, you must like me for it.”
  4. The fool sets his own standards. He says, “I evaluate my performance of obedience with the standards I determine at any given moment.” One of the reasons we studied the seven deadly sins last year was so that we’d know what we ought to feel bad about rather than left to ourselves and the world’s evaluation of our performance.
  5. The fool knows. He says, “If I am to obey, you must make yourself available to hear whatever I have to say, listen to whatever advice I have to give, and do what I am telling you because I can see the future.” I know that sounds silly, but I intended it. Even so, have you ever heard a fool talk?
  6. The fool is untouchable. He believes that he may use wicked means to accomplish good ends. He forgets that the One Ring uses its possessors, or if we were to use C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, he forgets that, “evil always breaks its own tools.”
  7. The fool is his own king. He secretely believes, “I am the REAL king.” Classic examples of these kinds of fools: Denethor, the Steward of Gondor in Lord of the Rings and even Boromir; contrary to these two Faramir the son and brother is wise. Eustace Scrub in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is contrasted with Lucy whose eventual obedience to Aslan in Prince Caspian is exemplary.

More Bitter than Death: Ecclesiastes 7:15-8:1

As the Teacher has considered his pursuit of wisdom in chapter 7, he has shared that the day of our death has more to teach us about life than the day of our birth. Additionally, he has shown us our fretting and worrying about tomorrow is only relieved by our being able to “see the sun” — which is to see that this life is not all there is.
This week the Teacher concludes by reminding us that wisdom is not found in the face of another man like himself. Here’s summary of the first seven verses.
verse 18 It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes.
Our problem is not that we need either more rules, “do not be overrighteous” nor is it found in less restriction “do not be overwicked”. Our deliverance into wisdom comes neither with legalism nor with foolishness. How does one avoid all extremes? It begins first with the fear of God.
verse 19 Wisdom makes one wise man more powerful than ten rulers in a city.
Here the Teacher reminds us that our deliverance or safety does not rely on our having more input or advice. Though counsel is good and the sign of a humble and teachable spirit, one can actually avoid God and the wisdom he offers in a self-reliant dependence upon others.
verses 20-22 There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins. Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you-for you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others.
The fact of the matter is that no man is the righteous one who fears God. And this is not argued by saying we have all done the most wicked thing we could imagine, but rather that we all have succumbed to the most petty sins of the heart which fuel gossip, envy, and slander. Our problem is not that we merely do wicked things, but that if we are honest, our innermost selves are deeply bent and broken.
verses 23-24 All this I tested by wisdom and I said, “I am determined to be wise”—but this was beyond me. Whatever wisdom may be, it is far off and most profound—who can discover it?

Lastly, the Teacher shows us that no amount of self-determination or effort can win the fruit of wisdom. It is beyond him, far off and unknowable.
Lastly, lastly, lest you think this all dark and despairing, the Teacher again is leading us to joy. He is drawing us to the conclusion that, “Wisdom brightens a man’s face and changes its hard appearance” (verse 8:1). As you prepare for Sunday and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper consider, what brightens your face? What softens your hardness? On Sunday, we’ll look at this more in depth for in this is found the wisdom which Qoheleth has been seeking.

Those Who See the Sun: Ecclesiastes 7:8-14

The second section of proverbial sayings in Ecclesiastes 7 is comprised of verses 7-14 which reads,

“Extortion turns a wise man into a fool, and a bribe corrupts the heart.

The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride.

Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.

Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions.

Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun.

Wisdom is a shelter as money is a shelter, but the advantage of knowledge is this: that wisdom preserves the life of its possessor.

Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked? When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider that God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future.”

The Teacher, having moved from the topic of death, is now pressing us with the questions of life. Predominantly he is forcing us to face the reality that we do not hold our destiny in our hands. We look to many keys to fit the lock which will either free us from our present fears or from the many unforeseen fears which may befall. Nevertheless, we are still bound to the reality that we are not ensured success or blessing in this life “under the sun”.

In verses 7-10, one is shown what will happen if one refuses to admit that they are not in control.

  • Firstly, “extortion turns a wise man into a fool.” In other words, you will use your strength to oppress. You will use power to pressure, threaten, force others to give you what you want. Parenting? Supervising? Shepherding?
  • Secondly, “…and a bribe corrupts the heart.” You will use your resources to manipulate others, or manipulate them by allowing them to manipulate you. It may sound convoluted, but dysfunction comes in many shapes and sizes. Parenting? Supervising? Shepherding?
  • Thirdly, it “…corrupts the heart” You will so compromise yourself — your most inner self — by allowing yourself to be manipulated and used that it will harm your person. In other words, no illegitimate means may be used disinterestedly. That is, if you play with mud, you will get dirty.
  • Fourthly, being “…quickly provoked in your spirit…” This sort of anger is the indignant, resentful, and embittered anger. Michael Eaton, comments on this passage by saying, “a tolerated resentment, makes its home in the heart.” This is what the author of Hebrews refers to as a “root of bitterness”.
  • Fifthly, one thinks “…the old days better than these…” You will avoid today’s problems by pining for the past. Rather than face what is before you, you languish in regret beset by the sickness unto death.
  • Lastly, the Teacher mentions, “…like an inheritance…” There are many who, rather than deal with what is in front of them and live in the reality of their circumstances, the look to the future for an unforeseen and unreasonable windfall to deliver them. They are full of dreams about their plans, but they are not busy about their present.
The second half of the passage speaks to the fruit of the pursuit of wisdom, and how one, if they seek and consider, they will be as one who “sees the sun”. And in the Teacher’s language, that is to be able to see that life under the sun is not all there is. “Consider what God has done,” he challenges. It is our thought life’s pursuit of this endeavor which will lead to peace and joy.

Sorrow is Better: Ecclesiastes 7:1-7

Here’s a summary of the teaching of Ecclesiastes 7:1-6 which I will elaborate on Sunday morning.
Ecclesiastes 7:1-6 (NIV) reads, “A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth. It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure. It is better to heed a wise man’s rebuke than to listen to the song of fools. Like the crackling of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of fools. This too is meaningless.
“A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth.”
 Firstly, it is as if the Teacher is saying: a crowd will welcome a fool if he is wearing a good perfume even if he stinks, but when the perfume wears off he’ll be nothing but a stinking fool. However, if a man with a good name (character/wise-hearted) joins a crowd, his welcome will not wear off even if he stinks. Another way of illuminating the analogy would be to say, just as a good character and reputation are more important to a successful life than the accessories you might carry with you in life. So too, reflecting upon and living in light of your own death will enrich your experience and success in life. Remember: ‘success’ has to do with wisdom and not material gain or comfort. Derek Kidner explains the passage this way, “In the same way, the day of death has more to teach us about life than the day of our birth. The lessons we learn from death are more factual and paradoxically more vital.”
“It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man;”
Secondly, the Teacher tells us, a character of wisdom (a good name) is grown in painful places and not at parties. I wonder how many college freshman moving onto campus’ this weekend believe this to be true?
the living should take this to heart.  
Thirdly, he says, a heart of wisdom (a good name) is grown inside out not outside in. To take this into your heart means to meditate upon it, to work it in, and to receive it as a precious truth. Only in taking it in will you be able to live it out.
“Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart.The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure. 
Fourthly, the teacher shows us that a heart of wisdom (a good name) is not acquired by the avoidance of suffering and sadness. The avoidance of suffering and sadness is the predominate malady of our age. C.S. Lewis went so far as to say that this is the enchantment to which we had succumbed in our age. In his sermon “The Weight of Glory”, he writes, 
“Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.”
Alan Jacobs in his biography of Lewis, goes on to explain that that the evil enchanters of our age are the magicians and scientists who have told us and tell us that we can have heaven on earth. And what is the “strongest spell that can be found”? It is, of course, the God Spell or the gospel.
“It is better to heed a wise man’s rebuke than to listen to the song of fools.”
Fifthly, he teaches us that a character of wisdom (a good name) is acquired through discipline (wise man’s rebuke) and not diversion (song of fools) .
“Like the crackling of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of fools. This too is meaningless.
(As an aside: Derek Kidner references another commentator who attempts to capture the Hebrew literary device either a pun or alliteration between “thorns” and “pot” as “nettles under kettles”–I just think that’s cool.) And so finally, the Teacher is reminding us that a deep and abiding joy (wisdom) is not the fast igniting highly combustible fire of thorns, but it is a hard to ignite, slow burning, and long-lasting fire of an oak.
The point of these sayings as it relates to the larger theme of Ecclesiastes is not as one might initially reckon as a morose obsession with death, but rather he is addressing how one may acquire the deep, abiding joy that, as Paul says, “surpasses knowledge.” For the Teacher, a deep, abiding, and unshakable joy is just that only if it is able to face death.