1 Corinthians 16: Unity and Diversity in Christ

Winter Trees by Sharron Beg
Winter Trees by Sharron Beg

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love…If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come! (1 Corinthians 16:13-14,22 ESV)

Many study groups fast forward through the final chapters in the Apostle Paul’s letters thinking that the names listed are difficult to pronounce and the overt lesson is over.  This is a mistake.

In Chapter 16 Paul deals with at least 3 very controversial issues in the church:

  • Mission giving and financial integrity;
  • Support and acceptance of church leaders; and
  • Boundaries on the Christian community.

Missions and Financial Integrity.  The Jerusalem council imposed 4 requirements on Gentile converts: …abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality (Acts15:29 ESV) [1].  Paul mentions only one requirement:  remember the poor (Galatians 2:10). By that, he particularly meant the poor saints in Jerusalem.  He reasoned: For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings (Romans 15:27 ESV).

It is interesting that Paul, who took no support from the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 9), was especially careful to request that they appoint their own trustees for the collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem (v 3).

Church Leaders.  In the middle of church divisions, Paul sends in a turnaround team and highlights the work of theologically sound, local leaders.  In commending the household of Stephanas, he highlights their spirituality (first converts) and conduct:  they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints—be subject to such as these, and to every fellow worker and laborer (vv 15-16)

Boundaries on the Church.  While the church is open to everyone, the church does not consist of everyone.  Paul states:  If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come! (v 22) [2]  The mark of a Christian is love for the Lord, not affiliation or family ties.  Given this presupposition, Paul advises:  Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like adults, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love (vv 13-14).

The mention of the household of Stephanas (v 15) as well as Aquila and Prisca (v 19) [3] underscores the importance of family ministries, especially husband-wife teams, in the early church.

 

[1] This list contains 3 food requirements and behavioral requirement.  Each requirement focuses on sins of the body.

[2] “Our Lord come” is written in Aramic (μαράνα θά; Marantha) suggesting again that the earliest confessions included statements of Christ’s divinity and expectations of the second coming.

[3] Also:  Acts 18:2,18, 26;  Romans 16:3, and 2 Timothy 4:19.

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1 Corinthians 15: Resurrection Changes Everything

RPC_tomb_03092014bBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:3-6 ESV)

The Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth reaches its climax in chapter 15.  The first two verses of the chapter build up to a short confession recounting the story of Jesus (vv 3-6).  Scholars believe that this is one of the earliest confessions of the church. Several points are striking about this confession, including:

  • The confession refers to Jesus of Nazareth as Christ.  Modern critics often assert that titles such as Messiah or Son of God are confessions of the latter church.  Here it is immediately confessed by the early church within a couple years of the crucifixion.
  • The use of Cephas to refer to Peter hints at the ancient nature of this confession.  Cephas is Aramaic; Peter is a Greek translation.  Because the entire New Testament (NT) is written in Greek, Aramaic shows up in the NT mostly in quotations where authenticity is important.  Paul uses Cephas 8 times; the Apostle John is the only other NT author to use Cephas. John wrote:  John brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter). (John 1:42 ESV)  By contrast, Peter is used 100 times in the NT.
  • Paul uses the word, scripture(s), 14 times in his letters.  The NT uses it 51 times.  This confession is the only place in his letter to the Corinthians where he uses the word, scripture(s).  Apparently, the early church felt that it was important to tie the Jesus story to Old Testament scripture.
  • This confession links the cross to forgiveness of sin.  This is called the doctrine of the atonement.  Some theologians have recently questioned the doctrine of the atonement because the existence of sin implies an absolute moral standard.  Yet, the confession makes it clear—Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures (v 3).
  • The confession makes it clear that Jesus’ resurrection was witnessed by large numbers of people, not just the disciples. While a small group might have made up a resurrection story (or have been delusional), a large public crowd could not (v 6).  Paul’s account accordingly throws cold water on many modern theories disputing the resurrection.

Because Paul’s letter was widely circulated and there were many eye-witnesses to what he wrote about, clearly this confession was a keystone of the early church.

The resurrection was also the key doctrine that Paul taught.  He writes: …if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished (vv 17-18).  In other words, without the resurrection there is no salvation from sin, no victory over death, and no eternal life.  There have been many martyred saints, but only one resurrection.  We remember Jesus.

The resurrection speaks of the power of God and the divinity of Jesus Christ. Because Christ is divine, then scripture as understood by the traditional teaching of church provides a reliable rule for life.

Resurrection changes everything.  This is why it is called the Good News.

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1 Corinthians 14: Spiritual Gifts Build the Body

Diane_painting_flowers_06022014By Stephen W. Hiemstra

I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.  Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue. (vv 18-19)

How do spiritual gifts affect Christian worship?

The weekend last year when I commenced at seminary, I visited a new church.  The guest preacher was a close friend and I sought his blessing over my ministry.  The service was video-taped and streamed online. The music was lively; the prayer was deep; the congregation was engaged. People danced, waved flags, sounded ram’s horns, and testified to God’s power in their daily lives. This congregation actively celebrated the gifts of the spirit [1].

In the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, he sought to channel the expression of spiritual gifts to build up the church (v 4).  He made his point by comparing two gifts:  speaking in tongues and prophecy.  Paul describes the gift of tongues as the language of angels (13 v 1), a spiritual prayer language (v 13), and a manner suitable for speaking with God (v 28) [2].  He describes prophesy having at least 3 purposes:  building people up, encouraging people, and providing consolation (v 3).  Because Paul engages in both speaking in tongues (v 18) and prophesy (13 v 9) [3], he is using these gifts to make a point, not to discourage their practice.

Paul makes several points in preferring prophecy over speaking in tongues during worship, including:

  • The one who speaks in tongues speaks to God, but the one who prophesies speaks to people (vv  2-3);
  • The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church (v 4);
  • Prophesy is to be preferred to speaking in tongues (unless someone interprets the tongues) because prophesy builds up the church (v 5).
  • Prophesy involves spirit and mind (inferred), but speaking in tongues involve only the spirit (v 14);
  • Prophesy reaches unbelievers, while speaking in tongues does not and may distract them (vv 23-24); and
  • …tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. (v 22)

Paul himself speaks in tongues, but only in private (vv 18-19).

Paul’s teaching on worship focuses on building up the body of Christ, both by encouraging believers and welcoming unbelievers.  He suggests 2-3 people speak in tongues, if they have interpreters, and, likewise, 2-3 people prophesy (vv 27-29).  For Paul, worshiping decently and in order (v 40) accordingly implies moderation in the public display of spirituality, not its absence.

 

[1] All Nations Church, Charlotte, NC (www.ChavdaMinistries.org).

[2] Elsewhere, the Gospel of Mark reports: And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover. (Mark 16:17-18 ESV)

[3] Paul’s description of his conversion and call suggests that he viewed himself called to be a prophet in the Old Testament tradition like Ezekiel. For example, the Greek in Acts 26:16 ἀνάστηθι καὶ στῆθι ἐπὶ τοὺς πόδας (arise and stand on your feet; Acts 26:16 BNT) compares closely with Ezekiel’s words: στῆθι ἐπὶ τοὺς πόδας (stand on your feet; Ezek 2:1 BGT).

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1 Corinthians 13: Faith, Hope, and Love

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ESV).

Attitudes matter.  When we exercise spiritual gifts, do we seek to glorify God or ourselves?

One of the hardest things to do is to give God the glory and not focus on ourselves.  Praying an ACTS prayer—adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication—is helpful, for example, because our impulse is to cut straight to supplication—the give me (gimme) part of prayer.  Because God already knows our needs, we are better advised simply to praise God and trust that he will meet our needs.  Focusing on the gimme part of prayer hints that we do not fully trust God; the same is true when we express our love for other people.

Two false views of love are very popular today.  One is a grasping, selfish—stalker—kind of love.  Stalker love says:  if I cannot have you, then no one else can either.  For example, Beetle musician John Lennon was murdered in 1980 not by an enemy, but by a fan who earlier in the day had even sought an autograph from him[1].  The stalker’s love is rooted in desire to possess, not to share affection or relationship.

Another false view of love arises not from the desire to possess, but to project self on the object of our desire. The classic example is that of a parent living vicariously through the child. Unfulfilled ambitions are projected onto the child and the child is then manipulated to live out a hidden script.  Alternatively, a child may simply never be allowed to wander outside the shadow of the parent to develop fully as a person.  These same dynamics can also occur for highly dependent spouses.  This false view of love is motivated by a desire to control explicitly or implicitly.

The context for Paul’s comments about love is the expression of spiritual gifts.  In chapter 12, Paul makes the point that the Holy Spirit is the source of all spiritual gifts (12 v 11) and the purpose of the gifts is to serve the body of Christ (12 v 7).  Here in chapter 13, Paul makes the point that spiritual gifts not motivated by love for one another are not so spiritual.  Speaking in tongues without love, for example, is like beating your own drum (gong or cymbal; v 1).  This same theme continues even in chapter 14 where Paul gives explicit advice about using gifts, such as speaking in tongues and prophecy, properly in worship (14 v 4).

Clearly, like us the Corinthians do not have a proper attitude about gifts and they misunderstand the meaning of love.  Paul redefines love using the word, agape[2].  He does not use either phileo[3] often translated as brotherly love (think Philadelphia—the city of brotherly love).  He also does not use eros[4] usually translated as romantic love.  This humble, sacrificial definition of agape is unique to Paul (vv 4-7).

After defining agape, Paul goes on to suggest that he himself at one point held childish views which he gave up in adulthood—a polite way of suggesting they are childish in their view of love (v 11).  He then goes on to attribute this agape love to God himself, alluding to Moses’ encounter—face to face—with God on Mount Sinai (v 12; Numbers 12:8).  The argument is if God expresses a humble, sacrificial love, then we should too.

While Paul’s lesson here is about having a proper attitude about spiritual gifts, he also is careful to balance his view of agape love with faith and hope.  Love is not simply a warm, fuzzy feeling.   Paul balance faith, hope, and love in at least 4 other places in his letters[5].  Faith and hope balance love by anchoring it in our relationship with God.

[1]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_John_Lennon

[2]ἀγάπη (BDAG 39)—the quality of warm regard for and interest in another, esteem, affection, regard, love–without limitation to very intimate relationships, and very seldom in general Greek of sexual attraction.

[3]φιλέω (BDAG 7742)—to have a special interest in someone or something frequently with focus on close association, have affection for, like, consider someone a friend.

[4]ἔρως (BDAG 3145)—passionate interest…ardor fondness.

[5]See:  (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3, 5:8; Colossians 1:3-5; and Ephesians 1:15-21).

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1 Corinthians 12: Spiritual Gifts Point to the Holy Spirit

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone (vv 4-6).

Are your talents a gift?

The Apostle Paul is not shy about discussing the role of the Holy Spirit.  In 1 Corinthians 12 he begins a 3-chapter discussion of spiritual gifts.  Hays (207)[1] sees this chapter divided into 4 parts:

  1. Introduction (vv 1-3);
  2. Manifestations of the Spirit (vv 4-11);
  3. Body analogy (vv 12-26); and
  4. Application to gifts and offices of the in the church (vv 27-31).

In his introduction, Paul grabs the bull by the horns and says:  Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed (v 1).  This direct approach is most interesting—these days we often read of churches torn up by controversies—often outright sin—that were allowed to grow in the shadows.  Paul does not let mold grow in the shade; he confronts controversy head on.  And he claims all things for Christ—no one can say Jesus is Lord, except through the Holy Spirit (v 3).

In discussing manifestation of the Spirit, Paul sees a Trinitarian (Spirit, Lord, and God) variety of gifts, services, and activities (vv 4-6).  In claiming all gifts, services, and activities for God, none is excluded and none is more important than the other.  Theologians get excited about Paul’s Trinitarian statement because it seems off the cuff rather than the focus of his comments.  In other words, Paul experiences God in three persons even though his does not articulate a formal theology of the Trinity (Hays 210).

Paul use of the body as an analogy for the church is interesting, in part, because he reframes the analogy from his peers.  Ancient authors often used the same analogy to argue for hierarchy in the social order; Paul uses it to illustrate diversity and interdependence (Hays 213).  In undertaking his discussion, he tailors his comments to the particular needs of the Corinthian church which becomes obvious in comparing the list of spiritual gifts with other lists that he provides, for example, in Ephesians 4:11-13 and Romans 12:6-8.  Neither alternative list, for example, cites speaking in tongues (v 10).  Clearly, Paul’s emphasis in listing gifts is not on the list, but on the legitimacy and use of each gift to build up the body of the church.

In wrapping up his comments, he exhorts the Corinthians to strive to work in building up the church and in attaining the “higher gifts” (vv 27 and 31).  One suspects in reading this section that Paul prioritizes spiritual gifts, in part, because Corinthian priorities were different.

One clue to this deficiency is Paul’s switch in words used in the Greek for gifts.  In verse one, a gift is πνευματικός, (BDAG 5999; mostly in the sense pertaining to wind or breath) already in verse 4 Paul switches to χάρισμα (BDAG 7896; that which is freely and graciously given, favor bestowed, gift).  In switching from an emphasis on the receiver of the gift to an emphasis on the giver, Paul highlights the role of the Holy Spirit.  A spiritual gift is a talent used to build up the body of Christ.

Are you musical?  Do you work well with kids?  How might your gift be used to build up the church?

[1] Richard B. Hays.  2011. Interpretations:  First Corinthians.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press.

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1 Corinthians 11: Identity and Unity in Christ

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ (v 1).

One of the greatest challenges of our times is to find our identity in Christ, solely in Christ.  Many other voices cry to be heard; sometimes demanding total allegiance without warrant.  Whenever these voices win, we find ourselves denying Christ in some aspect of our lives and end up practicing idolatry.  The Apostle Paul cautions us to imitate him as he imitates Christ (v 1).

In chapter 11, Paul focuses on two areas of contentious debate in the church in Corinth (and our own churches):  gender (vv 3-16) and class (vv 20-34) relationships within the church.  In beginning to discuss these verses, it is helpful to remember that Paul has repeatedly emphasized our unity in Christ:  There is neither Jew nor Greek [cultural equality], there is neither slave nor free [class equality], there is no male and female [gender equality], for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28 ESV).  The questions at hand explore how to maintain order and respect within a context of our equality before God.

The social context of Paul’s comments on gender is frankly not well understood and confusion about how to translate Paul’s instructions has led to conflicting advice followed by different churches and denominations.  The common lectionary simply skips over these verses.  Notwithstanding, Hays[1] (183) notes 4 points about gender relationship which are well-understood:

  1. Paul endorses the freedom of women to pray and prophesy in the assembly; the only question is what sort of headdress is appropriate…
  2. The patriarchal order of verses 3 and 7-9 is set in counterpoint with a vision of mutual interdependence of men and women…
  3. The passage does not require subordination of women…but a symbolic distinction between the sexes.
  4. The immediate concern of the passage is for the Corinthians to avoid bringing shame on the community.

Paul’s more lengthy discourse on the relationship between husbands and wives in Ephesians 4:22-33 basically prescribes men to love their wives and women to respect their husbands in a context of equality before God.  What this means in the context of communal worship is basically that neither party should flaunt their independence or sexuality in dress or conduct in a manner that would embarrass the other or the community.  Obviously, a lot more could be said about this subject.

Paul’s comments about classism in the church’s celebration of communion probably come as a surprise to those accustomed to reading this passage causally.  This is because the communion practice in serving communion is to skip over the context of Paul’s comments which have 4 parts:

  1. Paul observes divisions and factions in the church (vv 13-19);
  2. Paul accuses the Corinthians of not celebrating communion properly because some eat and some go hungry;  some get drunk and some have nothing (vv 20-22);
  3. The words of institution (vv 23-26); and
  4. Warning about improper celebration of communion (vv 27-34).

The key verse here is: For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself (v 29).  What does it mean to discern the body?  At a minimum it means that communion is taken together; more importantly, it means that the celebrant needs to consider the needs of the community (unity and equality) before taking part in communion—communion is a communal event.

If our identity is in anything other than Christ (culture, class, gender, race, and so on), then taking part in communion invites God’s judgment.  When we remember Christ, we should not have other things in our minds or on our hearts.

 

[1] Richard B. Hays. 2011.  Interpretation:  First Corinthians.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press.

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1 Corinthians 10: Temptation

Toilette_072013By Stephen W. Hiemstra

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry (vv 13-14).

One test of the truth of the biblical record is that God cannot be bribed.  Most ancient religions offered a provision for bribing the deity—usually a sacrifice and often a human sacrifice.  Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac fits the ancient pattern—until God intervened and substituted a ram (Genesis 22).  Jesus’ death on the cross likewise reverses the ancient formula—God provided the sacrifice.  God cannot be bribed and does not play favorites.

In chapter 10, Paul reminds us that God also does not like to have his patience tested.  Returning to the question of idolatry among the “strong” Christians in Corinth, Paul reminds them that while they have received blessings from God, so did the Israelites wandering in the desert.  Just like the Corinthians had spiritual food and drink in communion, the Israelites had spiritual food and drink—manna and water out of a rock (vv 1-4).  Yet, when the “chosen” people tried God’s patience, they suffered God’s judgment (v 5).

The parallel between the Corinthian situation and that of Moses’ generation has 4 parts:  Idolatry (v 7), sexual immorality (v 8), testing God’s patience (v 9), and grumbling (v 10).  The idolatry in view is the Golden Calf incident which Paul cites verbatim (Exodus 32:6).  The sexual immorality was an incident with Moabite women (Numbers 25:1).  In response to the people’s questioning of God’s generosity, God sent poisonous snakes (Number 21:5-6).  Later, after the people grumbled and rebelled against Moses, God threatened to destroy them all.  However, Moses intervened on their behalf with God.  God relented from destroying the people but vowed that the entire generation would die in the desert—except for Joshua and Caleb (Numbers 14).

If God punished his chosen people for these sins, then why do the Corinthians think that they will be exempt from God’s judgment in doing the same things?  Paul advises the Corinthians:  Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God (v 31).  What about us?  We are to be good examples to those around us and not flaunt our freedom in Christ.

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1 Corinthians 9: Strategic Tentmaking

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks (Acts 18:1-4 ESV).

Tentmaking refers to evangelists and pastors who work outside the church to support their ministry.  The term arises from the ministry of the Apostle Paul who worked presumably making tents to support his evangelism—especially while he was in Corinth.  Tentmaking is common among missionaries and in areas of the world where full-time Christian ministry is either impractical or unaccepted.

The Greek term translated as tentmaker, σκηνοποιός also translates as leather worker or stage hand (BDAG 6700).  The root word, σκηνὴ, translate as:  transcendent celestial tent, tent, dwelling metaphorically…earthly Tabernacle (BDAG 6698).  The strong biblical association of God’s dwelling place with the tabernacle in the Old Testament begs the question as to whether Paul actually uses the term metaphorically to refer to himself as an evangelist.  Elsewhere, for example, he refers to our bodies as the temple of God (1 Corinthians 9:16).  However, in this context tentmaking is described as a trade and the idea that Paul (or his friends) worked in the theater is rejected by commentators because the theater was an overtly gentile profession not accepted by Jews [1].

Paul’s long diatribe on his right to earn a living from his evangelistic ministry (vv 1-14) ends rather oddly.  He says he possess this right to earn a living, but then says:  But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting (v 15).  Why does Paul boast that he is a volunteer?

Blomberg [2] observes that Greek and Roman philosophers and religious teachers earned their living in 4 ways:  fees, living with a patron, begging, and working a trade.  The fact that Paul worked as tentmaker left the impression that maybe he really was not an apostle—the implication was if he was any good he would charge for his services!  Today this might be said about a lay pastor who was not ordained. So why does Paul boast that he is a volunteer?

Paul’s tentmaking diatribe underscores his lesson in the previous chapter.  There he advises his readers not to eat meat if eating meat would cause other believers to question their faith.  He concludes that lesson saying:  Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble (1 Corinthians 8:13 ESV).  The strong have a right to eat meat, but for the sake of the weak they should give it up.  In like manner, Paul has a right to earn his living as an evangelist, but for the sake of the Gospel he works as a tentmaker.

Paul’s lesson on tentmaking speaks truth into our times.  If Paul refused to accept patronage because he could not speak the Gospel to the rich in the Corinthian church, what does that say to ministers supported primarily by rich church members today?  Is class privilege quietly accepted in spite of its tension with the Gospel?  What about causes and members not enjoying such privileges?  What about other rights people assert?

Working as a tentmaker allowed Paul  to address the abuse of class privileges in Corinth.  Are we equally willing to address the abuse of class privileges in the church today?

[1] Jesus’ unique association with the word, hypocrite, makes this analysis a bit ironic.  The word, hypocrite, is Greek and translates as actor.  Jesus’ redefinition of a hypocrite as someone who is two-faced was a new use of the word.  Why would Jesus pick this word if he spoke no Greek and, as a Jewish Rabbi, had no association with theater?

[2] Craig L. Blomberg. 1994. The NIV Application Commentary: 1 Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. Page 173.

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1 Corinthians 8: Jedi Mind-Tricks

Art By Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art By Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that all of us possess knowledge. This knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1 ESV).

In Luke 10, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan in response to a lawyer’s question:  who is my neighbor? (v 29)  The punchline in the story comes when Jesus asks the lawyer:  who was neighbor to the man who fell among robbers? (v 36) Jesus flips the word, neighbor—so-to-speak—from being object to being subject.  Not—who is my neighbor?—but: how do I become a good neighbor?

In 1 Corinthians 8, the Apostle Paul takes Jesus’ Jedi mind-trick (flipping subject and object) and uses it to reframe the perspective on eating food dedicated to idols.

The early church was dogged with questions about food sacrificed to idols.  For example, in the Council of Jerusalem decision, the Council required four things of gentile believers:  abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality (Acts 15:29 ESV).  Likewise, in his prophecy pertaining to the city of Pergamum, the Apostle John writes:  But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols (Revelation 2:20 ESV).  We are accordingly a bit surprised to hear Paul state:  Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do (v 8)[1].

The importance of this conversation about food can be easily dismissed as unimportant, but Paul returns to it over and over in his letters.  In his commentary, Richard Hays makes this point by listing 4 topics touched on by the food issue which even today remain hot-button issues:

  1. Boundaries between church and culture;
  2. Class divisions in the church;
  3. Love trumps knowledge; and
  4. The danger of destruction through idolatry[2].

What is Paul’s argument?  Paul basically says 4 things:

  1. Idols do not exist (vv 4-6);
  2. The dedication of food to non-existing idols is meaningless (v 8);
  3. Knowledge about this subject is helpful (vv 4-7); but
  4. Knowledge is less important than demonstrating love for fellow believers (vv 7-13).

Later, Paul combines his principles of Christian freedom and Jesus’ Jedi mind-trick:  “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor (1 Corinthians 10:23-24 ESV).

Paul’s reiteration of Jesus’ reframing of focus in dealing with neighbors speaks to the heart of the food controversy.  If we abandon our rights as Christians in favor of our fellow believers or potential believers, then our priority is to be a good example—even when it hurts.  Perhaps, especially when it hurts.

[1] We might hear another echo of Jesus here:   The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27 ESV).  This is another Jedi mind-trick by Jesus because he again radically reframes the entire discussion by flipping subject and object.

[2] Richard B. Hays.  2011.  Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching:  First Corinthians.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press.  Pages 143-45.

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1 Corinthians 7: Don’t Be Anxious

Maryam and Stephen Hiemstra, 1984
Maryam and Stephen Hiemstra, 1984

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (v16)

Do you believe in salvation?

Because my father married at age 21, I spent of most of my 20s anxious that I had missed the boat.  My consolation was that my grandfather married at age 28.

My anxiety was misplaced.  For example, in my first visit to a lock-down, psychiatric ward in college, I was shocked to run into the president of my senior class in high school—I was not there to visit her!  Two years out of high school, she had had two children and attempted suicide when her husband divorced her.  While I envied my peers in graduate school who were married, many of them were divorced only a few years later.  By the time I married at age 30, many of the people I knew had been divorced and remarried one or more times.

The Apostle Paul seems aware of this problem of unstable relationships and advises us not to be anxious about our marital status.  He writes:  Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called (v 20).  Elsewhere, he advises:  I wish that all were as I myself am [single]. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another (v 7).  Do you think of your marital status as a gift of God?

Paul expands on this thought.  Before God, neither male nor female, neither circumcised nor un-circumcised, neither slave nor free, counts for anything (vv 17-22).  In case you were thinking Paul was having a bad hair day, he repeats this point in Galatians 3:28.  Why is Paul adamant about this issue?  He gives at least 2 reasons:

  • For the present form of this world is passing away (v 31).  In other words, don’t be rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titantic!
  • But the married man [woman] is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife [her husband], and his [her] interests are divided (vv 33-34).
Balance
Balance

In fact, Paul maintains a balanced view of relationships, not favoring the married or the single (vv 7-9), the man or the woman (v 4).  He also gives his motivation for this balanced view:  I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord (v 35).

This brings us back to the question about salvation.  If your identity is in Christ and you sincerely believe in salvation, then it will bear fruit in your relationships.  For example, how patient are you?  Are you willing to wait on God’s timing for your marriage?

Paul sees marriage as a formative institution instituted by God himself.  It is interesting that the Kellers[1] describe the Bible as a book that begins with a wedding! Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh (Genesis 2:24 ESV). It is interesting that Jesus’ first miracle was saving a wedding (John 2) and the book of Revelations reaches a climax in the wedding feast of the Lamb (Revelations 19:9). God cares about marriage: it was His idea!

If marriage is instituted by God, then how is it formative?  It is formative because spouses care about the health and well-being of their spouses.  What is one of the signs that the person you are dating is serious about your relationship?  They start working on your bad habits—if you smoke, they ask you to stop—that kind of thing.  In marriage God gives us someone who cares enough to tell us things we do not want to hear.

The photograph above is of my wife, Maryam, and I when we were engaged.  We will celebrate our 30th anniversary in November.

[1]Timothy and Kathy Keller. 2011.  The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York: Dutton. page 13.

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