2 Corinthians 3: Lifting the Veil

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

And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. (Ezekiel 11:19-20 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Did you know that you are Christ’s letter of recommendation?

As I worked to publish my book, A Christian Guide to Spirituality, this year, one of the hardest things for me to do is ask for friends and colleagues to review my book and for well-known authors to read the book and write blurbs. I am too proud; I want to believe that I am independent and self-sufficient.  Asking for recommendations requires that I swallow my pride and admit that I need someone else’s help.  This is usually something painful for me to do.

The Apostle Paul walks this path in chapter 2 of his second letter to the church at Corinth.  Paul poses a rhetorical question, writing:  Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? (v 1)  His response is surprising: You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. (v 2)  In giving the law to Moses, God wrote on tablets of stone; in presenting the Gospel through Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, God writes on our hearts (v 3).  We are Christ’s letter of recommendation to the world.

Paul then uses a word that sounds strange to us:  glory.  Glory is a translation from the Greek word, doxa (δόξῃ, BDAG 2077), which means: the condition of being bright or shining, brightness, splendor, radiance. Paul is making reference to experience of Moses when he brought the Ten Commandments down from my Sinai to the people of Israel—

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God…And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face. (Exodus 34:29 and 33 ESV)

The glory of God was so profound that Moses himself began to glow!

Paul then begins a comparison between the Law of Moses and the grace of Jesus Christ.  He writes:  For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. (v 9)  The law kills (the ministry of condemnation) while grace gives life (the ministry of righteousness; v 6).  In other words, Paul is saying that if you think that Moses glowed, you will glow even more in the grace of Jesus Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit.  However, Moses’ veil not only covered his face, it veiled the hearts of the people hearing the law (v 15) and prevented them from experiencing God’s grace.  In Jesus Christ, this veil was lifted (v 16).

This is the process of becoming a letter of recommendation.

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2 Corinthians 2: The Path from Discipline to Reconciliation

Artwork by Narsis Hiemstra
Artwork by Narsis Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The notes of the true Kirk [church], therefore, we believe, confess, and avow to be: first, the true preaching of the Word of God … secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus … and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished (Scots Confession, 3.18) [1].

Did you know that the church is not a club, it has its own court system?

In principle, members and church officers of the Presbyterian Church (USA) can be brought up on charges and tried by a church for disobeying church law, as articulated in the Book of Order [2].  In practice, charges are seldom brought.

Two kinds of justice exist in the legal system in the United States:  punitive and restorative justice.  Punitive justice serves to punish the lawbreaker; restorative justice serves to restore the lawbreaker to full community.  The adult justice system focuses on punitive justice while the juvenile justice system focuses on restorative justice.  The Book of Order makes it clear that the purpose of justice within the Presbyterian system is restoration, not punishment.  This is also the lesson that the Apostle Paul gives in chapter 2 of his second letter to the church at Corinth.

Chapter 2 focuses on Paul’s instructions to the church in dealing with a particular person who has caused a problem in the church.   We are not told who the person is or what the problem was—scholars still debate both issues (v 5).  Instead, Paul focuses on how to move forward in restoring this person to full fellowship.

Interestingly, Paul seems to be giving the church in Corinth a “timeout”, giving the church time to work things out themselves.  Paul writes:  For I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you (v 1).  Basically, he says that the punishment leveled against the offender is enough (v 6). The offense was against the church and the church dealt with it through, among other things, public shaming (v 7).  Paul refuses to take personal offense (v 5).  Therefore, the punishment was sufficient for the offense and no more punishment is needed.  Instead, Paul writes:  so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. (vv 7-8)  This is a biblical example of forgiveness and restoration.

Harris (2005, 234) sees a 6 step process involved here: offense, punishment, pain and sorrow, repentance, forgiveness, and affirmation [3].

Clearly, this is not the typical scenario in the church today.  What is typical is to hush up controversies and treat them as embarrassments.  Then, after some point the pot boils over and people split the church and leave.

Paul, by affirming the offense and the offender, allows punishment, forgiveness, and restoration.  The offender does not get off free; those offended are required to forgive.  In the end, the community is stronger.

 

[1]Office of the General Assembly.  The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA):  Part I:  Book of Confessions, Louisville, 1999.

[2]Office of the General Assembly.  The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA):  Part II:  Book of Order 2011/2013, Louisville, 2011.

[3] Harris, Murray J. 2005. The Second Epistle to the Corinthians:  A Commentary on the Greek Text.  NIGTC. Grand Rapids:  Eerdman.

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2 Corinthians 1: Sealed, Guaranteed, and Comforted

Rainbow over Fairfax, VA
Rainbow over Fairfax, VA

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee. (2 Corinthians 1:21-22 ESV)

Paul begins his second letter to the church at Corinth with a statement of his apostleship:  Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God (1:1).  An apostle in the New Testament has roughly the same job description as a prophet in the Old Testament.  Prophets do not volunteer; prophets are called (e.g. Jeremiah 1:4-9).

Paul follows the normal form of a letter—from, to, and greetings—but he adds his own twists.  Most of his letters then offer a prayer of thanksgiving for the recipient.  Here, Paul follows the greeting with a lengthy (1.3-7) blessing of comfort suggesting the purpose of his letter.

In my experience, God is mostly obviously present in times of trial and can be recognized by the comfort He brings.  The psalmist writes:  Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, that he may deliver their soul from death and keep them alive in famine. (Psalm 33:18-19 ESV)  Noah recognized God’s comfort and covenant through the sign of a rainbow (Genesis 9:13).  The apostle Paul writes:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (1:3-4)

Interestingly, Paul talks about God’s seal—a sign of ownership and protection—and guarantee—the Holy Spirit given as a down-payment on eternal life.  The Apostle John uses the word, Paraclete (παράκλητος; John 14:26 BNT), which is often translated as helper or comforter.

Garland [1] identifies 4 motifs in this chapter:

  1. Affliction and suffering;
  2. Comfort;
  3. Life and death; and
  4. The interconnectedness between Paul and the Corinthians.

Affliction and Suffering (1.4, 6, 8).  As we have discussed previously, affliction and suffering help us to abandon our idols—particularly the idol of control—and focus on God.  Paul writes:  But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead (1:9).

Comfort (1.3, 4, 5, 6, 7).  As mentioned above, the Holy Spirit specializes in offering comfort.  Holy dreams and visions, for example, often not designed to inform us but simply to offer comfort.  To let us know that we need not be afraid.  Paul writes:  Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. (1:7)

Life and death (1.8, 9, 10).  Paul is not a complainer, yet, he sketches out a recent near death experience to reinforce the point that God is not only our comforter, but also our deliverer.  Likewise, the Jewish people remember the Exodus from Egypt not as a spiritual salvation, but a deliverance from physical destruction (Exodus 14:26-28).

Paul’s Relationship with the Corinthians (1.6, 7).  The Corinthians are the beneficiaries of Paul’s afflictions.  Paul writes:  If we [Paul and his friends] are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. (1:6) Elsewhere, Paul makes it clear that Jesus is the template for our life, death, and resurrection (Philippians 3:10-11).  When we minister to others, we then perform a similar sacrificial function on their behalf, like Christ for Paul and Paul for the Corinthian church (and us).

Comfort is God’s trademark.  Paul looks to God in his own afflictions.  So should we.

[1]David E. Garland, 1999. 2 Corinthians: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture.  New American Commentary.  Nashville:  Holman Publishing. Pages 56-58.

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2 Corinthians: Lifting the Veil

The Crucifixion
The Crucifixion

…a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9 ESV)

How can one be strong in weakness?

At the core of the Apostle Paul’s Second Letter to the Church at Corinth is a paradox. Christ was crucified in weakness, but in his weakness displayed the power of God (13:4).  This same paradox was displayed in Paul’s private pain (12:7-9) and his very public humiliation as he writes:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (4:8-10)

This paradox manifests itself in that when we find ourselves at the end of our rope, we abandon our private idolatries and turn to the living God who is our only real hope.  Paul writes: to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over [our] hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. (3:15-17) Herein lies the paradox, that our own strength (for the Israelites, the law) veils the presence of God in our lives.

Second Corinthians is a very personal and complex letter. For example, Paul provides two separate lists (6:4-10 and 11:23-29) of own afflictions—who brags about being beaten and thrown in prison?  He is writing from Macedonia (9:2) around 56 AD just before his final journey to Jerusalem.  Theological topics addressed include:  the character of God, salvation, the Gospel, the church, the nature of apostleship, Christian ministry, the Christian life, suffering, stewardship, Satan, and eschatology (Harris 2005, 105, 114-125).

The importance of Second Corinthians in the life of the church is underscored by the attention given to even small portions of this letter.  For example, The Confession of 1967 [1] adopted by the Presbyterian Church (USA) emphasizes these verses:

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (5:18-20)

Paul’s emphasis is on reconciling the world to Christ; the Confession expands on this idea to speak about reconciling the church to divergent groups in society.

References

Garland, David E. 1999. 2 Corinthians: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture. New American Commentary.  Nashville:  Holman Publishing.

Hafemann, Scott J.  2000. The NIV Application Commentary:  2 Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Harris, Murray J. 2005. The Second Epistle to the Corinthians:  A Commentary on the Greek Text.  NIGTC. Grand Rapids:  Eerdman.

[1] www.pcusa.org/resource/book-of-confessions

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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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