To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Location: Mud Creek, Tennessee, United States

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Valedictory address

Delivered by Levi Stanley, Valedictorian, Class of 2014 
Coffee County Central High School, Manchester, Tennessee
May 23, 2014

Truth is not a particularly popular concept in our culture today, wherever we turn.

In the political arena politicians, pundits, and lobbyists focus only on what helps them gain and hold power rather than what is true and good for the country. Advertisers cry for our attention from every direction, but only proclaim that side of things that encourages us to buy their products.

As a people we are so awash in a torrent information that we are mentally and morally numbed to the messages that bombard us. At a day-to-day level Americans just don't seem to have much time for truth as we stare at screens—sending texts, watching videos, playing games. How often do we take time to really consider what is true?

Today that question itself sounds vaguely old-fashioned and irrelevant. Yet knowing what is true is vital for living a full life, both as individuals and as a people. In truth we discover our world and how we fit into that world. As painful as it may sometimes be to face, truth is power and freedom for life.

As many of us go off to college we will face yet another assault on truth—the academic dogma that all truth is relative and tentative and subjective; that each of us has his own truth; and that your truth is no better than mine. Most of us will encounter professors who have spent decades tearing down what students believe to be true and attempting to indoctrinate us into believing either that nothing is really true, or—worse—that their own warped picture of reality is the way things truly are.

To an extent, having our conceptions of truth challenged is not all bad. None of us has everything figured out, and much of what we think we know undoubtedly could be refined to more accurately reflect the truth. As wonderful as the human mind is, much of reality is far beyond our ability to grasp intellectually. And not all truth can ever, in this life, be known with the certainty of mathematical formulae.

And yet I urge you never to give up, never despair in searching for what is really true.

In the old parable of the blind men and the elephant, each blind man touches a different part of the elephant and comes away with a different impression of what an elephant is really like: one feels only the tail and concludes an elephant is like a rope; another a leg and concludes the elephant is like a tree, and so on. But in truth an elephant is none of those. It is an elephant, much more full and complex than any of those subjective experiences can convey.

And so it is with truth. Truth exists whether we choose to see it or not. Truth is a treasure, a pearl of great price, worthy of seeking and finding.

I believe that, ultimately, Truth is not so much facts, as a person. Yes, a person. And if you do not see the truth in that statement about Truth, I urge you to continue seeking until you find.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Shining the light

Driving this morning to a job interview with a local non-profit ministry, I rehearsed, out-loud, answers to questions I might be asked. At one point I was articulating why I care about ministering to underserved members of the community. I reached down into my heart for what I really believe, and my answer came out something like this:
I don't believe your value comes from how good a job you have or how good the choices you've made or how well you did in chosing your parents. The value of every human being comes from being created in the image of Almighty God, and that makes every one of us infiinitely valuable and worth caring about--especially those who most of us might not like to take the time to meet and know and encourage.
I suddenly found myself touched deeply by my own words, which seemed odd. Then I looked at the heart from which that answer sprang and said to myself, "That's really beautiful!"

That realization wasn't proud or arrogant at all, because if God's Spirit is in me, he's shaping my heart more and more into the image of Jesus Christ. The glory is his, not mine.

I'm pretty good at turning a critical eye on myself and seeing the sin and evil inside, but it's rare for me to see and appreciate the ongoing work of God in my own heart. By this time next week I should know whether or not I'll be working at Greenhouse Ministries, but I've already been blessed beyond measure, before I ever set foot on the site.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

An Answered Prayer

My family lives so far out in the country that the closest thing resembling a town is a collection of buildings five or six miles down the road. We typically pass through town several times a week, more often than not on our way to one of the larger towns up or down the highway. What you might call downtown consists of a volunteer fire station, convenience center, community building, ball park, two church buildings, and a few houses and trailers. A couple of the houses have burned nearly down, and some of the nearby yards combine the casual mess of rural life—rusted car bodies; shabby outbuildings; discarded stoves and refrigerators—with cramped, in-town lots. As an unincorporated town, there’s no local codes enforcement, so houses and yards run the spectrum from well-kept to thoroughly shabby.

Lately I’d been noticing a dog tied up just off the side of the road: a big yellow dog on a very short leash—too short to reach beyond the bare spot he’d worn in front of the trailer. The last couple of times I’d been in town I couldn’t help but notice the dog’s eyes: sad, hopeless, even. Sometimes when I passed he was pulling against his chain, apparently trying to find a more comfortable position in the dirt. Most of the time he was simply lying there, chin on his front paws, eyes nearly closed. Always he was listless, sad-looking, alone. Driving through town last week I found myself whispering a prayer that God wouldn’t allow the poor fellow to keep on suffering.


This week, on the way through town I noticed the dog had gotten loose and was galloping, with obvious relish, around a neighbor’s yard. For a moment I thought he might gallop right into the middle of the road, but he stayed in the grass, clearly glad to be free. I went on to the highway and took care of some business nearby.

On my way back through town I came upon a rather unusual sight for this road: a traffic jam. More precisely it was a slow-moving line consisting of two cars and a pickup truck with a lawnmower trailer. It didn’t take long to find the slowdown’s source: the big yellow dog. He was bouncing along the side of the road, and the drivers were trying to give him room. Just as I came around a curve and up to the line of cars, the dog galloped across our lane of traffic and right into the path of a Buick coming the other way. The car’s front bumper caught the dog solidly on the head and sent him spinning backwards into the path of the pickup truck, which didn’t have time to swerve. The car directly in front of me blocked my view of the dog. I held my head and prayed he was still alive.

The Buick pulled up beside me and the driver opened her window. She was an older woman with an even older-looking man beside her and a poodle-sized dog in the seat behind. The woman’s hand was over her mouth, and tears had begun welling up in her eyes.

“The dog ran right out in front of you.” I told her. “There was nothing you could have done.” The car in front of me had driven on so that I could now see what kind of shape the poor animal was in.

The dog was struggling to rise up off the ground. The flesh of his lower jaw hung from the bone, and both his front paws were already covered with blood. He wagged his tail over and over as he struggled without success to stand. “It doesn’t look like he’s going to make it,” I said. “It wasn’t your fault.” The woman closed the window, and the Buick slowly drove on down the road.

I moved my car up closer and parked it to shield the dog from oncoming traffic. The driver of the pickup truck had parked up ahead, and he and a couple of neighbors were coming over to see about the dog. One man walked quickly, ahead of the others, and called the dog by name, “Biscuit!” No response. It wasn’t particularly hot, but the dog was panting in the sunlight. His eyes were open wide with emotion as unmistakable in a dog as in a human: terror.

“Somebody ought to put him down,” the man said. He said he had a gun back in his trailer, but nobody there wanted to shoot someone else’s dog. The dog’s owner, someone explained, had gone out and wasn’t answering her cell phone. “Her husband’s on oxygen and can’t leave the house,” another neighbor said.

A truck passed in the other lane and Biscuit struggled again to stand up. He had managed by now to pull himself into a sitting position but still wasn’t able to stand. He sat there now without a sound. The skin was torn away on one back leg, apparently from when the pickup truck’s trailer had run over him.

“He’s going to have to go to the vet if he’s going to make it,” someone said.

“I could take him,” I said, “but I’d have to put him in the trunk of my car. Does anybody have a truck?” The man who knew the dog by name went back up the road to see what he could do.

I stood between the wounded dog and the sun, rubbed his back and talked to him as soothingly as I could. After a few minutes a couple of men came and used an old sheet to load Biscuit into the back of a pickup truck and carry him a hundred yards or so to a shady spot in front of his owner’s trailer. I got back into my car and drove up behind. The owner’s husband was already at the door, in his wheelchair, talking with the men about what to do. I drove on, praying softly for Biscuit’s healing and that those taking care of him would show wisdom and compassion.

Then, just outside of town it hit me: Maybe God had already answered my prayer. Last week I had asked God not to allow the dog to keep suffering; could this be his answer?


I came into town again a few hours later. Nobody answered the door at Biscuit’s house. A woman across the road told me his owner had taken him to the veterinarian to be put down. The owners, she went on to say, had been trying to give him away—he needed a family with children and lots of room to run around—but nobody would take him.

Was Biscuit’s death God’s answer to my prayer for ending his suffering? Yes, I believe it was—at least as far as I’m able to understand God’s will. That’s not to say God caused the dog to be wounded and die for my benefit. We humans are on shaky ground whenever we assign specific motives to the intricacies of God’s workings. An individual Christian, for example, may have prayed for opportunities to serve others and later found the events of 9-11 provided a direct answer. Does that mean God destroyed the World Trade Center so a Christian in New York City could hand out bottled water to firefighters? Of course not. But God does use painful events, from the trivial to the most enormous, for answering prayers and serving his purposes.

And not only do I believe God answered my prayer that day, but I think my seeing Biscuit’s injury as it happened was God’s way of reminding me that he had. As I drove through the countryside toward home, I thanked the Lord through tears for both. And in the quiet of driving down a country road, alone with God, I was reminded of a few other truths as well.

First, God hears and answers the prayers of his children—including me. I understand this fact doctrinally, of course, but sometimes it’s a blessing to be reminded deep down. God’s attention to his children is something I now know not only in my head, but in my heart.

Second, sometimes answered prayers hurt more than the unanswered ones do. Biscuit’s sadness while tied up was painful to see on those occasions when I drove past, but most of the time I gave no though to his situation; his suffering and death however, have been a painful memory ever since. Needless to say, those same events were far more difficult for Biscuit himself. In the short term, at least, the end of Biscuit’s suffering was much more painful than his earlier plight. But one day’s intense suffering may have saved him from years of unremitting hopelessness. It’s not the outcome I would have chosen—I prefer happily ever afters. But there’s a reason we love happy endings in our stories: we don’t always get them in a world full of sin and death.

Thus it is that in a fallen world blessings sometimes come only at the cost of pain and suffering. Often the best outcome involves blood and tears. On a small scale, God’s answer to a prayer for healing may come through the suffering of surgery or other painful treatment. On a grand scale, prayers for the downfall of an oppressive regime may be answered through warfare, as when Nazism and Japanese imperialism were broken through the horrors of World War II. At its extreme, redemption in a fallen world comes at the highest imaginable price: the perfect Lamb of God’s bloody death for the sins of the world.

And so we live in a world where the beauty of creation is stained with sickness and death. The greatest triumph grows up from a seedbed of pain, and every life is sustained only through taking the lives of other creatures. Even God’s most merciful answers to prayer often involve pain and suffering. Biscuit no longer experiences the despair of being tethered and alone—thanks to being slammed in the head by a Buick. A young woman no longer suffers with liver disease—thanks to the death of a transplant donor. Are these the results of answered prayers? Yes, they are. Does God enjoy answering prayers through the suffering of others? No, I don’t believe he does. These kinds of situations are by no means a function of God’s callousness or some perverse, cosmic sense of humor. Rather they are a result of our own sin. Death and suffering came into the world through the sin of human beings long ago, and we’ve been living with the consequences ever since.

But praise God that one day those consequences will be destroyed through the life, death, and resurrection of the Son of Man. The Word of God promises that a new heaven and new earth are coming; in that new creation will be no tears, no pain, no death, but only the glorious reality of God and his Kingdom (Rev. 21). Despite all our sin and suffering, the beauty of God’s creation still shines through in this world. And sometimes God answers our prayers in a way that reminds us how much more beautiful and complete that one will be.

© Copyright 2009, A. Milton Stanley

Update: One of my sons points out that he's seen the son of Biscuit's owner visiting with the dog and that, although he was tied up at the time, Biscuit looked pretty happy. Also, the owner's son has been in school most of the days I've been driving through town. Those are good points. I certainly don't want to suggest that Biscuit's owners mistreated him in any way or that they did anything less than their very best in taking care of him. The thoughts here are my own reflections and not an evaluation of anyone else's character or performance.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Glory of Resurrection

1 Corinthians 15:35-58
Given Sunday morning, March 11, 2007
Buena Vista, Virginia, Milton Stanley

We’re coming to the end of 1 Corinthians, and the Apostle Paul has saved the best for last. At the very beginning of this letter he wrote of Jesus Christ crucified. Now he concludes with Christ’s resurrection—and ours. In writing clear of both Christ’s and our resurrection, the Apostle was running counter to the wisdom of his day. Earlier he called the crucifixion of Christ “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” [1]. And if the crucifixion was folly to Gentiles, then resurrection was doubly foolish. But it is the heart of Christians’ faith and hope. At the beginning of the “resurrection section,” Paul goes to some length to explain that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened. Here he spends even more time describing when and how Christians will be resurrected. He also shows why the coming resurrection is Christians’ hope not only for the future, but for today.

The questions Paul quotes in v. 35 indicate that some of the Christians doubted a bodily resurrection. Considering what Paul said at the beginning of the letter about worldly wisdom, that kind of doubt is what we would expect from those saturated in Corinthian culture. Let’s remember that Corinth was at the heart of Greek civilization—between Athens and Sparta on major land and sea routes. The Corinthians were saturated with Greek thinking, and resurrection of the dead had no place in Greeks thought. Sure, some religious groups, such as Mithraism and the mysteries, believed in an immortality of the spirit. But immortality of the body was considered ridiculous. Paul’s experiences with the Athenians (Acts 17) gives a good picture of how sophisticated Greeks viewed the idea of resurrection—as silly and supersitious.

So these questions in v. 35 are apparently those raised by some of the worldly-wise Greek Christians. They seem reasonable enough: How are the dead raised, and what kind of body will they have? After all, resurrection of the body is not easy to understand. You may have heard the hypothetical question about a man who drowns at sea [2]. The elements of his body are eaten by fish and become part of the bodies of those fish. Later, fishermen come along and catch the fish, and the elements that once were in the drowned man’s body enter the bodies of many other men. If there’s a resurrection, whose body will get those elements? Haven’t you wondered those kinds of things yourself? I certainly have. But Paul doesn’t have much patience for those kinds of questions: “You fools!” he says. The questioners, it seems, were asking not frp, a desire for knowledge, but from doubt.

People today still doubt the resurrection, even in the church. Like sophisticated Greeks of the first century, many Christians today claim a belief in the resurrection of the body when in fact they believe in the immortality of the soul. But the two beliefs are different, and those differences are important. Immortality of the soul means that our souls or spirits break free from our bodies at death and float up to be with God. That’s pretty much the same as some Greek philosophers taught in New Testament times. But it’s not a Christian picture. How many times have you been at a funeral and heard a preacher say, “Well, the departed is with the Lord now.” That’s an appealing thought for those who’ve just lost a loved one. It would be nice to think my mother has been in the heavenly throne room since 1999. But that’s not the picture we see in God’s Word. Hhere in 1 Corinthians 15 and in 1 Thessalonians 4, we learn that Christians will be taken up to heaven at the end of time. And it won’t just be our souls. We’ll have new bodies.

Paul describes that resurrection in some detail here at the end of 1 Corinthians 15. He compares our earthly and resurrection bodies to a seed and the plant that springs forth from it. The seed has to die for a new growth to spring forth. Unless the Lord returns first, these earthly bodies have to die in order for us to inherit our heavenly bodies. These bodies have a sort of earthly glory, but not the kind suited for heaven. But our heavenly bodies will be glorious indeed.

You notice we still haven’t answered the question: how can rot and decay turn into glory? The simple but complete answer is that God does it! He created the world out of nothing and mankind out of dust. If he wants to, rest assured he can create heavenly bodies out of the dust and decay of this earth [3]. Our bodies will be sown as perishable, subject to decay, but they will be raised as imperishable bodies, immune to rot and wear (v. 42). When we are raised for heaven we’ll have bodies, but heavenly ones. At the end of time we’ll not dissolve into the cosmic mind or evaporate into Nirvana. We will have individual, bodily existence forever. As we see elsewhere in the New Testament, that existence will be in the very presence of God.

As Paul continues with the seed analogy, please notice that our bodies will sown in dishonor but raised in glory (v. 43). This description is important. Why will our bodies be sown in dishonor? Because they will have died! Remember that human beings were not created to die, but that death entered the world when Adam and Eve sinned. As every human being shares in the sin of the first man, so every one of us shares in his death. Every death, therefore, is a testimony of sin and dishonor. But one day we will have bodies untouched by sin but full of glory. Our bodies will be sown in weakness but raised in power (v. 43). These bodies here wear out, grow sick, and die. But our heavenly bodies will never grow weak or decay.

Christians will be sown as natural bodies but raised as spiritual bodies (vv. 44-50). In death all humans identify with Adam, but in resurrection Christians identify with Christ [4]. Christ came to earth in weakness to suffer, die, and be resurrected so that we might be forgiven and saved for the Kingdom of God. He came down to share our weakness so that we may rise up to share in his strength [5]. In our baptism, Christians become one with Christ (1 Cor. 6). And when we are one with him, we have to take the bad with the good. Yes, on the cross Jesus paid the price for our sin, but he invites us to suffer and die, too (Lk. 9:23-24). Some Corinthians seem to have forgotten this fact [6]. They wanted the glory of spiritual wisdom and power. Perhaps because they expected to slough off their bodies one day, they believed they could indulge their appetites today. But Christians are called to identify not only with Christ’s glory, but with his weakness in the body and his dishonor on the cross. And if we’re willing to be one with Christ through thick and thin, then one day we’ll be given bodies fit for heaven.

Paul describes the transformation from one to another as a mystery (vv. 51-53). Here we have a small glimpse of when and how we will receive our new bodies. Not all Christians will die, but all will be changed (v. 51). When? At the end of time, when the last trumped sounds (v. 52). At that point the dead in Christ will rise from the dead, and all Christians, living and dead, will be changed instantly from mortal to immortal bodies—even the Corinthians who thought they’d already arrived [7]. The word Paul uses here for “change” can also mean “exchange” or “trade-up” [8]. What a thought, that we’ll trade in our weak, decayed or decaying bodies for bodies that will never decay or die—bodies specially designed for life in heaven. And when we receive those new bodies, we will be lifted up to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thess. 4).

Some Christians are concerned about the time between death and resurrection. It’s hard for some of us not to know where our loved ones who have died are doing. I’ve heard people say they can’t accept, for example, that their dead loved one is in the dark, or in the wet ground. I’ve had people ask me if their loved ones might be frightened in the grave. Whenever someone asks me this type of question, I tell them what the Bible says about the time between death and resurrection—nothing! For reasons that only God knows, he has decided not to tell us what awaits us in that period of time. Apparently we don’t need to know. But let me ask you a question: Don’t you think the one who makes us out of dust can take care of us in the grave? If we trust him for our eternity and for our now, don’t you think we can trust him with our in-between? Whatever may happen to us in the grave, we know that the Resurrection makes our future glorious and our present much better than it would be without that hope.

The resurrection is hope and triumph for Christians, and its glory enlightens our present. Notice how Paul ends this section? “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Notice the emphasis on work? After so many words on what could be called theoretical or future reality, Paul brings it down to the practical work at hand. Knowing the truth about the resurrection enlightens our minds and gives us power to do God’s work with abundance and steadfastness. As someone has said, “False doctrine leads to passivity,” while “true doctrine inspires diligent service” [9]. False doctrine can give us a thousand reasons not to do God’s work, but true teaching from the Word will inspire us abundantly. How?

First of all, when we see clearly what God has in store for his own children, then we lose our fear of death. Do you know what I’m talking about? During my youth I spent years running from God and terrified of death. In the daytime I was able to keep my mind turned away from the emptiness and lostness of my soul with a thousand diversions: television, music, friends, food, family. But every night around 4:40 a.m. I awoke in the silence of the darkness and faced the terror of near death and judgment really were. I sometimes lay in bed till dawn considering the many ways I might die, no matter how far-fetched: rabies, tornado, house fire, plane crash. But a steadfast hope in a risen savior frees us from fear. As the author of Hebrews wrote:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Heb 2:14-15)
Christians are no longer slaves to fear of death. Do you know how much energy it takes to run from God and deny our fear of death? Facing up to death with hope of the resurrection frees up huge amounts of energy in our lives. Like Paul, we can confidently say, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting” (vv. 54b-55). Now that’s motivation.

Through the resurrection of Jesus we are also freed from the power of sin. Notice the connection in v. 56: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” Death comes as a result of sin, and sin from violating God’s law. Here on earth we have victory over sin through Jesus Christ, but we still struggle in the flesh to overcome it (re. 1 Cor. 7). But when our earthly bodies are transformed to heavenly bodies, we won’t struggle anymore to overcome sin in the flesh. We’ll be ready for heaven in the presence of God.

The hope of resurrection also frees Christians for purposeful service. The coming resurrection of the dead is a landmark of the Christian walk. If you’ve ever practiced orienteering or land navigation, you know the value of a landmark. If you take a bearing and simply try walking in a straight, it doesn’t take much error to end up far away from your intended target. But if you shoot an azimuth and find a landmark—a tree, a hill, a building—then you can walk confidently in that direction without swerving to the right or left. The landmark keeps you focused. In the same way, the glory of the coming resurrection through Christ Jesus is a landmark for discipleship. Our work is not in vain, no matter how painful or frustrating life on earth may be. That’s because we’re headed for glory.

Steadfast service is a whole lot easier when we know the rewards are not all in the here and now. The Christian walk is a long haul, not a sprint. The burdens of discipleship are far, far easier to bear when we know what’s been done for us (Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected) and what’s still in store (our sharing that resurrection in glory).

So, Christians, be encouraged. Jesus Christ has done the great work of salvation for us. He has joined us in weakness so that we might join him in glory. Like Jesus, we will suffer on this earth. But oh, what glory is in store!

PRAYER
INVITATION

REFERENCES
1. Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.
2. Constable, Thomas. Notes on 1 Corinthians, 2004 ed. Online commentary at www.soniclight.com. Pp 171-2.
3. Deffinbaugh, Bob. “A Refresher Course in the Resurrection of the Dead (1 Cor. 15).” Online study at www.bible.org.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Findlayson, Bryan. “Victory Though Jesus Christ.” Online study at http://www.lectionarystudies.com/sunday8ce.html.
8. Deffinbaugh. See also Danker, Frederick William. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. Chicago: University Press, 2000, p. 46.
9. Deffinbaugh.

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Monday, March 12, 2007

United in Mind and Judgment

1 Corinthians 1:10-17
Preached Sunday morning, July 9, 2006,
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

First Corinthians is rich in timeless truth, but it’s also especially timely for the church today. The first-century Corinthian Christians were facing many of the same problems as Christians in our own culture and time. As was his custom, Paul began his letter to this church by reminding them of the great things God has done for them. We saw last time how, even with their many problems, Christians are saints gifted by God for good work. But in this epistle, Paul quickly turns to the Corinthians’ problems, because they are many and severe.

The first trouble is factionalism. It’s a sin very easy to fall into and the root of many more. Factionalism is particularly destructive in the church because it arises from pride. We’re not talking about the pride of feeling good for a job well done but of the sense of being superior to others. It’s especially important to recognize pride if we’re trying to do Bible things in Bible ways. Pride causes factions, even if the factions consider themselves anti-faction! Pride is a constant temptation of Christians who care about doing things right. Fortunately, the cure for pride does not involve doing things right!

Division has a certain allure. When the Apostle Paul wrote this letter, the Corinthians had begun forming cliques around certain teachers. We don’t know if the names Paul gives here are those of the actual factions or if he is merely using them as examples. In any case, dividing the church into parties was as sinful then as it is today. The danger of division is inherent in Protestantism. When each congregation is independent of every other, it becomes too easy for birds of a feather to flock together. And I’m not talking about simply the division between Christian and non-Christian. Romans 14 has a lot to say about differences of opinion among brothers and sisters in Christ. But even today, Christians form competing factions and congregations over issues that should be matters of individual conscience. We see these factions in our own midst not only among the denominations, but among conservatives and liberals, mainstream and “antis” in Churches of Christ.

During the last century, Churches of Christ formed factions around the so-called “editor bishops” of various brotherhood papers: David Lipscomb, Austin McGary, Foy Wallace Jr., etc. A hundred years ago you could tell where a man stood by whether he read Lipscomb’s Gospel Advocate or McGary’s Firm Foundation. In the same we have the New Wineskins and Seek the Old Paths. factions. There's nothing wrong with publications themselves. It's simply that many Christians choose to use them as rallying points for their own selfishness and pride. One writer has called factionalism focusing around prominent preachers and writers “a vicarious ego trip” [1]. No Christian is exempt from the temptation of forming into these factions. It’s a way of puffing ourselves up by hitching our wagons to various doctrinal hotshots. Unfortunately, when our pride becomes more important than our risen Savior, we’re practicing a form of idolatry [2].

Factions, with their foundations of pride, are dangerous places to be. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” [3]. Factionalism threatens to destroy fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. And as the Apostle John reminded us, if we do not have loving fellowship with our brother, we cannot love God (1 John 4).

There is, however a cure for division, and it’s right here in Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians. The cure lies not in who wins—conservative, liberal, whatever. The cure for factionalism is found in the name of Jesus Christ [4]. Let’s be very careful here. We won’t have unity in the church simply by calling it by the right name. Of course, the church should not take on factional names; that’s a sinful, proud approach. But simply saying “Church of Christ” doesn’t put us above the fray, even if we write “church” with a little “c.” It sickens me how much pride some Christians take in the name Church of Christ—and I’m not talking about the good kind. The unity of the church must come from more than words. Togetherness must rise from the hearts of Christians [5].

The Christian community is not a place for rivalry but unity. When you think about it, God exists in a community of Father, Son, and Spirit. God calls the church to testify to the world what true community can be [6]. If this church truly cares about Christian unity, we need to be very careful in how we approach denominations, lest the cure we present becomes worse than the ailment. We must proclaim the truth, but let us choose our battles carefully.

Unity in Christ is more important than having our way. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be willing to stand up for God’s way. Clear sin needs to be called sin clearly. But a dash of humility is always in order. For example, I for one am convinced that the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated with one cup of fermented wine. That’s the way every Church of Christ celebrated the supper until around the 1860s. Our practice of using little individual cups of unfermented juice is an innovation of the nineteenth century. Well, you may ask, why am I not preaching at a one-cup, fermented, congregation? Simple. Because breaking fellowship over what kind of cups to use for the Lord’s Supper is absurd. It reminds me of a factional Church of Christ known by the other congregations in town as the “One Cup With a Handle Church of Christ.” I’m willing not to have my way on this matter in order to stay in fellowship with my brothers and sisters in Christ.

But how can we tell what’s actually worth dividing over and what’s merely a matter of choice or pride? Well, let’s begin with Jesus’ call for his disciples to take up our crosses daily and follow him (Luke 9:23). If we do that, then we may begin to see the main idea emerging here in Paul’s letter. And what is that main idea? The cross of Jesus Christ. Paul came to preach so that the cross of Christ would not be made empty (v. 17). The power of the church is found in the cross of Jesus Christ. That is where Jesus paid the price for our sin. It is where we gained access to the presence of God. And it is where Christians’ site should always be focused.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb. 12:1-2)
Jesus Christ crucified is at the heart of Christian unity and the supernatural power we proclaim.

In service to a crucified and risen savior Christians find unity as well as answers to the tough questions of faith. We don’t please God by insisting on our way, by playing the big shot or puffing ourselves up. Some of the Corinthians were doing those kinds of things, to the harm of themselves and the church. Christian discipleship is an exercise in service, in sacrifice, and in humility. It is the discipline of following the one who has already accomplished the great work of salvation for us. When we begin to follow Christ in sacrifice and service, we walk in the power and wisdom of God.

The power of the cross is why God entrusted his work to the church. God did not entrust the work of proclaiming the gospels to the wisest, the most educated, or the religious professionals. Through the power of Jesus Christ, the most important tasks of the Kingdom are entrusted to the most ordinary men—but men who deny themselves so that Christ may be proclaimed. Unity in the church comes from dying to ourselves and focusing our energies and attention on our Savior. Unity comes from actually caring about unity with God. If our goal is simply to get along with one another, whatever the cost, then we will drift away from God and, eventually, each other too. But if our goal is pleasing God and proclaiming Christ, then we will get along with one another, too.

The Corinthians had been enriched in all wisdom and knowledge (1:5). So have we. This congregation harbors many talents, much knowledge, and much skill. But what matters most comes not from what we have but from what Christ has given us; looking at ourselves, but at the cross of Christ.


PRAYER
INVITATION


NOTES
1. Piper, John. “Christian Unity and the Cross: 1 Corinthians 1:10-17.” Online sermon text and notes at http://www.desiringgod.org.
2. Loader, William. “First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary. Epiphany 3. Online notes at http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/home.html.
3. James 4:6. Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version.
4. Verse 10. See Stedman, Ray. “Behind Divisions.” Online sermon text at http://www.pbc.org.
5. Chrysostom, John. “Homily III.” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series I, Vol. XII. Online copy at http://www.ccel.org.
6. Neuchterlein, Paul. “Epiphany 3A.” Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary. http://girardianlectionary.net/year_a/epiphany3a.html.


(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Decently and In Order

1 Corinthians 14:26-40
Sunday morning, February 4, 2007
Buena Vista, Virginia, Milton Stanley

Because we’ve been away from 1 Corinthians for several weeks, let’s review what we’ve learned so far in this letter. When we study this week’s passage about prophecy and speaking in tongues, let’s remember that the Corinthian Christians seem to have been infatuated with speaking in tongues. And can you blame them? Wouldn’t you be fascinated with the Spirit-given ability to speak in a language you had never learned? But they were even more infatuated with something else: themselves. They were proud of their Spiritual power, their worldly wisdom. Their pride and knowledge had puffed them up, but the Corinthians were worldly, and so they were in fact small children in the Kingdom of God.

Remember that the Corinthians were a church with a number of problems. In Churches of Christ we strive for the simplicity of the first-century church. Certainly the early church didn’t have all the centuries of trivial additions and harmful tradition that we fight against today. Yet the church of the first century was far from pure of error. The Corinthians were split into factions, prone to bringing lawsuits against one another, plagued with sexual sin, disorderly in the worship, and confused about gender roles—much like the North American church today.

The immediate context of this letter is Paul’s discussion in chapters twelve through fourteen about prophecy and tongues. At the beginning chapter 14 we saw that prophecy is superior to tongues because it edifies believers and convicts the lost. Prophecy does not necessarily involve predicting the future but rather is proclaiming the deep truths from God. It’s not exactly the same as preaching today, but that’s the closest equivalent we now have. In the passage we’re looking at this morning, Paul wants to make sure the Christian assemblies in Corinth are proper and orderly in three areas: prophecy, tongues, and women. The overall theme is expressed in verse 26: “Let all things be done for building up” [1].

Building up, or edification—let everything done in the church be for building up the Kingdom of God. OK, that’s simple enough. But here’s a question. Why does Paul describe the purpose of the assembly as edification of each other rather than worship of God? No one would argue that building up is important, but isn’t worshiping God more important than serving each other? Well, if we’ll take a moment to see what’s being said here, not only will we better understand Paul’s message to the Corinthians, but we’ll gain an insight into interpreting all the Bible.

First of all, it’s understood—to Paul, the Corinthians, and Christians today—that the assembly is where Christians gather to worship God. Remember that 1 Cor. 14:25 mentions worshiping God in the assembly. And here’s the point that helps us understand not only this passage but many other passages in the Bible: Paul is addressing an immediate concern in both verses 25 and 26. It should be clear from Paul’s emphasis on edification that the Corinthians were not doing a very good job of building one another up! So that’s what Paul reminds them to do: edify. Paul is not trying to write a theological monograph here. He’s trying to help Christians in a specific place solve a specific problem. Remembering that truth helps us interpret Scripture. It also helps us see how the truths for the Corinthian congregation are truths ones still benefit the church today.

The focus of these verses reminds us of our two main emphases and obligations in the Kingdom of God. First is the obligation to love and worship God. Jesus told us loving God with all our being is the first and greatest commandment (Mt. 22:36-38). Of course, Jesus was quoting a Word given by God on Sinai (Dt. 6:5). Paul echoes that emphasis in verse 25 when he mentions unbelievers falling down and worshiping God. Second is our obligation to love and edify one another. Jesus called loving our neighbor the second great commandment (Mt. 22:39-40). That commandment, too, goes all the way back to Sinai (Lev. 19:18). Paul reminds the Corinthians of that commandment when he tells them that their worship must edify one another. We’ll look at a few particulars of that edification in a moment. First, though, let’s face perhaps the most controversial element of this chapter in our day.

In verses 34 and 35 Paul declares that “the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.” That’s clear enough what he says. The more difficult question is, what does Paul actually mean? What exactly does keeping silent involve? Before we try to answer that question we need to acknowledge up front that our North American culture is very unwell right now on matters of gender. That cultural sickness affects everyone’s judgment in one way or another, whatever our position on these types of matters may be. Let us then, approach the text humbly as well as faithfully. Let’s remember that cultural biases are just as real in our day as they were in Paul’s. Some of what Paul has to say may be directed strictly to first-century Corinthians, while much of what he tells them should be shaping our behavior as well. The challenge is telling the difference.

For example, when Paul says that the women should “keep silent,” is he using a figure of speech or idiom? Consider our own day. When we tell someone to “Be quiet,” what exactly do we mean? Depending on the context, that simple little sentence could literally mean, “Stop talking so much,” “Stop talking so loudly,” “Stop talking about a certain topic,” or “Stop talking at all.” How literally, then, do we take “keep silent” in 1 Cor. 14:34? Should women be allowed to preach and teach in the church? To say “Amen” at the end of a prayer? To speak before and after services as they’re entering or leaving the building? To lead prayer in the assembly? To sing in church? To shuffle in the pew?

Christians have interpreted these two verses in a wide range of ways through the years. Some simply take the passage literally—that women are simply not to talk at all during worship services. Some limit the silence to judging prophecies as in verse 29. Some think the command is for women to worship in an orderly way and stop chattering to one another during the assembly [2]. Others think the instructions here are purely cultural and have no bearing on Christians today. With so many widely varying interpretations, how can we be sure which is correct?

To arrive at a valid interpretation, we must look at passages like this one with the logic of God’s Kingdom. We must be thoroughly familiar with the values of the Kingdom as revealed in the Word and the church. As a first step, we must look at the rest of Scripture and the practice of the church. And what do we find when we look at the contexts of 1 Corinthians in particular, the New Testament in general, and the history of the church?

Well, we know that Christian women did prophesy in the first-century. First Corinthians 11 suggests that women prophesied and prayed in the assembly, and we read unambiguously in Acts 21 that Phillip’s daughters were prophetesses. As Acts 2:8-9 tells us, God declares that “even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.” Yet we also know that men and women have different roles in the church. The same chapter in 1 Corinthians that suggests women used to pray and prophesy tells us without any doubt that the male is head of the female (1 Cor. 11). What’s more, Paul tells Timothy that he does not allow a woman to teach or have authority over a man (see 1 Tim. 2:8-15). We also know from history that the church made it through its first nineteen centuries without women preachers or elders.

Beyond these general principles, I’m not sure we can say much more about exactly what Paul meant. There’s a name, by the way, for the view that men and women have different roles in the church: complementarianism, from the idea that men and women’s roles are different but complementary. That is not a popular view today in many circles. Modernity has produced what is known as the egalitarian view—that men’s and women’s roles are equal. But because women’s authority has typically been exercised in the private sphere of the family while men’s has been in the public spheres of business and politics, the egalitarian view is based on an underlying devaluation of femininity. Some will say it is unjust that women are not allowed to be preachers. One could equally as respond that it’s unfair that men are not allowed to be mothers. You might say that one is physically possible while the other is not. But simply because something is possible doesn’t make it acceptable to god.

Keeping a couple of principles in mind can help us better understand the complementarian view. First, even though our roles are different in the church, in a more important sense men’s and women’s natures are the same. We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We all stand in need of a Savior. All Christians are accepted as living members of the Body of Christ, in which there is no male and female, for we are all one in Christ (Gal. 3:28). What’s more, the pattern of men and women being essentially the same but functionally different reflects an important characteristic of God. In John’s gospel we see that Jesus and the Father are essentially one (Jn. 1:1; 10:30), yet Jesus was subject to the Father (Jn. 12:49-50) [3]. Jesus was sent not exalt himself, but to deny himself all the way to the cross. Christians are to do the same (Lk. 9:23), and that applies to men as much as to women.

The concept of denying ourselves lies at the heart of Paul’s admonition for worship to be done decently and in order (1 Cor. 14:40). Worship is not about expressing ourselves or satisfying our own needs. It’s about glorifying God and edifying one another. In this section Paul gives a list of activities that should be done in a proper and orderly manner. Not all Christians should be speaking in tongues at once (v. 27). Believers should speak in tongues only if there is an interpreter (28). Christians should consider, distinguish, or weigh what is said (29), and those prophesying should take turns (30-31). To those of us used to a single sermon at the worship service, Paul’s instructions for two or three to prophesy at one meeting may seem a little unusual. But keep in mind that the Corinthian church was plagued by big-shot syndrome. Paul is simply telling the Corinthians not to allow anyone to monopolize the meetings by talking on and on. At the same time, no one can honestly say he couldn’t stop talking because he was swept away by the Holy Spirit (v. 32).

Notice, too, that there’s nothing in this passage about Christian worship being buttoned-down and solemn. Worship should be orderly, but not hung-up! There’s nothing wrong with becoming excited, laughing, or generally showing emotion in church. In fact, the glimpses of Christian worship we find in the New Testament are far from buttoned-down. The disciples at Pentecost were so emotional that some folks thought they were drunk. Paul wanted men to lift up holy hands in worship (1 Tim. 2:8). Even in this chapter, we have a picture of folks falling on their faces to worship God (14:25). So let’s be sure not to write too much into the words of this chapter. Simply put, Christian worship should be orderly, rather than wild and chaotic, because God is not the Lord of confusion, but of peace (v. 33). In that way, the worship assembly should reflect the character of the Kingdom of God.

Before they received this letter from Paul, the Corinthians may not have realized how unlike the Kingdom their assemblies really were. Pride, it seems, had damaged relationships, reputations, and even their worship gatherings [4]. But a well-ordered assembly not only allows Christians to worship more freely, it is a reminder of God’s own order. He is, after all, the one who orders the sun, moon, stars, oceans, and all life. He is the creator and sustainer of heaven and earth. And he loves us. The old order all around us, where sin spoils everything, is passing away. And this world order is being replaced by the new order of the Kingdom of God. When the church gathers together, we are called to reflect and proclaim the order of that new Kingdom.

And that’s good news—not only that each of us individually can be saved, but that God is renewing all creation (2 Pe. 3:13; Rev. 21:1). So when we gather for worship, let’s remember the one who lived and died for us and for all creation. Let’s die to ourselves, and in the process, truly live.

PRAYER
INVITATION

NOTES
[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Biblical quotations are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.
[2] Ray Stedman. “When You Come Together.” Sermon text online at www.pbc.org.
[3] Wayne A. Grudem."Wives Like Sarah, and the Husbands Who Honor Them: 1 Peter 3:1-7." In Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. Wayne Grudem and John Piper, 194-208, 499-503. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991. Book on-line at http://www.bible.org/docs/splife/chrhome/manwoman/chap10.htm.
[4] David J. Hoke. “Doing Church: The Place of Order in Worship.” What’s a Church to Do? Studies in First Corinthians, 34. Sermon text online at http://www.horizonsnet.org/sermons/1cor34.html.

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Spiritual Gifts and the Great Commission

1 Corinthians 14:1-25
Preached Sunday morning, December 10, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

In our journey through 1 Corinthians, we are still in a part of the letter dealing with spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12-14). But even though the immediate topic at hand is speaking in tongues, Paul throughout this section manages to turn the discussion to larger issues. In chapt. 12, for example, the Apostle used the topic of spiritual gifts to teach a lesson on the unity of the body. In chapt. 13, he reminds Christians of the centrality of love. Here, in chapt. 14, we learn about the superiority of prophecy over speaking in tongues.

By way of reminder, let's look back over the teaching in this section so far. Some Christians in Corinth apparently had the gift of tongues and had let the gift go to their heads. Spiritual gifts, given by God to edify the church, had instead become the subject of pride and one-upsmanship. The result was further divisions in the body. Paul reminded the Corinthians that the gift is not more important than the giver, God's Holy Spirit. That Spirit is love, not simply the sentimental kind, but love that changes thoughts and actions. In chapt. 14 we see how love looks in practice. And if we look carefully, we will find powerful implications for discipleship and evangelism. I urge you to carefully consider the text of this morning's lesson with me today.

The first lesson we learn here is that the gift of prophecy is superior to the gift of speaking in unknown tongues. Paul makes that point repeatedly in this chapter. In verse 1 he urges Christians to desire the gift of prophecy, and in v. 5 he tells them that he himself wishes it for them. The rest of the chapter then shows why prophecy is superior to tongues.

At this point you may well be asking why it really matters which is superior, because we don't have these miraculous gifts today in the church, right? Well, looking back through biblical history we see that miraculous gifts come upon God's servants differently in different generations. The first two centuries of the church were a time when these miraculous gifts were seen in force, but once churches began to have copies of the New Testament, these gifts began to fade from the scene. When it comes to tongues, that situation should be easy enough for us to accept. Paul speaks well here of the gift of tongues, but clearly sees prophecy as having a more important role to play in the congregation. And what is that role?

Do you see the answer in v. 3? Prophecy is given to the church for edification, exhortation, and comfort. Edification is a term meaning to build up. So prophecy is given to build up the church. Exhortation means to stir up to action. Therefore prophecy is intended to urge us on to good works. The word used for comfort here means to console the depressed and grieving. All of these qualities of prophecy, Paul reminds the Corinthians in vv. 4 & 5, are to build up the church. And while the church no longer has miraculous prophecy as in the days of Paul, we still have ways to edify, exhort, and comfort the church. The primary way the church brings that kind of edification about today is through preaching the Word of God.

God is not giving us new revelations as in the days of Paul, but today preaching takes the role prophecy played in the days of the New Testament. In fact, some modern versions of 1 Corinthians 14 translate the Greek word in this chapter not as prophecy but as preaching, proclaiming, or instruction [1]. In any case, today preaching the Word of God plays the role in the church once accomplished by prophecy.

There is an even bigger principle involved here than prophecy itself. That principle is this: prophecy is superior to tongues not for what it is, but for what it does. Let's look again at v. 3: "the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation" [2]. These results are far more important than someone flexing his spiritual muscles through the exercise of a spiritual gift. Prophecy is important for what it does. Speaking in unknown tongues is not as useful to the church because it doesn't build up the body. Unless someone in the assembly has the gift to interpret tongues, the tongues-speaker is only making noise as far as the rest of the congregation is concerned. As Paul says, it's better to speak a few words that minds can understand than ten thousand words that have no meaning to the hearers. Tongues are a vehicle for the Spirit to work, but it may not be a good way to edify the church. The lesson here, then, is that the vehicle for the Spirit's working is not as important as the results. Edification is more important than spiritual razzle-dazzle. The Lord wants the church to be edified, built up, through prophecy, preaching, or whatever means. And do you notice here that the prophecy, the building up, is directed inward, to the saints? This is not preaching or prophecy to the lost, but to the saints in the assembly. So the Apostle gives priority here not to reaching out to the lost, but to building up the saints.

On the other hand, let's look at vv. 24 and 25: "But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you." Did you catch that? Prophecy is directed to the assembly of Christians, but in the process, it may lead to conversion of the unbeliever! Remember the purpose of prophecy: edification, exhortation, and comfort. Not only do those qualities build the church, those are the qualities of God's Word that convert the lost. So even when we direct our attentions to building up the saints, the lost may still come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ.

This teaching in 1 Cor. 14 helps put the Great Commission of Mt. 28:19-20 in context. First Corinthians is directed to a group of Christians much like those in our own culture today: sophisticated, worldly wise, exposed to ideas from all over the world. And have you noticed, as we’ve made our way through the letter, that Paul never tells the Corinthians to go out and try to convert sinners? That’s right. The message is not to convert sinners, but to convert themselves. The Christians in Corinth need to come together in unity. And in the process, sinners might be saved. The Corinthians enjoyed speaking it tongues—but in doing so, they ran the risk of looking crazy to unbelievers. But if they were doing what they should—building up one anther—then visitors to their assemblies might be saved.

So Paul doesn’t tell the Corinthians to go out and try to convert the lost. Yes, he does say that tongues are for the benefit unbelievers, but he also says they are not as important as prophecy, which is for the benefit of believers. As we’ll see, it’s not that unbelievers aren’t important; it’s simply that the edification, the building up, of believers is more important.

Do we have the same emphasis in the church today? Do we keep the emphasis where it belongs? Remember, 1 Corinthians is written not only to Christians in Corinth, but to us as well (1 Cor. 1:2). Have we made building up the church a priority over bringing in the lost?

If we’ve read our marching orders, of course, we know that we need to do both. We call those marching orders The Great Commission. Let’s have a look at that Commission, from Jesus’ words in Mt. 28:19&20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

That’s the church’s mission in relation to humanity: to baptize new disciples and teach them to be obedient to everything Jesus commanded. In other words, we are to bring in the lost and build up the saved. That’s the two-fold message of the Great Commission.

The problem is, we Christians naturally prefer the semi-Great Commission! And what is the“semi-Great Commission? Simply this. Left to our own devices, we will naturally gravitate to fulfilling only one of the “folds” of our two-fold mission. Christians are commissioned to bring in the lost and build up the saved, but if we're not careful, we'll favor one over the other. The problem is that following only half of the Great Commission is like buying half a horse. Can you imagine wanting to save money so badly that you buy only half a horse? In a way, it makes sense. We put the harness on the front of the horse, and it’s the back end that gives us most of the trouble. So let’s save money and buy only the front end! The problem is that half a horse won’t pull a load. And pretty soon, it stinks!

Sad to say, all too often a congregation wants to follow only half of the Great Commission. In fact, most congregations lean one way or another. Either they focus too little effort on saving the lost or too little on building up the saints. This kind of whop-sided work is as natural as gravity.

Some congregations, for example, are good at going and making disciples. They baptize soul after soul. But if they don’t build up those disciples, teaching them to follow Jesus, then pretty soon the congregation becomes arrogant. Discipleship becomes simply a matter of “We’re in, but you’re out. You’re lost, but we’re on God's good side.” Congregations that turn too much attention outward always become numbers-oriented. Why always? Because if a church doesn’t care to build up the saved, then they don’t really love the ones that are being saved. Baptism becomes not a way to build disciples, but to build attendance. And if we aren’t building up souls, teaching them to obey Jesus’ commands, then we’re not really making disciples.

And that stinks.

Some congregations are good at teaching one another. The members work hard on being better and better Christians, more and more obedient to Jesus Christ. They may develop a very comfortable fellowship, and they may work hard on keeping it that way. But all their attention is focused inward, on their own behavior, and there is no evangelism. Those congregations become smug, thinking they are better than the lost. Church becomes “our thing,” a little mafia. The problem is, if a church isn’t going out to the lost and baptizing the lost into Christ, then they don’t really love them.

And that stinks.

But when congregations fulfill both aspects of the Great Commission—to baptize new Christians and edify the saints, then we are following our marching orders. And here’s the wonderful lesson we learn from 1 Cor. 14: when congregations truly edify one another by the Word of God, the lost are saved. That’s right. As Paul says in 1 Cor. 14:24-25, when edification abounds in the assembly, the lost may well end up worshiping God. That’s why building up the saints is more important than impressing the lost. I can hear it now: “Milton says we don’t need to evangelize.” No. If we don’t seek the lost, then we have only half a horse. But if we edify one another, the lost will see the Holy Spirit among us and glorify God.

There’s another important lesson in these verses of 1 Cor. 14. Evangelism and discipleship are done by congregations. We need to ground new Christians in the Word to build them up. But where does that take place? In the assembly of believers. Yes, it’s important that Christians pray and study the Bible on our own, but where does the building up of Christians take place? In the assembly. There's no way around this process; it's part of the enculturation into the Kingdom.

Imagine if football teams worked the way some congregations try to do church. Let’s say the Oakland Raiders draft a rookie quarterback, fresh from college. Does Art Shell go to that quarterback and say, “Welcome to the NFL! Here’s the play book, now go back to your house and practice patterns in your front yard!” No. They take that young man and throw him into practice with the rest of the team. Sure, there’s an orientation for rookies, but the real learning comes when the rookie starts hanging with the big boys, when he learns what it means to scramble and pass and get hit by a 350-pound defensive tackle in the National Football League. Football is a team activity.

So is discipleship. It’s significant that the only time winning the lost is mentioned in 1 Corinthians is in the context of the spiritual power of a whole congregation. A whole congregation! Conversion is not primarily the job for the preacher or the brother with lots of notches in the cover of his Bible. It’s a congregational mission!

Are we edifying each other in such a way that the lost see us and want to praise God? Do we spend more time building each other up or tearing each other down? The way we build up the church is through edifying, exhorting, and comforting one another. Edification doesn’t arise out of pride, bragging or big dog syndrome; not from criticizing our brothers and sisters when they’re not around; not with blaming the preacher or anyone else for our problems; not with grudges and the silent treatment.

But with love. When a congregation begins to love so that our words and our works are sincere, then we can begin to build the Lord’s church like he intends. That’s what the Corinthian church needed, and that’s what this church needs. We already have the gifts to do it. Remember how 1 Corinthians begins?
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 1:4-8).
“In every way enriched in him . . . not lacking in any spiritual gift.” Remember, too, that Paul is not talking here strictly to the Corinthians, but also to “all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2).

So if we already have those gifts, how do we use them effectively? By trying harder? No. God’s Word seldom if ever calls us to work harder. The only way we can learn to use God’s gifts to his glory is through repentance: through admitting our own weakness and God’s power in the Holy Spirit. Repentance, remember, is not simply turning from our sins at conversion. It’s the process of conversion that goes on throughout the life of Christians as we learn more and more to observe everything Jesus commands. It’s turning to his wisdom, his power, his strength. It’s remembering the message Paul preached day-in and day-out for eighteen months in Corinth: Jesus Christ and him crucified.


PRAYER
INVITATION

NOTES
1. See, for example, the New English Bible, the New Testament in the Language of Today, the New Testament: An American Translation, the Twentieth Century New Testament, and The Message.
2. Scripture quotations here are from the English Standard Version.

(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley

A Still More Excellent Way

1 Corinthians 13
Preached Sunday morning, November 19, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

In this section of 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul is dealing with pride among the Corinthian Christians. Throughout the letter we can find hints of the various ways they were proud of themselves. In chapter 12 it was their spiritual gifts. The first century church was blessed with miraculous gifts such as prophecy and speaking in tongues, but they were far too proud of these powers they had simply been given by God.

Pride is one of the easiest sins for Christians to fall into, and one of the toughest to overcome. For one thing, the standard antidote for pride doesn’t work for Christians. I’m talking about the “You really ain’t nothing special” argument. Yes, Christians really are something special. We’ve been adopted into the royal family and given God’s own Spirit. Some of what the Corinthians were proud of was clearly evil (such as sexual sin). Others were good in and of themselves. Knowledge is good, but the Corinthians used knowledge as an occasion for puffing up and dividing. Prophecy is good but must be kept disciplined and in order. Tongues are good but should be used for building up, not showing off. Paul therefore counters their pride with a little perspective. In response to their pride in knowledge, Paul gives them Jesus Christ crucified. Here, when they are puffed up over their gifts, Paul reminds them of the ultimate gift from God: not spiritual performance, but love.

Paul’s solutions to the Corinthians’ problems are by no means unique. Whenever the church is in trouble, a little perspective and a little love usually do the trick. But if we look carefully at this chapter, we may find that neither of those two qualities are what we would naturally expect. First of all, love is more than a sentiment or emotion. Love is the big picture because, rightly understood, it summarizes the Word of God. As Paul told the Galatians, “ the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”’ [1]. Or, as he told the Romans,
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Rom. 13:8-10)
We can focus all our attention on strictly following all the hundreds of instructions in the Bible and still miss the point of discipleship. We can focus on obedience and still run the risk of being lost, or we can love God and each other and so truly fulfill the law.

When a lawyer asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was, our Savior pointed to love:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Mt. 27:37-40)
Jesus’ words were nothing new. God had revealed these same truths to the Israelites through Moses more than a thousand years earlier (Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18). God has always called his people to love more than anything else.

With our modern-day understanding of what love is, this exaltation of love may not make a lot of sense. Why is love the foundation of discipleship? What about repentance? What about right doctrine? What about godly actions? Well, in God’s eyes, it seems, loving hearts are more important than either words or actions. That’s the whole thrust 1 Cor. 13:1-3; without love, all the good and even miraculous works we may do are worth nothing. Paul’s strong words in these verses bring to mind Jesus’ teaching in Mt. 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” [2]. And what is that will? To love God and our neighbors. Did we prophesy, cast out demons, do mighty works? God really doesn’t care what we do if our hearts are empty of love.

Jesus explained what love in action looks like in his parable of the sheep and goats (Mt. 25:31-46). For every soul it will one day be fire or feast, depending on how we put love into action: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, healing the sick, visiting the oppressed. As Jesus showed us in Mt. 7, it’s love in our hearts, not our grand works, that he cares about. But as he reminds us in Mt. 25, love does take action in good works.

Love is not simply a friendly feeling or a pleasing emotion. It’s the heart of the Word–in the sense of both Scripture and Savior. In other words, it’s about as important as you can get—so important, in fact that the Apostle John was so bold as to say, “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). In our culture, of course, “love” is a frivolous word. We associate love with desire, sexuality, and especially sentimentality. But if we’re paying attention to what the Bible says, particularly here in 1 Corinthians 13, we find a radically different idea of what love really is.

Love is much, much more than a sentimental emotion. It’s more than “Kumbaya” Christianity or “Precious Moments” faith. In fact, real love is not at all sentimental. Sentimentalism makes love out to be about niceness rather than gentleness, acceptance rather than kindness, cowardice rather than patience. Sentimentalism is deadly to the church. It means looking not for service and truth to God, but for a good-vibe feeling, for everybody to just be happy and get along. But who says discipleship will make us feel good and happy? Do you think Paul felt good and happy being flogged? Was Jesus all warm and cozy while he hung bleeding on the cross? Love takes action, and sometimes that action isn’t very pretty. At the same time, love is not all will and work, either. Love will warm our hearts. Notice how many of Paul’s descriptions of love involve peacefulness? If we really love our neighbor as ourselves, we’ll have peace like nothing else could give us: not cheap and fragile but deep, world-changing peace.

As Jesus told his disciples, by our love the world will know we belong to God (Jn. 13:35). God’s love is an identifying characteristic of Christians. Everybody, saint or sinner, can have warm sentiments. Radical jihadists get along with one another and feel warmly toward their friends and family. Gangsters can be very affectionate toward their own. But not everyone has the Holy Spirit of God. It is the Spirit Christians each receive at our baptism (re. Acts 2:38) and the Spirit of God among us when we gather (Mt. 18:20; Jn 14:17). Love is fruit of that Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Christians don’t receive God’s love just by acting patient, kind, etc. Yes, we do need to act like we love one another. But love doesn’t come into our hearts through pretending. That’s hypocrisy. Love is a gift from God, and it wells up from the heart to energize us for good works.

At this point, a reasonable question is how Christians can cultivate love in our hearts and in our midst. Of course, acting loving isn’t enough, but it may be the first step in priming the pump, getting the habit of love going. If we are truly the church, we have the loving Spirit of God among us. But we may simply be out of the habit of letting that light of that Spirit shine. So we must begin by giving up old habits and begin acting loving. Love rises up from the heart and enlightens our actions, but sometimes we have to stop blocking the flow.

Second, let’s remember that love is the first fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). We can’t force our hearts to love any more than we can force a piece of fruit to grow. Love’s the greatest fruit the Spirit grows in our hearts. The Corinthians seem to have been distracted by the razzle-dazzle of miraculous gifts. But they needed to learn that love trumped the gifts of prophecy or tongues or any other gift of the Spirit. We don’t talk much of the Holy Spirit in Churches of Christ. Maybe that’s because other Christians group think about the Spirit entirely too much. But let’s not let the excess of others lead us to neglect the Holy Spirit. As the Corinthians Christians needed to remember, God doesn’t give the church his Spirit just so we ourselves can be saved, or to give us power in spiritual manifestations. The Church has been given the Spirit not only to protect and build us up, but to serve God and our neighbor.

Putting God’s love into practice is not automatic. It’s something we have to learn and practice. There’s no shortcut to discipleship. Paul’s words here about love are really a description of Christian maturity. And there’s no secret to it. Maturity arises from the same kinds of things we do from the very first steps of discipleship: studying the Scriptures alone and in the community of faith, worshiping God in the assembly, giving up selfish and sinful practices, beginning to do good for others. Those may be boring activities, but they bring about very unboring results: joy, peace, patience, kindness, and most importantly, love.

Love is the preeminent quality of God himself. Therefore when the world looks at a loving church, they don’t merely see a bunch of flawed disciples. In a very real sense, when the world looks at a church that loves, they see God. And what they see has the power to change the church and the world. Therefore, let us pursue love. That’s what the Apostle calls us to do. And as our Lord Jesus told us, what we pursue, we’ll find (Mt. 7:7). Christians, let’s pray to live what we proclaim. Visitors, there’s still time to join the quest.

PRAYER
INVITATION

NOTES
1. Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.
2. Loader, William. “First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary: Epiphany 4.” Online study at http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/CEpEpiphany4.htm.

(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

One Body, One Spirit

1 Corinthians 12
Preached Sunday morning, November 12, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley


Here in chapter 12 we enter a new section in 1 Corinthians. The Apostle Paul begins writing about spiritual gifts, especially the gift of miraculously speaking in unknown tongues or languages. And as Paul does with all the topics he discusses with the factional congregation at Corinth, he addresses the topic with an eye to unity in the body of Christ. As we’ve seen throughout our study, the Corinthian Christians had trouble with divisions over favorite teachers, over sexuality, over suing one another, over idolatry, and, worst of all, over the Lord’s Supper. Some of the very issues that should have brought Christians together were the subject of contention. Sad to say, these topics are at times the subject of contention today.

Paul begins this section with a reference to "spirituals," a term usually thought in this case to refer to spiritual gifts but one equally as descriptive of spiritual persons. Paul reminds the Corinthians that not all spirituality is necessarily good: "You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led" [1]. In other words, we can be led by false spirits or by the Holy Spirit, and each has its various fruits. The words here about either cursing or affirming the lordship of Jesus are not a formula but a guide. They remind us that true spiritual gifts are received and exercised under the lordship of Jesus Christ. Paul goes on to make some important points about these gifts: where they come from, what they’re given for, and how each gift and each member fit into the body of Christ.

In verses 7-11 we learn that spiritual gifts are given by the Holy Spirit as the Spirit chooses. The gifts Paul describes here wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues, and interpretations are more than merely natural abilities. God certainly intends us to use our natural abilities, but what we see here is much more than what comes to us naturally. They are gifts from God to his people, with supernatural power, for the common good of the church. They may not be razzle-dazzle displays, but they are more than we would have available without our faith.

Looking back over the history of the church, it seems that miraculous gifts dwindled and went away from the church around the end of the second century, about the time the New Testament took shape. We should not be surprised that miraculous gifts passed from the scene, because the Holy Spirit blows where it will (Jn. 3:8), and throughout the history of God’s people, miraculous gifts have waxed and waned. But simply because we don’t enjoy a profusion of miraculous gifts today doesn’t mean God has quit gifting is people. Again, our gifts today may not have the razzle-dazzle of first-century gifts, but they are nevertheless real and powerful. We may not feel much different at our baptism, but we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).

Spiritual power is much more than natural ability. Of course, if we refuse to acknowledge we have that power, neither we nor anyone else will see it in our lives. At the end of 1 Corinthians 2, the Apostle refers to all Christians as spiritual, as having received the Holy Spirit. But many of the Corinthians were walking in the flesh rather than the Spirit [2]. If, like the Corinthians, we live according to the spirits of the world around us, we are not accessing or manifesting the power of God’s spiritual gifts. Paul wanted all Christians to walk spiritually. When we do, we can accomplish God’s work with God’s power.

Notice in today’s passage that spiritual gifts are given to every Christian [3]. As Paul tells the Corinthians, To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. . . . All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills (1 Cor. 12:7, 11). Every Christian is gifted by God for the good of the church. As we’ll see, we’re gifted not to hold onto the gifts, but to exercise them.

The Spirit gives gifts as he wills not necessarily as we would like. We may not particularly desire the gifts or roles God gives us. Moses didn’t want to be a prophet; Saul didn’t want to be king. God may equip us to do work we would rather not do. But all Christians are called to do the Lord’s work with his power and his authority. And if the power is not our own, then we have no reason to be proud of it [4]. It’s important to remember, however, that although spiritual power comes from God, it is a power he has entrusted to his people.

And when we are given this incredible power from God, we are equipped to serve the body in the way God has prepared us. Paul says,
To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. (1 Cor. 12:8-10)
The gifts mentioned here are not an exhaustive list, but merely examples. How do we know? We know because Paul lists spiritual gifts elsewhere (e.g. Rom. 12, Eph. 4), and the lists are not identical. In fact, spiritual gifts are as different as the needs of the church. They also cover widely different functions, from speaking knowledge to working miracles.

The length to which Paul goes in writing to the Corinthians about spiritual gifts suggests that they were having trouble with this very topic. For one thing, it seems many of the Corinthian Christians didn’t appreciate one another’s gifts. Reading between the lines of Paul’s letter here, it seems the Corinthians assigned too much value to speaking in tongues. So Paul goes on to remind them that every gift is given to serve the body. What good would a body be that were nothing but eyes? Nothing but hands? Nothing but feet or heads? Each member has a function in the body.

God has given his people a variety of gifts and wants all those gifts used. The temptation for every Christian is to play up the importance of our own at the expense of the gifts God has given others. I know a retired pipefitter, a man who faught with the Marines in World War II. God has blessed this brother with an ability to see all of life in light of the cross. Even in his eighties, he continues to be a help to many brothers and sisters in Christ and even to unbelievers. He knows the Bible and sees life in the light of the Word. But he's not much of a public speaker. Although he often has spiritual insights to offer, it may take him a while to get those ideas out of his mouth. One of the preachers at this brother's congregation didn't have much patience with this older brother, and showed it during mid-week Bible study whenever this brother stuttered and struggled to get his ideas across. Other members of the congregation, in turn, didn't have much respect for the preacher, because as an adult he had never done any work other than preach and live off the contributions of the saints. The congregation had been blessed with gifts from God, but the members needed to appreciate not only their own, but each others' gifts.

Each gift is given to the church for edification. We may have the role of facilities maintenance, cooking, or greeting visitors. We may be writers, musicians, teachers, scholars, or administrators. We may be gifted in nurturing children, encouraging, helping, or serving where needed. Each one of us is gifted in different ways, and we must never despise a fellow child of God for being gifted differently, or for using them in ways other than we think they should. The Apostle Paul addressed this very issue in his letter to Christians in Rome when he wrote, "Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand" (Rom. 14:4). We have each been gifted by God and charged to be fruitful for the Kingdom. And as someone said long ago, not one of us has been given the gift of fruit inspector.

Christians often ask, "How do I know what gifts God has given me?" That's a good question, because if we understand our gifts we better understand our mission. People have come up with ways for helping Christians discover their gifts. In my office I have a "Spiritual Gifts Inventory," and I'll be happy to let you take it and see what it says about your life. But it isn't necessary to take any kind of test to find out what our gifts are. The church has plenty of work before us. The best way to discover our gifts is to jump into that work! The more we involve ourselves in the work of the church, the more our gifts begin to emerge and manifest themselves. So if you see something that needs to be done: do it! That's where we discover our gifts.

And when each member is doing the work God has given him or her to do, then all parts of the church are working together for the common good (vv. 7, 11). The Corinthian Christians were treating spiritual gifts as they had teachers: as the subject of positioning for prestige, of one-upsmanship [10]. They failed to see that the gifts were given for all, and that the gifts themselves are not more important than the giver [11]. But if Christians do use our gifts for God, we will have unity in the Body of Christ. The exhortation here is that there be no division in the body, but that Christians care for one another (vv. 25-27). Spiritual gifts are given for the unity of the body, but the Corinthians' focus on the gifts themselves and personal power had led to disunity [12]. They were supposed to be depending on one another, but instead they were trying to outdo each other with their spiritual gifts [13].

Unfortunately, spiritual gifts can still be a point of division in the church. Christians argue over whether or not today God gives spiritual gifts outside the Bible while others argue over the relative values of the gifts. The foot wishes everyone would help carry some of the load, while the eyes wish they didn't have to do all the spotting. The fact is, though, God gives each member gifts for the good of the whole body. And as we'll see in the next chapter, he also gave us love to appreciate the gifts he's given every other member.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we Christians are bound together as a body just as organic and interdependent as a physical body. When one Christian suffers, we all suffer; when one is honored, we're all honored. On the one hand, this is a picture of how the church should be. On the other hand it's a picture of how the church is, whether we act like it or not. One member's sickness is the church's sickness. The sin of one member is the sin of the body. Coldness between members of the church is like a numb, unconscious body. Does this congregation need to wake up out of numbness and unconsciousness? I pray we begin to act like, not a collection of parts, but a body and a healthy one!

So every Christian is gifted by God. You have the power, I have the power to benefit the church, to do the wonderous work God has set before us for the common good of the whole body. And we are a body. When one of us suffers, we all suffer. But we all benefit when one obeys.

And here's a final thought. The Body of Christ is the only place we can really be who God created each one of us to be. We live in a culture of self-sufficiency and individualism. We may want a relationship with God, but perhaps only with our own personal Jesus. But God does not call us to have a generic relationship with Christ where he and I are on equal terms. God calls us into a relationship in which we are one part of something much bigger than ourselves, and in which Christ is the head over all. That's the church the only place to be in fellowship with Jesus Christ, our Savior, our Head, the one one who died and then rose alive to win our forgiveness and equip us in power for whatever comes our way.

PRAYER
INVITATION

NOTES
1. 1 Cor. 12:2. Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version of the Bible.
2. Thomas Constable, Notes on 1 Corinthians, 2004 ed. Available online at www.soniclight.com, 126.
3. Bob Deffinbaugh, "Spirituality and Spiritual Gifts Part 2 (1 Cor. 12:4-11)," online study at www.bible.org.
4. Deffinbaugh.
5. Constable, 127.
6. William Loader, "First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary: Epiphany," online study.
7. William Loader, "First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary: Pentecost," online study.
8. Deffinbaugh.
9. Ibid.
10. Constable, 127.
11. Loader, "Epiphany."
12. Loader, "Pentecost."
13. Deffinbaugh

(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley