To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Folly of Ignoring God’s Gift

1 Corinthians 4:6-21
Preached Sunday morning, August 13, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

Here in chapter 4 we come to the end of the opening section of 1 Corinthians. In his letters to churches, Paul begins by telling Christians who God is and what he’s done for the church. After laying that foundation, Paul moves on to exhorting Christians to practice godly behavior. That approach provokes gratitude and repentance, and it changed lives. As someone has said, “Right thinking precedes right conduct” [1]. In the next chapter, Paul will begin addressing issues of Christian behavior among the Corinthians. But first he has had to deal with a large, fundamental problem within the church: Christian leadership.

The Corinthian Christians are gifted from God, but as my great aunt Marie used to say, they’ve become too big for their britches. Last week we saw how the highest leaders in the church are merely underlings and butlers, and yet they are ultimately answerable to God, our only judge. As we’ll see in the following chapters, knowing how to judge rightly takes wisdom.

The Corinthians also have fallen into following personalities rather than God. The Christians and their leaders are arrogant. Paul reveals in this section that his examples of himself and Apollos are merely figures for the real culprits of division and arrogance. Paul doesn’t give the names of these Corinthian leaders, but he does show how their lives stack up to his own life and the lives of true leaders in the church. In the process Paul shows not only leaders but all Christians how to live: through faithfulness to the Word, by putting the Word into practice, and with the power it brings.

This section, in which Paul exhorts the Corinthians not to be arrogant, begins with an interesting exhortation: “that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written” (v. 6). That phrase, by the way, is a pillar of biblical interpretation and practice in Churches of Christ. Throughout the centuries the church has fallen into troubles and foolishness whenever Christians begin to go beyond what the Word of God teaches. Putting that exhortation into practice, without either doing things the Scriptures prohibit or prohibiting things the Scriptures allow, takes wisdom. Paul will deal with this issue in more detail in chapter 8.

In this context, however, the issue is not interpretation but arrogance. The Corinthian leaders are arrogant, and their worldly thinking has turned the church away from the simple gospel of Jesus Christ [2]. Paul has already reminded them that the gospel in its purest form is not eloquent or complicated. It’s simply Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). Whatever else the Corinthian leaders were teaching apparently looked good by worldly standards, but they had forgotten this most important truth: Christ crucified. Although they were educated, wealthy, and gifted, the Corinthians had drifted from the heart of the gospel and needed to relearn the basics. Although they believed they’d arrived [3], they were still babies in Christ (1 Cor. 3:1). Their situation is similar to the Christians at Laodicea: “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17) . And so these worldly little babies think highly of their own abilities and poorly of Paul and Sosthenes. The real danger in that attitude is that depending on one’s own strength and abilities is a denial of grace [4]. That’s why arrogance is such a serious sin. Paul asks the Corinthians, how can you take credit for a gift (1 Cor. 4:7)? The Corinthians are sorely deceived in taking credit for God’s work in redeeming and empowering them.

What about us? What about the church in Lexington, Virginia? Do we depend on God’s grace or on our own strength? Do we try to grasp what we can reach or what God has in store for us?

Paul’s response to the Corinthians’ attitude is both sarcastic and scathing:
Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. [5]
A boy asked me in Bible school recently what Paul was getting at in that passage. Was he calling them kings because they were able to evangelize those Paul couldn’t reach? No, Paul was calling them kings because he was mocking their arrogance. In looking at Paul, by the way, it’s good to be reminded that Christian leaders can still have a sense of humor and a hard edge. Too often Christians are solemn about all the wrong things and lack the passion we should bring to the work of the gospel. If we bring passion and truth to bear on that work, some folks will get their feelings hurt. That’s the way it should be, because the Kingdom of God isn’t about being nice and making people feel good, it’s about redeeming sinners from the world and teaching them to live by the new rules of heaven. That hurts, especially when we think we’ve already arrived.

The Corinthians certainly thought they had. Paul mocks their attitudes: these little babies think they’re kings, that they’re rich, smart, and strong. But Paul saves the worst for last: they are held in honor. Need I remind you that taking a position of honor is exactly opposite of how Christians are called to live [6]? These worldly Corinthians seem to have forgotten. Let’s not forget in Lexington. During the twentieth century Churches of Christ steadily moved to the right side of the tracks, from being a collection of mostly rural congregations low on the socio-economic scale to being groups of relatively wealthy, respectable citizens. The desire among Christians to be accepted in the wider society is perfectly natural. It’s also perfectly deadly to our souls. Paul warns Christians here and elsewhere that the world will reject Christians who live their faith, “And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12).

Let’s not forget how foolish the gospel looks to the world at large. What kind of sense does it make that the very Word of God would take on flesh and become a human being? What kind of sense does it make that Jesus was both God and man at the same time? How can Jesus’ death on the cross pay the debt for our sin? How can baptism put us in union with Christ’s resurrection? As someone has said, “Grace isn't just amazing; it's ridiculous” [7]. It doesn’t make sense to the world, and sometimes it doesn’t even make sense to Christians. The Corinthians didn’t properly comprehend grace, or else they wouldn’t have been bragging about their own strength.

On the other hand, look at Paul and the other apostles. They were willing to give up comforts (v. 11) and willing to work with their hands (v. 12). As we’ll see in chapter 9, evangelists deserve to be paid and make their living from proclaiming the gospel. But Paul and his fellow workers had given up their privileges. Isn’t that what Jesus exhorted Christians to do (Mt. 5:38-42)? The apostles endured persecution (v. 12), and when they were slandered, they didn’t run after revenge but reconciliation (v. 13). They were willing to be less than nothing to the world (v. 13). All of these things—money, comfort, prestige—were nothing compared to the glory of God’s grace. They would rather do the work of God than have all the world has to offer.

What about us? Which one are you aiming for, the world or the will of God? Which ones are this church aiming for?

Paul concludes this section by discussing further the role of a Christian leader. He calls himself a father to the Corinthians. This is not a title but a role. Paul preached and taught in Corinth for a year and a half (Acts 18:11). Paul has led them to God and worked at building them up in Christ. At this point they’ve fallen pretty seriously away. But you notice Paul doesn’t simply reject them: “You worthless bunch of sinners! You’re no sons of mine!” No, what does he do? He expresses his love for them. He encourages them not with shame but with love (1 Cor. 4:14) [8]. Are we listening?

As a little boy grows by imitating his father, so the Corinthians were to grow by imitating Paul. That’s how it works, not only for Paul, but for any Christian leader. We lead the church not only with words but with our actions. What a responsibility! Although he proclaimed the very Word of God, Paul wasn’t a man of words alone. He put the Word into action. Many Christian leaders are ineffective because they preach a good word but don’t live it. And if we don’t really live the Word, we don’t really believe the Word (Jas. 2:17, 26).

But the Word came alive in Paul’s life, to change his heart and give him the proclamation that changes others. Paul had gifts we do not have today. But he did have something we can have: the power of the Word in action. After encountering Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul never lived the same again. He found new ways to spend his money, his time. His purpose in life changed, too. And his life went from one of destroying the church to one of building it up. And he went to the ends of the earth and suffered agony to do it. Paul had the power of the Word in action. So do we when we really believe enough to live differently from the world. The Kingdom of God is not words alone, but the power of a new life, a new allegiance, a new citizenship.

Too often a church falls into saying the right words but not living the life. This church to a great extent has the right words of doctrine. But do we have the power that comes from believing? Do we show our faith is real by giving up money and personal pleasure to do the work of the Kingdom? Have we repented of being strong, respectable, important, and comfortable? Are we willing to move beyond the power of our own minds and wills to find the power of repentance and obedience?

These first four chapters of 1 Corinthians are a treasure chest of godly wisdom. They offer a precious glimpse of what God expects from Christians and how the church deals with its own shortcomings. But this letter is of little value if we look at it only historically. These Corinthians are more like us than we care to admit. If what you’ve read today doesn’t prick your heart, you probably need to take your pulse! Remember, Paul is not talking here to the Corinthians alone (1 Cor. 1:2). He’s talking to us.

And let’s remember this, too: the Corinthians’ greatest sin was the arrogance of neglecting God’s grace. And what, exactly, is grace? It’s a gift we don’t deserve. Grace is loving those who sin—and that’s all of us (Rom. 3:23). Grace is sending Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as a man (Jn. 1:14; Phil. 2:8). Grace is Jesus dying on a cross to pay the price of our sin (Eph. 2:16). Grace is allowing us to join him in faith and baptism (Rom. 6:4). Grace is the power that charges our lives (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 3:7).

Every day we are choosing to live either by grace or by our own power. And the one we choose will determine what kind of disciples we become, either like the Corinthians or like the apostles. Will we be babies pretending to be kings, or underlings in service to the King who shares with us the glory of his domain?

1. Bob Deffinbaugh, "Follow the Leader (1 Cor. 4:1-21)," online study.
2. Deffinbaugh.
3. Ray C. Stedman, "A Father in Action," online sermon text.
4. Deffinbaugh.
5. 1 Cor. 4:8-10. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.
6. See, for example, Luke 14:10.
7. Jared Wilson, “The Scandal of Grace,” weblog post.
8. Stedman.

(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley


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