To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Preparing Ourselves to Judge Angels

1 Corinthians 6:1-11
Preached Sunday morning, August 27, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

After spending several weeks examining the overall problems of factionalism and poor leadership in the Corinthian church, we’ve begun looking at some of the specific sins of the Corinthian Christians. Last week we read about a particularly bad case of sexual immorality, and next week we’ll look at another of its manifestations. But right here in the middle of Paul’s discussions of immorality we have a section on lawsuits among believers. In one sense, the discussion of lawsuits seems like an interruption from the theme of immorality. Why does Paul include that subject here?

For one thing, Christians taking other Christians to court is a serious offense. Along with the sins of immorality, suing one another is a terrible testimony to the world. And, like the situation we studied last week, lawsuits among believers is a failure not only of those directly involved, but of the whole church to address the problem in-house. The fact that one Christian dares to sue another in public law courts shows just how much sin has taken root in the church.

Paul’s response to the situation is, first of all, a slap in the face of the Corinthians’ arrogance. They are a proud people, big-city sophisticates puffed up with a sense of their own knowledge and worldy wisdom. The Apostle uses fairly harsh language to show them the absurdity of their sin. And at the same time he reveals a profound image of the church in showing all Christians what our testimony should be, who our testimony should be, and how we ought to live our lives as the church.

The Apostle begins by emphasizing the shame that falls upon all the church when one Christian sues another. Notice the strong choice of words: “Do you dare...,” “Do you not know...” Ten times in his letter to the Corinthian, and six times in this chapter, Paul uses the phrase, “Do you not know...” That question is a challenge to the so-called wisdom the worldly, fleshly Corinthians believed they possessed [1]. It also reminds them what a serious offense suing one another really is.

Why is it such a serious offense? Because one day Christians will judge the world, and angels. This is the “how much more” argument sometimes used by Jesus. If Christians will judge angels in heaven and the whole world, how much more should we be able to arbitrate earthly disputes among one another today. God is preparing his church to one day judge the world. How will we ever be ready if we are unable to resolve trivial matters now? The Corinthians presumed to judge Paul (4:3-5), but they cannot even resolve their own problems. In the mean time, the world around sees Christians bickering and fighting. Naturally, the world will see their conflict and conclude: That’s who Christians are.

And so the whole church is already defeated simply by the fact that two Christians are fighting each other. Two believers who are supposed to be united in Christ can’t keep from fighting on matters of personal property and so are divided against one another. Even Satan knows better than to do that (Mt. 12:24-27). How much more should the church be able to handle its own disputes? Even the least qualified Christian ought to be better able to judge these disputes than anyone outside (1 Cor. 6:4). As Paul reminded the Corinthian Christians earlier in the letter, “the foolishness of God is wiser than men” (1:25). And even if the Christian never obtains justice, it’s better to be cheated than to fight it out in a public way that brings shame upon the church.

It’s always a defeat when the saints of God fight each other in court. Now we should not take Paul’s words here as a total prohibition against going to court. Paul himself appeared in Roman court several times to defend himself against charges arising from his proclamation of the gospel. What the Apostle is speaking against here is Christians taking their grievances to open court. The church should not air its dirty laundry in front of the world simply for the selfish benefit of a few.

A family member of mine once worked at a small business owned by a rather disfunctional family. For some reason this family was divided into factions with the dad and his sons on one side and the mother and daughters on the other. After the father died, the whole community came to learn just how disfunctional this family really was. The mother and daughters sued the sons over the conditions of the old man’s will. Flesh and blood, immediate family, dragged each other to court and began speaking to one another through lawyers. What a shame that a family was split over money and worldly business. How much more shame falls on the family of God when we fight one another in court.

Exercising good judgement in disputes requires wisdom. When should Christians turn the other cheek and when should we take action? When is it time to encourage a wayward brother, and when is it time to throw him out of the assembly? The church needs the deep-down wisdom of the Word and the Spirit to help us in these situations (Deut. 6:6; Ps. 119:11). Once we’re in the heat of conflict, it may well be too late to discover the wisdom God has in store for us. We have to take in the wisdom of God before we need it so that its principles and values shape us when we do. We do know one principle from the Word that Christians in the U.S.A. need to keep in mind: there are no rights in the Kingdom of God.

That truth may be hard for Americans to swallow. We want both our rights and our salvation. But that’s not the way it works in the Kingdom of God. We’re so fond of our rights that we may not realize the that whole idea of rights is not a biblical concept. Yes, the word “rights” has crept into some twentieth and twenty-first century translations, but you won’t find it in the words of Jesus, Paul, or the other apostles. God is certainly concerned with qualities like justice and mercy and righteousness. He wants his people to be concerned about those things, too. But rights simply don’t enter the picture. Rights are all about what others owe us. Discipleship is about what we owe others—especially God.

I read recently about a row at a church business meeting. Some issue had caused a division among members of the congregation, and at one point a man stood up. “All I want is my rights!” he said with indignation. “I just want my rights!” After seeing the one brother’s impassioned plea, an older saint made this reply: “Your rights, brother, is that what you want, your rights? Why the Lord Jesus didn't come to get his rights. He came to get his wrongs, and he got them” [2].

Wrongs are what we sign on to as the church. Some folks have the mistaken idea that the church is a self-improvement society: a place to get my life on track, a way to live more “abundantly,” a means of getting what’s coming to me. But the church is not here to improve our lot in the world. In fact, after we have become Christians, we may find ourselves sicker, poorer, more heavily oppressed, at least in the short term. Many Christians have found that after their baptism the Devil runs away for a short time but that he soon returns with a powerful counterattack. Let’s not forget that the devil pulls the strings in this world (Jn 12:31; 14:30: 16:11). When you’re lost, the Devil wants to keep you happy. But when you’re saved, you can be sure he’ll come after you (1 Pe. 5:8). The Bible makes it clear that we should expect trouble for the simple fact that we are Christians: “Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in XI will be persecuted” (2 Ti 3:12). And God won’t always bail us out of trouble this side of the Resurrection. Sometimes it really is true that “no good deed will go unpunished.”

Yet it is the way Jesus told us to live. We are to go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, deny ourselves, take up our cross daily and follow Jesus (Lk 9:23). So for Christians it is often better to be hurt than to hurt the cause of Christ. We are on a mission to proclaim the Kingdom and to glorify God. We have orders from the King to do right. But for Christians there are no “rights” in the Kingdom of God

There’s no place for wrongs, either. Paul begins this section by blistering those bringing the lawsuits against other Christians. Their selfishness caused them to fight over money, power, and standing. As the Apostle tells them, it would be better to be hurt than to damage the testimony of the church (1 Cor. 6:7). That is, however, only one side of the problem.

The other side is those doing things to be sued about. Some of those in the Corinthian church were defrauding and doing wrong to their fellow Christians (6:8). They were numbered among the Christians but were living like pagans, sinners. They were called Christians but were committing theft, adultery, idolatry, and other sins. Now, in verse 8, Paul turns his fire on them. If his words to the whole church are harsh in this chapter, his words to these wrongdoers are absolutely withering: there is no inheritance for you. He’s addressing the “Lord, Lord!” folks, those who call on the name of Jesus but don’t do the will of the Father to turn away from sin (Mt. 7:21).

Christians are saved by faith, not worthy behavior, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for obedience. A Christian may still sin on occasion, but if he simply goes on sinning as he did before he was saved, then clearly there is no true repentance in his life. And if there is no repentance, there is no salvation, no place in the Kingdom. To be Christians, we have to have a new mind toward sin. We have to renounce it, give it up, abandon following the spirit of sin and live by the Spirit of God. Paul gives a few examples of the kinds of behaviors Christians must abandon: both homosexual and heterosexual immorality, idolatry, adultery, thieving, drunkenness, greed, and speaking ill of others. If we’re honest with ourselves, everyone of us has been guilty of at least one of those sins. As Christians, we should be in the life-long process of repentance, of ridding our lives of every vestige of sin. We sometimes fail in our efforts to live holy lives—and some of us fall more often than others. But if there is no repentance in our lives, if we simply go on sinning, then we have no redemption and no inheritance. That’s the bad news—what we’ve done.

The good news is what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. As Paul told the Corinthians, "you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God" (6:11). That's what we receive when we are joined to Christ in the church. Those words about washing and sanctification recall our baptism into Christ, where we joined with Christ in his death and resurrection to eternal life (Rom 6:3-4). We've just seen the need for repentance—for taking on the mind of Christ and giving up a mind committed to sin. And of course, without a life-changing faith in Jesus Christ, all our actions are worthless. Thus Paul ends this section with a reminder of the wonderful grace with which God has blessed his people, and of the new life we have in Jesus Christ our Lord.


1. Bob Deffinbaugh, "Courting Sin (1 Cor. 6:1-11)," online study at
2. Ray C. Stedman, "The Wrong Way to Right Wrongs," online sermon text at

(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley

Deliver Such a One to Satan

1 Corinthians 5
Preached Sunday morning, August 20, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

Up until this point in 1 Corinthians we have been looking primarily at factionalism and Christian leadership. We’ve seen that faithful leaders in Christ don’t operate on their own power but on God’s. Faithful leaders don’t build personal followings or puff themselves up. Faithful leaders are butlers and underlings who give glory to God.

Now, in chapter five, we see what happens to a congregation without good leadership. In short, that church falls into sin—and not only the individual sinners suffer, but the whole congregation. In the case of the Corinthians, Paul begins by addressing three types of sin: incest (ch. 5), lawsuits (6:1-11), and prostitution (6:12-20) [1. Notice that two of these deal directly with sexual immorality—as we might expect in a city known for its temple to the goddess of fertility.

This chapter begins with an example of both incest and adultery—a rather extreme example both for the first-century Christians and for those in our own day and time. What does such an unlikely case have to do with the church today? Simply this: the worst danger in this incident is not so much from the man as from the church. The congregation in Corinth had become lax toward sin, and as a result the church was rotting from the inside. So this chapter shows us how to take sin seriously, and it gives us a glimpse of how church discipline should work.

As we see here, there is a time, place, and context for Christians to judge sin—and we must! What was happening in Corinth was a sin so gross that even the Gentiles wouldn’t do such thing. A man has taken up with his father’s wife (5:1). Literally, Paul says the man “has” his father’s wife—a verb signifying a continuous relationship. And rather than condemn such sinful behavior, the Corinthians are apparently proud of it (5:2-6). Someone has likened the maturity of a church to the quality of an automobile. Naturally, we’d rather drive a well-maintained car than a clunker. Some of you may have noticed I’ve stopping driving my old Honda and am using an equally old but less-warn Buick. I prefer the Honda, but that car had lots dents and rusty places, the clear coat had begun to peel off the hood, and the seats are stained and torn. When I drove through downtown Lexington I used to think how that thing just isn’t a “preacher’s car.” But the Buick, that’s a fine looking preacher’s car! Now what does all this car talk have to do with the Corinthian church? Simply this: spiritually speaking, the Corinthians were driving wreck of a church—and they were proud of it [2]! It seems they understood something about the freedom of God’s grace, but nothing of the duties it brings. One of the Corinthian Christians was committing a sin that even the pagans didn’t do, and the church was proud.

Does that sound anything like our day? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard those in various denominations talk about “unconditional love” or “unconditional acceptance” when it comes to sinners in their midst [3]. Let’s say someone calling himself a Christian practices a sinful behavior, and rather than simply calling the behavior sin, members of the person’s church talk about the sinner’s need for unconditional love and acceptance from other Christians. In our day that kind of thinking is prevalent on the issue of homosexual relationships, but we can find it in many other contexts. All the talk of unconditional love sounds very spiritual, and of course there is some truth to it. Far too many Christians cause their love for others to be dependent on the other person’s behavior—“What have you done for me lately?” Conditional love is especially harmful when parents use it on their children, and it can turn a family or a church into a favor exchange club. On the other hand, if we focus so much on unconditional love that we forget love’s stern side, then before long we allow the most sinful behaviors to go unchallenged. The example of the Corinthian church is a case in point. Yes, the Corinthians should love the man who is living with his father’s wife. But the man is under judgement (5:3), and now it’s time to take action.

Those of you who have been paying attention to this series on 1 Corinthians may ask, how does this talk of passing judgement jibe with Paul’s warning in 4:5 against judging other Christians? That’s something worth exploring. In our day, for example, the most often repeated words of Jesus may well be, “Judge not” (Mt. 7:1). Now those are the very words of the Lord, so we’d better give them some attention. But let’s be clear: if “Judge not” is all we know about judgement in the church, then before long we’ll be in as bad shape as the Corinthians. In 1 Cor. 4:3-5 Paul is warning the Corinthian Christians against judging the quality of another Christian’s work and the sincerity of his effort. Those are things only God knows. But here in ch. 5, the topic is clear sins—incest and adultery—that are already judged evil in God’s Word [4]. The issue is not so much judgement as obedience. If our church shies away from being obedient about matters that the Word of God has already judged, then one day we’ll be the ones debating whether or not to allow women or practicing homosexuals into the pulpit.

So what is a church to do with entrenched sin, when someone continues to sin and seems proud of it? The instructions here are clear—throw out the sinner. Now this chapter contains a passage that is much debated among interpreters: What exactly did Paul mean when he wrote for the Corinthians “to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (5:5)? Theories abound, from the idea that the man was to be physically killed to the concept of sin simply taking its toll on him through the years. There’s no way to be sure exactly what Paul had in mind in those words, although it hasn’t stopped many interpreters from arguing their case. People naturally like to spend time debating hard verses like these (and the Bible has plenty of them). To a degree, these efforts to better understand the Bible are good, and they help keep us reading and studying. On the other hand, it’s more fun to debate verses we can’t fully understand than to simply obey the ones we do. We can spend all day discussing what it means to deliver a Christian to Satan, but the action that needs to be taken is very plain in verses 2 and 13: kick the man out of the church!

We commonly call this kind of action disfellowshipping. It used to be much more common than it is today in the Lord’s church. When I preached in Tennessee I once spent part of an afternoon going through the congregation’s file on disfellowship letters. As many churches had done, after disfellowshipping a man or woman (usually for sexual sin), the elders of the congregation would send letters to nearby congregations explaining the reasons for disfellowshipping. These letters went back for years, but they rather abruptly stopped twenty or so years ago. That was about the time a woman out West won a lawsuit against the elders of her congregation for sending disfellowship letters regarding her refusal repent of sexual immoral behavior. At that church in Tennessee, as well as congregations all over the country, disfellowship letters soon became rare. It seems it doesn’t take much outside pressure for Christians to go soft on sin.

Ignoring sin is easy, but the church is called to confront it. In Mt. 18:15-21, Jesus spells out the process of how Christians are to do this in a series of escalating steps from individual confrontation through congregational actions. How much stronger the church would be if we followed that pattern—less gossip, less sin, more love and tough brotherhood. The church would never shrug off sin. Correction hurts, but it’s necessary, as Paul explains in his parable of the dough, to keep sin from multiplying and infecting the whole congregation.

Sometimes a Christian’s behavior deteriorates to the point where disfellowship is called for. The overall picture of that process is fairly simple: treat that person as an unbeliever. Now, while the procedure is clear enough, putting it into practice correctly can be tough. Unless the person causes serious disruptions, he or she should be allowed to continue attending worship assemblies. A tougher question is exactly what Paul means when he admonishes the Corinthians not to eat with a sinning brother (5:11). Some take this to refer to the Lord’s Supper while others see it as fellowship meals or even social eating. Certainly there are times when a brother’s sin is so pervasive that we need to stay away from that person entirely so we don’t fall into it with him.

But here is where we need to make an important distinction. Whenever the church is forced to expel a sinning brother, it must be done with a right attitude. There is never a place in the church for attitudes of superiority and aloofness. Neither Paul nor Jesus Christ himself treated sinners in such a way. It’s terrible to see Christians delighting in others’ sin. I’m talking about those in the church who love to tell about their brothers’ and sisters’ failures. Gossiping apparently gives them something to talk about and makes them feel superior. But those kind of people are rejecting God’s love. As we’ll see in 1 Cor. 13:6, “Love...does not rejoice in wrongdoing.” What should our attitude be when a sinner falls? Look at what Paul says in 5:2. We should mourn! It ought to break our hearts when a fellow Christian sins. We ought to be full of sorry.

Why are our attitudes on this matter so important? For one thing, if a sinner goes to the point where he needs to be disfellowshipped, the whole congregation has failed [5]. Disfellowship is an action of last resort, and a whole series of steps would have to fail before the situation deteriorates to that point. In every case where a Christian falls, the whole church suffers. Throwing out a brother or sister shows that all of us have failed to provoke that Christian to love and good works (Heb. 10:24). For another thing, sin is not usually isolated in a church. As we’ll see, the Corinthian living with his father’s wife is not the only Christian committing sexual sin. Sinful action arises from a sinful attitude, and the whole church at Corinth needed an attitude adjustment. Hearts right with God and mature obedience to Christ are the goals of discipleship (Mt. 28:19, 20). And to have those kind of hearts it’s simply fundamental to realize our own weakness in the face of God’s holiness. God’s nature is to forgive and restore those who repent (Ex. 34:6-7). Let’s not forget that the goal of church discipline is not punishment, but repentance (see 2 Cor. 7).

Let’s also keep in mind that Paul’s words here on judgement are limited to behavior among Christians. We are never called to judge the behavior of those outside the church. In a letter before 1 Corinthians (0 Corinthians?) Paul had told the church at Corinth not to associate with immoral people. But he doesn’t mean the lost. He’s talking about so-called brothers who practice, on and on, the kinds of sins described in 1 Cor. 5:11—sexual immorality, greed, idolatry, slander, drunkenness, swindling. Do any of those make you nervous? Notice that greed and bad-talking are right there with idolatry, sexual sin, and theft. Now why are Christians told to stay away from brothers who persist in their sins? For one thing, the sins may contaminate the church like yeast in dough. For another, there’s no help for a Christian who rejects the grace of God. The writer of Hebrews said,
For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. (Heb 6:4-6)
Remember, it’s very easy to abuse the practice of disfellowshipping. Some of us here are familiar with such abuses. The church had better be very sure before it takes such a drastic step. But when the action is called for, we sin if we don’t do it.

Even so, Christians have to continue associating with sinners outside the church—even those whose sins we find especially bad. See the list in 1 Cor. 5:10? We have to do business with sexual sinners, greedy people, robbers, and idolaters. Those are precisely the kind of people Jesus sat down and ate with, and they’re the kind of people Jesus came to save. They’re the kind of people we need to invite into our assemblies and into our homes. I’m tired of hearing preachers and other Christians ranting and raving about how sinful the world is, as if they’re shocked by the latest sin reported on television. Complaining that the world is sinful is like complaining that afternoons are hot in the summer. That’s the way the world is.

Our task as Christians is not to expose gross sin in the world but in the church. That doesn’t mean we go on witch hunts on matters of opinion or performance. I went to school with a man whose wife was threatened with disfellowship because she wasn’t doing enough personal Bible studies in the evenings. Christians are not to judge one another’s’ performance or sincerity. We are not to judge the salvation of a brother who struggles with sin and falls, even if he falls over and over (Mt. 18:22). But when someone willfully, repeatedly, and shamelessly engages in behavior judged sinful in the Scriptures, he is already under judgement. The church simply needs to act.

As we’ll see tonight in our study of Psalm 58,. God takes sin and judgement seriously. God is holy and expects his people to be holy, too. The church is a holy nation, a royal priesthood (1 Pe. 2:9). Our task is not only to preach for convicting the world of sin, but to act as mediators between God and mankind. That’s why it’s critical for the church to always, always, always proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). The cross is necessary because God takes sin seriously [6]. The cross is the place where Jesus paid the price for our sin. We didn’t pay it; Jesus did. In all this talk about the need for expelling evil, we need to keep something clear: Christians aren’t holy because we behave ourselves; we behave ourselves because we’ve been made holy. And the only way we’re made holy is by the blood of Jesus Christ.

That’s the glorious good news of salvation: Jesus Christ crucified. Because we all sin (Rom. 3:23), we fall short of God’s standard of holiness and glory, and we deserve only death. Yet God’s gift of grace through Jesus Christ is to all who really believe in Christ so that by faith we repent and take on Christ in baptism (Rom. 6:3-5, 23; Acts 2:38). Christ is our Passover lamb, sacrificed for our sins (1 Cor. 5:7). By living day by day in humility, by living lives of holiness and gratitude to the one who makes us holy, week keep the feast of joyful redemption. It’s a gift beyond measure. Let’s live like we believe it.


1. Thomas L. Constable, Notes on 1 Corinthians, 2004 ed., online commentary at, p. 44.
2. Bob Deffinbaugh, “Church Discipline: Taking Sin Seriously (1 Cor. 5:1-13), online study at
3. See Deffinbaugh
4. See, for example, Lev. 18:8; 20:11; Deut. 22:30; Acts 15:20.
5. Deffinbaugh.
6. Ibid.

(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley

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

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Servants and stewards of God's mysteries

1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Preached Sunday morning, August 6, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ

Last week, in chapter 3, we saw how the Corinthian Christians were troubled with strife and jealousy. Paul called them “fleshly” (3:3). He wanted them to grow up into the mind of Christ, but they were still babies (3:1-2). That’s what any Christians are when we think of a congregation as “our” church and so divide up and contend for control. Paul reminded the Corinthians that the church, the people, the assembly of believers, is the temple of God (3:17), and that God alone causes the church to grow, to be built up (3:6). That temple is built strong when we keep our focus on God. It’s built up when we become fools to our own wisdom (3:18) and proclaim not ourselves, but Jesus Christ and him crucified (2:2). Church leaders—evangelists and teachers—who would build on that foundation of Jesus Christ may use various materials: wood, straw, jewels or precious metals (3:11-12). Paul mentions those materials as metaphors for the quality of teaching and edification that leaders bring to the church.

Here in chapter 4 Paul continues his discussion of those who evangelize and teach the saints. What he reveals is not only a lesson for church leadership in every congregation, but an important encouragement for every Christian. Let’s remember what we’ve just learned in chapter 3: that as Christians, everything is ours in Christ (3:21-22). Yet if our minds are fleshly, then our thinking is futile (3:20). It’s ironic, really. A fleshly mind can look highly spiritual, but only when we cast worldly thinking aside do we really begin to have the mind of Christ. So let’s begin our study of 1 Cor. 4 with Paul’s example for preachers and teachers. Specifically Paul is speaking here about himself, Peter (Cephas), and Apollos, but the truths he reveals are valid not only for Christian leaders, but for all Christians.

Paul begins by telling how the Corinthians ought to view him, Peter, and Apollos. Now, in terms of Christian leadership, that’s pretty strong company. During Jesus’ earthly ministry, Peter had been one of his closest friends, and in the early days of the church, Peter often acted as spokesman for all the apostles. Paul, although he had not been a disciple before the Resurrection, had been a Pharisee, a diligent student of the Scriptures. What’s more, Paul had received a special vision and commission from the Lord, and he was the chief apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15; Rom. 11:13; 1 Tim 2:7). Apollos, although not one of the inspired apostles, was a Jew from Alexandria, a world-famous center of learning and scholarship. He was a fervent leader, eloquent speaker, and competent in the Scriptures (Acts 18:24-25). These three men were the best the church had to offer. And how should the church think of them? As servants and stewards of the mysteries of God (4:1-2).

Servants and stewards—let’s think about that for a minute, because the words Paul uses here are full of meaning. That first word, translated servant or minister, means a helper, a subordinate to a more important person. A word that captures the shades of meaning here might be underling. The next word, steward, means someone who takes care of something that belongs to someone else. The word literally means household manager. In our day, we might say butler. Ministers and stewards—underlings and butlers—do you see how those descriptions take the emphasis off of where the Corinthians had been putting it? The Corinthians had been formed rival groups in the name of each one of these teachers (without the consent or approval of those teachers). Each group no doubt considered themselves to share in the prestige of whichever leader they chose. So Paul has already told them that he and Apollos are nothing (3:7), and here he chooses words to describe their ministry that takes the emphasis off them and places it squarely on the One they’re working for.

That’s a lesson every servant ought to remember. There is no greater privilege than proclaiming the Word of God. That applies to the man who speak to millions through television, to the one who speaks to dozens from the pulpit, or the man or woman studying with a single friend in the home. All who preach and teach the Word of God are to a greater or lesser degree servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. And if we dare to take on that responsibility, it’s vital we remember whom we’re serving. It’s all too easy to consider evangelism “our” work, to fall into the dangerous trap of pride: “Look how many people I’ve led to Christ! Look how many I’ve baptized!” No matter how hard we work in the name of God, let’s never forget who does the real work. We present the Word, but God does the work in hearts. Our mission is to be worthy of the trust God has put in us as his underlings.

If churches are organized in line with examples in the New Testament, we can benefit from an arrangement that discourages some of the kinds of problems facing the Corinthians. For example, in Churches of Christ, we don’t call our preachers Father, Reverend, or Pastor. Jesus specifically cautioned us not to call earthly men father (Mt. 23:9), and no one in the Bible is called Reverend except God (Ps. 111:9). Pastor is the role of elders or overseers. A preacher may also be an elder, and preachers typically fill the teaching role of elders. But churches in the New Testament were never led by a single elder but by groups of elders. The books of Acts, 1 Timothy and Titus give us the best pictures of this arrangement. Even when a congregation is being led by a single evangelist, it must be working toward having elders (Titus 1:5). Of course, simply having the right organizational structure won’t save Christians from proud or arrogant hearts. Notice that Paul doesn’t take issue with the Corinthian’s leadership structure. He takes issue with their attitudes.

The Corinthians, it seems, had been taking issue with Paul. And see how Paul responded? He’s just told them that he puts a small value on himself, and now he does the same to their judgment against him: “But with me it’s a very small thing that I should be judged by you or any human court” (4:3). Notice that he didn’t say he ignores them. There are two mistakes Christians can make when dealing with our critics. The first is to ignore them completely (they might be right, after all). The second is to get too wrapped up in what they say [1]. Paul sets a good example for any Christian, especially those who teach and lead a congregation. If we don’t listen at all to our brothers and sisters in Christ, then we’re arrogant. We are part of one body, and the Holy Spirit is at work in the congregation in ways he’s not in us individually. If we don’t pay any attention to criticisms from our fellow Christians, then trouble will follow. But if we pay too much attention, it will tear us apart. In my office I have a framed quotation from Dr. Bill Cosby. It says, “I don’t know the secret of success, but the secret of failure is trying to please everybody.” I keep that as a reminder, because when we serve others it’s easy to begin craving their approval. That’s natural, but it’s not Christian. As Paul said, “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” You can’t please everybody (sometimes, it seems, you can’t please anybody). So live to please God.

I read an example recently of an old preacher who helped a younger preacher learn this lesson. The elders had called the young man in and told him that he needed to understand a few things. This was their church, not his: “We were here before you came, and we are going to be here when you leave; therefore, we expect you to do what we want you to do and not what you think you ought to do.” The younger man asked what he should do, and here’s what the older preacher said:
"Well, I would call together the elders of the church and I would say to them, 'Brothers, I think you are suffering from two very serious theological errors: "'One, you think this is your church, but this is not your church. This is the Lord's church. All churches belong only to him; they do not belong to the people; they are not a democracy owned by the congregation. Jesus said, "On this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it," {cf, Matt 16:18}. So all of us are under the authority of the Lord of this church, and it is his job to tell us what he wants the church to be, and not our job to tell him what we think it ought to be.'"

"'The second error is that you think you hired me to work in this church, but you have not. I did not come on that basis. I have joined you to share the ministry with you. I appreciate the fact that you have set me aside, and given me support from the congregation so that I do not have to spend time earning a living, but can devote my full time to the ministry of teaching and preaching. If you will not accept those terms then I will have to look elsewhere. I cannot work on any other terms because that is what the New Testament says.' [2]
Any preacher or teacher must bring the Word of God to both the saints and the lost. A man who would preach must not shrink from bringing the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). That’s why I preach texts more than topics. Preaching through books of the Bible gives the preacher less opportunity to keep preaching his pet topics again and again. By preaching through books, over time, the church hears teachings from the whole Bible. And if any preacher is doing his job faithfully, bringing the whole counsel of God, he’ll step on everyone’s toes at one time or another. Often what we least want to hear is what we most need.

None of this is to say preachers or teachers should be above criticism. “Don’t judge” is one of the most abused ideas in churches today. There is a time to criticize, a time to judge. It’s not that the Corinthians should never judge. It’s just that they weren’t any good at it! They were still spiritual babies, and they didn’t have the mind for it. As we’ll see in 1 Corinthians and elsewhere, some thing Christians must judge: sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5:3), right and wrong (1 Cor. 6), truth (Acts 17:10-11; Gal. 2:4, 2 Tim. 2:15ff). But we mustn’t have an arrogant attitude about it. The Corinthians were in essence placing themselves above Paul. It’s their arrogance that Paul is speaking against, and he reminds them that he—and all of us—are ultimately subject to God alone, the only one who can see our hearts and will one day reveal their innermost secrets.

That’s a lesson for all Christians: that God alone is our judge (4:4). Now let’s look at something that has the potential to change our lives dramatically. Notice what Paul says in the second part of 4:3? Paul is an inspired apostle who can say he has the mind of Christ. And he doesn’t even judge himself! That’s humility. That’s faithfulness and trust in God’s wisdom. As Paul goes on to say, Christians are to examine ourselves (1 Cor. 11:28) and test ourselves (2 Cor. 13:5). But we are not to judge ourselves. That’s worth thinking about.

I meet so many Christians who do try to judge themselves—whether they’re really living good enough lives to be a Christian. And they’re eaten up by guilt. They may be blessed to know God’s standards of righteousness and have the courage to look at their own weaknesses. But then they jump to faulty conclusions: “I’m pathetic. I’m worthless. If I’m this bad, I can’t really be a Christian.” It’s a terrible trap, judging ourselves, because if we’re honest we’ll all find plenty to judge! When we do give in to self judgement, one of two things usually happens to us: either we go on the offensive and begin judging others as harshly as we judge ourselves, or we just sit down in quiet hopelessness.

But here’s something to remember. We’re not qualified to judge ourselves [3]. We can’t fathom the depths of our own hearts, let alone God’s. God is the only one qualified to judge us. In the right context, we can and should examine ourselves and do what we can to live like Christians. But it’s not our job to judge ourselves, especially when, through our Savior Jesus Christ, we’ve passed from judgement to life (Jn 5:24). We may feel inadequate to be a Christian. And, if God judged us simply by who we are and what we do, we would be. But when we begin thinking and feeling that way, it’s time to see with the eyes of faith. That’s when it’s time to look to the Word for our identity. And we’ve already seen in 1 Corinthians what that identity is.

Christians, those who call on the name of the Lord, have been given grace from God (1:4). Grace is a gift we don’t deserve. We receive the gift through faith, repentance, confession, and baptism. But even those actions on our part don’t cause us to deserve God’s blessings. Discipleship is not a transaction, as if we do something for God, and he blesses us as repayment. No. Grace is a gift from God, and nothing we do causes us to deserve it. So we can give up the idea right now that we ever deserve the blessings God offers.

So what are those blessings? Everything (1:5; 3:21-23). Everything. Everything is ours in Christ: forgiveness and sanctification (1:2), peace (1:3), knowledge and wisdom (1:4, 24), fellowship (1:9), power (1:18), salvation (1:18), righteousness (1:30), glory (2:7), truth (2:13), God’s own Spirit (3:16). God has enriched us in everything. And remember this: those gifts are not to individuals alone, but to the church, the body of Christ. We find those blessings in the community of saints—as messed up as we are, that’s where God blesses us with these gifts.

And there’s one more gift, perhaps the most precious of all: God is faithful toward us—this bunch of Christians here, as messed up in many ways as the Corinthians—he will “confirm us to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:8). Whatever we feel, whatever we see when we look down into our own hearts, is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t count. The only thing that counts is what God has done, and he is faithful to keep and save weak, broken vessels like us. As Paul told the Corinthians, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come" (2 Cor. 5:17). If we have put on Christ we have forgiveness, new life, new standing. And God is holding onto his own, because he is faithful (1 Cor. 1:9). Who are you to judge yourself when God has forgiven your sins through Jesus Christ?

This whole idea of judgment takes wisdom to grasp; it’s not an easy topic. It’s very easy to misunderstand, especially if we don’t have the mind of Christ. Why does Paul speak against judging in chapter 4 and then tell the Corinthians to judge in the very next chapter? Why does Paul tell them to be foolish in one place and wise in another? Why does he praise weakness and then tell them to be strong? To really understand the answers to these types of questions we have to know God and his commandments. And knowing God takes time and effort and a heart open to the Word. It takes obedience to God, and it takes getting our spiritual hands and feet dirty, so to speak, in worship, fellowship, and service with the church.

We need a strong sense of God’s holiness. There is no place in his Kingdom for wickedness. God does judge—and it’s a fearsome thing to be under his judgement. Hell is real. But knowing God also means knowing his mercy. He’s infinitely more holy than any of us, yet he looks upon us with more mercy than we show ourselves. He isn’t waiting for us to mess up so he can prove he’s better than we are. God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and truth” (Ex. 34:6). And when we know him, there’s no greater joy than being his butler, his underling.

1. Lewis Smedes, "Coping With Our Critics," online sermon text.
2. Ray C. Stedman, "The True Minister," online sermon text.
3. Smedes.

(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley