To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Monday, October 23, 2006

All to the Glory of God

1 Corinthians 10:14-11:1
Preached Sunday morning, October 22, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

In our study of 1 Corinthians we’ve now come to the conclusion of a long section on liberty and love. The Apostle Paul began this section in chapt. 8 with a discussion about meat sacrificed to idols. Sure, Paul says, idols are nothing, and it really means nothing if someone has sacrificed meat to one of these non-existent gods. But at the same time it would be better not to eat meat at all rather than to cause a less-informed Christian to think communing with idols is acceptable. In chapt. 9 Paul used himself as an example of denying one’s self for the sake of the gospel. At the beginning of chapt. 10 Paul warned the Corintinthians to beware lest they fall.

The section we’ll be looking at today has two main parts. In 10:14-22 the Apostle addresses the group we might call the liberated Christians, those who have thought the matter over logically and know that there is nothing really wrong with meat simply because it’s been sacrificed to an idol. To this group Paul talks about idol meats in the context of relationship to God and warns the group to flee from idolatry. In 10:33-11:1, Paul speaks primarily to the weaker brethren who think the meat itself is somehow contaminated. Here the argument is framed in terms of the consciences of the meat eaters and their fellow Christians. As the Word of God often does, Paul's words probably offended those on both sides of the argument. But Paul’s teaching offered a way through a controversy that was harming the church. The church today would do well to pay attention both to Paul’s method of handling the controversy and the underlying principles it reveals.

Notice how this part begins? “Therefore, my beloved, free from idolatry.” Let’s look at one point right off the bat: the surprising way Paul addresses the Corinthian Christians. Consider the way these Christians have treated Paul. They’ve questioned his apostolic authority and broken into factions (chapts. 1-4), they’ve arrogantly asserted their so-called wisdom (chapts. 1 &2), they’ve approved of sexual immorality (chapts. 5-7), and they’ve joined in feasts dedicated to false gods (chapts. 8-10). Yet the Apostle calls them “my beloved.” Let’s think about that for a minute. Even as he corrects them for their wrong attitudes, Paul is beginning to show them something about love that he will teach them more fully in chapt. 13. So as we look over this section, let’s remember Paul’s basic attitude toward his erring brethren.

Paul’s words here clearly tie back to chapt. 8. After going far afield, with discussions of the Exodus, sports, and Paul’s own apostleship, he comes back now with a simple warning: flee from idolatry. There’s irony in Paul’s words in v. 15: “I speak as to wise [or sensible] men.” As we saw earlier in the letter, many of the Corinthians thought they were wise when in fact they had a lot to learn. Well, if they think they’re wise, let’s see if they can understand this teaching. Paul is speaking primarily to the intellectually strong group here, the ones who understand the emptiness of idolatry. The problem is that they may know doctrine, but they’ve missed the heart of the matter when it comes to eating meat sacrificed to idols.

And what is the heart of the matter? Communion. Communion is a term we avoid in Churches of Christ, but it's the word Paul uses in verses 16 to talk of the body and blood of the Lord's Supper. Communion is at the heart of table fellowship in the name of a god. The question is, With whom will he have fellowship, Christ or demons? In the Old Testament the Israelites learned that meals were a special way to commune either with false gods or the one true God (i.e. Dt. 32:21; Is. 65:11). As Jesus himself remind us, you can't serve two masters (Mt. 6:24). The problem with eating at feasts dedicated to idols was not the meat itself but the implied fellowship with false gods. Christians have a table of divine fellowship, and it has nothing to do with the pagan gods worshipped in Corinth. The Corinthian Christians appear to have known better than to keep idols of stone, wood, or metal in their homes, but some were nevertheless at risk of practicing idolatry in their hearts and actions.

Just as we've been studying on Wednesday evening that true obedience begins in the heart, so on the other hand idolatry also begins there. The prophet Samuel revealed that truth a thousand years before Christ when he told King Saul, "For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness as idolatry" (1 Sam. 15:23). The Apostle Paul also equated idolatry with the heart when he wrote to the Colossian Christians about "sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry" (Col. 3:5) [3].

Are you confident that this congregation would never commit idolatry? Well, before becoming too smug, bear in mind that following the Exodus, the whole nation of Israel fell into idolatry. They had God himself visibly in their presence day and night, and only two men out of hundreds of thousands resisted the allure of disobedience and idolatry. Before we begin patting ourselves on the back for not having physical idols in our lives, consider the temptations to set up idols in our hearts.

False gods have not gone away; they only go by different names. None of us bow down to statues of Aphrodite, but are you guilty of logging onto a computer and looking at pornography on the Internet? Do you allow yourself to be titillated by images on movies and television? We no longer worship the Olympian gods, but how many of us have made idols of our favorite entertainers or sports stars? We don't offer burnt offerings to Mammon, but has our infatuation with earning, spending, and hoarding money become idols in our hearts? Do we place love for our biological families before love for God and his church? If we have, that is idolatry.

Do we think of ourselves more as Americans than as Christians? That too is idolatry. Down the street from this congregation a church has placed a flag pole in front of their building. Two flags fly on the pole: the Christian flag (whatever that's supposed to be) and the American flag. Which one holds the place of honor on top of the pole? The American flag. What does that say about a church's priorities? And don't think idolatry of the nation is a denominational problem. In a congregation where my family used to worship, Independence Day fell one year on a Sunday. One of the songs that day was "America," and as we began to sing, one of the older sisters, an elder's wife, jumped to her feet. Most of the congregation followed. How strange that our congregation had no trouble sitting on our backsides for "Stand Up for Jesus," "Holy, Holy, Holy," or other songs of praise to Jehovah, but we felt the need to stand at attention for a patriotic hymn.

We can even commit idolatry in the name of the church. Human beings, every one of us, have been created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-28). Yet we are always tempted get the image backward: to view God as no more than a super-human, someone created in our image. As someone has said, "Satan is the master counterfeiter" with the ability to make evil look good to eyes untrained in spiritual discernment [4]. Trying to reshape God in our own image is idolatry of a very serious nature, especially as we can fall into it without even knowing we're doing so. That's all the more reason to know who God really is as revealed in Scripture.

Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, Christians choose every day between the tables of demons and the table of the Lord. It's very sobering to read about the Corinthians, because the so-called stronger brothers don't seem to have been aware the danger they faced from communing with demons. They didn't realize the choice before them, but they were choosing nevertheless. So are we.

In the next section of today's passage (10:23-30), Paul reminds the Corinthians that "all things are lawful." Here Paul repeats what he told them in 6:12-13. In the earlier case Paul used the example of food in making his case against sexual morality. Here he refers to food in making a case against idolatry. In both cases he urges Christians to flee temptation. In this section Paul specifically addresses the weaker brethren who believe there's a problem with eating the meat itself. Paul tells them the problem is not with the food but with the effect. The food itself is fine, as Paul reminded Timothy: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4-5). The problem with these idol feasts is not the food but the danger of making a weak brother stumble back into idolatry.

Christians are not to avoid going out and associating with non-Christians (1 Cor. 5:10). And when we do, Paul tells those of weaker consciences, simply don't ask if the meat you're eating has been sacrificed to an idol. It won't hurt you even if it has been. However, if someone brings up the fact that it has, then he or she probably has a problem or wouldn't have mentioned it [5]. In that case, it's better to do without so that no one could reasonably think that a Christian supports the worship of pagan gods. Although Christians were entitled to eat the meat, it was better not to eat it than to cause others to think that a Christian supported the worship of false gods.

What about today? The particulars are different, but what kinds of privileges should Christians renounce today in order to glorify God and distance ourselves from idolatry? Perhaps our use of alcohol or tobacco cast a poor light on our commitment to Christ. Perhaps it's R-rated movies and other dirty entertainment. Perhaps we are showing off our money in conspicuous ways---jewelry, fancy cars, expensive watches---while allowing our brothers and sisters in Christ to suffer. Yes, some of these things are not bad in and of themselves, and if everyone had a fully understanding mind we wouldn't have to give some of them up. But what privileges and pleasures are you willing to give up for the sake of someone else's soul?

The irony in the case of the Corinthians is that the stronger brothers are right; there's nothing really wrong with meat sacrificed to idols. But in this case, being right is not as important as being loving [6]. What good is it for one set of Christians to be right in their privileges while another group falls into hell? The brothers with superior knowledge need to add superior sacrifice to their lives for the sake of their brethren. How can we have communion with our brothers and sisters if our lives drive them away from Jesus Christ? Right relationships---with God and one another---are as important as right doctrine. And both are the gospel [7]. That's not to say truth is not important; we must never compromise the truth simply to get along. But if we say we have the truth and don't have communion with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we've missed something of first importance.

But if we are willing to sacrifice our privilege and pleasures for the sake of the Kingdom, then we bring glory to God. Somehow Christians in our culture have come to view discipleship as self-fulfillment. Preachers are sometimes guilty of presenting the gospel in those terms: "become a Christian and your life will be full of fun, happiness, and prosperity!" Wrong. Christian discipleship is not about self-fulfillment; it's about self-sacrifice (Lk. 9:23; Rom. 12:1). We may have entered the Kingdom looking for self-fulfillment, but there comes a time for Christians to grow up and begin honoring God not by what we take but by what we give up.

Paul reminds the Corinthians that activities as ordinary as eating and drinking have the potential to bring glory to God. If Christians eat and drink in ways that not only fill their bellies, but take into account the souls of others, then they bring glory go God in the simple act of taking part in a meal. What about today? If eating glorifies God, what else can? How about loving our families and spending time with them? How about working our jobs honorably without whining or complaining. How about doing the everyday work of the Kingdom: visiting the sick, calling the hurting, sending cards and notes of fellowship. Those last activities are especially important, and it's good to see the congregation making and organized effort to visit and call other members. In taking part in that kind of service, you have a credibility that I cannot. It's easy to say the preacher is just visiting and calling because it's his job, but when we help one another beyond what is expected of us, we give glory to God.

Christians glorify God in large and small ways when we give up some part of our money, our time, and our pleasure to help those who cannot repay us. It's one thing to do good when we expect to be patted on the back. It's another when we serve those who cannot repay us, any more than we can repay Jesus Christ for buying our salvation on the cross.

What have you done today to glorify God? What have we as a congregation done? Have we worshiped God not only in five acts of worship, but in spirit and in truth? Have we glorified God by proclaiming the truth in love? Have we done the work of the Kingdom without falling prey to the idols of arrogance and self-importance? If so, then we have forsaken the idols that threaten to rule our hearts, and we have glorified God.

We in twenty-first century North America live in a culture of self-indulgence. We have a level of prosperity unequaled in any other place or time on earth. We have more things and more privilege than any other culture I've ever heard of. Yet all around us, hundreds of times a day, we are bombarded with advertising persuading us to covet more, to buy more, and to indulge our every whim. The Devil is such a proficient sneak that most Christians today seem to be as unaware of the dangers of idolatry as the first-century Corinthians were. Can we learn from their mistakes before it's too late?

Flee from idolatry. That means we worship the only true God. It means we don't seek our own advantage but rather pursue advantage for our brothers and sisters in Christ for the glory of God. It means denying our own benefits and privileges, taking up our crosses daily, and following Jesus Christ.


1. Bob Deffinbaugh. “Table Talk (1 Cor. 10:14-33). Online study at
2. Ibid.
3. Unless otherwise noted, quotes are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.
4. Tucker, Dannette. “Idols and Idolatry Today.” Online article at
5. Deffinbaugh
6. Lawrence Richards. The Teacher’s Commentary. Victor Books, 1987. P. 851.
7. Ibid.

(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley

Saturday, October 21, 2006

So That We Would Not Crave Evil

1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Preached Sunday morning, October 15, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

Over the past thirty-five years ago I've noticed an interesting phenomenon about marriage. As the number of divorces has exploded in this country, the extravagance of weddings has grown in similar proportion. Weddings have become grander and grander productions while marriages have become bigger and bigger wrecks. That trend goes to show it's not the wedding but the work that determines the quality of a marriage. Marriages, in fact, are very much like the race described by the Apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 9:24-27. It's not how well you start that wins the race; it's how well you run. That's the lesson Paul was trying to teach the Corinthians in the first century, and it's a lesson we need to understand today. And taking our time working through 1 Corinthians on Lord's Day mornings is a good reminder that some races require endurance.

We are still in a long section (1 Cor. 8-10) on denying ourselves for the sake of our fellow Christians. In chapt. 8 Paul warned the Corinthians against eathing meat that had been sacrificed to idols. In chapt. 9 Paul explained how he himself chose to give up his own privileges--finances and a family--for the sake of his fellow Christians. Chapt. 10 is a conclusion of that section. Unlike the original writings of the New Testament, modern editions of the Bible contain chapters and verses. Those chapters headings can make this section of the epistle appear to be several different sets of teaching, but they are all one. For managability, we're looking at chapts. 8-10 in four different sermons, but there is only one main idea running through all three chapters. But our modern practice of dividing the Bible into chapters and verses can be misleading. Modern man has taken a knife to the Word, too often slicing verses here and there and using them totally out of context. Christians today need to learn, like the prophet Ezekiel, to swallow not bits and peaces of the Word, but the whole thing. So let's see how Paul's words in 1 Cor. 10:1-13 fit into the big picture of 1 Corinthians.

Paul begins here to summarize his argument. Writing to Christians in the first century A.D., the Apostle brings to mind the wandering of the people of Israel some 1400 years earlier. The Israelites had been delivered from slavery in Egypt and were on their way to the promised land. But during their wanderings in the wilderness, Israel committed sin and paid the price. Their misadventures were a lesson to the first-century church, and they’re still a lesson for the church today.

These first five verses contain some points that are hard to understand. What, for example, does the Apostle mean in v. 2 when he talks about the Israelites being “baptized into Moses”? And what about v. 4, where we hear of a rock following the Israelites through the desert, and it turns out the rock is Christ? Well, to understand what Paul it helps to lay aside our modern literalist glasses for a moment. Paul is simply reminding us of the blessings God gave to the Israelites in the desert. When the Egyptian army pursued the Israelites in the desert, God miraculously parted the sea to allow the Israelites (but not the Egyptians) to pass. That's the baptism Paul is talking about here. And while the Israelites traveled through the desert, God miraculousy provided food and water to his people. The Apostle is pointing out that the living water that nourished the Israelites was in reality Christ, who was already ministering to his people some 1200 to 1400 years before his incarnation.

The Israelites started well, but they didn't run well at all. In telling of the ancient Israelites, Paul is reminding the Corinthians of the blessings they have received in Christ Jesus, "the same yesterday, today, and forever" (Heb 13:8) [1]. Even when Paul talks about ancient history, before the birth of Christ, the Savior is always at the center of his teaching. Jesus Christ is always the center of the story, whether the topic is history, doctrine, or practice. Christ is the source of life and nourishment for the Christian---not idols, not wisdom, not pleasure. Idols and all they represent are nothing, but Jesus Christ is the solid rock of our salvation and our nourishment in the faith. He is the source of living water for our souls. And he is savior by virtue of the blood that flowed from his body sacrificed for our sake on the cross. Thus any talk of discipleship is also a call to sacrifice among Christians.

In verses 6-12 Paul tells the Corinthians that the misadventures of the Israelites happened "so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved" [2]. Israel learned the hard way that simply starting well is not enough. On the way from Egypt to the Promised Land they grumbled against the Lord's servant, they worshipped idols, practiced immorality, and they did not trust in the Lord's protecion. As a result the Lord caused the people to wander in the wilderness forty years, and only two men out of the hundreds of thousands who left Egpyt were allowed to enter the Promised Land. The story of an entire generation of Israelites rejected by the Lord is especially sad because they knew the blessings God had given them. They had been delivered from their oppressors. They had been nourished with food and water from God. They were off to such a good start. Yet they reveled in idolatry and immorality. They chose fellowship with idols over fellowship with God. That's a key point of salvation--fellowship. Salvation is not simply our individual souls going to heaven and hell after we die; it's also a relationship with God here and now as God's covenant people. That relationship is meant to be a living one--either "intact and growing or dead" [3].

So the mistakes of the Israelites under the Old Covenant are examples for the Christians who come after them in the New. Do you notice the examples given here of the mistakes the Israelites made? In v. 7 Paul mentions they were idolaters, and thus brings to mind his words on that subject in 1 Cor. 8. Next, he mentions their immorality (v. 7), thus looking back to his warnings to the Corinthians in 1 Cor. 5. The Israelites also grumbled (v. 10) in ways similar to how the Corinthians were grumbling against Paul (1 Cor. 1 & 2). Grumbling, immorality and idolatry are temptations for God's people in everay age. Today those temptations wear different clothes, but they are still very much among us. We may call our idols by different names--health, money, career, country--but they are idols all the same. We can still practice immorality the old fashioned way, or choose from a variety of new methods via the Internet. We have ample opportunity to be armchair quarterbacks and grumble against the Lord's servants. But let him who stands take heed lest he fall.

The Israelites were off to such a good start. They enjoyed a baptism of deliverance and feasts provided by the Lord himself. The parallels between those experiences and Christian baptism and the Lord's Supper should be as obvious today as they doubtless were for the Corinthians. Starting well doesn't get the job done [4]. God doesn't lavish his blessings on us so we can rest--at least not on this earth--but so we can run. With the privileges of God's blessings come the responsibility of being God's people [5].

Are we listening? This church is great at starting (we've been doing it for years), yet for decades we've been doing a pathetic job of running. We know how to become Christians--how to get people in the water and feed them the Lord's Supper--but we don't know how to be Christians, how to run.

What can we do to change that? How can we run the race as God intends for us to run? By not craving evil as the Israelites did. Righteousness is not only a matter of what we do but of what we crave. What we crave, after all, is what we sooner or later reach for. So if we want to change our lives we have to change our cravings. And how do we do that? By taking in the truth of God's Word. The process works like this: what we believe makes us secure determines what we value. What we value determines what we make our goals and strive for. And what we strive for determines what we do. If we believe that the things of the flesh--money, pleasure, power--make us secure, that that is what we will crave. In that case we have to change our beliefs. And the way to change our beliefs is through submitting to the Word of God.

Changing our beliefs and desires through the Word of God is a key to the escape from temptation mentioned in 1 Cor. 10:13. This is one of the most strangely ambivalent passages in the New Testament: "No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it." The good news of that passage is that, even when we're tempted, we don't have to sin but have a way out. The hard news is that God although God gives us a way out, he leaves it up to us to take it. We still have a part to play, and there's no getting around the hard work of actually resisting the allure of temptation.

Christians are not saved by good works, but we certainly are saved to good works. We are saved by grace through Jesus Christ. Paul made this clear in the early chapters of this epistle when he reminded the Corinthians that "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2). Christ and Christ alone saves us. His death paid the bill that we owe God for our sins. Jesus' blood washes our sins. In baptism we join Jesus Christ in both his death and resurrection. We are saved by grace, yet we are saved not to stay the same but to grow in service. Righteous living is evidence of our salvation. As the Apostle John reminded Christians,
And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. (1 Jn 2:28-3:3)
If we call ourselves Christians and our lives aren't demonstrating righteous and faithful living, then what are our lives really saying?

Well, if our lives are not characterized by righteousness, what do we do? Quite simply, we need new cravings. Remember how it goes? Beliefs affect values, values affect desires, and desires affect actions. The only cure for unrighteous living is the transforming power of the Word and the Spirit. We are nurted by the Word in Scripture, in prayer, and fellowship, and in feast. And our lives will change if we meditate on this truth: We were bought with a price (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23).

So once again, as Paul addresses practical problems in the Corinthian church, Jesus Christ is behind, under, over, and at the center of the message. Idols are nothing, but Christ is the solid rock who nourishes and refreshes his people with living water (Jn 4:10-12). He's also our Lord crucified to save us and to lead us to lives of service and sacrifice.

Do we think we're something? If we are, it is only because of what Christ has given us. On our own we are as week as the Israelites. We have life only through the nourishing grace of Jesus Christ. But I must warn you; life in Christ is death: death to the idolatry of the familiar; death to the idolatry greed and financial security, death to the pleasures of comfortable slavery, death ot having things and status and cool. It's following God through the desert, with nothing more than the food and drink he gives us new each day.

What more could we want? As someone has said, if we have Christ and everything in the world, we don't have any more than if we have Christ and nothing else. And if we do have Christ, our lives will show it.


1. Unless otherwise noted, all biblical quotations here are from the English Standard Version.
2. NASB.
3. William Loader. “First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary—Lent 3: 14 March. 1 Corinthians 10:1-13.” Online notes at
4. Katherine Grieb. “Limited-Time Offer.” The Christian Century, March 9, 2004, p. 30. Available online at
5. J. Hampton Keathley III. “The Peril of Abusing Spiritual Privileges (1 Corinthians 10:1-13." Online study at

(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley

Slave to All

1 Corinthians 9
Preached Sunday morning, October 8, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

This chapter is the middle of a section in which the Apostle Paul is instructing the Corinthians on giving up their rights or privileges. In chapt. 8 he urged Christians not to eat meat if it causes a brother in Christ to fall away. In the last verse of that chapter Paul said he would rather eat no meat at all than to enjoy meat and call a brother to fall away. Now, this whole chapter is an elaboration of how Paul is doing that very sort of thing and more in his own life [1]. Chapt. 10, as we'll begin to see next week, contains more practical advice on how Christians should deny ourselves---because the Kingdom of God is not about rights but about indentured service.

First, let's make sure we understand one of the words Paul uses over and over in this section. The word translated "right" or "rights" in many translations can be very misleading to twenty-first century Christians in our culture. The word Paul originally wrote in Greek is ἐξουσία, a word having more to do with privilege and authority than what we usually associate with the word "right." Εξουσία refers to the perogative that goes with power. In fact, it is the same word Paul used in Eph. 6:12 to refer to heavenly powers when he told the Ephesians that "we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers (ἐξουσία) over this present darkness" [2]. In other words, "right" is not something we're entitled to simply because we're breathing. It has to do with power and privilege. In that sense, the King James Version is more accurate than most recent versions when it translates ἐξουσία as "power."

Why does it matter how we translate that one word? Well, it matters because in our culture, rights are gods. In our country, laws and public morality is based not on what we owe others (duties) but on what others owe us (rights). It's hard to imagine a more corrosive environment for developing true Christian discipleship than a culture that teaches everyone to stand up for their rights. Standing up for his rights is precisely what Paul refuses to do, and it's a lesson he tries to teach the Corinthians. They needed to learn that lesson, and so does the church today. The heart of the Gospel is Jesus emptying himself of his power and rights. If we are to follow Jesus, we must do the same. So let's look at what Paul has to say on this matter, and let's consider its implications for Christians today.

The Apostle has just told the Corinthians that they should be willing to give up their own privileges for the sake of the souls of their fellow Christians. Now, Paul goes on to demonstrate that he has already done that very thing himself. Paul is not in the apostle business for his own benefit. He begins here by asking the Corinthians if he isn't entitled to the privilege of making his living by the gospel. In light of what he has just written in chapt. 8, Paul's words in 1 Cor. 10:4 are a sort of pun: "Do we not have the right to eat and drink?" Paul let's the Corinthians know just what he has given up for the privilege of proclaiming the gospel. He has not insisted that the church provide for his needs. What's more, he has forsaken having a wife and family for the sake of his apostolic ministry. Rather than taking the church's money and resources, Paul chooses to work in his trade as a tentmaker (Acts 18:3) and pay his own way.

Paul then goes on to demonstrate that the choice is his and not the way it necessarily is supposed to be. In verses 7-12, Paul gives a string of analogies to show why the church should be willing to support Paul materially. A soldier doesn't have to pay his own way. Workers among the vineyard, flocks, fields, and threshing floor are entitled to some of the food they help produce. Those who work in the temple and at the alter are entitled to receive some of the sacrifice. Paul even goes so far to compare himself to an ox, who is allowed to eat some of the grain it treads! He also uses the familiar less-to-more argument: If he sows spiritual blessings among the Corinthians, should he at least be entitled to a little physical support? If the Corinthians support other teachers financially, how much more should they support Paul, who brought the gospel to them and preached among them for eighteen months (Acts 18)? But Paul saves his strongest argument for last. In verse 14, Paul shares the words of Jesus himself: "In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel." However you look at it, Paul is entitled to make his living from preaching.

But he will have none of it. His preaching, Paul tells the Corinthians, is not for money, but out of compulsion (v. 16). Paul's reward is not money or material support, but the privilege of presenting the gospel without charge (v. 18). He would rather work as a tentmaker than demand what by every right is due him. In this way Paul is following his calling to deny himself, take up his cross and follow Christ. Does he have to spell it out any more clearly? It's the same calling for the Corinthians, and for us.

There's a word for someone who works without pay. The word is "slave." Paul has made himself a slave, willingly, to everyone in order to win more for the Kingdom (v. 19). Paul becomes all things to all men so that by all means some might be saved (v. 22). He gives it all he has, like an athlete preparing for a big event. And if glory in athletic competition is worth the effort that athletes both then and now were willing to put into their sport, how much more is the eternal rewards of heaven worth any sacrifice we must make today?

The final verse in 1 Cor. 9 is the subject of a great deal of interpretation. It's also the source of worry for many Christians. If the Apostle Paul runs the risk of being lost, considering all he did for the gospel, what hope to Christians like you and me possibly have? Well, Paul shows elsewhere that he is not concerned about being lost from the Kingdom (1 Cor. 3:15). But he does not want to bring shame on his Lord by failing in his apostolic ministry. Paul was willing to give all he had to reward the reward that comes from faithful service to God.

So this chapter is not so much about paying ministers as it is an example of the call to deny ourselves. Yet I will admit that the issue of paying ministers is one close to my heart. Some religious groups teach that Christians ought not to pay their preachers, and from a purely worldly standpoint there is logic behind that position. All kinds of wickedness, or example, can enter a church when it begins dividing itself between "clergy" and the rest of the congregation. In such an environment, ministers can all too easily begin to think of themselves as superior to ordinary Christians, and members can become lazy from expecting the preacher to do their ministry for them. The world--and many Christians--is quick to accuse paid preachers of greed: "He's only in it for the money." Refusing to take money for preaching demonstrates sincerity and credibility. For that very reason I refused to accept any pay in my first preaching job, and I later struggled with the issue when considering whether or not to go into full-time ministry.

But the Lord Jesus Christ intendes for evangelists to be paid. I recently spoke with a woman from another religious group about my work with the Church of Christ. She told me how her father did the same work I do in the church yet maintains a full-time job as a business executive. This young woman was polite and gentle, but it was clear that she considered her father to be doing a better work by virtue of his not accepting pay for preaching. "That's commendable that he's chosen that course," I told her. "Especially since, as you're aware, Paul told Christians in 1 Cor. 9 that a preacher ought to be paid." I could tell by the look on her face that she had not been aware.

Now, all this talk from a preacher about paying the preacher may sound very self-serving to you: "Here's another preacher preaching about money." Well, to my knowledge this is the first time I've ever spoken to this congregation about giving money and paying the preacher. I'm not preaching this passage because it's an issue to me. That's one of the reasons I preach and teach books more than topics, so that I don't just preach my own pet topics. If I did, by the way, I might preach 1 Cor. 9:14 every other week. We're on this topic because it's a part of the book we're studying. And there it is in 1 Cor. 9:14: "So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel."

But that is precisely the kind of support Paul renounced. Many preachers through the centuries have followed Paul's lead in renouncing their claim to financial support. But Jesus' instructions come down to full-support for full-time service. That is precisely the kind of service I've committed to and long to do. It's what I pray to be able to do one day in Lexington. I came to Rockbridge County in June 2005, and the church paid my full salary through early this year. But the congregation doesn't give enough money each week to pay me enough to meet my family's basic needs of food, housing, and health care. For most of this year I've been receiving about half my original salary. Last fall I spent months begging our sister congregations for financial support, and a few came through in heartwarming ways. Earlier this year I worked full-time as a third-shift grocery stocker at Wal-Mart, and right now I'm working part-time teaching English at Southern Virginia University. I'm praying that one day the congregation will support me in full-time work, and I praise God that other members of this congregation are committed to the same. I pray that each one of us will make the sacrifices to employ a full-time evangelist.

Again, the main point of 1 Cor. 9 is not paying ministers but renouncing privilege. Paul introduces the topic of paying preachers not so that he be paid (v. 15), but to let the Corinthians know what he's renouncing for their sakes. He's given up having a wife, children, and even a home. Can the Corinthians at least give up a little meat? In denying himself, Paul is following Christ, who took the form of a servant and became obedient all the way to the point of death on a cross (Phil. 2:8). Jesus calls all his disciples to take up our crosses, too (Lk. 9:23). Paul answered the call in everything he did. Whenever Paul writes to Christians, he has the cross clearly in mind for himself and the church. If we long to be close to Christ, there is no other way than through the cross---the cross where Jesus paid the price for our sins, and the cross he calls us to carry.

The call to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Jesus is something that each of us puts into practice in different ways. It may be working a second job for the privilege of proclaiming the gospel. It may be joining the saints in the worship assembly even when we're tired and hurting. It's being diligent in the studying the Word and lifting up others regularly in prayer before God. It's service to the Kingdom and to our friends and neighbors, including the lost. IN all those ways we follow Jesus Christ, who gave up his glory in heaven to come down to earth to teach stone-hearted human beings, to be misunderstood and slandered, to be beaten and killed, to be a slave to all. And in that suffering and humiliation Jesus ushered in the Kingdom. That Kingdom is salvation, yes, for those who call upon his name in faith, repentance, and obedience. But it's much more than individual salvation. The Kingdom is the redemption of all creation. It's putting this messed up world right; it's every knee in heaven and on earth bending to acknowledge the lordship of God the Son.

So ultimately 1 Cor. 9 is not so much about Paul as about Jesus, our ultimate example of denial. But even more than he is our example, Jesus is our Savior. He became like us in the flesh, he endured every temptation that we do, yet he did not sin. And even more than Jesus is our Savior, he is our King. Christians eagerly await the day when "every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:10-11). That day is coming, and when it does, will we be ready for it? Are we in the habit of trying to be our own lords or of acknowledging Jesus as the only true Lord? Is bending the knee a comfortable posture for our souls? Are we skilled and bowing under the weight of the cross, or in bowing up in pride about our "rights"? When the Lord returns, will we bow our knee in joy or by force? We are answering those questions every day, and whether or not we deny ourselves in a thousand ways large and small make the difference.


1. Thomas Constable. Notes on 1 Corithians, 2004 ed. Online commentary at
2. Quotations here are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.

(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley

But Love Builds Up

1 Corinthians 8
Preached Sunday morning, October 1, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

In our study of 1 Corinthians we now move from problems of human sexuality into another major section of the letter. A serious question facing the Corinthian Christians was whether or not it was permissible to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. That question may not seem relevant to Christians today, but I hope that we will come to see just how timely the issue really is. Once again, the trouble in Corinth comes from those who believe they have superior knowledge. Maybe they did. But as much as that group may have knowm about things, they still had a lot to learn about how to get along in the Kingdom of God. Paul’s answer to this group is more than simply a lesson in getting along: it is a vital reminder of how Christians ought to value God and one another.

Let’s begin with a little historical context. In first-century Corinth, all meat was probably tainted by the stain of idol worship. Corinth was a large, cosmopolitan city with its share of pagan temples. Animal sacrifices were made in these temples, and the leftover meat was then sold in markets and restaurants. If a Christian wanted to eat a good piece of meat, he was forced either to buy meat that had been sacrificed or actually to eat in a temple restaurant. More knowledgeable Christians understood that pagan gods were nothing, and that sacrifices to false gods were meaningless. As a consequence, they had no problem attending pagan temples to simply enjoy a good meal.

Other Christians, however, had trouble watching their brothers and sisters in Christ sit down to eat food sacrificed to idols. These Christians had grown up in a pagan environment hearing about the false gods as if they were real. For Gentile Christians, their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers had worshipped these false gods, and they were real in the minds of many young converts. So when they saw their fellow Christians eating meat sacrificed to idols, they naturally assumed that their brothers and sisters in Christ were worshipping those idols. And, their reasoning went, if other Christians worshipped idols, why shouldn’t they?

What was the Apostle to do? The knowledgeable Christians are right in their assessment, but their actions are causing their brothers and sisters in Christ to fall away from the faith. Paul begins by disarming the haughtiness of those who knew better. He begins by writing what “we all know,” that “All of us possess knowledge” [1]. Whatever the in-the-know Christians may have thought about their own private insights, knowledge for God’s people is public, for all to see. In Proverbs 8, Wisdom is represented as a woman proclaiming her truth on the street [2]. Paul goes on to say that “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Thus he is back once again to the theme that opens this epistle: the Kingdom of God is not about the wisdom of our minds, but about the foolishness of the cross. So from his opening words Paul is implicitly putting the emphasis where it belongs: on Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a sacrifice for the church. Already, at the beginning of his argument, the Apostle is setting the standard regarding what really matters. Yes, those eating this meat have knowlege, but if they had love they wouldn’t be eating pagan offerings. If eating such meat makes other Christians stumble away from serving the only God, then it would be better not to eat meat at all.

That’s because discipleship is not about exercising one’s rights; it’s about serving in a Kingdom. And in that Kingdom every servant matters, from the wisest, most mature to the weakest, most frail [3]. That principle is by no means limited to Corinth or to the idea of eating meat sacrificed to idols. Anything that makes a brother fall away from God is something we ought to sacrifice for the good of that brother.

Now, let’s be very clear about something. Paul is talking about not making a fellow Christian fall away from the faith. He didn’t say anything about simply giving offense or hurting other peoples’ feelings. Both the Apostle and the Savior made it clear that sometimes being a faithful Christian will give offense and hurt people’s feelings [4]. The very act of preaching the truth ought to hurt people’s feelings if they’ve been living a life of sin. That’s how Christians come to repent, by hearing the truth. Most people in the world--and some in the church itself--will hate us for telling the truth (Jn. 15). Living like a Christian will offend the lost. Jesus gave so much offense that sinners killed him. So let’s be clear that we aren’t called to stop doing something simply because it might hurt somebody’s feelings, either inside or outside the church. If we begin limiting ourselves in that way, pretty soon we find ourselves practicing a “lowest common denominator” discipleship in which we’re afraid to do much of anything for fear we’ll hurt someone’s feelings [5]. As we discussed this morning in our Bible study, Christians aren’t called to play it safe.

I speak from experience on this matter. When I was a very young Christian early in my college years, I somehow developed the notion that the little alligator on the front of those expensive, preppy golf shirts was somehow the very mark of Satan himself. I literally could not understand how a man could be a Christian and wear such a mark of worldly materialism. You can imagine, then, how I felt when one of our young minsters began wearing shirts—and even a belt—with that little alligator on them. Now even then I was not one to gossip behind someone’s back, so I went in person to Scott and asked him to stop dishonoring God by wearing those worldy alligators. He listened patiently to my case, and then explained to me why he would not stop wearing them. It seems that when he had just finished school and was preparing to come to work at our church, he had spent most of his money on his education and had very few nice clothes to wear. On the day he went back to his parents’ house before coming to his new congregation, he was surprised to find waiting for him a dozen full sets of clothes—shirts, pants, and belts. It seems a neighbor had wanted Scott to have them before he went to his new church and had made sure they were waiting for him. To that young minister, those clothes were not the mark of Satan—they were a bountiful gift from God. He hoped I wouldn’t continue to be offended, but he wasn’t about to despise God’s gift in an effort to please to one immature little brother.

No, Christians are not called to limit our behavior to please the whims of every immature brother or sister in Christ. But we are called to give up our own privileges before allowing another Christian to be lost. That’s the bigger message in the story of meat sacrificed to idols. Our knowledge of what we’re allowed to do is not as important as keeping our fellow Christians in mind for what we ought to do.

Discipleship is never a matter of entitlement or superiority. Even if we have a knowledge of God beyond that of our brothers and sisters, we need to remember that getting our doctrine right is only one wing of discipleship. Someone has said, "Where getting it right is foremost, people usually get relationships wrong" [5]. Relationships are the other wing of discipleship. Discipleship is not merely a matter of being right but doing right to God and our brothers and sisters [6]. We have duties not only to God but to each other. Remember Jesus' summary of the law in Mt. 22:37-40?
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. [7]
The law and the prophets, the will of God, is summed up in loving not only God but our fellow human beings. Putting faith into practice requires that we take into account our duties to each.

That's why Paul's emphasis in this letter is on love rather than shame. We love others because God first loved us. We give in to others because Christ gave up his place in heaven for us. Heart discipleship, as we're studying in the Sermon on the Mount, arises from gratitude for the bountious gifts of God's grace. Those who appreciate what they have received are the ones most willing to give. An appreciative discipleship is a giving discipleship. And at this point we've arrived at a bigger picture of this passage.

That bigger picture is that true discipleship recognizes the Savior. The Corinthians are faced with a very practical issue: is it permissible to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols? Now that sounds like a simple question that requires simple, practical answer of yes or no. But the Apostle doesn't look at this through the eyes of practicality; he looks at it through the eyes of Christ. He takes the opportunity to remind his brothers and sisters in Christ of the love of the only true God. Paul reminds the Corinthians that, as Jesus told his disciples (Jn. 17:21), the Savior and the Father are one [8]. The Apostle calls on the Corinthians to sacrifice for their brothers and sisters as Christ has sacrificed his very life for the church. That's denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus (Mt. 16:24). In chapt. 9 Paul will show how he puts these instructions in practice in his own life by not insisting on his own privileges.

That's the way for the Apostle, that's they way for us, as it was the way for Christ. Jesus of all men did not demand what he had coming to him. Rather,
though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phi. 2:6-8)
Even so-called practical issues are for Christians a reminder of Jesus Christ crucified. He gave up his glory in the presence of the Father to be born into the realm of darkness on the earth in order to suffer and die a death that we, not he, deserved. And in so doing he saved his church and began ushering in his pure and holy Kingdom.

In chapters 10 & 11 we'll begin to see what the feast of that Kingdom looks like. It's not a meal of food sacrificed to appease a false god. No, not at all. In the real Kingdom feast the only true God sacrificed himself to feed his people. Wow. Doesn't that make you want to serve him?


1. Chrysostom, John. "Homily XX." Sermon text available online at
2. Deffinbaugh, Bob. "The Great Divorce—Separating ‘Truth from Love' (1 Cor. 8:1-13). Online study at
3. Wright, N.T. "One God, One Lord, One People: Incarnational Christology for a Church in a Pagan Environment." Ex Auditu 7. Available online at
4. Loader, William. "First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary." Available online at
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Quotations here are from the English Standard Version.
8. Wright.

(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley

Free from Concern

1 Corinthians 7:25-40
Preached Sunday morning, September 24, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

In our study of 1 Corinthians we now enter our third and final message from chapter 7. We've already seen that the Corinthian Christians suffered from two wrong views about sexuality: first, that fornication and prostitution are permissible; and second, that all sexual activity, even in marriage, is wrong. Paul showed that both extremes were incorrect. Sex is a good thing, within the limits of marriage. The Apostle prefers singleness for Christians, but they do not sin to marry. Once Christians are married, however, they must stay that way—particularly if the Christian's husband or wife is an unbeliever. If the unbeliever wants to leave the Christian, then the believer should not try to stop him or her. In general, however, a Christian should stay in whatever circumstances he is called. We have been bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23); that is a glorious truth we should remember even when we consider the most earthly and ordinary choices before us. Paul reminds Christians of this great truth repeatedly: we have been bought with a price, through Jesus' sacrifice of his own life on the cross. Thus Jesus Christ crucified is not merely the subject of Paul's preaching (1 Cor. 2:2); he is the always at the center of the Apostle's thinking. Would that he were the at center of ours, too.

In 1 Cor. 7:25-40 Paul again tells Christians that it's good to remain as we are, whether married or single. Yes, Christians are permitted to marry or not marry, and a widow may remarry as long as she marries another Christian. When Christians do have a husband or wife, however, our minds and hearts become anchored in a special way to the day-to-day concerns of the world. Paul sincerely wants believers to be free from worry and anxiety about a world that is passing away (v. 32). Married Christians must take a certain amount of attention from the Lord's work to fulfill their earthly duties. Doing so is not a sinning; it’s simply the way things work. When we take on earthly responsibilities, we are obligated to fulfill them. That principle applies to more than marriage, by the way, which is why Christians must be careful of what we take upon ourselves. Whatever our earthly obligations, all Christians must concern ourselves first of all with the Kingdom of God.

In verse 28, Paul reminds the Corinthians that “those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that” [1]. Most congregational ministers face this issue every day. Churches expect their ministers to devote long hours to Kingdom work, yet they usually expect them also to be married and have families. Giving due attention to both family and church is not an easy task. I for one can't imagine being effective in ministry without a Christian wife. Much of the work we do in the church, Carolyn and I do together. If my wife were not a Christian, I simply couldn't do a lot of what I do now for the church. A fellow minister once told me about being brought in to preach with a new congregation. As he walked out of the meeting where he had been offered the opportunity to preach for the congregation, one of the elders asked my friend if his wife might be able to lead a women's Bible study. "Oh," this preacher said, "my wife is not a Christian. In fact, she's an alcoholic and spends quite a bit of time in rehab." The elders asked the man if he would come back into the room and discuss the matter further. "No," he said. "I'm kidding. My wife is a Christian, and she doesn't even drink. But next time you might want to ask those kinds of questions before you hire a preacher." As any preacher knows, having a wife and children takes time from Kingdom work. But a believing spouse helps bridge the gap between our two sets of obligations.

The same is true for every Christian, of course. Marriage and family take time from Kingdom work, but being married to a Christian makes the task easier. If you are married to an unbeliever, don't expect to spend as much time serving in this building. You must never let your husband or wife keep you from worship, from the Lord's Supper, praise, fellowship, and growth in the Word. But a large part of your service will be winning your spouse to faith and obedience in the Lord: "For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” (1 Cor. 7:16).

And all of us, married or single, need to remember what Jesus said about balancing faith and family:
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Mt. 10:37-39)
As families continue to be under assault by the culture around us, Christians need to remember that families are important, and that God himself ordained them. But in some religious circles the family has taken such an important place that it comes close to idolatry. As important as the family is, our focus needs to be first of all on the cross—on Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2).

The family is the most important of our earthly commitments. But it's not where our first obligation lies. Jesus told us, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Mt. 6:33). Our first citizenship is to the Kingdom of God. First and foremost we are not husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, grandparents, as important as those roles may be. We are not primarily what we do for a living: teacher, skilled craftsman, salesman, manager, nurse, student. We are not first of all Americans. Christians are first of all disciples and servants of the King.

God’s Kingdom is fundamentally different from the world around us. The Kingdom has a different mission: first to worship and glorify God (1 Cor. 6:20; Rom. 15:6-9), and second, to go into the world and make disciples (Mt. 28:19-20). The Kingdom has different rules of operation: the first are last and the last are first (Mt. 20:16). A man who would save his life must lose it (Mt. 16:26). A true leader must be a servant of all (Mk. 9:35). The Kingdom has a different wisdom: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). And finally, the Kingdom offers very different rewards—ultimate rewards—from the world.

So for Christians our first obligation is to the Kingdom of God. But Kingdom work is no excuse for neglect our earthly obligations. Christians are not Eastern ascetics who believe our earthly existence is unreal. We are not called to be detached emotionally from the world and the everyday affairs of it. In fact, we sin if we neglect our families. Jesus blasted the scribes and Pharisees for giving money to the Temple while neglecting their earthly parents (Mk. 7:9-13). Paul told Timothy, “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). So Christians are called to provide and care for our families.

And in practice, isn’t that where we worry most: in caring for our families? Sometimes people quote Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 as being “don’t worry.” But in fact, Jesus’ teaching on worry was that we should not worry about our own food, clothes, and health. Families bring a whole new collection of worries into a believer’s life: for the health and safety of children and for their souls’ development. There are legitimate concerns for Christians—and all the more reason to pray without ceasing (1 Ths. 5:17).

The challenge for the faithful is to rightly balance our commitments to family and to God. We must give proper care and attention to our families, but we must not make them idols. Marriage, after all, is only temporary, even if we’re blessed with a marriage that lasts most of a lifetime. Some religious groups teach it’s eternal; that idea has a certain appeal if you have a happy marriage. But Jesus specifically said it’s not true: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mt. 22:30). The form of this world is passing away (1 Cor. 7:31). We have to live in it, but if our highest value is our families, then we’ve invested in something that will soon be gone. A family can be a wonderful shelter and rest by the ocean of eternity. But the tide is coming in and one day will sweep this old world away.

The Apostle hoped that all Christians could provide undistracted service to the Lord. That’s challenging to do for every believer. Single Christians have to make a point of it, those with spouses have to work even harder, and those with children harder still. Yet how could we better spend our resources than honoring and worshiping God?

Here’s a reminder: All of this advice in 1 Corinthians 7 is simply foolishness if we don’t live it by faith. We can simply follow the letter of Paul’s instructions and become Pharisees, clean on the outside but dirty at the heart. As we’ve seen, Paul’s thinking, even on what we call practical matters, always begins with Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). It’s Jesus’ sacrifice Paul reminds the Corinthians—and us—to remember (1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23). “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel” (2 Ti 2:8).


1. All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.

(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley