Follow by Email

Monday, April 28, 2008

1 Corinthians 3:1-15 Grow up!

You can read today's text here: 1 Corinthians 3:1-15

One of the features of the Corinthian correspondence is the way in which Paul quotes members of the church in an indirect way. The usual way a translator reflects the opinion that this is going on is with the use of quotes. For example, if he thinks Paul is addressing queries about the status of members of his church as spiritual, he will translate verse 1 as follows:
"Brothers, I could not address you as 'spiritual' but as worldly—mere infants in Christ."
The Corinthians were claiming the word "spiritual" as appropriate for their condition, and Paul questions their right to do so, in the light of their uncharitable rivalries.

In the preceding paragraph Paul has contrasted believers and unbelievers, using the term "spiritual" (Greek pneumatikoi) of the former, and "those without the Spirit" (Greek psychikoi) for the latter. But now, although he does not question the genuineness of the Corinthian believers' faith, he has reservations about granting them the term pneumatikoi "spiritual" (i.e., "those having the Spirit"). They may actually have the Holy Spirit living in them, but they are not showing any evidence of that reality, when they bicker and argue and boast and disdain one another. Lovelessness is not the mark of one who has the Spirit!

Instead of "spiritual", Paul prefers to use two other terms to describe them:

First he calls them "just flesh". The Greek term sarkinoi describes someone whose being, thought and actions are characterized by the foolishness and weakness of humanity as opposed to the wisdom and power of God—what the Old Testament prophets called "the flesh" (Hebrew basar, Greek translation sarks — read Isaiah 31:3 and Jer. 17:5.

Then he calls them "mere infants in Christ". The phrase "in Christ" shows that Paul regards them as truly converted, but "infants" shows just how under-developed morally they are. "childish" would not be a bad characterization of them. Playing with the gifts of the Spirit, like a child plays with toys. They delight in the privileges and powers of spirituality, but none of its moral responsibilities.

He refers to the teaching he gave to them while he was with them in Corinth as "milk, not solid food" (v. 2). There is nothing wrong with milk as a diet for infants. But as an infant grows, it eventually must have solid food. The Corinthians have simply never been weaned! And they are long overdue. They talk and talk about the gifts God has given them, but never about their obligations to love and serve others.

It is—once again—difficult to know if Paul has picked up the term "mere humans" from the reported boasting by certain members of their superiority over other members who are "mere humans". If so, then Paul throws it back in their teeth, pointing out that their unloving behavior shows that it is they who are the "mere humans".

But one of the OT prophets' statements cited above shows that this use of "mere humans" (translating the Hebrew word basar "flesh") is thoroughly biblical — “The Egyptians are human [Hebrew basar 'flesh'], and not God; their [war-]horses are flesh [basar], and not spirit. When the LORD stretches out his hand, the helper will stumble, and the one helped will fall, and they will all perish together” (Isaiah 31:3 NRSV).

The test of being “spiritual” is loving behavior, not the possession and use of spectacular supernatural gifts. This is because it is the Holy Spirit who produces love in the lives of believers (1John 3:10-11, 14, 16-18, 23; 4:7-8 ).

After explaining that factionalism is a sure sign of immaturity [being a spiritual 'infant'], Paul proceeds to explain also how senseless it is in this case to rank those who minister to them (v. 5-9).

First of all, how can you compare people who are performing different ministries? Paul “planted”, because it was he who founded the church at Corinth, winning the first nucleus of people to faith in Jesus. Apollos came along later and watered the seed sown by Paul, increasing their understanding of biblical truths. Each one was faithfully doing his part. But it was God, working through each one, who produced the growth. The Corinthians are "god's field." Then following up on the farming metaphor, and leading into a new, architectural one, Paul points out that they are “God’s building” (v. 9). Not “Paul’s building" or “Apollos’ building”. It may be that these last terms were what the immature Corinthian factions were using to describe their competing loyalties!

In v. 10 Paul doesn't mention Apollos by name, but uses the general expression “someone else is building upon it”. Paul has no ill will against Apollos. It is the unfortunate way in which rival groups of immature believers were playing off Apollos against Paul that troubled him so deeply.

Furthermore, Paul wants to remind them that there will always be others coming along, and even those in their own group, who will build on the foundation. They must be willing to be helped by many servants of Christ.

But he also recognizes that some may build with the wrong materials. Therefore his words of warning: “But each one should be careful how he builds.” This is a warning that he will take to heart himself. He does not want to reply to these frustrating challenges to his authority with malice, but with the loving application of Christ’s truth.

The Corinthian believers also need to know that careful workmanship performed in the power of the Holy Spirit will always be rewarded by God. And poor workmanship will not receive Christ’s commendation and reward, but that the workman himself, if he is a believer, will not lose his own salvation (v. 15).

How do we sum up the problems of the Corinthians, as Paul attempts to help them in this chapter? As I see it, they had two problems: (1) overestimation of their own spiritual state, and (2) disdain for others and a "go-it-alone" attitude about ministry.

Paul's answer to these two questions is to stress the twin virtues of humility and love. Humility can be achieved by understanding that it is God who gives gifts and talents: those possessing them have nothing to boast about. Love comes from realizing that believers are all one body, whose members function as a team. Each member is necessary, and equally valuable. If there is jealousy and pride and mutual opposition, the body (the 'team') does not function properly.

You yourself have certain gifts from God that you can and should use within the context of your circle of believing friends—perhaps your church, or your Bible class—to strengthen the faith and love of the others. Another member of the group has a different gift (or ability). One can teach, another pray, another offer helpful words of encouragement or comfort. We should rejoice in each other's gifts from God, and pass along words of encouragement to those around us who use their gifts in the spirit of love. It is hard to be envious or proud when you are busy thanking and encouraging others!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

1 Cor. 2 — The Wisdom of God

1 Corinthians 2

You may read today's text here: 1 Cor. 2.

There are many difficult tasks before us, when we attempt to understand Paul's letters. And this is especially the case with the Corinthian correspondence. The first task is to reconstruct the thinking and behavior of the people in the church he is addressing. Since we have only Paul's side of this conversation, we have to reconstruct the other side as best we can, reading back from Paul's own language. This is called "mirror reading".

Once we reconstruct what the other side is saying, we then have to ask what they mean by these statements. We have to ask if they are actually hostile to Paul or merely misunderstanding him. Are they beginning to question his gospel or merely develop it within the framework of their own local setting and its culture. The latter process is often called "acculturation" or "indigenisation" (Chester, Conversion at Corinth [2003], 213ff.).

But even if the Corinthian believers were simply attempting this indigenisation in a sincere attempt to "digest" Paul's gospel in local terms, their sincerity does not necessarily guarantee that elements of this attempt did not threaten the core of Christian belief and mission. So the passion we see in Paul's responses to them does not necessarily indicate that he thought the Corinthian leaders were consciously deserting him and his gospel, but is rather an indication of the dangers he could see in what they were beginning to do—dangers that they themselves did not yet perceive.

How Paul First Presented the Gospel in Corinth, v. 1-5

It may seem strange to us that Paul claims here not to have used the most persuasive way of presenting the gospel to these Corinthians. After all, he makes it clear that the substance of his message (Greek kerygma, mysterion) would not have been affected by the choice between a persuasive verbal presentation and one that avoided verbal and logical fireworks. Would he not have wanted to present his gospel in the most effective way possible?

Yet in verses 1 and 4 he explicitly states that he chose at the outset not to use good rhetoric of the Greco-Roman variety. The fact that he made this choice implies that he was perfectly able to speak in the rhetorical style. In fact, he seems to have used it in his speech on the Areopagos in Athens (Acts 17). Did he decide against using it in Corinth because he felt the Athens speech was a mistake or counter-productive? Some interpreters think so, but most do not.

Paul also stresses that he did not "sugar coat" his gospel by avoiding elements in its content that might be culturally or aesthetically offensive. "For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (v. 2). In the Areopagus speech (Acts 17) it was the mention of Jesus' resurrection that caused the most confusion in the minds of the hearers, as well as the most scoffing. Luke's record of that speech does not include any reference to the crucifixion.

Greeks and Romans well knew what crucifixion was: both the disgusting and revolting cruelty of its form, and the fact that only persons convicted of the most serious and hateful crimes were sentenced to it. Nothing could be imagined less likely to endear the gospel message to Greeks and Romans. And even the Jews in Corinth, among whom Paul had his first opportunities to preach, and who numbered among his first converts, would be repulsed by crucifixion, since the Law of Moses pronounced a curse on anyone who died by crucifixion. Yet Paul did not dodge it in his presentation.

Perhaps the reason Paul chose this approach lay in his belief that in human weakness God's power is maximized (see 2 Cor. 12:9). And in an approach that calls the least attention to the human channel of grace the glory accruing to God is maximized (1 Cor. 1:28-31). It also may have been his conviction that a faith that is achieved by human persuasion can just as easily be undone by human persuasion. But a faith that comes because God's power (v. 5) produces it cannot be undone by any lesser power.

The Greek expression lying behind the translation "rest" in verse 5 does not signify a static faith, but a stable one. Paul's view of faith in Jesus foresees constant interacting with people and life. In the process, the mind of the believer must hear, understand and adjust to all sorts of ideas. What he warns against is not contact and interaction with the world of people and ideas, but a failure to remain grounded and anchored to truth of the gospel while being engaged with the surrounding society—a failure to draw the proper conclusions from the fundamental truths of that gospel.

Witherington (Paul's Narrative Thought World [1994], 266) correctly observes:
We must also always keep in mind that for Paul faith is not a static quality or characteristic. It can be weak or strong (cf. Rom. 14:1ff.); furthermore, it can grow (and presumably atrophy as well-see 2 Cor. 10:15). Numerous texts that do not specifically mention pistis [‘faith’] nonetheless describe the trust that accompanies or flows forth from faith. One can compare 2 Cor. 1:9ff. and Phil. 3:3ff. on this score. Having this sort of faith in or trust in God means having confidence that God will complete the work God has begun in believers and will guide them throughout their earthly existence (cf. Phil. 1:6, 25; 2:24).
Holy Spirit-taught Wisdom Available to Believers, v. 6-16

Paul's hearers knew about "secret wisdom" and "mysteries". All around them were the Greek "Mystery Religions" with their secret rites and secret knowledge, only available to the initiated.

When I was growing up, high schools had their sororities and fraternities, each with their own initiation ceremonies. Once you were initiated into one, you had access to secrets and were included in affairs and gatherings that outsiders had no access to. It was important to belong to the most popular and prestigious ones. It was easier to get dates with cute girls, if you belonged to the right frat house. Greek Mystery Religions were not quite like frat houses. But the comparison at least serves as a good beginning.

Paul uses the Greek term mysterion in his letters to churches located in areas where these cults flourished. But he is careful to define his application of this term to Christian truth, so that inappropriate elements of the pagan cults not be read into what he intends to say.

There is a sense in which both aspects of the core gospel as well as truths learned subsequently by believers are God's secrets, comprehensible only to persons who have made the commitment to belong to and follow the Risen Jesus as Lord. Those who refuse or reject the gospel invitation show by this act that their eyes have not been supernaturally opened nor their consciences smitten by God's Holy Spirit. About this second class, Paul writes in v. 14 "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned."

This may seem strange to you. If he cannot understand them, on what basis has he decided to reject them? It would appear that by "understand" Paul means to "find plausible or persuasive". Unless the Holy Spirit of God opens the mental eyes of a person who hears the gospel or reads the Bible, the profound truthfulness of the message does not dawn upon him. Unless the Spirit of God makes hearers aware of their deep needs—moral, spiritual—they will not thirst for the Savior who offers himself in that gospel. It is those who know that they have deep needs in their lives—needs that God and Jesus are the only real answer—who respond most readily and thoroughly to the message of Jesus.

Because of this simple fact, even those whose education and wide experience might seem to have qualified them humanly speaking to recognize truth failed to understand God's wisdom and instead crucified "the Lord of Glory" (v. 8).

The good news is that "God has revealed it to us by his Spirit" (v. 10). Only the Holy Spirit of God, who is given to all believers (v. 12), is capable of knowing the thoughts of God (v. 11). Because believers have the Spirit, Paul can say "we have the very mind of Christ" (v. 16).

You may not feel like you have such a power within you. You may struggle to understand the Bible, especially if you have never read it regularly before. But do not be discouraged. Paul does not say that new believers, fresh from their first serious thinking about God and the Bible, will understand everything all at once. Instead, he speaks often of the process of "growing up" (Eph 4:15-16; Col 1:6; 2Th 1:3) in Christ.

It is nothing to be ashamed of to be a spiritual "child", so long as you realize that you are only beginning. There is a spiritual freshness and eagerness about new Christians that often puts to shame those who have long believed. There is nothing "jaded" or "stale" about the faith of a new believer.

But you need to understand that spiritual growth doesn't occur without any effort on your part. In that sense, it is not like physical growth of a human child. But like physical growth, it is aided by a proper diet and exercise. The diet is provided by daily reading and meditation in the Bible. That is what you are getting in our study. But you can also get it in your church groups, and elsewhere where true believers congregate for prayer and Bible study.

The gospel itself in its main lines is quite simple: Jesus, God's Son, became a human, lived a sinless life and offered that life upon the cross to die for your sins. After three days he rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven. If you trust him and what he did on the cross, you can have full forgiveness from God for all your sins. But the full-orbed truths of Christian living are not quite so simple. They require some reading and some thought. But most of all, they require prayer and the desire to live in a way that pleases Jesus.

This is true Wisdom. So let's be wise!

Monday, April 21, 2008

1 Cor 1:18-31 Christ the Wisdom and Power of God

(Image courtesy of

You may read today's text here: 1 Cor. 1:18-31.

Paul's first concern voiced in this letter (1:10-17) was divisions in the community of believers in Corinth—divisions having to do with a preference for a particular leader. Sounds like an American presidential primary race, Doesn't it?

But underlying that division there lurked another, perhaps more basic mistake. The Corinthian believers lived in a culture and a society in which human wisdom and eloquence were admired almost to the point of worship. As one who has served on the faculties of four major universities in the course of my long career, I know very well the arrogance and raw ambition that all too often accompany the exchange of ideas and the vying for positions of leadership and prominence. But this problem is by no means limited to colleges and universities. It permeates most of our society's institutions: medical, artistic, legal and business. The "smarts" are the way to get ahead in life. And whoever blocks the fast lane gets trampled in the dust.

18 Unfortunately, such an attitude leads logically to a rejection of the simple message of the cross of Jesus and the inability to accept by faith the power of God to transform your life (v. 18). People who worship this world's wisdom unwittingly disqualify themselves from receiving God's own wisdom, spiritual power and salvation. What irony in Paul's words here! "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." There are some terms here that need explanation.

By "the message of the cross" Paul means much more than the simple announcement that Jesus was crucified. The message of the cross was (1) that Jesus died as your and my substitute, bearing our sins and paying the debt they incurred before God, and (2) that we who accept this gift from Jesus and take Jesus himself as our Lord are united with him in such a way that his death for sin becomes also our death (with him) to sin in our lives. Christian conversion is more than a free ticket to Heaven. It is a radical turning point in life. It involves a break—a repudiation—of a certain kind of living for self and indifference to God's word. So when Paul says that this message for us believers is "the power of God" (see also v. 24), he means that it is the access to God's power to be forgiven and power to live new lives. God's Christmas gifts don't come without the batteries! Nothing needs to be added or purchased. It works from the start.

19 Schooled by centuries of life under God's leadership, the Jews in Old Testament times had a different view of human wisdom than the Greeks did. For one thing, "wisdom" to the ancient Jew was less theoretical than Greek "wisdom". The latter was more associated with systematic reasoning, such as is found in classical philosophy (Socrates, Plato). For the Jew it was more like the common sense that tells someone what is the best way to lay out a field, plant and cultivate so as to be successful. It was what told him the dangers of adultery and lying. It had a moral or ethical strain. For this reason one of their prophets would say "the fear of God is the principal component of wisdom".

For another thing, the prophet Isaiah—in the passage Paul quotes in v. 19—affirmed that God delights in turning the tables on those who were proud of their superior wisdom and scoffed at God's moral law. These wise Jews of the Old Testament, themselves speaking under the inspiration of God, knew a truth that the Greeks did not. God himself is wiser than any human being. And when his human creatures begin to think that they are smarter than he, he is perfectly capable of outwitting them and giving his favors to those humble and simple enough to believe his words (see also v. 25).

The Human Composition of the Corinthian Church, v. 26-31.

What Paul writes here could also be said of communities of believers in Jesus around the world today. That there are some very brilliant and successful people in those communities is admitted, but "not many"! Christian churches should never be the preserves of the successful and sophisticated. They should—and will—always consist of a societal cross-section, with many unemployed persons, many sick and needy. A few Sundays ago we celebrated Disability Sunday in the church we attend. Much of the service was conducted by disabled persons in our congregation. It was wonderful to see their spirit, as well as to appreciate what they offer us all. Christian churches should be palces where the unwanted are wanted.

When in v. 27 Paul says that "God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise", he does not mean that there are not foolish people—both highly educated and uneducated—whom God does not choose. Rather, what he means is that those of all segments of society who admit that they are not smarter than God or his written Word, and who choose to believe the "foolish" message of the cross.

No one who winds up in the eternal Kingdom of God will ever be able to claim they got there because they were smarter, stronger, wealthier, or more successful on earth than others. None will be able to say that they earned that right. That is what is meant by the "boasting" that God will not accept (v. 29).

The only "boasting" God will permit is boasting about "the Lord [Jesus]" (v. 31). We can do all of that we want to, both now in this life and later in Eternity!

Let's go boast about him!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

1 Cor 1:10-17 — Divisions and Pride

Divisions in the Church of Corinth

Today's text is available online here: 1 Cor. 1:10-17.

Anyone watching news clips today of violent bloody battles in the Middle East between Sunni and Shiite Muslims sees clearly that violent confrontations between members of opposing religious factions within a single religion are by no means confined to one religion. True, the only example in history of such bloody fighting between rival Christian sects dates back centuries ago to the Thirty Years War in Europe.

But non-bloody conflicts within rival groups of Christians is as old as the Corinthians. Such conflicts do not result in real killings and physical maiming. But they tear the very fabric of love that Jesus and Paul both taught was that which binds all believers together as one. This is why, when I read of bitter recriminations between Christian groups (Catholics, Lutherans, Protestants), it saddens me. Not because we should not argue in a civil and loving way for what we believe to be God's truth, but because it is usually not done that way, and only ends in making the walls between us even higher.

Even sadder, though, are such conflicts based not upon a serious difference in interpreting Scripture—which might be more understandable—but on what human leader or teacher to follow. This was the kind of situation that was brewing in Corinth in Paul's absence, and which was brought to his attention by some members of the "household of Chloe". These may be slaves of Chloe's sent to Paul as messengers.1

In good pastoral style, Paul gives them a positive goal (v. 10) before he points out their failure (v. 11-17). The goal (or "appeal") is that they "agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought". He doesn't go on at this point to explain why the unity is important. He simply urges it. A father, finding his children fighting, normally does not take the time to explain why they must stop fighting: he just grabs them and says "Stop fighting!" But of course, he may then add: "You are brothers! Brothers are suppose to love each other, and stand up for each other."

Elsewhere, Paul gives reasons for unity and solidarity within the Christian communities. They were exposed and vulnerable in a pagan world, and some of the more extreme members of the Jewish synagogues were just looking for a chance to attack and eliminate them. In a letter to the church at Philippi he once wrote “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27 NIV).

Instead, many among the Corinthian believers were contending about whose way of interpreting the message and sacrifice of Jesus was best. Chloe's house-church members apparently told Paul that one group said “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas’”; still another, “I follow Christ.” We don't know if they gave him the names and numbers of each group. Paul certainly doesn't mention it. He would not be flattered by being having the largest group! Apollos was a very learned and erudite Jewish convert to the gospel of Jesus, who was extremely knowledgeable in the Old Testament, as well as skilled in public argumentation. Paul, on the other hand, while he knew the Scripture well, was—by his own admission—not a polished speaker. A third group followed Cephas, which means Peter. Apollos had visited Corinth; Peter had not. But believers who had immigrated to Corinth from the eastern lands—especially Jerusalem—could easily have heard him often speak. His reputation as the chief of the Twelve would naturally have impressed believers.

Some interpreters believe that these groups corresponded to the social classes to which the believers belonged in secular society. If so, Paul's and Apollos' groups may have been for the lower classes, Cephas (as one of the Jerusalem "pillars") the middle class, and "Christ" the true social elite of the city! How horribly ironic, since Christ would have wanted this least of all!

Paul does not defend his own right to lead his "church-plant" over these rivals who have sprung up after his departure. He will eventually remind them that they may have had many teachers, but only one "father" in the gospel, Paul himself (4:15). But for now his concern is that they see the devilish sin of putting human leaders ahead of the Lord Jesus himself. Paul was no "Vicar of Christ", nor was Peter, nor Apollos. He uses his own name as the example to be criticized, when he writes: “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” (1Corinthians 1:13-17 NIV).

We may get just a tiny glimpse of what Paul thought lay at the root of the problem, when he says that he avoided using sophisticated philosophical language ("words of human wisdom") when he preached in Corinth. His reason was, that a genuine conversion—turning from our society's other religious ideas, values and priorities, to faith in Jesus and his sole lordship over one's ideas about God, life and morals—can only be brought about by a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in making the death of Jesus for our sins ("the cross of Christ") real and convincing. The use of persuasive philosophy, to his mind, produced only a shallow attraction to Christian teaching, something sham and weak that would never stand the test of persecution for the sake of the gospel. Paul may have even experimented with the other approach himself, only to find the results meager and unsatisfying. Some interpreters—I happen not to agree with them—think he did so at his last stop before arriving initially at Corinth. It was at Athens, where on Mars Hill (Areopolis) to an audience of philosophers he argued in their own terms for the gospel (Acts 17). But we need not hold that interpretation of Acts 17 in order to agree that Paul had somewhere, perhaps through bitter experience, concluded that the best approach was the simple one, the same one that Jesus himself used, a quiet and clear explanation of the truth about Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, what can we learn from this? Paul wrote later in 1 Cor 1:26 "Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth." Certainly that is still true of us today, is it not? How many of us would claim to be impressive by our wealth or achievements? But that is not what Jesus calls us to be! He calls us to be the servants of the needs of others—like he himself was. He calls us to confront evil boldly with words of truth, but not with anger and hostility. Our message of the gospel will be believed because we love, serve, and pray, as well as testify to its truthfulness. Our greatest desire should be to please Jesus, to be his faithful and good servants. If we are, we will be fruitful in changing the thinking of those around us about our Lord.

1. This is the view of Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians [1983], pp. 59, 63, and 217 (n. 54). If so, as Meeks points out (p. 217, n. 54), it would mean that Chloe was one of the few "influential" and "noble" members of the congregation that Paul alludes to in 1 Cor. 1:26.

Monday, April 14, 2008

1 Cor. 1:1-9 How Paul Begins

First Corinthians 1:1-9

If you don't have your Bible open as your read this, you may find today's text, 1 Corinthians 1:1-3, here.

The Address and Greeting (v. 1-3)

Paul dictated his letters to one of his traveling companions, who put them in writing. Like many educated and literate persons in the Greco-Roman world, Paul used amanuenses. Evidence of writing style suggests that he used different ones at different times in his travels and that toward the end of his life, when 2 Timothy was written, he used Luke. In some of his letters the name of this person is given at the end (see Romans 16:22, where the scribe Tertius greets his Christian brothers and sisters in Rome). In at least one, a note at the end says that Paul wrote the last section (Galatians 6:11-18) with his own hand. He speaks there of writing with large letters. Some think this was for emphasis in this particular letter, like our bold print. Others suppose it was to show that his physical infirmity (either eyesight or unsteady hand), for which he often asked his correspondence partners' prayers, was progressing.

Letters from Paul's day began with the sender's name, as they had done for thousands of years in the Middle East. This, of course, differs from modern practice in which we put our names at the end. Letters from kings and high officials followed the sender's name with his title(s). This was not always a matter of vanity. In some cases it was necessary for the sender, if previously unknown to his addressee, to show his credentials in order for the letter receiver to know the basis for believing him on matters of fact. It would be like my receiving an e-mail from a physician specializing in an ailment I was suffering, who had been directed by my primary care physician to contact me. He would undoubtedly not only give me his name, but his credentials and present position as well.

I like to think of Paul's "titles" with which he begins his various letters in a similar way. New members of the churches receiving these letters, people who had never met Paul, needed to know the extent of his knowledge, experience and authority, when his letters were read aloud in their worship services.

In the opening of First Corinthians the title he gives is "called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God". Now let's analyze this long title.

"Christ Jesus" is one of several ways that Paul refers to Jesus. Writing to Greek-speaking people, he uses the Greek adjective christos "anointed" for the Hebrew "Messiah" which also means "anointed". It is a linguistic equivalent, but in some ways not a cultural one. Greeks and Romans did not anoint kings, as the ancient Hebrews did. There were no royal overtones in the word, as there would be for a Greek-speaking Jew like Paul. So christos in the Pauline churches of Asia Minor and Greece very quickly became a kind of untranslatable part of Jesus' name, much as most modern people today see it. Ask someone on the street what the word "Christ" is, and they will probably say "That's just Jesus' last name"! Of course, such a view makes utterly meaningless the apostle John's statement in his gospel "These [episodes in the life of Jesus] are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing have life in his name" (John 20:31).

Paul calls himself "a called apostle" (Greek klētos apostolos) — that is an equally possible translation instead of "called to be an apostle". Notice, however, that I didn't say "called an apostle", as if this means that some people called him that and others not. "Called" here means that Paul was appointed an apostle. "By the will of God" stresses that his apostleship was not "by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead", as he so forcefully put it in Galatians 1:1. He was not one of Jesus' disciples while the Lord was alive on earth. In fact, he vigorously opposed the gospel and persecuted unto death numerous believers in Jesus in Palestine and Syria, including the famous Stephen, at whose execution—lynch style—by stoning Saul of Tarsus stood by and held the coats of those murdering him (see Acts 7:54-60; 8:1). He only became a believer, when Jesus personally appeared to him from heaven in a blinding vision, while he was on his way to the Syrian city of Damascus (Acts 9). Paul considered this not only his turning-point ("conversion" if you like), but even more his "calling" by Jesus to be an apostle-missionary to the Gentiles.

An apostle was, however, more than simply a missionary. There were many early Christians engaged in itinerant preaching and church planting. But virtually none of them were apostles. It is clear from Paul's use of the term that he considered himself—like the other members of the original Twelve—a repository of authoritative truth about Jesus. He didn't need to quote another as an authority. Like all the early Christians, he of course quoted the Scripture, which at the time of his missionary travels included only what we call the "Old Testament". Paul's letter to the Galatians may have been the very first part of our New Testament to be composed in writing. Shortly after his "conversion" Paul visited Jerusalem and consulted with members of Jesus' original Twelve and so learned "from the horse's mouth" much about the earthly Jesus. But he also says in his letters that he received special revelations—perhaps as visions—from the Lord Jesus which allowed him to expand the body of truth about Jesus and about the nature of the Church and individual believers' spiritual endowments: truth that went beyond what was shown by the words and deeds of Jesus recorded in the four gospels.

The letter is addressed "To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours" (v. 2). This was not a street address. No postal service employee would use it to direct the letter to its recipient. The letter would be delivered in person by a messenger from Paul to whom directions to the home of the local leader had been given. No, this was almost like a greeting to those who sitting or standing among the worshipers would hear this letter read aloud.

How encouraging these words must have been to those who first heard them! They were "the church of God in Corinth"! There was only one God. They were not "the devotees of the god Dionysis in Corinth". They belonged to Him who had no name, but only titles.

In the Old Testament God's name was Yahweh. In our English translations this is given as "the LORD", with LORD in all caps. As time went on, Jews fearing a misuse of God's name, refused to use it, and substituted their word meaning "the lord" (Adonai). Modern Jews often substitute Ha-Shem, which means "the Name".

In Greece in Paul's day polytheism was the order of the day. It was Multi-Culturalism run wild. "My god is X. Who is your god? How can I add him to my list of divine protectors?" But Paul's friends, like Daniel of old, refused to bow to the cultural pressure and admit there was any god but God. And God, for Paul's friends, was comprised of three divine Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the Triune God—One in Three, and Three in One. They were under His protection and they worshiped and obeyed only Him.

Paul called the individual members "sanctified in Christ Jesus". When you think of that word, what comes to your mind? Someone "holier than thou"? A prude? A crank, critical of everyone? You might be surprised to learn that the Greek word hēgiasmenoi "sanctified" originally meant "set apart (or reserved)"! I like to think of a bird sanctuary, which is land set apart for the birds, and within which they can always be safe. The Corinthian "Multi-Culturalist" whom I quoted above would be surprised to find that his "one-god" Christian neighbor had the only true divine protector, the only Being capable to keeping his believers safe and secure—not just in the six-plus decades of human life on earth, but for eternity thereafter.

Paul next describes his hearers as "called holy ones". Again, this translation is more likely than "called to be saints". And the Greek word for "holy (ones)" (hagioi) is based on the same Greek word translated "sanctified" (hēgiasmenoi), which we saw means "set apart". As Paul was an apostle because Jesus gave him a calling, so also these people in Corinth were "set apart ones" or even "safe-and-secure ones" because Jesus had given them a calling. That calling came when Paul and his fellow-workers spread the good news about Jesus on his first visit to Corinth.

Finally, Paul ends his greeting with the words "Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (v. 3). "Peace" is a greeting used all over the world. Nowadays it often connotes a pacifist persuasion. In Paul's day it did not. The standard Jewish greeting, then and now, in Hebrew was shalom. This word can mean the absence of war. But its basic connotation is "well-being". It means "I wish you health and long life!" through the first of the Greek-speaking Jewish believers in Jesus, even the Greek word eirēnē—the word used here—which originally had no such meaning took on the nuances of shalom. for Paul it would also resonate with the fact that believers in Jesus enjoy "peace with God", as he put it in Romans 5:1—"Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ".

"Grace" is almost a second name for Jesus in Paul's writings and speeches. It is the theme he seems to love most, perhaps because more than anything it was the "grace" of Jesus that kept Paul from continuing down the road to self-destruction as he vainly persecuted the earliest believers. "Grace" means returning kindness for hatred, healing for injury. It means confronting the man who murdered your only son and adopting him in his place. That is grace. The unexpected, undeserved, completely inconceivable love from one who owes you nothing but hatred and revenge. But for Paul "grace" encompasses more than god's initial gift of forgiveness and eternal life. It is also the whole package of spiritual resources included. Believers in Jesus receive the Holy Spirit to live within them, to teach, guide, encourage, alert them to their sins. Believers in Jesus have a special prayer line to god that unbelievers do not. Oh, god does hear all prayers. And he may occasionally do what an unbeliever asks. But believers, because their prayers are guided by the in-dwelling Spirit and are conditioned by what they know what Jesus would want, and are therefore made "in Jesus' name"—those prayers are assured to be answered. And I have barely scraped the barrel of the treasures that God gives beyond measure to those who come to him through his Son, Jesus.

You know? Paul's words might apply to you and me just as well as to those folks in Corinth so long ago. At least I hope that all of you have made your peace with God and found "justification" (forgiveness) through personally receiving Jesus into your life by an act of faith. If so, then you too can be greatly encouraged by these words from Paul.

Paul thanks God for them (v. 4-9)

Modern and sophisticated today are embarrassed and a little irritated if they hear you say "I pray for you". I always debate what to say when a good friend who is not a believer in Jesus tells me that he has suffered a great loss. For us as believers in a God who hears and answers prayer, in such situations it seems so empty to just express deep sympathy.

But Paul lived in a day when even pagans had gods and appreciated someone else praying or making offerings on their behalf. For disciples of Jesus and devout Jews who did not believe in Jesus, to pray for another person was not only the greatest gift you could give them, but it also endeared the intercessor himself to God. The Old Testament Book of Job records how Job faithfully prayed for his wayward sons, and made sacrifices to God for their sins (Job 1:1-5). This is told as a testimony to the righteousness of Job himself (v. 1).

All prayer does not consist of petition—of asking favors of God, for oneself or for others. Confession of personal sins also has its part, as does thanksgiving—once again, for God's gifts to the one praying, as well as for God's good work in the lives of others. In fact, the thanksgiving Paul describes here was both of the above types. For the others in whose lives God was doing such good things were Paul's "spiritual" children. They themselves were God's gifts to Paul, who himself had no physical children. He was their father in Christ, the one who had brought the gospel to them. And so, as you or I might thank god from the bottoms of our hearts for our children, Paul did so for the pople in his young churches. And what does he thank God for specifically? For the grace of God given to them, enabling them to come to faith (v. 4). For the wealth of spiritual gifts that he distributed among them at the time of their turning to faith in Jesus (v. 5-7). Paul (and we) will return to the matter of spiritual gifts in later chapters of this letter.

And finally, he prayed that Jesus would keep them strong in their faith until the day that he returns to Earth in glory (7-8). And he reassured them that God who had called them into fellowship with his Son Jesus would help them to finish life triumphantly, because He is faithful (v. 9).

My prayer for you all is the same! Have a great day as his disciples!

Have a great day, following Jesus!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Introduction to Paul's Letters to Corinth

The Greek city of Corinth was situated astride the narrow isthmus connecting the Greek mainland with the Peloponnesus, the peninsula extending west of the southern tip of the mainland.

For our purposes a recital of the details of its long history seems unnecessary. But if you are interested in them, see this article.

Its location made Corinth an ideal meeting ground for travelers by sea. And since sea-faring merchants and diplomats from many lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea would have passed through Corinth, it was a very cosmopolitan place, acutely attuned to the currents of thought and religion from a variety of ancient traditions. And as we often find today as well, many citizens of Corinth who dabbled in these exotic foreign philosophies and religious ideas did so very superficially and proudly considered themselves more "enlightened" than others.

Into this setting came a traveler from the east in the year AD 51 together with several colleagues. He did not come by sea, but by land, across the isthmus from Athens to the east. Before that he had traveled from the southeastern corner of Asia Minor to its northwestern one, then across the Aegean Sea to the northern mainland of Greece, and from there south to Athens.

He was a short man, not impressive or attractive physically, but with a keen and quick mind, and filled with enthusiasm. His contribution to Corinth was not just another exotic religious tradition, but news of an event that he believed transformed world history: the life, death and bodily resurrection of a Jewish man named Jesus. (For more on this man see my other blog here.)

This traveler from the East—like many in his day and culture— had two names. One reflected his ethnic and religious background as a Jew and was a Hebrew or Aramaic name. At home it was pronounced shah-ool. His parents may have chosen it for him because they were descended from the Israelite tribe of Benjamin, which had given to Israel its first king, whose name also was Sha'ul.

But Sha'ul's family were moderately well-to-do, and among their non-Jewish friends and neighbors they used a name that sounded more like a Roman or Greek name. For their son they chose the name Paul.

You can read all about the first missionary visit of Paul to Corinth in Luke's sequel to his gospel, the book called Acts of the Apostles (Acts 18). On his first visit to Corinth Paul met with opposition from the Jewish synagogues there, because several of their leaders believed his message and joined him in spreading the faith to their fellow Jews in the city. But Paul was undeterred, and God protected him, so that he was able to found several worshiping groups of believers in Jesus, that met in the homes of the well-to-do members. These were called "house churches", and are referred to in Paul's letters written later to the believers in Corinth from other points on his missionary journeys.

The letters were not just friendly notes ("postcards"), telling him about his travels. They were "pastoral" in nature. Something like remote teaching sessions, by the man to whom they owed their knowledge of Jesus, and who was passionately attached to them and wanted to help them grow in their knowledge of Jesus, of the Old Testament scriptures, and of God's own nature and design for how they were to live differently from now on both in their homes and outside among non-believing friends.

And although some of the most profound discussions of central theological issues are contained in Paul's letters to his "young churches", they were more than theological tracts. They focused on specific problems that the Corinthian house churches were having. Because some worship sessions were preceded by a kind of "box lunch social" (ironically, called in Greek agapē "[meals shared in] love"), and the more well-to-do members did not share their food with the poorer members, schisms based upon wealth were beginning to develop. Most of the first generation of Corinthian believers were probably Jews, who rightly abhorred anything to do with idols and their veneration, which was everywhere to be found in Greek and Roman cities. But others were non-Jewish converts, who sincerely believed in Jesus as Lord and Son of God, and that there was one God, but saw no problem with continuing to observe the formalities of Greek civic life that often included hints of idolatry and polytheism. This too led to tension between Jewish and non-Jewish believers. And there were other problems having to do with misunderstandings of some of Paul's teachings.

In sum, Paul needed to keep close touch with the believers in this city, and the New Testament contains two of the several letters that he wrote to them. We call them First and Second Corinthians.

Our study for the coming months will be in the first of these. It was written from Ephesus on the western coast of Asia Minor in the year 55 AD.

If you like, you can read the opening chapter in preparation for my next posting. It can be found online here. But I encourage you to get in the habit of reading the study texts from your own printed Bible. I base my remarks on the original Greek text, but I quote usually from the New International Version. You can use any translation that you own, as I will try to explain any important point at which your particular version may differ from the English text I quote.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

New Study

Dear Blogging Friends,

This message is to assure you that I have not forgotten my promise to resume this Yom Yom blog with a new series of Bible meditations and studies.

I anticipate that the first new study will be posted sometime in the coming week (April 6-12). So stay "tuned" to this "frequency" (URL):