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Thursday, May 29, 2008

1 Cor. 7:17-24 Should I Change my Ethnic Identity or Social Status?

Today's passage can be read here: 1 Cor. 7:17-23.

The advantage or disadvantage of two certain social identities came up for intense discussion in the earliest Christian assemblies in the Diaspora (i.e., the area outside of Palestine): Jewish ethnic identity and slave status. Did one of these (Jewish identity) confer a special preferred status? And did the other one (slave status) indicate a lower one?

Since the gospel as preached by Paul made it clear that circumcision—the principal physical identifying mark on males of Jewish identity—was unnecessary for belonging to the community of the Messiah Jesus, there were some Jewish men in the groups who wondered if they should have the painful operation performed to remove the appearance of circumcision. On the other hand, other non-Jewish male Christians, learning through the Christian preaching of how God gave the seal of circumcision to Abraham, and knowing that by believing in Jesus they had become spiritual children of Abraham, wondered if they should also imitate Abraham by becoming circumcised. After all, after Abraham believed he then followed up by being circumcised. This was the first big issue Paul had to address in this letter.

The second was Christian slaves.
The Greco-Roman slave system was an integral part of every aspect of life in Paul’s time. Estimates are that 85–90 percent of the inhabitants of Rome and peninsula Italy were slaves or of slave origin in the first and second centuries a.d. Facts and figures about slavery in the provinces are sketchy by comparison with those in Italy, but the existing evidence suggests a comparable percentage. By law slaves were what Aristotle called “human tools.” Nevertheless, in the first century they were granted many rights. They could worship as members of the extended family of their owner. They could marry. Such marriages, however, were called contubernium rather than matrimonium. This meant that the offspring of slaves became the property of the owner. Therefore, this may have been the largest source of slaves in the time of the early Empire. During the late Republic slaves were usually prisoners of war. Only very early in Roman history was slavery the result of debt. Slaves also were allowed to accumulate money of their own, the peculium, that often could be used by them to purchase their freedom or to start a business when once they were manumitted, that is, set free by their owners (IVP Dict. of Paul & His Letters).
In view of the preponderance of slaves in the Roman population, even in Greece, it seems almost inevitable that they would have figured in the earliest Christian groups as well, especially since a slave-owner who became a believer would bring with him into the worshiping community all of his household, which of course included his slaves.

Slaves who believed in Jesus understood from the gospel Paul preached that in God's eyes there was no difference between slave and free (Galatians 3:28). Both were not only welcomed into God's family on the basis of faith, but God played no favorites within the community. All were on the same footing within God's family. This naturally made them wonder, if their masters were also believers, why they should not be required to set their slaves free.

Although the two issues—Jewishness and slave status—were certainly not identical, and Paul does approach each in a slightly different way, he also points out a common denominator: If God welcomed them in the state they are now in, it is no shame to remain in that state. In other words, although it may sound callous to someone in today's world, Paul wished such people to remain content about matters of status and to focus on what he considered more important matters, such as their witness to non-believers and their love for their fellow Christians.

As for their present status, Paul refers to it as "the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you" (v. 17). In that same verse (v. 17) Paul makes it clear that this is not just an ad hoc verdict tailored to the local conditions in Corinth, but rather his own well-considered policy advocated in all of his churches.

Some scholars also think that Paul's belief that Jesus would return within his own lifetime may have influenced him into thinking a focus on social status and freedom to be unimportant. If Jesus was going to return in his own lifetime, why should any believer worry about being a slave a little longer? But I stress that there is nothing in this chapter itself to support these scholars' opinion about Paul's motive.

17-20 As for the issue of circumcision, Paul is treats the physical rite as insignificant (v. 19), and for that very reason argues that it should be neither added nor removed. What is important, he claims, is "keeping God's commands" (v. 19). Not to criticize Paul here, but it is ironic that he expresses the contrast this way, since for Jewish Christians loyal to the Torah (Old Testament law), "keeping God's commands" would above all mean keeping the command to circumcise male babies (Gen. 17:9-14)!

But a principle that underlies both this question and the one to follow is that Jew (circumcised) and Gentile (uncircumcised) are on an equal footing before God. The big dividing line is not ethnicity, but faith in the Messiah Jesus. The Messiah Jesus gave no command requiring Gentiles who believe in him to be circumcised.

21-24 The second case has to do with slave versus free status. As the quote at the top of this page indicates, some slaves could accumulate enough wealth (Latin peculium) to actually purchase their own freedom. A Christian slave might not only wonder if his Christian master owed it to him to free him, but—even if that were not possible—wonder if Paul thought he should save his money to purchase his freedom, as opposed to using it for some other purpose, such as contributing to the poor.

Paul's answer in v. 21 has been interpreted in two different ways. Until recently the only one favored by mainline English Bibles was that represented in the translations of the KJV, RSV, NIV, ESV, JB, REB, and NAB: "although if the opportunity to obtain your freedom arises, avail yourself of it". But the NRSV has now proposed a second way of understanding the verse, which does more justice to two key points in Paul's Greek: "even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever". This would mean, do not avail yourself of the opportunity to become free, even if it presents itself.

The two crucial points in the Greek are: (1) ei kai cannot rightly be translated "although if" (NIV) or "but if" (ESV), but must be translated "even if" or "(even) though" (see other examples in your English Bibles in the verses Mark 14:29; Luke 11:8; 18:4; 2Cor 4:16; 5:16; 7:8, 12; 11:15; 12:11; Phil 2:17; 3:12; Heb 6:9; 1Pet 3:14); and (2) the word mallon in the final clause of v. 21 is left untranslated by the NIV, but means "rather" or "instead". I would paraphrase the entire verse as follows: "But even if [Greek ei kai] you are able to become free, instead [mallon] you should use (your present condition to serve Christ)". It would then appear that Paul actually advises—but does not command—these Christian slaves not to use the opportunity to become free.

You might wonder why anyone in his right mind would not take such an opportunity. But you should know that for slaves in many wealthy homes, with kind and gentle masters, and whose duties were light, continuing in that status was vastly more advantageous than becoming free and poor. This fact of life is recognized even in Old Testament times, by the law of Moses, which allowed a slave due to be freed to voluntarily request a continued status as a slave in his master's house (read Exodus 21:5-6).

But what if a Christian slave was owned by a cruel master, and his duties were not easy ones? Paul seems to ask him still to use his difficult circumstances to serve Christ.

Paul's advice is by no means cruel or unfeeling, since he himself knew from long experience what it meant to work long and hard and to suffer unjustly for the cause of the gospel. But above all else he wants all the believers—Jewish and non-Jewish, slaves and slave owners— to live together in maximum understanding and consideration for each other.

And just in case you may think Paul never tried to encourage a Christian slave owner to free one of his believing slaves, you should read the short letter he wrote to Philemon.

Monday, May 26, 2008

1 Cor 7:1-16 Paul on Marriage and Divorce

Today's text can be read here: 1 Cor. 7:1-16.
1 Now for the matters you wrote about: "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations2 with a woman." 2 But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. 3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. 8 Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. 10 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. 12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13 And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. 16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.
Witherington gives good reasons for regarding the quoted remark in verse 1 as a slogan of some of the Corinthians, not Paul's own view:
The messages given at Delphi had three basic forms: commands, sanctions, or instructions to do something; predictions; and statements of past or present fact. The most common form was the sanctions, and one particular form of sanction that is especially interesting for our purposes began with "It is better and more good to do X (than Y)." For example, the oracle told the Heraclids on one occasion: "It is better to bury A1kemene in Megara." This should be compared to the "slogan" in 1 Cor. 7:1: "It is good for a man not to 'touch' a woman." I would suggest that at least some of the Corinthian Christians' slogans may have begun life as prophetic words or sanctions, cast in one of the traditional forms used at Delphi. (Witherington, Commentary on Corinthians, p. 277).
Among other slogans of Paul's addressees, Witherington lists the following:
  • "Everything is permitted to me" (6:12; 10:23),
  • "It is good for a man not to 'touch' a woman" (7:1),
  • "All of us possess knowledge" (8:1),
  • "No idol in the world really exists" (8:4),
  • "Food will not bring us close to God" (8:8), and
  • "There is no resurrection of the dead" (15:12).
If this is the slogan of some of the Corinthians, it could represent an attitude of extreme asceticism, motivated either
  • by the suspicion that the coming of Jesus was imminent and that celibacy was a way of remaining "pure" for his arrival or
  • by some other radical notion of the believer's "spirituality" which disdained earthly and physical acts such as sex.
Perhaps such an attitude grew out of a misunderstanding of Jesus' words about the lack of sexual activity by believers raised from the dead in the end times (Mark 12:24-25).

But the "it is good that …" phraseology is also proper OT ethical language: Psa 54:6; 73:28; 92:1; 119:71; 147:1; Prov 24:13; Eccl 7:18. See also Philo Judaeus: "
The whole-burnt-offering has no other one in view but God Himself alone, Whom it is good to honor" (On the Special Laws 1.1957).

But some scholars assume that these "slogans" reflect Paul's own words:
Likewise, in his pastoral counsel set out in 1 Corinthians, Paul often begins with statements that he and his addressees agree on - though, in this case, they seem to have interpreted the statements in one way and he in another. … In all of these instances Paul begins by seeking common ground and then moving on to explicate his own understanding" (Longenecker, Studies in Paul (2004), p. 119).
Verse 2 seems hardly a sufficient statement on the positive value of sex within marriage. Whether or not sexual immorality was occurring, married couples should enjoy regular sexual intercourse and not deny each other. This is the clear teaching of the Old Testament:
"Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love" (Proverbs 5:18-19).
The biblical view of sex within marriage—both Old Testament and New—is free and robust. Marital sex is a wonderful gift of God that humans are to relish.

Verse 3 describes spouses satisfying their mates' sexual desires as a "duty". It is a duty, because each partner's body belongs to the other partner. And therefore withholding its use to the partner is like theft: "Do not deprive (
mē apostereite) each other" (v. 5), using a Greek verb (apostereō) that can describe embezzling! This does not, of course, mean that marital sex should be performed only as a duty, that is, grudgingly. Rather it is a duty of love. It should be a privilege for a husband to give pleasure to his wife, and vice versa. The Jewish scholar Julie Galambush theorizes:
"Remarkably [Paul] writes that husbands and wives have rights over each other's bodies, perhaps alluding to rabbinic law requiring that husbands provide wives with not only food and clothing but also sex" (Galambush, The Reluctant Parting, p. 134f.).
She may be right. Many of the ethical standards of Jesus and the community of his folllowers sprang from their Jewish roots. And those roots derived often from the Old Testament scriptures.

The only exception (in v. 5) to regular sexual intercourse is not really an exception, since both married partners must
agree to forgo intercourse, and even then they must not resolve never to resume. It should be a temporary measure. The reason given in this example — to allow for a period of intense prayer — is only one example, and Paul certainly does not mean that there might not also be other legitimate reasons for a temporary abstinence. One partner might have recently undergone surgery or some other medical procedure which makes sexual intercourse either painful or inadvisable. Or both partners may have reached an age when sexual intercourse is no longer desirable by either one. The point is that believer should not regard marital sex as something necessary but somehow "dirty". It is a beautiful gift which God has given to humans and when used the way he intends, it increases the attachment and love existing between a married couple.

6 The "concession" Paul refers to is not that married believers should have regular sex, much less that believers should marry at all, but the concession to refrain from sex for a brief period by mutual consent. It is this which he allows, but does not command. Married couples can have intense periods of prayer without having to suspend sexual intercourse! The reference is to what precedes in v. 5, not to what follows in v. 7.

It is not clear in what way Paul could wish that all believers were like himself in regard to sexual matters (v. 7). Some think this means he could wish all were unmarried. But—unless this just means that he believed Jesus would return very soon, making new marriages inadvisable—this contradicts what he writes elsewhere in his letters (Eph 5:22-33; Col 3:18-19; 1Ti 3:2,12; 5:14) where he spoke strongly in favor of the married state.

10 The NIV Study Bible note's interpretation of the command of Jesus as originating from a tradition about Jesus' earthly teaching is to be preferred to the view of others that Paul here claims a revelation from the ascended Jesus.1

Verse 10-11 have to do with marriages in which both partners are believers. Paul understood Jesus' own words about divorce to refer to such marriages.

-16 is said to be "I, not the Lord [Jesus]". But this does not mean that Jesus' own recorded words were opposed to Paul's advice here. It mere means that Paul is being very conscientious here to inform his converts that he has no tradition of an actual statement by Jesus that addresses their specific situation, namely, marriages in which only one of the two partners is a believer. In Paul's mind—and quite likely this would have been Jesus' view as well—this is a different situation, and one that requires some modification of the strict view just articulated in verses 10-11. There, the believers who separate should not marry others. But in the case of a believer whose unbelieving partner initiates divorce, the believer is not obligated to remain unmarried (v. 15 "is not bound [to the unbeliever, and may therefore marry another without committing adultery in God's eyes]").

But if the unbelieving partner is willing to remain married, the believing partner should not seek a divorce. It is the believer's mission to seek to bring the unbelieving partner to faith. But the goal is that the believing partner might by
his/her loving conduct win the unbelieving partner to faith. This is certainly the emphasis of St. Peter in his open letter to Christians:
[Christian] wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, 2 when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. 3 Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. 4 Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. (1 Peter 3:1-4)
It is interesting that Peter's example is a believing wife, not a husband. Perhaps this reflects how many women were early on attracted to the Christian gospel. That Peter suggests the wife's appeal can be "without words" does not mean that the believing spouse never should verbalize his/her faith to the partner, but that there should never be nagging and criticizing, but rather a loving concern for the spouse, which of course includes gentle teaching about Jesus coupled with considerate behavior.

Another very interesting point is that Paul considers the believing partner's influence on the marriage to be a sanctifying one (v. 14). This does
not mean that the unbelieving partner does not need also to come to faith in order to be saved, for otherwise Paul would not have added (v. 16): "how do you know whether you will save your [spouse]?" Apparently the "sanctifying" means that the unbelieving spouse is in a very advantageous position. He or she has a spouse who believes and can show him/her Christ in a way that embraces all aspects of daily life and that mirrors the love of Jesus within the intimate marriage bond. Persons without believing spouses are not so fortunate!

Is this your situation now? Are you either married to a believer and are contemplating taking the step of faith yourself, or are you a believer with a presently non-believing spouse? If your situation is the former, then why don't you let your believing spouse help you to find what he/she already has and enjoys? Your marriage can be even more happy, if you both enjoy a faith-relationship with Jesus.

And if the situation is the latter, make sure that you do not nag your spouse. And he/she is hard to live with, ask God to help you not to take offense, but to show amazing patience and forgiveness. And look for times when he/she is not otherwise occupied to have quiet talks about the advantages of knowing Jesus personally.

Of course, if you are currently suffering
real physical abuse—beatings, for exampleyou should not allow it to continue. If that occurs, you must take steps to contact the police and take refuge in centers designed to protect victims of spousal beating. Christian love needs to be wise as well as forgiving. You do not help your spouse, if you acquiesce to being beaten.


1. For example, Dunn,
Unity & Diversity (1977), 67: "At the same time [Paul] has no compunction about adding what appears to be his own interpretation to the received formula ('For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes'- 11.26). Moreover he specifically designates the source of the Last Supper tradition as 'the Lord'. This seems to mean not so much that the earthly Jesus was the original source of the tradition, but rather that Paul understood the present, exalted Jesus to be the immediate source of the historical formula - that is to say, that it was authoritative not because it was a tradition but because it was received and accepted on the direct authority of the exalted one (cf. and note the present tense in I Cor. 7. l0). Here again evidently we are back with the idea of 'pneumatic tradition', tradition which is authoritative because of its immediate inspiration and its direct relevance."

2. The literal "not touch a woman" is a Jewish idiom in Paul's day for "have sexual intercourse with a woman". The Corinthians whose slogan this was applied it even to sexual intercourse between married partners, an extreme ascetic viewpoint.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

1 Cor. 6:12-20 How Liberating is Selfish "Freedom"?

Today's text is 1 Cor. 6:12-20:
"Everything is permissible for me"—but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible for me"—but I will not be mastered by anything. 13 "Food for the stomach and the stomach for food"—but God will destroy them both. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, "The two will become one flesh." 17 But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. 19 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body (NIV).
The quotation marks in the NIV translation above are a pretty good guess at where Paul was quoting the slogans being tossed around in the Corinthian churches by those who were flaunting their "liberty" in Christ. But we cannot be sure in all cases if the quotation might have continued farther than indicated. For example, in v. 13 it is possible that "but God will destroy them both" also belongs to the slogan, not to Paul's reply.

We would all like to know just who in the Corinthian churches was using which slogans. Gender-wise, it has been plausibly suggested on the basis of the mention of "liberated" believers using prostitutes (v. 16) that those urging sexual freedom were men, not women. Perhaps, but we should be aware that the NIV's "he" and "his" in verse 16-18 is gender-neutral which can equally correctly be translated "she" and "her". And the Greek word anthropos which the NIV renders "man" in v. 18 is also the gender-neutral word "person". Were these "liberated" persons Jew or Gentile believers in Jesus? Would Gentile (i.e., pagan) converts have felt "un-liberated" sexually before becoming believers? These are questions for which we simply do not have answers. And in terms of the corrosive sexual liberation in today's world, the great hue and cry in TV, movies and mass media is for women to be liberated and to enjoy a promiscuous life style. So in terms of application of this passage to today's Christians, it is best not to pigeon-hole it with a gender category. All of us believers—men and women—need to hear this word of God through Paul.

As in his previous remarks about civil lawsuits, Paul stresses that what one has a right to do—even if that claim were to be correct—is not the really important issue for a disciple of Jesus. The issue is not what is permissible, but what is beneficial to all persons concerned. He has stressed in chapter 3 that it is corporately that the believers constitute God's temple. So much about the ways in which God has richly endowed them (1 Cor. 1:4-7) is true only in their corporate—not their individual—existence. Consequently, their personal lives and ethical decisions must all be governed by what is good for the entire body of believers. What will be helpful in strengthening others in the believing community? What will clarify the witness of the community to the outsiders? Will my action help or hinder the growth of my brothers and sisters in Christ?

What appear to be "free" choices, especially in matters of sexual practice, also usually lead to habits—and habits have a way of becoming addictions. Hence, Paul's warning "'Everything is permissible for me'—but I will not be mastered by anything" (v. 12).

The slogan "Food for the stomach and the stomach for food" in v. 13 has a very modern ring to it. Some people today reason this way: If I have an urge for sexual intercourse with someone, is it not just as much a natural bodily function as being hungry or thirsty? Why should it be considered wrong to satisfy that urge? If the slogan Paul quotes includes "and God will destroy them both", it is possible that the "liberated" person claims that what one does with one's body, which eventually dies, is unimportant. It is the soul that continues and will live on with God. Paul will eventually puncture that "balloon" with teaching on the resurrection of the body of believers as an essential part of eternal living in God's final kingdom. David Wenham has raised the interesting possibility that these "liberated" believers were basing their view on what they understood of the teachings of Jesus himself.
"It may seem surprising, but it is possible that the men going to prostitutes were [quoting Jesus' teaching]! … This is suggested by the way Paul describes their view: 'Food for the stomach and the stomach for food. But God will destroy both' (6.13). We may wonder what the food and stomach have to do with the question of prostitution. Is the context one of orgiastic meals, with sex thrown in? Possibly. But it is also possible that the Corinthians were taking what Jesus said about food and applying it to sex. To understand this point, we need to recall a story of Jesus in Mark and Matthew (Mark 7.1-23; Matthew 15.l-20). Jesus' disciples, according to the gospels, caused offence to the Pharisees and scribes by 'eating food with hands that were unclean, that is, unwashed' (Mark 7.3). Jesus replied by attacking his opponents' inverted priorities, and then commented, 'Nothing outside a person can make him unclean by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him unclean' (Mark 7.15). When pressed by his disciples to clarify this he comments: 'Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him "unclean"? For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body' (7.18 19a). Mark then adds, 'In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean' (7.19b). … It is entirely likely, given its importance for him, that Paul will have passed on this teaching to the Corinthians (cf. also Colossians 2.21-2). He will have taught them about Christians being free from the law, and quoted Jesus' teaching in that connection. What he will not, presumably, have anticipated is that some of the Corinthians would seize on his teaching about Christian freedom, and in particular on the idea of 'nothing coming into a person from outside' making a person unclean, to justify sexual licence. After all, in the gospel story itself the question of food is linked to the question of hand-washing, and it was convenient logic for the Corinthians to apply the teaching about food to another bodily function, i.e. sex. Jesus' comment about food going into the stomach and so passing on could well have led the Corinthians to say 'Food for the stomach, the stomach for food. God will destroy both', and then to argue that sex is a similarly harmless physical function of the body which has no relevance to the heart and the spirit; they are what matter, as Jesus said. This logic may seem perverse to us, but we are familiar enough in the modern world with people interpreting the Bible perversely to suit their own views! … What is interesting in this reconstruction of things is that both [Paul] and his opponents are quoting the teaching and traditions of Jesus. He had taught them what Jesus had said about all sorts of things, including marriage, divorce, celibacy, the kingdom of God, and cleanness; they took this teaching on board, but interpreted some of it in ways that Paul rejected; he then has to correct their interpretations. In doing so, he uses a variety of arguments, some of which draw further on the teaching of Jesus" (Wenham, Paul and Jesus: The True Story [2002], p. 153-55).
If, however, the final phrase "and God will destroy them both" is not part of their slogan, but Paul's response, then he is stressing that even with a resurrected body, saints in eternity will no longer need to satisfy physical hunger or thirst.

Either way, Paul wishes to clear the air theologically. What believers do in their bodies now, in this life, is not unimportant. Our bodies are part of God's temple (v. 15-17). Our bodies have been redeemed by Jesus and belong to him (v. 19-20). As the bride is joined physically to her husband, so we as the bride of Christ are joined to him spiritually (v. 17), and must remain faithful to him in both body and spirit. Paul's biblical and theological logic is impeccable and irrefutable. What is expected of those whom Jesus has liberated from bondage to sin is purity of body and spirit. Purity does not exclude the proper use of our God-given sexual desires, which should be channeled through our marriage partners to the glory of God. Not every bodily urge is "innocent" or morally "neutral" like thirst. And even hunger and thirst must never dominate us. After all, both Jesus and Paul at times felt it necessary to practice the discipline of fasting.

What then should be the lessons that we leave this passage with?
  • First of all, our bodies belong to Jesus and must be used to bring glory to him, not to satisfy selfish desires.
  • Secondly, we belong to a worldwide community of believers in Jesus, as well as to a local sub-unit of that community. Our conduct, including out sexual conduct, should foster the very best goals of that community.
  • And thirdly, we should all realize that actions become habits, which become addictions, and should avoid letting momentary urges create harmful patterns in our lives—even patterns of thinking about the opposite sex.

Monday, May 19, 2008

1 Cor 6:1-11 "Small Claims" or a Big One?

Today's text is 1 Cor. 6:1-11:
When one of you has a dispute with another believer, how dare you file a lawsuit and ask a secular court to decide the matter instead of taking it to other believers! 2 Don’t you realize that someday we believers will judge the world? And since you are going to judge the world, can’t you decide even these little things among yourselves? 3 Don’t you realize that we will judge angels? So you should surely be able to resolve ordinary disputes in this life. 4 If you have legal disputes about such matters, why go to outside judges who are not respected by the church? 5 I am saying this to shame you. Isn’t there anyone in all the church who is wise enough to decide these issues? 6 But instead, one believer sues another—right in front of unbelievers!
7 Even to have such lawsuits with one another is a defeat for you. Why not just accept the injustice and leave it at that? Why not let yourselves be cheated? 8 Instead, you yourselves are the ones who do wrong and cheat even your fellow believers.
9 Don’t you realize that those who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, 10 or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people—none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God. 11 Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
The next issue that Paul feels he must address in this letter is members of the believing community going outside of that community to find judicial redress against other members of the same community. The Greek term pragma is rendered here (v. 1) either "grievance" (NRSV, ESV), "dispute" (NIV, TNIV, NLT), or "case" (NAB). This is a fairly general term for lawsuits. But Paul further specifies what he is talking about with two other terms: in verse 2 he scolds them for not considering themselves capable of judging the "most trivial" issues (Greek elakhistos). And in verses 3-4 he designates such cases as biôtikos "relating to ordinary daily life". As the NIV Study Bible note rightly stresses,
Paul seems to be talking about various kinds of property court cases here (cf. the phrase “why not rather [let yourselves] be cheated?” v. 7), not criminal cases that should be handled by the state (Rom. 13:3-4).
What is at stake is either property or money that may be lost, not bodily injury, theft, or homicide. It is what would be handled in a "small claims" court today. It involved disagreements or misunderstandings between brothers in Christ, not crimes against the Corinthian society. As such, Paul points out, it belongs within the community, and the goal should be conflict resolution and the restoration of peace, harmony and justice within the body of Christ.

What needs to be recognized here is that in Paul’s day:
"the Romans allowed the Jews to apply their own law in property matters, and since the Romans did not yet consider Christians as a separate class from the Jews, Christians no doubt had the same rights" (NIV Study Bible).
Paul does not, however, consider the issue to be the right of a religious group to judge their own people—at least he does not overtly word his concern thus. Instead, he contrasts the two groups who might judge the case. In doing this, he bases his argument on the impropriety of employing an "unrighteous" person as arbiter instead of a "holy one" ("saint" = a believer).

The terms he uses in opposition to each other are the adikoi "unjust" or "unrighteous" (NIV's "ungodly" is not a very apt translation) and the hagioi "holy ones". With these terms he is clearly referring to the non-believers (Jews, Greeks and Romans) as the adikoi, and fellow believers in Jesus as the hagioi.

This is a somewhat unusual pair of adjectives to use for purpose of contrast, and this particular pair is not attested elsewhere in either Paul's own writings or the rest of the New Testament. One would expect rather a pair of exact opposites, such as adikoi "unjust, unrighteous" versus dikaioi "just, righteous". Or if Paul did not aim to put the stress on the moral character of the pair, he could have used apistoi "unbelievers" versus pistoi "believers". In fact, Paul uses the term apistoi "unbelievers" in verse 6. Why does he not seek precise linguistic symmetry here in verse 1?

Questions such as these have led some interpreters to see in Paul's labeling the judges in the public courts of Corinth adikoi "unjust" a special indictment of local Corinthian corruption.1 Thiselton (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 418) paraphrases it "a court where there is questionable justice".

This seems out of character with the fact that Paul is here establishing a principle that he probably intends to be the norm in other cities where his churches are located. Furthermore, in Paul's own experience of appearing before a judge in Corinth (Acts 18) he was cleared by a wise verdict from the famous judge Gallio.

But there may in fact be a sense in which Thiselton's paraphrase, when not restricted to the local scene in Corinth, may be on point. In cases in which there is no actual infraction of Roman or Corinthian law, but simply a disagreement between the parties, certain unique issues need to be considered between fellow believers in Christ that no secular court would be willing to raise, or even be aware of. One such issue is actually mentioned here by Paul—in verse 7: "Even to have such lawsuits with one another is a defeat for you. Why not just accept the injustice and leave it at that? Why not let yourselves be cheated?" (NLT). The principle Paul has in mind is Jesus' command to his disciples:
"Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also. Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back" (Luke 6:28-30, NLT).
Most likely, that is also the reason for contrasting adikoi, those who do not understand Jesus' radical principle of response to a wrong, with the "holy ones" (hagioi, "saints") who can and do understand the nature of disciples' obligation to repay evil with good. Believers are called upon to settle one another's cases because they share in God's holy character and are willing to respond to personal injuries with God-like mercy and grace.

Paul's words in v. 7 show that this was the primary reason behind his instructions here, even though it may also be true that certain local conditions of a practical nature also entered into his decision. For example, it has been suggested that these were civil suits. And only wealthy believers could afford the costs of mounting a case against another. The poor believers could not, nor could they afford legal representation to defend themselves. These inequities would not exist in a private hearing within the Christian community. Rich and poor would be on an equal footing, and the goal would not be to gouge the losing party with a huge settlement plus the court costs, but to seek a just and mutually accepted solution.

It is Paul's primary underlying rationale that makes this advice of enduring and universal significance to us today. For us who are disciples of Jesus every response to harm done to us must be governed by our Lord's command and his own example:
He never sinned,
nor ever deceived anyone.
He did not retaliate when he was insulted,
nor threaten revenge when he suffered.
He left his case in the hands of God,
who always judges fairly.
He personally carried our sins
in his body on the cross
so that we can be dead to sin
and live for what is right.
By his wounds
you are healed
1 Peter 2:22-24 (NLT)
What is more important to you: winning some "small claims" suit against your brother, or gladly acknowledging the big claim that Jesus has on your life?


1. Advocated, for example, by Alan F. Johnson (IVP New Testament Commentary on 1 Corinthians).

Thursday, May 15, 2008

1 Cor. 5 — Flagrant Immorality Proudly Tolerated

In chapter 4 Paul mentions a mood of complacency among those in Corinth who were disregarding his warnings (v. 18): "Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. 20 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power." The term translated "arrogant" by the NRSV and ESV, and "proud" by the NIV, is what older versions translate literally as "puffed up (with pride, self-confidence)". It denotes a kind of supreme confidence and complacency. This same mood manifests itself in respect to the next abuse that Paul addresses in chapter 5: the man who is carrying on a sexual relationship with his father's wife (i.e., his step-mother).

Although there are many problems with the interpretation of the details of this case, the main lines are clear. The Corinthian believers are misled into thinking that their new state in Christ allows them the freedom to do things that are clearly forbidden in the OT Scripture, in the current Jewish laws, and in the laws of the Roman society in which they live. Since they attribute this freedom to their new state in Christ, they are actually pleased and rejoice in doing these things in order to demonstrate what Christ has done for them. News of this reached Paul through the "household of Chloe", while he was in Ephesus, from where he writes the present letter to them. He expresses his shock and anger at such an interpretation of what it means to be "in Christ", and orders them to repent and grieve over their sin of tolerating this continuing flagrant sin, to expel the offending man from their meetings, and by prayer to "assign him to Satan for the destruction of the 'flesh'", so that he will repent, abandon his sin, and be restored to the community—and so that "his spirit may be saved".

Those are the main lines. As for the difficulties in detail and the differences of opinion among commentators, the first concerns the phrase "deliver him to Satan for the destruction of the flesh". What is the "flesh" (Greek sarx) that is to be destroyed? Some maintain that it means the "fleshly" (i.e., sinful) nature or attitude that leads this man to stubbornly persist in this sexual relationship. This view is reflected in the paraphrased translation in the NIV "the sinful nature may be destroyed". Those who follow this view rightly see that Paul's goal is the saving of this man in the present life and his restoration to fellowship as a repentant person, and therefore they conclude that the Corinthian believers could not be handing him over to Satan to have him killed ("flesh" = body). Others think Satan is supposed to attack his body ("flesh") with suffering, severe illness, and with the ultimate result ("destruction") of his death. This seems to be Satan's usual work, as attested in the OT Scriptures (see among others the case of Job) and in the other parts of the NT. Both sides stress valid points. How are we to resolve this matter?

It seems to me that the answer lies in the understanding of the two purpose clauses "for the destruction of the flesh" and "so that his spirit may be saved". Since it would be impossible for Satan to act against his own interests by removing the "sinful nature" from the offending man, so that his spirit might be saved, I understand the assigning of the man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh to mean asking God to remove his protection from the man's body, as he did with Job, so that Satan may bring painful, even grave, illness upon him. "Flesh" here, then, does mean the man's physical body. The "so that" clause, however, does not refer to a consequence of the destruction of the flesh (body), but to a desired consequence of the assigning him to Satan. The intention all along—on Paul's part as well as on the part of the congregation—is to bring the man to repentance and restore him, which—judging from 2 Corinthians—seems to have in fact been the happy outcome. But this outcome was not the result of Satan destroying the sinful nature in the man—which is preposterous. See our Lord's own ridiculing of such a possibility in his words to the Pharisees who accused him of casting out demons by the power of the Prince of Demons.

A second, less important, problem of interpretation is the question of the exact nature of the man's deed. Could the woman he was having sexual relations with have been widowed or divorced from his father? Or are we to envision the offender having an extended sexual relationship with a woman who was still the wife of the man's living father? Most interpreters assume the latter. Since obviously the father has male offspring (the offending son!), this cannot be a case of levirate marriage (Deut. 25), which allows the widow to be taken in marriage by a very close male blood relative—a situation which under other circumstances would clearly constitute incest. And if this is not levirate marriage, then even if the woman was his father's divorced wife, it constitutes incest according to OT law.

But what is of particular interest in Paul's rebuke is that he considers more than just the fact that it is a violation of God's (OT) law, but that it is something not even tolerated by the pagans (so correctly in ESV and TNIV). The translation "not found even among the pagans" (so NRSV, and in slightly different wording in the NIV) is incorrect. The italicized verb is actually missing from the Greek text and is supplied by translators in order to complete the thought. But actual cases in Roman law of the time show that these things actually did happen, but were judged and punished in the courts. So the point is not that they never occurred, but that the pagan Romans did not allow them to go unpunished. The Corinthians were flouting the laws of the society in which they lived. And Paul makes this an additional (perhaps even equal) consideration in his rebuke.

6-8 Having given clear instructions as to what they are to do with regard to this man, Paul turns to their attitude. He is exceedingly unhappy with their boasting about special moral and ethical freedoms. The freedom of the Christian from the law of Moses that he elsewhere describes does not mean freedom from its moral and ethical aspects, only from the necessity to perform animal sacrifices to secure forgiveness for sins, and from the necessity to circumcise Gentiles. Christians are not free from God's moral demands. Nor can they without very good reason go against reasonable moral standards of the society in which they live. Paul uses a metaphor from the Passover festival, which many of the members observed as good Jews. It was necessary before celebrating that festival to purge the house of any trace of leaven, any food that was the product of fermentation. Only a tiny bit of leavened dough added to a large lump of unleavened dough quickly spreads its fermentation throughout the lump. The lesson is clear: the believers in Corinth cannot let publicly known sins in their midst go uncorrected. If they do, the practices will spread and permeate the whole. When this happens, they cannot benefit from their true Passover sacrifice, Jesus the Messiah who died for their sins.

9-13 Finally, Paul wants them to understand that expelling an unrepentant believer from their membership and their meetings was all that he had meant by an earlier instruction to them "not to associate with immoral persons" (sexual offenders, greedy persons, robbers, idolaters, etc.). He did not intend them to shun unbelieving neighbors! To do the latter, they would have to leave the world! Rather, Paul wants them to keep a tight rein on the moral rectitude of their own members and to discipline those who refused to be moral. When he tells them not to even "eat" with such a rebellious member of the congregation, he undoubtedly refers to the believers' communal meals such as the agape ("love feast") and the associated Lord's Supper (Eucharist). Christian congregations today usually issue a request to persons attending the Eucharist who are not yet believers that they refrain from partaking until such time as they can do so as believers. But in cases where a member known to be flagrantly disobeying the moral demands of Scripture sits in the congregation at Eucharist, the situation is ticklish. No one wants to have a scene during the Eucharist. If the elements are administered at a communion rail by the pastor, he can quietly refuse to administer the sacrament to the person he knows to be rebelling. But in cases where deacons or elders pass the elements down the pews, this cannot be done. In such cases, it is the responsibility of the pastor and elders to go and talk with the person, and urge them not to continue to combine a sinful practice with participation in the Eucharist, since God has promised to judge such persons (1 Cor. 11:27-31). Paul will have more to say on this issue in chapter 11.

Monday, May 12, 2008

1 Cor. 4:14-21 A Parent's Tough Love

Here is today's text (1 Cor. 4:14-21):

14 I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15 For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 16I urge you, then, be imitators of me. 17 That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. 18 Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. 20 For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. 21 What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?

14-15 Paul finds it necessary to put his words in the proper context, so that they may be better understood and received in the right spirit. He has a special relationship with these people, one not shared by the other teachers and leaders1 that have visited them or those resident in Corinth. As the man who first brought the gospel to them and personally led most of them to faith in Jesus, he is a spiritual "father" to them. And as a father he has special rights and duties. They understood this, because many of them were fathers. One of these duties and rights was to warn or admonish one's children. Seen in this light, his previous sharp language and biting sarcasm loses its ability to offend and alienate. He has said these things as their loving father, who cares about them in a way that no other person ever can.

Those of us who have are parents know from experience how difficult it is to convey our genuine concern to our children when we have to confront them about harmful conduct. Even the best of intentions can backfire. You can be sure that Paul prayed long and hard before penning these words to his Corinthian "children".

16-17 Verbal correction is only one of the duties and rights of a loving parent. Another is modeling good behavior. If the verbal corrections are not regularly accompanied by the modeling, they will seem hollow and hypocritical. The effect will be the opposite of what is desired. The child simply "turns off" the parent, and perhaps despises him or her as a hypocrite. Paul has no fear that his own life will not reflect what he has taught. Fearlessly (and, we suspect, honestly) he appeals to what the Corinthians saw in him when he was among them and what they have heard about his courage and sufferings after he departed (v. 11-13). The fact that some New Testament scholars can refer to Paul's listing these sufferings as a kind of literary type (Greek peristaseis 'catalogs of hardships') does not prove that they were not real in Paul's case. The very fact that on the surface these were unflattering things to say about himself would prove that he does not manufacture them! If Paul's manner of speaking was not up to the eloquent standard of someone like Apollos, there is no doubt that his personal example of suffering for Christ and for his spiritual children was dramatic and impressive.

In case they may have an imperfect memory of Paul's model behavior and the principles that guide it, he promises to send his young associate Timothy to fill out in their minds what they do not already know.

18-21 A loving parent's first choice is to persuade his child. But the Old Testament already allowed an extreme step for parents of an incorrigible child. It is so frightening that none of us would wish to even think about it today. You can read about it here in this passage of Scripture. But it shows just how seriously God takes the proper relationship of children to parents and vice versa. So important that it is one of the first of the ten commandments: "Honor your father and your mother". "Honor" in ancient Israel always entailed obedience. It was impossible to honor a parent while refusing to obey him or her. And so, Paul builds on his relationship to the Corinthian believers as their spiritual father, indicting that he will not hesitate to discipline them as any conscientious father would. the choice is theirs: "What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a switch, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?" If they listen to his words of wisdom, the switch will not be necessary. That Paul had the power to back up his words, we should have no doubt. He says: "I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power." A few of his most stubborn and audacious opponents dared him to come. They considered themselves above him in spirituality. But anyone who ever saw Paul in action—and you can sample some examples by reading of his miraculous powers in the Book of Acts—knew that there would be no standing up to him, when he acted in defense of the Gospel of Jesus.

We shall see in our next installment (Chapter 5) what some of the things were that so troubled and incensed Paul about the behavior of some of the members of his churches. And when we see what they were, we will surely understand why he threatened drastic discipline.


1. The Greek word translated by NIV as "guardians" and the NRSV and ESV as "guides" designates private tutors in well-to-do Greek families, who saw to the education of children until they reached adulthood. Paul sometimes refers to the Law of Moses in a metaphorical way as such a tutor, placed in charge of Israel until the Messiah Jesus was sent.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

1 Cor. 4:8-13 Reigning with Christ

A Roman Victory Procession
(Image courtesy of

Today's text can be read here: 1 Cor. 4:8-13.

Jesus and the apostles took a unique approach to the Old Testament prophecies of the coming Kingdom of God. They saw a certain sense in which that kingdom had begun with the arrival of Jesus on Earth for the first time and in the spread of the Gospel after his resurrection. But they still maintained that the kingdom in its fullest sense would only break into history when Jesus returns, as he promised. Scholars like to use the balancing phrase "already … (but) not yet" to describe this dual aspect of God's kingdom.

Many students of the Corinthian correspondence also think that some of the believers there had neglected the second aspect and were boldly proclaiming that the present experience of believers was the only and the final realization of God's Kingdom. If so, then Paul's words in verse 8 sarcastically reflect that erroneous teaching.
Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings—and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you!
His own rejection of this perverted "realized eschatology" is reflected in the words "and that without us"! He had no intention of celebrating the completion of the Day of the Lord before the Lord himself returned in glory!

Hand in hand with this perverted view of the arrival of the Kingdom of God went a corollary: if the Kingdom has arrived, bringing with it the definitive triumph of God over all evil, then true disciples of Jesus would not suffer. So Paul again uses sarcasm when he writes in vv. 9-12:
For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.
The Corinthians knew what an imperial victory procession looked like. Some of them had probably been to Rome and witnessed the spectacle. The victorious general in his chariot at the head of the procession, with a slave standing beside him, holding over his head the victor's crown and whispering in his ear "Remember you are not a god, you are a man". And behind him marched a long procession of the prisoners captured in the victory. Now Paul tells them: If you are right in assuming that all true disciples of Jesus now enjoy reigning as kings, and that reigning excludes suffering, then I must conclude that Peter, James, John, and the rest of us apostles who suffer daily for the Gospel must not be victors with Christ, but defeated prisoners, awaiting execution!
One of the most striking of all Paul's images is his use of the Roman triumph to describe his own career. This is seen quite clearly in 2 Cor. 2: 14-17. … Here Paul envisions himself as a person formerly hostile to the will of the ruler he now serves, and hence he has been taken captive by Christ and is being led around the world by God in Christ in the triumph. While he is being led to eventual execution, an aroma of Christ, the knowledge of him, is being disseminated throughout the empire as he heads ultimately for Rome. Not all the onlookers catch this scent, however; some smell the dying of Jesus in him and take offense, for it smells like death. This same idea can be found in 1 Cor. 4:9, where Paul says he is exhibited last of all Christ's agents (apostoloi) being sentenced to death, and being made something of a spectacle to gawk at and be amazed by (Witherington, Paul's Thought World, p. 237).
Paul goes on, continuing to use sarcasm: "And since I do not teach what you claim—that the Kingdom of God has no further fulfillment beyond this present age—then I and my fellow apostles are indeed 'fools', whereas you are wise!" He uses a very similar remark later, when in chapter 15 he teaches about the reality of the final bodily resurrection of believers: "For if only in this life we have hope in Christ, we should be pitied more than anyone" (1 Cor. 15:19).

And if these sarcastic statements were not enough to show these Corinthians the foolishness of their ideas, Paul goes on to describe the sufferings that he and his fellow apostles are experiencing in terms that unmistakably recall the experiences of Christ himself (vv. 12-13):
When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly.
Such distinctively Christian behavior—totally at odds with the ethics of surrounding groups—necessarily entails suffering and humiliation. How does this fit with their theory that the Reign of God had not only begun in their own lives, but also was not consistent with suffering? Not well!

How did this strange view of the fulfillment of the Old Testament predictions of the coming of God's Kingdom spring up and flourish so in Corinth?1 Strangely enough, it appears that it may have had its root in the very blessings and gifts of God, so richly bestowed in these congregations. As Paul wrote in 1:5-7a,
For in him you have been enriched in every way—in all your speaking and in all your knowledge— because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift …
Some of the believers there also continued to "eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed" (v. 7b), as Paul wrote further. But many, intoxicated by the lavish display in their midst of these supernatural powers of prophecy and other gifts of the Spirit, concluded that there was nothing more to wait for. This not only led them to the erroneous conclusion that "there is no (future) resurrection" — a view that Paul attacks head-on in chapter 15 — but the corollary that they were in fact reigning now and need not expect suffering or humiliation for the sake of the Gospel.

Paul's correct understanding of the way in which the believer can participate in Jesus' victory of evil in the present age is through conquering sin in his own life through his identification with Jesus' death to sin and resurrection to new life of holiness (see Romans 6). That was the form of "reigning with Christ" which these triumphal Corinthians were neglecting, by their bickering among themselves and despising those with fewer spiritual gifts.

Brothers and sisters, some of you may also be rejoicing in lavish blessings from God, both physical (for example, financial success, job promotion, etc.) and spiritual. We rejoice with you for this generous gift of God. But remember that the Church of Jesus around the world is not experiencing an easy time. Believers in other lands—and some in our own—are threatened if they speak out for Christ. Some are in prison. Some have been killed for their testimony. Some suffer hunger and thirst. And, of course, many believers in your own churches suffer from joblessness, from abandonment by a spouse, from grief over children who have abandoned any faith in the Lord Jesus. These sufferings too are endured for the sake of the Gospel, and are deserving of our ministries to these brothers and sisters. Christians who suffer mirror Jesus' own sufferings for us. It is a noble work. But it is also a condition that we, their brothers and sisters, should alleviate with our sympathy, practical assistance, and prayers.

2 Timothy 2:11-13:
Here is a trustworthy saying:
If we died with him,
we will also live with him;
12 if we endure,
we will also reign with him.
If we disown him,
he will also disown us;
13 if we are faithless,
he will remain faithful,
for he cannot disown himself.


1. Meeks (The First Urban Christians, pp. 121-122): "The common opinion among New Testament scholars is that all the problems addressed in 1 Corinthians are somehow connected with the beliefs about the resurrection addressed in chapter 15. It was not, according to this view, that the Corinthians who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead were simply skeptical of a future life or that they rejected the 'Jewish' notion of bodily resurrection in favor of a 'Greek' conception of the soul's escape from the body at death. Rather, they considered that spiritually they were already raised up with Christ and 'enthroned with him in the heavenly places,' as the baptismal liturgy probably stated (Eph. 2:6; cf. 1 Cor. 4:8). Now if we ask how people could imagine and continue to believe over some time that their physical life was unreal or of no consequence and their real life spiritual and transcendent, we might well guess that trance experiences of the sort that produce glossolalia [speaking in 'tongues'] could have served as strong reinforcement of that belief. Still, this is only a conjecture. The letter does not refer explicitly to any connection between the Corinthian Christians' 'realized eschatology' and their glossolalia."

Witherington has another explanation: "Scholars have frequently noted the realized eschatology of at least some of the Corinthians, but have not provided a convincing explanation of this eschatology from a sociological standpoint. We are now in a better position to provide that explanation. Greco-Roman paganism did not place much stress on a blessed afterlife. Religion was to be practiced for its present benefits, such as health and safety. In this very chapter, in v. 29, there is evidence that pagan beliefs continued to shape the Corinthian Christians' view of these matters" (Corinthians, p. 292f). See also "[T]he Corinthians, or at least some of them, think that they are truly and perhaps fully 'in the know' already. This comports with and is part of their realized eschatology. They have failed to realize that the knowledge and even the prophecy they have now are only partial, and that full knowledge only comes at the [return of Christ]" (op. cit., p. 270).

The re-formulation in N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God [2003], p. 279f. is not really different from the above ones, although he seems to think it is. For the simplest and best description of "realized eschatology" see William Sanford LaSor, The Truth About Armageddon: What the Bible Says About the End Times (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 18-22.

Monday, May 05, 2008

1 Cor. 4:1-7 Christ's Faithful Stewards

Today's text can be read here: 1 Cor. 4:1-7.

The new believers in Corinth came from different backgrounds. Some were Jewish, and had earlier attended one of the synagogues in the city. Others were pagans, who may have been familiar with—if not actively members of—one of the secular "clubs" or "associations" in the city. Some were prominent and influential in the city. Others were slaves. The new group of believers in Jesus that they had now entered was not quite like any association they knew of. They were trying to get some idea of what the organization was, and how they were to relate to both the local patrons—the well-to-do hosts of the household churches (Phoebe, Chloe, Stephanas and others)—and the visiting teachers (Paul, Apollos, and others).

Although Paul does not wish to appear jealous of his position, he is concerned that the existing popularity contest between him, Apollos, and Cephas (Peter) come to an end, and the believers have a proper conception of these men's roles and responsibilities.

Therefore in 1 Cor. 4:1 the "us" he refers to includes himself, his traveling companions, Peter, and Apollos: "This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God."

In the secular society of the Greek cities the "steward" (Greek oikonomos) was a high-ranking servant. Witherington (Conflict in Corinth, p. 138f.) describes him thus:
"Steward" (oikonomos) was used of an estate manager, usually a slave who ran the house for the master, who was sometimes even an absentee landlord. According to Paul's use of the metaphor, then, even leaders are servants and have their orders. Stewards must take care how they handle their owners' property. Paul, then, was not free to proclaim the gospel in whatever form or fashion he pleased or that might please the Corinthians. The "mysteries of God" are probably not the sacrament but the apocalyptic secret that Paul has spoken of—that salvation is to be had by faith in Christ crucified. The main thing one is looking for in a steward is faithfulness (v. 2). A good steward is one who does what the master expects.
"Faithfulness" is a tricky term to really pin down when it comes to actual behavior. In connection with a marriage it means fidelity, loyalty, exclusive devotion to one's spouse. In the context of membership in an organization (like being a choir member), it means regular attendance at meetings and consistent preparation for the job. But in financial matters, which was the principal area of activity of stewards in antiquity, it means honesty and rigorous attention to the master's orders. It means doing what the absent master expects of you.

In Paul's eyes, he and the other apostolic missionaries were entrusted with truths of earth-shaking importance—truths that literally meant the eternal happiness or despair of everyone they encountered. They could not be careless with the truths entrusted to them. Like a conscientious pharmacist, they had to fill the prescription prepared by the Great Physician, Jesus, exactly. to do otherwise would assure that the "medicine" of the gospel would be ineffective!

But was Paul himself being "faithful" (Greek pistos, v. 2)? Apparently, some in Corinth were accusing him not being so (v. 3-5). Paul does not argue with them. Instead, he reminds them that it is often difficult to judge another person's heart. In fact, Paul says, he is not even sure that he always knows his own heart (v. 3-4). But he submits to the Lord Jesus' own judgment (v. 4-5), which in the end will finally make clear all the secrets of the hearts of people.

But, you may ask, if no one knows the secrets of men's hearts, and we are to avoid making premature judgments, are we then to merely accept any kind of teaching and never evaluate either the teaching or conduct of others? Actually, those are not the issues Paul is discussing here. His motives had been questioned, not his specific teachings nor his specific actions. Had his teachings been the issue, Paul would certainly have defended them against errors, as he will in fact do later in the letter (e.g., the teaching about the final resurrection of the dead in ch. 15). And although he admits that he himself may not always be aware of his own sins, his rule is to keep his conscience clear (v. 4), and that conscience had been schooled by close study of the Bible for many years—so it was a keen and sensitive conscience!

Paul has used the specific case of the popularity contest in Corinth between himself and Apollos as an illustration of a general principle: "Do not go beyond what is written!" This is a saying, and one that Paul approves. But it is not a quotation from the Bible. It is not found in either the Old Testament or in the sayings of Jesus recorded in the gospels. But its meaning can be understood. "What is written" refers to Holy Scripture (i.e., the Bible).

It is often hard enough to be sure we understand the Bible itself, without going beyond it to pre-judge the secret motives of the hearts of our fellow Christians! When we suspect a fellow believer may be getting into spiritual trouble, our first step should be to pray for him or her privately. And we should give God time to answer that prayer. Then, if that produces no clarity, we should go to that brother or sister privately and confess that we do not understand why he or she is doing or saying that thing. That we do not wish to criticize, but to help, since we are sure that he or she also wants to be faithful to the Lord. Offer to help her or him, if it is wanted. Always proceed with an open mind and a heart of love, seeking not to offend or alienate, but to heal.

You may presume to accuse me, although you do not know my motives or my true intentions, but I will not similarly accuse you. Instead I will ask you how you regard your action and how you consider this to reflect the character of our Lord. And together we will ask Jesus for guidance, to make sure that we are both actually serving him.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

1 Cor. 3:16-23 The One True Temple of God

Today's text can be read here: 1Cor 3:16-23.

Temples enjoyed a special status throughout the ancient world. Worshipers gave both money (silver and gold) as well as valuable objects and produce (wheat, barley, fruits) to the temples of their gods, and the state (i.e., the king or emperor) could not tax or appropriate any of this. The land that the temples stood on was not subject to any tax by the government. And anyone who stole anything from a temple was severely punished, often by death.

All of this falls under the term "sacred" (
Greek hagios, Latin sanctum, Hebrew qadosh), a term which Paul himself uses in verse 16-17: "Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred (hagios), and you are that temple."

Here is something important to note: Although all pagan religions had temples in which their gods lived and were worshiped, and even the ancient Israelites had a temple in Jerusalem in which God's presence was supposed to be centered, believers in Jesus had a new temple that was not located in one geographical place, nor was it made of stone and wood and susceptible to destruction. The temple of God for Christians is the bodies of all believers. God—through the Holy Spirit—has taken up his residence in each and all of us. I say "each and all", because God does not have billions of temples, one in each believer. He has one temple, of which each believer is a part. The temple is only complete through the invisible unity of all Christians everywhere and in all history. In part, this is what we mean when in the Apostles Creed we confess that "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic (i.e.,
universal in time and place) church, the communion (i.e., unity) of saints (i.e., believers)". The sequence of these three clauses is significant. For it is the HOly Spirit dwelling in each believer that makes up the universal and omni-temporal single Body of Christ, which in the creed is called "the holy, universal (this is the meaning of "catholic") church". And this Holy Spirit-created universal church permits the "communion" (i.e., shared unity) of all believers.

But why does Paul bring this subject up, right in the middle of admonishing the Corinthian believers about their disunity and glorifying of individual leaders? It is because we are a unified temple of God, created by the Holy Spirit, not by men, that we must not create divisions among ourselves based upon human leaders.

Of course, throughout the history of the church divisions have in fact occurred. First, there is the division between the Protestant groups and the Roman Catholic Church. This was not a matter of preferring one human leader over another, but was inevitable because of a different view of the nature and method of salvation and a different view of the final authoritative source of doctrine.

But organizational divisions within Protestantism occurred because of differences of belief on less crucial doctrines: whether or not one should baptize infants, whether or not local churches should be governed by a higher hierarchy of bishops and archbishops, etc., etc. It isn't my purpose here to digress into these matters.

It is food for thought to what extent, if Paul were alive today, he would scold the church for such internal organizational divisions. What is of more immediate concern is how believers behave toward each other in their individual local churches. Do they squabble constantly? Do they respect their leaders? Do the leaders act high-handedly or take into account the different opinions of members? And above all, is there a spirit of love and mutual respect in the congregations?

All of this right behavior should be founded in clear teaching of the membership about their status as co-members of the Body of Christ, the Temple of God.

This inseparable unity of the Corinthian believers is not lost sight of, when Paul goes on to exhort them in verses 18-23. For the word translated "you" (Greek
humeis) in all of these verses is plural, i.e., "you all", or "you as a group". So when Paul writes "Do not deceive yourselves" in verse 18, he is also saying "Do not deceive each other." And in verse 21-23, where he writes "So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God," the "all things" do not belong just to individuals in the Corinthian congregation, but to them all jointly. Paul doesn't belong just to the "I follow Paul" group, but to the whole group jointly. And in verse 23 what belongs to Christ is not just a bunch of individuals, but a unified group of believers, joined in one as a temple and a body. This concept excludes the boasting "I belong to Christ," as one group within the Corinthian group had boasted. Either we all belong to him, or no one of us does!

So when you sit in church on Sunday morning or evening, look around you. All these people are your brothers and sisters in Christ. Ask yourself how you can treat them with friendliness, intimate concern for their needs, and respect. And when you sing and confess creeds during the service, or say "Amen" to something stirring that the pastor says in the sermon, feel yourself joined in spirit to all present. Then as you leave the sanctuary to return home, remind yourself that, even when you are not sitting in the same room, these people are your brothers and sisters, closer than any blood relative. Think of them during the week; pray for them; visit them if you have opportunity.

The solution to the Corinthian church's problems was not just to stop the divisive talk: it was to replace it with its opposite—the talk of brothers and sisters in one family of faith.