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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

1 Cor. 16 Closing Words, not Unimportant Ones

We sometimes think of the closing parts of a letter as perfunctory and meaningless. This was not so with St. Paul's letters. He often saved for the last those matters that were most important to him, saving them for last, so that they would be freshest in the memories of the hearers of the letter.

What could be more important than the resurrection from the dead? Well, let's look and see.

The Gift for Believers in Israel (1-4)

Now about the collection for the Lord's people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. 2 On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem. 4 If it seems advisable for me to go also, they will accompany me.

Jesus always stressed the primary importance of giving to those in need, and Paul followed suit. I don't wish to imply that this was not also also true of devout Jews who did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah: for they too were quite concerned to help others in need. But every group takes a special interest in those closest to them—whether it be members of the same (extended) family, members of the same city, or of the same faith. And although there were poor and needy people in Judea who were not believers, it was the particular plight of the impoverished Judean believers that especially moved Paul. He urged upon all his congregations—Asia Minor, Syria, Greece—the need to give generously to a relief fund for these Judean believers. He also hoped that, since this gift was coming from Paul's Gentile churches, it might heal any developing breach between the Jewish believers there and the new Gentile believers among Paul's churches. We learn from Acts that, when Paul eventually brought this gift to Jerusalem, he brought along a Gentile representative from each contributing congregation, so that it might be vividly conveyed to the recipients who it was that was giving these funds.

Travel Plans (5-9)

After I go through Macedonia, I will come to you—for I will be going through Macedonia. 6 Perhaps I will stay with you for a while, or even spend the winter, so that you can help me on my journey, wherever I go. 7 For I do not want to see you now and make only a passing visit; I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. 8 But I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost, because a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me.

Paul writes this from Ephesus (v. 8), where he currently has a promising, if also exhausting, ministry going (v. 9). When he next travels there way, he will follow his usual route: north and west from Ephesus to Philippi, then southward through the mest of Macedonia (Thessalonica, Berea), and on to Corinth. He wants not to me in a hurry, since he would like to stay for some time with them and have time to renew old friendships and teach them at leisure. 

Timothy (10-11) and Apollos (12)

When Timothy comes, see to it that he has nothing to fear while he is with you, for he is carrying on the work of the Lord, just as I am. 11 No one, then, should treat him with contempt. Send him on his way in peace so that he may return to me. I am expecting him along with the brothers.
    12 Now about our brother Apollos: I strongly urged him to go to you with the brothers. He was quite unwilling to go now, but he will go when he has the opportunity.

In the meantime, he will send his young partner Timothy to them. Although Timothy is much younger than Paul, the Corinthians must not treat him like one "wet behind the ears," but must respect him, since Paul himself can vouch for Timothy's maturity in Christ ("for he is carrying on the work of the Lord, just as I am", v. 10).

In case the "I follow Paul" and "I follow Apollos" division at Corinth gives you the wrong impression about these two servants of Christ, they were in fact good friends and trusted one another completely. For this reason Paul tells the Corinthians here that he "strongly urged" Apollos to go on to Corinth ahead of him and minister there. But Apollos felt himself unable to do so at this time.

Behave in Love in Corinth (13-18)

Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong.14 Do everything in love.
    15 You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the Lord's people. I urge you, brothers and sisters, 16 to submit to such as these and to everyone who joins in the work and labors at it. 17 I was glad when Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus arrived, because they have supplied what was lacking from you. 18 For they refreshed my spirit and yours also. Such men deserve recognition.

Being "on your guard" is always good advice, for there are many temptations that can derail us in our living for Christ. Paul makes the advice general here, rather than identifying a specific danger, such as false teaching. He has already told the Corinthians in this letter what needs correcting. At this point he simply wants them to be vigilant. Errors and bad attitudes once corrected do not always stay corrected! And notice that he puts special stress on one of their biggest lacks: "Do everything in love!" One way in which that love must show itself is in honoring other believers who have sacrificially served you. Paul singles out here "the household of Stephanas" (v. 15) and three other named men (v. 17) who deserve recognition and love.

Final Greetings and Blessings (19-24)

The churches in the province of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house. 20 All the brothers and sisters here send you greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss.
    21  I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand.
    22 If anyone does not love the Lord, let that person be cursed! Come, Lord!
    23 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.
    24 My love to all of you in Christ Jesus. Amen. 

Greetings from afar by old friends always are welcome. Aquila and Priscilla (husband and wife) had lived in Corinth and ministered among the new believers; so they were well known and loved. Now they are in Ephesus, and so send their greetings in Paul's letter. They have a house in Ephesus, and a church meets in it. Paul even wants his hearers to greet each other (v. 20). Although Paul usually uses an associate with a good hand to actually write his letter from dictation, his words here in v. 21 could indicate either that he wrote this entire letter himself (which I think unlikely) or—more likely—that he took up the pen and wrote this last section of greetings personally. His reason for telling them this could have been in his desire that they not brush off his earlier earnest advice and even commands as the work of an impostor, or because he wanted them to know his personal interest in them which drove him to at least write these last lines in his own hand. It is likely that both motives played a role.

Verses 22-24 are an odd combination of grace, love and a curse! We expect the first two, but the third (i.e., the curse) is  somewhat unexpected in this letter. It is certainly not typical of Paul to curse mere unbelievers. When Paul ever so rarely utters a curse, it is upon someone who is threatening to undo the work of Christ in the hearts of those whom Paul had a hand in leading to faith.  Therefore perhaps it is such people are whom he has in mind in this rather general description "if anyone does not love the Lord [Jesus]." For everyone else he has only blessings from God. 

[This concludes our spring and summer series on First Corinthians. This blog will now go inactive for the next month, and will resume in late September with a new series on "Immanuel: 'God with us' Through Old and New Testaments." Please join us again then.]

Thursday, July 17, 2008

1 Cor. 15:35-58 What is Resurrection Like?

But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. 39 All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40 There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41 The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.

You can't expect to teach without getting students' objections. I don't usually answer my students uninformed questions with "How foolish!" (v. 36; literally in the Greek, "You fool!"). I may think that, but I never say so directly. But Paul was using a rhetorical device quite acceptable in his day. His analogy of the seed was also used by later rabbis, who also used it to explain the Jewish view of a literal bodily resurrection in the last day. We know now that in the seed is the genetic code that determines the appearance of the plant to emerge. Our resurrection bodies may not look exactly like our present ones — personally, I will be glad of that! — but we will be recognizable. And I take it that the code inside the "seed" will be what we might today call our personality, making allowances for the effects that sin has today on that personality.

42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.

Now Paul leaves behind his similes of seed and different kinds of flesh, and explains the various ways in which our resurrection bodies will differ from our present ones. Our present ones are "perishable," that is, they will all die. When I buy milk products in the grocery store, I always check the "sell (or use) by [date]" information. So it is with our physical bodies today. Some of us have a "use by …" date that is closer than others. But eventually we all die.

Secondly, our present bodies are not glorious. Paul says they are "sown in dishonor." By "dishonor" Paul does not mean to imply with the Neo-Platonists that the body per se is a degrading thing. The Old Testament and Judaism of Jesus' time had no such conception of the human body, nor did Paul. What he means is that there is nothing particularly beautiful or honorable or glorious about a corpse. Even the mortuary "beauticians" can only do so much to disguise it! Many Jewish teachers believed that the body would be raised in exactly the form in which it had died, even if maimed, and only then be healed. This notion expressed their conviction that there was continuity between the old and new body. Paul clearly sees the resurrection body in different terms.

The present bodies die in weakness: feebleness of limb and mind. I sat recently with a 90-year-old man whom I had known in his prime as a historian and college president. In his younger days he had been not only brilliant in his field but a man of great practical judgment. But as we talked, his mind drifted in and out of coherence. One used to call this "senility;" nowadays it is often called by a polysyllabic name. But however you name it, it's all the same: as we approach death, we become feeble of body and often of mind, even if still (hopefully) strong in faith and love. This is what the present body is like. But the resurrection body will be powerful in every way.

Our present bodies are "natural" (NIV, ESV)—"physical" (NRSV)—while our resurrection bodies will be "spiritual." I am not entirely satisfied with any of the English translations suggested above by the NIV, ESV and NRSV. The NRSV's translation "physical" for the present body implies that by "spiritual" Paul meant that the resurrection body would be "non-physical." This is clearly untrue, as what Paul goes on to say proves. And the NIV and ESV's word "natural" is far too ambivalent in meaning. The word "natural" in English often means "not artificial," which is likewise not Paul's meaning. Paul uses two Greek adjectives here, built on the two nouns "soul" and "spirit." The human soul (Greek psyche) controls our physical life in the present body. In the age to come it will be God's Holy Spirit (Greek pneuma) who will empower our new bodies. The difference will be like going from a horse and buggy to an Alfa Romeo sports car. The difference will not only be vastly increased powers of perception (i.e., seeing, hearing, knowing) and expression (i.e., communicating with each other and praising God), but also of moral capacity—our ability to love God and one another will be super-charged. And the vehicle in which this inner life will be "housed," as it were, will be in mysterious ways in continuity with our present bodies and with Adam and Eve's DNA. God will have completely rolled back the effects of the Fall of humanity and erased the marks of what at present looks like Satan's victory. This display of God's victory would not be nearly so complete, if all that our afterlife consisted of was a shucking off of the body and life as a disembodied spirit floating forever in clouds in "Heaven."

45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.

In these verses Paul has transformed the Jewish philosopher-theologian Philo of Alexandria's interpretation of the dual telling of the creation of humans in chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis. Philo contrasted the incorruptible “heavenly man” of Genesis 1 with the “earthly man” of Genesis 2; the former represented the ideal spiritual state of the mind seeking heavenly things, the latter the carnal person devoted to temporal things. Paul turns things around. His term "earthly man" refers to the first human being in both chapters of Genesis, and the "heavenly man" is the resurrected and ascended Jesus. Thus he can write in verse 46 that "The spiritual did not come first [i.e., Philo's view], but the natural, and after that the spiritual." All human beings bear the indefinable "image" of the first human being, Adam. He in turn was created in the image of God. But when we commit ourselves to Jesus as Lord and Savior, we are "born again" and begin to bear a new image. That image is God's mark upon us, unseen by others. It is the image of Jesus, placed in us by his Holy Spirit who indwells us.

50 I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

It is unbelievable what nonsense is often taught on the basis of this verse. To say, as some do, that Paul here teaches that the resurrection body cannot be really physical is to use one verse against all the rest in the chapter! In view of what precedes and follows, he clearly means that our existence in the final kingdom of God requires a transformation of our present "flesh and blood" into the more glorious resurrection bodies. In one way or another, as he proceeds to say, "we will all be changed."

51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep [i.e., die], but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

There is a furious attack going on today—even by some evangelicals— against the notion that Jesus will return suddenly and take out of the world his own people, leaving others behind. This is what is called "the Rapture." I will not debate the details of that view here. Some of us will be persuaded that the Second Coming will have two phases: the first such a "Rapture" [taking believers away from the earth] followed by a period of great evil and then by a coming of Jesus with the previously raptured saints to put down human rebellion and evil and setting up his rule over the earth, — and some may not. It is not wrong to question the  interpretations of biblical passages by other believers. But the viciousness of the attack on those who hold the first view, the Rapture, even by evangelical scholars whose writings I otherwise highly esteem, is very disappointing to me. We need to be more charitable to one another. More civil and respectful in our discourse. The language of current political debate has become so extremely polarized as to be distasteful in the extreme. But we need not imitate it in Christian dialogue.

Paul does not here settle the issue of whether or not there will be a Rapture. But he does make clear that before the glorious kingdom of God can finally prevail over all, every believer will be transformed physically. This is the Old Testament hope, the hope of Judaism in its earliest and classical form, and the hope of the apostolic church. It is a hope that unfortunately has been transformed by the church's shifting of the focus from God's final triumph to the church's limited advances in the present age. And in recent years this shift has been given an even more unsettling aspect by the removal of the notion of evangelism and conversion from the picture, in favor of the improvement of "human rights."

58 Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

There is surely nothing wrong with Christians participating in efforts to encourage society to meet the needs of the poor and disadvantaged. This too is "the work of the Lord." But our focus must always be first and foremost on using the gospel to transform individual lives—one by one. None of the recent high profile writings and movements within evangelicalism should be allowed to blur this distinction. The ethical imperatives of the prophets and of Jesus should be urged on our neighbors, but the Great Commission of Jesus did not address this or make it the main focus of the Church.

Our urgent desire, as that of the apostles should be—as they expressed it in Aramaic, Jesus' own language—marana tha "Come back, Lord!" And until he returns we "stand firm" on the Bible's teachings, and go on working for Christ, not discouraged, knowing that our efforts are "not in vain" in the Lord.

Monday, July 14, 2008

1 Cor. 15:12-34 Jesus' Resurrection and Ours

12But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

Those among the believers in Corinth who disbelieved resurrection, were not specifically challenging Jesus' resurrection—they were denying any resurrection of the bodies of dead people. But of course to deny the possibility of any resurrection necessarily affected that of Jesus, as Paul reminds them. They may have entertained some idea that Jesus' spirit survived, but this would hardly qualify as a victory, since according to both Jewish and pagan belief the spirit of a person always survived physical death. This would reduce the victory of the resurrection of Jesus to a meaningless statement!

Paul makes it quite clear that a true bodily resurrection of Jesus is necessary to qualify what happened on the third day after the crucifixion as a victory over sin and death. If these Corinthians want to deny the resurrection of the dead body of Jesus, they will condemn themselves to a futile faith. And they will be still in the same predicament they were in before they became Christians: dead in sins!

But Paul includes himself and his fellow missionaries in the charade. If Jesus' dead body did not come back to life, he and his colleagues not only have no meaningful gospel, but they find themselves in the dangerous position of proclaiming a lie about God!

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

20 Because at the beginning of this chapter Paul already produced the human evidence of Jesus' resurrection: witnesses, who saw, heard and touched his body alive after three days in the tomb, he does not hesitate to state most emphatically: "But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead!" And so the deadly chain of logic that led from a dead body to a world without hope has been broken—shattered in a million pieces.

But there is much more! The resurrected Jesus is the "firstfruits" (Greek aparchē). This term's meaning is strongly conditioned by its use in the Greek translation of the OT. It denotes the first offspring of sacrificial animals or the first fruit of food plants, that had to be presented in the temple as a gift to God. The giving of the firstfruits assured to the giver that God would make the rest of his harvest plentiful and good. So the presenting of the firstfruits was a kind of pledge of a future benefit. Paul's use of the term is a brilliantly creative adaptation to the new situation of redemption by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus' own resurrection is God's pledge that he will raise all believers' bodies to life at the End Time. Furthermore, in Romans 8:23 God has given believers now the indwelling Holy Spirit as "firstfruits", a pledge of our eventual glorification. so both the fact of Jesus' resurrection and the fact that we now possess the Holy Spirit are double pledges to us by means of "firstfruits."

21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.

Here Paul makes good use of the Adam-Christ counterpart theme. Adam, the first man, sinned and brought all his descendants with him into death. Jesus, the last man, conquered sin and death, and brought all his spiritual "descendants" with him into life. Those who do not believe are still "in Adam," while those who do believe are "in Christ." And although Paul would agree with the gospel of John that believers in Jesus are already "alive" in spirit, when he speaks here of all who are in Christ will be made alive (future tense), he has in mind the future bodily resurrection of all believers.

23But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.

But there is a timetable for all this. First the Messiah (Christ), then at his return to earth all who belong to him.

24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he "has put everything under his feet." Now when it says that "everything" has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

Paul continues here with the theme of sequence. When Paul says that Jesus must reign until "he has put everything under his feet" (this last being a quote from Psalm 2, where the "everything" refers to enemies), he engages in another chain of logic. If all enemies must be subdued, surely the last and worst must be death itself, since it was also the first to result from the Fall of Adam and Eve. And if the Messiah (Christ) reigns until that happens, the eschatological reign of the Messiah must be followed by a final resurrection ("the end" may mean "the end resurrection"), at which time the reign of Christ will become the reign of the Triune God (including Christ as the Second Person), so that "God may be all in all."

29 Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? 30And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? 31I die every day—I mean that, brothers—just as surely as I glory over you in Christ Jesus our Lord. 32 If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised,
"Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."
Do not be misled: "Bad company corrupts good character." 34 Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God—I say this to your shame.

Here Paul returns to the immediate problem in Corinth. Another logical consequence of denying physical resurrection of believers is that the practice of baptizing surrogates for persons who believed and died before being baptized is meaningless. Baptism, as Paul will argue in Romans 6, is a picture of the believer's dying with Christ and being raised from the dead with Christ. And although there Paul argues for the "spiritual" resurrection of believers now which enables them to die to sin and live unto God, the imagery of physical rising from the grave is just too obvious to ignore. If no such prospect awaits believers, then why baptize at all? In fact, since in Paul's mind all the afterlife is conditioned on a God who will also give life to dead bodies, why would anyone expose himself or herself to the suffering involved in being a Christian?

It is a sober thought that so many people today—including believers who read their Bibles—have a crippled view of the final state of the blessed. They see disembodied souls, floating on clouds in the sky. For Jesus—read his parables about wedding banquets, music, dancing in the final kingdom—and for Paul (see Romans 8:18-25) the final state is a total reversal of the effects of the Fall. It involves a new universe ("heavens and earth") in which God's people will live and worship and celebrate in glorified bodies, what Paul in Romans 8:23 calls "our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies". This is the robust eschatology (view of the final state) of the Bible—Old and New Testaments. It is our hope.

Appendix on "Baptism for the Dead"

Most NT scholars today regard whatever practice Paul alludes to here as one that some of the Corinthians were practicing, but which he did not approve of (contrary to the opinion of Dunn, Unity and Diversity, p. 25 §5.3). He refers to it here, merely to show how logically it contradicts their denial of resurrection. About this matter Witherington writes:

In this wider context we are now prepared to talk about Paul's view of baptism and the Lord's Supper. Any discussion of Paul's view of baptism must face squarely the implications of 1 Corinthians 1. It is clearly not the most crucial thing to Paul; rather, preaching is. No one who says, "I am thankful that I did not baptize anyone of you except ," and adds, "for Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach " (1 Cor. 1: 14-17) could possibly have seen baptism as the means or chief means by which one becomes a Christian. In short, this implies a repudiation of a magical view of baptism. First Corinthians 15:29 suggests that some thought that baptizing a surrogate for a dead person was going to have some sort of unexplained benefit (eternal life?) for the dead person. Paul does not endorse such a view, though he uses it as an ad hoc argument to make his point (Saint Paul’s Thought World, p. 314).

Thursday, July 10, 2008

1 Cor. 15:1-11 The Gospel Paul received and taught

At this point in his letter, Paul turns to a very serious doctrinal problem in the Cornithian church, which has far-reaching practical consequences. But he doesn't barge into the subject with words like "Now as for your misconceptions about resurrection…" Instead he approaches it carefully and through a doorway that was his hearers own doorway into faith: the gospel.

There are several ways we use the word "gospel" today. One can refer to "the gospel of Matthew" by which we mean a part of the Bible, one of the four accounts in the New Testament of the earthly life of Jesus. Or we can say we heard Billy Graham "preaching the gospel." This means his explanation to non-believers of what Jesus accomplished for us in his life, death and resurrection, and what is expected from us if we wish to be "saved" from our sins. Some people would call this "the way of salvation". It is the short version that is told to inquirers, who want to become Christians.

What Paul calls "the gospel" in these verses comes close to the second use described above, but it lacks the information about what the hearer must do in order to benefit from it. Paul states that part in v. 2, but it is not part of what he describes as received in vv. 3-8. We can compare this description of "the gospel" in vv. 3-8 with what Luke describes as the first evangelistic messages given by Peter in Jerusalem after the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 1-4). What we find is uniformity: what Paul describes here as what the other apostles passed on to him is exactly what Luke tells us that they preached in Jerusalem from the beginning. But of even greater significance to his readers, Paul reminds them that it was what he made known to them, and on which their faith and salvation was based.

Notice that in v. 2 Paul stresses that a superficial and casual "believing" that is not accompanied by a firm conviction of the truthfulness of the message and that is not the product of God's inner working in the heart of the believer will not in fact save. "Believed in vain" (v. 2) recalls Psalm 127:1 "Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain." Paul was well aware that a true conversion was the product of supernatural, divine action in the mind and heart of the believer.

Notice in v. 3 that Paul describes this gospel as "of first importance." This means that he taught them many other things of great importance, but nothing can compare with this monumental truth: the the Messiah ("Christ") died for our sins according to Old Testament prophecies (see Isaiah 53:4-6), was buried and rose again the third day, also in harmony with what was predicted (see Psalm 16, as interpreted by Peter in Acts 2:24-36).

The verb "received" (Greek parelabon v. 3) refers to receiving a tradition.

It is very likely that the tradition Paul received is contained in verses 3-7, and that verse 8 begins Paul's own addition to the primitive tradition. That tradition contained the following elements: (1) the Messiah (Greek ho christos "the Anointed One") died for our (i.e., all humans) sins, as the Scriptures predicted he would; (2) he was buried and rose again on the third day, also as predicted; (3) and the resurrected Messiah Jesus was seen, heard and felt by many witnesses, some here named so as to allow verification.

This should be familiar to you all, for this is in essence what we confess to each other in Christian fellowship. If you worship in a church where old creeds are used, you are also familiar with the clause "that he was buried". And you may have wondered why this phrase is included. It serves a purpose similar to the "third day": it is to make clear that Jesus did not just swoon, but really died, was interred, and his body remained dead until the third day. It also serves to remind us that, when we speak of "resurrection", we are not speaking of a spirit coming to life, but a body. This, in fact, is what is primarily on Paul's mind here, as he addresses the Corinthians' unwillingness to believe in resurrection: that it implied a future beyond death for the human body.

If the so-called "apprearances" of Jesus to his disciples after the crucifixion were not bodily ones, then one would expect the list to go on and to include more than Paul himself. For a vision of Jesus ascended was had by Stephen as he was dying (Acts 7:56), and countless visionary believers down through Christian history have claimed to have received visions of Jesus (I will not attempt to validate such claims, but I cannot completely exclude their possibility). Yet the list stops with James and "all the apostles" in verse 7. Why? Because after the ascension of the body of Jesus as recorded in Acts 1, a validation of the bodily resurrection of Jesus was no longer possible for a person living on Earth!

But notice how carefully this list was drawn up, and with such caution. No one was mentioned here who could not be interviewed, and his experience validated. This statement was of a type that could be submitted to the authorities or to a court. But it was also what was presented to potential believers, honoring their legitimate desire to know on what basis they should believe that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah promised centuries beforehand and that his resurrection proed that he was also divine and able to grant salvation from sins.

Notice too that this is called the "gospel". It is not a credal statement such as one finds in certain parts of Paul's letters (Philippians 2:6-11). It omits the pre-existence of the Son of God, which is included in the Philippians passage. It focuses on what is necessary for a new believer to confess and on what was predicted in the Old Testament.

In verses 8-11 we sense that Paul feels a certain isolation from the "club of the super-apostles". He respects the Twelve and acknowledges in this very passage his indebtedness to them for their knowledge of the earthly ministry of Jesus and their invaluable eyewitness testimony to the bodily resurrection. But we hear an echo in v. 8 of what he had heard that they called him: "the least of the apostles" and "one untimely born" (perhaps a miscarried fetus?). And he is willing to accept that sobriquette, although interpreting it in his own way (v. 9-10): he admits that he once persecuted the church of God, something none of the Twelve were guilty of. Paul may or may not have known of Peter's denying Jesus three times on the night of his betrayal. But if he did, he does not strike back viciously with this weapon. Instead, he confesses that it was through the undeserved mercy of God that he was turned around by the vision of the exalted Jesus on the Damascus Road. Paul dares to compare this experience to the appearances to the Twelve and to James, although the bodily resurrected Jesus was seen only in a vision. But this "appearance", he would have admitted, was of a different kind, and was not intended to be used as the others would to validate the resurrection. Jesus' appearance to Paul was in the nature of a divine commission to an apostolic mission to the Gentiles. Hence, he adds: "I worked harder than all of them" (v. 10).

And finally, in v. 11 he returns to his readers: You came to believe this gospel either through my direct ministry in Corinth or through one of the Twelve ("whether it was I or they"). This statement is intended to pave the way for his argument in the rest of the chapter. Persons who saw, heard and felt the body of the resurrected Lord Jesus brought this message which either one of them or I preached to you, and through believing it, you are now saved.

These facts have ramifications on what you are to believe about the future resurrection to take place at the end of this age, when Jesus returns. And those ramifications Paul will spell out in the rest of the chapter.

I hope to devote an eight-part blog series in the Fall, on this site, to an examination of the plan of God for the ages, in which both the resurrection of Jesus and the end-time resurrection of believers plays a crucial role. It will entail many other parts of the Bible than 1 Corinthians 15. I hope that many of you will join me for that series.

ⓒ2008 Harry Hoffner

Saturday, July 05, 2008

1 Cor 14:26-39 Orderly and God-honoring Use of Spiritual Gifts

Orderly Worship
26 What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God. 29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30 And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31 For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace, as in all the congregations of the saints.
One of Paul's favorite metaphors for the Church is a human body with Christ as the head and believers the various members. Everyone knows that our bodies function because signals are exchanged between the head to the members. We call them the transmissions of the nervous system. In the Body of Christ signals come from Jesus our Head through our reading of the scriptures and praying and being sensitive to the Spirit's guidance. Much of this in-coming transmission comes through our direct contact with the Word and Spirit. But some comes through other believers sharing what they have learned. Paul is saying here that those with the gift of "prophecy," by which he means communication of God's truth, should avoid disorderliness, chaos and confusion. This means seeking clarity of communication and respect for others who also have a contribution to make.

34 The women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
This is probably one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament to defend or explain. It seems to go directly against truths about the dignity of womanhood and the equality of the sexes before God taught elsewhere in the New Testament, including by Paul himself (Acts 2:18; Gal 3:28). One way to understand it, favored by many evangelicals, is to assume that "the women" spoken of are persons in the Corinthian assembly who were defying the resolution just given by Paul concerning limiting the freedom to speak in tongues or prophesy while others were doing so, thus causing a disorderly meeting. Paul's use of the article "the" in "the women" (present in the Greek text) would allude to women about whom he had received letters from Corinth, describing their behavior. The force of "the" would be "those women that you wrote me about." They must be "in subjection", not to their husbands, but to the rule that Paul laid down, just like the rest of the congregations in Corinth. Asking their own husbands at home simply means that animated discussion of this issue should take place in the privacy of homes, and the logical person to discuss it with is a spouse. "It is disgraceful for a woman to speak (in this way) in the church" is what the final clause means. Since elsewhere in this very letter Paul permits women to pray and prophesy in the churches (11:4-6), we are not free to interpret this passage as claiming that all public speech by women in churches is "disgraceful".

36 Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? 37 If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord's command. 38 If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored. 39 Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.

This is Paul's final words, which sum up his goal in this section of the letter. The words Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? remind these Corinthian believers that they are not free to go their own way at the price of abandoning the core traditions of all the apostolic churches scattered around the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Anyone in the assembly who is spiritually aware and knows the traditions about Jesus' teaching should be able to recognize that Paul's principle here is based upon known teachings of Jesus.

If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored expresses a possible first stage of church discipline for rebels who refuse to follow the teaching of peace, good order, and mutual respect. To be "ignored" in the church might mean to be excluded from its gatherings during a period of discipline.

"Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way" summarizes Paul's teaching in chapters 12-14: If they must seek to exercise gifts, let it be one that does the most good (prophecy), not the most spectacular and showy (tongues). But everything must be governed by love for each other, and decent, orderly behavior, not chaos.

ⓒ2008 Harry Hoffner

Thursday, July 03, 2008

1 Cor. 14:1-25 How to Tell a Greater Gift from a Lesser

We American Christians like to apply democratic values to every aspect of our lives. We also have a very keen sense of "fair play," which sometimes we even apply quite rigorously to our theology. This is proper when it comes to our equality before God. But it can lead us into serious trouble when it is wrongly applied. More than once in his writings C.S. Lewis remarked that the man who was always saying to others "I'm as good as you" very probably was not, but kept saying that because he was aware of it.

Not only has God created each of us like unique snowflakes, even identical twins, but as Christians he has endowed each of us with various gifts of the Spirit, intending us to use them for the greater good of our brothers and sisters in Christ. The church in Corinth was richly endowed with such gifts and with individuals eager to use them. The problem came when those having a particular gift—one that was more "showy" than others—tried to magnify their own importance.

To remedy this defect, Paul wrote chapter 13 in which he reminded them that spiritual gifts must always be exercised in love. And those who trumpeted their gifts without love accomplished nothing in the service of God.

Paul used a literary device to frame chapter 13. I will try to demonstrate it schematically below.

12:31 [A] "Eagerly aspire to the greater spiritual gifts,"
12:31 [B] "and I will now show you the most excellent way."

[Chapter 13 here]

14:1 [B'] "Follow the way of love,"
14:1 [A'] "and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy."

Do you see how the frame works? A B B' A' In literary theory this is called chiasmus. And by means of it Paul indicates that, while chapter 13 is by no means an unimportant digression, it has not interrupted his train of thought about the importance of choosing the most helpful of the gifts available to you. I believe that is what he means by a "greater" gift—one that has more potential to be helpful to others. But he does not wish his readers to forget what he wrote in chapter 13 either! All gifts—to be truly useful—must be used as an expression of sincere brotherly and sisterly love.
Gifts of Prophecy and Tongues
1 Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. 2 For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. 3 But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. 4 He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. 5 I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.
I like the NIV translation in 14:1 "follow the way of", instead of "pursue." The image is not of believers chasing after love! Rather, Paul has said that love is the "most excellent way [or 'path'; Greek hodos]". So now with the verb "pursue" or "follow" he is continuing the imagery of the pathway of love. All believers must use the gifts of the Spirit while they are moving along the pathway of love! And if they concentrate on that first, and only exercise their spiritual gifts out of that context, God's desired purposes will be fulfilled. Elsewhere Paul wrote "speak the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15). Love is the context in which and out of which we speak truth to others.

In 12:31 Paul urged them to eagerly desire not just any gift, much less the ones that were the most exotic and rare and spectacular, but the "greatest" ones. This might seem surprising—that Paul believed God's gifts to his people could be ranked. But, as I have said above, what he considered the "greatest" ones were those that were most helpful, most apt to create harmony and unity among the believers, and which instructed them and strengthened their faith in God. As Paul saw it, one could rank the gifts in this manner and state which ones were likely to be most helpful to a specific congregation at a specific time.

Now he states it quite openly: what you need is not the showy miracle of foreign tongues, especially when the incomprehensible speech was not immediately translated by another with that gift. What you need is the exercise of the gift of prophecy.

6 Now, brothers, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? 7 Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? 8 Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? 9 So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. 10 Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. 11 If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me. 12 So it is with you. Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church. 13 For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind. 16 If you are praising God with your spirit, how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say "Amen" to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying? 17 You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified. 18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Pagans in Corinth understood the phenomenon of someone being possessed by a god and speaking in incomprehensible babbling, presumably the language of the gods. So they might be impressed by seeing and hearing one of the Christians under the spell of the Spirit, speaking incomprehensibly. But unless someone with the gift of interpreting could translate the "tongue", the pagan would gain no knowledge of God. And Paul isn't referring to someone "faking it" and inventing a "translation." He means a real miraculous translation, and one that might be verified by a visiting pagan who happened to know that language! The situation is similar to what we read of in Acts 2 about the miracle of "tongues" at Pentecost.

20 Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. 21 In the Law it is written:
"Through men of strange tongues
and through the lips of foreigners
I will speak to this people,
but even then they will not listen to me," says the Lord.

22 Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers. 23 So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24 But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, 25 and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, "God is really among you!"

Up to this point Paul has been reasoning with his readers. But now is the time for the coup de grace—he quotes the Scriptures (Isaiah 28:11-12)! By "the Law" Paul obviously means the entire Hebrew Bible, not just the books of Moses. Scripture refers to God speaking through foreign languages to a people that will not believe, even then. In its original context the reference is to God using the armies of Assyria and Babylonia to bring his discipline upon idolatrous Israel. They "spoke" to Israel with their military might, but at times even used foreign languages. Yet Israel would not listen to God speaking through these foreign nations. Paul uses this as an analogy: even when God uses exotic languages to speak to men's hearts, they often do not believe. If the gift of "tongues" has any value at all according to Scriptural precedent, he argues, it is in seeking to convince those who do not believe—that is, outsiders or pagans. But he may also be implying that, since in the quoted example the hearers did not believe, so also "tongues" may or may not be effective as an evangelistic tool for the Church.

Prophecy, on the other hand, by which Paul means the explanation of Scripture and helping believers and unbelievers alike to understand God's written words, has enormous value both for building up the Church, and for reaching unbelievers.

ⓒ2008 Harry Hoffner