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Don’t get disqualified from service; stay humble and dependent on the grace of Jesus!

The Dangers of Disqualification

Posted: January 17, 2021 in 1 Corinthians

1 Corinthians 10:1-13, “The Dangers of Disqualification”

No one wants to be disqualified. Whether speaking of athletic competition, political aspirations, or business prospects, if you have your mind set on a particular goal the very last thing you want is for some act in your life to come back and bite you in the form of disqualification. Cyclist Lance Armstrong was famously disqualified from all his titles and future competition when he finally admitted his cheating through the use of doping. Although he remains physically active and fit, he is forever banned from formal cycling competition (and most other endurance sports) due to his deceitful practices.

Sadly, what is perhaps more common than examples of disqualification from sports are examples of disqualification from ministry. How many men once served as pastors or Christian leaders of prominence, who found their reputations ruined due to sin? Moreover, how many men and women have you known who once seemed to have a strong faith, whose faith now seems nonexistent? The rolls are far too long. Sin disqualifies people from service and it is a terrifying danger.

Paul recognized this same danger for himself and the Corinthian Christians to whom he was writing. Contextually, the apostle had been answering the Corinthians’ question on dealing with things that had been offered to idols. As prevalent as idolatry was in the overall culture of Corinth, it could be difficult to even purchase meat that had not been touched in some way by the local pagan temples. Did the Christians have freedom to eat of these things? Paul answered with a qualified yes. Yes…but we need to consider our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. We need to beware the danger of potentially stumbling them in their own walks. Sometimes that means we might deny ourselves certain freedoms for the benefit of others.

Paul went on to give a personal example from his own life, regarding his own financial support. He was willing to forego his rightful and Biblical salary if it meant he remained free to preach the gospel. And preach, he did! To Jews, Gentiles, and even to weak Christians in their discipleship, Paul was willing to set aside any one of his personal preferences when it meant that people might be won to Christ. Jesus was worth any sacrifice and any effort.

In fact, one of the potential dangers Paul saw in his exercise of spiritual liberty was the possibility of disqualification from ministry. Even for the mighty apostle, it was possible for him to get so much in the way of the gospel that he even tripped up himself. Should he sin in this way, he would fail in his apostolic commission, becoming a stumbling block to the gospel message.

It was with this danger of disqualification in mind that Paul picks up in Chapter 10. If it could happen with the apostle Paul, it would happen to any number of us. We need to take heed to the danger!

This time, he shows the danger not from the analogy of sports but the analogy of Israel. What happened in the past with God’s people? They were largely disqualified. The same thing might happen today with the people of God. What do we most need in the face of this danger? The faithfulness and grace of God! Without His grace, any one of us might fall to disqualifying temptation. We need His help, His faithfulness, and His way of escape.

1 Corinthians 10:1–13

  • Examples of disqualification (1-11). What happened in the past.

1 Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, 2 all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ.

  1. Don’t miss the “moreover” or “for” at the beginning of verse 1. Although it would be easy to think that Paul launches into a new topic considering his new focus on historical Israel during the exodus and wilderness wandering, the “moreover” ties what he writes here with what he wrote at the end of Chapter 9. (Which is a good reminder to us that the chapter breaks in the Bible are not part of the inspired text. Paul did not write with chapter breaks in mind; he wrote from topic to topic as he was led by God the Holy Spirit to write. It was later scholars who inserted the chapter and verse numbers to assist us in locating specific texts.) Contextually, Paul wrote how he disciplined his body like that of an elite athlete because of his self-awareness that his own actions might disqualify him from ministry. That is the purpose of the “” He is saying that if it could happen to him, it could happen to the Corinthians as well. It could happen to us. We too, might be disqualified. So, we should not be unaware or unknowing of this danger.
  2. What is one drastic example of the danger? Just look to ancient Israel. They had one specific generation that was famously disqualified. But before Paul could write of their disqualification, he first writes of their blessing. They all started from the same place. They all had the same ‘conversion’ experience during their miraculous freedom from Egyptian slavery. Although Paul only provides a few examples, we see this throughout the first several chapters of the book of Exodus. The Passover and Red Sea were ‘types’ (keep that word in mind for later) relating to the conversion experience of believers. Just as lambs were killed as sacrifices and their blood smeared on the doorposts, so was Jesus slain for us and covers us with His blood. Just as the Hebrews passed through the Red Sea to freedom from slavery, so do believers pass through the waters of baptism to show our emancipation from sin and our new life in Christ. And those things were only a few of the blessings experienced by ancient Israel.
  3. Paul specifically lists four: (1) the cloud, (2) the sea, (3) the food, (4) the drink, which came from the Rock. All of these blessings point in some fashion to Christ Jesus.
    1. The cloud: This is something the Exodus narrative ties specifically with the Angel of God, which (although not explicitly) is often a reference to the pre-incarnate Son of God. When the pillar of cloud led Israel, it was as if Jesus led Israel. And He did! He led them to the brink of the Red Sea and away from slavery.
    2. The sea: Obviously a reference to the Red Sea, Paul writes that it was through this act (and that of the cloud) that the nation of Israel was “baptized into Moses.” To be baptized into Moses is not to imply that any Hebrew was saved by keeping the law of Moses. Rather, it shows how the Hebrews were included in the covenant mediated by Moses. This was the introduction of their relationship with God. If they had not gone through the Red Sea, they would have remained in slavery even after the Passover lamb was slain. They had to go through the Red Sea to experience their new life with God. Likewise, we are baptized into Christ Jesus when we put our faith and trust in Him. Jesus, as the true Passover Lamb of God, has already been slain for all the world but not everyone in the world is saved. Not everyone has experienced the benefits of His saving work. What do we need? Intentional faith. We need to “walk through the sea,” as it were, putting our faith in Jesus alone that we might experience His blessings and new life.
    3. The food: No doubt a reference to the miraculous manna that appeared on the ground with the dew every single morning (excepting the Sabbath) for 40 years. That Paul describes it as “spiritual food” does not mean that it was imaginary. It was real, physical food that came via spiritual means. It was sustenance given by God, and (per Jesus) it was a type that pointed to His own identity as the Bread of Life (Jn 6:51).
    4. The drink: Again, this is described as “spiritual drink,” thought it is a reference to physical water that was brought forth through spiritual, miraculous means. This is the water that came from the rocks at different points of Israel’s wilderness journey (Exo 17, Num 20). When Israel twice found itself in a place without water, God gave them water. First, God instructed Moses to strike a particular rock, out of which enough water rushed to satisfy the thirst of the entire nation. Decades later, towards the end of Israel’s journey, the same problem arose although Moses’ patience with Israel was short. God told Moses to speak to the rock yet Moses struck it (not once, but twice), for which Moses was punished for misrepresenting God. In any case, water again rushed forth to quench the thirst of the nation. And again, this symbolized the living water of Christ Jesus.
      1. Although we are right to be careful of overly spiritualized interpretations and allegories, we can speak confidently of them when the Scripture points them out specifically. What did the rocks in the wilderness represent? What/Who did they typify? Christ Jesus. On this, there ought to be no debate for Paul writes, “that Rock was Christ.” Let Scripture interpret Scripture! When the Bible says that Jesus was represented by the Rock, the Bible means it.
      2. This tells us why it was such a terrible thing for Moses to misrepresent God’s command the way he did. Not only did he blatantly disobey God’s command and misrepresent God’s attitude toward the people, but Moses disrupted the symbolic picture of how the rock spoke of the Messiah. Jesus, as the Rock, was struck once at the cross and that once was sufficient for all time. He never need be struck with death again! Yet Moses struck the second rock twice. Moses didn’t just disobey God, he misrepresented the gospel.
  • If there is anything we do not want to do, it is to misrepresent the good news of Jesus! That itself is the danger of which Paul writes regarding disqualification. How terrible it would be for us to hinder someone else from putting his/her faith in Jesus. We want other to see Jesus through us and we want them to see Jesus rightly.
  1. Before we move on, please notice this: all Israel partook of these blessings. They were under the cloud, they passed through the sea, they ate of the food, and drank of the water. Each one in the nation individually received what God made available. Have you? It isn’t enough to simply show up in church or tune-in online. It isn’t even enough to participate in communion or get wet in a baptism ceremony. Have you personally and individually received of Jesus and His work? If you haven’t, it does not matter how many Christian things you know; you do not yet know Christ. You need to partake of Him.

5 But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.

  1. Despite all the blessing given to Israel, “God was not well pleased” with them. With how many? “Most of them.” There’s an understatement! Considering that only Joshua and Caleb survived the rebellion of the adult generation of Israelites at Kadesh Barnea while over 603,000 fell, God was not well pleased with approximately 99.99999% of them. The bodies of the Israelites were literally “scattered” through the wilderness during their 40 years of wandering. Hundreds upon hundreds of thousands were doomed to death. Not a day would have gone by without at least someone dying among Israel. They had a constant reminder of the wages of their sin. (And the wages of sin is always death! Rom 6:23.) This generation was disqualified from entering the blessing of the Promised Land. And it is this disqualification of which the Corinthians (and us) needed to remember.

6 Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted.

  1. Israel served as examples of what not to do. The word “examples” is tupos (τύπος), where we get our word “type.” It refers to a mark, copy, image, form, pattern, or archetype. It is something that points to something else. We see spiritual types throughout the Old Testament, some more clearly than others. For instance, there are many parallels between the lives of Joseph and Jesus in their rejection, humiliation, and exaltation. We might say that Jesus is the Greater-than-Joseph, or the Greater-than-Moses (or of David, Solomon, or many others). These other historical men (though very real) had things in their lives that painted a greater picture, leading up to the expectation of Messiah.
  2. As for the current context, there were certain ‘types’ presented in the Old Testament that showed not only the blessings of God (vss. 1-4) but also the failures of Israel (vss. 5-10). These things are given as lessons to us (as Paul will specify in vs. 11) that “we should not lust after evil things.” We should not follow in the example of those in Israel who disqualified themselves. Sometimes we have good examples of what to do; other times we have bad examples of what not to do. Paul is about to list off the latter.

What were the examples in ancient Israel? In what ways did they displease God and become disqualified? Paul gives four…

7 And do not become idolaters as were some of them. As it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.”

  1. Example #1: Idolatry. The incident in mind is the golden calf and Paul gives a specific quotation from Exodus 32:6, which is the description of what the people of Israel did when they saw the presentation of the idol. Exodus 32:5–6, “(5) So when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow is a feast to the LORD.” (6) Then they rose early on the next day, offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” They had a regular party bringing offerings to the altar set in front of this golden statue, of which they proclaimed, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt,” (Exo 32:4). The thing to remember is that all of this took place at the base of Mt. Sinai at the same time that Moses was on top of the mountain currently meeting with God receiving all of the plans for the tabernacle, which was God’s chosen means of worship. Not 40 days earlier had Israel been overwhelmed and terrified at the visible glory and audible voice of God as He gave the 10 Commandments (one of which was, “You shall not make any graven image,”). Even after all of that, Israel still gave into the temptation of idolatry and committed gross sin in the presence of God.
  2. One of the problems (among many!) in the golden calf incident was that the Hebrews attempted to mix Biblical faith with the pagan Egyptian religion. The statue made by Aaron was meant to represent the God that freed them from Egypt. And yes, the living God had freed Israel. However, the living God is not represented by a golden statue of anything. Likewise, God was worthy of their worship even as they waited for Moses as he lingered on the mountain. But God is not to be worshipped through drunken pagan rituals. That was how the Egyptians worshipped their pagan idols; not the true God. The Biblical faith is not something that we can mix/match with the world. It isn’t like a giant buffet table from which we can pick a little bit of everything we like. It is only by the grace of God that He invites us to worship Him, and we can only worship Him in the means that He gives us.
    1. What is our means and invitation? The Lord Jesus Christ! He is the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15) – He is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through Him (Jn 14:6). We dare not become idolaters attempting to replace Jesus with anything or anyone.
    2. Contextually, idolatry was Paul’s primary subject in Chapters 8-10, because it was so prevalent in the city of Corinth. But as we’ve mentioned before, it is just as prevalent among us today. And not just among unbelievers – remember that Paul is writing to the church, so this is a danger for us. Even American Evangelicals can fall to the dangers of idolatry when we put our kids above the place of God, or we substitute faith in politics for faith in Christ’s sovereignty, or when we prize our hobbies more than the Holy Lord. Beware the dangers of idolatry! It can easily invade our lives.

8 Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell;

  1. Example #2: Sexual immorality. Here, Paul refers to the sin at Peor in Numbers 25 when Balak king of Moab followed the advice of Balaam to send Midianite women into the camp of Israel, tempting the men to sexual temptation and pagan ritual. Balak originally hired Balaam to prophetically curse the nation of Israel, but Balaam was unable to prophetically utter anything that God had not given him to say (much to his dismay!). That was when Balaam came up with ‘Plan B’: send in a bunch of women as sexual temptresses and get Israel to bring God’s judgment upon themselves. It worked and thousands died in their sin, disqualified from receiving the blessings of God.
    1. It ought to go without saying that the temptation of sexual immorality is a real danger. It was for ancient Corinth (so much so that to be called a “Corinthian” was akin to being called a prostitute) and it is for us, today. Our culture is saturated with sexual immorality to the point that it is even celebrated. Christians are called to be different. We are to glorify the Lord with our bodies, our hearts, and our minds. Beware that sexual temptation does not grab hold of you and ruin your witness.
  2. BTW: Some have raised an objection with Paul’s counting. The record at Numbers 25:9 states that 24,000 fell; Paul says 23,000. Was Paul mistaken or wrong? Although it is often claimed to be a contradiction, it is not. If 24,000 died, then at least 23,000 certainly did. If Paul had gone over the count listed in Numbers 25, it would perhaps be possible to accuse him of a mistake or contradiction, but he did not. Some have suggested that Paul counted only the laypeople and not the leadership, or perhaps Paul listed only those that fell in one day rather than the total number who died. Of course, it could simply be that Paul was not aiming for precision. Rather, the main point was massive immediate judgment upon those who disqualified themselves.

9 nor let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed by serpents;

  1. Example #3: Tempting Christ. Although some manuscripts differ, it is interesting how Paul writes that ancient Israel would “tempt Christ,” even though Jesus was not yet incarnate. It is a statement of Jesus’ deity. To tempt Christ is to tempt God, for Jesus is 
  2. That said, what does it mean to “tempt Christ”? Does Paul equate ancient Israel to Satan, as when Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness? Contextually for Israel, their temptation of God was not tempting God to sin, but tempting and testing His patience. The Israelites tempted God many times. There were the bitter waters at Marah (Exo 15) and the lack of later at Rephidim and Meribah (Exo 17, Num 20). There was also the grumbling against God at Hormah where they accused God of bringing them to that place specifically to kill them (Num 21). In response, God sent fiery serpents among them, to which the only solution was to look in faith at a bronze serpent that Moses lifted on a staff. (Which Jesus referenced as being typical/symbolic of how He as the Son of Man would be lifted on the cross. Jn 3).
    1. How might we tempt Christ? When we likewise tempt His patience, discipline, and judgment. When we play around with sin, we tempt/test the patience of God. When we fall back into the habits of our flesh, we tempt His discipline. Especially if we were to use the excuse of grace to sin that grace may abound (Rom 6:1), we would test the judgment of God. Beware! Be careful that you don’t play with sin but rather treat it as the evil for that it is, being ever-dependent on God’s mercies and grace.
    2. Question: Is there a point that we might tempt God too far – that we might go all the way to our own destruction, as Israel did with the serpents? Regarding the promises God has given us for our salvation in Jesus Christ, no. As we abide in Jesus, we are saved by Jesus. But it is possible that we sin to a point of physical judgment. Consider Ananias and Sapphira who lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:4) or the warning of John that there is a sin that leads to death (1 Jn 5:16). Where the boundary of this kind of judgment lies, we do not know…but neither do we want to find out!

10 nor complain, as some of them also complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer.

  1. Example #4: Complaining. The word is interesting in that it is onomatopoeic, meaning that it sounds like its definition. “To complain” is gogguzo (γογγύζω), meaning to grumble or murmur or mutter. Israel routinely complained and grumbled against the Lord. At the shore of the Red Sea, prior to its parting, they complained that God took them there to die. In the wilderness, they complained that they had no water, or had no food, or had too much manna and no meat, or suffered the consequences of their own choices, or any number of things. For all that we remember how Moses misrepresented God and the gospel late in his life, it is easy to understand how Moses got to that point. He was tired of listening to 40 years of complaints!
  2. How might we grumble against God? Simple: we do it every time we disagree with God’s sovereignty. When we do not trust God as God, we complain against Him. When we doubt His goodness and provision, we grumble against God. When we assert that our plans are better than His, we find ourselves murmuring against the Almighty God of the universe. That being the case, some of us likely spend more time in prayer complaining against God than praising Him!
    1. Does this mean we cannot be honest in our prayers? As if, when we have troubles and concerns, we should not voice these things to God in fear of expressing a lack of faith? We should be honest in our prayers. God already knows our hearts and He sees right through our attempts at false piety. Even so, if all we bring to God are murmurings and complaints, we ought to search our hearts to determine why those things are there. Perhaps we spend too much time in the news and not enough in our Bibles. Perhaps we spend too much time sitting rather than serving. Perhaps we have lost sight of God’s utter sovereignty over every aspect of the universe. Do we really believe that God holds our lives in His hand? Do we really believe that God is supreme over every government in the world, orchestrating even world leaders to work according to His perfect will? (As seen even in the Great Tribulation and the Second Coming of Christ.) If so, we need to trust Him! And where we lack faith to do so, ask Him for it.

11 Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.

  1. All their failures serve a purpose: to be admonitions and examples to us today. What does it mean to “admonish”? Simply to teach or instruct. These things were given to teach us as the church. We look at the mistakes of Israel and learn from them. Instead of making the same mistakes, we learn the lesson and do differently. Or, we should. It has been often said that we can either learn something the easy way or the hard way. The easy way would be for us to learn from Israel’s mistakes and failings. The hard way is for us to follow in their footsteps and do the same thing. (We might find ourselves going the hard way far too often!)
  2. Question: Considering that these things Paul mentions are examples/types for our teaching, does this take away from the plain meaning of the Old Testament? Does this mean that all the events of the Old Testament are merely spiritual lessons with spiritual meanings always deeper than the surface-level text? Should every Scripture be dismantled into allegory as might be reflected in ancient rabbinical teaching and some teachers among the early church (i.e. Origen)? The Old Testament accounts are real accounts, to be understood as whatever their literary genre determines them to be. The history in Genesis is history, the poetry of the Psalms is poetry, etc. They ought to be read and interpreted first and foremost as they are. We do not have the authority to reinterpret Scripture according to our own preferences and imaginations. That said, all Scripture does have application that reaches beyond its original audience to us today. Our application must be drawn out of the original application, but even the most ancient of Scriptures is still relevant today. Paul points this out to Timothy: 2 Timothy 3:16–17, “(16) All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, (17) that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” These things are in the Bible (and for Paul as he wrote to Timothy, the Bible was the Old Testament) to build us into the men and women that God desires us to be. IOW, these things are useful – these things are needed.
    1. Let me challenge you today: Are you getting what is needed? Are you reading the Bible on a regular, systematic basis that you might be complete and thoroughly equipped? Too many Christians (particularly American Christians) are not. They get a snippet of a verse here & there a few times a week, expecting to get all they need on the days they go to church. Even if you went to church twice a week every single week (which few Christians do…many go twice per month), that would not be enough. It would not be close to enough. Consider how many times you eat per day. Most of us would feel woefully ill-equipped to face our day if all we ate was one meal each day (much less one meal per week!). How much more do we need the word of God as our daily bread? And we need it all. Not just the familiar sweet parts like the gospel and psalms, but the less familiar and tougher parts such as the rebuke on Israel from the prophets. We need all the Bible if we are to grow into all the Christians that God desires us to be.

Paul called the Corinthian Christians to look backward. Be mindful of what has happened in the past! Although ancient Israel was the nation chosen by God, God’s people still were in danger of falling to temptation. They still had the danger of disqualification, to which many of them fell.

  • Warning against disqualification (12-13). What happens in the present.

12 Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.

  1. When Paul writes “take heed,” he basically writes “watch out!” Open your eyes and be mindful of yourself and your situation. When running on trails, I can almost pinpoint every single fall to a moment that I stopped paying close attention. The moment I ‘zone out’ is the moment I find a root or a rock or anything else that sends me tumbling to the ground. It isn’t any different in our walks with Jesus. We are blessed to have all kinds of confidence in our Lord and in His grace…but the moment we put our confidence in ourselves and our abilities, we’re going down.
  2. This itself is a temptation when we look back at people of the past. We have a tendency to look at Israel and think, “That’s them; not me. I would never make the same mistake.” Oh yes we would, and yes we do! We would make the exact same choice as Adam and Eve in the garden – we would make the same mistakes as the Israelites at the base of Mt. Sinai – we would make the same mistakes as the churches Jesus wrote to in the book of Revelation. How can we know? Because we already have! Just a casual look back at any one of our lives reveals the many ways we’ve failed Christ. Our sins against God did not stop the moment we put our faith in Jesus. They sadly continue until this very day, as they will tomorrow and the next day and the next.
  3. This is why humility is so important! “Take heed lest he fall” is an exhortation to all of us every day. Take heed today – be humble today – cast yourself upon the grace and mercy of Jesus today because we need Him today. We need Him and His grace every single day and we are unable to live a single day to His glory without Him. If He does not forgive us and sustain us, we have no hope.
    1. But He does! Praise God, He does! Beloved, this is part of the good news of the gospel, that Jesus loves us even in all our terrible weakness today. We dare not take Him for granted nor think too much of ourselves and our strength, but it is also impossible to overestimate the love of God that He has for us as His children. His grace is truly greater than all our sins!
    2. Some of you still need to experience that grace for the first time. You haven’t experienced the love and forgiveness of God because you’ve never cast yourself in humility and faith upon Jesus. You think you stand in your own strength, but you don’t. You think you have done enough good to overcome your bad, that God might let you into heaven, but you haven’t. The only good that can possibly overwhelm and erase the evil and sin you’ve committed is the good that comes from Jesus – but you will never experience it if you don’t ask for it.

13 No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.

  1. Interestingly, the phrase “common to man” is one single word in Greek, which means (as it says) that something pertains to being human. This, according to Paul, is the problem of temptation. The temptations we face are not unusual; they ought to be expected of us just as they are expected for everyone in the human race. We as Christians do not face anything out of the ordinary.
    1. This is news to a lot of people! Born-again Christians are not automatically exempted from temptation the moment we put our faith in Christ. Temptations/trials come to each of us, whether we like it or not. We had trials as non-believers; we still have trials as Anyone who prayed a sinner’s prayer trying to find an easy life free from trials is going to be sorely disappointed! We still face the same trials and temptations we did as when we were unsaved. The difference now? Now we know Jesus! Now we have access to the Spirit for God’s power to deal with these trials.
  2. Thankfully, Paul has more to say than just an assumption of trials for every person. He also says, “But God is faithful.” Amen! God is In fact, He is far more faithful than we are! What we lack, He abounds – where we are weak, He is strong. — This is key when it comes to dealing with temptations and trials. Again, the moment we think ourselves strong enough to handle the temptations that come our way is the moment we will succumb to them. We need to first admit our powerlessness and second, turn to the God who has all power. He has the strength we need. He has the faith we lack. Thus, we rely on Him and Him alone.
  3. What is God faithful to provide? “The way of escape.” He gives us a way out. When we face trials and temptations, God gives us a way to endure and bear up under the pressure. Sometimes this is a literal “way of escape,” as when Joseph ran out of the house after his master’s wife accosted him and tried to get him to sleep with her. Other times, it is the spiritual strength to endure a terrible trial, as in Paul’s own life when he prayed three times for some unspecified thorn in his flesh to be removed from him, only to have God tell him that Jesus’ own grace was sufficient. Either way, it is a way of escape. Though we might find ourselves in the midst of the trial, we will have peace in the trial. Just like Jesus could sleep in the bottom of a tiny fishing boat during a torrential storm on the Sea of Galilee, so will we be able to bear any trial when we walk in the power and equipping of God. God gives us that way and He is faithful to do it consistently. 
  4. Notice what Paul does and does not say regarding the things of temptation, the ability to bear, and a way of escape. He does not say that we will not be tempted. Nor does he say that any temptation we face will be light and easy. He does say that whatever temptation/trial we face will not be more than we are able to bear. That is, as long as we bear it with the Lord our God. And that is important! This verse is often ripped from its context and made to say something it does not. How many times have you heard, “God will not give you more than what you can handle”? Do not be mistaken nor deceived: that is not the text of the Bible. Nowhere does the Bible promise that we (in ourselves) can handle anything and everything life throws at us. Try telling the surviving parent of a child lost to suicide that God won’t allow anything more in their life than what they can handle. Try telling victims of persecution and physical torture that they can surely handle their trials, for it is not too much for them. That is not the testimony of Scripture (and we should stop pretending as if it is!). What the Bible does say is that God is sufficient for our every need. It tells us that God gives us power when we have none. It tells us that God provides a way of escape out of every temptation. We might miss it when we are not looking for it, but it is there, according to God’s word.
    1. This is better news than the false promise of “God won’t give me more than I can handle.” How so? Because even though I can’t handle it, God can. And God is always with me. He never leaves us nor does He forsake us. Jesus is with us always, even to the end of the age. I do not need to be able to handle every trial in my strength. I simply need to be a child of the faithful and all-powerful God, relying on Him to handle every trial.

Conclusion:

Don’t get disqualified! Beware of the danger. Look to the Biblical account in Israel. Although Israel was immensely blessed by God in their emancipation from Egyptian slavery, they were still disqualified through their sin. And their testimony of disqualification was sobering: their bodies slain and scattered in the wilderness. The danger has not lessened for us today! Wake up, take heed, and watch out. Beware of disqualifying sin, never thinking yourself too strong to succumb to the most basic dangers. Anyone of us might fall. It is only by the strength and grace of God that we do not.

After all these examples of disqualifying sin, the question that might be weighing heavily on some of us is this: “What if I have already committed it? What if I have already disqualified myself?” I truly hope that is not the case and sincerely doubt it is 100% the case with anyone here. After all, unlike Ananias and Sapphira of old, if you’re listening to this, you’re still alive. You have not sinned the sin that leads to death. You might experience terrible consequences for your actions, some of which might last the rest of your life. And yes, there may be some people in your past for whom they will never be able to see beyond your failures.

But God isn’t like people. The promises that we have in Christ affirm that His mercies are new every morning. They affirm that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. They affirm that the good work that God has begun in us, He will see to completion in the day of Christ Jesus. As long as you still draw breath, God is not done with you. You can still glorify Him in whatever season of life you find yourself. It may be true that a door is closed with certain people, but it is not closed with all people, and God can use you to reach some of those people for Christ.

But it will never happen in your pride. As long as you puff up yourself trying to carry yourself in your own strength, you are bound for failure. Just like me! I know how weak I am in my own strength – how inherently rotten and sinful my flesh is. I know I need Jesus every minute of every day…and He is available to me, just like He is available to you. Humble yourself and throw yourself on His grand mercies today.

What did Paul mean by writing that he became all things to all men that he might save some? He meant that he did what it took to get himself out of the way so that others could see Jesus.

Do What It Takes

Posted: January 11, 2021 in 1 Corinthians

1 Corinthians 9:19-27, “Do What It Takes”

When watching TV as a family, many of us have heard the phrase (or perhaps have uttered it), “You make a better door than a window.” When I was a child, my family did not have a remote control for the television and it was not uncommon for my brother or me to be asked to change the channel. It was one thing to change the channel; it was another to sit right in front of the screen blocking it for everyone else.

As Christians, we might make better doors than windows. Although we certainly want people to see Jesus in us, many times we end up blocking the way. People see far too much of “Tim” and far too little of Christ. We need to find some way to get out of the way, for people to see Jesus instead of us. We need to be as transparent as possible, that the main thing remains the main thing (and the main thing is Jesus).

Paul understood this well in his missionary ministry. This was a man who travelled all over the Roman Empire speaking to everyone from Hebrew-culture Jews, to Greek-culture Jews, to Gentile philosophers, to agnostics, to pagans, to outright deceivers, and more. How could he talk to so many people about Christ? Simple: he was flexible, never allowing himself to get in the way. He could relate to Jews as a Jew and to Greeks as one who was raised among Greeks. He was always willing to do what was necessary for others to see Jesus, even if it meant changing the way he did things for a time.

This becomes evident in the latter half of 1 Corinthians 9. In their back and forth communication, the Christians at Corinth had some questions for the apostle Paul. He already dealt with one, and now moved on to the other which dealt with the issue of idolatry, or what to do with things that had been offered to idols in pagan sacrifices. While, at first glance, it may seem foreign to us (although the typical American Evangelical deals far more frequently with idolatry than we might imagine!), this was a common issue for the Corinthians. Temples dedicated to the Greek/Roman pantheon of gods dotted the city and was a major part of their culture. It could be tricky even to eat a meal that was not (in part) tainted by idolatry. What were Christians supposed to do? (Especially those who had come out of idolatrous backgrounds!)

Paul began his answer by helping the Christians shift their focus. Instead of asking, “what is good for me?” The real question was, “What is good for my Christian brother/sister?” Although there are many practices that might be legal/permissible for us, it does not mean those things are helpful. In fact, they might even cause our fellow Christians to stumble in their discipleship with Jesus, being that they are weaker or more sensitive in these areas. Better for us to forego those liberties than to exercise them to someone’s harm.

Paul went on to provide a personal example. He did not command anything of the church which he was not willing to do. He too, had denied himself something to which he had an absolute right: financial support as a minister of the gospel. That Paul had a God-given right to it was clear from both societal norm and Scriptural practice. But Paul purposefully did not avail himself of that right, preferring his financial independence from the Corinthians which gave him the freedom to preach Jesus without distraction.

With his personal example given, Paul gets back to the overall principle, showing that individual sacrifice is worth it when it comes to the eternal salvation of souls. The commission we have received from Jesus is too important to let anything get in the way. The last thing any of us would want would be for us to block someone from seeing Jesus. We need to be willing to change whatever needs to be changed (within reason, among that which can be changed) if it helps someone know Christ.

We see it in two basic parts of our text: the method and the goal. Although the message of the gospel never changes, the methods we use to preach the gospel do. The goal of that preaching, however, does not. We want people to see Jesus. Do what it takes for Jesus to be known and for people to be saved!

1 Corinthians 9:19–27

  • The method (19-23).

19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more;

  1. Paul begins by laying out the basic principle: he was free but he made himself a slave. He was truly “free,” just as he mentioned at the beginning of Chapter 9, asserting not only his Christian freedom but also his apostolic authority. Paul was free in the same way that emancipated Roman slaves were free (same word in 7:21-22), without any man holding a claim over him. Although other hired teachers would be considered servants of those who hired them, Paul remained free of those financial ties because he was not reliant on the support of anyone in Corinth. Of course, his simple identity in Christ ensured his spiritual freedom, with also his apostolic calling ensuring his freedom to act and teach what God alone desired of him. Paul, like all born-again believers but especially such as a designated emissary of the Lord Jesus, was free.
  2. That freedom, however, was something Paul was willing to set aside in order to to make himself, “a servant to all,” literally speaking of enslaving himself to all. Why would anyone do this? Why would anyone go from freedom to slavery, and willingly at that? He gives us the reason: “that I might win the more.” The word Paul used for “win” is used five times between 9:19-22, and refers to acquiring, gaining. In other contexts, it might even mean “to make a profit.” Paul was not a businessman but he was in the business of acquiring people for Christ. Just as Peter left the role of a fisherman to become a fisher of men, so did Paul labor for Jesus to win people to the gospel message.
  3. With that in mind, it is important not to misunderstand this. For Paul to write that he would “win” people to Christ does not mean that he was taking credit for their salvation. Rather, it was only an expression to denote the role God used Paul to play. God alone saves men & women, but many times God uses people as His instruments to save those same men & women. The biggest problem with “soul winning” is not the terminology but the lack of participation and availability.
  4. That said, we do need to be careful to give all credit and glory to God. Those who take pride in their soul-winning do not understand what it is about. To win/gain souls for Jesus is not to pitch a sale – it is not to get people to merely repeat a prayer – it is not to argue someone into submission. Those things are human endeavors and techniques, and not a single person is born-again through human means. There are religions that require human intervention as priests for people to assure themselves of eternity, but it is not Biblical Christianity. The Bible tells us that we have but one great High Priest, Jesus, and that His work on the cross is fully sufficient for our salvation. Thus, He cried out, “It is finished!” He did not mean, “It is finished with the exception of the pastor or evangelist or the soul-winner who needs to do more work for someone to be saved.” He said only “It is finished.” Jesus did 100% of the work. All we do in evangelism (or soul-winning, or however you describe sharing your faith) is simply tell people what Jesus has done. We do not add to Jesus; we show people Jesus and get out of the way.

20 and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law;

  1. Example 1: the Jews. It ought to be expected that Paul begins here, as this is who he was. He was born of the tribe of Benjamin, was trained as a rabbi and Hebrew scholar under the famed rabbi Gamaliel, and was a Pharisee among Pharisees. Paul knew the Jewish religion backwards and forwards for he lived it exclusively during his youth and early adulthood. And just as young Saul of Tarsus had a zeal to persecute Christians unto death, the converted apostle Paul had a zeal for his Jewish countrymen to be saved unto life. Thus, he “became as a Jew,” routinely during his missionary ministry. It was not that Paul ever stopped being a Jew (as a born-again Christian, we might say that he was a “fulfilled” Jew), but Paul intentionally put his Jewishness out front and acted as a faithful Jew every time he entered a new city. He would go to the local synagogue attending Saturday meetings and Torah readings, always finding ways to point people to Jesus as the Messiah, showing them the truth through the Scripture. Paul did not hesitate to “use” his Jewishness to draw and “win Jews” to Jesus.
  2. Question: What is the difference between Jews and “those who are under the law”? Likely nothing. There are some who suggest that this might refer to God-fearing Gentiles, or those Gentiles who were not fully converted to Judaism yet still worshipped according to the Jewish traditions and Scriptures. Yet that is not the most natural reading of the term. “Those who are under the law” are almost always those who are under the law of Moses, meaning Jews. If there is any distinction, it might refer to the Jewish customs that were often added on top of the Biblical law, with those customs themselves being treated as law. If Paul was around the Pharisees of his past, he certainly would have washed his hands in the ceremonially appropriate manner, wore his clothing in the culturally appropriate way, etc. We get a glimpse of this in the book of Acts when Paul arrived in Jerusalem to deliver a financial gift from the Gentile churches to the Jerusalem Christians. He met with James and the other church leaders who counseled him to go with other Jewish Christians to the temple and pay the expenses for their vow, that Paul might be seen observing Jewish custom (Acts 21). Paul was not under compulsion to do it, but he did so. Why? Because he was willing to do what it took to “win those who are under the law.
  3. FYI: Depending on your Bible translation, you may also see a personal comment from Paul saying that he was not himself “under the law.” This is a phrase included in some of the oldest manuscripts (in some of the most wide-spread geographic traditions) but did not make it into the vast majority of manuscripts that came through the church. Regardless of your position of textual criticism, the idea is clear enough. Although Paul was a solid, law-abiding Jewish Christian, his Christianity freed him from any obligation to the Jewish law/customs. This is the work of Christ. Jesus completes the law for Jew and Gentile alike.

21 to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law;

  1. Example 2: the Gentiles. As the apostle to the Gentiles, of course Paul would be willing to put aside Jewish customs to speak to the Gentiles and to win “those who are without law.” Remember that Paul was raised in the Roman city of Tarsus, outside of Judea. Although he had a Jewish upbringing, he was raised in a culture of Hellenistic (or Greek-custom) Jews and around many Gentiles overall. Paul knew how to relate to the Gentiles and he used it for the sake of the gospel.
  2. Theologically, this might bring up the question: How might someone be without the law? Doesn’t God’s law apply to everyone, regardless of our recognition of it? We see this in our own civic law, as ignorance of it is no excuse in violating it. Should you come into a great amount of money, you would be responsible for paying the appropriate taxes, even if you had zero idea as to what those taxes were. The IRS does not care about your ignorance; only your compliance. Likewise with the DPS officer who pulls you over on the highway for speeding, even when you didn’t know what the speed limit was at the time. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Thankfully our God has far more compassion than either the IRS or the police department, but He also has far more righteousness. Simply because a person does not know the details of God’s moral law does not excuse that person’s disobedience of it. You need not own a Bible that declares, “Thou shalt not kill,” for you to know inherently that murder is wrong. Whether we know God’s law or not, it must be obeyed.
  3. That said, there is a covenant law of God and a civil code of society that belongs to God’s nation of Israel; not to the rest of the world. The Gentiles were not commanded to keep the Year of Jubilee – they were not expected to wear only like-fibers in their clothing – they were not commanded to abstain from any number of things that were prohibited in the nation of Israel. In fact, not even the Gentile Christians were commanded to keep these laws and statutes. When Paul and the early church was presented with the Judaizing controversy, the apostles and church leaders in Jerusalem determined that the Gentile Christians did not need to convert to Judaism to be saved. They were not to discount God’s holiness and righteous moral standard but neither were they bound to the Hebrew ceremonial and civil law/custom.
  4. Paul acknowledges this when he notes that these Gentiles were “not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ.” It was not that God left anyone without a witness to His holiness (even the Gentiles show the law of God written on our hearts ~ Rom 2:15); we can and do see the righteousness of God in creation around us and what we inherently know to be universal rights and wrongs. More than that, our faith in Christ does not promote what theologians call “anti-nomianism,” or the idea that the moral law of God does not matter. No Christian (Gentile or Jew) is free to sin with abandon, using the grace of Jesus as an excuse. Paul dealt with this in detail in Romans 6-7. We cannot sin that grace would abound, nor sin because we are not under law but under grace. Those ideas are antithetical to the good work that Jesus has done in us through our redemption and justification. Jesus did not save us so that we could be more sinful. He saved us from sin, that we might glorify God. This is why Paul writes that we are “under law toward Christ.” Gentiles might not be under the civil and ceremonial law of Moses, but we are under the law of Christ. Jesus is our Lord and Sovereign King. We owe Him our allegiance and our obedience.

22 to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. …

  1. Example 3: the “” Who are the weak? These are the same people Paul has had in mind since Chapter 8. These are those who are spiritually immature or sensitive in certain areas. Keep in mind that the whole context of the “weak” in Chapters 8-9 has been Christians. This shows a slight change from vss. 20-21 with the Jews and Gentiles. In those examples, Paul writes how he changed his methods to win each group to Christ. Here, the weak are already Christian. When Paul writes that he “might win the weak,” he isn’t writing of their salvation because they are already saved. Again this is clear from the context. In Chapter 8, the weak were those Christians who had come out of pagan idolatry and had consciences weak/sensitive to those things. So how would Paul win those who were already won?
  2. Answer: Paul was winning them to a slightly different purpose. Here, it wasn’t winning someone to faith in Christ; it was winning someone as a disciple of Christ. IOW, it wasn’t justification but sanctification. The weak Christian was already justified in the sight of God (had their sins dealt with and made righteous in His sight through faith in Jesus). Yet the weak Christian still needed to grow in his/her faith, continually being conformed into Jesus’ image. This was where Paul accommodated them. Instead of putting a stumbling block in the way of these new Christian believers, Paul set his liberties aside that the weak Christians who were won might not be lost (so to speak). He didn’t want them left along the roadside to fall to trials and temptations – he didn’t want their faith to wither on the vine.
  3. Keep in mind that this does not mean that the weak Christians should always remain weak. The very reason discipleship exists is to strengthen Christians in our faith, helping us grow, to be edifies, to be made strong in Christ. But no weak person becomes strong overnight. Professional bodybuilders develop their physiques over literal years of training; no one steps from a skinny 9th grader to Mr. Universe without a lot of work. Paul was willing to accommodate weaker Christians that they might grow in strength. (We would be wise to do the same!)

… I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.

  1. This is the principle restated. Paul, though free, made himself a servant/slave to all that people might be won to Christ. Here, Paul writes that he did whatever it took. Be careful not to take this the wrong way. He did not mean that he was willing to do anything and everything, even abandon the teachings of the Bible, so that he could add numbers to a church congregation. Paul was not willing to jettison proper doctrine just to make sinners feel more comfortable and to get them to mentally agree to a milquetoast message. Some have tried this. They say, “Paul became all things to all men, so I’m going to do the same. I’m going to become a drunk for drunkards or a salesman for salespeople. I’m going to make people feel good about themselves just as they are, and get them to pray a prayer for Jesus.” Or they go to the opposite extreme and become legalists to reach other legalists, or religionists to reach religionists. That is not at all what Paul did. Whatever Paul did in practice, he never changed his teaching. Never once did Paul water down the message of the gospel. Any time that he went into the Jewish synagogues as a Jew, he still preached Jesus as the Jewish Messiah (which often caused him to get ejected from the synagogue). When Paul went to the Gentiles, although he may not have paid any attention to how he washed his hands or keeping a kosher diet, he still preached the Holy God who judges sin in righteousness, for which we need a Savior in Jesus. And as with the Jews, many times Paul was ejected and persecuted for his message. The basic message never changed; only the methods were flexible. To “become all things to all men” is not carte-blanche to abandon the Bible; it is only a recognition that we major on the majors and minor on the minors. Biblical doctrine is major; cultural preference is not.
  2. Why would he do it? To use “all means” (i.e. all Biblical means) to “save some.” The “some” is important. Why? Because it is a realistic recognition that not everyone will respond. To accommodate people just for the sake of accommodation is meaningless. The goal in showing people Jesus is not to make everyone feel good about themselves. It isn’t so that people will become more comfortable in their sin, satisfied in their condition as they comfortably head to hell. Rather, it is that “some” would be wakened from their slumber, see their need for Jesus and be saved! And yes, for that, we change our methods when needed – we accommodate different cultural practices. We even temporarily set aside certain liberties. Why? Because the salvation of souls is worth the sacrifice!

23 Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.

  1. Why did Paul do what he did? For the gospel. When Paul changed his methods, it was never to shine a light on himself. Rather, it was always done to get him out of the way and for people to see Jesus. Think of it: if, in front of a Gentile audience, Paul insisted on acting as a Jewish rabbi and Pharisee, he would never even have willingly spoken with them. And if he did, yet maintained all of the customs and traditions, that would have been all the people saw. How could Gentiles hear the good news of Jesus who died for them, when all they could see was a seemingly high-and-mighty Jewish rabbi talk down to them? No wonder Paul became as a Gentile to the Gentiles! His whole goal was to get them to see Jesus, and that meant he needed to get himself out of the way. That was the only way he would be a “partaker” of these things with them. Paul was already in Christ through the message of the gospel, and he wanted all these other people to be in Christ through the message of the gospel. If they were going to partake in these things together – if they were to be joined as one body in Christ – it meant that these people needed to put their faith in That meant they needed to see and hear Jesus.

I cringe thinking about the number of times I might have gotten in the way of the gospel. It pains me to consider how I might have let my preferences get in the way of someone else who needs to see Jesus. Paul was willing to change his methods for the sake of the gospel message. Are we?

I remember one particular friend from college who came from a truly pagan background. At one point he professed to have put his faith in Christ and started coming to church. The only problem? Few people believed him. They kept expecting him to look just as “Christian” as they did. He didn’t dress like they did – he didn’t listen to the same music they did – he didn’t talk like they did. He was just a new Christian, a weak one, but he had a hunger for Christ. He did…until he got fed up of dealing with the people around him. Eventually, his faith withered like the seed in Jesus’ parable that rose up out of stony ground that was scorched by the sun. Whatever happened to him, I don’t know (or can’t remember), but it grieves me as a situation where too much focus was put on the method rather than the message.

May God guard us from such callousness! Where might you have allowed your preferences to be a stumbling block for someone else? Maybe it is a liberty you want to exercise – maybe it is the opposite, a custom or practice you want enforced. Know this: if it gets in the way of Jesus, it isn’t worth it. We want to see people saved; not stumbled.

  • The goal (24-27).

24 Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it.

  1. As a runner, this is where the illustrations get fun for me. J From the examples here in 1 Corinthians and elsewhere in Paul’s writings, it is evident that he was a sports fan. He was familiar with the various athletic games, one of which was famously tied to Corinth: the Isthmian games, named after the Isthmus of Corinth, where it was held every other year surrounding the famed ancient Olympian games. Both Paul and the Corinthians could relate to the idea of sports and the analogy ties well into the Christian life.
  2. Here, the idea is simple: run to win! People today run for all kinds of reasons (health, enjoyment, relaxation…maybe just to get their doctor off their back!). Paul wasn’t writing of casual jogging; he was running a race. At the very least, he referred to competition. The word used for “race” might literally be translated “stadium” (stadion ~ στάδιον) – it could refer either to a specific distance (just under 607 feet) or the arena where a race might take place. This wasn’t a casual jog around the block; this was a track meet, specifically for head-to-head competition. A prize was reserved for the winner and the goal was to win it. Even today, this is still the case. Although there is often a finisher’s medal for anyone who competes in a marathon, there is only one first place overall finish and one specific award that goes to the winner. In our race, we want to run to win.
  3. Question: How exactly does that relate to everything Paul has been writing? How does this fit into the context? Simple: the things Paul did, Paul did with a purpose. The reason he changed his methodology or temporarily set aside certain liberties was not because he was bored and had nothing better to do. He did these things for the prize of the high calling of Christ. He did those things because that was what was necessary to win the race. He did those things because that was what it would take for people to see Jesus and be saved. Some people like change for its own sake. That wasn’t Paul. He changed various preferences and practices for the specific goal of running the race Jesus set before him. Just like a runner goes into a race with different strategies based off the distance and his/her competitors, so was Paul aware of the different situations he faced with different people. He wanted to run to “obtain” that prize.

25 And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.

  1. The wording is interesting here. We could potentially translate it, “And everyone who agonizes for the prize is self-controlled in all things.” The word used for “compete” comes from the same word we get “agony,” and although it can refer to engaging in a contest, it can also refer to a fight or struggle. Olympic athletes do not get to that level without blood, sweat, and tears. It takes agony to get to top of athletic achievement. And for that, it takes temperance/self-control. They have to eat a certain way, follow certain training schedules, stretch, strengthen, and do whatever it takes to hone their skills. More than that, it can all be for naught if they don’t peak at just the right time. It doesn’t matter who the fastest person might be on paper, in theory; it only matters who wins the race that particular day. And for what? Temporary, “perishable” glory. Today, Olympic athletes (and other international competitions) give medals of gold, silver, and bronze, cherished possessions that can get passed down from generation to generation. In the ancient Isthmian and Olympian games, the winners received crowns made out of twigs. For the Olympics, the crowns were made of olive vines; for the Isthmian games, it was of pine trees. Either way, these things would dry out and decay in a matter of weeks or months. It was fine for a moment but it would surely perish.
  2. The contrast with Christian service is immense! We also run and compete in our race, but we do it for “an imperishable crown.” Scripture lists several crowns that await believers in heaven: the crown of righteousness (2 Tim 4:8), the crown of life (Jas 1:12, Rev 2:10), and the crown of glory (1 Pet 5:4). Are they literal crowns? Are they different names for one crown? Scholars debate the question. The main idea is clear enough: we have an award that awaits us in heaven, one that will not fade away. The reward that Jesus gives us at His Bema Seat (Judgment Seat) will last for all eternity!
  3. As for the context, Paul is saying that Christians are self-controlled for a purpose and a goal. Again, we don’t change methods out of boredom or just to rock the boat. Whatever we do, we do keeping our eye on Jesus and the high calling He has given us. We do these things with purpose, as Paul writes in verse 26…

26 Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air.

  1. There is intention in athletic performance. Runners that reach the peak of their potential don’t head out the door without at least some plan in mind for their workout. It might change from day to day (sometimes intervals at the track, other days as easy recovery runs), but these athletes understand that every workout ought to have a purpose. There is no benefit from “junk” miles. Likewise with boxing. There is a time and place for shadow boxing in training, but if an athlete wants to win a fight, at some point he/she has to actually get into a ring and spar with someone. There is intention as the person pushes forward to the goal.
    1. I wonder how much intention there is in the average Christian believer? How much is there in me? It is so easy to put ourselves on “autopilot” and just cruise through existence. But has Jesus called us to cruise? That wasn’t what He told His disciples when He ascended to heaven. He sent them out as His witnesses, to make disciples of all the nations. Their calling is our calling. Their commission is our commission. Yes, we do it it in different ways and in different settings. One person is called to be a missionary overseas – one person is trained to be an engineer in a technology firm. Both can be believers and both can be intentional with the time and opportunity that God gives them. 

27 But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.

  1. The primary definition for the word translated “discipline,” is “to blacken an eye.” It literally speaks of physical violence, although it has other definitions depending on the context, such as bringing someone into submission, or putting someone under strict discipline (even punishment or torment). The idea is that Paul didn’t make it easy on himself. To use the illustration of a boxer, Paul didn’t beat up anyone else in a ring; he beat up himself. He was willing to discipline his own body in such a fashion if it meant achieving the desired goal. Like a boxer willing to train to the point of “no pain, no gain,” so was Paul willing to do in his evangelistic ministry.
  2. Why? Because Paul wanted to persevere. He wanted to go all 10 rounds – he wanted to complete the whole race distance, not being “disqualified” – not being found “unworthy” in the end. Again, the terminology is interesting. When Paul writes that he wanted to bring his body “into subjection,” the word comes from the same root as that of “slave.” We might say that Paul disciplined/punished his body to “enslave” it, which brings his argument full circle to verse 19. He was free from all men but made himself a salve to all in the gospel. How did he do it? By beating himself into submission, when necessary. He submitted himself so much so to Jesus as a slave in the gospel that it ensured that Paul never got in the way. He pushed himself down that Jesus would be lifted up.
    1. If we’re honest, this happens rarely for us. It does not come easy. When our preferences come in conflict with someone else, we rarely beat ourselves down; we puff ourselves up. We want to push our way, rather than see someone else’s. But that’s the problem. We want our way, when as Jesus’ servants, we ought to want His And what was Jesus’ own example for us? Talk about subjection! Jesus humbled himself to an amazing degree. Paul (attempted) to describe it to the Philippians: Philippians 2:5–7, “(5) Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, (6) who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, (7) but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.” Jesus could not have set aside more than what He did when He came for us! If He was willing to do that for our salvation, how can we withhold the same for others?
  3. BTW: How might Paul find himself disqualified? Is Paul wondering about his own salvation? He is not worried about being disqualified from heaven. There is, however, a concern from him about being potentially disqualified from ministry. Remember the context at this point is Christian service, the things that Paul was desiring to do to win people to Christ and see them saved. His sincere hope is that this was something he would be able to continue. As great a man that Paul was, he was not perfect – he was not infallible. There has been only one infallible Man in history: the Lord Jesus Christ. As for Paul, he was just like the rest of us. He was fully capable of sin. What if he sinned horribly? What if he damaged his ministry in such a way that he himself became a hindrance to the gospel message? Thankfully, it never happened with Paul…but it could have. It has happened to countless other ministers in the history of the church. It has happened to countless other Christians in the history of the church, who so damaged their own testimonies that no one gave them any credibility in terms of the gospel.
    1. This is not said in condemnation; it is said in trepidation. No one is except from the possibility of disqualifying sin. Not me, not anyone. Thankfully, the blood of Jesus covers all our sins – even those that irreparably damage our credibility with others.
    2. Take sober heed to the warning. Don’t be disqualified!

Paul wrote a lot about sports in the latter few verses but we don’t want to miss the forest for the trees. Whether the picture was running or boxing, the idea is the same: Christians are in a grand struggle and the prize (the goal) is nothing less than the salvation of men and women to the glory of God. That end was worth the struggle and sacrifice – it is worth the training – it is worth putting forth time and intention.

But there was more. Paul’s goal was not only the salvation of others; it was also his own walk with the Lord Jesus. The better trained he was, the better equipped he was to be used by God in the gospel mission. If we are to be instruments or tools in the hands of the Lord, then we want to be effective, efficient tools. One of the most frustrating thing in DIY home projects is to get into the nitty-gritty, reach for a tool, only to find it busted or too dirty or drained of charge, etc. When you reach for a tool, you want to use it; not repair it. Thankfully, God is better than any homeowner (and can fix any way we have allowed ourselves to be broken!). But we want to be effective, efficient tools for His use. It means we need to be always ready, ever available, and totally flexible to His desires for us.

Conclusion:

It isn’t easy to lay aside certain privileges and rights. But it becomes a lot easier when it is done for the right reasons. Paul taught the Corinthians the need to be flexible. When it came to the things that had been offered to idols, some of their rights could be set aside for the greater good of the gospel. Paul did it in his own life. Be it his personal finances or his personal preferences in ministry, he was willing to do whatever it took for Jesus to be made known.

Our context is different but the principle is not. The method of sharing the gospel might change from time to time; the goal of our preaching does not. Do what it takes for Jesus to be preached and for people to be saved!

For some, you might need to examine what needs to be temporarily set aside for the greater good of Jesus’ gospel. The last thing any of us wants is to get in the way of the gospel for someone else. If our demands keeps someone from seeing Jesus, then that’s something that needs to go. Again, we never surrender what is essential, but we do need to distinguish between preference and absolutes. (And if you’re not willing to back down, you need to ask yourself the hard question of why that is.)

On the question of self-denial of one’s own Christian rights and liberties, the apostle Paul set a great example for the rest of us. Do what is best for the gospel! Trust Jesus with everything else.

Paul Went First

Posted: January 3, 2021 in 1 Corinthians

1 Corinthians 9:1-18, “Paul Went First”

“You go first.” When uttered among young men (particularly the pre-teen versions of me and my friends), these were famous last words. Someone had come up with a dare or challenge of some kind and someone needed to take the first step. It did not always end poorly, but it sure did not always end well, either!

Some challenges need a person to take the first step and set the example if anyone else is to follow in kind. When it came to taking those steps of faith with the church, Paul was eager to lead the way. He never exhorted the church to action he was not willing to personally take. That included the issue of self-denial, even when it came to something as personal and important as his financial support.

“Oh great: a sermon about a preacher saying how he has the right to be paid. Just what we need. More guilt about money.” Not so fast…be careful not to let the example of 1 Corinthians 9 throw you. As it becomes clear, the main point of Chapter 9 is not about ministerial salary but about submission to the gospel and doing whatever it takes to avoid stumbling someone from receiving Christ as Lord.

As should be obvious, Chapter 9 comes on the heels of Chapter 8, and this is simply a continuation of the subject. Paul had begun answering questions in a new Q&A section of his letter. The first dealt with issues of sex, singleness, and marriage, which he answered thoroughly. This new issue dealt with idolatry, or more precisely, “things offered to idols,” (8:1). The city of Corinth, like most cities in the ancient Roman empire, had its share of pagan temples in which sacrifices were made to false gods on a regular basis. In fact, many of the Christians to whom Paul wrote had previously offered these sacrifices when they were still pagan Gentiles. Now that they were Christian Gentiles, what would they (along with their fellow Christian Jews) do with these former offerings? Could they eat the meat? With their newfound faith, they were no longer offering animals to false imaginary gods, but was it legal for them to eat meat that had been sacrificed? Meat was only meat, after all. Why waste a good steak?

The first part of Paul’s answer dealt less with the effect on the individual than the effect on his/her neighbor. If a Jewish Christian ate sacrificed meat in front of a Gentile Christian who previously brought that sacrifice, how might that impact or even stumble that person? How might it hurt those who were weak or immature in the faith? It was something that the Christians had the right to do, but it did not mean that it was wise or lawful to do it. As for Paul, he thought it better to sacrifice one’s own right if it meant helping his brother or sister walk with Jesus.

This was not academic theory with Paul. This was not a double-standard instruction that was “good for thee, but not for me.” Paul could point to a very practical example in his own life where he denied himself a certain right, that someone else might not stumble in their reception of the gospel of Christ.

What was it? His own pocketbook. Paul was willing to endure hardship and deny himself his right to financial support if that was what it took to bring people to Christ. When it came to the gospel, Paul demonstrated in his own personal life that Jesus was worth any sacrifice.

Do what is best for the gospel! Trust Jesus with everything else.

Verses 1-18 break into three major sections: (1) Paul’s authority, (2) Paul’s answer, and (3) Paul’s aim.

1 Corinthians 9:1–18

  • Paul’s authority as an apostle (1-2).

1 Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? 2 If I am not an apostle to others, yet doubtless I am to you. For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

  1. If you follow along in a different translation, you may have noticed that the two questions in verse 1 are reversed. It does not affect the meaning but the reversal does make far more sense in the preceding context from Chapter 8. Paul just got done writing how he’d be willing to forego eating meat altogether if it meant that his brother in Christ would not be stumbled by his actions. If the other brother was weaker in his Christian maturity – if this was a sensitive spot for him, then Paul was willing to make the sacrifice on his account. It did not mean he was in bondage to the brother. It did not mean that the weaker brother had veto-power over every decision Paul might make. It did mean that Paul was willing to sacrifice the minor things if it meant the best for his brother (or sister).
  2. Paul was “” One dictionary notes about this particular word, “[this] is the full citizen who belongs to the polis, the city state, in contrast to the slave who did not enjoy full rights as a citizen,” (NIDNTT). Paul had this same kind of freedom – not only as a natural born citizen of a Roman colony (which he was), but most of all as a true citizen of the kingdom of God. What does that freedom matter when it comes to self-sacrifice? (Which is the context out of Chapter 8.) Everything! What Paul gave for his fellow Christians, he gave willingly, not under compulsion. He was not bound by the law to make these sacrifices nor was he guilted into it through the nagging complaints of others. What he gave, he gave in love. What he gave, he gave freely as a free man in Christ Jesus. He gave it freely for Christ Jesus – not in bondage to any man or woman, but as one who was bound to Christ.
  3. Not only did Paul give it freely, but he gave it having every right to make a different decision. He was an “” Apart from Jesus Himself, who has more authority in the church than an apostle? If Paul wanted to eat meat that had been previously sacrificed to idols (or engage in any other liberty), how many people had the authority to tell him otherwise? When Paul confronted Peter to his face (Gal 2:11), he confronted Peter as a fellow apostle in the Lord. They were on equal footing. If they weren’t, then Paul would have likely followed the instruction he gave to Timothy about addressing the sins of pastors and elders (1 Tim 5:19-20), being more orderly and with witnesses. Because they were equal in authority (both being apostles), Paul did what he did. But the broader point is that Paul had the right to act in any situation because he was a true apostle of the Lord Jesus.
  4. This was not him talking up his own ego. He had the credentials to back it up. First of all, Paul had “seen Jesus.” Paul had his own personal eyewitness account of the Risen Lord. When Peter and the other original 11 surviving apostles met in Jerusalem prior to the baptism of the Holy Spirit, they saw the need to fill the apostolic gap left by Judas Iscariot, and one of the qualifications for the men was that the person needed to be present for Jesus’ ministry, from His baptism to His resurrection (Acts 1:22), Jesus’ resurrection being most important. If someone was to serve Jesus as someone sent out by Jesus, then that person needed to have seen Jesus in order for Jesus to send him. Although Paul was not present for Jesus’ earthly ministry (though as a younger member of the Sanhedrin, he surely would have been aware of it), he was a certain eyewitness of the resurrected Jesus. Jesus made a personal appearance to Paul on the day of Paul’s conversion. So yes, he had seen the Lord. That said, it is important to note that this experience was not all that qualified Paul as an apostle. Otherwise, any one of the over 500 people to whom Jesus appeared at once (15:6) would have been able to claim legitimate apostolic authority. What was required along with an eyewitness experience was the commission and calling of Christ. Technically, an apostle is simply a “sent one” – it is the emissary of someone else. If a VIP did not show up in person, he might send a delegate to speak and act on his behalf. That delegate was the person’s “apostle.” As for Paul (and others) he had been sent out by the Lord Jesus. He was personally commissioned for his ministry by Christ. Again, this hearkens back to Paul’s initial conversion the day he saw Jesus on the road to Damascus and Jesus told him he was to be “a minister and a witness,” and was sending him to the Gentiles to preach the gospel (Acts 26:16-18).
  5. That was one apostolic credential of Paul’s (arguably, the most important!). The second was the church of Corinth itself. They were his “work” and his “seal,” or his certification of apostleship. If anyone was able to testify to Paul’s role as an apostle it should have been the people of the churches that Paul planted. Not a single Christian in Corinth was able to honestly question Paul’s authority and calling. They themselves were the proof. How could they know Jesus sent Paul? Because Paul preached Jesus to them – because now they knew Jesus in faith and truth – because now they were saved, in a real relationship with the living God. All of this came through the work and testimony of Paul. If the Corinthians could not attest to Paul’s apostleship, who could?

Paul had legitimate authority as an apostle. He sets this up from the beginning because of its importance. If anyone had the right to do things that might perhaps cause stumbling offense to weaker, more sensitive Christians, it was an apostle of the Lord. Arguably, all Christians are less mature in the faith than Jesus’ chosen apostles. Yet as one of those chosen apostles, Paul was willing to set his position and liberties aside for the sake of others. This set the stage for the example that he was setting for everyone else in the church.

Although we cannot claim apostolic office, we can thank God for the freedoms we have in Jesus. We have the right to do all kinds of things (as becomes plain in the next part of our text). That someone might make a different choice than us in a certain situation does not necessarily mean that either party is in sin. After all, we have freedom in non-essential areas. But wisdom dictates that we look to the example set by others who have come before us, particularly those whom God used in marvelous visible ways, such as the apostles. If Paul did not think of himself as too “big” to set aside certain freedoms and liberties, then neither should we.

  • Paul’s answer to his questioners (3-14).

3 My defense to those who examine me is this:

  1. FYI: The Greek for “defense” is apologia (ἀπολογία) from which we get our word “apology” and “apologetics.” To say that Paul offered an “apology” is not to say he was sorry or regretted anything; it was to for Paul to provide his answer, his defense for his actions. The branch of theology called “apologetics” deals with (1) defending the Biblical faith against outside attacks, and (2) providing reasons to believe Biblical truth, in light of and in contrast with, the surrounding culture. In a culture that is filled with as much false teaching as our culture is, the idea of apologetics becomes extremely important. How do we respond to certain pastors and church congregations that drops gold dust from the ceiling, or visits the graves of certain saints of the past, hoping to “suck” the anointing from them? Or, in external matters, how do we respond to political theories that infiltrate churches and seminaries that teach certain races are inherently good or evil? This is the need for solid, Biblical apologetics today.
  2. BTW: This is needed not only on an academic level but also on a practical day-to-day level. You have friends, neighbors, and co-workers that have questions about basic Christianity. They don’t know what makes Christianity different than any other religion. If all religions basically teach that people should be nice to one another, what makes Jesus and the Bible any different? It’s important for people like you to know answers. Your neighbors won’t usually call up a local pastor to ask; they’ll ask you. And what will you say? As Peter writes, “Be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you,” (1 Pt 3:15).

As to our actual context, Paul’s apologetic wasn’t dealing with fundamental issues of the faith; the focus of his answer/defense was specific to this particular issue of liberty.

4 Do we have no right to eat and drink? 5 Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? 6 Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working?

  1. Out of all the freedoms that Paul had, one of the most obvious was the most personal. Paul had the authority/right to take a salary and support a family. That may not have been the first freedom on the minds of the Corinthians. After all, Paul recently finished a section in the letter extolling the benefits of being single in ministry, writing that he wished that more people made the same decision he had made regarding marriage. Even so, Paul had the right to marry if he wanted. In fact, he had the right to financial support in general. He, just like anyone else, had the normal needs for food, drink, and shelter. He had the right to support a family if he so desired. Other apostles did, without any complaint of the church. In fact, Peter/Cephas was already married at the time that Jesus initially called him to follow as a disciple (Mk 1:30). If Peter had this right even when being financially supported by the church (no longer being a fisherman), then why would Paul be any different?
  2. Notice this word “” This is the same word translated “liberty” in Chapter 8:9, as well as translated “authority” in 9:18. It normally is translated “authority” in the New Testament, but it does also pertain to rights, power, and (in certain contexts) liberty and freedom. The idea is that Paul was empowered with the freedom to do all the things he mentioned. He did not disparage the other apostles regarding their lifestyle choices. Although he had a personal desire for more Christians to remain unmarried for the purpose of freedom in ministry, he did not begrudge anyone the right to marry. These were legitimate choices that any Christian (apostle or otherwise) might make. In fact, Paul affirmed the right to choose them. He states that he had those same rights, even though he chose not to use them.
    1. FYI: “a believing wife” might literally be translated “a sister-wife,” with the context being that of a sister-in-Christ. Just like born-again men are brothers in the Lord, so are born-again women sisters in the Lord. That kind of believing faith is essential when it comes to Christian marriage. Paul had the right to marry; he did not have the right to marry an unbeliever. As Scripture repeatedly emphasizes, Christians need to seek to be equally yoked in marriage. It is one thing if you come to faith once you are already married; it is something else to be single and date someone of a different faith. You set yourself up for sin and sadness if you proceed.
  3. The mention of Barnabas is interesting, considering that Barnabas was not with Paul at Corinth. At the time of Paul’s arrival, his primary travelling partner was Silas, but he was also accompanied by Timothy and sometimes Luke and others. As for Barnabas, the last time he was seen in Scripture prior to Paul’s arrival in Corinth was at the time of their vehement argument and split (Acts 15:36-40). What makes the mention of Barnabas so wonderful is that it is evidence that there were no ill feelings between the two men. Paul may have sharply disagreed with Barnabas regarding John Mark, but Paul never saw Barnabas as anything less than a full-fledged beloved brother in the Lord – and, Paul still saw Barnabas as a worthy example for other younger believers to follow, even believers who may not have yet met him.
    1. As an aside: note that Paul includes Barnabas among the other apostles. Considering that we saw Paul’s own apostolic credentials, can it be said that Barnabas also had his own qualifications? Some of the details, we do not know. Although Scripture is clear that God the Holy Spirit specifically spoke and called Barnabas and Paul to the missionary ministry (Acts 13:2), we do not know when Barnabas became an eyewitness of the Risen Jesus. We know that it must have happened at some point, since he is included among the apostles (both here and Acts 14:14); we just do not have Biblical documentation as to when it happened.
  4. When Paul writes of refraining from working, he is not accusing the other apostles of laziness, nor does he imply that gospel ministry is not true work. On the contrary, he soon uses farming terminology to refer to ministry labor. Rather, Paul refers to bi-vocational ministry. Quite often (though not always), Paul financially supported himself through finding work as a maker of tents as he went from town to town. In fact, that was how he was introduced to Aquila and Priscilla in Corinth, as Aquila was a worker in the same trade. Although other apostles seem to have left their respective careers (such as Peter and John who were formerly fishermen), Paul maintained his secular employment for quite some time, for reasons he explains later in the passage.

7 Who ever goes to war at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk of the flock?

  1. These were common examples from secular culture. Soldiers do not pay their own way; they get paid or they don’t go. (Why would they?!) Farmers partake of the fruit of their crops and herds. In fact, they are the first to do so, before a single bit of it is sold to someone else. This is simply a common truth in the culture. And it wasn’t only seen in secular society. Sacred Scripture taught the same thing…

8 Do I say these things as a mere man? Or does not the law say the same also? 9 For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.” Is it oxen God is concerned about?

  1. The Scripture quoted by Paul is Deuteronomy 25:4, which states exactly what Paul wrote. Interestingly, the context of the original verse seems to be somewhat random at first glance, being sandwiched between one teaching that governs and limits corporal punishment in legal convictions, and another law governing levirate marriage (the duty of a surviving brother to marry and provide for the childless widow of his deceased brother). There is little to no context regarding issues of farming but much to do with justice and mercy. Perhaps this was why Paul wrote that God was not concerned with oxen. It wasn’t that the plain meaning and original interpretation of the verse was irrelevant; it was that the overall context demonstrated a deeper fundamental issue. God was teaching His people to do what was right. They were to take personal responsibility for themselves and to act as responsible citizens as the people of God. Yes, part of that included treating one’s livestock animals humanely, allowing them to freely eat and maintain their strength. But there was more. The Israelites were to treat one another with the same basic respect. If they were to allow oxen who tread grain the ability to eat, how much more should they allow those who labor over the daily bread of the word of God to eat?
  2. That this was Paul’s intent is plain, given that he uses the same verse in exactly the same context with Timothy, there combining it with Jesus’ specific instruction regarding ministry compensation. 1 Timothy 5:17–18, “(17) Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. (18) For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer is worthy of his wages.”” Please note that neither Paul nor Jesus (whom Paul quotes at the end of 1 Tim 5:18) say that anyone who has a title of “pastor” automatically deserves a paycheck from the church. Paul writes of the “elders who rule well,” and “labor,” and Jesus also refers to the “laborer.” Pastors who are unwilling to labor in the Scriptures they claim to teach are not deserving of a dime. Those who look at the ministry as a way to fleece the flock of God rather than feed it are those who ought to be marked and cast out.

10 Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope.

  1. Those who labor partake of the labor. Just like the farmer and the shepherd – just like the oxen and the soldier – those who labor in the ministry should partake of what comes from that ministry. A farmer plows in hope of seeing a harvest. The person who threshes wheat hopes to get the grain, mill it to flour, and make a loaf of bread. They don’t do these things because they are bored; they do it with the hope of seeing a result.

11 If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things? 12 If others are partakers of this right over you, are we not even more? Nevertheless we have not used this right, but endure all things lest we hinder the gospel of Christ.

  1. Paul gets personal and pointed! He specifically wrote of his right/authority to partake of the Corinthians’ “material things.” He gave these Corinthians the gospel of Jesus. He did not charge them to listen. Nor should he! Freely Paul had received, so freely he was to give. But his work among the Corinthian church did not stop there. It continued into spiritual maturity. Paul labored over this congregation, planting it, teaching it, raising up elders and leaders. He remained in this city for a year and a half, helping it get going (Acts 18:11). Recall that Paul worked as a tentmaker when he first arrived. Had he remained a tentmaker the entire time? Apparently so (evidenced here and in vss. 15 and following). Should Paul have remained bi-vocational? That was a personal choice. At some point, however, Paul had the right to receive some kind of financial support. He had “sown spiritual things” into the congregation for a great amount of time. Surely, it was a small matter for Paul to reap some material compensation in return.
  2. Apparently, some had. Some partook of what Paul had not. Who were they? At this point, we cannot say. Paul’s 2nd letter to Corinth shows great contrast between him and other pseudo-apostles who set themselves up as super-apostles promoting themselves rather than the gospel (2 Cor 11). At this point, Paul could have referred to any number of things. Teachers of philosophy charged their students to listen to their teachings. Doctors and physicians charged their patients to receive of their services. There were any number of professions that claimed a right of compensation from the people of Corinth (or any city). Surely Paul and the apostles had even more of a claim as they provided even more of a service, giving them the greatest of all things: the word of God.
  3. Yet Paul did not use this right. Why? “Lest we hinder the gospel of Christ.” More will be said on this in the verses ahead but it is clear that Paul was rightly hesitant to do anything that might become a hindrance to the gospel. It calls back to the ending of Chapter 8, when he worried about causing another brother to stumble. Paul did not want to trip up anyone in his/her walk with Jesus. Yes, he had the right to financial compensation, but he had a greater concern for the unfettered proclamation of the gospel.

13 Do you not know that those who minister the holy things eat of the things of the temple, and those who serve at the altar partake of the offerings of the altar? 14 Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel.

  1. He reiterates the Old Testament (which was the only Biblical testament available at the time!) principle using the example of the priests. Throughout the book of Leviticus, the priests are seen routinely eating a portion of what was brought to God in sacrificial worship. Even the bread of presence that sat on a table in the tabernacle/temple was required to be consumed by the priests, never to be casually or callously thrown into the garbage. For priests to eat the things brought to the Lord in worship was not unusual or selfish; it was expected – it was commanded – it was itself an act of worship and obedience to the Lord.
  2. From this, we get the New Testament application. Gospel preachers have a right to get their livelihood from their gospel work. Not to take advantage of anyone under their care – not to lazily sit back and live off the labors of others; but to live from the labors of their own hands, just like any other profession.

This was Paul’s answer/defense to his objectors. He was about to write (and indeed, already mentioned) how he denied himself certain rights for the sake of the gospel and out of love for others. But before his self-denial could be appreciated, it needed to be first understood that Paul truly had a right that he was denying. This was no straw-man argument where he pulled something out of thin air and argued against it. He had a true claim to financial compensation as a minister of the gospel and it was that claim that he temporarily set aside in Corinth.

This was Paul’s example. What is yours? It might be difficult to relate to a gospel preacher saying that he had a true right to financial compensation. After all, it takes all of 5 seconds searching the internet to find dozens of preachers claiming the same right in abundance. For as much as some preachers talk about money, you’d think they never had time to actually talk about the Bible. (And many don’t!) Put all that aside for a moment. Paul wasn’t like the TV preachers today. His method and work ethic regarding the gospel was pure. If anyone should have been compensated for it, it was the apostle Paul. Yet he put it aside for Jesus.

What might you put aside for the sake of Jesus? What is there for which you have an undeniable right, yet you might deny for yourself if it becomes a hindrance? For some, it might be a casual glass of wine with dinner. Yes, you have a right and no legalist ought to guilt you otherwise. But if you happen to be dining with a former alcoholic, or someone whose family was destroyed by a drunk driver, why not deny yourself that right out of concern for that person? Or, maybe your freedom is to listen to whatever music you desire, enjoying all things to the glory of God. Yet if you’re sharing a ride with someone who holds a different conviction, why would you throw your liberty in their face by listening to secular radio? That is a right that can be easily denied for the sake of love and for the sake of Christ. Just because we can do something, or just because we have the right to do something, does not mean that we always should do it.

  • Paul’s aim in ministry (15-18).

15 But I have used none of these things, nor have I written these things that it should be done so to me; for it would be better for me to die than that anyone should make my boasting void.

  1. The people of Corinth might have breathed a sigh of relief with verse 15. If the idea was that they should have been giving Paul some kind of financial compensation this whole time, they had built up a pretty big bill! But that wasn’t Paul’s point at all. He wasn’t guilting anyone or pushing his own agenda or comforts. When writing about his rights as a minister of the gospel, he simply established the principle; he wasn’t pushing for a payout. Paul did not want these things for himself and he wasn’t asking for them. He did, of course, want the Biblical principle set forth so that Corinth would understand how to proceed in the future with other pastors and elders; he just wasn’t asking anything for himself.
  2. Why? Because he didn’t want anything to possibly undercut the effectiveness of his ministry. He did not want his “boasting” made “” Question: What was his boast? His independence. He didn’t have anyone in Corinth that could claim, “I bought Paul’s dinner for him and gave him his apartment.” He didn’t have anyone in the city who could make any claim on him or think they had any special influence upon his message. And that was important in a town like Corinth! Remember that this was a local church congregation that already struggled with pride and sectarianism. They had some who were of the party of Paul, others of Apollos, others of Peter/Cephas, and others who claimed only Christ (1:12). This was a church that set themselves against one another, trying to promote themselves and their own wisdom (1:20, 4:8). If they had financially supported Paul then that was just one more thing in which they could vainly boast, rather than humbly submitting themselves to Christ. Paul would rather have perished than to have given the Corinthians another outlet of pride. Thus, he boasted in his independence.
  3. It is important to note the difference between Paul’s independence from Corinth and a general state of financial independence. Paul was not He was not so rich that he never required anything from anyone. We’ve already seen how he labored with his own hands as a tentmaker when he first arrived in Corinth. But neither was Paul always bi-vocational. There were other times that Paul received financial support from other churches that allowed him to continue on his missionary journeys. In fact, there was at least some time that Paul spent in Corinth that he received financial support from other churches, just so he could remain in Corinth (2 Cor 11:7-8). But while he was in Corinth, he remained free from them, that he could preach freely among them.
    1. That begs the question for churches today. Is it wrong for pastors to receive financial compensation from the congregations they serve? Or should they raise support from other churches or through other employment, that they might serve their congregations free of any financial tie to them? With due humility, speaking as a pastor lovingly compensated by this congregation, the principle for ministerial compensation was laid out by Paul earlier in the text (vss. 3-14). So no, it is not wrong for pastors to be compensated by their churches; it is right and Biblical. That said, it is not always possible. When this church was first planted, I was bi-vocational for the first 5 years of ministry. Men who are truly called by God to pastor do so, not for a paycheck, but out of God-given compulsion, obedience, and love for those to whom they minister. 

16 For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 For if I do this willingly, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have been entrusted with a stewardship.

  1. Paul’s boast was not in his skills, his finances, or even his calling. He was surely glad to be an apostle and minister of the gospel, but his position was not worthy of his boasting. Paul had no choice other than to preach the gospel. This was his assigned and solemn duty. Sure, there might be a reward in heaven when he did it willingly and gladly, but at the end of the day, Paul did it because he was a steward of what God entrusted to him. This was his duty and he had no other choice. The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah had a similar point of view on ministry. There was a time that he did not want to proclaim God’s word. It was personally difficult on him and Jeremiah suffered greatly. He was routinely mocked and made a reproach. Jeremiah 20:9, “Then I said, “I will not make mention of Him, Nor speak anymore in His name.” But His word was in my heart like a burning fire Shut up in my bones; I was weary of holding it back, And I could not.” When Jeremiah tried to stop preaching, he simply couldn’t. God’s word was like a fire within him, burning to be released. This was his duty and calling, and he simply could not stop from doing it. Likewise, with Paul. Such was his call as a gospel minister and church planter that he could not stop. This was what God had given him to do, and he would do it – whether he wanted to, or not.
  2. Would this be our same urgency! That we would have such a vision of the Lord Jesus that we could not help but speak of Him with others. That we would have such a love for our Lord that our hearts would burn with the desire to pray and to worship. That we would understand our solemn duty and stewardship before the Lord God, knowing that we have been entrusted with the most valuable news on the face of the earth. For us not to share it is shameful. Regardless what you think about vaccines, there are news stories about coronavirus vaccines sitting on the shelf, not being administered – there was a nurse who intentionally allowed 500 doses to be spoiled. For all the ink that will be spilled in the papers because of how a vaccine is treated, how much will be said about Christians who never share their faith? Not everyone has the gift of evangelism – few Christians have anything close to the ministry of the apostle Paul – but we are all stewards of the good news of Jesus. All of us can share with someone. May God give us hearts that yearn to do so!

18 What is my reward then? That when I preach the gospel, I may present the gospel of Christ without charge, that I may not abuse my authority in the gospel.

  1. Did Paul have a reward? Certainly one awaited him in heaven, but even on earth, there was a reward for Paul even in the times he had no financial compensation. What was it? Paul’s reward was to be able to preach free from accusation. He was above reproach as he shared Jesus. There was no thought of him “abusing his authority,” or pushing around his weight as an apostle. Paul wasn’t driving around town in the 1st century equivalent of a Jaguar or Bentley. He wasn’t wearing $1000 suits, obviously purchased through the giving of the saints. No one could look at Paul and accuse him of enriching himself off the men and women in the church. Thus, when people listened to him preach, they listened without distraction – they listened without hesitation – they listened without obstruction. They could see Jesus through the message of Paul because Paul did not allow himself to get in the way.
    1. You don’t have to be a prosperity gospel TV preacher to get in the way of someone seeing Jesus. The average Christian can easily find himself/herself becoming an obstruction to the gospel. We put in too much of ourselves into our testimonies – or we add too many additions on top of the simple gospel message – or we put too much focus on the benefits of Christianity rather than on Christ Himself. All those things are distractions to what is most important. All those things are abuses of our opportunity. What people need to see is Jesus; not us. So let us show them Jesus.

Paul had an aim to preach the gospel without strings attached, to be completely above reproach. He had an aim to preach Christ, nothing less; nothing more. He didn’t want anything getting in the way of the main message…including himself. That was why he gave up his right to compensation. A paycheck for the gospel without the ability to present the gospel wasn’t worthwhile. If it helped someone else see Jesus, Paul was willing to put even his basic life necessities aside.

Conclusion:

In the end, what Paul wrote is not about pastoral salaries or guilting people into giving more money to churches; it was about Paul setting an example for the rest of us. How might we live our own lives in such a way that people don’t get tripped up on distractions – how might we put certain things aside to help others see Jesus?

As an apostle of the Lord Jesus, Paul answered his critics saying that he had a true right to receive financial support, yet it was a right he willingly refused in his aim to preach Christ. He was willing to put anything aside, if it meant that he had the opportunity to preach the gospel of Jesus.

Are we? Truth be told, this is a tough example to follow. It is particularly difficult for Americans. After all, we live in a land of “rights.” We have so many rights as citizens of the United States that we have ten of them enumerated right into our national constitution. We like our rights and we will not give them up easily. That is just how we think.

The gospel calls us to think differently. Yes, we have rights as born-again believers – we have certain authority granted to us by virtue of the fact that we have been freed from the slavery of sin by Jesus. They may not be laid out in a constitutional “Bill of Rights,” but we can certainly see them in our Bibles. Yet some of those things might, from time to time, need to be willingly set aside in love. Some of those things, as right as they are, might still be a distraction to someone else from seeing Jesus. At that point, does it matter how much right we have to it? Surely, the need for someone else to see Jesus is worth laying that thing aside.

When the ill-fated Titanic sank, one of the many tragedies included the lifeboats. Infamously, there were several lifeboats set in the water that were only half-full. Reasons vary as to why. Some boats were filled only with women and children; others were not filled to capacity due to the crewmembers being uncertain of the weight-bearing load as the ropes let it down to the water. The worst part of the lifeboats was that there simply were not enough. Although the Titanic had a capacity of 3,500 people, the lifeboats could only take 1,178. Why? Because those were the regulations at the time. When the designers provided only 20 lifeboats to the Titanic, they were following what was their right. They followed the letter of the law, even as it automatically consigned over half the passengers and crew to death in the case of tragedy (which, sadly happened).

Sometimes we lay aside our rights that lives might be saved. Some things which are personal to us are not to be so cherished that they keep other people from seeing Jesus. It does not mean that we forego those things forever; it does mean we do what is necessary in the moment for the sake of the gospel.

Beloved, rejoice in your freedoms! But be mindful of the weaknesses and potential stumbling blocks that remain for others. May God open our eyes to the areas we might temporarily set aside for the sake of Christ.

Maybe you have certain freedoms that have caused stumbling. Maybe you’re one who has been stumbled in your weakness. May we all love one another with the love of Christ. God help us not cause harm in a desire to guard from harm.

Just because we CAN do something doesn’t mean we SHOULD do it. What is it that helps our brothers and sisters in Christ? Our love for God is expressed in our love for others as we lay aside certain liberties for the sake of Christ.

Could vs. Should

Posted: December 20, 2020 in 1 Corinthians

1 Corinthians 8, “Could vs. Should”

In the original Jurassic Park, Jeff Goldblum’s character Dr. Ian Malcolm criticizes the idea of a potentially deadly dinosaur attraction by saying to the park’s founder, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Opinions on the movie aside, the statement could be applied to any number of scenarios. Some things which are possible to do are not necessarily wise to do. Just because we can does not mean that we should.

It isn’t true only in movies and the wider culture, but also in Biblical Christianity. As born-again believers, we are given all kinds of wonderful liberty in Jesus. The doors of possibility open up for us in immense ways of what we can do. However, often the question is whether we should do it.

That was the issue for Paul as he answered the questions of the Corinthians. That they had questions for him, ought not to be a surprise. As might be expected, letters were exchanged between the church and its founder. Although Paul began this particular letter with agenda items of his own (dealing with matters of sin and discipline), he soon transitioned into the Q&A section. 

Paul tackled the first in Chapter 7, writing on the issue of sex, marriage, and singleness. Sex is good within the context of marriage, and marriage is good because it was created and ordained by God. It is so good that those who are married are supposed to remain married, in recognitions of the work God did among them in joining them together. That said, not every Christian is required to get married, as God specifically gifted some people for singleness. This happened to be Paul’s own status, as well as his personal preference for as many Christians as possible. The more believers who remained single maintained their free availability for Christ, which is a benefit that cannot be easily ignored.

With the subject thoroughly covered, Paul moved on to the next topic: idolatry and liberty. The ancient city of Corinth was filled with pagan idolatrous temples, and many of the new Christians were saved out of those idolatrous religions. It was only natural for questions to arise regarding how much/how little the Christians could use the things in the city that were touched/affected by idolatry. After all, most of the people in their city were idol-worshippers. What kind of freedom the Christians had with idolatrous items had a major immediate impact on their everyday lives.

Before we get into the text itself, we need to address the issue of why this matters. After all, we do not live in ancient Corinth where there were many temples literally sacrificing animals to false gods. We do not have markets where we might purchase meat that had been used in pagan worship. All of this was very important and relevant to the Christians living in 1st century Corinth but what does it matter for 21st century Americans?

First of all, we need to remember that idolatry has not disappeared. Although the idolatrous Hindu temples in India are easier to identify, the United States has its own share of pagan temples. There are many temples and items of false, non-Christian religions here in the pluralistic USA. (For example, there are 2.3 million Hindus in the USA, as well as 3.45 million Muslims. That does not even begin to get to the western pseudo-Christian cults like Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses, nor the versions of Christianity that have departed from the authority of the Scripture like the Catholics, etc.) There are many literal religious places that participate in what can Biblically be defined as idolatry. Moreover, those are only the religious examples. There are other forms of idolatry that have nothing to do with overt religion, such as sports, politics, materialism, and more. Idolatry is alive and well in the contemporary United States!

Secondly, we need to understand that the principles that Paul gives to Corinth regarding idolatry has wide-reaching application to how Christians relate to one another regarding liberty. In fact, liberty is arguably the core issue that Paul addresses in Chapters 8-9. At the base of Corinth’s questions of idolatry is the idea of how Christians deal with each other in matters of preference. In that sense, much of what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 8-9 is echoed in Romans 14. Idolatry was the present pressing example; liberty was the foundational idea.

With all that in mind, what does Paul have to write regarding liberty and idolatry? For the weaker Christians who came from idolatrous backgrounds, other Christians needed to be willing to lay aside certain liberties in love. Our love for God is expressed in our love for others as we lay aside certain liberties for the sake of Christ.

Paul expresses this in two basic points:

  1. Know God (1-6)
  2. Know your brother (7-13).

1 Corinthians 8

  • Know God (1-6). Know His love and truth.

1 Now concerning things offered to idols: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.

  1. Considering that Paul starts answering the new topic of idolatry (or more accurately, “things offered to idols,”) we need to deal with the definition of terms. What is an idol? The original Greek refers to an image or picture. It is a copy of something, purportedly, the copy of the god that is claimed to be worshipped. (Which ought to give Bible-believing Christians pause when it comes to the issue of icons, as used within the Eastern Orthodox church, as they are supposedly “copies” as well.) For all intents and purposes, the people who use idols treat those items as the actual things themselves. They see the statues (or paintings, or whatever) as representations of the god/goddess worshipped, bowing to the physical item as if they are bowing to the deity. For Paul and Corinth, the specific issue is “things offered to idols,” which is the translation of a single Greek compound word comprised of “idols” and the verb “to sacrifice.” Thus, Paul is writing of the things used in pagan, idolatrous worship. Any item (though contextually, it is more often food) that is given to a pagan god/goddess in an act of sacrifice.
  2. With these things, Paul writes that “we all have knowledge” – everyone in the Corinthian church has some sort of understanding of what it is and how to handle it. Or, so they thought. Certainly, they all had an opinion and they may have had some knowledge of these things, but they all didn’t have all That much was evident from their question. They would not have asked Paul about it if they had all the information they needed to deal with it properly. They knew something about the issue but what they knew wasn’t enough. Or perhaps, what they knew in themselves was not enough. They had knowledge, but they had prideful knowledge. As Paul wrote, “knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.” The ESV brings out the wordplay in its (accurate) translation, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Knowing something about a subject is good, but mere information can be a source of egotistical pride. Even with a sin as plain as idolatry, knowledge about it needs love for it to be godly. 
  3. Knowledge is valuable but it can also be empty. Knowledge, in itself, can be vanity. What is needed more than knowledge alone is love. What is better, is knowledge with We have a definite need for right doctrine but doctrine without love is potentially harmful. It is possible to have a full head with a cold heart. Later in the letter, Paul points out to the Corinthians that this kind of knowledge is worthless, being nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:2, “And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” The overall context of the passage references spiritual gifts – things, in which the Corinthians put a lot of pride. Paul made it clear that his experience with spiritual gifts surpassed all of them to an unfathomable degree – but none of it meant anything if he didn’t have love. That was true not only of spiritual gifts but also something as fundamental as doctrine. Paul was a fantastic teacher of the spiritual mysteries and Biblical knowledge, but even that required God-given, Christ-centered love. Without it, anything Paul had to offer was useless.
    1. The empty pride of spiritual knowledge did not cease with the Corinthians. It was carried over to the cult of Gnosticism (which very name is derived from the word used for “knowledge”: gnosis – γνῶσις), even into the institutional church. There is a reason why the Catholics and Orthodox maintain a “priesthood” in which the priests have access to knowledge and rituals that the laypeople do not. In the traditional Latin mass, a Roman Catholic priest even turns his back to the congregation and utters some parts of the liturgy quietly, intentionally restricting the common people from listening and participating. Such practices have their root in sinful religious pride.
    2. Lest we think Evangelical Protestants are immune, we are not. There is always a danger that pride takes root in the debates between various theological camps, such as Calvinism vs. Arminianism, or pre-tribulational rapture vs. post-tribulational rapture, etc. Each side strongly holds to their belief, often believing themselves better than the other because they have a “better” understanding of the Scripture. Let us beware and let us be humble! What is better than mere Biblical knowledge is Biblical knowledge practiced in Biblical love.

2 And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, this one is known by Him.

  1. Pride in knowledge is shortsighted. After all, how much doctrine do we truly know and understand? Our knowledge is limited and incomplete. We might think we know something when we know only a small part. This is true even in established sound doctrine. Just how much do we truly know about Jesus’ incarnation? Whatever it is, it just barely scratches the surface. Or think of the gospel, which we (think we) know inside and out. To consider that the infinite Son of God died for sinful people like us is astounding, something beyond full comprehension. Yes it is true, and yes we know it…but we know only a part and portion of it. The famed physicist and astronomer Isaac Newton wrote this about his own scientific discoveries: “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” In his own commentary on 1 Corinthians 8, the Greek scholar AT Robertson referenced Newton’s quote as being “pertinent” here, noting, “The really learned man knows his ignorance of what lies beyond.” As much as we learn about God (and it is a joy and privilege to do so every day of our lives!), we will only in this life learn just the smallest fraction. It will take an eternity to take in all of His infinite glory. (And guess what? Jesus has promised us an eternity with Him!)
    1. Again, this brings out the importance of theological humility. Although we hold to Biblical convictions firmly, some of our convictions regarding less-clear ideas ought to be held in humility. There is room for Biblical debate on aspects of spiritual gifts, end-time chronology, ideas on church government, the tension between predestination and freewill, and more. We need to be careful to keep the main things the main things, being humble and loving with other brothers and sisters who disagree in issues not essential to salvation.
  2. More important than a Christian’s knowledge of idolatry is God’s knowledge of the Christian! What really matters is that we love God – that we know Him through faith in Jesus Christ and that we are known by Him as one of His own. — Not everyone has that assurance. Those who truly know Christ know that they know Christ and are known by Him. We have had an encounter with the living Lord Jesus through faith, having come to a point that we knowingly entrusted ourselves to Him, believing Him to be crucified for our own sins and risen from the dead. But not everyone has had that experience. Some claim to love God yet have no assurance that God knows them. They might say “grace” over dinner and even give intellectual assent that Jesus is God who died on the cross and rose again, but they cannot say that Jesus died for them because they have no assurance of that. This gets to the crux of the difference between knowledge and love, or as other have put it, between head-knowledge and heart-knowledge. The person who truly “loves God” has a heart-knowledge of Him through Jesus. It is more than the ability to recite a creed; it is the ability to say you know a Person. To say that you’ve met Jesus through faith, believed upon Him, entrusted your life and your eternity to Him, to love Him with all your heart, soul, and strength. To this person, the Bible gives the assurance: “this one is known by Him.” To you who truly love God, God knows you and loves you too. He gives you His assurance (via the Holy Spirit) that you are His child and that you belong to Him through Jesus.

With this said about knowledge, Paul looks at the things we all do know (or should know) regarding false idols and the true God…

4 Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one. 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords),

  1. The first issue is straightforward: idols are “” The statute or painting might be a real statue or painting, but the so-called “god” behind it is nothing. It is hot air – it is a vain imagination. It is like the mythical leprechaun with a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow: totally non-existent.
  2. That doesn’t mean they are treated that way. False gods are not real, but they are really worshipped. This is what Paul gets to with the “if” in verse 5. Paul does not admit the real existence of other gods either in heaven or on earth. After all, his statement in verse 5 comes right after his statement in verse 4 where he affirms there is but one God (something which he explains more in verse 6). Paul only acknowledges there are many false ideas worshipped as gods and lords by the pagan people of the world. Corinth itself was famous for its temple to Aphrodite, who was just one of the many Greek deities in its pantheon. No one would walk into Corinth denying that many people worship many gods. The gods were not real; the people who worship them were real. We see the same thing today with Islam and its version of God, Allah (which is not the Biblical God YHWH), or the many false gods within the Hindu pantheon. There are individual people who worship these gods as if they were real, but they themselves are not, in fact, real. They are nothings, vain things, unholy imaginations.
    1. This is not a contradiction in Chapter 10 when later, Paul writes of these false gods that they are demons, to whom the pagans unwittingly sacrifice when they give their offerings (10:20). Again, it is not an admission that the demons are true gods; it is an acknowledgement that they are worshipped as gods. In comparison with the true living God, demons are nothing! They are mere examples of God’s creation whereas God Himself is the infinite Creator. There can be no comparison between them!
  3. Contextually, Paul is still writing of the “things offered to idols,” and he only briefly introduces the idea of Christians eating some of that idolatrous food at this point. He will first describe the true God worshipped by Christians before coming back to the questionable practice of eating food previously sacrificed to idols. But don’t miss the main point he makes in verse 4 on the subject. If idols are “nothing,” than food sacrificed to them is nothing. The sacrifice itself is nothing because it was made to a made-up god. The actual effect on the food placed in one’s mouth is the same as an imaginary cookie given in a tea-party thrown by a 4-year old girl: nothing. Nothing real has been done to the food – there are no theological “cooties” of which we must be aware. The effect that an imaginary god can leave is likewise, only imaginary. There is nothing real that happened. (That isn’t to say that pagan worship is not significantly sinful. It is, and Paul gets into more detail with this in Chapter 10. It is only to say that imaginary idols remain imaginary.)

6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live.

  1. There is one God, just like Paul briefly mentioned in verse 4: “there is no other God but one.” The wording is reminiscent of the Great Commandment and the foundational doctrinal statement of every Old Testament Hebrew, found in the Shema: Deuteronomy 6:4–5, “(4) “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! (5) You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” As a faithful Jew, Paul would have recited this several times per day, always being reminded of unity of God and the exclusivity of God. The Bible (Old Testament and New Testament alike) teaches monotheism, meaning that there is only one God, even as this one God is eternally revealed in three Persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). He is perfectly united within Himself and He is exclusively the only God in existence. There are not three gods; there is but one God and there is none like Him. The God of the Bible is without comparison or competitor. Even Satan, as an enemy of God, cannot compare with God. As powerful as Satan may be, he is still infinitely weaker than the Creator God. God made Satan and God could blast Satan out of existence if He chose to do so. The devil may think of himself as a competitor to the rule of God, but in reality, he is no competition.
  2. Because God is one and the only one God, our theology is exclusive to Him. That is Paul’s point when he writes “yet for us there is one God.” e., “for us,” in comparison with the pagan idolators who worship nothings and demons. They believe they worship something but they worship nothing. We believe we worship something and our something is true – our something is the true God. This is not spiritual relativism; this is objective fact. This is not “It might be true for you, while something else is true for me;” it is true, period. We know the truth because the truth has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ. 
  3. What do we know about this one God?
    1. He is “the Father,” the God who created “all things,” thus, “of whom” (or “out of whom”) “are all things,” including us. He created the world and everything in it through the exercise of His sheer will (and as expressed through His Word, the Logos, Jesus). He is the Father of all beings, even those who reject Him to worship creatures rather than the Creator. No human baby would ever take its first breath without God the Father knitting together that child in the womb of its mother. God the Father does so for those who will grow to know Him and love Him, as well as for those who will grow to reject Him and rebel against Him.
    2. He is the purpose of our existence. As Paul writes, “and we for Him,” meaning that we exist for His pleasure and His glory. God did not bring us into existence to make us the center of our own individual universes; He gave us life because we are to give Him glory. He made us so that we would know Him.
      1. How evil is the self-centered nature not only of our culture but also of the church! It is bad enough that the general population of the world focuses on self-pleasure and self-fulfillment (as demonstrated in Maslow’s infamous hierarchy of needs with “self-actualization” being at the top). People want what is best for them, regardless of what is best for anyone else. Of course, we expect that in our culture; we ought not to expect it within the church! Sadly, this is exactly what so many Christian congregations promote. “Worship” services become self-worship with the congregants singing “I” far more than to/about God. Sermons are designed to be practical self-help “talks” rather than Christ-centered Biblical doctrine and exhortation. As the Evangelical church, we need to get back to living by Paul’s statement of “we for Him,” that we exist for the glory of God! 
    3. Moreover, this one God is revealed in “one Lord,” the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is not a second god nor a replacement god; He is the second Person within the one God, revealed throughout the Bible as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Paul brings out the idea of the Trinity which are deep waters, understandably confusing to many. Time forbids a thorough treatment; suffice to say that this is the consistent testimony of Scripture and something to be affirmed by every Bible-believing Christian. This is Paul’s own affirmation, that Jesus is God, as he uses basically the same descriptions of Jesus as he did of the Father: “through whom are all things, and through whom we live.” When God the Father created the world, He did so through His Son – and just like we exist for the pleasure and glory of the Father, we would not/could not exist without the express will of the Son. Colossians 1:15–17, “(15) He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. (16) For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. (17) And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.” For every Jehovah Witness or every Mormon or every Muslim that says that the Bible never makes any claim about Jesus’ deity, let them be silenced by the testimony of Scripture! Jesus is clearly portrayed as being God of true God, the express image of the Father, and the One to whom all worship is due!
      1. Is this how you know Jesus? Do you see Him as the glorious God? Christmas is just around the corner and for too many people, Jesus is only the Babe in a manger. Or at most, He is the tortured and dead sacrifice hanging on a crucifix. Not so! He is the living God, the glorious God, the resurrected God – the One to whom every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord, to the glory of God the Father! Jesus is He whom we should fear, love, and worship – Jesus is He who is our salvation and our only hope for forgiveness – He is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through Him. This is how we must know Jesus if we are to know Him at all!

Whatever we think we know about idols and our behavior concerning them, it begins with our knowledge of God. When we have a right knowledge of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit as the one true God, it puts all other pretenders to deity in the proper perspective. Every idol made by men and women is shown to be nothing. They are lifeless things of wood, stone, and metal, not worthy of worship but rather worthy of disdain. As representatives of demons, these things are not even worthy to be used as paperweights, but rather thrown into the fire or other garbage.

This is what we should know about God, which far too few people do know. This gives us the urgency in the gospel and the humility and love in which we share it. People worship emptiness (if not statues, then empty ideas and philosophies and so-called “sciences” – even the emptiness of themselves) yet their empty worship is not without consequence. It leads them directly to the punishment of hell. Thus, we lovingly preach Jesus! Not to puff up ourselves, nor to prove ourselves better than anyone else; but to build them up in the love of God.

  • Know your brother (7-13). Know his weaknesses and act in love.

7 However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.

  1. As we’ve repeatedly seen throughout the letter, we cannot forget the context and the original audience to whom Paul wrote. Although many of the Christians in this local congregation were from Jewish backgrounds, others were not. They were Gentiles in Corinth, meaning that they came from pagan idolatrous worship. They formerly were those who visited the temples, offered food to the false gods of nothingness, and worshipped (either in sincerity or in ritual) demonic pretenders to the throne of God. Though now born-again by the grace of God in Jesus, the memories of their past days were not quickly erased. When they saw food that had been sacrificed to the idols, they didn’t see food that had nothing truly done to it in reality; they saw something inherently tainted by pagan practice. They could not escape their “consciousness of the idol,” any more than a former Hindu can divorce yoga from its use in Hindu worship or a former Catholic can see a rosary as a mere necklace rather than something used in Catholic prayers. They cannot partake of those things without their consciences being “defiled.
  2. Does this mean that the former Corinthian pagan (or Hindu or Catholic, etc.) is irreparably “weak”? Although the Greek word can refer to some inherent deficiency or sickness, that is not the context here. Think of it: Paul is writing of former pagans, converted born-again believers. They had been saved out of weakness by the grace of God in Jesus. But there would be some areas of their lives that would remain sensitive to the things of the past. Although they were new creations, their memories and experiences were not wiped out. It is like when certain optical illusions are seen, you cannot “unsee” it and look at them the way you did in the past. The Christians who had previously worshipped false gods through those offerings could not “unsee” the pagan use of that food (whatever it was). Yes, they might be able to theologically and intellectually agree that the idol was nothing, but they might never be able to partake of the food without some thought back to that false god. In this one area, they were “weak” or sensitive.
    1. BTW – That didn’t make the Jewish Christians (or any other non-idolatrous Gentile) any stronger. It meant that they were stronger in this one area…but there was likely some other area in which they were weaker or sensitive. This is one reason why is it such a blessing to be a part of the body of Christ. It is one reason why we should participate with the body of Christ. One area in which you are weak may be one where I am strong, and vice-versa. You can help me in my weakness and I can help you in yours.

8 But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.

  1. Regarding the meat sacrificed to idols, meat (or food in general) does not affect our relationship with God. The word for “commend” is a strengthened form of the verb for “to stand,” referring to being presented or standing by. Food will not bring us any closer to God. It will not improve our standing with Him. Granted, people can turn food into an idol itself – but apart from wrongly worshipping the meal, the meat does not affect our relationship with God one way or the other.
  2. Ultimately, food isn’t the issue; worship is. Who/what are you worshipping? The pagan in Corinth worshipped the false idol through the sacrificed meat. That was what was bad; not the food itself. Yet when a person worships the real God in Spirit and truth, it doesn’t matter what food is on your plate. 
  3. It emphasizes how we are made holy in the sight of God: not by works, but by grace. Jesus makes us holy by washing us and cleansing us by His work at the cross and through the work of the Holy Spirit within us. Will our actions change? Certainly! Changed lives are the evidence of the work of Christ within us. But our works do not make us holy; they demonstrate our holiness. They show what Christ has done and we can take none of the credit. To put it in Paul’s context, a Christian choosing to put certain food on his plate was not him making him any more holy in the sight of God. Nor was a Christian who fasted, depriving herself of food any “holier” than a Christian who did not fast. Or vice-versa. Those actions were works. They might be proper when done in a response to Jesus’ work of cleansing us, but they themselves do not cleanse us.

9 But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak.

  1. The Corinthians had liberty to eat whatever they wanted, as do we. But we ought to be careful and take heed of others. Our liberty can be harmful to others. If food doesn’t improve our standing with God or take away our standing with Him, why not eat all the sacrificed meat? Because it might hurt someone else with a conscience sensitive in this area. Can you imagine the scene? A Jewish Corinthian Christian goes to the agape meal (the “love feast” or potluck) with a plateful of freshly roasted sacrificial stew. He’s slurping back his meal while his formerly pagan brother is sitting there aghast, knowing that only a few weeks ago he was the one offering the same kind of meat to Athena. How is that former pagan supposed to now eat without distraction, or even go on to worship and offer prayers with his Jewish-Christian brother? The meat has become the proverbial elephant in the room and the whole ability to worship has been disrupted. The liberty of one has “become a stumbling block” to another.
  2. Question: Do we really have “liberty” to recline in an idolatrous temple, engaging in ritualistic meals? The word for “liberty” is elsewhere translated “authority,” referring to one’s right (authority) to do something. And on one hand, we do have the liberty/right to eat whatever we want, wherever we want. As Paul wrote earlier in the letter and will again affirm and repeat later, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful,” (6:12, 10:23). Strictly speaking, we have the right to do it, for as long as we maintain our faith in Christ, food is only food. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean,” (Rom 14:14). IOW, if your conscience is clear as you participate knowing you do this before the Lord God, then it is not illegal. But again, that does not make it helpful. — That brings us to the other hand. Just because something is technically allowed does not mean that it is recommended. It is legal in the State of Texas for adults to smoke as many packs of cigarettes per day as they desire. But it is also a quick trip to lung cancer and other disease. Likewise with our liberties in Christ. Just as it is possible to use our liberties for the glory of God, it is also possible to use them for harm. Some things simply do not help us, regardless that it is our right to do it.
  3. Additionally, we need to keep the broader context of the letter in mind. What Paul writes in Chapter 8 needs to be taken hand-in-hand with what he writes in Chapter 10. There, he returns to the subject of eating food sacrificed to idols and shows that our knowledge of the idolatrous sacrifice makes all the difference. It is one thing for our eating to be done in ignorance. It is quite another for it to be done with knowledge – much more, in the situation described here in Chapter 8 when the Christian might actually recline for a leisurely supper in the pagan temple (as Paul describes in verse 10). Paul makes the point that we cannot drink both the cup of the Lord and that of demons (10:21). We cannot have fellowship with idols in that way. Using our liberties in such a fashion harms us, just as much as it potentially harms others.

10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols? 11 And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?

  1. The problem? Our actions might accidentally endorse sin and idolatry. More than wounding another brother’s or sister’s sensitive conscience by openly practicing something they cannot see as other than harmful, the practice of our liberty might actually promote the sin of which the other brother or sister is most afraid.
  2. Again, it is important to understand the issue Paul presents from its original cultural context. When he writes of “eating in an idol’s temple,” he uses a word that refers to “lying down” or “reclining for a meal.” He’s talking about more than just grabbing a snack from a street vendor who just happened to be selling meat that was previously sacrificed to an idol. Instead, he refers to someone who took time at the idolatrous temple – someone who stopped to recline for a meal. It may be difficult for us to imagine today, but the idea is of a born-again Christian waltzing straight into the ancient temple of Athena, sitting down at the table where all the sacrificed meat was, and taking the time for a leisurely meal. Seeing a Christian in that scenario, other member of the church might rightly ask, “What on earth are you doing here in the first place?”
    1. It might not be too different from seeing a Christian walk into a bar and start throwing back shots. Do they have the liberty to do it? Perhaps, as long as they aren’t getting drunk (though it wouldn’t take too many shots to do it!). But is it wise? It is potentially harmful to former alcoholics? Does it potentially endorse the practice for others? There is far too much that can go wrong. Attempting to justify such an act under the guise of “liberty” simply is not worth it.
  3. Interestingly (and sadly), the word “emboldened” is the same word used back in verse 1 for “edifies,” meaning “to build/strengthen.” We could be building up our brothers and sisters in the Lord through acts of love. Instead, we bolster and strengthen the wounding of their conscience. We say, “I know you feel guilty about this. Deal with it.” That isn’t love. That isn’t someone exercising their strength; it is a spiritual bully imposing on someone else who is weak. If we truly want to build someone up, we first understand their weakness and start from where they start. Imagine going to gym and hiring a personal trainer. The trainer is likely far stronger than you. Do you think the trainer is going to force you as a newbie to lift as much as him/her? He/she will assess where you’re at and start you at a weight that is appropriate for you. They will be aware of your weakness and start building you from there to strength. This is the way we should be with our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is not about exploiting their weaknesses; it is about being aware of them and helping them grow in their walks with Christ…to help, not harm.

12 But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.

  1. Don’t miss this point. Sinning against believers = sinning against Jesus. The apostle Paul was keenly aware of this the day of his conversion on the road to Damascus. Although he had actively and intentionally persecuted believers in Jesus wherever he could find them, Jesus pointedly asked Saul/Paul, “Why do you persecute Me?” When Saul hunted Jesus’ disciples, he hunted Jesus Himself. When he jailed them, he jailed Jesus. Just as Jesus will say to the nations in the future judgment between the sheep and the goats, “When you did it unto the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” When we sin against our brothers and sisters in Christ, we sin against Christ. When we hurt them, wounding their conscience, we attack our Lord and Savior, sinning against Him. (God forbid! And may God forgive us where we have!)

13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.

  1. Paul’s conclusion? If meat sacrificed to an idol wounded his brother’s or sister’s conscience – if it stumbled (lit. “scandalized”) them, then the meat wasn’t worth it. In fact, Paul would rather be a vegetarian, if that was what it took to build up his fellow Christian. Why take the chance of wounding a fellow believer? Why potentially stumble them and sin against Jesus? At the end of the day, meat simply wasn’t worth it (no matter how tasty it might have been or how much “right” Paul had to eat it). He was willing to sacrifice it, out of love for his brother and sister.
    1. Be willing to make a sacrifice of love! If we know something causes another brother or sister harm, then why not set it aside? 
  2. Objection: “But I don’t want to give unwarranted veto power to other people! Just about any freedom I exercise is potentially harmful to someone else. I can’t walk around on eggshells never doing anything hoping never to offend anyone. Besides, some people get offended at stupid things.” True – some people look for reasons to be offended. We need look no further than our current political climate! Firstly, remember that Paul is not writing about Christians never offending the world. After all, the gospel is an offense to those who are perishing. Although we don’t want to be obnoxious, we will never be able to cease from offending the world if we are to be Biblical. Secondly, Paul was not so concerned about a lack of offense that he never corrected anyone. Most of the letter of 1 Corinthians is devoted to correcting false ideas and practices among the church. Surely many in the congregation were initially offended, even if it helped them grow. Paul never ceded veto power to the errant congregation in Corinth…not by a long shot. However, Paul was careful not to do anything that might stumble them into sin. And that’s the key point. Everything Paul did among the Corinthians was to build them up in Christ; not to flaunt his own spiritual liberties, potentially setting them back in their own spiritual growth. It was the flaunting and parading that he set aside; not the essential truths and practices of the Christian faith.

Know your brothers and sisters in Christ! Be mindful of them. When we act in our freedoms, are we aware of our fellow Christians around us? Are we mindful of the example we set towards others? Do we build them up…or box them in? We can either be willing to lovingly sacrifice for them, or callously stumble them. May we choose what is best. May we choose what is most loving towards Christ!

Conclusion:

We have liberty to do all kinds of things when we know the one true God. But just because we can do something does not mean that we should do it. Liberties that stumble other believers are worth setting aside because God is worth every sacrifice we might be called upon to make. Consider how much Jesus was willing to sacrifice for you and me? Anything we give in return is a pittance in comparison!

Remember that although Paul’s immediate context was food sacrificed to idols in the ancient city of Corinth, the principles of knowing God and knowing our brothers still apply to us today. The specific examples might change, but the general issue remains. Perhaps your sister is stumbled by your freedom with alcohol. Don’t drink around her. Perhaps your brother argues against the gift of tongues. Don’t practice it around him. It does not mean that we must always be silent and conversations can never be had. It does not mean that we cannot teach one another and continually grow in our knowledge of the Scriptures and spiritual maturity. It means that we treat one another with love and humility, as we all follow Jesus together. It means that we do what we need to do to love God together, love each other in the Lord, and follow Christ as a church family.

Paul’s message to the Corinthian singles (as well as to everyone else): keep Jesus first place!

A Word to Singles

Posted: December 13, 2020 in 1 Corinthians

1 Corinthians 7:25-40, “A Word to Singles”

In Jesus’ letter to Ephesus, found in the 2nd chapter of Revelation, the Lord Jesus famously rebukes the Ephesian church congregation for having left their “first love,” (Rev 2:4). Although they had been initially planted by the apostle Paul, with him personally guiding their initial leadership and elders – although they had men like Timothy and even the apostle John among them for a time – and although they had done many wonderful things for the Lord, which Jesus knew, they still fell away from their first love of Christ. Jesus was no longer the first priority among the church, and without Jesus at the head, nothing else the church did really mattered.

The danger for Ephesus as a congregation is a danger for all of us as individuals. Any one of us might leave our first love, being distracted away from Jesus by the cares of this world. And this doesn’t even necessarily mean we have to go to the extreme of outright apostasy, denying Jesus as our Lord. It could be as simple as a born-again Christian getting caught up in the very necessary things of life, being so busy providing for his/her family that Jesus gets pushed to the back. Personal devotions and corporate worship fall down the list of priorities, and soon enough we look just like our secular neighbors in every outward aspect of our lives, even if we inwardly hold to our faith in Jesus.

It was with this danger in mind that Paul exhorted so many Christians to remain single. Married life could be wonderful…but it can also be wonderfully distracting. Born-again believers who are unmarried have freedom and benefits that are simply unavailable to married Christians, and as an unwedded Christian himself, Paul would have been derelict to teach on the subject of marriage without teaching also on the upsides of Christian singlehood.

Since the beginning of Chapter 7, Paul has been answering the Corinthians’ questions regarding sex, singleness, and marriage. The overall letter had begun with issues of rebuke and discipline, but once that was completed, Paul transitioned to this Q&A section. The issue, of course, being how to use our physical bodies within our various marital states.

Some aspects were simple and universal, such as the fact that sex belongs solely within the confines of marriage. Others were a bit more subjective and personal, such as the decision whether to even get married in the first place. Of course, if one made the choice to marry, that choice should remain, even as Paul showed his own personal preference for singles to stay single. Whatever state it was in which God called an individual to be saved, Paul believed Christians to remain in it, not being in a rush to change.

By itself, that is important theology irrespective of marriage, which Paul demonstrated in verses 17-24. There, he employed to illustrations (circumcision and slavery) to show that God can and will use us in whatever situation we find ourselves. The sovereignty of God teaches us that God providentially places us where He wants us, which means we should not rush to change our circumstances.

With this principle established, Paul brings the discussion back to singleness vs. marriage, with Paul unashamedly coming down on the side of singleness. This too, is a circumstance providentially allowed by God, giving people the opportunity to serve Him in ways that are otherwise perhaps unavailable.

Considering that so many Christians who read/hear this are married and that Paul exhorts married Christians to remain married (in line with what the rest of the Bible says), why should married Christians pay any attention to these verses? Does Paul say anything of importance to wedded Christians here? Yes! We need to pay close attention, just like Christians who are single.

  1. It is the inspired word of God. That alone ought to cause us to sit up straight and pay attention.
  2. The Bible speaks to married Christians elsewhere and singles are enjoined to listen to those passages. Surely we can do the same in the passages that speak to them.
  3. You may not be single but you surely know someone who is. All people start our lives as unmarried. How might you counsel someone Biblically regarding singleness if you don’t know what the Bible says to them?
  4. There is a real, yet sobering possibility that you might not always be married. Divorce is obviously not recommended but does sometimes (sadly) happen. Similarly, death is not desired but it does leave many Christians as widows or widowers. If you are to be Biblically prepared for those things, you need to know what the Bible says on those things now.

So yes, all Christians (married and single) need to know what God’s word is to singles. And that word is something that relates to all Christians, single and married alike: keep Jesus your first priority! In a world that offers many distractions, the born-again believer is not to get distracted from Christ. Our eyes are to be on Him, always.

1 Corinthians 7:25–40

  • The issue of singleness (25-31)

25 Now concerning virgins: …

  1. Paul begins simply, almost as if beginning a new topic of discussion. “Now concerning virgins,” is just like he wrote at the beginning of Chapter 7, “Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me,” or as he will write at the beginning of Chapter 8, “Now concerning the things offered to idols.” It is not a new discussion entirely but a continuation of what Paul has been writing regarding sex, singleness, and marriage. At the same time, there is a new emphasis. Earlier, the focus was primarily on married Christians: how they should treat sex and celibacy, and how they should act regarding divorce. Now the focus shifts to singles, or literally, “” The word has been subject to quite a variety of interpretations with some Bible versions going so far as to imply a different word, such as the ESV “betrothed.” (There is a specific Greek word that is translated “betrothed/espoused,” which is not the word used by Paul here.)
  2. This particular word is parthenon/s (παρθένος), recognizable to many as the name of the famous temple to Athena located in Greece. The original word referred to those who were chaste/celibate, usually females (though not exclusively). This is the same word used to describe Mary, when she was blessed by God the Holy Spirit to become the mother of Jesus. It plainly describes her chaste virginity; not her marital status.
  3. The tough part about this word is not theological, but cultural. This is not how we refer to unmarried people today, whether female or male. For one, not all unmarried people are single due to a lack of marriage. Divorce and widowhood are far too common. Additionally (and sadly), chastity is far too rare among those who have never married. It is virtually expected within our culture that young men and women will engage in premarital sex. Virginity past a certain age is considered weird, if not comical. Again, the problem is cultural – meaning that the problem is not with the Bible nor with the concept of virginity; the problem is with us. Historically and Biblically, chastity was seen as a virtue. It was a way for a young man or woman to honor his/her parents, to honor his/her potential future spouse, and especially to honor his/her God. God designed sexual intimacy in a holy way, being the physical expression of the spiritual and emotional unity between husband and wife. The two come together as “one flesh” because they have been spiritually joined by God. (Therefore, what God has joined together, let not man separate!)
    1. This leaves some people in a bind. What do you do if you are no longer a virgin but have not been joined to your intended spouse through holy matrimony? You do the same thing you do with every other sin and offense against God: confess and repent through faith in Jesus. Receive the forgiveness of Christ, be cleansed by His Spirit and grace, and then walk in newness of life by recommitting yourself to future chastity.
  4. In the end, Paul writes regarding the subject of virgins, which naturally includes singles who do not fit the strict biological definition of virginity.

… I have no commandment from the Lord; yet I give judgment as one whom the Lord in His mercy has made trustworthy.

  1. Regarding what Paul actually has to say, he is quick to point out that he has “no commandment from the Lord,” which leads some to question if this section in the letter is still part of the divinely inspired Scripture. The short answer is: yes, it is. When Paul says that he has no commandment from the Lord, he simply contrasts what he writes here with what he wrote earlier in Chapter 7. In verse 10, he specifically wrote that the command regarding divorce was from the Lord. IOW, Paul was quoting the Lord Jesus from His earthly ministry. Jesus addressed divorce is a direct manner, whereas Jesus did not directly address singles/virgins. So yes, Paul still writes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, even when not quoting a spoken command from Jesus.
  2. That said, Paul still makes it clear that what he has to say on the subject is to be taken as loving pastoral advice and counsel; not an apostolic command. The word translated “judgment” (NKJV) is not the normal word used for judgment elsewhere in the New Testament. Other Bible translations (NASB, HCSB) render the word as “opinion.” The word can refer to a declaration, but also a viewpoint or way of thinking. When we consider the context of what Paul goes on to write, it makes better sense for his view to be treated as pastoral opinion rather than apostolic decree. As he himself acknowledged earlier in Chapter 7, not all Christians are gifted by God to forever remain single (7:7). For Paul to impose this idea on vast numbers of believers would be inconsistent and wrong.
  3. Of course, this does not mean that Paul’s advice was worthless. He was not ignorant or untrustworthy. He was not inexperienced or uneducated in the Scriptures. Paul had vast life experience, having committed himself to God in such a way that by the time he originally arrived in Corinth, he already experienced much physical persecution. IOW, Paul wasn’t writing this from some academic ivory tower or limited monastery. He was himself unmarried in ministry, so he personally knew what benefits it may provide.
    1. As an aside, this teaches us something about how we might choose the people from whom we seek counsel. Not everyone who knows Jesus as Lord is automatically made a worthwhile counselor the moment he/she puts his/her faith in Christ. If you choose the wrong person, you can easily find yourself in a situation of having the blind lead the blind. We need more than a person’s confession of faith; we need a track record of trustworthiness. That does not necessarily equate to age. There are men and women who have known Jesus for decades yet have little spiritual discernment or maturity. There are others who are relatively new in the faith yet have thrown themselves into faithful service. (Ideally, if you can find the combination of a Christian who has both age and faithfulness, all the better!)

26 I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress—that it is good for a man to remain as he is: 27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife.

  1. The basic premise is carried over from the previous section: do not rush to change what God has not changed. For the Christians to whom Paul wrote, his basic advice was for the married to remain married and for the singles (the virgins) to remain single. It was good for them to remain as they were. Whatever marital state they had when coming to faith in Jesus, in that state they were to remain.
  2. Why? Among the reasoning he gave in vss. 17-24, Paul specifically mentions “the present distress.” There was some particular trouble or pressure that was known by both Paul and the Corinthians that made Paul think that it was best for the Christians to avoid any major life upheaval. What it was, we cannot be certain. Perhaps Paul referred to the persecution he regularly received. Or perhaps he thought of the trouble caused by the Jews within the city (described in Acts 18). Perhaps there was some other issue, unidentified in the Scripture. That it was something known by both the Corinthian church and Paul is important to remember. The letter he wrote was a specific letter written to a specific people about specific circumstances. We need to be extremely careful not to move past the initial meaning of these words in our desire to find immediate current application. If we miss what Paul was writing to Corinth, we will not understand its application to us. This is the problem with the idea that Paul was referring to the Great Tribulation and the Second Coming of Christ. As if men and women should either remain married or single because of Jesus’ imminent return. If that was the case, then no Christian in the past 2000 years should ever have gotten married. If that was the issue, then it would imply that those who marry are not actively looking for Jesus. (Which is most certainly not what Paul was saying.)
  3. Why is this important? Because it helps us keep Paul’s opinion for Corinth as Paul’s opinion for Corinth. Instead of us trying to justify a modern legalism insisting on lifelong singleness & celibacy (as we find among the Roman Catholic priesthood), we look for the general principle that undergirds Paul’s advice to Corinth. It helps us keep his advice in the proper perspective. Just like his counsel for Timothy to drink a little wine to help settle his stomach (1 Tim 5:23) was meant for Timothy and not for the universal church, so is Paul’s specific advice to Corinth meant for Corinth.

28 But even if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. Nevertheless such will have trouble in the flesh, but I would spare you.

  1. As for those who did choose to marry, Paul is quick to affirm that his advice (godly as it is) is just advice. Again, this was not an apostolic decree to the church-at-large. When done for the right reasons in the right way, there is no sin in the act of marriage. If there were singles in Corinth who were not equipped by God to remain single, Paul assures them that there was no sin in their choice to marry. Whether male or female, should a Christian decide to wed, praise be to God. Paul, by his advice, had no intention to undo the rest of the Biblical doctrine of marriage. The Bible shows how God originally ordained marriage (Gen 2:18-24) and how Jesus affirmed that ordination (Mt 19:4-6). The Bible says that he who finds a wife finds a good thing, obtaining favor from the Lord (Prov 18:22). The Bible goes so far as to liken both God’s relationship to Israel and Jesus’ relationship to the church as husband and wife (Hos 2:16-20, Eph 5:32, Rev 21:9). It should be clear that the Bible does not portray marriage as sinful, thus, neither does Paul.
  2. That said, marriage is not right for everyone, which is exactly what Paul affirms to the Corinthian singles. Because of the present trouble in Corinth – because of the specific situation faced by Paul and the church, married Christians would face certain “trouble in the flesh,” and Paul’s desire for them as their founding pastor was to spare them these things. He loved them, having known them personally and individually. Any ease he could pass on to them, he desired to do so. For this time, in this situation, singleness was best. This was his simple counsel to the congregation he loved.

Although Paul had some specific trouble in mind for Corinth, that does not mean he was totally inattentive to the coming Tribulation and the end-days. This is clear in vss. 29-31…

29 But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none, 30 those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice, those who buy as though they did not possess, 31 and those who use this world as not misusing it. For the form of this world is passing away.

  1. Paul raises two point and provides five brief examples. Point #1: “Time is short.” This was just as true in Paul’s day as it is in 2020. Time is truly short. We have no idea how much longer God will give this world prior to the end. More personally, time is short with each one of us. Not a single person is guaranteed another day. Be it through a heart attack, car wreck, COVID-19, or “only” old age, every single one of us will die. The question is “when”; not “if.” And we have less time ahead of us today than what we had yesterday. We are all burning our individual candles, with God alone knowing how long we have left. Time is short.
  2. Point #2: “The form of this world is passing away.” What we see in the world today, we will not always see. Just like ach of our individual lives have an expiration date, so does the world. Peter writes how this world and its elements will be burned up, melted away with fervent heat (2 Pet 3:10). John writes how there will be a new heaven and new earth after the first heaven and earth pass away (Rev 21:1). Truly, the “form” (schema) of this world is passing. The circumstances we face in eternity will be different. The relationships we have in eternity will be different. Will we know one another? Will we be married to one another? No – not according to Jesus, who told the Sadducees that we will neither marry nor be given in marriage (Mt 22:30). If the scheme of this world is changing, we need to be prepared for that change.
  3. What does that tell us? That we should not get too attached! This is what Paul illustrates through his five brief examples: (1) The married should live as if they were single; (2) The mournful should put aside their mourning; (3) The joyful should put aside their joy; (4) The wealthy should behave as through they had nothing; (5) The users of this world should not use it. – Apart from the last example, the others seem strange, almost contradictory to the rest of Scripture. After all, Paul just wrote in the beginning of Chapter 7 how married Christians should act as married, being careful not to withhold themselves physically from their spouses (7:3-5). Likewise, Paul wrote to the Romans how we should rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (Rom 12:15). What then, does Paul mean? Surely he does not contradict himself nor the rest of Scripture!
  4. There is no contradiction; just a simple illustration of his two points (which echo the same truth): time is short. Every decision we make in this world should be in the context of the brevity of this world. Whatever we do in life, we need to remember what is most important in life. This helps us keep our priorities straight…and our first priority ought to always be Jesus. What is best for Him? What is in line with His plan for us? How does He want to use us? All of our decisions (big or small) ought to be made with that in mind. Maybe He wants you to be married, so you can use your marriage for the glory of God, raise up a new generation of godly children and be an example to your neighbors around you. Maybe He does not want you to be married, that you can travel as a missionary on a moment’s notice, or be available to help someone else in a time of personal crisis. Maybe the Lord’s will for a wealthy believer is not for that person to spend money on houses and vacations, but to fund many missionaries and Bible translations. The possibilities are endless…which is why the priority is so important. If Jesus is not our first priority, we will never narrow down the possibilities to what He wants for us. That is why we live with the end of the world in mind. Not that we would be “so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good,” but that we can do the right earthly good because of our heavenly-mindedness. When Jesus is our first priority, everything else falls into place!
  • The benefits of singleness (32-35)

32 But I want you to be without care. He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord. 33 But he who is married cares about the things of the world—how he may please his wife.

  1. The primary benefit to singleness: unmarried Christians can have a singular focus on Christ. Unmarried Christians can do what Jesus wants them to do, “without care” to what someone else in his/her home might think. Don’t get the wrong idea. Paul isn’t saying that Christian singles are careless or even care-free. He isn’t saying that they are irresponsible or passionless. He’s describing this issue of priority, how the singles’ one focus is that of pleasing the Lord. In marriage, there is supposed to be a mutual service. The husband serves the wife as Christ serves the church and the wife submits to the husband as the church submits unto the Lord. Each serve the other as they mutually seek and serve the Lord Jesus. This is good and joyful, without question. It also introduces inherent complications. Instead of one person seeking and serving Christ alone, now there are two people attempting to do so in unity. That isn’t bad, nor is it unachievable…but it is certainly more complicated than one person doing it alone. The Christian single does not need to ask permission from his/her spouse if it is okay to go on a mission trip or to spend an afternoon ministering to a widow or to do any number of things. As long as time and opportunity arises, the single is available to go. Whatever the Lord has for that person to do in that moment, that person can do. That person is fully and freely available to “please the Lord.
  2. The married person, not so much. There are certain inherent cares that now exist in the world, primarily the care for his/her spouse. Again, that does not mean that the married Christian is not free or desirous to please the Lord (many can and do!); it only means that there is another element now in the picture: one’s spouse.

34 There is a difference between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she who is married cares about the things of the world—how she may please her husband.

  1. What was true for the gander is also true for the goose. Just like the Christian husband is concerned with pleasing his wife, so is the Christian wife concerned with pleasing her husband. And just like the single Christian man can be singularly focused on pleasing the Lord, so can the unmarried Christian woman care about God, seeking to “be holy in both body and in spirit,” giving herself fully to the service of Christ Jesus.
  2. The issue (as described in vs. 33) is that marriage is inherently earthly. Not carnal and worldly; not bad and sinful; just earthly. Marriage deals with earthly relationships that last only on earth; not in heaven. Marriage was made to deal with earthly things, such as sexual intimacy, childrearing, and the like – things that will not take place in heaven. Thus, married Christians have necessary earthly priorities. All people (married or not) have to deal with things like rent and food and transportation, but married people (and even single-parent households) do it with family stability and children in mind. In a home where the husband works outside the home and the wife works inside the home raising their children, the husband cannot arbitrarily decide to either quit or take a leave-of-absence to go serve as an overseas missionary for a few months – not without putting his family in great financial peril. Likewise, the wife cannot decide to pick up and go wherever there is a ministry opportunity, as it would leave the husband in a lurch trying to provide for their children. Neither spouse can make a massive decision without drastically affecting the other spouse. Again, that is not necessarily a bad thing – it certainly is not sinful, as marriage is an institution created and ordained by God. But it is a reality.
  3. This is where those who are gifted for singleness by the Lord have a true benefit on top of their gift. They have a freedom that no married Christian can experience. They have opportunities unavailable to the rest of married believers. And why should it not be thought of as a blessing? It is! Just like married believers have the joy and benefit of raising children, unmarried believers have the joy and benefit of serving the Lord with complete freedom. Both are blessings and both come from the Lord! Which one is better? The one for which God has equipped you. The person not equipped for marriage is miserable when guilted into a constant search for a spouse. The person not equipped for singleness is miserable when trying to live in constant singleness, even under the motivation of attempting to do the thing for the Lord. We would not expect a 5’7” 130 pound Kenyan to be happy as a offensive lineman in an NFL franchise; nor would we expect a 6’4” 314 pound American to be happy trying to be an elite marathoner. Each one is gifted/designed for a different purpose. Each one has opportunities unavailable to the other. Is one better or worse? Only for the one trying to do the wrong thing.

35 And this I say for your own profit, not that I may put a leash on you, but for what is proper, and that you may serve the Lord without distraction.

  1. Paul desired their freedom; not legalistic asceticism. The “leash” might also be translated “noose,” but has the idea of a restraint one would use on an animal. By no means was Paul trying to make the Corinthians feel guilty. As if the Corinthians who had gotten married had sinned in some way, or at least had missed out on the fullness of what might have been available for them in the Lord. Nor was Paul trying to lock anyone into a way of life for which God had not equipped that person. Asceticism, despite the monastic movement (which lasts even until today) does not inherently glorify the Lord. Just because you deny yourself something does not mean that you are any more “holy” than anyone else. A person who takes pride in denial has his/her own problem with sin. Neither does even denial done in humility given an inherent benefit to the person. Maybe you can fast for two weeks straight…it doesn’t make you any holier than another Spirit-filled Christian who was called by God to something different. Simple denial isn’t the point; purity is. True holiness is following the Lord in the Lord’s calling, according to the Lord’s word. It isn’t about any legalistic practice anyone might adopt.
  2. But that was not what Paul desired for the Corinthians. He wanted their “profit” – he wanted their freedom to “serve the Lord without distraction.” Again, those who remained single had opportunities to serve God in ways that were unavailable to those who were married. It was far easier for them to keep Jesus as their main priority. Surely that is a profitable thing! Small wonder that Paul desired it for as many Christians as possible.
  • The choice of singleness (36-40)

36 But if any man thinks he is behaving improperly toward his virgin, if she is past the flower of youth, and thus it must be, let him do what he wishes. He does not sin; let them marry.

  1. First things first: what does Paul mean about the “man” and “his virgin”? This is highly debated among scholars, reflected in the variety of ways different Bible translations render the passage. The wording is the same used back in verse 25 but the debate lies in the contextual usage. It could refer to a father considering whether to arrange a marriage for his virgin daughter (something commonplace in the day). It could refer to a couple that is betrothed (per the ESV) that have not yet married and consummated the marriage. Or, it could even refer to a “man and woman who have entered upon a spiritual marriage,” in celibacy (Rogers). With respect to the ESV and NIV, the idea of betrothal as well as that of a “spiritual marriage” seem vastly inconsistent with everything else Paul has written in Chapter 7 regarding marriage. Again, those who marry are supposed to consummate the marriage – they are commanded to give themselves physically to one another, with sexual intimacy being part and parcel of their covenant relationship. For couples to betroth, yet not complete the marriage would be truly unusual and defeat the whole purpose of betrothal (which for all intents and purposes treated the couple as if they were married, with the singular exception of sexual practice). Additionally, the word that translates to “past the flower of her youth” (NKJV) does not easily (or arguably, rightly) translate to the ESV’s “if his passions are strong.” The word used by Paul is used only this one time in the entire New Testament, and in other Greek writings refers to a person (usually a woman) who was past one’s prime or marriageable age. In this case, the form of the word is feminine, thereby indicating that it speaks of a woman; not a man. Thus, the rendering of the NKJV & NASB is better, most likely speaking of a Christian father arranging a marriage for his virgin daughter.
  2. Is this strange from our perspective? This is another instance when we need to remember the initial cultural application of the letter to the people to whom the letter was addressed. Although Paul’s words has much meaning and application to 21st century American Christians, he wasn’t writing to us. He was writing to 1st century Corinthian Christians living in the Roman empire, and they engaged in arranged marriages. To these fathers, Paul wanted to reassure them that they did not sin against God nor their daughters if they gave their daughters in marriage. Yes, it would be true that these women would no longer have the opportunity to live in single devotion to God, but their fathers also had long-range concern for their daughters’ provision. The Roman empire did not have a social safety net. There was no welfare or Medicaid. If their daughters were to have provision in their elder years, most of them would require a husband and children. Paul did not want these people to miss their opportunities. Especially if some of these young women were approaching the cultural limits of their age, he wanted to reassure the fathers that it was okay for them to see their daughters married.

37 Nevertheless he who stands steadfast in his heart, having no necessity, but has power over his own will, and has so determined in his heart that he will keep his virgin, does well. 38 So then he who gives her in marriage does well, but he who does not give her in marriage does better.

  1. Not every father felt the need to marry off his daughter. If the father was wealthy, he would be well-equipped to care for his own daughter unto her dying day, even if through a future inheritance following his own death. Those fathers had the freedom to give their daughters the chance at a devoted life of singleness that might be unavailable to other families. It might not be an easy choice, but it was a choice that Paul wanted each father and daughter to consider.
    1. We might wonder how many Christians actually consider a willful choice of singleness. Those of us who have married likely pondered often who we might marry and when. But did we ever take the time to ponder if God might want us single? Again, not everyone is equipped for singleness and those who have married can (and should) praise God for their marriage. But for those who have not yet married, is it not a question worth considering? Some young people give more thought to their choice of college than their choice of marriage. Sure, they think often of who they might marry, but rarely consider if they should marry. This too, is something we ought to take before God in prayer. If He is our Lord, then we should let Him be Lord, even over our marital status.
  2. Note that either marriage or singleness is a good choice. Neither is condemned; one is simply affirmed by Paul as “better.” Again, it is better for those who have been equipped by God (7:7). Not everyone has that gifting and not everyone should be compelled into it. Presumably, both the Christian father and daughter have sought the Lord on the issue and determined what God desired in the situation. In that case, it is truly better because it is acting according to the gifts and calling of God.

39 A wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband dies, she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 40 But she is happier if she remains as she is, according to my judgment—and I think I also have the Spirit of God.

  1. Christian widows may remarry, but only to other Christians, and only if they want to do so. As long as her husband lived (or for the men, as long as his wife lived), she was bound to that husband in the covenant of marriage. That marriage bond should not be broken, when at all possible, with Christians not divorcing one another (7:12-13). But when we wed, we commit ourselves to our spouses “as long as we both shall live.” Once widowhood sadly arrives, there is freedom at that point to do what you want. Should the widow decide to remarry, praise God. Should she decide to remain single, praise God. Either option was available to her, with no condemnation nor compulsion from Paul. He affirms again that this was only his opinion (i.e. his “judgment” or manner of thought). It is a well-informed, godly opinion, but an opinion nonetheless.
  2. The one caveat is that the widow marry a born-again believer, should she marry at all. This introduces the idea of Christians being equally yoked together, something which Paul address in more detail in his second letter (2 Cor 6:14). Because spouses are covenant partners together, Christians cannot join in covenant with someone who is not already in covenant with God. We already have one relationship in which we are bound: that of the Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot take up a different relationship where that person does not have the same covenant and Lord. Otherwise, we attempt to serve different masters – we get pulled in opposite directions. It is one thing if one spouse comes to faith in Christ after he/she has already married; it is quite another for a believing Christian to join in marriage with a nonbeliever. Such a decision is not only sinful, but it sets up a situation that leads to nothing but compromise and heartache.

Overall, Paul had his recommendation and opinion, but the choice was personal. Singleness has wonderful benefits and opportunities, but it is not something to be forced on anyone. Each Christian must make his/her own choice. Only let that Christian make it in submission to the Lord Jesus, following Jesus on whatever direction He wants for our lives.

Conclusion:

When it come to the issue of singleness within the church, let us be honest: American Evangelicals have not done well. Singleness is not treated as a gift or a potential blessing; it is often treated akin to a disease, something to rid yourself of as soon as possible. Perhaps the problem is that the question of singleness vs. marriage is inherently personal and the possibility of remaining single is something that frightens many people who’ve been married and we simply (and sadly) assume that it frightens everyone else. So we try to push everyone else into making the same personal decisions that we’ve made.

The end result is that many Christian singles are wrongly made to feel sub-Christian – that there is something wrong with either them or their faith (or both!), which is why they’ve remained single either for a time or for their whole lives. They are left out of certain celebrations and treated as afterthoughts rather than as full-fledged members of the Body of Christ.

How different is the Biblical perspective on singleness! The apostle Paul shows there are great benefits to being single and that (like marriage) it can be a good and God-honoring state. It can be wonderfully liberating, allowing for certain ministry opportunities that are otherwise impossible. The Christian single arguably has an easier time keeping Jesus as his/her priority, able to remain undistracted by earthly necessities. It isn’t that married Christians cannot keep Jesus as their first love (we can and should!); it is simply that it is easier for the unmarried Christian to do so.

So let them do it…and praise God for it! Imagine what would have happened if the apostle Paul had married. Would he have travelled as much as he did? Would he have been as willing to endure imprisonment, knowing that he had a family dependent upon him? How much of the New Testament would we be missing, if Paul had taken a family as had Peter and others? Obviously, Peter had a wonderfully productive and God-glorifying ministry, but so did Paul. And Paul, single as he was, arguably had a greater impact on the New Testament church than did Peter.

Of course, it isn’t about competition; it’s about walking in the role and gifting that God has given you, following Jesus as your Lord giving Him first place in your life.

So how are you doing in that? Has Jesus been your priority? Has He been first-place, as your first love? Whether you are single or married, it can be easy to let Jesus fall in our rank of priorities. It is truly easy to get caught up in the distractions of this world – be it something good, like trying to please and provide for our families; or be it in something selfish as when we seek to please ourselves.

May God help us keep Jesus first!