Facing death for Christ: 2 Corinthians 4

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Today’s reading: 2 Corinthians 1-4.

The words of Paul in today’s passage are hard to accept, for in them he seems to say there is a necessity of suffering – even dying – for Christ in order for the life-giving power of Christ to be shown to others. If so, it is a hard lesson to learn for those of us who have lived without persecution. If true, it may explain why our witness has been so weak.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. 2 Corinthians 4: 7-12

The treasure which Paul describes is “the gospel of the glory of Christ” and “the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” The jars of clay were the common storage containers of his day, similar to our Tupperware. Like clay flower pots, they were cheap but brittle. People did sometimes hide their valuables in them. God used this great contrast between the treasure of his glory and the commonness of his messengers to remind men that the power of the Gospel was supernatural.

Our clay bodies show off the surpassing greatness of God’s glory, but they are easily bruised and broken. Paul lived in a day when men often violently rejected his message and directed their anger at him. It was necessary for him to suffer in order to carry the Gospel through that minefield of opposition. He was risking death so that others might live.

But what about believers who live in times and places where the opposition isn’t so great? Do we still need to demonstrate the death of Christ so that the world can see the life that is in the Gospel? Certainly we must share the story of Christ’s death on the cross, but I think Paul is getting at something more dramatic. In 2 Corinthians 1: 5 he said, “as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.” In Romans 8: 17 he said, “we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” In Philippians 3: 10, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” In Colossians 1: 24, “I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.”

Paul describes the tribulations he endured – hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted, struck down – but also the way his clay pot of a body survived. He quoted Psalm 116 in which the Psalmist faced “the cords of death…the anguish of the grave,” yet was able to cry, “O LORD, save me!” and see God deliver him. I picture Paul’s clay pot being squeezed so hard from the outside that it was bound to break, but miraculously it didn’t because of the strength of the glory of God hidden inside him. This miraculous survival demonstrated the relationship between Paul and God in a way that nothing else could, as the witness of Saeed Abedini in prison in Iran does today.

Believers know how fragile our skins are; we live with them every day. What we miss is the strength of the treasure hidden inside us. We see our weakness. We miss God’s power. Let’s value the treasure inside us more, and dare more, so that others can see the life-giving power of Christ more clearly.

Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
with the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wilder seas
Where storms will show Your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars. – Sir Francis Drake

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In the twinkling of an eye: I Corinthians 15

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Today’s reading: I Corinthians 15-16.

“Life is hard, and then you die.” So goes the widespread mantra of the world, echoing the “under the sun” despair of Solomon. Paul has an answer for that depressing slogan: “Stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” Our work is not in vain because it bears eternal fruit, and because we will be there in eternity to reap the rewards of our work.

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. I Corinthians 15: 42-44

As the famous sermon goes, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!” Our mortal bodies can be compared to a seed which bears little resemblance to the mature plant into which it will grow. Now we groan with all creation, but resurrection day is coming when the perishable will put on the imperishable and the mortal will put on immortality. Therefore we have hope.

Why is there a resurrection day? The simple answer to the reason for resurrection is that we will be raised just as Jesus was raised. Jesus the first fruits, then all those who belong to him. The more profound answer is that we are raised to demonstrate Christ’s victory over death. “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

What will happen on resurrection day? 1) Whether living or already dead, we shall all be changed in a moment, in a twinkling of the eye. Our souls are already immortal, but on that day our bodies will be made immortal and fitted for eternity as well. 2) We shall become like Jesus, for we shall see him as he is. (I John 3:2) 3) We shall meet Jesus in the air and be with him forevermore. (I Thess. 4:17) 4) We shall become like angels, and sons of God. (Luke 20: 34-38) 5) We shall receive eternal life, glory (which can include such things as beauty and perfection), power exceeding that of our current mortal bodies, and a spiritual nature that contrasts with our current merely physical nature.

When will resurrection day be? Jesus said it would be on the last day. Paul says it will be at the last trump. In the Old Testament the trumpet blew to gather the children of Israel in their ranks to move with the tabernacle through the wilderness, and the last trumpet call was the call to start marching forward. The “last trump” also reminds us of the Feast of Trumpets. At that time, in the fall of the year, the Jews prepared for the highest holiest days in a time of repentance. The trumpet blew daily for the thirty days prior to Yom Teruah (now called Rosh Hoshanah). They believed the gates of heaven were opened at that time to allow the righteous to enter. Yom Teruah was the day no man knew, for it was not declared until two witnesses could see the new moon. On that day the trumpet was blown repeatedly, a total of 100 times. The last trump is called the Great Blast, or Tekiah Gedolah, and it signaled the opening of heaven. Could it be that Jesus will return, that resurrection day will be, during the time of the Feast of Trumpets? Many believe that as the spring feast days (Passover, First Fruits, Pentecost) were fulfilled during Jesus’ first appearance, that the fall feast days will be fulfilled when he returns. Christians have different opinions about the timing of resurrection day in relation to the Great Tribulation, but all who believe in the Millennium as described in Revelation 20 would agree that the resurrected believers will reign with Christ on earth for those 1,000 years that immediately follow the tribulation.

O the seed that was sown in weakness
Shall then be raised in pow’r
And the songs of the blood bought millions
Shall hail that blissful hour;
When we gather safely home in the morning,
And night’s dark shadows fly,
What a shouting on the shore when we meet to part no more,
Changed in the twinkling of an eye. – Fanny Crosby

You do not weep because your father, brother, wife, husband, has ascended to heaven – you would be cruel to weep about that. None of you weep because your dear mother is before the throne; but you weep because her body is in the grave, because those eyes can no more smile on you, because those hands cannot caress you, because those sweet lips cannot speak melodious notes of affection. You weep because the body is cold, and dead, and clay-like; for the soul you do not weep. But I have comfort for you. That very body will rise again; that eye will flash with genius again; that hand will be held out in affection once more. Believe me, I am speaking no fiction. That very hand, that positive hand, those cold, clay-like arms that hung down by the side and fell when you uplifted them, shall hold a harp one day; and those poor fingers, now icy and hard, shall be swept along the living strings of golden harps in heaven. Yea, you shall see that body once more. – Charles Spurgeon

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Spiritual gifts in use: I Corinthians 12-14

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Today’s reading: I Corinthians 12-14.

Luke described in the book of Acts how spiritual gifts came unexpectedly to new believers, giving evidence of their conversion. By the time of Paul’s writing believers practiced the gifts regularly in the church assemblies. Sometimes they misused the gifts, causing disorder in worship. Paul tried to put the gifts in proper perspective so that members would use them to build up the church rather than confuse it. As you read his words, think about how present they were in the early church, and how they seem almost absent by comparison today.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

Purpose. Spiritual gifts are not given for our own benefit, but for the good of the assembled church. They aren’t for show but for strengthening the body and advancing the kingdom.

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues ? Do all interpret?

Parity. Each spiritual gift is important and plays a part in the proper function of the church. Though some are more visible, none is more necessary than the others. Put another way, the church is missing out when members fail to use their gifts. God determines which gifts are present, however, deciding which ones are needed in each place and time.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

Passing. The use of spiritual gifts without love accomplishes nothing. They can be misused out of pride or selfishness. The spiritual gifts will pass away, but love will remain forever. Therefore, love is the more important and desirable quality.

He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.

Priority. The priority in the use of spiritual gifts reflects the purpose of spiritual gifts. They are meant to build up the church body. They are not for the benefit of the person expressing the gift. Tongues in particular are of no benefit if their meaning is not interpreted.

Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.

Propriety. Paul looked down on any chaotic expression of spiritual gifts in the assembly, as if believers were competing with each other or trying to outdo each other. He also noted that though these were spiritual expressions, they were not involuntary but were under the control of the person expressing the gift. No one with the gift of giving gave his riches away involuntarily, and no one speaking in tongues or prophesying should do so without self-control.

When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.

Practice. It’s fascinating to read this little snippet of what a first century church service looked like. Hymns and teaching, yes. But also revelations, and prophesying, and tongues. So much participation from the members. So much involvement of the Spirit. We have heeded Paul’s command for order, but perhaps we have shut out some of the Spirit in the process.

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Running for the prize: I Corinthians 9

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Today’s reading: I Corinthians 9-11.

“How can I be a successful servant of Christ?”

“The five S’s of sports training are: stamina, speed, strength, skill, and spirit; but the greatest of these is spirit.”– Ken Doherty

When Paul wrote I Corinthians he had been a Christian for twenty years. He was deep into his second missionary journey. He knew what it took to be a witness for Christ, but more than that he knew what fruitful ministry required.

I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. I C0rinthians 9: 22-27

Paul had the spirit of ministry. Maybe not the greatest skill in speech-making, maybe not the smoothest personality, but he knew the spirit that was required, and the stamina. His spirit was one of selflessness. Paul wasn’t important. Christ was important. Winning the lost people of the world to Christ was important. Therefore he could make himself like the people he was serving in order to open the doors to greater ministry. He wasn’t being meek but skillful. He wasn’t doing anything immoral. His Christian liberty allowed him to follow the law if that was needed, or to live without the law among those who didn’t recognize it.

His spirit was also one of sacrifice. He did without in order to go about. He went without pay or earned his way through his trade of tent-making. He went without a home and often without any comfort or safety. He suffered every kind of danger and abuse. He did it for the Corinthians so that his ministry to them would not be hindered. He became a slave for the sake of the Gospel.

Paul could do all this because he had his eye on the prize, and the prize waited in eternity with Christ. He had the spirit of faith which saw through all the present difficulties to the heavenly success. He saw the kingdom in its glory even though many counted him as the scum of the earth. His faith wasn’t in himself but in Christ who made him able to do all things. Because he looked in faith to the future reward, he was also able to live with a spirit of discipline. He trained himself like an Olympic athlete, running for the prize, fighting against his own weaknesses, and always keeping his eye on the finish line. He also kept a keen eye on any wrong step that would take him out of the race. He did nothing that might disqualify himself.

Paul could have made a list of the things he didn’t do. That would also be instructive.

  • He didn’t insist on his own needs.
  • He didn’t quit when things were difficult.
  • He didn’t take it personally when others attacked him; he knew it was because of Christ.
  • He didn’t avoid taking a stand.
  • He didn’t work for financial security.
  • He didn’t stay away from risky or dangerous areas of ministry.

One final point about Paul. He didn’t just study or prepare (running aimlessly, beating the air); he did the hard work of ministry. He had the spirit to fight the good fight.

image by Nguyen Vu Hung on Flickr, CC by 2.0

Sexual sin: I Corinthians 5-7

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Today’s reading: I Corinthians 5-8.

“Sexual sins are no different from other sins, right?”

The people of ancient Corinth were notorious for their sexual promiscuity. The members of the Corinthian church came out of that culture, were surrounded by it, and some of them still practiced it. Paul warned them to avoid sexual sin. He identified unique features that distinguished it from other sins, and told them they must separate themselves from believers who kept on sinning in this way. He meant they should expel the unrepentant church members.

Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. I Corinthians 6:18-20

Paul warned that those who persist in sexual sin will not enter the kingdom. He said this was true for heterosexual and homosexual sin. In fact, he stressed that all persistent sin, not just sexual sin, was evidence of a lack of saving grace. The regeneration that occurs when a lost person believes in Christ leads to conviction about the wrongness of sin and results in a change in behavior. No change in behavior? Then there has been no regeneration.

Some people rationalize their sexual sin as the unavoidable expression of sexual appetites.  Paul said no to this. Sexual desires don’t justify their immoral fulfillment. People are not animals who have no control over their bodies; we are not to be mastered by our desires. The consequences of satisfying sexual desires immorally cannot be compared to the effects of satisfying a hunger for food. Food was made for the stomach, and the stomach for food, but our bodies were not made for sexual sin. Our bodies were made to glorify God.

The unique nature of sexual sin comes from its effect on the body. Sexual sin unites your body with another, but believers are united with God through Christ in spirit. Our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit. How can the holy have this communion with the unholy? The Bible is telling us that there are permanent effects of sexual unions that people treat so casually – effects that may last into eternity.

Paul knew the advantages of the single lifestyle when it came to Christian ministry, but he also knew that sex within marriage protects believers from passions that lead to sin. Therefore, unless a person had the conviction of living as a single person, and had their sexual desires under control, they should marry in order to avoid the temptation to sin by having sex outside marriage.

We need to remember that Paul’s prohibition against fellowship with unrepentant sinners applied to church members only. He did not want Christians to avoid the lost, no matter what their sins were. They needed to hear the Gospel, and therefore Christians needed to remain engaged with them. Only through the power of the Gospel did they have any hope of overcoming their sin.

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Powerful foolishness: I Corinthians 1-4

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Today’s reading: I Corinthians 1-4.

“Why does the world make fun of Christians?”

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. I Corinthians 1: 18

The foolishness of the Gospel

The gospel message seems like the utmost foolishness to unbelievers, and those who preach that message are counted as fools by much of the world. But the foolish words of the gospel have the power of God to save. The wisdom of the world has no such power. Believers shouldn’t be discouraged by the abuse of the world. Instead, we should take it as proof that we are on the right path and that God’s word is true.

The foolishness of Christ

The contemporaries of Jesus thought he was crazy, and little has changed today. Some call him a good teacher or a wise man, but few call him Lord. Most ignore him. He is a stone that God has put in the path of every person, meant to be the sure foundation that each one can build upon, but instead for most he is the stumbling stone over which they fall.

The foolishness of believers

The church took root and flourished among the unknown people. There were a few wealthy and influential persons, but most were poor and ordinary. Was this because the Gospel only appeals to the down and out? No, it was because God cares for all people, because he has compassion on those the world disregards, and it was to demonstrate the power of God’s word rather than the influence of men. The last became first, and those the world counted as mighty were shown to be powerless.

The foolishness of the Apostles

Paul called himself a fool for Christ, and his life was full of poverty and hardship. He said that even though the Gospel was advancing he and the other Apostles were still considered the scum of the earth. Yet he pressed on for the sake of the high calling and in order to bear many children in the Spirit. His foolish way of life was meant to be an example which his children should imitate.

The wisdom of the world

The so-called wisdom of the world does not lead men to God, and therefore it is ultimately foolish. Such wisdom is focused on the natural, material world rather than spiritual realities. It deals with the earth, not heaven. It cares about the present, not eternity. James says it is demonic.

The wisdom of God

God’s wisdom was secret, hidden from the world. He planned from before time and creation to reconcile the world to himself through his son, but the world couldn’t see his plan. Only those who were filled with the Holy Spirit could understand the salvation provided by Jesus. The natural man doesn’t accept or understand the things of God and they are foolishness to him.

The wisdom of Christ

Jesus Christ is the wisdom of God. He is the word, God’s wisdom in written or spoken form. He is the life, wisdom revealed in action. He is the light, wisdom guiding us through the darkness. The mind of Christ is the fullness of God’s wisdom, and through the Spirit we share Christ’s thoughts, his mind.

The challenge for believers is to forsake worldly wisdom and human power. We must become fools in order to become wise. We must preach a foolish gospel in order to save the lost. We must take on the mind of Christ though the world scorns him. We must imitate the foolishness of Paul so that we can become spiritual parents to a new generation of believers. If we do these things, even though we are nothing, the power of God will accomplish great things.

In 1 Corinthians 2:14 Paul speaks of the man who is psuchikos (Greek #5591). He is the man who lives as if there was nothing beyond physical life and there were no needs other than material needs, whose values are all physical and material. A man like that cannot understand spiritual things. A man who thinks that nothing is more important than the satisfaction of the sex urge cannot understand the meaning of chastity; a man who ranks the amassing of material things as the supreme end of life cannot understand generosity; and a man who has never a thought beyond this world cannot understand the things of God. To him they look mere foolishness. No man need be like this; but if he stifles “the immortal longings” that are in his soul he may make himself like this so that the Spirit of God will speak and he will not hear. It is easy to become so involved in the world that there exists nothing beyond it. We must pray to have the mind of Christ, for only when he dwells within us are we safe from the encroaching invasion of the demands of material things. – William Barclay

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A tale of two Christians: Romans 14

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Today’s reading: Romans 14-16.

“How can Christians deal with their differences?”

The grace of God through Jesus Christ imparts a tremendous freedom to believers: freedom from slavery to sin, freedom to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, and freedom from the laws of the old covenant. There are also dangers in this freedom, including the dangers that believers will abuse their freedom by indulging in sin, and that conflict will arise between those who grasp the extent of their freedom by greater and lesser degrees.

Imagine two believers – Broad Bill and Narrow Nell. Bill and Nell agree on all the fundamentals of the faith including the infallibility of the Bible, the doctrine of the trinity, and salvation by faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection. But Bill takes a broader, more liberal view of the freedoms available to Christians while Nell accepts a narrower, more restrictive view of what believers can do. Bill does not require tithing while Nell insists on it. He sees no problem in sprinkling for baptism but she believes in dunking. He says there is no sin in drinking alcohol; she requires total abstinence. The list goes on, and varies from one generation to another. Thankfully, Romans lays down two principles that can help limit these conflicts in every generation.

The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. Romans 14: 3-4

Don’t condemn your brother over differing beliefs. There are areas where believers disagree and both are within God’s will. These disputable areas in Paul’s day included eating certain foods (such as those sacrificed to idols), drinking alcohol, and observing holy days. One believer may observe more of these prohibitions or practices; another may observe fewer or none. Neither should look down on or condemn the other.

  • Whatever you do, be convinced in your own faith that it is the correct thing to do.
  • Whatever you do, do it unto the Lord.
  • Don’t condemn your brother in the faith for these disputable matters. Instead, let each one give an account to God

As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died. Romans 14: 14-15

Don’t make your brother stumble over differing beliefs. In this situation one believer has more restrictions on what he or she considers permissible. The believer who has fewer restrictions should not do anything to weaken the faith of the one with more restrictions. The freer Christian should not use his freedom to weaken the faith of the less free believer.

  • No food is unclean of itself, but some believers may consider it unclean.
  • Act from love; don’t do anything to distress your brother who believes differently than you.
  • Restrain your freedom if necessary to keep your brother from stumbling.
  • Let each person act from faith.

In both these situations Paul urges us to act from faith. Whether you act from a more liberal or a more restrictive view, it should be based on faith. Each one should respect the other’s faith and leave it to God to approve or censure his servant.

If we must judge, certainly it should not be those who are linked to us by the ties of spiritual relationship. Are not all Believers one family in Christ? Wherever the root of the matter is to be found, there exists an overwhelming argument for undying unity. Why, then, will you take your Brother by the throat and drag him before your judgment seat and make him answer to you, Brother to Brother, and then condemn him? Shall a Brother in Christ condemn a Brother in Christ? When the outside world censures Christians, we understand it, for they hated our Master and they will hate us. But inside the charmed circle of Christian communion there should be esteem for one another, a defending of each other—we should be anxious to apologize for infirmity than to discover imperfection! Far be it from us to find flaws where they do not exist! – Charles Spurgeon

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