O death where is thy sting?

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1 Corinthians 15:1-58

When Monty Python’s Life of Brian came out 30 years ago it caused a tremendous stir.

Now there are definitely reasons to object to the film.  But we should not object simply because the film makes fun of religious people.  Jesus made fun of religious people.  Constantly.  (e.g. The Mote and the Beam or Straining at a gnat).

No the problem with the Life of Brian is not that it is a comedy.  Its biggest problem is that it’s not a comedy.  It is, finally, a complete tragedy.  Its hero – Brian – is crucified and there is no rescue, no resurrection.  Just a catchy song whistled from the cross…

Always look on the bright side of death,
just before you draw your terminal breath…

Life is quite absurd
And death’s the final word…

You’ll see it’s all a show,
keep ‘em laughing as you go,
just remember that the last laugh is on you…

There’s the old saying:  “Whoever laughs last, laughs loudest.”  Well here’s the gospel according to Monty Python – death has the last laugh.  And if that’s true, all comedy is black comedy.  All humour is gallows humour.  It’s about whistling through the graveyard to keep up your spirits.  But life itself is not a comedy.  Life is a tragedy and, if we can, we grab a few moments of joy while we await the inevitable.

Yet Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 has good news for us.  Brian may have perished, but Christ rose again from the dead.  And in the twinkling of an eye He will return to apply that resurrection power to the whole universe.

Which means that death does not have the last laugh.  No, the Christian – even as they await their own certain death – can laugh at the grave.

“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”  (1 Corinthians 15:55)

This is incredible cheek.  Death has conquered every human who has ever lived.  The grave swallows us all.  We don’t have a hope in the world, and yet, here is the most audacious taunt.  It’s like David against Goliath, gloating about a victory that seems impossible.  How can Paul speak like this?

Well he continues:

“The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  (1 Corinthians 15:56-57)

The victory doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to Jesus.  He has submitted to death, pushed on through the grave and out the other side into immortal life.  He has drawn the sting of death and risen again as the Firstfruits of a bumper crop of resurrection.  When we are united to Jesus we share in both His death and His risen life.

Yes we will enter death.  But the sting is drawn by Christ.  For us it will not be the curse of godforsakenness.  For us it will be ‘falling asleep in Jesus.’  And death will not have the last word.  It does not have the victory – Christ does.

We must ask ourselves – what story do we inhabit?  Is this a tragedy where death laughs at us?  Or do we live in a cosmic comedy where we laugh at death?

Incredibly it’s the latter.  We don’t cower before death.  We don’t make a few nervous jokes in the face of the inevitable.  We can look death square in the eye and laugh at it.  Life is a glorious and eternal comedy.  And all’s well that ends well.

“Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  (1 Corinthians 15:57)

In the twinkling of an eye

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1 Corinthians 15:1-58

What have been the decisive moments in your life?  Can you pinpoint certain choices or “chance encounters” that have shaped your destiny?  One single piece of news, good or bad, can change everything.  Sometimes our whole world can turn “in the twinkling of an eye.”

When the Apostle Paul coined this phrase, he had an even bigger change in mind.  Not just our world, but the world will change…

“in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye… the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”  (1 Corinthians 15:52)

Paul is talking about something absolutely cosmic.  The dead will be raised, the curse will be abolished, the whole universe will be renewed.  All “in the twinkling of an eye.”  How can he be so sure?  How can we?

Paul’s story

Paul started out as a renowned Jewish scholar.  He knew the Hebrew Scriptures (what we might call “the Old Testament”) inside-out.  And he’d heard about these Christians claiming to have found the Messiah.  They maintained that His name was Jesus, that He died not long ago in Jerusalem and that He rose again from the dead, just as the Scriptures predicted.

But for whatever reason, Paul did not believe them.  In fact he made it his life’s mission to eradicate these Christians and their subversive claims.  He was on his way to Damascus to destroy some more churches when he had the original “Damascus road experience.”  He met the risen Jesus.  This was Paul’s life changing moment.  Suddenly he realized that Jesus was the long-promised Messiah, that He had died for our sins and He had risen from the dead.  The rest of his life was dedicated to spreading this good news.

He planted churches all around the eastern half of the Mediterranean and his letters to the churches make up half the books of the New Testament.  The one we’re considering now (First Corinthians) is probably the earliest letter we have from him.

In it Paul lays out the facts…

…that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen…  (1 Corinthians 15:3-5)

Paul was one of those who had seen the risen Jesus.  But there were also more than 500 other eye-witnesses to Christ.  They had seen Him after death and before He returned to heaven.

And so Paul proclaims this good news: Jesus, the Messiah, has gone through death – the death that we deserve for our sins.  But, just as the bible had always promised, He has come out the other side into immortal, bodily, resurrection life.

Perhaps though you’re thinking – what does this have to do with the world changing “in the twinkling of an eye”?

Christ’s Resurrection – the World’s Resurrection

Here is Paul’s logic:  Since Jesus rose from death, all things will be raised.

Why should that be?  Because Jesus is the “firstfruits” of a bumper crop:

Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept [i.e. “have died”].  (1 Corinthians 15:20)

You might wonder what “firstfruits” are.  If a farmer wanted to know the quality of his future harvest, he would sample the “firstfruits.”  These were the parts of the crop that ripened first and gave an indication of what was to come.  If the firstfruits were poor, the harvest would be poor.  If the firstfruits were good, the harvest would be good.

Well Jesus was planted into the ground on Good Friday and He sprouted up renewed on Easter Sunday.  He then appeared to hundreds of people as the firstfruits of a cosmic crop.  He displayed the quality of the coming harvest, walking with them, talking with them, cooking for them, eating and drinking with them.  All who saw Him were awed and overjoyed.  In all He did He showed them the kind of resurrection life that He had pioneered.  This is what the whole world can look forward to: walking, talking, eating, drinking, communal, joyful, eternal, bodily life, with Jesus at the centre.

Just like a needle pierces through black cloth and comes out the other side, so Jesus passed through death and into immortality.  But for “those who belong to Him” (1 Corinthians 15:23) we will be pulled through like thread.  Jesus, was the first to come through death, but He guarantees a future beyond death for all who are united to Him.

Yesterday, Today and Forever

On Easter Sunday the world changed forever.  But it changed in microcosm.  Jesus rose up new at the Head of His world, the Firstfruits of a cosmic crop.

Today, those who trust in Jesus become united to Him.  Right now believers share spiritually in His new life.  We have His Spirit and His promise of an eternal, physical future.

But, in the twinkling of an eye, Jesus will return from heaven to earth.  On that day He will apply His resurrection power to the whole world.  And those who trust Him will share physically in His new life.

How do you handle the subject of death?  Do you live in denial?  Live in fear?  Live for now?  Jesus gives us another way.  He has blazed a trail through death and says to all who trust Him:

“Because I live, ye shall live also.”  (John 14:19)

Faith, hope and love

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1 Corinthians 13:1-14:5

Heaven is a world of love.  So said Jonathan Edwards in a famous sermon by that title.  His text was our verse for today:

“And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”  (1 Corinthians 13:13)

It’s a trio that Paul uses often in his letters to describe the Christian life. Here he names the greatest of them.  “Love” is what will characterise the world to come more than anything else.  And so verse 13 brings this chapter full circle.  Paul began by berating the Corinthians for their neglect of love.  As we saw, they held up the ecstatic worshipper, the profound prophet and the stoic do-gooder, as their models of true spirituality.  But Paul maintains that none of these mean anything without love.

He concludes by looking to the future and judging our present priorities in that light.  If heaven is a world of love, how can we claim to be heavenly and yet loveless?  And when we know that a heaven of love is coming, how can we spend our time investing in gifts and outwards performances?

As he says from verse 8:

“Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.  For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.  But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.”  (1 Corinthians 13:8-10)

Gifts are like a torchlight.  A torchlight in the dark is useful.  But at noon, blazing sunshine swallows up the torchlight.  In the same way, we are heading towards something so glorious that it swallows up our paltry gifts.  Even the most dazzling and impressive gift today will be utterly obsolete when Christ’s future comes to pass.

Can any of us imagine being face to face with Jesus and saying:  Hey Jesus, watch me speak in tongues!  Hey Jesus, let me tell you my wisdom!  Hey Jesus, listen to me preach! No.  We will shut our mouths.  And we will gaze – face to face.

The life to come is a world of love.  Allow Jonathan Edwards’ description to whet your appetite:

“Love is always a sweet principle; and especially divine love.  This, even on earth, is a spring of sweetness; but in heaven it shall become a stream, a river, an ocean!  All shall stand about the God of glory, who is the great fountain of love, opening, as it were, their very souls to be filled with those effusions of love that are poured forth from His fullness, just as the flowers on the earth, in the bright and joyous days of spring, open their bosoms to the sun, to be filled with His light and warmth, and to flourish in beauty and fragrancy under His cheering rays.

“…And thus they will love, and reign in love… and thus in the full sunlight of the throne, enraptured with joys that are forever increasing, and yet forever full, they shall live and reign with God and Christ forever and ever!”  From “Heaven, A World of Love

We have seen the future.  And the future is love.  Therefore let us not be dazzled by the torchlights of our paltry gifts and performances.  Instead let us live in the sunshine.  And let us pass it on.

At the end of the day only love counts.

Now we see through a glass darkly

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1 Corinthians 13:1-13

How would you compare life now to life when Jesus returns?

So often we think of ‘the here and now’ as the concrete reality and Christ’s future as an ephemeral, ‘wafty’ hope.  Paul thought of things precisely the other way around.

In the final paragraph of First Corinthians 13, Paul addresses our future hope.  When compared to life in the presence of Jesus, it’s our present experiences that are insubstantial:

“Charity never faileth:  but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.  For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.  But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.  When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.  For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face:  now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”  (1 Corinthians 13:8-12)

Paul uses three illustrations to compare ‘now’ and ‘then’.

In verse 10 he calls the future:  ‘perfection.’  It’s the idea of everything brought to the goal for which it was designed.  Right now all things are subjected to frustration.  But then, our bodies will work the way they were meant to work.  Relationships will work the way they are meant to work. The world will work the way it’s meant to work.  Perfection.  You are built for it.  It is coming.

Verse 11 describes our future as ‘maturity.’  Paul says, we are like children now.  Even the wisest and most knowledgeable among us are like babbling toddlers compared to our wisdom and maturity then.

In chapter 15 Paul will tell us that we are like seeds that die, go into the ground and rise up again.  When we rise we will be immeasurably more glorious than how we have gone down.  Now we are acorns.  Then we will be oaks.  We will grow up in every dimension. Maturity beyond our wildest dreams.

And then verse 12 we see the heart of our future:  ‘Face to face’.

We’ve thought before about ‘face to face’ with Jesus.  It’s about closeness, transparency,  openness, adoration, intimacy.  Right now “we see through a glass darkly”.  We see Christ, but it’s frustratingly indistinct. We have foretastes of paradise but they are a poor reflection.

We readily think that now we experience life in technicolor.  We can only imagine an after-life in shades of grey.  Paul says no.  Right now it’s like wearing a greased-up pair of sunglasses.  Everything now is indistinct and shadowy.  When Christ returns we will do life in High Definition.  And what we will see is not just beauty – we will see Jesus.  That is the heart of our future hope.

Every kiss you have ever desired, every affirmation you have ever craved, every relationship you have ever wanted, every success you have ever pursued, every longing you have ever felt is like seeing ‘through a glass darkly.’  Yet one day such desires will be met and surpassed.  Life will begin when you are face to face with Jesus.

Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things

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1 Corinthians 13:1-13

First Corinthians 13 is dynamite.  It explodes every myth humanity has ever bought about spirituality.

As we saw last time, Paul holds out three models of super-spirituality:  the ecstatic worshipper, the profound prophet and the stoic do-gooder.  And he then detonates a bomb under each of them.  None of these super-saints are anything if they don’t have love.  Love is the source and substance of the Christian life.

Well then, what is this love of which Paul speaks?  In the second paragraph (verses 4-8), we will see that the love we must have is completely beyond us!

“Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.  Charity never faileth.”  (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

In verse 4 we read that love “suffereth long and is kind.”  That’s an amazing combination.  Some of us can do grim-faced patience… but it’s not kind.  Some of us can do superficial sweetness… but it’s short-lived.  Can you do longsuffering and kindness?  Together?

Patience is a key element to the love Paul speaks of.  He begins this paragraph with it and also ends with it:  “Charity never faileth.”

Love puts up with constant frustration, constant interruption, constant set-back, constant opposition.  But in the midst of all that:  Love never fails.

I sometimes think I’m loving – until someone asks of me just one thing too many.  Or I’m serving one person, and suddenly another need comes from elsewhere.  At that point, I’m tempted to snap at them:  “Go away!  Don’t you realise I’m being loving over here?!”

Then in verse 4 Paul begins speaking of what love is not.  And of course everything that love is not, the Corinthians are.  Paul knows that the Corinthians are envying, boastful, puffed up, etc, etc.  And, if we’re honest, so are we.

We manage both to envy and to vaunt (verse 4).  It should be impossible to be both, but somehow we manage it!  We have feelings of inferiority and superiority simultaneously.  We are able to think both:  “I’m better than everyone” and at the same time think “It’s not fair, I wish I was like them!”

And this is the polar opposite of love.  Love is so consumed with the other person it is simply not interested in inferiority or superiority.  Love doesn’t think more of yourself, or less of itself, it just thinks of itself less! When love is flourishing, vaunting and envy are non-issues.  But vaunting and envy are huge issues for us, so what does that say about us?

Verse 5 speaks of not being easily provoked.  How do we fare at that one?

We all think we’re easy-going until we’re wronged.  Then we see just how self-seeking we are.  We snap, we’re rude, we get angry and we keep score.  That’s what we’re like.  What would it be like to never be rude, never self-seeking, not easily angered, to never keep a record of wrong or bear a grudge.  That’s what love is.

How do you compare to verse 6?  Do you ever wish evil on your opponents?  Do you ever wish you could bend or hide or side-line the truth because it’s inconvenient?  Love never does that.

And what about verse 7 – our famous saying for today?  It’s a lovely sentiment isn’t it.  Love “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.”  Wonderful!  But do you?  Do you bear, believe, hope and endure through all times and in all circumstances?  Be honest!

Love does.

I don’t.

But this puts us onto something vital in this chapter.  Consider the way Paul is describing love.

Superficially, it may look like ‘charity’ is an abstract noun with a lot of adjectives attached.  But look again.

“Charity” here is a concrete, living thing that performs certain actions.  Love is a power with a life of its own.  Love is a Person.

But He’s not you.  And He’s not me.  So who is He?

The night before Jesus died, He entered a garden called Gethsemane and agonized in prayer.  His soul was overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.  He was sweating blood as He faced the prospect of the cross.  It was, for Jesus, a cup of suffering too terrible to contemplate.  And yet if He did not drink down the furious anger of God, we would have to.  The dilemma was this – either Jesus goes to hell or we do.  And in that garden Jesus said ‘Let it be me.’

You see, “Jesus suffereth long, He is kind; He envieth not; He vaunteth not Himself.  He is not puffed up.  Christ doth not behave Himself unseemly, He seeketh not His own, is not easily provoked, and thinketh no evil.  Our Lord rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;  He beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.  Jesus never faileth.”

We often think of the question ‘What is love?’  Perhaps a better question is:  Who is love?

Love is a Person.  A Person who first has loved you.

1 John 4:19 sums up an absolutely fundamental bible truth:  “We love God because He first loved us.”  Love is a Person, who has acted for you.  He has done verses 4-7 for you.  Therefore we are on the receiving end of this love.

Love is first something done to you.  And then love is something done in … and through you.

That’s why verses 1-3 talk about having love or not having love.  It’s one or the other.  Do you have love or don’t you?  That’s the big question for Paul.  He does not ask:  How loving are you on a scale of 1-10?  Paul’s interest – the Holy Spirit’s interest – is in one thing:  Do you have Love?  There is a Person called Love, His name is Jesus and He has loved you incredibly.

Do you have Love?

A faith that can move mountains

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1 Corinthians 12:1-13:3

Together with the 23rd Psalm, and perhaps John chapter 1, First Corinthians 13 is among the most popular chapters in the Bible.  It is read at weddings and at funerals, at state ceremonies, hospital bedsides, school assemblies.  It is the go-to Scripture for any and every occasion.  It is often simply known as St Paul’s “love chapter”.  And people think of it as a kind of Scriptural bubble-bath – warm and soothing and inoffensive.

In fact, it’s nothing of the sort!  When the Corinthians read this portion of Paul’s letter, they would have been devastated, angered, rebuked and only then comforted.  For the Corinthians – and for us when we’ve read it properly – this chapter is nothing like a bubble-bath.  It’s more like a scalding hot bath full of antiseptic!  It exposes our cuts and bruises.  1 Corinthians 13 hurts.

In its first paragraph (verses 1-3) it revolutionises our thinking.  In its second paragraph (verses 4-7) it strips us bare.  Only in the final paragraph (verses 8-13) are we given hope.

Today let’s look at this first paragraph:

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.  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, and have not charity, I am nothing.  And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.”  (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

The Corinthians thought of themselves as very spiritual.  They loved supernatural signs, hidden wisdom, ecstatic encounters, incommunicable mysteries, uncontrollable experiences.  But Paul will say in this chapter that such ‘spirituality’ is utterly bankrupt without love (or charity as the KJV perhaps unhelpfully has rendered it).  He dreams up the most spiritually gifted people imaginable only to say that such people are nothing without love.

In verse 1 we meet the ecstatic worshipper.  He speaks in indecipherable languages and everyone is very impressed.  Except God. To God it’s like a “sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.”  All noise and no love.  Here is an empty spirituality – self-focused, proud and loveless.

In verse 2 we have another spiritual caricature – the profound prophet. The kind of person who sweeps up into the pulpit and knows Greek and Hebrew and they can quote Augustine in Latin and give examples from Homer the poet and Homer the Simpson.

In addition, this person has incredible leadership skills.  That’s what it means to have ‘a faith that can move mountains’.  Here is a leader that can inspire and direct people towards a goal.  The leader sees the potential, trusts that it’s the way forward and they can motivate many to share in the vision.  Their faith moves mountains.

We are mightily impressed by the profound prophet – a spiritual leader with intelligence and authority.  But, again, God is not impressed.  If such a person has not love they are nothing.  They are a spiritual zero.  They do not show up on Jesus’ radar screen.

Paul’s teaching here is dynamite.  What he is saying is this:  there are gifted leaders in Christian ministry who are not Christians.  They are nothing. They have the gifts of the Spirit but not the Spirit Himself.  Without love, gifts mean nothing.

Now do you start to see why this chapter is not a bubble-bath?  It is profoundly disturbing.  Paul is saying that people can exercise incredible gifts within the church yet not actually belong to Jesus.  (Of course Jesus says the same thing in Matthew 7:21-23).  How do we respond to this?

Well perhaps we think, ‘I know what Paul is saying:  We need to stop investing in the flashy super-natural gifts and get on with sacrificial service.’  Is that it?  No, he’s not saying that either.  Look at verse 3…

In verse 3 we see another caricature:  the stoic do-gooder.  Paul imagines this no-nonsense servant giving away everything – even their very life – ostensibly in the cause of the kingdom.  And yet, it’s possible to do all this without love.  There is loveless sacrifice. (That’s why ‘charity’ is a poor translation.  Charitable works are not the point at all, it’s love that counts).

Love is not simply a ‘decision of the will.’  Love is not reducible to acts of service.  You can choose to do outwardly loving things and still not have love.

And what do you get for it?  Nothing.  Again, this kind of spiritual person does not show up on God’s radar.

How do you picture a properly spiritual person?  What is it to be a Christian who is really ‘going for it’?  Some of us will picture the ecstatic worshipper, some of us will picture the profound prophet, some of us will picture the stoic-do-gooder.  Paul says we are all wrong.  All of those people – even if they are incredibly gifted at what they are doing – have missed the point entirely.  The point is love.

Do you see how absolutely necessary love is?  Not groovy experiences, not profound thoughts, not busy service – actual love. Love for Jesus and love for others.  Love is the source and substance of the Christian life.  Without it we are not even Christians.

When someone asks you how you are going in the Christian life, how do you tend to answer?  Some will speak of their experiences, some of their gifted ministry, some of their sacrificial service, but those are not true barometers of our spiritual life.  Those things are not connected to the state of our soul.  Such gifts and performances might be in over-drive and yet we have missed the main thing.  Is the love of Jesus in you?  And does it come out of you?  Those are the questions we should be asking.

This chapter is not a bubble-bath.  It’s a deeply uncomfortable antiseptic bath and it exposes all sorts of wounds.  But in future posts we will see healing too…

All things to all men

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1 Corinthians 9:1-27

When we hear the phrase we think of two-faced gossips, slick marketing men or political spin doctors.  Actually Paul is speaking about a ministry philosophy of deep integrity.  He’s talking about a flexibility that seeks to honour something far deeper than cultural expressions.

In 1 Corinthians 9 the Apostle is laying bare his modus operandi.  He is discussing how it is that he can move so freely from one culture to the next – from stern religionists in the synagogue, to free-thinking philosophers at the Areopagus, to the common people in the market-place.  In every situation he adopts cultural practices that are appropriate. Why?  Is he a people-pleasing chameleon?  Does he not know who he is? Actually it’s because he does know his true identity that Paul is so able to adapt.  Because he belongs to Christ he is free from the claims of culture. Yet, being free, he uses it to serve:

“Though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more.  And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law.  To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak:  I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”  (1 Corinthians 9:19-22)

Let me ask you a question:  What does a Christian look like?

The scandal is – everyone knows what a Christian looks like:  Ned Flanders.  Christians look white, middle-class, suburban, university educated, sanctimonius and deeply irritating.  Of course statistically that’s nonsense.  Within my own denomination – Anglicanism – the average worshipper is a 20-something Nigerian woman who has to travel more than 2 miles to get clean water.  But nonetheless, the stereotype persists. And it’s a scandal because the gospel stands above culture.

You actually can’t answer the question “What does a Christian look like?” You might ask “What does a Christian act like?”  But you’d get the answer “Jesus.”  More specifically, “The Jesus who hung out with prostitutes, publicans and sinners, even as he mingles with Pharisees and preaches in the synagogue.”  You see Jesus was all things to all men that some might be saved.  His people follow suit.

That doesn’t mean we are all spin and no substance.  Even when Paul enters deeply into another culture there is still something ruling Paul.  In verse 21 he says he’s not free from God’s law but he uses a wonderful phrase to describe his relationship to Christ.  The Greek could literally be translated: “I am in-lawed by Christ.”  Not that Christ is like the in-laws – that would not be good!  It’s the idea of Paul sunk down into Christ. Christ is Paul’s law.  Christ Himself is the ruling authority in Paul’s life – Christ has en-law-ed Paul.

So Paul has not just cast off every rule and authority.  He is ruled, he has a centre, he has integrity.  It’s Jesus.

Which means Paul could never say ‘I became a drug dealer in order to win drug dealers.’   ‘I became a drug user to win drug users.’  Or ‘I became sex worker to win sex workers.’  But it will mean some people saying ‘I hang out with drug dealers and drug users to win drug dealers and drug users.’  ‘I hang out with sex workers to win sex workers.’

But why?  Why go through all of this?  It’s so much easier to stick with people like us.

We strongly we gravitate towards ‘people like us’.  When we’ve walked into a room we’ve assessed those present in a nanosecond.  Without even thinking about it, we strike up a conversation with people our age, our race, our tax bracket, our sense of humour, our fashion sense.  We’ve made those calculations at the speed of thought, and we slot instantly into cliques.  Because we crave acceptance, we deeply want to belong and it’s exhausting crossing social and cultural boundaries.

So how does Paul do it?  Well first he knows that he is unshakably one of the “in” crowd.  Paul uses the phase “in Christ” over 150 times in his letters.  It is the ultimate “inner ring” to belong to.  And Paul is constantly reminding himself and his readers that we are in with regards to the one club that really counts.  If the Father Almighty accepts us in the Beloved (Ephesians 1:6) we are free from the need for acceptance with others.

But more than this, in verse 23 Paul lets us in on his motivation: “this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.”

Paul does not want to enjoy the gospel on his own.  His vision of the future is to sit at Christ’s table with the religious and the irreligious, the moral and the immoral, the cultured Greeks and the Barbarians alike. With that goal in mind, Paul reaches out with a gospel that is big enough to meet and change anyone.

Who do you want to sit down with on that day?  Jesus has crossed the ultimate barriers to offer salvation to the world.  His blood has paid for every tribe, language, people and tongue.  Today we can join Him in reaching out.  Let us become all things to all men that by all means we might save some.

The time is short

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1 Corinthians 7:1-40

“I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.”

So said French mathematician and Christian thinker Blaise Pascal.  Therefore, said Pascal, we fill our lives with diversions so that we might distract ourselves from “our feeble and mortal condition.”

In other words, we humans are a restless bunch.  The married want to be single, the single want to be married.  One worker wants to be free of work, the unemployed man just wants a job.  We are forever looking ahead and thinking “if only”, or backwards and thinking “those were the days.”  We find it almost impossible to settle in the here and now.

The Corinthians were no different.  In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul addresses a restless church and his overwhelming message is “Stay put!”  And this was his message because these Christians were anything but content.

You see married people didn’t want to act married (v1-5); those married to unbelievers didn’t want to stick with their spouses (v10-16); single people didn’t want to be single (v6-9, 25-40); slaves didn’t want to remain in their duties (v20-24) and even the circumcised wanted to become uncircumcised (v17-19).  How restless do you have to be to want to alter your circumstances at that level.

But Paul’s message is emphatic:  Stay put!  It’s not a hard and fast rule. There are many examples within the chapter of people changing their life circumstances (e.g. v21 or v36).  But as a rule of thumb Paul says, Stay put where God has you.

He has three reasons for this:

First he says, “Remember your calling”

“As the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk.”   (1 Corinthians 7:17)

“Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called.”  (1 Corinthians 7:20)

“Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God.”  (1 Corinthians 7:24)

God has called you into fellowship with His Son, Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:9).  And, Corinthians, He’s done it while you have been in the midst of any and every circumstance.  Therefore your life situation is not the point. Fellowship with Jesus is the point.  And you can have that while married or single, slave or free, circumcised or uncircumcised.  If you’re not content in Christ then getting married/divorced or changing jobs won’t solve it.  There’s nothing in your circumstances you need to change.  Flee sin, but don’t flee your situation.

The second reason we should as a rule, stay put, is evangelism.  As we build up a witness in one station in life it can have a tremendous impact on those around us (e.g. v16).

Thirdly we should generally stay put because “the time is short.”

“But this I say, brethren, the time is short:  it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none; And they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; And they that use this world, as not abusing it:  for the fashion of this world passeth away.  But I would have you without carefulness.”  (1 Corinthians 7:29-32)

Paul is not advocating the abandonment of our marital and other duties (he does the very opposite in this chapter).  But he is saying:  Don’t live for your marriage.  Don’t live for the idea of getting married.  Don’t live for your job.  And don’t live for your kids.  Don’t live for that relationship.  Don’t live for that achievement or that possession or that feeling.  Live for that Day when everything you’ve lost will be more than made up for and when everyone you love will face Jesus.  Live for that Day because the time is short.

When we hear that “the time is short” we usually think “Yikes, I’d better run around and get as many experiences as I can.”  But that’s only because we think that our time to live is running out.  Paul is saying the opposite.  The way he thinks about it, time is short and then we will really live.  Not long now and we’ll inherit immortal bodies, explore a glorious new creation, be released from every burden and labour, and enjoy the ultimate marriage with Christ forever.  Not long now until life really begins.  The time in which you’re asked to stick at that difficult job, that difficult marriage, that difficult singleness, it’s only short.  Relatively speaking!

Are you restless in your work, your home, your marriage, your singleness? Do you peer over the fence with longing, thinking you’ll be happy if only you have that job, that relationship, that set of circumstances.  Those things will never satisfy.  We are not to set our hearts on them.

As we battle discontent, it may be that the Lord will bring us out of our current life circumstances.  But that is not our hope.  Instead, we seek to know Jesus in the place where we are.  We seek to witness to Him in the here and now.  And we take heart, the time is short: Soon and very soon, we are going to see the Lord!


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1 Corinthians 1:1-2:5

What would convince the world to believe in God?

I once asked an atheist the question:  “What would convince you to believe in God?”  He answered:

“Until god appears before me as a burning bush or I see his picture on the front of popular science magazines I will remain a non-believer.”

It strikes me that those two kinds of “evidence” represent the two kinds of ways the world looks for God.  We either want the miracle-encounter or we want the rational proof.  Both would be preferable, but usually people lean towards one kind of evidence or another.

Some of us say, “It doesn’t have to make sense to me but if God just showed up in awesome wonder, if He just demonstrated His supernatural powers in some out-of-this-world miracle, that would do it for me.”  Others would say, “I don’t need a burning bush, just show me the equations, take me through the logical arguments, give me the scientific proof, demonstrate that it’s reasonable, then I’ll believe.”

As Paul wrote to Christians in Corinth he recognised these two kinds of thinking.  He identified the “power” people with the Jews and the “wisdom” people with the Greeks.  This makes sense.  The Jews were a people with whom God had been very hands-on.  They were a people to whom God had shown up in mighty acts and so they were a people that came to expect miraculous signs.  On the other hand the Greeks had been left to piece things together from a distance.  They were used to trusting their own minds to reveal the truth.  Therefore, says Paul:

“The Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom.” (1 Corinthians 1:22)

Notice that both the “power” people and the “wisdom” people are making demands of God.  They are both saying to God, “These are the terms by which I am prepared to do business with you.”  Yet Paul says that God is in the business of frustrating all such demands.  He goes on…

“But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness.”  (1 Corinthians 1:23)

Here is the way God shows up:  In a world full of power-lovers and wisdom-seekers, He shows up on a cross.  It’s not the way anyone expected.  And it’s not the way anyone wants.  In fact it is scandalous to the world.

The word “stumblingblock” is a translation of the Greek work skandalon. It’s something that causes you to trip up.  But this is how God wants it. For a people looking up for signs in the sky, God wants a big rock laid in their path so that they stumble and fall.  For a people looking down into their microscopes or fine tuning their logical arguments, He confronts them, not with something obviously wiser, but with something blatantly foolish.

The miracle-lover is given weakness – a bloodied corpse on a cross.  The wisdom-seeker is given foolishness – a God who dies!  It is precisely what they didn’t want.  Yet it’s just what God wants preached.

Therefore those who preach Christ should be prepared to be scorned as the most frustrating, bemusing, scandalous, pathetic God-peddlers imaginable.  Christian preachers simply do not give people what they want.  They are forever laying before the world a giant stumblingblock.

But in the next verse, there’s a true miracle that can happen.

“But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.”  (1 Corinthians 1:24)

Here is the greatest miracle imaginable:  someone can stumble upon the cross and say:  “My Lord and My God!”  In amidst this perishing world, someone can see the perishing LORD and say, “There is God’s power and wisdom.”

Because it is powerful.  Immensely powerful.  Any old despot can rule over people.  What kind of strength does it take to serve beneath them?  Any old debater can out-argue another.  What kind of wisdom does it take to subvert every term of the discussion and turn the arguments right-side-up?  That’s what the cross does.  It shows a greater power and a deeper wisdom, not by agreeing with the world’s definitions but by revolutionising them.  As verse 25 says:

“Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

There is an incomparable wisdom and strength to the cross – death defeated through dying, the curse conquered through condemnation, the devil vanquished by losing, the Son glorified in shame.  It’s the wisdom that is not built upon human foundations, rather it undermines every human foundation.  It’s the strength that overpowers by surrender, disarming every show of earthly force.  When a person stumbles over the cross and sees it for its true wisdom and power, they are won by a very different God.

You see the living God can never be found by the earthly search for power and wisdom.  Because the living God is not a super-human.  He’s not like us just with a few more muscles or brain-cells.  But our sinful selves would love it if He were.  We have a lot invested in thinking of God as some super-despot.  In many ways, that would suit us just fine because then we’d be justified in seeking to be rid of Him.

One atheist told me he’d believe in God if He made the stars to spell out the ten commandments in the sky.  But what a dreadful god that would be!  Such a god simply stays at a distance, pulls off some magic tricks (that are no good to anyone), and is basically interested in making us behave.  If God were like that we’d have every reason to hate and run from Him.

But this is why it’s imperative to lay the stumblingblock in people’s way.  If natural man is seeking a god, it can only be an idol.  We must give them Christ crucified.  There on the cross is the living God – the God who does not stay at a distance, the God who does not glorify Himself with cheap magic tricks, the God who is not basically concerned with keeping us moral.  No, this God draws near.  This God stoops and serves and bleeds and dies.  And He does it not to enforce our goodness but to forgive our badness.

Never give people what they want.  Give them Christ crucified.  When they stumble over the cross they’ll see a God more wonderful than anything they’d imagined.

The powers that be

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Romans 13:1-14

Romans 13 has introduced two phrases to the world that seem to pull in different directions – at least in the way they are used.

On the one hand we have “the powers that be.”  We commonly use this phrase to describe nameless authorities handing down impersonal judgements:

–  “Apparently, in their infinite wisdom, the powers that be have decided to scrap the old policy…

Faceless bureaucrats or untouchable rulers are “the powers that be.”   They are undefined in number, but definitely more than one (it’s not “the power that is”!)  We feel like they are answerable to no-one.  They are the powers.   And they seem, immovably, to be so.  What is worse, Paul tells us to submit unquestioningly to them!

“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.  For there is no power but of God:  the powers that be are ordained of God.  Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God:  and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.  For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.  Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same.”  (Romans 13:1-3)

Here is proof that Paul sometimes uses “damnation” and “wrath” in temporal ways.  Governments might sentence you to prison, or even to execution, but they cannot sentence you to hell.  Nonetheless there is a temporal respect to be paid to temporal rulers who hold temporal powers of punishment over us.  And such an arrangement is not outside of God’s sovereignty – “the powers that be are ordained of God!”

Oh dear – we might think – is Paul giving carte blanche to despots everywhere?  Is he putting the seal of God’s authority onto every tyranny that asserts itself?

Well consider the other influence Romans 13 has had on our language. Paul continues…

“For he is the minister of God to thee for good.  But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain:  for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.  Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.  For for this cause pay ye tribute also:  for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.  Render therefore to all their dues:  tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.”  (Romans 13:4-7)

The true status of a ruler is “minister”, i.e. “servant”.  In the West we are used to considering our politicians as “ministers” and our chief ruler as Prime Minister.  But such thinking should not be taken for granted – it is a deeply Christian conviction.  There’s nothing obvious about considering a ruler to be a servant and in non-Christian cultures the people have suffered for it.

And so Romans 13 actually provides a profound challenge to the powers that be.  They are not ultimate powers at all.  They are servants in the truest sense, and servants with a strictly limited scope – to execute temporal judgements on wrong-doers.   There is an honour to be given them, but an honour in proportion to what is “due”.

Thus the citizen reading Romans 13 is challenged to look beyond temporal rulers to God and His sovereign ordination.  They are to render what is due to rulers, and not because they agree with them.  In all likelihood the ruler on the throne as Paul wrote this was Nero!  Yet even with such a despot, Paul calls them to live peaceably.  As he writes in 1 Timothy 2:

“I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.  For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

The truly revolutionary work, at which Christians should labour, is prayer and evangelism (notice how closely the peaceable life is linked to God’s desire for salvation to spread).  This is the work of the kingdom that outlasts all the powers that be.  That should be our focus.

But for the rulers reading Romans 13 there is also great challenge.  They are not to “lord it over” the people.  They are to be servants.  Because all rulers must take their cue from the King of kings:

“Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them.  But so shall it not be among you:  but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister:  And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.  For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  (Mark 10:42-45)