Click for source

Galatians 1:1-10; 2:11-21

What do we consider beyond the pale?  What behaviour or what belief is out of bounds? How does a group or individual prove themselves to be completely unacceptable?

In this context we might say that so and so or such and such is “anathema.”

It might be as trivial as the way a Mac user considers PCs.  It might be as serious as the way a pacifist considers torture.  But they will label these things “anathema.”

It’s an untranslated Greek word which literally means, ‘something that is placed or set up.’  In some circumstances it means a gift – perhaps a sacrificial offering.  But in other contexts it means something set apart as cursed.  That’s the meaning it has for us today.

So what do you consider to be “anathema”?  What would you guess is the King James Bible’s one great “anathema”?

Perhaps we immediately think of behaviours.  Perhaps we immediately think of certain heretical doctrines?  What is it that the Bible rules out of court so emphatically?

Well look at how the Apostle Paul uses the term:

“If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema. Maranatha.”  (1 Corinthians 16:22)

Here are two untranslated words – “Anathema” is Greek, “Maranatha” is Aramaic (it means “Come O Lord”).  Between them we see the depths and the heights of his feelings regarding Christ.  Paul can think of no greater blasphemy than a loveless heart towards Jesus.  And he can think of no greater comfort than the second coming of this Lord who he loves.

When the Lord Jesus does come again, there will be one issue which faces the world.  None of our many sins will be held against us (2 Corinthians 5:19).  We won’t be able to hide behind our goodness or our badness.  It’s Christ Himself who confronts us and the only question will be “Do you have love for Him who has loved you so extravagantly?”

If we have no love for Jesus we are anathema!  The universe was created by Jesus and for Jesus (Colossians 1:16).  If we too are not for Jesus we are completely out of place.  We are violating the very nature of reality.  We are cutting against the grain of the cosmos.  We do not belong.  We are anathema.  What place can there be at the Bridegroom’s feast for those who do not love the Bridegroom?

This is the one anathema of the King James Bible.  (The Greek word is used elsewhere, but here is the only place the Authorised Version leaves it untranslated).  Yet the great anathema does not regard bad behaviour or bad belief but a bad heart towards the Lord Jesus.  This is the issue for that day when the Lord returns.  But it’s also the issue for this day.

We can make life very complicated.  Right now, dozens of priorities will be jostling for precedence in your heart.  But Paul wants to simplify things for us.  Before all else, look to Christ.  Before you look to your deeds or your creeds, it’s the receiving of Christ Himself that matters.  Know in your heart that Jesus has loved you and given Himself for you (Galatians 2:20). His posture towards you is arms-wide-open.  Do you have love for the Lord Jesus Christ?  Look to Him again, today and every day.  Such a look to Jesus is the very stuff of life, now and forever.

A thorn in my flesh

Click for source

2 Corinthians 12:1-21

Difficult people, chronic illness, vocal opposition, disability, bureaucrats in your way – all sorts of long-term problems might be called “a thorn in your flesh.”

Ever since the curse was pronounced in Eden, thorns have tormented us:

“Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee.”  (Genesis 3:17-18)

Notice that the thorns are “to thee.”  Like razor wire pointed at man, the thorns are directed at us.  They are designed to make life painful for us. The world is rigged for frustration and the thorns press into our flesh.

In particular, “thorns in your side” is an Old Testament euphemism for foreign enemies (e.g. Numbers 33:55; Judges 2:3).  Israel sits among  the surrounding nations like a lily among thorns (Song 2:2).  True prophets of the LORD are not to be put off by the thorns that encompass them (Ezekiel 2:6), they must continue to hold out the word of the LORD.  Unfortunately Israel does not heed those words.  Israel itself starts being fruitless and begins to produce thorns (Isaiah 5:1-6).  In the end thorns are good for nothing – they will be burned up (Isaiah 9:18; Hebrews 6:8).  Yet in the ultimate act of redemption, Christ wears thorns as a crown in order to exhaust the curse in Himself.  His resurrection future will be a time when thorns and briers are replaced by fruitful trees (Isaiah 55:13).

With this background we come to our phrase for today.  Paul is writing 2 Corinthians 12.  Here he continues his subversion of the boasting carried on by the false apostles. Where they boasted in their strength, Paul boasts in his weaknesses.  Where they recount their fabulous spiritual experiences, Paul is remarkably circumspect about his own.

Yet he does allow himself one oblique reference, here in 2 Corinthians 12. Doubtless Paul refers to himself here, but he distances himself from the experience so much that he recounts it in the third person:

“I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord.  I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.  And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell:  God knoweth;)  How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.  Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities.  For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth:  but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me.  And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.  For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.”  (2 Corinthians 12:1-8)

Many have speculated about what this thorn might have been for Paul. Perhaps it was a physical infirmity, specifically his eyes (Galatians 4:13-15; cf. Numbers 33:55).  Perhaps it was a person or particular sect (note how Scripture describes human enemies as ‘thorns in your side’ – Judges 2:3; Numbers 33:55).  Perhaps it was a particularly strong and enduring spiritual attack (note how Paul calls it ‘the messenger of Satan.’)  But whatever it was, Paul was not able to be free of it.  In fact, no matter how he begged Jesus, Jesus would not remove it.

I wonder if our theology of suffering can handle that.  Are we able to cope with the fact that, often, Jesus does not remove thorns which torment and buffet us?

Sometimes people quote Isaiah 53:5 – “with his stripes we are healed” – and they say ‘All healing was purchased at the cross, therefore all healing is available now, we just need to believe for it.’  But of course that is faulty theology.  It is true that Christ’s cross and resurrection purchased all healing.  It also purchased a deathless eternity.  But we don’t enjoy that yet.  And Jesus is not committed to prolonging the old world – the cursed creation, doomed in Adam.  Jesus is committed to putting that to death and rising up a healed world on the other side of the grave.

Sometime Jesus may choose to heal as a token of that new creation life. But that’s not His ultimate commitment for this perishing age.  Jesus will not remove all our suffering.  And He will not continue to prolong our old lives in these Adamic bodies.  Praise God for that!  Our hope does not lie in mini-healings and mini-deliverances now.  Our hope is not for a present papering-over-the-cracks.  Our hope lies in cosmic resurrection when the thorns will be replaced by fir trees (Isaiah 55:13).

In the meantime thorns will buffet us.  We should pray, as Paul does, for deliverance from them.  Ask, seek and knock for such a healing .  But no matter what Christ’s answer, here is the heart of His word to you today:

“My grace is sufficient for thee:  for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”  (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Anyone can bear a miracle to the world as evidence of Christ’s grace.  Paul bears his suffering to the world.  And this is the perfect display of Christ’s strength.  When His grace sustains the sufferer, it is a remarkable show of divine power.  Not the power that teleports us out of trouble, but the power that sustains us through it.  Christ’s strength is a cross-shaped strength.

So Paul concludes…

“Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake:  for when I am weak, then am I strong.”  (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

Suffer fools gladly

Click for source

2 Corinthians 11:1-33

“He didn’t suffer fools gladly” reads the obituary… “Cantankerous old grouch” we imagine…  Or at least I do.  I might be wrong in the particulars, but that’s how I read the phrase in general.

No-one ever does suffer fools gladly.  We are only told when someone definitely does not.  And since, generally, no-one seems to have any patience for fools, the person who is said ‘not to suffer fools gladly’ must be very irritable indeed.  We can imagine that, in this person’s company, it is the fools that do the suffering.  And not gladly.

So perhaps we think that the Christian response is that we should suffer fools gladly.  Perhaps this biblical phrase arose as an exhortation to bear with fools with infinite patience.

Well there is something very Christ-like in that practice.  Jesus put up with a lot of folly – mainly from His nearest and dearest.  We can think of Mark chapter 10 where He has just described the agony and sacrifice of the cross which is before Him (v32-34).  Instantly James and John ask Him for glory – they want cabinet posts in the coming kingdom (v35-41). It is such a vulgar and stupid request, especially with the prediction of Golgotha still hanging in the air.  If Jesus “didn’t suffer fools gladly” we would now get to see James and John put in their place.

But how does Jesus respond?  He calls them all together and, with great patience, tells them again of His servant-hearted love (v42-45).  That is to be their model.  Not worldly power-grabs.

Jesus does suffer fools gladly.  And through His glad-hearted patience He teaches fools that they might cease to be fools.  How astonishing!  Here is the one Man who does suffer fools gladly.

But that is not what the Bible exhorts us towards with the phrase “suffer fools gladly.”  St Paul, who coined the term, does not put himself in the shoes of the patient sufferer.  In this phrase, Paul is the fool.

In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul is concerned about the Corinthian church.  They are putting up with (i.e. “suffering”) the ministry of false apostles (v13). Such false apostles expected generous payments while they boasted of their accomplishments and great giftings.  On the other hand Paul expected nothing, nor did he boast about his own service or experiences. But in order to make his point, Paul decides that boasting is the order of the day.  Therefore he will make his own boasts to the Corinthians, but they are nothing like the boasts of the false apostles:

“Seeing that many glory after the flesh, I will glory also.  For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise.  For ye suffer, if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take of you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face.”  (2 Corinthians 11:18-20)

There are fools that we should not suffer gladly.  They are called false teachers.  And we should not tolerate them.  Yet Paul says that a curious thing has been happening in Corinth.  They have suffered to have slave-drivers among them, bringing them into bondage through their false gospels.  Paul is amazed.  And so he seeks to shock them out of their complacency by subverting the boasts of the false apostles.  He speaks as a fool (v21).  In other words he uses the rhetoric of the foolish false teachers, but his message is very different:

“Are they Hebrews?  so am I.  Are they Israelites?  so am I.  Are they the seed of Abraham?  so am I.  Are they ministers of Christ?  (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft.  Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one.  Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.  Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches.  Who is weak, and I am not weak?  who is offended, and I burn not?  If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.”  (2 Corinthians 11:22-30)

Paul’s boast is that he is vastly less prosperous, less healthy, less settled and less respectable than all the false teachers they have been entertaining! He boasts in his weakness because this is the mark of an authentic follower of Christ.

If Paul is forced into the foolish game of listing his resume, he will “glory of the things which concern [his] infirmities.”  If the Corinthians suffer those proud fools – the false apostles, Paul hopes they will suffer him – a humble fool for Christ.

Today, if someone “doesn’t suffer fools gladly”, it’s usually because they consider themselves to be above the fools.  Paul puts himself beneath the fools and begs for the sufferance of the “wise ones”!

In this way he resembles his Lord who could easily have cast away fools like us.  Instead Jesus humbles Himself beneath our folly – subverting it with His own up-side-down glory.  Jesus became a fool on the cross, and His weakness became His glory.

So the question is, Will we be impatient with the folly and weakness of the cross?  Or will we suffer His kind of folly gladly?

“We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.  Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”  (1 Corinthians 1:23-25)

The letter of the law

Click for source

2 Corinthians 3:1-18

–  The fat-cat who exploits every tax loop-hole imaginable…

–  The hospital which lets pedantic box-ticking get in the way of patient-care…

–  The cricketer whose legal ploy is nonetheless “not cricket” (New Zealanders will never forgive Australians for this one! )…

In all these cases we’d say they obeyed the letter of the law but not the spirit.

2 Corinthians 3 seems to be the origin of the phrase.  But perhaps even earlier, Christ’s dealings with the Pharisees speak to this theme…

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith:  these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”  (Matthew 23:23)

These people are fastidious about certain aspects of the law – the parts that are most easily and visibly fulfilled.  But they have no concern for “the weightier matters.”  The law is concerned with justice, mercy and faith, yet these are too costly and hidden for the Pharisees.  Jesus doesn’t use the phrase but we might say that they obey the letter but not the spirit of the law. Yet it’s in 2 Corinthians 3 that Paul speaks particularly of the letter of the law.

“[We are] ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit:  for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”   (2 Corinthians 3:6)

The letter sets out the expectations of the law.  And we’re not meant to bemoan its requirements as petty.  The law is glorious (v9-10).  Yet its effect on us law-breakers is death.

Sometimes I will listen to a sermon that “lays down the law” and then overhear congregation members saying to the preacher “You really stepped on our toes this morning.”

The kind of Christian life preached here is one in which the law inconveniences.  It may even wound or weigh down.  Yet, fundamentally, I am left alive and kicking.  And after my wounding I am resolved to grit my teeth and try harder.  Thus I leave church feeling ‘challenged’, ‘rebuked’ and ‘determined to lift my game.’

Yet, according to the Bible, the purpose of the ‘letter’ is not to step on our toes.  It is to kill! The old covenant was a “ministration of death” (v7).  We don’t simply feel inconvenienced by the letter of the law.  We are slain by the glorious law of life which uncovers and judges us.  There is no realm of self-respect left by which we pull ourselves together and get back in the game.  No, we are obliterated by the law – that is its purpose.

Therefore what is our hope?  Well our hope can’t come from ourselves. And it can’t come from the law either.  It’s interesting that Paul does not contrast the letter with the spirit of the law.  Instead he contrasts it with the Spirit of the LORD (v16, 17).  That’s a vital difference.

Paul does not preach against literalistic fulfilment of the law only to endorse another kind of legalism!  He doesn’t say “don’t get hung up on details, just obey the vibe.”  No, we look away from the law to another Source of life.  The Spirit we are to receive is the Spirit of Christ – He is the One who fulfils the law.  And He brings life where the letter brought only death.

If you want deep and abiding change in the Christian life, don’t gaze at yourself.  Don’t gaze at the law.  Don’t even gaze at the spirit of the law.  Gaze at Christ Himself.

We are not simply to be wounded by the law.  Allow yourself to be slain by the letter.  And allow the Spirit to direct you to the true Source of your Christian life:  Jesus

“We all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.”  (2 Corinthians 3:18)

O death where is thy sting?

Click for source

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

Click for source

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

Click for source

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

Click for source

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

Click for source

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

Click for source

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…