Why should I pay attention to a book written two to 3000 years ago? How could somebody writing 2000 some years ago be relevant to me today? After all, times have changed, have they not? Things are new and different. How could it possibly be relevant to me?
I would like to suggest that if I were to pick, possibly, the part of Scripture that I think is most relevant to our society and the church today, I might well pick the book to Corinth, the letter that Paul wrote to the Corinthians. Ironically, what we call First Corinthians is at least Second Corinthians. We have evidence that there was at least one previous letter he sent and we’re picking up in the middle of an exchange here as we get to these two books.
But to tell you why I think these books are so relevant to us today we want to take a quick look at what Corinth was like. Corinth was a wealthy city. They gained their wealth by their location. Greece comes down to a little isthmus 4 and a half miles wide and then you have this big, almost island attached to the end of it. And so as shipping tended to follow the coastline to get over to Rome, you had to go around that big bulbous end of Greece, and the Corinthians had figured out that it costs a whale of a ton less to portage stuff across the 4 and a half miles to a different shipping company and let them finish the journey. By portaging standards they were making a killing because they knew they could gouge you for the portage and still undercut the cost of going around. So we have a culture of cutthroat, even scamming business, because of the transitional nature of your clientele, you could rip them off and by the time they are a day or 2 out on a ship and can’t turn back then they discover they’ve been had.
So between cutthroat, scam, greed, they were a rich lot which led to two things. One, conspicuous consumption. More than any other city of it’s era, Corinthians liked to show off their wealth with opulent, flashy lifestyles. If ever there were a culture for the McMansion, that was it. Secondly, with all this cutthroat business they sometimes catch each other and they were noted for their litigation, going to court. Sound just a little bit familiar.
In addition to a culture of greed and opulence and litigation, they were a sexually licentious lot. First of all, temple prostitution was very large scale in that city. One temple alone, the temple of Apollo, had over 1000 prostitutes in just one temple. In addition, common prostitution was also rampant in such a transient population to the point that around the Roman empire prostitutes were often dubbed, Corinthian girls. So it had a reputation of being a highly sexually active licentious atmosphere. Again sounds strangely familiar to our own society.
Furthermore with the great tide of business and businessmen and so forth ebbing and flowing through the city they prided themselves in their cosmopolitan tolerance of many cultures. It was a cultural melting pot and everybody lives and let lives and they were particularly proud of the difficulty of being shocked. They took everything in stride as a new experience. Very postmodern that way, and as a result there was a strong flavor of individualism in the city. “I can do it my way. I can do what I want. My rights. Me. Me. Me.” Sounds nothing like western society of today, does it? So perhaps Paul’s address to this church is more relevant than we think.
The result was, that as we read Paul's letters to Corinth and to the church in Corinth in particular here, we discover that the characteristics of society have infused themselves to become characteristics of the Church, and Paul is writing to the church to combat and confront these characteristics. So for example, we see evidence of the conspicuous consumption mentality in the church in several regards. The overarching way was an abuse of Christian freedom. They took the concept of Christian freedom and they took it to excess in their conspicuous consumption of it. So in chapter 5 we have a case of incest where a man is sleeping with his father's wife, his stepmother, in a conjugal relationship, and Paul says even pagans don't tolerate this. The church had become so open-minded their brains had fallen out, and they’d stopped thinking. They took freedom to such an excess that they were violating pagan standards of decency and respectability.
In the next chapter, in the last half of chapter 6, they are so free in Christ that they apparently have a number of people openly patronizing prostitutes and Paul has to work through a theology of why you ought not to be patronizing prostitutes. And this was a letter read to the whole Church. Not a hidden problem. They're so free in Christ that they're tolerating everything.
And when it came to spiritual gifts, particularly tongues, again they were the conspicuous consumer. Chapter 14, they get going in tongues and everybody's talking at once and it's a bedlam and he says an outsider’s going to come in and they're going to think you're nuts. Again so free in Christ that basic social standards of decorum and decency are being steamrolled in the name of Christian freedom. Quite a church. Yet he addressed them as the saints who are in Corinth. Sometimes the saints aren’t very saintly, are they?
And then we have the individualism. The first four chapters of First Corinthians Paul is addressing the factions. “I follow Paul.” “I follow Apollos.” “I follow Peter.” “I follow Christ.“. And he says, when you do that you're acting like carnal Christians. He actually quite insults them. After leading them to think that they’re better than the highest product of human culture he then tells them, “You're not even as good as them. You're down here at the lowest level. You’re carnal, fleshy, driven by desire. You're not reasonable people.”
This factionizing bleeds over in Chapter 11 to their celebration of the Lord's supper where they apparently huddle up to eat the meal in their little cliques. You’ve got the Paul group over here apparently, and the Peter group over here, and the Christ group over here and so forth, and apparently some of these groups are more affluent because they're having a feast and getting drunk at the Lord's supper, while the other one is starving to death. They don’t even have food. And he says, “You’re so selfish and individualistic that you don't help those who don't have food to have some food so they can have the feast, and by the way if you’re that hungry eat at home first so that you can keep things in order.” The excessiveness and the self-centeredness of Corinth had become part of the character of the church and instead of the church transforming society, society was transforming the church. We don't have that problem today, do we? A little more relevant than maybe we would like to admit.
In addition, this individualism comes out in chapter 6 in the first part with the lawsuits. Christians are suing each other in pagan courts. Trying to get what they believe they are legally entitled to. Fighting for their rights, and Paul says when you do that it brings dishonor on the name of Christ and on the church in a hostile, pagan world. But they're not worried about that. They're worried about what I'm rightfully entitled to and I'm going to make you give it to me.
This individualism comes to a peak for Paul's development in the eighth, ninth and 10th chapters of First Corinthians and that's where I'd like to focus my attention for a little while.
The issue here is food offered to idols, and in chapter 8 Paul frames the problem. Now before we get to this problem, we have to remember that a few years earlier we have the Jerusalem Council that met over circumcision and out of that counsel, recorded in Acts 15, a letter was sent out to all the churches giving the General Conference policy, so to speak, we were not going to make Gentiles be circumcised but they were to avoid idols, not to worship idols, not to eat food offered to idols, suggesting in the context that you don’t participate in the covenant meals where the food is offered to the idol and avoid sexual immorality and don’t eat food strangled and with blood. That was the instruction. With the possible exception of the strangling and the blood, the Corinthians are “O” for everything. Right? We’ve got prostituting in the church, sleeping around in the church and apparently they are going to the pagan temples and participating in the idol feasts.
So Paul begins to introduce this topic and by reading Paul we can deduce that there was maybe a double edged sword on food offered to idols. One, is it okay in Christian freedom to go up to the pagan temple and eat the food being offered to the idol, and two, everybody knew that these temples had excess sacrifice and one of the ways they helped fund their operation was they sold the leftover sacrifices to the meat market. So was there a moral issue to buying meat in the meat market away from the temple that had been offered to an idol and bring it home and eat it? And we apparently have some people who feel that eating the meat market meat was wrong if it had been a former sacrifice, and we have some who say, “No! It's in the meat market, it’s not an issue.”
So Paul begins to address this issue starting with a slogan. Chapter 8, verse one. “Now concerning food offered to idols we know that,” and the next phrase is probably a Corinthian slogan. “All of us possess knowledge.” We're all informed. We’re not the ignorant masses, so therefore we have this great liberty because we’re intelligent, informed people, you see. Knowledge puffs up, but agape builds up. We don't have time to develop this one, but agape he's going to come back to in chapter 13, right? So knowledge puffs up, love builds up. Verse 4, “Hence as to the eating of food offered to idols we know that quote an idol has no real existence.” Probably another slogan, “and that quote there is no God but one. Now although there may be many so-called gods on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is one God, the Father from Whom all things are and for Whom all things exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ through Whom are all things and through Whom we exist. However not all possess this knowledge. Some, through being hitherto accustomed to idols, eat food as really offered to an idol and their conscience being weak is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we don't eat, no better off if we do. Only take care.” Now we get to the core. “Only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow becomes a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you, a man of knowledge, at table in an idol’s temple might not he be encouraged if his conscience as weak, to eat food offered to idols and so by your knowledge this weak man is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against” Whom? Christ.
Here we have a group of people who say, “Well, idols are phony baloney. There’s only one real God and so I can go up and eat in the devil’s feast. It's meaningless. I'm just getting a free meal.” Paul says some people aren’t going to understand that technicality and you're going to lead them to spiritual ruin. What's his implication then about using your liberty? Best to restrict your liberty, not to destroy the weak brother, right?
Yes, and that's what he says in verse 13. He establishes a moral principle. “Therefore if food is a cause of my brother’s failing, I will never eat meat lest I cause my brother to fall.” Paul says if this food offered to idols issue is going to make my brother fall I'll go vegetarian and not even eat any meat. Even though I'm free to eat it, I'm not going to eat it if I fear and have reason that it's going to cause someone spiritual damage. He introduces here a principle, that even though you have the right to something or the liberty to something, you'll see what the exercise of your liberty does to others, that may call you to renounce self and self-restrict for the sake of those others. Whoa. Fighting words today, is that not?
This is a principle that Paul introduced without development in the lawsuit issue if you flip back to chapter 6. His first counter to the lawsuits in verse two and three is we’re going to judge angels, presumably in the millennium, so since we’re going to judge angels we ought to be competent to judge little cases like this now, but you're going to law before unbelievers and that's shameful. It's bringing reproach on the body of Christ and on the name of Christ. Verse seven. “To have lawsuits at all with one another is defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong?” Why not rather be defrauded?
Paul says there's a bigger issue than a legal settlement. What is your lawsuit going to do to the body of Christ? What is it going to do to shame it and dishonor it and dishonor Christ? Better to suffer being defrauded by a church member than to take it to court in a world hostile to Christianity and give them a bad impression of who we are. Better to suffer and eat the loss in order not to bring disrepute on the name of Christ. Don't exercise your liberty and your right. Look at the bigger picture.
Paul comes back to this principle now with food offered to idols. That when you exercise your freedom in Christ in an unbridled way, you are going to damage someone else and their soul and their salvation, and that is sinning against Christ, therefore you need to self-restrict your liberty and your rights for the sake of a bigger issue.
Paul now develops this idea in Chapter 9 by using himself and Barnabas as an example. He's arguing, starting in verse 3 in particular, he’s arguing that he and Barnabas have a right to be paid for doing gospel work. They should not have to work with her own hands to generate their own income and then do their work for the church voluntarily. “This is my defense,” verse three, ”to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to our food and drink? Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife as other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas, or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living. Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any fruit.” Verse 8. “Do I say this on human authority? Does not the law say the same, for it is written in the Law of Moses, ’You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.’” Even the ox has a share. Right? Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Probably best understood, is it only about oxen God is concerned, cause He clearly was concerned for the ox. Paul’s point is God is not merely concerned about oxen, He’s concerned about humans. “Does He not speak entirely for our sake. It was written for our sake because the plowman should plow in hope, the thresher should thresh in hope,” etc. etc. Verse 12. “If others share this rightful claim upon you, do not we still the more?” Skip to verse 13. “Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple and those that serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings. In the same way the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the Gospel should get their living by the Gospel.”
Paul sets forth a legal case that he has a right to get his salary paid by the Corinthian church. And Barnabas. The other apostles are getting paid. “Are we the only ones who don't have this right?” Remember he's working as a tent maker here, right? The point is like the Corinthians, he has established, I have the right to something and I could demand my rights, but now we come to the close of verse 12. “Nevertheless we have not made use of this right but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the Gospel of Christ.” Verse 15. “But I have made no use of any of these rights nor am I writing this to secure any such provision, for I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground of boasting.”
And if we come down to verse 18, Paul makes a play on concepts. Almost a pun here. “What then is my reward?” In other words, I'm preaching the Gospel and not charging you. I'm doing it free. “Just this, that in my preaching I may make the Gospel free of charge, not making full use of my rights in the Gospel.”
You catch the play. What's the Gospel about? It's about God giving us something without charge. And Paul says I'm not claiming my rights to be paid by you so I can give you the message of God's free gift freely, without charge. And he says, “I am not exercising my rights because I don't want to hinder the Gospel of Christ.”
How is it that Paul’s taking a salary would hinder the Gospel of Christ? I can only suggest that being in cutthroat Corinth where everybody is scamming and doing all sorts of stuff to make a quick buck, I would expect that a new preacher coming in and trying to launch a new religion would be suspected that he's in it to make himself rich, and to avoid any appearance of that, Paul says, “I'm not taking a dime from you guys.” Second Corinthians he says, “I took money from Macedonia but I'm not taking any from you because I don't want you to think I'm here for the wrong reasons.” There was a higher issue than Paul's personal rights, and he relinquished those rights and did not enforce them, voluntarily to accomplish a higher purpose.
This is a moral governing principle for Christian lifestyle for Paul. From whence does he get it? If we go to Second Corinthians 8 Paul hits them again in a very pithy way with this principle and where he's getting it from. Verse 9. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich yet for your sake he became” what? “Poor. So that by his poverty you might become rich.” Paul looked to the example of Jesus. God in the flesh, and many a scholar has recognized this one verse as summarizing the great Cadosus passage in Philippians 2. “Have this mind in yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God did not count it robbery to be equal with God.” Christ recognized who He was. He had the right to claim equality with God. He had the right to divine prerogatives and privileges because He was God, right? But this God saw a bigger need and so it continues, “He emptied Himself of all those rights and privileges and He takes on the rights and privileges of a servant, and being found in human form He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”
For Paul, Christ as God demonstrated that God does not operate on a basis of self interest. He sacrifices His own rights and self-interest in order to accomplish a bigger redemptive purpose, and He did it voluntarily in the person of Jesus Christ. In like manner then, Paul says, we need to follow Jesus in voluntarily self-restraining and self-restricting and not fighting for every one of our rights in order to accomplish a higher purpose involving the body and not just me.
So he reminds them in Chapter 10 of First Corinthians, at the very end, that when you go to someone's home to eat, don't worry about if it was offered to idols or not, but if somebody brings it up than you self-restrict for their sake and you don't exercise your liberty and your right for their sake. And he closes it by saying, “Whatsoever you eat or drink or whatsoever you do, do all to” what? What does it mean to do all to God's glory? It means that in eating and drinking and other parts of our lifestyle, that we consider the impact of what we are doing and if it's going to damage someone else, particularly spiritually, we glorify God by self-restricting and not doing it!
Relevant message for today? How different would families be if husband and wife learned to self-restrict for the higher good of the family? Parent/child. Parent self-restrict for the higher good of the family. I may have the right to do something. I may have the capacity to do something. I may have the freedom to do something, but I recognize it's going to bring dysfunction to my family or to my church. I am called to follow Christ in self-emptying, self-restriction, and to consider the impact of my liberty on others. This is an ethics for lifestyle based in the example of Christ that Paul calls the Corinthian church to implement as a daily governing principle, starting with food offered to idols and going into the worship service to bring order in the chaos of the tongues and for the man to stop sleeping with his stepmother, etc. etc. etc..
The Gospel calls us to self-denial beyond mere tit for tat bargaining, to actually be willing to sacrifice even our rights and privileges if it helps accomplish a more noble purpose. May God bless us as we wrestle with how to apply this moral principle in our lives. Let's sing about it with Not I But Christ in our closing hymn.
Oh Lord Jesus. Help us learn to empty ourselves as You did for us. To think about the good of the body and not just ourselves. Help us be like Jesus, in Whose name we pray. Amen.
Hymn of Praise: #70, Praise Ye the Father Scripture: 1 Corinthians 9:8-12 Hymn of Response: #570, Not I, But Christ
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Sermon at McDonald Road transcribed by Steve Foster 4/3/10