The most obscene act Christians can perform is to fight over which of them is most righteous. Unfortunately, that act is all too common in Christendom.
Even Christians tire of it. That’s why many of them would rather be in the company of their pagan friends than their brethren in Christ. Well . . . that’s one reason anyway. Another reason might be they themselves have more in common with the pagans than with their brethren – but that’s a subject for another day.
This fight in the Galatian churches had pitted brother against brother. Paul accused them of “biting and devouring one another” (5:15). This, he maintains in the Galatian letter, is not Christianity; it’s not what it means to be led by the Spirit of God. That leading will result in love, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control. Christians following the Spirit will watch out for one another and do good to one another. Christians seeking their own agenda are destined to be destroyed.
It was true then. It remains true now.
The book of Galatians is the earliest letter we have from Paul. It was written on his second missionary journey, probably from Corinth, and addresses Christians in the cities of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe in Asia Minor. Galatians is also the book theologians most often go to when opposing “legalism” in Christianity.
“Legalism” is a “quid pro quo” religion that says if you keep the commands, God owes you blessing. Two items are significant in this thinking: First, that God’s blessing is “up to you.” Second, is that you can put God in your debt by the way you live.
A “quid pro quo” religion is easy if you define the commands narrowly: do you go to church on Sunday? Are you faithful to your spouse? Do you tell the truth? If we could narrow the important commands to these, we’d be good.
In Galatia, the commands had been narrowed to three: keeping certain religious holidays, observing Jewish dietary laws, and practicing circumcision. These had been staples in the Jewish faith for a long time and since Christianity grew out of Judaism, the carryover was obvious. By doing these three, you certified you were one of God’s people, you “observed the law” and God owed you blessing.
But that, of course, left out faith. It also left out holy living.
“If I love you more, will you love me less?”
If you’ve ever had your heart broken, you can know how Paul feels when he writes 2 Corinthians 12. In all probability, Paul spent more time on, with, and in the Corinthian church then he did with anyone else. He visited them repeatedly (chapter 13 mentions three visits).
And yet, for all the love he showered on them, their affection lay elsewhere.
I’m reminded a bit of Hosea in the Old Testament who, despite his undying love for his wife, found her constantly seeking affection in the arms of other men.
For the Corinthians, the “man of God” was a show boat, someone who would compliment them, perform for them, tell them what they wanted to hear, and be forever in their debt. Paul however rather acted like a parent who took his job seriously – and he regarded the Corinthian Christians as his children.
To keep the peace, Paul might have decided to simply bypass Corinth and let someone else deal with them. But while Christianity is to be characterized by peace and unity, it is also to be characterized by a changed life with a value system more in keeping with that of God than that of the world. As a preacher, Paul is in the life changing business and his mandate is to cultivate that change in the lives of others.
Preachers must speak the truth of God. It won’t always be popular. We must make sure that the words we speak are accompanied by a love that can be seen by those who hear us – a love for them expressed not just in words – in fact, perhaps seldom in words – but in how we treat our listeners. We must also make sure that we are sufficiently independent that we are never tempted to temper the message of God to fit the mold of worldly Christians – even if they are leaders in the Lord’s church – in order to make our own ends meet. Sometimes, rather than leave where he isn’t wanted, the preacher must stay and use the whip God has given him to effect the change God wants (1 Corinthians 4:21). I can’t imagine that when Paul arrived in Corinth and found the church worldly and unrepentant that he just let it go. On the other hand, he did eventually move on – but probably with a heart still broken.
“Too much talk and not enough action” is a line from an old Paul Revere and the Raiders song about things not going right in the world and why that is. The line always come to mind when I read 2 Corinthians 9.
For over a year, Paul has been planning and encouraging Christians in Greece and Asia Minor to take up a relief collection for their poor brethren in Judea. He has had two goals in mind: first, of course, he wants to relieve the suffering of the brethren there. But second, he hopes to create a bond between the two groups: Jews and Gentiles. His hope is that Jewish Christians will praise God for the obedience that accompanies the gentiles confession of the gospel of Christ (9:13).
The Corinthians seemed eager to jump on the bandwagon. But alas, there has been “too much talk and not enough action.” From each contributing congregation, Paul is also calling for them to send a representative of their church to accompany their contribution to the congregation in Jerusalem. His concern is that the little group will get to Corinth and there will have been no contribution. So . . . he’s sending some representatives early to make sure things go right. This is the practical part of this chapter.
But there is an instructive part. First, a principal from scripture: when it comes to helping the poor, God has high regard for those who give generously (see Proverbs 11:24-25; 22:9 and Deuteronomy 15:7-10). Second, to be generous toward the needy is to adopt the attitude of God (compare verse 9 with Psalm 112:9). Third, Paul suggests a reason God blesses generously is so that the recipients of His blessings can likewise be generous. Finally, he writes that when we are generous with the needy, it results in thanksgiving to God.
The child of God is an heir of God. We should act like the wealthy people we really are.
2 Corinthians 6:14 – 18 is often applied by Christian interpreters to marriage: Christians should not marry non-Christians. But before you accept that view, there are some things to consider:
First, Paul is adamant about whatever he means by being “yoked together” with unbelievers. He says “don’t do it,” and if you have done it, separate!
Second, the Corinthian church did have members who were married to non-Christians. And yet, when Paul specifically addresses these religiously mixed marriages, he specifically forbids a Christian to divorce the non-Christian spouse (1 Corinthians 7:12-13).
So what are we to make of this?
We should make of it that Paul is not specifically addressing the business of marriage in 2 Corinthians 6. Rather, he has in mind general relationships (business, social) that might cause a Christian to compromise their faith because of the relationship.
But isn’t this precisely what marriage with non-Christians does?
Yes, but my point is that Paul does not specifically have this relationship in mind. Perhaps the best thing we can get from this relative to marriage is that the spiritual dimension ought to be considered when looking for a life-partner. To leave out how such a relationship might affect your life with God – not even give it a moment’s notice – is unspiritual and short-sighted.
On the other hand, there are plenty of other relationships in life with the pagan world that challenge our spirituality. Consider our occupation, perhaps the second greatest challenge to spirituality. Few people, when considering a job, will ask how this might affect their walk with the Lord – and that ought to be the first question we ask.
That we know of, no church gave Paul more trouble than the one at Corinth. Largely, this was because of its worldliness. Though Paul had brought the gospel to them and established the congregation there, and though they owed their relationship to Christ to Paul, many in the congregation regarded him as unworthy of either their support or cooperation. He didn’t fit their image of success.
It boggled Paul’s mind.
The modern response would have been to write them off as a group, cut out the members who were still loyal to Paul, and establish another “faithful” congregation across town.
It is not how Jesus would have done it, and it is not how Paul did it. No matter how they acted, the Corinthians were God’s people and the Spirit of God dwelt in them. Jesus suffered for them. Following Jesus’ example, Paul could do no less.
At the end of chapter two, he introduces a figure he will return to twice more in this book: that of the suffering servant. He pictures Jesus as a successful Roman general, triumphing over his enemies. His triumph results in others’ loss. They become his captives. Some will see it as the dawn of a new and better day. Others will see it as the death of hope. But all are his captives.
These Corinthian Christians, focused on worldly success, are also Christ’s captives. They can see themselves as they see Paul, or they can see themselves as Paul sees himself. Either way, they are still Christ’s captives.
How do you see yourself as Christ’s captive? It will largely determine how you respond to Jesus: either with joy and service . . . or regret and disobedience.
Poverty among the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and Judea was a big concern for Paul. He’d been asked by the Jerusalem leadership some time before not to forget their poor. Paul came on the idea of soliciting a collection among gentile churches for poor Jewish Christians. He believed this would cement a bond between Jews and gentiles.
As this letter to the Corinthians closes, he references his previous directives for the contribution again. It won’t do a lot of good. He will have to remind them again of it in the second Corinthian letter. All of this comes at the end of his third missionary journey. As Luke recounts in the book of Acts, there appears to be no contribution from Corinth to the Jerusalem church.
There is another issue in this closing chapter. Paul is concerned how Timothy will be treated by the Corinthian brethren. He is also concerned that faithful brethren in the Corinthian church who are well known for their devotion to the cause of Christ might also be mistreated. And so it goes. Christian people ought to respect one another because they are disciples of the Lord. But there should be greater recognition and higher regard for those who have quite obviously devoted themselves to the service of the Lord by serving His people. The problem was in Corinth, and even today, that many Christians want respect and recognition they do not deserve and resent others who have set a better example. This is not the way things ought to be. Though the collection mentioned in this chapter gets more air time among expositors, it is this latter matter of respect that occupies Paul’s greater attention as this letter comes to a close. I’ve seen wonderful servants of the Lord vilified by petty Christians who simply resent the notion that anyone would be honored above themselves. Church leaders, in an effort to calm these troubled waters seldom tell the petty what they need to hear: That they should hush, repent, and try to better emulate the lives of their exemplary brethren.
In a way, 1 Corinthains 8 – 10 and 11 – 14 are about the same thing: how we treat one another. Chapters 8 – 10 have to do with how we treat one another in our daily lives. Chapters 11 – 14 have to do with how we treat one another in worship.
Chapter 11 spoke to the matter of men and women sharing the same roles in the assembly, then to the procedure of observing the Lord’s Supper while remembering that none of us is an island; God has made us a body. Chapter 12 extends this discussion into the exercise of spiritual gifts, remembering that whatever gifts we have are not to exalt ourselves, but for the benefit of all. Chapter 13 drives home the abiding principle that should guide all our dealings with one another: love.
In chapter 14, Paul proposes practical solutions to the exercise of spiritual gifts. First, that exercise should be for the benefit of others. Second, there should be order in the Christian assembly. Not everyone gets to speak at any one gathering. Third, disruptions should not be tolerated.
It’s along this last line Paul makes a comment about women speaking in the assembly. The idea is not that they should not speak (for he has already allowed it in 1 Corinthians 11), but that they should not interrupt. This kind of speaking is simply not allowed. Paul is very specific here. The idea context is the notion of “interrupting,” the asking of a question. There is a place for asking questions. Our modern Bible classes encourage that and the passage is not dealing with that scenario. The passage is dealing with presentations much like our sermons, where interruptions are properly considered rude and inappropriate.
I doubt any Christian in my home country ever thinks about whether it is appropriate to eat food sacrificed to idols. Idolatry, at least of the sort Paul has in mind here, never intrudes into our daily lives. We are not, however, the only Christians and for many in the world, this is a very relevant issue.
The over-all point Paul makes is indeed a matter all the Church should take seriously.
Paul has asserted that idols are nothing and the gods they represent are nothing. Some Christians realize this and therefore eating meat sacrificed to idols means nothing to them. But, Paul says, not everyone, even in the Church, feels this way. To eat meat offered to idols might, by your example, actually promote idolatry among those people (chapter 8). In Chapter 9, Paul says that care and concern for your brethren is more important than personal feelings, and we should do whatever will help them and not hinder their spiritual growth. In Chapter 10, Paul deals with this in a practical way. First, even if we discount the viability of idolatry, you don’t want to be too accepting of it. The next thing you know, you will be enmeshed in its rituals. Second, though we may not believe in other gods, our participation in their rituals indicates to others that we do believe – a notion we must not perpetuate. So, third, eat what’s put in front of you and don’t ask any questions. But if it becomes known that the meat is connected with idolatry, refuse it. You don’t want to give the false impression.
The point for us moderns is that we do have to care about where our behavior leads other people. While food offered to idols might not be part of our experiences, the notion of putting the welfare of others above our own certainly should be a part of our practices.
So which is it: Is there one God, or are there many gods?
In the Old Testament, the Bible presumes there are many gods. The Lord says: “You will have no other gods before me.” That would seem to presume that other gods actually existed. Paul, here in chapter eight, after affirming there is but one God, goes on to say there are many gods – though he classifies them as “so-called” gods. Paul refers to “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). But the point is, next to the God of the Old Testament, these are no gods at all.
Since they are nothing, what’s the harm in offering a sacrifice to them?
Paul says the harm comes when someone who believes in these gods sees you offering a sacrifice and concludes that Christianity is a fairly tolerant and accepting religion; it doesn’t matter what you believe, Christians can have it both ways. This, Paul says, simply won’t wash. It makes Christianity less than it really is.
There are some things that are critical to our faith. The notion there is only one God is one of those things. The critical things cannot be compromised, and one’s behavior should not lead an onlooker to think that it can.