Someday our children will ask, “What’s a letter?” Texts and emails have taken over. When we used to write letters, we would often end them with a few “loose ends” and personal greetings. That’s what Paul did at the end of 1 Corinthians.
“Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. Do everything in love” (16:13,14).
“Be on your guard” (or, “Be watchful”) against what? Preaching that favors eloquence over substance, that elevates human “wisdom” over the cross’ power . . .
“For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, less the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart’” (1:17-19).
To be watchful and stand firm in “the faith” (that is, the gospel) requires courage and strength. This is because new ideas are attractive and appear “progressive”. To “ask for the ancient paths” and to “walk in them” (Jeremiah 6:16) is to be out of touch with the “new thing” whose newness makes it better. The faith “once for all delivered to the saints” must be contended for (Jude 1:3).
But, urges Paul, stand guard with courage, stand strong in the faith “in love.” If the church contends for gospel truth with rancor and enmity, we have defeated ourselves and shamed our Lord. We can be good at obeying Paul’s first four imperatives and lousy at love. That’s especially ironic, because the gospel is “the word of the cross” which, in itself, calls us to humble, sacrificial love.
While the faith must be held firmly, it also must be lived out—which brings us to . . .
A MODEL CHURCH FAMILY
“You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints. I urge you, brothers, to submit to such as these and to everyone who joins in the work, and labors at it. I was glad when Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus arrived, because they have supplied what was lacking from you. For they refreshed my spirit and yours also. Such men deserve recognition” (16:15-18).
Stephanas’ family put into practice the doctrinal centrality of the cross by devoting themselves “to the service (Greek, diakonos) of the saints” (believers sanctified in Christ). In other words, they didn’t pride themselves on doctrinal purity, but put it in action. Paul urges the church to follow their example (“submit to”) and wants them to be honored.
“ . . . what was lacking from you” probably means these three men provided representative personal contact with the church. Paul has had no personal contact with the Corinthians for some time.
Churches need families like Stephanas’. Vital “service of the saints” by ordinary saints is lost when we professionalize ministry by hiring large paid staffs. I get how busy everyone is these days (despite all our modern conveniences!); but it seems to me smaller churches with more “lay” ministry is much to be preferred to professionalism.
Let’s not romanticize ministry, though. Whatever form it takes (preaching, teaching, worship leading, feeding the poor, cleaning the building, etc., etc.), ministry (service) in the church is work. But that’s how the healthy Body functions—with each part doing its work.
Paul concludes with greetings, a kiss, a confirmation, a curse, a word of grace and an expression of love.
“The churches in the province of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house. All the brothers here send you greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss. I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand. If anyone does not love the Lord– a curse be on him. Come, O Lord! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love to all of you in Christ Jesus. Amen” (16:18-24).
Greetings from churches outside Corinth remind the Corinthians they’re part of something bigger than themselves. Paul is always concerned for unity among the churches, not just in.
The admonition, “Greet one another with a holy kiss” is interesting, since there are divisions among them. The kiss is a common greeting-form—“holy” because it’s among those sanctified in Christ Jesus.
Paul has made use of a “secretary.” Now he authenticates his letter by writing “this greeting in my own hand.” Do false letters circulate purporting to be from Paul?
Paul’s warning catches us off guard, a reminder of the seriousness of disobeying the gospel he preaches: “If anyone does not love the Lord—a curse be on him.”
“Come, O Lord!” (Greek, marana tha) is an early church prayer reflecting the believer’s hope (see 1 Corinthians 15:50-55). “The grace of the Lord Jesus” is Paul’s familiar prayer-blessing.
With the increase of “non-denominational” churches isolationism has come. But, like the Corinthians, we’re part of something far bigger than ourselves. We’d be healthier if we practiced that more.
* * *
Standing firm in the faith is critical. Holding to the gospel is vital. Contending for the faith once-delivered to the saints is as important today (maybe more) than ever. Decades ago “the liberal movement” led many mainline churches into preaching a virtually cross-less gospel. Today heresies come less in big movements and more on social media–and less in pronouncements but more in opinions. So we’ve got to be on guard. Doctrine (both another word for “teaching” and for “truth”) matters. We’ve got to be equipped to say (based on Bible), “I believe in . . . “
But doctrine without practice equals legalism. In today’s text the connection between “the faith” and being “devoted to the service of the saints” seems hidden. But it’s there–a strong chain that can’t be broken. In other words, to hold to the gospel of Christ crucified means humbly, sacrificially serving our brothers and sisters as Christ did us. A classroom where the pastor teaches sound doctrine and students take copious notes must lead to a “foot-washing” room where we serve one another in love.
In today’s world where we carry around voices with all sorts of worldviews, we must guard against error and stand first in gospel truth. But, if we don’t live out the gospel of Christ crucified, we become just another voice on a so-called smart phone.