Viewing the World through God's Word

Month: January 2017 (Page 1 of 3)

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (5)

“I don’t want to believe in a God who would let this happen!”  That’s the visceral argument against God.

In Chapter 5, Keller discusses “three powerful themes of Christian teaching” that can comfort us in those deep inward feelings when we’re suffering.

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First, the doctrines of creation and the fall in Genesis 1-3.

God’s creation was “very good.”  But then our first parents mistrusted and disobeyed the Creator and alienated all humanity from him.    When Adam and Eve turned from God everything stopped working as it should.  God’s judgment against sin fell.  But a world of suffering and evil isn’t what God originally intended.  Death is not just a normal part of life. Keller writes, “ . . . the good pattern of the life God created here is not completely eradicated, but it now falls far short of its original intent” (p. 114).

Second, the doctrines of the final judgment and world renewal.

Many people claim they can’t believe in a God of judgment.  But, if there is no judgment, what about all the injustice that’s been committed and inadequately punished, if at all?  Without Judgment Day we have no hope of justice or we must take revenge.

Judgment Day is coming.  But what lies beyond especially consoles sufferers.  Peter van Inwagen (Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame and Research Professor of Philosophy at Duke) writes . . .

At some point for all eternity, there will be no more unmerited suffering:  this present darkness, “the age of evil,” will eventually be remembered as a brief flicker at the beginning of human history.  Every evil done by the wicked to the innocent will have been avenged, and every tear will have been wiped away (p. 117).

And Keller comments, “We not only get the bodies and lives we had but the bodies and lives we wished for but had never before received.  We get a glorious, perfect unimaginably rich life in a new material world” (p. 117).

C.S. Lewis wrote of suffering people who say “no future bliss” can make up for my suffering, “not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory” (p. 118).

And J. R. R. Tolkien envisioned a time when “everything sad is going to come untrue” (p. 118).

Third, the doctrines of the incarnation and the atonement.

In the book of Job, Keller writes, “we have the most difficult and severe truth about suffering—namely, that in the end we cannot question God . . . God confronts Job with his own finitude, his inability to understand God’s counsels and purposes even if they were revealed, and his status as a sinner [leaves] him in no position to demand a comfortable life” (p. 119).

But the incarnation and atonement solve the severity of God’s answer to Job.  Sociologist Peter Berger writes . . .

Through Christ the terrible otherness of the Yahweh of the thunderstorms [in Job] is mellowed.  At the same time, because the contemplation of Christ’s suffering deepens the conviction of man’s unworthiness . . . Christ’s suffering does not justify God, but man (p. 119).

God himself came down into this dark world and bore the suffering and death for sin we earned.  “He [took] the punishment upon himself so that someday he can return and end all evil without having to condemn and punish us . . . What the Muslim denounces as blasphemy the Christian holds precious:  God has wounds” (Keller, p. 120,121).

True, we don’t know why God allows suffering and evil to continue, or why it’s so random.  But we do know it’s not because God doesn’t love or care about us.

Even if God explained why he allows certain things to happen, our finite minds couldn’t comprehend.  Keller illustrates with a three-year-old child who can’t understand the reasons her parents require certain conduct.  But she can know her parents’ love and trust them.  So we can know our Father’s love and trust him.

But when Jesus came, why didn’t he just destroy suffering and evil?  Martin Luther’s teaching explains.  He said that human nature is “curved in” on itself.  “We are so instinctively and profoundly self-centered that we don’t believe we are” (Keller, p. 123).

Therefore, if Jesus came and destroyed all evil, no humans would have been left.  “Jesus died on the cross in our place, taking the punishment our sins deserved, so that someday he can return to earth to end evil without destroying us all” (Keller, p. 124).

These doctrines don’t eradicate suffering.  But knowing a suffering world wasn’t God’s original design, knowing that judgment and a renewed world are coming, and knowing Jesus died to fit us for that world offers us comfort when we hurt . . .

. . .until the day when we won’t, anymore.


Do It for God’s Glory

I grew up in a church that forbade members from smoking, drinking, dancing and going to movies.  A good-motive, but a wrong-headed exercise–blanket rules for personal-conscience matters.

That all may seem largely irrelevant now.  But, in fact, the principles Paul sets out challenge every generation.


“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others (1 Corinthians 10:23,24).

The issue is eating market place meat which had been offered to idols before being sold to the public. The Corinthians arrogantly claim the right to do anything, because such matters don’t affect one’s relationship with God through Christ.  Rather than debate,  Paul introduces a concern they’ve overlooked:  “not everything is beneficial . . . not everything is constructive”.

Here, then, is his first principle:  “No man should seek their own good, but the good of others.”  Your conscience may free you to eat “idol meat”, but does it hurt your brother’s conscience?  Might it lead him into sin or cause him to fall away?  What will contribute to his good, his benefit?  What will build him up?


Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (1 Corinthians 10:25,26).

A Christian is free to eat market meat because it’s the Lord’s  meat, like everything in creation.  So the Corinthians needn’t ask if it’s been offered to an idol.  But . . .


If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours (1 Corinthians 10:27-29a).

You’re free to eat whatever an unbeliever serves—unless someone says, “This has been offered in sacrifice.”  Assume that “someone” who’s raised the issue is convicted by his conscience not to eat such meat.   That changes everything:  ” . . . do not eat it . . . ”  Don’t seek your own good but his.


For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for? So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:29b-31).

This passage is notoriously difficult to interpret.  Here’s my “educated guess”.  Because the Corinthians have questioned it (chapter 9), Paul suddenly argues for his freedom.  He’s free to eat and free not to.

That bring us to the second principle Paul sets out:  “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”

C. K. Barrett comments:  “I do not act to the glory of God if I give to an idol some of the honor due to God alone; nor if I cause scandal or ill-feeling in the church, or cause a fellow-Christian to fall from his faith” (The First Epistle to the Corinthians).

Putting it positively, to seek the good of the other in personal conscience matters is “for the glory of God.”  But when Paul adds the phrase, “whatever you do” he’s reaching far beyond personal conscience matters.  John Piper once wrote an article, “How to Drink Orange Juice to the Glory of God” (  Whatever we do!  Whatever we do should show God’s glory and give God glory.


Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—  even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:32-11:1).

Paul urges the Corinthians to not use their freedom in a way that causes others to fall from the faith.  He offers himself as an example of a man who is “not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved”.  Then he makes the daring exhortation, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ”.  (Christ supremely sought not his own good but the good of many in his life and in his death.)  A daring call, because Paul invites the Corinthians to model their ways after his.

* * * * *

We can easily apply this to contemporary personal conscience issues, like drinking alcohol for instance.  Yes, I’m free to drink (no drunkenness!), but not if it causes someone else to “stumble” in the faith.

We can also apply this more broadly with probing questions . . .

. . . Do I seek the good of others, or selfishly seek my own?

. . . Do I do whatever I do for God’s glory?

. . . Do I dare invite others to “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ”?

Christ died to free us from our sins.  Christ died to free us from keeping rules to be righteous.  Christ also died to free us to seek others’ good, to live for God’s glory, and to encourage fellow believers to follow our Christ-following example.






Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (4)

The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus provocatively asked,  “Is [God] willing to prevent evil but not able?  Then he is impotent.  Is he able but not willing?  Then he is malevolent.  Is he both able and willing?  Whence then is evil?” (p. 85).

This is called “the argument against God from evil”.  It was often raised to disprove God’s existence.  Now a weaker claim is made:  “suffering is not proof but evidence that makes the existence of God less probable, although not impossible” (p. 89).  In any case, the problem of evil and suffering in the world drives many to question–and in some cases, outright reject–God’s existence.

Why does God allow evil?  Attempted answers are called “theodicies”.  One theodicy is “soul-making”.  “This view says that the evils of life can be justified if we recognize that the world was primarily created to be a place where people find God and grow spiritually into all they were designed to be” (p. 89).  This “answer” has two weaknesses.  One, many people with “bad souls” get little adversity while many with “good souls” get a lot.  Two, this view doesn’t explain why little children, infants or even animals suffer.

A second attempted answer is “the free will” theodicy.  Keller defines it: “God created us not to be robots or animals of instinct but free rational agents with the ability to choose and therefore to love.  But if God was able to make us choose the good freely, then he had to make us capable of also choosing evil.  So our free will can be abused and that is the reason for evil” (p. 90,91).  This theodicy also has weaknesses.  For one, it may explain evil that people do (moral evil) but doesn’t explain disasters and disease (natural evil).  For another, why couldn’t the all-powerful, sovereign God create humans capable of love but not such horrendous, suffering-causing evil?

Another (among many others) is the “punishment” theodicy.   It holds that because humanity rebelled against God in the beginning, all suffering is punishment for sin.  The randomness of suffering, however, makes this theodicy simplistic.

Theodicies such as these may help, but all fall short of satisfactorily explaining evil.  Keller writes, “It is very hard to insist that any of them show convincingly how God would be fully justified in permitting all the evil we see in the world . . .  Surely one of the messages [of the book of Job] . . .  is that it is both futile and inappropriate to assume that any human mind could comprehend all the reasons God might have for any instance of pain and sorrow, let alone for all evil” (p.95).

Therefore, instead of trying to explain why God allows suffering, Christians  recently have mounted a defense against the idea that the existence of evil doesn’t mean God must not exist.  Keller:  “If God has good reasons for allowing suffering and evil, then there is no contradiction between his existence and that of evil.  So in order for his case not to fail, the skeptic would have to reply that God could not possibly have any such reasons.  But it is very hard to prove that” (p. 97).  And since God is omniscient, why couldn’t he have good reasons to allow even the worst suffering, reasons we can’t think of?

In a world of complex and far-reaching cause-and-effect, human knowledge is too limited to trace out all reasons and causes for suffering.  Keller illustrates with “the butterfly effect”.  Scientists have learned that large systems—like weather—can be influenced by the tiniest changes.  “The classic example is the claim that a butterfly’s fluttering in China would be magnified through a ripple effect so as to determine the path of a hurricane in the South Pacific.”

What, Keller wonders, if every event in time had similar ripple effects.  If so, “ . . . . how . . . could any human being look at the tragic, seemingly ‘senseless’ death of a young person and have any idea of what the effects in history will be?” (p. 100,101).  We are simply not positioned to judge whether a particular evil is pointless and unnecessary.

The dynamic of all this intellectual reasoning fades in the face of what Keller calls the “visceral argument from evil.”  “Visceral” refers to deep inward feelings rather than the ideas of the intellect.  In his book, Night, Eli Weisel confesses how the fires of the furnaces in the Nazi death camp destroyed his faith in God.  “Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever . . . Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dusts” (p. 102).

Of course, not everyone who endures horrendous evil rejects God.  Keller argues that those who do reject God assume “that God, if he exists, has failed to do the right thing, that he has violated a moral standard”.  But, if God doesn’t exist, from where comes such strong moral feelings?

Some might claim those moral feelings are the genetic product of evolution.  Keller replies, “While that explanation may account for mere feelings, it can’t account for moral obligation.  What right have you to tell people they are obligated to stop certain behaviors if their feelings tell them those [behaviors] are right . . . ? (p. 104).

C.S. Lewis wrote, “In a word, unless we allow ultimate reality to be moral, we cannot morally condemn [something as evil]” (p. 105),  The moral God is the source of moral feeling and obligation!

In the throes of suffering we might shake our fist at the heavens and deny God’s existence.  But Keller concludes Chapter 4 this way:  “So abandoning belief in God doesn’t help with the problem of suffering at all and, as we will see, it removes many resources for facing it” (p. 107).

Each chapter in Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (
concludes with an appropriate “Life Story.  This one is “Mary’s.”

Throughout her young adult years, Mary suffered beating, sexual abuse, severe health problems, a schizophrenic child and financial ruin. Her words are an inspiring climax to a chapter about “the argument against God from evil” and offer a wise, humble response to evil . . .

“What I discovered about heartaches and problems, especially the ones that are way beyond what we can handle, is that maybe those are the problems [God] does permit precisely because we cannot handle them or the pain and anxiety they cause.  But He can.  I think He wants us to realize that trusting Him to handle these situations is actually a gift.  His gift of peace to us in the midst of the craziness.  Problems don’t disappear and life continues, but He replaces the sting of those heartaches with hope . . . ” (p. 108,109).

O God, to us who suffer so deeply that we sometimes doubt your existence and for whom the intellectual reasons don’t remove the visceral pain, give Mary’s realization that trusting You to handle the situation is actually Your gift of peace and hope.  We are not intellectual giants, Father.  We’re just Your hurting children who need Your gracious gift.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.




Idol Food (2)

“I’ve got to go to church this Sunday; I did some bad stuff lately.”  That’s “Christian Magic”.  As if going to church makes up for sin.

The Corinthians believed in Christian Magic (they didn’t call it that), especially when it came to the Lord’s Supper.  Somehow the Lord’s Supper would protect them from any harm eating idol-food in a pagan temple.

1 Corinthians 10:1-22 concludes Paul’s reply to the church regarding “food offered to idols” (begun in 8:1).  Here he absolutely bans eating idol-food in pagan temples.


For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness (10:1-5).

Lots to speculate about here.  But this much is clear:  Paul warns the Corinthians of dreadful consequences if they, like old Israel, persist in idolatry.

The church and Israel share similar blessings.  The Christian life begins with baptism, so Israel, delivered from Egyptian slavery, underwent a kind of baptism in the Red Sea.  The Lord is present among the church by the Spirit; so he was present among Israel in the cloud.  The church is cared for by Christ; Christ provided for Israel in the wilderness.

“Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.”  Why?


Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.  Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes.  And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.  These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it (10:6-13).

Why bodies in the wilderness?  Idolatry.  Paul quotes Exodus 32:6b where Israel  ate in the presence of the golden calf.  “ . . . got up to indulge in revelry”–a nice way of saying sex-play-worship.  So Paul admonishes the Corinthians, “We should not commit sexual immorality”.

All these things, Paul explains, “ . . . occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did . . . These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us . . .”  See those bodies in the wilderness?  Take heed!


Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry.  I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say.  Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?  Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf. Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar?  Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything?  No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he (10:14-22)?

Paul’s command is absolute:  “ . . . flee from idolatry.”  Escape.  Run away.  Since they pride themselves on their knowledge, he appeals to their reason for obeying his command.

The Lord’s Supper isn’t just a religious ceremony.  It’s a “participation” (Greek, koinonia—fellowship) in the blood and body of Christ.  By the Spirit, God is present.  As fellow believers, they celebrate their common life in Christ.  How can they think it okay to fellowship with Christ at the sacred meal, then fellowship at the table of idols?

True, an idol is nothing.  “But the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons . . . ”  So, eat idol-food in idol temples, and you fellowship with demons.  Demons?  Satan’s minions that oppress?  An idol may be nothing, but lurking behind them are spirits meant to do you evil.

But their harm isn’t the worst.  The Lord’s jealousy is.   “Will you continue to eat at both the Lord’s Supper and the table of demons and so kindle the Lord’s jealousy, as Israel did in the desert?”


Well . . . no idol-food in pagan temples for us!  But how about “Christian Magic”?  Or, as bad, a “ceremony view” of the Lord’s Supper?

When I led the Lord’s Supper, I’d often remind everyone, “This is ordinary bread and juice. Nothing special about it.”  No “power” comes from chewing the bread-cube and swallowing the juice-thimble.

Yet the Lord’s Supper is far more than ceremony.  It’s where we commune with the crucified Christ.  How?  By the Holy Spirit.  With his help, I envision myself at the Last Supper.  I hear Jesus say, “This is my body.  This is my blood.”  I see myself at the cross.  Jesus agonizes in pain.  I hear him cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I can almost feel him breathe his last.  And I remember . . . I remember he’s bearing my sin.  He’s loving me.  I can almost smell death–the cost of giving me life. 

How can I get involved with any kind of “idol” after that?



Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (3)

The secular worldview “dominates the elite institutions of Western society, [but] it is largely ignored by actual sufferers.”

Thus Timothy Keller begins Chapter Three of his excellent book ( keywords=walking+with+god+through+pain+and+suffering+by

The December 2012 Newtown school shootings are a sad, but glaring, example of Keller’s point.  Every family who lost a child held a religious service.

Some atheists admit religion provides a needed sense of community in the face of horrific suffering.  But Keller counters, “Community among persons is forged only when there is something more important than one’s own interests to which all share a higher allegiance” (p. 66). Religious faith provides that “higher allegiance.”

“The Great Agnostic, Robert Green Ingersoll, standing at the graveside of a friend’s child, consoled, “They who stand with breaking hearts around this little grave, need have no fear.  The larger and noble faith in all that is, and is to be, tells us that death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest . . . The dead do not suffer” (p. 67).

Keller answers: “It makes little sense to point to a state in which we are stripped of all love and everything that gives meaning in life—and tell people they need not fear it” (p. 67).  So much for Ingersoll’s consolation!

Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who survived Nazi death camps, saw how some of his fellow prisoners were able to endure the horror, while others couldn’t.  Frankl said the difference came down to “meaning.”  Keller comments: “to ‘live for meaning’ means not that you try to get something out of life but that life expects something from us.  In other words, you have meaning only when there is something in life more than your own personal freedom and happiness, something for which you are glad to sacrifice your happiness” (p. 70,71).

The only happiness secularism offers is here and now.  If we can’t find it here, we’ll never have it.

Secularism wasn’t king at America’s start.  We lived for God’s glory. Then, claims Andrew Delbanco in The Real American Dream:  A Meditation on Hope, 19th century Americans substituted the nation for God’s kingdom.  God became more remote and less majestic.  Later in the 20th century, instant gratification became “the hallmark of the good life” (p. 75,76).  Victor Frankl’s observation is profound:  “ . . . people who . . . have nothing to die for . . . therefore have nothing to live for when life takes away their freedom” (p. 77).  When personal happiness is our only meaning, “suffering can lead very quickly to suicide,” warned Frankl (p. 77).

We Christians realize human suffering came because the creatures turned away from the Creator.  So it was through suffering that Jesus Christ came to rescue us for himself.  “And now it is how we suffer,” explains Keller, “that comprises one of the main ways we become great and Christ-like, holy and happy, and a crucial way we show the world the love and glory of our Savior” (p. 77,78).

Of course, we do all we can, like the secularists, to care for sufferers and lessen suffering.  But this line from The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien rings clearly true: “Always after a defeat and respite, [evil] takes another shape and grows again” (p. 80).  Suffering in this life will never be eradicated.

Secularism provides no solution.  It has no foundation for its views.  It offers no hope for everything we cherish about life.

Our only real hope lies in the words of the psalmist:  “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

I’ve reached 73 faster than I could ever run.  Wheelchair-bound, I recall being a child, parenting our children, pastoring for four decades, beach-walking with Lois and so much more.  With grateful joy, but also profound sadness, I reminisce.  I’ll never do it again.  Today I suffer the pains of aging and illness.

The secularist says, “Be happy with what you’ve had.  Enjoy the memories.  Soon suffering will end in the ‘perfect rest’ of death.”  But my heart refuses to be satisfied with that.  It cries for something more.  Something grounded, not in a wish or a philosophy, but in this historical, incredible truth:  Christ came and suffered for my sins, so I might be restored to my Creator.  Then, on the third day, he rose bodily from the grave.  The perfect, acceptable sacrifice for my sins and the powerful, life-giving resurrection for my death.  “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19).

A hole in ground to “rest”–that’s the best secularism can offer.  The resurrected Christ offers life “immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).



Was Paul An Apostle?

Church members turn against the pastor.  Pretty common.  Happened to Paul.  Corinthians didn’t like how he criticized their lifestyle; so they challenged his apostolic authority.  In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul hit it head-on.  The dispute has implications for us today.  (Hint:  if he’s not an apostle, why should we listen to him?)


 Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord (9:1,2).

“Well, yeah.”  That’s the response Paul’s rhetorical questions expect.  “Am I not free?”  In other words, “Don’t I have the right to use or not use my apostolic rights?”  Ah, that’s the nub of the church’s charges against Paul.  Of course, others may question his apostleship, but surely not these Corinthians, since they owe their Christian existence to him.


Paul has the right to receive material support from the Corinthians; but, he hasn’t used it.

“If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more? But we did not use this right” (9:12).

Noble?  Crazy?  To the Corinthians, accustomed to paying itinerant philosophers, Paul’s choice to support himself by tent-making made Paul an “amateur”, probably not an apostle at all.  To defend himself, again with forceful rhetorical questions, Paul asserts his rights as an apostle. 

This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? Do I say this merely on human authority? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you?  If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more? But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.  Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel (9:3-14).

Paul’s grounds his defense on “the Law of Moses”, quoting Deuteronomy 25:4. Not only does God care about oxen, but “for us.”  So the spiritual-seed-sower should “reap a material harvest.”  “But we did not use that right.”  Why? Because, while this brought hardship, he doesn’t want to “hinder the gospel of Christ” by preaching for pay.

Though he’ll explain further in 9:15-18, we can say here that by preaching the gospel “for free” he illustrated the gospel’s “free” nature.

He climaxes his defense by referring to the Lord’s command—“the worker deserves his wages.”  A principle Jesus gave the 72 when he sent them out to preach (Luke 10:7).


 But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast.  For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!  If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel (9:15-18).

Having forcefully argued his right to receive the Corinthians’ material support, he affirms “I have not used any of these rights.”  Nor does he want to now.  He preaches the gospel because “I am compelled to preach”—literally “I am under compulsion.”

Dr. Gordon Fee explains:  “God had ordained such a destiny for him from birth and had revealed it to him in the events of the Damascus Road (Galatians 1:15,16).  From that time on, proclaiming Christ to the Gentiles was both his calling and compulsion.  He ‘had to do it because God had so taken hold of him (Philippians 3:12) (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 4:18).” Therefore, he doesn’t preach voluntarily and so isn’t free to be paid. Because of the Spirit’s work in him, he isn’t free not to preach!


Not accepting material support from anyone means he is free from everyone.  And he uses that freedom to be “a slave to everyone” . . .

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.  To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.  To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.  I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings (9:19-23).

The Corinthians criticized his chameleon-like conduct.  Socially, he became like a Jew among Jews and like a Gentile among Gentiles “so that by all possible means I might save some.”  He does it all so the gospel may progress and in the end, with his converts, he might share in gospel blessings.


Perseverance is required to share in eternal gospel blessings.  And perseverance demands self-discipline.  To make that point, Paul uses a familiar Greek athletic metaphor.  The Corinthians must “[r]un ins such a way as to get the prize.”  Specifically, they must not be idolaters (10:6b) by participating in idol-temple feasts (Chapter 8).

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.  No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize (9:24-27).

Paul changes the image from running to boxing, opening his heart to the church.  Because he refuses material support and chooses to support himself, he sometimes does without.  He makes his body “my slave” so he won’t “be disqualified for the (eschatological) prize.”

* * *

What implication does this “apostle dispute” have for us today? Why should we care if Paul was really an apostle?  Because apostleship gives him authority to speak into our lives.  If he wasn’t an apostle, why listen to him?  Well, we say, he’s in the Bible.  No, he’s “in the Bible” because he was an apostle.  So he speaks with authority from Christ to us as he did to the Corinthians.

In that regard, this chapter’s conclusion both exhorts and warns us.  He makes  his body his slave “so that . . . I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”  Disqualification for the eschatological prize was a  real possibility.  How to justify that with assurances like “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability”–10:13a, I don’t know. But both are biblical.  That warns us:  “Don’t be complacent!  Don’t let your bodily appetites dictate your conduct!”

With the warning comes the charge: “Run in such a way as to get the prize.”  We’re in a race.  It’s no time for sinful-nature-detours.  We must conduct ourselves like runners straining  toward the prize.

So let’s grab our running shoes–I mean, Bibles . . . and get going.

Image result for runner photos




Idol Food (1)

Can’t remember the last time I attended a dinner party with food offered to idols.  So why should we study 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1?  Because it’s God’s Word to us . . .


Food, offered in worship to idols, was sold in the marketplace.  Do the Corinthians, who have eaten it all of their lives, have the right to continue now that they’ve become Christians? Do they have that right even if it leads “weaker” believers to follow their lead and commit what their consciences say is sin?  Before going into detail, Paul begins with what shouldn’t and should guide our behavior.


Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God (8:1-3).

The Corinthians have written to Paul about “idol food”, arguing they have the right to eat it, as they always have.  Indeed, most meat was sacrificed, then sold.  It’s apparent that the Corinthians believe they have special gnosis (“knowledge”) from the Holy Spirit about idols.

Knowledge, however, says Paul, leads to pride.  While love expresses concern for the welfare of fellow-believers.  Those who presume to be “in the know” about idols and idol food don’t know as they should, because real knowledge in Christianity leads to love—loving God and thus being recognized by God as “really knowing.”

Theological knowledge mustn’t be the primary guide in our relationships; love that builds up the other must be.


So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live (8:4-6).

Paul addresses the issue at hand:  “eating food sacrificed to idols”.  He agrees with the Corinthians’ knowledge:  “An idol is nothing” and “There is no God but one”.  However, pagans, by believing in idols, give them what we might call a “subjective reality”.  Some new converts to Christ do the same. But “there is but one God”.  He is “the Father”, the source of all things and the one “for whom we [believers] live”.  And “there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ”.  All things came into existence through him and we believers have new life through him.

Thus Paul affirms God’s uniqueness and the “nothingness” of idols, though many believe they are “gods” and “lords”.  This isn’t just a profound theological statement; it’s the ground for ethical behavior.  God is our Creator.  Jesus is our Redeemer.  Thus he (God the Father and God the Son)—what he is like—must govern our conduct.


But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols?  So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.  When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.  Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall (1 Corinthians 8:7-13).

Some among them haven’t yet outgrown their old pagan ideas.  They haven’t come to really know that an idol is nothing.  To them “idol food”  has been “sacrificed to a god”.

Their inner moral sense of right and wrong is “weak”; that is, they haven’t fully grasped that idols are nothing.  Therefore, when those who “have knowledge” eat idol food, it encourages the “weak” to eat—and thus by eating they believe they are worshiping “another god” and defiling their relationship with Christ.

Paul agrees food holds no spiritual significance. He warns them, however, not to demand their rights and become a “block” weaker believers stumble over.  If they do, they will allow their knowledge to destroy a brother or sister “for whom Christ died”.  Thus this is “sin against Christ”.

Paul sets himself out as the model to follow.  “ . . . if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into (what is to him or her) sin, I will never eat meat again . . . “

* * *

Application is obvious:  if my brother believes it a sin for him to drink wine, or if he’s a Muslim convert to Christ who believes eating pork is a sin, I mustn’t lead him into “sin” by drinking wine or eating pork (at least in his presence).

A broader application.  We presume what we do affects only us.

For example, how often do we think, “If I skip Worship today, how might that affect other worshipers? If they see me missing again, what message do I send them about seeking God’s presence in worship?”  I have the “right” to skip Worship again.  But am I acting in love?

A personal example.  The Corinthians’ had knowledge others didn’t.  They knew an idol was nothing.  And their knowledge led to arrogance (8:1-3). These days my illness has challenged my faith.  I think of young preachers exuding confidence they can handle whatever hits.  I say to myself, “Wait ‘til your aging body won’t work.  Let’s see how full of bubbly faith you are then.”  My knowledge produces arrogance; I’m not loving my brother.

In the Christian community, we don’t live to ourselves.  We mustn’t presume what we do is our private “right.”  My behavior affects you.  That’s why I must do what builds you up in Christ.









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