Viewing the World through God's Word

Category: 1 Corinthians (Page 1 of 5)

Letter’s Last Words

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 . . .


 “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.






Travel Plans

Pretty ordinary stuff.  Travel plans of a 1st century Jewish apostle.  Why did the Holy Spirit include them in the Bible?

I will visit you after passing through Macedonia, for I intend to pass through Macedonia, and perhaps I will stay with you or even spend the winter, so that you may help me on my journey, wherever I go. For I do not want to see you now just in passing. I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries (1 Corinthians 16:5-9).

Paul is explaining how he intends to get to Corinth for the collection (1 Corinthians 16:1-4). He’s writing from Ephesus, east across the Aegean Sea from Corinth.  He plans to continue ministry there, then journey by land northwest to Macedonia, probably visiting the churches in Thessalonica, Philippi and Berea located in that province..

Finally, he’ll go south to Corinth.  His Corinth plans are uncertain.  “ . . . perhaps I will stay with you or even spend the winter.”  “I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits.”

Like a lot of plans, they changed.  Trouble in Corinth compelled him to make a quick trip to Corinth.  The trouble grew into a major crisis which took two more letters (the “lost” one and 2 Corinthians) and two visits from Titus to mend.

But we know nothing of that here.  His uncertainty about his Corinth visit, however, may imply tensions exist.  So, perhaps does “if the Lord permits”—implying “if the Lord changes the Corinthians’ hearts”.  These tensions become glaringly obvious in Paul’s second letter to the church.

The purpose for his staying at Corinth is surprising: “so that you may help me on my journey, wherever I go.”  “ . . . wherever I go” suggests Paul already has in mind what will become clear later:  he wants to go to Rome, then on to Spain.

Whatever his destination, he hopes for the Corinthians’ help—food, money and a few men to insure a safe and successful trip.

Meanwhile, he’ll remain in Ephesus until Pentecost because “a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.”  As long as opportunity remains for it, he’ll stay.  Yet already, before the city-wide riot (Acts 19:23-41), “many adversaries” have appeared.

Tensions with the Corinthians move him to urge their cooperation regarding Timothy . . .

When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord, as I am. So let no one despise him. Help him on his way in peace, that he may return to me, for I am expecting him with the brothers (1 Corinthians 16:10,11).

“ . . . see that you put him at ease” is literally “see that he is without cause to be afraid”.  Paul is concerned that the Corinthians may mistreat Timothy and give him cause to fear.

Why should they “put him at ease”?  Because, as is Paul, Timothy “is doing the work of the Lord.”  This is why “no one [should] despise him (treat him with contempt).”  Nor should they despise Paul, because both he and Timothy are doing the Lord’s work.

Finally, Paul mentions Apollos, one of the Corinthians’ favorite preachers (1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:5).  It may be that the church was imploring him to visit.

Now concerning our brother Apollos, I strongly urged him to visit you with the other brothers, but it was not at all his will to come now. He will come when he has opportunity (1 Corinthians 16:12).

Surprising that Paul would “strongly urge” Apollos to visit, since, in the Corinthians’ minds, he was Paul’s competitor.  Paul, however, was concerned for the well-being of the church, not winning a popularity contest.  But, writes Paul, “. . . it was not at all [Apollos’] will to come now.

* * *

When we look back on Paul’s ministry, we see the life of an apostolic superstar.  This reminds us that in the actual living of it, it, at best, looked pretty ordinary.  Some of it was made up of ordinary travel plans.  Only after the fact, when we look back at all the pieces, and see how they fit together and what they produced, can we really catch the overall impact.

So it is with our lives.  While not on the level of an apostles’, they have significance.  The Lord is using them to have eternal impact for his glory and his saving work in the world.  But mostly, they seem composed of ordinary stuff.

Take parenting, for example.  In the morning, getting kids ready for school.  In the evening, feeding them dinner, nagging them to do their homework, supervising conflicts, getting them to bed–to say nothing of laundering their clothes, taking them to their sports’ events, teaching them about the Lord, taking them to church, and so on.  Pretty ordinary stuff.

Or take our work.  Most of us aren’t brain surgeons.  Who of us will discover the cure for cancer or engage in diplomatic relations that will bring peace to the Middle East.  Our careers are far more common.

Yet, if we live our lives with faith in Christ and live in obedience to his teachings, he turns the ordinary stuff into extraordinary for the glory of his saving work in the world.  That is, of course, a faith statement.  We won’t see the “sight” of it until after our lives here end and we can look back . . .



No Walking Dead

Sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes wakes from a coma to discover the world overrun by zombies.  (A zombie, if–like me–you don’t watch the hit TV series “The Walking Dead”, is a ” fictional undead being created by the reanimation of a human corpse”.)

I’m with the Corinthians’ anti-bodily resurrection stance,  if Paul is talking about “the reanimation of a human corpse”.  Here’s the twin question . . .

Someone will ask, ‘How can the dead be raised to life? What kind of body will they have?'” (15:35 GNT).

Paul anticipates the Corinthians’ skeptical question.  They ask from disbelief.  Which is why he calls them foolish.

“You fool! When you plant a seed in the ground, it does not sprout to life unless it dies. And what you plant is a bare seed, perhaps a grain of wheat or some other grain, not the full-bodied plant that will later grow up.  God provides that seed with the body he wishes; he gives each seed its own proper body.  And the flesh of living beings is not all the same kind of flesh; human beings have one kind of flesh, animals another, birds another, and fish another.  And there are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies; the beauty that belongs to heavenly bodies is different from the beauty that belongs to earthly bodies. The sun has its own beauty, the moon another beauty, and the stars a different beauty; and even among stars there are different kinds of beauty.  This is how it will be when the dead are raised to life. When the body is buried, it is mortal; when raised, it will be immortal.  When buried, it is ugly and weak; when raised, it will be beautiful and strong.  When buried, it is a physical body; when raised, it will be a spiritual body. There is, of course, a physical body, so there has to be a spiritual body” (15:36-44, GNT).

Resurrection surrounds us.  Flowers in the garden.  Bushes in the yard.  From seed.  Seed transformed into something more, something beautiful.  Varieties of flesh–human, animal, fish, birds.  Heavenly bodies.  Different from each other glory.  So with resurrection.  More than the body buried. Different glory.  Fit for eschatological life.

Dr. Gordon Fee (Professor Emeritus of New Testament Studies at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia)explains “spiritual body”:  “The transformed body . . . is not composed of ‘spirit’; it is a body adapted to the eschatological existence that is under the ultimate domination of the Spirit.  Thus for Paul, to be truly pneumatikos (spiritual) is to bear the likeness of Christ (15:49) in a transformed body, fitted for the new age” (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 786).

Christ is the basis for these transformed bodies . . .

“For the scripture says, ‘The first man, Adam, was created a living being’; but the last Adam is the life-giving Spirit.  It is not the spiritual that comes first, but the physical, and then the spiritual.  The first Adam, made of earth, came from the earth; the second Adam came from heaven.  Those who belong to the earth are like the one who was made of earth; those who are of heaven are like the one who came from heaven.  Just as we wear the likeness of the man made of earth, so we will wear the likeness of the Man from heaven” (15:45-49, GNT).

Adam:  every human’s first parent–“created a living being”, “made of earth” and “from the earth”.  So we who “belong to the earth” are like Adam, “physical.”  The “last Adam” is “the life-giving Spirit”, “from heaven”.   So we who are “of heaven” are like Christ, “spiritual”.  Now “we wear the likeness of the man made of earth”, then “we will wear the likeness of the Man from heaven”.

Corinthians thought the  “body” must be sloughed off for the full spiritual to be realized–a “spiritual” (pneumatikos) they’d already entered.  In heaven we’re not a bunch of spirit-beings surfing on celestial clouds.  Even so, these bodies must be changed . . .

“What I mean, friends, is that what is made of flesh and blood cannot share in God’s Kingdom, and what is mortal cannot possess immortality. Listen to this secret truth: we shall not all die, but when the last trumpet sounds, we shall all be changed in an instant, as quickly as the blinking of an eye. For when the trumpet sounds, the dead will be raised, never to die again, and we shall all be changed. For what is mortal must be changed into what is immortal; what will die must be changed into what cannot die” (15:50-53, GNT).

Resurrection won’t be “The Walking Dead” or even “merely” the dead rising.  Fundamental transformation in human composition must occur.  And, Paul prophecies, it will.  Not everyone will die, but “we shall all be changed”.  The “seed” of our human body will be transformed.  For when the trumpet signals  the End, it will call the dead from their graves and  transform our bodies into “what cannot die”.

“So when this takes place, and the mortal has been changed into the immortal, then the scripture will come true: ‘Death is destroyed; victory is complete! Where, Death, is your victory? Where, Death, is your power to hurt?”  Death gets its power to hurt from sin, and sin gets its power from the Law.  But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (15:54-57, GNT).

At the End, when the dead are raised and the immortal has overtaken the mortal, death itself will be destroyed.  Paul refers to Isaiah 25:7,8–“On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever“–and Hosea 13:14–“I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction?”   Fee captures Paul’s triumph:  “Take that, death; for when mortality is clothed with immortality, you have lost both your victory and your sting” (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p.803).

Sin is the poison that brings us to death.  It’s not decay or disease.  Sin empowers death.  And that sin became more energized through God’s Law, which we repeatedly break.

But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”  That victory becomes ours to share in, not only through Christ’s death, not only through his resurrection, but his return which ushers in the final victory.  God has won the victory through Christ.

“So then, my dear friends, stand firm and steady. Keep busy always in your work for the Lord, since you know that nothing you do in the Lord’s service is ever useless” (15:58, GNT).

For Paul, doctrine always must result in practice.  Or, to put it another way, faith must produce obedience.  “So then”–because God gives us complete victory over sin and death, including the triumph of body-transformed resurrection–“stand firm and steady”.  With similar words he began this chapter–“I would remind you . . . of the gospel which I preached to you . . . in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you” (15:1,2). 

Here his exhortation isn’t warning (“you’re being saved if you hold fast to the word”) but motivation (“since you know that nothing you do in the Lord’s service is ever useless”–because of the triumphal End). “Keep busy always in your work for the Lord.”  Nothing is lost.  No act of service is ever erased by death.  Because death is swallowed up by victory!

* * *

At first, I thought I should simply copy Paul’s magisterial words; let them speak their glory for themselves.  Now that I’ve written comment, I think I may have been correct at the start.  Nevertheless, one final thought (well, two . . . ) . . .

There’s no escaping death.  It comes to us all whomever we are.  Our only hope is Christ who died for our sins, was buried, rose on the third day, and appeared to many.  When he comes again, we who are his will be bodily raised and, like Paul, we will taunt death:  “Death, where’s your victory now?  Huh?  Death, where’s your poison-sting today?  Come on, tell me!”  Then we will thank and praise God who gives us this victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  When I say in the face of death “our only hope is Christ”, I mean our only hope as humans who all die.  Our hope isn’t medicine or technology or surgical advances.  None can stop aging.  None can stave off death.  This body is wasting away.  Christ is our only hope for resurrection-transformation.  Turn to him and be saved.

Finally, why wait to taunt death?  In the words of Isaiah, taunt death now:  “Hey shroud that enfolds all peoples, hey death that like a sheet covers all nations, the Lord will swallow you up forever!”  Or, in the words of Hosea:  “Hey death, the Lord has redeemed me from your power!  Where are your plagues?  Where’s your destruction?  Beaten!  Ha!”

Oh, by the way, Easter’s near.  Happy Resurrection Day!  A great day to taunt death by worshiping the resurrected Christ!




Resurrection Ready

Some groups set dates for Jesus’ return.  One, at least, actually went to a mountain top to be ready.  That’s not the “ready” of which I write.  Based on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:29-34, “ready” means this:  future resurrection should shape our present behavior.

Paul is still confronting the Corinthians’ “no resurrection” stance.  Here he does it with a series of rhetorical questions . . .

Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?” (15:29, ESV).

In 15:20-28 Paul affirmed it: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead . . . “.  Here he asks rhetorically, like a defense attorney, “Otherwise, what do people mean by baptized on behalf of the dead?”

No other  biblical and no  historical reference to“being baptized on behalf of the dead” exist, leaving us to guess at the practice. Commentators, naturally, have.  But none of their dozen ideas seem really plausible.  Why add mine?

The practice existed and Paul’s rhetorical question clearly means that being baptized for the dead is senseless if there’s no resurrection for the dead to attain.

“Why are we in danger every hour?” (15:30, ESV).

Second rhetorical question.  Not “cool” danger like Jason Bourne (The Bourne Identity spy thriller series), more like never-ending, dismal danger.   “[I have been] in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters . . . ” (2 Corinthians 11:26(.

Why would anyone in his right mind put himself in such danger daily if there’s no resurrection?

“I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day!” 15:31, ESV).

Paul boasts about Corinthians’ conversions (not in himself but in the Lord’s work through him (2 Corinthians 1:14), but adds to his danger-question above:  “I die daily”–meaning, “Every day I face the real possibility of losing my life!”  A casual reading of Acts misses that.  Paul’s-eye-view gives us the real picture.

“What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (15:32, ESV).

Again, reading Acts reveals successful ministry with one troublesome opposition, hardly calling for this “beasts at Ephesus” metaphor.  But listen to Paul”s confession:

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.  Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.  He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us,  as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many” (2 Corinthians 1:8-11).

If there’s no resurrection,  Paul would gain nothing by enduring such hardship  Anybody with a brain would party, not suffer, if the grave marked life’s end.

“Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals” (15:33, ESV).

The statement is more than a generic proverb.  It aims right at the Corinthians’ conduct.  Hanging around with those who deny future resurrection (even if it is one another!) corrupts good morals (literally, “customs, habits”).  Future resurrection should produce right behavior.  Remove the hope of resurrection and you’ve removed a powerful  impetus for that right conduct.

For example, why sacrifice for someone else if this life is all we’ve got?  Why endure suffering for righteousness’ sake if only the grave awaits?  With no resurrection, we “only go ’round once in life”; so let’s party man!

“Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame. (15:34, (ESV).

Being deceived (15:33) is like being drunk (15:34).  A translation that better expresses Paul’s imperative:  “Sober up!”

How are they “sinning”?  By denying the truth of the resurrection, by boastfully showing off their spiritual gifts, by not pursuing love, and primarily by not having (that is, rejecting) knowledge of God.  This the ultimate put-down.  The Corinthians boast of their “spirituality.”  For Paul to charge some of them as having no knowledge of God is to “shame” them, as he intends.

* * *

I don’t remember, in 44 years of ministry, ever preaching on this particular paragraph nor hearing a sermon on it.  Maybe we preachers shy away from it because of “baptism on behalf of the dead”.  What preacher wants to admit he doesn’t know what a text is about?

That’s a shame, because this paragraph makes a pivotal point:  future resurrection should shape present behavior.  In other words, believing we’ll be bodily resurrected frees us to behave more Christianly.

For example and most obvious:  believing we’ll be bodily resurrected frees us to sacrifice and even suffer for the cause of Christ.  Sacrifice money I could spend on food or clothing or health clubs?  If we’ve got only this life and this body, giving away money for Christ’s sake is a hard sell.

Even harder is suffering.  Few of us face that possibility, of course.  But obey Christ’s call to a mission field where Christianity is outlawed and suffering becomes a real threat.  Not many are so noble to heed the call without the promise of resurrection.

A second example is more personal:  joyful hope in the face of physical illness or disability.  I have to admit, knowing that my body will be resurrected whole isn’t a cure-all.  I still want to walk now, in this life.  I think of that often and get discouraged easily.  But without future resurrection despair would dominate every day.  With it, I have tangible hope that rests on the historical, bodily resurrection of Christ.

Lord, we debate against intellectuals who debunk resurrection.  Soon we’ll celebrate Easter with great joy.  But move us also to live “resurrection-ready”.  Not by standing on a mountain top looking up, but willingly sacrificing for your sake now, even enduring suffering with joyful hope, believing that one day . . .

” . . . the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.  When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:52-54, NIV).



It’s a big but (no jokes, only one “t”).   Paul, after pointing to the logical consequences of the Corinthians’ nobody-gets-resurrected notion (1 Corinthians 15:12-19), writes the big good news “but” . . .

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Corinthians 15:20).

“[I]ndeed” translates the Greek nuni, a word that adds force to what follows.  It puts “Christ has . . . been raised from the dead” in bold-face type, underlined and yellow-marker highlighted.  Enough entertaining “no resurrection”.  Christ has been raised!  He was and continues to be (what the perfect tense of egneretai means) raised.

What, though, does “firstfruits” mean?  Decades ago my father grew tomatoes.  When little green ones appeared on the vine, and then when one or two grew large and turned red, we knew those vines in that small garden would soon produce a harvest of juicy, red New Jersey tomatoes.  The first little ones were “firstfruits”.

“Celebrate the Feast of Harvest with the firstfruits of the crops you sow in your field. Celebrate the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in your crops from the field” { Ex. 23:16).  The first feast was to be celebrated “with the firstfruits”–both a thanksgiving for the harvest begun and a faith-celebration for the harvest to be fulfilled.  The second feat was a celebration of that fulfillment.

So Paul proclaims:  not only has Christ been raised, he’s been raised as “the firstfruits” of all having-died-believers in him.

For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.  For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:21,22).

Okay, let’s say Christ has been raised.  It’s a bit of a stretch to say that his resurrection guarantees ours.  Here’s Paul’s reasoning–and it, too, stretches our faith.  “For since death came through a man . . . For as in Adam all die”.  The apostle’s answer to “Why death?” is Adam, father of us all.

Now I don’t want to get mired in the question of “the first human”.  But, unless we’re willing to accept that a bunch of us all appeared at once, it’s reasonable to say there was a first.  Later in Romans 5:12, Paul will explain, ” . . . sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned”.  That is, drawing from the Genesis 3 narrative, Paul explains “Why death?”  Answer:  Adam sinned.  Therefore, dust-made-Adam would return to dust.  And since we are all Adam’s descendants, we will sin and death comes to us all.

Unfair?  Maybe.  But this is Scripture’s explanation for death’s existence.  Adam represented us all, and his disobedience to God doomed us all.

But ” . . . the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man . . . in Christ all will be made alive.”  Like Adam, Christ is the believer’s representative.  His resurrection means those “in Christ will be made alive”.  My body will die.  But, because of Christ, it will be raised.

“But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power” (1 Corinthians 15:23,24).

There’s a God-ordained sequence.  As with agricultural firstfruits, so with resurrection firstfruits.  Christ, “then when he comes, those who belong to him”.  Literally, the Greek say “those who are His”.  How does one come to belong to Christ?  By receiving in faith this gospel:  “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures . . . was buried . . . was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures . . . and appeared . . . ” (1 Corinthians 15:3-5).

The resurrection of those belonging to Christ will mark “the end” with two accompanying, shattering events.  One, Christ will destroy “all dominion, authority and power”.  Here Paul means the dominion, authority and power of death, but surely includes all dominion, authority and power opposed to him.

Secondly, then, Christ will “[hand] over the kingdom to God the Father”.  Here is a mind-stretching reference to the Trinity with the Son (who is God) eternally subject to the Father (though both are God)!  Paul explains in the next verses . . .

For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.  For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ.  When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:25-28).

There is no question in Paul’s mind:  having been resurrection, Christ now reigns.  In line with that, Jesus-resurrected told his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me . . . ” (Matthew 28:18).  At the same time, his enemies remain–until he puts them all under his feet.  He will destroy them all.  “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”  Those belonging to Christ will never die again, because death itself will be destroyed.

C.K. Barrett comments, “The Son has been entrusted with a mission on behalf of the Father, whose sovereignty has been challenged, and at least to some extent usurped by rebellious powers.  It is for him to reclaim this sovereignty by overcoming the powers, overthrowing his enemies, and recovering the submission of creation as a whole.  This mission he will in due course execute, death being the last adversary to hold out, and when it is completed he will hand the government of the universe back to his Father” (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 360).

The ultimate purpose of Christ’s mission (carried out in his incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and return) is “that God may be all in all”.  In other words,  God reigning unopposed in all his goodness forever.

* * *

My father’s tomato “firstfruits” didn’t come with trumpet blasts.  Silently, the  process of tomato-ripening progressed.  I hardly noticed.  I went to school, played my games, ate my meals and slept in my bed.  Meanwhile, out in the backyard, “firstfruits” grew on toward harvest.

Christ’s “firstfruits” resurrection didn’t come with trumpet blasts.either.  It  set in motion an inaudible,  irrevocable, incredible harvest:  Christ’s return, the resurrection-harvest  of all believers from all times and places, the death of death and God all in all.  We hardly notice what’s happening.  The process doesn’t show up on our smartphones or military technology.  But it’s in motion now! 

It’s moving toward something bigger and better than we can even imagine.

And, in Christ, we’re caught up in it.



No Resurrection? What Then?

Suppose when the world ends the believing-dead from all times and places won’t be raised.  Suppose there’s no resurrection.

The Corinthian Christians are saying “no resurrection”.  What does Paul think?

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? (1 Corinthians 15:12).

Paul’s preached it:  the crucified Christ “has been raised from the dead”.  That’s the gospel they received, the gospel on which they’ve taken their stand (15:1).  How, then, can they now say “there is no resurrection of the dead” at the end of the age?  (Probably they believe in a “spiritual” [pneumatikos] resurrection.)

Paul will have none of that.  It’s bodily resurrection or nothing.  Let’s suppose, though, (says Paul) there is no resurrection.  Then what?

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised (1 Corinthians 15:13).

Logical.  And consequential.   Big time.  As Paul will point out.

Note first, though, there are probably some who are happy with a not-raised Christ.  They applaud his teachings, such as the Sermon on the Mount.  They won’t abide miracles, though.  Jesus died a martyr’s death.  Showed us what love is.  But he’s still in the tomb.

Listen, Christianity is a miracle-faith.  “Christ has been raised from the dead”.  If not, though, here are the consequences . . .

And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith (1 Corinthians 15:14).

Paul’s preaching is “useless”.  So, too, all the apostles’ preaching.  So, too, the Corinthians’ (and our) faith.  It’s empty.  It has no basis.

Christian faith isn’t faith in faith.  Christian faith has content.  It believes Christ died for our sins, was buried–and was raised from the dead.

If not, everything he taught, everything he claimed is empty.  It’s nothing.  He’s proven a faker.  And faith in a faker is useless.

More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either (1 Corinthians 15:5,16).

Not only is the apostles’ preaching useless, the apostles are liars.  Rip from the Bible Romans through Revelation.  The authors lied.  They are like politicians “spinning” the truth for votes.  (Although in the apostles’ case their Christ-resurrected “lies” got them beaten and killed.)

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins (1 Corinthians 15:17).

Without resurrection, Christ isn’t the sacrifice for sins.  Resurrection gives proof to the efficacy of his death.  Without it, his death was just another Jew-death.  And the Corinthians are not washed from their sexual immorality, idolatry, adultery, homosexual practice, thievery, greed, drunkenness and revelry (6:10,11.)

Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost (1 Corinthians 15:18).

The Greek, apolonto, means to perish.  “Help us, Lord,” cried the disciples in the storm-trapped boat, “for we are perishing!” (Matthew 8:28).  But the word means more:  the opposite of being saved from eternal death, which is hell.  “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” (1 Corinthians 1:9).

If Christ hasn’t been bodily raised from death, those who’ve died believing in Christ are simply gone.  No future for them.  They’re like disciples eternally trapped in a sea-swamped boat.

If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men (1 Corinthians 15:19).

Paul doesn’t imply “this life” holds no blessings for Christians, that everything is “pie in the sky bye and bye.”  Then, without resurrection, why are Christians to be pitied? Because this life is brief like the wildflowers of the field, like a vapor of air.  And typically it ends with suffering.  “If only for this life we have hope in Christ” not only are the blessings shrunk, we’ve believed in a future (hope) that doesn’t exist.  Like delusional patients in a mental institution, people should feel sorry for us.

* * *

The Gospel calls us beyond the acceptable common, ordinary, natural.  It demands we accept the uncommon, the extraordinary, the supernatural.

We can live with a vague, “spiritual” heaven-future–clouds, angels and such.  What most apparently can’t live with (especially the “intellectuals” on college and university campuses) is future bodily resurrection.  That’s a bridge too far.

Sadly, that’s true even of some professed Christians in so-called “mainline” Protestant churches.  Christianity teaches us to love, show how Christ loved–but don’t go sounding like a TV evangelist and preach bodily resurrection for all the believing-dead at the end of the world.

But, you see, Paul’s inspired logic won’t allow for Christianity that denies bodily resurrection.  The whole package falls apart without it.

Am I willing to believe in such an extremist Gospel?  Am I okay with being known as the guy who believes one day all the dead will rise?  Am I going to stake my future on this “crazy” idea?







Seen Alive

How can you say there’s no resurrection of the dead?  Easy.  Can you even imagine all buried-dead from all times and places, some rotted to nothing, rising from the earth?  Question really is, how can you say there will be a resurrection  of the dead?

We’re caught in the fray that prompted Paul to write 1 Corinthians 15.  Obviously, it’s not one of those theological questions like, “What are cherubim and what do they do?”  This one has to do with the hope of what we Americans vaguely call “the afterlife”.

Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain (1 Corinthians 15:1,2).

Paul had preached the gospel to the Corinthians.  They had accepted it and stood firmly on it.  He reminds them of it again, because this gospel saves only those who keep holding tightly to it in faith.  Quit holding on and your at-first-faith is good for nothing.

So what’s the gospel Paul had preached to them?

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,  that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,  and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve (1 Corinthians 15:3-5).

First, this gospel was what Paul had received.  From whom? He answered in Galatians 1:12–“For I did not receive [the gospel] from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” 

The gospel calls us to believe, not in doctrine devised by Roman-Catholic-cardinals convocation nor by Southern-Baptist-pastors convention, but in a revelation of Jesus Christ himself.

This gospel, Paul tells the Corinthians, is of first importance.  Why?  Because by this the Corinthians–and we–are saved from sin and eternal death.

So what is it?

. . . “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures”

. . .  “that he was buried”

. . .  “that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures”

. . .  “and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve”

Note that the gospel is less a set of doctrines and more a series of events.  Christ died.  Christ was buried.  Christ was raised.  Christ appeared to his disciples.  The gospel is good news of historical happenings.

Unlike, for instance, Islam.  Islam teaches that Allah (God) revealed teachings to Muhammad.  The revelations, not “the prophet”, are the important thing.  But, remove Christ’s death, burial, resurrection and appearances from Christianity, and you have no gospel.

Yet Christ’s death still needs interpretation.  Was it just another Jew-death?  Not according to Paul.  Christ “died for our sins”.  His death was a sacrifice.  It was on account of our sins.  And it happened “according to the Scriptures”.  Paul’s probably thinking of the entire body of (Old Testament) Scripture, starting with the Lord providing a ram to die instead of Abraham’s son, continuing with the Lord accepting a lamb as a sacrifice to save Israel from the death angel in Egypt, and including the Lord’s Servant “led like a lamb to the slaughter”, of whom Isaiah prophesied.

Christ was buried (definitely dead!), and “he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures”.  Perhaps Paul is thinking of Psalm 16:8-11 ( I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore”).

Paul’s claim that Christ was raised is substantiated by appearances to Peter, the Twelve and more . . .

After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,  and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born (1 Corinthians 15:6-8).

The list is impressive.  It includes Paul himself, who, on the Damascus Road (Acts 9), saw, not a vision of the risen Christ, but an actual appearance of the person of Christ.

Referring to himself as “one abnormally born”, Paul may be using the Corinthians’ anti-Paul language.  Paul was  probably short, so the Corinthians mocked his “birth defect”.   Paul uses their ridicule to humble himself and exalt God’s grace in his life.

“For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.  But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them– yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.  Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed” (1 Corinthians 15:9-11).

* * *

Now, about the “afterlife”.  Biblically, it’s not at all vague.  It’s as “flesh-and-blood” as Jesus resurrected.  But wait.  Was he?  After all, we’re talking about a miracle of the grandest proportions.  Except for Hollywood-movie-miracles, once pronounced dead, you’re dead.  No hope left.  Medical staff turns off the machines, escorts you out and darkens the room.  Only burial remains.

But we have over 500 bodily appearances of Jesus alive after death.  We know those appearances changed the lives of the Twelve and Paul.  Maybe the 500 also.  They became bold followers of Christ, willing even to die for his sake, believing, like him, they too would be raised.

So Christianity is a miraculous faith.  At its heart lies the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  Deny that and you can’t be a Christian.

But all religions make the same call.  Islam calls us to believe in Allah’s revelations to Muhammad. Muslims are called to believe Allah “broke into time and space” and gave revelations to Muhammad.  Judaism claims revelations from God, not just in words but in powerful acts.  According to tradition, the Buddha was a miracle-working ascetic. Hinduism is based on reincarnation and believes in “one absolute being of multiple manifestations”–hence, beyond the natural, or miraculous.

My point:  virtually all religions call for faith in the miraculous.  Only atheism allows us escape.  But, do we really want to go to a worldview that has this life only?

So the question is, “Which miracle do we want to believe in?”

I go with the guys who said (and died for it), “We saw Jesus alive!”




The End of Gifts

Online, I ran across a local Pentecostal church’s worship service.  Wild!  I couldn’t tell if the congregation was all singing or all speaking in tongues or both. Wasn’t what I call “in order”.

On the other hand, I know of some churches so “in order” they allow no room for spiritual gifts or the God of spontaneous joy.

The Corinthians definitely needed to be put “in order”.  That’s Paul’s aim here, because a visit there was “a walk on the wild side”.


What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.  If anyone speaks in a tongue, two– or at the most three– should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret.  If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.  Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop.  For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.  The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets.  For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. As in all the congregations of the saints . . . (1 Corinthians 14:26-33).

Paul starts his ending observing how every member contributes to the Corinthian church gathered for worship.  Then this repeated reminder: “All of these must be done for the strengthening (Greek, oikodomay—literally, of a building; figuratively, of making something stronger) of the church”.

Again, the aim of gathered worship is the common good, not the supposed spirituality of the individual.

Probably Corinthian tongues-speakers were many, all at once, without interpretation.  Interpretation is absolutely necessary (without a known spiritually-gifted interpreter present, the tongues-speaker should keep silent).  At the most, three tongues-speakers may speak.  And one at a time.  This seems a well-duh-yeah rule; but the Corinthians were copying the frenzied, out of control ecstatic speech of the pagan idol worshipers.

Same with prophecies—three at most.  And “the others” (not named—others gifted with prophecy?  all other church members?) “should weigh carefully (Greek, diakrayetosan—used of evaluating the difference between things, “discern”—same word used of the gift of “discerning of spirits” in 12:10).

Paul writes of prophecy as a “revelation” and insists “if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down”, the first “prophet” should stop and allow the second to speak.  However that was to work out, Paul’s meaning is clear.  All with the gift of prophecy can speak in turn with the goal of building up the church (“so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged”).

Like speaking in tongues, prophecy is not being uncontrollably “seized” by the Spirit.  The speaker can control his speech.  And the reason for control and order lies in the character of God, who “is not a God of disorder but peace”.

The NIV makes “As in all the congregation of the saints” part of 14:33, though there is question as to where it belongs.  But what you’re really interested in is what I’ll say about the next two verses, right?


. . . women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church (1 Corinthians 14:34,35).

Wow!  Not a wise title, right ladies?  Well, according to Dr. Gordon Fee (and many others) these verses probably were not written by Paul and don’t belong here.  Probably they were added by some scribe somewhere along the way (manuscripts were hand-copied).

One reason for doubting their authenticity is 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 where Paul addresses the issue of women praying or prophesying with their head uncovered.  See the problem?  In chapter 11 he wants women to cover their heads when they pray or prophesy in the gathered church; in chapter 14 he’s supposedly forbidding they speak at all.  (There are other “technical” reasons for doubting the authenticity of 14:34,35 which I won’t dig into because they bore me.)

If these are Paul’s words, here’s the traditional interpretation.  Wives were openly questioning their husbands, thereby creating a nuisance.  So Paul forbids them to speak “in the church”.  Again, though, it’s most likely these verses don’t belong at all.


Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?  If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored.  Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way (1 Corinthians 14:36-40).

A bit of a confrontation to put the Corinthians in place: “Did God’s Word come out of you?  Or did he send it to you only? Think you’re spiritually gifted?  Then you’ve got to admit I’m writing the Lord’s command!  Ignore my words and you’ll be ignored!”  Pretty strong stuff!  Paul was serious about his instructions!

For this reason, Paul summarizes (one more time) what he wants the Corinthians to do:  (1)  “be eager to prophecy” (intelligible speech in the gathered church is absolutely necessary); (2) “do not forbid speaking in tongues” (here he means in the gathered assembly and with interpretation as he’s urged); and (3) “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (this for the upbuilding of the church and to be consistent with the character of God).


The centrality of God’s Word in gathered worship is enjoying a revival these days, at least among some.  How great is that?  Without God’s Word, interpreted as written by the authors, we’re left with anecdotal stories at best and human wisdom at worst.

But God has given his church another source of upbuilding–the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  They must be ministered in line with God’s Word.  And they must not be ignored because of faulty interpretation (gifts died with the apostles!) or chronic abuse.

And abuse must be admitted.  So must the fear of pastors and elders to exercise discipline toward abusers.  But abuse can’t be a reason for throwing out what God gives.

Let’s admit something else:  the local church is spiritually weaker than we think.  We need all God offers!  No, we can’t “drum up” the gifts.  God gives them sovereignly as he wills.  But we can pursue them in prayer.  Yes, it’s unnerving for “up-front” leaders to allow congregation members to respond to the Holy Spirit and prophesy.  But a church where gifts are flowing only from “up-front leaders” is a church running on too few cylinders.

I don’t know your church situation.  But, if gifts are lacking, don’t beat your pastor.   Pray.  Maybe God will unexpectedly pour out the Spirit.  And a bit of his spontaneous joy might spring up!








Seek Spiritual Gifts, Especially Prophesy

Why so long with spiritual gifts?  Why such lengths to discuss a tongues’ problem hardly applicable to us?  First and most importantly, because this is God’s Word.  I’m simply trying to pass along each chapter as we meet it. Second, for a minority of us, this may be an issue.  That is, we may find the Corinthian tongues’ problem in our church.

In chapter 14 Paul directly addresses that problem.  I’ll  offer my interpretation briefly, then suggest timely applications.


Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy.  For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit.  But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.  He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church.  I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified (1 Corinthians 14:1-5).

Paul urges the church to “Follow the way of love” and to “eagerly desire spiritual gifts.”  Clearly, Paul wants spiritual gifts manifest in the church.  Not however to selfishly build up oneself but to lovingly  build up the church.

He calls especially for “the gift of prophecy”.  Why?  Because tongues are “the gift of Corinthian choice” and the tongues-speaker “speaks . . . to God”, he “utters mysteries with his spirit” and he “edifies himself”.   ” . . . no  one (in the church) understands him”.

On the other hand, the prophecy-speaker “speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort”.  He “edifies the church”.   And the gathered church should aim at church upbuilding.

Paul would like every one  to privately speak in tongues.  Among the gathered church, however,  he’d rather they prophecy to build up the church.

Contemporary gift-opponents define prophecy as future-telling.   Prophecy is a message that strengthens, encourages and comforts the church.


Now, brothers, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction?  Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes?  Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?  So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air.  Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning.  If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me.  So it is with you. Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church (1 Corinthians 14:6-12).

Intelligibility is critical.  Like musical instruments that must make “a distinction in the notes”, or like a trumpet that must sound a clear call to battle, words in the church must be intelligible.  The Corinthians desire spiritual gifts.  So, urges Paul they should “try to excel in gifts that build up the church”.  And gifts that edify must be intelligible.


For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says.  For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.  So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind.  If you are praising God with your spirit, how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying?  You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified.  I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.  But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue (1 Corinthians 13:13-19).

Tongues-speakers in the gathered church should pray for the gift of interpretation, so everyone can understand the message.

Paul’s not denigrating the gift.  In fact, with thanks to God,  he claims to (privately) “speak in tongues more than all of you”.  But in the church he would much rather ” . . . speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue”.  Why?  Because the gathered church should aim to build up one another.


Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.  In the Law it is written: “Through men of strange tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me,” says the Lord. Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers.  So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?  But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all,  and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you” (1 Corinthians 13:20-25).

Paul urges them to “be adults” in their thinking about tongues.  Citing Isaiah 28:11,12, he argues that tongues are “a sign . . . for unbelievers” who may be among them.  A sign of what?  Of God’s judgment on them.  These unbelievers misunderstand tongues and so conclude these Christians are out of their mind.  Thereby, they confirm themselves in their unbelief and are lost.  But if an unbeliever hears intelligible prophecy “he will be convinced he’s a sinner . . . and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare”.  Consequently, he will fall to his knees in worship and exclaim, “God is really among you!”  “Tongues, then, are a sign . . . for unbelievers . . . ”


I grew up in a Pentecostal church.  We assumed God was really among us whenever someone “gave a message in tongues.”  The congregation would fall absolutely silent as the tongues-speaker spoke and as we waited for the interpretation.  As I recall, often the interpretation was not a prayer or praise to God, but an encouragement to the church (contrary to what Paul explains tongues is to be).

I presume the same remains today.  Tongues is not the primary sign of God’s presence in gathered worship.  Prophecy is, because prophecy–the spontaneous speaking of a message consistent with Scripture–“strengthens, encourages and comforts” the church.

Not only so, it can reveal the secrets hidden in the heart of an unbeliever who may be present.  Thus he is convicted that God is really present and may bow in repentance.

I’ve urged often in this spiritual gifts section of 1 Corinthians that we pray for spiritual gifts.  I do it again.  In addition to–and consistent with his written Word–God has made available gifts to build up the church and convince unbelievers.  We’re negligent and less strong if we don’t seek them.

Seen in that light, cessationists (who argue spiritual gifts ceased with the last apostle’s death) are especially guilty.  By the way, their scriptural argument is that “perfection” in 1 Corinthians 13:9,10  refers to the completion of the New Testament canon.  Only by reading a predisposed theological position into that text could one reach that interpretation!

But we continuationists (who believe spiritual gifts are for today and until Christ returns) too often hold to our continuationist belief without practice.  The church isn’t a classroom where the professor-preacher lectures the Bible.  Nor is it a pep rally where the worship team stirs up the congregation to enthusiastically “worship” God.  Teaching and singing to the Lord are “musts”.  But so is mutual edification through spiritual gifts.

In this day of spreading secularism and lukewarm Christianity, the church needs strengthening, encouraging and comforting in every way our Lord makes available.  That includes spiritual gifts properly ordered.

Hear the apostle . . .

Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts,
especially the gift of prophecy
(1 Corinthians 14:1).

Gifts End, Love Never

A truck chugging along with 200,000 miles has more value than one that falls apart at 100,000.  That’s Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 13:8-13.  Spiritual gifts end; love never does.

But Paul isn’t pitting love against spiritual gifts.  He’s condemning the Corinthians’ loveless use of spiritual gifts. Instead of offering spiritual gifts to build up the church, many Corinthians are using spiritual gifts to show off their “spirituality”.

Love is “a still more excellent way” (12:31).  In today’s text Paul focuses less on the permanence of love and more on the impermanence of spiritual gifts.

First, let overview his whole argument . . .

Without love, spiritual gifts are just irritating noise, amount to nothing and profit nothing (13:1-3).  Love behaves in certain wayspatiently, kindly, not enviously or boastfully, not arrogantly or rudely, not demandingly, not irritably or resentfully.  It doesn’t rejoice in wrong but with truth.  It bears everything, believes everything, hopes everything, endures everything (13:4-7).   Now in 13:8-13 Paul claims  spiritual gifts will end, love never will.  Therefore, love is “a still more excellent way” to pursue spiritual gifts.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away (13:8).

Since “fails” can mean “not succeeds”, the Greek piptay is better translated “Love never ends.”  By contrast prophecies, tongues and knowledge—all spiritual gifts—will end.  Why?

For we know in part and we prophecy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears (13:9,10).

With “For” (Greek, gar), Paul explains the reason spiritual gifts “will be stilled.”  They are “in part” and “imperfect.”  Both translate the Greek merous and mean a part or a piece distinguished from the whole.  Luke uses it of the “piece of broiled fish” disciples gave the risen Christ to eat (Luke 24:42).  Furthermore, “in part” here implies incomplete.

One day the superior “perfection” will cause the inferior “in part/incomplete” to be “put to an end” (Greek, katargaythaysetai).  Karl Barth’s phrase wonderfully capture’s Paul’s picture:  “Because the sun rises all lights are extinguished.”

“[P]erfection” is the Greek teliown, meaning “complete” or “in full measure” in contrast with partial or incomplete.  But what is this “perfection” that will cause the partial to disappear, and when will it come?

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me (13:11).

Paul uses a personal illustration.  When he was a child, he behaved childishly.  When he reached adulthood, he put childish behavior behind.  In the same way,  “perfection” will cause the end of this imperfect time.

Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known (13:12).

Interestingly, Corinth famously produced some of the world’s  best bronze mirrors.  Paul, then, isn’t criticizing the inferior nature of a mirror (“a poor reflection”).  Rather, he’s contrasting the indirect nature of a mirror’s reflection with seeing “face to face.”

Similarly, what we know of God through spiritual gifts is incomplete.  When we see Christ “face to face” our knowing will have no limit.  It will be like God’s way of knowing.  He knows us “fully”; one day (“then”) we will know fully.

Paul’s made his point.  Because gifts end and love doesn’t, the two belong to a different category.  Gifts are given for this present age.  Love, which the Corinthians lack, is “a more excellent way” because it is both now and forever.  To repeat Paul’s point in 13:1-3, spiritual gifts, as important as they are for upbuilding the Body, are irritating noise, nothing and profitless without love.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love (13:13).

Most commentators view this as the triad of the believer’s life lived out in the Spirit in this present age waiting for the final consummation.  So Paul writes of faith as the believer trusting God’s promises in Christ, of hope as the expectancy of the final consummation, and of love as the believers live together as a community which shares in that faith and hope.

Why, though, does Paul mention faith and hope here? Perhaps because he’s emphasizing the nature of their present life in Christ.  Almost automatically, he includes faith and hope, both because they are essential to that life and because, like love, they belong to a different category from spiritual gifts.

Love of the three elements of the Christian life that “remain” is the greatest because it’s of God himself.  God doesn’t have faith, for he is the object of man’s faith.  Nor does God have hope, for he is the fulfillment of man’s hope.  But God is love.   Therefore, love is “the greatest”.

* * *

Our problem is not spiritual gifts without love.  Generally, we limit love to treating others “nicely”, though sometimes we extend it giving sacrificially.  Almost never do we think of love as serving others supernaturally–that is, by spiritual gifts.  Consequently, we lose an entire dimension of love the Spirit has for the church.

At the same time, even among Pentecostals and charismatics, we view gifts as a demonstration of the Spirit, but rarely as expressions of love for the church’s good.  The gift is virtually an end in itself.

What to do?  First, correct our thinking.  Shape our minds with Paul’s exhortations in 1 Corinthians 12-14.

Second, pray for the Spirit to give gifts to the church.  Remember, he gives gifts.  We can’t create them by some sort of spiritual “pep rally.”  But realize, without them the church is lacking the upbuilding only the
Spirit can give.

Third, pray that, through spiritual gifts, we might more deeply love one another.  Love gives the confirming evidence that we are Jesus’ disciples.  Without love, spiritual gifts are noise and nothing.

And we have enough of that in the world.  We don’t need it in the church.




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