1 Corinthians is not actually a book but a letter, written by a disciple of Jesus called Paul to a prosperous and successful, but also very dysfunctional church based in the sea port of Corinth. Corinth was to Athens, what New York and Las Vegas are to Washington DC. Athens, like Washington DC, was where all the boring politics and bureaucracy happened, Corinth, like New York and Las Vegas was where all the great action was, where the money was being made and where all the fun was being had.
Paul’s letter is long, at 6830 words it is probably longer than any letter that you or I will ever write. Today we are looking at a small section just over half way through the middle of the letter, which, thanks to the sixteenth century French publisher and geek known as Robert Estienne, we now call chapter 9 verses 1-12.
Before we look at this bit of the letter, we must be clear about the context and I will spend a decent amount of time setting the scene here so that when we read it later it should all be much clearer.
The great thing about verses and subheadings in the Bible, is that they help us find our way around quicker, the problem is that because it has been divided up in that way for our ease of navigation, we stop seeing the Bible and the writings in it as organic wholes that together make one complete story.
How many of you have ever sat down and just read 1 Corinthians from start to finish? You should. It will take you about an hour or by the wonder that is the internet you can listen to it read to you for free if you prefer.
It’s a letter, and that’s what you do with letters, you read them in their entirety usually in one sitting. Have you ever had a letter, or an email from a friend which you read a paragraph at a time once a week? No one would think that you were normal, especially not your boss at work, if you read their emails or letters at the speed of one paragraph once a week, you could well find yourself being made redundant for a lack of productivity. Yet somehow, when it comes to the Bible, we think it’s normal to read them bit by bit in sections, rather than as a whole.
Now, there are a number of themes that run through this letter, which will help us understand, why Paul says what he does in this bit here.
If you were here when we were looking at the earlier parts of the letter, you will hopefully remember that Paul spent time stressing to the church that he is a genuine apostle and worthy to be considered a leader, better still, a father figure amongst them. And so, again, today, we will see Paul defend his legitimacy as an apostle (spiritual father) to the Corinthian church.
But this time that defence has a different slant on it. Last time, Mike, by looking at the issue of food offered to idols, introduced us to the theme of the strong and the weak in the church at Corinth. To use a wrestling metaphor, in the blue corner, we had strong who felt it was perfectly ok to eat meat offered to idols because idols are nothing compared to God and in the red corner, we had the weak who didn’t want to eat that same meat because it represented giving honour to those idols and compromising their allegiance to God. These two groups were in the wrestling ring over the issue, but the strong were throwing their weight around and destroying the weak who they should have been viewing; not as people who should bow to the supremacy of their arguments, but as their dear brothers and sisters for whom Christ died.
Paul rebukes the strong and tells them that irrespective of their rights on the matter, they should if needed, lay their right to eat meat down for the sake of the greater good of the whole Church family.
This section addressing the question about meat offered to idols actually spans three chapters, finishing at the end of chapter 10 so what we are about to read is not Paul going off on a tangent about another subject, rather, having told the strong that they should lay down their rights to eat meat for the good of all he continues that theme by giving an personal example of how this laying down of rights works in his life.
Before we go there, we need to explore these themes of the strong and the weak and Paul’s authenticity a little more.
You see, the strong weren’t just causing trouble in the realms of juicy steaks and bacon sandwiches, there was more going on. The strong were those who held all the power and influence in church life. They were rich, they were the ones with university degrees, the ones who had friends in influential places from whom they could call in favours, they were those with leadership responsibility and influence in shaping the life and culture of the church, and for all those reasons, they considered themselves to be spiritually mature and strong.
The weak were poor, living just above the bread line, they had little or no formal education, they had no friends in high places other than Jesus himself, they were the rank and file of the church who generally did what was asked of them and if they raised a question about how things were done, it would appear that they were just brushed off as being uneducated, immature or naïve.
We have already seen that it was the strong who, with their “so called” superior knowledge, were destroying the consciences of others by encouraging them to eat meat. It was the strong who were encouraging factions, getting everyone to pick the apostle they liked best, be it Paul, Apollos, Cephas or someone else. It was the strong with all their money and social connections who were trying to use the Corinthian law courts in chapter 6 to get their own way in the church.
We will see later in the letter that it was the strong rich who were humiliating the weak and poor at communion meals and it was the strong who were boasting about their amazing spiritual gifts and how they could speak in tongues all the time.
This should be no surprise to us. There is nothing new about the strong manipulating everything for their own advantage, and the weak little people having to fight over what is left. For most of history, most people have lived in poverty, whilst a few wealthy people at the top lorded it over them. For all our talk about equality these days, the one equality that really isn’t getting addressed is the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. Those who challenge that gap are brushed off as naïve and idealistic. Whilst the crash of 2008 made many poorer, the super-rich continued to increase their share of the wealth and there is no sign that this trend will change any time soon.
The tragedy was that the Church in Corinth was more and more reflecting this kind of dark worldly thinking, where the preferences of the strong, irrespective of whether they were right or wrong were bulldozing over everyone else.
But not only are the strong throwing their weight around in Corinthian church life more and more, they are spreading toxic rumours about Paul, casting doubt on his authenticity and integrity as an apostle.
We saw earlier in the series that Paul has never asked them for any money to support him. When with them, he laboured during the day as a tent maker, then in his free time, planted and nurtured the church. But instead of saying “Wow, what a man filled with incredible love and self-sacrifice, he has freely given us everything he has to give.” they start saying things like. “Well he can’t be a very good apostle then, if he is not earning any money from it.” Or maybe they were offended by his refusal to receive any money from them. “That Paul thinks he’s better than all the other apostles, he’s so super-spiritual, he doesn’t need our money, who does he think he is?!”
We do that too don’t we? We assume that if something costs more, it must be better. Whilst that may be true some of the time, it is not universally true. The rest of the time it just proves what suckers we are – duped by clever advertisers.
Do you think that Reading Family Church is a better church than other churches because it has a salaried staff team?
We are definitely better off from a management and administration point of view and in other ways too, but if we start to think that we are automatically more spiritually mature than the church down the road where all the leaders are unsalaried volunteers, then we are on dangerous ground.
Secondly, Paul isn’t married, but instead of saying “Wow what an incredible sacrifice he has made for the benefit of the church!” The strong are saying: “he’s a bit weird isn’t he? Can’t get himself a wife, what’s wrong with him? How on earth will he be able to speak with any authenticity to the women in our church, or to the dads with kids?”
Thirdly, Paul hasn’t been trained in the art of Greek public speaking, nor is he interested in merely entertaining his listeners with a good story, but instead of saying “Wow, Paul has understood the gospel of Jesus Christ really well, let’s glean as much as we can from him so we can grow and mature too!” They say, “He’s not a very engaging speaker, he goes on for hours and hours all in a boring monotone voice, he can’t have anything worth hearing.
Do you do the same? Do you think that if a preacher has held your interest and you have enjoyed listening to what has been said that they must be more faithful to God than someone who is boring? When you check your phone during the sermon or start daydreaming about what you’re doing later; is it because those who speak aren’t declaring to you the words of God or is it because they aren’t entertaining enough for you? Or maybe they aren’t saying it the way you think it should be said?
So as we read through this passage, and hear how Paul defends the way he lives out his apostleship, keep in mind that whilst he is addressing the whole church, he is particularly addressing the strong who are selfishly throwing their weight around and also casting doubt amongst everyone about Paul’s authenticity as an apostle.
He opens this bit with four rhetorical questions, to which the answers are all an emphatic YES! And as I read I will insert some comments to help make things a bit clearer.
Am I not free? [Of course I am, Jesus has made me free!] Am I not an apostle? [Of course I am! The Holy Spirit set me and Silas apart many years ago now during a time of prayer and fasting for this work.] Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? [Of course I did, he appeared to me on the road to Damascus as I was on my way to arrest Christians and destroy the church!] Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? [Of course you are!] If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.Paul effectively tells those who doubt his authenticity as an apostle to wake up, open their eyes and look around them. The believers and the church at Corinth are the evidence that Paul is an apostle, that he did meet the risen Lord Jesus and that that same Jesus commissioned him to preach the good news of the Kingdom of God to the world.
Have a look around you now. All of us gathered in this venue are witnesses to the fact that one day many years ago, God laid it on the heart of Sean Green, the lead pastor here at RFC who is currently on sabbatical, to plant a church. If he had not been obedient to that call, we would not be here, not like this. Not that all of us became Christians through Sean, most of us didn’t and would have ended up at other churches in Reading if RFC wasn’t here, but RFC is here and that is due to the obedience of Sean and Liz, leaving Bracknell with a bunch of others and setting up here.
In the same way, the Corinthian church would not be there if it had not been for Paul’s obedience and whilst he did not personally convert everyone or baptise them, all of the Corinthian Christians, whether they have met Paul or not owe a debt of gratitude in God to Paul. Not that they should idolise Paul, or that we should idolise Sean. Far from it!! We are to worship Christ alone, but we should recognise and be grateful for the obedience of all the people God put in our lives, without whom, we would still be destined for judgment and damnation.
He has another fist full of rhetorical questions.
This is my defence to those [esp the strong] who would [cross-]examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? [Of course we do!] Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? [Of course we do!] Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? [Of course it’s not! Of course we have the right to be funded by you like all of the other apostles are! For] Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? [No one does, that’s mad!] Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? [No one does, that’s bonkers!] Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? [No one does!]
Do I say these things on human authority? [trying cleverly to manipulate you to get money out of you? Of course I don’t!] Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right,Paul lays out that what is a normal principle in everyday life is also a perfectly legitimate principle to have in the church, which is that labour done should be rewarded appropriately. If you turned up at work one day and your boss or line manager said to you that your pay check had been cancelled because the management felt everyone should work for the moral satisfaction alone that hard work is good for the soul, you’d check your phone and see if it’s April the first or, if you found out they were actually serious, you’d realise that your company had gone bonkers and you’d hand in your resignation and go looking for another job because you have real bills to pay.
Or maybe do it yourself, why not try telling your bank or credit card company that the money you owe them isn’t real, it’s just typed in numbers on a spreadsheet, just a bit of ink on paper or just some pixels on a screen. They would laugh you all the way to the courthouse and afterwards, drop you off at the asylum.
Paul says it this way, that no soldier signs up to the army to risk their life in battle for the sake of the cause expecting to have to take their own packed lunch and box of Elastoplasts along with them to the front line. No farmer spends hours cultivating food only to watch it be taken away at the end. No cattle herder spends hours in the winter snow rescuing cows from snowdrifts only to see their delicious milk get poured out on to the ground. No one works day in, day out hours on end for the joy of work alone.
Not only is financial reward a principle in life, it is in the Bible too. Paul quotes the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 25:4 to be exact. What’s weird is that if you look up that chapter, you find a whole bunch of verses about people and then suddenly this one that seems to be about animal rights – not muzzling oxen. That’s a bit left field.
But it is symbolic of a wider point in that section, that those who have power over others should not abuse that position of power, and therefore degrade their fellow human beings. If someone amongst you takes the place of a servant either by choice or because they have too, do not abuse the power you have over them lest they become discouraged. If God didn’t allow the Israelites to discourage an ox by disallowing it from eating anything as they drove it around the threshing floor, how much more concerned is he that human beings treat each other with dignity and honour? As Jesus said, you are worth more than many sparrows.
Paul has made himself a servant to the Corinthian church, and both the world and the word of God say that he has a right like anyone else to receive financial and material support from that church. For no one, should have to work hard without the hope of some kind of reward, whether that reward be financial or the receiving of some kind of recognition from others or indeed a commendation from Christ himself. Meaningless work is corrosive to the soul and destructive to society.
Nevertheless, Paul has not taken up the right to financial support for the work that he does. Not because he has no right to it or is not worthy of it, but because there are other issues in play. Paul isn’t against receiving money, he happily receives gifts especially when he is in need and we see that in Philippians 4. But does not receive gifts as a normal practice in his life for three reasons:
- Because those gifts come with the loaded expectation that he will now give preferential treatment to the people who gave them to him.
- Because those gifts could give the impression that he is in it for the money. And finally, and this is the big one…
- Because he wants nothing to block people – especially the poor, from hearing the good news of Jesus.
but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.Paul wants nothing to stop people from hearing the gospel and coming to Jesus, and if there is anything that does stop them, it should only be the message itself, nothing else.
Why does Paul have this attitude of laying down a perfectly legitimate right to the benefits of financial support? On a purely practical level, he wants the everyone, especially the poor – those who just manage to scrape a living from day to day, to hear the gospel. He doesn’t want them to disqualify themselves from hearing the good news, because they think that at some point Paul will ask them for money like all the other travelling gurus of the day.
But more than that, because that is the attitude of the master himself – Jesus - and Paul wants to be like him. John 13 says:
Jesus knew that the Father had given him authority over everything and that he had come from God and would return to God. So he got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, and poured water into a basin. Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he had around him…Do you think you have rights?
I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you.
Jesus has more, he is the eternal Son of God, he has always existed, he created the universe by his power in all its intricate detail and beauty. He is pure in all his ways – never has a dark thought, word or action been committed by him. He is always doing the right, good and beautiful thing. He alone has the right to rule the world and expect things to be done the way that he wants, and that way is best for all. He alone is worthy of worship and adoration along with his Father and the Spirit.
Yet he gave up all those rights of strength, honour and glory to come and serve weak, foolish and corrupted little human beings like us so that he might make us beautiful like he is beautiful.
Supremely, we see that at the cross, where:
- Instead of demanding his rights that people worship him and give him an easy life, he willingly, receives all the insults that they hurl at him.
- Instead of receiving the gifts rightly due him as a king, he allows himself to be treated as a common criminal.
- The one who has the right to all blessing, was, on the cross, cursed for our sake, taking the place where we should have been.
He who was the strongest amongst them, used his strength to serve those he loved. He who had every right amongst them, gave all those rights up so that he might beautify those who had no rights, giving them the right to become children of God.
Jesus told his followers that they should do the same. For it is by this that the world will know that we are his people. If the world sees a church where the strong are throwing their weight around and having everything their own way marginalizing the poor and weak, they will see that we are no different to any other human community.
But, if when they look at the church, they see the strong laying down their rights for the benefit of all, just like Jesus, the mighty Son of God laid down his rights for the benefit of all then they will know that we are truly disciples of the risen Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus said, that the world would know that we are his disciples by the way that we love each other, not just in words but in actions, not just loving people like us, but in loving those who are not like us for Jesus sake, not by the assertion of our rights, but by the giving up of our rights. Not because Christians should be doormats for everyone to walk over, but so that everybody wins, not just the powerful few.
So, what right is God asking you to give up for the benefit of all?
Do you think you have the right to the last word in everything? Might you not, for the good of all keep your mouth shut.
Do you think that because you and your friends are the kinds of people who represent the majority of people at RFC that you should have the loudest say in what goes on in church life? Might you not, for the good of all honour the requests of those who are not like you?
Do you think that because you have been here at RFC longer than other people, that your opinion should be heard more strongly than others? Might you not, for the good of all help those who are newer around here to get embedded in like you have, rather than leaving them to figure it out by themselves?
Do you spend most of your time thinking about how make the best of the rights you have for you and your family rather than for your community? It’s important to look out for your family. But do you do that at the expense of the wider community, whether that is the church family, the place where you live or the place where you work? Why not change your definition of the greater good to include those who are beyond your family and friendship circle?
Do you think that because God loves you so much you have the right to become everything you think you should become? Do you expect everyone else in your life to serve you and God’s call on your life? Don’t be so blinkered, stop staring in the mirror and start looking out for and serving others.
Do you think that Jesus died for you so that you could have the right to a comfortable life? Loads of us think that. Me included. Jesus died, so that I don’t have to. Well yes, that is true. But he who died in your place, also said “Pick up your cross and follow me.” The inference of that phrase is follow me to death – to death for the sake of love.
You see when we kneel at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ, or indeed before the throne of the risen Lord Jesus, all talk of our rights goes out the window and we repent of such stupid thinking.
A church that is most interested in asserting its rights, will see minimal real breakthrough in the things of God, but a church that is full of people who have given up their personal rights to comfort and the good life for the glory of Jesus and benefit of all, both those inside and those outside the church are a people who will truly see God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven.