1 Corinthians 13 is known as the love chapter. One of the most frequently used passages in weddings, this chapter is often used in the context of romantic or familial relationships. But as we mentioned last time, the correct application of this passage is actually for interpersonal relationships with members of the church. Understanding this appropriate context gives this passage a whole new layer of meaning.
After a long discussion and explanation on the importance of the different gifts God gives and how all are needed for the Body of Christ to function fully, Paul wraps chapter twelve up with an important segue.
“But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.”
~1 Corinthians 12:31
Contrary to what some people believe, Paul actually encourages and exhorts us to pursue and desire the “higher” gifts and be actively involved in using the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit to the build the Church of Jesus. Yet at the same time, he wants to make sure that we have the correct motivation and attitude in using these God-given abilities. While the gifts of the Spirit are wonderful, by themselves they are rather useless. They must be accompanied by love, which is the more excellent way.
Diversity is a big word in our culture. Our society usually bases it on ethnicity and superficial differences, promoting broad acceptance and in some cases bestowing greater favor upon those who fit under the category of “diversity.” However, celebrating differences and championing people’s unique design was originally God’s idea. In fact, God intentionally designed His people to be unique and different.
Uniformity was never part of God’s plan. He intended us to all be different and actually created us to be better together because of our differences. Therefore, while we live in a culture seeped in a faulty idea of inclusion and acceptance of diversity based on physical appearance, let’s look at what God has to say about celebrating differences, and let’s understand that God’s definition of diversity is actually vital to a healthy and vibrant church.
Spiritual gifts, an aspect of the Christian life that has brought much division and differing opinion within the Church over the years. In a sermon I recently listened to, Rick Caldwell wryly noted that the one thing that was meant to bring greater unity to the church has actually brought more disunity. I am not going to dive into the different opinions surrounding spiritual gifts, but rather focus on the main point Paul highlights in 1 Corinthians 12.
Bread and wine or juice. To the Christian, these are symbols of remembrance, love, sacrifice, and suffering. Communion is one of the few symbolic acts Jesus told His disciplines to do. While the Old Covenant and Law of Moses were filled with rituals, practices, symbolic acts, and important duties, the New Covenant under the blood of Christ does not require the endless sacrifices and duties of the former covenant. However, Jesus did give us a special way in which we are to remember, reflect, and celebrate the great sacrifice made to purchase our freedom.
1 Corinthians is a book not many pastors systematically exposit through on Sunday mornings. While parts of this wonderful letter are used a lot—like chapter thirteen and parts of chapters eleven and twelve—much of the book is glossed over or ignored. The reason: it brings conviction and discomfort to different areas of life that we as American Christians would rather avoid, because they clash with our post-modern culture. However, the truths Paul wrote during the first century apply to our culture just as much as it did to the Corinthians’ era. While the detailed specifics may not translate perfectly, the general concepts and principles are just as relevant today as they were during the first century. So let’s dive into one of these commonly avoided sections of 1 Corinthians and glean the truths God has for us.
After speaking on the issue of idolatry, Paul circles back around to a prevalent cultural clash for the Corinthians: food sacrificed to idols. In chapter eight, Paul talked about it in the context of a believer visiting and partaking of meat sacrificed to idols within pagan temples. While Paul said that this in and of itself was not sin, causing another brother or sister in Christ to stumble because of the action and the context in which it was conducted is sin. Therefore, believers should abstain from eating meat within the temple for the sake of others. It’s part of surrendering our rights out of love for others.
“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.”
~1 Corinthians 10:13-14
1 Corinthians 10:13 is often used out of context. It is a popular verse regarding avoiding sin and temptation. While this is useful and encouraging for us to remember, out of context, it loses a lot of its meaning. Therefore, let’s put this important verse back into the context Paul originally wrote and intended for it so that we can glean the truths and lessons God would teach us through this exhortation to flee temptation.
At the beginning of chapter ten, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the Israelites’ sins in the wilderness and God’s judgment on them for trying to claim the promises of God while actively engaging in sin. But God will not be mocked and swiftly put an end to those defaming His name through their vulgar conduct. Within the context of this history lesson, Paul drops this important reminder that there is no new temptation under the sun.
The temptation and allure of sin is not new, but God is faithful and will give us all that we need to withstand and flee from temptation. This is an important reminder. The Corinthians were living in a sin saturated, wicked, and overtly sexual society. At every street corner and on every sign were reminders of the idolatry that permeated every part of life. Therefore, the Corinthians needed this reminder to flee temptation and trust in God’s faithfulness to sustain them and help them stay pure and holy in a dark world.
We also need this reminder. Like the Corinthians, we live in an era and culture that has erected many idols to worship and lifestyles that are contrary to God’s design. While we might not have gravened images on every street corner that represent our idols, there are plenty of idols in the heart. An idol is anything—desire, dream, person, object, goal—that takes the place of God by becoming all consuming, the center of life, the main motivator and thing that drives us or garners our deepest affections. So while we may not have stone idols dotting our lives, there are plenty of other types of idols we can worship—fame, success, celebrities, sports, relationships.
For this reason, we also need to be reminded that no temptation is before us that is not common to man and that God will be faithful to see us through the temptation and to the other side. The Israelites succumbed to temptation and were judged for it. We cannot dabble in idol worship and also worship the one true God. Our God will not be mocked. He is jealous for us since He redeemed and bought us at a great price. Therefore, may we learn from the example of the Israelites and heed Paul’s exhortation to flee temptation and idolatry.
“Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?”
~1 Corinthians 10:18-22
Aside from Christianity, all religions are built on rituals, moral obligations, works that must be performed, or codes of conduct that must be followed. While Christianity is radically different with its message of grace and free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, mankind has a hard time accepting this simplicity and always tries to weave works and rituals back into the mix.
In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul tackles this issue and warns the Corinthians about the danger of allowing subtle forms of idolatry to work their way into their Christian walk. Paul uses the example of the Israelites during the Exodus to showcase the point that one can do all the right things, attend the correct meetings, follow the moral code, and participate in all the spiritual events but still live a life grossly displeasing to the Lord.
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
~1 Corinthians 9:24-27
This passage may sound very familiar. It’s a popular one with a powerful and compelling message. Paul often uses word pictures to better illustrate his points and connect with his readers. The image of an athlete striving for a prize is one that Paul used in other letters as well and would have resonated with the Corinthians since athletics and sports were a big part of their culture.