Monday 31 January 2011

Two sermons

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

Colossians 3:16

Two sermons are preached
Two messages are heard
Each time we meet
Around God’s word

The first is proclaimed
In instruction
The second is sung
With gratitude
With devotion

Two sermons are preached
One gospel heard twice
That in us may dwell richly
The precious word of Christ

Sunday 30 January 2011


Forgive us Lord when we still obsess
With appearances and dressing up our Sunday best
Yet in our hearts, rebel and detest
The Son the Man, our true Sabbath rest

Saturday 29 January 2011

God justifying God (Romans 3:25-26)

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Romans 3:23-26

Justification is the key word in these verses. Indeed, it is main theme running through the entire book of Romans. You justify someone by proving that he or she is innocent. You justify an action by showing that its means, motive and ends are right and noble.

Yet when Christians are justified it does not mean that they are innocent. Their motives are not pure and their actions are not right. Rather, God justifies sinners. We are all guilty of rebelling against God. We all deserve God’s anger. Yet on the cross, God pours out our punishment upon Jesus. He takes our sin and we receive his righteousness – or if you like, his “right”-ness. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Martin Luther calls this the Great Exchange. He takes our sin; we receive his righteousness.

Still, the focus of justification in the early chapters of Romans is not simply – or even primarily – upon us. Instead, the focus is on God. True: God justifies sinners through the cross of Jesus Christ. But these verses in Romans 3:25-26 are there to show us that God is justifying God through the cross.

The words “justify” and “righteous” are one and the same, though in our English bibles, they look nothing alike. Both English words translate the Greek “dikaios” which means to be in the right, to be fair, or to be just (We get our English words “justify” and “justice” from the Latin “iustus”). But otherwise, “righteousness” means “justification”; and to justify someone is to prove that he is righteous or innocent.

In these verses before us, twice it says that God “shows his righteousness”. That is to say: God is proving that he is right. Now, that is a remarkable thing for the bible to say. God is proving that what he is doing on the cross is right – and not wrong – for him to do. You wouldn’t think that God needs to prove anything to anyone. Yet here in verse 25, and once more in verse 26, God is proving that he is innocent, that he is right, that he is fair – in doing something quite spectacular on the cross.

What has he done – that is so outrageous and unexpected – that God would need to prove himself? God has forgiven sinners.

God is justified in judgement

To understand this point, we need to step back and take a birds-eye view of the opening chapters of Romans. The argument for God’s justification began all the way back in Chapter 1. There Paul declares that God reveals his righteousness through the gospel. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel … for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith” (Romans 1:16-17).

But in the very next verse, we immediately read of something else that is revealed – God’s anger over our unrighteousness. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” (Romans 1:18) Our unrighteousness is seen in the suppression of truth – through the denial of the knowledge of God.

What follows is a long list of sinfulness and wickedness that Christians and non-Christians alike find troubling. Lust and the dishonouring of bodies (1:24), homosexual practices amongst men and women alike (1:26-27), covetousness, malice, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness, gossiping, slandering, hating God, insolence, haughtiness and boastfulness, inventing new ways to do evil, disobeying parents, foolishness, heartlessness and ruthlessness (1:29-31).

Yet many misunderstand these verses. This is not a long list of sins for which God will judge the world. We are not meant to identify individuals who fit into these categories and then say to them you will therefore be condemn for practicing these sins.

No, this list is but a reflection of the one sin of verse 18 – the suppression of the knowledge of God. And these sinful acts are not so much the reasons why God will judge the world, but the very indication that God has judged the world. He has done this by “giving us over” to our sinfulness.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.
Romans 1:24

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions.
Romans 1:26

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.
Romans 1:28

The purpose of Romans Chapter 1 is therefore to demonstrate how God is justified in pouring out judgement over a creation which has chosen to deny him as God and humanity which willfully rebels against him as their Creator. The reason we do not know God is that we have chosen not to know God. Agnosticism is the claim that God is unknowable. But the truth is, as Philip Jensen the Dean of Sydney puts it, we are “ignostics”. We ignore God. It is not that we cannot know God. Rather we choose to deny his rightful place in our lives as God. We are all “ignostics” who suppress the knowledge of God.

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
Romans 1:20

The message of Romans Chapter 1 is this: God is justified in judging the world in their denial of their knowledge of God.

We are unjustified in our judgement

But then see in Romans Chapter 2 that God is justified in judging us who claim to know God through the law. It is talking about the Jew who has the revelation of God in the law of Moses, the Torah. And yet, the application is rightly applied on all Christians who have the bible, know what it says about God, and yet live in such a way that is contrary to the bible.

We do this when we judge the world – in its wickedness and sin – yet ignore our own. Paul says that Christians who do this “presume on the riches of (God’s) kindness and forbearance and patience” (Romans 2:4).

The judgement spoken of in Chapter 2 is therefore the judgement of the believer who claims to have the knowledge of God. Unlike Chapter 1, where the world is described as willfully ignorant of the revelation of God in creation, here the Christian is willfully disobedient and foolishly ignorant of the revelation of God in the law. He condemns the world for its sin of turning away from God, but is blind to his own hypocrisy of doing the same.

But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
Romans 2:5

So, God is right is judging the world over sin. But God is also right and justified in judging the Jew. Both Jew and Gentile (the term Gentile simply means everyone who isn’t a Jew – all the rest of the nations, if you like. In other words, that’s me as a Chinese Malaysian; you as an Englishman, Japanese, Indian, African, German – everyone in every nation) – all of us stand under God’s judgement. God is justified in judgement.

That’s not hard to understand. Many religions speak of God as a Judge, who condemns injustice and wickedness and moreover, is justified in pouring out judgement and fairness. God’s judgement over sin is not a problem for Islam and Judaism.

Even atheists who are keen to debate the “problem of evil” – questioning the right for God to judge this world and doubting his ability to do so fairly – have at the back of their minds the premise that such a God – should he exist – ought to be transparently and accountably fair.

The problem of justification

So, Romans Chapters 1 and 2 establish God’s prerogative as Judge over creation for their ignorance of him, as well as their disobedience even in the face of the knowledge of his will. But when we come to Chapter 3, Paul expounds the fullness of God’s justification not in terms of his righteous judgement over the sin of the world, but in terms of his gracious forgiveness lavished on guilty sinners. Therein lies the problem of justification. Not with judgement over sin, but in the pardon of sinners.

For fall have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.
Romans 3:23-24

All have sinned. Yet all are justified. And that’s a very big problem. How can God be just and yet justify guilty sinners? The answer is the cross.

Of course, the word “cross” isn’t used in these verses. Neither do we find the words “death” nor “sacrifice”. Instead the powerful work of Christ is described with the word “propitiation” in the English Standard Version, or if you are using the New International Version, by the phrase, “sacrifice of atonement”. It is this propitiation that Paul says “shows God’s righteousness” (Verse 25 and again in verse 26).

So it is very important to understand what he means here. For in establishing God’s righteousness in judgement of sin in Chapters 1 and 2, what Paul has essentially done, is establish God’s problem in saving these very sinners whom he ought to punish. Salvation is a big problem for God! For it would be unrighteous for a holy God to ignore sin. God would be guilty of the very same offence condemned in Chapter 1 – to know that there is sin, to see its seriousness, and yet ignore it as if it were not sin. Salvation is actually an affront to God’s holiness and righteousness, if it means that God forgoes the punishment of sin.

This is where the word “propitiation” helps us understand God’s justice but also his love. It is an old English word (well, I’m not sure whether it is old, but we certainly don’t use it much in everyday speech) that means to make someone pleased, happy or favourable towards you. It’s something you do to make them like you – which is a weird thing to say about God, and certainly an odd way to describe Jesus dying on the cross.

It is common in Chinese households back in Hong Kong, China, Singapore or Malaysia to have altars to idols. Worshippers will burn incense but also place plates of food on these altars as offerings to their ancestors or to various deities. There is one domestic idol called the Kitchen God – or Zao Jun, who reports back to Heaven every year just before the Lunar New Year. According to Chinese mythology, households will be blessed or punished based on his report. Chinese families therefore offer up a dessert called Nian Gao made with glutinous rice flour and brown sugar at this time of the year, in an effort to placate the Kitchen God.

The word “propitiation” (Greek: hilasterion) appears numerous times in the Old Testament, almost always (21 out of 27 times in the Septuagint, according to Douglas Moo) referring to the cover of the ark of the covenant. It is called the “mercy seat”, which for all intents and purposes, was an altar of sacrifice. This is where the Jewish High Priest would pour the blood from the animal sacrifice offered up to God. According to Leviticus 16, this was to provide atonement for the people of God for their sins.

It is a powerful picture of God’s anger over sin. Only death – symbolized by the blood of the sacrifice – can turn away God’s anger and fulfil the punishment for sin. It is saying that God is personally offended by our sin and rebellion. He is angered, he is hurt, and he is deeply and profoundly affected when we sin. So when we look at the law of God describing penalties for sin – these are not abstract rules about proper conduct and moral codes. The law is an extension of God’s character in holiness. A holy God cannot tolerate sin and wickedness.

The cross of Jesus Christ is described in verse 25 as the “propitiation by his blood”. Through his bloody death, Jesus takes the full weight of God’s punishment for our sin, but also the full measure of God’s anger over our sin. Jesus bore God’s wrath. His Father’s hatred over all our rebellion and wickedness and wilful disobedience, Jesus took upon himself for our sakes, as he cries out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) echoing the words of Psalm 22. In that moment, God the Son who had up to that point been in eternal relationship with God the Father was rejected from his Father’s presence as he bore the punishment and the shame of a sinful world in rebellion against God.

People think of hellfire and brimstone when they hear the word “judgement”. But here in Romans, as Paul outlines God’s prerogative to judge as its Creator; as Paul unpacks God’s righteous response of judgement as a Holy God standing over a sinful, rebellious creation – the fullness of God’s judgement is seen not in hell, but on the cross. The shameful and bloody death of Jesus Christ is the ultimate symbol of God’s anger over our sin.

But that is also why the cross is the ultimate display of God’s grace and love. Because God has “put forward” the cross, or as the NIV puts it, “presented” the cross – meaning the death of Jesus is like a display for the entire universe to behold – It is saying that: God has done this, sin has been punished; his righteous judgements have been fully met. Because the cross displays God’s full righteousness in judgement and holiness, it becomes the basis of God’s grace in forgiving sinners whether under the Old Covenant (the temple and priests, the sacrifices of bulls and goats) but now even more supremely through the New.

This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Romans 3:25-26

God is just in justifying sinners

Now look at the last verse again. Verse 26 is talking about salvation. If you are a Christian, that’s you. You are saved from God’s wrath through the cross. And Paul describes the Christian as “one who has faith in Jesus”. You didn’t do anything to deserve or obtain your salvation. You are “justified by grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). God provided the sacrifice of his Son on the cross. God offers you forgiveness and the full righteousness of his Son through the cross.

And the way we receive this “gift”, this “grace” and this “righteousness” is by faith alone. You trust that Jesus has taken your sin and punishment. You hold on to the promises of the bible – God has said he has forgiven you in Christ, and you take him at his word. To have faith is to trust, to rely and to depend on a God who is trustworthy, reliable and dependable in keeping his promise to save us through the cross. To have faith is to trust in the gospel – the power of God to save everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).

But look again at verse 26. The object of justification is us – the one who has faith. But the subject of that sentence; the subject of justification is God. Paul is still talking about God. And there he describes God in two ways – God is just; and God justifies.

God is just in saving sinners. You know, my Muslim friends have a big problem with this, and I fully understand why. God can’t forgive sin willy-nilly. You Christians don’t have a true, reverent understanding of a transcendent and awesome God if you claim that he can just overlook evil.

Well, he doesn’t. God has judged the sin of the Christian in Jesus Christ. There is no more condemnation for those who are in Christ. God is just in forgiving me of my sin, not because I have earned it or because God has overlooked it, but because he has dealt with it fully on the cross. The cross satisfies the holiness and justice of God. The cross means God is just.

But secondly, God is the justifier of his people. God personally forgives sin. He sent Jesus to cross that we might be pardoned of our sin. That is to say: he wanted this; He wants us to be forgiven. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. He did this for us because he loved us. God’s righteousness is not an impersonal trait in his character, it is the basis of his love. He is the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

The justice of God and the love God is supremely displayed on the cross, where both wrath and mercy meet. There we see the glory of God revealed in the saving work of Jesus Christ – the God who is just and the God who justifies all who place their trust in the Lamb who was slain.

Come and weep, come and mourn
For your sin that pierced him there
So much deeper than the wounds of thorn and nail
All our pride, all our greed
All our fallenness and shame
And the Lord has laid the punishment on him

We worship at your feet
Where wrath and mercy meet
And a guilty world is washed
By love's pure stream
For us he was made sin
Oh, help me take it in
Deep wounds of love cry out 'Father, forgive'
I worship, I worship
The Lamb who was slain.

Is it incredible that God raises the dead? (Acts 26)

A question I got today over dinner had to do with an event recently held in Cambridge where supernatural occurrences were discussed and supposedly demonstrated during a Christian meeting. One of the issues that came up was the raising of the dead. So the question was this: How should we as Christians react to testimonies of individuals claiming that they have been resurrected from the dead?

I answered with the words of the apostle Paul:

Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?
Acts 26:8

Paul was a prisoner appearing before King Agrippa, the great-grandson of Herod the Great. Paul had been in prison for some time now, initially arrested during a riot in Jerusalem then transported to Caesarea to face trial under Governor Felix. Eventually Felix was succeeded by Portius Festus who kept Paul locked up to earn Tesco points with the Jewish leaders.

But here in Chapter 26, Paul has an audience with King Agrippa and his sister, Bernice. Now unlike Festus who was a Gentile official, Agrippa was familiar with the Jewish faith and teachings. So Paul opens by establishing his former credentials as a Pharisee, a member of what he calls “the strictest party” of his religion. Yet says Paul, the reason he is on trial, rejected by his own party and accursed by his own people, is because of his hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ; Paul then makes the statement in verse 8: Why is this thought incredible – that God should raise the dead?

Now, think about who he is speaking to. Festus had not personally seen Jesus raised from the dead. The Pharisees were not witnesses of the resurrection. Paul is not appealing to a supernatural display of power that they had seen first-hand. Furthermore, he doesn’t yet witness to his own encounter with the risen Lord Jesus – that comes later in verses 12 onwards.

Instead, here Paul is speaking to individuals who know and have read their bibles. And Paul says, based on what you have learned from the Scriptures; from the revelation of God throughout the history of Israel – based on this bible alone, the resurrection of the dead is a hope and promise held out by God. He isn’t talking about some super-spiritual experience where he’s on a hospital table flatlining and encountering visions of bright lights at the end of the tunnel (though in 2 Corinthians 12, Paul himself has experienced extraordinary visions from heaven itself – visions unutterable by man). No, Paul’s argument here is not based on what he has exclusively gone through, but on something that every single person who claims to know God’s word ought to know – that the resurrection is a given in the bible.

Additionally, Paul and the religious leaders meant different things by the word “resurrection”. The Jewish understanding of the Resurrection was the final event of God’s judgment. The clearest reference to this is Daniel Chapter 12.

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
Daniel 12:2

But Paul was talking specifically about the resurrection of just one man – the resurrection of Jesus. To be sure, he does have in mind the final resurrection of the dead. God will one day raise the dead to face him as their God and Judge of the universe. So when speaking to the men of the Areopagus, Paul says, “(God) has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” In other words, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is God’s proof to the world that there will be a final judgement –the whole world will face God on this day of judgement – but also that God had appointed Jesus to carry out this judgement. The whole world will one day have to face Jesus as their Judge.

This is to say: Paul isn’t satisfied to merely prove that God can raise the dead. He wants to show that Jesus has been raised from the dead; that God did this to demonstrate that he is, indeed, God’s chosen King and Judge.

So on one hand, we should not be too surprised to hear that someone has received miraculous healing. Or indeed, if God has so done such a miracle as to raise the dead. Jesus himself raised people from the dead, the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7), Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5), and most famously, Lazarus who had been in the tomb so long his body would have begun to decompose (John 11). When Jesus breathed his last on the cross, Matthew records how tombs were broken and “the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.” (Matthew 27:51). The apostles themselves performed similar miracles in their ministry – Peter raising Tabitha in Joppa, for instance in Acts 9.

Still, every single one of these individuals died. You sometimes hear bible teachers using the term “resuscitation” to differentiate these events. These individuals were resuscitated to life, but only to face death yet again. Otherwise you wouldn’t need John to record the events of chapter 11 in his gospel, Lazarus could simply give his testimony in person. But Lazarus is dead and so are all of these other individuals, as remarkable the miracle done by God in their lives. Theirs was not the resurrection of Jesus – the resurrection to an indestructible and everlasting life.

The bible never gives us the expectation of resuscitation. Rather it is brutally honest about death – Hebrews 9:27 says we are all destined to die once. Yet as Christians, we have the promise of something infinitely better than life after death. When the bible talks about eternal life, it means much more than simply living again – or receiving life after death. Author and theologian Tom Wright describe the promise of eternal as “life after life after death”. There is a resurrection life that is more glorious than simply the extension of this life. It is a renewed life – body and soul – lived out in a renewed creation – the new Heavens and the new Earth.

Paul isn’t talking about resuscitation. Neither is Paul talking about resurrection per se. He is talking about Jesus Christ, who fulfils the expectations of the Old Testament promises of God through his own death and resurrection. Paul goes on to say:

To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.
Acts 26:22-23

Paul is preaching the gospel. It is the good news that Jesus Christ suffered death in order to take our punishment of death. And by rising from the dead, Jesus is now able to proclaim this good news to Paul and his people, the Jews; but also to us, the Gentiles – “(Jesus) by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”

How should Christians react to reports of individuals claiming resuscitation?

By all means, praise God for his power and grace. But actually, that question isn’t nearly as important as the following one:

How should I respond to the resurrection of Jesus Christ?

That is the question you need to consider. For it is proof of God’s power to judge by this man, Jesus Christ (Acts 17:31). But it is also proof of God’s power to save through his Son, Jesus Christ (Acts 26:23).

Some will respond like King Agrippa, who said to Paul, “You are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind. In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:24, 28)

And yet, Paul will appeal to what Agrippa has heard in the gospel and what he knows to be true from God’s word.

For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.
Acts 26:26-27

You may have questions about Jesus and the resurrection. There are books you can read that testify to the historicity and reliability of the eye-witness accounts. You should talk to a Christian friend about the questions you have.

But in the end, Paul’s question to Agrippa is my question to you. Do you believe the bible? Not your friend, or even that expert historian, or that world-renowned theologian. But the bible – as God’s revealed will and word. Do you believe the prophets – what the Scriptures say about Jesus as our Lord and our Christ testified by God himself through his death and resurrection on the cross?

In other words, do you believe the gospel?

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.

1 Corinthians 15:1-4

Saturday 22 January 2011

Do you fear the wind and chill?

Do you fear the wind and chill?
Colder still the unbending will;
A frozen heart unmoved by grace,
Treasures not His love, Seeks not His face

Thursday 20 January 2011

Can we lose our salvation?

This is a quick Facebook response I gave to a good buddy in Christ who messaged me yesterday with the following query "Got a deep question to ask. In our small group today we had a little debate. Can we lose our salvation? once you are saved you are saved? or can we still go to hell if we drift away even though we commited our life to God years back?"

Hi .......,
That is indeed a very "deep" question. And I'm glad you have friends with whom to think deeply about salvation and Jesus.

Q1: Can we lose salvation?
A: Salvation is not something we have gained by our efforts nor we have to be lost. God saves us through the cross, it is his work in redeeming us. And God sustains us through the cross, it is his grace that keeps us faithful and walking with Jesus.

Jesus says "And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day." (John 6:30) Jesus loses none, He raises all given him on the last day.

Another verse often quoted is Romans 8:30 "And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified." This is called the golden chain - none of the links in the chain are broken. Calling (When you become a Christian), Justification (Forgiveness through the cross), Glorification (Final redemption when Jesus returns).

Q2: Can we drift away? Do we go to hell?
The phrase "drift away" is from Hebrews 2:1, and the bit in Hebrews that causes the most difficulty and debate is Chapter 6 verses 4 to 6. There he describes someone who has been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, shared in the Holy Spirit, tasted the goodness of God's word, powers of the coming age... yet falls away. He then says it is impossible (referring to God) to bring back to repentance, with the reason "they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace".

2 big questions that usually arises in this passage. (1) Who is it talking about? (2) Why is it impossible for this person to be brought back to repentance?

(1) Who is is talking about? We need to be sensitive when answering this. Sometimes your friends will be thinking of someone they know, whom they love. This friend was a keen Christian at one time, but now they don't come to church, they don't pray or read their bibles, they may even be in some situation of worrying sin. If so, they are asking out of concern and love.

I would first of all say who this passage is not talking about. It's not someone who has committed suicide. It's not even talking about some particularly gross sin.

It does describe about someone who has been exposed to an amazing experience and blessing, unmistakeably from God. Who has come to benefit from learning about the bible. In this, the author is actually referring to an example he has already given in Chapters 3 and 4. There he talks about the Israelites who were rescued in the Exodus event from slavery in Egypt. Yet every single one of that generation fell in the desert. And then comes the warning in verse 12 - See to it brothers that none of YOU has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.

The point is the passage is talking to you. Not your friend. Not that guy. The author talks about them - the Israelites in the desert, but he is addressing you, his hearers. And he says, you make sure, you don't fall away.

So in "debating" this passage, you shouldn't be coming up with hypothetical situations (this guy saved, but then sinned). You need to confess your own sins. You need to reflect on all God's blessings on yourself. If you don't, you aren't listening to the warning the bible is giving to us - whatever position you have taken in this debate.

It is worth pointing out verse 9 - Even though we speak like this, we are confident of better things in your case - things that accompany salvation. The author is confident they are saved through Jesus' blood. The warning is real, but so is the assurance.

(2) Why is it impossible for this person to repent?
People usually concentrate on the last bit of verse 6 where it says "crucifying the Son of God... subjecting him to public disgrace". How horrible, they say. No wonder this person will be judged.

To which I reply, that's what every single one of us as sinners do. If you are a Christian, don't you confess that Jesus took your pain and shame on the cross? Isn't this what all of us - as believers in Christ - have done? We have given him our sin and received his forgiveness and life?

No, the force of the argument is the one little word "again". This person is crucifying Jesus "again". In fact, the phrase "brought back to repentance" is actually brought "again" to repentance.

And this word "again" contrasts the word "once" in verse 4. Once enlightened+tasted the gift+Holy Spirit+goodness of God's word+powers of coming age. Salvation is a once for all, unrepeateable, complete event. The cross happened once in history. There is only one Saviour.

And what this person is saying is... Jesus get back up on the cross and die again. I don't care about what you did for me through your sacrifice. A good summary of this is in Chapter 9. "Nor did he enter heaven again and again.... then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself."

It is talking about the preciousness of the cross and the power of the cross.

Q: You didn't ask this, but such a debate must always talk about sin in the Christian's life.
A: As Christians, we should not sin. We are no longer slaves to sin. But in this world, we are still living in a struggle with our sinful nature and Christians will sin. "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8)

As Christians - saved by the cross - we must always come back again and again to the cross. Jesus is our faithful high priest, our advocate who pleads for our forgiveness of sin before our heavenly Father.

"My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world."

I say this because 1 John was written to Christians who might be unsure about their salvation. And we need to understand, that genuine believers do go through times of difficulty and doubt. That's why he ends his letter by saying, "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life."

If you or any of your friends come away from such a debate feeling worried about your salvation, 1 John would be a fantastic book to read. It was written just for you, to assure you that God's love in Jesus is secure, and forgiveness is certain through the cross.

Hope that helps!
God bless,

Wednesday 19 January 2011

See the salvation of the LORD (Exodus 14)

And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today.”
Exodus 14:13

Moses is about to lead the Israelites across the Red Sea. Pharaoh and his army are in hot pursuit of this nation of slaves – and indeed, have overtaken them with the aid of advanced military weaponry – horses and chariots (14:9). Victory looks certain for the mighty Eqyptian forces. The Israelites appear to be lost in the wilderness (14:3) and now find themselves caught between Pharaoh’s army and the Red Sea.

Yet it is at this very moment of danger and despair that Moses says to the people, they will “see the salvation of the Lord”. What follows is the miraculous parting of the Red Sea. This is a major turning point in Exodus story. Indeed, it is a major turning point in the entire bible. For this is not simply another display of God’s power. Exodus Chapter 14 is a picture of what it means to be saved. The bible invites us to see in these verses, the salvation of the Lord.

The fear of death

Moses goes on to say:

For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.
Exodus 14:13b-14

What needs to be made clear is that Moses is actually rebuking the Israelites with these words. The Israelites were panicking about their dire circumstances. Pharaoh and his army would soon slaughter the entire nation. So his own people begin to accuse Moses of leading them to their death (14:12). They should have just stayed where they were – as slaves in Eqypt. Instead there dead bodies will soon lie in the wilderness.

The nation had forgotten that it was God, not Moses, who saved them from Pharaoh. It was God who heard their cries in slavery and God who sent Moses to deliver them. It was God who displayed his power in the ten plagues upon Pharaoh and all Egypt – the last plague being the death of all every firstborn in the land – while sparing the Israelites through the Passover meal just two chapters before.

So here, Moses reminds them. They will see God’s salvation. Because all Israel saw at that moment was their fear of death.

When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they feared greatly. And the people of Israel cried out to the LORD.
Exodus 14:10

For the Israelites, their fear of Pharaoh blinded them to the salvation of God. It cast doubt on God’s ability to save them in the present by blinding them to God’s faithfulness in the past.

Or put it a different way: Fear of man leads to forgetfulness of God. We forget that God is able to save and faithful to his promises to save.

The power of death

All throughout the narrative, the military might of Pharaoh’s army is repeatedly emphasized – the six hundred chosen chariots (in addition to all the other chariots) and the officers, the horsemen, the army (verses 4, 6, 7, 9, 18, 23, 25 and 28). This military superpower in pursuit against a nation of slaves would be today like the United States of America, with their array of stealth bombers and nuclear missiles waging all out war on Milton Keynes. In short, they wouldn’t last very long.

Still, the whole purpose of these events leading up to the confrontation at the Red Sea was orchestrated and ordained by God to draw out the forces of Pharaoh. God wanted the Egyptians to come at him with everything they had.

“And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they shall go in after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gotten glory over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen.”
Exodus 14:17-18

Yes, God’s glory is spoken of in the bible often in terms of the glory of creation. The heavens declare the glory of God – Psalm 19. Yet the bible also speaks clearly of God’s glory firmly established through the destruction of all opposition to his authority. “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? He who sits in heaven laughs; the LORD holds them in derision” (Psalm 2:1,4).

The New Testament believers saw the fulfillment of this confrontation, not in a physical war waged against the nation of Israel, nor a campaign launched against the city of Jerusalem – but in the murder of one innocent man. The early church understood that Psalm 2 was fulfilled through the cross of Jesus Christ.

Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’—

for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
Acts 4:25-28

God had ordained the cross by sending Jesus, by promising the coming of the Messiah through his word – but also by allowing Jesus to suffer at the hands of men and murdered on a cross in fulfillment of this same word. In his wisdom, God would bring salvation to men, by using even the wickedness and sinfulness of man, to bring about his purposes for his glory.

The destruction of death

Still the question remains – what did the Israelites see? Moses promised that they would behold God’s salvation – but what did it look like? Was it the Red Sea? The pillar of cloud and fire that guided them through the night and protected them from the raiding forces of Pharaoh’s chariots? I think the answer is given us clearly in the closing words of the chapter.

Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.
Exodus 14:30-31

What did they see? Dead bodies – that’s what they saw. Their pursuers with their armaments, the horses and chariots all lying on the seashore. Every single one of them (14:28) Do you remember what Moses said earlier in verse 13?

For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again.
Exodus 14:13b

It is a gruesome picture, yet a powerful image the bible uses to help us understand the magnitude of salvation.

Salvation is rescue from death. That morning you either stood alive, and free, an Israelite; or dead, an Egyptian soldier on the shores of the Red Sea.

But salvation is also rescue through death. The waters of the sea held back to give safe passage to Israel as they crossed on dry ground, were the same waters that drowned the Egyptian armies. The same event meant salvation for one and judgement for the other. In rescuing Israel from slavery, God had not merely removed them from the situation of harm; he put to death the forces of harm.

The ten plagues – the water turned to blood, the frogs, the gnats, the flies, the death of the livestock, the boils, the hail, the locusts, the darkness and finally the death of the firstborn. These were symbols of God’s anger over Egypt’s opposition, and God’s punishment for their oppression of Israel. Yet, these symbols of death of and destruction were the very means of the salvation of Israel.

In these events, God was showing the Israelites: the salvation of their lives was through the death of another. It was the death of their enemies. It was the death of their oppressors. But in God’s wisdom – all this would supremely come about through the death of his Son.

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he (Jesus) himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.
Hebrews 2:14-15

Here in Hebrews, the bible speaks of the defeat of the devil. It explains how God has destroyed the power of death. It even describes how Christians a delivered from our slavery to our fear of death. But the way God achieves all this in salvation, is through the death of Jesus Christ.

This is the power of God to save. Through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. At the cross we see the destruction of Satan and all his forces. At the cross, we see our sin laid on Jesus, taking our death upon himself. From the cross we receive forgiveness and new life. Through the cross we have access to God as our Heavenly Father.

When we see the cross of Jesus Christ we fear not, we stand firm, and we see the salvation of the Lord which he works in us today.

No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life's first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.

No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I'll stand.

Monday 17 January 2011

Take out the elephant (1 John 2:15)

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
1 John 2:15

I used to love this joke as a kid:

How do you put an elephant into a refrigerator? Open the fridge door. Put in the elephant. Close the door.

How do you put a giraffe into a refrigerator? Open the fridge door. Take out the elephant. Then, put in the giraffe. Close the door.

In 1 John 2:15, the bible says the reason we do not have the love of the Father in us is because our hearts are already filled with love for the world.

So? Take out the elephant – I mean, the love for the world – and make room for our Father’s love.

Sunday 16 January 2011

No greater joy (3 John 4)

In Sunday School, kids are taught that JOY stands for Jesus, Others and Yourself. That is the secret to joy – putting Jesus first and others before yourself. J-O-Y.

(Conversely, getting the order wrong and putting yourself first; others second; and Jesus last means you end up with YOJ instead. “I’ve got YOJ, YOJ, YOJ, YOJ, YOJ in my heart!”)

In the bible we find the apostle John expressing just such joy.

I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.
3 John 4

This is an amazing statement. “No greater joy,” says John. Numbered among the twelve apostles, he had spent time with Jesus in the flesh; sat under the Lord’s feet during his preaching ministry; seen powerful miracles of healing, exorcism, the feeding of the five thousand, the calming of the storm; witnessed the events of the crucifixion. Yet here John says his greatest longing is to hear that these new believers in the faith were “walking in the truth”.

This is the same expression of joy consistently found in all three of John’s letters in the New Testament. It is rather memorable as all three occur in the fourth verse of each letter.

And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
1 John 1:4

It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us.
2 John 4 (NIV)

It sounds a lot like a father’s pride in his son or daughter’s accomplishment. It is the kind of selfless pride over someone whom you love and feel a deep affection for. It is a joy that seeks another’s good. It is satisfaction that comes from seeing another’s blessing.

Yet this isn’t quite the sentiment John is expressing. It isn’t their accomplishments he is proud of as much as the believers’ obedience that the apostle rejoices in. They are “walking in the truth”. Or put it another way: For John, joy means seeing others put Jesus first.

That is why it is so important for John that his children know this “truth”. It is the truth of the gospel – that God has saved us through the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross. John is concerned to remind believers to remain in this truth (1 John 2:24). And when he hears that they have, he rejoices.

Who are the people in your life you most love? That person who means so much to you. Someone who has been there with you through thick and thin. For whom it is so easy for you to thank God for. Just thinking of them brings a smile to your face?

Will you pray for them to put Jesus first in their lives? Have you told them the truth that will allow them to do this – to walk according to the truth of God’s love and salvation through Jesus Christ?

If you have, you too will know this greatest of joys. Of putting Jesus first, in the lives of others, who matter the most to you.

Do you know God? (1 John 2:3-6)

You are walking down the street and someone with a microphone walks up to you and asks, “Do you know God?” What would you say?

I think most of us would hesitate to answer. Even if you’re a Christian, I think you might be more confident answering questions like “Do you go to church?” or “Do you believe in God?”

Some hesitate because they are embarrassed. Doesn’t it sound arrogant to claim that you know God? After all, doesn’t the bible itself say that God is invisible? (1 John 4:12, Colossians 1:15, Romans 1:20) Who can really be sure?

Yet the bible does want us to be sure.

We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.
1 John 2:3-6

John says you know God if you know and obey his word. “We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands.” Still, the comparison he makes is not between a Christian and a non-Christian but between two people who both claim to know God. And John says one of them is a liar. He is the person who does not obey God’s command.

Specifically this is the command to love one another (2:10, echoing Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 15:9-17). What is remarkable about the letter of 1 John is how this command to Christians to love one another is repeated again and again, yet not once is it framed in terms of doing good or being moral. Instead, John says the one who loves his brother in living in truth and the one who hates his brother is living a lie.

You don’t need to be a Christian to know the importance of showing love to the people around you. Both Christians and non-Christians display sacrificial love every day – a mother’s love for her child, the soldier’s love for his country by laying down his life on the battlefield. Yet such love is understood as either a social, emotional or moral response. Some might even say it is a basic human quality to be found in each one of us to some degree or other.

Yet here, the New Testament document of 1 John speaks candidly and abundantly about love – love for man and love for God – but John never ever calls it a mere human emotion. Instead, John defines the love of a true believer as a rational, decisive, response to the truth of the gospel. Here, love is commanded. Here, the object of love is specific – love for God and not love for the world – the two are mutually exclusive. Here, love is a test of the Christian’s integrity – Is he is she really a Christian?

Or in other words, does he or she really know God?

In part, John writes this letter to combat the rising threat of false teachers. They were denying that Jesus was the Christ (2:22) and were trying to lead the church astray (2:26).

But John’s main purpose is to reassure us as Christians. He writes these words near the end of his letter.

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.
1 John 5:13

These are such encouraging words! He is writing to Christians (“you who believe in the name of the Son of God”) to assure them that they have been saved (“so that you may know that you have eternal life”). Or putting it another way: John is reminding those who are saved that they have been saved.

Which means: there are Christians who are not sure of their salvation. Which means: Christians will sometimes struggle with their own faith. There will be times of difficulty, depression and doubt. And John writes these words to those who have been saved so that they know they have been saved and so that they can be sure of their salvation.

The key word in this verse is “know”. “So that you may know that you have eternal life”. In response to the question, “Do you know God?” The bible wants us as Christians to be able to answer confidently, “Yes!”

Yet the bible anticipates times when we will be unsure. In fact, the bible expects it. That is why it keeps bringing us back again and again to the same truth of the gospel – to Jesus on the cross and his effective work of redeeming sinners through his death and resurrection. This is the supreme display of God’s love for us. The cross is the one foundation of all Christian assurance.

But it is also the basis of God’s command for believers to love one another. The command to love is given us for God’s glory – as a display of his goodness and grace. But the main argument in 1 John is that this command to love another is given us for our good. It is for our assurance.

So much so: that when our conscience condemns us or when we struggle in prayer, John will remind us of the importance of both trusting in Jesus and loving one another (1 John 3:23). To be clear, our love does not save us, God’s love does. Christians trust in the one foundational truth that Jesus has saved us. But we must also be able to see this truth working out in our lives through obedience. God’s love for us in Jesus produces the fruit of love in the believer. It means that the authentic Christian life is one marked by growing obedience to God’s word.

Conversely, the person who claims to know God, yet lives in disobedience to his will is foolishly living a lie. John warns us against deceiving ourselves.

Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person.
1 John 2:4

Do you know God? Maybe for you, the humble – if not, honest answer is No. If so, the bible’s simple and clear answer to you is: know Jesus as your Lord and Saviour. That’s how you come to know God. Through Jesus, God provides a way for sinful men and women to know him as their heavenly Father, by pouring out the punishment for their sins upon Jesus on the cross.

Yet some might answer, “Yes, I think I’m sure. I wish could be more certain, though. And I want to know God better.” To you, John reminds you of the same truth of the gospel – of the death of Jesus on your behalf securing your status as sons of God. But he also wants to draw your attention to the display of God’s grace working in your life moulding you to become more and more like Jesus – in your walk of obedience before God and in your love for other believers.

But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.
1 John 2:3-6

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
1 John 4:7-12

Thursday 13 January 2011

When leaders look like losers (1 Corinthians 4)

For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all,
like men sentenced to death,
because we have become a spectacle to the world,
to angels, and to men.
1 Corinthians 4:9

“Well I think it is an absolutely magnificent achievement. I mean, to win the Ashes is one thing, but to win in Australia, and actually to do so, so comprehensively, is something the whole country can be proud of.”

Prime Minister David Cameron was glowing with praise for the English cricket team’s victory at the final Ashes Test in Sydney. In an interview with the BBC this morning, he added, “It made you very proud to be English.”

In case you’re like me, and you’re not at all familiar with cricket, Wikipedia explains that the Ashes is “a… cricket series played between England and Australia. It is the most celebrated rivalry in international cricket.” In other words, it’s a really big deal.

The BBC website has “Ashes triumph” splashed across its front page, alongside video clips, photos of the players in action, together with blow-by-blow news accounts of the “thrashing of Australia”.

Conversely, the headlines look very different in the land down under. “Awful Aussies” reads the report by the Sydney’s Herald Sun. The Daily Telegraph’s review has “Aussie BBQ: Cooked in our own backyard” with a reader’s poll rating the current Australian team “the worst to lose a… series on home soil.”

Peter Roebuck of the Sydney Morning Herald writes, "Despair has descended upon Australian cricket. Embarrassment has become an acquaintance. Humiliation has introduced itself. Calamity has piled upon calamity."

Winning is infectious. When you’re backing the winning team, you feel like a winner yourself. In the same interview, David Cameron contrasts the difficulties faced in the past year with the remarkable feeling of waking up to the news of the England team’s victory. That’s an amazing – and a true – sentiment. A major accomplishment of just a few individuals can so affect the attitude of an entire nation.

Yet the same can be said of losing. The shame and humiliation of defeat is echoed throughout Australia’s news channels and print media. There is disappointment, even hostile anger, as well as deep resentment expressed by fans towards the players and officials.

So much passion. So much emotion. Over a game of cricket!

But it isn’t just a game. As far as the die-hard Ashes fan is concerned, the two teams assembled on that pitch represent two nations locked in battle; Australia versus England in a war with the pride and honour of their countrymen at stake. The victors are crowned with praise and their feats recorded for all time in the history books. The losers hide their faces in shame and utter humiliation.

Shame and humiliation is the theme of the verse taken from 1 Corinthians 4. Yet notice: it is God who has caused this shame to be put on display. Furthermore, it is the shame of God’s servants: that of Paul and the apostles.

Paul writes…

For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men.
1 Corinthians 4:9

The Corinthian church was looking for winners. But when they looked at Paul, all they saw was a big-time loser. They wanted a leader who looked the part – wise, learned, articulate, charismatic and gifted. Yet Paul goes on to describe himself as foolish and weak (verse 10), hungry and homeless (verse 11), cursed and oppressed (verse 12). He even sums up his position calling himself the scumbag and rubbish of the world (verse 13)!

But the amazing thing is that Paul says all this is God’s doing. God “exhibited” the apostles and made them a “spectacle” for the entire universe to see – “to the world, to angels and to men” (verse 9). Near the end of the chapter, Paul will go on to urge the Corinthians to imitate him (verse 16)!

So today, as we look at 1 Corinthians 4, I invite you to be a fool. (Or if you like, an Australian!) To hang your heads in shame and take upon yourself the weight of scorn. For the world is looking for leaders who are winners. But the gospel calls for sinners in need of a Saviour.

Jesus Christ came in meekness and humility and died on the cross in shame. That in itself ought to transform our perception of greatness for the cross is the greatest display of God’s glory. Through his sacrifice on the cross, Jesus conquered death (1 Corinthian 15:54), defeated sin (Romans 6:10), triumphed over evil (Colossians 2:15) and displayed the supreme righteousness of God to justify sinners by grace through faith (Romans 3:24-26). The highest degree of God’s love, grace, power, glory and righteousness is seen through the humble, submissive, sacrificial, obedient, determined, violent death of his Son on the cross!

Few see it that way. They look at the cross and all they see is foolishness. Shame. Weakness. Failure. I can almost understand why Muslims find the cross so insulting towards God. It is! How can Christians confess to worship Almighty God yet claim that this man who was tortured by Romans guards, hung naked on the cross, jeered and spit on by the crowds and suffocated to death is the very same Creator and Sustainer of the universe?

Yet that is the claim of the bible (Colossian 1:15-20). And the question we should be asking God is: why do it this way? Why does God choose the cross: a symbol of shame, weakness, oppression and pain to display the supreme weight of his glory and highest degree of his grace?

I think the apostle Paul would have answered with the words of 1 Corinthians Chapter 1, verse 29:

So that no one may boast before him.
1 Corinthians 1:29

The Corinthian Christians had much to boast about. There is every indication in this letter that this was a truly gifted church – or, if you like – a truly charismatic church. Here was a church blessed with visible and varied signs of God’s grace. Right at the beginning of the letter, Paul thanks God for enriching the Corinthian church with all manner of gifts – particularly gifts of speech and knowledge (1:5). He goes so far as to say, “Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift (charismati) as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed” (1:7).

There is nothing wrong with the gifts. Paul thanks God for the gifts as evidences of God’s grace. But the Corinthians saw things differently. They boasted in the gifts for they were boasting in themselves. But they did not boast in God. That is the charge in Chapter 4 verse 7.

For who makes you different from anyone else?
What do you have that you did not receive?
And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?
1 Corinthians 4:7

I think this verse helps summarise the problems that Paul was addressing in Chapter 4. Paul poses three questions to the church in Corinth that deal with three important issues that still challenge the church today: (1) assessment, (2) acknowledgment and (3) attitude.

1. Assessment

First: assessment. Literally the first question reads: “For who distinguishes you?” Diakrinei which means to discern a difference or to make a distinction, has overtones of making a judgement call (anakrino = “to examine”; krino = “to judge”). Judgement is a major theme running through the entire chapter. The church in Corinth was making judgements about Paul – whether he was a worthy leader compared to the philosophers and orators of their day; compared to other apostles like Peter and Apollos; compared to themselves even.

Some in the church were branding themselves into camps and splitting themselves into factions. So there was Camp Paul, Camp Apollos, Camp Cephas and even Camp Christ (1:12). Often this becomes an illustration not to be too enamoured with big Christian personalities. Downloading podcasts by Mark Driscoll, reading books by John Piper or attending a big conference by Francis Chan.

While I do agree that Paul does put each in his place in light of God’s supreme role in redemption (“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” – 3:6) and hence we should not make too much of any one person or ministry, I also marvel at Paul’s ability to incorporate all these blessings to paint the bigger picture of God’s plan and purpose.

So let no one boast in men.
For all things are yours,
whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas
or the world or life or death or the present or the future—
all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.
1 Corinthians 3:21

Paul doesn’t just say “None of these belong to you – you didn’t earn it, you don’t deserve it! You might have listened to every John Piper sermon, but John Piper’s never heard of you!”

Instead he says everything is yours. Paul, Apollos, Cephas – all these people you take pride in and are so taken by. But there so, so much more! Life and death; the present the future - All are yours!

But here’s the kicker. You are Christ’s. This is not a promise to everyone. It is God’s inheritance for all who are in Christ – for all who belong to Jesus.

And Christ is God’s! Christians learn submission from a Saviour who submits himself to his heavenly Father. It’s talking again about the cross. In other words, all these blessings come through the obedience of Christ to his Father displayed through the cross. Jesus paid for your salvation, but also all the blessings the come through salvation – eternal life, fellowship with God, the renewed heavens and earth, the resurrected body, the indwelling of the Spirit, the growing work of sanctification in our daily walk with God – all through his death on the cross.

Now what issue is Paul dealing with again? The beginning of verse 21: Let no one boast in men.

I can understand why leaders may lovingly warn Christians of the dangers of mindlessly following personalities – that they shouldn’t compare their own pastor to Don Carson or Rick Warren. But the approach of minimising one blessing of God to maximise another can only do so much.

I say this because you don’t need to have big personalities for these big problems to surface even in a small church. The issue isn’t the giftedness of the leader or the overpowering personality of bible teacher. I doubt Paul was having a punch-up with Apollos or Peter over this.

The heart of the issue was the assessment of the individual Christians and wider church. They invested these individuals with the regard and misplaced honour they didn’t ask for or desire. Furthermore, the followers were in conflict with one another, not the leaders themselves. Even in a small church, as long as there’s more than one person in a visible role of leadership – let me assure you, this will happen. You don’t need to be charismatic, or preach like John Piper or tell jokes like Mark Driscoll. If you’re in a bible study group and two of you take turns to lead – you might be the best of pals, the closest of friends – yet others are going to compare and contrast you to one another.

That’s the heart of the issue. Assessing one person in relation to another. The Corinthians did this with their leaders. They did this with themselves.

For who makes you different from anyone else?
1 Corinthians 4:7a

When I first read this, I thought it sounded like Paul was saying, “You guys are all the same, and no-one should discriminate against one another.”

But when I looked back at the chapter as a whole, I found that the basis of this sentiment was completely off. That’s because Paul does frame his whole argument in terms of judgement – the judgement of the Lord Jesus Christ. What he is warning against is instead pre-judgement. That is, making a judgement that belongs to Jesus alone. Or making a judgement before the proper time of God’s judgement – a pre-judgement. To be clear: this doesn’t mean that God won’t judge our sins. Rather, it affirms the reality that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. Also, it doesn’t mean that we’re not guilty. God will expose all the motives of hearts and all will be laid bare.

Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.
1 Corinthians 4:5

Now this is a very different approach to an anti-discrimination social message which says no-one has the right to judge because we’re essentially all the same. We’re all not perfect, some might say, or we’re all equally well-meaning, others will say. Either way, you don’t judge me; I won’t judge you. The basic premise being: judgement itself is bad and discriminatory.

That isn’t what Paul is saying. There is a judgement because there is a Judge of the universe. Jesus will expose the deepest motives and all hidden thoughts and agendas. And all of it will come under his judgement.

This is why Paul can pronounce clear judgement and condemnation upon sin in the very next chapter. He criticizes the entire church for not exercising their responsibility of judging sin in the midst of God’s people.

Yet at the same time, Paul can claim...

But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court.
In fact, I do not even judge myself.

1 Corinthians 4:3

Is the apostle displaying double-mindedness? With others he is ready to pronounce condemnation but Paul himself is off-limits?

I struggled with this quite a bit this week as this passage made me realise just how fickle my own values are. I make judgements on all sorts of things every moment of each day. What to do with my money, how to approach my work in the office, how to spend my free time. And it’s not even stuff as abstract as these. It includes things like what to have for lunch, whether to watch this or that TV show, or read my bible or surf the internet. From the big to the small decisions, we all have internal measures to help guide us in our decision-making process. For me, so much of it is based on what is familiar, what is convenient, which is cheapest, which is the fastest, what is the most profitable...

And yet when I see Paul deciding how to lead his life and ministry there is just one clear purpose, one single passion in his heart and on his mind – the revealed will of God through Jesus Christ.

Paul has one standard. It is the gospel. As a servant of God his job is to stay faithful and true to the gospel.

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.
1 Corinthians 4:1

By “mysteries of God”, Paul is referring to gospel revealed to him by the Spirit and through God’s wisdom in Jesus Christ (2:7, 1:30). It is faithfulness and trustworthiness to this message that Paul will required of as a servant of God and steward of the gospel.

The judgement that Paul speaks about here is therefore, God’s assessment of his servants. The Corinthians have taken it upon themselves to do something that only God ought to do. To judge and assess the servants of God – the apostles, in general and Paul in particular – by comparing them to the popular standards of the day. So, in this letter, we find them criticising his unsophisticated manner of speech (2:1). Paul simply wasn’t confident or bold (2:3); not like their debaters and philosophers (1:20).

Yet Paul submits himself to the one Judge alone – Jesus Christ, his master and lord. And this judgement is unique. It is an assessment of the faithfulness of the minister of the gospel. Notice at the end of verse 5 that it involves receiving “commendation from God”. Meaning: the outcome of this judgement may include rebuke should the servant prove unfaithful, but it also includes reward if the servant has been trustworthy.

Paul is therefore not merely refuting the judgement of the Corinthians over his authority as an apostle and ability as God’s servant. He is even refusing to accept acclaim from man. He rejects both condemnation and commendation from man. His true reward comes from God alone.

Should Paul fall short, it will be against the measure of the gospel. His job is to proclaim the gospel in its fullness with all integrity and faithfulness.

For Christians, Jesus has taken all punishment for sin upon the cross. Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). The judgement spoken of here is unique to Christians especially entrusted with proclaiming the gospel. It is vitally important that ministers take seriously the call to faithfulness and integrity with regards to the message of Christ. This passage, together with the illustration of the building work that is tested by fire on the final Day, is directed particularly at church leaders. How will you build? And using what materials? The foundation must be Jesus Christ (3:11).

Like Paul, leaders will always be challenged and tempted to redefine their roles and responsibilities according to the performance indicators of the world. Through accomplishment. Through acclaim. Through regard and popularity. Ministry success. Numbers. Skills and talents.

All are good. And all are godly. And all are certainly useful. But the worker of the gospel will be assessed not by the world nor by worldly standards. A day will come when Christ will call us to account for our faithfulness. Have we been trustworthy as stewards of the mysteries of God?

For Paul and for all who labour in serving the God of the bible, the words we ought to long to hear from our Master on that last day is, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:23)

2. Acknowledgement

Secondly, it is acknowledgement. Paul challenges the Corinthians – and us – with the following question.

What do you have that you did not receive?
1 Corinthians 4:7b

And then Paul goes on to list an extraordinary array of blessings – riches, wisdom and honour! Yet, the irony is: these very blessings have blinded the Corinthians to their pride and ingratitude.

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich!
Without us you have become kings!
And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you!

We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ.
We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honour, but we in disrepute.
1 Corinthians 4:8,10

One of the grandest days to be in Cambridge is graduation day. Held each year the end of June, proud parents gather at the Senate House where sons and daughters receive their degrees in all pomp and splendour. It really is quite a sight. Students dress up in formal wear and black college gowns, like a scene out of a Harry Potter movie, then process from their colleges down the streets up to this building located right in the centre of town. Inside, the master of a college sits in the middle of the hall as students approach one-by-one to kneel before him as the degree is conferred in Latin.

For me, the real action takes place just after – outside on the small patch in front of the Senate House. Hundreds of excited new graduates buzzing about congratulating one another, friends gathered to say their final goodbyes and making plans to meet up over summer, the photos with mum and dad with the hood up, the hood down, facing sideways, facing front, Great St Mary’s church in the background, next to the giant green cup... etc.

Each time I’m there, I like to just take a brief scan round the lawn – a quick look at everyone’s faces. There is joy. Lots of laughter. And pride. Oh, so much wonderful pride and love from the parents, especially. “My son, he made it!” “That’s my girl with a PhD!”

But ever so often I catch a glimpse of disappointment. An unhappy parent. A disgruntled aunt. But what really breaks my heart is seeing it in a student. Seeing pride. Not the kind that finds joy in another’s success. The kind that distances oneself from another’s circumstance.

Three or four years in Cambridge can change you. Suddenly, you’re ashamed your dad’s a taxi driver. “Why does Mum have to fuss over me, can’t she see I’m all grown up already? This is just soooo embarrassing!”

Paul says:

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich!
Without us you have become kings!

Paul was responsible for planting the church in Corinth. He was their father through the gospel (4:15). But now the church had turned its back on its founding pastor. From their perspective, they were simply advancing in wisdom and insight. From Paul’s point of view, these young Christians were being forgetful, ungrateful and resentful.

Yet the issue isn’t so much ingratitude as it is impatience. Already, he says, you have all you want. Already, you’ve made it! Remembering that the previous issue was pre-judgement, that is, judging before the appointed time. So here, the Corinthians have jumped the gun yet again in their expectation of blessings before the coming age.

Almost all English translations (eg. NIV and ESV) translate the phrase “without us you have become kings” – emphasizing the change in status. But the sentence could just as rightly be rendered, “You have begun to rule” (ebasiluesate). Taken together, these blessings constitute the anticipated fulfilment of the coming Kingdom of God – riches and rule, wisdom and honour.

I remember my pastor back in Singapore saying that the biggest difference between expectation and reality is disappointment. When someone lives with unreal expectations and is suddenly confronted with stark reality – the bigger his or her expectations, the bigger the disappointment he or she faces in life.

As Christians this side of the cross, we live in an overlap between two ages – the beginning of one and the end of another.

It is the beginning of God’s reign. John the Baptist announced the coming of Jesus as the Messiah, proclaiming “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” It is just round the corner. Jesus begins his ministry in Luke’s gospel by reading the words of Isaiah the prophet, “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,” saying, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18,21). Because of God’s power displayed at the cross and resurrection of Jesus, Paul himself writes that Christians are seated with Christ “at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority” (Ephesians 1:21). This new beginning is the breaking in of a new age of blessing and renewal under the reign of Christ establishing the rule of God.

Yet at the same time, the bible speaks candidly of the end of this age. These are the “last days” (Acts 2:17; see also the “last hour” in 1 John 2:18). It is an age marked by both salvation and suffering; triumph and trials. Jesus says, “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved (Matthew 10:21-22)”. Do you hear these words? He who stands firm will be saved. Salvation is framed not simply as deliverance from suffering, but perseverance through suffering and faithfulness in spite of suffering.

The bible holds a tension between the already and the not yet. And the cord that holds these two truths together is hope. Many equate hope with wishful thinking. Yet hope, for Paul, is grounded in the certain theological and historical truth of Christ’s justifying work on the cross and borne out of endurance, patience and perseverance. Hope enables Christians to long for Christ’s appearing, yet rejoice in the face of suffering through the ministering work of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Romans 5:1-5

Christians who do not learn to hope well get disappointed often and devastated easily. Paul says “hope does not put us to shame (ESV)”. The NIV says this “hope does not disappoint us”. It doesn’t let us down.

Such is the case with the prosperity gospel, which really isn’t a gospel at all. It simply isn’t good news. It promises wealth, health and happiness, which are fantastic and fabulous; but fails to recognise their fulfilment as future blessings of the coming age while at the very same time, ignores the reality of suffering in this age. The prosperity gospel lets us down. It produces wimpy Christians who know nothing of enduring faith and sovereign grace (Romans 5:1, 21).

But, worst of all? The prosperity gospel denies God where it denies suffering. Chapter 4 verse 9 makes absolutely no sense to the gospel of wealth and health and happiness alone.

For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men.
1 Corinthians 4:9

Paul doesn’t just describe suffering. He gives a reason for it. “For I think,” Paul says, that God did this. God means for our hardship and humility to be put up on display for all to see.

To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted (knocked about) and homeless, and we labour, working with our own hands.
1 Corinthians 4:11-12

This is ongoing, continual and ever-present suffering. “To the present hour,” Paul writes, we encounter all these hardships – hunger, poverty, abuse, homelessness. The Corinthians on the other hand are living the good life. Or are they?

We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ.
We are weak, but you are strong.
You are held in honour, but we in disrepute.

1 Corinthians 4:10

Does this mean Christians should feel guilty if they are well-off? That believers should shun blessing? The opposite of the prosperity gospel is the equally misguided poverty gospel that says the true Christian life is the miserable life; the only godly life is a poor life. But poverty theology is just another form of false pride. It glories not in the sufferings of the cross but in its own self-pity. Poverty theology preaches the cross as tragedy but not as treasure.

No, Paul isn’t advocating another form of poverty theology. Far from it. He even expresses a longing that all promises of God’s kingdom had already reached its fulfilment in terms of spiritual and material blessing.

And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you!
1 Corinthians 4:8b

The misapplication of these verses can be easily avoided by clearly identifying who Paul is talking about. Who are the “we” described here? Who is Paul identifying with?

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.
1 Corinthians 4:1

I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers...
1 Corinthians 4:6

For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all...
1 Corinthians 4:9

Paul is obviously talking about the apostles – the leaders of the church. As leaders, God has so ordained their lives and ministry that they not only display faithfulness in preaching Christ, but also integrity in identifying with Christ in their response to suffering.

And we labour, working with our own hands.
When reviled, we bless;
when persecuted, we endure;
when slandered, we entreat.
We have become, and are still,
like the scum of the world,
the refuse of all things.

1 Corinthians 4:12-13

For Paul and the apostles, suffering is the very context for their service. They bless a world which responds with curses. As they are oppressed they patiently endure. Words of insult are exchanged with words of kindness. “We entreat,” says Paul, meaning he is pleading with his hearers to turn to God in repentance.

Yet the insults in this case are not coming from the world. They are coming from within the church. Hence the labour he talks about at the beginning of verse 12 is the work he is doing in service of the church with his “own hands”. It is an indication of Paul’s decision to support his own gospel ministry, though it benefits these Christian believers, refusing support from the church though he deserves it. He expands on this later in Chapter 9.

Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.
1 Corinthians 9:12

His goal and final reward is the gospel. And he willing sets aside other treasures so that the true treasure of God’s salvation can be seen for what it is: valuable, precious and yet, free. This is the bible’s theology of grace. Unlike prosperity theology, grace is able to celebrate in God’s blessing even in want. Unlike poverty theology, grace speaks of God’s abundant and overflowing blessing that comes through the cross. Grace means we do not deserve God’s mercy and goodness, yet he lavishes his forgiveness and love on sinners at the great cost of his Son.

The apostles are demonstrating grace. Faced with suffering and rejection, they respond in love with patience. This is what makes the gospel good news. Christians are saved purely through God’s grace in freely giving us his Son, Jesus on the cross.

Yet we must not miss how grace is most powerfully displayed. Paul wants the Corinthians to acknowledge the blessing of God. “What did you have that you did not receive?” he asks. Everything is from God. Your health, your wealth, your gifts, your intellect, your loved ones, your very life comes from God. “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The Corinthians had forgotten God’s goodness and grace. Instead the very grace-gifts of God have become the very reason for their pride and jealousy.

I want you to think about this for while: how would you deal with such persons? Let’s be honest: Here in Cambridge, everyone has amazing gifts. From the students to their professors; to the humble street performers, many of whom put professional entertainers to shame with their talents.

One approach is to cut them down to size. Show them that they aren’t really as smart as they think they are. Give the proud student a really tough problem to solve during supervision and watch him squirm. Challenge the professor in front of the entire class and tear down his methodology. Make them eat humble pie.

Another approach might be to impress them with your own gifts and talents. Show them that you’re on the same team; that if we worked together we would achieve so much more. The MBA programme starts one week earlier than all the others, to let their students bond and get to know one another. That’s because these leaders of industry have come to Cambridge not simply to gain knowledge, but to form partnerships and make business contacts that will affect the rest of their careers.

Cut them down. Or build them up. Yet Paul doesn’t use either of these strategies. He wants these Christians to acknowledge God’s blessing in their lives. And the way he does this is by acknowledging God’s goodness in his suffering. Do you see that?

Paul is saying that we need to see God’s hand in all things – in good things as well as bad things. That is because God’s purpose in plenty or in want, in comfort as well as suffering – is one and the same. It is to display the supreme glory of his grace through Jesus Christ.

And while we still live in a world that only values blessing; that only acknowledges wealth; that only treasure comfort and security, often times the clearest way to display the glory of God’s grace is not through blessing, wealth or comfort, but in the midst of suffering, poverty and death. Because Christians who continue to speak of the good God in the face of evils done against them, who rejoice in the hope of eternal life as they stare at the prospect of harm and death – these are the Christians the world sits up and takes notice of. These are the believers who stand out as different from the world. These are the disciples of Jesus Christ who take up their cross daily to follow the footsteps of their Saviour.

These are the apostles. Who lead this church to recognise the hand of God, to acknowledge the goodness of God in all blessings he bestows upon the church, and all sufferings of Christ he grants for us as Christians to participate in (Philippians 1:29), all to display supreme glory of God in his grace through Jesus Christ.

What would it take for you to recognise God’s hand in your life? It is tempting to just recount those moments we were happiest and most joyful; to list the most extravagant and lavish gifts we have been blessed with. Here the bible challenges to look at the most difficult moments we’ve encountered. Paul is giving us the license and the courage to dig up painful memories and take a hard look at even the things we are most ashamed of – maybe these things are not past but present realities – and look to God for his grace to deal with them, to stay faithful in the midst of them, even to speak God’s blessing through the gospel into them.

Could it be that God is calling you minister to others in your weakness? That’s the amazing thing about the gospel: it actually puts the weak in the position to help the strong. Paul has become a fool for Christ and here he writes to address the wise. In fact, that’s the very position he needs to be in, in order to be effective in his ministry.

We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.
1 Corinthians 4:13

There is no indication that things will change. “God has put us in this situation, and he has kept us here,” Paul is saying. To the world, they are seen as rubbish, drop-outs, failures and has-beens. Yet, how does God see them? Faithful. That is what God is looking for and calling us to be. To be faithful and trustworthy in speaking the gospel and living the gospel no matter the circumstances.

To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labour, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat.
1 Corinthians 4:11-12

3. Attitude

Thirdly, Paul addresses their attitude.

If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?
1 Corinthians 4:7c

Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power.
1 Corinthians 4:18-19

The Corinthians were being arrogant (some versions have “puffed up”) and this attitude was strongly reflected in their “talk” which Paul says is indicative of certain “arrogant people”. Yet what Paul will deal with is not their “talk” but their “power”.

For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.
1 Corinthians 4:20

All talk and no power – it makes it sound like these arrogant individuals are making boastful yet empty claims. They have no real authority or ability to back these claims up. But what are these arrogant people claiming to do? And what is the power that Paul says they lack?

There is no need to guess the answers to these questions as we have encountered the unique pairings of “talk” and “power” before; on several occasions in the previous chapters. The “talk” of these arrogant people translates the Greek word “logos”, elsewhere rendered as “speech” or “word”.

And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech (logos) and my message were not in plausible words(logois) of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
1 Corinthians 2:3-5

Paul has previously expanded on the dangers of trusting in wise-sounding words – in eloquent wisdom and impressive oratory – as the basis of our faith in God and our judgement over the things of God. The true wisdom of God appears foolish to the wise of the world. This is not an accident. God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose the weak to shame the strong. Why? So that no-one can boast in themselves before God (1 Corinthians 1:27-29). Here in Chapter 4, the proud “words” of certain arrogant individuals in Corinth are likely to be accusations against Paul himself. They seek to challenge his authority as an apostle. But Paul recognises their empty boasts not simply as a personal insult, but a dangerous influence that threatens to undermine the foundation of the Corinthians’ faith in God’s salvation.

According to Paul, the kingdom of God is really about “power”. I wonder what you would substitute in place of that word “power”. God’s kingdom isn’t about talk, it is really about... Well, what word comes to mind?

I think most of us would naturally think of the word “action”. After all, that is what we are looking for in our leaders – Not simply individuals who make big promises, but those who deliver real results. Actions speak louder than words, we usually say. Conversely, we hate hypocrites – those who say one thing, yet do another. We want honesty, consistency, authenticity – in our government, in our banks, in our newspapers and in our law-courts.

And yes, it is right to expect the same level of authenticity of our leaders in the church. Paul can write to the believers, “I urge you then, be imitators of me” (1 Corinthians 4:16). Not just his doctrine, but even his life displays the integrity of what he teaches.

That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.
1 Corinthians 4:17

His life mirrors his teaching. It sounds like an ideal but this is merely the same faithfulness that Paul says is required of all servants of the gospel (4:1-2). These “ways in Christ” – which are interestingly plural (ways) – meaning both his life and doctrine are the same things he teaches “everywhere in every church”. This is consistency and transparency in preaching and living the gospel.

Yet, having said all this, I do not think this is what Paul means by the word “power”. The Kingdom of God, says Paul, does not consist in talk but in power. That power is not something that Paul did. Instead Paul is pointing to something that God has done. This is God’s power to save. The key verse is found in 1 Corinthians 1:18.

For the word (logos) 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 1:18

Look carefully at what Paul says here. What is the power of God? It is the power to save – yes. But what is this power? It is the word of the cross. This word which looks foolish “to those who are perishing”. But this same word, which to the Christian who has been saved (and is being saved), “is the power of God.” The message of cross is displays the supreme power of God.

You see, the contrast is not so much between word and power. It is between man and God. Man’s logos is to boast in himself. Man’s power is self-sufficiency. God’s word and God’s power is the cross. It is the shame, the suffering and the death of Jesus Christ. The crucifixion of Jesus displays the wisdom of God and the power of God.

Notice, it is the power of God “to those who are being saved”. This is a matter of life and death. The cross isn’t just a point of view. It is the difference between everlasting life with God and eternal damnation under the judgement of God.

I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children.
1 Corinthians 4:14

This is the whole reason why Paul addresses their attitude of pride and arrogance. Not to shame but to warn. They think they are merely judging Paul in his weakness. Paul says they are foolishly standing in judgement over the cross. Still the apostle will address their improper attitude not by demanding accountability, but by expressing affection. He loves them and appeals to the Corinthians as a father does his own children.

For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers.
For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

1 Corinthians 4:15

This bit of the letter is intensely personal. No longer “we” and the “apostles” but “I” – “I write these things”(4:14), “I became your father”(4:15), “I urge you”(4:16) and “I will come to you soon” (4:19).

Few of us reading this letter will feel the full force of Paul’s argument, if you have never had someone in your life who cares deeply for your well-being, your conduct and your faith, as Paul did for these Corinthians. The arrogance of these believers didn’t merely offend him as a Christian leader. Their actions broke his heart as a father who had brought them to faith in Christ and nurtured them in the gospel. Still he appeals to them, even sending Timothy, his “beloved and faithful child in the Lord” to remind them of Christ, while he makes plans for his own personal visit to Corinth (4:19).

But as I said earlier, unless you have had a similar experience of accountability as well as affection in the gospel, we will miss the tension in these words. And I suspect you will find Paul’s closing words all the more deeply offensive.

What do you wish?
Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?

1 Corinthians 4:21

Paul ends on the rather unsavoury note of discipline. It is a threat of discipline, but a real threat nonetheless – as evidenced in the next two chapters dealing with sin and the responsibility of the entire community in judging sin within the church. This is important to note as church discipline is an activity of the whole gathering (1 Corinthians 5:4-5) – not just the leaders themselves. In those instances of sin, Paul does condemn the sinner, yet reserves even harsher condemnation on the church for failing to exercise discipline over that sin.

Still what we must not miss in these strong words is Paul display of affection. He would rather deal with the Corinthians in “a spirit of gentleness”. But he will not spare the “rod” either. Both are expressions of his love for the believers. Both show that Paul cares for this church.

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article entitled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” In it author Amy Chua contrasts the different parenting practices of Asian and Western families while reflecting on her own personal challenges raising her two daughters in the modern Western world. She writes,

Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best. Chinese parents can say, "You're lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you." By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they're not disappointed about how their kids turned out.
Amy Chua, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”, Wall Street Journal, 8 January 2011

The article doesn’t denigrate Western parents, but sets out to clarify the sincere intentions of Chinese parents seeking the very best for and from their kids.

The apostle Paul is seeking the very best for and from the church. He is their father in the gospel and he cares for their conduct in the faith. Out of all the churches in the New Testament, the church in Corinth is possibly the most gifted and talented. 1 Corinthians 12 to 14 are the chapters we often turn to learn about spiritual gifts and their place in the church and life of the Christian. Yet out of the all the churches in the New Testament, the church in Corinth was the one which possibly caused Paul the most grief and anguish. These Christians were a source of pain and anguish to Paul because of their pride and sinfulness. But also because of the apostle’s sincere love for them. He never gave up on them.

Instead right at the beginning of the letter Paul writes,

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge – even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

God is faithful, by whom you were called into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
1 Corinthians 1:4-9

These gifts were causing the Corinthians to puff themselves up. Yet Paul thanks God for the gifts. They are given as visible signs of God’s grace for the good of the church.

But more importantly, Paul reminds them that even though the Corinthians have proved faithless in using these gifts, God is still faithful to sustain them to very end.

The Corinthians might be messed up but God has not given up. And neither does Paul.