Agonizomai: February 2008

Friday, February 29, 2008

1 Cor 1:11-13 - The "No Party" Vote

11-13 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, "I follow Paul," or "I follow Apollos," or "I follow Cephas," or "I follow Christ." 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

Now, having stopped to take our bearings, and looking to the text itself to tell us what it is actually saying, we see what Paul means by "divisions" here. He specifically says what he means in the words, "What I mean is..." What could be plainer?

And what follows clearly shows that he is addressing a party spirit based on loyalty or preference for certain teachers - setting them up in comparison to each other and arguing over who is better. Now it is probably undeniable, humanly speaking, that there are differences between various teachers and apostles - rendering some better speakers, some more personable, some more studied, some gentler and others more stern.

Nothing needs to be said about the rightness or wrongness of these things. They are facts. God gives gifts to men as He sees fit - some receiving more than others in various areas. And saved men themselves learn to employ those gifts well as they continue to grown in grace. Inequality is not the point. Christianity does not condemn inequality. It condemns inequity. In fact, inequality is the very condition that provides the means for grace to work in people towards others. Some weep in loss while others rejoice in blessing, but the rejoicers must mourn with the weepers nevertheless - and vice versa. Some are given wealth and privilege while others are born, live and die in abject poverty - yet the "haves" are commanded to show generosity and grace to the needy - especially in the household of faith.

Confusing inequality with inequity is a carnal error. It is worldly. It focuses on inequality as the great evil and confuses it with inequity philosophically, while actually becoming more and more inequitable in practice. It leads to worldly philosophies like Communism and Socialism, because they do not recognize the hand of God in providence, nor the responsibility of man towards God in living.

Another false value system originating in men is that of Fascism or elitism where power and privilege in themselves become the god. This system embraces inequality but totally ignores inequity. It is, if you like, social Darwinism on steroids.

But the God of the Bible knows that the differences that show up in what we call inequality are opportunities for grace to abound. To be sure there are degrees of inequality; some have nothing at all while some have far above anything that they need; some came by what they have through hard work, some through what they think of as chance or luck, and some through inheritance. All of these things are clouded to our understanding because they arise and are manifested in a world in which everything is tainted by sin.

This goes not only for wealth, but for ability or talent. Originally these were greater or lesser gifts of various sorts given to different individuals that they might glorify God. They didn’t need to be identical in nature or quantity in all people. That’s communism. They weren’t meant to be the source of pride and superiority in those who had "more". That’s Fascism. They were meant to display the manifold wisdom and glory of God as He saw fit. And the lowly, slight-gifted individual was praised for using what God had given him just as much as the greatly gifted man was praised for the use of his talents; only more was expected from him.

How this would have looked before sin came into the world we cannot truly know. What understanding can the denizens of the deepest ocean have of the wonders of the farthest galaxy? We are immersed in the ubiquitous fruit of sin. It is all we can know if we are apart from Jesus Christ. But the glory is that, for those who know Him, He is the firstborn of all creation, the heir of all things, Creator, Redeemer, God with us, Sustainer, Glorifier. He is both the reason for and the cause of the existence of all things. All things were created for Him and through Him and in Him all things hold together.

And Paul rightly shows here the absolute folly of party spirit and the factionising tendencies of men based on loyalties to other men. Men - all men - are sinners saved entirely by grace alone. No one has anything he did not first receive. It was a free gift. God drew Him. God regenerated him. God sustains and keeps him.

So what is left to boast of, either in ourselves or in others? What loyalty is owed to any man based on his performance or ability? Yes - we render honour to whom honour is due; we say "thanks" and mean it when we receive from someone else - whether that be material or spiritual food. But our thanks is to them for Christ’s sake because we know Who it is that undergirds all things and from whom all blessing flow.

It is not just "God" in the vague sense that many people use. It is God manifested in and through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. This is what makes Christianity both different and exclusive, and what still brings offence to ecumenists and postmoderns today. It is what got all the martyrs killed. It is what will bring you persecution. It is not simply "god" - but God manifested in Son - crucified and killed and suffering the wrath of God, raised from the dead and the only way to heaven, through His righteousness alone.

So Paul doesn’t mince words. Without the undergirding, justifying, sustaining grace of God which is in Christ alone there is - there can be - no Christianity. All other men are sinful creatures who must be saved by grace, whereas Jesus Christ is the obedient, holy, man-God - sinless, perfect, full of grace and truth. To use His Name in a conversation where He is just one of many teachers is to utterly miss the point. He is not just "a" teacher - He is God incarnate from whom all wisdom flows. This first rebuke to the Corinthians is, to me, exasperatingly gentle. But such gentleness is born of a humility to which I have not yet attained.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

1 Cor 1:10-11 - Good and Bad Splits

10-11 I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers.

Paul understands that as soon as we become Christians there is never any more disagreement among us. We all think and say and do the same things. We never argue or dispute with our brothers and sisters. He knows that doctrine divides and that we are simply all to love each other and everything will be alright. Yes?...No!

Any one can take a few verses and make a case for most anything. But what would such thinkers make of what Paul says later in this same letter at 1Co 11:18-19? First Paul says here that there ought NOT to be divisions and then he calls factions necessary for the exposure of truth. Which of these statements is true? They both are.

In this context - at the very outset - Paul is addressing not the necessary existence of debate and discussion over the truth and meaning of things, but partisanship based on personalities. There is no room in Christianity for personality cults. All leaders and teachers - all apostles and prophets are saved in exactly the same way and from exactly the same thing as the least high profile of the flock. They are saved entirely by grace and from the wrath of God by the only Person worthy of worship - the Lord, their God and Saviour.

I want to reemphasize the point that these few verses cannot be taken and refashioned into a blanket condemnation of all disagreement in the church, or of any need to both discuss and defend doctrine inside the church. Liberals and postmoderns, offended as they are by even a hint of universal truth or certainty about anything, see any form of dispute as wrong and they hasten (erroneously) to passages like this using a poor hermeneutic to make them say what they do not say in the context.

The unity spoken of here is, as we shall see, unity in Christ, by the Spirit as opposed to an external unity based on loyalty, admiration or devotion to mere men.

My moniker - that's John Hancock to Americans

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

1 Cor 1:8-9 - Finders' Keepers

{7b)... as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ,} 8 who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

How are we kept? Is it we who keep ourselves? Is it a combination of God doing it with our help? Or is it a case of we doing it with His aid? What does this verse say about that? And are there other verses that say the same thing in similar ways?

For the grammatically challenged it is difficult - but for those who can read plain English it is clear enough - God saves and God keeps. But He does it through the means of faith. Faith is believing what God has said. God has said that He will keep His saints to the end. His saints all believe this, and so they are kept through that faith which simply believes that God will do it. Their faith is not in their faith, but in God. And their faith is the means that God is using to preserve them.

Any professing saint who really thinks that he can and must keep himself has missed the mark. We can guard our hearts. We can strive to enter through the narrow gate and to stay in the narrow way. These things we can and must do. But we must do so believing it is God who is moving, enlivening, motivating, drawing and sanctifying by revealing and forming His Son in us - as He purposed to do from the very beginning of time.

God will keep every one of His true saints, keep them from falling away and preserve them all to the very end. That is why He came. He didn’t come just to make salvation (justification, sanctification and glorification) possible , but to make it actual. Salvation is not made conditional upon what we do and what we maintain. The reverse is actually true. What we do and maintain is ultimately conditional upon our salvation.

Note the word "guiltless." What a glorious word! For there is now no condemnation for those that are in Christ Jesus {Ro 8:1}. This is true even though we serve the law of sin with our flesh and the law of God with our minds. In Jesus Christ we have been justified, given power over the flesh and ultimate victory in Him. As we grow in grace we through faith and in the power of the Spirit put to death the deeds of the body. When we fail (and we all fail) we may feel guilty, but we have but to confess and repent and we know the forgiveness of God is ours. It is because we are free from guilt that we do not do what all natural men would do with this truth. We do not sin the more that grace may abound. God’s forgiveness in Christ has quite the opposite effect on the true child of God - it makes him want to sin less.

We have peace with God. We are no longer His enemies - unlike the rest of the world upon whom the wrath of God abides. God has spoken peace to our hearts and this peace is received again through faith. Sometimes we may not feel at peace with God - especially when we have sinned - but true faith trusts in what God has said, and not in our feelings. And because of the God in Whom our faith rests we count on His peace declared to all who receive His Son, and in this reliance we find the obedience of confession and repentance, and the grace of restoration to fellowship. (but not restoration to salvation, because we have this eternally)

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.


It is well, with my soul,
It is well, with my soul,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.


My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!


And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.


Horatio G. Spafford, 1873

It is into this relationship that we have been called - we and the Corinthian believers in the church to whom this letter is addressed. And this is the point of exhortation and encouragement from which Paul begins his corrective to the scandalously confused church at Corinth.

My moniker - that's John Hancock to Americans
1 Cor 1:4-7 - The Proof of the Pudding

4-7 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, 5 that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— 6 even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— 7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ...

For those who are familiar with this epistle this introduction must never cease to amaze. The Corinthian church of this time was, and stands in history as, a testimony to what a church ought not to be like in so many ways. Those who rush to the example of Corinth in order to bolster support for the more charismatic gifts within the church often miss the point that the display of many of these gifts was grossly unchristian in spirit. This is undeniable upon any reasonable reading of the text.

The truly astounding part is that God nevertheless did indeed gift these people by His grace with many great things in Jesus Christ. And the only way I have found to get past the apparently glaring contradiction of so great a gifting and so perverse a use of it is to accept that the gifts and calling of God are without repentance. In other words, God is not an Indian giver. What He gives He gives without changing His mind and taking it back. He never regrets what He has done because He did it for a purpose.

Perhaps the purpose of giving manifest gifts to the church at Corinth was so that we in later generations would understand His grace. Perhaps it was so that the Corinthian believers would learn the value of His grace under the correcting hand of His apostle. It might have been so that we and they would be taught not to abuse the grace of God by presuming upon it - and then to be taught the height and width and depth of His grace and mercy in Jesus Christ towards we who belong to Him by displaying great forgiveness and patience with our foolish ways.

Whatever God’s purposes were, it must be understood that God dispenses His gifts as He pleases and for good purposes. When we see foolishness in the misuse of gifts we ought to understand that we must remember Ro 2:1, and look to ourselves first in all things before we are able to judge another. Note - we look to ourselves first, but that does not mean we are never to assess the fruit in another but rightly use God’s word as the measure and for the purposes of loving correction. We ought never to throw out the baby with the bath water.

But, getting back to the grace given to the Corinthians, we can see that they were genuinely enlightened in their understanding (knowledge) and in their speech or utterance. In other words they understood the things of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ and even had insights that they rightly communicated. They were getting it right in so many ways and this was a confirmation of the true working of God’s Spirit in and among them. It testified to their belonging to Jesus Christ because such things - understanding, knowledge, witness, prophetic ability - were indicators of His work in them.

The idea of them not lacking in any spiritual gift is addressed to the local church body, of course, and not to any one individual per se. No one person but the Lord Himself – the Giver – has every spiritual gift in perfect balance or array. Some have one gift and others have another. Some have more of a particular gift and less of another, as God Himself sees fit. But there can be little doubt that the Corinthians had all that they needed to be a growing, thriving fellowship, and a vital instrument of God in one of the darker places upon the earth of that time.

One characteristic of the early church, and one that is to be typical of all the saints throughout the gospel age, is to be awaiting the return of Jesus. The OT saints awaited His arrival – His incarnation – and the NT saints await His second coming, which will be in power and glory to rule and to judge. And this short phrase in verse 7 testifies that God has not left us alone and without hope. We have the down payment, so to speak - what Paul calls the earnest of our inheritance - in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit through Whose agency comes both gifting and fruit. The gifts are meant to be an encouragement; not so much an empirical "proof" because that would mitigate against faith - but an evidence that nevertheless satisfies the faithful ones. Faith is not blind; it is not a leap in the dark; it a an acceptance of the truth and reliability and rightness of what God Himself has declared and manifested.

And so this evidence that is received through faith is our comfort while we await His physical, historical return. The gifts spoken of here are real and they are meant to encourage the Corinthian church and all believers everywhere. {1Co 1:2}

While the most obvious meaning is usually the best - and this is no exception - yet there is a sense in which all the saints are always waiting for the revelation of Jesus Christ in the world. This additional sense does not detract from the well established and accepted doctrine of the imminent return of the Lord, for that Day will come as the next verse clearly says. But as the Apostle Paul spoke about God being pleased to reveal His Son in him {Ga 1:15-16} , so God is pleased to reveal His Son in all of His elect throughout the ages until that Day. And I speak of not only the initial revelation at the moment of conversion - but the ongoing revelation of Christ in us, the hope of glory, as He is formed in us.

My moniker - that's John Hancock to Americans

Monday, February 25, 2008

1 Cor 1:1-3 - Laying the Groundwork

1-3 Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes, 2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is a customary Pauline greeting in which he refers to his calling (and thereby implies his authority) and mentions those to whom the epistle is addressed, followed by a genuine blessing of God’s grace and peace.

The man, Sosthenes ("safe in strength"), is possibly the one who was the leader of the Corinthian Synagogue mentioned in Ac 18:17 and who was beaten for refusing to prosecute Paul. There is no direct evidence for this, but it fits with the idea that an unjustly persecuted man moved to deal justly with one of God’s apostles was already under the conviction of the Holy Spirit and ready for conversion under the proper exposition of the gospel. It is admittedly a reach - but a reach that is congruent with what we know of how God works. One can imagine a man thusly brought into the light - already a leader of the people and knowledgeable in the Scriptures - desiring to travel with Paul in the Lord’s work, and whose name is invoked to those converted Jews among the saints in his home town in a greeting from afar. (“afar” being Ephesus, at the time)

The main audience of this letter is the church at Corinth. It is not to the unbelievers at Corinth - it is to "those sanctified in Christ Jesus." I find this an amazing statement in and of itself because, in the original language, the action "sanctified" is in the perfect tense, signifying something done once for all in the past; it is also in an passive voice. In other words this is something done for and to the Corinthian believers and is a settled fact, never needing to be repeated. They have been set apart - declared "holy" and given the name "saints".

This is indeed remarkable considering the occasion upon which Paul writes, which is to correct virtual anarchy and gross misunderstanding, false belief and sinful conduct which were rampant in the Corinthian church. Perhaps there is a reminder for us all in this. Paul is quite capable of giving the severest rebuke, but he begins with the most gentle of introductions.

This letter is also written to all believers everywhere. I would argue that all the pastoral writings (and even the whole of the Bible) are written only to believers - but this letter is absolutely clear about the issue. Before proceeding any further with this, or any other letter in the New Testament, it is wise to understand who the primary audience is, so that later statements can be understood in the proper context. Many who do not do this end up using what is holy and given to the church to cast before swine who have no understanding of spiritual things. Some with an unbiblical universalist bent take lessons and promises for the saints and apply them to the world at large, omitting teaching about the necessary work of God or of repentance and true faith.

We understand that it is by the preaching of Christ that people are saved - but the preaching of Christ {1Co 15:1-5} is evangelical in nature, before it is pastoral. The sow must cease wallowing in the mire before it is ready to receive and appreciate the delicacies of the King’s table.

We see also the (by this time) well established concept of the universal church - the church militant, consisting not of those of a particular nationality, but of all those who call upon the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the commonality of the belief in Jesus Christ as both Lord and Saviour (Lord, and Christ) that makes the church a brotherhood of the saints. All those who call upon His Name are and shall be saved, whether Philippian jailers, {Ac 16:29-33} or whether they are Jews or Greeks {Ro 10:11-13}

Note that it is by professing faith in Jesus as both Lord and Saviour that men are regarded by Paul and the church as belonging to Him. Participation in Christ and in His body is absolutely contingent upon these two things. That means that they must believe in the Jesus of the Bible, as He is portrayed there - eternal Son of God in human flesh, Who lived a perfect life pleasing to His Father and Who took upon Himself the sins of those He came to save so that His perfect life could be imputed to them; Who died and rose again and now sits in heaven while His victory over sin, hell, death and the devil is manifested in the world and before the principalities and powers in the heavens. That is the Saviour part. That is the narrow gate part of Mt 7:13-14. It is also the doctrine part. It is the "what to believe" part. It is the facts - historical, documented and preserved in order that they may be known and believed.

And the narrow way part of that same section of Matthew, which is equally vital to being a true member of Christ’s body, is the acceptance of Him as Lord - that is, as God with all of His rights to rule and govern their lives. This is the "God" part. It is also the application and the proof part because, if He is truly a person’s Lord, then the life of obedience will be manifested.

Thus we have the need for the obedience of faith to be manifested in all those who profess to be in Christ. And we see that in his gracious effort to be gentle, Paul has nevertheless set the criteria upon which His later admonishments will be firmly based - true membership in the body of Christ.

Though I am now studying the Homily to the Hebrews, a short while ago I finished up what seemed like an age stumbling around in 1Corinthians. I will post my musings on this book in a series that may take as long a 6 months to complete. Remember, these are devotional observations and not a scholarly commentary. The first post follows below.

The King of Love
Here is another flash recording (works well in Firefox) of a presentation I once made to a Sunday School class. (Using MSInternet Explorer? Does it sound like the Chipmunks? Can't see or access the flash media? Here's a streaming MP3 link) In my mind I had visions of holding up a book (not a Bible, but a book that I would pretend was a Bible) and ripping out sections as I made each point. I never did do that; too "TV evangelist" for me.

I showed it to a gentle and godly man before I ever let it see the light of day. He was completely put off by it. He said that he recognized "genius" when he saw it, but that the subject matter and the way it was presented was offensive to him. The reception in Sunday School was less than enthusiastic, too.

Does anyone else feel the same way, I wonder?

My moniker - that's John Hancock to Americans

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Diet of Worms
On the topic of Luther and the Reformation, here is a little piece I wrote a while ago and recorded. You will need to have flash browser plugin installed in order to listen. This will work well in Firefox (Using MSInternet Explorer? Does it sound like the Chipmunks? You can listen to streaming MP3 by clicking this link)

My moniker - that's John Hancock to Americans