1 Corinthians 9:1-18

1 Corinthians 9:1-7 (NRSV) – “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If I am not an apostle to others, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to our food and drink? Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who at any time pays the expenses for doing military service? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not get any of its milk?”

This chapter picks up where the previous chapter left off, on the subject of refraining from certain activities under certain circumstances, even if we have the right to do so, for the sake of other believers. The topic discussed in the previous chapter was eating food sacrificed to idols. Given that this was a controversial issue in a divided church, Paul encouraged believers not to do it publicly (even though the “sacrifice” does not actually make the food idolatrous) to avoid causing other believers to join in and eat the food out of trust in another believer rather than their own conscience.

For Paul, giving up certain rights for the sake of those he has ministered to goes well beyond just issues of this nature. But he is concerned that the church does not appreciate it. As we saw in the first chapter of this epistle, while some believers self-identified with Paul, others chose to identify with the preacher Apollos, some chose the Apostle Peter, and others self-righteously claimed identification with Christ Himself.

Basically, to those who want to identify with Peter or Apollos instead of Paul, or who want to cast Paul aside in the name of following Christ, Paul is saying, “What reasonable issue could you guys have with me? I’ve waived my right to marriage so that I can direct my passion toward supporting you and other churches in the faith. Barnabas and I still work for a living so that we don’t have to bother you by begging for money or food.”

That was my paraphrase, but below is more writing from Paul himself:

“If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we still more? 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 Cor. 9:11-12).

Here Paul is basically saying, “We have the right to be asking you for support, but we waive that right because we want you to hear our message, and we don’t want to turn you away. We don’t want to be a free service that bombards you with ads asking for money to the point where you tune out due to annoyance or guilt.

Further along in the chapter, Paul himself says,

“I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this so that they may be applied in my case. Indeed, I would rather die than that—no one will deprive me of my ground for boasting! If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:15-18).

Paul apparently wants something to boast about. He has decided that he can boast in the fact that he does not claim his rights to any material benefits from his service to the church. He cannot boast about simply preaching the Gospel because that preaching was an “obligation” given to him, and if he doesn’t fulfill it, he says “woe is me.”

I will be very honest about something. I do not idealize the concept of feeling that you must do something for God, else face a sense of personal “woe.” But I also acknowledge that sometimes, this is the way certain good deeds predestined by God will get done.

A true attitude of grace in our minds does not come from our own endeavor to create and maintain thoughts that we consider to be in alignment with it. Instead, a real mentality of grace can only come through the Holy Spirit’s work to transmute everything going on in our minds, including feelings of obligation, or feelings of dismay if we were to not do something we are supposed to do. God can work through it so that it ultimately plays a role in bringing us into a deeper and more powerful understanding of grace.

Sometimes, it is difficult to have deep appreciation, or activate the power, of blessings in a certain area of life unless we have experienced the opposite. God knows that many humans, by nature, will sometimes do things for the sake of avoiding guilt. God plays along with it, not because it is an ideal situation in an of itself, but because when the time comes that you see how to live confidently and passionately in accord with God’s will in a certain area of life, you will see that it is truly by the wisdom of God’s grace that you developed that confidence and passion even when you could not get rid of the fear of guilt altogether.

1 Corinthians 8

1 Corinthians 8:1-7 (NRSV) – “Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him. Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’ Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords — yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.

In the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians, Paul addressed the problem of conflict and arrogance within the Corinthian church. Apparently, one of the disputes involved whether it is wrong to eat food sacrificed to idols.

Paul’s teaching is that an idol does not change anything about the food. Thus, eating the food is not inherently idolatrous. But not everybody sees it this way. For some, it just feels idolatrous, regardless of what even Paul might say. Paul’s concern is that these people might see another believer eating sacrificed food, and consequently decide that it must not be a big deal, and then eat the food anyway despite personally deeming it idolatrous. But at this point, a believer’s conscience has been “defiled,” as Paul writes, because even though he or she has not come under real idolatry through the food, a door has been opened in one’s mind where real influence of idolatry could come in from another source.

Paul continues:

“‘Food will not bring us close to God.’ We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.'” (1 Cor. 8:8-13).

This passage raises the question of, to what extent are we required to tiptoe around other believers to avoid offending their convictions? It is important to remember that Paul spent the first four chapters of this epistle depicting the issue of conflict within the Corinthian church. The Corinthians were rather sectarian in nature, seeking to align themselves with certain preachers, and Paul was concerned about arrogance among believers. This concern is reiterated at the opening of the present chapter when Paul states that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

With this nature of the community, there is an understandable concern is that if a particular believer was eating in a pagan temple, others who feel they are on the same side as that believer would join in regardless of what their consciences thought. Paul was also concerned that those choosing to eat sacrificed food may do so arrogantly to show off their faith that idols don’t do anything.

So how do I think all of this applies today? Controversies among Christians go far beyond idols, and probably far beyond even the spectrum of issues discussed in the Corinthian church. Obviously, we cannot limit our public lives to avoid offending every believer. But if you are a member of a church, consider the other members of the church. If the church makes a big deal over a certain activity, even if you yourself do not consider it to be immoral based on Scripture, I would say that perhaps, to avoid sending the wrong signals to other members, consider abstaining from the activity in settings where other members of the church might see you. Or if the activity is really important to you, perhaps you could consider finding a church where it is culturally acceptable. I am not saying that this is something you must do; just consider it.

Before closing this post, I want to discuss the issue of conscience a bit more. I do not believe that the writing about conscience in this chapter should make you fearful of your conscience, worried that if your conscience bothers you, then you are condemned until you do something to try to satisfy it. This fear can send you down an endless path of works or abstinences chasing an evasive sense of peace.

This point of these Scriptures is for believers to respect their conscience as a guiding force in life. Any power that we have to follow our conscience ultimately comes from God. If you are not able to make yourself follow all of your conscience’s demands, or resist everything that your conscience is questioning, leave the issue with God to work out in you according to His timing and methodology via the Holy Spirit. But this is all between you and Him, so the point here is to not engage in an activity just because another believer thinks it is okay.

Spiritual Perspective on COVID-19 and this Time in History

I had not been planning to write about this. I thought that maybe, this blog would be one place where you wouldn’t find the name of this virus. I have been praying for the world amid the pandemic situation, and for a while, I didn’t see a commentary here as something I needed to do. But recently, I changed my mind about that. I am very appreciative of what God is doing among believers in this time. I started to feel a conviction that I should make a post here, not for the sake of my own perspective on the situation, but rather, to show appreciation to God for what I perceive Him to be doing in the world now, and to get the word out in case it could be an inspiration to other people.

What really stands out to me about the COVID-19 pandemic is how jarring it is to normal sensibilities. First is how swiftly the virus evaded first-line containment measures of the modern era, which were successful at preventing several new viruses over the last twenty years from spreading widely beyond the regions they originated (such as SARS and MERS).

After this current virus evaded the initial containment efforts at a dizzying rate, what became equally bewildering was the speed at which the world started shutting places down. Now, I recognize that governments are doing the right thing by going to extreme measures to mitigate the spread of the virus, but still, the idea of self-inducing a steep economic contraction goes against the usual, expected tactic of democratic governments, which is to be slow in implementing an agenda for the sake of appeasing different personal and economic concerns among the population.

But aside from the COVID-19 pandemic, the jarring of sensibilities has been a theme of the last several years. Perplexing political drama and elections, extreme weather, and the rapid spread of bizarre conspiracy theories have created an impassioned, often crazed environment with different viewpoints fighting for attention. But the debates over these phenomena have also caused people to investigate matters and see what they really believe vs. what they assumed to be true based on what they were previously told.

So what do I perceive God to be doing amid all of this? Well, over the last several decades, Evangelical Christianity’s outlook for the world was growing increasingly negative. There was a growing sense that the world had turned away from proper moral and spiritual values and that cataclysmic end-times events were on the horizon. But at the same time, many Christians were also praying for a turnaround; that somehow God would bring people to repentance so that countries could be blessed.

Now, I am not saying that I necessarily agree with these Christians’ assessment of the world today. Nor do I believe that all the attitudes and beliefs which they want for the world to have are necessarily what God is looking to introduce. But nevertheless, I believe that God is responding to the passionate prayers of many believers for the world by bringing in a new era.

But in order to bring forth this realignment, there have to be some changes in societies’ thought patterns. The old dichotomies in worldviews have to be shaken up. The old lines of reasoning in the debates over conservatism vs. liberalism, capitalism vs. socialism, religion vs. secularism, have to be transformed. Although these various worldviews and ideologies will not cease to exist, the rationales and tactics that they employ will be overhauled.

As much as many people desire peace, unity, common-ground, etc., sometimes you cannot overcome polarization with mediation. Sometimes, the sources of polarization have to be thrown into chaos, in order to create an opportunity for something new to emerge. And I believe that God has been working through the prayers of believers in recent years to seize the opportunity that is being created in this era.

Speaking of the prayers of believers, on the internet I have seen that there are tremendous prayer movements going on against the COVID-19 pandemic right now, beyond anything I have seen in my time following Christian ministries online. In keeping with the theme of this time in history, what I expect is that sensibilities are going to be shocked once again by how rapidly the virus fades out after the peak, and how quickly economies recover. Many people are going to be dazed for a little while, but this will create a backdrop for new ways of thinking about life, faith, and the world to emerge.

1 Corinthians 7:36-38

1 Corinthians 7:36-38 (NRSV)- “If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his fiancée, if his passions are strong, and so it has to be, let him marry as he wishes; it is no sin. Let them marry. But if someone stands firm in his resolve, being under no necessity but having his own desire under control, and has determined in his own mind to keep her as his fiancée, he will do well. So then, he who marries his fiancée does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.

Here we are again with the subjects of passion and self-control. I think it is important to realize that being a believer does not create some magical ability to control natural passions. Now, we can set our vision for life on how the Bible teaches that we should live, and over time the Holy Spirit definitely works through our experiences and passions so that we develop into the lifestyle that God has called us to. However, at a given phase of one’s life, self-control in a particular area may be fundamentally lacking despite one’s faith.

Paul seems to acknowledge this. For instance, in the passage above he says that “If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his fiancée, if his passions are strong, and so it has to be, let him marry as he wishes.”

Earlier in the chapter, Paul stated “if they [single people] are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Cor. 7:9).

Notice that Paul basically assumes that some believers may not be 100% successful at self- control. And interestingly, he doesn’t really say anything to shame them for it. Instead, he says they should get married.

Now, if for whatever reason, marriage really is not an option, God can work with people to develop self-control. Often times, struggles with self-control result from despair, anxiety, or a lack of inspiration about one’s purpose or future, although people may not realize that they are feeling this way. But it can be difficult to make yourself feel positive about circumstances to gain self-control when there is a burning, unmet need or a legitimate source of anxiousness that you are dealing with.

Sometimes, to deal with the underlying negativity that causes a lack of self-control, God has to shift one’s attitudes and perspective on life. This can come from His working through circumstances to cause a transformation in one’s thinking. It may seem as though an unmet need is a gap standing in between what you are and what you want to be. But regardless of whether you think your present experience is positive or negative, or whether you are optimistic or anxious about the future, you can believe for God to work through whatever is going on to bridge the gap by leading you to a clearer understanding of His purpose in your life at the present time. If you are having trouble seeing beyond the gap now, don’t let that be an extra source of worry. As you continue walking through life, there will come a time when you see something that transforms your perspective.

I’ll close this post, and my commentary on Chapter 7 of 1 Corinthians, with Romans 8:28 – “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

1 Corinthians 7:32-35

1 Corinthians 7:32-35 (NRSV) – “I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord.”

Why does Paul assume that married people are anxious? And why would he want for people to be “anxious” about the Lord? After all, Paul writes in Philippians 4:6 (NRSV), “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” According to Strong’s Concordance, the word “worry” in this passage is the same Greek word underlying the word “anxious” in the passage from 1 Corinthians.

Well, in reality, people are anxious. On one hand, you can choose to trust God to deal with a situation instead of consciously entertaining worry about it. That does not necessarily mean, however, that there will not be some undercurrent of anxiousness running through your mind. Even while trusting in God, you are still trying to be responsible and diligent, and these efforts can cause a feeling of anxiousness even if you know that ultimately God has the situation worked out.

Believers want to please God, even though they may not be able to escape some degree of concern over whether they are doing everything they should. We see different sides of ourselves and can get anxious about how the different aspects of ourselves line up with God’s will. Likewise, married people, no matter how well they may generally get along, will always have some differences with their spouse, and to some degree, figuring out how to meet each other’s desires in spite of these differences can be a source of anxiousness.

Some Christians make a big point of saying that being a Christian is not easy. They seem to have a great fear of Christians becoming comfortable and complacent, so they take it upon themselves to knock responsibility and an urge for action into them.

But what I say is, why do you fear Christians becoming too comfortable? Believers have a new nature that wants to please God despite being in a body and mind with frustrating limitations. That makes life hard enough. Why do you feel you must make it harder?

So, basically, what Paul is saying to those considering marriage is, “You are already experiencing some inherent tension that comes with being a believer; are you sure you want to bring another person into the picture, and then have to maneuver through life amid both the tension as a believer and the tension as a spouse?”

Now as I have described in previous posts, there can be a deep sense of fulfillment that comes through marriage. Likewise, there is a very deep sense of fulfillment that comes from being a believer. For some, being married may result in a greater sense of peace in life, because of certain desires that can be met, and for you and your spouse to be able to support each other as you live for God. Paul is perfectly understanding of this, which is why he never tells people not to get married. He just seeks to give people something to think about before jumping into marriage too hastily.

1 Corinthians 7:25-31

1 Corinthians 7:25-31 – “Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that. I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

Regarding this passage, I want to address the “end is near” mentality that often pervades Christian teaching. Paul (writing almost two thousand years ago) stated that “in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are . . . the present form of this world is passing away.”

The overarching message of this passage has to do with not getting too attached to matters of the world. The reason is that, spiritually, God has transported us to the reality of a time far into the future.

First look at 2 Corinthians 5:17 – “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Now look at Revelation 21:1-5 – “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.‘”

The present world is passing away when seen from the perspective of this future world where our spiritual consciousness actually resides. When the present age is seen from that perspective, the two thousand years that have passed since Christ was on earth does not have to seem like such a long interval. A period of time, especially a difficult one, always seems longer when you are in the middle of it, or have just come out of it. But in our case, spiritually speaking, we are past it – way past it.

The death and resurrection of Christ was the climax of the eons, the turning point for humanity and all creation toward a redemptive destiny. Living beyond the climax of the eons, these are the “last days” for the world in its present form.

In the passage quoted at the top of this post, Paul’s message is that we should not make life “all about” matters of this world, whether it be marriage, moods, possessions, business, etc. Sometimes people think they have to get married because they think it’s just part of a normal life. Or people who are already married can get so carried away with certain issues within the marriage that they miss the bigger picture of life, which is essential to resolving whatever they’re going through. Or other people strive to maintain a certain mood in attempt to either master themselves or avoid being at odds with the prevailing sentiment.

However, when you see your life in this world from the perspective of the future reality that God has already placed in your spirit, you can feel liberated to pursue healthy desires in this world without having to worry about them consuming you. God has a purpose for us and works through these desires. The key is to know that we are just passing through this world; this is Phase 1 of our journey through the ages.

In the immediate context of this writing from Paul, the “impending crisis” he prophesies is probably the Jewish-Roman war of 66-73 A.D., with the destabilization of the Roman empire, natural disasters, epidemics, and persecution of Christians associated with the era surrounding that war. Jesus also prophesied about this era in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. But the perspective on life that Paul teaches is equally applicable to believers in the present day.