1 Corinthians 1:18-31

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 (NRSV) – “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.”

 

Understanding the Cross involves understanding that God’s plan for humanity is not something that humans designed or engineered. For one thing, the fall of humanity into sin and mortality was not something that any of us had personal involvement in. Nevertheless, despite humanity’s problems after Adam’s transgression, humans still had a conscience that knew what was right according to God (Romans 2:14-15). It was there, ultimately, because of God, not human ability to determine what was right. Because of mortality, nobody can follow the conscience perfectly, which is why, through the Cross and Resurrection, God created a new humanity. Again, that work was done without our involvement. That’s our story; it was just something that happened to us.

Why does Paul call it “foolishness to those who are perishing?” He continues, “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:22-24)

When relating Paul’s writing about “Jews” and “Greeks” to the contemporary world, I think it is helpful to think of “Jews” as people associated with the Judeo-Christian culture, and “Greeks” as people outside of that culture.

Some people in the Judeo-Christian culture stumble over the Gospel because, while they may accept the concept of being a sinner and needing a Savior, they are simultaneous fixated on their choice to believe and their works to prove salvation. But these people’s spiritual zeal can burn out and then their faith is derailed. On the other hand, if our faith in salvation is rooted in Christ’s transformative work and His calling to us, then we have a foundation that stands whether or not we are feeling the zeal.

For those outside the Judeo-Christian culture, the Gospel message does not jive with the prominent philosophical schools of thought, political ideologies, or popular worldviews. All of these systems, despite sometimes having legitimate merits, are focused on what humanity can do to engineer a better future. The idea of mankind going from an old creation to a new creation, apart from individuals’ involvement, does not necessarily fit into these systems, and is thus often disregarded by those who build their lives around these systems.

Paul says the Gospel is “foolishness to those who are perishing.” On one hand, both believers and unbelievers are perishing because of mortality. But believers, who will be vivified at Christ’s return and fully experience the new humanity in the coming eons, have this vision for their future as a guiding faith that brings inspiration and energy to their present lives. Not having this inspiration in the midst of mortality, or this future with regards to the eons, is what Paul refers to as perishing.

Paul continues, “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:26-31).

I do not want for people to get the idea that intelligence is a hindrance to faith. Believers can be intellectually brilliant and successful in many ways, including philosophy on life, science, finance, and creative pursuits. And these talents can get attention and respect from people in the world, including nonbelievers who have a healthy appreciation of life and the individuality of others. But you may be opposed by the established systems out there, potentially both secular and religious ones. You might be told that you do not have the right priorities and attitudes, or that you are not proficient or knowledgeable enough, simply because you do not fit in with the worldviews and values systems that are popular at your time of history.

We know, however, that we have some deficiencies. If we really think about how we accomplish everything that we do despite these deficiencies, it reminds us of the wisdom of God, and this is His design so that we admire His working rather than boasting in ourselves.

Additional Thoughts on Sectarianism: 1 Corinthians 1:11-13

1 Corinthians 1:11-13 – “It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided?

 

One thing that always amuses me about this passage is that Paul puts the people who say “I belong to Christ” in the same group as the sectarians. We cannot overcome sectarianism by setting ourselves up in opposition to it. It is natural to seek fellowship with other people who think the same way. Even people who simply “follow Christ” have beliefs and values that are of particular personal importance. For some, it is evangelism. For others, it is social causes. Others really emphasize being nonjudgmental.

What causes sects to develop unhealthy dynamics is when there is a lack of trust in the character of people in other groups. But as described in the previous post, if groups respect members of other groups for who they are in Christ, the groups will steer away from harmful discourses.

This does not mean that we have to excuse, condone, or downplay teachings that we take issue with and deem unscriptural. But we can also see that underneath those teachings is legitimate passion that comes from God. If two groups of Christians with clashing beliefs can see this foundational passion in each other, their own beliefs will gain nuance and maturity, and unhealthy sectarian dynamics will dissipate.

1 Corinthians 1:1-17

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 – Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

Paul opens the epistle by greeting the church and telling them that they are “not lacking in any spiritual gift.” I believe we should see ourselves in the same way. We are not fundamentally deficient in anything spiritual. Maturing as believers is about focus of attention, perspective on life, and experience that comes from seeing how God works in our circumstances. But to develop in these areas, it is important that we appreciate the spiritual nature that God has given us and have the confidence to live from that nature, knowing that God will work with it so that our lives evolve according to His will, as opposed to thinking that we are problematic people who need some intervention to live as God intended.

Paul then says that Christ will strengthen believers to the end, so that they may be blameless on the day of the Lord Jesus Christ (probably referencing the day of Christ’s return when believers are resurrected or converted to immortality). This is a bit of a difficult passage, given that I do not seem to hear that believers reach the end of their lives in a state of total perfection. My interpretation of this would be that God will work with us so that, by the end of our lives, we accomplished everything He intended for us to accomplish. Despite never becoming perfect in our earthly lives, we end our earthly lives blameless in the sense that, if there is some ideal that we failed to fully attain, God justifies the life we lived. The fact that we accomplished the good works that we did, despite personal issues, is a testimony to God’s grace and transformative power which will operate throughout the universe in the coming ages after Christ’s return.

Moving on in the chapter, Paul writes, 

 

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ’ (1 Corinthians 1:10-12).

 

We need to consider what is the ultimate cause of quarrels among believers. I do not think we are as worried about each other’s beliefs as we may think we are. The real concern has to do with character. Believers tend to worry about whether other believers are responsible or properly focused on God. Individual believers have their own ideas about what doctrines (or which teachers) promote these values, and this becomes the basis for sectarianism.

The solution to this issue ultimately lies in the preceding verses, which taught that we are not lacking in any spiritual gift, and that it is God who makes us blameless. On the basis of this teaching, we should be able to trust in each other’s character, as long as there is evidence that a believer regards morality.

When we trust that our core nature is of God’s design, and that He has a sovereign plan to accomplish all that He set out to do with us, we do not have to obsess over the details of other believers’ faith. God will work things out with them.

Now, I do realize that some well-meaning believers teach things that are hard to justify Biblically, and some of these teachings can be hurtful. Paul’s writing does not forbid us to speak against such teaching. However, even in these cases, we can still be of “one mind” with those we disagree with, in the sense of respecting each other as new creations in Christ and participants in God’s plan. And I believe that if this respect is truly held, teachings that are particularly hurtful will be dropped eventually.

 

The next post will address the rest of Chapter 1.

New Series: 1st Corinthians

Ist Corinthians is an epistle by the Apostle Paul with some of the most quoted and debated Scriptures in Christianity. While the epistle to the Romans often serves as a theological framework for Christian teaching, worldviews and practical advice often come from 1st and 2nd Corinthians. Of all the New Testament epistles, these writings have the most examples of addressing specific issues and controversies in a church.

1st Corinthians has a direct and often impassioned nature of writing, and it does not shy away from boldly addressing controversial issues. However, the epistle’s core theme encourages Christians to be reasonable and respectful toward each other. Paul was trying to get the attention of some crazed church members who were not thinking straight. When some stern and seemingly judgmental passages are seen in that light, the epistle depicts encouragement and grace toward thoughtful, concerned, and appreciative people.

This series will address every chapter of the epistle in weekly posts. My goal through the commentary on this epistle is to use 1st Corinthians as a foundation to develop greater confidence in the passions that God has given us individually to address moral and spiritual concerns.

Channels for God to Work in Ourselves and the World

Many people discuss whether God can intervene in a person’s will. I understand that beneath a person’s belief about God’s sovereign and humans’ will is a vast range of life experiences that no one but one’s self can truly understand.

But the same time, there is a lot about ourselves that we do not understand. I have read that 95% of our brain activity is subconscious. Thus, we are only conscious of 5% of what goes on in our minds. This fact alone should make us cautious about sweeping assertions regarding free will. Can we really use the 5% of mental activity that we are aware of to manipulate the other 95% any way that we desire?

Even if our conscious minds had the theoretical power to control our subconscious minds, I doubt that our natural consciousness has the wisdom to do so. We may feel as though we have free will because we see a range of attitudes that we could adopt. I can, to some extent, choose to make myself righteously angry about something by deliberately thinking about how much damage it causes or how much it frustrates me. In the heat of that effort, I could get some sort of action to result from the anger.

However, in another sense, the anger I conjured up is somewhat of a show. If I was happy before I felt the need to get serious about something, I will still be having happy thoughts even while trying to get more serious, and those happy thoughts compromise any seriousness that I am trying to generate. Even when I am acting upon the so-called anger, I am still simultaneously enjoying the action – I am not really all that stern – and the action itself often reflects that.

So, while it appears that I have free will to make myself angry, my ability to adopt a genuine attitude of anger is often absent, unless there is an event to provoke it. Thus, it is hard for me to say that I really have free will.

Also consider physical forces of nature. I have heard complicated sermons, and sometimes arguments, over how God’s protection over humans works, what humans have to do in order to receive protection, and how that protection is manifested. However, beliefs regarding divine intervention could evolve when it is realized that the natural order itself is more complex than what meets the eye.

An interesting fact is that, as your chairs sits on the floor, there is an upward force (called the “normal force) from the floor pushing up against the chair? I didn’t know that until I took a Physics class. If the chair is stationary, it is because the normal force and the chair’s weight balance.

When we think of the supernatural, we tend to think that we are going about our normal lives until suddenly something happens that defies the natural order of existence. We then term that sudden event “supernatural” and distinguish it from natural life.

But when we realize that there are many forces of nature that we do not know about, and many behind-the-scenes processes in our brains and bodies that we do not know about, then suddenly there are many more channels through which God can operate. The fact that we are unaware of it does not make it any less of a divine presence.

I believe that it is only through the spirit of God that we can live from day to day. There are so many processes inside of our bodies that, were they to go awry, life would quickly end. The heart has to keep beating, whether we’re awake, asleep, idle, exercising, or stressed-out. One’s heart rate can rise up and down depending on activity and circumstances, and everything in the body reliant on it still carries on normally.

Many proponents of Creationism and Intelligent Design say that the natural world could not have arisen by accident. I agree with that. But if creation cannot arise by itself, how can it be sustained by itself? I believe that it is the Spirit of God that enables all of us to be alive right now.

Ultimately, I believe that there are different reasonable views that one could hold regarding God’s sovereignty and involvement in the world. But I think that the complexity of the natural world and our own minds should give us caution about making any sweeping assumptions about what God cannot or would not do. There is much more to life than we are consciously aware of, and over time, we can gain glimpses into how God works through it by reflecting on our experience. This is God’s way of gradually teaching us His wisdom.

Regarding “Tough Love”

In the midst of moral or cultural controversies, there is a tendency for many Christians to justify unpopular stances on issues by saying “we teach this out of love.” Even though some things they say may cause emotional pain, frustration, or guilt in their audience, they assert that ultimately, people need to experience these feelings in order to repent of sinful behavior and save their souls.

It sounds good enough, but we need to consider where this rationale could lead. Envision a hypothetical religion. Suppose that this hypothetical religion teaches that it is noble to physically beat random people. Adherents believe that by doing this, you are beating the evil out of them. Practitioners cry before doing the beatings, and they emphasize how in their flesh, they wish they did not have to do it. But they motivate themselves by picturing the victim burning in hell due to the evil residing inside of them, and they muster up the courage to beat the person in attempt to drive the evil out. When practitioners get in trouble with the law, they say that the world is morally degenerate and cares only about physical comfort. They say that the world only sees love through the lenses of mushy, romantic feelings.

Any reasonable person would see the insanity of such a religion. The rationale of “tough love” is not going to convince anyone who has sincere concern for others. The hypothetical religion I described shows what could happen if our belief systems are completely detached from normal, human sensibilities.

That said, in a healthy belief system, is there any room for “hard truths” or “tough love?” I believe there can be.

Consider the process in which you yourself came to know Christ. I think it might be safe to assume that you did not simply wake up one morning and say, “You know what, I’m really happy with my life right now. I am going to utilize my own free will to become a believer in Christ,” and then sail smoothly forever after.

If you are currently a believer in Christ, and if this faith is very important to you, then most likely this faith resulted from many complex, and often painful or frustrating circumstances. Even if people were raised as Christians, the process of building a personal connection with one’s faith is usually not a cakewalk.        

So then, suppose you write to me saying, “Please, Samuel, give me a framework so that I can live a Christian life without ever feeling worried or anxious about anything, and to be a perfect peace with myself all the time.” 

Well, I would have to say that I cannot grant that request. I suppose you could call that denial “tough love” if you wanted to. If I tried to cook up the answer you’re looking for, I would be deceiving you.

However, I would be perfectly happy to share ideas about what God might be showing us through our circumstances. I believe that in some way or another, the Holy Spirit is always present in our thoughts and emotional reactions. If we are struggling to live with certain beliefs, or straining in some pursuit, and always ending up frustrated, then maybe that frustration is the Holy Spirit’s way of leading us out of the failing endeavors.

Maybe we have an attachment to certain endeavors that makes it hard to give them up. Maybe we have erroneous tied our sense of self-worth to personal pursuits, whether religious, academic, or recreational. If I suggested that a certain endeavor may be causing more frustration than good, and that maybe it is time to find a new direction despite your current attachments, is that “tough love”?

Why not?

The New Testament Writings Represent a Transitional Era

Scriptural Quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version

 

I believe that a lot of the controversies and debates involving certain teachings from the New Testament come from looking at the writings as if they were directly speaking to us. It is quite understandable to view the Biblical writings this way when we see them as being inspired by the Holy Spirit. The divine inspiration of Scripture is not something I intend to call into question through this post. However, what I want to consider is how we can see the writings as inspired, but also realize that some elements of New Testament writing were used by God for that particular generation, as opposed to being transcendent teachings for all people of all time.

As the New Testament was being written, God’s working with humanity was going through a transition. Previously, believers lived under the spiritual environment of the Old Covenant laws, as detailed in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Ceremonies and spiritual leadership were intrinsic elements of that spiritual era. Obedience to God involved rituals such as circumcision, animal sacrifices, observance of holy days, and ceremonial cleansing rituals. There was also the concept of spiritual leadership, through the priesthood of Aaron’s descendants.

But with the death and resurrection of Christ, a new spiritual era commenced, with radical contrasts from the previous era. In the new era, salvation is by faith, apart from works, as the Apostle Paul writes “to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). There is no longer the concept of some believers having special spiritual authority over others, as Paul writes that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

All of this can be summarized through the principle of the new creation, as described in 2nd Corinthians 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

Whereas the Old Testament laws were about deliverance through reform, this new truth is about deliverance by becoming a new person with a reoriented nature.

Having said all of that, we need to pose a practical question. In the first generation of Christianity, how could all of this radical new truth be unveiled to people who had spent their whole lives up to that point either following the Old Testament laws, or following religions foreign to the Biblical writers? How do you get the truth revealed in an orderly fashion, so that people from different backgrounds do not get wacky ideas? Transitioning from one spiritual framework to another is not something that happens all at once.

Thus, the first generation of Christianity was a transitional era, and a close examination of New Testament teaching reveals a progression in revelation. Much of the doctrinal confusion today arises from trying to streamline the phases of this progression into a uniform message.

For example, consider the subject of water baptism. In the early Gospel preaching, water baptism was presented as a requirement for salvation. For example, in the very first proclamation of the Gospel, the Apostle Peter preached, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

I have seen commentaries that try to twist this around to avoid making water baptism a requirement to be saved, but to me the meaning is rather clear.

Keep in mind that Peter was preaching to Jews, who, prior to that day, had always seen ceremonial observance as an intrinsic element of obedience to God. If people have spent their whole lives thinking this way, you cannot all of the sudden try to impose the concept of free grace, as it is likely to get misappropriated.

Thus, to help prospective converts transition into the new creation truth, I believe the Holy Spirit inspired the commandment of water baptism to serve as an exercise in faith; obeying the command was part of believing the Gospel.

However, later on, in the Apostle Paul’s ministry, water baptism was presented differently. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:17, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

There are a couple key points to note here. The first is that Paul draws a distinction between the Gospel and baptism. This is a noteworthy contrast to Peter’s first sermon in Acts, where baptism and the Gospel were intrinsically linked. Also note that Paul depicts the Gospel as pertaining to “the cross of Christ.” In contrast, Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 did not make a connection between Christ’s death and individuals’ salvation. Peter only cited Jesus’ resurrection as proof that He was the Messiah.

However, Paul’s writing reveals that the real baptism that saves us is our spiritual identification with Christ’s death and resurrection, which occurs through our faith in the Gospel (Rom. 6:3-4,  Gal 3:22-28, Eph. 4:4-5). Water is never depicted as part of this process. Although Paul still baptized people (1 Cor. 1:12-16, Acts 16:33), the ritual appears to be symbolic in nature.

There is another aspect of this transitional era that has been the subject of major controversy. It is the concept of some believers have special spiritual authority or leadership over others. Although much of the debate involves passages about men and women in the church, and husbands and wives, these passages are connected to a theme that encompasses much more than gender.

During this transitional era, people had to accept truth on the basis of the authority of the believer delivering it. How else could a person receive the new Truth that was coming to the world?

In the era of the Old Testament laws, there were priests who acted as intercessors between God and humanity. The book of Hebrews describes that in the time of the old covenant, “the priests go continually into the first tent to carry out their ritual duties; but only the high priest goes into the second, and he but once a year, and not without taking the blood that he offers for himself and for the sins committed unintentionally by the people” (Hebrews 9:6-7).

The priests, who were all male, had the role of mediating relations between humanity and God. The prophets of the Old Testament were also male. Thus, during the transitional era in the New Testament, the use of men to deliver new truth was part of the sign of authenticity when doctrine was presented.

For example, the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, “Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home.”

In that era, there was potential for new truth to be revealed in church. That is not the case today however. With the completed Scriptures comes the complete revelation of the new creation. Nobody today has the type of authority over others that Paul describes in the passage above. Preachers and pastors do not even have it.

The role of pastors today is not to reveal new truth, but rather, to share their own experience, applications, and perspectives on living a Christian life. In this role, there is no distinction between men and women. Both genders have equally valuable insights to share from the work that God has done in their lives.

With regards to families, Paul wrote, “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands (Eph. 5:22-24).

That was certainly not meant to be an excuse for husbands to forcefully impose their own ideas. I believe the underlying message was for husbands to seek and follow the Holy Spirit’s guidance on decisions involving the family.

But I believe that this model of following the Holy Spirit was part of that era’s spiritual transition, and that a full comprehension of the new creation yields a more expansive way of living in the Spirit. If we truly are new creations, then instead of having to constantly focus on “submitting” ourselves to God, we can believe that God is working through every aspect of ourselves, and be at peace with our core natures. I wrote about this in a series of posts from last year.

When this relationship with God is realized, the concept of wives having to “submit” to husbands on the basis of spiritual authority becomes irrelevant to respect for God.

So, the next question would be, when was the transition complete? My view is that the transition was complete by 70 A.D., the year that the Jerusalem temple was destroyed by the Romans. In the spiritual realm, I believe the temple’s fall symbolized the end of the Old Covenant system in all dimensions. Even though, ultimately, that system ended through Christ’s death, some aspects continued on in the practical, day-to-day realm of life (and the temple continued to stand), until the transitional era was complete.

Although some books of the New Testament were possibly written after 70 (the four Gospels, John’s Epistles, and Revelation), I do not find any fundamentally new truth regarding the new creation in these writings, when compared to the writings with a pre-70 consensus among historians.

Some may be concerned that viewing any Biblical writings as transitional undermines the authority of those writings, and opens the door to subjectivity or selfish excuses for non-compliance. But consider the alternative, in which we have to view everything as if it is directly applicable to us. Scholars holding that view have written enormous commentaries trying to explain the “context” of difficult passages. Do we really think that such commentaries are free of personal subjectivity? Do we really think that they are never bending some passages, in the name of context, to avoid inconvenient interpretations?

I believe that viewing the New Testament as a transitional collection of writings can address much of the confusion Christians are dealing with, while respecting the inspired nature of these writings. Let me know of thoughts or comments you have on any of this, and any other areas of Scripture that you would like to compare or contrast to the ones discussed here.