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Final Greetings October 28, 2011

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Here are my thoughts on 1 Corinthians 16:19-24.

Summary: Paul begins by telling the Corinthians that the churches in proconsular Asia greet them; Aquila, Priscilla and their house church in Ephesus also greet them. In addition, the other believers in Ephesus greet them; he encourages them to show Christian affection to one another by greeting each other with a kiss. Now Paul himself writes the last part of this letter. He warns those who do not love Christ that they are cursed, and he states that Christ will judge them for their wrong attitudes. The Corinthians do love Christ, though, and so he prays that His eternal favor will be shown to them. Paul concludes by assuring the Corinthians of his genuine love for them.

Thoughts: Verse 24 serves as a neat conclusion to this letter. Hodge offers some thoughts on this verse:

Paul in conclusion assures them all – all the believers in Corinth, even those whom he had been called upon to reprove – of his sincere love.

This epistle contains many sharp rebukes – and the occasional burst of frustration, especially in chapter 4 – from Paul, yet it is clear throughout the letter that Paul deeply loved and cared for the church at Corinth. I must admit that right now, I struggle to love others in spite of their flaws; Paul set an excellent example in that regard, though. No matter how wrongly the Corinthians acted in terms of engaging in party-based squabbles, hurting their poorer brethren by improperly celebrating the Lord’s Supper, or fomenting chaos in their worship services by improperly using their gifts of prophecy and tongues, Paul still loved them and had their best interests at heart.

Personal Requests October 25, 2011

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Here are my thoughts on 1 Corinthians 16:5-18.

Summary: Paul begins by telling the Corinthians that after he leaves Ephesus and passes through Macedonia, he will visit them, as he has set his mind on this plan. In fact, he plans to stay with them through the winter so that they can accompany him on part of the next leg of his journey. He does not want his stay in Corinth to be brief, as he wants to spend time with them – by the will of Christ – in order to correct the problems that he has addressed in this letter. Paul plans to stay in Ephesus for the spring, as many opportunities have arisen for the Gospel to be spread there, even though the Ephesians who worship Diana oppose it. Now when Timothy visits Corinth, Paul urges the Corinthians to receive him with respect and confidence, as he – like Paul – is engaged in spreading the Gospel. Thus, the Corinthians should not despise Timothy, and they should accompany him on part of his return trip to Ephesus so that he and his traveling companions can return to Paul. As for Apollos, Paul notes that he does not want to visit Corinth for the time being. He then gives the Corinthians the following exhortations:

  • they should prepare for the attacks of their spiritual enemies
  • they should hold firmly to settled doctrines
  • they should withstand the attacks of their opponents
  • they should use God-given strength to overcome their trials
  • they should live according to the most excellent way – love.

Paul then reminds them that the family of Stephanas was the first family to accept the Gospel in Achaia, and they have committed their lives to serving their brethren in Christ; he exhorts them to serve this family – and all who have committed their lives to serving their brethren in Christ. He was encouraged at the arrival of Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus from Corinth, as their presence made up for the absence of the other Corinthian Christians. Paul concludes by noting that the presence of these three brothers in Ephesus has encouraged him – and should encourage them; thus, the Corinthians should properly appreciate them for their actions.

Thoughts: In verses 10 and 11, we see that Paul encouraged the Corinthians to treat Timothy with respect when he visited them. Hodge offers some insights on this point:

That is, because he works the work of the Lord, he is entitled to respect and ought not to be despised. Perhaps it was Timothy’s youth that made the apostle especially solicitous on his account.

This is actually an aspect of the Christian life that I continue to struggle with. Unfortunately, it is natural for me to look down on younger believers, even if they are spiritually mature. For some reason, I tend to place undue importance on the accumulation of “life experiences,” and Paul implies that this is an improper way for a Christian to act. Putting aside age-based biases and being willing to listen and learn from younger believers is an area where I definitely need God’s grace to be at work.

In verse 12, we see that Apollos was asked by Paul if he wanted to visit Corinth, but he declined for the time being. Hodge offers some thoughts on this point:

It appears from this verse that Apollos was not under Paul’s authority. The only reason for his declining to go to Corinth is that he was not willing. Many commentators suppose it was because his name had been mixed up with the party quarrels that disturbed the church there.

If I were Apollos, I would also have balked at going to Corinth after hearing about the party factions that had sprung up in the church. Apollos was assuredly full of faith – just like Paul – and he assuredly desired to carry on the work of the Lord without setting himself above the other apostles. I’m assuming that it pained him to not be able to visit Corinth at that time, though, since he had forged strong relationships with some of the church members through his previous visits. I wonder if God eventually enabled Apollos to visit Corinth at a later date.

The Collection for God’s People October 22, 2011

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Here are my thoughts on 1 Corinthians 16:1-4.

Summary: Paul begins by telling the Corinthians to “pass the hat” for poor believers in Jerusalem based on the following plan: on each (Christian) Sabbath, each believer should save whatever they could – according to their business profits – so that when Paul arrived in Corinth he would not have to “pass the hat” again. At that time, Paul would send the collected amount with messengers approved by the Corinthians to Jerusalem – along with letters introducing them. He concludes by offering the following caveat: if the collected amount is quite significant, he will join the Corinthians’ approved messengers on their trip to Jerusalem.

Thoughts: Verse 2 shows that the early church met on Sundays, and Paul instructed them to bring their contributions for the poor believers in Jerusalem to their gatherings. Hodge offers some insights on the connection between church gatherings and Sundays:

The first day of the week was made sacred for Christians by divine appointment; there are five grounds for saying this.
1. It may be inferred from the distinction given to that day by our Lord himself (John 20:19,26).
2. It was intended to commemorate a great event. The sanctification of the seventh day of the week was intended to keep in mind the great truth of the creation of the world, on which the whole system of revealed religion was founded; and as Christianity is founded on the resurrection of Christ, the day on which Christ rose became for that reason the Christian Sabbath.
3. The apostle John called it “the Lord’s Day” – that is, the day set apart for the service of the Lord (Revelation 1:10).
4. From the beginning it was the day on which Christians met for worship (Acts 20:7).
5. The practice of the whole church, with clear evidence of apostolic sanction, is authoritative.

It is interesting to consider the current structure of our workweek – especially in Western countries – and ponder how the meaning of Sunday has changed over time. Indeed, Sundays have gradually evolved into well-orchestrated festivals for “lovers of pigskin.” One might wonder how our culture would have been affected if Christ had been resurrected on, say, a Wednesday. How would our workweek have evolved to accommodate that hypothetical event? Would we have renamed Wednesday as “Sunday” in that case (and shifted the entire week accordingly)?

The Resurrection Body October 19, 2011

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Here are my thoughts on 1 Corinthians 15:35-58.

Summary: Paul begins by addressing a potential objection to the truth of the resurrection of the dead – given the preceding discussion – namely:

  • how could a decaying human body be raised to life?
  • if the first point is admitted, how could that resurrected body not resemble its original human form?

Now he views this as a senseless objection, and he addresses it by appealing to nature – a seed must die in order to live. In particular, when a seed is planted, it does not resemble the plant that will be formed from it. In fact, God originally determined the form of the plant that would arise from a given seed. Paul also supports his argument by noting that a variety of forms can be found in the animal kingdom. He further supports his argument by noting that the sun, moon and stars exhibit forms that differ from those that can be found in the animal and plant kingdoms. In fact, even the sun, moon and stars exhibit different forms.

Paul then drives home his point: the resurrected body will not resemble its original human form; dead bodies must decay, while resurrected bodies cannot decay. Now he draws the following contrasts between the dead body and the resurrected body:

  • the dead body is unpleasant in our sight, yet we will admire the resurrected body
  • the dead body is powerless, yet the resurrected body will have powers beyond our comprehension
  • the dead body was adapted to an earthly existence, yet the resurrected body will be adapted to a heavenly existence

and he infers that if we accept the concept of a body that is adapted to an earthly existence, we must also accept the concept of a body that is adapted to a heavenly existence. Indeed, the Old Testament notes that Adam became animated by physical life – while Christ has inherent life and can give it to others. Also, the physically animated body prepares the way for the resurrected body. While Adam’s body was formed from the earth, Christ was clothed with a body that was adapted to a heavenly existence. In this regard, all mankind is identical to Adam – while all believers are identical to Christ. Believers possess bodies that are like that of Adam, yet they will possess bodies that are like that of Christ.

Now Paul asserts that the human body cannot dwell in the future kingdom of Christ, just as decay and permanency are incompatible. He then calls the Corinthians’ attention to the following divine revelation: not all believers will die, but all believers will receive bodies that are adapted to a heavenly existence. This change will occur instantaneously on the last day; the archangel’s voice will resound and all dead believers will be raised with glorious bodies, and then all living believers will receive new bodies. This stems from the fact that decay and death are incompatible with permanency and eternal life. After this awesome event, death will have been completely conquered, and the grave will have been completely overcome. It should be noted that death draws its power from sin, and sin draws its power from God’s moral law. Yet believers should be thankful that God has allowed them to triumph over death and the grave through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Paul concludes by exhorting the Corinthians to hold fast to the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead and strive to honor God in whatever works He has assigned them – as this doctrine promises them a glorious, eternal reward.

Thoughts: Verses 39-41 highlight the diversity of God’s creation as evidenced by the distinct forms of animals, plants, and heavenly bodies. Indeed, the handiwork of God can be seen in tiny organisms such as amoeba and massive flora such as giant sequoias. The handiwork of God can also be seen in active volcanic bodies such as Io and breathtaking interstellar clouds such as the Horsehead Nebula. It is simply mind-boggling as to how our Creator designed such a broad range of forms, especially when one considers that about 99 percent of all extant species are now extinct.

In verse 45, we see that Adam was endowed with physical life at his creation. Hodge offers some intriguing thoughts on this point:

However, from what he says here about the contrast between Adam and Christ, and about the earthly and perishable nature of the first as opposed to the immortal, spiritual nature of the second, it is clear that Adam as originally created was not, as to his body, in that state that would fit him for his immortal existence. We may infer that after his period of probation was passed, a change would have taken place in him analogous to that which is to take place in those believers who will be alive when Christ comes…The tree of life was probably the sacrament of this change in the constitution of his body, for when he sinned, he was excluded from the garden of Eden, lest he “reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (Genesis 3:22). Some change, therefore, was to take place in his body to adapt it to live forever.

Hodge’s note raises some interesting questions. First, why did God create Adam in an “intermediate” state instead of giving him full immortality to begin with? He could have initially given him full immortality and then taken it away after he had sinned. Second, what did it mean for Adam to be in a “period of probation,” and how long would this “period” have lasted? If Adam and Eve had not sinned in Genesis 3, would they have passed God’s “test,” allowing them to immediately eat from the tree of life?

Verse 58 shows that given the certainty of our future resurrection, we should be spurred to serve the Lord faithfully. Hodge offers some thoughts on this point:

This was more than faith for Paul; it was knowledge. He knew that labor in the work of the Lord would not be in vain. The reward secured for it by the grace of God and the merit of Christ is a share in the glories of a blessed resurrection.

This is an important truth that believers should return to regularly. Unfortunately, it is easy to get caught up in the struggles of our daily lives; if we are not careful, we can become despondent on a regular basis. Even though our future resurrection seems to be a distant and uncertain event, we must be reminded that it is a certain event and that our future state will be more glorious and awesome than our current station in life.

The Resurrection of the Dead October 17, 2011

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Here are my thoughts on 1 Corinthians 15:12-34.

Summary: Paul begins by appealing to the preceding passage: if it is accepted that Christ rose from the dead, then it cannot be denied that the dead can also be raised. Now if Christ did not rise from the dead, the following would be true:

  • the apostles’ preaching is empty and the Corinthians are trusting in a lie
  • the apostles are lying about His resurrection, as they have asserted that God raised Him from the dead (an impossible act if the dead cannot be raised)
  • the Corinthians’ faith is fruitless, as they are still condemned for their sins
  • believers who have died will suffer God’s eternal penalty for their sins
  • the Corinthians have based their present and future happiness on a resurrected Christ – making them more miserable than unbelievers in this life.

Yet Christ did rise from the dead, and His resurrection guarantees the resurrection of all believers. This stems from the fact that Adam’s sin guarantees physical death for all of his descendants. All men share Adam’s life – thus, all men are condemned for his sin; on the other hand, all believers share the life of Christ – thus, all believers will live on account of His righteousness. Now Christ is the first to be resurrected – securing the future resurrection of His people at His second coming. When the end of the world occurs, Christ will have subdued all hostile powers, enabling Him to surrender His authority over heaven and earth to God the Father. This act of surrender stems from the following facts:

  • Christ reigns over the universe until He has completed His great work of redemption
  • at Christ’s second coming, even death will be subdued
  • when God declares that Christ reigns over all things, all things – except God Himself – are then subject to Christ
  • at that time the Son of God incarnate will be subject to God, and God will reign supreme.

Now if the dead cannot be raised:

  • how will those who are baptized in their place explain their actions?
  • as for Paul, why does he expose himself to danger on a constant basis?

Indeed, Paul constantly exposes himself to mortal danger – yet he constantly rejoices over the fact that as a minister of Christ, he can count the Corinthians’ salvation as one of his successes. If Paul did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, he would not have fought angry men in Ephesus; instead, he would have embraced hedonism. Now the Corinthians should guard against embracing hedonism, as they can be led astray by it. Paul concludes by exhorting the Corinthians to be vigilant and avoid falling into sin, as some of them actually denied the truth of the resurrection of the dead – which should put the entire Corinthian church to shame.

Thoughts: In verse 24, we see that at the end of the world, Christ will hand “over the kingdom to God the Father.” Hodge offers some thoughts on this nebulous statement:

It must be remembered that the Scriptures speak of a threefold kingdom as belonging to Christ:
1. That which necessarily belongs to him as a divine person, extending over all creatures, and of which he can never divest himself.
2. That which belongs to him as the incarnate Son of God, extending over his own people.
3. That dominion to which he was exalted after his resurrection, when all power in heaven and earth was committed to him. This kingdom, which he rules as the God-man and which extends over all principalities and powers, he is to hand over when the work of redemption is accomplished.

I must admit that I still struggle with the notion of Christ being subservient to God the Father, especially after His resurrection – which is clearly the most awesome act in human history. We know from the Scriptures that only God the Father knows the time of Christ’s second coming; in that case, is Christ omniscient? If Christ is subservient to God the Father (in terms of the third kingdom as noted in Hodge’s quote), can He be omnipotent? As believers we are taught that both of these questions are to be answered in the affirmative, yet the accompanying explanations are often unsatisfying.

In verse 29, we see that some of the Corinthians were being baptized in place of dead believers. Hodge offers some insights on this interesting practice:

This supposes that the custom of vicarious baptism, as practiced later by the Marcionites and other groups, had already been introduced into Corinth. Among those heretical sects, if a catechumen died before baptism, someone was baptized in his name in order that he might be enrolled among Christians and receive the benefit of the ordinance.

Through a close reading of the New Testament, one can form a picture of the various heresies – and errors in terms of Christian practice – that plagued the early church. Now I was inspired to learn about the Marcionites; it appears that they practiced “reverse Judaism” in that they completely rejected the Old Testament. Apparently Marcion actually asserted that the God of the Old Testament was the source of all evil. It should be noted that heresies – and errors in terms of Christian practice – continue to beset the modern church, so we must not think of ourselves as being superior to early believers in that regard.

The Resurrection of Christ October 7, 2011

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Here are my thoughts on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11.

Summary: Paul begins by proclaiming the Gospel to the Corinthians; he notes that:

  • he has already preached it to them
  • they have already received it from him
  • they have already professed it.

Now by the Gospel they are not under condemnation – provided that they persevere in their faith and hold to the Gospel itself; otherwise their faith is worthless. They should hold to the Gospel because Christ has already revealed the following facts to Paul concerning it:

  • most importantly, Christ was sacrificed for their sins, as revealed in the Old Testament
  • then, He was buried and rose again on the third day, and the Old Testament predicted these events
  • next, He appeared to Peter, and then to the Eleven and their companions
  • after that, He appeared to more than five hundred believers at once; most of them were still alive at the time of the writing of this letter
  • then, He appeared to James – His brother – and to the Twelve
  • finally, He appeared to Paul, who had a rather low opinion of himself.

Indeed, Paul considers himself to be the most unworthy apostle, and he cannot consider himself worthy to be called an apostle – since he formerly persecuted believers. Yet the Holy Spirit has changed him for the better and has enabled him to work harder than all of the other apostles combined. Paul concludes by returning to his main point, asserting that all of the apostles preach the above-mentioned facts concerning Christ’s death and resurrection – and the Corinthians have already accepted these facts.

Thoughts: In verse 6, Paul asserts that Jesus appeared to more than five hundred believers at once after His resurrection. Hodge offers some insights on this point:

There is no distinct record of this event in the Gospels. It may have taken place on the occasion when Christ met his disciples in Galilee…Others think that this appearance took place at Jerusalem, where in addition to the 120 who constituted the nucleus of the church in the holy city, there were probably many disciples gathered from all parts of Judea for the Passover.

Although the details of this event cannot be found in the Scriptures – as Hodge notes above – the fact that Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit when he wrote this passage lends credence to its historicity. Moreover, most secular historians concur that a large number of believers claimed to have seen Jesus after His resurrection – of course, people continue to question the veracity of their stories. Since Paul notes that many of these believers were still alive at the time of the writing of this letter, perhaps the Corinthians could have interviewed them to resolve any doubts that they still entertained regarding the resurrection.

In verse 10, Paul notes that he worked more than all of the other apostles combined. Hodge offers some thoughts on this seemingly outrageous statement:

It serves more to exalt the grace of God, to which Paul attributes everything good; and it is historically true, if the New Testament record is to be our guide.

The second part of Hodge’s quote helped me come to terms with Paul’s assertion. Indeed, Paul is generally regarded as having written thirteen of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, including Romans – arguably the high point of the entire Bible. It is amazing how God was able to take Paul’s zeal for persecution and mold it into a fire for spreading the Gospel, enabling him to make an impact in diverse locales including Rome, Thessalonica and Ephesus.

Orderly Worship September 30, 2011

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Here are my thoughts on 1 Corinthians 14:26-40.

Summary: Paul begins by asking the Corinthians to assess the state of their worship services; he knows that whenever they gather for worship, one is ready to sing a song of praise to God, another is prepared to teach, a third is ready to exercise the gift of prophecy, a fourth is prepared to exercise the gift of speaking in tongues, and a fifth is ready to interpret any tongue that may be employed – yet all of these gifts must be exercised for the benefit of the entire church. Now only two or three of those who can speak in tongues should use that gift during a particular worship service; they must speak in turn, and someone must be able to interpret their speech. If none of the believers present can interpret a tongue that may be employed, the speaker of that tongue should not audibly exercise their gift at that time; they should only exercise it silently by talking with God.

Also, only two or three of those who have the gift of prophecy should use that gift during a particular worship service, and those who have the gift of distinguishing between spirits should assess their revelations; now if one receives a revelation from the Lord while another is exercising the gift of prophecy, they should remain silent until the speaker has finished. By speaking in turn, the prophets facilitate the teaching and comforting of the entire church. Indeed, the Holy Spirit does not compel those with the gift of prophecy to cast off their self-control while exercising that gift. This follows from the fact that God is characterized by peace – and not by commotion.

Now in the churches of that era, it was common for women to be silent during worship services – and so the Corinthians should observe this practice; women should be silent in accordance with the Old Testament doctrine that stresses the subordination of women to men. If women have any questions regarding Christianity, they should ask their husbands in private – as it is abhorrent for them to speak during worship services. Paul then challenges the Corinthians, since their allowing women to speak during worship services implies that the Gospel originated in Corinth. Now if anybody considers himself to have the gift of prophecy – or any other gift – they should submit to Paul’s directions in this passage, as Paul is led by Christ in this regard. If anybody refuses to accept Paul’s authority in this regard, he will leave them to their own devices. It follows that the Corinthians should seek after the gift of prophecy, and the gift of speaking in tongues should not be muzzled. Paul concludes by noting, though, that these gifts should be exercised during their worship services in such a way that propriety and order are preserved.

Thoughts: The focus of this passage – and, to be more precise, the entire chapter – is the proper conduct of worship services. Now the disorder that prevailed in the Corinthian church primarily arose from members who were anxious to exercise the gifts of prophecy and speaking in tongues. This picture of disorder is decidedly foreign to modern-day churches, especially the Baptist, Presbyterian and non-denominational churches that I’ve attended. Of course, this makes me wonder if a modern-day Pentecostal service serves as a poor approximation to the situation in the Corinthian church. I’m assuming that order still prevails in a modern-day Pentecostal church – how is order enforced, though?

Verses 34-35 stress that women should not speak during worship services – at least in the churches of that era. Hodge offers some head-scratching thoughts on this issue:

The rational basis for this prohibition is that it is contrary to the relationship of subordination in which the woman stands to the man if she appears as a public teacher…The scriptural basis is expressed in the words as the Law says – that is, the will of God as made known in the Old Testament. There, as well as in the New Testament, the doctrine that women should be in subjection is clearly revealed.

This is certainly one of the most controversial passages in all of Scripture, and Hodge’s thoughts do not resolve all of the doubts in my mind. For example, many churches – including the one that I attend – have ordained female pastors and female ministers; would such actions be contrary to the directive that Paul spells out here? Also, many churches have female Sunday School teachers, especially for children’s classes; would that state of affairs be contrary to Paul’s directive?

Gifts of Prophecy and Tongues September 27, 2011

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Here are my thoughts on 1 Corinthians 14:1-25.

Summary: Paul begins by encouraging the Corinthians to pursue the way of love and seek spiritual gifts – especially the gift of prophecy. Indeed, any believer who exercises the gift of speaking in tongues only communicates with God; nobody who hears him can understand his speech while he utters divine truths under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, any believer who exercises the gift of prophecy strengthens others by exhorting and consoling them. It follows that anybody who speaks in tongues can only benefit himself. Now Paul does not mean that the gift of speaking in tongues is inherently bad – he holds the gift of prophecy in higher esteem since those who utilize it are more useful.

It follows that speaking in tongues cannot benefit others unless the speaker can also exercise the gifts of prophecy or teaching. He then illustrates his point by noting that we cannot appreciate a flute or a harp unless we can distinguish the sounds that they produce. Also, if a trumpet sounds an ambiguous call to battle, nobody will respond to it. He drives home his point by stating that unless those who speak in tongues can be understood by others, they are just speaking in vain. Now there are many languages in the world, and they are all inherently significant. This implies that if Paul cannot understand the speaker of a particular tongue, he is essentially a foreigner to him. This principle can be extended to the speaking of tongues in the church, as those who exercise this gift are regarded as foreigners by other believers; since the Corinthians are zealous for the manifestations of the Holy Spirit, they should desire the most useful gifts for the body of Christ.

Paul then infers that any believer who possesses the gift of speaking in tongues should pray that they can also receive the gift of interpreting tongues. For example, if the Holy Spirit moves Paul to pray using a tongue, others cannot understand – and benefit from – his prayer. Therefore, he aims to pray using a tongue so that others can understand his prayer; he also aims to sing using a tongue so that others can understand his song. Now if the Holy Spirit moves the Corinthians to praise God and give thanks to Him using tongues, those who cannot understand the tongues in question cannot agree with their praise and thanksgiving; each speaker may benefit himself, yet he cannot benefit others.

Paul is thankful that he abundantly possesses the gift of speaking in tongues, yet he would rather benefit other believers by instructing them with a language that they can understand. Now he wants the Corinthians to stop foolishly exalting the gift of speaking in tongues – while remaining innocent regarding evil. He then applies Isaiah 28:11-12 to show that speaking in tongues that cannot be understood is essentially a curse on those who hear them. It follows that foreign languages are God’s way of showing Himself to unbelievers, while prophecy is God’s way of showing Himself to believers. Therefore, if the church at Corinth is gathered together and those who speak use foreign languages, and some of the attendees include 1) those who do not understand the languages employed and 2) unbelievers, these attendees will receive a negative impression of their church. Paul concludes by noting that in this scenario, if those who speak are guided by the Holy Spirit to exercise the gift of prophecy instead, an attendee who 1) would not understand the previously-mentioned foreign languages or 2) happened to be an unbeliever would be convicted of his sin and guilt, and he would understand the truth of the Gospel; he would then worship God and declare that Jesus is Lord.

Thoughts: After reading this passage, I thought, “does the Holy Spirit still give the gift of prophecy to present-day believers?” Many believers, including Hodge, would assert that certain gifts, including those of prophecy and the performing of miracles, ceased to exist after the writing of the New Testament. Up until recently I completely agreed with that viewpoint; then the youth pastor at our church shared a powerful story about a dream that convicted her, and she was able to edify and strengthen the youth fellowship in the process. This leads me to conjecture that the gift of prophecy is still active, especially under difficult and trying circumstances. Also, could the gift of miracles be applied when preaching the Gospel to an unreached people group?

In verse 16, we see that Paul greatly valued other believers saying “Amen” in response to another believer speaking in tongues. Hodge offers some insights on the word “Amen”:

Amen is a Hebrew adjective meaning “true” or “faithful,” often used adverbially at the end of a sentence to express agreement with what is said, in the sense of “let it be so.” In the Jewish synagogue it was the custom for the people to respond to the prayers by audibly saying, “Amen,” by which they indicated their assent and participation in the petitions that had been offered.

At the church that I currently attend, it is rather uncommon for people to shout “Amen” during the pastor’s sermons, though that was a frequent occurrence at my previous church. I wonder if the practice of saying “Amen” during sermons varies from church to church based on demographics and denomination, e.g. it could be more common at an African Methodist Episcopal church than at a Presbyterian church. Personally I don’t feel inclined to say “Amen” during a sermon, as I’m not sure how I could benefit others with that interjection.

In verse 22, we see that God manifests Himself to believers via prophecy, while He manifests Himself to unbelievers via tongues. Hodge makes the following interesting point:

But a language may be said to be unknown either by the speaker or by the hearer. It is said to be unknown to the speaker if it has not previously been acquired; and it is said to be unknown to the hearers if they do not understand it…Speaking in tongues in the one sense was a grace and a blessing; in the other sense, it was a folly and a curse.

It follows that the gift of speaking in tongues is a double-edged sword; in one sense it benefits those who use it, and in another sense it can actually work against those who are listening yet cannot understand the tongue in question. This makes me wonder if the gift of speaking in tongues is the only gift that has this double-edged characteristic. The gifts with which I am familiar tend to benefit both those who use them and those who they are applied to.

Love September 23, 2011

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Here are my thoughts on 1 Corinthians 12:31b-13:13.

Summary: Paul begins by telling the Corinthians that he will show them an excellent way to obtain the relatively useful spiritual gifts. Now if he were to speak using foreign languages and the languages of angels – while lacking love – his speech would be equivalent to the sounds produced by a gong or a large pair of cymbals. Also, if 1) God were to reveal His purposes to Paul regarding salvation and His kingdom and He enabled him to communicate these truths to others, 2) he were able to understand these truths and teach them to others, and 3) he were able to work miracles, yet he lacked love in all these cases, he would be worthless. In addition, if 1) he were to sell his property and use the proceeds to buy food for the poor, and 2) he were to die for others, yet he lacked love in both of these cases, he would not profit. Paul then lists several characteristics of love:

  • it is not easily roused to resentment
  • it is inclined to do good
  • it does not entertain evil feelings in light of the fact that others are receiving good
  • it does not seek the applause of others
  • it is not conceited
  • it does not act in ways that will produce shame
  • it is not quick-tempered
  • it does not charge any wrongs that it has suffered to the account of the wrongdoer
  • it does not conform to unrighteousness but shares in the joy of righteousness
  • it quietly endures all difficulties
  • it is not suspicious of others
  • it hopes for the good of others
  • it patiently endures persecution
  • it lasts forever.

On the other hand, the following gifts will be irrelevant in the next life:

  • prophecy
  • tongues
  • teaching.

Indeed, teaching and prophecy are inherent to an imperfect state of existence; perfection will come in the next life – rendering teaching and prophecy irrelevant. To illustrate this point, Paul first refers to his childhood, when his speech, feelings and thoughts were all immature; when he became an adult, his speech, feelings and thoughts matured. He then notes that our present state of knowledge is analogous to the effects of peering through an imperfectly polished mirror; in the next life our state of knowledge will be analogous to the effects of seeing the Lord face to face. Paul concludes by noting that faith, hope and love will continue in the next life – yet love is greater than faith and hope, as it can benefit others.

Thoughts: As love is the main topic of this passage, the precise meaning of “love” is critical for properly understanding Paul’s overall argument; Hodge weighs in as follows:

With regard to the word love, the Greek word agape occurs about 116 times in the New Testament. This word did not have a heathen origin. The heathen had no conception of the grace that in the Scriptures is expressed by this word; neither the Greek eros nor philia, nor the Latin amor or caritas has the scriptural sense of agape.

This passage, then, is effectively God’s definition of the comprehensive term of agape love. Moreover, it is clear that God desires believers to demonstrate agape love towards each other. As noted by Hodge, agape love cannot be understood by non-believers, and so it must surpass even those altruistic – at least on the surface – actions of, say, a Buddhist monk or a “genuinely nice person.” Of course, this distinction is even difficult for believers to grasp; while we want to honor God with our deeds, outward acts of charity and kindness fall short in terms of demonstrating agape love.

One of Paul’s main points is that spiritual gifts, when they are exercised apart from the guiding principle of agape love, are effectively useless. This is a sobering fact that I need to constantly remember – since I serve as a Sunday School teacher at my church. Now if my ultimate aim in teaching is to improve my standing in the eyes of others and bring glory to myself, this passage teaches that I will fail to build up the body of Christ. Of course, this is difficult for me to grasp, especially if I receive compliments and praise for my teaching. One thought is that if I exercised the gift of teaching in a self-seeking manner, God would bring about a sequence of events that would clearly illustrate the long-term inefficacy of my gift. I, for one, am not eager to see how God would act in that regard.

One Body, Many Parts September 17, 2011

Posted by flashbuzzer in Books, Christianity.
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Here are my thoughts on 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a.

Summary: Paul begins by noting that the human body is one – though it consists of many parts – and these parts are essential for it to be an organic whole; moreover, this analogy can be extended to the church. Now all believers have experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit – merging them into an organic whole – and they receive the Holy Spirit via that baptism. He then notes that each part of the human body plays a critical role in sustaining the organic whole. Now he stresses that it would be absurd for one part of the human body to complain that it lacks the function that is inherent to another part. Indeed, the very existence of the human body relies on its consisting of many distinct parts that each play a critical role in sustaining it. Now God has determined which parts should constitute the human body, and He has given each of them their respective roles. Paul then stresses that each part of the human body depends on the other parts for its survival. In addition,

  • those parts of the human body that are less prominent are actually more important for survival than its more prominent parts
  • humans are inclined to adorn the parts of their bodies that appear to be less honorable.

The parts of the human body that appear to be more honorable do not need to be adorned, while God has designed the human body so that the (seemingly) less honorable parts are actually worthy of more honor. God has designed the human body in this way so that there should be no opposition of feelings between its diverse parts; thus, the pain/pleasure of one part is shared by the other parts. Paul then applies this analogy concerning the human body to the church at Corinth. In particular, God has given each of the members of the body of Christ at least one of the following roles:

  • serving as direct messengers from Christ
  • communicating occasional truths from God – as inspired by the Holy Spirit
  • teaching
  • working miracles
  • healing diseases
  • serving as deacons and deaconesses
  • serving as elders
  • praying, praising God and thanking Him using languages that they had never studied.

In particular, the body of Christ cannot function as an organic whole if all of its members have the same gift. Paul concludes by exhorting the Corinthians to strive to obtain the most edifying gifts for the body of Christ.

Thoughts: One of Paul’s main points in this passage is that the body of Christ can only exist as a union of diverse members – each with their own gift from the Holy Spirit. Hodge offers an interesting slant on this point in his commentary on verse 14:

To a certain extent what Paul says of the diversity of gifts in individual members of the church may, in the existing state of things, be applied to different denominations of Christians. No one is perfect or complete in itself. And no one can say to the others, “I have no need of you.” Each represents something that is not as well represented in the others. Each has its own function to exercise and its own work to perform.

While I actually agree with Hodge’s point that different denominations are mutually dependent – and no alienation of feelings should exist between them – I am unsure as to whether Paul actually intended this passage to be understood in that way. In particular, it does not appear that distinct denominations had arisen in the church at the time of the writing of this letter. Some would argue that the whole concept of distinct denominations is unbiblical, though that’s a topic for another day.

Another of Paul’s main points in this passage is the importance of shared feelings among the members of the body of Christ; all believers should suffer together and rejoice together. Now this is relatively easy to understand in terms of the human body, as Hodge notes in his commentary on verses 25-26:

This is the law of our physical nature. The body is really one. It has a common life and consciousness. The pain or pleasure of one part is common to the whole.

Unfortunately, this is relatively difficult to understand in terms of the body of Christ, as Hodge notes in his commentary on verse 27:

In this, as in all other respects, Christians are imperfect. The time has not yet come when every believer has the same care for another that he has for himself and rejoices in his joy and grieves in his sorrow as though they were his own. But the ideal is set before us here, and blessed are those who approach nearest to the standard.

I thought about this, and it appears that a lack of time and resources is a major reason for our shortcomings in this regard. As believers, it is difficult to find time to understand the joys and struggles of each member of our local congregation (especially if we attend a relatively large church), let alone those of a fellow believer in Lesotho. This leads me to believe that it is impossible for Christians to attain “the standard” in this life; my thought, though, is that Paul is exhorting us to improve in this regard – which seems more attainable.