September 24, 2022 - 1st Corinthians Chapters 13-16

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As we continue this month’s series on Paul’s first letter to his friends at Corinth, as Paul wrestles with the issue of spiritual gifts, Paul says there is one gift that surpasses all the others, a gift that puts a whole new light on all that’s wrong in the church at Corinth.

1st Corinthians 13 is the famous Love Chapter, a word that comes from God. Paul does not write these words for couples who are getting married (although they are good advice for such couples). Paul is writing for a church that’s having problems. What Paul writes reads like a laundry list of those problems. Perhaps we can even hear ourselves being chided here.

1st Corinthians 13 is one of the most challenging passages anywhere in Scripture. If anyone thinks they have their act together, if anyone thinks they’ve obeyed all of God’s commands, let them honestly claim that they live exactly the way Paul describes here. 1st Corinthians 13 is the toughest act in the world to measure up to.

Paul’s famous words on the Greek word agapÄ“ in 1 Corinthians 13 become the most eloquent definition of “love” in all human literature (the KJV uses the word “charity”). But how did Paul and the NT apostles come to choose that word to mean the exalted kind of love of which Paul writes in this chapter? Paul had at least 4 Greek words for love to choose from. Paul does not choose the word from which we get our word “erotic.” Paul does not choose the word for family love for our own children or kin. Neither does Paul choose the word from which we get the name Philadelphia (brotherly love), the warm affection we have for friends, baseball, or pizza. In this chapter, Paul takes a generic Greek term for love and loads it with new meaning.

Paul begins chapter 13 by showing how love is indispensable. Without the kind of love Paul is about to describe, all our righteous deeds are worthless, and all our God-talk is so much hot air. Paul tells the super-spiritual Corinthians that they can speak in supernatural tongues, they can perform miraculous healings, they can preach and teach and do all sorts of good, but without genuine love, Paul says we’re like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

Love is everything the childish Corinthians were not. Unlike them, Paul says that love is patient and kind. The NT’s word for “patient” means “long-suffering.” Love patiently endures the unloving behavior of others. Love does not lash back with cruel or vengeful words. Love is not quick to file lawsuits. The loving person does not lose his/her temper.

Unlike the Corinthians, love is not jealous or boastful. Both children and adults get jealous when others get more goodies than we do. We know how to make others feel small compared to us. But grown-up genuine love has no need to prop up its own ego at the expense of others. Love can rejoice with others’ successes, and weep rather than gloat over their failures.

Love is not “puffed up” or “arrogant” or “proud.” It is not self-important. In verse 5 we see that love does not behave “shamefully” (most versions say it is not “rude”). Paul says love (literally) “does not seek its own things.” As other versions put it, love “does not demand its own way” or “is not self-seeking.” Paul also says love is not “easily provoked” or “irritable.” Love doesn’t fly off the handle or pounce on perceived hurts.

Paul’s last point in verse 5 is that love literally “does not reason / calculate the bad.” Some versions take this to mean that love “thinks no evil” or “keeps no record of wrong.” Love doesn’t keep score on insults or bear grudges. Love doesn’t keep score on what it gets back. In verse 6, Paul declares that love “does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.”

In verse 7, Paul gives us 4 constant actions love does: it always “bears” or “protects,” and always “trusts,” “hopes,” and “endures.” Love is tough; it can stand the hardest blows. Love puts up with the worst garbage. Love gives, even when it doesn’t get back. Real love doesn’t quit when its requirements get bothersome or costly.

The Living Bible gives an excellent paraphrase to verse 7: “If you love someone, you will be loyal to them no matter what the cost. You will always believe in them, you will always expect the best of them, and you will always stand your ground in defending them.” The Good News Bible has another good paraphrase: “Love never gives up, and its faith, hope, and patience never fail.” In verse 8, Paul proclaims that love never “falls,” which means, love never quits or goes obsolete. Love never ends. If it ends, it was not God’s kind of love. Love does not depend on whether the other party ever loves us back. As the KJV puts it, love “never fails.”

Paul compares the everlasting nature of love to spiritual gifts and knowledge, which will one day be abolished and forgotten like childhood toys. In the end, Paul says in verse 13 that only faith, hope, and love will remain, but the greatest of these is love. That’s why Paul writes in the very next verse (14:1), “Pursue love.” The verb Paul uses here is the verb for “chase down” or “persecute.” “Pursue” love!

What a masterpiece portrait of love! Who can measure up to such love? If you think you do, you are deceiving yourself. People who come close to measuring up to this kind of love are an endangered species indeed, and only the Holy Spirit can make such love happen.

AgapÄ“ is an unconditional love that gives without expecting in return. It is a selfless, sacrificial care, the kind God showed in us in what Jesus did for us on the cross, the kind of love we are to show to others. Finding the right word for such love in Greek was not easy. We still don’t have the right word for it in English.

In chapter 14, Paul gets back to the subject of spiritual gifts. Paul has to explain in verses 18-19 that even though he speaks in tongues more than any of them, “I would rather speak 5 words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than 10,000 words in an (unknown) tongue.” Paul would be happy to see them all speak in tongues, but would rather see them all prophesy. Why? Because prophecy builds up or edifies the church, not just the individual. If I speak in a strange tongue, how do I help you, if I don’t also bring you a teaching or message you can understand? You’ll be “speaking into the air.” “If I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.”

Paul asks: What good is a bugle, if no one knows what is being played? Who will get ready for battle? Imagine what will happen if an outsider or unbeliever comes to church and you all speak in tongues. Won’t they think you must be crazy? Paul asks. But if you all prophesy, they will be convicted in their hearts by what they hear, and the person will fall on their face and worship God, confessing that God is truly among you.

So what should you do? Paul recommends that when they come together for worship, all should be able to contribute a song, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, plus an interpretation of what is said. “Let all things be done for a constructive purpose.” And don’t do it in one big hodgepodge, but “let all things be done decently and in order,” each in turn, yielding the right of way when necessary, because “God is not a God of confusion, but of peace.”

Then suddenly Paul declares, “Let the women (or “wives”) keep silent in the churches (or “assemblies”).” Paul even goes so far as to say that it is “a shame for a woman to speak in the church (or assembly).” How does this fit with the Paul we know from elsewhere? Even in chapter 11 of this same letter, Paul permits women to pray and prophesy, and I doubt that he intends to silence Priscilla in her teaching with her husband Aquila. Check out our program on “Women in Leadership” (dated April 25, 2021) and find out more about Paul on this subject.

Gender must not be the issue. The real issue is order when the church meets for worship. Worship appears to have been segregated by gender at this time, like it still is today at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (The purpose was to keep the attention of both sexes on God rather than on the attractive people around them.) Paul is telling wives to save their questions to ask their husbands when they get home. Be quiet; don’t disrupt us when everyone’s trying to listen.

In chapter 15, Paul turns to address a central issue of the Gospel: life beyond the grave. Greek believers had real problems with the idea of resurrection. The Greeks despised life in the flesh. They viewed the human body as weak, corrupt, and embarrassing. They looked forward to getting rid of it. They preferred to think of immortality without any sort of body. They thought: who would want to come back in a body like this one?

So Paul calls time out and says: Folks! If you throw out our future hope of resurrection, you are sawing off the very branch of faith on which we are sitting. Paul argues that if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised, either. And if Jesus’ resurrection is a hoax, then all our preaching and our faith is only a joke. We are stuck, separated from God by our sin, lost without a Savior, as hopeless as a hog in the stockyards. Without the resurrection, Paul says, the very core of what we believe falls apart. Paul makes it clear in verse 19: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

Paul takes his audience back to the very basics of what we believe: Christ died for our sins, he was buried (he was truly dead), he was raised on the third day (as God’s word foretold), and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the 12, and then he appeared to more than 500 people at one time, most of whom are still alive in 55 AD when Paul is writing this letter. We’re not talking fairy tales! We have hundreds of witnesses to confirm the fact that Jesus has risen. We don’t have to throw out our brains to believe this!

And Christ is just the first fruits of those who are to rise from the dead. The rest of us will rise when Christ returns. At that time, Paul says, Christ puts down every opposing power. God puts all things under his feet, including the last enemy, death. Then the Son of God places himself in subjection to God the Father. Does that mean that Christ and God the Father are 2 separate powers? Or does this simply show that the 2 are one God with one will and purpose?

In verse 29, Paul asks, “If the dead are not raised, how do you explain those who are baptized for the dead?” Only the followers of Marcion and some Gnostics did proxy baptism on behalf of dead people; there is zero evidence that God’s true Church did so. However, another way to translate the word hyper here is “baptized for the sake of the dead.” It sounds like these are cases where an unbeliever gets baptized for the sake of joining a departed Christian spouse or parent in heaven. Paul does not endorse this practice. Paul is simply saying that the practice would make no sense if the dead are not raised. Nor does it make sense for Paul to risk his life daily at Ephesus. He says in verse 33, “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

Paul next raises a question that his skeptics would like to ask: “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” How can anyone be raised with the same flesh and organs we had before? How can God raise a body whose elements have decomposed?” (God doesn’t need the old material to create the new body.) Paul answers by arguing that resurrection is like what happens when you bury a seed in the ground. What you bury is cold, hard, brown, and apparently lifeless. What you get back is a body that is green and full of life. The old body has been transformed into a new and far more glorious body.

That’s what happens to us, Paul argues. The body we bury in the ground is perishable, but the body we’re raised with is imperishable. It is buried in dishonor (it’s usually not a pleasant sight), but it is raised in glory. It is buried in weakness (a body that could not endure the ravages of life forever), but it’s raised in power. It’s buried as a physical body, but raised a spiritual body.

Paul writes that the physical body comes first, then the spiritual body. We don’t start out in a spirit world. What does Paul mean by a “spiritual body”? Does he mean that our new risen body is non-physical? Is Paul talking about a body of pure spirit, like a ghost, or what? No, Paul is not talking about a disembodied form of immortality. Paul calls it a “spiritual” body, not because it will be non-physical, but more than physical. Our new bodies will be indestructible. They will not be subject to decay or physical weakness. They will be glorious, like Christ’s resurrected body. In verse 49, Paul writes, “Just as we have born the image of the man of dust (meaning Adam), so we shall also bear the image of the Man of heaven (Christ).”

Starting in verse 51, Paul lets us in on a secret (he calls it a mystery): “We shall not all sleep (meaning “die”), but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (in a flash – literally an “atom” of time), even if we’re alive at the time. When Christ returns, “the trumpet shall sound (announcing the end of time), and the dead shall be raised imperishable. For this perishable nature shall put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature shall put on immortality.”

So for Greeks who weren’t sure they wanted resurrection, Paul explains that no, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” Our future bodies will not be exactly the same as the kind we have now. Instead, both the living and the dead will be transformed into new and improved bodies. When that happens, Paul says, the sting of death is gone; “death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” Because all this is true, Paul ends the chapter, “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain.”

As we come to chapter 16, Paul takes a moment to talk about systematic giving. The 1st century churches are rallying to help the financially struggling church at Jerusalem. Paul recommends that they set aside money for this offering as each person may prosper (whatever they can afford) on the first day of each week. (Notice that even in 55 AD, Sunday, the day Jesus rose, is starting to eclipse the Jewish Sabbath as a holy day.) Giving is usually best when it is done systematically, one week at a time, rather than trying to do it all in 1 lump sum. Paul doesn’t want to see them have to do a rush job on their collection when he comes.

Paul sketches out for the Corinthians what his tentative plans are to visit Corinth again. Paul plans to stay in Ephesus at least until Pentecost (early summer) of 55 AD; he says he’s got a wide open door for the Gospel there, although he also has many enemies. Paul eventually gets back to Corinth in the late fall of 56 AD, where he spends 3 months and writes his letter to the Romans.

Paul also puts in a good word for Apollos his successor, who did not stay long. Paul urges Apollos to pay Corinth another visit if possible (Paul does not treat Apollos as a rival). Paul urges the church to submit to the leadership they have now, the family of Stephanas, the first family to come to Christ in their area. Paul thanks the Corinthians for sending support to him at Ephesus, and sends greetings from the churches in the province of Asia (western Turkey), including a church in the house of Priscilla and Aquila, plus churches up the Lycus River valley at Colossae, Hierapolis, and Laodicea, where the Gospel has already spread.

Paul urges them in verse 14, “Let all you do be done in love (charity),” harking back to what he said in chapter 13. Paul tells them to “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (which is not part of our current Western cultural tradition). And finally, Paul greets them in his own handwriting (remember, he’s got a secretary named Sosthenes). Paul writes: “If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be anathema (accursed).” And then in Aramaic Paul writes, “Maranatha!” (“Our Lord has come!” or “Our Lord cometh!”)

That wraps up our 4-week journey through Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. As we look ahead to next week, we’re going to begin a 5-week series on the doctrine of God. Is the biblical God really one God in three persons? Is that a pagan, multi-headed Hydra? Or is that the only sound way to understand what the Bible teaches? If not, perhaps you say there are 3 Gods, but only one God with whom we have to do. If so, which God is that, and what do we do with the other Gods? And is God an exalted man, or is that a misunderstanding of the Bible’s language about God? Doesn’t a God who is limited to a body like ours create problems? We’ll talk about all these questions and more starting next time on Biblical Words and World!