Sunday, June 09, 2024

Not So Irrelevant

The subject of the first few chapters of 1 Corinthians is Paul’s concern about divisions in the church. It takes him only nine verses of introduction to jump right into it, and because it is the first of many different church-related exhortations in his letter, we may reasonably infer that the apostle viewed the matter as very significant.

The fact that the churches down through the centuries have pretty much entirely failed to process the lesson he was teaching and put it into practice in no way diminishes the importance of what Paul said or the clarity and intensity with which he wrote about it. Expressing the unity of the body of Christ in every possible way on every possible occasion is a mark of mature Christian faith. More, please!

The Appeal

So Paul begins his appeal in verse 10 of chapter 1 by identifying the problem. The Corinthians were quarreling amongst themselves about which of the teachers from whom they had benefited was the greatest. Different groups of Corinthians were rallying to the flags of their heroes and boasting in them: “I follow Paul,” “I follow Apollos,” “I follow Cephas,” “I follow Christ.” We’ve changed the names today, but the same sorts of pointless divisions remain among us. In fact, now we self-segregate over theological ideas as well as the men who came up with them. So it’s “I follow Luther,” I follow Calvin”, “I follow the presbytery”, “I follow the baptizers” or even “I follow the only real church that ever existed and all the rest of you are apostates.”

A pox on all their houses and on the flags out front.

The problem is not getting excited about the positive attributes of Peter, Paul, the Lord Jesus, or even Luther and Calvin, both of whom occasionally got things very right indeed. Rejoicing in a truth discovered is not a bad thing, and being sufficiently grateful to express it in words is even better. The problem is taking one aspect of the truth, exalting it above all the rest of what God has revealed when it’s only a small part of something much more important, then fighting about it.

The End of the Appeal

Having identified the problem, the apostle, as is his wont, winds his way down apparent rabbit trails. Subjects like the foolishness of the cross, the work of the Holy Spirit, the difference between spiritual milk and meat and the judgment seat of Christ, all of which, if we are paying attention, are actually very important to his argument. Finally, he comes to this conclusion at the end of chapter 3:

“So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.”

I have highlighted two little phrases in bold at the end of his conclusion: you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s. These statements may initially seem irrelevant to Paul’s point, which is “Don’t boast in specific individual teachers or aspects of the faith because it all belongs to you, and making too much of any part of it serves to diminish the rest.” We don’t want to do that. The argument he is making for a unified faith could really end with “all are yours” and be complete in itself. Nothing need be added.

And yet something is. When Paul does that, I feel like we ought to examine what he adds a bit more closely. Usually the things that appear most irrelevant to his arguments are actually quite the opposite.

All Are Yours

As we have pointed out, boasting is childish, but it’s not intrinsically wicked. That depends on what we are boasting about. Getting excited about what we have is an expression of gratitude. A child who opens a Christmas present and immediately begins to pout about all the things he didn’t get instead is no fun to be around. We rightly prefer the one who flashes a dazzling smile and says, “Daddy, look at this! Isn’t it great?” Enthusiasm about what we have received in Christ is a great thing, and not to be disparaged. A twelve-year-old boy who stands up during the Breaking of Bread to rejoice in his blessings should never become the object of criticism even if he is not quite on point. We are happy for him that he is enjoying himself, or we ought to be.

But what we’ve got is only the starting point. It’s stage one in a progression toward Christian maturity.

You Are Christ’s

Stage two is the recognition that we are Christ’s, the equally enthusiastic acknowledgement of the Giver as well as the gift itself. A child who is grateful is better than a child who isn’t, but better still is a child who leaves the gift on the floor for a moment to run over and give his father a hug and say, “That was so kind of you!” As we mature in Christ, we express our thanks by recognizing that all that we have received as Christians proceeds from the most important relationship we have ever entered into. In doing so, we move from contemplating the effects of our salvation to contemplating its author.

Yes, salvation is the best gift ever. Glad you noticed. Now, how does that make you feel about the One who gave it to you? We are not just blessed, we are Christ’s. Never forget it.

Christ is God’s

But even that is not the end of the maturation process. There is a stage three to Christian development, and that is this: Christ is God’s.

There is a whole vista of Christian truth that has nothing whatsoever to do with you or me, and some Christians sadly never discover it. We are blessed as a result of the relationship between Father and Son, but it existed long before you, or me, or any human being, long before angels and principalities and powers. When the Father looks at the Son, he is well pleased. He was well pleased before the Son became incarnate. We know this because it is the subject of the Psalmist: “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” Those words were written a thousand years before the Christ came into the world.

When the Father declared his delight in the Son during John’s baptism of Jesus, the Lord had yet to do anything significant. In all the gospels, the Lord’s baptism is one of the very first incidents recorded. The Father was not rhapsodizing about what Jesus had done or its transformative effects on the world, let alone the blessings to be poured out as a result on you and me. He was enthusing about who Jesus is, delighting in his person and entirely unable to restrain his praise.

Our Hearts Delight

Christ is God’s. Can you enter into that? Can you enthuse about it? We should. W.B. Dick did, when he wrote these words:

“We share thy joy in him who sitteth there;
Our hearts delight in thy delight in him;
Chiefest of thousands, fairer than the fair;
  His glory naught can tarnish, naught can dim.”

That’s the gold standard of Christian maturity. Getting excited about something great not because of its impact on us, but just because it’s great. Feeling the way about our Lord that the Father feels about him, seeing in him the qualities the Father sees and remarks upon, and rejoicing in a relationship so exalted and profound that there is none like it and never will be.

Not so irrelevant, is it?

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