It being the end of the year, it is natural and proper for us as a church to look back and reflect on the lessons that we have (or should have) learned over the past twelve months. This year we have looked at over 35 or so messages from the book of 1st Corinthians. It’s been quite an undertaking and I know that I could have taken much longer to get through the book (or maybe some of you wish I would have taken much quicker). That said, today I want to quickly review the entire book of 1st Corinthians and share with you thirteen of what to me were the most important lessons.
1) Good Churches May Go Bad, But God is Faithful
As we’ve preached through this year, I feel as if I have gotten to know two churches, both the church at Corinth and at OCBC. Churches are often like onions, the more layers you peel back, the smellier and more offensive they become. One pastor one said that he thanks God for all of the problems in the Corinthian church, because without their problems, we would not have such an instructive letter. Yet what if we had been the church Paul wrote to – the letter to the Ottawinthians. As many struggles that the Corinthian church had living out their calling in a god-less culture, we have just as many if not more. Yet Paul began his letter to this messed up church with one encouraging message, chapter 1:9: God is faithful. These three words are the underlying hope of the letter. Yes, the Corinthians needed instruction, correction and rebuke, but they needed hope as well.
2) Unity Requires Cross-based Humility
Like the Corinthians, we’ve not been a perfect church over our 32 years. We’ve fought each other, held on to resentment against each other, and driven people away. Paul located the root of the Corinthians divisiveness in their prideful heart and like a master surgeon prescribed a heart transplant for them. Yet instead of simply telling the church, “Be humble”, he pointed them to where true humility lies – in the cross of Jesus Christ. Paul writes in 2:1: And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. It is only through an personal encounter with the cross of Jesus that the heart can possibly be transformed, for it is on the cross that love is revealed. When we see the greatest One in all the universe humbly subjecting himself to a humiliating end, it should make our prideful heart weep, we who are but dust. If God himself gave himself for his enemies, how is it that we who are said to share his heart and are called by his name cannot give ourselves for our brothers? Reflecting on the cross is not a one-time event that leads you to faith (though it must do that) but a daily practice that leads you to faithfulness. That leads me to the third important lesson:
3) The Spiritual Person Displays The Character of Christ
The spiritual person is not measured by how many prayer beads that they wear, or how much Christian music they listen to, or how many theological blogs they read, or hours of prayer they log, or how many people they witness to, or how many spiritual giftings they display. The spiritual person is the one who exhibits the mind of Christ in their personal and practical relationships. Remember what Paul wrote in 3:1-3:
But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?
Of course to receive and develop the mind of Christ you must practice the spiritual disciplines. How are you going to be patient with your brother unless you have spent many patient hours on your knees before God? How are you going to know Christ’s wisdom unless you have had his word opened up to you and applied to your life by the Holy Spirit? That is, the measure of your spirituality will be measured by your character, integrity, and devotion to others, but the source of that spirituality will be the time you spend enraptured with the HolySpirit, being transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ through prayer and Bible saturation. How many hours of mind-renewing saturation have you logged this year? How much more of the mind of Christ do you possess?
4) The Only Thing We Add To God’s Mission is Faithfulness
As we all spend time in the transforming presence of God, receiving and renewing our mind to that of Christ’s, more and more we find our life’s goals, ambitions, energies and activities, coming more and more into line with His mission. Paul writes in 3:10-13:
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw-- each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.
This is one of the areas in which I feel we here at OCBC need to reflect on most, particularly the younger generation. The natural outworking of receiving the mind of Christ is participation in Christ’s work. This is not just for pastors and missionaries and prophets. This is for each one of us who are members of his body, to build up his church toward maturity. What is the Lord looking for in this work? Man often looks at the outward appearances. How big is your church getting? How many missionaries do you support? Those things are great, but God takes care of those things. From us, he is looking for faithfulness. Are you more faithful in your service in the church than you were last year?
5) Our Ultimate Judge is God, Not Others
The last question is important because in order to successfully (in God’s eyes) contribute to God’s kingdom, you have to recognize that you are offering your service to God alone to be evaluated by God alone. Paul writes in 4:3-4:
But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.
You cannot pedal your ministry to pander to people. You serve God and let the people say or do what they will. How much of your life will you squander by living it for others. If you’re going to live it for others anyway, why not live it for God? He is after all the only worth pleasing, the only one who matters. At the close of 2008, do you find yourself living more for men or for God?
6) We Must Preserve the Purity of God’s Temple
Part of our participation in building up God’s church as a holy temple is that we must preserve its purity. 1 Corinthians chapters 5-6 taught us that we must do this not only personally but collectively. Personally, you have to understand the type of war zone that wages around you for your soul. We live in a culture every bit as sexually perverted as Corinth. I once said I recognized how pornographic we’d become in our culture when they started making mannequins with nipples. Why do mannequins need nipples? We have to understand that we grieve the Holy Spirit inside of us when we do not operate as his temple. Our body matters to God, so we act to glorify him with it by not acting sexually immoral. We are to preserve our purity on an individual level and also on a church level. You cannot claim to be a member of the body of Christ and be living in continual unconfessed sin. It is impossible for a wild animal to go one living like a wild animal once it has been tamed, for if it acts not tame it is still wild. No one would say, come here pet my lion, he’s tame, while the animal is roaring and eyeing you hungrily. What Paul is saying here is don’t let wild animals say that they are tame, get them out of the zoo before they kill other people.
7) Those Who Are Married Should Find a Way In, Not Look For a Way Out
In chapter 7, Paul’s discussion of sexual morality turns inward towards marriage. The big idea from this section was simply this. If you’re married, you should be looking for ways to get more deeply involved in your marriage, rather than looking for a way out of it. This led to my infamous Father’s Day message in which I encouraged husbands and wives to enjoy each other in ways not normally expressed from the pulpit in a Chinese Church. Get more deeply involved spiritually, emotionally, mentally, psychologically, and yes, physically. Find ways to love your spouse. Go against that cultural lie that says monogamy is boring. Show the world that monogamy is hot! This is one area that the church needs to show our culture a different way – show them your strong marriage and when they ask how you did it – say I couldn’t do it. I would have failed. Jesus did it. That leads to the next point:
8) We Seek to Glorify God in Whatever Circumstance
Some marriages do fail. Some people find themselves in terrible marriages. Others wish they were in a bad marriage because they think the loneliness of singlehood is worse. We are always looking outside of our own situation, whether we are thinking in terms of our relationships with spouse or family, job or career, church, or whatever. The key to contentment and fulfillment is to glorify God in whatever circumstance you find yourself. Free yourself from the madness of finding the perfect situation and seek to perfect yourself in every situation you find yourself. Paul writes this timely advice in chapter 7:17: Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Paul goes on to illustrate that principle with the picture of a slave and a master. The servant, even in a miserable situation, should seek to glorify God through his circumstance. If the master lets him go, all the better. But how many of us would seek our freedom first, then to glorify God? In our marriages, jobs, and homes?
9) We Adjust Our Gospel Methods - not Our Gospel Message
This was the main theme of our sermon series this fall from chapters 8-10. I had never studied these chapters in depth before preaching that series. The key verses in that section are 9:22-23: To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. Simply put, if we are using the same methods today to reach people for Christ that we used 50 years ago, we are sinning against God’s heart for mission. We never alter the Gospel message, but we must refresh our methods to reach our changing culture. These chapters in Corinthians prescribe for us a philosophy of ministry in which we may even deny ourselves of our own personal preferences in order to win others to Christ.
10) We Have Different Roles but Equal Worth
We looked this principle most thoroughly when we got to Chapter 11, the head covering passage, which focused on gender issues in the church, but if you paid close attention, you would have also seen this principle at play in the following chapters as well. In taking off their married woman hats, the Corinthians were removing a cultural distinction that served as a reminder of diversity in the body. By feeding some people in the church before others when they came for the Lords supper, they violated the unity of the church. By favoring some gifts (and thus some people) in the church over others they failed to understand that the Spirit had placed a diversity of people with a diversity of gifts into One body to serve each other in love. In all of these situations, the balance between unity and diversity is achieved through reflection on the Trinity – God as One essential unity, and God as Three distinct personalities and roles. The Son and the Spirit, though having a different role than the Father, are by no means lesser to the Father.
11) Use Everything the Lord Has Given You to Build Up the Church
Our discussion of spiritual gifts led us to affirm one overriding principle. Use everything you have to edify (build up) the body. That’s why God has gifted you. So you use your gifts in service of one another, in the power and sensitivity of the Holy Spirit, and when you meet a ministry need that is beyond your giftings, you look and pray for a miraculous intervention by the Holy Spirit.
12) Love is a Person and a Verb
Using gifts in this way, in fact putting any of these principles from 1 Corinthians into practice, the ability to “Live by Love in a Lustful World” comes first and ultimately from knowing the Source of Love – for if you do not know Jesus, you cannot know love. Once you know Him who is Love, than you recognize that we know his love by his actions. And that we are called to love in the same way. So let his love wash over you, fill your heart, and overflow into others. Practice this now, for no unloving thing can enter into heaven, the presence of love. Which brings us to our last major principle:
13) Heaven is Not a Spiritual Place
Some people say, “What do you mean?” Well, your right, it is a spiritual place in that it will be a place where we will live in perfect spiritual unity and the Holy Spirit will be our life. But when I say it is not a spiritual place, I mean that it is real. As real as this room you’re sitting in. Or as C.S. Lewis would say, even more real than the room you’re sitting in. Heaven is earth 2.0, an upgrade in everyway. And so the goal of our faith is not death, but life. For we who believe in Jesus will one day live with him in a resurrection body. You will see Jesus with your own eyes and in your own flesh. He’s preparing a feast for us, a better feast than all of the food we have eaten over the past week at Christmas time.