1 Corinthians, Part 2

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I have long said that the greatest gift God gave human beings, outside of salvation, is the ability to make choices; our free will. No other creation has a free will. Animals are slaves to their instincts; we are free to make choices. Of course, without Christ, all people are slaves to sin, but they still have a free will – they can choose which sin to commit and when.

For the Christian, our glorious free will is a double-edged sword. It brings to mind a famous saying that nobody is exactly sure who said first:

With great freedom comes great responsibility.

Some people attribute it to Abraham Lincoln. The rule of thumb is this: If you’re not sure who said what, always stick with Churchill. Whoever said it, it’s true. We have this free will but we have a tremendous responsibility to use it to make the right choices and the choices that result in God being glorified.

Paul had a lot to say about this to the Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 8, he devotes considerable time to the matter of Christian liberty in regard to eating meat which had been offered to idols. It seems odd to us today, but this was problem splitting the Christian community in Corinth. Today we have different grades of steak for example, and back in Paul’s day they also had different grades of steak, the top grade being steaks that came from the local pagan temple – steaks that had been part of an offering made to one pagan god or another. Naturally, we don’t have this problem today, but the principle laid down by Paul is brilliant and stands the test of time –

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. (1 Corinthians 8:9 NIV)

In other words, even if something is neutral, don’t do it if it causes a “weak brother” to stumble. So we have a free will, and we have great freedom in Christ, but there is a limitation on our liberty if our liberty causes another distress.

Actually, Paul touches on this important issue several times in 1 Corinthians; obviously it was a big problem there. Here’s how he stated it earlier in his letter –

I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. (1 Corinthians 6:12 NIV)

And later –

I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. (1 Corinthians 10:23, 24 NIV)

Verse 24 is really the key: nobody should seek only their own good, but we should be mindful of others and what’s good for them.  That delicious steak from the pagan temple down the road may be your favorite, and there may be nothing wrong with it, but if you enjoying it causes another believer to stumble, then you’d be wise to settle for a Philly steak and cheese sandwich when he’s around.  It’s a bummer for sure, but it’s the right thing to do.

Paul was one who practiced what he preached. As an apostle and itinerant preacher, he had rights like any apostle or any itinerant preacher – the right to feed himself and cloth himself; the right to be paid for his ministry. But apparently his right to payment had caused problems in the Corinthian church, and so after laying down the general principle we noted a moment ago, Paul then applied to himself –

What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:18 NIV)

If getting a check for his services was causing problems, then Paul was more than willing to forego the check and preach for free to keep the peace. That’s the apostle practicing the very principle he had laid down for the Corinthians to practice. In verse 19 he goes a little further –

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. (1 Corinthians 9:19 NIV)

That’s Paul, the libertarian writing! He had all this freedom, yet he willingly reigned it in when he had to so as to win as many converts as he could; for no other reason. But this was not an idea that originated with Paul; it’s a Biblical idea that even our Lord practiced in His earthly ministry –

The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. (John 10:17, 18 NIV)

Freedom from all, slave to all.

Paul had all this freedom, he owed no man or group of people anything, yet he willingly conformed himself to certain groups in order to save them. The four “groups” included: Jews, those under the law, those without the law, and the weak.

I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Corinthians 9:22 NIV)

Paul’s being “all things to all people” did not destroy his conscience before God. He was able to avoid legalism (9:20) and libertinism (9:21). What seemed by some to be compromise or weakness on Paul’s part was in reality the exercise of his Christ-centered ministry. Some people misunderstood him, but Paul knew exactly what he was doing and why he was doing it.

Self-control is the key

The key in winning people for Christ, and the key in living a life that is righteous and that glorifies God is self-control. Self-control is essential in using your free will properly. The Corinthians had shown that they had very little self-control. They got the “freedom and liberty” part of the Gospel right, but not the “self-control” part.

To help them understand what they needed to do to correct their lack of self-control, he wrote this –

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:24 NIV)

Self-control is at the very heart of winning the race of life. It takes self-control to live mindful of the needs of a weaker brother, for example, and to choose to reign in your freedom. It takes self-control to not eat the better cut of steak. It takes self-control to preach a sermon and not take payment.

Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. (1 Corinthians 9:26 NIV)

Paul fought smart. He used his mind, he kept a cool head. Paul took many things into consideration. Most Christians don’t. Most Christians are like inexperienced boxers, flailing around, looking ridiculous, punching at nothing, never landing a spiritual knockout. The Corinthians were like that.

Being wide awake and self-controlled isn’t easy; it takes considerable effort, as Paul well understood –

No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:27 NIV)

Paul was a man who had been gloriously set free from the law and from the guilt of his sins. He loved the new freedom he had in Christ. But he loved to win even more. So he was willing to do what it took to win the race of life.

Up to this point, Paul has shown us that an excessive stress on Christian freedom can present a stumbling block to weaker Christians. Not only that, to always insist on your own personal liberty – to always claim your rights – can be a detriment to the ministry of God’s Word. With chapter 10, he continues this idea with a new problem added to the mix: an undue display of personal liberty may cause spiritual decay and could lead to big problems in your own Christian experience.

A warning from history

You can learn a lot about the present from looking at the past. So Paul turned to some Hebrew history –

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. (1 Corinthians 10:1 NIV)

Whenever Paul says things like, “I don’t want you to be ignorant” to somebody, he knows they really are ignorant. The church at Corinth was a large church made up of both Jews and Gentiles, and Paul is talking to the Jewish part of the church. They, along with Paul, shared a common history; they all descended from people, Israel, who had escaped from Egyptian slavery by crossing the Red Sea.

They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. (1 Corinthians 10:2 – 5 NIV)

When Paul wrote about these people being “baptized into Moses,” he’s not suggesting that Moses held a big baptismal service before crossing the Red Sea. He’s using the Greek word, baptizo, in the sense of “identification.” So, to put it another way, all the people who crossed the Red Sea were following Moses and had been identified with him. By faith, Hebrews tells us, Israel crossed the Red Sea. But we know the people themselves had no faith; they wanted to go back to Egypt; they were fearful. It was Moses who had all the faith and the people essentially rode his coat tails to safety. It was Moses who did all the work for the people.

They not only followed Moses, but they had all the spiritual advantages Moses had. God cared for and looked after all of Israel in the desert. He fed them. He protected them. He led them. God never left his people. Yet, as Paul wrote, He wasn’t pleased with them.

These five verses are important because they show us how sinful people really are. These Hebrews had been set free from the bondage to the Egyptians; they were given liberty they never earned and what did they do with it? Paul hints at their sins as a way to admonish the Corinthians for being the same way –

Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel. (1 Corinthians 10:7 – 10 NIV)

The people of Israel had all the freedom that the Christian has – and they freely participated in the blessings of God. Think about all the people who come to church, sing the hymns, and enjoy the presence of God. Not all of them are true believers. Some are not. Just like Israel.

So to the people in the Corinthian church, enjoying their new-found freedom in Christ and enjoying the riches of God’s blessings, Paul issued a stern warning that we would do well to pay attention to –

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! (1 Corinthians 10:11, 12 NIV)

In other words, you may be neck deep in sin, yet still going to church and still enjoying God’s blessings with no punishment in sight. Hence the admonition: If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall. Just because the hammer hasn’t fallen doesn’t mean God hasn’t noticed and it doesn’t mean He’s turned a blind eye to your sins.

Paul’s overriding purpose in these verses is to demonstrate that freely participating in the things of God, including enjoying the freedom we have in Christ, comes with a moral responsibility to live responsible, self-disciplined lives. Whether in the Old Testament or New, moral behavior was an absolute requirement for the observant believer.

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