Read the passage here.
Today is our last Sunday in the letter of 1 Corinthians. And you will note that the bulk of the chapter is closing thoughts and housekeeping matters. As such, I thought it would be a good opportunity to quickly review some of the key themes or ideas we’ve seen in 1 Corinthians as we wrap up this series.
Now I just want to touch base on a couple of textual considerations. Firstly, we should note that the first paragraph of chapter 16 likely isn’t part of the closing, but introduces a final “matter” that Paul wants to address. The issue here is the collection for the Lord’s people – likely a collection for the poor people in the larger community (i.e. beyond Corinth – see Rom. 15:26, 2 Cor. 8:13-15, 9:6-11ff.). However, beyond that, we don’t really know the nature of the issue. Based on Paul’s response, we can assume that the issue is logistical in nature – i.e. Paul recommends a process for facilitating the collection. However, he doesn’t seem to be trying to convince the Corinthians or correct them of anything – he doesn’t provide any theological rationale or argument. Thus, along with the fact that this section is only a few verses long, I think we can fairly safely assume that this issue is not a huge one for Paul, and certainly not one of gospel importance (which isn’t to say that it’s irrelevant – Paul addresses it after all).
The rest of the chapter constitutes the closing, proper, then. And as a closing to the letter, Paul basically deals with future plans, he provides some final instructions, and he encourages and exhorts the letter’s recipients (the Corinthians). There’s nothing here in particular that I think requires deeper discussion. Of course, there are a couple of questions that arise from the text.
For example, in vv. 10-11, Paul says:
10 When Timothy comes, see to it that he has nothing to fear while he is with you, for he is carrying on the work of the Lord, just as I am. 11 No one, then, should treat him with contempt. Send him on his way in peace so that he may return to me. I am expecting him along with the brothers.1 Corinthians 16: 10-11
So the question would be, why would Timothy have anything to fear? Is Paul talking about simply ensuring that Timothy has nothing to worry about while he visits (i.e. “take care of his needs”)? Based on v. 11 (“No one, then, should treat him with contempt”) it seems more likely that Paul is worried that Timothy might be treated badly – and this may be due to the animosity that we’ve discussed between the Corinthians and Paul, of whom Timothy is a disciple and an envoy.
The second question is similar and has to do with Apollos. In v. 12, Paul says:
12 Now about our brother Apollos: I strongly urged him to go to you with the brothers. He was quite unwilling to go now, but he will go when he has the opportunity.1 Corinthians 16: 12
And this begs the question, why was Apollos unwilling to go to Corinth? Was he avoiding Corinth in particular (and this raises some additional questions in light of what we read earlier in the letter, that some in Corinth consider themselves disciples of Apollos)? Or was it merely a practical issue (i.e. “He was unwilling to go now…” but later or in different circumstances, he would be quite willing).
However, both of these questions could be considered of minimal consequence since Paul spends little space on them, with no elaboration.
Therefore, with that said, I want to spend a little bit of time quickly reviewing some of the key themes and motifs in 1 Corinthians. And by “Key,” I mean those that stand out in my mind, for our purposes. While we are only touching on these today, I hope that the discussions we’ve had through our study of the letter will provide us with enough foundation that we can move through these quite quickly.
Firstly, one of Paul’s biggest concerns with the Corinthians is their understanding of spirituality. Now there are several aspects of this that we could talk about – and indeed, this is worked out to some extent in each of the topics that we’re talking about today. But the particular aspect I want to talk about has to do with the Gnostic tendencies that the Corinthians seem to be enamored with – something that we re-visited in the past couple of weeks. Again, this has to do with the Corinthians’ belief that the material world is tainted, inferior, or simply doesn’t matter compared to the “spiritual” world. And to this, Paul wants to say (I think) that our redeemed lives are worked out in all dimensions. From the passages that we looked at most recently, Paul says:
12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.1 Corinthians 15:12-17
And glossing over the eschatological dimension of Paul’s argument here, what this and other passages tell us is that the promise includes both the spiritual and the physical (this is what lies behind the language of being “raised”). In fact, any understanding of the human person (and thus, the human condition) that involves a separation between the physical and the spiritual is false. Therefore, the true spiritual life – true spirituality – has to do with the whole person and our whole participation in creation. (Which begs the question, “is belief the main thing?” i.e. is it enough that we believe the right thing?)
Therefore, what we can understand is that the future promise informs our present participation. And that leads us to the second thing that I want to highlight from 1 Corinthians. One of the consequences of this gnostic way of thinking, that disconnected way of understanding reality, was the propensity to ignore certain kinds of sins. To put it another way, a faulty understanding of spirituality led to a faulty understanding of holiness (or vice versa?).
You may recall that in chapter 6: , Paul says:
12 “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. 13 You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.1 Corinthians 6:12-14
Here, Paul seems to be addressing those Corinthians who seem to be engaging in sexual immorality and are brushing it off as insignificant because it involves the physical body – that is, it is not a spiritual matter. And we’re not going to re-hash the gnostic dichotomy again. Of course, Paul has this issue in mind (the dichotomy), but his greater concern is the Corinthians’ attitude towards sin.
How we actually live matters. How we actually live matters because who we are called to be matters. And we are called to be the people of Christ through the blood of Christ. Through the blood of Christ, because of His death and resurrection, we are united with Him. Says Paul later in this same chapter,
19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.1 Corinthians 6:19-20
Because we are meant for more, because we are promised more, should we not live for more? Should we not desire and pursue the more?
Now in 1 Corinthians, this importance of holiness is also tied closely with the reality of the Christian community. In chapter 10, Paul says:
23 “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. 24 No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.1 Corinthians 10:23
So for Paul, though of course I want to be careful how I say this (because Paul has a specific context in mind), one’s behaviour isn’t solely an individual matter. We must be cognizant of the reality that we don’t practice or experience the saved life in isolation. Rather, the saved life, the redeemed life is meant to be worked out and lived out in community. It is never a matter of “what do I get out of it?” But rather, it is about how are we working out the redeemed life as the whole people of God. Paul says,
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.1 Corinthians 12:27-30
And therefore, because we are all a part of the body of Christ, because our calling is as a people, Paul reminds us:
1 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.1 Corinthians 13:1-3
The final thing that we want to touch base on – our final highlight – is the centrality and [sole] sufficiency of Jesus. Perhaps the biggest challenge that Paul is facing in the Corinthian congregation is the notion or attitude that the Corinthians have “figured it out.” What I mean is that because of their beliefs about knowledge and wisdom, members in the Corinthian congregation think that they have surpassed Paul or found a deeper or secret wisdom. They have found the “key.” In today’s landscape, they would probably post on Facebook or Instagram, “Here is the secret to true Christian Spirituality,” or “The five things you need to know to be truly Christian,” or “The seven things nobody tells you about being saved.”
But their supposed knowledge has little to do with the actual gospel. Their presumed wisdom has little to do with Jesus Christ. To this, Paul says, right at the beginning of the letter:
18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.1 Corinthians 1:18-25
We preach Christ crucified… There is nothing else needed. There is nothing more that can be added. Christ alone is the solution to the problem of sin, our fallenness, our brokenness. Jesus Christ alone is the solution to the problem that the world is not as we know in our hearts that it is supposed to be.
But it can be. And it will be. Because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross and through human history. Christ alone is the hope and promise by which and for which we live. Therefore, Jesus Christ crucified is the substance and the goal of who we are, how we live, and our hope.
So as we conclude our study of 1 Corinthians, I hope these highlights help us to keep in mind the things Paul is talking about. Like the Corinthians, we are far from perfect. Like the Corinthians, we live in a broken and fallen world and are prone to follow the ways of the world instead of following the ways of Christ. But as Paul encourages the congregation in Corinth, so will we also seek to keep our eyes fixed on Christ alone. Let us continue to attend to the word of God, given in the words of scripture; let us continue to work out the new life in the community to which we have been called; and let us seek to be more and more a people set apart for His glory and for His purpose.
So we close with the words with which Paul begins this letter:
4 I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. 5 For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— 6 God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. 7 Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 8 He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.1 Corinthians 1:4-9