Plans and People (1 Corinthians 16:5-24)


Paul concludes his contentious letter to the Corinthians by writing them about his plans and about the people whose friendship they hold in common.

First of all, his plans. Paul intends to visit the Corinthians, although he can’t tell them exactly when he will arrive. He will come to them, he says, “after I go through Macedonia.” The important thing is not the timing of the visit, however, but its duration. “I do not want to see you now and make only a passing visit; I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits.”

I have often noticed, in emails and instant messages over the internet, how difficult it is to convey my feelings through only the written word. Sorrow, sarcasm, wry humor – all these things require a tone of voice, an arched eyebrow, a sly smile. They all require, in other words, personal presence. It is through our nonverbal communication that we express what the words of our verbal communications really mean.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians has often said some harsh things to and unflattering things about them. No doubt Paul wanted to spend extensive time with them to let them know the depth of his personal feelings for them, how much he loved them as his children. He was angry with them, yes, but with a parental anger. If he was with them personally, they would understand how quickly his anger could turn into joy and love and pride of spiritual paternity.

For Paul was indeed proud of them and glad for their conversion, and he loved them deeply and richly. They were, after all, his people, his spiritual family and nation. Throughout today’s Scripture Reading, Paul mentions many names: Timothy, Apollos, Priscilla and Aquila, Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus. Some of these people were known by the Corinthians. The first four in my list, for instance, were instrumental in bringing the Corinthians to faith and in nurturing them spiritually. The final three were themselves members of the Corinthian congregation. What united them were a common faith in God, a common belief in Christ, and a common experience of the Holy Spirit. Though now separated from one another by long distances, they had more in common with one another than with their current neighbors.

To be a Christian is to live in constant fellowship with other Christians, both at home and abroad. Often, in my travels, I have had the opportunity to spend time with Christians in other countries. We are separated by ethnicity, language, and geography – all three, powerful forces. But we are united by a force more powerful: “the grace of the Lord Jesus.” It is ultimately this bond, this commonality, that Paul appeals to in his many arguments with the Corinthians. Because we are united by Christ, we should not be divided by any other thing.

And so we conclude Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. We have learned about the supremacy of Christ, the priority of his cross, and the finality of his resurrection. We have seen that we should act in love toward our friends in all things – from how we eat to how we speak. We have learned, in a nutshell, to keep first things first.

St. Augustine once said that in essential matters, Christians should have unity; in nonessential matters, they should have liberty; but in all matters, they should have charity – that is, love. “My love to all of you in Christ Jesus. Amen.”

Remembering the Poor (1 Corinthians 16:1-4)


An abrupt transition occurs in 1 Corinthians 16:1-4. Heretofore, Paul has been speaking in lofty theological terms about lofty theological themes. Now, however, he offers four verses of advice on the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of giving. The transition is, if you think about it, a marvelous comment on the Christian life, for the life of faith includes everything from the sublime to the mundane. No aspect of life is untouched by God’s grace. Our ideas must change, and so must our habits – even our spending habits.

“Now about the collection for God’s people….”

In the early church, a dispute arose as to whether a person must become a Jew in order to become a Christian. Christianity is, of course, Jewish. Our Old Testament is the Hebrew Bible. Jesus himself was a fully observant Jew, as were all the writers of the New Testament, except Luke, who was a Gentile. Although the early church dispute is not a live issue for us today, in the first century, it nearly drove the church apart. As you can read in Acts 15, a church council met in Jerusalem and decided that Gentile converts were not required to under circumcision, eat a kosher diet, or in any way observe the Jewish ceremonial law.

Reflecting on this council, Paul writes of the division of missionary labor that resulted from the Jerusalem Council: “James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (Galatians 2:9-10).

The collection for God’s people – especially the poor Christians in Jerusalem – was Paul’s way of keeping his promise. Not only did this collection demonstrate Christian concern for the social well-being of the poor, but it also demonstrated the love of Gentile Christians for Jewish Christians. The offering was a way of supplying needs and bringing people together. In a first-century world where ethnic and religious differences were sharp and strong, and in a church that was still trying to figure out how to be united in spite of these differences, a generous offering for the Jewish poor from Gentile converts would go a long way toward uniting the church.

And, we might add, toward facilitating exuberant worship. “This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:12-15).

As I already wrote, the Jewish-Gentile division in the early church is no longer a live issue for us today, but there are still poor people in our church and in our community. We are, let’s face it, a comparatively wealthy church, and our affluence sometimes makes the poor or the homeless or the otherwise “different” uncomfortable in our presence. What better way to supply their needs, welcome them into our community, and inspire them to worship God than by blessing them materially?

The Death of Death (1 Corinthians 15:50-58)


Many years ago, Rocky Aoki – the founder and owner of Benihana Restaurants – remarked, “Life is a one-hundred yard dash with a brick wall at the finish line.” With these words, he expressed a sentiment many have when they have no hope beyond this life. “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die,” is how Rocky Aoki might have put it if he had lived in Paul’s day.

All of us must vote in what Bruce Thornton calls “the bleak democracy of death.” That is a fact which we cannot change. But we need not all vote for Rocky Aoki’s candidate. Paul, you see, offered a hopeful alternative. Christ rose again, and so can we if we put our faith in him.

Paul believed, as do all Christians, that death is not the brick wall at the end of life’s race. Rather, it is the thin tape stretched across the finish line that we must run through if we are to participate in the victory celebration. To switch metaphors, Paul believed that death is a nap, a short sleep from which we will awake when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead.

And when Christ returns, “we will all be changed.” Here is another metaphor for death and resurrection. It is a change of garments – “For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.”

All of these metaphors point to a single truth: Death is a fact of life, but not the only fact of life. The great fact of life is that “Death has been swallowed up in victory” by Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Death, therefore, is not to be feared by those who have put their hope in Christ for a better life.

In the seventeenth century, John Donne wrote a marvelous “holy sonnet” addressed to death. Donne, the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, lived and ministered during the horrible years when three waves of bubonic plague devastated the population of London. Rather than flee to the countryside for safety, Donne remained in London, preaching the comforting gospel to those in imminent peril of plague. In his “holy sonnet,” he wrote:

 Death be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so,

For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,

Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me;

From rest and sleep, which by thy pictures be,

Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,

Rest of their bones and soul’s delivery.

Thou art slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,

And better than thy stroke, why swell’st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.

For those who have put their faith in Christ, all that separates this life from the next is a comma, a brief pause to catch a breath. We live, we die, we rise again. In Christ, death is not so much to be feared as pitied, for in the end, death will die, but we will awake to the glorious morning of resurrection.

Natural and Spiritual Bodies (1 Corinthians 15:45-49)


First Corinthians 15:45-49 continues the argument of the previous paragraph. At verse 35, Paul asked, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” He answered that question in verse 44 by saying that although people are born with a “natural body,” they are raised with a “spiritual body.” Verses 45-49 expand on this answer by means of an analogy between Adam and Christ.

Before we get to the analogy, however, it is important to understand what Paul means by the distinction between “natural” and “spiritual” bodies. In Greek, the word for “natural” is “psychikoi” and the word for “spiritual” is “pneumatikoi.” It would be easy to understand those terms as synonyms for “material” and “immaterial” bodies. We are born with a material, flesh-and-blood body, but we will be raised with an immaterial, indestructible body. That would be the easy way to understand “natural” and “spiritual,” but it would be a misunderstanding of the terms.

Gordon Fee outlines a proper understanding of “psychikoi” and “pneumatikoi”: “These are the same two adjectives used in 2:14 to describe the basic differences between believer and unbeliever. In this case, therefore, as the next analogy (vv. 45-49) will make clear, they do not describe the “stuff” or composition of the body; nor are they value words as in 2:14, describing the essential difference between those who belong to God and those who do not. Rather, they describe the one body in terms of its essential characteristics as earthly, on the one hand, and therefore belong to the life of the present age, and as heavenly, on the other, and therefore belonging to the life of the Spirit in the age to come. It is ‘spiritual,’ not in the sense of ‘immaterial’ but of ‘supernatural,’ as he will explain with the help of Scripture in v. 45, because it will have been recreated by Christ, who himself through his resurrection came to be a ‘life-giving Spirit.’”

And so we come to verse 45: “So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.” When God molded Adam from the dust of the earth, Genesis 2:7 tells us, he then breathed his Spirit into him so that he came alive. God’s Spirit goes into the first Adam. God’s Spirit goes out of the second, Adam, however, giving life to everyone else. In other words, while God must pour life into the first Adam, through the second Adam – the resurrected Christ – he pours out life upon all who believe in him.

Our life, in other words, passes through stages from “natural” to “spiritual” by means of the resurrection. When Paul writes, “The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual,” he is merely describing the chronological order of our existence. We are born – like Adam – with a body that is capable of death, but we will be raised – like Christ – with a body capable of immortality. As Paul writes, “just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.”

Behind all this admittedly difficult-to-understand exegesis and hair-splitting definition of terms there lies an extremely important point that we must grasp concerning spirituality. The Corinthians practiced a decidedly immaterial form of spirituality. In other words, they didn’t give a fig about the body. All that mattered was the immaterial spirit. For Paul, however, spirituality encompassed the entire human being – body, mind, and spirit. In Christ, God is redeeming all of it. By denying the resurrection of the body, the Corinthians were limiting the scope of salvation and hence the love of God for his creation.

God wants to redeem you and me in the totality of our humanity. He cares for the body, and so should we.

If No Resurrection, Then What? (1 Corinthians 15:29-34)


In 1 Corinthians 15:29-34, Paul points out three consequences of denying Christ’s resurrection.

First, Christian theology goes wobbly. Verse 29 refers to the Corinthian practice of baptism for the dead. Nobody’s quite sure what baptism for the dead looked like or why the Corinthians practiced it. Perhaps it involved baptizing a live Christian on behalf of a dead pagan in hope that the dead would receive the benefits of Christian baptism. Whatever it was, it was a Corinthian eccentricity. The New Testament nowhere condones it, it contradicts what the Bible elsewhere teaches about baptism, and no Christian church has ever followed the Corinthian example. Paul briefly cites baptism for the dead as an ad hominem argument against the Corinthians. “If you don’t believe in the resurrection,” he seems to ask, “why do you baptize the dead? It’s not going to do them any good.” Bad theology always leads us into such contradictions.

Second, courage goes soft. Verses 30-32 refer to the intense persecution Paul experienced throughout his ministry, but especially at Ephesus, from which he wrote this letter to the Corinthians. Paul’s question – “why do we endanger ourselves ever hour?” – is quite pointed, for if there is no resurrection, why bother enduring opposition? Throughout the history of the Christian church, courageous men and women have undertaken great missionary labors, at considerable personal expense and danger, in order to advance the gospel. They endured hardship in this life in order to experience unquenchable joy in the next. But if there is no next life, why bother? If Christianity is false, then absolute hedonism is true: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

Third, morality goes awry. Verses 33-34 draw the connection between our beliefs and our behavior. If we believe there is no future judgment at which we will be saved or judged, if we believe in other words that there is no resurrection, then we can do whatever we want. We will eat and drink. We will all become hedonists. Here’s the problem, though: Hedonism contributes nothing good to this life or to the life to come. Think about it. A person solely committed to the satisfaction of his own desire for pleasure is unlikely to do anything heroic or significant in this life. Because the heroic and the significant involve hard work, especially the hard work of enduring opposition. Had Martin Luther King Jr. been a hedonist, would we have had a Civil Rights movement? Had William Wilberforce and the “Clapham sect” been hedonists, would the British slave trade have been abolished? Had Jesus been a hedonist, would any of us have been saved? So, Paul tells the Corinthians to “come back to [their] senses,” literally, to “sober up,” for there is work to do in this life and joy to experience in the next.

If there is no resurrection, then what? Wobbly theology, cowardice, and immorality. These are hardly the building blocks of a life useful to God and others.

That God May Be All in All (1 Corinthians 15:20-28)


Start with the passage’s final words: “that God may be all in all.” God’s all-in-all-ness is the goal toward which the universe and everything and everyone in it are moving. The universe and its inhabitants will not become divine, but rather, it and they will experience the peace that comes from God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

Several years ago, my mother gave me a framed nineteenth-century lithograph, which now hangs in my office. It depicts a scene from the prophet Isaiah, who foretold a coming day when the lion would lie down with the lamb, the predator would no longer stalk its prey, and a little child would play with them all as he would play with his pets. The title of the lithograph: “Peace.”

Peace is the result of God being all in all. It is not merely the absence of conflict, but the presence of harmony; not merely the cessation of warfare, but the joy of friendship. Unfortunately, peace is a scarce commodity in this present age, when predator brutalizes prey and evil men terrorize their victims. Peace is scarce because violence reigns, and with violence, death. Death is the human condition – and mankind’s greatest enemy – in this present age. If God is to be all in all, then death – “the last enemy” – must someday die. Consequently, if God is to be all in all, resurrection is both necessary and inevitable.

But how are we to know that resurrection will actually take place? Do we have any proof – other than a fond hope – that God will raise from the dead those that trust in him? Is resurrection nothing more than a wish?

That brings us to the first verse of today’s Scripture reading, which declares, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” This verse makes two important points.

First, Christ’s resurrection is fact, not fiction. The Corinthians, it seems, argued on theological grounds that Christ’s resurrection was unnecessary. Their high-blown theory foundered on simple empirical grounds. Over 500 individuals had witnessed the resurrected Christ (1 Cor. 15:3-8). Sometimes, critics of Christianity accuse believers of believing fantasies. It’s easy to level such accusations 2,000 years after Christ’s life, but in the first century, it would have been impossible to rebut the firsthand testimony of so many witnesses. Christian belief in the resurrection is not a matter of theology only but of evidence, not of mere faith but of reasonable fact.

Second, Christ’s resurrection was not for him alone. Paul calls the resurrected Christ the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Firstfruits are the first parts of a crop to ripen and become ready for harvesting. That is what Christ is, the first of many resurrections. If he is raised, we will be too, if we put our faith in him.

Christ is alive, in fact and not just in faith. Since he is alive, we too can look forward to the future with hope in our resurrection. For at the end, death and sin will be destroyed, and God will be all in all.

The Crucial Difference of Belief (1 Corinthians 15:12-19)


In 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the gospel that he preached to them and by means of which God saved them. It is the good news that Jesus Christ died for their sins but rose again three days later to eternal life (15:3-4). By believing this gospel, the Corinthians experienced forgiveness of sins and received the hopeful promise that they too, with Christ, could live eternally with God.

Now, however, in 1 Corinthians 15:12-19,we discover that the Corinthians have discarded their belief in resurrection. We are not sure – because Paul does not explain – why the Corinthians no longer believe in their future resurrection. We do know, however, that Paul thought their lack of belief devastating. On some doctrines – the timing of Christ’s second coming, say, or the question of predestination and free will – Christians may disagree without fundamentally altering the nature of Christianity. Not so with the resurrection, however. It is a doctrine by which the Christian church stands or falls.

Sometimes, when faced with people calling themselves “Christians” who nevertheless believe things that Christians have never believed, or disbelieve things that Christians have always believed, we are tempted to use highly charged rhetoric rather than reason to correct their bad doctrine. Paul, however – no matter how supercharged his rhetoric could become – was always a reasonable man. In 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, we see him logically dismantling the Corinthian heresy.

Consider the trajectory of his argument. He begins by stating the Corinthian position: “There is no resurrection of the dead.” If this is true, he points out, then it logically follows that “not even Christ has been raised.” If that is true, then, Paul bluntly states, “our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” Why? Paul’s preaching is useless because it is based on a lie: “we are then found to be false witnesses about God,” telling tales of his resurrecting power when he has no such power. And if Paul’s preaching is false, then the Corinthians – who became Christians by believing Paul’s message – have believed a lie. Their faith is futile, for they are “still in [their] sins. And so, Paul concludes, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” In other words, no resurrection, no Christ. No Christ, no salvation.

Paul’s final words are the important ones to keep in mind. The fact of the matter is that this life, for all its many pleasures, is a fundamentally miserable one. I know that sounds pessimistic, but it is necessary to say it anyway. Present life is fundamentally miserable because we cannot, in the present, cure the one ill that plagues all humanity. We can treat and cure all manner of diseases, but in this lifetime, we cannot cure sin. The resurrection holds out to us a realistic hope that in the life to come, sin – that great human affliction – will be eradicated and finally cured. To deny the future leaves us without hope in the present. Paul, a wise physician of souls, wants to spare us that pain, just as he tried to spare the Corinthians.

It is sometimes said in this tolerant age that what we believe is not a matter of ultimate significance. Don’t you believe it! What we believe about the resurrection is the crucial difference between death everlasting and eternal life.

The Gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1-11)


First Corinthians 15:1-11 reveals the necessity, nature, and effectiveness of the gospel. The Corinthians desperately needed to hear about all three things, because they were in danger of turning away from the faith. Let us consider each in turn.

The gospel is necessary for our salvation: “By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you.” We live in a day and time in which the objective content of Christianity is downplayed in favor of its subjective experiences. Doctrine, we are led to believe, is unimportant. What matters are feelings of wonder, joy, and love, and actions that treat our neighbors with tolerance, respect, and fairness. But, I think we must ask: Wonder at what? Joy for what reason? Love for whom? And why should we treat our neighbors well when they so often treat us badly? The objective content of Christianity explains its subjective experiences and motivations for ethical behavior. You cannot have one without the other. And so Paul urged the Corinthians to believe the gospel, not merely to feel spiritually or act morally.

Verses 3-8 delineate the content of the gospel: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” Christians believe much more than this, of course, but they can never believe anything less. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are the whole point of Christianity. The Corinthians, it seems, thought they could get along just fine without a belief in the resurrection, however, so in the rest of chapter 15, Paul argues for the futility of their position. Here, though, he emphasizes one major point. The content of the gospel is not the fanciful product of a make-believe mind. It is a tradition, a valuable belief handed down from one generation to the next. It happened “according to the Scriptures,” that is, in accordance with prophecies written beforehand. And it was certified to be true by numerous witnesses, including, last of all, Paul himself.

And that brings us to the final point, namely, the effectiveness of the gospel. “Christ died for our sins,” Paul writes. In other words, he died because of our sins and in order to release us from our sins. Christ is both our substitute in the dock of divine justice as well as the guarantor of our holy life. And yet, it is all too possible that the objective content of the Christian gospel may fail to alter our subjective experience. Many people, after all, believe many things that make not one whit of difference in the way they live. For Paul, however, the change was immediate and obvious: “I persecuted the church of God But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.” In one blinding moment on the road to Damascus, God transformed Paul from an enemy of Christianity to its greatest evangelist.

God’s power to transform lives is available to us today if only we believe the gospel.

Physical Meal and Spiritual Communion (1 Corinthians 11:20–22)


If you are hungry, will the Lord’s Supper satisfy you?

For most of us, the answer is no. A bite of bread will not fill our stomachs. A sip of grape juice will not slake our thirsts.

Also, for most of us, the question itself is problematic. Despite the name, the Lord’s Supper as we practice it is not a meal, and its outcome is not physical satisfaction. Instead, we view it as a symbol whose outcome is spiritual communion with Christ and other believers. The question is problematic, then, because it commits a category mistake, confusing the physical and the spiritual.

What if our categories themselves are mistaken, however? What if the Lord’s Supper is both physical and spiritual, both a physical meal and a spiritual communion? I ask these questions because of what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:20–22.

When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!

To interpret these verses correctly, we need to remember that the early church met in private homes when they could not meet in synagogues or other public buildings. When Paul evangelized the city of Corinth, for example, he met in “the synagogue” until Jewish opposition to his message forced him to move to “the house of Titius Justus, a [Gentile] worshiper of God” (Acts 18:7; cf. 1 Corinthians 16:19, Romans 16:3–5, and Philemon 2).

Further, these “house churches” contained people from all strata of society—wealthy and poor, free and slave. The “households” Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 1:11, 16 and 16:15 did not include just parents and children. They included everyone biologically related to or employed by the house’s owner.

What seems to be happening at Corinth is this: The congregation meets at a house large enough to accommodate everyone, which means it is owned by a wealthy, free member. This member’s friends—also wealthy and free—show up early and eat the Lord’s Supper in quantities large enough to get drunk. When the poor and enslaved members show up, there’s no food left for them to eat. One remains hungry, another gets drunk.

In other words, the Haves, who don’t need the food, had it; so the Have Nots, who do need the food, can’t have it. Paul addresses biting rhetorical questions to the Haves: Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? The answer to both rhetorical questions is, unfortunately, “Yes.”

“Yes” is also the answer to this non-rhetorical question: Is the Lord’s Supper a physical meal or a spiritual symbol? Given what Paul has written, isn’t the answer obvious? When wealthy Christians share their physical resources with poor Christians, the shared physical resources demonstrate the spiritual communion both have with God and each other in Christ.

More Harm Than Good? (1 Corinthians 11:17–19)


On November 26, 2010, Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens debated whether religion is a force for good in the world. Blair, former Prime Minister of Britain and a Roman Catholic, argued the affirmative case. Hitchens, an atheist and author of God Is Not Great, argued the negative.

 

What if the real case is ambivalent? I cannot make this ambivalent case from an atheist point of view, of course, since I’m not one of them. But as a Christian, I can make a religious case against religion. Indeed, I can make a religious case against religion by citing chapter and verse of the Bible.

 

In 1 Corinthians 11:17–19, Paul writes:

 

In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.

 

The words following directives refer specifically to how the Corinthians abused the Lord’s Supper (11:17–34). They also refer to how the Corinthians abused spiritual gifts (12:1–14:40). In both instances, Paul finds nothing praiseworthy in the Corinthian practice.

 

Your meetings do more harm than good. I have attended church all my life. I have attended boring meetings. I have attended inspiring meetings. I have attended meetings where boring, inspiring, and even weird elements mixed together. But I have never attended a meeting that, on balance, harmed me. Yet that is what Paul claims about Corinthian worship services. They left worshipers worse for wear.

 

How so? Paul mentions divisions. The first division is between those who eat their full at the Lord’s Supper and those who go away hungry (11:20–22). The second division is between those who edify themselves with their spiritual gifts—especially speaking in tongues—and those who are unedified by those very same gifts (14:18–19). The issue at controversy in both instances is selfishness in religious practices.

 

Ironically, the selfish Corinthians—wealthy and charismatic—were quite proud of themselves. They didn’t care that their actions left their poor brothers and sisters hungry, or their ignorant brothers and sisters confused. They got theirs, and that’s all that matters.

 

Typically, Paul sees division among Christians in negative terms (e.g., 1:10–17). But in these verses, he sees the positive side: No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. This is ironic. The wealthy, charismatic Corinthians undoubtedly thought themselves highly blessed by God. Their wealth and boisterous spiritual gifts proved it. In reality, however, the division was one of judgment against them. Their poor, ignorant brothers and sisters had God’s ear.

 

Is religion a force for good in the world? Certainly Christ is, and his followers can be—unless they act selfishly rather than lovingly. The case would not be ambivalent if Christians would act more like Christ.

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