Tag Archives: 1 Corinthians 13

All so much rubbish..

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 have not love, I am nothing.

(1 Corinthians 13.2)

If anyone thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.. BUT whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider EVERYTHING a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

(Philippians 3.4-7)

For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

(John 5.36-40)

I have spent my Christian life in churches where the preaching of God’s word was paramount, where it was a matter of deep conviction that the whole of scripture was for our instruction and blessing, and above all that God speaks through the word to his people. I have perhaps not benefitted as much from all the teaching as I ought, but I am  thankful for it, and for the breadth of understanding and confidence in reading the scriptures which it gives me.

I am aware however, that this heritage, this proper emphasis on the teaching of the whole of scripture, can take me down a dangerous path; one where I pride myself upon my knowledge, upon the number of sermons or bible studies I have heard, and to put my faith in that instead of in Jesus himself.

Jesus addressed this weakness directly in the Pharisees – the most passionate religious scholars and devotees of Judaism at that time, people who prided themselves on an intimate knowledge of their scripture (all the books of the Old Testament), and a rigorous application of those details to daily life. In their passion to see God’s law upheld, and their own personal devotion to it, they have much in common with those in the church today who revere scripture, and who long to see society governed in accordance with the law of God it contains. And yet Jesus is utterly scathing in his condemnation of them, accusing them of stealing the key to life from those who seek it, while failing to enter into that life themselves.

In this passage above, he explains that in spite of all their boasted proficiency in the law, they have completely missed the point of scripture’s revelation. They have neither heard God’s voice, nor recognised his hand at work, and have completely misunderstood his revelation…because if they had, they would have responded to Jesus by falling before him and worshipping him as Messiah, God’s anointed, the long-promised Saviour. They are so besotted with their own achievements in head knowledge and passion for details, that they have never encountered the living God in his word.

Later on, in his letter to the believers in Philippi, the apostle Paul details all the grounds that he might have had for believing his eternal hope secure – grounds of birth, training, and above all zeal for the law, the word. Then, writing to this church of Gentile believers, with no hope of claiming such heritage as their grounds of faith, he shockingly says that he accounts all his learning as nothing, just so much rubbish, because it is of no value beside the true experience of knowing Jesus.

In the same way, those who are raised in the church, who can boast extensive knowledge and proficiency in handling the bible must take care, lest they begin to put their faith in mere head knowledge and rule-keeping. Mere proficiency in the word is lifeless and useless. I must encounter the risen Christ, be filled with his spirit and walk with him daily as my companion, my Lord and Saviour, if I am to have forgiveness of my sins and hope for the future.

NOTHING is of any value unless I have Christ, not knowledge about him, but himself. Faith is not an argument which I can win by my cleverness, it is a sure hope in a trustworthy person – the Christ I meet when I read the bible with an open heart and mind, expecting to hear his voice, and willing to obey.

Praise God, who has made our salvation so freely available, so readily accessible, so utterly complete in Christ!

Choose life!

This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life….

I will proclaim the name of the Lord. Oh, praise the greatness of our God! 

He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.

(Deuteronomy 30.19&20; 32.3&4)

I have  been listening to the early books of the Old Testament as an audiobook, read by one of Britain’s most respected actors – himself a devout Christian. It has been wonderful to receive the word in this way, and sometimes a phrase has jumped out with particular impact. This time it was those words ‘ for the Lord is your life..’

Moses, as God’s prophet and the one who stood between the inconstant Israelites and their jealous God, is pleading with them in his last days as their leader, to choose life, to choose to faithfulness to God. He has poured out his life in their care, leading them according to God’s guiding word, out of Egypt, through the wilderness, to the brink of Canaan’s promised bounty, and back again into the desert. He will see the land, but not enter it, because the burden of leadership on one occasion was too much even for him, and he dishonoured God. How he must have yearned over them, longing that he might have assurance of their future obedience, even as believing parents long to see their children grow up into true personal faith in Christ.

By this time, Moses could have no illusions about the capacity of this people to forget all that God had done and to choose other paths to follow, other gods to worship. Nonetheless, he obeys God, and sets out before them the terms of the covenant relationship, reminding them of all God’s wonderful provision for their race, of all the promises of blessing which were to come. And he reminds them of the consequences of breaking the covenant, in the most horrific details.

God would not hold Moses responsible for the future disobedience of this people, because Moses had been a faithful servant, proclaiming God’s message, living out for them the words he spoke. Moses’ exclusion from Canaan was for his own particular failure, not the repeated disobedience of the people he led. There is some comfort here for those in leadership – whether parents in a family, or individuals in a church family  – as we are reminded that a person’s destiny is ultimately a matter between themselves and God. As leaders, we must proclaim truth, we are not held accountable for what others do with our message.

But the way in which we tell the message will have an impact. We can be sure that Moses’ words were heard with greater weight because everyone who heard them knew the story of his dedication to their people and his life of service. And this service had not been merely with his mind and body, but with his heart. He had been passionately committed to seeing them through many trials, allowing his heart to be wrung over and over again. Moses had not only led the people, he had loved the people, and surely it is that love which made his final words to them hit home so powerfully.

Do I allow myself to love those to whom I am called to bring the word of God’s love, his offer of salvation, his equally certain promise of judgement to come? Does my life demonstrate the commitment to their well-being which Moses showed to the people he led? I wonder if this is, in part at least, what the apostle Paul meant when he said that the gifts of oratory, or wisdom and prophecy, of faith and sacrificial giving are worth nothing if there is no love.

If, after loving and serving them, weeping and rejoicing with them, I tell people of the faith I have, and of the promise which is for them too, then are they not more likely to listen as I plead with them to choose life? To choose the Lord, who alone is life and hope and health for our souls?

May I be given strength and courage to love, so that when I speak, I may be heard, and God’s word will bear fruit in other lives – to their blessing and his glory!

Fragile.. Handle with care

But the fruit of the Spirit is love,

joy, peace, patience,

kindness, goodness, faithfulness,

gentleness and self-control.

Against such things there is no law.

(Galatians 5.22&23)

Which of the words in that list, describing the various aspects of a character increasingly dominated by the Spirit of God in us, are most precious to you? They are all beautiful qualities, and perhaps it is unhelpful to single one out as if it were of more worth in itself, but that is not what I am doing. I think that for each of us, there will be things here which we will prize highly because we so often miss them in others.

If we have experienced deep betrayal by those closest to us, then faithfulness will be a particularly prized quality; while those whose lives have been chaotic and full of uncertainty will value peace. For me, the two words which touch me very deeply are ‘kindness’ and ‘gentleness’. This is not because my family were cruel to me as I grew up, far from it! Rather, that because of the character of my parents, and their love for us, we grew up in a home where teasing and mockery were almost unknown..

I know that for many people, these ways of relating to others are quite natural, and meant entirely without malice, but if one has not experienced them, it is very difficult to believe that they are not meant to wound. I am the person who leaps to defend the one being teased, only to discover that no one else is taking it seriously, and to my sense of hurt on behalf of the one being targeted, is added the embarassment of being judged to have overreacted!

I have described this lack of resilience as being ‘think-skinned’, or ‘raw’, and can think of no better image to convey the vulnerability which it brings. Things which other people laugh off, will cut me deeply, and leave me distressed and frustrated with my inability to respond in kind. For me, this behaviour is neither gentle, or kind, and I struggle to understand why it should be accepted by those who are following Jesus.. Does God ever tease his children, or mock them? Where in the whole of the revelation contained in Scripture do we find God laughing at us for our weaknesses, or mocking our distress when we have got ourselves into a mess – again!?

Jesus shared his life for three years with a group of men who had their share of faults and weaknesses – the gospels record many episodes which demonstrate their humanity clearly, as they squabbled about who was greatest, jostled for attention, doubted their teacher and spectacularly failed to live up to their own estimations of themselves. But nowhere do we find Jesus laughing at or mocking them in their distress. When Peter stepped out of the boat in faith to tread the waves, and then began sinking, he was saved and gently rebuked, but not laughed at! Jesus loved his disciples, he was patient with them and faithful to them, even though one would betray and all would desert him.

I know that for many people, humour is a way of dealing with difficult things in life, and for some it is used as a shield – I think perhaps many of those who tease are in reality suffering deeply inside but afraid to show it, to show their vulnerability, and so they turn aside all genuine efforts to engage with them by taking nothing seriously. But how would Jesus have dealt with such people? I don’t believe that he would have joined in the mockery, and left the person alone in their pain. He loved people, and that meant taking them seriously, recognising that each one is a divine creation, unique and beloved, and worth infinite pains to redeem.

Do we deal with one another like that, refusing to be brushed aside by humour and persevering with earnest love, so that we offer genuine acceptance to the hurting and lost? Let me commend gentleness and kindness to you, they are exquisite characteristics, modelled by our Lord throughout his ministry, and there is nothing like enough of them around in our world today! The definition of love given by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians is particularly effective in the paraphrase of the Message, and a fitting challenge to us as we seek to love one another as Jesus has loved us…

Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, DOESN’T REVEL WHEN OTHERS GROVEL, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end.

(1 Cor 13.4-7, the Message)

Love is… am I?

The words of the apostle Paul to the believers in the church in Corinth – in the first letter at chapter 13 – are very familiar to us, often chosen at to be read at weddings. But when we actually put our own name into the list of qualities which characterise love, how many of us remain comfortable with reading this passage? I quote it here in the Message paraphrase, a fresh and modern expression of the text which helps me to hear it clearly.

Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first”, doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end.

When I deliberately consider each quality of love in relation to my own life, I am convicted, bowed before a holy God, because I know very well that I do not love like this. My heart swells with protests about the provocation I receive to act in unloving ways, the unfairness of life, the sins of others, the good excuses I have for failure. And the Judge waits in silence, until my words die away and I confess with grief that I have no goodness in me, I cannot, not by my best efforts, love like this, and never will.

Only one man loved like this, the man Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came to live the life I should have lived, and then – because of my failures – to die the death I deserved to die because of my lack of love. The wonder and the glory is that by faith in Christ, I am considered right with God, in spite of my desperate failure, and not only this, but in believing, I am given a new heart, the heart of God himself, beating with divine love, so that I may live as He would have me live.

While I remain in this mortal body, I will battle against the fallenness of the world, the devil’s activities in it, and my own remnants of sin, but the truth is that I am new. I have the victory over everything that conspires against this life of loving power. With God’s help, each day and year, that victory will  become clearer in my life, as I become more like Christ on the outside even as I have been made like him in my heart.

Paul goes on in the letter to the Corinthians to encourage them to persevere in this world of shifting shadows and uncertain lights, where the glory of God and the lordship of Christ can seem so uncertain to our mortal eyes. I find it enormously encouraging that the great apostle could struggle with this as I do, and express it so clearly. We are indeed all only flesh and blood, and it is foolish and unhelpful to any believer to deny how hard it can be to persevere in faith in the face of so much opposition and suffering.

Ultimately our perseverance is a work of God, and we know that it is not because of our efforts that we are saved, but rather His faithful love and Christ’s atoning work on the cross. We rest in that complete assurance of salvation even as we seek – in response to His love for us – to work with Him in realising our transformation into Christ’s likeness. Our failures do not condemn us, but rather drive us continually back to God in confession that without Him, we are and can do nothing. And every fresh embrace of Christ as our sole ground of hope and salvation is a step along the road to glory.

I will finish this post with some more words from 1 Corinthians 13 in the Message translation; words we can pray for ourselves and others, as we journey together, depending on God and rejoicing in His sufficiency for us.

We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!

But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.