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The Limits of Sincerity

Friday, July 30, 2021

We live in a society that celebrates the individual conscience as the highest guide to morality.  Everybody has the right to “speak their truth”, and anyone who presumes to comment on someone else’s righteousness gets slapped down with Matthew 7:1.  The theory goes that as long as we think we’re doing right, we really are doing right, and God is going to be pleased with us.

There is some truth to this.  As Paul observes in Romans 14:23, whatever is not from faith is sin.  If we feel like engaging in some innocent activity is wrong, for us to practice it truly is wrong (unless, of course, God has commanded us to practice it).  Keeping a clear conscience before God matters a great deal.

However, there are other things that matter more, as Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 4:3-5 reveals.  Here, Paul is examining whose judgment does and does not matter.  The first entry in the latter group is the judgment of other people.  Paul makes clear his disdain for the verdicts of any human court and even of the church in Corinth.  Who cares what anybody else thinks about us?  They have power neither to justify nor to condemn.

Paul goes on, though, to observe that self-judgment also is inadequate.  His conscience is clear, but a clear conscience isn’t enough to acquit him.  Paul knew better than anyone how deceptive a conscience could be.  His statement in Acts 23:1 that he had lived his life in good conscience before God encompassed not only the time he had spent as an apostle but also the time he spent as a bloody-handed persecutor of the church.  Saul of Tarsus was sure he was doing the right thing, but he was surely wrong.  Paul knew that he could be every bit as self-deceived right then, and the same holds true for all of us.

Instead, the only relevant judge is the Lord.  His judgment is perfect because of His perfect knowledge.  We may be able to hide our sins from others, but even the most secret sin is plain before Jesus.  So too, we can (and often do) conceal our motivations from ourselves, but Christ always knows the truth.  When the Lord returns, everyone will end up where they should go.  He will make no mistakes.

From this, Paul urges us to beware of judging prematurely.  This applies first of all to others, as some of the Corinthians were eager to judge Paul.  Because we lack perfect knowledge and have eyes that often are clouded by fear and desire, we always should entertain some doubt about our judgments of others, no matter how strongly we feel we are right.

Additionally, this applies to our judgment of ourselves.  If we can err in our judgments of others, how much more can we err in self-judgment!  Rather than living in the certainty that we are right, we must compare ourselves constantly to the standard of the word.  Above all, we must constantly seek forgiveness from God, not only for the sins we commit knowingly, but also for the sins we commit in ignorance.  As much as we enjoy vindicating ourselves, our true hope lies in God’s mercy, and it never can be anywhere else.

Your Body Is a Temple

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Sometimes, our biggest problems with interpreting Scripture arise when we really want the Bible to say something that we already believe.  There is something that we think surely is wrong, so we find a suitably vague passage and impose our meaning on it.  Though this might satisfy us, we’re finding something in the word that isn’t really there.

There are several passages that invite this kind of abuse, but of them all, perhaps the most egregiously misused is 1 Corinthians 6:19.  “Your body is a temple,” Paul says, and well-meaning Christians take this as an opportunity to invest physical health with spiritual significance.  Your body is a temple, so you shouldn’t smoke.  Your body is a temple, so you shouldn’t be overweight.  Your body is a temple, so you should exercise regularly.  And so on.

All of this certainly loads guilt on the heads of Christians who do smoke, are overweight, and don’t exercise, but these applications say much more about us and our values than about Paul’s original intent.  This evening, then, let’s try to figure out what that original intent is, so that we can better understand what it means that our body is a temple.

As always, the best way to understand a passage is to consider it in context, and the context here begins with a discussion of FOOD AND THE STOMACH.  Consider 1 Corinthians 6:11-12.  Here, Paul is attempting to address a distorted view of Christian liberty that some in the church in Corinth had.  Depending on translation, your Bible may have quotation marks around statements like “Everything is permissible for me,” and “Food is for the stomach, and the stomach is for food.”  I think that accurately captures the dialogue that is occurring in this text.

From these comments, we can infer that the Corinthians believed that because Christ had set them free, there were all kinds of earthly delights that they were free to enjoy too.  Just like the stomach was made for food, their bodies were made for pleasure, so they might as well live it up! 

Paul has several things to say in reply.  First, he notes that simply because something is lawful doesn’t mean that it is wise.  Christians frequently attempt to justify their conduct by saying, “The Bible doesn’t say it’s a sin!”  While that may be true, it’s incomplete.  Before we engage in some activity, we also should ask if it’s going to help us draw closer to the Lord and to our eternal home.

Second, Paul points out that even some innocent delights can become a problem if they start controlling us instead of us controlling them.  I don’t think there’s a thing in the world wrong with playing video games, but if we love video games so much that they start interfering with our work or our time with our families, there’s a problem!  Any number of things can take on too much significance in our lives, and we must be on guard against all of them.

Third, Paul shows that some pleasures are flatly wrong.  The stomach is for food, but the body is not for immorality!  If we justify our behavior on the basis that it feels good, we are leaving the door wide open for sin.

Next, Paul explains exactly why it is that SEXUAL IMMORALITY is wrong.  This discussion appears in 1 Corinthians 6:14-18.  He begins by pointing out the significance of our bodies.  First, it is our bodies that will be resurrected.  We’re not going to be disembodied spirits who drift off to heaven.  Instead, just like God raised Jesus from the dead, He will raise us.  Second, when we obeyed the gospel, our bodies were incorporated into the body of Christ.  Our earthly bodies have great spiritual significance!

Here, then, is the big problem with Christians who engage in fornication, adultery, and so forth.  When we do, we are taking something that is part of the body of Christ and making it one flesh with a prostitute.  Sometimes, preachers will say that every marriage involves three:  husband, wife, and God.  This passage reveals the dark side of that spiritual truth.  Our sexual sin brings Jesus into contact with corruption and defilement.

Indeed, Paul reveals that immorality’s ability to do this is unique.  Every other sin is outside the body, but sexual sin is a sin against the body.  This might seem strange to us.  Take drunkenness, for instance.  Drunkenness is definitely a sin, and it definitely affects our bodies.  Doesn’t that count?

Not the same thing, says Paul.  He doesn’t specify why, but his previous words imply it has to do with the one-flesh nature of sexual intimacy.  Drunkenness doesn’t make us intimate with anyone; in fact, the more we drink, the more isolated we become.  Sex is different.  It’s a union of body, mind, and spirit, one of God’s most beautiful gifts to the human race.  When we take this precious gift and turn it to the service of evil, the spiritual fallout soaks into our very bones.  We have turned something that was holy into a source of unholiness.

Paul concludes by pointing out the serious problems this creates for those who were BOUGHT WITH A PRICE.  Let’s conclude our reading for the evening with 1 Corinthians 6:19-20.  Here, we meet our old friend, “Your body is a temple.”  However, in context, it takes on a very different meaning.  Things that the Bible doesn’t call sins don’t defile our bodies—they’re not sins.  In fact, even most of the sins that the Bible condemns don’t defile our bodies either.  Drunkenness is as wrong as wrong can be, but it still is a sin outside the body.  It simply doesn’t involve our bodies that deeply.

Contextually, there is only one sin that defiles the temple of our bodies, that insults the Spirit who dwells within us.  It is sexual immorality.  We shouldn’t come away from this passage resolved to eat fewer Big Macs.  We should come away from it resolved to keep ourselves sexually pure because of the disastrous consequences of sexual sin.

If there is any commandment in Scripture that our society hates, it is this one.  We are, after all, only now coming out of Pride Month, and this year I saw ungodly sexuality celebrated as never before.  Sadly, the Bible leaves no doubt about what will happen to all those who practice unrighteousness.

For us, though, the analysis is different.  Our worldly neighbors exalt sexual autonomy.  Their rallying cry is, “It’s my body, so I can do what I want!”  Paul wants us to understand, though, that because we are Christians, our bodies are no longer our own.  We were bought with a price, not into the freedom to do whatever we want to, but into servitude to Jesus.  I can’t just follow physical pleasure wherever it leads because my body belongs to Him.  It’s not something I have the right to do anymore.

Instead, we are responsible for glorifying God with our bodies.  There are a couple of different ways we can do this.  Sexual union in marriage does this.  If we are not married, though, we glorify God by reserving our bodies for our possible future spouses.  In no cases can we bring the Spirit within us into contact with intimate sin.

Respect in the Body

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

We live in an extremely individualistic society.  In the modern-day United States, everyone is indeed an island.  We define ourselves as we please and seek advantage and happiness in the same way.  Our politics reflect nothing more than the self-interested scrabbling of rival tribes.

It is tempting for us to import this individualized understanding into the church, but in 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, Paul calls Christians in the opposite direction.  There, he compares the church (probably best understood in a local-church sense) to a human body.  This analogy is extraordinarily powerful.  In the world, people understand themselves as the self, and everyone else as the other.  By contrast, in the body of the Lord, there is no other.  We are all part of the same organism.

As Paul points out, we have no trouble understanding the implications of this by referring to our own natural bodies.  I don’t regard my hand or foot with indifference.  I don’t dismiss my innards as unimportant simply because I can’t see the work that they do.  Instead, I am deeply appreciative of every part that God placed in my body.  Every part has its purpose, and my health depends on each functioning as He intended.

Our congregation is no different.  The divine design of our bodies is evident; 1 Corinthians 12:18 informs us that God has arranged the members of the church according to His will too.  Just as every organ of the human body has a function, every Christian has a function in the Lord’s body.  Indeed, the function of every Christian is vital and important.

The world doesn’t see this.  The world assumes that I’m most important because I get up and preach sermons on Sunday, and that everybody else is the little people who make up my audience.  Nonsense, says Paul.  Preachers are important and have a role to fill, it is true.  However, the sisters who send encouraging cards to the sick are equally important.  So are the men and women who help maintain the building.  So are the elders, who do 90 percent of their work out of the public eye.  So are the Bible class teachers.  So, indeed, is everyone who contributes to the welfare and growth of the Lord’s body in any way.

I’ve never seen my spleen.  I couldn’t pick it out of a lineup.  I only know what it does because I looked up “spleen” on Wikipedia as I was writing this article (it processes out old blood cells and helps with the function of the immune system, by the way).  However, I would not suggest for a moment that my hands and feet matter more than my spleen because I see their work and can’t see its work. 

The same is true in the church.  Every one of us matters.  Every work that we do matters, and that’s true whether others see and celebrate it or not.  We are one in the Lord.  We share our victories and our sorrows, and together we strive for the hope of a greater, eternal fellowship with Him.

Paying Preachers

Monday, July 19, 2021

Never does anyone argue harder for something they won’t actually take than Paul does in 1 Corinthians 9:3-14.  Through much of his ministry, especially his time with the church in Corinth, Paul refused financial support from the church with which he was working.  It may be that as per Romans 7:7-8, covetousness was a particular temptation for Paul, so he resolved that as much as possible, he wouldn’t accept money for his proclamation of the gospel.

However, Paul spends twelve verses carefully constructing the argument that he had the right to be supported.  This argument has several prongs.  First, he points out that it was customary for churches to provide not only for preachers, but for their families.  Second, he notes that people expect to be compensated for whatever kind of work they do, and preaching is no different. 

Third, he turns to the Law of Moses to establish that even oxen had the right to eat while they were threshing grain, and if God was concerned with oxen, how much more is He concerned with providing for human workers?  Finally, he observes that those who provide spiritual blessings to Christians have the right to expect physical blessings in return.  From all this, he concludes that preachers have the right to earn their living from the gospel.

This argument has significant implications for preachers and churches alike.  First, it warns preachers that they need to work hard in order to earn their living.  Merely filling a pulpit once or twice a week does not entitle them to anything!  Instead, if secular workers invest great effort in making widgets or closing business deals, the preacher should show even greater daily devotion to work of eternal importance.

Additionally, the preacher should be humble and appreciative about his salary.  Many brethren make significant financial sacrifices in order to contribute appropriately to the Lord’s work.  Ministers should not react to these sacrifices with arrogant entitlement.  Rather, they should express their heartfelt appreciation to those whose generosity enables them to serve.

In turn, churches ought to remember that preacher support is not benevolent relief.  The standard for a man’s compensation is not the minimum that he needs to get by, as determined by those who aren’t trying to make his family budget balance.  He is paid as an act of justice, according to what he deserves, rather than as an act of mercy.  If he is working hard at preaching and teaching, he should be rewarded accordingly.

Similarly, churches should not import a free-market mentality into their salary determinations.  They should not be asking how cheaply they can fill a pulpit.  Instead, they should measure the preacher’s value according to the value of what he is teaching them.  Is it really a good idea to try to economize in finding a man whom you want to help you inherit eternal life?

All of us know that the love of money tangles everything up in the world.  In the church, we must be careful to ensure that it doesn’t tangle us up.  However, when churches and preachers both consider financial matters in the light of God’s word, the results inevitably will be to His glory.

My Heart Is Broken for Bill Cosby

Friday, July 09, 2021

Among its other vices, our society loves to find people with unpopular views (the more unpopular, the better) and hold them up for public scorn.  Self-righteousness is apparently very pleasant to the American palate.  Amazingly enough, some reporter recently succeeded in finding someone who did not believe that Bill Cosby deserved to be in prison. 

An ancient actress named Carroll Baker gave an interview in which she expressed her belief that Cosby was innocent.  Instead, it was his victims were at fault.  Baker’s claims are fantastic and easily dismissed, as they were meant to be.  However, in her semi-coherent rambling, she did say one thing that struck me.  “My heart is broken for Bill Cosby,” she said.


Our hearts ought to be broken for Bill Cosby, not because he is not a malevolent sexual predator, but because he is a malevolent sexual predator.  Baker to the contrary, there is no doubt that he drugged and raped dozens of women, doing unimaginable harm.  However, among his victims, we must number Cosby himself. 

Like all of us, God gave him an immortal soul.  He also was blessed with great gifts such as few of us possess.  Through these gifts, he accumulated great wealth, reputation, and fame. 

Tragically, he also listened to the whispers of the devil.  In pursuit of selfish pleasure, he did great evil, and this evil corrupted everything else he had done. 

His wealth was expended in lawsuits and payouts to victims, his reputation was shattered, and his fame was transmuted to infamy.  Today, although he is a free man, he is every bit as miserable and ruined as the women he exploited.  This is to say nothing of the horrible damage he has done to his soul and the horrible fate that likely will befall him on the day of judgment.

What a tragedy!  What a waste!  Even the predator is the prey of the evil one, who has betrayed him as he always betrays his followers.  The true villain here is Satan.  While we long for justice, we also must regard the evildoer with compassion.

If we’re not willing to do that, we must ask ourselves where we draw the line.  What is the difference between the sinner who is worthy of pity and the sinner who isn’t?  Is it, perhaps, that we are moved by our own plight and the plight of those who sin like we do, while we shower contempt on those who sin differently?  It was not so for Jesus.  Though He did not sin, He pitied even those whom He knew never would listen.

In particular, we must learn to see the tragedy in those who sin against us.  “Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing!” Jesus cried on the cross.  Well, yes, they did know!  They were unjustly killing a genuine prophet who told them He was the Son of God, and they did it for the sake of their position and power. 

However, they acted in ignorance too, ignorance of the damage they were doing themselves, ignorance of the doom they were bringing on their nation, and ignorance of the eternal destruction they were storing up for their souls.  Jesus saw that they were deceived, and He appealed for their forgiveness.

Our hearts ought to be broken for Bill Cosby.  They ought to be broken for all those who trouble us.  Mourning is as appropriate a response to sin as anger is, and they ought to be combined in us as they are in God.  In a world so marred in every way by sin, we need not fear an excess of compassion.

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