A little over ten months ago we began our study of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. In the letter Paul has confronted areas of conflict, he’s answered questions and he has encouraged and guided the Corinthians in their faith. Now it is time to draw this letter to a close.
As you listen to and read through these final 20 verses I suspect you feel somewhat like I do. It feels kind of like an awards show when the winner is thanking a list of people I don’t know. It’s easy to tune out.
I am not going to try to introduce you to each of the people Paul refers to or the situations Paul mentions. I’m afraid if I did so, I would quickly (more quickly?) lose your interest. Instead I want to zero in on two different areas of instruction. First, I want you to notice Paul’s approach to planning for the future. Second, we will focus on Paul’s final challenge to the church in Corinth.
Planning the Future
5 After I go through Macedonia, I will come to you—for I will be going through Macedonia. 6 Perhaps I will stay with you awhile, or even spend the winter, so that you can help me on my journey, wherever I go. 7 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. 8 But I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost, 9 because a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me.
Most of us aren’t particularly interested in Paul’s itinerary but there is something we can learn. Notice first that Paul had a plan. Someone has said, “He who does not plan, plans to fail”. Another wag says, “he who aims at nothing will surely hit it.” Financial advisors tell us that it is important to have a budget (which is a spending plan) and a savings plan. Why? It is because without a financial plan you will always be scrambling to pay one bill or the other. The income you need to pay bills will be consumed by other things.
When you enter school there is a plan to help you gain the necessary credit hours to graduate. If you are in a professional area of study there is a plan to help become equipped in your area of service. People who go into business need a business plan. Without these plans we are condemned to drift aimlessly.
Many of you are planning vacations. Some are planning a family. Others are planning retirement. Still others are planning to purchase a home. Good for you! May I ask you something? Do you have a plan for your spiritual life? Are you intentional about serving the Lord or are you just figuring spiritual growth will happen on its own? More specifically,
- Do you have a plan for becoming better acquainted with God through a Bible reading plan, a course of study, or through a Sunday School class? Do you set your alarm and plan your calendar to give God priority?
- Are you looking for a way to serve the Lord in a significant capacity or are you too busy with other things?
- Are you making preparation through intentional reading, asking questions, or enrolling in classes that will help you to better explain and defend your faith? Are you learning how to share your faith with others?
- Do you have a plan for instructing your kids in the things of God? We lead them in many areas of their life but too often when it comes to their relationship with God we leave them to “decide for themselves”. What if we took that same approach with their education? With their education we get them up and off to school, we help them with their homework, we hire tutors, we make passing the class top priority. Let me ask, are you doing that for the soul of your children? What are you doing to help your children make the tough decisions that put God first in their lives? How are you helping them learn the truth of God’s Word?
A haphazard approach to spiritual growth results in a weak Christianity.
Second, our plans should be flexible. The one thing we see in Paul’s words was that he left room for God to change his plans. Paul understood that the best laid plans of men are sometimes short-sighted. Some of the best opportunities to serve the Lord come to us as interruptions.
- That unplanned conversation in the grocery store
- Running into someone at the hospital
- The unexpected tear we see in the eye of a friend
- The stranger who asks an honest question
- The person who answers the question, “How are you?” with “Ohhhh!”
I love the illustration of what supposedly happened on a seminary campus once. The students were all hustling to get to a chapel service on Luke 15 and the story of the Good Samaritan. On the way to the chapel the students all hurried passed a person in need on the side of the road. As I recall the story, the person in need was actually the speaker who was pretending to be in need. When the chapel service began the speaker came in through the door and pointed out the irony of hurrying to chapel to hear about the Good Samaritan while refusing to help someone in need.
In the book of James we are advised,
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”
James isn’t telling us that we should not make plans. He is saying we should make plans that are “soft”. We must always be sensitive to the Lord’s plan for us. Our desire, like Paul’s, should be to serve God in whatever way He calls us to serve.
Third, our plans should be prioritized. Paul could have rushed off to Corinth because of the conflict that was going on there. However, Paul does not do this. The work in Ephesus was going well and Paul believed it was more important to continue to oversee that work. Paul also believed it was important to come to Corinth at a time when he could spend significant time with the people. He did not want to leave Ephesus until his work was completed.
Life is filled with opportunities. Many of those opportunities are good opportunities. Often must choose between good things. We must decide what is most important to the Kingdom of God and best for our walk with the Lord, and then let the other things work themselves out. That of course is the opposite of what we normally do. We run after many things and leave our spiritual development for another day.
If you charted how you spent your time and energy these last several weeks what would it tell you about your priorities? Instead of making excuses, take a hard look at your schedule. Does it show that your relationship with God is a top priority or does it show you that God had been replaced by other things? Do you see that you were giving the necessary time to your commitments before God or are you giving God less than your best?
Paul’s gives us a final challenge,
13 Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. 14 Do everything in love.
Paul says we should be “on guard”. The image is of a sentry who is standing guard, perhaps at a military base. His job is to guard the security of the base or the camp. He must keep his eyes open and to stay alert.
A similar image that may resonate with some of you is that of a babysitter. If you came home and asked the babysitter where your child was and they said, “Hmmm, I don’t know. I guess I haven’t seen him for a couple of hours. I’ve watched a movie, called some friends, and then I took a nap. I’m sure he must be here somewhere.” You would be upset (and perhaps a little frantic) and you would never hire that babysitter again. The babysitter forgot what was most important. A babysitter’s first job is to “be on guard” over the children.
We also must be on guard when it comes to our faith. It is easy to get distracted by other things. We must remember that we are to “seek FIRST the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.” (Mt. 6:33)
Take an honest look around. We all profess faith, but can we really say we are “on guard”? Can we say we are being vigilant? We might say we are comfortable, content, and even happy in our faith, but vigilant? We are more like the distracted babysitter. We have so many things going on that we are often oblivious to what is happening in our soul. We must be on guard.
Paul gives us four specific things we must guard against. First, we must guard against false doctrine. A babysitter must protect the children by keeping strangers out of the home, so we are to guard the church and our own hearts and minds against strange doctrine that will draw us away from the Lord.
False doctrine does not come simply from pulpits. It is preached on talk shows, televisions shows, and movies. False doctrine is promoted in the news media, by politicians and by popular books. It can be promoted by our employers and even our friends. This doctrine is so subtle sometimes that the only way we will recognize it is if we are looking for it. We must submit every proposition to a simple test: What does God say in the Bible? Does the idea come from God or from the imagination of men?
People cannot find new life unless they are following the true Christ. The flashy religious philosophies of the world may be attractive, but they have no power to bring forgiveness and new life. If we drift in the area of doctrine we will soon be following a false Christ and our obedience will begin to waver.
Second, we must be on guard against intimidation. Paul exhorted the Corinthians to be courageous. This was a real challenge to stand up for Christ even in a hostile world. The same message is for us. Jesus said,
“Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven. (Matthew 10:32,33)
A true believer is one who stands with Christ even if it means standing alone with Christ. It means following the way of Christ even when all our friends are going in a different direction. Our challenge is to refuse to be bullied by the crowd or by difficult circumstances. We must trust His strength rather than our own.
Third, we must guard against compromise. Paul told the Corinthians to “be strong”. This is much more subtle than the direct opposition of intimidation. Go back to the illustration of a babysitter. If the sitter is doing what they are supposed to be doing they will keep our kids from scary or profane books, movies, and television shows. They will protect them from violent or immoral video games. They will do this because they realize that these things are bad for kids. They will get nightmares and be introduced to things that will only cause them to stumble.
It is the same way with the things of faith. We must guard against those subtle compromises that erode our faith and character. This kind of attack on the Christian faith is like guerilla warfare. You don’t know where the enemy is going to come from. Usually it starts with little compromises,
- Constant immorality on television whispers that we are “out of touch with reality” when it comes to morality and the ranting of pundits declare that we are hopelessly empty headed in our thinking.
- Media stories use words like “religious extremists” or the “religious right” in an attempt to marginalize our opinions as “wacko”.
- Words like tolerance are changing in meaning from “showing respect for different beliefs” to “refraining from disagreeing with different beliefs”
- The abundance of lawsuits are designed to get us to step back from our conviction and make us tentative.
It used to be that people understood that true faith impacted everything we do in life. Now we constantly hear about the separation of church and state. That is fine if you mean the state should not be regulating religion. However, if you mean Christian people should not allow their faith to influence their work or values, it shows a serious misunderstanding of what it means to be a Christian.
I was being interviewed for a prospective jury once and the defense attorney asked me in essence, “Can you keep your Christian opinions out of this case?” I responded “A Christian is what I am; it is not what I do. You can’t separate the two.” I was dismissed from that jury!
Everything we do should come under the Lordship of Jesus Christ: the way we work, the way we raise our kids, the hobbies we participate in and the entertainment we embrace. When our Christianity starts being dictated to or altered by these things we must recognize that our faith is in peril and respond.
The fourth thing we must guard against is self-absorption. Paul told the people of Corinth to “do everything in love”. Don’t miss the fine line being drawn. We are to stand guard, but we must not become angry and militant. In other words we must stand up for the truth yet remain loving as we do so.
The opposites of love are: self-absorption (an indifference to the people around us and the effects of our actions on those people); and hostility (one of the tricks of the Devil is to get us to adopt the tactics of the world. The Devil would persuade us to defend the faith by becoming mean).
I love the description that Carl Sandburg gave of Abraham Lincoln he said he was a man of “velvet steel.” He was a man of conviction yet was soft. Our challenge is to walk this delicate balance. We must resist whatever will draw us away from the life-changing truth of Christ while at the same time keeping our arms open to a lost world.
Paul concludes with an Aramaic phrase Marana tha. It is translated as “Come, O Lord!” It is a significant ending for his letter. Paul’s focus, and ours is upon the anticipated return of our Lord Jesus Christ. If we will remind ourselves that Christ could come at any time we will pay more attention to the things that matter for eternity. We will plan and work to grow spiritually; we will study so that we will know the truth so well that we can easily recognize falsehood. We will hold our ground.
It is easy for us to feel that there is plenty of time to take care of “God-stuff”. It is true for most of us that whatever seems most immediate or persistent is what we will generally give our attention to. Paul has been arguing that this way of living is a mistake. It goes back to the whole idea of planning. In terms of finances if you spend all your money buying stuff that is attractive now, you will not have any money for emergencies or for the future.
In the same way, if you give all your focus to the amusements and activities of this present life you will be unprepared for eternity. If you do not plan to grow in your spiritual life, you will be unequipped for the trials of life, the reality of death or the coming of the Lord.
So what about you? Is it time for you to give more attention to the things that matter forever? Do you need to take that initial step of faith and put your trust and confidence in Christ? Do you need to abandon any notion that you will be “good enough” and entrust yourself to the grace and mercy of God? If so, don’t wait until tomorrow or some time when it is convenient; surrender your life to Him right now. Make the decision that will make an eternal difference in your life. We are made right with God (or justified) by the possession of faith and not merely by a profession of faith. Real faith means a change in our life and orientation. It means truly and practically following and trusting Christ.
Paul has encouraged us in many areas in this letter to the church in Corinth. Throughout the entire letter he has challenged us to LIVE the Christian life. It’s good counsel. I encourage you to make plans to grow. Establish kingdom priorities for your life and be flexible and open to the opportunities God provides. Stand guard over the faith. Make God first in your life. If you do that, He will not find you spiritually asleep when He returns.