We started studying 1 Corinthians in August last year. I haven’t preached on this book every Sunday, because sometimes John has been preaching or there have been special services and we’ve had other things to do or I’ve been on holiday. So, I haven’t preached on this book every single Sunday. But this is the 29th sermon on this letter. And we’ve covered a lot of ground, because the Apostle Paul raised lots of important doctrines in this letter.
And we should remember that that is what 1 Corinthians is: it’s a letter. Nowadays most people don’t write letters; we write emails or tweets or text messages or we use some other kind of social media to communicate. And those kind of things are normally much shorter than a letter; and they’re often written with very little thought. But Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth is long and it’s full of thoughtful and important teaching about the Christian faith; and so when we’re reading it and studying it, we forget it’s a letter, and we think of it as a short book.
But when we get to the last chapter, we’re reminded that this is — first and foremost — a letter, because it’s in this last chapter that Paul writes various greetings from the people he’s with to the people in Corinth. Look down to verse 19, where he wrote:
The churches in the province of Asia [that is, the Roman province of Asia Minor] send you greetings. Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house. All the brothers here send you greetings.
Do you see: at the end, there are these greetings; and so, we’re reminded that this is a letter. And just as I might end a letter or an email to a friend by saying ‘Yvonne says Hi. ‘So do Rachel and John and Hannah. ‘We hope you’re well. ‘We hope to see you soon.’, so Paul ends his letter in the same kind of way.
But, of course, even though it’s a letter, it’s part of God’s word. It’s part of the Holy Scriptures which have been breathed out by God, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so that Paul’s word are the words of God, and useful for teaching and rebuking and correcting and training in righteousness. This is God’s word to us and to every believer which we’re to receive it with faith and humility and with obedience.
And so, let’s turn to this final chapter to see what the Lord inspired the Apostle Paul to say to us. And this final chapter can be divided into two main sections: verses 1 to 12; and verses 13 to 24.
Verses 1 to 12
So, let’s turn to verses 1 to 12. And the first thing to notice in these verses is Paul’s concern for the universal church. In this last chapter, we see his concern, for not just the church in Corinth, but for the wider church.
Look with me at what he says in these verses which demonstrates his concern for the wider church. So, in verses 1 to 4 there are his instructions about the collection for God’s people. In the church, we often get embarrassed when we have to talk about money in the church. I’m not sure why, but maybe we’re afraid that we might come across as greedy and self-seeking. You know, we’re worried that people will think that all we’re interested in is money; and I suppose there are those tele-evangelists in the USA who are always asking people to send in money to support their work. When we lived in the Republic, we had access to the God Channel on TV and you’d see that kind of thing from time to time. And that kind of thing — when rich tele-evangelists plead with their viewers to send in more money — is awful, because greedy people are seeking money for themselves.
However, Paul was not afraid to ask for money. That’s what he’s asking for now in this passage. He writes about money again in 2 Corinthians. He writes about it in his letter to the Philippians and in his letter to the Romans. Paul was not reluctant to talk about money and about how Christians need to be generous with what we have. However — and this is an important point — he was not asking for money for himself. He was not raising money for himself. He was raising money for God’s people in Jerusalem. Do you see that in verse 1 and in verse 3? In verse 1 he refers to the collection for God’s people; and in verse 3 he makes clear that this collection is for God’s people in Jerusalem. The gift of money which he wanted the Corinthians to collect was going to be sent to Jerusalem.
It seems that Christians in Jerusalem were suffering hardship. We’re not sure why: it would be because of the persecution which broke out in Jerusalem in the early days of the church. Or it could be because of famine; in Acts 11, the prophet Agabus had prophesied that a severe famine was coming; and there were many other famines in those days. But whatever the cause, the believers in Jerusalem were struggling; and so, Paul expected churches elsewhere — and in verse 1 he says he asked the churches in Galatia to do the same — to raise money to support their Christian brothers and sisters in Jerusalem.
Paul then explained that whenever he arrived in Corinth, some of the members of the church in Corinth could be sent off to take the gift to Jerusalem on their behalf. Furthermore, if necessary, Paul was prepared to go with them. And isn’t that interesting? A greedy, self-seeking person might want to get his hands on the money himself. Or someone who is greedy for praise might want to deliver the money himself, so that everyone will thank him for it. But Paul wasn’t interested in any of that. He didn’t want the money for himself. And he didn’t want the praise. He was thinking only about the Christians in Jerusalem and how they could be helped. So it’s here that we see Paul’s concern for the wider church.
But we also see Paul’s concern for the wider church when he refers to his own travel plans which we find in verses 5 to 9. He wrote this letter in Ephesus and intended to stay there until Pentecost. Then he hoped to travel through the region of Macedonia. After that, he hoped to visit Corinth and stay with them for a while. But Paul wasn’t on holiday. He wasn’t on a gap year — travelling around Europe and the Mediterranean — on an extended break from work. Look at verses 8 and 9: he wanted to stay on in Ephesus because an opportunity for effective work had opened up to him. And Paul’s work was the work of preaching the gospel. That’s why he wanted to stay in Ephesus: to preach. And, of course, that’s why he wanted to go to Macedonia: he wanted to go through that region to preach God’s word. And that’s why he wanted to go to Corinth as well: to preach God’s word. So here again we see Paul’s concern for the wider church: he wanted to go around the different churches to preach God’s word and to build up the churches.
And then Paul refers to the travelling plans of Timothy and Apollos who were both preachers like him. He tells them that Timothy might go to Corinth; and if he comes, Paul wanted the believers in Corinth to welcome him. Apollos, it seems was not willing to go to Corinth at that time. We don’t know why, but we do not that Paul strongly urged him to go to Corinth. No doubt Paul believed Apollos could be of help to the believers in Corinth. After all, in Acts 18 and 19, we read that Apollos had been in Corinth before and had been a great help to the believers in Corinth and in the rest of the region of Achaia. So, just as Paul went from place to place — to preach the gospel and to strengthen the churches — he wanted other preachers to do the same.
These verses show us that Paul was concerned about the universal church. He wasn’t only concerned for the believers in Corinth, but for the believers elsewhere as well. He was concerned about the practical needs of God’s people in Jerusalem. And he was concerned about the spiritual needs of God’s people in Ephesus and Macedonia.
And, of course, he expected the members of the church in Corinth to have the same concern that he had. Now, they might not have been able to do what Paul did: they weren’t called by God to be apostles and preachers and to travel from place to place to preach the gospel. That wasn’t their calling. But, they could still do something to help their fellow believers: they could be generous with their money and help them that way. And so, that’s why he was asking them to raise a collection for the believers in Jerusalem. Though the people in Corinth had never met the believers in Jerusalem, though they were unlikely ever to meet, nevertheless Paul expected the believers in Corinth to be concerned for the wellbeing of their fellow believers in Jerusalem.
So, what about us? It’s our duty in life to glorify God by loving and serving one another. And so, we’re called by God to love and serve each other here in Immanuel. And we should be thinking about how to do that more and more. But we should also be thinking about how we might love and serve God’s people in the wider church. We must help one another here; but we must also help believers in other places.
How can we do that? Well, we can find out about the struggles our fellow believers face and the troubles they have in other parts of the world, so that we can pray for them. On Wednesday evenings, we hear about the great need to train ministers and elders in other countries so that they’re able to teach God’s word better. And we hear about believers who are suffering for their faith around the world. And we hear about small churches who are struggling because of a lack of resources. We hear about these things, so that we can pray for them.
We can find out about other churches in this Presbytery and churches in other parts of this island. What opportunities do they have to make the gospel known; and what challenges do they face? It’s interesting that when Paul referred to his own work in Ephesus, he said two things about it: he said that a great door for effective work had opened to him; but he also said that there were many who opposed him. Wherever the gospel is preached, the Devil is at work to stir up opposition. And so, on Wednesday evenings we can find out about churches and Christians throughout this Presbytery and throughout this island and across the world who are proclaiming the gospel, but who are very often facing opposition from an unbelieving world. And so, we can pray for them, asking the Lord to protect them from the Evil One and all his wicked schemes, and asking the Lord to open up for his preachers a great door for effective evangelistic work. You may not be a preacher. You may not be called by God to go about from place to place to proclaim the message of the gospel. But you can pray for those who are preachers; and you can pray for the conversion of men and women and boys and girls; and you can pray for your fellow believers who are struggling around the world.
And then we can give. We can use the money we have to help others. From time to time, we have special collections to raise money for the work of Tear Fund and other Christian organisations. Then there’s the PCI’s United Appeal which is used to support the work of our church’s missionaries and Irish Mission workers and other ministries of the PCI. There are emergency appeals from time to time whenever there’s a crisis. There’s the Benevolent Fund which is used to give financial support to our own members. There are other organisations we can give to who help believers at home and abroad. There are lots of different ways we can support God’s people around the world with our money.
And in order to do that well, we can learn from Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians. So, our giving should be regular; Paul instructed his readers to set aside some money ‘every’ week. He’s not talking here about the weekly offering in church, which is normally used to support the work of this church and to pay the bills. He was talking about another kind of collection: collecting money for the benefit of believers who were not part of the congregation in Corinth. Sometimes people refer to this kind of collection as a love offering, because it’s a way to demonstrate our love for other believers by giving generously to help them. And Paul says we should aside aside money for this purpose regularly.
And our giving should be universal; Paul instructed ‘each one of you’ to set aside some money. He wasn’t expecting only some of them to give, but all of them to give.
But our giving should be proportional; Paul said they were to set aside a sum of money ‘in keeping with’ your income. That means those who can afford to give more, should give more; and those who can afford to give less, should give less. We should set aside whatever we can afford.
And our giving should be systematic; Paul said they were to set it aside and save it up. That ensures that you’re not just giving whatever loose change you find in your pocket at the time you’re asked to help. And you know what normally happens, don’t you? It’s coming up to Christmas, and there’s a special appeal. But at Christmas, there are all those presents to buy and it seems that everyone is collecting for charities at Christmas. And you open your purse, or you open your wallet, and there’s not much in it. But if we set aside money systematically through the year, then we’ll always be prepared, because there’s always something set aside.
So, we can save up for those times when we’re asked for money to help our fellow believers. We can set aside a little each week or each month, so that whenever there’s a special collection, we all have something to give in order to express our concern for our fellow believers who are in need.
Paul was concerned for the universal church and for the spiritual and practical needs of believers everywhere. And our church’s Confession of Faith teaches us that we’re to have the same concern. In its chapter on the communion of the saints, it says:
All saints are united to Jesus Christ, their head, by his Spirit and by faith, and have fellowship with him in his grace, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory. United to one another in love, the saints have communion in each other’s gifts and graces, and are under obligation to perform such duties, public and private, as promote their mutual good, in both spiritual and temporal concerns.
We’re to be concerned for the spiritual wellbeing of our fellow believers; and we’re to be concerned for their temporal or physical wellbeing too.
Verses 13 to 24
Well, let’s move on to the next part, verses 13 to 24. And in verses 13 and 14, Paul gives a number of exhortations or brief instructions He said to them:
Be on your guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be men of courage [or perhaps, ‘Be courageous’ is better]. Be strong.
At the end of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul instructed his readers to put on the full armour of God. He was teaching them that every believer is engaged in a spiritual battle against the Devil who comes at us with his wicked schemes to try to destroy our faith and to lead us astray. And these instructions at the end of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians are also the kind of instructions you might give to soldiers. So, watch out for the enemy! Whenever you come under attack, stand firm in the faith. Be courageous in the face of opposition! Be strong! Brace yourself! Brace yourself for an attack from the Devil who will try to crush your faith and who will put you under pressure so that you’re tempted to give up what you believe.
But everything must be done in love, says Paul. We can imagine soldiers being tough. You know, they’re hard men. They’re hard as nails and tough. And Christians must be tough with the Devil and we must resist him with all our might. And we must be firm in what we believe; and must refuse to yield to public opinion. We must firmly hold on to the truth of God’s word. But we must always be loving towards all people. And as Paul as already told us, love means being patient and kind; and it doesn’t envy or boast; it’s not proud or rude; or self-seeking or easily angered; and it doesn’t keep a record of wrongs. So, God calls us to be on our guard and to stand firm and to be courageous and strong. He calls us to stand firm in the faith. But he calls us to do everything in love.
And then Paul goes on to refer in his letter to various believers who were known to the Corinthians. There’s Stephanas and his household who devoted themselves to serving other Christians. So, they didn’t push others around, which they might have done since they were among the first converts. And we can imagine — can’t we? — those who were first to believe, thinking that they took priority over others. You know, a newcomer comes to this church and we’re tempted to think they count less than those who have been worshipping here for years. But Paul commends Stephanas and his family, because they served and ministered to those who came after them. And Paul commends Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus, these people who were such an encouragement to Paul in his work.
And then we have the greetings from Paul’s companions to the church in Corinth. And Paul concludes the chapter by pronouncing a curse on those who don’t love the Lord Jesus. And really it’s a warning to the members of the congregation in Corinth and to any in the church who were listening to this letter being read out, but who don’t really love the Lord. They may be in church on Sundays. They may be taking part in the church’s activities. They may appear no different from anyone else in the congregation in Corinth. But if you could see their heart, you’d discover they had no real love for the Lord Jesus. And so it’s a warning to any one like that. A wake up call. If you don’t love the Lord, then you need to repent and seek God’s forgiveness in order to receive his blessing and not his curse.
And for those who do love the Lord and who trust in his Son, there’s a blessing:
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.
Whatever troubles and trials we may suffer, whatever opposition we may encounter, whatever temptations we face, we know that we can rely on the gracious help of the Lord Jesus Christ who has promised never to leave us or forsake us.
Well, almost at the end of the letter, there’s that short phrase:
Come, O Lord!
If you look down at the footnote, you’ll see it’s an Aramaic expression: Marana tha. Paul was writing in Greek, but he used this Aramaic term which presumably was familiar to Christians at that time in the same way we English-speaking Christians are familiar with the Hebrew word ‘Hallelujah’. And it’s a word which refers to the return of the Lord Jesus.
Now, since Paul places this expression after pronouncing a curse on those who don’t love the Lord, he’s warning them that they need to repent and believe, before it’s too late, because the Lord is coming: he’s coming again in glory and power to judge the living and the dead. And all those who do not love him and who have never believed in him will be condemned by him and will be sent away to suffer eternal punishment. And so, for those who don’t believe, the coming of the Lord is a thing to dread.
But for those who love the Lord and who trust in Jesus Christ the Saviour, his coming is something to long for and to look forward to seeing. We look forward to it, because the one who is coming is our Saviour who loved us and who gave up his life as a ransom to set us free from condemnation and death. And his coming will bring an end to our work in this world and it will mark the beginning of our eternal rest. You see, Paul has already referred in this chapter to the hardships of the believers in Jerusalem; and many believers in every generation suffer all kinds of bitter hardship and suffering in this world, all kinds of troubles and trials. But the coming of Christ will bring our suffering to an end. And Paul has already referred in this chapter to the spiritual fight we have with the Devil and how we need to be on guard and stand firm in the faith and be strong and courageous. And every believer in every generation has found themselves caught up in this conflict with the Devil; and it’s hard work to stand firm and to resist him. But the coming of Christ will bring that conflict and struggle to an end. When the Lord comes again, he will subdue the Devil under his feet and the Devil will no longer be able to harass God’s people or to harm them. And Paul has referred to his work and to the work of people like Timothy and Stephanas. Think of Paul and the effort in those days to travel from place to place, and the dangers he faced on his journeys; and the opposition he faced from unbelievers; and the troubles he encountered in churches. Think of Timothy, who seemed to be nervous about coming to Corinth. Think of the work that Stephanas must have done to serve the saints in Corinth; the trouble that he and his household must have gone to to serve their fellow believers. The Lord calls us to deny ourselves and to love and serve the people around us. And it can be hard work and often we’d prefer a life of leisure. Well, the good news is that the coming of the Lord will mean the end of our labour and the beginning of our eternal rest in the presence of God.
Sunday by Sunday we gather together in church before the Lord to hear his word and to give thanks to him. And sometimes it can seem like heaven to be here, can’t it? It can seem like heaven, when God works in our hearts through the preaching of his word to fill our hearts with love and with joy. But the service ends; the time is up; and we need to leave and we go back out into the world to face another demanding, difficult, and hard week. But the day is coming when Christ will return; and on that day, we can come into God’s presence in the world to come; and we’ll never have to leave. And there will be no more pain. No more suffering. No more trouble. But perfect peace and rest and joy for ever more. And since that is true, it’s little wonder that Paul and every believer says: ‘O Lord. Come!’