Coming and going
Hard conversations rarely take place between people who don’t care about each other. If someone is about to damage themselves by a reckless act, loud and clear warnings will not come from disinterested by standers, but loud, clear and urgent warnings will come from those who love the reckless person.
This is exactly what we have seen in this letter. The underlying message is one of love. Don’t fall out over leaders, but learn to love one another, do eject gross immorality from the church out of love for the church and love for the one ensnared, don’t let your traditions and natural biases destroy other sensitive people, but love one another. As Paul closes this letter he invites the Corinthians to show love to fellow believers, he makes plans for visits to Corinth to strengthen the believers and lastly he reminds of the great visit of the Lord.
1. Going to give
We read much in the Old Testament about contributing to the religious life of the nation of Israel. The nation was set up with a formal religious organisation. The religion was intertwined with the political rule and the activities of national worship needed to be funded, there were priests to pay, buildings to service and festivals to be funded. The people were to give a tenth of their income to finance the religious worship system. Many Christians have talked about something similar –“you should be giving 10% of what you earn” is not an unusual request. Usually the most enthusiastic proponents of working people giving money to the church are the very people who benefit from receipt of that money! The New Testament never mentions giving a 10th, but it does encourage Christian people to give. Interestingly Paul indicated that he as a full time church worker had every right to expect payment but he waived these rights and earned money himself to support his ministry – Paul sets an example here that at the very least ought to be taken note of by modern day Christian workers. So Paul makes a request for money, but not for himself, he invites the Corinthians to contribute to a fund for poor people living in Judea. Notice that everyone can do this, no one is too lacking in money to make some contribution. Remember Jesus’ story of the widow’s two copper coins and the others with their large amounts, – the two copper coins were of little value in themselves, but Jesus said "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.” The giving should be planned and regular – so that when the needs are made known, the money is available to satisfy the demand. This was not a practice to be restricted to the Corinthians church; Paul invited the Galatian church to do the same thing. We may well ask why there was a need to send money to Judea at all. There certainly seems to be evidence of a widespread famine that seems to be specifically connected with believers in Judea (see end of Acts 11), but if the famine was widespread why the focus on Judea? When we studied Acts recently we noticed that the early church sold land and houses and appeared to give up work as they met daily as a group of believers. This was to say the least a reckless act: imagine if we all gave up work, sold our houses and lived off the proceeds- a day of reckoning would surely come when the money would run out! This seems to be what took place in Judea. The reason for this recklessness seems to have been an assumption of the early believers in Jerusalem that the Messiah would return at the time of the autumn festivals in the same year as the Holy Spirit was given on the day of Pentecost. Remember in that remarkable year, Jesus fulfilled the Spring festivals of Passover, unleavened bread and first fruits, then 7 weeks later the Holy Spirit came at the Pentecost festival, it was not at all unreasonable to have assumed that the Lord would return at the autumn festivals of Trumpets, Atonement and Tabernacles. The assumption turned out to be incorrect and the disposal of properties and land brought about a loss of sustainable income which eventially took its toll, perhaps exacerbated by the famine. Sometimes we feel somewhat judgemental in our giving. Why give to these reckless believers in Judea, haven’t they only got themselves to blame, why don’t they work like the rest of us? There is no judgement however, just love and concern for those in distress. This is a lesson for us too. If people are in need, they are in need and the first question relates to their immediate welfare rather than the cause of their distress.
Notice in passing that this collection was to be done on the first day of the week. The church meets by tradition on Sunday, the first day of the week. The Jewish Sabbath was a Saturday. There is no place in the bible that says Christians should meet on a Sunday, it was a practice started early on in the life of the church. And the tradition continues to this day.
2. Coming to visit
We have noted that Paul likens the church to a body, a body in which there is diversity but not division, unity but not uniformity. Whilst the members of the body play different roles, each member’s role is for the benefit of the body as a whole. In verses 6 to 18 we see something of the importance of individuals to the overall benefit of the church.
Paul was coming to visit. Given the preceding chapters in this letter it’s reasonable to assume that he would visit to check up on the behaviour of the Corinthians. It would be like a sort of inspection. One can almost imagine Paul arriving with his clip board containing a list of all of the problems and checking them off with a score to mark progress or further deterioration! But the purpose of his visit was to be something rather different. He said, “Perhaps I will stay with you a while, or even spend the winter, so that you can help me on my journey, wherever I go”. It was not to be a passing visit, not an inspection, he hoped ‘to spend some time’ with them. Whilst this seems at first glance to be surprising and maybe even odd, we do well to remember Paul’s model for the church – a body with many diverse parts each playing a role for the benefit of the whole. The Corinthains like every other church had gifted members, members who as they exercised their spiritual gifts would bring benefit to Paul himself. Spending time with fellow believers is good for you! If you stay away from other believers don’t expect to live a vibrant Christian life and do expect that your absence will impoverish the body of Christ.
Not only Paul would visit Corinth but young Timothy would too. For some reason Timothy seems to have attracted less respect than other Christian workers, this is perhaps because of his relative youth and perhaps also a rather timid personality. Paul asks for Timothy to be treated properly by the Corinthians – after all he was doing the same work as Paul himself.
As well as Timothy, Paul wanted Apollos to visit too. We know that there were some in the Corinthian church who especially followed Apollos, but somehow Apollos was not keen to visit – perhaps he feared his visit would re-kindle the split over leaders. Others too would go to Corinth to encourage the believers: Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus. Paul asked the Corinthians to respect these Christian workers and submit to people like them, people join in the work and labour in it. Such men as these brought refreshment to Paul in his struggles and they would be of assistance to the Corinthians too.
Right in the middle of this section Paul gives some good advice:” Be on your guard, stand firm in the faith, be courageous, be strong. Do everything in love.” It seems that he is keen that the Corinthians are aware of impending danger – much of that danger came from within their own church – for this they were to be on guard. Being on guard is somewhat defensive in nature, but they were also to stand firm, be courageous and strong. And in all of this there was to be love in everything they did.
3. Coming again
The closing words of the letter offer personal greetings from Priscilla and Aquilla. This Christian couple had been expelled from Rome (Aquila was a Jew) and had met Paul in Corinth – they were believers as well as tent makers and thus formed a special friendship with Paul. They later moved to Ephesus and there met Apollos.
Paul had not written this litter with his own had, but now takes up the writing instrument to sign off. Here’s what he wrote: “If anyone does not love the Lord, let that person be cursed! Come Lord!” That’s pretty direct – if you don’t love the Lord then curse you! Perhaps we are a bit too polite sometimes as we talk about these things, there is no room for sitting on the fence, you are either in or out, it’s black and white, and if you are out you are in trouble – but love the Lord and all will be well. “Come Lord” was written by Paul as ‘maranatha’ – not a Greek word but an Aramaic word. Perhaps this gave it extra force or perhaps it was a word used by many in the early Church. This demonstrates an attitude of mind – the early Christians got the timing of the return of the Lord wrong, but they were right to expect it – it was clearly an ‘any moment’ expectation for Paul, and it should be for us too. Strangely interest in the return of the Lord is absent in the church these days, perhaps the controversy of some on this subject has made the subject almost taboo, but it was not in Paul’s day. He will return and every day that passes brings that day closer. If we live as though that day could come at any moment wouldn’t this change our perspective on the way we live? I suspect so, and I suspect Paul hoped the Corinthians would embrace this way of thinking too.
It was time to sign off, but Paul would visit Corinth as he promised and that painful visit would spawn another letter: 2 Corinthians.