With football in hand, NFL coach Vince Lombardi walked to the front of the locker room at the beginning of the Green Bay Packers training camp—paused several seconds to look over some of the best football players in the world—and held out the pigskin. His famous understatement was, “Gentlemen, this is a football!”
One player quickly shot back, “Coach, you’re going a little too fast.” (Lots of laughter!)
Six months later the Green Bay Packers beat the New York Giants 37-0 to win the NFL Championship. The coach’s strategy worked. That 1961 season was the beginning of Vince Lombardi’s reign as one of the greatest football coaches of all-time. He won five NFL Championships in a span of seven years, including three in a row. The key to his success was convincing players that mastering the fundamentals of the game absolutely essential.
The Apostle Paul was a coach too. And he calls on every possible strategy in his letters to get the Corinthians to focus on the fundamentals of the game. Earlier in chapter 4, quoting Craig Blomberg’s commentary, “Paul shifted his tone abruptly and unleashed a bitter invective . . . but beginning in verse 14, his sarcasm equally abruptly gave way to tender tones.”
Paul was not only a master of theology, and a master of persuasion, but equally so, a master of spiritual parenting. He knew how to speak God’s truth into the lives of those who were not yet born (again), as well as to those who were just infants in the Christian walk (that was the people in the church at Corinth, see 3:1), and in addition, into the lives of the mature. He was ready with milk or meat, depending on the needs of his hearers. He could apply a whip or use a gentle touch (4:21).
The most striking element of Paul’s parental approach was urging the Corinthians to imitate him. But really? Imitate a human? Paul suggesting that was either the height of self-centered presumption, or the pinnacle of godly confidence . . . that he was so indwelt by the Spirit that his life and words were a spitting-image of what Jesus would say and do. And so it was. As Paul said: “I am sending to you Timothy . . . who will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus” (4:17).
APPLICATION: One of the greatest needs in the church today is coaches and parents like Paul. If the community of believers is functioning as it should, with its members deeply committed to being holy as God is, to being as self-sacrificing as Jesus was, to being as filled with the Spirit as the early Christians were—in other words, mastering the fundamentals, as Paul had done—the church would be healthier, and its influence greater. Now that is no understatement. It is the key to winning spiritual championships.
We live in a culture that loves celebrities. Celebrity status is a big deal. Any connection we can have with a celebrity, even if that means simply seeing one or getting an autograph, makes us feel special—like some of the glow has rubbed off on us.
Some years ago I went to a conference at the Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York City. After the morning session, as I was heading out to lunch, I unexpectedly found myself walking behind Ravi Zacharias, a keynote speaker at the conference and one of my favorite authors. I followed closely behind him as he was talking with another gentleman. I followed him for several city blocks, hanging on his every word. I was so excited to be close to this incredibly brilliant apologist for the faith, I almost followed him to his table in a restaurant. I couldn’t stop telling others about the “encounter.” I felt special.
But Paul calls people like Ravi servants of Christ. If they have been faithful with that with which God has entrusted them, God will praise them. There is no place for being “puffed up” about being the follower of one or the other of these servants. It is not gifted teachers who set believers apart from others; it is God. Whatever grace, blessings, and gifts that we have received do not come from the gifted teachers; they come from God. There is no room to boast, either in gifted teachers or in oneself, for whatever we have been given, we have received from God. As Paul had already written in chapter one: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
The next paragraph is dripping with sarcasm. Without subtlety, Paul mocks their boasting. According to their boasting, these people seem to have arrived in every way, whereas the very teachers they boast about are experiencing suffering of all kinds. True servants of Christ who preach the “foolish” message of Christ crucified, more often than not, will be despised and rejected by the world. Humility, not boasting, is characteristic of true servants of Christ.
Our celebrity-loving culture puts a premium on being accepted, honored, and praised. Pride rather than truth drives the personality cult. And we know what comes after pride…
Paul, a professional tentmaker was well aware that his products could be easily dismantled just like our physical bodies aren’t permanent locations of the Holy Spirit. Paul had to combat a Greek tradition that physical bodies would not last after death meaning the afterlife would be spent as disembodied spirits. The Bible tells us God designs and creates eternal “buildings” (bodies) for us in which we will serve Him forever.
The Greeks assumed spirits in the afterlife would be “naked.” Classical Greek sculptors glorified the unclothed human body in marble, but Israel viewed nakedness as shameful. See Isaiah 47:3 and Ezekiel 23:29. Paul has to instruct the Corinthians that believers will be clothed in heaven. (Yay — we won’t have to worry about fashion or getting the right size!)
As much as Paul wanted to experience the Rapture he knew he would most likely experience death. He had assurance that his sufferings were achieving for him an eternal glory that would far outweigh his pain. While we live in our tents some of us have more reasons than others do to groan about dreadful aches and disappointments. As Jonah was swallowed up by a big fish, so new life will swallow up our clay pots/tents. What a glorious change awaits us.
What is our purpose this side of heaven? There is a reason the Spirit is given at conversion as a down payment for our full redemption and complete transformation in heaven. Right now the Spirit is working to renew our inner self. There is a definite continuity between our present and future forms of existence.
So we live by faith and not by sight. We are grateful for the ability to see and then worship the Creator of the splendors of His mighty acts. As wonderful as our senses are we need to be cautious about not placing too much emphasis on the physical manifestations of God’s creative works. Advertisers tempt us to search for that elusive fountain of youth. Yes, we need to properly care for our temples that house the Spirit but inevitably all physical exercise, diet plans, and cosmetics will fail.
Knowing the third person of the Trinity dwells in us is almost too incredible to bear, but rather than being in a daze about it, the truth must motivate a humble willingness to allow the Spirit to conform us to the likeness of the Savior — moment by moment.
This paragraph is both comforting and sobering.
A “Day” is coming when everything will be brought into the light and shown for what it really is. The quality of our work, Paul says, will be exposed. In the next chapter he says it this way: “[The Lord] will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart” (4:5b).
On the one hand, this is comforting. This life is cruelly unfair. Sometimes the godly, the pure in heart, the hard-working, the faithful, or those with integrity are not “successful” in ministry by the world’s standards. Conversely, sometimes the person with the biggest personality, the nicest hair and teeth, and the most greed and pride is celebrated by everyone. It’s good to know that faithfulness to Jesus and God’s Word will one day be rewarded. It’s also good to know that hucksters will be outed in the end. Each will receive the reward he or she is due.
On the other hand, this is all quite sobering, particularly for those who teach and preach in the church. In dependence on God’s grace we try to be faithful, but we sometimes question our own motives. It’s easy to start with selfless motives and then, over time, to slide back into security. Could I do better? Am I giving it my all? Am I working with wood or precious stones? If we’re going to be held accountable for our work, we better ask such questions.
However, let’s not forget the context. The Corinthians are getting competitive and divisive about their favorite teachers. These teachers will one day be evaluated by God, Paul is saying. It’s not our place to compare, praise, or judge. We don’t know the heart. Only God does. “Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes,” Paul will momentarily conclude (4:5a). Boasting in human teachers before God exposes the quality of their work is stealing God’s prerogative.
Our focus shouldn’t be on humans but rather on God, “who makes things grow” (3:7). No matter how stellar a teacher does his or her job, it is still God who changes the heart.
We must orient our lives around Jesus, the one and only solid foundation for life. If we do that, we don’t have to fear the Day. As Paul has already told the Corinthians, “[God] will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blamelesson the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:8).
Do you remember what it was like to get that bottle of warm milk in the middle of the night after you cried long and hard to get mom’s (or dad’s) attention? “Hey, you guys, I’m hungry!” Of course you don’t. What a silly question! Neither do you remember when you first started eating solid food, experiencing all the different tastes—liking some and not others. But you did go through those growing periods. Now, you certainly don’twant to go back to those days at all! You’ve grown up, and you appreciate good food, not only as a necessity of life, but one of its great pleasures.
Do you realize how many times believers are challenged to grow up and move away from your childish diet? The writer of Hebrews says to his readers: “Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food (Hebrews 5:12) Similarly, Peter wrote to new Christians, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual mild, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good (1 Peter 2:2). Sadly, spiritual immaturity seems to be a pattern.
Paul had commended the Corinthians in chapter 1, speaking of them as sanctified—that is, set apart for God—having received the grace of God, enriched, and not lacking any spiritual gift.But, as he begins chapter 3, addressing them as brothers and sisters, he characterizes them as “worldly—mere infants in Christ,” v. 1, and as “mere humans,” v. 4. It is all the more intriguing because in the preceding chapter he had written at length about the wisdom that is not from men but from God (2:5). He then spoke of “a wisdom among the mature,” (2:6), “God’s secret wisdom,” (2:7). God’s wisdom has been revealed by his Spirit, so much so that the “spiritual man” can “make judgment about all things,” (2:15), because they have “the mind of Christ,” (2:16). Wow! Imagine that!
Back to your childhood. How long was it before you gave up your bottle, or your pacifier? When did you really begin to enjoy “adult” food? You probably don’t remember that progression, either. All that good meat and potatoes and vegetables were available, but you weren’t ready for them yet. Can you relate those human growing experiences to spiritual growth? Are you, like the Corinthians, clinging to the immature things of the world, to dependence on church leaders rather than on personal study of God’s Word and the Holy Spirit’s teaching? Are you still feeding on “the elementary truths?” Shouldn’t you have advanced to “solid food…for the mature,” enabling you “to distinguish good from evil”? (Hebrews 5:12-14).
In explaining the role of their spiritual leaders Paul is certainly not putting down his ministry or that of Apollos and others. Although they may have been a possible source of division, he proceeds to tell believers what their proper role is. We are told elsewhere in Scripture that our leaders are worthy of honor: (cf. Hebrews 13:17; 1 Timothy 5:17). But here Paul makes it clear that leaders like Paul and Apollos are “only servants,” v. 5. They were given a single purpose in God’s plan. The significant lesson is that whether it is seeding, watering, or harvesting, it is all of God “who makes things grow”—and that includes people.
So, it’s past time to grow up, to pursue study in God’s Word, relying upon his Spirit to teach us and bring us to maturity in Christ. It’s time to grow in righteousness, to accept the tasks God has for us, and to labor with our co-workers in unity for the growth of the body.
A couple of biblical admonitions in application:
The human body is amazing. There’s a lot to learn about it and from it (and scientists are still learning).
That’s just a few of the amazing things about the body.
More to the point, the human body is composed of twelve different systems, each essential to life: respiratory, circulatory, skeletal, muscular, digestive, renal, excretory, endocrine, exocrine, lymphatic, and reproductive. Within each of these systems, there are hundreds of organisms contributing to the systems working properly. The internal environment of the body is essential to the optimal functioning of these various systems.
All this leads to some basic principles of human anatomy.
With those aspects of anatomy in view, is it any wonder that Paul found the human body to be a poignant analogy for the body of Christ? He uses it two dozen times in his letters to get important points across.
QUESTIONS: What similarities or dissimilarities do you see between the human body and the body of Christ? (In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul makes some clever comparisons; see if you can catch them all.) What overall point is Paul seeking to drive home in this passage? What are the applications for us as members of the body of Christ, for our local church, for the universal body of Christ?
Systems in the human body are often paired in balancing combinations. Consider muscles: your biceps make your arm curl up, your triceps make your arm go straight. Your hamstrings make your leg bend back, your quadriceps make your leg straighten out. If you only had one half of the pair, you could not get anything done. The rods and cones in your eye have a protein that fires when light hits it, and another protein to turn it off. Most enzyme systems in your body have an ON molecule and an OFF molecule, and you need both. They are not working against each other, they are working with each other.
In the same way, Paul compares the spiritual gifts to parts of the body. A very interesting explanation was offered by Bill Gothard about spiritual gifts being exercised in the church in pairs, balancing each other. This is not an exhaustive list, but consider a prophet: they tend to be very harsh and exposing (as called by God to do so), and they are best paired with someone with the gift of mercy. Similarly, a person with the gift of mercy may cave in to the demands of the needy unless a prophet exposes the sin of the needy. Someone with the gift of serving can obviously benefit from being paired with the gift of organization/administration. A person with the gift of exhortation may see actions that need to happen but fail to explain why they are needed, so a teacher can help balance out the call for action.
And above all, the universal pairing gift, is discernment, “the ability to distinguish between spirits“ [1 Cor 12:10]. This helps others in the church to find their own gift, as well as to perceive the true needs and motivations of those outside the church. This is especially important to pair with the gift of giving, since there are so many appeals for financial help that should be declined.
Like the muscles and enzymes, you need to balance each so that you can get work done without getting hoodwinked. We need each other! Keep your balance.
In visual, musical, and performance art there are six principles: balance, emphasis, movement, proportion, rhythm, variety, and unity. It would be worth your time to look at paintings by art masters and note how these principles are incorporated into each uniquely different masterpiece.
Each church congregation, each member of God’s kingdom is becoming a masterpiece as the Holy Spirit does His redeeming and sanctifying work. Each generation within a local church body represents variety within the unity of the Spirit. This can be a beautiful thing; not something to fight or just put up with.
A popular buzzword in today’s culture is diversity. Within the ecumenically-minded organizations all lifestyles are to be embraced as valid. Obviously the world’s view of diversity cannot accept that the Bible is absolute truth since God’s Word clearly teaches that certain lifestyles are sinful. Side note: it’s easier for staunch Christians to shun both the sinner and the sin instead of having compassion to dialogue about the need for redemption and real freedom.
It was not easy for staunch Jewish believers, who for 40 generations had the superior identity as God’s chosen ones, to stop giving anti-Gentile vibes. Most of the Ephesians to whom Paul was writing were Gentile believers. Now, getting close to 2,000 years later, we take for granted that both Jews and Gentiles are equally unworthy to be saved. “But God . . . .“ It’s by His grace we receive Kingdom membership and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit,
Therefore, let’s not be caught rearranging pictures on the walls of a burning building by focusing on petty differences of opinion, style, or preference instead of focusing on what’s really important. In humility let’s be unified on what we vitally believe is absolute truth. Our statement of faith is a wonderful way of stating these biblical truths.
Let’s be kind to each other. None of our masterpieces are yet completed.
If you were invited to participate in a high-stakes trivia game and you could choose one “teammate” from the following list, which would it be?
It might be prestigious to have Albert Einstein on your team, and it might be cool to have Alex Trebek communicate the answers. However, I’m betting that you would still choose the internet over famous intellects. As knowledgeable as the first four persons on the list might be, they don’t hold a candle to the accumulated knowledge made accessible by the internet and easily and instantly searched and retrieved by Google. You might say that with Google you have access to all knowledge (not necessarily wisdom). With Google you have it all…at least when it comes to winning at trivia.
When Paul tells the Corinthians, “All things are yours,” he’s saying something similar. Yes, Paul, Apollos, and Cephas (Peter) are wonderful servants of the Lord. It’s good to have them in your corner. But you have something infinitely greater: “God’s Spirit dwells in your midst.” Choose the Spirit!
It’s crazy to boast about humans, when you have the all-powerful, life-giving and life-transforming Spirit of God resident in you. The wisdom and power of the Spirit are infinitely greater than the wisdom and power of man. No contest. With the Holy Spirit, you have it all…everything you need for life and godliness. In fact, with the Spirit of God in you, you have eternal life. So, stop boasting about and being divisive over humans! Instead, work at listening to the Spirit!
It’s easier to jump on someone’s bandwagon than submit to the Spirit. It’s more fun to take sides than to surrender to the Spirit. But if we really want to live, we’ll learn to follow the lead of the Spirit.
Whether it’s a book, a TV show, or a movie, a lot of people love whodunit stories. The intrigue can be spellbinding. We can’t wait to see if the hostage is safely released, if the hidden treasure is discovered, or if the thief is identified and captured.
Not many people think of the Bible as a book of mystery, but much in the working out of God’s plan is hidden and secret until just the right time. The words mystery and mysteries appear 33 times in the New International Version. Sometimes they are used to describe the strange dreams that are interpreted by a godly follower of Jehovah (e.g. Daniel). On other occasions God chooses to reveal a previously unknown part of his plan through an apostle.
In today’s Scripture reading, Paul is contrasting the natural man, an unbeliever, with the Jesus-follower. In contrast to worldly wisdom, God has enabled his children to share in a wisdom that only he can give. God’s wisdom is called “a mystery” (v. 7), which “has been hidden “and is “destined for our glory before time began.” That hidden, secret wisdom is one of the great mysteries of the Bible.
Because God is God, and we are not, we couldn’t know anything about him and his working if he hadn’t revealed himself and his plan to us. Paul is pointing out that the natural man simply cannot understand “the things that God has prepared for those who love him” (v. 9); they “are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit (v. 10).
The gospel is a mystery, in one sense, because the unbeliever simply cannot understand it from the limited viewpoint of worldly wisdom (v. 14). Paul had the privilege of revealing mysteries of God that were always true but had not been revealed up to that time. Among those previously unknown realities is the amazing truth that Gentiles are to be included with Jews as heirs of God. Both are members of one body (Ephesians 5:6). Even more amazing is the truth that “Christ [is] in you, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27).
That statement reflects a truth that Paul gives in answer to Isaiah’s ancient (40:13), “Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed him as his counselor?” Paul’s answer issimple: “We have the mind of Christ” (v. 16). It is important to understand what that means. Warren Wiersbe explains that having the mind of Christ means we “look at life from our Savior’s point of view, having His values and desires in mind. It means to think God’s thoughts and not think as the world thinks.” Without the Holy Spirit, life cannot be understood, but when we have the mind of Christ, we have discernment in spiritual matters.
In today’s parlance, we might equate the “mind of Christ” with a biblical worldview. In other words, we understand God’s plan for the world, and we evaluate life and action from the perspective of God’s Word as revealed by his Spirit. Such a perspective must begin with the basic truth Paul emphasizes both in this letter to the Corinthians and in the epistle to the Galatians; he stresses that the bedrock of Christian experience isto know and teach: “Jesus Christ and him crucified (4:2; Gal. 5:14). This is the essential issue that human wisdom cannot comprehend. As Paul preached, wrote, and lived, he sought to preach Christ and plead for unity in the body (see Eph. 4:3). Noting that he had become their “father through the gospel, Paul was bold enough to challenge the Corinthians (and us) in 4:16: “I urge you to imitate me.”
How does that relate to 21st century Christians? Three brief applications: 1) We must rely on God’s Word and the Holy Spirit to understand the mysteries of God’s plan. 2) With that knowledge we can evaluate life from a biblical worldview. 3) We must accept Paul’s challenge to follow his example as he followed Christ’s (1 Cor. 11:1).