Bill McFarland

April 24, 2005


Once in a long while at our house I actually end up helping to fold the laundry.  I have learned something from a very unlikely place, and that is my own socks.  I am the kind of a fellow who, in order to avoid hard choices, just gets all socks that look mostly the same.  I will end up with a bunch of socks in the laundry that are either real dark blue or dark brown or black.  That works fine except when it comes time to put them together.  I have learned from actually wearing two different colors of socks that you need to do that carefully.  So I will take my socks and find a place to hold them up to the light to figure out whether they go together or not.

If you think very far, you can see that there are enough hard choices to make in our lives spiritually and morally that there has to be a way for us to do that with some of the things that we have to decide.  Where can we find the light to hold these matters up to in order to make those choices?

In I Corinthians, the apostle Paul shows us an answer to that question.  It may help in the beginning to be a bit aware of what we are dealing with in this letter.  Corinth was a city that was as much like a lot of American cities as any one that existed in the ancient world.  It has been described as a very cosmopolitan place.  Corinth was a town which was intellectually alert, materially prosperous, and morally corrupt.  It was also quite religiously mixed up.  A.M. Hunter said that that in New Testament times to “Corinthianize” was polite Greek for “go to the devil.”  Corinth was a town that had somewhere between half a million and three-quarters of a million people by most estimates.  It is suggested that there were only about 200,000 of these people who were actually free men and women, and the rest of them were slaves.  By the time you put that gap and their living circumstances together with their lack of any grounding in Old Testament scripture like some people might have had, and with their pagan background, you have the worst of a whole lot of things. 

One writer has suggested that the ideal of the Corinthian was the reckless development of the individual.  That is another phrase for selfishness, by the way.  The merchant who made his gain by all and every means, the man of pleasure surrendering himself to every lust, the athletes steal to provide bodily exercise and proud in his physical strength – these are the true Corinthian types this writer says -in a word, the man who recognized no superior and no law but his own desires.  (quoted by Leon Morris, p. 17)

How does Christianity do in that kind of a world?  We need to know because we live in one a whole not like that.  The answer is that it survives but it has troubles.  About any kind of problem you can image in a spiritual world were present in the church in Corinth.  The apostle Paul has to try to give answer to these people on how you are supposed to deal with those things.  Do you know what he does?  He tells them to hold them up to something.  Take a look at them in the light of something, and that something throughout this great letter is the cross upon which the Son of God offered himself up for us all.

It is remarkable to study the problems that I Corinthians mentions and to notice how often Paul brings up the cross of Christ in these matters.  It is literally true, according to I Cor. 2:2 that what Paul did is to decide to know nothing among these people except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  Here is the answer to many of the challenges that we face living for the Lord in a world of culture.

Christian Unity

First, Paul says when we are dealing with matters of how to seek Christian unity and how to get along with each other, we ought to look at those things in the shadow of the cross.  Paul had heard from certain individuals of quarrels which existed among the Corinthians, according to 1:11.  That verse says that these people were troubled by the kinds of parties, or factions, that develop when people become fans or one teacher or another.  Some of them were saying, “I follow Paul.”  Others were saying, “I follow Apollos.”  Others were saying, “I follow Cephas.”  And some were even stooping so low as to say, “I follow Christ.”  Imagine that!  Just like he was another party or another sect or group of some sort! 

Any of you who have ever dealt with any kind of strife between people know that is just about as tough a job to deal with as you can get.  Notice how Paul does it.  What he does is to say that what these folks needed was more attention to the cross and less emphasis on who they had heard preach or who had baptized them.  In 1:13 his question is essential, “Look, who was crucified for you?”  He says, “Is Christ divided?  Was Paul crucified for you?”

Then in 1:18 and 23 his question is, “What do you have to be proud of?”  He says in verse 18 that the power of God that saves you and keeps you from perishing is something which is folly to most of the world.  In verse 23 he says that what is preached and what our salvation depends on is actually something that some people see as a stumbling block and others regard as foolishness. 

A third question comes up in 2:8.  He says, “You folks who are so proud of your wisdom and learning, where has the wisdom of men gotten you so far?”  Paul says in that verse, “None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”  That is where human understanding gets folks. 

Paul is saying that the cross says that quarreling and contention among those who would follow God is wrong.  One person, after all, died for us all.  And all of us are dependent upon him for all of our hope.  What that means is that some day all fusses and divisions will have to be held up to the light of the cross and examined.  How do you think they will look in the shadow of the cross of Jesus?

Christian Morality

In the next place in this great letter, the apostle Paul deals with Christian morality in the shadow of the cross.  You see, our world is not the only one in which sexual immorality has been a devastating problem.  Corinth was a place which was a melting pot of every kind of vice that you could imagine.  Among the circumstances in which these people lived was the great temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, which was located upon a hill some 1500 feet above the city.  Employed there were some 1,000 temple prostitutes.  Worshipers there actually committed fornication with these prostitutes as devotion to their god.  You can imagine how that kind of awful spirit made it difficult for believers in Christ.  At Corinth, even with in the church, there was such sexual immorality that was not even practiced among the pagans (5:1).  One of the members there had his own father’s wife.  Others seemed to have been saying that whatever they wanted was permissible.  The quote seems to be in 6:12: “All things are lawful for me.”  In other words, I can do whatever I want with my body and it will be alright. 

To Paul the answer to that kind of immorality was the cross.  He did not believe that a person could engage in such immoral behavior if he understood that this was the very kind of conduct that somebody gave himself on the cross to save us from.  In 6:19-20 Paul says, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.  So glorify God in your body.”

There is an Old Testament story in which we are told that the two sons of Eli, who were base men.  Most new versions will say they were worthless fellows.  It is talking about their moral attitudes.  The depth of their baseness was seen in the fact that these men lay with women at the entrance of the tent of the meeting, according to I Sam. 2:23.  Their choice of a location for that kind of behavior showed all the more the crudeness and the ugliness of it.  But Paul seems to be saying in I Corinthians is that if you and I would realize that our own moral conduct takes place in the shadow of the cross; we would see that immorality among Christians is even more shocking than the behavior of Eli’s boys in Old Testament days. 

In our age, we need to come to grips with what the Bible says about the practice of sexual immorality of all kinds.  The practice of such sins as this excludes people from the fellowship of the church when they are pursuing that way of life (5:11).  No person who continues to behave in such a way can hope to inherit the kingdom of God (6:9).  People can be forgiven of this if they will repent and allow the blood of the Lord to wash those sins away, but we should be careful not to be deceived.  No matter how much the world accepts sexually immoral lifestyles as the norm, the Scripture says that Jesus gave himself to cleanse us from such sins 6:11).

Christian Liberty

Paul takes up also in his letter to the church at Corinth the matter of Christian liberty, and he deals with it in light of the cross.  The use of Christian freedom was as difficult for the Corinthians as it sometimes is for us now.  In their case it had to do with meat from animals that had been sacrificed to some pagan idol and then the meat sold in the great meat market in the heart of Corinth.  Some people in that city actually thought that to eat that meat would be to honor whatever idol it was offered to.  In I Cor. 8, 9, and 10, Paul has to deal with this problem.  Some of the folks apparently were saying, “We know better than that.  We know that idols are not gods at all.  We can eat that meat if we want to.  It is our right.  If anyone doesn’t like it, it is their problem.”  That is real close kin to the spirit today which says, “I know my rights.  The Bible doesn’t say not to do it and if you have any problem with it, you are intruding on my freedom, and I am not going to put up with it.”  Guess how Paul deals with this problem?  He holds it up in the shadow of the cross of Jesus.

In I Cor. 8:11 he says, “Why would you want to destroy that brother for whom Christ died to insist on your right?”  Then in chapter 9 he says that as Jesus gave himself up, Paul had been willing to give up his right to lead about a wife or even sometimes to be supported with the money that other people gave, or other such rights as that just so he would not put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ (9:15, 18).  And when Paul gets to the end of this discussion in I Cor. 10:31-11:1, he says, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.  Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage (that is the key – not seeking my own selfish advantage), but that of many, that they may be saved.  Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”  How was Paul imitating Christ there?  The Lord gave himself on the cross, and Paul was trying to imitate that attitude in the way he dealt with his own rights.

I read something someone had written about marriage, but it deals with this spirit we are talking about here.  This person observed, “There never has been a divorce between two unselfish people.”  That is food for thought, isn’t it?  What if we were to take that point and apply it to our dealings with our own personal interests in Christian life?  My experience is that most struggles over whether something is an area of freedom or not really come from people who are set on having their own way no matter what.  Hold it up in the light of the cross and how big does that right look there? 

Christian Worship

Next, Paul in I Corinthians brings up some of the problems with worship that these folks are having.  The church in Corinth was assembling regularly to worship, but their worship neither honored God nor built up the worshipers.  The Lord’s Supper even had become an occasion which they coupled with the kind of selfish eating and drinking that actually divided people into cliques instead of bringing them together as a family.  Their assemblies became occasions for the showing off of special abilities that had been given to see who could get the most attention or who could gain the most notoriety (who could put on the biggest show).  The gathering of the church was sometimes so irreverent and disorderly that outsiders looked at it and thought, not “these are God’s people,” but “these people must be crazy.”  They had get-togethers, I suppose, that were exciting and impressive, but they completely ignored the word of God when it came to worship. 

Sometimes today we find shortcomings in our worship assemblies and we want to improve them.  Maybe we can take a lesson from Paul says to these readers at Corinth.  To him the cross was the answer to worship problems.  In I Cor. 11:23-26, he is not just talking about how to observe the Lord’s Supper.  He is talking about worship being a response to what Jesus did for us on the cross.  He says, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.’  In the same way also, he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”  What he is saying is that if you will remember what it is you are showing, you won’t have any trouble with how to do it.  That is true for a whole lot of what is to be offered to God as worship by the New Testament church.  The cross makes a worshipper to put forth the effort to remember the sacrifice of Christ and then to examine his response to that cross.  Paul said, “Whoever eats the break and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” (I Cor. 11:27 ESV) 

Bro. Steve Tandy wrote a week or so ago something that was occasioned by an article he had read about wedding etiquette.  He said the writer of that article would give a rule and then another rule, and each one ended with this statement: “The wedding is not about you.”  And then Steve said this, “That phrase would solve most of our current worship wars.  It is amazing to me how many of our churches are fussing and fighting about worship styles.  This group wants 1700 hymns sung.  This one wants Stamps-Baxter quartet music.  And this one wants the newest 7-11 songs written only in the last month or two.”  He explains that 7-11 songs are those that have seven words that you repeat 11 times.  And then he says, “Here is the answer to worship problems: It is not about you!  It is his day and we are supposed to be honoring him,” so let’s consider what he might be most pleased with.  We can’t know that without looking in his word.

Christian Doctrine

Then what about doctrinal problems?  How do you resolve them?  The Corinthian church was having trouble with one of the greatest of all Christian doctrines – the resurrection of Jesus.  In I Cor. 15 he takes up their misunderstanding of that key New Testament doctrine.  The New Bible Commentary observed that some of the Corinthians were modifying some of Paul’s “cruder” doctrines to make them more contemporary.  The way they were doing that in I Cor. 15:12 is by saying there was no resurrection.  Paul turns right back to the cross of Christ and says, “How could the cross mean anything if there was no resurrection?”

Bro. Mac Lyon in a Search program said, “Whatever else may be the subject on which we preach, whether it is repentance, or service, or baptism, or hope, or sacrifice, or happiness or whatever it is, Christ and him crucified must be the center of it to give it meaning.  You see the death of Christ on the cross is what gives purpose to our existence as a church.  It is what gives meaning to every activity that Christians engage in.  Without our remembering that we are operating in the shadow of the cross, all of our service becomes just meaningless ceremony.”  It has no power; it makes no difference.

Think of any other problem that might become an issue of the church and then ask yourself this, “How would it look in the shadow of the cross?”  One of the old songs that I think is familiar to most of us includes these words, “Near the cross, oh lamb of God; bring its scenes before me.  Help me walk from day to day with its shadow o’er me.”  That really is the point of this study.  Our conviction is that if we will walk in the shadow of the cross, it will be the way to the abundant life and to the victory that we all long for. 

Maybe you are here today and you would like to respond to that cross by dying to sin and being buried with Christ in baptism and being raised up to walk in newness of life.  Maybe as a Christian you haven’t been holding things up to the light of the cross and you need to get back to that.  If we can help you, would you let it be known while we stand and sing together?