The Sin of Self

Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us. – Titus 2:6-8 ESV

Paul has demanded that elder candidates be self-controlledsōphrōn (1:8).

He has told Titus to teach older men in the church to exercise self-controlledsōphrōn (2:2).

Titus was to instruct the older women to model for the younger women what it means to live self-controlled lives – sōphronizō (2:5).

Now, for the fourth time, Paul urges Titus to “urge the younger men to be self-controlled” – sōphroneō (2:6). Obviously, this was a crucial issue for Paul. His repetitive use of this word in a variety of its forms and tenses lets us know that Paul put a high priority on the issue of self-control. And, as was pointed out earlier, this is not actually about Christians attempting to master or control themselves, but about their willing submission to the Spirit’s direction over their lives and their total dependence upon His power to live in a way that honors and pleases God.

When a believer lives under the controlling influence of the Spirit of God, he or she receives the capacity to curb their normal sinful passions. Paul points that out in Galatians 5:16:

…let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. (NLT)

And he follows it up with the important reminder that “the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires” (Galatians 5:17 NLT). This is not just about controlling our sexual urges or immoral desires. The idea of self-control carries with it a sense of sober-mindedness or the ability to manage our thought processes. A sober-minded individual, who is living under the Spirit’s control, will experience a marked decrease in self-centered thought patterns. He won’t be self-possessed or think too highly of himself. Paul pointed this out to the believers in Rome.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment (sōphroneō), each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. – Romans 12:3 ESV

Paul was not the only apostle who put a high priority on self-control. Peter shared his concern and wrote, “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded (sōphroneō) …” (1 Peter 4:7 ESV). 

So, Paul’s seeming obsession with self-control is well-founded. It is to be a non-negotiable characteristic of the Christian life and an indispensable mark of godly leadership. People without this vital Christ-like character quality tend to live out of control, exhibiting selfish and self-centered traits that reveal that they are actually living under the influence of their sinful flesh and not the Spirit of God.

Failure to control the self is at the heart of all sin. Sin is nothing more than an attempt to satisfy self at the expense of others. You argue because you want to prove yourself right. You covet because you desire for your self what belongs to someone else.  You commit sexual sin to satisfy self.

After providing his long and infamous list of the deeds of the flesh to the Galatian believers, Paul wrote:

If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. – Galatians 5:25-26 ESV

Notice his emphasis on conceit or love of self. When the self rules, it’s like a wild, uncontrollable animal that has escaped its cage and is allowed to wreak havoc on all those around it. Self out of control is not only self-destructive, it is a menace to the body of Christ. It has no place within the context of the church.

And Paul urges Titus that young men are to be self-controlled “in all respects.” The awkward break between verses 6 and 7 should not be there. They convey one thought, and it is that young men are to practice self-control in every area of their lives. And Titus was to be a role model. Which is why Paul tells him, “you yourself must be an example to them by doing good works of every kind” (Titus 2:7 NLT). This is the same counsel Paul gave Timothy, his other young protégé.

Teach these things and insist that everyone learn them. Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity. – 1 Timothy 4:11-12 NLT

Paul went on to challenge Titus, “Let everything you do reflect the integrity and seriousness of your teaching” (Titus 2:7 NLT). In other words, Titus was live out what he taught. The sad reality is that many Christian teachers tend to convey the idea, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Their words and their actions don’t line up. The beliefs they express and the behavior they exhibit don’t seem to match. There is a visible disconnect. But that should not be the case.

Titus’ life was to be a model of integrity and sincerity. He was to live up to the very things he taught. His life was to be a model of submission to the will of God as expressed in the Word of God. And Paul knew the best lesson for the younger men in the church was going to be the life of his young friend, Titus. And Paul warned him to “Teach the truth so that your teaching can’t be criticized” (Titus 2:8 NLT). Titus was to stick to the facts of the gospel, not adding to or adulterating it with his own opinions. He was not to play fast and loose with the truth of God’s Word as revealed through the teachings of Jesus Christ or His apostles.

Again, the key issue is that of self-control. If Titus was not careful, he could easily find self in control. When attached by unbelievers or false teachers, Titus could go into self-defense mode. When criticized by his older brothers and sisters in the church, Titus could struggle with self-doubt. When seeking out and appointing elders for the churches on Crete, Titus might be tempted to think too highly of self. In Paul’s absence, Titus had the privilege and responsibility of acting as the sole apostolic authority on the tiny island, a role which could have easily fed his sense of self-importance.  So, Paul reminds his young friend to stick to teaching the truth. He encourages him to live a life that models self-control. Why? So that “those who oppose us will be ashamed and have nothing bad to say about us” (Titus 2:8 NLT).

Love of self is antithetical to the Christ-like life. We are called to live selfless lives, focused on the cause of Christ and the needs of others. It is never to be about us. We are never to allow ourselves to become the center of attention or the focus of our thoughts. We are called to die to self. We are commanded to crucify self. We are encouraged to control self, and we have been given the indwelling power of the Spirit of God to make it possible. And we should be able to say, along with Paul, “My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20 NLT).

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.s

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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Self-Denial vs Self-Sacrifice

1 “Cry aloud; do not hold back;
    lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
    to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet they seek me daily
    and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
    and did not forsake the judgment of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments;
    they delight to draw near to God.
‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
    Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
    and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
    will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
    and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
    and a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
    and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
    the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry
    and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be as the noonday.
11 And the Lord will guide you continually
    and satisfy your desire in scorched places
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters do not fail.
12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to dwell in.

13 “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,
    from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the Sabbath a delight
    and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
    or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;
14 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
    and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 58:1-14 ESV

Something is wrong with this picture. In this chapter God is going to paint a somewhat confusing image of His people. On the one hand, He describes them as transgressors of His ways. They are disobedient and rebellious, failing to live up to the standards He had provided through His law. And he pulls no punches in pointing out their guilt.

“Tell my people Israel of their sins!
   Yet they act so pious!” – Isaiah 58:1-2 BNLT

There is a palpable dissonance in the outward behavior of the people of God. At times, they appear to be enthusiastic seekers of God. From all outward appearances they seem to be genuinly excited about growing in their knowledge of God. They even display a certain allegiance to God, in the hopes of winning His favor.

They fast. They pray. The offer sacrifices. In other words, the display all the right evidence of being faithful followers of God. But then, God reveals the disconnect between their actions and His judgment against them. Even they can’t understand why God seems so upset with them. From their perspective, the were doing all the right things to win God’s favor and earn His assistance in time of need. They even ask God:

“Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
    Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” – Isaiah 58:3 ESV

They are at a loss as to why God would ignore such obviously righteous behavior. So, God explains His evident inattention and inaction.

“It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves.
Even while you fast,
    you keep oppressing your workers. – Isaiah 58:3 NLT

It was all about themselves. Their fasting was nothing more than an outward display of righteous-looking behavior that was intended to win brownie points with God and impress other men. And Jesus addressed this kind of hypocritical fasting.

“When you fast, do not look sullen like the hypocrites, for they make their faces unattractive so that people will see them fasting. I tell you the truth, they have their reward” – Matthew 6:16 NLT

They were fasting to get noticed. And all the while they fasted, they were taking unjust advantage of the people who worked for them. Their outward display of morality had a certain inconsistency about it that God found unacceptable. Everything they did was intended to impress. But God was having none of it. He could see into their hearts and knew full well that they were simply going through the motions. They were expecting God to reward their actions, but Jesus made it clear that the only reward these kinds of people were going to get for their efforts was the praise of men.

Fasting was intended to reflect a repentant and remorseful heart. It should have been an outward display of their inner desire to turn from all other things in life and seek God only. But their brand of fasting was meant to satisfy their own selfish desires. Their fasting wasn’t a reflection of a changed heart. It was simply meant to change how others thought about them.

And just so they don’t miss His point, God points out the difference between their kind of fasting and His.

“No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
    lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
    and remove the chains that bind people.
Share your food with the hungry,
    and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
    and do not hide from relatives who need your help.” – Isaiah 58:6-7 NLT

God expected a change in behavior. He demanded that their outward displays of self-denial be true reflections of a heart that was selfless rather than selfish. They were fasting to get God’s attention and to garner His help. But God had no intention of responding to their hypocritical charade. Going through the motions and feigning a false commitment to God was not going to cut it. Seeking His assistance while remaining unwilling to follow His commands was not going to cut it.

But if their fasting became sincere, and their display of humility were to reflect a truly repentant heart, they could count on God’s assistance.

“Then your salvation will come like the dawn,
    and your wounds will quickly heal.
Your godliness will lead you forward,
    and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.
Then when you call, the Lord will answer.
    ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply.” – Isaiah 58:8-9 NLT

He would show up in a big way. And their fasting would bring about significant change in their own lives. Fasting that is accompanied by true self-denial that puts the will of God and the needs of others first, brings about true godliness. It also brings the favor and glory of God. He steps in and answers us when we call. He delivers the salvation we desperately need.

At the end of the day, God is far more interested in self-sacrifice than self-denial. Giving up food for a season is nothing when compared to sharing your food with the needy. Fasting from buying new clothes means little if you are unwilling to clothe those who have nothing to wear. Giving up something you enjoy for a predetermined period of time bears little merit when compared to giving what you have to care for those who have nothing.

Near the end of His earthly life, Jesus taught a timeliness lesson to His disciples. It had to do with the end times, during a period known as the Great Tribulation. There will be those on earth who find themselves persecuted for their relationship with God Almighty. And yet, there will be those who step in and provide these individuals with food and shelter. And Jesus announces that these gracious individuals will be blessed by God for their generosity. He claims that their actions to help the helpless were just like they had been extending the same courtesies to Him. But they will ask Him:

“‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’” – Matthew 37-39 NLT

And He will answer them:

“‘I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me.’” – Matthew 25:40 NLT

And God tells the people of Judah that, if they will practice true fasting, sacrificing themselves for the well-being of others, He will reward them.

your light will shine out from the darkness – vs 10

The Lord will guide you continually… – vs 11

You will be like a well-watered garden – vs 11

you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities – vs 12

“the Lord will be your delight…” – vs 14

I will give you great honor and satisfy you with the inheritance I promised to your ancestor Jacob – vs 14

Physical fasting accomplishes little, if the heart is not sincere. But selfless sacrifice is always in keeping with the will of God and always brings with it the rewards of God. Going through the motions may impress others, but it will never impress God. Jesus provided His disciples with the key to receiving the reward of God.

“When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others when you are fasting, but only to your Father who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:18 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Taking the ME out of Messiah.

21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. 28 Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” –  Matthew 16:21-28 ESV

In response to Jesus’ question, “But who do you say that I am?,” Peter had been the first of the 12 to speak up, saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 ESV). And Jesus had commended Peter for his answer, acknowledging that it had been revealed to him by God. Peter’s awareness of who Jesus was had come as a direct result of God’s revelation, not human intelligence or the teaching of men.

This common fisherman had been able to see something to which the learned scribes and Pharisees remained oblivious. They were experts in the Mosaic law and students of the Hebrew Scriptures, but had failed to see what Peter had seen. They had accused Jesus of operating under the power and influence of Satan. To them, He was little more than a heretic and a man who willingly associated with prostitutes and sinners. They were spiritually blind and unable to see what Peter saw.

Peter was blessed for having been given the capacity to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, but he was about to find out that the privilege of divinely inspired insight came at a cost. The disciples were able to see Jesus for who He was – their Messiah and Savior – but now they were going to find out exactly what that meant. Their preconceived notions of the Messiah’s role were about to be rocked. Any hopes they had of watching Jesus set up His kingdom on earth and placing them in positions of power and authority were going to be shattered.

Following Peter’s confession came Jesus’ revelation.

Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. – Matthew 16:16 ESV

And we don’t have to wonder how this announcement impacted the disciples, because Matthew makes it quite clear.

Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” – Matthew 16:22 ESV

Once again, Peter was the first to speak up. But this time, his words would reward him with a rebuke from Jesus, not a blessing. In the Greek, Peter’s response was essentially, “God have mercy on you!” He was expressing his deep-felt desire that God not allow what Jesus had said to happen. Peter wanted God to forbid the words of Jesus from coming to fruition. In his impulsiveness, Peter was speaking from his heart. He was appalled by what he had heard. The thought of Jesus suffering and dying was not something he could get his head around. It made no sense. It didn’t fit into his expectations concerning the Messiah. And he couldn’t imagine that God would allow something like this to happen.

While Peter had been shocked at Jesus’ announcement, he was about to be rocked by Jesus’ response to him.

“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, because you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s.” – Matthew 16:23 NLT

Ouch! That had to sting. Here was the man who had just been pronounced as blessed because of his confession that Jesus was the Messiah. Now, Jesus was calling him, “Satan.” What a dramatic turn of events. What an amazing fall from grace. Peter had gone from teacher’s pet to spiritual adversary. But why did Jesus respond so harshly? Peter meant well. He simply couldn’t imagine Jesus having to go through the things He had described. But Jesus saw Peter’s response for what it was: Satanically inspired.

Just as God had revealed to Peter that Jesus was the Messiah, Satan was attempting to influence Peter’s perception of what that meant. Satan wasn’t trying to dissuade Peter from believing Jesus was the Messiah. He simply wanted to confuse his understanding of the Messiah’s role. Like any good Jew, Peter’s view of the Messiah was somewhat self-centered and self-serving. He was interpreting his God-given awareness of Jesus as the Messiah through a man-made set of expectations. Notice what Jesus accused him of. He was setting his mind on man’s interests, not God’s. He was thinking about what he wanted from the Messiah, not God’s purpose for the Messiah.

Peter was displaying a what’s-in-it-for-me mindset that viewed the Messiah as the answer to all of his personal problems. To Peter’s way of thinking, Jesus was no good to him dead. But what Peter failed to understand was that Jesus would not be the Messiah or Savior unless He died. Jesus had not come to fulfill the will of men, but the will of His Father in heaven. And Peter was going to have to learn that his personal expectations of the Messiah were going to have to take a backseat to God’s will concerning the Messiah.

Which is why Jesus turned to all the disciples and said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24 ESV). All of these men had experienced the call of Jesus, inviting them to follow Him. Now, Jesus was letting them know the cost of that calling. Their original motivation to follow Jesus had been self-serving. They had seen something in it for them. But now, Jesus was telling them that their calling came with a cost: Self-denial.

Jesus had just revealed that the role of Messiah came with a tremendous cost. He would suffer and die. In the same way, the role of disciple came with a cost. Just as Jesus would have to die to Himself, they would be required to die to their own self-interests. Jesus would go on to tell His disciples, “whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:27-28 NLT).

Peter had simply wanted to save the life of Jesus. But Jesus told him, “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25 NLT). The model for true discipleship was that of self-sacrifice and selfless service, not self-centeredness. Jesus was attempting to focus the attention of His disciples on the eternal rather than the temporal. He wanted them to think about the kingdom to come, not their own kingdom on earth. Peter wanted it all here and now. But Jesus warned that getting all you desire in this life was worthless if you ended up losing your soul. Temporal treasures and earthly kingdoms will all pass away. But those who focus their eyes on the eternal will discover that their future reward far outweighs any pleasure they find in the present.

Jesus ends His address to His disciples with a somewhat confusing statement:

“Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” – Matthew 16:28 ESV

These words must have left the disciples scratching their heads. They would have wondered what He meant. They would have wanted to know which of them He was referencing. And if we stop here, this verse will leave us just as confused as the disciples must have been. But we have the next chapter of Matthew’s gospel account to provide us with insight.

1 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. – Matthew 17:1-12 ESV

The disciples would have to go six days without a clue as to what Jesus had meant. Fortunately, we’re given an immediate understanding of just what Jesus had been talking about. But more about that tomorrow.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Serve Like It.

The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: 11 whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 1 Peter 4:7-11 ESV

Once again, Peter gives his readers, and us, some advice about our behavior as believers in Jesus Christ. He tells us to be “self-controlled and sober-minded.” But the odd thing about this statement is the two reasons he gives for living this way: Because the end of all things is at hand and for the sake of our prayers. What is he talking about? What is he referring to by “the end of all things”? Peter, like all the other apostles, lived with a constant sense that the coming of the Lord was eminent. They lived with a short-term, temporary mindset when it came to their time on this earth. Jesus had said He would come again for them, and they lived as if that promise would be fulfilled sooner, rather than later. Here are just a few of their statements regarding the end of the age:

You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. – James 5:8 ESV

Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. – Romans 13:11 ESV

…so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. – Hebrews 9:28 ESV

Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. – 1 John 2:18 ESV

By living with the end in mind, these men were able to keep their focus, even while surrounded by the cares and concerns of this life. They gained a different perspective about suffering and persecution keeping their eyes focused on the goal. That’s why Paul could say, “I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us” (Philippians 3:13-14 NLT).  The author of the letter to the Hebrews provides us with these powerful words that encourage us to keep our attention focused on the temporary nature of our existence here:

You must warn each other every day, while it is still “today,” so that none of you will be deceived by sin and hardened against God. For if we are faithful to the end, trusting God just as firmly as when we first believed, we will share in all that belongs to Christ. – Hebrews 3:13-14 NLT

So, Peter warns us. He reminds us to be self-controlled and sober-minded, because the days are short. Was he lying? Was he misinformed? Obviously, he was wrong. Here we are, nearly 2,000 years later, and the end has not yet come. Jesus has not returned. Was Peter overly optimistic or just driven by wishful thinking? No, he lived with a sense of eager anticipation. He longed for the return of His Savior. He had no idea when it would happen, but he lived as if it could be any day, and it could be. Concerning His own second coming Jesus said, “no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows” (Matthew 24:36 NLT). Jesus went on to tell His disciples, Peter being one of them, “So you, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:42 NLT). And He qualified this statement by adding, “You also must be ready all the time, for the Son of Man will come when least expected” (Matthew 24:44 NLT). So, you can see why Peter lived with this optimistic, it-could-happen-any-day-now attitude, and he wanted us to live the same way. 

But what about his statement regarding prayer? What does he mean when he says that we are to be “self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers”? If prayer is the means by which we communicate with the Father, then it is important that we do so on a regular basis It’s likely that Peter had a special heart for prayer because of the words spoken to him by Jesus that night in the garden, just hours before Jesus was betrayed by Judas. Jesus had gone off to pray and had asked the disciples to keep watch.

Then he returned to the disciples and found them asleep. He said to Peter, “Couldn’t you watch with me even one hour? Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak!” – Matthew 26:40-41 NLT

Peter, like the other disciples, had fallen asleep. He lacked diligence. He had allowed himself to fall asleep on the job. And just a few hours later, Peter would be the one to deny Jesus three times. That night would have stuck with him for years. And it radically changed his view regarding prayer. He knew that communication with God, the ability to share with the Father his innermost thoughts, and hear words of comfort and encouragement in return, were critical to living his life on this planet. And he wants us to know the very same truth. Prayer is not optional, it is vitally necessary.

Next, Peter highlights the necessity of love. It is another non-negotiable in the life of a believer. We are to love as we have been loved by Christ. And that love is to be ektenēs, a Greek word that means “stretched out” and conveys the idea of earnestness or ceaselessness. It is the kind of love by which the Father loves us. Over in Psalm 136, the phrase, “for his steadfast love endures forever” appears 26 times. God loves us tirelessly and unwaveringly. And we are to do the same. When we do, our love “covers a multitude of sins.” When we love it diminishes our capacity to hate. It keeps us from seeking revenge. It prevents us from suffering from jealousy and envy. Love keeps us from sinning against one another and allows us to react to those who persecute us in ways that “cover over” their sins against us. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave us these sobering words that reflect life in His Kingdom:

44 But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! 45 In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. 47 If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. 48 But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. – Matthew 4:44-48 NLT

Peter adds hospitality to the list, encouraging us to open our hearts and our homes to others. And, we are to do it without complaining. Not only that, we are to use our God-given, Spirit-empowered gifts to serve one another. As children of God, chosen by Him and placed within His family, we are to live selflessly and sacrificially, treating others as more important than ourselves. Jesus came to serve, not be served, and we are to have that same mindset.

The use of our spiritual gifts is to build up the body of Christ, not our own reputation. We use our gifts to serve, not to impress others or to gain recognition for our superior spirituality. When we use our gifts properly, they bring glory to God. In fact, Peter tells us our gifts are given by God for good of the body of Christ, and they must be used properly so that “God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11 ESV). Paul told the believers in Corinth:

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit is the source of them all. There are different kinds of service, but we serve the same Lord. God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us.

A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. – 1 Corinthians 12:4-7 NLT

Our goal in life is to bring glory to God. That’s why Peter wraps up this short section with the words: “To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever.” He is the one who called us. He is the one who provided His own Son as the payment for our sins. He is the one who raised Jesus back to life. He is the one who provided the Spirit for us and placed Him within us. He is the one who instructed the Spirit to give us gifts so that we might build up one another. And He is the one who has loved us unceasingly and undeservedly. So, why would we not do the same for those around us? We are to serve like Christ. He served us by sacrificing His life. And He is the one who said, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13 NLT).

 

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Unloved, But Undeterred.

I have been a fool! You forced me to it, for I ought to have been commended by you. For I was not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing. The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works. For in what were you less favored than the rest of the churches, except that I myself did not burden you? Forgive me this wrong!

Here for the third time I am ready to come to you. And I will not be a burden, for I seek not what is yours but you. For children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. If I love you more, am I to be loved less? But granting that I myself did not burden you, I was crafty, you say, and got the better of you by deceit. Did I take advantage of you through any of those whom I sent to you? I urged Titus to go, and sent the brother with him. Did Titus take advantage of you? Did we not act in the same spirit? Did we not take the same steps? – 2 Corinthians 12:11-18 ESV

Paul confesses that he feels like a fool. All this self-promotion is out of character for him, but he tells the Corinthians that their silence forced him to do it. They are the ones who should have been commending him. They had been the recipients of his ministry and message. They had enjoyed the benefits of his self-sacrifice and loving commitment to share the gospel with them. And as far as Paul was concerned, he had no reason to take a back seat to the “super-apostles” who were setting themselves up as his spiritual superiors. He had come to them as an apostle of Jesus Christ, armed with the gospel and backed by the power of God as revealed in the signs and wonders he had performed while among them. This had been Paul’s modus operandi everywhere he went.

Yet I dare not boast about anything except what Christ has done through me, bringing the Gentiles to God by my message and by the way I worked among them. They were convinced by the power of miraculous signs and wonders and by the power of God’s Spirit. In this way, I have fully presented the Good News of Christ from Jerusalem all the way to Illyricum. – Romans 15:18-19 NLT

Paul had not short-changed the Corinthians. He had treated them the same way he had every other Gentile city he had visited. The only difference was that he had not burdened them with providing for his needs while he had ministered among them. Others had funded his ministry, and before that, he had paid his way by working as a tent maker. And yet, there were those who were accusing him of deception and craftiness, claiming that he acted as if he was sacrificing on their behalf, while hiding the fact that he was receiving outside aid. There were others who were saying that Paul had simply gotten money from them by sending his surrogates to collect it, under the guise that it was going to be used for the saints in Jerusalem. In other words, they were accusing Paul of sending Titus and others to take up a collection, all the while using that money for himself. It seems that, in the eyes of the Corinthians, Paul could do nothing right. His actions were constantly under attack and his motives were always suspect.

But Paul pledges to keep on loving and giving whether they returned the favor or not. It is his sincere desire to return to Corinth for a third time and he intends to act in the same way he always had. He will love them like a father loves his children. And while he would greatly desire that love to be reciprocal, he wasn’t going to let their lack of love prevent him from doing the will of God. He tells them, “I will gladly spend myself and all I have for you, even though it seems that the more I love you, the less you love me” (2 Corinthians 12:15 NLT). Everything Paul had done for them, he had done out of love. He had sacrificed greatly in order that they might received the gospel. He had already written two other letters intending the encourage them in their faith and to provide them with wise counsel regarding real-life scenarios taking place in their midst. He was like a loving father, gladly providing for the needs of his children, willingly sacrificing his own needs on their behalf. And while he would have longed for them to return his love, he would not let their distrust and disloyalty sway his actions, because all his efforts were motivated by his desire to please his heavenly Father. When all was said and done, Paul was out to please God, not men. He was looking for the praise of God, not the praise of men.

Paul’s only regret was that he was having to waste time defending himself before the Corinthians. There were other pressing needs he would have preferred to address. Instead of wasting time “boasting” about his qualifications and defending his actions, he would have liked to have been helping them grow in their faith. Paul was a teacher, yet he having to spend all his time playing defense attorney. He could have given up. He could have decided enough was enough and written the Corinthians off as too stubborn and hard-headed to waste any more of his valuable time on them. But Paul was committed to their spiritual well-being. He was not content to see them languish in their faith and settle for the status quo. He was not going to allow their complacency to deter his commitment to the call of Christ on his life. He was out to make disciples, and nothing was going to stand in his way, including the false accusations of false apostles, the lack of love from those to whom he had shared the gospel, or the constant demand that he defend his actions. His attitude remained, “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls.”

Ministry For The Saints.

Now it is superfluous for me to write to you about the ministry for the saints, for I know your readiness, of which I boast about you to the people of Macedonia, saying that Achaia has been ready since last year. And your zeal has stirred up most of them. But I am sending the brothers so that our boasting about you may not prove empty in this matter, so that you may be ready, as I said you would be. Otherwise, if some Macedonians come with me and find that you are not ready, we would be humiliated—to say nothing of you—for being so confident. So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction. – 2 Corinthians 9:1-5 ESV

By now, it should be clear that the collection of funds for the saints in Judea was near and dear to Paul’s heart. It is a high priority for him, and not just because he is the one who came up with the idea. Paul truly believed in the reality of the body of Christ and the necessity of its corporate unity that extended beyond geographic and ethnic boundaries. Of all people, he had been privileged to experience the true nature of the family of God as he traveled around the world, witnessing the gospel transform the lives of people from every walk of life and every tribe, tongue and nation. He saw the wealthy and the wise come to faith in Christ, as well as the impoverished and uneducated. He had witnessed born-again slaves attending worship with their saved masters. He had seen the love of God displayed among those who at one time would have never associated with one another. The transformative power of the gospel was not speculative for Paul. He had seen it first-hand. And he longed to see every believer experience the full extent of its power by encouraging them to willingly submit to God’s will in every area of their lives. This included the area of giving.

So Paul continues to bring up the subject of the collection for the believers in Judea. Why? So he could brag to Peter and the other apostles in Jerusalem about how much money he was able to raise? No, so he could watch the Corinthians discover the joy of giving and the thrill of God’s blessing that comes through a life of obedience. Paul tells the Corinthians that he is sending Titus and his companions in order to ensure that they follow through with their commitment to give. It is not that he doubts them. He has already been bragging about them to the Madedonians. It is just that he knew human nature. And he was well aware that the enemy would be attacking them from within and without in an attempt to distract them from this God-given mission. It is one thing to say you will give. It is another thing to make it happen. They had committed, now Paul wanted to make sure they followed through on that commitment. To not do so would bring shame to them and do damage to the name of Christ.

For Paul, the motivation behind their giving was as important as the gift itself. He didn’t want them to give under compulsion or with any sense of regret. He also didn’t want them to give expecting something in return. That is what he means by “not as an exaction.” The Greek word he uses is pleonexia and it means “greedy to have more” (“G4124 – pleonexia – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 11 Oct, 2016). Just a few verses later, Paul states, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7 ESV). But the motivation for our giving should not be to get something back from God. We do not give to get. We give because God has so graciously given to us. Our motivation is to be out of love for others and gratitude to God. Even to give expecting the gratitude and praise of the recipient is an improper motivation. Jesus taught us, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:1-4 ESV).

Giving is a privilege. But it is also a responsibility. God could meet the needs of others in a variety of ways, but He has chosen to use us as the means by which He distributes His resources among His people. He blesses one so that they might be a blessing to another. He provides one with abundance so that they might share with those in need. Paul refers to this as “the ministry for the saints.” In his eyes, it was a ministry. It was a God-ordained mission of displaying the His love in tangible, practical ways. It was His plan for the body of Christ to minister to itself through selfless acts of sacrificial giving and the use of their Spirit-empowered giftedness.

Genuine Generosity.

Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem. If it seems advisable that I should go also, they will accompany me. – 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 ESV

Paul opens up this series of verses with the same words he has used throughout this section of the letter:

Now concerning the matters about which you wrote… – 1 Corinthians 7:1 ESV

Now concerning the betrothed… – 1 Corinthians 7:25 ESV

Now concerning food offered to idols… – 1 Corinthians 8:1 ESV

Now concerning spiritual gifts… – 1 Corinthians 12:1 ESV

Now concerning our brother Apollos… – 1 Corinthians 16:12 ESV

In each case, it seems that he is answering a question from the Corinthians or addressing a concern he has regarding the affairs of the church. In this case, he is dealing with their role in assisting the “saints”. This is most likely a reference to the saints in Jerusalem and Judea. Luke describes the situation in the book of Acts.

Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. – Acts 11:27-30 ESV

Paul had a strong desire to assist the believers in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas who were struggling through the time of famine. These believers, who were primarily Jews, were not only going without food, but were also having to deal with persecution from their Jewish peers because of their conversion to Christianity. Paul had written to the believers in Rome, “At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem” (Romans 15:25-26 ESV). He went on to say that the believers in Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to do it and even saw it as a debt they owed, “For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings” (Romans 15:27 ESV). 

In the early days of the church, there was a need for community and mutual care throughout the body of Christ. The new, fledgling churches were commonly made up of individuals from the less affluent segments of society. Many, after having come to faith in Christ, had lost their jobs. They had been ostracized from their families. Some of the churches to which Paul ministered on his missionary journeys were better off than others and he strongly encouraged them to use their resources to help those in need, both within their own fellowships, but in other churches located in other cities as well. Paul would write a second letter to the Corinthians encouraging them to get involved in the support of the needs of others, something they seemed to have a hard time doing.

Now, brethren, we wish to make known to you the grace of God which has been given in the churches of Macedonia, that in a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality. For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability, they gave of their own accord, begging us with much urging for the favor of participation in the support of the saints, and this, not as we had expected, but they first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God. So we urged Titus that as he had previously made a beginning, so he would also complete in you this gracious work as well. But just as you abound in everything, in faith and utterance and knowledge and in all earnestness and in the love we inspired in you, see that you abound in this gracious work also. – 2 Corinthians 8:1-7 NLT

Paul was not above using a bit of shaming by comparing the seeming stinginess of the Corinthians with the generosity of the churches in Macedonia. These churches, while enduring their own “deep poverty” were joyfully and eagerly giving to meet the needs of the saints in Jerusalem, even begging for the opportunity to do so. Two times Paul refers to this as a “gracious work” and tells the Corinthians that generous giving is to be pursued with the same intensity and given the same priority as faith, speech, knowledge or even love. In fact, meeting the physical needs of others is one of the greatest expressions of our love for others.

So Paul tells the Corinthians, “On the first day of each week, you should each put aside a portion of the money you have earned. Don’t wait until I get there and then try to collect it all at once” (1 Corinthians 1:3 NLT). He provides them with instructions as to how to take up their collection, fully expecting them to participate in the support of the needs of the believers in Judea. He is not commanding them to do so, but he is fully expecting their willing participation. Why? Because it is the will of God and the evidence of the Spirit’s working within them. God has a heart for the helpless, hopeless, the needy and the destitute. In the book of Micah, the prophet records what God expects of His people:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:8 ESV

The greatest expression of generosity and sacrifice Paul could think of was that of Jesus Christ and His willing sacrifice of His life. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9 ESV). He gave His life so that we might live. He became poor, leaving the confines of heaven and taking on human flesh, so that we might become rich, becoming heirs of God Himself. 

The body of Christ is meant to care for itself. There is no room for selfishness and self-centeredness. God blesses some so that they might be a blessing to others. But even those who have little are able to assist those who have even less. This is not just about a redistribution of wealth and the creation of a socialistic society. It is about love. It is about generosity and a desire to express the love of God to those in need.

You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.” And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others. As the Scriptures say, “They share freely and give generously to the poor. Their good deeds will be remembered forever.” – 2 Corinthians 9:7-9 NLT

The goal for Paul was generosity – genuine, heart-felt, Spirit-inspired, love-based generosity that expressed the unity and community for which Christ died. Paul longed to see the churches to which he ministered experience and display the kind of love that was found in the early days of the church immediately after the coming of the Spirit.

All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had…There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need. – Acts 4:32,34-35 NLT

Genuine generosity. Godly love. Brotherly affection. Selfless sacrifice. Compassionate care. “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:35 NLT).

The Bond Of Love.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts.

And I will show you a still more excellent way.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.– 1 Corinthians 12:27-13:3 ESV

Paul says that we are individuals who, together, make up the one Body of Christ, the church. We are individuals and we are each, in a sense, indispensable. We have each been given a gift by the Holy Spirit that is intended for the corporate good of body of Christ. God has designed it so that none of us are independent agents operating in isolation. As Paul points out to the Corinthians, the body of Christ was made up of some who were gifted to be apostles. Others were assigned the gift of prophecy or teaching. Some worked miracles or performed healings, while others used their gift of administration or helping. And then there were those who had been given the gift of tongues. Each was necessary. Yes, some of the gifts might appear to have greater significance or importance, but all were essential to the overall well-being of the church. As typical human beings, the Corinthians were prone to elevate one gift over another and experience jealousy or pride depending upon the particular gift they had been given. So Paul determined to show them a “more excellent way.”

Essentially, Paul is going to address the one things holds the Body of Christ together. Interestingly enough, it isn’t going to be our shared faith in Christ. That is what places us in the Body of Christ, but it is not the glue that holds us together. Even our giftedness is not enough to keep us unified and operating in mutual compatibility. So what is the glue that holds this unique collection of individuals together? What prevents our diversity, even in our areas of giftedness, from creating division, disorder and dysfunctionality?

For Paul, it was simple: It was love.

Within the Corinthian church, there was evidently a tendency to make much of the gift of tongues. Obviously, it was a more flamboyant, outwardly obvious gift that garnered attention and created an aura of spirituality for the one who practiced it. But Paul is going to take a handful of the gifts, including tongues, and show that they are each worthless without love.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. – 1 Corinthians 13:1 ESV

The gift of tongues, practiced without love, is nothing more than a loud, irritating noise. It may be unavoidably noticeable, but it will also be undeniably unprofitable. Tongues, like all the gifts, was intended to build up and edify the body. To practice tongues without love would be to focus on self and to neglect the overall health of the Body of Christ. The goal would end up being garnering attention for oneself, rather than allowing the Spirit to use the gift for the good of others.

Paul is not done yet.

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. – 1 Corinthians 13:2 ESV

You could have legitimate prophetic power to foretell the future and reveal undisclosed truth from God, but if you did it without love, you would be nothing. In essence, Paul is saying that, while your gift might make you a somebody in the eyes of others, in God’s eyes you would be a nobody – unimportant and non-essential. Your lack of love would negate any value your gift might have had. To claim to understand the mysteries of God and to grasp the knowledge of God is nothing if it is not accompanied by love for others. And even if you had enough faith to move a mountain, but did so without loving others,  you would still be a nobody in the eyes of God, because your accomplishment would lack any redeeming value.

But Paul brings up a seemingly contradictory example.

If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. – 1 Corinthians 13:3 ESV

Isn’t sacrifice always motivated by love? Wouldn’t love be the only thing that would cause someone to give their life? After all, Jesus Himself said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 ESV). But Paul’s point is that even the gift of giving, to the extreme point of martyrdom, can be done without love. You can die for a cause, but fail to do so out of love for others. You can give away all your possessions to gain the praise of men, but not out of love for them. It was Jesus who also said, “when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:2 ESV). You may get the accolades of men, but you will gain nothing from God.

Love is essential, because God is love. To practice any of the gifts without love would be ungodly. It would be out of character. It is possible for us to emulate or imitate the spiritual gifts. We can easily confuse talents with gifts. Just because we are a capable leader in the marketplace, does not mean we have the gift of leadership or administration in the body of Christ. We may be a gifted teacher, in an earthly sense, but that does not mean we have the spiritual gift of teaching. When the Spirit of God gives a gift, it is always accompanied by love. It is intended to build up others in the body. It is inherently selfless in its expression. It doesn’t ask the question, “What’s in it for me?” A truly spiritual gift simply gives, expecting nothing in return. Because that is the essence of love.

As Paul will make clear in the following verses, love is the only thing that will last. There is a day coming when all of the spiritual gifts will be unnecessary. They will have served their purpose. There will be no need for tongues, prophecy, healing, or miracles. We will no longer need faith or hope, because all things will have been fulfilled and made complete. But love will never end. It is the glue that holds heaven together. It is the bond of unity between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Love is the more excellent way.

 

Follow the Servant-Leader.

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. – 1 Corinthians 11:1 ESV

If we didn’t know much about Paul, this simple statement could come across as little more than prideful arrogance. It sounds a lot like someone with an over-inflated sense of spiritual self-worth. But this is the same Paul who said, “‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ – and I am the worst of them all” (1 Timothy 1:15 NLT). He knew he was far from perfect and had a flawed past. “I am the least of all the apostles. In fact, I’m not even worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted God’s church” (1 Corinthians 15:9 NLT). At one point, he even referred to himself as “the very least of all the saints” (Ephesians 3:8 ESV). So Paul was far from a braggart. He wasn’t one to boast of his spiritual superiority or set himself up as some kind of icon of virtue. He was honest about his short-comings and always transparent about his life being a work in process.

I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. – Philippians 3:12-14 NLT

So how could Paul have the audacity to say, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ”? How could he set himself up as an example to follow? Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate for him to simply say, “Imitate Christ”? Shouldn’t He be our focus, and not Paul? But it is essential that we not take this verse out of its context. For three chapters Paul has been dealing with an issue within the body of Christ in Corinth involving the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. Most of what he has addressed has had to do with the legitimate rights of believers and their freedom in Christ. But his point of emphasis has been that their rights were never to trump their obligation to live compassionately and sacrificially among their fellow believers, as well as the lost. First and foremost, their goal should be the glory of God and the spiritual good of those around them. In order for the gospel to be lived out and spread about, it will require that they die to themselves. Their rights will have to take a back seat to the will of God and the spiritual well-being of others. And Paul has used himself as an example of that very lifestyle. “Don’t give offense to Jews or Gentiles or the church of God. I, too, try to please everyone in everything I do. I don’t just do what is best for me; I do what is best for others so that many may be saved” (1 Corinthians 10:32-33 NLT). Then he follows up this statement with his call, “And you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1 NLT).

Unlike the original 12 disciples, we don’t have the benefit of having seen Christ with our own two eyes. We have not been privileged to watch Him work, hear Him teach or witness His selfless lifestyle firsthand. On the very night He would be betrayed, He washed the feet of the disciples, then said to them: “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:12-15 ESV). This was not about washing feet, but about servant leadership. Jesus was their teacher and Lord, and yet He was willing to set aside His rights and privileges to serve them. He willingly stooped down and washed their filthy feet, rather than rightfully demanding that they wash His. Jesus went on to tell them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:16 ESV). He was telling His disciples that they, His servants and messengers, were not to view themselves as somehow better than Him, unwilling to serve like He served and sacrifice as He sacrificed. They were to follow His example and serve those to whom He would send them.

It was the apostle John who wrote, “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:5-6 ESV). So in a sense, we are to emulate or imitate Christ. We are to walk as He walked. But at the same time, if that is the way we live our lives, we should be able to call others to follow our example. In doing so, we are not claiming to have arrived at Christ-like perfection, but that we are faithfully attempting to live our lives in keeping with the example of Christ. Paul knew that his rights were never to stand in the way of the gospel, because He knew that Jesus had never let His will get in the way of His Father’s divine plan for His life and for mankind’s redemption. On the night of His betrayal and arrest, as Jesus prayed in the garden, He pleaded with His Father, “if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine” (Luke 22:42 NLT). In His humanity, Jesus dreaded the pain and suffering He was about to face. His human nature was no more a fan of pain than your would be. But His divinity knew that He must accomplish the will of His Father, even though it meant that He must give His life. And Paul reminds us that, “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8 ESV).

Paul was willing to follow the example of Christ. He was willing to die if necessary for the sake of the gospel. And even if God did not require his life, Paul was willing to give up his rights and privileges to see that others came to know Christ. He was willing to sacrifice anything and everything to see that believers in Christ grew in their knowledge of Him and in their likeness to Him. They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery. So when we imitate Christ, we honor Him. And when we invite others to imitate our lives, we are taking a huge risk. We are telling them that they can do as we do and say as we say, because we are simply following the example of Christ Himself. And it all begins with sacrificial service and selfless love, putting the needs of others ahead of our own.

Loving Others. Not Self.

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? – 1 Corinthians 9:1-7 ESV

While Paul was on the issue of rights and the Christian’s need to die to them, he took the opportunity to address his rights as an apostle. There were evidently those in Corinth who were questioning if he really was an apostle at all. Others may have been by confused by some of Paul’s actions, because at times he did not appear to behave as an apostle. Some of this had to do with how Paul had handled himself when he had ministered among the the Corinthians. Rather than allow the Corinthians to meet all his financial needs and provide him with food and shelter, Paul and Barnabas had chosen to work (Acts 18:3). Evidently, other apostles, like Peter, had a reputation for bringing their wives with them while doing ministry and the churches were expected to cover their expenses as well. Paul didn’t fall into this category because he had no wife. But Paul’s point is that he had every right to expect the Corinthians to care for him while he was ministering among them. And if he had been married, he would have had the right to bring his wife with him and expect the church to pay her way. But Paul didn’t do those things. And yet that did not make him any less an apostle of Jesus Christ. He met the criteria. First of all, he had seen the risen Lord and had been commissioned by Him to take the gospel to the Gentiles. He was every bit an apostle as much as Peter, James or John. And the Corinthians themselves were living proof of his apostleship, because their lives had been changed because of his ministry.

Paul gives three illustrations from daily life to prove his right to expect compensation and care from the Corinthians. First of all, he uses the example of a soldier. No member of the military is expected to pay his own way. He serves on behalf of the people, giving his time and, if necessary, his life in defense of his nation. In return, the citizens of that nation pay his salary and supply his needs for food, clothing and shelter. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement. The second illustration Paul uses is that of a farmer and his vineyard. No farmer in his right mind would plant a vineyard and not expect to benefit from the fruit that it yields. He is the one who tilled the soil, planted the vines and harvested the grapes. As a result, he had every right to enjoy the fruits of his labors. The final illustration Paul gives is the shepherd. To deny a shepherd the benefit of the milk his flocks provide would be ludicrous and unfair. He is the one who has provided for and protected the sheep, keeping them well-fed and safe, so he should be the one who enjoys some of the benefits of his hard work.

As we will see a little later on in this same chapter, the main concern Paul had was not regarding his rights but about the integrity of the gospel. His primary goal was that the gospel not be hindered in any way. That is why he and Barnabas had chosen to work rather than demanding their rights and expecting the Corinthians to pay their way. These two men did not want the Corinthians to resent their presence or reject the gospel because of a financial burden. So they willingly gave up their rights. Remember, this goes back to chapter eight and Paul’s warnings about those in the church who were allowing their “knowledge” of right and wrong to cause their brothers and sisters in Christ to stumble. They were allowing their rights to cause them to do wrong. And Paul was simply using himself as an illustration of how dying to one’s rights is the right thing to do some times.

At the core of the gospel is the message of love – God’s love for mankind. He sent His Son to die in the place of sinful men and women, out of love. Jesus had told His disciples that they were to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12 ESV). In the very next verse, Jesus gave what He believed to be was the greatest expression of love for another human being. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 ESV). And in keeping with His teaching, Jesus would do just that, giving His life as the consummate expression of His love for mankind. The apostle John wrote, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:12 ESV). And that was Paul’s primary point in his letter to the Corinthians. Just as Paul had been willing to give up his rights and lay down his life for them, he was expecting them to do the same. The gospel is not about rights, but about righteousness. It is about dying to self and living for God, which means loving those whom He has made in His image. God did not save us to make us isolated islands of self-righteousness where our rights rule the day. He saved us so that we might die to self and live for Him. And one of the best ways we can express our love for God is by loving those around us, sharing the gospel message of reconciliation in both words and actions. Jesus Himself made it perfectly clear and simple: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 15:35 ESV).