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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Discard the Wrapping



In the last two messages that I have posted we looked at Paul's letter to the Galatian church. Paul wrote that letter to confront an issue that threatened the gospel. The liberty that believers enjoy under the Lord's new covenant was in jeopardy. Some of the believers had been thrown into confusion (Galatians 1: 7). We might ask the question of why they didn't perceive the the reality of what was being presented to them. But the reason that they had been confused is understandable, I think. It's because these new claims seemed very plausible. People were misusing the existing scriptures to make an argument that was persuasive, even though it actually undermined the truth.


In the Galatians letter, Paul gives an example of when he had confronted Peter. Peter was in danger of being of carried away by a similar error that would have compromised the freedoms that are found in Christ Jesus. Not just for Peter, but also for others that were influenced by Peter's example.


I want to move on today to another of Paul's letters. It is his first letter to the church at Corinth. Again, Paul is writing to confront error. In his Galatians letter there was one principal error that was being confronted. In 1 Corinthians, we have a variety of errors that are dealt with. The reality is that the church has always been, and will always be, under threat from error. We might consider some of these errors to be obvious. Many will be pernicious – they will be subtle, difficult to notice or face-up to, but with an effect that will gradually bring damage.


This is a bit like subsidence. Subsidence affects buildings and structures. It occurs when the ground beneath a property sinks. Usually this happens slowly. It isn't immediately obvious. But the foundations of our homes can be destabilized over time. The very structure of the building is then threatened as cracks start to appear in the walls. If ignored, the building will become in danger of collapse.


The church is founded upon the truth of God's word. In fact, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 3: 11, 'no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If the foundation of the church, which is Jesus Christ himself, is moved, then cracks will appear and the church will be in great danger.


So, Paul wrote to the Corinthians. He also wrote to us. Verse 2 tells us that this message was also for 'all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ'.


Paul tells the Corinthians (v.10) of their need to be 'perfectly united in mind and thought'. Why? Because they evidently weren't. There were 'divisions among' them. Is it possible that believers can have favourites among those that bring the word of God to them? It is an area where we need to exercise great care. It is possible that we may find great benefit in the messages of a particular believer. Does this mean that we should then despise the word that others bring? It does not. Does it mean that we should then follow the person who brings us benefit? It does not, or certainly not to the extent that it was evident in Corinth. There is no-one whose word we can always rely on and trust without thought or question, except the word of the Lord himself. There is no-one that does not have the capacity to be wrong. That is why Paul implores the church to be wise, as we noticed when looking at the Galatians letter.


Some of those at Corinth were following men. As verse 12 details, some were declaring that 'I follow Paul'. Others were saying that the same about Apollos and Peter. Paul says, in effect, are you serious? Verse 13 reads 'Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptised in the name of Paul?' He goes on to say something that is quite striking. The present circumstances made Paul thankful that he had very limited involvement in the baptisms that had taken place there in Corinth. He knew that even this was being used in the boasting of one believer to another. People felt that their Christianity was superior. 'I must be a good Christian, because Peter baptised me and because I follow his every word.' This is the kind of argument that was being put forward. We looked at this last time. There aren't superior and inferior members in Christ's church. All are one their Lord (Galatians 3: 28).


Did Spurgeon baptise you? Good, but that counts for nothing. Were you baptised into Christ - do you have faith in him and in him alone? That counts for everything.


Paul makes an interesting statement here in his letter. He confirms that he didn't consider baptising to be one of his main roles in the church. He says that Christ 'did not send me to' do that (v.17). Evidently, from Paul's words, we know that he did baptise people. There were occasions when the church had a need for him to perform this function and so he was willing to do what was needed at those times. But Christ had sent him primarily to perform another role, which was to 'preach the gospel'. This mission of Paul was commissioned by his Lord. And, once again, we are faced with profound truth. He was to preach the gospel, not just any old how, but in a certain way. He says, 'not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.'


This is quite an extra-ordinary thing. It seems to go against good sense and reason. It is counter-cultural. Not just the culture of that age. Not just Corinth, subject to the thinking and achievements of the Roman empire and so heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, where people 'spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas' (Acts 17: 21). No, this goes against the reasoning of human culture in every age. It goes against what Paul calls, in verse 21, the wisdom of 'the world'.


If we had to listen to a talk on a certain subject, what would we desire? Surely we would want to hear words of wisdom and eloquence, shedding light on the matter in hand in a way that could add to our own knowledge, powerfully and persuasively. Who wouldn't want that? But Paul's endeavour was to avoid this when he delivered the message of Jesus.


In the following chapter, 1 Corinthians 2, Paul repeats this claim about his own ministry. The first five verses tell us this, 'and so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.


This thinking, which goes in opposition to how we think naturally, is so important for us to grasp. It is possible, with our own words, to detract from the pure and simple glory of the gospel message. It's important for us as we hear the message. It's important for those that bring the word. Our words, in a sense, can be like packaging.


Some people like to wrap presents with the utmost care. Layers of beautiful wrapping paper. A whole roll of sellotape used to make it difficult to uncover what is inside and to prolong the time until the gift is revealed. But why? What is important, the gift or the wrapping paper? Actually, it's more than that. I'm sure that we have heard the phrase, 'it's the thought that counts'. This is the idea that the intention that lies behind the giving of a certain gift, the thought that has gone into it, is worthy of our consideration. The gift is important, the motive for giving is also significant. The wrapping paper isn't. Ultimately, it will end up in the bin.


And so it should be in our minds when we present the gospel. Do we want people to be swept away by our words. We should pray that we don't. What is it that is important? It's the gift, 'the gift of God (which) is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord' (Romans 6: 23). And it's the motive, 'the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord' (Romans 8: 39). It should be our desire that the packaging should end up in the bin. That, in the minds of those that hear, our words will be quickly disposed of, and all that will remain will be the word of the Lord which endures for ever (Isaiah 40: 8, 1 Peter 1: 25).


Paul argues that the message of the cross of Jesus has an inherent power. It contains wisdom that is not only over and above the wisdom of this world, but is often in direct opposition to it. This contrast is also seen in the way that the gospel is heard and responded to. Paul says (v.18), 'for the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.' The cross is foolishness to many people. Paul continues with this in verses 22 and 23 where he mentions the Jews and the Greeks. He is arguing that the one had a religious mind, a concept of God, that was based on a flawed understanding of the Jewish scriptures, and the other had a philosophical mindset, a belief that through thought, and debate and argument and study, ultimate truth could be understood. But both rejected the very thing that lies at the centre of the gospel message, the cross of Christ.


In human history, when nations have been threatened by their enemies, how have they been saved from disaster? Usually by powerful rulers, who have lead their people to triumph in battle. If we believe that God is all-powerful and that he has an intent to save a people for himself, how would he do it? Human reason would argue that he would do it by a mighty, outward display of his power. The idea that he would achieve his aim by sending his Son to be ridiculed by the very people that he came to save, mocked and rejected by the religious establishment, treated as a criminal by the legal authority of the day, and executed by being nailed to a piece of wood, is ludicrous. Religious and philosophical reason would both agree, as Paul points out, that such a notion is foolish. But to those 'who are being saved it is the power of God' (v.18). Because this 'foolishness of God is wiser than human reason', and this 'weakness of God is stronger than human strength' (v.25). And Paul quotes Isaiah in verse 19, 'For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.''


And then Paul says, look at how your church has been assembled. Verse 26 reads, 'Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.' Paul says look around now at the company of believers. He says, in verse 20, 'Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age?'


Paul is reminding the the church that they need not be overwhelmed by the fine sounding words and intellectual arguments of people, especially when those words oppose that which is at the very heart of the truth of the gospel. Why? Because, on the most important question ever to occupy the minds of humans, worldy wisdom has reached the wrong conclusion. It is the question of 'how?'. How can I be made right with God? On the road to Damascus, (Acts 9: 5) Paul found the unexpected answer. It was Jesus. Jesus, in his weakness, nailed to a Roman cross. On this question, the religious leaders, the apparently wise persons, the respected philosophers, had no true understanding.


Because God's wisdom is not like ours. He makes different choices to us. This theme is picked up by Paul at the end of this first chapter. Verses 27-29 say, 'But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.' Boasting 'is excluded' by the New Covenant principles (Romans 3: 27). Paul emphasises this with a quote the prophet Jeremiah in the final verse of this chapter, 'Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.’ This is found in Jeremiah 9 (v.23-24) where we read 'This is what the Lord says: ‘Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the Lord.'


The subsequent two verses in Jeremiah are also relevant. They speak of an impending punishment to the unbelieving nations that surrounded Israel in Jeremiah's time. They are spoken of as the 'uncircumcised'. And then there is a damning indictment of Israel itself, as the Lord declares, 'even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.'


Because there is a circumcision that the Lord desires to see. Old Covenant circumcision involved a cutting off. It involved the cutting off of the foreskin from every male Jew. New Covenant circumcision is entirely different. Romans 2: 29 says this, 'No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.'


Our hearts need to be cut. There are things that we were born with that need to be removed if we are to please the Lord. Boasting needs cutting off. Boasting about our own achievements, our intellect, our gifts, this needs cutting off under the New Covenant rule. Boasting in ourselves is an ugly thing. It should have no place in the church of Jesus Christ. How much more beautiful would the church look if it was painted by its members with the humility of its Lord and Saviour. 'Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord'.


Well that's the wrapping paper finished for today. Let's finish with the gift; the gift of God's abiding word of truth; the doxology at the end of Romans 11.


'Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?’ ‘Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?’ For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory for ever! Amen.'

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