First Corinthians 13 is one of the most striking passages in the New Testament. Adolf Harnack called it “the greatest, strongest, deepest thing Paul ever wrote”. If you’ve taken any time to study the chapter, you’d probably agree.
The main theme of the passage is love, but not the love between a husband and wife, or between a parent and child. The main focus of the passage is on the commitment to love within the local church. The context makes this clear. In the preceding chapter Paul addresses the varied gifts within the body of Christ, the church: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:4). These gifts, if they function well, serve to build the body. However, when these gifts are used for self, rather than service, they harm the body. That is what happened in Corinth.
While some looked down on the gifts and service of others, they exalted their own. This focus on self, rather than service, weakened the body and prevented the church from doing what God had called it to do. How do we ensure that the variety within the body builds rather than breaks? There is a “more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31), and that way is love.
What is love? We know the Greek word that Paul used very well: agape. The word is used a total of 116 times in the New Testament. This was the most appropriate word to describe how God relates to his children, and how God’s children should relate to each other. This love is not romantic or temporary. It is seen most clearly in the cross of Christ, which God set forth as the supreme manifestation of his love for his children. It is, in the words of Leon Morris, “a love for the utterly unworthy, a love that proceeds from a God who is love. It is a love lavished on others without a thought whether they are worthy or not.”
That is agape love. In experiencing this love we are transformed. That transformation becomes clear in how we begin to love what God loves: his children. This is the challenge: have you experienced God’s love revealed on the cross of Christ? If so, do you love what He loves?
Because of Christ,
Life is hard. That may not sound very encouraging, but it is true. It is universally true. Jesus and his disciples weren’t spared the difficulties of life. Christ’s perfection did not shield him from trials. The disciples’ proximity to Jesus didn’t protect them from persecution. Did they despair? No, quite the opposite: they rejoiced!
How? We know that Jesus, for the joy set before him, endured the cross (Heb. 12:2). The disciples had a similar perspective. In 1 Peter 1:6 the apostle Peter writes of believers who “rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials”. Where does this joy come from?
Part of it is found in their identity. In verse 1 Peter calls them “elect exiles”. God’s Old Testament people, Israel, were also called exiles or sojourners. This shaped their identity: they weren’t like the other nations around them; they weren’t at home among them; they were heading for a better home. Similarly, the church is God’s chosen people and that means that we shouldn’t be at home here. We are waiting for another home.
Joy is also found in their inheritance. Verse 3-5 details the promise of the gospel. They have been “born again to a living hope” and to “an inheritance”. Regeneration, also called being born again, makes us new. It changes us from the inside out: a new heart, renewed mind and the indwelling Holy Spirit are all part of this wonderful act of grace. With this new nature we are then also given an inheritance. Peter describes it as “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (v. 4). Amazingly, not only does God guard the inheritance, but he guards his children as well: “who by God’s power are being guarded through faith” (v. 5).
So when we read about their joy in verse 6 we understand that it was rooted in the gospel, not in their circumstances. We understand that believers can rejoice because of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Yes, life is hard, but God’s children confess: “Though we have not seen him, we love him. Though we do not now see him, we believe in him and rejoice with you that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (adapted from 1 Peter 1:8).
Because of Christ,
There are things that are simply too great for me. They are too great for me to comprehend or control. The plans and purposes of God are mysterious – I simply cannot wrap my head around them. Things happen in the providence of God – I cannot change them. I may wish to understand or strive to control, but ultimately I have to confess that I am just too small. Thankfully, I am not alone.
David had a similar struggle. There were many things that David did not understand and could not control. So what did David do? He relaxed, or more accurately: he rested in the Lord. Note what he says in Psalm 131: “O LORD, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time forth and forevermore.”
The Psalm starts with David humbling himself before the Lord. Lifting up your heart or raising your eyes signified pride (v. 1). Instead of overestimating his own abilities, David did “not occupy myself with things to great and too marvelous for me.” This does not mean that David did not wrestle with the Lord or that he was indifferent. David thought great thoughts about God and he did great things for God. But David knew his limits. He understood that some things were just beyond him: beyond his understanding and abilities.
In those moments David did not become restless, anxious or frustrated. He “calmed and quieted” his soul (v. 2). How do we do that? He tells us in the final verse: “hope in the LORD” (v. 3). In those moments he rested in God, “like a weaned child with its mother” (v. 2). You don’t understand it all, but God does. You can’t do it all, but God can.
What will you do when you are faced with “things too great for me”? Take David’s advice: “hope in the Lord”.
Because of Christ,
Congratulations. If you started the Read Scripture plan on the first of January, you’ve already read through Genesis and you are almost midway through Exodus. You’ve also read about a fifth of the Psalms. This might not seem like much, but you are well on your way to reading the Bible through from beginning to end.
But what if you’ve lost some ground? What if you’ve struggled to keep up with the reading plan? You are not alone. I started the reading plan on the first of January, but this last week I’ve struggled to finish the assigned reading for each day. I made a point of reading each day, but I struggled to finish every chapter for each day. After two days I was behind. So what do you do?
Give up or catch up?
You could abandon the plan altogether. To give up or catch up, that is the question. I’d like to encourage you to catch up. There are a few ways you could do that. The first would be to set aside some time on Sunday to complete the chapters you’ve missed. This is one of the best uses for a Sunday afternoon. A cup of coffee, a comfortable chair and the Word of God... turn it into an event, instead of a chore.
Catching up does not necessarily mean that you have to read it all a single day. Another way to catch up is to increase the amount of chapters you read for a few days. Read two Psalms instead of one. Another way to do this would be to read in the morning and in the evening: take the first day’s reading in the morning and the second reading at night. Before you know it, you are back on track.
A third suggestion would be to use your “idle” moments. Standing in line at the bank, waiting for the car to be washed or for your doctor’s appointment... use these moments to read God’s Word instead of grabbing the nearest magazine or newspaper. Obviously this is not ideal: you don’t have a quiet, uninterrupted time in God’s Word. This cannot replace our dedicated time with God. But when we’ve fallen behind and we don’t want to lose touch with our reading plan entirely, these moments can be used to claw our way back.
When my plan becomes a tyrant
Doesn’t this make me a slave to a reading plan? Your reading plan can feel like a tyrant sometimes. There are days when discipline feels like duty or drudgery. However, discipline turns duty into delight – just give it time.
In 1 Cor. 9:27 the apostle Paul said: “But I discipline my body and keep it under control” (ESV). The term Paul used usually meant “to strike under the eye”. This is not gentle language. The NIV translates it as “I beat my body” and the NASB as “I buffet my body”. Paul wasn’t advocating violence against our bodies (that would contradict the rest of Scripture), but he was serious about keeping his body under control. Discipline is not always enjoyable, but it is necessary. Paul concludes the verse with these words: “lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
Discipline can feel tyrannical, but its purpose is not to torment. Like a dedicated trainer, discipline wants you to achieve your goals. What is the goal of our reading plan? We want to get to know God better.
From duty to delight
In 1960 Maxwell Maltz published a book in which he explained that habits take about 21 days to form.Every self-help book written since have focussed on this supposed magical number: 21 days. To be fair, Maltz did say that it took at least 21 days to form a new habit. There is no magical number. The reality is a little more complex than that.
Subsequent studies have found that forming new habits differs from person to person, and sometimes from habit to habit. On average a person takes about 66 days or two months to form a new habit. In a study by Phillippa Lally of the University College London it was discovered that some people can form new habits in as little as 18 days, but most took much longer. Some took up to 254 days to form the new habit.
What does this mean for our new habit of reading through the Bible? It means that Genesis and Exodus will be hard, Numbers and Leviticus may be a little harder, but somewhere between Deuteronomy and 1 Kings you’re discipline will start to pay off. Your new habit will have taken root. That new habit will not just benefit you for the rest of this year, but for the rest of your life as you seek to walk with God. 1 Timothy 4:7-8: “Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”
Because of Christ,
A new year has dawned and with it an opportunity for growth. Most of us commit to making some kind of change to our lifestyles and priorities. These often take the form New Year’s resolutions. However, most of these lofty ideals are quickly forgotten. But what would happen if we kept our resolutions? And what might happen if those resolutions focused on God instead of self?
In 1722 a young Jonathan Edwards needed direction. He was 18 at the time and was a long way from becoming the pastor and theologian we read about today. He decided to set down his goals in a series of ‘resolutions’. This is how he prefaced his resolutions: “Being sensible that I am unable to do anything without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him by his grace to enable me to keep these resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake.” This reliance upon God and denial of self became the foundation for his resolutions and for his life.
What were his resolutions? Here is his first: “Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory and to my own good, profit, and pleasure, in the whole of my duration, without any consideration of the time, whether now or never so many myriads of ages hence. Resolved to do whatever I think to be my duty, and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved to do this, whatever difficulties I meet with, how ever so many and how ever so great.”
The apostle Paul had similar resolutions. In Romans 15:20 he wrote: “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel”. Or in 2 Corinthians 5:9: “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.” Making and keeping these kinds of resolutions are what make men and women of God.
What will your resolutions for 2019 be?
Because of Christ,
A lot has been written about the effects of technology and social media on society. Our phones and apps have a tendency to distract us, to take us out of the moment so that we live our lives through a lens instead of being present. But this is not the only temptation that our modern obsession with social relevance brings. There is another danger. It is an ancient vice that has become a modern virtue: narcissism.
Legend has it that Narcissus was so beautiful that he fell in love with his own reflection. His self-obsession eventually cost him his life. That is what narcissism is: it is the worship of self. What does this have to do with social media? So much of our social media obsession is rooted in our desire to look good and to be admired. That is why we only post pictures of our “best sides”. We publish our achievements and ignore our failures. And when we don’t get the adoration we think we deserve, we become depressed. “Why didn’t anyone ‘like’ my photo? Why didn’t they comment?” The same applies when we pity ourselves on social media. It is another way of seeking attention – it is an expression, not of humility, but of wounded pride.
So what is the answer? Some suggest abandoning social media. It might help, but it won’t deal with the core issue. Self worship doesn’t need an internet connection. No, we need to abandon self. Jesus said: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34). This is the only way to eliminate self worship: true worship. Social media is a symptom, not the problem: our idolatrous hearts are the real issue. The only way to push self out is by inviting Jesus in. You’ll only do that if you believe that Jesus is worth it – that Jesus is better than self.
What do we want most: to look good or to look like Jesus? To be admired or to admire Jesus? Let’s look away from our reflections and “[look] to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).
Because of Christ,
Why do we sleep? Our modern obsession with productivity views sleep as a hindrance or a burden. Sleep is usually one of the first things that we sacrifice to maintain the pace of our busy lives. We quote passages like Proverbs 6:10-11: “A little sleep, a little slumber… and poverty will come upon you like a robber”. We convince ourselves that we are following the example of our Lord when we rise “very early in the morning” (Mark 1:35) or work well after “sundown” (Mark 1:32). Didn’t the apostle Paul “not cease night or day to admonish everyone” (Acts 20:31)?
While the Bible condemns laziness and sloth, it also warns us against neglecting rest. At creation God “blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested” (Gen. 2:3). Rest was part of God’s design for the world, even before the Fall. Jesus confirms that God did this for our sake: “The Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27). The cycle of day and night was part of God’s design; the God-ordained rhythm for our lives.
Jesus, as the incarnate Son of God, understood this. Jesus slept (Mark 4:38). Jesus also encouraged his disciples to rest after a season of intense ministry (Mark 6:31). God created us in such a way that we need sleep. However, it would be wrong to view sleep simply as a necessity. It is also a gift: “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” (Ps. 127:2). Only God does not sleep: “he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” (Ps. 121:4).
Sleep reminds us that God is God and that we are not. God does his work, keeps his children, and sustains the world all while we are sound asleep. Sleep is a reminder that we need God. Understood this way, sleep becomes an act of worship and faith.
Why don’t you sleep? Maybe we sleep less than we need to, because we don’t trust God as much as we should.
Because of Christ,
What do you want most for your child? Good grades? Athletic achievement? While these are noble goals we have to ask ourselves how important these things are to God. How do our goals for our children differ from what the world wants for them?
What does God want for your children? God desires godliness more than grades. Look at Deut. 4:9: “Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children's children”. Later, in Deut. 6:5-7, we read: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
First, God wants your children to grow up with godly parents. In both passages God addresses the parents first. God expects parents to “take care, and keep your soul diligently” (4:9). You cannot tend to the soul of your child if you neglect your own. You cannot teach the love of God to your children, if you do not “love the Lord your God with all your heart” (6:6). Parents, be godly examples.
Second, God wants your children to be taught by godly parents. A godly example is important because so much of what our children learn about God is “caught, not taught”. Your example will always speak louder than your words. This does not mean, however, that you should not use words. What does God say? “Make them known to your children” (4:9) and “teach them diligently to your children” (6:7). Deliberate, consistent and constant (note “when you sit... when you walk... when you lie down” in 6:7) teaching is vital. Pastors and youth leaders have a role to play, but their role is supplementary. Parents, get to know God’s Word and teach it to your children.
There is obviously more to being a Christian parent, but this is a great place to start. What do you want most for your children? How does it differ from God’s desire for them?
Because of Christ,
Jesus said: “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matt. 7:14). Wasn’t faith supposed to be the easy way? Who would willingly choose the hard and lonely “narrow way”?
In the previous verse Jesus elaborated on the way to “destruction”. We would think that, given the destination, people would avoid this way. Life is better than destruction, right? Sadly we don’t always consider the destination. Sometimes we are blinded by the journey.
Jesus highlighted the ease and fellowship of the wide way (Matt. 7:13). The wide way looks more enjoyable. The wicked always seem at ease (Ps. 73:12). You won’t be lonely. Sin loves company after all (Rom. 1:32). Compared to the narrow way, the wide way is a walk in the park.
The narrow way promises tribulation (John 16:33). On the narrow way you will suffer persecution (2 Tim. 3:12). The narrow way demands that we deny ourselves (Mark 8:24) and the pleasures that the wide way offers (1 John 2:16). This makes those on the narrow way very unpopular (1 Pet. 4:4).
If the journey was all that there was, then the wide way would be very appealing. Who would choose “hard” over “easy”? Asaph wrestled with the same question: “For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” (Ps. 73:3). He was tempted to join the wide way, until “I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.” (Ps. 73:17).
The journey is not the only thing that matters. It matters a great deal, but only as it relates to the destination. The journey determines the destination. The destination makes all the difference and there is only one way that leads to God and eternal life: the narrow way.
Faith and faithfulness is not a matter of convenience – it is a matter of life and death. Yes, it is hard, but it is worth it. The temptation to leave the narrow way loses all its power once we remember the destination. John put it like this: “Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we will be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” (1 John 3:2-3).
Keep your eyes on the destination and you will not lose heart (2 Cor. 4:16-18). Jesus Christ is the destination.
Because of Christ,
We know that the gospel does not guarantee our comfort. In fact, faithfulness to the gospel might cause us great distress. Jesus said: “In the world you will have tribulation.” (John 16:33). This is exactly what the believers in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) experienced. They were suffering because of their faith (see 1 Peter 2:19-25; 4:1, 12).
Yet somehow they remained joyful. How is that possible? 1 Pet. 1:6 tells us that they rejoiced in something. That something is described in verse 3-5: the living hope to which they were born again, the inheritance that is being kept for them and the assurance that they are being guarded for the inheritance. These truths look ahead at the glory that believers will receive, but they have an impact now. They bring us joy in the midst of trials.
This does not mean that the trials are easy. Peter goes on to describe the grief that the trials caused (v. 6), but their trials were not pointless. He says that they were “necessary”. What possible purpose could their trials have?
The word for “trials” refers to a test. The trial reveals someone’s character by submitting him to thorough and extensive testing. That is why Peter mentions gold being tested by fire in verse 7. The melting point of gold is 1064 degrees Celsius: you cannot test it at low temperatures. In the same way the genuineness of our faith is tested by a “fiery trial” (4:12). When our faith in the Lord Jesus survives the trial it proves that our faith is genuine. Genuine faith results in “praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (v. 7).
This is one of the reasons we have to endure trials. Trials have a way of “proving” a genuine faith (v. 7) and of unmasking a false one (see Mark 4:16-17). Every trial brings an opportunity to be strengthened and reassured, or to repent and believe if our faith is found wanting.
What gives you hope? Avoiding the trial or enduring it? God has promised that we will not be tested beyond what we are able to bear (1 Cor. 10:13). Surviving the trial proves that God is faithful and that our faith in him is real.
Because of Christ,
Christianity is ludicrous without the hope of the resurrection. Think about it for a moment: what does God call us to in Christ? In 1 Corinthians 15 the apostle Paul reflects on some of the dangers he had to face for the sake of the gospel. In v. 30 he says that he was in danger every hour. Later, in 2 Corinthians 11:26 he records some the dangers he faced: “in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers”. No wonder Paul said: “I die every day!” (1 Corinthians 15:31).
That is what taking of the cross meant for Paul (Luke 9:23: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”). That is what it might mean for us.
If this is all there is to life – if death is the end – then following Jesus, risking for Jesus and dying for Jesus makes no sense. If death is the end, then we should “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Corinthians 15:32). But that is not what Paul chose.
Why did Paul choose the way of the cross instead of the ways of the world? 1 Cor. 15:20 & 58 gives us the answer: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep… Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
So ask yourself: what difference does the resurrection make now? How does the hope of the resurrection affect your life? At the very least it should give us hope, but more than that: it should give us courage – courage to do what God has called us to do, knowing it will be worth it in the end.
Because of Christ,
The Bible has a lot to say about anxiety and worry. One Old Testament expression for “anxiety” is “tumbling thoughts”. We all know what this kind of anxiety is like: our fears and uncertainties have a way of “snowballing” on us. Before we know it, our thoughts are flooded with worries – one worry following closely on the heels of another. This can be overwhelming and depressing.
According to the Bible some of our anxieties spring from legitimate concerns, such as the “cares of this life” (Matt. 13:22), pleasing our spouses (1 Cor. 7:33-34) or the work of the Lord (2 Cor. 11:28). But we should be careful that these legitimate concerns don’t overwhelm or dominate us. If we give in to doubt we are in danger of making the Word of God unfruitful in our lives (Matt. 13:22). How do we prevent that?
Martin Lloyd-Jones once wrote: “The main trouble in this whole matter of spiritual depression in a sense is this, that we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self... Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?” This is what the apostle Paul instructed us to do in Phil. 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
We find numerous examples of this in the Psalms. In Psalm 73 Asaph wrestles with injustice, but finds peace when he starts preaching to himself (v. 16-23). In Psalm 103 David finds comfort when he reminds himself of God’s benefits and character. This is what Jesus instructed us to do. Even when legitimate concerns press in on us, we should remind ourselves that our Father will take care of us (Matt. 6:25-34).
There are a lot of uncertainties in life, but God’s character and promises are not among them. The Lord will never change; neither will his Word. The next time worry tries to ambush you, “preach” the certainties of God’s Word to yourself. Pray to God and preach to yourself – these are the first steps to fighting anxiety and worry.
Because of Christ,