Rewire: The Church at Work

Sermon by David Strain on April 15, 2018

1 Corinthians 16:1-24

Now let me invite you, if you would please, to take a Bible. Would you turn with me to 1 Corinthians for the last time, for the foreseeable future at least, to Paul’s letter, the first letter to the Corinthians. Chapter 16; you’ll find it on page 962. This is – I was saying to Ed Hartman, one of our pastors, before the eight-thirty service – this is one of those places where I really wish the book had ended at the end of chapter 15. It sort of ends on a soaring high moment of glory – “Where, O death, is your victory? Where is your sting?” It’s marvelous. And then, you get to chapter 16 and it’s, “Be sure to take up the collection” and “Here are my travel plans.” But, actually when you think about it, coming back to reality with a bit of a bump, back to the mundane after you’ve soared with the apostle Paul to contemplate the glories of the resurrection that is to come, that’s a helpful thing. That’s a good way to end. Because we don’t yet live in the glories to come. Do we? We live in the mundane of the here and now. And we need help to see how the glory that awaits us ought to affect how we live in the day to day realities of this life and in our local church.

 

And so as we think together about chapter 16, we’re thinking about living out the Christian faith in the real world, and in particular, in the fellowship of the local church. We’re going to see four themes. The first, if you’re taking notes and you’re looking for an outline, here it is. The first theme, verses 1 through 4, Paul teaches us about money and the church of God. Money and the church of God. It doesn’t get any more real-world than that. Does it? How you use your money and how you give to the local church. Money and the church of God. Then 5 to 9, mission and the plan of God. Paul shares his travel plans. He tells them a little about what God is doing in Ephesus, and there are little notes in there about the sovereignty of God and His purposes that we ought not to miss. So money and the church of God; mission and the plan of God. Then, 10 through 18, ministry and the servants of God. He gives them a list of leaders and Gospel servants that he commends to them and we want to think about what it is that he is commending that we might value similar leaders as the Lord provides them for us. Money and the church of God, mission and the plan of God, ministry and the servants of God, and then we’ll go back to verses 13 and 14 and verses 19 through 24 and think about maturity and the family of God. What does it look like to live the Christian life and grow in Christian maturity in the context of the church, the family of the living God?

 

So that’s our outline. Money and the church of God. Mission and the plan of God. Ministry and the servants of God. And maturity and the family of God. Before we read the passage and then begin to work through those themes together, let me ask if you would please bow your heads with me as we pray. Let’s pray.

 

O Lord, would You please help us. We want to understand; we need to understand. More than that, we need grace, having understood, to begin to obey. We need grace to believe. We believe, but Lord, help our unbelieving. You have appointed Your Word to be the principal means by which You might answer such a prayer in our lives. And so, we pray, give to us the Holy Spirit to illuminate our understanding that by the means of the Word read and proclaimed we might grow, for the glory of Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

1 Corinthians chapter 16 at the first verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:

 

“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.

 

I will visit you after passing through Macedonia, for I intend to pass through Macedonia, and perhaps I will stay with you or even spend the winter, so that you may help me on my journey, wherever I go. For I do not want to see you now just in passing. I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.

 

When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord, as I am. So let no one despise him. Help him on his way in peace, that he may return to me, for I am expecting him with the brothers.

 

Now concerning our brother Apollos, I strongly urged him to visit you with the other brothers, but it was not at all his will to come now. He will come when he has opportunity.

 

Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.

 

Now I urge you, brothers – you know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints – be subject to such as these, and to every fellow worker and laborer. I rejoice at the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus, because they have made up for your absence, for they refreshed my spirit as well as yours. Give recognition to such people.

 

The churches of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord. All the brothers send you greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss.

 

I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen.”

 

Amen, and we give thanks to God that He has spoken on His holy Word.

 

Now I don't know about you, but one of the challenging things for me as we've worked our way through 1 Corinthians over the last year or so has been how often the apostle Paul has moved past teaching and instruction straight to meddling. Haven't you found that to be so? He's stomped all over my toes so many times in this book, and I can't tell you the number of occasions when, sitting in that chair during the offertory, I've been slightly trembling knowing the apostle Paul has some punchy and hard things to say. But here we are now; we've made it! We're at the end of the book. You haven't fired me yet, and it's almost over! So how much trouble can I get into in the remaining twenty-four verses? After all, how much damage can Paul do? It's only twenty-four verses at the end of the book. Well, it turns out, he can do a fair amount.

 

Money and the Church of God

Let’s take a look at it, especially in the first opening four verses or so. Would you turn your attention there with me, please? "Now concerning the collection for the saints." So when you see those words, “now concerning,” we’ve noticed them over and again in 1 Corinthians, that indicates that the apostle is responding to a question that has reached him from the Corinthians; they’re asking for clarification. He’s previously given instruction about this collection. Verse 3 tells us it is a collection for the saints in Jerusalem. We know something of what has been going on. Acts 11:28, the church in Antioch had a prophet named Agabus who prophesied that a famine would overtake the region and so the believers in Antioch began a collection and sent it to Judea, to the believers in Jerusalem, we are told, by the hand of Barnabas and Saul; the apostle Paul. And it became Paul’s custom in all of his churches to continue that pattern. And so he tells us here in verse 1 that he gave the same instructions to the churches of Galatia. 2 Corinthians chapter 8 we are told the churches in Macedonia participated. Philippians 4:17-18 tell us one of those churches in Macedonia has been participating from the get-go, not only sending relief to the saints in Judea but also in maintaining the apostle Paul's Gospel ministry. 

 

A Pattern Across Congregations

And I want you to see three things that we learn in these four verses about giving in the New Testament church. First of all, we see already, don’t we, that it was a pattern across congregations. It was a pattern for the Corinthians and for the Galatians and for the Macedonians. It was a pattern in Antioch. The churches together are sharing and bearing one another’s burdens. The churches of the New Testament, you see, were not radically independent congregations. But they shared a common mission and they were participating together in common relief, supporting one another under a common leadership in governance structure. You see the apostle Paul issuing specific direction about whether or not the leaders that the Corinthians would appoint to deliver their gift would get to go singly at his say-so or whether he would accompany them. He exercises real authority across congregations. You see the same authority exercised in Acts chapter 20. A council of elders and apostles gathered to issue decrees for the whole church. Here is, we might say, Biblical Presbyterianism of the New Testament kind. The strong are helping the weak. The churches are mutually connected in love and in a common mission under commonly recognized leadership. There’s a pattern. This is normative for all the churches.

 

Planned

Secondly, it is to be planned. The giving is to be planned. Look at verse 2. “On the first day of the week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up so that there will be no collecting when I come.” The first day of the week, since the day that Jesus came and stood in the Upper Room where the disciples were gathered with the doors closed for fear of the Jews that first Easter Sunday night, since then, the first day of the week has been the day of Christian assembly for worship. It is the Lord’s Day, Revelation 1:10, the Christian Sabbath Day. In Acts chapter 20, for example, the apostle Paul, we are told, reached the city of Troas. But he stayed seven days, verse 7, “in order that on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, he could preach to them.” And he went on. That was the occasion, famously, when he went on until midnight. So, you know, be thankful! He went on till midnight! There’s the apostolic standard, and I will fall blessedly short of it!

 

But you get the point. Sunday, the first day of the week, is the day of Christian assembly for worship. It is to be the day upon which Christians are to give for the support of the saints, the relief of the poor, and the cause of the Gospel. Make it a normal practice. He’s saying to them, “When the offering plate comes around, don’t look so surprised as if it had never happened before! This is the normal pattern! Don’t sort of look at it in dismay and pat yourself down looking for a few spare coins here or there, as if you’d never heard of such a thing. No, no, this is to be the regular Sunday pattern. Plan to give in this way,” he says. Notice also in verse 2 he says, “Store it up, so there will be no collecting when I come.” The language he uses, “store it up,” is connected to the word for a treasury. There were treasuries like this in the pagan temples at Corinth. There was a treasury like this in the temple in Jerusalem. Here, Paul is saying, “I want you to give to your local church. The local church is to make plans to store it up in some fashion so that when I come I don’t have to take up another collection from all the various households of the Corinthian assembly. Instead, we can receive and administer the gift in that way.” And so believers are to plan. They’re to plan to give regularly, Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day, and the church as a whole is to plan to store it up in their treasury and administer it appropriately. Given that it’s a pattern; it’s normative across the churches. It is planned and regular.

 

Proportional

Thirdly, it is to be proportional. Do you see that again in verse 2? “On the first day of the week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up as he may prosper.” Now we often talk about tithing. Tithes and offerings. And that’s fair enough as far as it goes. Of course, tithing really is the Old Testament pattern, and if you insist on the vocabulary of tithing, you should know that three tithes were paid. There was a tithe to the Levites, a tithe for the temple, and a tithe for the poor. So it worked out probably somewhere in the region of about 23%. And I’m sure our deacons will be thrilled to receive any such tithe that you wish to make – 23%! You don’t look impressed at all! You’re not buying it, I can tell! That was the Old Testament pattern. It’s a good rule of thumb.

 

The New Testament pattern, however, is much more radical than that. It’s a slightly different principle. It’s a principle of radical, sacrificial generosity. We don’t have time right now, but perhaps later you might turn to Acts chapter 4:32-37 if you want to see some examples of radical, sacrificial generosity – believers liquidating assets to supply needs in the local church. Or, you could look again at 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 and the churches of Macedonia and their extraordinary example. We’ve alluded to them already. The New Testament principle, Paul says, 2 Corinthians 8:9, is this. First, we begin by looking at Christ, who, “though He was rich, for our sakes He became poor, that by His poverty we might become rich.” We look at what Jesus has done for us and we say, “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small. Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all!” We give not only from our resources; we give our very selves with nothing held back. All of it is His who gave His all for us. Radical, costly, sacrificial generosity, so that we’re not asking, “What is the minimum I may legitimately give?” We’re asking, rather, “How may I give in such a way that reflects my devotion to my Savior who gave His all for me?”

 

And if you’re asked the question, “Well what does Paul mean by this principle of proportionality here in the New Testament when he says, ‘Give as each may prosper’?” well here’s what I think he means. I don’t think he has a percentage in mind particularly. I think, rather, what he means is, “Take a good, honest look at the way God has prospered you. See how much He has blessed you.” Think about the number of times you’ve eaten out, number of times you’ve visited the movies in the last month. That Netflix’s subscription. The shoes you wear; the clothes you’ve purchased. The food on your table. Think of all the luxuries that you enjoy. Think of the abundance the Lord has lavished upon you. His kindness in the prosperity that you enjoy. And then ask yourself whether your own pleasures have a higher claim on your money than the cause of Jesus Christ. Do your own pleasures have a higher claim on your resources than the cause of the Savior you profess to love and follow and serve? Would someone, looking at your bank account, conclude that Jesus Christ holds first place in the priorities of your life and in your heart? And so, Paul gives us a word here, doesn’t he, an exhortation, about giving and the church of God.

 

Mission and the Plan of God

Then secondly, would you think with me about mission and the plan of God. Verses 5 through 9; there’s a marvelous balance here that I want us to be sure we observe. On the one hand, he exhorts us about giving. The church needs resources. There’s Gospel work to be funded. There is mercy to be provided. So we need those resources; without it, we can’t do it. That’s one part of this. But then, on the other, he’s going to show us that the work of God belongs to God. And there’s no leverage we can apply that will make the church grow, or see sinners saved, or cause a soul to move one inch from hell or one inch toward heaven. Salvation belongs to the Lord. And that marvelous balance is important.

 

So look with me at verses 5 through 9. We get Paul’s travel plans. “I’m planning to come and see you,” he says to them. “I’m going through Macedonia. If I can, I’d love to come and spend the winter with you. I don’t just want to pay you a fleeting visit. I want to spend some quality time with you. I care about you.” And then he tells them a little bit about what he’s doing now. “I’m in Ephesus,” he says, “as I write this. I’m going to stay on till Pentecost because,” verse 9, “a wide door for effective work has been opened to me.” And we take that in. We get a little glimpse into Paul’s missionary plans.

 

And as we see that summary of his intentions, do please be careful to notice the little notes and acknowledgments of the sovereignty of God. The Lord is King, even over the apostle's plans. So verse 7, “I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits.” Verse 9, “A wide door for effective ministry has been opened for me, and there are many adversaries.” Paul didn’t open the door. The Ephesians didn’t open the door. In fact, there are so many who are opposed to him in Ephesus, trying to slam the door in his face, “But God has opened the door wide for effective ministry.”

What’s the message? It’s not hard to see. Salvation belongs to the Lord and the cause and advancement of the Lord’s work and the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ belongs in His hands. And we mustn’t think that any of the usual metrics commonly employed to measure success – you know the usual metrics? The three “B”s – bodies, buildings, and bucks. Right? To measure success in the church. We mustn’t think that the usual metrics – bodies, buildings, and bucks – are any kind of guarantee of Gospel success in the mission of God. No, it is all “if God permits.” It’s only ever if “a great door of effective work is opened.” God must save. God must add daily to the church those who are being saved. God must open the door. And so we need to cry to the Lord to work mightily and to open a door for His Word in Jackson, Mississippi and around the world. We mustn’t rest secure if we have more money than we need, because it’s not money that leverages success, but the sovereign will and purpose of the living God. And we mustn’t panic as a church if we have less than we hoped. Salvation belongs to the Lord. It’s His work and we are in His hands. Money and the church of God. Mission and the plan of God.

 

Ministry and the Servants of God

Thirdly, ministry and the servants of God. Look at verses 10 through 18 for a moment and just keep in mind how Paul began his letter. You remember the opening few chapters are largely taken up with Paul trying to help the Corinthians past their arrogant, prideful, boastful, divisive party spiritedness. You remember? You remember what they were saying? “I follow Cephas. I follow Apollos. I follow Paul. I follow Christ.” They were trying to claim some of the glory that attached itself to their favorite celebrity to lend some credence to their personal party, their little schismatic group. You see? That’s how they were looking at leadership.

 

Different Model of Leadership

Well, Paul here offers a very different model of leadership. He commends leaders to them, but for very different reasons. Not because they were impressive or dramatic or charismatic or powerful personalities. Not because of the force of their rhetoric or for their imposing demeanor. But for very different reasons. The leaders Paul urges the Corinthians to care for and to help and to honor and to submit to and to recognize are men like Timothy, verse 10. “Help him,” he says. “Don’t look down upon him. Don’t despise him. Help him. Because,” verse 10, he’s doing the work of the Lord, as I am.” Men like Apollos in verse 12, whom he describes as “our brother,” just like the Corinthians themselves in verse 15 are “brothers.” Apollos is just a brother among brothers. These leaders, he says, “devote themselves to the service of the saints. They are fellow workers and laborer.” That’s an important word. It’s the same word the disciples use in Luke 5:5 when Jesus asks them, you remember, to cast their nets on the other side. And they sort of look at Him in frustration and say, “But Lord, we’ve been busy all night. We’ve worked hard at our nets all night and we’ve caught nothing!” That’s the word. They’ve been laboring at their nets. It’s not glamorous. It comes without any prestige. They’re just laborers, you see; not known for their power or their insight or their strategic brilliance. They’re singled out because they are the servants of all.

 

Like the household of Stephanus in verses 15 and 16. Men like Stephanus and Fortunatus and Achaicus who are to receive the recognition of the church not because they’re great, but because they are lowly; not because they are mighty, but because they are servants. You remember the teaching of the Savior, the Lord Jesus, who said, “Whoever wishes to be first must be least of all and the servant of all,” Mark 9:35. “Whoever would be great among you, must be your servant. 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 give His life a ransom for many,” Matthew 20:26 and following.

 

Values of the World

Now those aren’t the values of the world at all. Are they? That’s not usually how we identify leaders and people we want to follow and emulate. You remember when the prophet Samuel came to Jesse’s farm looking for a new king for Israel, and Eliab, the firstborn, steps forward. And Samuel is impressed. He thinks to himself, “Just look at this guy! Surely, surely here is the Lord’s anointed!” he says. “He’s the complete package. He’s powerful and impressive and articulate. This is it!” And you remember what the Lord said to Samuel? “Do not look on his appearance or the height of his stature, for I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not at man sees. Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” And each of the sons are paraded in turn in front of Samuel. None of them is chosen. Poor David, of course, is utterly ruled out. He’s too young. He’s insignificant. He’s a shepherd out on the fields. He could never be king. But when at last he is called, the Lord told Samuel, “Arise and anoint him king. For it is he.” That’s how God works. Isn’t it? Not the great and the good, not the sophisticated and the powerful, but the servant of all and the least of these. Give recognition to such. Follow these men. Help them on their way. Submit to them. Be subject to such as these.

 

The Example of Jesus

That's precisely the example of the Lord Jesus. "The Son of Man came to serve, not to be served, and to give His life a ransom for many." And one look at Him and we'd never put Him on our church staff. Jesus could not get hired at First Presbyterian Church. He had no form or beauty that we should desire Him, Isaiah says. He was despised and rejected of men. We esteemed Him not. And we nailed Him to the cross and forsook Him and denied Him and rejected Him. And that's God's way. Isn't it? That's the kind of leadership, that's God's definition of a leader – true greatness. The servant of all. We need to pick our leaders well, based not on their pedigree or their personality or on their gifts, but on this one question above all others. Are they the servants of all? Are they fellow workers and laborers? We are to put these men at their ease and to help them on their way and to recognize them and to be subject to them.

 

Would you pray for your ministers, for your elders, and for your deacons, that the Lord would save us from the allure of the praise of men or from the counterfeit paradigm of leadership that the world provides? That He would make us the servants of all, fellow workers, brothers among brothers, laboring for your good. Would you pray for your interns and for your seminarians as they are being prepared for a lifetime of Gospel ministry that the Lord would make them servant-hearted men, workers, laborers, and fellow servants? Money and the church of God. Mission and the plan of God. Ministry and the servants of God.

 

Maturity and the Family of God

Finally, maturity and the family of God. And here I want you to look in two places. Verses 13 and 14, there are some instructions to us, very practical and easy to understand instructions for Christian maturity and Christian fidelity for us at an individual level. And then in 19 through 24, Paul reminds us that we need one another, that we’re to live out the Christian life in the context of the family of the people of God.

Christian Maturity and Fidelity

Look at verses 13 and 14 first. “Be watchful. Stand firm in the faith. Act like men. Be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” Be watchful. Vigilance. If you take a concordance when you get home and you’ve got a spare ten minutes or so, it’s a fascinating study just to look for those words – be watchful; keep alert; watch and pray. And you’ll find it is actually a recurring theme throughout the New Testament when it gives practical instruction on living the Christian life. And the presupposition behind those exhortations is always that we are at war, that the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. And we need to stay alert. “We must watch and pray lest we fall into temptation,” Jesus told the disciples. “Be watchful,” Paul tells the Corinthians. There is no slumbering at your post in the Christian life. We need to be vigilant. Temptation is real. The enemy is real. The flesh is weak, though the spirit may be willing, and so we need to stay alert.

 

Then he says, “Stand firm in the faith.” The faith, there, refers to the body of apostolic doctrine contained in the holy Scriptures. He wants us to remain immovably fixed upon the rock of Biblical truth. We are to care about doctrine and about orthodoxy. And then he says, “Act like men.” He says, “Man up. Put your big boy pants on and march into the fray. You’re going to need some courage. It’s going to be hard. The Christian life will be painful and costly. And so we need to be ready for it. Stand firm. Be strong.” And then he gives us this marvelous balancing note. You see here’s what true manhood actually looks like, Biblically speaking. “Act like men. Be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” Let love animate your every action. Let love be the characteristic mark of everything you do and all that you say in the service of your master. May you be a man and a woman marked by, distinguished by, known for your love. “By this shall all men know that you are My disciples: if you have love for one another.”

 

Family of the People of God

And that note of love actually sounds again and again with clarity in verses 19 through 24. Doesn’t it? If you look there, “The churches of Asia send greetings. Aquila and Prisca together with the church in their house send greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss.” You know whatever the Presbyterians of Corinth were like, they were certainly not the “frozen chosen.” Were they? There’s intimacy! There’s warmth! This is a family. They love each other. They love each other. You see the same note in verse 24 from the apostle himself. “My love be with you all in Christ Jesus.” They cared deeply about one another. You see, we need each other. Don’t we? You can’t do verses 13 and 14 on your own. You simply cannot be watchful as you need to be without someone watching your six. We need brothers and sisters who’ve got our back because there’s a war on and we need one another. We’ve got to trust each other. Let one another in and learn to love one another. And so, Christian maturity is a group project. You can’t do it on your own. You cannot use the church as an occasional provider of religious goods and services and expect to grow in Christian maturity and faithfulness to your Savior. No, this is the place, these are the people among whom you’re called to live and serve and with them, together, you will grow as we learn to love one another. Love is so important.

 

In fact, in verse 22, the apostle Paul, when he writes this little postscript, he takes the pen from his amanuensis and he writes these last few lines himself. In this little postscript, he offers a word of warning. Do you see it in verse 22? "If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come!" He's coming. Be warned. A loveless heart faces the judgment of God. You can't say you love Jesus and then hate your brother. The truth isn't in you. We must learn first to meld in love for the Savior who loved us and gave Himself for us. And then, because we love Him, to turn in love to those He loves – the people of God.

 

And I think it’s beautiful to notice the very last words with which this letter concludes. They’re the same words with which the letter begins. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “called to be saints, sanctified in Christ Jesus.” And now he concludes, “My love be with you all in Christ Jesus.” Because if there’s one thing we must be sure we don’t walk away from 1 Corinthians without grasping clearly it’s surely this. That apart from Christ, we can do nothing. That we can’t ever hope to be radically generous and sacrificial without seeing what Christ has done in His generosity and self-giving love for us. We can’t hope to be faithful in the mission to which He has called us without knowing that Christ has purchased for Himself a people from every tribe and language and nation. We can’t hope to be servant-hearted ministers in service of the cause of Christ without seeing Jesus Himself as the great paradigm of the suffering servant. And we can never hope for Christian maturity unless, as we seek to be watchful and stand firm and act like men and be strong and love one another, we do it clinging to and resting on the Lord Jesus Christ. And so let me plead with you to make certain of this one issue. Are you clinging to Christ? He’s all you need. He’s all your heart needs. Get Christ.

 

Let’s pray together.

 

Our Father, we acknowledge to You that sometimes our treasure is not in heaven where moth and rust cannot destroy and thieves cannot break in and steal. And so our hearts are where our treasure is – in our own pleasures. And so we struggle to be radically generous as the New Testament church was. We confess that we have valued the world’s model of leadership and not the model provided by the Savior who loved us and gave Himself for us. We confess that when we think about mission we tend to think mechanically. If we just do the right things, the right results will follow. If we can work on the metrics, then growth will be the inevitable and mechanical result. And we confess to loveless hearts; I confess these things before You. And so as we bow down in Your presence, we cry to You to lead us back to Christ in whom alone we may find the remedy for all that ails our hearts. And so we ask it in His name, amen.

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