How the mighty are fallen. Those rich and powerful Premier League football teams have been outmanoeuvred and outplayed. Who’d have thought that a team costing just £50 million – the sort of money the big boys pay for one player these days could win the title. Well done, Leicester City. It’s almost as good as a humble League 2 team that cost £7,500 getting to the League Cup final!So it’s fitting in a week when we’ve seen the proud humbled and the humble exalted that we come to this passage. Now, the context here is that Paul has been calling the Corinthian church to stop dividing into factions, stop putting their heroes on pedestals and to be united in love.
God calls us to be united as His people and to love one another. Now a church that is loving, caring and united will be a humble church. There’s simply no place for fragile egos in God’s family! So Paul goes on to show how the Gospel confronts our pride and envy.
So we are to be humble
- The Gospel message judges human pride (v 18-25)
In verse 17, Paul has reminded us that he didn’t get caught up in the whole “who baptised who” shenanigans because his focus was on preaching about Christ crucified. He didn’t want people to get hooked up on his own wise and clever thoughts but rather to see the power of the Cross at work. How does that power work? Well it acts both to save and to destroy.
Paul identifies two types of people – those who face destruction and those who are being saved (v18).
The first group see the Gospel as foolish, useless, to be ignored. They just don’t get it! In fact, there is a sense in which the very good news of the Gospel acts to judge them and condemn them. Verse 19 is a quote from Isaiah 29:14. Back in Isaiah’s day, the people would have looked to Jerusalem as their stronghold and refuge, the great city of David. They thought they were safe. But when they turned away from God and relied on their own strength, they forgot that it was him they depended on. So God warned that he would come in judgement brining destruction on their symbols of safety and national glory.
So the thrust of v 20 is “where will all your knowledge and cleverness get you?” Where are the philosophers and scribes (representing here the learning of Jewish law teachers as well as Greek philosophers)? The Gospel says that all your debates and discussions are pointless. The Gospel says that if you fail to see Jesus, then all of your learning and qualifications are pointless.
Why could they not get it? What was their blind spot to the good news? Well part of the answer is that it was God’s plan (v 21) so that Jesus would get all the glory. But part of it was simply good old fashioned idolatry. They wanted God to conform to their own expectations about how he should behave.
The Jews demanded a sign (v22(. In the past, God had shown his power to deliver them as a nation from their enemies. He destroyed Pharaoh’s army and split the sea so they could escape slavery in Egypt. So they demanded a sign from Jesus. It wasn’t that he didn’t do any miracles (nor was Paul lacking in this area). But these signs did not match their demands. The Romans were still in power. They still weren’t free.
Now here’s the question. Do I expect God to conform to my demands? Will I only trust him if he sorts my life out in the way I expect? Do I put God to the test?
The Greeks demanded human wisdom (v22). They loved their philosophers. They enjoyed debate. They could spend ages discussing the big questions. Look at Plato and Aristotle and you discover that a lot of this discussion centred on how to organise society so that the right people held power for the common good. Paul wasn’t interested in that. You see, Greek philosophy in the end said that we have the answers. If we think things through. If we put the right people in charge, if we conform to certain social and cultural norms then everything will get better and be okay with time.
Are we tempted to think that we can sort things out? If I read the right self-help book, follow the right steps I’ll be able to overcome my problems. If I learn to fit in with the right crowd I’ll belong. If I can just get that lucky break leading to success & popularity, I’ll be set for life.
The Gospel blows all of those false assumptions out of the water. It’s message is that we cannot save ourselves. God steps in to save us. Oh and the way he did this was deeply offensive. The Jews saw anyone who hung on a tree as cursed. The Gospel asked them to worship a condemned, cursed, pathetic man.
You see, if we really get the Gospel then we’ll realise it is offensive. Jesus hung on the cross, a common criminal, mocked, naked, ashamed. It’s ugly and embarrassing. Jesus took our place. In other words, when Jesus met you and me that’s what we were like, weak, ugly, embarrassing, guilty. I don’t want to admit that. I want to see faith as something that helps me get on in life but essentially I want to think that I’m okay, likeable, decent, capable. The Gospel says that I am not those things. That’s why I need a saviour. It’s not that God loved me because I was loveable. God loved the unlovely.
And so, when I get that. When I see that I was helpless, dead in my sin, worthless, vile, an object of shame then I realise all over again how wonderful the Gospel is. I’ve been declared righteous, God looks at me as innocent. I’ve been redeemed. I had no value but God valued me enough to buy me back. I was an object of shame but he has covered my shame.
God’s wisdom is greater than the World’s so that even when it looks foolish it is still wiser. You see it’s a bit like me trying to read a medical journal. It all looks a bit like gobbledygook to me but not because it is but because it’s beyond my intellectual capabilities. When I’m blinded by sin and pride, I cannot grasp the simple wonderful wisdom and power of the Gospel. When the Holy Spirit gets to work in our lives he opens our eyes to the beauty, majesty, power and wisdom of the Gospel. (v25)
- The Gospel’s affect reminds us of our utter dependence on Jesus alone (v26 –31)
So part one of Paul’s argument is “Have a look again at the Gospel message.” Part 2 is take a look at yourselves. What affect has the gospel had?
The answer is that it has brought people who were nobodies, who didn’t amount to much into God’s kingdom. It’s not about changing political structures, it’s not about self-improvement. It’s about God saying “Those who have been ignored, overlooked, discounted are the very ones I’m going to call my people and use in my plan.”
Paul says “few of you were wise in the worlds eyes or powerful or wealthy” (v 26). Now this doesn’t mean that there weren’t any wealthy, clever or even important people in the church. There were. In our congregation we have people who own their own businesses or are in senior management. We have people with degrees and even PHDs. Don’t devalue those things or be embarrassed by them. If that’s you, see those good things as precious gifts from God to be used for his glory. However, let’s note two things.
First of all, that if I find my value in my social, economic or academic status then I’ll discover that no matter how well I do, there’ll always be someone recognised as cleverer, richer, more popular or more important than me. I’ll end up crushed by the weight of expectation and by rivalry and jealousy.
Secondly, what Paul says is true isn’t it. We aren’t generally speaking a group of rich, famous, powerful people. In fact, in our congregation we have many people who might feel that they are literal nobodies, those struggling to make ends meet, those who have been deserted and disowned, those seeking asylum, lacking even legal status in this country. And that’s exactly what the church should be like. So if that’s how you feel then know this. You are a citizen of heaven, your identity and status is in Christ, he declared you precious, you are part of a family. You belong.
That’s what God does. He made an insignificant group of tribes into his chosen people. He made nobodies into somebodies because that’s what he does. He is the God who creates a whole Universe from nothing with a word. He’s the God who takes an infertile woman and makes her the mother of a great nation. He’s the God who takes dead sinners and gives them life. He does that for you and for me, today.
Why does God work in this way? Paul says it is so that no -one can boast. There’s no place for false pride (v21). It means that we find our identity and salvation in Jesus (v30). It means that Jesus is demonstrated to be Lord and so we worship, glorify and boast in Him.
Now that’s the why but we also have a how. We are humble
- Serving when I am not seen.
Remember that there’s all sorts of interesting points and application here but Paul’s primary aim is to illustrate and explain his point that the church should be united not divided into factions.
Those factions arise out of human pride. They arise out of our quest for power, control, esteem. In effect, Paul says here that if God has brought down the idols of pride, power and popularity in the world, then don’t go bringing them back in the context of the church!
Now this means that if instead of competing for power and attention, I’ll be committed to the wellbeing of the whole body. In the church I will be humble and regard others as better than myself. I’ll take that same attitude into the world around me. This will actually make me more effective in life because I’ll focus on getting what needs to be done, not just on being seen to do what is wanted.
Now pastorally, this can be incredibly liberating and healing. You see, when I do something and nobody notices then I feel slighted. When I change something and the next minute someone changes it back, I can feel that my efforts are wasted and my work has been destroyed. I’m not excusing rudeness here, we should say thank you, we should value and respect what people do. But when I don’t think I’m getting that respect, it can be tempting to give up. And if I’m doing things for myself then I will lose motivation.
But when I realise that everything I do is for God and his glory. When I remember that my value is in him and his love for me not in my achievements then it motivates me to keep going, keep serving, keep witnessing, keep loving knowing that he is fulfilling his purposes in me.
- Giving to those who can’t or won’t give back
The world says that a gathering of people is a networking opportunity. We should be looking for the person to talk to who can help us achieve our next goal. The world says that if I give hospitality then I expect that at some point it will be reciprocated. The World hears “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” as “Do unto others and they will do unto you.”
Jesus told his followers to give to those who can’t give back. Know that they won’t be able to repay you. It may be that they won’t even notice that you’ve helped them. By the way, giving back is not just about paying back like for like. It’s not just that I invite someone round for dinner and expect to be bought a coffee at Starbucks next week. It’s not that I lend them some money expecting to be repaid or helped out when I’m in difficulty. Sometimes what we get back is a sense of dependency (sometimes referred to as co-dependency). They give back loyalty. By the way, I think this one is challenging for churches. We want people to put their trust in Jesus, we want them to become useful in God’s kingdom but it’s important that this comes out of a genuine response to the gospel, not because they feel indebted to us as a church.
- Loving the unlovely
Let’s face it, some people are easier to like than others. Some people are hard to be around. They may have unpleasant habits and they may have deeply offensive views. We are called to love the unlovely because Jesus loved us when we were unlovely. Jesus became an offense on the Cross because we were offensive. We were his enemies.
In Matthew 7:12 Jesus talks about “the Golden Rule.” He tells his followers to do treat others as they would want to be treated. It’s a principle that most philosophies and religions try to follow. I think there’s something different about what Jesus calls us to do though. Normally, the rule is about reciprocating. Normally, I treat others well hoping they will treat me well too. What is more, there are limits to that. I expect them to treat me in line with what I deserve. I want to suggest that with Jesus’s followers, it isn’t just “treat others as you would be treated.” It’s “Treat others as you have been treated.” It’s because Jesus came to serve, gave what could not be reciprocated and loved the unlovable that we serve, give, love.
Now it might feel like we’re talking a lot about what a church should be like and that could feel very insular. That’s great for Sundays but what about how God’s word affects my week, Monday to Saturday.
I want to suggest two things in response
First of all, if church is not just about gathering in a building on a Sunday but being part of a community of family who love each other and witness together then this stuff applies throughout the week.
Secondly, what we learn in the church should be “tracked out” into daily life. Do I take these same principles into the workplace? If I do, it will enable me to be a faithful witness and a useful employee. Do I take them into my family life? What about my neighbourhood? If I start serving the community, not t be noticed but out of joy and delight in the Lord, if I love the unlovely, if I give and don’t expect to give back then that will start to transform the community.
The church that Christ calls us to be is one where there is love and unity. That comes when we fully grasp the Gospel and so put Christ first, boasting in him, seeking to glorify him.
 There’s of course place for people with fragile egos because that’s part of what it means to need the Gospel!
 See Gordon Fee, 1 Corinthians, 74.