This lesson is an admonition to the Corinthians to stimulate them in the performance of their duties. The words are easily enough said, but execution is difficult and practice rare. For Saint Paul gives a strange description of the Christian life, and the color and characteristics with which he describes it render it decidedly unattractive.
Paul says, "In everything commending ourselves, as ministers of God, in much patience."
The apostle here portrays the Christian life in its outward works. Not that it is possible for anyone by works to become a Christian; but since we are servants of God, we show evidence that we are godly people by fruits and signs.
Carefully notice his phrase "ministers of God". The evidence of your eyes may not believe that such people are God’s servants when you see the treatment they must endure. Yet, far from being a sign that we are not His people, He accepts patience in suffering as pleasing to Him. What remarkable service it is this that we must endure so much suffering, so much affliction, anxiety, labors, and sleeplessness. Some in the past, and perhaps we in the future, suffer stripes, imprisonment, and more!
We are not allowed to make up our own fictitious services of God; He does not accept just anything we imagine as pleasing to Him. But these are true services of God, which Paul lists, which subdue the body and put to death the sinful flesh.
Some of these, like fasting and toiling, deserve special notice. Although they are not works that justify us, yet they should not be despised. We must practice those things, instead of giving free rein to the flesh to indulge our laziness.
Paul also mentions riots or unruliness. Not that by our teaching or life we should be guilty of such unruliness against others; rather, we should be quiet and obedient. Christ says [Mt 22, 21], "Render therefore unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar's." Paul's meaning is that when we become victims of disturbances on the part of others, we should submit; just as we are not to inflict upon others distresses, stripes, or imprisonment, but rather to accept them at their hands. So Paul heads the list with patience; which does not produce riots, but endures them.
In these dark times we are sometimes charged with hatefulness because we object to certain immoralities that our culture has embraced. Although Christians are accused of disturbing the peace, yet, on the contrary, we patiently bear riotous behavior directed against us. Thus it was with Elijah, whose life was constantly being threatened, who was accused by King Ahab of troubling Israel. [1 Kings 18, 17-18] When we are charged with inciting violence, let us remember that not only did the apostles have to hear the same accusation, but even Christ, with all His innocence, was so accused. More than that, He was falsely reviled on the cross and charged with insurrection. He was even put to death as a Jewish king guilty of opposition to Cæsar and of inciting the people.
These marks of the Christian life—patience, affliction, necessities, distresses, stripes, imprisonments, labor, sleeplessness, fasting, purity, etc. are instrumental in our service to God. He will not have idle gluttons, nor sleepy and impatient servants. For example, idle youths may have an easy life, and imagine their self-appointed works excuse them from hard work. But all men should labor and earn their bread, according to Paul. [2 Thes 3, 12] By labor, our text teaches, we serve God.
Then Paul adds to these the words, "In knowledge."
By “knowledge” Paul means discretion and reason. He speaks of the Jews [Rom 10, 2] as having "a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge"; that is, zeal without understanding or discretion. His message here is: "We should conduct ourselves in Christian affairs with reason and moderation lest we give offense to the weak by our use of Christian liberty. We should, with discretion and understanding, adapt ourselves to things that promote our neighbor's welfare.
Likewise, when we labor, fast, or regulate our sexual relations, we are to use reason, lest the body be injured by too much self-denial, and also by needlessly abstaining from sexual intercourse. The apostle counsels married people in First Corinthians [7, 5] not to deprive each other too long, lest they be tempted. In all such matters, Paul imposes no rules, limits, and laws. He leaves it entirely to each individual's discretion to decide and test for himself all questions of time and quantity based on the restraints of his flesh.
Paul adds the words, "By the Holy Spirit."
By these words, Paul is likely saying, "Beware of them who make great boast of the Spirit but have only a false, unclean, unholy spirit that produces division and discord. Beware of the boastfully spiritual, or of things that glitter and claim to be spiritual. Abide in that true, holy spirituality that comes from God's Holy Spirit, who imparts unity and harmony." As Paul says elsewhere [Eph 4, 3], "Be diligent to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." Those who continue in one faith, one mind and disposition, give testimony by their spiritual life and by the presence of the Holy Spirit that they are servants of God. For true spirituality, or a holy walk in the Spirit, means to be in heart and mind at one with the Spirit, through faith.
So Paul also says, "In sincere love, in the word of truth."
As the apostle disputes the claim of the Holy Spirit made by false sects and false prophets, so he disputes genuine love in lazy Christians. They may possess marks of true faith and spirituality, but are nevertheless cold, in fact false, as regards love.
Again, he disputes that people have the "Word of Truth" if they are abusers of the Word of God. They twist it and comment upon it according to their own fancy, and for their own honor and profit. While many that claim to be spiritual do not have the Word as source and give honor to the Spirit at the expense of the Word, these people PROFESS to magnify the Word. They want to be seen as master interpreters of the Scriptures, confident that their explanations are correct and superior. Paul here uses the phrase the "Word of truth"; that is, the true Word of God and not a twisted, falsified word masquerading as God's Word.
To this Paul adds, "In the power of God."
Paul elsewhere declares [Col 1, 29]: "I labor also, striving according to His working, that works in me mightily." Christians should have the assurance that, as members of the kingdom of God, He works with them. In whatever they do, especially spiritual undertakings that have the salvation of souls as aim, they beware of everything not absolutely known as true. Then the work is not theirs but God's.
In God's kingdom God alone is to speak, reign and act. Christ says [Mt 5, 16]: "Even so let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven"—that is, glorify Him as the worker, and not yourselves. Seductive spirits, however, come cavorting in their own power, and establish rules of their own, without caring whether it is done in the power of God. The consequence is that their work is neither permanent nor fruitful.
But where we have this confidence that our doctrine is pure and we abide in the true Word, then we can also trust that God supports and works with us. We may not feel His power. Our strength may seem to falter. But the Lord Almighty is with us, and His hand upholds us always.
In a similar manner, Paul says, "By the armor of righteousness."
This armor Paul more fully describes in Ephesians and in Thessalonians. There is the "shield of faith," the "helmet of salvation," the shoes of "the preparation of the Gospel of peace," and so on. Paul includes them all under the term "armor of righteousness". By this phrase, he teaches Christians to forsake carnal, worldly strength. He wants them to know that they are a spiritual people, spiritually warring against spiritual enemies pointed out on the right hand and on the left.
By the “left hand” he seems to include dishonor and evil report. We Christians are often seen as deceivers, unknown, dying, chastened, sorrowful, poor and needy. Scorn is hurled in our faces and our reputation is that of deceivers. The Christian must not only be often friendless and a stranger, but men will also be ashamed of him—often even his best friends—because of the reproach and evil report under which he lies in the eyes of the great, the wise, and the powerful of the world.
He must be as one dying—continually expecting death by reason of the hatred and envy directed against him, and the various persecutions he suffers. He may be beaten and scourged; must at times feel the weight of the enmity and envy by which the world inflicts torment. He is sorrowful, and for good reason, so ill does he fare in the world. He resembles the poor in that he possesses nothing, for if he has not been deprived of all his possessions he daily expects it.
Lest he despair of his hope in God and grow faint, he must be armed on the left hand against these enemies with a divine armor: with a firm faith, with the comfort of the divine Word, with hope, so that he may endure and exercise patience. Thereby he proves himself a true servant of God. False teachers and hypocrites, with all their pompous worship, are incapable of this.
On the right he places honor and good report. We are, at the same time that we are dishonored, true, well known, alive, defiant of death, full of joy, rich, possessing all things. The Christian will have a few who honor and commend him; some who give him a good report, to praise him as true and honest in doctrine. There will be some who receive and acknowledge him, who are not ashamed of him. He rejoices when things with him are at the worst, for his heart remains joyful in God, that joy finding expression in words, deeds and manner. Although poor in the goods of the world, he does not die of hunger, and he makes many spiritually rich through the Word. Even though he may have no possessions, he suffers no true lack. For himself, he possesses nothing, and gladly he endures his need; but for his neighbor's sake he can do all things, and all he has he is ready to place at the disposal of his neighbor whenever need requires.
These blessings also give occasion for a powerful armor, for we must guard against pride. If a Christian looks only on his success and his friends and good works, he may grow conceited. He may think, “What a good child of God I am! So many people are blessed because of me! They are lucky I am around!” But our spiritual armor protects us against pride. For if faith and hope and righteousness are in God, then they are not in us. Our armor turns us away from self-reliance and boasting in the heart.
Thus the Christian’s eyes are fixed upon God alone. Always choosing the middle path, he steers clear of danger on the right and on the left. He does not permit evil to overthrow him nor good to overly exalt, but he strives to honor God and benefit his neighbor. This, Paul instructs us, should be the manner of our life now while the season of grace continues; nor must we fail to heed this! This is the true service of God, the service well pleasing to him; unto which may God help us. Amen.
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