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Sketches From The Life of Paul
by Ellen G. White
Chapter 15: Paul to the Corinthians
The First Epistle to the Corinthians was written by the apostle Paul during the latter part of his stay in Ephesus. For no church had he felt a deeper interest or put forth more earnest effort than for the believers at Corinth. The good seed sown by him had seemed to promise an abundant harvest; but tares were planted by the enemy among the wheat, and ere long these sprung up, and brought forth their evil fruit. The period of Paul's absence was a time of severe temptation to the Corinthian church. They were surrounded by idolatry and sensualism under the gayest and most alluring aspect. While the apostle was with them, these influences had little power. With his firm faith, his fervent prayers, and [p. 150] words of instruction, and, above all, his own example to inspire and encourage, they could gladly choose to suffer affliction for Christ's sake, rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin. But when Paul departed, natural tastes and inclinations would assert control. It is not in a day that the education and habits of a life are to be overcome. Little by little, many departed from the faith.
For three years the voice which had urged them Heavenward had been silent. Like the children of Israel when Moses was hid from view by the clouds of Sinai, they sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. Not a few returned to the debasing sins of heathenism, as though they had never heard the heavenly message; some practiced iniquity in secret, others openly, and with a spirit of bravado, perverting the Scriptures to justify their course.
Paul had written briefly to the church, announcing a plan which he for a time cherished, of visiting them immediately upon leaving Ephesus, and again upon his return from Macedonia. In the same letter he had admonished them to cease all communication with members who should persist in their profligacy. But the Corinthians perverted the apostle's meaning, quibbled over his words, and excused themselves for disregarding his instructions.
A letter was sent to Paul by the church, revealing nothing of the enormous sins that existed among them, but in a self-complacent manner asking counsel from him concerning various matters. He was, however, forcibly impressed by the Holy Spirit, that the true state of the church had been concealed, and that this [p. 151] letter was an attempt to draw from him statements which the writers could construe to serve their own purposes. There had come to Ephesus about this time several members of the household of Chloe, a Christian family of high repute in Corinth. In answer to the questions of the apostle, these brethren reluctantly gave him a statement of facts as they existed. The church was rent in factions; the dissensions that arose at the time of Apollos' visit had greatly increased. False teachers were leading the brethren to despise the instructions of Paul. The doctrines and the ordinances of the gospel had been perverted. Pride, idolatry, and sensualism were steadily increasing among those who had once been disciples of Christ.
The apostle's worst fears were more than realized. He was filled with horror at the picture thus presented before him. But he did not even now yield to despair. He did not conclude that his work had been a failure. With a heart throbbing with anguish, and eyes blinded with tears, he sought counsel from God, and made his plans. His immediate visit to Corinth must be given up. In the present state of the church they were not prepared to profit by his labors. He sent Titus to Corinth to inform them of his change of plans, and to do what he could to correct the existing evils. Then, summoning all the courage of his nature, and keeping his soul stayed upon God, stifling all feelings of indignation at the ingratitude which he had received, and throwing his whole soul into the work, he dictated to the faithful Sosthenes one of the richest, most instructive, and most powerful of all his letters,—the first extant Epistle to the Corinthians. [p. 152]
With marvelous clearness and energy, he proceeded to answer the various questions proposed by the church, and to lay down general principles, which, if heeded, would produce a better spiritual condition. His letter is no long-studied production of the intellect. He did not seek by polished sentences to please the ear of his brethren. Their souls were in peril. He warned them of their dangers, and faithfully reproved their sins. He pointed them again to Christ, and sought to kindle anew the fervor of their early devotion.
After a tender greeting to the church, he refers to their experience under his ministry, by which they have been led to turn from idolatry to the service and worship of the true God. He reminds them of the gifts of the Holy Spirit which they have received, and presents before them their duty to make continual advancement in the Christian life, that they may attain to the purity and holiness of Christ. Having thus prepared the way, he speaks plainly of the dissensions among them, and exhorts his brethren, in the name and by the authority of Christ, to cease from their strife, and to seek earnestly for Christian unity and love.
Paul was free to mention how and by whom he had been informed of the divisions in the church: "It hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you." Though Paul was an inspired apostle, the Lord did not reveal to him at all times just the condition of his people. Those who were interested in the prosperity of the church, and saw evils creeping in, presented the matter before [p. 153] him, and from the light which he had previously received, he was prepared to judge of the character of these developments. Because the Lord had not given him a new revelation for that special time, those who were really seeking light did not cast aside his message as only a common letter. The Lord had shown him the difficulties and dangers which would arise in the churches, that when they should develop, he might know how to treat them. He was set for the defense of the church; he was to watch for souls as one who must render account to God; and should he not take notice of the reports concerning their state of anarchy and division? Most assuredly; and the reproof he sent them was written as much under the inspiration of the Spirit of God as were any of his epistles.
The apostle made no mention of the false teachers who were seeking to destroy the fruit of his labor. Because of the darkness and division in the church, he wisely forbore to irritate them by such references, for fear of turning some entirely from the truth. But he called the attention of the Corinthians to his own work among them, saying: "According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise master-builder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ."
Paul, as a champion of the faith, did not hesitate to declare the character of his work. But he did not thereby exalt himself when he asserted that he was a wise master-builder, who had laid the foundation for another to build upon. He stated, [p. 154] "For we are laborers together with God." He claimed no wisdom of his own; but divine power, uniting with his human efforts, had enabled him to present the truth in a manner pleasing to God. He was a co-laborer with Christ, a diligent worker in bringing spiritual knowledge from the word of God and the works of Christ, to all whose hearts were open to evidence. United with Christ, who was the greatest of all teachers, Paul had been enabled to communicate lessons of divine wisdom, which met the necessities of all classes and conditions of men, and which were to apply to all times, all places, and all people. In so doing, the apostle took no glory to himself, as a humble instrument in the hands of God.
The Lord gave Paul the wisdom of a skillful architect, that he might lay the foundation of the church of Christ. This figure of the erection of a temple is frequently repeated in the Scriptures, as forcibly illustrating the building up of the true Christian church. Zechariah refers to Christ as the Branch that should build the temple of the Lord. He also refers to the Gentiles as helping in this work: "And they that are far off shall come and build in the temple of the Lord."
Paul had now been working in the Gentile quarry, to bring out valuable stones to lay upon the foundation, which was Jesus Christ, that by coming in contact with that living stone, they might also become living stones. In writing to the Ephesians, he says: "Now, therefore, ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of [p. 155] the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner-stone; in whom all the building, fitly framed together, groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord. In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God."
In his letter to the Corinthians, he writes, further: "If any man build upon this foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble, every man's work shall be made manifest; for the day shall declare it." Some ministers, through their labors, furnish the most precious material, gold, silver, and precious stones, which represent true moral worth in those gained to the cause by them. The false material, gilded to imitate the true,—that is, a carnal mind, and unsanctified character, glossed over with seeming righteousness,—may not be readily detected by mortal eye; but the day of God will test the material.
The precious stones represent the most perfect Christians, who have been refined and polished by the grace of God, and by affliction which they have endured with much prayer and patience. Their obedience and love resemble those of the great Pattern. Their lives are beautified and ennobled by self-sacrifice. They will endure the test of the burning day, for they are living stones. "Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out."
From worldly policy, many endeavor, by their own efforts, to become as polished stones; but they cannot be living stones, because they are not built upon the true foundation. The day of God will reveal that they are, in reality, only wood, hay, and stubble. The great temple of [p. 156] Diana was ruined; her magnificence utterly perished; those who shouted, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians!" perished with their goddess and the temple which enshrined her. Their religion is forgotten, or seems like an idle tale. That temple was built upon a false foundation, and when tried, it was found to be worthless. But the stones that Paul quarried out from Ephesus were found to be precious and enduring.
Paul laid himself upon the true foundation, and brought every stone, whether large or small, polished or unhewn, common or precious, to be connected with the living foundation-stone, Christ Jesus. Thus slowly ascended the temple of the church of God. The apostle says, "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are."
Paul had, in vision, a view of the city of God, with its foundations; and he represents the true Christian converts to be gold, silver, and precious stones. But the Jews made the work of Paul exceedingly difficult. They were continually claiming to be the only true children of Abraham, and therefore the only legitimate building-stones for God's house; and when the Gentiles accepted the gospel, and were brought to the true foundation, the Jews murmured about this material. Thus they hindered the work of God; nevertheless, the apostle unflinchingly continued his labors.
Paul and his fellow-workmen were skillful architects, because they had learned from Christ and his works. They had not only to build, but [p. 157] to tear down. They had to contend with the bigotry, prejudice, and violence of men who had built upon a false foundation. Through the power of God, the apostles became mighty in pulling down these strongholds of the enemy. Many who wrought as builders of the temple of Christ's church could be likened to the builders of the wall in Nehemiah's day: "They which builded on the wall, and they that bore burdens, with those that laded, every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other held a weapon."
One after another of the noble builders fell at his work by the hand of the enemy. Stephen was stoned; James was slain by the sword; Paul was beheaded; Peter was crucified; John was exiled. And yet stone after stone was added to the building, the church increased in the midst of the terrible persecutions that afflicted her, and new workers on the wall took the place of the fallen.
These faithful builders sought diligently to bring precious material to the living foundation. Paul labored to have his own heart and character in harmony with the law of God, and then earnestly sought to bring about the same result with his converts. He exhorted Timothy, "Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine." This is the duty of every teacher of Bible truth,— to illustrate in his own life the active Christian virtues, to be pure in heart, given to holy conversation, to be good, and to do good.
God will not accept the most brilliant talent or the most able service, unless it is laid upon the living foundation stone, and connected with it; for this alone gives true value to ability, and [p. 158] makes the labor a living service to God. We may look back through centuries, and see the living stones gleaming like jets of light through the darkness of error and superstition. These precious jewels will shine with continually increasing luster throughout eternity. Although dead, the righteous of all ages testify, by the record of their words and deeds, to the truth of God. The names of the martyrs for Christ's sake are immortalized among the angels in Heaven; and a bright reward awaits them when the Lifegiver shall call them from their graves.
The flashing light of these polished stones, set for beauty in Christ's temple, has ever been exceedingly annoying to the world; for their brightness in the midst of surrounding darkness shows the strong contrast between righteousness and sin,—the gold of truth and the dross of error and tradition. Those who refuse to obey the truth themselves are unwilling that others should obey it; for the course of the faithful is a continual reproof to the unbelieving and disobedient.
Christ himself, the foundation and the crowning glory of God's temple, became "a rock of offense to them that stumble at the word." Yet that chief foundation stone, "disallowed indeed of men," was "chosen of God and precious." Though rejected by the Jewish builders, it became the head of the corner. Christ was put to death; but the work of building did not cease. He was honored in Heaven and by the faithful on earth as the true foundation.
The servants of Christ have ever been greatly hindered in their labors by the errors which have from time to time corrupted the church. Carnal minds wrest the word of God to make it pander [p. 159] to their follies and superstitions. That unerring word, the rule by which every stone brought to the foundation must be tested, has been virtually set aside by many who appeared to be zealous builders on the temple of Christ's church. Thus wood, hay, and stubble have been laid upon the foundation stone by heedless workmen as precious acquisitions.
When emperors, kings, popes, and priests sought to defile and destroy this temple of God with sacrilegious idolatry and persecution of the faithful, God's eye never for a moment left his building and his workmen. In the face of gaping prisons, torture, and flames, the work grew under the hands of faithful men; the structure arose, beautiful and symmetrical. The workmen were at times almost blinded by the mists of superstition that settled dense and dark around them, and they were beaten back by the violence of their opponents; yet, like Nehemiah and his co-laborers, they still urged forward the work. Their language was, The God of Heaven liveth and reigneth; he will prosper his own work. Therefore we, his servants, will arise and build.
The figure which Paul uses of the temple erected on the foundation stone is to represent the work of God's servants to the end of time. To all who are building for God, the apostle addresses words of encouragement and warning: "If any man's work abide, which he have built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire." The Christian teacher who faithfully presents the word of truth, leading his converts to [p. 160] holiness of heart and life, is bringing precious material to the foundation; and in the kingdom of God he will be honored as a wise builder. He who neglects to teach the truth in its purity, will gather converts who are not holy in heart and life. He is bringing material that will not stand the test. In the day of God he will suffer loss. Though it is possible that those who have spent the best of life in teaching error may, by repentance and faith, be saved at last, yet their work is lost. Their life has failed of the good results that might have been secured. Souls have gone down to ruin, who, by a faithful presentation of the truth, might have been saved. Says the apostle, "Let every man take heed how he buildeth."
Paul writes to the Corinthians: "Though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more." The apostle desired that his Corinthian brethren might be led to see the selfish ambition and intolerance which they had cherished. Hence he presents before them his own course of action, that they may by contrast perceive the sinfulness of their conduct. He labored for men of every nation, tongue, and people, and sought to meet the varied classes on their own ground. He avoided making prominent the difference between himself and them. He strove to lay aside his personal feelings, and to bear with the prejudices of the persons for whom he was laboring.
When working for the unconverted Jews, he did not at once begin to preach that which they regarded as dangerous heresy, but commenced with doctrines upon which they could agree. [p. 161] Beginning with Moses and the prophets, he led them gradually from point to point, comparing scripture with scripture, tracing down the fulfillment of prophecy, showing the evidence that Messiah was to have come, and the manner of his coming. He then clearly presented before them the object of his coming, and what he was to have done upon earth, and how he was to have been received.
When he had given many discourses upon these subjects, he testified that the Messiah had indeed come, and then preached the simple gospel of Jesus Christ. This was the craft which Paul mentions, saying that he caught them with guile. He thus tried to allay prejudice, and win souls to the truth. He refrained from urging upon the Jews the fact that the ceremonial laws were no longer of any force. He cautioned Timothy to remove any occasion for them to reject his labors. He complied with their rules and ordinances as far as was consistent with his mission to the Gentiles. He would not mislead the Jews nor practice deception upon them; but he waived his personal feelings, for the truth's sake.
With the Gentiles his manner of labor was different. He plainly informed them that the sacrificial offerings and ceremonies of the Jews were no longer to be observed, and preached to them Christ and him crucified.
The apostle in his labors encountered a class who claimed that the moral law had been made void, with the precepts of the ceremonial system. He vindicated the law of ten commandments, and held it up before the people as a rule of life. He showed that all men are under the most solemn obligation to obey that law, which Christ [p. 162] came to make honorable. He taught that Christ is the only one who can release men from the consequences of breaking the divine law; and that it is only by repentance for their past transgressions, faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ, and a life of obedience, that men can hope to receive the favor of God.
Paul did not make light of the conscientious scruples of those who were weak in faith or dull of comprehension. He did not display his superior knowledge, and show contempt for their ignorance; but he placed himself as nearly as possible on a level with them, manifesting for them true sympathy and love, and leading them to nobler and more elevated views. He says, "I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some." By cheerful, patient kindness and Christian courtesy, he won the hearts of the people, quieted their prejudices, and endeavored to teach them the truth without exciting their combativeness. All this he did because he loved the souls of men, and desired to bring them to Christ that they might be saved.
Paul endeavored to impress upon the minds of his Corinthian brethren the importance of firm self-control, strict temperance, and unflagging zeal in the service of Christ. To illustrate the Christian warfare, he compared it with the games celebrated near Corinth, and always attended by vast multitudes of spectators. This illustration was calculated to make a vivid impression upon the minds of those whom he addressed, as it referred to that with which they were intimately acquainted. Various games were instituted among the Greeks and Romans for the purpose of amusement, and also with the design of [p. 163] training young men to personal vigor and activity, and thus qualifying them for warfare. The foot-races were the most ancient and the most highly esteemed of these games. They were held at stated times and places with great pomp, and were patronized by kings, nobles, and statesmen. Persons of rank and wealth engaged in these exercises, and shrank from no effort or discipline necessary to obtain the honor won by the victors.
The contest was governed by strict regulations, from which there was no appeal. Before the names of candidates could be entered upon the list as competitors for the prize, they were required to undergo a severe preparatory training. Every indulgence of appetite, or other gratification which could in the least affect their mental or physical vigor, was strictly forbidden. The muscles were kept strong and supple. Every nerve must be under control, every movement certain, every step swift and unswerving, and all the powers kept up to the highest mark, to give any hope of success in the grand trial of strength and speed.
As the contestants in the race made their appearance before the eager and waiting crowd, their names were heralded, and the rules of the race expressly stated. The prize was placed in full view before the competitors, and they all started together, the fixed attention of the spectators inspiring them with zeal and determination to win. The judges were seated near the goal, that they might watch the race from its beginning to its close, and award the prize to the victor. If a man came off victorious through taking any unlawful advantage, the prize was not awarded to him. [p. 164]
Great risks were run in these contests; it was not unusual for one of the contestants to drop dead as he was about to seize the prize in triumph. But this was not considered too great a risk to run for the sake of the honor awarded to the conqueror. As he reached the goal, shout after shout of applause from the vast multitude rent the air and wakened the echoes of the surrounding hills and mountains. The judge, in full view of the spectators, presented him with the emblems of victory, the perishable laurel crown, and a palm branch to carry in his right hand. This crown was worn by the victor with great pride. His praise was extravagantly heralded, and sung throughout the land. His parents received their share of honor, and even the city where he lived was held in high esteem for having produced so great an athlete.
Paul presents these races as a striking figure of the Christian warfare: "Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible."
To run the Christian course in triumph, it is as necessary for us to exercise fortitude, patience, and self-denial, as it was for the contestants in the games and races of the Greeks and Romans. Like them the Christian must not allow his attention to be attracted by the spectators, nor diverted by amusements, luxuries, or love of ease. All his habits and passions must be brought under the strictest discipline. Reason, enlightened by the teachings of God's word, and guided by his Spirit, must hold the reins of control. Every hindrance [p. 165] must be laid aside; no weight must impede his course. And after this has been done, the utmost exertion is required in order to gain the victory.
"Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible." The chaplet of fading laurel is presented before us in the strongest contrast with the enduring honor and the crown of immortal glory which he will receive who runs with triumph the Christian race, and becomes a victor in the spiritual warfare. There must be no flagging of zeal, no wavering steps, or the effort will be lost. The last few strides of the contestants in the race were always made with agonizing effort to keep up undiminished speed. So the Christian, as he nears the goal, must press on with even more zeal and determination than at the first part of his course.
Paul carries the illustration back to the preparation necessary to the success of the contestants in the race,—to the preliminary discipline, the careful and abstemious diet, the temperance in all things. These were unflinchingly practiced in order to win the small recompense of earthly honor. How much more important that the Christian, whose eternal interest is at stake, be trained to put appetite and passion under subjection to reason and the will of God. If men will voluntarily submit to hardships, privations, and self-denial to secure the perishable reward of worldly distinction, how much more should the Christian be willing to do and to suffer for the sake of obtaining the crown of glory that fadeth not away, and the life which runs parallel with the life of God.
The competitors in the ancient games, after [p. 166] they had submitted to self-denial and rigid discipline, were not even then sure of the victory. The prize could be awarded to but one. Some might put forth the utmost effort to obtain this crowning honor, but, as they reached forth the hand to secure it, another, an instant before them, might grasp the coveted treasure. Such is not the case in the Christian warfare. Those who comply with the conditions are not to be disappointed at the end of the race. They all may gain the prize, and win and wear the crown of immortal glory.
Multitudes in the world are witnessing this game of life, the Christian warfare. The Monarch of the universe and myriads of heavenly angels are watching with intense interest the efforts of those who engage to run the Christian race. The reward given to every man will be in accordance with the persevering energy and faithful earnestness with which he has performed his part in the great contest.
Paul himself practiced self-denial and endured severe hardships and privations that he might win the prize of eternal life, and, by his example and teachings, lead others also to be gainers of the same reward. He says: "I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air; but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection, lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway." The apostle desired to arouse his Corinthian brethren to see the danger that menaced them through self-gratification, he therefore dwelt on the rigid discipline and abstemiousness necessary to develop soundness, vigor, and endurance in the competitors in [p. 167] the games. He drew a contrast between this preparation and its consequences, and the self-indulgent life of the Corinthian Christians, who had matters of eternal interest at stake, and needed the fullest strength of body and mind in order to come off victorious. He showed them that heretofore their course had been highly censurable; for not even anxiety for spiritual health and the honor of the gospel could induce them to deny the cravings of appetite and passion.
In the indulgence of depraved appetites they had even united with the heathen in their idolatrous festivals, thus endangering the faith of those newly converted from idolatry. Paul counsels them to firmly control their animal passions and appetites. The body, the master-piece of God's workmanship, like a perfect and well-stringed instrument, must be kept in soundness, in order to produce harmonious action. He says that unless he should put in practice his own exhortations, by striving for the mastery over self, observing temperance in all things, he would, after preaching to others, himself becomes a castaway.
The apostle declares that he did not run in the Christian race uncertainly, that is, indifferently, willing to be left behind; neither did he fight as the pugilist practices prior to the fray, beating the air with empty blows, having no opponent. But as, when in actual conflict, he contends for the mastery, overcomes his antagonist by repeated and well-directed blows, beats him to the ground, and holds him there till he acknowledges himself conquered, so did the apostle fight against the temptations of Satan and the evil propensities of the carnal nature. [p. 168]
Paul refers his brethren to the experience of ancient Israel, to the blessings which rewarded their obedience, and the judgments which followed their transgressions. He reminds them of the fact that the Hebrews were led in a miraculous manner from Egypt, under the protection of the shadowy cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. He recounts how the whole company were thus safely conducted through the Red Sea, while the Egyptians, essaying to cross in like manner, were all drowned. God in these acts acknowledged all Israel as his church. "They did all eat the same spiritual meat, and did all drink the same spiritual drink; for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them; and that Rock was Christ." The Hebrews, in all their travels, had Christ as a leader. The smitten rock typified Christ, who was to be wounded for men's transgressions, that the stream of salvation might flow to them.
Notwithstanding the favor which God manifested to the Hebrews, yet because of their wicked lust for the luxuries which they had left in Egypt,—because of their sins and rebellion,— the judgments of God came upon them. The apostle enjoins upon his brethren the lesson to be learned: "Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted."
Paul continues, giving the most solemn warnings against the sins of idolatry, licentiousness, and presumption, which caused so many of the Israelites to fall in the wilderness. He cites examples from sacred history to show how love of ease and pleasure prepared the way for those sins which called forth the signal vengeance of [p. 169] God It was when the children of Israel sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play, that they threw off the righteous fear of God which they had felt a short time before as they listened to the law from Sinai. They made them a golden calf to represent God, and worshiped it in a festive religious gathering. Again, it was after enjoying a luxurious feast connected with the worship of Baal-peor that many of the Hebrews fell through licentiousness, and the anger of God was manifested toward them, and twenty-three thousand were slain by the sword at the command of God through Moses.
The apostle adjures the Corinthians, "Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall." Should they become boastful and self-confident, and neglect to watch and pray, they would fall into grievous sin, and call down upon themselves the wrath of God. Yet Paul would not have them yield to despondency or discouragement. Whatever might be their temptations or their dangers, he assures them, "God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptations also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it."
Paul enjoins upon his brethren to inquire what influence their words and works will have upon others, and to do nothing, however innocent in itself, that would seem to sanction idolatry, or that would offend the scruples of those who might be weak in the faith. "Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. Give none offense, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God."
The apostle's words of warning to the Corinthian church are applicable to all time, and are [p. 170] specially adapted to the wants of our day. By idolatry he did not alone mean the worship of idols, but also selfishness, love of ease, the gratification of appetite and passion. All these come under the head of idolatry. A mere profession of faith in Christ, and a boastful knowledge of the truth, does not constitute a Christian. A religion which seeks only to gratify the eye, the ear, and the taste, or which permits any hurtful self-indulgence, is not the religion of Christ. It is in harmony with the spirit of the world, and is opposed to the teachings of the Holy Scriptures. Festivals and scenes of amusement, in which professed members of the Christian church imitate the customs and enjoy the pleasures of the world, constitute a virtual union with the enemies of God.
The Corinthians were departing widely from the simplicity of the faith and the harmony of the church. They continued to assemble for worship, but with hearts that were estranged from one another. They had perverted the true meaning of the Lord's supper, patterning in a great degree after idolatrous feasts. They came together to celebrate the sufferings and death of Christ, but turned the occasion into a period of feasting and selfish enjoyment.
It had become customary, before partaking of the communion, to unite in a social meal. Families professing the faith brought their own food to the place of meeting, and ate it without courteously waiting for the others to be ready. The holy institution of the Lord's supper was, for the wealthy, turned into a gluttonous feast; while the poor were made to blush when their meager fare was brought in contrast with the costly viands of their rich brethren. [p. 171]
Paul rebukes the Corinthians for making the house of God a place of feasting and revelry, like a company of idolaters: "What! have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not?" The public religious feasts of the Greeks had been conducted in this way, and it was by following the counsels of false teachers that the Christians had been led to imitate their example. These teachers had begun by assuring them that it was not wrong to attend idolatrous feasts, and had finally introduced similar practices into the Christian church.
Paul proceeded to give the order and object of the Lord's supper, and then warned his brethren against perverting this sacred ordinance: "As often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord's death till he come. Wherefore, whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. . . . He that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body."
The apostle thus sought, in the most decided and impressive manner, to correct the false and dangerous ideas and practices which were prevailing in the Corinthian church. He spoke plainly, yet in love for their souls. In his warnings and reproofs, light from the throne of God was shining upon them, to reveal the hidden sins that were defiling their lives and characters. Yet how would it be received?
While writing to the Corinthians, Paul had firmly controlled his feelings; but when the letter had been dispatched, a reaction came. He feared [p. 172] lest he should wound too deeply those whom he desired to benefit. He keenly dreaded a further alienation, and sometimes longed to recall his words. With trembling anxiety he waited to receive some tidings as to the reception of his message.
Those who, like the apostle, have felt a responsibility for beloved churches or institutions, can best appreciate his depression of spirit and self-accusings. The servants of God who bear the burden of his work for this time, share the same experience of labor, conflict, and anxious care that fell to the lot of the great apostle. Burdened by divisions in the church, meeting with ingratitude and betrayal from those to whom they look for sympathy and support, vividly impressed with the peril of churches that are harboring iniquity, compelled to bear a close, searching testimony in reproof of sin, and then weighed down with fear that they may have dealt with too great severity,—the faithful soldiers of the cross find no rest this side of Heaven.Click here to read the next chapter: "Second Epistle to the Corinthians"