We could also refer to the New Testament as the New Covenant. It is entirely appropriate as the words mean essentially the same thing. The Old Testament contains God's original covenant with man, with the two parties involved in the covenant being God and man. God laid down the requirements for man to follow, which was perfect obedience to His commandments. That, of course, was an impossibility for fallen, sinful man; but it laid the groundwork for the second covenant, which also consists of two parties: God the Father and God the Son. The Son--Jesus Christ--took the place of fallible, sinful man. He lived a life of perfect obedience to every one of God's commandments, adhering completely to the demands of God's righteousness. This is covered in detail in Hebrews 8:7-13, where we read that God replaced the first covenant which was made obsolete [i.e., no longer in force] by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
In meeting the demands of God's righteousness, Christ qualified as the necessary sacrifice for man's sin. He alone became the propitiation, or satisfaction, for sin: "He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin... He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities" - Isaiah 53:10-11.
Christ has now become our High Priest (Hebrews 7:25-28) and the one Mediator between God and man ("For there is one God and one Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus" - 1 Timothy 2:5).
THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES
Introduction to the Gospels
The first four books of the New Testament--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--are usually referred to as the Gospels. They present four perspectives of Christ. (The four living creatures in Revelation 4:7 represent the same four perspectives: lion, calf, man, and eagle.) No one Gospel account presents a full picture by itself; in order to gain a full perspective, we have to look at all four books. The first three gospel accounts—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—are referred to as the synoptic Gospels. The term ‘synoptic’ means they tell many of the same stories in pretty much the same order, just from different perspectives, as we have already seen. John is different. In a sense, the first three gospels present us with an incomplete picture—a mystery, if you will—and John shows us the answer.
Matthew presents Jesus as King, as represented by the lion pictured at the left. The genealogy listed in the first chapter, verses 1-17, establishes Jesus' claim to the throne through the line of King David.
The major theme of the book of Matthew is the Kingdom. We find the phrase "the Kingdom of heaven" thirty-two times in the book. (We also find the terms "Kingdom of God" and simply "the Kingdom", but they all refer to the one true Kingdom.) God is King and His realm is all of creation.
The phrase "the Kingdom of heaven" is interesting. It appears in no other book of the Bible. It refers to the establishment in this world of the reign of heaven over every king and every other kingdom. It infers nothing less than the establishment of Divine order on the earth and the supremacy of God's will in human affairs. The only hope for man is submission to the Kingdom of heaven and the throne of God.
The Gospel according to Matthew also explains the order of God's Kingdom. They are actually enumerated in the book of Romans: "The Kingdom of God is not in eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17). Righteousness is the controlling principle of the Kingdom; peace could be described as the practice of the Kingdom; and joy is the ultimate purpose. It follows a natural progression: righteousness leads to peace which leads to joy.
It is God's words that constitute the law of the Kingdom, because they embody the principle of righteousness. ("My tongue shall speak of Your word, for all Your commandments are righteousness" - Psalm 119:172). The powers of God's Kingdom all work toward the practice of peace. Finally, the ultimate purpose, or goal, is indicated in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12). Jesus referred to His people as "blessed", or we could say "happy", since happiness or joy is the ultimate purpose of the Kingdom.
We need to go further by pointing out the central teaching of Matthew. It is expressed in a single word: repent. The particular word used by the King Himself, and translated as repent, literally means, "Think again." The primary message of the book is that it calls men to consider. When a person does that--really considers the claims and message of the Gospel and the Kingdom--then it inevitably leads to the conviction of sin and a resulting sense of sorrow. It is impossible for anyone to honestly consider his life in the light of the Gospel with becoming conscious of his sinfulness and the inevitable sense of sorrow such consideration invites.
Such repentance--this "thinking again"--leads to conversion. Conversion is not the same thing as regeneration, or being born again. That is the act of God alone. Conversion is the act of man. It is turning around from rebellion to submission resulting from the conviction of sin which follows repentance.
A caution is in order. It is possible for a person to think again, and for his second thinking to be as false as the first. More than a few people have been brought to the brink of conversion but been sidetracked into false religions such as Mormonism, Buddhism, or Scientology. The Gospel says to man, Behold the King, understand the Kingdom, and think again in light of these facts. Repentance thus leads to submission to the life of the standards of the Kingdom and to the throne of the King. It is a turning around from sin toward the one, true God. Paul expressed it perfectly in his letter to the Christians at Thessalonika: "You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God" - 1 Thessalonians 1:9.
The gospel, or gospel account, of Mark presents Christ from a different perspective than does Matthew. Whereas in Matthew He is seen as King, Mark presents Him as the Servant of God. That, incidentally, is why we find no genealogy for Jesus in Mark: the family background of a servant/slave is of no importance.
(The gospel according to Mark has been attacked because Mark—or John Mark—did not personally observe the earthly ministry of Jesus. He possibly received the account from Peter--internal evidence argues for that--but that isn’t what is important. We don’t know for certain who the author of the book of Hebrews was, but there is no question Hebrews belongs in the New Testament. That is because the true Author of scripture is the Holy Spirit—“All scripture is given by inspiration of God” – 2 Timothy 3:16; “Prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” – 2 Peter 1:21. The same Spirit Who inspired scripture leads us to know that what we are reading is, in fact, the Word of God.)
The message contained in Mark 1:14-15 provides us with the overall message of the book: “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the Kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” So we see that the message and the purpose of the King and the Servant is identical; it is the perspective that is different.
Another passage is important to our understanding and appreciation of what Mark was working to accomplish: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” – Mark 10:45. That one verse gives us the message of Mark in a single statement:
There are those who have argued that Jesus, the Son of God—God in the flesh—cannot possibly be conceived of as a servant. But that is to grossly misunderstand the foundational principle of God: “God is love.” Loves requires service. That can’t be stated too strongly. It is the inevitable attitude of love. Christ's attitude is described in Philippians 2:5-8:
“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, Who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.”
The nature of the Lord’s service was to provide a gospel of salvation, a fact that is revealed in the opening words of the book: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Thus we see the essential characteristics of the Lord. Jesus is the name with which we are most familiar, and it reveals His humanity. Christ is the title of His servanthood. The Son of God is His primary nature.
The Servant of God came in sympathy for fallen man. That is not to say He was in sympathy with man’s sin--God is at war with sin--but with man as a helpless sinner in need of a Savior. If we examine the four gospel accounts, we won’t find a single word of severity spoken by the Lord against sinning men and women. What we do find is severity with regard to hypocrisy, and that is because it is hypocrisy which results in the ruin of the lives of others. For the woman caught in the act of sin; for men scathingly referred to by the religious leaders of Israel as lowly “sinners”, the Lord had nothing but sympathy and undying compassion.
I have never cared for the common depictions of Jesus: a decidedly Western looking face with long, flowing hair. The drawing at the left is most likely a much closer representation. Isaiah 53:2 says, in a prophetic reference to the Lord, "He has no form or comeliness (i.e., physical attractiveness); and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him." A laboring man from His youth, His hands were calloused, His shoulders and arms muscular and well-developed, his legs strong from all the walking He did to get from place to place. But that is as it should be. What attracted people to Jesus was not His physical appearance but the presence of the Holy Spirit. People recognized that He was like them, yet so very different. That brings us to a consideration of the gospel according to Luke, which presents Jesus as the perfect Man.
A physician, it is interesting to note the carefulness with which Luke examined his subject matter. He claims to have had "perfect understanding of all things from the very first", a statement I take to mean that he had carefully done his research. (It is true that the Holy Spirit is the true Author of all scripture and that He directed the human writers in their work, but it is equally true that He used their specific talents and abilities. It isn't difficult to see the different personalities of the writers of scripture from what they have written.)
Luke carefully describes the nature of the Savior. Through the statements of Simeon and Anna (chapter 2) and John (chapter 3), we realize that He was indeed the promised Messiah. And, if there is any doubt, the proclamation of the angel to the shepherds puts it to rest: "For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (3:11). The genealogy given in verses 23-38 of the third chapter trace His lineage, but with a different purpose than Matthew's genealogy. Matthew traced Jesus' lineage through the kingly line of David; Luke traces His ancestry to Adam. Luke distinguishes Christ from Adam. Adam was the "first man" who led the race into ruin; Christ is the "second Man," the "last Adam", Head of a new race. He describes the mystery of how this second Man entered human life. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit free of the taint of sin.
A word about the Roman dogma of "immaculate conception." It did not even become official doctrine until 1854. There had been arguments tracing back to the 12th century about the sinlessness, not of Jesus, but of Mary, which is an entirely different thing. That is what is meant by the immaculate conception--that Mary was sinless. (If Mary was sinless, then would not her mother had to have been sinless as well?) The process God used--"That which is born shall be called holy"--kept Jesus free of the sinful nature He would have inherited had Joseph been His father. I state this because it is so very important to realize the only Person who was sinless--necessary so that He could become the substitute Lamb required under the Old Testament law, sacrificed on behalf of sinners--was Jesus. It is blasphemous to attribute that characteristic to anyone else. In Luke 1:47, Mary herself refers to "God my Savior." A sinless person doesn't need a Savior; Mary knew that she did.
Luke's primary appeal is found in the words of Jesus: "If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple...whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple." - Luke 14:26-27.
Jesus didn't mince words. The requirements for salvation are extremely high. He can only redeem us as we give up everything for Him. There must be mutual sacrifice. It is at the point where He is stripped of all dignity and I myself am stripped of everything, and only at that point, where we meet. As someone has put it, "Nothing in my hand I bring, only to Thy cross I cling." That is the explanation for what the Lord told the rich young ruler: "Sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." - (Luke 18:22). That does not mean that in order to come to Jesus we have to give away everything we possess, but that we give up all rights of ownership, placing all that we are and have at His disposal, holding nothing back. After all, He held absolutely nothing back when He took our place. Jesus knew the young man's riches were the sticking point in his heart.
And that is the gospel message--the good news--that Luke says we are to take to the world: "Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations" - Luke 24:46-47.
The underlying message of John is found in the 18th verse of chapter 1: “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” The Greek word translated as “declared” means the 'leading out', the 'revealing', of something that is hidden. As Jesus said to Thomas after the latter’s request to show them the Father: “Have I been with you so long and you haven’t known Me? He who has seen Me has seen the Father.”
Think about the opening verse: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Now this: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” Therein lies the true value of the gospel of John; it presents to us the Person Who declares God, Who is the manifestation of God in the flesh. God is a Spirit, and there is nothing in our experience that prepares or enables us to comprehend a spirit. We can, however, comprehend and understand a man; so God took the form of a man in the Person of Christ so that we could understand Him.
From that flows the idea that John reveals the truth about God. If we want to know about God—what His nature is like, what drives His actions—then we can discover them here. Everything we need to know about God and who He is, is revealed in the book of John.
Think about this. Men have been trying to come up with a representation of God almost since the beginning of time. That is what is behind all idolatry, whether we’re talking about the Greek or Roman pantheon of gods—Zeus/Jupiter; Ares/Mars; etc.—or Dagon, god of the ancient Philistines. If we were to really study their systems of worship, we would find they were trying to express what they thought God was like (and I speak of the true God that every man senses is there). The highest and best forms of man’s attempts to express what God is like always result, however, in man projecting a god who is essentially an enlarged man. The problem, of course, is that the god so imagined is nothing more than a larger-than-life sinner. What Jesus demonstrated was that God is nothing—absolutely nothing—like us. Yes, we were created in His image, but that image has been so distorted by the corrupting power of sin that it bears very little resemblance to the original.
So what is God like? To answer that, let’s go back to a verse I just quoted: “[He is] full of grace and truth.” When we understand those two words, we know everything there is to know about the nature of God.
Let’s start with grace. To understand grace, we have to understand love:
The result is grace.
John demonstrated that grace is behind God’s every activity by recording specific incidents during the ministry of Jesus. His first miracle was turning water to wine. Jesus went to a marriage feast and He ministered to the joy of life. The next miracle was restoring the nobleman’s son to health. Recognizing the sorrow caused by the son’s sickness, and the fact that death was apparently imminent, Love ended the sorrow by healing the boy’s sickness. The next sign (John never speaks about parables; each ‘sign’ that he used was an act performed by Jesus and he used it as an illustration) was the healing of the man by the pool of Bethesda. If we read the full account (John 5:1-15), we find the man’s infirmity was the result of some sin. Love looked at the man’s suffering and weakness, and ended it by breaking the power of sin. The next sign was the feeding of the five thousand. Love met man’s immediate need. Then Jesus walked on the sea. There divine Love came to a frightened group of men and, coming on board, produced an immediate calm. Then we come to the sign of the blind man. Love opened his blind eyes, claiming to be the Light of the world, teaching us that Love is the light of the world. (That helps us to understand John 3:19-21: “This is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light…” In his evil and rebellion, man avoids the light, choosing darkness instead; but what he is really rejecting is Love.) The last sign was the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Love was troubled and wept in the face of man’s sorrow—sorrow that is one of the inevitable consequences of man’s sin and rebellion. God’s great love is distressed in the presence of death. That is why love put itself to the pain and abandonment Jesus endured at the cross: to break the power of death.
While grace was present, so, too, was truth. Although love was the source of Jesus’ activity, He never once deviated from the master principle of holiness, He never once veered from the straight line of righteousness. Love and light, grace and truth. His grace was always governed by principle.
(That is a truth we are expected to emulate. Yes, we are to exhibit God’s grace in every action of our lives, but we must avoid falling into the trap of forgetting that grace never contradicts truth. Grace separated from truth results in a powerless sentimentality. That was the error of the church at Corinth. One of their members was guilty of egregious sin—living with his former stepmother, which was a form of incest—yet the church chose to nothing about it, patting themselves on the back for their tolerance, apparently thinking they were exhibiting grace. God saw it differently. His instruction? “Deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Corinthians 5:5-6). The church at Corinth had substituted their own idea of grace and tolerance, whereas God insisted that what was required was obedience.)
Man was created with a built-in need for God; but as Jesus lamented, "You will not come to Me, that you may have life." Why? Because God is so utterly different than we are. He is righteous, we are corrupt, and our corruption causes us to reject righteousness because our corruption insists on self-autonomy. (That was Lucifer's sin: "I will be like the most High." And it was the very way he tempted Eve in the garden: "You will be like God.") And so man tries to find a center for his worship, but all his vain attempts only lead him deeper into darkness and failure. Against that dismal picture--the picture of the world--God has shown us who and what He is, and bids us to come to Him that we might have life.
The book of Acts (or the Acts of the Apostles) provides the link between Jesus’ earthly ministry and the writings of the apostles. While there is disagreement about when the Church was begun—some argue for the Lord’s proclamation in Matthew 16:18-19 and others for the Day of Pentecost as described in Acts 2—Acts describes the earliest phases of its development.
The central subject of the book of Acts is the Church. We can group the essential principles laid down under three headings:
The Origin of the Church
The Lord began the work with His selection of a small group of men and women. He taught them truths they didn’t understand at the time. Following His ascension to heaven, we see the “promise of the Father”: the introduction of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit that has led the Church from the beginning and which provides its power. We learn that the Church consists of all people who recognize Christ as Savior and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The underlying unity of the Church is the baptism by the Spirit into union with the risen Lord granted to all who place their faith and trust in Him.
The Nature of the Church
Thinking about the nature of the Church is exciting. The Church, consisting of all genuinely born-again believers, possesses the same life as does the Lord Jesus. Luke presented Jesus as the Firstborn of a new race. The Church is the fulfillment of the Lord’s words when told that His mother and brothers were looking for Him: “Who is My mother? and who are My brothers?...whoever shall do the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother, and sister, and mother.” Our first introduction to that new race is found in Acts. They were weak, often foolish, and full of faults—just like the Church today—but they were, nevertheless, brothers of the Lord. To use a modern term, Christ is cloning Himself in redeemed men and women. And that is why the Church may falter but can never fail: because He is the life of the Church.
The Function of the Church
The Church has been charged with carrying on the work begun by the Lord. It is a life that is empowered by the Spirit—to the degree that the Church relies on that same Spirit. When the Spirit is ignored, then the Church finds itself weakened and powerless.
The book of Acts has no real application to the world. It is only as the Spirit-filled race of which Jesus was the Firstborn accomplishes its purposes that there will be results in the world. It is a huge error when the Church looks to political solutions for the problems in a nation. Legislation is no substitute for a regenerated heart. To expect unregenerate men and women to submit themselves to the principles of scripture is a pipe dream. Rather than forcing them to conform--and we see the resistance to all such attempts--the task of the Church is to convince the world, through word and example, empowered by the Spirit, of their lost state and need of a Savior. It is only as they yield to Him that their minds will be changed. "The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds..." The work is not ours: it is the Lord's.
Martin Luther described the book of Romans, writing, “It is the chief part of the New Testament and the perfect gospel.” If a Christian wishes to understand the Christian faith—something many Christians would struggle to explain—then this book is the place to begin.
Romans is set against a clearly defined cosmology and a thoroughly biblical approach to history. We must understand that or the book has no value. (Cosmology as a science is the study of the universe: its origin, its parts, its laws, etc. Cosmology is also a branch of philosophy which is concerned with ultimate questions such as whether or not there is a purpose behind the universe or if it is simply random.) Romans takes its cosmology from the Old Testament. If we ignore the book of Genesis and the history recorded in the Old Testament, then Romans makes no sense at all. Keep in mind that the Bible contains a progressive revelation of God’s plan, starting with creation and continuing to His ultimate plan for man and the universe.
Paul doesn’t spend time or effort arguing for the existence of God: he simply accepts it as fact. He assumes that God is holy and just, taking both characteristics for granted because they are facts that are thoroughly documented in the Old Testament. In the process of his argument about human salvation—which is the central theme of the book—he assumes that absolutely nothing can escape God’s government and control. Even Satan, the author of rebellion, exists firmly within God’s government; he cannot escape it.
As to cosmology, Paul shows that the creation is subject to man and dependent on man for the realization of its potential. If man is noble, then that nobility is manifested in nature. If man is debased, then so is creation. Here is how he states it: “For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now” (Romans 8:19-22).
To understand that, think about the influence parents exercise over their children, and fathers in particular. Fortunate is the child whose father is a godly man, who loves the child’s mother as well as the child, who lives his life concerned with their welfare before he ever thinks of his own, who honors God in his own life and who sets an example in the home of righteousness, humility, and character. A child who grows up in that atmosphere is fortunate indeed, and his or her life will demonstrate the blessings of such an upbringing. If, on the other hand, the father is more concerned with himself than the welfare of his family, if he abuses his position and ignores his obligations and responsibilities, then his children will in all likelihood demonstrate the scars of such an upbringing.
History for Paul begins with Adam, the first man. He is seen as being in rebellion against the throne of God. The disobedience of the first man produced a single result in history: the dethroning of God in man’s consciousness and the degradation that results from ignoring God. In direct contradiction to the supposed upward movement of the world according to the evolutionary worldview, Paul sees the world as groaning and travailing in pain because its king—man—has lost sight of his potential because he has lost sight of God.
Then Paul sees a different intervention in history: a man, Abraham, and a people, the nation of Israel, that are called to separation from the corrupt order that is the result of sin. Abraham and his descendants are called out for the sake of the rest of mankind to demonstrate that by a life of faith, which is nothing more nor less than a life of submission to God’s throne and authority, the wonder, the beauty, and the goodness of God’s government. But Abraham’s descendants failed because their faith failed.
Then Paul describes another intervention: the advent of a second Man, the last Adam, the Head of a new race. The result is that God is once again enthroned in the consciousness of man and in his life. Man is restored to the image and likeness of God, a fact that ultimately leads to the restoration of the whole creation. Because of that, in the midst of darkness, sorrow, and sin, Paul writes, “Let us rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”
Thus the book of Romans is not a map to salvation for the sinner—it is often used for that purpose, but it only works when in the hands of someone who understands his salvation—rather, Romans is a treatise written for the Christian so that he can fully understand the means and method of his salvation.
Read the third chapter and you will find a picture of the terrible degradation resulting from human sin. Then read what follows, tracing Paul’s argument to the end and you will find an optimism that is the complete opposite of the pessimism of the third chapter. Preachers used to speak about ruin and redemption, a picture that is sorely lacking in the feel good theology that predominates today. What Paul describes is the complete ruin and helplessness of man contrasted with the perfect redemption provided by God for His lost race.
In the eighth chapter, Paul explains the threefold benefit of salvation to man: justification, sanctification, and glorification. (Romans 8:28-30).
Justification: Justification is nothing less than the reinstatement of man into a relationship and living fellowship with God that would have existed had there never been any sin or any guilt. The transformation is so radical and so complete, it is as if everything that has transpired since the sin of Adam had never occurred.
Sanctification: The life and power of the life of Christ is communicated to the members of the new race so that they may live their lives as He lived His, “growing up into Him in all things which is the Head.”
Glorification: Man finally taking his true place in the creation and simultaneously lifting the creation itself to its true potential.
Augustine, bishop in the northern African city of Hippo who lived from 354 to 430, was the most influential theologian during the first five centuries of the church. His writings influenced the development of Western Christianity more than anyone else until Luther. His greatest works were Confessions and The City of God. In the latter, he contrasted the two perspectives that stand opposed to each other: the world vs. the church. In the book, the city of Rome represented the world and Jerusalem—the eternal city—the church, an entity that shares in the life of God, that is governed by His will, and that cooperates in His work.
Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth addressed that same basic idea: the church existing in the midst of the world. Corinth represents the world and its thinking; it was a pagan city that stood opposed to the purposes of God. The ancient city was located at the narrowest point on the Isthmus of Corinth. Teams of oxen would pull ships coming from the east and sailing toward the Greek islands, and vice versa, across a slip that ran east and west. (Today a canal cuts through the same area.) As such, it was a melting pot for customs, ideas, religions, etc., coming from every conceivable location in the ancient world. A modern counterpart is New York City, a city in which God is barely given any thought whatsoever. I have a pastor friend who grew up there. He explained to me that you can’t be a middle-of-the-road Christian there: either you’re sold out to the Lord or you’re completely secular.
The problem for the church (and for the individual Christian) is not that we are in the world. That is, after all, where the Lord wants us. But as Jesus said in His High Priestly prayer in chapter 17 of the gospel according to John, “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” The church is needed in the world. We are to serve as salt and light, influencing, preserving, and pointing the way to God. Trouble begins when the world is allowed into the church, the very thing that was happening at Corinth.
Paul begins almost immediately by rebuking the Corinthian church because it had been reported to him that there were divisions in the church. Strife and division are the way of the world; however, that is not what God desires for His people. Hebrews 12:14 states that the Christian is to, “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.” To “see the Lord” implies that He will reveal Himself, His direction, and His purposes to those who are actively pursuing peace and holiness.
The central issue for the church at Corinth was that they were “carnal” (“I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ” – 1 Corinthians 3:1), and the divisions that existed in the church were evidence of a group of Christians who were neither spiritually mature nor growing. They still thought essentially as they did prior to becoming Christians. That led to a second concern: because of their carnality, they were unable to deliver or demonstrate God’s truth to Corinth.
Paul’s purpose in writing the letter was to address two issues, and is divided into two sections. The first was corrective, the second constructive. Three faults had seeped into the church: religious license, moral laxity, and social strife.
Corinth was a cosmopolitan city. Because of the geographic situation of the city, as stated earlier, it was exposed to every imaginable philosophy and religion. Like the circumstances Paul would later find in the city of Athens (Acts 17), everything was being debated. The situation was much like what we hear expressed today: that all religions serve the same purpose, that there is no real difference. That spirit had entered the church, and so some claimed to be followers of Paul, others of Apollos, others of Peter (Cephas), and others claimed to be “of Christ.” Paul’s question was, “Is Christ divided?” (1 Corinthians 1:13).
The city was also characterized by moral laxity, once again just as our own nation is today. The situation had deteriorated to the deplorable state where one of their number was living in a sexual relationship with his former stepmother, someone who had had sexual relations with his father, a clear violation of the Law (Leviticus 20:11). Paul said it was a sin that is so unspeakable that even those outside the church would have been ashamed of it, and yet the church was knowingly ignoring it, patting themselves on the back for being tolerant whereas Paul said they ought to have been ashamed!
Finally, in Corinth self was supreme; there was no sense of responsibility for others. Selfishness ruled in every transaction, even in government. (Is that any different today?)
What is essential to understand is that none of these things were causes; they were effects. The reason for the disorder existing in the church was simple: they had forgotten the unifying message of the gospel. This was a theme Paul returned to repeatedly in several of his letters: You are saints, act like saints; you have put off the “old man”, so put him off; you have put on the “new man”, so put him on! In other words, live your lives as the saints you now are.
And herein lies the secret of the church’s failure down through the ages. The measure of the failure of the church is the extent to which the church allows itself to be invaded by the spirit of the world. We are told that the church needs to be relevant, to get with the times. No, that is the exact thing the church should not do! It is only as the church is like Christ and unlike the world that it can hope to accomplish its task. To become like Christ is to share His life, to place ourselves under the government and authority of the Holy Spirit, and to seek God’s glory as our supreme desire.
We hear people bemoan the fact that our nation is no longer a “Christian nation.” It never was—the only theocracy was ancient Israel before the first human king—but history demonstrates that there was a time when our nation was largely governed by biblical principle and God’s law, when even non-Christians respected God and the church because the power of God’s Spirit was evident in the lives of so many Christians. The church was truly salt and light. If we are to be successful in our role today, we must return to a time when we proclaim Christ; when we rebuke the immorality of the city by allowing His purity to be manifested in us; and when we reveal the wickedness of self-centeredness and self-love by loving God supremely and our neighbor as we (already) love ourselves.
Second Corinthians is obviously a follow-up to Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, but it is notably different from the former epistle. First Corinthians was essentially corrective (to the point that I grow concerned with churches that rely on it for their doctrines). Paul carefully addressed the many doctrinal errors in the church. I’m familiar with the claim that “doctrine divides”, but that is exactly what it is intended to do: it divides the false from the true.
Paul’s second letter is more personal. In his first letter, we learn that the spirit of the city had invaded and infected the church. As a result, the church was unable to fulfill its true ministry to that city. Jesus did not ordain the Church (I am here referring to the entire Church, not local assemblies) as a social organization or some sort of social service agency. Too often I fear that churches today do more to entertain than to educate. The primary function of the Church, and of individual churches, is to represent the Lord Jesus Christ in the world; but when the Church allows itself to be overwhelmed by the world and the spirit of the age, it loses its power to influence—power which is in reality the power of the Holy Spirit.
In this second letter, Paul called the Corinthian church to fulfill its ministry in the city. Paul knew the church was failing to understand its true function. What we have before us is a description for every age of what the ministry of the entire Church ought to be.
He first directed his attention to those men who were called to teach and edify the church: the pastor/teachers. The thing he emphasized was the necessity of preaching and teaching God’s Word. That Word is to be the primary burden of every Christian minister: before visitation, before soulwinning (which is the responsibility of every Christian), before church programs, before anything else.
Paul then described the resources of the minister. Toward the end of the letter, he described visions and revelations which he had had. The point is that of first-hand, direct, personal communication from God to the soul of the minister. Paul’s reason for mentioning them was to explain how they had created a clear direction in his life. The effect is to largely dispel fear and doubt. Real communion with God involves time—much time—in His Word, prayer, and taking care to wait on Him. The minister must know how to wait and to listen. I am always skeptical when ministers start speaking about visions from God. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but that it is extremely rare. The way God generally speaks to His ministers is through that “still, small voice” which the prophet Elijah heard. It may not make as interesting a story as a bright light from heaven or angelic choruses, but it is no less real.
The other major resource of the minister is the prayers of God’s people. Paul was certain that, in addition to God’s presence and assurance, it was the prayers of the saints that had led to his delivery. The largest church in the world today, the Yoido Full Gospel Church, is in South Korea, a church that runs well over 100,000 members. The pastor, Young Hoon Lee, attributes it to the prayers of his mother-in-law. She will regularly retire to what she refers to as her “prayer cave” where she will spend up to two weeks praying and fasting for the church. While there are other factors that figure into the church’s phenomenal growth, there is no question that prayer plays a huge role in it. Charles Spurgeon attributed the power of his messages to a group of men who met each Sunday in a room beneath his pulpit and prayed for their minister as he preached.
Another necessary experience if a minister is to be of any real value is personal tribulation. Paul made reference to “afflictions, necessities, distresses, stripes, imprisonments, in tumults.” Although many of the things a minister must face are not necessarily things he shares in detail, the simple truth is that the Word of God and the message are deepened through suffering.
As to the church’s resources, Paul identifies three specific things: obedience to the Word that is preached; separation from the world; and conformity to the will of God.
The church can only fully exercise its ministry by seeing to it that it is living a life of reconciliation to God. To put it another way, the church (and that obviously means the individual Christians who make up the local church) is to live in such a way that it demonstrates the truth that is preached. The responsibility of the church toward the minister is not obedience to a man but obedience to the Word which he proclaims. Paul reminded the Corinthians that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels”, and it is a treasure which is to be communicated and demonstrated to the world.
I think one of the greatest mistakes made by many Christians and by many churches is they deliberately conform to the world in an effort to make the message more palatable to the world. Make no mistake about it: God’s message will never be palatable or acceptable to the world. As Paul indicated in his first letter to the Corinthian church, it is “foolishness” to the world. The power in the life of the individual Christian is the extent to which he is unlike the world. As Paul put it in his letter to the church at Rome, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing (lit., the remaking, or in modern parlance, reprogramming) of your mind” (Romans 12:2). _______________________________________________________________________________
The books from Galatians through Revelation can be found at www.graceftwright.org