Weekly Meditation: 12th February 2017
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
One can hear the frustration in Paul’s writing as he addresses the Corinthian church on the subject of their disunity. He calls them babies – still needing to be fed milk – and ‘worldly’ because of their ‘jealousy and quarrelling’ (1 Corinthians 3:1-3). Although a young church, they are already dividing into factions, ‘I follow Paul’, ‘I follow Apollos’ (3:4). Paul insists, though, that he and Apollos are ‘only servants’, assigned by the Lord, not people to be followed (3:5).
The early church was vulnerable to wrong beliefs and misleading teaching, and the Corinthians were in particular danger because they had followed no Judaic tradition. Those Christians who had grown up as Jews were familiar with the law which demanded exclusive devotion and obedience.
Before entering the Promised Land, Moses had set the options before the people – a choice between life and prosperity or death and destruction (Deuteronomy 30:15), between ‘blessings and cursings’ (30:19). The Law proved difficult to keep, though. The writer of Psalm 119 loved God’s law (see verse 97), but although he is aware of the blessings for those who keep the law (verse 1-2) he seeks God to make him steadfast (verse 5) so that he will not be ‘put to shame’ or ‘utterly forsaken’ (verses 6 and 8).
We tend to consider that the Old Testament shows the severe face of God while the New Testament reveals the kinder face of Jesus, and so we might expect that Jesus’ teaching is easier to obey. Think again. Matthew records some very uncomfortable words of Jesus, and not aimed at unbelievers but at his disciples and the Church - us. Matthew’s is the only gospel that refers to ‘the Church’ (Matthew 16:18; 18:17), and we have to take seriously the words of Jesus that Matthew sets down for us.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has already told his followers that their righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees (see 5:20). The Pharisees were perceived to be righteous law-keepers, faultless (see Philippians 3:6), but the standard Jesus sets for his Church is far higher. The Pharisees had added to the law – making rules that they could keep to their entire satisfaction – and they had created loopholes. There are no loopholes in this teaching of Jesus, however; it is one of the most uncompromising passages in the Bible.
Jesus is by no means abolishing the law (see Matthew 5:17); he wants to see the spirit of the law completely fulfilled in his Church. He addresses the subject of murder – an act most people will be innocent of – but then likens it to anger and unkind words. He warns of dire penalties for those who transgress; judgment, hell (5:22), imprisonment (5:26). He tackles adultery, equating the act with the thought, and again warns of hell (5:27-29). The law had permitted divorce. Jesus established very narrow grounds for divorce; to divorce on flimsy grounds, and to remarry, is to commit adultery (5:32). Oaths also receive Jesus’ attention; we should allow ‘yes’ to mean ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to mean ‘no’; elaborate oaths come from ‘the evil one’. It is worth considering (individually) how much of the above we have transgressed, repenting and seeking to put right – if possible - where we have failed. Then perhaps we can influence our churches to maintain higher standards.
Much of the disunity in the Corinthian church was caused by ignorance of the Judaic law, and by ignoring the teaching of Jesus. They had started to become followers of men instead, as we all are when we give undue loyalty to a denomination or to a human teacher. May we hope that as Christians puttheir houses in order by following the words of Jesus, they will find their differences fade, and may they also seek to build bridges to other denominations, so that God’s church is united as Christ always intended it to be.