A Few Last Things - 1 Corinthians 16:1-24
Sermon Series: Confused?
We have all been to see a movie at the theatre before. For some individuals it is one of their favorite forms of entertainment and they go quite often. So here’s the question I want to start off with this week. When you go to the theatre and watch a movie, what do you do when the credits start scrolling at the end? Do you immediately get up and exit the theatre, or do you stay in your seat until all of the credits have finished? I used to get up as soon as the credits started scrolling and headed for the car. At the time I thought, “The movie is over and I’m not interested in seeing the names of all the individuals who played a part in making the movie. So because there isn’t anything significant in the credits, I’m not going to waste my time continuing to sit here.” You’ll notice that I made at least two big assumptions there: (1) that the movie was over, and (2) that there wasn’t anything in the credits that was significant enough for me to pay attention. But at some point I was told that on occasion movie producers and directors will save one final, important scene for after the credits. Sometimes it’s a scene that will set the stage for a sequel or a scene that provides a clue for something which was still a mystery when the credits began to scroll. So now when I go to see a movie in the theatre I stay in my seat and don’t go anywhere until all the credits have finished scrolling and the lights turn back up. Then I know that the movie is truly over and it is okay to go home. My perspective and behavior changed when I learned that even the credits can possess significant moments. I stopped seeing the credits as unimportant and began to pay attention so that I would not miss anything.
I use this illustration because I think sometimes we are guilty of mentally checking out when we get to the end of NT letters. Often times we get to the last chapter of a NT letter and see a bold letter heading that reads something like, “Plans for Travel” or “Greetings” and we think to ourselves, “There isn’t anything significant or important in this chapter or in these verses.” We may still read through those verses, but often times our minds are on something else. We’ve already made the assumption that all those verses are of no importance to those of us living in 2013 because Paul isn’t coming to visit us and the names of the men and women whom he sends greetings to and from aren’t seen anywhere else in the Bible. We understand that these “books” of the NT are often times really “letters” and that that is just the way one would end a letter. But the thing that we have to remember is that even in the final, seemingly insignificant verses of a NT letter, there are still important truths and exhortations that God wants to use to help mold and challenge us. So rather than mentally checking out, we need to strive to stay engaged so that the Holy Spirit can continue to teach and instruct us. With that being said, let’s jump into our examination of the last chapter of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth.
Paul brought his letter to the church at Corinth to a conclusion with chapter 16. But there were still two topics from the letter that the church at Corinth had written to him that he had not yet addressed. So in this final chapter Paul not only gave his final greetings, but also offered a few words concerning those two topics.
Throughout this letter Paul has identified the sections in which he was directly responding to issues raised in the letter from the church at Corinth to him with the words, “now concerning.” By introducing a new topic with these words Paul was demonstrating that he was switching gears and turning his attention to a topic of concern which they had raised in their letter to him. So Paul transitioned away from his discussion on the future resurrection of believers in verse 1 when he wrote, “Now concerning the collection of the saints . . .” What we are going to see in the rest of verse 1 and continuing through verse 4 though is not a detailed description of what the collection of the saints was. (The church at Corinth would have been familiar enough with the collection and would have known that it was going to help the church at Jerusalem with the work of ministry.) Instead it appears that the church at Corinth was wrestling with a very practical question – a question concerning the way in which they were to give to the work of ministry. But rather than simply instructing them to pray and then to give as the Lord led, Paul challenged them with the same principles for giving that he had given the other churches which he had planted. “As I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem. If it seems advisable that I should go also, they will accompany me” (verses 1-4).
Based on Paul’s response to the church at Corinth we have to conclude that the question they asked Paul would have sounded something like, “Is there a particular way or time in which we are to give of our own personal finances to the work of ministry being done through the church in Jerusalem?” That’s a touchy question! They were asking Paul – whom we know them to have disagreed with on several other issues – to provide them with instructions on how they were to give of their own finances. Given what has been revealed throughout this letter already – that there were some in the church at Corinth who were not recognizing Paul’s apostleship and who seemed at least a little hostile towards his leadership and instructions – this seems like a loaded question that could potentially lead to further division and hostility. If Paul gave a response which they did not approve of then it could lead them to further deny his apostleship and reject his instructions.
This is the kind of question in which we are accustomed to people cleverly dodging by saying something like, “That is a personal matter between you and God. What you need to do is pray and seek out what God’s will is for you in regards to how much and how often you are to give. Once you have done that then you need to give as you feel God has led you.” In other words, “Don’t ask me to tell you how much and how often you are to give. I know how people get about their money, so there is no way I’m going to touch that question with a 10’ pole. It’s your money, so you decide!” That’s how we would expect one who was trying to avoid further conflict to answer a question like that. But Paul took the opportunity, not to instruct them on how much to give, but to provide them with some gospel-centered principles for giving. Paul said, “I’m going to instruct you [church at Corinth] in the very same way that I have instructed all the other churches that I have planted and with whom you are connected as brothers and sisters in Christ. Giving influenced by regular reflection on the Gospel should be both regular and gracious.” Paul didn’t say, “You all don’t need to worry about that right now. When I get there we will make an announcement in church one week that we are going to be taking up some money for the church in Jerusalem the following week. Then you all can bring what you have available or what you felt led to give and we will send it on to Jerusalem.” When an individual is reflecting regularly on how greatly and how much God has given to him through His Son, then that individual isn’t going to be content only giving on occasion. How can one daily remind himself of gospel truths like Ephesians 1:3,7 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing . . . In Him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us . . .” and Ephesians 2:4, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ . . .” and not be compelled to give both graciously and regularly himself. Additionally, regularly giving or setting aside money gives us the opportunity to do more. This is “Finance 101.” We set aside a little bit of money each month for retirement so that there will be a large sum there when we do retire. We’re supposed to set aside a little bit of money each month for our children to go to college so that when they go they won’t have to borrow as much. Regularly setting aside or giving money allows us to give more and do more than we would be able to if we only gave once or twice. So rather than dodging a potentially loaded question by encouraging the believers in the church at Corinth to determine for themselves how much and how often they should give, Paul instructed the believers who made up the church at Corinth (as he had all the other churches which he had planted) to develop the habit of regular, gracious giving.
Paul mentioned in verse 3 that his plan was to return to Corinth and that he would at that time collect the money which they had set aside for the church at Jerusalem. Mentioning his plans to return to Corinth seemed to have encouraged Paul to clarify what exactly his travel plans were. So in verses 5-10 Paul laid out what his travel intentions were: “I will visit you after passing through Macedonia, for I intend to pass through Macedonia, and perhaps I will stay with you or even spend the winter, so that you may help me on my journey, wherever I go. For I do not want to see you now just in passing. I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.” Paul was, at the time, writing from the city of Ephesus, which was located on the western shore of what is modern day Turkey. He was probably writing the letter some time during the early spring since he mentioned his intentions for remaining in Ephesus until Pentecost (which is celebrated after Passover). Corinth was located toward the southern part of what is modern day Greece – almost a direct shot across the Aegean Sea. However, Paul’s plans weren’t to catch a boat across the Aegean Sea and to go directly from Ephesus to Corinth. Instead Paul’s plans seemed to be to travel to Corinth over land by passing through and briefly stopping at the churches in Macedonia (i.e. the churches at Philippi and Thessalonica), which were located in the northern part of modern day Greece. So the itinerary seemed to suggest that Paul would leave Ephesus in the spring, spend summer and the early part of fall visiting and strengthening the churches in Macedonia, and then leave Macedonia and arrive in Corinth where Paul would spend the winter with them. (This plan would make a great deal of sense, because travel on the Mediterranean Sea during the winter was very dangerous and to stay in Corinth for the winter would permit him to spend an extended amount of time there, and not simply pass through.)
Perhaps what stands out the most in the mention of his travel plans is what Paul said in verses 8-9, “But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.” Paul’s reason for remaining in Ephesus at the present time was because there was a wide door that had opened for him to share the gospel and to see it transform the lives of many in that city. Who could blame Paul for wanting to stay if that alone had been the case? Think about how exciting it would be if we found ourselves in a place where we had the opportunity to openly share the gospel and to see many lives transformed by it. That would be awesome! We too would probably want to remain there and to continue to be a part of the life transforming work that God was doing. But Paul didn’t say, “I’m planning on staying in Ephesus because a wide door for effective work has opened to me – PERIOD.” He added the surprising words, “and there are many adversaries.” Yes, God had opened a wide door for effective ministry, but that didn’t mean that Paul found himself in a scenario where he could safely and comfortably share the gospel without any push back and without any opponents or adversaries. Paul said, “God has opened a wide door for effective ministry – but at the same time there are still many in this place who are opposed to me and who have set themselves against me.” Guys and gals, this is an incredibly significant word from Paul! It means that we cannot base open doors for ministry by an absence of hardships or adversaries. Paul actually said that God may in fact open wide doors for effective ministry and that when we walk through them we discover that there are many hardships and adversaries on the other side. We have to hear this word clearly this week! In our American culture we sometimes pray that God would open doors for us to proclaim the gospel or do the work of ministry. Then we look around us to see where there are open doors. While we are looking God leads us in a direction that at first glimpse seems to be an open door. But rather than walking through the door, we stop at the threshold and peer through. As we look through the door we see potential hardships, we see potential adversaries, and we see potential areas of great discomfort. And then rather than walking through the open door that God has given to us, we take a step back and declare, “God hasn’t opened a door there!” But what is our basis for saying that? Is it not that we see the hardships and adversaries as the evidence of the door being closed? It’s as if living in a culture that is so centered around 'self' we have decided that open doors for ministry and gospel proclamation will be characterized by comfort and ease. We make the assumption that if we can’t do it comfortably or easily then God must not have opened a door for ministry there. But in verses 8-9 Paul said something altogether different. He said sometimes open doors for effective ministry often have hardships and adversaries waiting for us on the other side. But that doesn’t mean we back away from those doors or run back out of them, fleeing our adversaries – it means we run through them faithfully carrying out the work God has called us to and remaining there until God calls us away!
Sharing about his plans to come to Corinth seemed to have reminded him that Timothy also had plans of coming to Corinth. So in verses 10-11 Paul wrote, “When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord, as I am. So let no one despise him. Help him on his way in peace, that he may return to me, for I am expecting him with the brothers.” Paul seemed to be concerned that those who were so strongly opposed to him in Corinth would treat Timothy with the same hostility they were directing towards him. So Paul warned those in the church at Corinth who might have been inclined to treat Timothy in a similar fashion to make sure that that wasn’t the case. They were to receive him and help him (as they would others who do the work of the Lord – see 9:6-12), and then to send him back to Paul.
Paul probably wasn’t sure how the news of both his and Timothy’s coming was going to be received by the church at Corinth. There is some evidence that this might not have been the news they were wanting to hear. Why do I suggest that? Because of what Paul wrote in verse 12. Like verse 1, verse 12 started with the words, “Now concerning . . .” For one last, final time Paul was going to speak to something that the church at Corinth had written to him about. So what was this last issue that still needed to be addressed? It was the sending of Apollos back to the church at Corinth. “Now concerning our brother Apollos, I strongly urged him to visit you with the other brothers, but it was not at all his will to come now. He will come when he has opportunity.” When Paul wrote, “Now concerning our brother Apollos,” that serves as evidence for us that when the church at Corinth had written to Paul, they had written specifically about Apollos. But what had they written about Apollos? Paul’s answer seems to suggest that they had asked Paul to send Apollos to them. The church at Corinth had not asked for Paul or Timothy to come – they had asked for Apollos. But the news that Paul had just announced to them was that he and Timothy were the ones who had plans on coming.
We learned in the first several chapters of this letter that there was a division in the church at Corinth over who the believers in the church were choosing to follow after. Some had pledged an unhealthy allegiance to one leader over another, and much of that division was between individuals who had pledged allegiance to Apollos and individuals who had pledged allegiance to Paul. So while it may not come as a surprise that they had actually asked Paul to send Apollos to them, what is surprising is that Paul actually did it. Paul was an apostle and the founder of the church at Corinth. But somewhere along the line many in the church at Corinth began to question Paul’s apostleship; act hostilely towards him; and were seeking to persuade others from rightfully acknowledging Paul’s authority and to only recognize Apollos’. If that were the case for most of us - where those who were supposed to be under our influence and authority were choosing not to recognize us, but were choosing to recognize the authority of another and had asked us to send that other individual in place of ourself – most of us would not even give it a second thought. There is no way that we would send another who appeared to be a source of division because of the likelihood that the division would only become more intense. And yet Paul said in verse 12, “I strongly urged him [i.e. Apollos] to visit you with the other brothers . . .” That’s unbelievable! The church at Corinth had asked Paul to send Apollos to them and he actually encouraged him to go!
Paul’s urging of Apollos to go and Apollos’ refusal shed some light on the situation between these two individuals. First, it reveals that Paul did not consider Apollos to be the source of the division that he addressed in chapters 1-4. If Paul had been convinced that Apollos was the one stirring up the division and leading some in the church at Corinth to reject Paul’s apostleship and authority, then there is no way that Paul would have asked Apollos to return to Corinth. Second, it reveals that Paul really did consider Apollos to be a fellow co-worker in the work of ministry. Paul had earlier written in chapter 3, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul?” Then he immediately answered the question: “Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God have the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers . . .” (3:5-9). When Paul urged Apollos to return to Corinth, he demonstrated that these words he recorded in chapter 3 weren’t just lip service. Paul really did consider both he and Apollos to be co-workers in the gospel and valued Apollos and the work he did. Third, Apollos’ refusal to return to Corinth gives us a glimpse into his heart. Apollos’ refusal to return most likely meant that he also saw Paul as a true co-worker in the gospel and did not want to do anything which would add more fuel to the fire of division that was already burning in Corinth. So Apollos was probably choosing to demonstrate his respect for and unity with Paul by refusing to return to Corinth at the present time.
With those words in response to their request to send Apollos it appears that Paul had finally addressed all of the issues raised in their letter as well as the issues which had been reported to him and which he felt needed to be immediately addressed. So with verses 13-14 of chapter 16, Paul offers his last set of instructions. “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” The first four imperatives dealt with the believers’ relationship to the gospel which had been passed on to them. The believers in Corinth needed to be watching out for individuals and teachings that would lead them away from the foundational truths of the gospel upon which they were supposed to be building their lives and their ministry. The believers in Corinth needed to be standing firm in the faith that had been presented to them – being careful not to fall away from it. And the believers in Corinth needed to be courageous. Being watchful and standing firm in the faith in the midst of an environment where there were some who were living in ways and teaching things contrary to the gospel Paul proclaimed was probably going to result in hardships and trials. But the threat of those hardships and trials could not cause them to back down – they had to remain steadfast in both what they had believed and how they lived that out each day. Additionally, everything they did was to be done in love. This last imperative dealt with the believers’ relationship with one another. One commentator summarized this point well when he wrote, “‘All things’ would include the quarrels in the name of leaders in chapters 1-3, their attitude toward him in chapters 4-9, the lawsuits in 6:1-11, husband-wife relationships in chapter 7, the abuse of the weak by those with ‘knowledge’ in 8:1-10:22, the abuse of the ‘have-nots’ at the Lord’s Supper, and the failure to edify the church in worship in chapters 12-14. If they were to ‘do all things in love,’ then these other things would not be happening.”
These are two great categories for us to examine our lives in as well. How are we doing in our relationship to the gospel? Are we watching carefully over our faith? Do we recognize harmful teachings? Do we recognize the dangerous influence of our culture at times and how it is conditioning us to believe and behave? Are we standing firm in our faith or are we wavering in it? Are we being courageous and strong when our faith brings trials and difficulties? And how are we doing in our relationships with others? Is all that we do being done in love to others? These are the challenges that Paul laid out for the church at Corinth and they are certainly relevant for our church today!
In verses 15-16 Paul urged the believers in Corinth to recognize and follow after those in the church who were leading by example (not necessarily title). In verse 15 Paul began to urge the believers in Christ to “be subject to such as these, and to every fellow worker and laborer” (vs. 16). And the example Paul set before them was a man named Stephanas and his household. This individual and his family were not only the first individuals to place their faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord from Achaia, but Paul also said that they had devoted themselves to the service of the saints. (As a side note – what a great introduction! In our American culture, which conditions us to exalt and serve ‘self,’ it is hard to find individuals who can be described as having devoted themselves to the service of their brothers and sisters in Christ.) Paul didn’t say that this Stephanas and those who were a part of his household would on occasion give themselves to the work of the saints. What Paul suggested was that this Stephanas was always striving to make disciples and to serve them so that they might continue to grow in Christ-likeness. But this wasn’t just a priority for Stephanas – he was leading all those who were a part of his household to have the same priorities and the same manner of living. So not only was he, himself, standing out among the church as one who was devoted to serving his brothers and sisters in Christ, but he was also leading his family to take on this same devotion.
So Paul encouraged the church to look to men like Stephanas and his household for leadership. Believers like this possessed something greater than a title that suggested they should be in a position of leadership – they possessed a genuine discipleship. Paul held these individuals up before the church at Corinth (i.e. Stephanas and fellow workers and labors [those doing the work of ministry]) as the ones the church was to follow after and model their lives after. Paul’s emphasis clearly seemed to be that the believers in Christ who made up the church should follow after those who were actually doing the work of the gospel and not to follow after those who only possessed a title reflecting leadership.
Verses 17-18 suggested that this same Stephanas, along with two other men (Fortunatus and Achaicus) were the ones who had carried the letter written by the church at Corinth to Paul to him. Paul had rejoiced in seeing these individuals and had been encouraged by their visit. It also appears that Paul was sending these same three men back with this very letter to be presented to the church at Corinth. So Paul encouraged the church at Corinth to recognize them and the letter which they brought with them. Then Paul offered his final greetings. The sister churches in Asia, along with Aquila and Prisca (also called Priscilla in other accounts/texts), who had lived in Corinth before moving to Ephesus, and all of the other brothers and sisters in Christ sent greetings to the church at Corinth. And then Paul concluded by reminding them that both the grace of Jesus and his [i.e. Paul’s] love was with them.
Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth are well known for being letters to a church that had many problems. As a result, I think the unfortunate response from many believers today has been to avoid any in depth study of these letters. It’s as if we think we have our act together and we assume that these letters won’t have anything to offer us. So we’ll think about 1 Corinthians 13 whenever we are at a wedding or 1 Corinthians 11 whenever we’re at church and getting ready to partake of the Lord’s Supper. But outside of those settings, we assume that the letter of 1 Corinthians is a letter for messed up churches and therefore we are exempt. But as we have examined the letter we have discovered over and over again that the problems the church at Corinth wrestled with resulted from them moving away from the gospel that Paul had proclaimed and its implications for their lives. And so the exhortations of 15:58 and 16:13-14 summarize well what we as believers in Christ and a part of the church must strive after. “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain . . . Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.”
Connection Point Questions for Discussion:
1. Are we praying for and seeking out wide open doors for effective gospel work in our own personal lives (see 16:8-9)? John Piper has written, "If you're not praying for influence on people, is it because you don't think what you believe matters or people don't matter?" What do you think about that question? If we really do think that what we believe matters and that people matter, should part of our prayer life be characterized by praying for opportunities to share what we believe with the people around us?
2. How do we know if God has opened wide doors for effective gospel work in our own personal lives? What do we tend to point to as evidence of an open door? What evidence do we tend to point to as evidence of a closed door? How are these evidences consistent or inconsistent with what Paul says in 16:8-9?
3. In regards to Paul's exhortations in 16:13-14 let's ask these questions: Are we watching carefully over our faith? Do we recognize harmful teachers and/or teachings? Do we recognize the dangerous influence of our culture at times and how it is conditioning us to believe and behave? Are we standing firm in our faith or are we wavering in it? Are we being courageous and strong when our faith brings trials and difficulties? And how are we doing in our relationships with others? Is all that we do being done in love to others?