Amputated gifts?

49-second video

Some churches don’t want some of the gifts–isn’t that like the body of Christ amputating some members? Some churches don’t want other gifts and just collect members amputated from other churches. Don’t we all need one another to be one body?

The mind of Christ, 1 Corinthians 2:16

This video is of Craig’s lecture at Evangel University and the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, where he talks about the meaning of the mind of Christ in the context of 1 Corinthians and also its implications for bringing together sound scholarship and deep spirituality. You should allow perhaps a minute for the video to load after clicking its link. If you want to save time by advancing along the time bar at the bottom of the screen, there is an extended introduction to the lecture series (honoring one of Craig’s former professors), with Craig beginning at about 7:43 and his actual message beginning between 10 and 11 minutes.

The link is: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/58631773

Toward the end Craig also addresses 2 Corinthians 3:18. This lecture was given February 3, 2015.

Rewards and grace, part II: What we’re rewarded for

The first installment of this blog post (at http://www.craigkeener.com/how-can-we-be-saved-by-grace-yet-rewarded-for-works/) asked whether rewards are compatible with grace (an issue revisited at points also in the later installments). The present installment, somewhat longer than the first, examines what we’re rewarded for. The third installment (http://www.craigkeener.com/rewards-part-iii-what-the-reward-is/) will extrapolate from some biblical teaching to try to understand what the reward is.

What we’re rewarded for

So what does the New Testament say about reward? Jesus promises that we will be rewarded if we suffer for him (Matt 5:12; Luke 6:23) and if we go beyond what is easy (Matt 5:46). We will be rewarded if we count on our heavenly reward so fully that we don’t seek one on earth. We should do our deeds for God to see and bless us someday, not to impress others (Matt 6:1-2, 5, 16). The more we willingly sacrifice to do God’s will—whether loving our enemies (Luke 6:35) or offering our lives to proclaim Christ (Revelation 11:18; cf. 16:6; 18:20, 24)—the greater our reward. Present sufferings cannot even be compared with the future promise of glory (Rom 8:18), all the more when we suffer for Christ (2 Cor 4:17).

Paul speaks of each worker for the Lord being rewarded according to their own labor (1 Cor 3:8, 14). Some who are saved yet don’t labor rightly can lose their reward (3:15)—that is, they will have eternal fellowship with God but not much to show for their labors.

To offer an example: What if a pastor draws large crowds that enjoy the church services but can’t mature enough to withstand suffering? If these crowds fall away from following Christ when hard times come, what has been accomplished in light of eternity? Of course, it’s great if a pastor reaches lots of people and helps them mature in faith. And some Christians have the gift of evangelism whereas others are better equipped as teachers, so they can work together. But the ultimate fruit matters, and in light of eternity this bears at least some relation to the devotion of God’s agents, whether or not they always live to see it.

Paul revisits this issue of reward later in the same letter. He has to preach the gospel either way—it is God’s demand on his life—but Paul says his reward (or “wages,” as the term can also mean is this context) the privilege of offering this good news free of charge (1 Cor 9:17-18). Here Paul does not simply fulfill the minimum demands of his call. Loving God and loving the people to whom God sends him, Paul lives in his calling and seeks to reach as many people as possible (9:19, 22-23; 10:33). Paul here agrees with the Lord Jesus’s teaching: Paul will be rewarded for how he sacrifices for God and he depends on God alone for his reward.

By God’s grace, we will be rewarded for even the smallest contributions, if they are our best: whoever gives even a cup of cold water to a righteous person, a prophet or a disciple shares in the reward of the person they have helped (Matt 10:41-42; Mark 9:41). That’s why the Philippians were partners in Paul’s ministry (Phil 1:5); churches could support Paul in prayer (Rom 15:31; 2 Cor 1:11; Eph 6:19-20; Col 4:3-4; 1 Thess 5:25; 2 Thess 3:1-2) and/or, as in the Philippian church, finances (Phil 4:15-18; cf. Rom 15:24). (Similarly, those who knowingly bless agents of evil participate in their evildoing—2 John 11.) What’s important is that we do what we can.

That’s also why Jesus spoke of the reaper receiving reward and both sower and reaper rejoicing (probably also meaning, and sharing the reward) together (John 4:36). Think of the labors of Hudson Taylor and his China Inland Mission in the nineteenth century. Imperfect as the missionaries may have been, most lived sacrificially for the gospel. The same is true for many others, including Korean missionaries, who labored in China, and for Chinese Christians who suffered much, especially (in recent generations) during the Cultural Revolution. Today China’s church is massive, and most Christians there live sacrificially for the gospel, with many having a vision to carry it further. Similarly, many nineteenth-century missionaries to Africa carried their coffins with them, often dying from malaria within a year of their arrival; they did not live to see the flourishing African churches today, but sower and reaper will celebrate together. Right now many Asian, African, and Latin American Christians are sacrificing greatly to spread the gospel, with massive fruit now in many places, and undoubtedly even more fruit that we cannot yet recognize.

We sacrifice for the kingdom, and we participate in the long-term reward whether we see the short-term results or not. Likewise, when I do ministry, my friends who support me in prayer are as much as a part of that ministry as I am; I know that God rather than myself is the source of my gifts, and I simply have the privilege of those occasions for ministry. Far more often, I labor over my research in producing pastoral and scholarly commentaries, hopeful that these will serve pastors, scholars and others, trusting that somehow these labors will serve God’s long-term purposes even though I am far in the background. (In this task, moreover, I stand on the shoulders of others from whom I have learned and again I am sustained by others in prayer.)

Some today are winning thousands to the Lord on the front lines, and we should praise God for them. Some of us have to spend most of the day doing research, trusting that God will produce the long-term fruit; hopefully someone praises God for this! Some suffer for Christ silently in prisons, or must face poverty and hunger depending on God’s grace; certainly we should praise God for their example of fortitude. We are each given different ways to glorify God. The point is that we all have our role to play in God’s larger mission, and we must devote our lives wholly to that mission.

How can we be saved by grace yet rewarded for works?

Because this question invites a longer-than-usual answer, this blog will be divided into three installments. Part of the point of blogs is that they’re not supposed to be too long!

Part I

The first installment asks whether rewards are compatible with grace (an issue revisited at points also in the later installments). Contrary to what we might think, rewards are not antithetical to grace. It also shows that the point of the language of reward is not about boasting. The second, more important and somewhat longer installment (http://www.craigkeener.com/rewards-part-ii-what-were-rewarded-for/) will address what we’re rewarded for. The third installment (http://www.craigkeener.com/rewards-part-iii-what-the-reward-is/) extrapolates from some biblical teaching to try to understand what the reward is.

Rewards versus grace?

Grace isn’t fair; happily, it’s more generous than fair, since by fairness we would all be punished for our offenses against an infinitely holy God. Not all are converted and thus enrolled in God’s service at the same time. Grace means that those paid (or “rewarded”) for one hour of work get the same pay (i.e., the kingdom) as those who worked all day (Matt 20:12-16). (The term for “wages” in 20:8 also means “reward.”) We can all be glad that grace isn’t fair, because God’s grace is better than fair. It means that we can be saved even though we don’t deserve it. Some passages in the Bible may speak of salvation as the “reward” of perseverance (see Heb 10:35-39).

But often the Bible speaks of other rewards. Grace isn’t fair, but God is also a God of justice, so people’s true works will also be exposed, whether good or bad (Rom 2:6-11; 2 Cor 5:10; Revelation 22:12). Those who depend solely on themselves and have not accepted God’s grace will be punished for their sins, though some will be more accountable than others (cf. Luke 12:46-48; Rom 2:12).

Those who embrace grace will not be condemned for their sins, but the day of judgment will publicly reveal reality without our current filters. In light of eternity, Paul says, our hearts will be laid bare, even our motives revealed (1 Cor 4:5). We may try to keep them hidden from others now, but they will all come to light someday. God knows what we really are, so we should seek to become what he wants us to be. The emptiness of life without God will be revealed and bring him glory, but he will get the greatest glory from those devoted to his honor.

Reward isn’t about boasting

Rewards themselves are a matter of grace, since it’s only God’s kindness toward us that makes us right with him to begin with. Rewards are just, but the greatest rewards are for the most perfect righteousness—which is the fruit of his own grace within us (Gal 5:22-23). Rewards are just, but God’s standard of justice is perfect because he alone knows each person’s heart and circumstances. Nobody else can predict these matters in advance.

In 1 Corinthians 3:4-23, Paul challenges the Corinthian predilection to revere Christian celebrities; some exalt Paul, whereas others prefer Apollos. Paul warns them that they are using immature, worldly standards (3:1-4). The day of judgment will reveal who is really building on the foundation of Christ, and we can’t really know that outcome until then (3:10-15, esp. 3:13). (Indeed, Paul says, he doesn’t even try to evaluate his own status that way—1 Cor 4:3.)

Even if we know the person well enough to trust their basic sincerity, we don’t know the depths of their hearts; only God does. We don’t know what a person has had to overcome to get to where they are. We don’t know how sincerely they are working for Christ. If we think of heavenly rewards in terms of worldly competition, we precisely miss Paul’s point in the context: the point is that we shouldn’t compete or seek our own (or our “heroes’”) honor (3:3-4). The purpose of Christian leaders is to serve God’s people as a whole, who should be the eternal organ of God’s glory (3:16-23).

Precisely because it is God who works through any of us (1 Cor 3:5-9), we shouldn’t boast in how God uses us. (Thanking God for what he’s doing is not boasting in ourselves; it’s all right for us to brag about God himself, so long as our motive is his honor and not ours.) “Gifts” are not something that we earn (4:7); indeed, Paul’s term that we often translate “gift”—charisma—in 1:7 and 12:4-31 (compare also 7:7), is something that comes by charis, that is, by grace, by God’s generous kindness. So God doesn’t evaluate us by how great our gifts are, but by what we do with them—by our motives of love. Rather than boasting in our gifts, we should use whatever they are for God’s glory, seeking with all our heart for him to be honored.

What God evaluates as great differs from human judgment (1 Sam 16:7). He’s near the broken and lowly, but far from the proud (Ps 138:6; Prov 3:34; James 4:6; 1 Pet 5:5). That’s why Hannah compares favorably to the chief priest Eli in 1 Samuel 1. That’s also why Mary, a lowly village teenager, is more highly favored than the priest Zechariah in Luke 1 (although Zechariah is godly and blessed also). To the eyes of contemporaries, Mary had no prominent or important role like a priest or prophet; but God favored her with raising the Messiah. God scattered the proud but exalted the humble (Luke 1:48, 51-53), showing that he is not impressed by human power, fame, education or wealth.

God will reward our labors for him, but God who alone knows the hearts knows best what our labors really entail. All is by grace, even the power for us to labor for him (Col 1:29).

Who really speaks for God?—1 Thessalonians 5:21

Paul closes his first letter to the Thessalonians with a series of exhortations. Paul no doubt designed these exhortations particularly for the believers in Thessalonica, but they relevant for us today also. (Ancient writers sometimes listed a series of exhortations; in this case, Paul is adding some concise advice after finishing the main part of his letter.) I will focus especially on Paul’s exhortations concerning prophecy, in their wider ancient Christian context, but many of these principles also apply when we evaluate teachings.

Paul’s exhortations in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22

Paul’s closing exhortations include supporting and heeding God’s workers among them (5:12-13a), remaining in unity (5:13b), giving each member of the body what they need (admonition, encouragement, or help, 5:14) and being patient and kind with everyone (5:14b-15).

Paul then lists a trio of exhortations related to a worshipful heart: always rejoice, continue in prayer, and give thanks in every situation (5:16-18). Such an approach to life demonstrates faith in God who guides our lives. Of course, these are general summaries, not meaning that a person is never sad. Elsewhere Paul does value grieving with those who grieve (Rom 12:15) and himself grieves whenever he thinks of the fallen state of his people (Rom 9:2-3). He feared for a friend’s safety (2 Cor 7:5) and was deeply concerned for the churches (2 Cor 11:28-29; 1 Thess 3:5). Nevertheless, joy is characteristic of life in the Spirit (Gal 5:22) and of much worship (e.g., Ps 9:2; 27:6; 32:11; 33:3).

Then Paul turns to what might be another trio of exhortations, the third of which might raise two related issues. We must not “quench” the Spirit (1 Thess 5:19); we must not despise prophecies (5:20); we must evaluate them (5:21), embracing what is good and rejecting what is evil (5:21-22).

The verb that Paul uses to warn against “quenching” the Spirit originally (and usually still) referred to putting out a fire. This suggests to us that the Spirit sometimes moves God’s people in astonishingly dramatic ways; even more clearly, it warns us that our resistance can hinder the Spirit’s work. We can do this in ways such as preferring our old patterns of doing things to what God is now doing, or by deliberate disobedience.

Discerning prophecies (1 Thess 5:20-22)

The next exhortation likely suggests one of the Spirit’s key ways of working: “Do not despise prophecies” (5:20). As we see in 1 Corinthians 14 and in light of the Old Testament, God moved some of those listening to him to deliver his message to others. Whereas this may have sometimes been practiced in small groups of prophets in the Old Testament (e.g., 1 Sam 10:5-6, 10), God had now poured out the prophetic Spirit so widely starting at Pentecost (Acts 2:17-18) that such prophecy was widespread among the early churches (compare 1 Cor 14:1, 5, 26-31).

The verb translated “despise” implies contemptuously looking down on something as being too insignificant, or beneath one’s dignity, to consider. The Old Testament and Jewish tradition often associated the Spirit with prophetic inspiration, so “quenching the Spirit” (1 Thess 5:19) may be expressed here especially by demeaning prophecy (5:20). Probably the Thessalonian Christians were not the only ones tempted to ignore prophecies; Paul warns the Corinthian Christians to zealously seek to prophesy, as well as not to forbid tongues (1 Cor 14:39). (See further http://wp.me/p1MUNd-l9.)

Nevertheless, not all prophecies or messages supposedly from God really were (cf. 2 Thess 2:2). Moreover, we may hear something from God yet fallibly misunderstand and/or miscommunicate it: we know and prophesy only in part (1 Cor 13:9; cf. 2 Kgs 2:3, 5, 15-16; Matt 11:3; Acts 21:4).

One must therefore “test all things” (1 Thess 5:21). Paul elsewhere speaks of evaluating everything, so we may discern God’s will (Rom 12:2; Phil 1:9-10); he urges us to evaluate especially ourselves (1 Cor 11:28; 2 Cor 13:5; Gal 6:4). He also exhorts prophets in local congregations to corporately evaluate the prophecies they have given (1 Cor 14:29), and may speak of a special gift of such discernment (12:10).

Having evaluated messages, we should embrace what is good and reject what is evil (5:21-22). These final warnings may apply specifically to prophecy. But even if these last two warnings are more general rather than referring specifically to prophecy, in this context the principle would certainly apply to prophecy also.

Often in the Old Testament, senior prophets such as Samuel or Elijah and Elisha mentored groups of younger prophets, helping them grow in discernment (cf. 1 Sam 19:20; 2 Kgs 4:38; 6:1-3). Here, however, Paul addresses a congregation of believers that is only several years old; the “safety net” for prophecy in this case thus involves not the discernment of senior prophets but rather a sort of peer review. Here those most sensitive to the Spirit’s voice listen together for God’s leading (1 Cor 14:29). The corporate hearing of all the churches was also valuable (1 Cor 14:36). Paul could function in the senior prophet role himself (14:37-38), but was not with them to supervise everything, and sometimes these young believers needed correction. Today we still need to practice discernment about whatever message claims to be from God, whether it is with prophecies or teachings.

Discerning prophets in Scripture

First John, concerned about false teachers who have left the community of believers, warns that believers must “test” the spirits to discern false prophets (1 John 4:1). Whereas Paul’s instructions to churches required evaluating genuine believers’ prophecies, this passage addresses full-fledged false prophets from the spirit of “antichrist” (4:1-6). First John offers various means of discernment, both doctrinal (Jesus is the Christ, 2:22-23; Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, 4:2-3; Jesus is God’s Son, 4:15; fidelity to the apostolic witness to Jesus, 4:5-6) and moral (continued fellowship with God’s people, 2:19; keeping his commandments [2:3-6], especially by loving other believers, 2:9-11; 3:10; 4:7-8, 20). Articulating the right view about Christ and faithfully loving one another are both signs of being true followers of Christ; wrong views about Christ, or failure to truly love one’s fellow believers, are signs of a false prophet.

Of course, John was addressing a specific situation. We also read of false prophets who deliberately make up falsehoods to exploit God’s people financially or sexually (2 Pet 2:1-3). Others prophesy in Jesus’s name, apparently believing in what they are doing (Matt 7:22), but are damned because they do not bear the good fruit of obedience to Jesus’s teachings (7:16-23). A person can even prophesy genuinely by the Spirit and yet not be a godly person, simply moved because the Spirit is strong in the ministry setting where they find themselves (1 Sam 19:20-24). What matters most before God—and how we will know who is from God—is not a person’s gifts but his or her fruit.

A very early Christian document that is not in the New Testament gives even more detailed advice. Chapter 11 of the Didache urges Christians to initially welcome visiting apostles and prophets. If, however, an alleged apostle or prophet does not live by the Lord’s ways, for example by seeking for money or gifts for oneself, that person is a false prophet.

Ultimately, in distinguishing a true message from God from a false one (or at least one distorted by human misinterpretation), any given message must be evaluated by a larger context of what God has said. God’s word did not start with any of us nor come to us alone (1 Cor 14:36). God will not contradict what he has already spoken, so everything may be safely tested by Scripture. Further, as noted above, others who listen to God should also be able to recognize whether something is truly from God or not.

Discerning messages today

Because not everyone understands Scripture the same way, careful interpretation is important (see e.g., http://www.craigkeener.com/why-it-is-important-to-study-the-bible-in-context/; “The Bible in its Context” free at http://www.craigkeener.com/free-resources/).

A difficulty sometimes harder to resolve by “objective” means is how we recognize who else is truly listening to the Spirit to help evaluate messages. In settings where falsehood has become widespread, the true prophetic voice may be in the minority whereas those who all speak the same message may be false prophets (1 Kgs 22:6-25; Jer 5:13, 31; 14:13-15; 20:6; 23:9-31; 26:7-8, 11, 16; 27:9, 14-18; 28; 29:8, 31; 32:32; 37:19; Ezek 13:2-9). Nevertheless, even here the true prophetic voice stands in continuity with earlier prophetic voices (Jer 7:25; 25:4; 26:5; 28:8; 29:19; 35:15).

Even though some regarded prophecies of judgment against God’s people as blasphemous (Jer 26:11), the burden of proof rested with those who told people what they wanted to hear (28:8-9). “Prophets” can get popular telling people what they want to hear, such as that judgment is not coming (Jer 6:13-14; 8:10-11; 14:13-16; Ezek 13:16; Mic 3:5), or that God does not mind their sexual behavior or popular idolatry (Jude 4; Rev 2:14, 20).

To give an example, a few decades ago prosperity teacher Charles Capps declared that judgment would not come on America, since it had 100 million Christians who spoke in tongues. During the same period, Pentecostal preacher David Wilkerson was warning that judgment was coming on the United States. Which one was more accurately hearing what the Spirit was saying?

Certainly we know what people in the United States want to hear and want they do not want to hear, whether it comes from the political right or the political left. People were incensed when Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson, from the political right, pronounced judgment on the United States for sexual sin; people were no less incensed when Jeremiah Wright, President Obama’s former pastor, pronounced judgment on this country for exploiting others. One reason for the public outcry in both cases was that the speakers apparently pronounced judgment after the fact (even if they had also been doing it beforehand); another may have been that it was felt insensitive to the many innocent people who suffered when the tragic events came.

Nevertheless, it also seems clear that it is easier to become popular by preaching what satisfies people’s “itching ears” (2 Tim 4:3). Is it possible that preachers who promote extravagance, or preach a god who does not care about injustice, or promise that believers will not suffer, and so forth, gain followers by satisfying what people want to hear? Is it possible that God’s heart is grieved, as in Jeremiah’s day, by the proliferation of false messages in his name?