Exposition of 1 Corinthians 13:11–13 At childhood’s end — Love

1 Corinthians 13:11–13

11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Paul has just said, “when completeness comes, what is in part disappears” (1 Cor. 13:10). At this point (1 Cor. 13:11) he switches to a metaphor well known in the ancient world for advancing the same idea: childhood must eventually be replaced by adulthood.

The verbs in the first half of verse 11 refer to how children speak, how they form opinions and how they assign value or evaluate things. All those actions change as we become adults, and this is common knowledge. The ways of childhood are temporary.

However, we must move from metaphor to meaning by asking questions. What is Paul referring to when he speaks of childhood? Three views have been proposed:

1. Some say that Paul is talking about the period during which we know in part and prophecy in part (1 Cor. 13:9). He may also be talking about that period which ends when prophecies cease, tongues are stilled and our partial knowledge passes away (1 Cor. 13:8). This view makes childhood the entire church age beginning just after Christ’s death and ending with the return of Christ in power.

2. Some would suggest that Paul is denigrating the use of tongues as a sign of immaturity. David Garland discounts this view[1] based partly on Gordon Fee’s refutation: “It is perhaps an indictment of Western Christianity that we should consider ‘mature’ our rather totally cerebral and domesticated — but bland — brand of faith, with the [associated] absence of the Spirit in terms of supernatural gifts!”[2]

3. Paul is not referring to the fact that spiritual gifts are being expressed in worship, but he is concerned with how they are expressed, what opinions are held about them, and how they are valued. This is Anthony Thiselton’s view, and he further explains, “It is time for a more mature ordering of priorities which places first the welfare of the whole [church] over the ‘rights’ of the individual” believer to express their particular spiritual gift.[3] To demonstrate their maturity, the Corinthian believers must embrace self-sacrificing love as their priority over the unchecked expression of spiritual gifts within a worship setting. In short, they must accept “the most excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31). This is the view we prefer due to its fit with Paul’s purpose.

In using the metaphor of the mirror (1 Cor. 13:12), Paul cleverly taps into two things well known among the Corinthians. First, Corinth produced good quality bronze mirrors. Second, Thiselton explains, “Common in Greco-Roman first-century thought was the use of mirror as a metaphor for indirect knowledge.”[4] Paul says that, for now, indirect knowledge is the best we can get. But when we are with Christ, “we shall see fact to face” (1 Cor. 13:12), a metaphor meaning the most intimate kind of knowledge. At that time we will not only know fully but will be fully known by God.

Paul finishes his argument about love with a surprising flourish. First he brings in faith and hope to join love (1 Cor. 13:13); these three spiritual pillars occur together in many of Paul’s letters (Rom. 5:1–5;Gal. 5:5–6). Garland explains: “Paul probably added faith and hope to love here to allow the familiar combination to balance the triad of prophecy, knowledge, and tongues. The inclusion of faith and hope also allows Paul to magnify love even more.”[5]

Copyright © 2013 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.



[1] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 623.

[2] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987) 645, footnote 23.

[3] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 1067.

[4] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1069.

[5] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 625.

Exposition of 1 Corinthians 9:24–27 The importance of self-control

1 Corinthians 9:24–27

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

In the final section of chapter 9, Paul uses a series of metaphors whose unifying connection is the Isthmian Games held every two years near Corinth. Only the Olympic Games were considered more important. The first metaphor is the race (verse 24a) which we should understand is a reference to life in a competitive world, whether in ancient Corinth or our own locale.

The second metaphor is the prize a (verse 24b) which probably relates to the glory or honor earned by the victor since the ancient prize was a wreath of plant material worn on the head. Paul commands the Corinthians to run to win the prize (verse 24b). Since the culture encouraged and rewarded competition, this was likely welcomed by the Corinthian believers.

In 1 Cor. 9:25, Paul begins to turn up the heat. It turns out that the metaphors of the race and the prize have a significant twist. The non-Christians in Corinth (“they”) are running for a prize that perishes, but the Christians (“we”) are running for an imperishable prize. But Anthony Thiselton identifies the most critical issue of this section:

Can the Corinthians, then, not exercise due egkrateia, self-control or abstinence, when what is at stake is not a garland made from vegetation, or even the acclaim of the crowd, but “the brother or sister for whom Christ died” (1 Cor. 8:11)? This verse does not imply a theology of “Christian struggle,” other than the struggle for self-mastery to forego indulgence of “rights.”[1]

Unless we as Christians understand our identity as one of union with Christ crucified, freedom can lead to self-indulgence through overemphasis on “rights”; what is required instead is self-control guided by love for our fellow believers.

Once again Paul uses himself as an example in closing his argument (1 Cor. 9:26–27). For the most part Paul speaks negatively about what he does not do; we can probably assume that he does this because what Paul does not do is exactly what the self-identified “strong” believers in Corinth, with their alleged wisdom and maturity, are actually doing. They are like a runner who is running out of his lane or a boxer who hits only air (verse 26).

Paul speaks positively about his own approach (verse 27a), but the interpretation demands close attention. Paul is speaking in metaphors in verse 27. That being the case, we have to figure out what the verb translated “strike a blow” (NIV) means as well as what “body” means.

The disputed verb is the Greek hup?piaz?, which literally means to give a black eye and figuratively means to put under strict discipline or treat roughly. English translations divide between these two meanings with NIV and CEB preferring the literal meaning and ESV, NET, NLT, HCSB and NRSV choosing the figurative meaning. We join Thiselton[2], Gordon Fee[3] and David Garland[4] in preferring the figurative meaning. Paul is using the boxing metaphor to speak about the strict self-control he imposes on himself in preaching the gospel.

The Greek word for “body” (NIV) is s?ma. Fee explains what Paul means by s?ma in this context: “He hardly intends his physical body as such to be the ‘opponent’ he must subdue in order to gain the prize. He uses ‘body’ because of the metaphor; what he almost certainly intends by it is ‘myself’ . . . but only as [his body] is the vehicle of his present earthly life.”[5]

Thiselton also sees the body as the vehicle through which our earthly life is lived, so he translates 1 Cor. 9:27 by saying, “My day-to-day life as a whole I treat roughly, and make it strictly serve my purposes, lest, after preaching to others, I find myself not proven to stand the test.”[6]

In the final analysis, the Holy Spirit is the one who makes self-control possible as “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:23), but he does not force it on us. Grace works through love, not compulsion.

Copyright © 2013 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.



[1] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 711.

[2] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 715.

[3] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987) 439.

[4] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 442.

[5] Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 439.

[6] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 708.

Exposition of 1 Corinthians 7:32–40 Complicated living for God

1 Corinthians 7:32–40

 32 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs — how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world — how he can please his wife — 34 and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world — how she can please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.

36 If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. 37 But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin — this man also does the right thing. 38 So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better.

39 A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. 40 In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is — and I think that I too have the Spirit of God.

Christians often want someone to tell them what to do to please God. But life is very complicated and each Christian has an important responsibility to decide how to please God in spite of the complications.

The section including 1 Cor. 7:32–40 is best understood in light of Paul’s contextual statement “this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31b). When you combine that fact with the need to please the Lord while living in a world that God has judged by the death of Christ, you have a very challenging path ahead. That was true in Corinth as well as for us today.

In verses 32–35, Paul discusses how this challenge might be simplified at the cost of forsaking marriage. That this is a choice not everyone can make is the subject Paul takes up in verses 36–38. If Paul thinks others should make celibacy their choice, as he has done (1 Cor. 7:38b), we might also consider that they need his support in making that sacrifice. It is important to note that Paul does not dictate what choice is to be made but leaves it to the people involved. They must figure out how to live for God most effectively.

In terms of making an application of verses 39–40 to remarriage today, the most vital clause would be “he must belong to the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39b). When Christian women allow themselves to “fall in love” with a non-Christian man, a spiritual disaster is coming! Of course, we could say the same thing of a Christian man marrying an unbelieving woman. We should not be confused about advising someone in this situation. Such relationships literally amount to sleeping with the enemy of God.

Copyright © 2013 Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

Exposition of 1 Corinthians 4:14–21 A father’s concern for his spiritual children

1 Corinthians 4:14–21

14 I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. 15 Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. 16 Therefore I urge you to imitate me. 17 For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.

18 Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. 20 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. 21 What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline, or shall I come in love and with a gentle spirit?

Paul once again changes metaphors, moving this time to depict himself as the spiritual father of the Corinthian believers. This metaphor allows him certain advantages.

In spite of the criticism Paul has received from some of the Corinthians, he seeks to communicate that he is on their team — or, better yet, with them on Christ’s team — rather than tearing them down (1 Cor. 4:14). The Corinthian church was growing within a society that assigned status on the basis of honor and shame. Anthony Thiselton says, “Paul does not wish simply to remove all status, but to redefine what counts as status in terms of glorying in the cross, glorying in the Lord and perceiving . . . the honor of being accounted worthy to suffer hardships in the service of their Lord.”[1]

By calling the Corinthian believers “my dear children” (1 Cor. 4:14), Paul prepares the way to take the role of “your father through the gospel” (verse 15) while casting the faction leaders in the role of “guardians.” The guardian was usually a trusted slave that Greek plays portrayed with a rod in hand for correction of the children in his care. David Garland says: “The humorous picture of ten thousand custodians brandishing rods at their stubborn charges may soften the affront. . . . Who these caretakers are, Paul does not say. . . . They are likely to be the local leaders of the competitive factions.”[2]

Paul is well aware that these first Christian converts had no precedents to teach them how to live for Christ. So, Paul says to them, “Take your cue from me” (Thiselton’s translation of 1 Cor. 4:16). By looking at Paul’s way of life, the Corinthians should know how to conduct their own lives in Christ. In his absence from them — Paul writes from Ephesus — he sends Timothy to remind them by example of the way of life Paul teaches in all the churches (1 Cor. 4:17).

By mentioning “all the churches,” it is likely that Paul wants to put the Corinthians in a different competition for status. By taking their cue from his pattern of life, the Corinthian believers will take their rightful place among all the churches striving to live for Christ crucified and turn away from the pointless rivalries of Roman Corinth.

Thiselton says, “Being blown up with air was a more familiar metaphor for arrogant self-importance in the first century than today,”[3] and that is a colorful image for the faction leaders. They are behaving as if Paul will never return, but they get a rude shock by his announcement that he will come to Corinth “soon,” assuming the Lord wants him to (1 Cor. 4:19a). He makes it clear that he will not be testing the talk of the faction leaders but rather their power. When Paul came the first time, his preaching was accompanied by a “demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (1 Cor. 2:3).

Paul knows that the kingdom of God can once again show its power over mere talk (1 Cor. 4:20). As he writes to the Corinthian church, Paul knows that others are also making decisions. The Greek verb thel? ties together verse 19 (Is God willing to allow Paul’s journey to Corinth?) and verse 21 (What type of visit do the Corinthians want?).

Thiselton relates a fascinating aspect of Roman culture affecting Roman Corinth: “The figures of the emperor and the father of the family were expected to admonish the communities for which they were responsible. The Corinthians would well understand the question: In which of these two ways am I to come as a father?”[4] That was the worldly viewpoint. As Christians we know that the spiritual oversight of Corinth lay with God the Father and his apostle, Paul, the spiritual father of the Corinthian church.

The moral issues which Paul addresses in chapter 5 made the rod more likely than the love and gentleness.



[1] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 369.

[2] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 146.

[3] Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 376.

[4] Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 378.

Exposition of 1 Corinthians 3:1–9 Misunderstanding life in the Spirit

1 Corinthians 3:1–9

1 Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly — mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? 5 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe — as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. 9 For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Paul seriously disagrees with his Corinthian audience about their identity. Certainly they are Christ-followers as shown when he addresses them as “brothers and sisters” (1 Cor. 3:1). They think of themselves “as people who live by the Spirit” while he says that they are “worldly — mere infants in Christ” (1 Cor. 3:1). That is a big difference indeed!

The statement “I gave you milk, not solid food” (1 Cor. 3:2) has generally been misunderstood to mean that Paul was talking about an elementary grasp of the gospel (milk) and a deeper grasp of doctrine (solid food). To the contrary, Gordon Fee says: “For Paul the gospel of the crucified one is both ‘milk’ and ‘solid food.’ As milk it is the good news of salvation; as solid food it is understanding that the entire Christian life is predicated on the same reality [i.e., Christ crucified].”[1]

While the Corinthians thought themselves ready for more than “milk,” Paul says they were not ready when he was with them and still have not become ready (1 Cor. 3:2). The proof is that there is “jealousy and quarreling among you.” What Paul means by “worldly” is explained by the phrase “acting like mere humans” (1 Cor. 3:3), which means people who lack the Holy Spirit.

The factions are wearing masks of spirituality in that one claims to “follow Paul” and another to “follow Apollos” (1 Cor. 3:4). The evident folly of that behavior is that neither Paul nor Apollos are leaders; they are servants given their respective roles by Christ (1 Cor. 3:5). Some in Corinth have believed, but Paul only claims to have “planted the seed” and Apollos merely “watered it” (1 Cor. 3:6). It is, however, God who “has been making it grow” — a Greek imperfect verb indicating continuous action in past time.

Rather than placing their attention on two supposed leaders, the Corinthian believers should focus on God who sent the two servants (1 Cor. 3:5–7). Note that while the one planting and the one watering had a common purpose, they will be individually rewarded “according to their own labor” (1 Cor. 2:8) by the master.

Paul’s metaphors overturn the Corinthians’ viewpoint. In Roman culture it was fashionable to be a client of a powerful leader who could pull you up to a higher place. But Paul says that he and Apollos are only servants, and field hands at that! Paul calls them “co-workers in God’s service” (1 Cor. 3:9).

The Corinthian believers thought themselves in a position to choose among powerful leaders, but Paul says, “You are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9). David Garland says, “The images convey that the Corinthians are still a work in progress.”[2] After all, it’s hard for a turnip to boast.

Copyright © 2012 Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.



[1] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987) 125.

[2] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 113.

Exposition of Romans 1:13–15 — Win Christ’s disciples; equip Christ’s disciples!

When Paul speaks of reaping “some harvest” (Rom. 1:13) among the Roman Christians, perhaps he is looking back to the parable told by Jesus about the four soils (Luke 8:4-15). The only seed that grew and actually yielded a harvest of grain was that which fell on good soil. Perhaps we should regard this parable as a strong hint that it takes some time to know whether our evangelism results in a disciple of Jesus or not.

Either way, our job is to tell the good news about Jesus and build those who become his disciples (Matthew 28:18-19).

(ESV) Romans 1:13–15  I want you to know, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. 14 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. 15 So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

Paul continues his efforts to defuse any criticisms of his ministry that might hinder his recipients from listening to his theological arguments about the gospel of Jesus Christ. In view of his extensive ministry among Gentiles in far-flung places, the Roman Christians might have felt slighted by the fact Paul had not visited the capital of the empire.

Once again John Chrysostom (a fourth-century father) offers a helpful set of insights about Paul’s inability to visit Rome sooner (1:13):

Paul does not concern himself with such things [as to why he was impeded], yielding instead to the incomprehensible nature of providence. By doing this he shows the right tone of his soul and also teaches us never to call God to account for what happens, even though what is done seems to trouble the minds of many. For it is the master’s place to command and the servant’s to obey.[1]

When Paul mentions the “Greeks” in 1:14, this term includes all those who considered themselves partakers of Greek culture; for example, the standard Greek lexicon says, “Cultured Romans affected interest in things Greek and would therefore recognize themselves under this term.”[2] We must also recall that due to the conquest of most of the known world by Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.), Greek language and culture had spread throughout much of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions.

So, when Paul speaks of “Greeks and . . . barbarians” (1:14), he is effectively saying everyone. The terms “the wise and. . . the foolish” also mean everyone. In saying “I am under obligation” (1:14), Paul uses the present tense and indicative mood to convey the ongoing nature of his moral obligation before God to preach the gospel.

If the idea that Paul is going to “preach the gospel” (1:15) to Roman Christians seems a bit jarring, the problem is in our limited contemporary understanding of this phrase. Moo observes, “In this case, ’preach the gospel’ will refer to the ongoing work of teaching and discipleship that builds on initial evangelization.”[3] Similarly, Osborne says, “Once more, it is important to realize that gospel in the New Testament included discipleship as well as evangelism.”[4] Paul had a big gospel.

Never shrink the gospel!

Perhaps some of you will remember the Walt Disney film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989); before you scorn the title, consider that the film grossed a quarter of a billion dollars. While shrinking might be comical in a Disney movie, it is serious when it comes to the gospel.

One popular tool for “sharing the gospel” is The Four Spiritual Laws, a brief booklet written by Bill Bright in 1952. While such tools are very useful in explaining the essentials of salvation — as in my own conversion to Christian faith — they often have the unfortunate side-effect of shrinking the gospel to a degree that Paul would find really tiny.

1. Read Matthew 28:19-20. You will easily see both evangelism and discipleship in these verses. How would you relate these verses to the broader understanding of the gospel?

2. How might we get better educated on various aspects of salvation? Here are some references to consider: Substitution (Matt. 20:28; 2 Cor. 5:14); Justification (Rom. 3:21-26); Reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-19); Redemption (Eph. 1:7); Expiation (Col. 2:14); Regeneration (Titus 3:5). How do these verses help you to see various aspects of salvation?

Perhaps it will help to think of the gospel as a treasure. You would not want people taking away pieces while you were not looking! Another way the gospel is like a treasure is that we should get busy giving it away to those who need it so desperately!

Copyright © 2012 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials developed for Christ Fellowship (McKinney, Texas); used by permission.



[1] Gerald Bray, ed., Romans, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998) 26.

[2] BDAG-3, Hell?n, Greek, q.v.

[3] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996) 63.

[4] Grant R. Osborne, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004) 39.

Books: The Path to the Cross — Chapter 10

Front Cover

 

 

BIBLICAL CONCEPTS PRESS

 

 

 

 

Available at Amazon.com

 

 Chapter 10

A Big Difference

Jesus commends serving others

Years ago I made a large astronomical telescope, which provided me with hours of fun. Whenever I set up my telescope in the front yard, it took about fifteen minutes to draw a crowd. When people walk up, they see a large cylinder pointed up toward the sky. Invariably, someone will go around behind the telescope, crouch down, and look up through the bottom, expecting to catch a glimpse of the heavens. It shocks them to realize that they can’t see a thing!

Anyone who grows up in America develops a general concept of how telescopes work. Through limited experience they develop the idea that you use every telescope by looking in one straight line through the optics to the target. That holds true for most telescopes, but not for mine.

The eyepiece on my telescope is on the side, near one end of the tube. To observe with me, people have to give up their time-honored ideas about how telescopes work. They must use my telescope according to its special — Newtonian reflector — design.

Sometimes the way we look at things makes a big difference indeed. I’m personally convinced that our principle of looking at things in culturally conditioned ways applies to the way we see the church and its leaders. Having grown up in America, the great majority of us have become accustomed to thinking of the church as working much like a corporation. As we will see, that is quite different from the way Jesus Christ designed his church to work.

As a direct result of adopting corporate culture, some churches don’t function as they should. Some church leaders don’t follow the role that Christ intended; they too are caught up in the cultural pattern. That makes a big difference.

One of the most critical Gospel passages on church leadership comes from Mark 10. This passage also illustrates why the authors of the Gospels sometimes put stories side by side. At first glance, many of these stories may seem unrelated, but further study will reveal a strong connection. Such is the case in Mark 10.

Mark’s account flows through three stages of thought. In the first stage the focus is on serving self, strictly catering to one’s pleasures. The second stage stresses serving other people, placing other people’s interests ahead of your own. The final stage involves serving God, putting his kingdom above all else.

A Faulty Design

35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
39 “We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
(Mark 10:35–40)

Those events probably took place on the east side of the Jordan River while Jesus and his disciples journeyed south toward Jerusalem. It may have been during a brief rest stop that James and John made their play for power.

They began with one of the most open-ended requests in the history of the world: “We want you to do for us whatever we ask” (Mark 10:35, italics added). When they got down to specifics, they were asking for the number two and number three positions in the kingdom of God. They wanted to be the second and third most powerful people in all eternity.

The other Gospels inform us that, at that point, James and John still thought Jesus would set up the millennial kingdom very soon. They believed that the trip to Jerusalem would conclude with his glorious reign. I really don’t know why they expected that, because Jesus told them repeatedly what would actually happen. He was going to Jerusalem to die. From their request, we can plainly see that his plans did not fit into theirs.

Some days before the approach by James and John, the disciples had argued vehemently among themselves (Mark 9:33–34). Jesus asked them what they had argued about, but none of them wanted to tell him. They were ashamed to admit that they had fought over who was the greatest among them.

Their self-interest had not gone away. That’s why James and John reasserted their claims. They were trying to sneak in front of the other ten by asking Jesus for those privileges first. Such tactics would have been logical, had they been serving in the court of King Herod, that master of political intrigue. That’s the way the game is played in this world’s councils of power. But James and John had totally misunderstood the design of Christ’s kingdom.

In responding to James and John, Jesus tried in several ways to point them in the opposite direction. First he warns them that they don’t know what they are asking (Mark 10:38a). And so, Christ’s question likely means, “You can’t drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with, can you?” (Mark 10:38).

To drink someone’s cup means to share his fate, in this case, death on a Roman cross. To be baptized means to be overwhelmed or engulfed, in this case by God’s wrath against sin that would engulf the Son of God. But James and John demonstrated their lack of spiritual insight and the keenness of their self-interest by ignoring the rebuff Jesus had given them. They said, “We can.” They were willing to do whatever was necessary to gain supreme power!

Jesus then predicted that they would experience part of his suffering. (In A.D. 44, James was martyred by Herod Agrippa. John was ultimately banished to the island of Patmos in the Mediterranean, from which he wrote Revelation.)

Next, Jesus flatly denied the two brothers’ request by saying that those places of honor “belong to those for whom they have been prepared” (Mark 10:40). In my view, Jesus didn’t have anyone specific in mind; he was speaking of a certain kind of person. It would soon become obvious that James and John did not fit the description!

An Astonishing Design

41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
(Mark 10:41–45)

The two brothers’ power politics soon blew up in their faces. The other status-seekers learned what had happened and became “indignant” with the two. This word means to be angry at impropriety.

In trying to sneak in ahead of all the others, James and John hadn’t played by the rules. The other ten apostles actually wanted the same thing James and John did, but they didn’t get off the starting blocks quite as quickly. So, in the midst of his solemn journey to Jerusalem, where he was to suffer for humanity, Christ had to straighten out the twelve men in whom he had invested the most.

Jesus cut straight to the heart of their problem. They had totally misunderstood his design for the relationships among his followers. They had drawn their model for behavior from the surrounding pagan world. The rulers of the Gentiles “lord it over them”; the Greek verb has the clear nuance of self-interest.

The Herods and Caesars did not rule in the interest of those being governed, but solely for their own purposes. Their kingdoms functioned for maximum personal benefit. In the Roman world the high officials “exercise authority” over others, again with the implication of self-interest and exploitation. The whole power structure of the Gentile world served the interests of the people at the top, at the expense of the people on the bottom.

We should understand that, because we live in a world just like it. Like James and John, we have all grown accustomed to it and think that such power structures are normal. Within their cultural context, the request of James and John made complete sense, but they had drawn their model for the followers of Christ from their culture.

In response to that viewpoint, Jesus uttered four of the most important words in the New Testament: “Not so with you” (Mark 10:43). With this firm and simple statement, Jesus wiped the top-down model — power exercised for self-interest — right off the blackboard. Those who follow Jesus must adopt a totally different design.

Jesus then described what it takes to be great as a follower of Christ (Mark 10:43–44). To be great involves voluntary service on behalf of others, which is the underlying meaning of the Greek noun translated “servant.” To be first in the body of Christ, as James and John wanted to be, requires even more. Such a person must be the “slave” of all. The Greek noun refers to a person who has completely subjected his own interests to the interests of another.

Instead of drawing their model from the world, the disciples should have watched Jesus, who put his own interests aside. Christ voluntarily set aside the privileges of heaven to come to our world and share our struggle. Paul tells us that Jesus condescended to come in the very form of a slave (Phil. 2:7). God was trying to teach us something by the way that his Son came into the world. His message to us was totally counter-cultural and goes against the designs that we’ve all grown so accustomed to. But among us Jesus wants a different design, and leaders are to function there in a completely different way.

A Missed Opportunity

Now I want to give you a brief exposition of what is not written in the biblical text at this point. Mark should happily have reported that James and John repented of their extreme self-interest and bad attitude. But we don’t read that, do we? They appear unaffected by what Jesus had said.

And what would you expect Jesus to have done, in light of their lack of response? We might guess that Jesus would rebuke them and tell them that he was going to make them act like servants. He had the power to make them act any way he wanted. Jesus had both the power and the right to do that, but he knew that would be a violation of the very principles he was trying to teach them. It would have violated his design for those who follow him.

The church does not function by its leaders’ forcing others to do what they are supposed to do. Jesus didn’t work that way, either. He did exactly what he wanted future Christian leaders to do: after teaching others by word, he taught them by personal example.

An Incredible Request Granted

46 Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
48 Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
49 Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”
So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.”
50 Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.
51 “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.
The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”
52 “Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.
(Mark 10:46–52)

After teaching his disciples in a private setting, Jesus modeled for them in a public setting. Because Jesus was near Jericho, a large crowd had gathered around him. As the crowd walked along the road with Christ, suddenly one of Israel’s many blind men cried out. Most blind men probably would have welcomed a crowd as an opportunity to receive alms, but Bartimaeus was not like the others. He had heard that Jesus of Nazareth was coming (Mark 10:47).

Bartimaeus began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Think carefully; Bartimaeus was told that “Jesus of Nazareth” was coming. Nazareth is not the city of David; that distinction belongs to Bethlehem. So, Bartimaeus must have known more about Jesus than the average blind man did. He apparently understood who Jesus was and what he had come to do (“have mercy”).

Bartimaeus didn’t ask Jesus for position or power, but for something in keeping with the design and purpose of Christ’s mission. James and John had requested something in opposition to Christ’s mission, and they had been denied. Jesus didn’t come to hand out seats of power, but to show the mercy of God.

For his outcry, Bartimaeus received nothing but grief. The crowd, the disciples, and — I would be willing to guarantee you — the Twelve joined together to rebuke the man. In effect, they said: “Shut up! Keep quiet. The Great Man doesn’t have time to fool around with the likes of you. Don’t you know he’s going to Jerusalem to do something important?”

They considered it improper for a blind man to halt Jesus on his holy mission. But Bartimaeus understood the design of Christ’s life far better than the multitude or the disciples did. He simply cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:48).

At this, Jesus stopped dead in his tracks, and the whole multitude must have gradually ground to a halt. The Son of God, on his way to atone for the sins of the world, paused to meet the needs of one blind beggar. By his example, Jesus showed that he came to serve and not to be served.

Christ instructed those around him to call the blind man. Then the mood of the entire group changed, and the people began to encourage the blind man. When Jesus called him, Bartimaeus demonstrated all of the spiritual insight and faith that James and John had previously lacked. He threw his cloak aside and quickly approached Christ to make his request. In a matter of seconds, his eyesight was restored.

Consider what this man had done even before he approached Jesus. He had thrown his cloak aside! It gets cold in the Jericho valley at night, and he undoubtedly would have needed that cloak to survive. The poor often had to depend on such garments for shelter, because they couldn’t afford a house. In my opinion, Bartimaeus threw his cloak aside because he knew that in a few moments he would be able to find it with no difficulty. He believed that Jesus would grant his request.

Consider too why Bartimaeus wanted to see. He didn’t use the gift for his own interests. He immediately began to follow Jesus with his newfound eyesight. He wanted to use it to serve God and not just himself. The other Gospels tell us that he gave praise to God along the way to Jerusalem.

A Backward Glance

By placing these two incidents side-by-side, Mark made his point powerfully. The section begins with two men who were serving themselves. Jesus rebuked them and taught that anyone who wants to become great among his followers must put the interests of others ahead of his own. Jesus then modeled this principle, with the result that men praised God. Selfish interest leads to quarreling and bickering, but serving others leads to the glory of God.

James and John failed to understand the design of relationships among the followers of Jesus Christ. They lacked spiritual insight and drew their model from the world. By contrast, Bartimaeus understood what Jesus had come to do and tailored his request to fit that. As a result, Bartimaeus came away a big winner. It makes a big difference to follow the design that Jesus has revealed.

Finally, I think these incidents amply demonstrate how leaders ought to function within the body of Christ. Not only should they set aside any interest in power and status, but they should also realize that they will not accomplish Christ’s goals by commanding and controlling others. Jesus taught first by word and then by the model of his own life. He expects leaders in the body of Christ to follow the same pattern.

Greatness in the Family of God

What Jesus taught his disciples applies to everyone, not just leaders. Use the following ideas to evaluate your own life:

1. Climbing to some pinnacle of power is the sole pursuit of many in our culture. But Jesus firmly rejected power-seeking as a relational model among his followers.

Are you involved in the great power game advocated by this world? In what settings?

If so, have you brought those values modeled by James and John into the church or into your circle of Christian relationships?

2. Jesus did not say that a Christian must reject a position of great authority within the power structures set up by this world. Indeed, a Christian general in the Army or CEO in a company could have a great influence for Christ. But . . .

How would a Christian’s leadership in a secular setting be influenced by the idea of serving others rather than oneself?

In a secular setting, how might a Christian’s ambition and efforts to rise above others be affected by the values Jesus taught his disciples?

3. Above all, the church must honor the leadership design that Jesus taught his disciples.

To what extent does your church or Christian group function according to the design Jesus intended?

A Final Word

A problem once developed deep under Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs. This granite giant houses the North American Air Defense Command and contains huge electronic display screens that signal the onset of any foreign military threat. One morning, a screen lit up suddenly, indicating that two submarine-launched ballistic missiles were headed for the east coast — Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, or some other major city might only have a few minutes to live.

Signals immediately went out to American defense forces all over the world. Our bomber forces launched their armed flights to retaliate. At about that time, the attack signal vanished from the screen. It disappeared as quickly as it had come.

Later, military technicians discovered that within the computer a forty-nine-cent part had malfunctioned and reported an attack when, in fact, there had been none. That tiny part nearly changed world history.

What we need, for the church to function as Christ designed it, is a small but crucial change in each of our hearts. I think it boils down to a willingness to do things his way, not ours.

 Coming next . . .

In Chapter 11, we learn how Jesus dealt with enormous pressure during a trial that was awash in Roman politics.