1 Corinthians 8-11

Good morning! Today in 1 Corinthians 8-11 we read some of Paul’s “greatest hits” in terms of verses that have most impacted the church in the centuries since. While most of them have had positive effects, some of these verses have also been “hits” in the negative sense, causing great persecution and suffering when they’re enacted in a too-literal fashion.

As we start, Paul returns to the question of whether it is lawful for Christians to eat food offered to idols. Like we’ve seen before, Paul’s greatest concern is that Christians don’t cause offense to others in the faith. He considers it better to inconvenience the self than to cause another to fall away from the faith. Later in chapter 10, Paul comes back to this question a third time and suggests that it’s better not to eat food sacrificed to idols because it sends the wrong message. Though all things are permitted in Christ, not all things build up other members of the body of Christ.

Paul’s next focus is similar: forswearing what is rightful for the sake of the greater community’s success. Paul goes on at some length about his rights as an apostle, that he could be paid for his work, etc., justifying it with commentary on ancient legal codes. But then Paul declares that he’s not asking for any of that. In fact, he takes great pride in proclaiming the gospel for no price whatsoever. Nevertheless, he wants to be sure they understand that he could ask for more than he does (which might make them more inclined to regard him with gratitude). Paul describes himself as doing everything possible (blending in almost chameleon-like) to gain the trust of a community, then guiding it into Christian faith by whatever is needed for the sake of the gospel. Here he does call for them to imitate him—sounding for all the world like a coach energizing his team with a pep talk.

Paul in Chapter 10 largely reflects on Hebrew history, using the stories from the Torah as cautions and encouragements for faithful living. As with the previous section, we find here some good examples of what Jews would call “midrash”—reflecting on ancient texts in such a way as to bring them new meaning in new contexts. Here we also find that troubling but everywhere-present verse that God “will not let you be tested beyond your strength”. This sentiment has damaged faith and implies that people who suffer could just get out of it if they found the door or window that God had left open. Like much of the friends’ advice in Job, this sentiment works better if one adopts it as encouragement for oneself, rather than as advice for another.

In chapter 11, from what might as well be considered far left field, “Paul” lays out a rhetorical bombshell that has caused great trouble in the church, because he insists that women should be silent in worship and shouldn’t teach men. I put “Paul” in quotation marks because some scholarship suggests this has been inserted from decades later back into Paul’s letter, seeking to bolster a “hierarchizing” of the church that places men over women. It does indeed seem a little out of place and out of step with the rest of Paul’s thought in this part of the letter. Paul elsewhere praises women effusively, treats them as his equals and promotes their efforts to share the faith. Whether these are authentically Pauline thoughts or not, the sentiments flow from a supposition in Paul’s time that women were dangerously emotional and seductive (particularly with their hair exposed). Such words have bedeviled the church and its leaders in every century since, and only in the last century have we begun to appreciate again the fact that women are at the heart of church life and leadership, from the first announcement of Jesus’ resurrection even down to the present day.

We round out today’s passage with Paul’s famous words that describe and “institute” the Lord’s Supper as a practice of the church. Paul describes how the church’s communion echoes Jesus’ own offerings at his last meal—or at least it ought to. Corinthian abuses abound at the Lord’s Supper, because it’s become an occasion for conspicuous display of class differences. Some believers are treating it as a common meal table, and one where not everyone gets the same food. They barge ahead and eat whenever they please, without waiting for the church to assemble. However, Paul adamantly believes that the Lord’s Supper is different because it’s a sharing in Christ’s body and blood that proclaims his death and anticipates resurrection. For this reason, Paul wants the church to treat the meal as sacred, so much so that disciples examine and discipline themselves before partaking of communion. This is different from the “all are welcome no matter what” invitation in some churches today (including my own), but Paul’s desire for preparation emphasizes how important the Lord’s Supper could be in the life of believers. Happy reading!

Read 1 Corinthians 8-11.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is 1 Corinthians 12-14. Thanks for reading!

1 Corinthians 4-7

Good morning! We have much to address in the four chapters before us today (1 Corinthians 4-7), where Paul addresses specific situations among believers in Corinth. He holds himself up in chapter 4 as an example for others to follow, just as a father models behavior for children. He then goes on to share what he would do in several thorny situations that the Corinthian church has written him about.

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1 Corinthians 1-3

Good morning! Today we start the first of two letters from Paul to the Christian church that he started and others led after he left. From Paul’s letters and the broader history of Corinth (a trading city with a cosmopolitan, worldly culture), we get a sense of the Corinthian church as diverse and graced with many spiritual gifts. However, the Corinthian church’s diversity has also led to divisions around allegiance, status, and abilities. There are many cooks in the Corinthian kitchen, and because they’re all distracted by debate over the “top chef”, abundant skills and opinions remain unproductive, spoiling the Corinthian soup.

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Romans 12-16

Good morning! Today with Romans 12-16 we finish the first of Paul’s letter to churches in the early decades of the church’s expansion. Where earlier parts of the letter have advocated theological and philosophical justification for Gentiles and Jews together in the faith, here Paul focuses on concrete instructions for everyday behavior. He characterizes the Christian life as one of humility and transformation, advises accommodation to political authorities, counsels peace-keeping in the Christian community and closes with many personal greetings to members of the church in Rome.

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Romans 9-11

Good morning! Today in Romans 9-11, Paul tackles head-on the problem of historical specificity. If salvation comes to the world through the God of the Jews, and through Christ the Jew, why is it that some Jews are not open to this path of salvation in Christ? Furthermore, how do Gentiles fit in what once was a Jews-only club? Paul spiritualizes what it means to belong to Abraham, contends that some Jews are fated by God to fall away (at least temporarily), and uses the horticultural method of grafting as a metaphor for how Gentiles connect to the taproot of Jewish faith.

Out of the gate in Romans 9, Paul denies the idea that everyone born from Abraham is a child of the Abrahamic faith. Rather, only some Jews are “elected” by God for salvation, while others receive only a hardened heart from God. Paul asserts that salvation is out of human control and recognizes that God’s choices might seem capricious, but whatever God chooses is right. God has free choice in who to favor and who to foreswear. He reasserts that faith and not behavior is salvific, giving a description of salvation that has been widely used as a formula in evangelical circles: “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (10:9). This accomplishes several things for Paul: it opens the door for believers to be Gentiles and not Jews, while it also relativizes the idea of a Chosen People to the exclusion of all others. Divine election comes not through biological or racial connection to Abraham, but through faith in Jesus Christ.

Paul goes further to describe the nature of Jews and Gentiles in the order of salvation. A stalwart Jew himself, Paul does not forswear Judaism as a path to salvation. Rather, he suggests that Gentiles are included as “wild stock” grafted into the tree of divine favor. Over the course of time, the grafted limbs grow as though they are part of the tree from the beginning, but their origin is from elsewhere. Some (native) Jews meanwhile are falling away, broken branches from the tree, but the prophets suggested this might happen. The Gentiles who come into the fold may well arouse envy in Hebrews and may lead some to salvation. Indeed, Paul imagines God’s eventual salvation of all Israel, because the covenant through Abraham and his descendants is divinely guaranteed, not revoked. While I have serious reservations about the idea of God electing anyone to suffer more greatly in life than others, or to risk being outside the fold of salvation, I’m grateful that Paul at least leaves open the possibility that God’s favor will envelop all in the end. Happy reading!

Read Romans 9-11.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Romans 12-16. Thanks for reading!

Romans 1-3

Good morning! Today we begin the book of Romans, the first of many New Testament letters (also called “epistles”) written by Paul or other apostles to specific communities or people, expressing guidance for a given situation. These letters form the rest of the New Testament except for the final book, which we’ll approach in the week after Christmas. Epistles have been judged worthy of inclusion in the New Testament by how well their specific admonitions inform Christian theology (decided largely by vote of councils that convened the Bible’s current contents). These books follow ancient forms of letters or public address, since they were understood to be read aloud in assembly as a substitute for the writer’s actual presence.

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Acts 27-28

Good morning! In today’s final chapters of Acts (27-28), we follow along as the apostle Paul laboriously sails to Rome with his unnamed companion, in whose voice much of the journey is recorded. Paul acts as a sort of chaplain to the entire Roman ship, though he is supposedly a prisoner on it. He gives a reliable sense of when it is too hazardous to travel, as the shipwrecked passengers find out almost too late. As the boat is driven by late-season storms (think of those now facing Syrian refugees also seeking ports in Europe), we learn something about ancient maritime customs aboard ship. Paul acts for group cohesion when part of the crew tries to flee in the sole lifeboat, and encourages the hundreds of passengers when it seems all hope is lost. According to the author here, it is Paul’s wisdom (and the overseeing centurion’s mercy) which makes sure all aboard arrive safely on the island of Malta. There again, Paul heroically survives a snakebite that would have felled a lesser man, and cures people of diseases by laying hands on them. Throughout these accounts, Paul takes on a near-mythical status—this reads almost like the adventures of one of the ancient Greek heroes. One wonders what Paul would have made of such a lionizing account, were he alive to read it himself.

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Acts 24-26

Good morning! We are nearly done with the travels and travails of Paul, as well as the entire book of Acts altogether. But today in Acts 24-26 we read about his continued captivity in Caesarea, trying to prove his innocence against the false charges brought against him. What most captures the moral imagination in these chapters is the way Paul, by standing firm to his identity and experience, withstands the opposition that tries to throw everything at him. The favor he receives from Roman rulers also goes a long way toward helping him survive years in captivity.

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