Death and the Priority of God in Our Lives
In a very short time—for some of us a year, for others of us five years, for others ten, and others fifty—in a very short time, in a vapor's breath on a cool February morning, only one thing will matter, the presence or absence of God. When we die, all that will matter is God. Are we swallowed up in his glory, or are we swallowed up in the torments of outer darkness? In a very short time all that will matter is the presence or absence of God.
And I ask, should this imply anything about the priority of God in our lives?
The Condition of Our Age
Or if you lack the healthy gift of imagining your own death and the momentousness of an irreversible entrance into eternity, then consider an article from Sumter County, South Carolina: In St. Louis one out of every four girls in public schools becomes pregnant before her senior year.
In Boston schools last year 55 students were expelled for carrying guns. More than 2,000 students must report to probation officers for past offenses.
A Philadelphia school administrator writes, "People come to class high, not just pupils but teachers as well; filthy bathrooms, gang intimidation, nowhere to hang coats without them being stolen."
One widely used pamphlet in the public schools suggests to young people, "Accept sex for what it is, for whatever pleasure it gives you." It goes on to refer to the "old mythology" of saving sex for marriage, admitting that this is fine for some, as long as they "don't hassle those who want something else."
Or consider the bloody dismembering of thousands of tiny, well-formed little babies every year not primarily in a tragic crisis to save the mother's life but in a political maneuvering of values which makes a woman's right not to be pregnant superior to a babies' right not to be killed.
The fabric of the family that God designed for the security and nurturing of humble, disciplined, noble, righteous, intelligent, caring boys and girls has unraveled so far that it is scarcely even a safety net beneath the falling kids, let alone a cocoon for the shaping of great young minds and hearts.
And so I ask again, does this imply anything about the priority of God in our lives?
The Absence of the Biblical God in Our Culture
Is the collapse of our moral and social life connected to the almost total absence of the biblical God in our entertainment, movies, humor, music, art, drama, sports, advertising, science, business, travel, hobbies, medicine, counseling, and even religion—the sheer absence of the greatest reality in the universe, the reality that everything depends on, the reality that everything exists for, the reality that is more beautiful and powerful and intelligent and wise and loving and spectacular than all other realities—ignored, disregarded, snubbed by almost every enterprise in America.
Is there any connection here to our slide into barbarism?
I don't think it's a merely personal opinion of my own, but rather a deeply biblical insight (that I will try to get at in a moment) to say that it's the absence of the centrality of the biblical God in all of life that is leading to the collapse of our civilization. It is very easy to picture sheer barbarism just around the corner.
Confronting Our Culture on Two Levels
When I think of these things in relation to my little life and the 20 or 30 or three years I may have left before I go to be with God forever, I feel a deep sense of calling and urgency to be a kind of person and lead a kind of church that confronts our culture on two levels. The one level almost everybody appreciates. The other level many do not—even in the church.
1. Caring for the Casualties
The one level is the level of caring for the casualties of our God-ignoring and God-belittling age. And when I say this, I don't mean that the casualties are godless. Many of them are Christians, and some quite good Christians.
I mean that the unweaving of a God-centered society destroys a thousand protective moral patterns, and noble assumptions about life, and respectful behaviors, and solid constraints on evil, and stable views of knowledge.
And when this firm, protective, God-centered social life unravels, there are emotional, physical, spiritual casualties everywhere—outside the church and inside. The sins of the fathers fall upon the children. And when God is gone from education and home and business and commerce and art and statecraft, everyone pays, even the most godly.
And so the one level where I feel constrained to confront our culture and where I long for our church to confront it is the level of caring for the casualties. This is the level almost everyone appreciates in a pastor and in a church. And for many this is all they can imagine that a pastor and a church are for. And if that is all we we're for, it would be no small calling. It would be something great.
2. Going Behind the Casualties to the Cause
But I am bound by my conscience and, I believe, by the Word of God to confront American life—even if only in one little corner of Minneapolis—at another level. My vision of what we should be as a church includes this confrontation too.
I can imagine that some will say, Amen! Let's not just cope with the casualties of pornography; let's get it out of our city. I agree, but that's not the confrontation I have in mind. Others will say, Amen! Let's not just provide a decent disposal for dead babies and counseling after abortion; let's stop it. I agree, but that's not the confrontation I have in mind.
What I have in mind is the effort to go to the root of the rotten tree—to find the hand that is unraveling the whole moral structure of our culture—to go back up the river of social life to the source of pollution and find out why the last generation has brought a flood of drug addiction and pornography and boasted homosexuality and alcoholism and depression and unfaithfulness and divorce and abuse and eating disorders and insecurity and bitterness and power-grabbing and greed.
I believe the root of the rotten tree and the unraveling hand and the source of pollution is the disregard of God in all his biblical grandeur and grace. It may be hostile in the form of atheism or Islam; it may be condescending in the form of secular relativism (you've got your God; we've got our Zen; live and let live!); it may be naïve in the form of Bible-believing Christians who claim to know God but absorb their values more from television than the Bible.
The absence of a radical God-centeredness in all of life is the root problem of our culture. And as I assess how to invest my life most usefully for the glory of God and for the eternal good of people, I ask, Who in our culture is not only going to care for the casualties, but also go behind the casualties to the cause?
And I have in mind something deeper than dysfunctional families. How did they get to be that way? What forces in our souls and in our culture breed this kind of family? And where do these forces come from?
They come from ignorance of and rebellion against the biblical God of grace and glory. They come from putting man where God belongs. That is the point of the first chapters of our Bible and that is the point of the rest of its pages, including our text today.
The Two-Level Confrontation in Preaching
The way this two level confrontation works itself out in preaching is the greatest challenge of my life.
On the one hand I feel the need to unfold the Word to help the casualties (which is most of us, one week or another) to survive another week in faith, to feel hope in God, to believe that God is for you in the midst of a miserable affliction.
And on the other hand I feel a great burden to provide a vision of God that for almost all of you is being attacked by the secular air you breath during 100 hours of your life every week. I feel the burden to cry out with warning against how much of the God-ignoring world we evangelicals absorb without even knowing it.
And I know that this prophetic exaltation of God as the great need of our culture can be taken by the casualties on any given Sunday morning to mean simply that if they would just believe in the sovereignty of God, all their problems would go away. But in fact the point is not that simple and individualistic. The point is that if enough people—wives and husbands, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, employees and employers, teachers and students—would begin to shape their lives around the all-pervasive reality of the grace and glory of the biblical God, there would sprout up a garden of healing and the chain of misery could be broken for generations to come.
And so I believe one of the great missions of our church is to reweave the fabric of God-centered lives and families—to rebuild the foundation of God's all-pervasive presence and influence in your lives and in the lives of your children and their children and their children after them, and as many in our world as they can influence.
Now as we turn to today's text, I am not going to give you a detailed exposition of each part. I am going to simply point what it was in this text that got sparked all these thoughts.
Seven Statements About Paul, Apollos, and God
In 1 Corinthians 3:3–4 Paul pointed out that the Corinthians are acting like mere men, people without the Holy Spirit, people without God. Verse 3: there is "jealousy and strife." Specifically, verse 4: they are boasting in their teachers, I belong to Paul! I belong to Apollos!
Now what does Paul trace this jealousy and strife and boasting back to? That's what verse 5–9 are about.
The answer in a word is that he traces it back to their putting man where God belongs, or to their failure to see God's sovereignty. What Paul does is put man in his lowly place and put God in his exalted place. I'll try to sum this up in seven statements that Paul makes about himself and Apollos and God.
1. We are servants, but God alone is Master.
Verse 5: "What then is Apollos? What is Paul?" Servants. Not owners, not masters. Who goes into a house and starts to line up behind the maids and waiters and brag about them? Don't boast in us. Boast in the Lord, the Master of the servants. (See 2 Corinthians 11:23; 4:1.)
2. God is the object of your faith not us; we only point to him.
Verse 5: "What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed." When you get a letter from your lover, you shouldn't fall in love with the mailman. God is the great one to be prized not Paul and Apollos.
3. We did not make ourselves servants or make you converts, God did.
Verse 5: "What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each." It may mean gave each his special servant role, or it may mean gave each the fruit of his labor. Both are true, and the point is: Don't boast in men, boast in the one who is the real mover and shaker here. God!
4. Apollos and I planted and watered, but God alone can create spiritual life.
Verse 6: "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth." In other words the unique, sovereign, life-giving authority and power of God puts him so far above us that our subordinate roles should not impress you at all compared to who God is and what he can do. In fact . . .
5. Apollos and I amount to nothing compared to God.
Verse 7: "So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth." What does he mean, they are nothing? Hasn't he just said they are planters and waterers? And doesn't he say in verse 9 that they are fellow workers for God. That's something, isn't it?
Yes, in one sense it is, and Paul doesn't belittle his calling. But we need to learn something here about how to speak of our worth and God's worth in relation to each other.
Today almost all the logic goes in one direction: since God stoops to use me, I am really somebody. But in Paul's thinking the logic goes in the other direction. Look at 1 Corinthians 1:28–29. This is a good commentary on 3:7 and the idea that Paul and Apollos were nothing: "God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God."
In other words, the 20th century tendency is to say, "God chose to use me, so aren't I somebody." And Paul's tendency is to say, "God chose to use me, so isn't he somebody!" In other words, sovereign grace makes planters and waterers out of nothing, not so that they will be excited about the worth of their status but so that they will be excited about the worth of God's grace.
6. Apollos and I are not competitors but allies with a common goal, and in the end God will give us our rewards, not you.
Verse 8: "He who plants and he who waters are equal [one], and each shall receive his wages [reward] according to his labor." There may be differences between Apollos and me in our labor, but only God can reveal the hidden purposes of the heart (4:5). Leave all distinguishing to him.
7. We are workers on the farm and the building, but God owns it and us.
Verse 9: "For we are fellow workers for God; you are God's field, God's building."
In summary, then, Paul's answer to why there was pride and boasting and jealousy and strife at Corinth is that they were putting man where God belongs and failing to see the all-pervasive sovereignty of God.
And so I conclude with an inference for "S*P*A*N the Nineties." If it is God's will that we build a new sanctuary, then we can know beyond the shadow of a doubt that he himself intends to be all in this building. And we may assume that he will prosper our efforts only insofar as we give him that exalted place in our hearts and homes and church and if we make it our mission not only to care for the casualties of a God-belittling culture but also to weave again the centrality of God in all of life.