Scripture: 1 Corinthians 3:10-23
My sermon is about pride and a promise. It has three points. Point Number One: Lent and the problem of pride. Point Number Two: the problem of pride in Corinth and in us. Point Number Three: the promise that kills our pride.
Point Number One: Lent and the problem of pride…
I didn’t grow up Methodist; I grew up Baptist—we didn’t observe the season of Lent.
But many of my classmates did. And I remember listening with curiosity—around this time of year every year—when they talked about what they would “give up” during Lent. For my classmates in elementary school, it was often something like chocolate or some kind of dessert—or maybe soft drinks… Which, in the Atlanta area, we just called “Coke” back then.
As a smart-alecky Baptist kid at the time, I would say, “Oh, yeah, well in that case, I’m going to observe Lent, too! For the next 40 days, I promise I am going to give up broccoli.” And I have successfully observed that “Lenten discipline” each year of my Christian life since then, even long before I became Methodist and started observing Lent.
But I know, I know… You want to say, “Pastor Brent, giving up broccoli doesn’t count! You’re supposed to give up something that’s hard to give up.”
And I get it… I said this last Wednesday, but if you really want to do something hard, then try fasting… if your health permits. And I’m talking about real fasting. From all food! For instance, just try to skip a lunch some time during the next 40 days. Just a single meal one time in the next 40 days! And I’m not talking about accidentally missing a meal because you’re so busy, and you just lost track of time, or whatever; that’s different… I’m talking about, you wake up in the morning and tell yourself, “Today I am going to skip lunch, and I’ll devote that extra time to prayer and Bible reading.”
Just try it once!
And by the time it’s lunchtime, or early afternoon… see how nice or how kind you are to others… see how you treat others… see how patient you are with others… see how joyful you feel… Remember: being “hangry” is a real thing—H-A-N-G-R-Y. Heck, you will likely be hangry with Jesus before your fasting comes to an end! Like, “Lord, why are you doing this to me?”
More importantly, you will probably feel like a complete failure as a Christian on that particular day!
And when you feel like a failure, don’t blame it on the fact that you skipped lunch. Instead, tell yourself something like this: “The fact that I skipped this meal today did not cause me to act unkind, or lose patience, or be less than joyful… It did not cause me to be hangry. I wish it did! I wish something external, something outside of myself, were to blame. But no… I have no one to blame but myself. My fasting simply brought to the surface the sin and the ugliness and the lack of faith that already resides within my heart!”
And if the only result of your so-called “Lenten discipline,” your fasting, your “giving something up,” is that you realize what a complete failure you are as a Christian, then that would be a good thing.
Because when you realize how weak your faith is—O ye of little faith—then you will be more likely to throw yourself onto the mercy of our Lord Jesus—and plead for his forgiveness and his grace… and ask Jesus to heal those broken and sinful and ugly places inside of you.
If Lent causes you to say, “I can’t do it, Lord. I’m not strong enough. I need you to be strong for me, because I’m weak and powerless. And I need you to enable me to overcome my problem with sin,” then that would not be the worst thing!
It’s not for nothing that the first step of Alcoholics Anonymous is to do what? To admit that you’re powerless over your addiction to alcohol.
Listen… alcoholism is a conspicuously harmful addiction, as too many of us, I’m sure, can attest. But it wouldn’t be the worst thing for all of us sinners—regardless of whatever sinful addictions or compulsions we happen to suffer from—to take that first step of the twelve steps… and to admit that we’re powerless over our problem with sin. We can’t solve this problem on our own. We need Jesus! So we depend on him more… we lean on him more… we trust in him more, because what choice do we have? Nothing else works!
As at least one pastor has said, “You don’t know that Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.”
If you learn that painful lesson during Lent, then mission accomplished, I say!
Besides… you know what would be far worse than simply failing at Lent?
Succeeding at it!
Because if we succeed at our Lenten discipline, our fasting, or our giving something up, we might say, “Oh, that wasn’t so hard after all. I’m doing pretty well in my spiritual life. I obviously have my act together as a Christian. I am pretty righteous. Jesus must be proud of me! I bet he’s glad to have me on his team!”
Suddenly, instead of proving to ourselves how much we need Jesus, we’d think instead that we were proving to Jesus how good we are! Instead of becoming increasingly dependent on the Lord, we’d let our so-called “success” make us feel less dependent on him! Instead of believing that Christ is sufficient to supply every need of ours, we’d start to feel self-sufficient.
And that would be a disastrous mistake.
In fact, it would be the same disastrous mistake that many of these Corinthians are making in today’s scripture.
And this is Point Number Two… the problem of pride in Corinth and in us…
Remember the main problem at which Paul has been taking aim since verse 11 of chapter 1: This quarreling that the Corinthians have been doing about which teacher, preacher, or apostle they “belong to,” or they “follow.”
Why is it so important to them?
I think it’s something like this: They hope that by identifying with one of these great men, they too will share in that man’s greatness and glory. If they devote themselves to this very important person, he will improve their standing in the world. He will make them feel important. He will open doors for them in the world that otherwise might remain closed. He will give them some advantage in life that they otherwise may not have…
Or so they thought.
And why wouldn’t they think this? The Corinthians have bought into the “wisdom of the world.” That’s what the wisdom of the world has taught them: They must trust in themselves and their own intelligence, their own efforts, their own cleverness in order to succeed and prosper and get ahead in life. If Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People existed in the first century, their copies would be dog-eared and highlighted and marked up!
In fact, if I had to sum up the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians, and put into words precisely what Paul perceives as the spiritual problem with these Corinthians—of which this quarreling over leaders is merely the symptom—I would say it’s sinful pride, of course… But more specifically… I’d say this:
Instead of recognizing how weak and powerless and radically dependent on God and his grace they are, these Corinthians are trying to become independent of God.Instead of trusting in the Lord to supply all their needs, as God’s Word promises he will, they are trying to become self-sufficient. Instead of finding their only hope and confidence for life in Christ alone, they are becoming self–confident.
So… instead of becoming independent, self-sufficient, and self-confident, Paul wants them to become radically God-dependent… and Christ-sufficient… and Christ-confident.
And some of these cocky Corinthians have become teachers and preachers in the Corinthian church—and in verses 12 through 15 Paul compares the church to a building and says these teachers are building on Paul’s foundation with the equivalent of “wood, hay, and straw”—building materials that don’t last. And in Final Judgment, God will show these teachers that what they built on top of Paul’s solid foundation was worthless.
Years ago, when I preached a sermon on this text, I compared the church to a popular hospital near the church. It had a “Truett Cathy” wing—because the founder of Chick-fil-A had donated a lot of money to the hospital. And I asked my congregation to imagine that our church was a hospital. I identified three new wings that our church, or our denomination, was in danger of adding to our particular hospital… new structures made out of “wood, hay, and straw.”
I thought I was very clever… But you what? I failed to identify the most spiritually harmful “wing” of them all—at least for us Christians… It’s most harmful, perhaps, because it’s the most widespread. I’ll call it the “works righteousness” wing.
This dangerous false doctrine says something like this: “Of course everyone starts out as a sinner in need of God’s grace. So you trust in Jesus, you make a profession of faith, you get born again. Your sins get blotted out. Wiped away. Forgiven. God has given you a new start… a fresh start.
“But now that you’re a Christian… don’t blow it. And if you do blow it, what excuse do you possibly have? You have the Holy Spirit living within you, after all. You’re supposed to be in the process of sanctification! You’re supposed to be getting better all the time,” as the Beatles song says.
And because we Christians will inevitably continue to “blow it,” we often walk around with this sense that God is probably mad at us, that we’ve disappointed Jesus one time too many—and he’s just about out of grace for us. Heck, we worry that we may not even be saved at all—or maybe if we were at one time, we no longer are. Our salvation obviously didn’t “take.”
Or maybe we’re still saved, but, let’s face it, we don’t have a right to expect Jesus to do anything special for us! It’s enough that he “puts up with us” at all… given how much we fail. I certainly shouldn’t expect God to show me his favor… God’s favor is for other, holier Christians than me—the ones who don’t fail in such spectacular ways!
And this nagging sense that God doesn’t really love us as much as he used to… it has a way of robbing us of the joy that is supposed to be a fruit of the very Spirit that is living within us!
I feel confident that these words are ringing true for many of you this morning.
Years ago, at a church I was pastoring, we had an I.T. contractor who would come in occasionally and fix problems with our computers and our church wifi network. He wasn’t a member of our church, but he was a Christian, and he urgently wanted to speak to me. Because I was a pastor. So we talked.
Years earlier, he had kicked an addictive and sinful habit. Cold turkey. The theological word for these kinds of stubbornly persistent sins is “besetting sins.” Anyway, he kicked the habit, and he had been “clean” for years. But recently, he had “fallen off the wagon.” He was racked with guilt. He had confessed his sin and prayed for forgiveness, but he wasn’t at all confident that God could forgive him… Not anymore. Not this time. After all, he asked, “How many times can God forgive me when I keep doing the same old thing?”
I said, “Do you think God forgave you of that sin—I don’t know—1,236 times, but 1,237 times…? No way! That’s one too many times, my friend! No more forgiveness for you!”
Of course God doesn’t work like that! I pointed this man to Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:22, when Peter asked how many times he must forgive his brother. “Should I forgive seven times?” And Jesus says, “Not seven times but seventy-seven times.”
Or maybe “seven times seventy times.” Could be either. But it doesn’t matter, because Jesus’ point either way is, “There should be no limit to the number of times that you forgive others.” Why? “Because there’s no limit to the number of times that God forgives you!”
Otherwise, God would somehow be less forgiving than he asks us to be! After all, God’s Word tells us that love “keeps no record of wrongs,” 1 but this man believed that even after he became an adopted child of God, even after God said he loved him as much as he loved his only begotten Son Jesus, God actually did keep a record of wrongs! And when this reached that “magic number” of sins—maybe it’s 1,237 sins—bam… That’s it! God was finished with him!
I hope you can see how ridiculous this is…
We can be sure that if we’re children of God through faith in his Son, there are no strings attached to his love, his mercy, his grace!
Recall that the apostle Paul wrote the following in Romans 5:8: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We pastors recite that verse before we invite you to the table for the Lord’s Supper each month. Last week, the Christian writer and thinker Chad Bird tweeted the following:
St. Paul never said: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, on the condition that after a reasonable length of time we would be the kind of people no one would ever have had to die for in the first place. Otherwise the whole deal is off.”
Notice these words: On the condition that… Otherwise the whole deal is off.
If we know Christ as our Savior, if we are part of God’s family through faith in Christ, there is no “on the condition that”… there is no “otherwise”!
But getting back to this IT consultant… What was this man’s problem… I mean, aside from this besetting sin about which he felt so much guilt?
It was the same problem these Corinthians had…
It was the sin of pride. He had been feeling so good about himself for so many years—so confident, so strong… that when he fell off the wagon, he fell apart; he was devastated: After all, he didn’t think he was the kind of person who would do that anymore! Yes, God forgave him a long time ago, but since then he’s been pulling his own weight. He’s been proving himself worthy! And after the relapse he was reminded in a powerful way that—yikes—he was still a sinner… and he still needed God’s grace after all. And it wounded his pride to see himself that way!
And that’s Point Number Two… the Corinthians’ problem of pride is a lot like our problem of pride…
Point Number Three: I want to talk about a profoundly encouraging promise, foundin verses 21 to 23, which, if we only take it to heart, can kill our pride: “So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.”
In other words, Paul is saying something like this: “This whole time you Corinthians have been thinking that you belong to these apostles and teachers. But you don’t get it: They belong to you. We belong to you! Everyone belongs to you. Everything belongs to you! God is using everything about us, and others, to serve you and your best interests, to help you, to heal you, to bring you your greatest joy.”
“In fact,” Paul goes on, “the world itself belongs to you. Your life and your death belong to you. The present and the future belong to you.”
What on earth does that mean?
He’s saying that if you belong to Christ, you can be confident that God is engineering everything in the universe right now—including all of your circumstances, good or bad, all of your relationships, good or bad, all of your successes and failures, all of your trials and challenges and setbacks, even your own death… everything… to serve you and your best interests, to help you, to heal you, and to bring you your greatest joy.”
So these Corinthians were sitting there worried about winning the favor of some powerful and influential person. Big deal! Paul says:
“Because you’re in Christ, you’ve already won the favor not of any person, but of the One who’s powerful enough to have created those people, created the world, created the universe… in the first place!
“This so-called ‘power’ that you think these people possess? It’s nothing compared to the power that God is using at this very moment for your good—again, to serve you and your best interests, to help you, to heal you, and to bring you your greatest joy.
“So you think you’re in control? You think you’re calling the shots? You think you’re something special… because you happen to be a ‘close associate’ of me or of some other very important person. Not even close…
“You’re something all right, but you’re something special not because you know a particular person. You’re something special because your heavenly Father knows you… and loves you… and proved that love by sending his precious Son to die on a cross for you, and made you part of his family forever!
“And guess what, Mr. Big Shot”—or Ms. Big Shot—“you have done nothing to make that happen. It is all a gift of God’s unearned, undeserved, unmerited grace. If you’re successful the way the world measures success, that’s fine… that’s a blessing… but it’s not because you’ve done anything to ‘win the favor’ of important people: it’s because Christ lived, suffered, died on a cross, and was resurrected to win you the favor of almighty God!”
Nothing crushes our pride like realizing that we’re really not in control! And that’s Paul’s main point here in verses 21 to 23.
Again… it’s surely one of the Bible’s most astonishing promises. Isn’t it so comforting?
Here’s one small example of the way it encourages us: In Acts chapter 23, the apostle Paul is under arrest and in Roman custody in Jerusalem. He’s been put on trial and has just appeared before a couple of Roman governors. His life literally hangs in the balance. His opponents have accused him of treason against Rome—because of his allegiance to Christ the King. Verse 11 says this:
The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”
Now, in the very next verses, Acts 23:12 and 13, it says this:
When it was day, the Jews made a plot and bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. There were more than forty who made this conspiracy.
And then Luke goes on to describe their plan… and the unlikely way that their plan was thwarted.
I want you to get the picture. The Lord Jesus comes to Paul in a vision: “You don’t have to be afraid of anything. Your life is not in danger. I’m going to send you to Rome, and you’re going to continue your mission to spread the gospel there.” And then the very next morning some of Paul’s fiercest enemies—more than 40 of them, in fact—form a conspiracy to murder Paul while he’s still in Jerusalem, before he leaves for Rome.
Paul doesn’t even know about this plot to kill him. Perhaps if he did he would worry about it. Who knows? After all, I’m sure these 40-plus men are ruthless, clever, and highly motivated, right?
Here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter what these men do… not one iota. Because unbeknownst to these 40 ruthless and clever and highly motivated enemies of Paul—who have put into place a plan to kill him… unbeknownst to all of them… God has put into place… a different plan.
So you tell me… Whose plan do you think will succeed?
See, these 40 men can try their hardest, they can do their very worst… As pastor John Piper points out, Paul is immortal until he fulfills God’s purpose for him and goes to Rome, and accomplishes all the things that God has planned for him there!
Until Paul fulfills God’s purpose for him, he is invincible… he is literally unkillable!
Now consider this: God has no less of a plan for each of us. Even when your life doesn’t go according to your plans, you can be sure it’s going precisely according to his… and sooner or later you’ll see that it will turn out for your ultimate good and your greatest joy.
Because we’re in Christ, all things are ours!
In his book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, pastorTim Keller talks about some surprising events that led to the planting of his church—Redeemer Presbyterian—in New York City. When Keller was a young man in seminary, he was not a member of that particular denomination. He knew he was called by God into pastoral ministry, but he didn’t know in which denomination God was calling him to serve. So he talked and prayed it over with a trusted professor, a distinguished scholar from England, who encouraged him to join this particular Presbyterian denomination. And so Keller did just that. And that denomination gave him the support and encouragement he needed, 20 years later, to start Redeemer Church. And the rest is history.
But this professor who proved so influential in Keller’s life almost didn’t make it to America in time to teach at Keller’s seminary—to meet Keller, and to talk to him about his ministry plans. It turns out that there was an enormous backlog of visa applications at the time. But a fellow student at the seminary wanted this professor to come so he called his father in Washington—his father was a politician—to cut through the bureaucratic red tape and grant this professor a visa.
This student’s father, by the way, was President Gerald Ford.
Why was his father president? It was because the former president, Richard Nixon, had to resign as a result of the Watergate scandal. But why did the Watergate scandal even occur. I understand it was because a night watchman noticed an unlatched door. ¶ What if the security guard had not noticed the door? What if he had simply looked in a different direction? In that case—nothing else in the long string of “coincidences” would have ever occurred. And there would be no Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the city.
[Keller asks,] Do you think that happened by accident? I don’t. If that did not happen by accident, nothing happens by accident. I like to tell people at Redeemer: If you are glad for this church, then even Watergate happened for you. 2
What is it I’m anxious about right now? What possible future event am I dreading or am I worried about right now? Why am I angry? What am I afraid of? What has disappointed me recently? Who has disappointed me recently? Who am I mad at? What’s making me feel guilty? What’s making me feel frustrated?
I’m sorry… Have I not heard the good news?
“All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.”
May that promise deal a mortal blow to our pride… and instill within us the greatest confidence and give us the greatest comfort imaginable!