Even as we look to Paul as an example of our faith walk, he always copied Christ. Offering his very life as a sacrifice in order to spread the good news came from his deep desire to be like Jesus.
J. Vernon McGee explained that “the supremacy of Christ” was at the core of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The church at Corinth was “a baby church” full of very new Christians, and they wanted “answers about political issues, religion, domestic problems, and morality.”
Paul explained how Jesus “is the solution to correct moral, social, and ecclesiastic disorders” (First Corinthians). Paul’s guidance boiled down to a very simple direction: follow me as I follow Christ.
Some Background to 1 Corinthians 11
McGee described the city of Corinth as a place of debauchery. A term popular in the Roman Empire at the time — “corinthianize” — referred to someone who “went to the very limit in sin.” (p.viii).
The Corinthian church, founded by Paul during his second missionary journey, felt weak after he had left. They were new Christians under heavy pressure from the temptations around them in this hedonistic, populous city.
According to McGee’s book, the theme of Chapter 10 was “liberty is not license,” and this is carried on into Chapter 11. Although Chapter 11 also discusses new themes, such as head coverings for women, the first verse of this chapter is really the end of a thought begun in Chapter 10.
We are all copiers, following trends and philosophies, and teachers who satisfy our perceived needs. We need a strong example if we are going to persevere along a new path, a solid leader, someone appealing.
This is particularly so when a group suffers discord from within and persecution from the outside.
When the going got tough, Corinthian Christians were tempted to cave into the longings or even the religious moralism they knew before turning to Christ. They felt rudderless without Paul’s encouragement in person.
Desire Leads to Sin
The Corinthian church was not fixing its eyes on Christ. As Andy Naselli asserted, “it isn’t surprising that the early Corinthian church continued to share some of Corinth’s worldly values regarding leaders and sex and other issues.”
They struggled with how to live together as Jews and Gentiles; how to dress appropriately and why; how to behave like people who had died to sin and been resurrected in Christ.
Paul wrote that “we should not lust after evil things” (1 Corinthians 10:6), so they must have been lusting after evil things, which satisfied the flesh but denied the power of Christ to satisfy them.
“Have you noticed,” asked McGee, “how many times it is desire that leads to sin?” (p. 109). Paul warned the church that their desires needed to change, which is a part of what it meant to imitate Christ. To follow him was to follow what Jesus did, what he said, and to want what he wanted — for the Father to be exalted.
When we ask God to plant his desires in our hearts because we love him (Psalm 37:4), we find ourselves copying what is good because it makes sense, and we love it. Righteous behavior flows directly from our love of Jesus.
If we copy the world, however, we serve ourselves and demonstrate that God is not first in our lives. “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24).
We are all free to choose. “Everything is permissible,” wrote Paul, “but not everything is beneficial” (1 Corinthians 10:23). How we use our liberty is an indicator of whether we are living in Christ and for his Kingdom or living in the flesh and building our tiny kingdoms.
A Christian does more than believe he is forgiven by the free gift of grace; a Christian recognizes the power of sin in his or her life, a power that threatens to nurture worldly rejection of Jesus.
A Christian realizes that since we all copy someone, we had better copy Jesus. Through him, only will we spend eternity in the presence of God.
The Solution to Licentiousness
Paul was not asking the church to do anything he was unwilling to also do. He understood the challenges of changing direction. As he tells the church at Philippi, he was once the Jew’s Jew, a Pharisee, and a Hebrew.
He was among a rare group of men with this particular pedigree. The Lord had caused him to make a 180-degree turn, cease persecuting Christians, and imitate Jesus.
Following someone you cannot see is difficult and discouraging at times, even with the Holy Spirit as one’s helper, but we do have a beautiful Sovereign, and examples of his beauty can be seen in those who copy him.
They are the epitome of what Paul refers to in Philippians 4:8: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable.” The ultimate example, of course, is Jesus, who is these things, and more.
Even the few words before 11:1 provide a starting point, which points to some of the problems in Corinth. They were glorifying self, being obnoxious about their beliefs; there was discrimination and selfishness.
They had lost sight of the purpose of the church and the person of Jesus. “Do everything to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or Greeks or the church of God, just as I also try to please everyone in everything, not seeking my own benefit, but the benefit of many, so that they may be saved” (10:31-33). The answer was simple — keep their eyes on Jesus.
What Does it Look Like to Follow Today?
Paul was not good in the way Christ was good — Jesus, as a man, was perfect. He never sinned. Paul was still a sinner, but he followed Jesus. He obeyed the calling which God placed upon his life to go out and make disciples.
His influence can be seen today since so much of what he wrote contributes to our understanding of the Christian life.
Certain characteristics of that life are outlined in 1 Corinthians 10:31-33, although there are many more. Highlighting these is enough to get us started, however:
1. Do everything for the glory of God.
2. Respect others.
3. Put others ahead of yourself.
Although we want to see everyone saved and to speak with all people about salvation, there are good ways and bad ways to approach the beautiful responsibility of sharing the gospel.
Paul would go into a town and start talking with people about what they already liked to talk about. “I have made myself a slave to everyone in order to win more people” (1 Corinthians 9:19).
Paul was not above learning something of every culture and every belief in order to find a foothold that would start conversations. He showed interest in the beliefs and motivations of unsaved individuals without being tempted away from Christ.
This is a part of how he put others ahead of himself — by doing the risky thing, which attracted the attention of unhappy authorities who would not submit to the King Paul was proclaiming.
He truly cared more about other people than about his safety, given that he was imprisoned and nearly died multiple times during his missionary journeys.
“Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea;” (2 Corinthians 11:25). He was not saying this was a prerequisite of faith, but it was a result of love in action.
The Ultimate Example
Yet, even as we look to Paul as an example of our faith walk, he was always copying Christ himself. Offering his very life as a sacrifice in order to spread the good news came from his deep desire to be like Jesus.
He sought to live and to love like his Savior. We must never worship Paul or worship good pastors or even good Christians in our lives. We must never worship televangelists, pastors of megachurches, or any human being for that matter.
Paul and other devoted followers of Jesus are always pointing to the ultimate example. Paul’s life and teaching reflect the reality of who Christ is, and Christ alone saves sinners. Christ is King.
For further reading:
Are We Really to Suffer for Christ?
How Do We Follow the One True King?
How Do We Seek First the Kingdom of God?
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Philip Steury
Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.