The Excalibur of Judgment

On Saturday, I spent most of the day thinking through 1 Corinthians 6:1-11. Each freshman had been given his own text, with the goal being to come up with a strategy for preaching it. I thought I’d share my experience with you.

One of the first things a preacher has to do, simply enough, is choose his text. It’s simple, but it’s not always easy. While Dr. Visscher had assigned us certain passages, it was up to us to decide if they were complete units. While my passage was pretty straightforward in this regard, Jake, for instance, was given all of Numbers 3. He had to decide if he would have preached on the entire chapter, or only on a section. In most Bibles my passage is its own complete section, with a heading and everything. But this isn’t always reliable. The editors of our translations have nicely inserted paragraph breaks and section headings, and continue to use the chapter and verse system invented in the Middle Ages. This is helpful, because the authors of Scripture wrote only in capital letters, and in a style called lectio continua. So, no spaces between the words. If modern English were around two thousand years ago, the first part of my passage would have been written like this:


That’s only in the original manuscripts, mind you. My Greek New Testament doesn’t look like that as the editors have sorted out where the words begin and end, and have inserted spaces and punctuation. My larger point is that the paragraphs and section breaks in our English Bibles are not inspired but are choices made by human editors, which means they may not have been the best choices. So before preaching on a passage, a pastor has to first decide whether or not the editors have chosen wisely.

I concluded quickly enough that in my case they had, and from there I printed out the Greek text of the passage. I figured that I’d have all day to work on this, so it would be a good idea to spend some time methodically working through the original. Perhaps I’d make some connections that didn’t come through in the English translations. I went through the passage circling and parsing the verbs; and I began highlighting the subjects of the verbs with a yellow highlighter, the objects of the verbs with a blue one. Although I had Bible software that could do all this in an instant, my philosophy was that the freeway isn’t always the most enjoyable way to get to where you’re going.

And I was having a good time, but at some point I realized that I had other things due for Monday as well, like a Hebrew vocab quiz. So I cut short my pleasure cruise through the Greek countryside and merged back onto the scriptural equivalent of Highway 1, Logos Bible software. Some guys will argue this point, saying that Accordance is better, or Bibleworks, and it ends up reminding you of the Mac vs. PC argument, or Chevy vs. Ford. I’m not above getting stuck in petty and pointless debates like these, but it’s important that I remember that they are petty and pointless, and that I am stuck. At this point, then, I went from examining the text itself to reflecting on what it meant.

Reflecting on a text, or any sort of reflection, really, is an intensely personal process, and that’s not in a none-of-your-business sort of way. Rather, I mean that the way we think about things is unique to each person. Tolkien was once asked how he came up with his stories, and he said that they “sprang up from the leaf-mold of his mind.” That leaf-mold is only as rich as the materials you put into it, and the more the better. So this is one area, then, among many others, where reading widely pays off for a pastor. But once you’ve enriched that soil, you still have to work it to get the fullest crop. Each pastor rakes and hoes his flower beds in his own way; some doodle, others ride bikes, and still others smoke a pipe.

I spent the afternoon brooding in my study: taking notes, pacing, and preaching to the window. I looked at my wall maps, I admired my books, I did what I could to shape my imagination into a prism through which I could unlock the secrets of the text. Dr. Visscher mentioned to us in class today, and I came to realize this on Saturday afternoon, that this is an exercise that’s perfected only with practice, by doing it twice a week for years on end. It doesn’t happen in a couple hours. But that’s not to say my afternoon was fruitless. I did come away with something workable, even if it wasn’t as clear as I’d have liked.

My passage in the ESV Study Bible, and probably most Bibles, is entitled “Lawsuits Against Believers.” And that’s true, that is what the passage is about. But it’s also about a whole lot more. The thing that stood out to me first was the surrounding context. Chapter 5 is about sexual immorality in the church. Then you’ve got my passage, and then follows another passage about sexual immorality in the church. So there are two options. Option A is that Paul was talking about sexual immorality, went off on a tangent about lawsuits, and then came back to sexual immorality. Now that’s definitely possible. The Holy Spirit used men to write the Bible, and he also used their unique styles and ways of thinking. Option B is that Paul was using the lawsuit business to help make a larger point that he was making with the sexual immorality business. I went with Option B. That meant that my task was to tie this passage in with the surrounding passages.

What I finally arrived at was that Paul is speaking here about discernment in the church. He finishes off Chapter 5 with the charge to “purge the evil person from among you.” This requires the ability to discern and to judge weighty matters. But immediately after that, at the beginning of my passage, he points out that the Corinthians are showing themselves to be entirely incapable of that level of discernment. He makes his argument by showing how poorly they handle trivial legal disputes amongst themselves. They’ve been taking their small problems, that should have been settled in the church, before the secular law courts. But in contrast, the Corinthians are told that believers will judge both angels and the world, that is, matters that are of cosmic and supernatural weight. Paul makes this contrast to their shame, he says, pointing out that they can’t settle very small legal cases or even βιωτικα, the things of everyday life. “You can’t handle the βιωτικα!” Jack Nicholson would have said. The Corinthians were expected to wield the Excalibur of judgment, but they couldn’t even use a butter knife; and what was worse, they were getting the unrighteous to butter their toast.

Paul gives a long list of the unrighteous, and reminds the Corinthians that some of them had once been on that list. But having been made new in Christ, they had left those lifestyles behind and were called to a much higher order of behaviour. He draws the antithesis very clearly. “Here’s the line,” he’s saying. “That’s them, and this is you. You belong up here with Christ, so where are you? What are you doing way down there, slopping around in the muck? Don’t you know who you are and what’s been done for you? Now grow up!” That’s the essence of the passage. Having established a right understanding of judgment and discernment, the Corinthians were to apply that to the sexual problems going on in the church, and to keep the church pure.

So that’s largely what I presented to my class today, although there it was a little more rambling and muttered and devoid of Jack Nicholson quotes. We ended up having a pretty good discussion about it. A couple students contended that Paul’s list of the unrighteous was meant as a warning to the Corinthians, that if they kept acting up like this they’d end up back there. So while I was using that list as a premise, “you Corinthians aren’t on this list any more, therefore don’t even go there,” they were using the list as a conclusion, “this is what you’re doing, therefore you are going back toward this list.” Their interpretation does seem to work if you read only verses 8 and 9. There, it’s as though Paul, after accusing the Corinthians of cheating and defrauding their own brothers, is moving on to the greater evils that await them on that path.

But I don’t think that the interpretation holds up within the larger context, and I was supported in this thinking by some PhD firepower. Paul uses the word “unrighteous” in verse 1 and then explains it more fully in verse 9. I take this to mean that the list that’s presented in verses 9 and 10 is not meant as an example of what the Corinthians might become, but as a reminder of just who exactly the Corinthians were not. Since they weren’t on that list any more, and since no one on that list was going to inherit the kingdom of God, why were the Corinthians allowing those on the list to judge matters best settled within God’s kingdom?

It might seem like the discussion was over a very minor point, but just like an aircraft making minor flight adjustments can change its destination by hundreds of kilometers, so getting a small distinction wrong in interpretation can lead to very different conclusions. It’s important that we get the details right, so it’s important that we have these discussions and challenge each others’ interpretations. It keeps us sharp.


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