(or: how to completely destroy your credibility)
Don’t you just love it when you hear a Christian (usually one with a pride issue) claim that there aren’t any good churches and say something like, “I want to be part of an authentic ‘New Testament’ church.” My response is, “Oh really? Like, say, the Church at Corinth (not exactly a sterling example)”. As we’ve been making our way through Paul’s letter to the believers there, it’s been one thing after another. Divisive factions, spiritual pride, grotesque immorality, moral cowardice… and now, we’re about to find out that they’ve been suing each other in the civil (secular) courts.
The fact that even in Messiah’s Community we have contentions that require some form of mediation, shows that we are still immature, and not walking according to the Second Great Commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. If we were as committed to one another’s well-being as we are to our own, can you imagine how rare the disputes would be? I think it’s understood that we are a ‘work in progress’ and that, short of Heaven, we will not achieve perfection.
Now, don’t take that as an excuse for sin. But since there are inevitably going to be disputes between believers, what Rabbi Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians chapter 6 is how we ought to handle them, and how absolutely not to handle them. And it is crucial that we do it right – since our lives are daily on display to a watching world.
How well are we representing Messiah Yeshua? Not very well when we go to court to sue each other. When non-believers see this kind of vitriol between two parties who, ostensibly, are followers of Jesus, it makes them NEVER want to be what we are; in which case, we are guilty of putting obstacles in the way of their salvation. In other words, we’re a stumbling block.
It is no use quoting selectively from the election passages in Romans, to suggest that those who will be saved will be saved, regardless of anything we do. Scripture is clear that we are going to be held responsible for our actions. And if it really doesn’t matter how we behave, then explain why Yeshua issued such a stern warning against putting stumbling blocks in people’s way.
So let’s read 1 Corinthians 6:1-11 and see how to destroy all credibility.
Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous and not before the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? If the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more matters of this life? So if you have law courts dealing with matters of this life, do you appoint them as judges who are of no account in the church? I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren, but brother goes to law with brother, and that before unbelievers? Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? On the contrary, you yourselves wrong and defraud. You do this even to your brethren. Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous and not before the saints?
In the context of this passage, ‘neighbor’ is being used as a synonym for ‘brother’. It would appear that the Christians in Corinth were not only ethically-challenged in their financial dealings with one another, but were taking one another to court over these matters – to the civil (secular) court!
The expression “dare” is the Greek word Tolma (tolma) which conveys the idea of having to summon up the nerve to do something. In other words, audacity. It’s like Paul saying, “Are you kidding me?” or, “You’ve got some nerve!” Paul is shocked, horrified that they would air their dirty laundry in public. Ancient courts convened openly, so that any idle busybody in the city who wanted to know the latest ‘dirt’ could come watch the spectacle.
For precisely this reason, the Jewish community has always had its own private courts, administered by rabbis. In a world teeming with anti-Semitism, handling disputes quietly and internally is the wise course of action. After all, the last thing we need to do is to add fuel to the fire of those already prejudiced against us. For this reason the rabbis deemed it unlawful to take cases before Gentile judges.
Paul isn’t using the term unrighteous in a defamatory way, but as a matter of fact. He is simply pointing out that the secular courts weren’t being administered by believers – those made righteous through the death and resurrection of Messiah Yeshua; but by unbelievers, those lacking a biblical worldview, who are not bound by the same rigorous ethical standards to which we, the saints, are held.
So, on the one hand, secular Roman courts could not guarantee a just outcome. And on the other hand – and this goes more directly to Paul’s point: Christians taking their squabbles to secular courts sends a terrible message. And in verse two he goes on to show just how incongruous this is with our glorious destiny.
Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? If the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts?
Does it seem amazing to think that we, God’s people, in the Age-To-Come will judge the world? Where did Rabbi Paul get this idea? He got it from the words of the prophets and from the Word of Messiah Himself. For example, Daniel wrote …the Ancient of Days came and judgment was passed in favor of the saints of the Highest One, and the time arrived when the saints took possession of the kingdom (7:22). The Septuagint renders it that judgment (the authority) was given to the saints. And Yeshua echoed this when He said to His twelve disciples, Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28). If the Apostles will judge Israel, then it follows that, in the Millennium, the redeemed of the nations will judge the nations.
Paul is saying, in effect, “If you are destined to render weighty and consequential decisions over the nations of the world, how is it that you can’t seem to settle even the most trivial disputes among yourselves?” Talk about a serious disconnect!
Paul did not outright forbid the possibility of some cases needing to be brought to civil courts; but in view of the aforementioned honor and authority awaiting them, he was bewildered that the Corinthians seemed uninterested even in settling lesser matters themselves. Instead, they brought their comparatively petty grievances to the secular courts, thus giving the Faith a bad reputation in the eyes of unbelievers.
Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more matters of this life?
There is some sense in which redeemed human beings will, in the eternal realm, pass judgment and condemn those angels who had joined Lucifer in his ancient rebellion and with him fell, and became what we call demons. Mankind was reconciled to God through the death and resurrection of Messiah Yeshua, but there is no redemption possible for the angels who turned against God. We will judge angels, because redeemed humanity holds a greater place than they.
Whereas authority to judge the nations concerns this present creation, the authority to judge the fallen angels concerns the eternal realm. And, Paul uses a classic Jewish form of argument. However, instead of Qal v’Chomer (going from the light to the weighty), he argues from the weighty to the light: if you will be called upon to administer matters of eternal consequence in the World-To-Come, how much easier ought it to be to handle the comparatively trivial things of this world?
So if you have law courts dealing with matters of this life, do you appoint them as judges who are of no account in the church? I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren, but brother goes to law with brother, and that before unbelievers?
The Greek construction here allows for two possible views. One view holds that Paul is being sarcastic and telling the Corinthians that their disputes are so petty that they might as well appoint the “nobodies” in the Church to settle them. I hold the other view; namely, that he considers it an embarrassment that God’s people, who theoretically ought to be wise and discerning, should resort to pagan judges to settle their cases – those who have nothing to do, nor want anything to do, with Yeshua or His Church.
He asks (I believe rhetorically, not sarcastically) are they incapable of finding even one wise man in their midst who can mediate disputes? Of course they’re capable. But for whatever reason, they’ve just not done it. But the result is that you have one Christian suing another, and in front of unbelievers. I can’t think of a more effective way to turn people off to Yeshua, than to represent Him that way.
Paul acknowledges the legitimate need of civil courts in a well-ordered society, but felt that they ought to be unnecessary for God’s people. So how is it that we who are destined for glory would bring our angry disputes and accuse one another in front of those who are completely outside the faith community? That’s how you forfeit credibility. Paul says it is a shanda – a shame, an embarrassment, that the believers in Corinth would dishonor the Faith in the eyes of unbelievers.
Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? On the contrary, you yourselves wrong and defraud. You do this even to your brethren.
Usually in a lawsuit one party’s case prevails and the other’s is defeated. But when the Messianic Faith is publicly humiliated by its representatives, nobody wins. Paul now takes the matter deeper. Shifting from his reprimand for their improper handling of disputes, he says the very fact that they launch these lawsuits represents a defeat, regardless the outcome. In this context, everybody loses. The two brothers are now set against each other, the magistrate loses, because he has been shown a horrible example of the conduct of Yeshua’s people, and the same can be said for those gathered to witness the trial.
This is how you make a laughingstock of the Faith. This is how you lose all credibility. Paul says you would be better off, and so would everyone else, if you quietly endure whatever the situation in which you were wronged or defrauded, rather than make a spectacle of God’s Holy Community.
And how is wronging and defrauding one another – virtually criminal behavior – fulfilling the command to love your neighbor as yourself? “My goodness,” I hear him saying, “you can’t even seem to love your brother in the Faith, let alone your neighbors. It’s scandalous. How can you live like this? Your conduct is as disgraceful as that of the heathen! And you are doubly guilty, since unbelievers make no claim to have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them!”
And, Paul, suggests, if your conduct is no better than the unrighteous, maybe you need to examine yourself – are you really in the Faith? And so with a stern denunciation, he reminds them of the outcome for those who reject Messiah Yeshua and His instruction.
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.
There is a kingdom to be inherited, and the joy of this reunion and ingathering will be unimaginable! But it is a righteous kingdom, and God will not allow it ever to be polluted by the presence of the wicked. This is the opposite of a list of honored guests. It is a list of those who are to be excluded.
Let me tell you what it isn’t. It isn’t a list of those who have ever committed such sins. We have all sinned, and likely more than once or twice, and likely in more than one of these categories. This, dear brothers and sisters, is a list of those whose lives are characterized by these sins. Immorality and/or idolatry, adultery, betrayal, blasphemy and sexual perversion, scheming and stealing, drunkenness and con-artistry are described as ways of life for those to be excluded.
And in case anyone was wondering, there is no ambiguity about any of these. The word for adulterers means those living in adultery; the word for homosexuals means those living in and practicing homosexuality; the words for thieves and swindlers means those who steal from and con people as a way of life. The word for effeminate (malakoi – malakoi), interestingly, is the same word translated soft, fancy, luxurious (think: Liberace) or sexual pervert.
And Scripture is consistent about these things. Revelation 21:8 and 22:15 are almost exact parallels, describing such persons as those who will be “outside” whose eternal destination is the lake that burns with fire – the second death.
But while the Apostle gives this as a warning, he also reminds them of something hopeful. God takes no delight in the death of the wicked. He is a God who takes the mess of our lives, and restores us completely! Those abominations are not who the Corinthians are. It may be who they were, but that was before Messiah Yeshua came into their lives.
Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
The operative word is were. Through Yeshua’s righteous life, atoning death, victorious resurrection, and by sending His Spirit, the Corinthian believers are new people. If any man is in Messiah, he is a new creature; the old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new!
Paul says, …you were washed… you were sanctified… you were justified. What a beautiful progression! What a wonderful reality for the believer. Through Messiah God has cleansed you, but more than that, He set you apart for His special purposes. And more than that, declared you – judicially – innocent, righteous in His sight. Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that what grace is all about?
So what is Paul’s point here? The point is, for Heaven’s sake, stop carrying on as if you were still in that former way of living; as though Yeshua didn’t intervene in your life. Let your life reflect the reality of His presence in you. And if that seems too hard, too much to ask, perhaps it’s time to take personal inventory and ask whether you’ve genuinely had that transformation… or did you just get ‘religious’?