Summary: More than anything in these troubled times, Christians are called to be on guard spiritually, stand firm in the faith, allow themselves to be strengthened by the word & Spirit of God, act with courage, and to do everything in love.
In chapter 16 of 1 Corinthians, we find a number of concluding instructions and greetings from Paul. These include instruction about regular and orderly collection of gifts for the poverty-stricken Christians in Jerusalem, notice of impending visits by Timothy and Apollos, encouragement for the support of Stephanas, whom Paul had baptized, and greetings from other churches. There also is a personal note from Paul pointing out he was writing a final greeting in his own hand. It is speculated that Paul suffered from poor eyesight and that he may have dictated his epistles to someone else, who penned the letters themselves.
In the middle of his final greetings, Paul inserts a short but profound statement of advice to his readers: Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. Do everything in love (1 Cor 16: 13-14). In these few brief words, Paul states a fitting conclusion for everything he has written to them so far about ending factions in the church and defeating personal sin.
Paul’s brief words continue to be useful and powerful advice for Christians who desire to serve the Savior. Paul’s advice, inspired by God, is especially meaningful for us in the United States now, while we experience the turmoil and uncertainty around us as our nation deals with the threat of terrorism. Let us take a closer look at each instruction:
1. Be on your guard
The literal translation is Watch! or Be watchful or even Pay close attention. It is a one-word imperative. In the context of all that Paul has told them to do, we see God is giving the Corinthians a final word of caution to be spiritually on guard.
Remember that the church in Corinth had a host of problems related to spiritual immaturity and misunderstanding, as well as tolerance of sin. Throughout the letter, Paul has dealt with these issues specifically--arrogance of those who were in leadership positions (whom he labeled spiritually immature), factions within the church (which caused arguments and strife and not only weakened the church, but threatened to destroy it), disorganization in worship services, Christians suing other Christians in civil court, tolerance of a member who was living openly in sexual sin, gluttony and drunkenness at fellowship meals, pride in spiritual giftedness and misuse of spiritual gifts, etc.
Now, he is reminding them to be on their guard spiritually. He did not want them to treat merely the symptoms, but to cure the cause--to wake up, to pay attention to their spiritual lives and their knowledge and devotion to God . . . spiritual watchfulness, as opposed to the spiritual ignorance, apathy, and indifference . . . the firm foundation of God, as opposed to the Corinthians’ devotion to a culture of competing philosophies . . . devotion to the only God and His spiritual truth, as opposed to the spiritual pluralism that was socially acceptable. Their lack of spiritual watchfulness was the foundation of the Corinthian church’s sinful condition.
Spiritual indifference and spiritual ignorance were the root problems in Corinth. Unless this simple one-word instruction was followed, everything Paul has told them would have no effect. It is not a need to merely know the facts and having the right behaviors. The Corinthians--and we--need more than merely changing behavior. We must be on our guard, with a focused awareness of His care & protection & His love for us as His children.
There is a story that pastors use frequently in their sermons. I don’t know if it is actual or simply an illustration, but it does beautifully illustrate the solution to the problems in Corinth. The story goes like this . . . A father and his son were working on a double-sided puzzle. On one side was a map of the world. On the other side was a picture of a man. The young boy had put the puzzle together many times before. As his father struggled to find the right place for all the pieces to complete the picture of the world, his son told him to turn all the pieces over, because he had found it was much easier to put the puzzle together by concentrating on the picture of the man. Finishing the puzzle quickly, the boy told his father, "See? When you get the man right, the world is right."
That was the lesson for the Corinthian Christians--watch, be on guard, wake up spiritually. When people’s hearts were right, then the church would be strong. Likewise, we should follow Paul’s advice to be watchful. Take a look inside. Am I spiritually aware? How is my focus? In this time when there is national turmoil all around me, have I internalized the spiritual truths about God’s care and protection? Do I remember and really believe His promises in the face of uncertainty? How am I at depending on God and not myself?