The Work of the Lord, Part 1

Please turn with me in your bibles to 1 Corinthians 16. 1 Corinthians 16. We’re nearly finished with this letter, which might come as a relief to some of you. I thought about finishing it off this week, but as I prayed and studied, I thought that this passage deserved more than one sermon.

The end of the letter may read to us like a list of odd and ends. Kind of a junk drawer of logistics right at the end of the letter. But as I studied, I was increasingly convicted that this portion of the letter holds deep treasures for us, if we look hard enough.

The final 19 verses of Paul’s letter are significant to us because they reveal a lot about how the church ought to operate, how Christians ought to view their service to the Lord. That’s a major recurring theme in this section: the work of the Lord, and our service unto him.

There’s an old hymn that we used to sing, especially as children, called “I’m in the Lord’s Army.” Perhaps you remember it:

I may never march in the infantry,
ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery;
I may never zoom o’er the enemy,
but I’m in the Lord’s army.
I’m in the Lord’s army.

In the Lord’s Army. That’s one way to view our position, our status, when we come to faith in Jesus. We’re drafted into his army, we’re part of the fishing crew that is sent out as fishers of men, we’re part of the household of God, the family of faith, and we each have our job to do.

And this portion of scripture reminds us of HOW we are to go about our work, the work of the Lord. I think that one question that is answered by this string of verses is this: What characteristics ought to mark our labor? That’s what we can glean from this concluding portion of this letter from Paul.

Let’s begin by reading our text, 1 Corinthians 16:5-24:

I will visit you after passing through Macedonia, for I intend to pass through Macedonia, and perhaps I will stay with you or even spend the winter, so that you may help me on my journey, wherever I go. For I do not want to see you now just in passing. I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.

10 When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord, as I am. 11 So let no one despise him. Help him on his way in peace, that he may return to me, for I am expecting him with the brothers.

12 Now concerning our brother Apollos, I strongly urged him to visit you with the other brothers, but it was not at all his will to come now. He will come when he has opportunity.

13 Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. 14 Let all that you do be done in love.

15 Now I urge you, brothers—you know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints— 16 be subject to such as these, and to every fellow worker and laborer. 17 I rejoice at the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus, because they have made up for your absence, 18 for they refreshed my spirit as well as yours. Give recognition to such people.

19 The churches of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord. 20 All the brothers send you greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss.

21 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. 22 If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come! 23 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. 24 My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen.

As I first looked at this text, I struggled to find some organizing principle or framework around which to structure this sermon. But as I studied, I saw that a major theme of the work of the Lord. The work of the Lord.

Paul mentions in verse 9 that “a wide door for effective work has been opened up to me.”

Likewise, in verse 10: “When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord, as I am.”

Similar language is used in verses 15 & 16: “Now I urge you, brothers—you know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints— 16 be subject to such as these, and to every fellow worker and laborer.”

Paul is concerned with the business of the church, the work of the Lord. And by that Paul doesn’t see some sort of hard distinction between those who are apostles, and those who aren’t. He doesn’t have a rigid distinction between those who might be full time or might be employed in the work, and those who are employed doing something else for their wages.

We could look earlier in this letter and see that Paul sees great continuity between the various workers in God’s workforce.

Turn for a moment back to chapter 3, chapter 3 of this letter, where we will be reminded of how Paul rebuked the Corinthians for seeing some people as more important than others. Some of them wanted to follow Paul, and some wanted to follow Apollos. And there were divisions in the church because of their faulty thinking.

How does Paul address this?

He says in verse 5 of chapter 3: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul?” Take note: He doesn’t say who, does he. He asks What is Apollos and Paul.

People are often more worried about Who is so and so? Where did they get their degree? Who was their mentor? What kind of Pedigree do they have? How good of a preacher are they?

But Paul is making a point by saying “WHAT is Apollos? WHAT is Paul?” And what are they?

Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.

Servants. It’s not about them and their platform and their following and their glory. They are simply servants, doing the Lord’s work.

Too often in doing the Lord’s work we get things twisted around to think that all this is really about me. I like to do what I like to do, I like to serve in the ways I like, and I want to make sure that nothing threatens that.

And even more dangerous, is when people recognize that I’m kind of good at it. I start to like the praise, I like the recognition, I like the encouragement that people offer, all of which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

But what makes it bad is when my heart begins to crave it. And slowly my service to the Lord shifts from becoming just that, service to God, but instead becomes service to my own ego. I need to make sure people see what I’m doing, that they are impressed with my performance.

It can manifest itself in a hundred ways. Maybe you’re quick to volunteer when there is a need, NOTbecause you want to be a servant, but because you want everyone else to see just how SACRIFICIAL you are. Pride, rather than humility.

Maybe you are driven to bring the best tasting food to the pot luck, just so that you’ll garner all the admiration of the ladies and be renowned as the best cook in all the land.

Maybe you take a good work of the lord, like the work of encouragement, and slowly let it morph into flattery, where you tell someone perhaps true things that sound very much like encouragement and may even be received as such, but you’re not motivated by love at all.

You want everyone else to see just how encouraging you are, just how holy you are, and you really want that person and those onlookers to praise you for how sweet and encouraging you are.

The work of the Lord is corrupted, and turned into a work of the flesh.

But what does Paul do with this? He puts it all back into perspective.

 What is Apollos? What is Paul?

They are servants. They are just slaves. Workers. Laborers.

In verse 6 he says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.

Sometimes we forget that any success in the work of the Lord, any progress, any growth, is not due to us. We’re not the driving force. We’re just planters and waterers.

But we forget that. We think that this ministry, this work, this project, this church would be in a sore place without me. What would they do without my effort, without my gifts, without my service?

Paul rebukes us all by reminding us that some water, some plant, but only God gives growth. Yes, planting and watering are necessary, but without the blessing of the Lord, all our labor is in vain. It is useless. It is unproductive. Fruitless.

God gives the growth. Yes, verse 7: “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”

We’re just servants. God is the master. We’re the vessels, he is the power.

And so we should remember verse 8: “He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.”

God will reward. He knows the heart. He knows when we’re laboring faithfully and quietly, just doing our assigned task of watering here, and planting over there. And he will reward us accordingly.

And conversely, he knows when we’re doing it wrongly too. With a proud heart, or for selfish reasons. And he will reward for that as well.

So let us all examine our hearts. Am I doing the Lord’s work? And am I doing it for the right reasons?

Or am I slack in my work, sluggish in the work of the Lord, lazy to pursue the things of God? Or maybe you’re not lazy at all, you’re outwardly immersed in the work, doing good things, but you’re doing them for all the wrong reasons.

Hoping that everyone would see how faithful you are, or fearful that anyone would have a negative opinion of you, so you slave away seeking to protect yourself from a bad name.

Whatever is in our hearts, Paul would remind us that God in Christ has freed us from working as slaves. He’s forgiven us of our fear of man and our prideful bent. And he’s saved us. He’s adopted us. That’s verse 9: “We are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.” He goes on in verse 16 to say that they are the TEMPLE OF GOD.

What was the temple? It was the special place in which God delighted to reside. He’s made them holy, in Christ, and so God delighted to reside in them. That’s the good news of the Gospel. We don’t serve God so that he will like us and be with us. We serve God and do the Lord’s work because he has made us holy, and he’s chosen to live with us, forever.

That’s good news. And that helps us frame our discussion about the work of the Lord.

Let’s go back to chapter 16 and begin to describe more the work of the Lord. What should the work of the Lord, the work of the church, the work of believers look like? What characteristics should mark the work of the Lord?

First, we will note of Paul’s work in the Lord a kind of gospel flexibility. Gospel- minded flexibility.

Let me show you what I mean. Look at verse 5, “I will visit you after passing through Macedonia, for I intend to pass through Macedonia, and perhaps I will stay with you or even spend the winter, so that you may help me on my journey, wherever I go. For I do not want to see you now just in passing. I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits.”

Paul does not seem himself as the master of his plans. He’s not the one driving the ship. Rather, he remembers himself and his plans in light of the bigger picture.

He has his preferences of where he’d like to go, who he’d like to see, when he’d like to be there, but he has all of that written in pencil, not sharpie. He knows that it is ultimately not HIS work, but the Lord’s work.

Paul knows the same truth that James teaches us in chapter 4 of his letter. Do you remember what James said? He brings up those people that make plans of where they are going to go, who they’re going to see, what business they’re going to do, what money they are going to make.

And then he rebukes them in chapter 4 verse 14:

14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.

You’re nothing, James says. You’ve forgotten who you are and what your role is in all this. You’re not the master of your future; in fact, you’re not even the master of yourself. You’re a mist, a fog, a vapor.

You’re here today and gone tomorrow. So he says in the next verse:

15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”

You’re not in control. You need to remember who the boss is here. You need to have a proper perspective. Not a prideful disregard for the Lord’s role in all of this. He warns them:

 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.

We need to remember James’ warning when we’re making our plans. Planning is a good thing. Preparing for the future is necessary for godly and wise stewardship. But we must remember that God is the ultimate planner. We mark our path in pencil, but he’s the one actually leading the path.

And when we are cognizant of God’s role in all this planning, when we submit all of our plans and our paths to God, it helps us have this gospel-minded flexibility that Paul had in chapter 16.

Paul was ready to do the things he wanted to do, but he was even more ready to follow the Lord wherever the Lord took him, even if that meant not doing the things he had originally planned. He was flexible, willing to adapt, willing to add and subtract from his plan, if that’s what the Lord willed.

How are you doing in that? Do you like it when the Lord adjusts your plan? We don’t normally like that, do we? We like our plans, we usually prefer them, and we like our timing.

But when the Lord makes us wait for something that we really want, or when he takes something off the table that we were really excited about, we don’t usually like it. When the Lord seems to be stalling and stalling and stalling and won’t give us the thing that we desire, it can be hard.

It can tempt us to make alternative plans. To rush after something that might not be right in the moment. We can be like Abraham and reach for a Hagar, instead of waiting patiently on the Lord to provide.

We can pridefully demand our own way and refuse to bend, refuse to submit, refuse to be flexible and pliable under the hand of the Lord. We can even be tempted to grow bitter toward the Lord for messing up our plans. We can even question His goodness.

But all of that is sin. James says all of that is boasting in our arrogance, and all boasting is EVIL. Wicked. Unrighteous.

It’s not just a personality quirk that makes you less adapable to change. It’s evil when we are unwilling to submit to the plan and timing of the Lord.

God’s workers are to be flexible in their planning. And take note that this flexibility isn’t some willy-nilly, haphazard meandering. Clearly, Paul is talking about plans here. He’s talking about his plans, Timothy’s plans, Stephanus’s plans, all sorts of travel and ministry plans, so he’s clearly not endorsing the idea of just winging it.

No, a gospel-driven flexibility is not untethered from any structure, but is instead intentionally tethered to the leading of the Holy Spirit. That’s the crucial difference. Gospel flexibility is a fruit of a heart that is walking faithfully with the Holy Spirit.

So what does that mean for us? It means we must be faithful to walk in the Spirit, and not in the flesh. We’re not harboring sins, not stubbornly holding on to unrepentant sin. To do that is to walk in the flesh and to grieve the Holy Spirit.

Gospel-minded flexibility also means that we’re diligent in prayer. That’s often how the Lord guides his people is through prayer-prompted desires, combined with providential direction. That’s crucial. If you want to know what the Lord would have you to do, read his word, talk to wise people, and pray. That how the Lord ordinarily guides us using the Holy Spirit.

And you’ll find that when you’re faithfully in prayer, seeking to walk with the Spirit, you’ll naturally be flexible about the things that you should be, while also standing firm on the things that you should be inflexible about.

And that’s my second point. What should mark our service unto the Lord? What should the Lord’s work look like? It should be marked both by gospel-minded flexibility, and also we might says gospel-minded integrity. Gospel-minded integrity.

If the first point was about humble pliability in the service of the Lord, the second point we might say is about humble rigidity, a firmness. We often use the term conviction.

Look at verse 8 when Paul says:

But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.

Many adversaries. The faithful doing of the Lord’s work will generate opposition. When light begins to shine, the darkness will want to snuff it out. But take note that Paul’s gospel-flexibility, didn’t produce within him a weak spine.

Paul says there are many adversaries, many opponents, much opposition, and so I must stay and work. Rather than saying that the earth has become hard to plow, that the going’s gotten tough, he says a “wide door for effective work has opened to me.”

He leans in. He buckles down. He resolves to work even harder because he knows that the Lord has planted him there in Ephesus.

But this gospel integrity not only produces resolve in the face of opposition, it also produces conviction in the face of resistance. Look at verse 13: 13 Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.

Walking with the Lord and doing the Lord’s work means that we have personal flexibility, but never at the cost of conviction and vigilance. He tells them that they should be watchful, vigilant, on guard.

And to stand firm in the faith. Gospel flexibility in no way undermines doctrinal fidelity. It’s just what he said in verse 58 of the previous chapter. He said: Be steadfast, immovable, abounding in the work of the Lord.

Biblical faith is built upon certain truths, doctrinal truths, and to sacrifice them is give up the whole thing. It doesn’t matter how much good you do, how many poor people you feed, how many homeless you house, how many babies you save, when you give up the gospel, you’ve lost the point.

You’ve turned the work of the Lord into a work of self, and self never saved a single soul from hell.

So stand firm. Don’t move. Act like men, not like boys. I think that’s the main thrust of that exhortation. When Paul says, act like men, he’s not telling the church, men and women, to all behave in masculine ways, like everybody should grow beards and dress like men. Chapter 11 rules that out.

I think he’s contrasting being a man with being a boy. He’s saying be mature. It’s similar to what he says in Ephesians 4 when he says that Christ,

“gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all [that’s the whole church] attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”

Christ is giving gifts to the church so that the church might reach mature manhood. Does that mean that the church becomes masculine? No. It means maturity, contrasted with immaturity and childishness, not with femininity per se.

He says something similar in chapter 14: “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.”

Now, I don’t think this verse is totally unrelated to godly masculinity, but the key thrust is about maturity, rather than encouraging the entire church to be masculine. Mature Christians are full of gospel integrity. They are unwilling to bend on truth, unwilling to forsake what has been clearly revealed.

But lest we think that such conviction and zeal and boldness leads to harshness or big doctrinally bullies, look at verse 14:

 14 Let all that you do be done in love.

Love is what dominates the heart of the mature. Love is what marks someone was a man or woman of God, rather than an infant in the faith. I think Paul would agree that conviction without love is evidence of childishness, of immaturity in the faith.

So often we can be tempted to turn the work of the lord into a checklist or a chore sheet. We muscle our way through prayer or bible reading, simply to get that box checked. Or we come to church just because that’s what we’re supposed to do.

But that’s a dangerous place to be. That’s where the Pharisees were.  Performing simply out of duty. And because they were deceived to think that their performance was doing pretty good, they were proud.

That’s one of the killer points of Jesus’s story about the prodigal son. The older brother saw the younger brother come home and be embraced by the Father, given a robe and a ring, and have a feast in his honor. And the older brother looked to his father with disdain and said, “look father, look at all these years I’ve served you, all these years I’ve slaved for you.”

He thought his relationship was transactional. That his status as a son was a contract. He thought his performance gave him a right to blessing and an inheritance.

That’s where we can get. We think that our work on the Lord’s behalf earns us rights and privileges. That we deserve to have it easy, that trials and hardship should be for other people, not for faithful people like me.

But God reminds us of his love. Remember what the Father said to the older brother, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

That’s the reality of sonship. You have by right an access to an inheritance. You don’t have to earn it. You don’t have to slave for it. You’re not a servant in the Father’s house.

If you’re trusting in Christ, you’re a son, bought by the blood of Christ, and you have as much right to the Father’s heavenly inheritance as the Son of God does himself.

Like the prodigal son, your sin is forgiven, and you’ve been robed in the righteousness of Christ, and a lamb has been slaughtered for you.

And when we have that in the forefront of our thinking, we won’t view the work of the Lord as a chore, or as servant’s work, slave work. We’ll be able to be like verse 14, letting all that we do be done in love.

We’ll remember the magnitude of our forgiveness, and we’ll want to share that good news with others. We’ll remember the patience that God has shown to us, and we’ll want to have the same patience with our family members. We’ll remember the compassion that God has shown to us in Christ, and we’ll likewise want to be tender and compassionate toward those in need.

That’s what it looks like to be in the Lord’s army. That’s the church’s marching orders: 13 Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. 14 Let all that you do be done in love.

If you don’t know what all this means, or if you’re not sure if you believe, or perhaps you know that you’re not forgiven, then hear good news of Jesus Christ: that he came into the world to save sinners, and to save them through the means of his own death in their place. He died so that sinners might be spared eternal death and judgement, and trusting in him is the only way to have that for yourself.

Trust in Christ, and you can be forgiven. You can be part of household of God, you can be made a son and an heir of an eternal inheritance.

We’ll have to stop there tonight, next time I’ll finish up this final message by pointing about a few more marks of Christian service. But for tonight, let’s all endeavor to be humbly flexible, full of gospel integrity, letting all that we do be done in love.



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