1 Corinthians 16:5-12
May 19, 2019
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 20:00 in the audio file.
Or, Who Is Helping Who?
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is almost complete; he could virtually let his pen finish on autopilot. We’ve reached the point where most Bible readers practice their skimming skills, the kind of passage which includes the parts that are obviously more personal to the original writer/readers and more distant to us. All of the things that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 16:5-12 are micro-history. What he wrote about has almost no relevance for us other than knowing that that it happened.
But how he talks about his intentions, and how he talks about his work, and how he talks about God’s providence does have direct and macro-relevance.
In some ways these three paragraphs are like receiving a forward from a family member with a copy of their itinerary. Paul plans to visit them, he’s already sent Timothy to visit them, and he says Apollos is not coming to visit them, at least not anytime soon. Paul tells them as many details about his trip as he knows, including when he hopes to come, how long he plans to stay, and what he hopes to accomplish. Then he gives them a head’s up regarding two of his ministry co-workers, one of whom they were perhaps tempted to treat poorly and the other of whom they were perhaps tempted to put on a pedestal.
Reading about these past events gives us an idea about the way we should approach future events. It helps us look at the opportunities that God puts in front of us, and reminds us that He Himself is behind all the open doors.
Paul writes from Ephesus, almost a straight shot across the Aegean sea to the Peloponnese. By ship the trip might take a little over a week (almost 250 miles) in Paul’s day, but by foot around the sea through the region of Macedonia would be almost 900 miles and, of course, take much longer. The apostle had already planted churches throughout the region, so he had relationships and reasons to check in with those churches. But it doesn’t require much meditation on his travel plans to realize that, even with this letter, Paul is concerned about the Corinthians.
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.
He already told them that he was planning to visit them back in chapter 4 verse 19. Why does he want to see them?
In verse 6 he says that he wants them to help him on his journey, wherever that leads. The word help could be translated as “send” (NAS) and has the idea of assisting someone “with food, money, by arranging for companions, means of travel, etc.” (BAGD). So Paul sort of makes it sounds like he needs their help.
But who needed who’s (or whom’s) help? Paul’s eventual goal was Jerusalem, and he was closer to Jerusalem where he was in Ephesus. He wanted the Corinthians to make a collection for the needy in Jerusalem, but why not have the appointed transport group (16:3) rendezvous in Ephesus? Even the indefinite phrase wherever I go suggests that him getting their help was secondary to them getting his help.
This is why he said I hope to spend some time with you, maybe even spend the winter. Winter was not only cold, but often included “overcast skies and longer nights” that “made navigation uncertain” (Garland). That is a practical reason to stay for a while, but not the only practical purpose. A letter from Paul that answered some of their questions is good. Paul had numerous churches that he saw as his responsibility, so he didn’t ever buy a house and settle down in one location. He visited many places and wrote many letters back to the people in those places. But he would target places where he knew he could be beneficial; he stayed in Ephesus for that reason as verses 8-9 state. And the believers in Corinth needed his help.
He needed their winter harbor and cartography ministry much less than they needed his kick-in-the-love-pants ministry. The entire letter has dealt with one weak area after another. The letter to the Galatians was serious but mostly focused on a single issue; what problems could a first-century church have that Corinth didn’t have? Even chapter 15 reinforced the truths about resurrection because “some” had issues. If there was ever a congregational dumpster fire, this was it, and he intended to follow up in person. There is something about personal presence, when possible, that is better.
As important as it seemed to be, Paul knew it still had to be God’s will. The visit and potential wintering with them would be if the Lord permits. Solomon said, “The mind of a man plans his ways, but the LORD directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9, NAS). It is in God that “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Nothing in the Bible discourages us from making plans, but everything in the Bible encourages us to make those plans in humility, recognizing that God is the only one who does whatever He pleases all the time.
Do we need to say, as James indicates, “as the Lord wills” after every sentence with a future tense verb? No, we don’t, because the Bible doesn’t. But we do need to believe that God opens and closes doors, all of them, and at least on occasion making our dependence on Him verbally explicit does good to us and to our neighbors.
For Paul, he believed that God wanted him in Corinth…but not yet. But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries. He gives his reason for not walking through the open door of the Corinthians’ need because of the open door of the Ephesians’ need.
In Acts 18-19 Luke tells us that Paul was in Ephesus for a while (see Acts 20:31).
he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks. (Acts 19:8–10)
The metaphor of an open door is one we still use today. It refers to a situation or an opportunity that we can do something with. A closed door means we don’t have access, we can’t get in. And Paul describes this door as wide and effective. This wasn’t a door that he just could barely fit his foot through; this door was big enough for a dump-truck. As for an “effective door,” that sort of messes with the analogy, because usually we only think about a door being effective when it is closed. But this means that through the door there was the reasonable expectation of success. Paul saw that he was having influence. His work was #blessed by God.
How did Paul recognize the open door? Are there any principles we could use to identify figurative open doors? Is it necessarily subjective? Are there some people who have the spiritual gift of seeing open doors? Was Paul just an optimist, or was he putting spin on his situation to make it sound like some force beyond his control was keeping him from coming to Corinth?
Saying that something requires wisdom to identify is not the same thing as saying that it is subjective as typically defined, that is, based on inside-me. That certain people can see it and not others may be based on personal feelings, or it may be prudence to see what’s actually there. Spiritual maturity brings maturity in discernment between things, not an inscrutable, arbitrary (and indisputable) opinion.
When Paul identifies the wide open door he is recognizing that based on his availability and their receptivity, he should keep preaching. People were listening, people were believing, people were learning. His preaching at this time was “in season” (2 Timothy 4:2).
It wasn’t just a positive response, however, that caused him to want to stay. God opened a door, and there are many adversaries. I’m not sure that this qualifies as part of the open door; there was the open door and this. But, ironically, the opponents were a different sort of opportunity. In Acts 19:23-41, after Demetrius was mad because he was losing idol business, a mob formed and dragged a couple of Paul’s travel companions into an uproar.
There were times to get in a basket and go over the city wall, and times to stay put. Paul could tell that this was a time to stay. Either the adversaries were the kind that he knew were about to lose, as when Smaug the dragon in The Hobbit was attacking and showed his weak spot, or Paul wanted to show the Ephesians what steadfastness looks like. It’s hard to model standing firm if the wind never blows.
Earlier in the letter Paul said he had sent Timothy “to remind you of my ways in Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:17). Paul wanted them to imitate him, and Timothy, as a “faithful child in the Lord” would represent Paul in the meantime. The reason for the visit was because some were arrogant (4:18), not the greatest virtue of the easily edified.
Paul had already dispatched Timothy and yet he clearly expected this letter to arrive before Timothy would. He gives the Corinthians a head’s up. When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord, as I am. There are a couple ways to understand this. It could make it sound as if Timothy was timid. Based on Paul’s encouragement in 2 Timothy 1:7 that God hasn’t given us a spirit of fear, I’ve wondered if Timothy didn’t have a tendency to struggle with weakness. But here, there’s no reason to think that Timothy had weakness, it’s that he was coming to address their weaknesses.
He is doing the work of the Lord, and this is church building proper, similar to Paul’s apostolic preaching. They were to listen to him. So let no one despise him. Timothy wasn’t Paul, but he was Paul’s representative. Timothy was younger, he didn’t have quite the ministry scars of Paul, but Paul wanted them to pay attention.
Help him on his way in peace, that he may return to me, for I am expecting him with the brothers. The word help is the same as in verse 6 meaning supply or send, but as in verse 6, Timothy is doing more for them than they are for him. To help in in peace perhaps emphasizes that the best thing they could do is start getting along with each other. Timothy was coming to help them get along. They were to receive him, listen to him, and assist him.
The one person the Corinthians apparently really wanted to visit was not on his way. Paul tries to let them down easy.
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.
The now concerning (last time this phrase is used in the letter) suggests that they had written about Apollos. Paul had also written about Apollos earlier in the letter because the Apollos group was competing for allegiance (1:10; 3:4-6, 22; 4:6). At least some of the Corinthians loved Apollos, and maybe too much so. Paul ins’t threatened by it, acknowledges that Apollos watered (1 Corinthians 3:6), and tells them that he wasn’t trying to keep Apollos away from them. Paul strongly urged or urged him repeatedly, but Apollos himself didn’t want to come. Paul doesn’t even send greetings from him, though perhaps that’s because Apollos wasn’t with him at the time of writing.
Why did Apollos not want to come? Paul doesn’t say. Maybe Apollos was busy with other work, maybe he didn’t want to encourage the division. Regardless, it wasn’t a good time (the word translated opportunity is a combination of the Greek words for “good” and “times”).
Be the kind of person who looks for open doors to cause a ruckus for the Lord. And then be the kind of person who stays and remains steadfast when adversaries arise.
Remember that God is behind every open door, and behind every closed one. You don’t have to be a broken record, a parrot with a formula, but you should know how to think and talk “if the Lord permits.”
God is the one who opens doors for us to succeed, God is the one who opens doors for us to be steadfast. He causes us to be fruitful, He causes us to get into fights. Don’t be frustrated if there’s not obvious fruit yet, don’t be frustrated if there’s not an obvious fight yet. Don’t fear, have faith, and make the best use of the time He gives and the doors He opens because the days are evil. Don’t be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is (Ephesians 5:15-16)
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake. (Philippians 1:27–29, ESV)