†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† †††††††††Grace Theological Journal 4.1 (1983) 3-14
†††††††† †††††††Copyright © 1983 by Grace Theological Seminary.† Cited with permission.
†††††††††††††††††††††††††††† A FRESH LOOK AT
††††††††††††††††††††††††† 1 CORINTHIANS 15:34:
††††††††††††††† AN APPEAL FOR EVANGELISM
††††††††††††††††††††††† OR A CALL TO PURITY?
††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† HOMER A. KENT, JR.
The church at
tions which were causing moral and spiritual difficulties in the
congregation. Paulís challenge: "Awake to righteousness. and sin not;
for some have not the knowledge of God. I speak this to your
shame," was a call to sober thinking. It urged a return to holy
conduct, and a recognition that the presence of wrong doctrine was a
shameful condition which must be rectified.
††† ONE of the periodic discussions which has characterized the church
focuses upon the inadequacies that we perceive about ourselves.
Why aren't we growing? Why do we have conflicts? Why can't our
programs be as exciting and effective as they used to be? Before long
we concentrate so heavily upon the problems that we forget our main
business. In our very concern to find reasons for our lack of growth,
Our negativism makes us even more unattractive to the world we want
Not only that, but focusing on our problems can so easily make
us lose perspective. "All is lost." "Things have never been this bad
before." "It's a different world now. There are no biblical precedents
or helps for us. We need a new program, a new formula, new
approaches, new leaders." These are the things we tell ourselves.
But a careful study of the Bible makes it sound strangely
familiar. Consider the congregation of the Christians at
Here was a church that was founded on pure doctrine by an apostle.
It counted some very able people in its membership. Priscilla and
Crispus, a man of recognized integrity and leadership so that he had
been made ruler of the Jewish synagogue in the city. His conversion
to Christ and the Christian faith led him and his household into the
4†††††††††††††††††† GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
new church at
Sosthenes, the successor to Crispus at the synagogue. Then there was
Gaius, whose gracious hospitality at
more pleasant (Rom ). Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus
were likewise stalwart Christians with roots at
Paul and Silas and Apollos had extended ministries there. Timothy
and Titus were no strangers to that congregation. Furthermore, this
church had witnessed some remarkable conversions and transformed
lives. Some of their members had once been idolaters, adulterers,
homosexuals, thieves, drunkards, and swindlers before they had been
transformed by the saving work of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 6:9-11).
The church was located in a strategic spot-a commercial and
transportation center, bustling with human activity, and desperately
in need of moral and spiritual direction.
In spite of
these advantages, the health of the church at
was far from perfect. The congregation had conflicts and divisions
which threatened its growth and effectiveness. Apollos, Peter, and
Paul had their partisans, and then of course, there were the "super
spiritual" who claimed no toleration for anyone except Christ alone.
They began to look inward instead of at the whole body of
Christ. Because they were more concerned about their own parochial
interests, Paul had great difficulty in getting them to cooperate with
other gentile churches in raising a substantial collection for their
Christian brethren in
Furthermore, they started questioning their leadership. Such
questions as these must have arisen: "Why aren't our local leaders as
eloquent as Apollos, or as dynamic as Peter, or as logical as Paul?"
Dissatisfaction with their leaders led to disregard for the instruction
they had been given by those leaders. They began to compromise
their moral and spiritual standards. They were exceedingly tolerant of
sin in their midst and were becoming lax in their own spiritual lives.
Even some of the basic doctrines of the Christian faith were
being attacked. Prominent among these was the doctrine of physical
resurrection. Implications of their wavering commitment were frighten-
ing to the apostle, and he devoted a significant portion of his epistle
to a ringing call to reaffirm their faith.
All we need to do is change a few names and addresses, and the
situation is very contemporary. And if we believe the Bible is our rule
for faith and practice, then it surely has something to say to us.
How do you
suppose Paul felt about the church at
Frustrated? Undoubtedly. Irritated? Sometimes. Deeply disappointed?
No question about it. But he never gave way to total despair. His
attitude was: "We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this
all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard
pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair;
persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed"
(2 Cor 4:7-9 NIV).
That is the challenge: to maintain a balanced view; to be thanking
God for accomplishments; to recognize needs and problems; to deal
with failures while staying encouraged.
Paul managed to do it, but it was no easy task. Take a moment
to analyze the Corinthian church from Paul's standpoint. Why should
he have expected a church to begin and flourish in
busy commercial center, not much given to contemplation or to the
spiritual values of man and his destiny. It was a city with no apparent
lack of religion. Today's visitor can inspect the impressive ruins of the
awed by the historical references to the
crowned the heights of acrocorinth, just beyond the city. To the
superficial observer, there would have seemed to be no need for
Yet when one searches deeper, there were some tremendous
reasons, and Paul found them. The largely transient population left a
spiritual void that cried out to be filled. Pagan religion, prevalent
though it was, was either meaningless or corrupting. Immorality was
rampant. Materialism was paramount. In such a city, Paul preached
the gospel of the grace of God as revealed in Jesus Christ, and a
church was founded.
But that church was now in trouble. When Paul wrote the 15th
chapter of 1 Corinthians, he was grappling with their confusion over
the great truth of resurrection. Some were denying that Christians
could look forward to a literal resurrection (v 12). Some were actually
denying the reality of any kind of resurrection, thus implying that
Christ himself had not been raised (v 13). Some apparently rejected
the whole idea because they could not explain what sort of body a
resurrected person would have (v 35). Greek philosophy and con-
temporary culture had a stranglehold on their thinking.
The implications of that doctrinal confusion were frightening. It
was not a matter of theological hair-splitting. Rather, it was a
wavering before one of the foundational truths of the Christian faith.
To question the very principle of resurrection was to deny the validity
of Christ's resurrection (v 13). Their faith would be worthless, a
dream without substance (vv 14,17). Paul's preaching would be based
upon falsehood (v 15). Christians who had died would have perished
forever (v 18). There would be no hope beyond the present life (v 19).
Earthly and temporal pleasures would be man's only satisfaction
6††††††††††††††††† †GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Against the backdrop of this potentially disastrous situation,
Paul issued the ringing challenge: "A wake to righteousness, and sin
not; for some have not the knowledge of God: I speak this to your
shame" (1 Cor ). The advice he gave is just as momentous today.
If Christians are to fulfill their role in the light of the commission
which the Lord Jesus Christ gave, these words of Paul can provide
insight that may prove to be crucial if success is to follow.
THE MINDSET THAT IS REQUIRED
Meaning of the Term
In the stirring words of the KJV, Paul's challenge is rendered:
"Awake to righteousness," NASB treats the verb as "become sober-
-minded." NIV translates it: "Come back to your senses." This verb
used by Paul occurs nowhere else in the NT. However, it belongs to a
word group that is represented nine other times. The word is actually
used in two ways. Its basic meaning is to become sober, whether
physically from a condition of drunkenness, or metaphorically from
intoxication with one's own thoughts. Its other meaning is to awake
out of sleep.
Clearly, in the Corinthian letter, the meaning in view is a
soberness of mind, the opposite of mental fuzziness, The readers are
urged to be on guard against mental or spiritual intoxication from
their own thoughts about life and death-thoughts which are not
God's thoughts. It is probably significant that every other occurrence
of the cognate verb in the NT is used in a context where the reader is
being urged to think rightly about the coming of Christ, the resurrec-
tion, or the life to come. When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians about
Christ's return, he said, "Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but
let us watch, and be sober" (1 Thes 5:6). "Let us who are of the day,
be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for a
helmet, the hope of salvation" (I Thes 5:8). As he warned Timothy in
the light of Christ's coming kingdom, he said, "But watch thou in all
things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist" (2 Tim 4:5),
Peter used the same word: "wherefore gird up the loins of your mind,
be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto
you at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet ). He also said, "But
the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto
prayer" (1 Pet 4:7). And after reminding his readers that Christ, the
Chief Shepherd, will appear, he urged them to "be sober, be vigilant
because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about"
(1 Pet 5:8).
Thus Paul's point in this letter to the Corinthians is that believers
must be thinking clearly,' not fuzzily, not with confusion, or befuddle-
ment, or intoxication. Their minds must be alert, functioning prop-
erly, and focused on the crucial issues.
Implications in the Context
What did this command imply to those original readers? The
theme of this part of the epistle is clear. Paul was discussing the
resurrection. The readers were being told to be sober-minded in
contrast to wrong thinking in denying the resurrection. To develop
merely an emotional attachment or loyalty to some outstanding
speaker, without thinking clearly through his teaching, was poten-
tially disastrous. They were being called to think straight. The reality
of the believer's resurrection must be clearly understood, not just as
part of a recited creed, but as part of their mental process. If so, it
would condition whatever they did.
Furthermore, it is implied that they were already somewhat
intoxicated in their minds. They were commanded to "sober up." Too
much wrong teaching had already clouded their minds. They had not
gone so far as to apply logically all the ramifications that denial of
resurrection involved, but Paul told them they were on the way, and
the end would be disaster.
It is also clear that the Corinthian readers needed to guard
themselves against moral contagion from those deniers of the literal
fulfillment of the scriptural promise of resurrection. If they continued
to associate with those who denied resurrection, the very underpin-
nings of morality would be cut away. The "bad company" of those
teachers of would "corrupt good. morals" (v 33). It would not
take long until the weakening of their future blessed hope would
bring the converse emphasis upon the present sensual and material
life, and the inevitable philosophy would take over, "Let us eat and
drink, for tomorrow we die" (v 32).
The Truth for the Church
What is the truth from this passage for the church today? Surely
it is clear that unrighteous. living is the product of improper thinking,
and Scripture calls it spiritual drunkenness. It is an aberration. It is
contrary to that renewing of the mind which regeneration has secured
for us. It means that fuzziness, befuddlement, or downright insensi-
tivity has taken the place of the Spirit-filled intelligence which God
has made possible for his children.
In addition, the passage indicates that spiritual sobriety is not
just optional; it is commanded. This statement leaves no room for the
notion that Christians are given the option of how doctrinally correct
and how morally pure they wish to be. The only choice is to obey
8 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
God's word or disobey it. If Christ is one's Lord and Master, then the
response to follow his instruction was settled long ago.
Furthermore, the passage is clear that one's mindset is the key to
the matter. 'Become sober-minded" is the command. It is easy to
become mentally befuddled. All too often Christians have been led
astray by that curious and non-scriptural dichotomy of "head versus
heart" and have drawn the strange conclusion that one can trust his
"heart" but not his "head." The Bible most often uses those terms
interchangeably: "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he" (Prov
23:7). When believers fail to focus their thinking on the teaching of
the Word of God, they are in danger of mental and spiritual drunken-
ness, useless to themselves, and a disgrace to the cause of Christ.
Finally, the truth should be obvious that contamination from
others within and outside the church continues to blunt the impact
that Christians should be making on their world. Wrong thinking
leads to wrong doing, and this in turn blurs our witness, destroys our
integrity, and makes Christ's transforming power invisible to an
The Manner of Compliance
One additional matter in this opening clause calls for special
comment. The common rendering "awake unto righteousness" states
the goal or content of this spiritual awakening. In fact, however, this
is not the most accurate way of translating these words. Paul actually
used an adverb which means "rightly, justly, properly." He was not
naming the object of their sober thinking, but the manner in which
they were to carry it out. It is the same usage as is found in Luke
, where one of the crucified thieves commented on the appropri-
ateness of their punishment and used the identical word: "and we
indeed justly." He meant that is was the proper sentence for their
crimes. Thus the NASB translates our verse: "become sober-minded
as you ought." The NIV renders similarly: "Come back to your senses
as you ought."
In the context, therefore, the sense is that there was a proper
mindset which they ought to have regarding the resurrection. There
was a standard whereby their thinking could be measured, and they
were as erratic as drunkards if they failed to measure up. That
standard was the truth of apostolic teaching and the whole context of
biblical revelation. They had heard the gospel of a risen Christ and of
regeneration which they could acquire. At one time in their lives the
Holy Spirit had opened their eyes to enable them to grasp the truth of
the new birth, eternal life, and resurrection. There was really no
excuse for their present confusion except their own imbibing of
contradictory teaching. That some of them had drunk too deeply of
doubtful doctrine was becoming painfully obvious to others. They
needed to return to the standard of the Word of God and its
revelation to them. No longer must they let themselves be captivated
by the appeal of a spellbinder. As residents of
heard many a Greek orator in the theater or the marketplace, and
should have known full well that mere eloquence or charisma was no
guarantee of truth. They must not be so willing to adopt the latest
fad or be influenced by contemporary morality. "Sober-minded as
you ought" meant they were obligated to think in harmony with that
apostolic teaching which they had received.
People don't like the word "ought" very much. They didn't like it
Scriptures which tell us that Christ has set us free; that we are not
under a yoke of bondage; that we are not under law but grace. When
it is suggested that there are modes of conduct that Christians are
obligated to follow, some will protest such ideas as nonsense, or old
fashioned, or legalism, and proudly call themselves liberated. How
easy it is to forget that the same apostle who said that "Christ has set
us free" (Gal 5:1) also commanded us to "fulfill the law of Christ"
(Gal 6:2). In the words of our text, we ought to be sober-minded. We
are obligated by our Christian commitment to have the right mindset
toward spiritual truth. It is not just a piece of helpful advice-well-
meant, but optional. It is our solemn responsibility. "Become sober-
minded as you ought." †There is a Christian propriety, and it is based
upon the Word of God.
THE HOLINESS THAT IS COMMANDED
There is a second implication in our text. It tells us that there is a
holiness that is expected in our lives.
ďStop sinning" is the command. Its close connection with the
previous command may suggest the particular sort of sinning the
apostle had in mind.
†Meaning of the Term
There are various words in the Bible that describe man's violation
of the will of God. The one used here is the commonest one in the
NT and the one with the broadest meaning. It describes sin as a
missing of God's desire for our lives. The parallelism employed in
Rom helps us understand its meaning: "All have sinned and
come short of the glory of God." We have missed the goal which men
made in the image of God should have been aiming at. We have
failed to fulfill God's will. We have fallen short of the expectations of
a holy God.
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Now this term for sin is the broadest one in the NT and
embraces most of the aspects which the other words for sin empha-
size. For example, there are NT terms for sin which emphasize
transgressing, unrighteousness, and lawlessness. I John 3:4, however,
says that "everyone who doeth sin (our word in I Cor ) doeth
also lawlessness (a]nomi<a), and sin is lawlessness."
The use of the negative with this particular form of the verb tells
the readers that they are not to continue engaging in their present
practice. Usually it means to stop doing what one is now doing. The
simple rendering "sin not" of the common version, is rendered a bit
more precisely by the "stop sinning" of the NASB and NIV.
The two verbs in this part of our verse could well be understood
like this: "Come to your senses and do not continue to sin." The
readers are challenged to think straight and live accordingly.
This verse has often been used as a general admonition for
Christians in almost any circumstance. Surely its application is appro-
priate to all believers in every situation. Every Christian ought to
think clearly and live in holiness.
Paul, however, gave these commands in the midst of a specific
discussion. He was talking about a particular doctrinal error at
believe the teaching which God had sent them through his apostle
indicated their cloudy thinking, and was in turn a falling short of
what God expected. It was sinning and they needed to get rid of it.
Furthermore, Paul has explained that failure to grasp the truth
of resurrection would inevitably lead to a substitution of materialism
and self-indulgence for the spiritual values that should be motivating
believers. The philosophy of "eat and drink for tomorrow we die"
would soon take over. Paul reminds us that life is interwoven. What
we think determines what we do. We live the way we do because of
the mind set we have. At
resurrection were not just harmless philosophical speculations. They
had a direct connection with the purity of their lives. To abandon
apostolic teaching was to pursue a course of sin. It was to live in
direct defiance of the command of the Word of God.
A Mark of Immaturity
The Bible says that sin in the lives of Christians is one of the
marks of spiritual immaturity. Paul had already called the Corin-
thians "carnal" because they had allowed the superficial, the temporal,
and the cultural to dominate them. In the Epistle to the Hebrews,
maturity is explained as the ability to discern good and evil (-14).
One's knowledge of the word of righteousness-God's Word-enables
the believer to acquire God's standards, so that he can choose the
good and shun the evil. And this is no mere option. Spiritual growth
must take place. If it doesn't there is something terribly wrong.
Spiritual immaturity is not just disappointing in the lives of Chris-
tians. Paul says it is sin and calls upon us to get rid of it.
THE CHALLENGE THAT MUST BE FACED
The passage concludes with the sober words that carry with them
a great challenge to the church. "For some have not the knowledge of
God: I speak this to your shame." This statement is often applied to
the great need of lost mankind for the gospel. The fact that millions
of men and women are ignorant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ,
some in lands beyond the seas and others in our own communities, is
a matter that ought to shame us if we are doing nothing about it.
When Paul wrote these words, however, he was not talking about
evangelizing pagans, but about correcting wrong doctrine. The point
of the statement was not primarily outreach, but purity. He was
warning them of the abysmal ignorance of God on the part of those
who had infiltrated their church and were upsetting their faith.
Existing Situations in the Church Are Often Less than Ideal
These words serve as a reminder to us that existing situations in
the church are not always ideal. Our verse speaks of "some" who are
without knowledge of God. Presumably these are the "some" first
mentioned in v 12, "some among you say that there is no resurrection
of the dead." They were not pagan citizens of the city, but certain
ones in the church. They had promoted a culturally-conditioned
theology which denied literal resurrection. The outcome was that
emphasis was transferred from a future life to the present one. "Let us
eat and drink, for tomorrow we die" (v 32). Moral decline had
followed. Holiness of life did not seem very important. Separation
from sin was ignored. "Bad company corrupts good character" was
Paul's concise evaluation (NIV, v 33).
Earlier Paul had said that he didn't expect the Corinthians to
have no contact with unbelievers, for that would have required a
physical departure from the world (). He did not forbid them
from joining pagan friends at dinner (). But to cultivate bad
company and take pleasure in it was another matter. The "bad
company" in this passage seems to be inside the church. The danger
Paul feared was the growth of spiritual contamination from those
who were spiritually sick or dead. Tolerating false doctrine was
12††††††††††††††††††† GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
exposing the rest of the church to the infection of moral and
theological disease. On another occasion Paul spoke of false teaching
as spreading like gangrene (2 Tim ). Ignorance of God and his
word exists not only outside the church. At
Surely the church of today has reason to heed the counsel of the
passage. It is no great surprise to find churches where some lives are
not honoring God; where some are joining with those who are more
concerned with personal gratification and enjoyment of this present
world than they are with spiritual goals and present sacrifice; where
some are really without the knowledge of God, his holy character,
and his will for his children.
Some Less-Than-Ideal Situations Are Positively Shameful
speak this to your shame." At
because it was contrary to what the church had been taught. They
knew better, and thus they were without excuse. Christ had risen
from the dead. He had taught his followers that a day was coming
when those who were in the grave would hear his voice and come
forth in resurrection (John -29). To believe or to teach otherwise
was a clear repudiation of the truth implicit in the gospel.
the situation at
church was tolerating this false teaching. By letting this "bad com-
pany" exist in their congregation, they were implying that it didn't
matter; that doctrine was less important than more "practical" mat-
ters. In so doing, they were virtually joining forces with those who
were ignorant of God and his revelation.
In addition, it was shameful because it was leading the church
into impure living. The Corinthians knew perfectly well the standards
expected of a child of God. Their former lives had been recognized as
sin. The new life in Christ had been startling in its contrasts. As new
converts they had revelled in the fact that their guilt before God had
been cleansed and that their sordid lives had been transformed. But
now they had allowed a situation to develop in their church in which
spiritual values were being subordinated to material and temporal
It is one thing to acknowledge that local churches are less than
perfect. It is far more serious when we learn to be at ease with
impurity in our midst. Within Christianity today, we can find almost
every sin known in the world being tolerated in some congregation.
There are congregations consisting of practicing homosexuals. There
are churches where adultery is so commonplace that partners ex-
change mates and all parties continue in good standing in the same
congregation. Surely Paul would term this sort of thing an absence of
the knowledge of God and a matter that ought to cause us shame.
Paulís Challenge Was to Grasp the Truth, Decide to Obey It, and
Then Put It into Operation
challenge was needed at
it was, it is surely needed today. There is still great ignorance of God,
not only in our communities, our nation, and in the regions beyond,
but also as at
not nearly as much understanding of biblical truth as the average
Christian thinks he has. I have often heard it said that most Christians
already know enough doctrine; they just need to put it to work. I
would like to counter that notion by insisting that the reason we are
not "putting it to work" is because far too many of us don't
understand God's truth all that well. When we really have the
knowledge of God and his program, it will grip our minds and propel
us into appropriate living. Those who have really come to "the
knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor 4:6)
have no problem deciding to obey it. Our attitude, our mindset is
what Paul is appealing to. We can decide to do it. We must never
allow anything else, no matter how temporarily attractive, to sidetrack
us from the emphasis upon the Word of God-his revelation to us,
the instrument by which we know God and avoid the problems Paul
was warning the church against.
challenge is just as relevant to us as to
finding that the people in our churches are not exhibiting much
distinction from the world. The continual pressure from our culture,
which through the astounding effectiveness of the news and entertain-
ment media has injected its influence into every home, has blurred
our distinctiveness. Christians are not easily recognizable any longer
by the things they do or don't do. The need is not for arbitrary,
legalistic taboos, but for intelligent, meaningful discernment followed
by consistent choices of what is right, not only on Sundays, but every
day of the week. "Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop
sinning" is a challenge every Christian should take to heart.
Finally, this challenge to make up our minds to do the will of
God carries with it the need for sensitivity to the condition of others,
both inside and outside the church. "Some have not the knowledge of
God." There are those in our neighborhoods who live in spiritual
darkness and need to be reached by godly Christians whose lives
manifest the transforming grace of God. There are those in other
cities whose veneer of sophistication in so-called Christian America
really masks a hopeless groping for meaningful lives that is doomed
14 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
to failure unless God's people share their knowledge of God. But
there are even some within our churches who have the kind of
ignorance of God Paul was speaking of here: their knowledge of his
truth is minimal. They have never been sufficiently challenged or
Paul's desire for his readers is still relevant: that each of us will
be so captivated by what God has done for us in Christ, and by what
he has planned for us as revealed in Scripture, that it will make a
difference in our lives; that it will lift our eyes to spiritual goals; that
the world's values will be less attractive; and that our excitement over
what new life in Christ really means will make us sensitive to others
whose greatest need is the knowledge of God.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
†††† †††††† Grace Theological Seminary
Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:† firstname.lastname@example.org