Paul lovingly concluded his letter to the Corinthians with greetings that broadened their perspective, deepened their sense of partnership, and reminded them of the wonder of belonging to God’s family. Warning against hypocrisy, he urged them to focus on grace as they awaited the Lord’s return. As Alistair Begg closes this series, he reminds us that in Christ, we are part of something far bigger than ourselves: God’s heavenly family and sovereign plan.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Father, with our Bibles open before us, it is the longing of our hearts that these words may be true of all who worship with us regularly. We pray that you will open the eyes of those who are spiritually blind, that you will take that which deafens your voice as a result of sin and rebellion and unbelief, and that you might be pleased even to use these final verses of 1 Corinthians 16 to draw men and women to yourself. And for those who believe, grant that we may be ready to offer our lives to you in unreserved service. We want to see you, Lord Jesus, lifted high like a banner unfurled across this city and across this nation. And we pray in your lovely name. Amen.
First Corinthians 16:19 to the end brings us to our final study, God willing, in these wonderful chapters of 1 Corinthians as a whole. And now we’ve come to the end. The way in which we end letters says quite a bit about us. I don’t know how you are as a letter writer. Some are scribblers who try and write larger than normal when you write letters so that you can fill up more of the page, although there are only a few words. You don’t like that big space at the bottom of the page, and so you start further down, and a third down, and try and make it look as though you’re writing a lot. And sometimes we address the body of what we have to say early up in the letter, and by the time we get to our concluding paragraphs, we really are at a loss for words, and we just finish with trivialities. We’re embarrassed by the fact that we’ve too much space. Some of us run out of time. Some of us run out of patience. Some of us run out of information. Some of us run out of interest.
And there are, in contrast, though, some people whose letters are always jam-packed. I have an aunt who writes to us from South Africa, and it always goes to the very bottom of the page, and there’s never irrelevant material in it. It is always purposeful and helpful and encouraging, every word. And she leaves one with the impression that if she’d had more space, then she would’ve been able to convey far more than she did.
Well, in this letter here, as with all of Paul’s letters, we would expect that since the Holy Spirit is the author of the letter, that it would come to a conclusion in just the way that it does. Every word is important. And in his concluding statements, Paul is addressing these people in Corinth—folks who have been unruly, folks who have been passionate, people who have been divided for much of the time, and yet a church that has always been very exciting. And now he wraps it up with these concluding greetings.
There are greetings which come externally, there are greetings which are to be offered internally, and there are greetings which he conveys personally. And under those three words we will gather the substance of our study.
First of all, greetings from an external point of view. In this case, the greetings are threefold.
First of all, he extends the greetings of “the churches in the province of Asia.” That may sound of little import to us, just on a cursory glance, until we realize that until Paul had walked into the province of Asia, there were no churches in Asia at all. And when you go back to Acts 19:10, you discover him there, in the heat of the afternoon. While most people are taking a siesta, he had taken the lecture hall of Tyrannus, and we’re told by Luke that “for two years,” he had discussions in the afternoon, when people were off work for a few hours, so that the result was “all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.” If you go down to verse 26, in the account of the Ephesus riot, you discover people saying of this fellow Paul, “[He] has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and … practically the whole province of Asia.” It is a wonderful thing! “The churches in the province of Asia send you [their] greetings.” Those who sometime before had lived in paganism, had lived in confusion, had lived without God and without hope in the world, had been part and parcel of the pluralism of their day, with religious interest—multiple deities, great interest in the afterlife, and accompanying great confusion—out of that great host of people, the Lord Jesus had redeemed a company for himself, and these various churches were now sending their greetings to these believers in Corinth.
By the time of the first century, when the book of Revelation is penned, you will note in Revelation chapter 2 and 3 that there were significant churches in significant cities throughout Asia. And the simple greeting of these believers served to do two things.
Number one: to broaden their perspective. Paul was keen for them to understand that they were not it when it came to church. The Corinthians had a problem with regarding themselves as it. They thought there was never a church quite like them—that they were the epitome of what church life should be. And yet, of course, they were sadly confused and mistaken in that matter. And Paul when he writes to them, from the very beginning of his letter, writes to expand their horizons. Verse two of the first chapter: “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of [the] Lord [our God].” He says, “I want you to know that you are part of something far bigger than yourselves.”
So, he broadens their perspective, and he deepens their sense of partnership. “There are churches other than yourselves,” he says. “We want you to know that something far bigger is going on. You shouldn’t feel alone, and you shouldn’t ever regard yourselves as aloof.” It’s a good word for every church, an important reminder. There is a sense in which we ought to be grateful to God for all that he’s doing here, in this particular church. We don’t want to take it for granted. We don’t want to treat it in a cursory fashion. But at the end of the day, we want to remind ourselves, forcibly and frequently, that we are part of something far bigger than ourselves in relationship to all that God is doing in Cleveland, in terms of what God is doing throughout the whole of the United States of America, and, indeed, in relationship to what God is doing throughout the world. And that’s why it’s wonderful for us to hear greetings from France and from Germany, from Southeast Asia, from Guatemala, from Peru, from Bolivia, from all these different places, and to receive the greetings of these different churches, broadening our perspective, deepening our sense of partnership, and reminding us of the wonder of what it means to be part of the family of God.
So, the greetings come from all the churches. The greetings also come, skipping down a phrase or two, from “all the brothers.” You’ll notice in verse 20: “All the brothers here send you greetings.” Now, this clearly, I think, is a reference to the companions of Paul. Who they are we’re not sure. Perhaps the Corinthians were able to identify them just by the phrase. We can’t say with certainty. All that we’re able to say is that this sense of warm and significant partnership extended from the lives of those who were involved in ministry with Paul. We don’t need to know everybody’s name to realize the partnership that we enjoy with them in the gospel.
The greetings from the churches, the greetings from all the brothers, and then, particularly, the greetings of this couple—a lovely couple, Aquila and Priscilla. I’ve never met an Aquila, but I’ve met a number of Priscillas. And you may have met an Aquila, but there you have it. “Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets [in] their house.” Paul goes so far as to identify these individuals by name, and it’s not surprising. In Acts chapter 18, we’re introduced to them. Paul is introduced to them in Acts 18 as well. Turn to that for a moment so that you can set the history clear in your mind.
When Paul left Athens, he moved on to Corinth. And when he arrived in Corinth, he met this couple, “a Jew named Aquila,” who was “a native of Pontus.” They had recently moved there from Italy. Aquila had been brought up on the shores of the Black Sea, in this place called Pontus. He’d married this girl. They had settled in Rome. Things had been going well there, and then Claudius intervened and determined that Rome would be a better place if all the Jews were to be dispelled. And so the Jews were scattered from Rome, and in the process of that, Aquila and Priscilla relocated to Corinth.
Now, we can only but assume that they regarded this as a significant dislocation in their lives, in the way that many of us do when the time comes to relocate. We often do not seek it. It comes to us from outside. It takes us beyond the realm of what is familiar and comfortable to us. And so, they must have had conversations over dinner in the evening: “Well, we’re going to leave Rome. Where do you think we should go? Where do you think is possible?” And they settled in Corinth. After they’d been in Corinth for a while, they perhaps were still saying to themselves, “I wonder what in the world we’re doing here?”—right up until the day this little Jewish evangelist arrived in town. And making known the fact to the people around him that he was able to earn his keep by being a tentmaker, presumably somebody said to him, “Oh, the couple that you ought to meet are Priscilla and Aquila. They make tents, and they love Jesus.” And so it is that in Acts 18, we’re told that “Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were,” they had immediate point of contact, and “he stayed,” and he actually “worked with them,” and they made their home available to him.
I want to say just in passing, ’cause this is a time of transition in the lives of not a few within our congregation: God is in charge of our changes. God is in charge of our dislocations and our relocations. We may not be immediately drawn to it. We may not assume that it’s best. It may be months and significant time before we find any purpose in it at all. But God was in charge of this.
And for Priscilla and Aquila, their hospitality was matched by their maturity, and God had used the wonder of their understanding of the gospel in the lives of not a few people—not least of all, Apollos, whose name is mentioned earlier in Corinthians. And in Acts 18:24, “Apollos, a native of Alexandria,” who was well-versed in religious things, who knew about Jesus, who had a baptism of repentance but who just didn’t have a full grasp of the truth, was welcomed into the home of Priscilla and Aquila, and there they taught him the Word of God cohesively, effectively, and encouragingly. And so it was that their hospitality was matched by their maturity. And Paul says, “Priscilla and Aquila send you greetings.”
Can I just say again in passing that the work of the gospel is sustained by Aquilas and Priscillas? My wife and I have had the privilege of pastoral ministry, and we have discovered that which others have told us of and about which others remark with frequency—namely, that when you sit and take a blank sheet of A4 and you write down on it a list of the names of husband-and-wife teams who have had such a dramatic impact upon our life and ministry by means of encouragement and support and correction and rebuke and direction and so on… I actually did this as an exercise in my study ten days ago, and I stopped, not because I ran out of names but because I was overwhelmed by the awareness of the truth that in quite ordinary ways, God had used people to an extraordinary level of significance. Husbands and wives opening their homes, opening their hearts, sharing their lives—a means of great encouragement.
You are those people. Do you understand that? The impact of your home for the gospel is unquantifiable. You may not think you’re able to do a great deal. You may not be signed up for a lot. You may say, “You know, there’s just you and me, and our home, and what God has given us. We want to use it generously. We want to use it faithfully, encouragingly, for the servants of God.” Then go ahead and do it! And believe me, great is your reward in heaven.
Why do you think Priscilla and Aquila come out in the midst of all these general greetings? “All the churches greet you. All the brothers greet you. And Priscilla and Aquila greet you.” Why? Why did he think of them? Because of the dramatic impact that they as a couple had made in his life. Thank God for the privilege of ministry and for the benefits of such ministry.
These external greetings, then, are to be more than matched by the greetings that are going on internally. And at the end of verse 20, in a sentence, he calls the relationship of the believers in Corinth into a proximity to one another. He says, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”
Now, you see, the kiss was the common manner in which friends would say hello to one another. That was customary. If you think of it in European terms, you’ve got the right picture. If you remember, for example, back to the early pictures of Nikita Khrushchev kissing people when he was wearing that big, furry hat, it wasn’t what you’d call a mainline smooch. It was more this and this. And when you see the French or the Italians greeting one another, they kiss on one cheek and the other. And in actual fact, what you do is you kiss the air, if you know how to do it properly. They will always tell you, “Kiss the air.” And your cheek touches their cheek, and you kiss the air, and then you kiss the air. Or actually, you kiss them flat on their foreheads, twice.
Now, this runs through the whole of Judaism. From the early chapters of Genesis, you find it. Genesis chapter 27, for example, and verse 26. Jacob brought the sacrifice—brought the meat so that it may be blessed, I should say—“and he ate” it, “and he brought some wine and he drank” it, and “then his father Isaac said to him, ‘Come here, my son, and kiss me.’ So he went to him and kissed him.” You have the same thing as an expression of reconciliation in Genesis 33:4: “But Esau ran [out] to meet Jacob,” and he “embraced him,” and “he threw his arms around his neck,” and he “kissed him.” You have the same thing in 1 Samuel 20:41 between David and Jonathan: they wept over one another, and they kissed one another. You have the exact same thing in Luke chapter 15 in the story of the prodigal son: “When his father saw him a great way off, he ran, and he fell on his neck, and he kissed him.” It was the normal, customary expression of relationship with one another.
“And so,” says Paul, “I want you to greet one another in the common form,” which was to kiss. And that reflected their culture. What marked them out as different from their culture was not a different way of kissing—namely, holy kissing. What made the common feature holy was the fact that they were holy. They were, as he’s described them in the opening verses of 1 Corinthians, set apart, “sanctified,” separated from sin, separated to God, to one another. And therefore, these people did the common thing in kissing, and it was holy because they themselves were part of the family of God.
So it’s not a special kind of kiss. It was just a customary greeting. And indeed, a warm, affectionate handshake, an arm around the shoulder, “Give me five,” may express the exact same sentiment today. And as I speak at these various camps throughout the summer, I have all these teenagers who come up to me, and they have ways of greeting one another about which I’ve never heard in my life, but they do it like this, and this, and this, and all over the place. But all they’re doing is they’re saying, “Hey, we’re buds!” you know. “We’re in this together. Glad to see you again! You’re my main man!” and so on. It’s how it goes. That’s what this is about.
To take the Bible literally does not demand some kind of wholescale kissing spree. And some of the teenagers have been waiting dramatically for 1 Corinthians 16:20 to introduce them into a whole new dimension of life. No! Sorry. You can go out in the car park and practice kissing the air with one of your male friends, son, or you can go out and kiss your girlfriend, sister, but it’s no call to go out in the car park and experiment. Indeed, it is simply twice on the forehead or twice in the air. Sorry to disappoint you.
But what it does speak to is that there ought to be obvious signs and seals of affection amongst the people of God. It ought not to be a stiff thing to be in the family of God. It ought not to be starchy to go to church. It ought not to be dull. It ought not to be boring. It ought not to be arm’s length and removed. There’s supposed to be a dimension of mutuality amongst the people of God that makes those who are outside the family of God say, “You know what? That’s an incredible place!” And unlike contemporary clubs, which have to do with having identified the fact that we paid enough money to get in or we could jump far and fast enough to be included or that our skill level was sufficient to be able to gather into a small group, the family of God has Black and White, and rich and poor, and fat and thin, and wise and not so wise, and so on, and it is utterly different from anything else in the whole of the universe. So the businessman walks into this, and he says, “Man alive! There is something going on in there. They are greeting one another tangibly and significantly.”
I’d like to cut to a big video of Louis Armstrong with his handkerchief, singing “Wonderful World.” Remember it?
I see [friend greeting friend],
Saying, “How do you do?”
They’re really saying,
“I love you.”
And I think[s] to myself,
What a wonderful world.
That’s how it’s supposed to be! “I went to Parkside Church, and I saw friend greeting friend, saying ‘How do you do?’ And they were really saying, ‘I love you.’ And I said to myself, ‘What a wonderful church!’”
Some of our talk is cheap, and our relationships would be better improved if sometimes we looked one another in the eye, looked our brother in the eye, sister looked sister in the eye, in the words of Mary Chapin Carpenter, just said, “Why don’t you shut up and kiss me? Give us a kiss. I love you!” There’s nothing gives me greater joy than the kisses of my kids. When I see my son’s lips coming at me, it’s like a face of a gigantic fish coming at you.
The issue is not kissing, right? The issue is loving, the issue is caring, and the issue is letting people know that it’s okay. Forget the First Church of Christ Frigidaire. This is not a society. This is not a club. This is not a classroom. This is not a seminar. This is a church. And when we come to church and when we “do church,” we ought to know we’ve been, and we ought to know we’ve done it. So you can go out and say, “Been there. Done that.” All right?
Thirdly, personal. Personal. External greetings, internal greetings, personal greetings. Look at verse 21: “I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand.” Does that excite you? That absolutely jazzes me! I can tell, if I had been there when this bit got read out, I’d have jumped right up the front of the church or wherever it was being read; I would have grabbed the scroll right out of the fellow’s hand, ’cause I want to see: How does he write? Big writing? Wee writing? Nice writing? Bad writing? Scribbly writing? What kind of writing? I just want to see the way he signs his name! “I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand.” I want to see it! I don’t want a mass-produced letter. I want to see his handwriting.
Now, what does this mean? Simply refers to the fact that the body of the letter has been written by somebody else—namely, a secretary, an amanuensis. Probably a chap called Sosthenes, if you look up the early verses of the book. And so he says to Sosthenes (it’s not easy to say!), he says to him, “Give me the pen. I’m going to finish it off myself.” And he authenticates it by his own writing, his own hand, and his own signature. He’s brought the greetings from over there. He’s brought the greetings from the brothers. He’s encouraged the greetings from one to another. And now he says, “This is coming from me to you.”
If there’s anything that you want,
If there’s anything I can do,
Just call on me, and I’ll send it along
With love, from me to you.
That’s what he’s saying here: “This is coming from me to you.”
The ending of his letter is significant. How does he finish it? I took letters from a girl for seven years and wrote them for seven years, and the endings were always important. How does he end? Four words summarize his ending.
He ends with a warning. Verse 22: “If anyone does not love the Lord—a curse be on him.” Is this dramatic? What is he saying here? Why would he end with such a stirring warning? The answer is not because he hates but because he loves. He would not sound out the warning were it not for the fact that he cared for them. If he hated them, he’d just let them run aground on the shores of their rocky rebellion. He loves them! And so he says, “If you don’t love the Lord—a curse be on you.”
This is not a reference to those who are seekers. This is not a reference to the unbeliever. This is not a reference to the person who’s agnostic and says, “I don’t know who Jesus is.” And they come to church and they say, “I don’t really know who Jesus is. I don’t really know much about the Bible.” And they come along, and they look at 1 Corinthians 16:22, and it says, “Hey, if you don’t love the Lord—a curse be on you.” Say, “Goodness gracious! No wonder I haven’t been going there! You should’ve heard what the fella said. I came in, I tried to put my tie on and everything, and the chap said, ‘If you don’t love the Lord—a curse be on you.’” Is that what he’s saying? No!
In Romans chapter 9, Paul says, “I am prepared to be accursed for the sake of those who don’t know Christ.” In 1 Corinthians chapter 9, he says, “I make it my aim to win as many as possible. I become Greek to the Greek. I become Jewish to the Jew. I become smart to the smart and dumb to the dumb so that by all means I might win some.”
So what is he saying here? Let me tell you who he’s referring to. He is referring to the issue of religious humbug. He is referring to the matter of religious hypocrisy. He is referring to the characters who were all through Corinth who had a form of godliness and denied its power, who’d said that they had a life in Christ, but their lifestyle never matched it. They were false professors. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 12:3, he reminds his readers, he says, “Nobody possessed of the Spirit of God can say, ‘Jesus be cursed.’” It’s a strange thing to even mention, unless there were those going around Corinth who were claiming to know Jesus and yet at the same time thought that they could call down cursings on him. Paul says, “You think you can do that? Let me tell you: Jesus said, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.’ The commandments of the Lord Jesus are clear. If you do not keep his commandments, you deny the fact of his love. Don’t tell me about the fact that you’re in Christ and there’s no evidence of it. The ground is his work; the evidence of it is your continuance.” And he says, “If anyone does not show the evidence of an obedient life to walking with Christ, then there will be a curse that comes on him.” And so he fires a warning out.
There’s nothing more pernicious than the kind of people who take advantage of the profession of religion for the sake of their own corrupt desires—hence the song by Phil Collins, [“Jesus He Knows Me”]. It was a tragic, classic illustration of how an ungodly guy can watch Christian TV and has got enough discernment to realize that a significant load of this stuff is pernicious. For men and women are using religion to the ends of their own benefit. And Paul says a warning to such folks.
He also reminds them that he’s waiting and they’re waiting: “Come, O Lord!” The word is maranatha, an Aramaic word that was brought into common parlance. Mar means “Lord”; an, ana is a suffix meaning “hour”; and atha is the verb “to come.” You put it together and you get “Our Lord come,” or “O come, Lord.” And Paul is waiting for the coming of Jesus. One in twenty-five verses in the New Testament are about the coming of Jesus. And you see the juxtaposition: “I’m giving you this warning. And remember, we’re waiting. He may come at any time. He’ll come as a thief in the night. Don’t be like the five foolish virgin who had no oil left in their lamps. Be like the wise, whose lamps were trimmed and ready.” The warning sounds out in light of the waiting.
Can I warn you this morning? If you are a false professor, give up your false profession and lay hold upon Jesus. Don’t be satisfied with mere attendance at a church—merely having your name upon a roll, merely going through this Sunday by Sunday. Say today, on the final day of study in 1 Corinthians, “What I’m going to do is I’m going to make sure unreservedly that I have a repentant heart before Christ, that I cry out to him for mercy and for grace and for faith and for forgiveness. I want to heed the warning. I want to be found waiting. I want to be under the blessing.”
That’s the third word: blessing. “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you”—the same way that he began. Wonderful framework. First Corinthians 1:3: “Grace … to you.” First Corinthians 16:23: “Grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.” There is no other single word in Christian vocabulary that most fully and adequately expresses what God has done and will do for his people in Jesus. It’s grace at the beginning, grace in the middle, and grace at the end. “Grace that is greater than all [my] sin.”
“I, Paul, send you this personal greeting, warning, waiting, blessing, and loving.” Look at verse 24: loving. “My love to [you all] in Christ Jesus.” “To all of you.” “All of you. The ones that have bugged me. The ones that have disappointed me. The ones that have encouraged me. The ones that have blessed me. The ones that I’ve had to reprove and rebuke, who were fighting at the Communion table. Those who were setting up little parties and dividing the church.” He said, “I want you to know, the good, the bad, and the ugly, church is church. I send my love to all of you in Jesus Christ.” The letter ends on a tender note—not with a clashing of a cymbal, not with a great, swelling fortissimo, but with an almost piccolo-like melody speaking of the love of the Lord Jesus.
His letter has been strong. It’s been clear. The source of his love is Jesus. The framework of his love is Jesus. Indeed, the most favorite phrase of Paul in all his writings is here in this last verse, and with it he finishes. You would expect him to finish with his favorite phrase, and he does: “in Christ Jesus.” That was the wonder of it for him. “If any man or woman be in Christ Jesus, they are a new creation; the old is gone, the new has come!” We are either in Christ or we are not in Christ, in the same way as we are either married or we are unmarried. If you do not know whether you are or you’re not, then you’re in a grave predicament. And the same is true spiritually. “I send my love,” he says, “to all of you in Christ Jesus.”
There’s no “Amen” in the original. There’s an “Amen” in here. It fits, of course, but the earliest manuscripts do not end with “Amen.” They end with Jesus. And so they should. For he is, after all, “the Alpha and the Omega,” “the Beginning and the End,” “the First and the Last.”
I have labored to preach to you the Word of God through these sixteen chapters of 1 Corinthians with the express purpose that unbelieving people may become committed followers of Jesus Christ. I end as I began, calling those who do not believe to believe and hearing the call of God upon the lives of those of us who do believe to committed, faithful service.
Thanks be to God for his Word.
 See Acts 19:9.
 Acts 18:2 (NIV 1984).
 Acts 18:2–3 (NIV 1984).
 Genesis 27:25–27 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 15:20 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 1:2 (NIV 1984).
 George David Weiss and Bob Thiele, “What a Wonderful World” (1967).
 See 1 Corinthians 1:1.
 John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “From Me to You” (1963).
 Romans 9:3 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 9:19–22 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 12:3 (paraphrased).
 John 14:15 (paraphrased).
 See Matthew 24:43; 1 Thessalonians 5:2, 4; 2 Peter 3:10; Revelation 16:15.
 See Matthew 25:1–13.
 Julia H. Johnston, “Grace Greater than Our Sin” (1910).
 2 Corinthians 5:17 (paraphrased).
 Revelation 22:13 (NIV 1984).
Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.