How To Plan for the Future (Especially in Christian Work)

A Study of 1 Corinthians 16:5-25

Review: Tonight we’re coming to the end of 22 lessons from the book of 1 Corinthians, and the primary theme of our study has been maintaining unity in the work of the Lord. This is one of our greatest needs. I’ve recently been reading a book about the history of the Salvation Army in America. The Salvation Army is one of the great humanitarian movements in modern Christianity. It was started by William Booth in England. He went everywhere ministering to the poor, destitute, and downtrodden of Victorian England – the kind of people we read about in some of Charles Dickens’ novels. In fact, William Booth and Charles Dickens were contemporaries. While Dickens was writing about the downtrodden, General Booth was out doing something about it. He was called the “Prophet to the Poor.” The movement spread to America. General Booth sent to our shores a man in whom he had great confidence — his own son, Ballington, who had started preaching on the street corners as a teenager. Ballington was a very capable young man and the work prospered and it took on a distinctive American flavor. One day General Booth himself came over to inspect things, and he didn’t like what he saw. He didn’t like seeing the American flag at Salvation Army events. He thought the movement was to Americanized. He reassigned Ballington, but the young man didn’t want to leave. The schism hit the front pages of newspapers all across America, and there was a rupture between father and son that never healed, and the work of the Salvation Army in America was split in two. The whole thing was a terrible tragedy, and it presented a sad testimony to the world.

This is not an exception in Christian circles; it’s often the rule. Why do divisions so often mar it that the work of Christians and of the church? I don’t know all the answers, but the problems go all the way back to some of the early churches in the New Testament. The worst was arguably the church in Corinth, and the letter of 1 Corinthians is largely a handbook for how to deal with all the divisions faced by that congregation.

For several months we’ve been working our way through this book, and I want to give you a brief outline. The purpose of 1 Corinthians is to deal with the problems that tear churches apart.

  • Chapters 1 – 4: Personality differences & leadership factions
  • Chapters 5 – 6: Church discipline issues & moral disagreements
  • Chapter 7: Disagreements related to marriage and celibacy
  • Chapters 8 – 10: Disputable matters
  • Chapters 11 – 14: Worship services
  • Chapter 15: Doctrine, especially the resurrection
  • Chapter 16a: Finances

Now today we’re coming to the last paragraph of the book, which is Paul’s final comments and personal greetings. I love these final verses that appear in several of his epistles. They let us see Paul’s personal side, and yet he still manages to get some discipleship in. For now, Paul is finished admonishing and correcting and rebuking. He wants to wrap up things on a gentle and positive note.

But even here it seems to me there is a theme. The theme is how to plan for the future, especially when it comes to church work. When I first started out in my pastorate I wanted to have long-range goals for myself and for my church. I wanted one-year goals; five-year goals; ten-year goals. Establishing these kinds of goals were the rage back then, and there is some value to them. But I’ve had a lot of experience since those days, and I’m not quite so keen on long-term goal setting as I used to be. The reason is we just can’t know the future well enough. Paul seemed to have come to the same conclusion, so here is the first principle.

1. Make Goals But Stay Flexible (Verses 5-7). We certainly want to dream and project and plan and goal-set, but we must hold those things lightly. Look at verses 5-7: After I go through Macedonia, I will come to you—for I will be going through Macedonia. Perhaps I will stay with you for a while, or even spend the winter, so that you can help me on my journey, wherever I go. For I do not want to see you now and make only a passing visit; I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits.

No one was more strategic than the apostle Paul. He was always thinking about the next steps, about the possible options for the future. But notice how tentative he sounded. Notice how many conditions and caveats he used in these three verses:

After I go through Macedonia, I will come to you—for I will be going through Macedonia. Perhaps I will stay with you for a while, or even spend the winter, so that you can help me on my journey, wherever I go. For I do not want to see you now and make only a passing visit; I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits.

As we read these verses, we can’t help thinking of James 4:13-15: Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

Proverbs 16:9 says: In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.

Here in 1 Corinthians 16, Paul told the Corinthians what he intended to do, but he added caveats. And, in fact, we don’t think that Paul’s plans didn’t work out as he had intended. It’s very hard to reconstruct the exact chronology of Paul’s travels because we don’t have all the information. But if we had time to turn the page to 2 Corinthians 1, we could read how Paul had to later defend and explain himself to the Corinthians because his plans didn’t unfold as he indicated here (See 2 Corinthians 1:17).

The further we try to peer into the future, the foggier our vision. We can often see a month or two into the future, or perhaps a year. It’s harder to see further than that. We can make plans for things two or three years away, but proposing what’s going to happen is even harder. We have to plan but remain flexible.

2. Capitalize on Open Doors Right Now (Verses 8-9). But here is the second aspect of that. We can look for open doors right now. Look at verses 8-9: But I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost, because a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me.

When it came to future plans, Paul had some general ideas but was tentative. But when it came to the immediate future, he looked to see where the doors were most open and that determined his strategy. He said: I will stay on here at Ephesus for the immediate future because a great door for effective work has opened to me. He didn’t say that he had opened the door, or pushed it open, or nudged it open. It just opened. God opened it. Many times the Lord leads us through the agency of open doors.

There are several verses in the New Testament about open doors.

  • Paul and Barnabas were sent off by the church in Antioch in Acts 13 and the story of their travels is told in Acts 13 and 14. We typically call this Paul’s First Missionary Journey. At the end of chapter 14, the two men return to Antioch and give their report. Look at Acts 14:27: On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how He had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.
  • We also have this emphasis given to us in the form of a prayer request in Colossians 4:2-4: Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly as I should.
  • Revelation 3:8 uses this same terminology as it relates to the church in Philadelphia: These are the words of Him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What He opens no one can shut, and what He shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door no one can shut.
  • And one of the most interesting passages is in 2 Corinthians 2:12: Now when I went to Troas to preach the Gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had not peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went to Macedonia.

In that final passage, Paul was trying to find Titus in order to receive news about the worsening situation in Corinth. His first letter—the one we’ve been studying—didn’t resolve the issues, and Titus had gone to try to resolve the issues. Paul was so overwhelmed with anxiety about the situation that he wasn’t able to focus or take advantage of the open door God gave him in Troas.

So what can we learn from all this. What comes to my mind is a principle Henry Blackaby articulates in his famous material on Experiencing God. In planning what you’re going to do, look around and see what God is doing and where God is blessing. Then simply jump on board and join Him in it. The distant future is diaphanous, but the near future is often revealed to us in open doors.

3. Take Care of the People Around You (Verses 10-19)

Here’s the third thing about planning for the future, especially in the Lord’s work. It’s primarily a matter of people rather than plans and projects. There’s nothing wrong with plans and projects, but notice in the following verses how Paul tried to take care of the people around him and build them up and commend them. When we pour ourselves in others and build them up, we’re doing the greatest thing we can do for the future. We are equipping our coworkers with the encouragement and maturity they will need for future ministry. Notice how many coworkers Paul names and builds up in these verses.

Verse 10: When Timothy comes, see to it that he has nothing to fear while he is with you, for he is carrying on the work of the Lord, just as I am.

Every time we read about Timothy, we come away with the idea that he was true blue but that he suffered from anxiety. He worried and stressed about things, but he pressed on and persevered. Paul wanted to make sure he was treated well by the Corinthians.

Verse 11: No one, then, should treat him with contempt. Send him on his way in peace so that he may return to me. I am expecting him along with the brothers.

And now he turns his attention to this New Testament character that we wish we know better—Apollos, whom some people think wrote the book of Hebrews. He was an eloquent and brilliant theologian and preacher.

Verse 12: Now about our brother Apollos: I strongly urged him to go to you with the brothers. He was quite unwilling to go now, but he will go when he has the opportunity.

The next couple of verses are what we would call in the writing world of magazines and books a sidebar. This is typical of Paul. Near the end of the letter he gives some commandments as if they were slogans or mottos, as if he were creating a poster for our dormitory wall. Verses 13-14: Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be strong. Do everything in love.

Now in verses 15-16, he gets back to some people he wants to commend.

Verses 15-18: You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the Lord’s people. I urge you, brothers and sisters, to submit to such people and to everyone who joins in the work and labors at it. I was glad when Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus arrived, because they supplied what was lacking from you. For they refreshed my spirit and yours also. Such men deserve recognition.

Paul continued in verses 19-20 to refer to final groups of people: The churches in the province of Asia sent you greetings. Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house. All the brothers and sisters here send you greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss.

I always snickered at that verse when I heard it as a child, but, of course, the meaning is that we greet each other warmly as we gather together.

Verse 21: I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand. He evidently dictated the letter but signed it personally at the end, giving it a mark of authenticity. And that brings us to the very end and to our final principle about planning for the future – Keep your heart focused on the soon coming of Christ.

4. Include the Return of Christ in Your Plans (Verses 22-24).

Verse 22: If anyone does not love the Lord, let that person be cursed! The Greek term is “Anathema.” It’s a warning of condemnation to those who don’t know Jesus Christ when He comes again. But Paul immediately follows that with another Greek term – Maranatha, which means… Come, Lord!

This is a prayer for the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. There are two other similar prayers in the Bible. In the Lord’s Prayer, we’re taught to pray, “Thy kingdom come.” And the final prayer of the Bible in Revelation 22:20 is, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Whenever we think of the future, we should think of the Return of Christ. Last week I spent a great deal of time with a missionary doctor from Kenya. Many of our discussions were about Africa and he told me something alarming. The Muslims, he said, have targeted Africa as the first all-Muslim continent. They want to win the whole continent of Africa to Islam. They already have the northern regions and are working their way southward. They strategy is to reach the children. They don’t believe they can change many adults, but they are using their vast amounts of petroleum revenue to build Koranic schools and they are focused on educating the children of Africa. They believe if they can win the children, they can win the continent. As we talked about the spread of Islam, it brought up the discussions of prophecy and of the last days. I believe what is happening now represents the pieces of the puzzle coming together for Christ to return.

My doctor friend then asked me why so much of the Bible involves prophecy and why some Christians (such as me) are so passionate about studying End Times prophecy. What good does it really do?

I want to study this more fully on my own, but Tim LaHaye has some good insights about this in his book, Understanding Bible Prophecy. Chapter 2 is entitled “Why Christians Should Study Prophecy,” and LaHaye has six points:

  1. God must consider prophecy important, for He has put so much of it in the Bible.
  2. Prophecy reveals our Lord as He really is. It gives us an exalted and ultimate portrayal of Christ.
  3. A proper understanding of prophecy arms the believer against cults and false prophets.
  4. The study of prophecy promotes an evangelistic church.
  5. The study of prophecy tends to purify the believer.
  6. Prophecy offers confident hope in a hopeless age.

The resplendence of the Second Coming lights up our lives as we plan for the future and as we plan the future of God’s work. Every person who has ever lived will one day face Anathema or Maranatha. Those two words represent the two destinies for all humanity. For the believer, it’s Maranatha – Come, Lord Jesus! Until then, we have grace, for the book of 1 Corinthians ends with a simple benediction:

Verses 23-24: The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love to all of you in Christ Jesus. Amen.