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14.  Paul

14-1 The Conversion Of Paul / Saul || 14-2-1 Paul And His Brethren || 14-2-2 The Weakness Of Paul || 14-2-3 Paul: A Character Study || 14-3 The Preaching Of Paul || 14-4 Saul Changed To Paul || 14-5 Paul's Relationship With Jesus || 14-6 Paul And Christ  (1) || 14-6-1 Paul's Use Of The Gospels  || 14-6-2 Paul's Quotations From The Gospels: Statistics || 14-6-3-1 Paul's Quotations From The Gospels: Analysis And Implications || 14-6-3-2 Inspiration: The Human Factor || 14-6-3-3 The Enigma Of John's Gospel || 14-6-3-4 The Nature Of The Gospel Records || 14-6-3-5 Memorizing Scripture || 14-6-4 The Supremacy Of Christ || 14-7 Paul And Christ (2) || 14-7-1 Paul's Use Of The Gospels: Further Observations || 14-7-2 Paul And The Parables || 14-7-3 Paul's Use Of The Sermon On The Mount (Mt. 5 - 7) || 14-7-4 Paul's Exposition Of Gethsemane || 14-7-5 Paul And The Characters In The Gospels || 14-7-6 Paul In The Gospels || 14-7-7 Paul And John The Baptist || 14-7-8 Saul, Paul And Stephen || 14-7-9 Following Elders || 14-7-10 Connections Between The Gospels And Epistles: Observations || 14-8 Paul's Heroes || 14-8-1 Paul And Moses || 14-8-2 Paul And King Saul || 14-9   Paul and Corinth || 14-10 Paul And His Weak Brethren || 14-11 Paul's Thorn In The Flesh || 14-12 Paul's Shipwreck  || 14-13 Paul’s Self-Perception || 14-14 Paul, Philemon and Onesimus || 14-15 Chronology of Paul’s Life

14-10 Paul And Weak Brethren

There are times when it is necessary to separate from brethren and sisters because of gross doctrinal or practical error, or their refusal to separate from these things. But it is almost impossible to tell whether an active brother or sister in our community, who appears to believe and practice the Truth, is actually weak. Indeed, we shouldn't really go round trying to assess the spiritual strength of each other; we are all fellow servants, and what matters is what our Master, Jesus, thinks of us; not how we assess each other (Rom. 14:4). 1 Cor. 8:9 is one of several passages which warn us not to make the weak to stumble. But none of those passages actually says that we can know who is weak. What they are saying is that in God's eyes, there are weak members amongst every group of believers, and therefore we should watch our behaviour, because it will have an effect upon whoever is weak. But this doesn't mean that we actually know who  the weak ones are. Because we don't know who is especially weak we must always be careful in our behaviour, whoever we are with. Indeed, as we'll see, we have to adopt the perspective that in a sense we are all weak. 

To understand 1 Cor. 8:9, we must understand what it means to be weak. The Greek word translated " weak" here usually means one of two things: physical illness, or spiritual weakness. Sometimes these two senses are combined (e.g. when James speaks of praying for the " sick" brother, or when Jesus talks of how pleased he was that brethren had visited the " sick" brother in Mt. 25:36). Paul  often uses the word in his letters to Corinth. He says that we are all weak because of our natures (1 Cor. 15:43), and that Christ died on account of the fact that we are weak (2 Cor. 13:4 Gk.). Because of this, Paul reasons, we're all weak, because Christ died for every one of us. He therefore says that to sin against a weak brother is to sin against Christ; because Christ has associated himself with our spiritual weakness, in order to save us from it (1 Cor. 8:12). Thus he says that when we visit a weak brother (spiritually? it's the same word), we visit him. He so closely associates himself with the weak brother (1) . Christ on the cross carried the sins of " the weak" (i.e. all of us), and thereby left us an example of how we should behave towards the " weak" . In this context, Paul says that we should likewise love our neighbour (in the ecclesia; Rom. 15:1-4). What he seems to be saying is that we should understand that we are all weak, and therefore try to help each other, in the same spirit as Christ died for the weakness of each of us. If we recognize that we are all weak, we'll avoid two common mistakes: 1) Thinking that some brethren aren't weak and should therefore be followed blindly; and 2) Thinking that some believers are " weak" whilst the rest of us are " strong" . 

Paul didn't want the Corinth ecclesia to think he was wagging the finger at them and implying: 'You lot are so weak, but I'm strong'. Several times he speaks of his own weakness, and he glories in the fact that although he is so (spiritually) weak, God works through him so mightily; indeed, he comes to the conclusion that God's strength is perfectly expressed through his spiritual weaknesses (2 Cor. 11:30; 12:5,9,10). He says that he preached to Corinth in the first place in (spiritual)  " weakness" (1 Cor. 2:3)-  because it seems that when he first got to Corinth, he wasn't spiritually strong enough to grasp the nettle of witnessing to the city as he should have done (Acts 18:9,10). Having admitted to Corinth that he himself was weak, he can say that whenever one of them is weak, he feels weak too; in other words he's saying that he can totally empathize (not just sympathize) with a weak brother's feelings (2 Cor. 11:29). 

Paul’s focus upon the positive is really tremendous, especially coming from a man so far spiritually ahead of the weak Corinthians. He commends their “readiness” to donate, whilst pointing out they are more talk than action; and later speaks to others of “our readiness”, identifying himself with the Corinthian brethren whose lack of actual action had got him into so many problems in fulfilling what he had confidently promised on their behalf (2 Cor. 8:11,12,19). He even gloried to others of their “readiness” (2 Cor. 9:2), whilst clearly not turning a blind eye to their failure to actually produce anything concrete.  

Paul so often bids us follow his example. If we are going to truly help each other, there must be an admission of our personal weakness. Our brotherhood has rather failed in this, it seems to me. We all act, particularly those in the limelight, as if we're so righteous and strong that we all feel ashamed to discuss our weakness with each other. The result of this is that our meetings together become cold and formal, we go through the motions of spirituality and fellowship with each other, but we never really get under the skin of each other. Paul was different. He was writing to brethren that he knew were weak. But he harps on about his own weakness, he starts 1 Corinthians with the reminder that when he first converted them, he himself had been going through a weak patch, a down cycle. And he gives many other examples of his weakness. It's quite rare for a leader of men to be as open about his weakness as Paul was. The world in which we live teaches us to never reveal our weakness, to never show a crack in the armour- especially if we are in a position of influence over others. Our lives in Christ should be different; we should be a community of men and women earnestly struggling for the imitation of the Lord Jesus Christ, openly acknowledging our failings, and striving together against them in a spirit of realistic self-knowledge, both individually and collectively. 


(1) The parable of Mt. 25:34-38 describes those on whom the righteous expend effort as sick, hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, in prison: every one of which is a description used elsewhere in Scripture concerning our spiritually weak state. Therefore the parable is teaching that one of the grounds upon which we will be rejected or accepted relates to how we have treated spiritually weak brethren. The Lord confirms  this when he adds his interpretation: " Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least (spiritually) of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me" (Mt. 25:40). The wondrous, wondrous thing is that the Lord of glory identifies himself with the spiritually weakest of his brethren: and structures his judgment seat around how others have behaved towards them. 

Note: Paul And The Brotherhood

Paul had an amazing commitment to unity in the brotherhood. One could say that it was this which led him to his death, and certainly to political self-destruction in the politics of the early church. For his desire to unite Jewish and Gentile Christians was humanly speaking a loser- the Jewish converts simply would not give up their allegiance to the synagogue, with all the political and economic benefits this involved; nor would they really accept Gentiles. And Gentiles were never going to accept Jewish observances, indeed Paul knew this to be spiritually wrong. I submit that the whole epistle to the Romans is an exposition of the Gospel which has Jewish-Gentile unity as its underlying burden. This becomes apparent in the opening chapters. This to me is the key to understanding Romans 7. There Paul opens his heart and speaks frankly of his own inner conflicts. He says that he delights in [keeping] the law of God, yet he has a principle within him which seeks to make him captive to the law of sin (Rom. 7:22). I suggest he may be referring to his love, as an ex-Pharisee, of the Law of Moses, but this leads him to desire to keep the whole Law, including the halakah [the ordinances of the Rabbis]. He speaks of his struggle to both ignore the Jewish laws, and yet keep them. He concludes that he cannot keep them adequately, and so he surrenders to justification by faith in Christ alone. I read Paul as saying that he initially accepted justification in Christ, but then after his conversion he went through a period of seeking to keep the Law, and “sin revived”. And so he strongly concluded that he must throw himself solely upon Christ’s grace.