Some passages of God’s word derive their chief importance from the remarkable word or words employed. Others draw their main value from an important truth that is revealed. Not a few have their special lesson for us because of the place where we find them. 1 Cor. 16: 22 is remarkable for all these reasons: “If any one love not the Lord [Jesus Christ] let him be Anathema Maranatha”.
This statement contains peculiar words—Anathema Maranatha. It also reveals a solemn truth—the Lord’s return will test whether I have a heart for Him. Finally, it occurs in a significant place. Where does it occur? It speaks of the ‘Anathema’ or the ‘curse’ but it is not in Galatians. It speaks of ‘love’ but it is not in John’s epistles. It speaks of the Lord’s coming but it is not in Thessalonians. No, these words are addressed to the saints in Corinth. But why Corinth?
The first epistle of Paul to the Corinthians is a long epistle. In the course of it the Holy Spirit has to rebuke numerous practical evils and correct many doctrinal errors. There were divisions among the Corinthian saints (see 1 Cor. 1: 10–13) and these were brought about by focusing on the Lord’s servants instead of the Lord. Not recognising the one body which God has made in Christ, the Corinthians were taken up with their own ecclesiastical cliques, just as many Christians are today. They were boasting in men (see 1 Cor. 3: 21) and “puffed up one for [such a] one against another” (1 Cor. 4: 6), occupied with the names of mere men instead of the name which is above every name. Though they came short in no gift, the apostle had to speak to them “as to fleshly” (1 Cor. 3: 1) and as such they were in no condition to receive more than what was elementary: “I have given you milk to drink, not meat, for ye have not yet been able” (v2). Not only this, but there were sins of gross immorality among them (see chap. 5: 1) and brother was going to law with brother before the ungodly (see chap. 6: 6). Again, there were offences against the consciences of weak brethren, and the Lord’s Supper had been degraded into a grotesque exhibition of selfishness (see 1 Cor. 8: 10; 11: 21). Last, but not least, not only were there practical faults, but there were also serious errors of doctrine. Chapter 15 shows that even the truth of the resurrection had been called into question, and that special pains had to be taken by the apostle to establish it again in all its force and meaning.
Against this background, the great point for us to notice is that the epistle ends with the solemn reference to the fact that the Lord is coming again. “Anathema Maranatha” are almost the final words of the epistle—indeed they do conclude it apart from the blessing in verses 23–24. Maranatha is made up of two Aramaic or Syriac words. Mar is the Syriac word today for Lord, and n is the Syriac suffix, meaning our. Thus Maran means our Lord. Atha in English is he cometh, so that Maranatha, when put together, means our Lord cometh. But this is not all. If we have ears to hear, the fact of this word coming here and nowhere else in the Scriptures, ought to speak forcefully to us.
Everything the epistle deals with is no longer to be looked at simply in the light of the past or the present, but in the light of the future. There are a whole catalogue of serious evils reproved, but when it is a question of the Lord’s coming, and of the “Anathema” or curse which will fall, then it is no longer a question of life or walk, it is a question of the heart: “If any one love not the Lord [Jesus Christ] let him be Anathema Marantha” (my emphasis). It is as much as to say ‘It is well and good to put right all your many errors and failings, but that is not enough. Have you love for Christ? When He comes, that is what He looks for. It is one thing to respond to corrective ministry, quite another to be moved by affection for Christ. Henceforth you may be pure, temperate and moral in life, but have you a heart for the Lord? Yes, from now on you may be perfectly correct in your ritual and orthodox in your creed, but if you have not love, then you are nothing (see 1 Cor. 13: 2). Sadly, you can be outwardly sound and yet have a heart of ice to the glorious Person of the Lord Jesus.’ Such will only hear “Anathema” when “our Lord cometh”!
Many motives may move me. I may be exact in my religious duties and ecclesiastical observances because I love my church or meeting. I may be orthodox in my creed because I have a love of dogma and doctrine. I may be very philanthropic because I love others. I may be very moral in life because I love myself. But none of these things will be of any account when “our Lord cometh.” Christ will then be the one test. In what relation do I stand to Him? Do I love Him for all He has done for me, a poor, lost, unworthy sinner? Is He mine and am I His? True, such questions are not much asked today. The churches put forwards their plans and purposes, unmindful of “Maranatha”, and oblivious to “our Lord cometh”. It is “good will toward men” which takes the places of “glory to God” today (Luke 2: 14 AV)—or which, at any rate, is put before it. Social themes have ousted the Gospel of God’s grace in most of our pulpits—as though there could be any true morality, genuine philanthropy, or real church work apart from Christ! When He, and love for Him, are not the spring and source of what is done, then as regards eternity, the results are sure to be cold, barren, lifeless and worthless, and will come under the solemn Anathema or curse when “our Lord cometh”. Only the love which comes from God, and is “shed abroad in our hearts by [the] Holy Spirit” (Rom. 5: 5) can produce the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5: 22) such that it ascends back again to God, fragrant with the perfume of the merits of His beloved Son.
This is the lesson which is taught us by “Maranatha”, and its power arises from the place where it is written for our learning. May that same Holy Spirit who inspired it in the Book inspire it also in our hearts, causing it to work there effectually for God’s own glory.