Creation - Old and new 2 - New humanity - 2 Corinthians 4

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the morning service on 16th November 2008.

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The former Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill was once invited, in his old age, to speak at a large public school’s speech day. The day finally arrived and as you can imagine everyone was excited to have this famous personality on stage and were eager to hear what he had to say. Eventually he was introduced, he got slowly to his feet, shuffled to the lectern and said: ‘Never, never, never, never, never give up.’ And with that he sat down again. His speech was finished.

You may not be surprised to hear Winston Churchill speaking about the danger of discouragement. No doubt he contemplated giving up on many occasions. When the odds were stacked against him and when little fruit was evident from his many labours. Winston Churchill kept on going but along the way he was frequently tempted to give up.

Does it surprise you that the apostle Paul also contemplated giving up? The great champion of the Christian faith, a man responsible for writing so much of the New Testament, the faithful defender of Christianity before Roman rulers and governors. Does it surprise you that Paul thought about giving up?

Look at what he says in verse 1 of chapter 4. “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.” Why write this? Why does Paul want to inform us that he does not lose heart, that in his Christian ministry he keeps on going? Why even mention anything about losing heart? Well, only because that was his temptation. Now wonderfully he did not lose heart, he did keep on persevering as a faith Christian minister. But think about it. If being discouraged and if throwing in the towel was not even an issue for Paul he would never mention it in his letters. But here it is in 2 Corinthians. Paul does not lose heart but that was certainly his temptation.

Isn’t this true to our experience as Christians? Which of us has not been tempted to give up trying to share the gospel with friends, family and neighbours? Who has not been disappointed at the response we frequently receive when we try and say something about the good news of Jesus? We believe it is the best news in the world but so often it is received with apathy and disinterest. What is our temptation? To keep our mouths shut, to say nothing of Jesus, and to expect no one we know to become a Christian.

Or what about the disappointment of inviting someone to a Christian event. Have you had this experience? It may be a church service, perhaps a carol service, or Time Out or After 8 or Identity. And what happens? You pluck up the courage to issue the invitation and the person says no. Or even worse they say yes but never turn up. What is our temptation? To make sure we never pluck up the courage again.

Why should we not give up? Listen again to what Paul says in verse 1. “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.”

Although he was tempted to give up, the reason he didn’t was because he had something called this ministry. The obvious question is, what is this ministry?

We’ve jumped straight in at chapter 4 so it should not surprise us that Paul has already been describing this ministry in the previous chapters. In fact, he has said much about it in chapter 3. For example turn back a page in your bibles and look with me at what he says in 3:7…

“Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved on in letters of stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that condemns is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness!”

He has a ministry that ultimately leads people to righteousness. Puts them in the right with God and also makes them live rightly. So no matter what the temptation to give up or throw in the towel Paul remembers the potential impact if his ministry and keeps on persevering. This is something we need to be reminded of. When we are discouraged let us never lose sight of the impact that Jesus can have on an individual life – he can make them right with God and he can transform their behaviour by the power of the Holy Spirit so they start living rightly in this world.

And that’s what Paul believed. So although giving up was a frequent temptation for him it was never a feature of his life. Instead he devoted himself to being a faithful minister of Christ. Look at what he says in verse 2. “Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of truth. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.”

It’s good to work out what the connection is between verses 1 and 2. We’ve seen already in verse 1 that he does not give up when he feels very discouraged. But then in verse 2 he starts talking about his methods. He’s always above board with people. He tells them the way it is. There was no nonsense with the apostle Paul. Yorkshire would be his natural home. He was a straight talker. He didn’t deceive people nor did he twist the truth of God’s word to make it say what he thought people wanted it to say. No he set forth the truth plainly. He was a man of integrity.

What’s the connection between verses 1 and 2? What is the temptation if you feel discouraged? Well, it is to give up. But a person can give up in two different ways. A person can either give up completely in Christian ministry and stop doing anything. However, there is another way to give up, and that is to keep yourself busy but to give up on authentic Christian methods.

And so there is connection between verses 1 and 2. Paul says that he will not lose heart. He will keep on going as a faithful minister of Christ and so, therefore, verse 2 he will keep on going with the faithful methods given to him by Christ unlike a discouraged minister who will still keep on going but not with the authentic methods of Christian ministry.

How often do we see this? Our land is populated by church leaders who have become discouraged by the lack of results for their labours. They become disheartened and then change the methods of their ministry. No longer are they crystal clear about what the Bible teaches. Parts are left out and others are taught in a muffled way. The word of God is distorted and deception is used. No real talk of the cost of being a Christian when someone enquiries how they become one. The price is lowered so more will buy.

Deception and distortion – two features of a discouraged ministry.

We can be guilty of this ourselves. Take deception for example. Just think about how you might invite a friend to a Christian event. For example, one of our Jazz events. Will you tell a friend that someone will be explaining the Christian faith? The reasoning goes like this. If I tell them they won’t come but at least when they get there they will hear the gospel. This can backfire. It is deception and it is not a method open to the Christian. Why not instead say with confidence, why not come along and someone I trust will be explaining something of what Christianity is all about? My friends, we must not be guilty of deception.

Or distortion. In our great desire to be liked we are tempted to change the Christian message or leave out any bits we don’t think people want to hear?

However, according to verses 3 and 4 the reason people don’t believe the gospel has nothing to do with the message, or the messenger or even the methods, it has everything to do with the sinful mind. Look at what Paul says in verse 3, “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

If the message was the problem then we would update it. If the messenger was the problem then we would sack them. If the methods were the problem we would update them for our time. But, according to Paul, why is it that so many people don’t believe the gospel of Jesus? The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the truths about Jesus.

The god of this age is another way of referring to the devil. Paul tells us that he has blinded the minds of unbelievers. I think it is interesting that he talks about the mind, not the eyes and the ears. People can still see the truth about Jesus and hear about him but because their minds are blinded they cannot understand and intercepted what they see and hear.

We’ve seen from our studies in Genesis how the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers. It all took place in the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve rebelled against God’s rule with their minds, they became naturally hostile to God and stopped being able to understand God’s word properly. This is a condition shared by all their offspring. Everyone born after Adam and Eve has a natural hatred of God in their minds and cannot understand the truth about Jesus.

You may think this is unfair. You may need to think this through. Listen to Scott’s sermon on Romans 5. But here Paul speaks about a truth that helps us to explain reality.

Why is this gospel misunderstood by even the most intelligent of people and reject by many? The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers.

Driving along and someone has their headlights on full beam and you just cannot see.

Paul says unbelievers cannot see the glory of Jesus because their mind has a full beam light shining on it to stop it working properly.

Don’t you find this true to your experience? I can remember having chats with some very intelligent people (e.g. coffee shop in Oxford) and they just don’t get it. And we think it is simple.

This is very encouraging for us as we speak to our friends and family about Jesus. We are often tempted to think the problem is with us. Not explained the gospel properly or maybe we don’t know all the answers to their questions. We think alas if only so and so was there. But no. The problem lies with the sinful mind of an unbeliever. Naturally, they cannot see the glory that we think is so obvious about Jesus.

Vicky had the opportunity this week to speak to one of her colleagues. She wished that I was there instead of her. But I had spoken to her colleague on many occasions. The reason she didn’t believe was not because of our inadequacy but because her mind was blinded and God had yet to shine his illuminating light into her heart. Until he does whoever has the opportunity speaks the simple gospel of Jesus.

If you are an unbeliever then pray that God will have mercy on you and help you understand.

As believers, what should we do? Look at what Paul says in verses 5 and 6. “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”

There is a lot here but let me try and explain the liberating truth Paul is teaching us. We know that not everyone becomes a Christian when they hear about Jesus. Our temptation is to think there is something wrong with either the message, the messenger or the methods. But no Paul says it is all to do with the sinful mind.

Okay, we say, but what do we do now? If people cannot understand about Jesus surely we have an impossible mission? But that’s not Paul’s conclusion. He instead devotes himself to preaching Jesus Christ as Lord. Preaching means communication. It is all about speaking about Jesus Christ as Lord.

Why does he do this? In verse 6 he reveals all. The God who created a universe by speaking words now makes new creatures by speaking words. Although he doesn’t speak them, we do. God unleashes creation power as Christians speak to others with the simple message of the gospel. This power is not released every time. But not because there is something wrong with us but because God is absolutely sovereign over when and where this power is unleashed.

However, when he chooses to unleash the power a dramatic miracle takes place in the heart of an unbeliever. A heart previously in darkness is illuminated so the person can understand Christ and then receive him as the light of the world. And all this occurs through the speaking of the simple gospel. God’s chosen means for working miracles today.

This is good news for us to hear.

I meet many Christians who’ve stopped telling others about Jesus. They know it’s a good idea, they even think they should do it, but they rarely do it now. If that’s you, have you stopped because you no longer believe verse 6? I’m not expecting a conversation every day but let’s never make never our standard assumption. God is still in the miracle business.

Sometimes I meet Christians who have already relegated someone to the impossible mission category. They will never believe. There is no point speaking to them about Jesus. This is a sign that we don’t believe verse 6. There is no guarantee that God will release his power as we speak about Jesus but that he can do at any time he wants should be an encouragement for us to never give up. Yes prayers but why not a book or a pamphlet or an email or even a personal conversation.

Or why not bring them to a place where they will hear the gospel explained?

What is crucial is that people hear the message about Jesus Christ as Lord. This is a challenge. It is so much easier to speak of other things. God, bible study, going to church. The real power of the gospel is when we speak about the identity and mission of Jesus. This simple to understand and communicate.

The power is in the message and not in the personality.

Let’s all learn how to share the message of the gospel more effectively and let’s be confident that the sharing of this message is God’s chosen method of working spiritual miracles today. You may want to come along to Identity yourself or bring someone with you.

It’s not unusual for Christians to feel inadequate for this task and that’s why I love what Paul says in verse 7. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

In Paul’s world these jars of clay were the equivalent of our carrier bags. They were disposable and unimpressive. God has put a treasure in jars of clay. What does he mean? Paul talks about this treasure. What he means is the gospel. The wonderful news about the identity and mission of Jesus.
He has put this announcement in jars of clay. We are the jars of clay.

It’s no surprise that we feel inadequate for the task of sharing the gospel. We are jars of clay. We are unimpressive.

Can you imagine putting your best ornament in a Tesco carrier bag and putting it on the mantelpiece?

But notice from verse 7 that God has not made a mistake in giving us the gospel to speak. He does all this so he gets the glory, so that the power to change is recognised as coming from God and not from us. So be encouraged if you feel inadequate. We are not very impressive but the message of the gospel, contained within us, and which is to be on our lips, is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.

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