A Calling of God's Servant - 2 Corinthians 2:12 - 3:18
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Here is Howard Snider in his book, ‘New Wineskins’: ‘Meet the Revd Jones, superstar. He can preach, counsel, evangelise, administrate, conciliate, communicate-and even sometimes integrate. He can also raise the church budget. He handles Sunday morning better than any quiz master on TV. He is better with words than most political candidates. As a scholar he surpasses most university professors. And no church function would be complete without his wit. Struggling mediocre Christians look on with holy envy. Which one of them would not like to be in the Revd Jones shoes- not to mention his parsonage?’ We may not quite voice our expectations of a minister like that, but it captures quite accurately what are the many unspoken expectations today. My eldest son Christopher is in the process of looking for a post as a Vicar and some of the job descriptions he has come across for the kind a person the church is wanting would rule out the archangel Gabriel! They certainly wouldn’t allow for an apostle Paul as he portrays himself in his second letter to the Corinthians.
Reading this letter it does come as something of a surprise that Paul does not put himself forward as some spiritual Hercules striding the globe, but as a diminutive geek who is hardly impressive at all. Here is a man who is not afraid to wear his heart upon his sleeve, to weep out of love for the congregation he has planted and nurtured for nearly two years but most of whom have now rejected him and are embarrassed by him. Here is someone who may not be in the league of Christian super heroes as we might define the term, but who nonetheless follows in the footsteps of the greatest of them all whose throne was a cross.
So if we are going to get our expectations right not only about what we should expect from our ministers, but also expect in our own ministry as Christians, we could not do better than to listen to the apostle Paul as he speaks of his calling as God’s servant.
As we have been hearing over the last few weeks, the church in Corinth has been infiltrated by false teachers. What they were offering- as we shall see in chapter 10-13- is exactly what some people within the church today are offering. What is that?
The first was an insufficient Christ. To have Jesus as Lord is important, they said, but something ‘more’ was needed to live the full Christian life, and surprise, surprise these were the people who could deliver it. Paul accuses them of preaching ‘a different Christ’ – 11:4.
Secondly, flowing from this was the idea of the self-sufficient Christian, and in particular the self-sufficient leader. That was the style portrayed by these interlopers. In fact, Paul employs sarcasm by describing them as ‘super apostles’ in chapter 11 as they boasted about their supernatural experiences and dazzled the congregation with their fine sounding rhetoric. And part of their strategy was to build themselves up by putting Paul down. ‘Just look at him’ they said, ‘he can’t even speak properly, stammering and hesitating all the time. He doesn’t sound impressive and he certainly doesn’t look impressive with that bald head, hooked nose and bowled legs. We like our ministers to look like Tom Cruise not Tommy Cooper. Why, he isn’t even a professional, not like us, he doesn’t charge for his services. And it is obvious he hasn’t a clue how to win friends and influence people because he is always going on about the cross. How morbid can you get?’
So how does Paul deal with this maligning of his character and ministry? What do you say when your very competence is being brought into question? Paul faces the challenge head on in 3:4: ‘Such confidence as this (that is the confidence that his ministry is effective in producing real converts) is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence is from God. He has made us competent ministers of a new covenant.’ Paul is quite convinced that his calling and ministry is from God. He is not a charlatan. So what does this competent ministry look like? How are we to measure whether what we are doing as Christians is more like the true apostle or the false super apostles? Well, let’s take a look.
First, there is the priority of a competent ministry 2:12-14. Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, 13I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said good-by to them and went on to Macedonia. 14But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.’
Paul was nothing if not honest. Just get this: Paul is saying that while he was in Troas he had a God-given an opportunity to evangelise- a door was opened to him by God-v 12. Now surely Paul is going to grasp that opportunity with both hands? There is no way he is going to walk away from something like that! But that is exactly what he did do. Paul is saying that he was so anxious, so distraught about the people back in Corinth that he couldn’t even bring himself to preach. You see, Paul had written an earlier letter, sometimes called the ‘severe’ letter where he laid it on the line that the Corinthians had to get their act together, discipline the immoral and repent. And he is waiting with a knot in his stomach for Titus to come back with the news of their response. So desperate is he to find out what that is that he leaves Troas to go to Macedonia in the hope of meeting up with Titus to find out the news. Have these people abandoned him? Have they gone off in a huff? Are they continuing to grieve the Lord Jesus by their selfish and ungodly behaviour? Or have they come to their senses? You cannot say that Paul doesn’t care can you? You can’t say Paul is some detached professional keeping aloof from the day to day pastoral needs of his people. He is simply sick with worry. That is what authentic Gospel ministry is like. You do worry about people: the one who seemed so on fire for Jesus now gone cold, the breakdown in relationships between members of the congregation, the infighting, the lack of spiritual progress- as well of course the joys. But when you are in the thick of it, as was Paul, that is when you can so easily question your own competence. ‘Have I laid a proper foundation for the church? Has my ministry been effective? Will it last?’ Questions aggravated by these false ministers who are bad mouthing him. It is hard enough having to handle pastoral breakdowns without having folk stoking the flames from the side. So who wouldn’t doubt? Who wouldn’t feel as if he couldn’t go on, even abandoning an evangelistic opportunity? Paul, like us was simply human. I am not trying to garner sympathy, but you need to know that every minister worth his salt experiences this kind of burden for his people.
But Paul’s antidote to self-pity is to see things as they really are in God’s sight. Yes, Paul had to pull out of Troas, but it was only a tactical withdrawal not a wholesale surrender because wherever we go as Christians, so long as we are serving Christ we part of his great procession-v14. Sure, there may be a switch from evangelism in Troas to pastoral care in Macedonia, but so what? It is all part of Christ’s work. Wherever he puts us, he is there. The priority is still Gospel work, whether breaking new ground in Troas or shoring up old work in Corinth. So let’s have no talk of Paul being a failure or us being failures because the going is tough-it’s just a different aspect of ministry going on, that’s all -through us he spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.’
The picture is of a street carnival which a Roman general or Emperor would lead following a successful military campaign. And there were two sorts of people who would be in the procession. First, the victorious troops receiving the accolade of the crowd lining the streets- you can imagine the trumpets sounding, the throwing of flowers, the burning of incense- the fragrance of victory is everywhere. But the second group is the captives- heads bowed low, manacled, maybe the foreign leader chained to the chariot of the mighty emperor and they look pitiful Now who is Paul identifying himself with? Is he in the first group of victors or the second group of captors? It could well be that he- and we- are to be seen as being in both groups depending upon the perspective you adopt. From God’s standpoint we are part of the army of Jesus the King, Jesus has taken prisoner all that stands in opposition to his kingdom on the cross. He leads his people to victory as they make their way through this world onto the next. It is a great victory procession we are in. But it may not appear that way to non-Christians- or even sometimes to us. To them we may appear to be rather pathetic, more like chained captives that conquering soldiers, a defeated rabble rather than triumphant princes. After all, in some parts of the world Christians do lose their jobs, do get put in prison and are treated as the lowest of the low. But that is not where the ultimate reality resides.
Which brings us to the next point- the perspective of a competent ministry-vv 15-17. ‘For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task? 17Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God.’ Notice just who Paul has his sights set on- ‘We are to God the aroma of Christ. We speak before God with sincerity. We are men sent from God.’ Do you see who he is trying to please? It is the audience of One. That is the perspective which is to shape all that we do. One man who did this was General Gordon of Khartoum. After his death his Scottish friend John Bonar said this of him: ‘What at once and always struck me was the way in which his oneness with God ruled all his actions, and his mode of seeing things. I never knew one who seemed so much to ‘endure as seeing Him who is invisible.’" Gordon, he concluded, seemed "to live with God and for God." Would it not be wonderful if people could say that about us? ‘They live with God and for God.’ That certainly was the case with the apostle Paul. And that is when we cannot but have an influence on people, like incense which wafts from the carnival diffusing through the atmosphere, so we too as we proclaim the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ will have an intoxicating effect. To some it will be a beautiful aroma. Just like when you walk down Whitefriar gate and you pass Lush the soap shop, I love that smell and am drawn to it every time. So will our effect be if we are faithfully witnessing to Christ, people will be allured by his saving love emanating from us. But the very same aroma will be to others repulsive, all this talk of the terrible nature of our sin, the need of a crucified saviour, living for Jesus instead of living for self, will quite frankly be a switch off. And if people keep turning away they will seal their eternal destiny-the smell of death. There are two types of people in the world. Those who are ‘being saved’ and the original is in the passive voice which underscores the fact that only God can do the saving. Sure he uses people like you and me, but ultimately it is his work, not ours. Then there are those who are ‘perishing’, they are responsible for turning aside. But it is not a completed action, there is still the opportunity left open for people to respond to the Gospel- it is not over until it is over. And when you think of it like that, it is natural that with Paul we cry out in v 16 ‘Who is equal to such a task?’ or ‘Who is sufficient for these things?’ And the implied rhetorical answer is that, we are actually, but not in and of ourselves but as ‘we speak Christ before God with sincerity.’ That is when people get converted.
But what a contrast to some others in verse 17 who peddle their message for a profit. A ‘peddler’ was a term used to describe the type of Del Boy-Fools and Horses’ character who have tampered with merchandise to make a profit at some poor unsuspecting fools’ expense. So when we hear so-called Christian speakers watch out for those two things. First, is money involved? Not the reasonable preacher’s costs, but the buckets being passed around, the insistence on only staying at the best hotel and as in some cases in the States having your own private jet. People in it for the money and religion can mean big money.
Secondly, is the Gospel message being tampered with to make it popular? Are the hard bits smoothed out: talk of judgement to come, of Christ dying in our place for our sins, the cost of discipleship? Are other things being added; promises of instant healing-now, a wealthy life- now, a Jesus who is the icing on what is already a materialistic cake instead of the one who is Lord of all? I tell you frankly, one of the greatest temptations in ministry is to court popularity to gain the crowds in which style triumphs over substance, where statistics are exaggerated to impress- ‘We saw hundreds come to faith’, when it is dozens at best. That is not Paul’s way- and it shouldn’t be our way- sincerity, speaking the truth with God as your audience. As someone once said, when no one is around, act as if someone is-God.
Finally we have the proof of a competent ministry there in 3:1-18. So what that these new teachers have letters of commendation? ‘Wow you must listen to this man he is a bishop you know.’ ‘Wow, you must go and listen to him he can perform miracles.’ Or as I received publicity for an event in a church in Hull to go and hear a man who as a non- Christian was stung by a killer jelly fish, died, went to hell, then went to heaven and met Jesus and has come back to earth to tell us about it. You know, this man as been touring the world with that story for at least 15 years. He comes highly recommended. Does Paul do that? Well, in chapter 12 he engages in a bit of banter and speaks of the time he went to heaven, but interestingly enough he was NOT allowed to talk about it and what it was like, instead God sent a thorn in the flesh to humble him. No, the only commendation that Paul appeals to is the lives of the Corinthians themselves- lives changed by the Gospel. That’s what matters. That is where we see the glory of God. Notice how Paul uses that term several times here-glory? Glory can be defined as ‘a public manifestation of the presence and character of God.’ And here Paul makes a contrast between what happened in the Old Testament under Moses and what now happens in the New Testament with Christ. When Moses met with God on Mount Sinai and received the law he came down from the mountain with his face glowing with a holy incandescence. It was so overpowering he had to wear a veil over his face to prevent people being blinded by it. With the passage of time, however, like a sun tan it eventually faded. That, says Paul, is a pretty good picture of the nature of Old Testament religion, which some of the false teachers might want to promote. What is more it is a picture of what is happening to the Jewish people or anyone who reads the Old Testament as if Jesus has not come- it is like trying to read with a blindfold on. But with the coming of Jesus we have the coming of God’s glory in person to stay. Religion bound by law restricts and brings despair because if it is mainly about keeping rules, the only thing we can be sure of is that we fail to keep them-hence verse 6, ‘the letter kills’. What Jesus brings is light and liberty, you see God as he really is; his Spirit comes to dwell within you to change you. By the way, v 17 is one of the clearest passages about the deity of the Holy Spirit- for he is describes as being the LORD- God.
This is why the church must never be thought of as some private club for people to share the same hobby. The church is a greenhouse for people who are all growing into the same likeness- the likeness of Jesus. And that is something you simply can’t hide.
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