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A Taste of Heaven - 2 Corinthians 11:16 - 12:10

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 25th November 2007.

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Aesop’s fables are a collection of different stories which often have moral points. In one story the tale is told of a donkey which once found a lion's skin which some hunters had left out in the sun to dry. The donkey put on the lion’s skin and went towards his native village. All fled at his approach, both men and animals, and he was a proud donkey that day. In his delight he lifted up his voice and brayed like the true donkey he was. And at that moment, every one knew him, and his owner came up and gave him a sound beating for the fright he had caused. Shortly afterwards a fox came up to him and said: "You thought you could fool others, but if truth be told, you were given away by one thing. You see, I knew you by your voice." Fine clothes may disguise, but silly words will disclose a fool.

            Well all the way through these final chapters of 2 Corinthians, Paul has been doing some disclosing of his own. He’s been showing up the false teachers for who they really are. You remember that these false teachers had slipped into the Corinthian church and they had totally duped the Corinthians. For these characters were very impressive. They had great credentials. Very good CV’s and references from Jerusalem in all likelihood, the centre of Christian mission at the time. They were very good speakers and showmen. They could wind an audience round their little finger. And they were probably boasting in their visions and miracles and other things with which they could wow the congregations. But the fact is they were religious con men, tricksters out to bleed people for their own gain. Yes, they spoke about the Spirit and the gospel and even Jesus. But as Paul said in chapter 11, it was a different Spirit, and different gospel, a different Jesus. And at the end of last week’s passage in chapter 11 vv 13-15, Paul really ripped the mask from their faces. He showed these false teachers to be Satan’s messengers. They come from the devil himself. Because like the donkey, their true identity is revealed by their words and teaching. 

            But in contrast Paul has also been explaining how he is the Corinthians’ true apostle. He is the one who brought the gospel to them. He, despite his weakness and frailty which the false teachers mocked, he is the authentic minister. And the Corinthians need to come back to him because in doing so they would come back to Jesus. So chapters 10 and 11 have been a sustained defence of his ministry. He has shown that his methods and mindset were fundamentally different from the false teachers in chapter 10. He is about the gospel. They are about themselves and their own gain. And in chapter 11, as we saw last time, he showed that he had godly jealously for them, as their spiritual father, a godly generosity, in that he didn’t bleed the church dry in asking them for money to support his ministry, and godly discernment in pointing out the evil behind the false teachers’ message.

            And now Paul continues his passionate appeal and reveals more of his own staggering credentials as the true apostle of Jesus. Because in short what Paul is doing is showing us in these chapters is what true Christianity is all about, and he is taking the mask off the face of false Christianity. And if truth be told, we are in danger of promoting false Christianity in our church and in our lives. Not perhaps so much by our message, but more by our methods. Because the church’s constant danger is to be moulded and shaped more by the world than by the word of God, which was precisely the problem of the false teachers and the Corinthian church. So as we come again to this extraordinary letter and as we see Paul’s passionate heart of love, we need to ask ourselves how we shape up. Are we here at St. John’s and as individual Christians marked by true Christianity or false? Because like the donkey wearing the lion skin, our true colours are shown up by what we say and how we act. So let’s turn to Paul’s words and we’ll see three marks of authentic, or true Christianity:

1) True Christianity is love driven (11 vv 16-21; 28-29)

2) True Christianity is cross shaped (11 vv 22-27; 30-33)

3) True Christianity is grace empowered (12 vv 1-10)

1) True Christianity is love driven (11 vv 16-21; 28-29)

So first then true Christianity is love driven. And we find that in chapter 11 vv 16-21. Because what is so challenging about the apostle Paul is just how far he is willing to go for this church that he founded. Now we began to see last week, that Paul in this section of the letter is willing to engage in what he calls foolishness. That is boasting of his own achievements because that was what the false teachers were doing. He’s decided that the best way to expose the folly of the false teachers is to answer them according to their folly. That is use their tactics. They boasted of their credentials, so Paul will. He’s going into a head to head boast off with the false apostles. Now we’ll see later that the way he does it is very different from the false teachers, but all the same he does engage in boasting. So verse 16: “I repeat: Let no one take me for a fool. But if you do, then receive me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting.” So he says, “Look, I am no fool, but if you do think I’m a fool, then let me engage in the fool’s game, that is boasting of my achievements.” The false teachers certainly thought Paul was an idiot, a weak, pathetic man, and they encouraged the Corinthians to move on from Paul and come over to their side. And the Corinthians had largely done that. So if you think me a fool, which you do, he says, then cut me some slack and let me act like one. After all, he says in verse 19, you gladly put up with fools since you are so wise. Paul’s point is that the Corinthians thought they were very wise. They were clever and articulate and a very gifted church. And they knew it. So they were wise in their own eyes. But Paul is using biting irony as he does in a number of places in these chapters. “Oh, you’re so wise, he says. You’re really wonderfully sharp and intelligent. Because you’re putting up with these idiots who have duped you. How wise you are! So you won’t mind if you put up with another fool will you, me! After all, you seem to love idiots, and I’m just another one in your eyes. So let me be one for your own good!”

            Now this boasting of course does not coming naturally to Paul. It is very unchristian. And that is why he is so hesitant about doing it. He started in verse 1, but then broke off, and now again he has another bash, but he’s almost apologetic about it. So in verse 17 he says: “In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool. Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast.” This is not really what the Lord would do, he says. And often in the following verses, he makes sure that the Corinthians know that he is speaking not so much as Paul, but as a fool. The whole thing is an act. It’s like a pantomime, in which Paul is acting like the jester, the clown. He’s put on the red nose and the big shoes and the face paint, so to speak. But through the pantomime Paul is making a very serious point. That the Corinthians are duped. So verse 21. “I am speaking as a fool”- as if to remind them. Remember, I don’t usually wear this clown outfit all the time. It’s a ruse to get you to see how stupid you are being! Again, in verse 23- “I am out of my mind to talk like this.” In chapter 12 v 1, he says there is nothing to be gained by all this boasting. Apart from, of course, the Corinthians’ repentance!

            Now it’s clear from all Paul has said that he must have found this very difficult to write. It went totally against the grain. He hated playing the fool and succumbing to the tactics of the false teachers. So why did he do it? Very simply because he loved the Corinthians. And he was desperate that they come back to Christ. We can see that when Paul compares himself to the false teachers in verse 20-21: “In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes

advantage of you or pushes himself forward or slaps you in the face. To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that!” These false teachers had basically abused the Corinthians. It was as if they had slapped them in the face. But to my shame, I didn’t do that, says Paul, using high irony. “How silly of me, he says. I didn’t go around abusing you. But maybe I should because you would accept me!” It must have been very hard for the Corinthians to read as well! And how do we know what Paul felt for these people in Corinth. Well he reveals his heart in verses 28-29: “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” After the whole catalogue of problems he faces in chapter 11, he says that one of the biggest is his pastoral concern for the churches. He feels that pressure daily. He has great concern for them. Not just the ones he started, but others as well, like the Colossians, or the Romans. He didn’t plant those churches, but he still feels concern for them. And in verse 29 he sympathises with those who are struggling. He knows what is like to feel weak. He’s not one of those ministers who sits aloof and does not engage with his congregation. He knows how they feel. And he burns with passion for those who are led into sin. He longs for them to battle on and keep going. That was how he felt for his Corinthian converts. He was passionately committed to them. For here, you see is a man who really loves. 

            Now I don’t know about you, but that is the sort of pastor I want looking after me. Someone who is so passionately committed to people that he will do virtually anything for their well being. Someone who loves me so much that he will even go to the length of being though a fool for my sake. It’s the sort of pastor I would love to be, if truth be told. And it’s a mark of genuine real Christianity. Devoted, committed love. We saw it last week as we considered Paul’s godly jealously, and we see it here again. It was also something that the pastor William Grimshaw excelled in.

            William Grimshaw was a vicar in Haworth in North Yorkshire in the 18th century. He was one of the unsung heroes of the 18th century revival. John Wesley said of Grimshaw after staying with him: “I have been with Grimshaw but a few days. He is truly a man of God. Even a few like him would make the nation tremble. He carries fire wherever he goes.” Certainly Grimshaw was quite a character. He was so passionate that his congregation follow God’s ways, that sometimes he would go to bizarre lengths to make sure they were putting their faith into practice. One time he heard that an old couple were being very miserly with their wealth. So one cold and wet night, Grimshaw dressed himself up in a beggar’s outfit with a shabby cap on his head. And he appeared hammering on the couple’s door asking for shelter and food. The couple refused and told the disguised Grimshaw to go away. But Grimshaw pleaded his destitution and said he’d die if not given food. When they still refused, Grimshaw removed his disguise quick as a flash and said: “It is I.” And then promptly gave them a lecture on covetousness and hard heartedness. So next time a beggar comes to your door, beware. It could be the vicar!

            Now we might not agree with his methods, but we cannot disagree with his heart. And one of the constant ways in which Paul challenges us again and again in this letter is his passion and love. And we need to ask if we are men and women of such love. Is our love for others in our congregation, our home group, such that we will risk being thought a fool because we are committed to them? Is our church marked by kindness and love for one another, a place where people feel welcomed and nurtured as in a big family. It may be that there is much work to be done in this area. Our society’s individualism is reflected in our own attitudes. The danger is that we care first and foremost about ourselves and our immediate concerns. We’re tempted subconsciously perhaps to see people investigating the faith as projects or targets as opposed to people we should love and share the gospel with. But you could never accuse Paul of lack of love. Strong apostle as he was, he was a man who had a big heart. Do we display the same marks of genuine Christianity? For true Christianity is love driven.     

2) True Christianity is cross shaped (11 vv 22-27; 30-33)

But secondly true Christianity is cross shaped. And we see this in verses 21-33. Because it’s time for Paul to start boasting, to put on the fool’s hat, as he goes head to head with the false teachers. And notice he does it in two ways. First he talks about his religious credentials in verses 21-22: “What anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham's descendants? So am I.” So Paul is saying that if the false teachers claim to be the real deal in terms of their Jewish heritage, then so does Paul. He too is a fully fledged Israelite. In terms of religious credentials, he’s doing very well. But what about ministry credentials, secondly. What does Paul say? Well I wonder what you would expect him to say? You see in the ancient world, there was a particular type of literature which was basically a glorified CV. What you would do would be to write down all your amazing achievements, often highly exaggerated, and publish them. People do the same today don’t they- they just call them autobiographies! And that was exactly what the false teachers were doing. And no doubt Paul could say something like this: “I have planted more churches, I have several degrees, I’ve written books, I’ve got the top qualifications, I’ve got more converts, I’ve spoken at the top conferences, I’ve been on Christian radio and TV, I’ve done more miracles etc.” And surely that is what we are expecting. He is going to out boast the false teachers in his achievements. That’s what will really impress the Corinthians. But look what happens in verses 23-27: “Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.” Now what an extraordinary list that is! Just one of those and you or I would probably have given up. But this, says Paul, is my CV. These are my boasts. I am going to boast in my sufferings! And it’s not over yet, because in verses 30-33, he records for us, not a mission which was a fabulous success, but a mission which was an unmitigated disaster! “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying. In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.” Paul is referring to the time when he had to secretly escape from Damascus because he was going to be captured. It was just after his conversion on the Damascus road and this was his first mission having been converted. He’d stayed on in the city to tell people about his new found faith. But he’d had to slip out with his tale between his legs! Not exactly Paul’s finest hour is it? Paul’s first serious test as a new missionary and he does a runner! Clearly it was something Paul was ashamed of. But here he parades it as one of his credentials!

            Now what is going on here? Well whereas the false teachers were all about triumphalism and victory and glory, Paul knew the NT spoke of something very different. Because whilst there is great joy and victory in following Jesus, yet that is mostly to come in the future. For now, the Christian life is one of following the way of the cross. True Christianity you see is cross shaped. The cross is about suffering and weakness. Victory yes, but only after suffering. And following Jesus is not an easy option. For Jesus said that we are to take up our crosses and follow him. We must walk the path of suffering. And for Paul it led to numerous hardships every day. So the mark of true ministry and the true minister, is not victory and glory every day, but suffering and hardship. And Paul had that in spades. And he knew that if he was going to boast, then the only thing he would boast of were his sufferings and hardships, because they are the marks of authentic ministry.

            Now I want to suggest to you that the 21st century church in this country is a church more infected by triumphalism than the way of the cross. For we as a society are a boastful society. We are success oriented. Right from childhood we learn to achieve success in results. We are always comparing our grades at school. Who got the most GCSE’s, who got the most A levels, what degree did you get, and so it goes on to adult life as well. And we end up comparing ourselves with each other. Whose got the bigger car, the better house, the newer sound system, the latest phone, the bigger salary. I don’t know if you get those rather annoying Christmas letters from well meaning friends, but some we get seem too amazing to be true. So the letter arrives, immaculately typed. And you find that the children are doing amazingly well. The daughter has just done 19 GCSE’s and has got A* in every one. The son whilst holding down a full time job as manager of Barclays at the age of 18 is also doing six A Levels. The dog cleans up after himself and is learning GSCE Japanese. You know the sort of thing! Boasting is actually endemic in our society. And it can translate into the spiritual realm. When I go to minister’s conferences, often one of the first questions people ask is how many people come to the church, how many students are in your student work. And more often than not the smaller the church or the smaller the work, then surely the worse minister you are. Success is seen in terms of numbers and structures. Or how about in our own church life? Are we prepared to talk about the things that haven’t gone so well. We rightly rejoice in the things that are well attended and good, but what about those things that are not so good? Are we willing to admit unsuccessful ventures and weaknesses? The events poorly attended, the missions that failed, the people who fell away? Do we freely admit our personal failings, or are we so worried about being thought less of, that we hide our weaknesses and failures. How about our attitudes to those who seem to be weak and demand much from us? Do we give them the time and care they need, even though we might get little in return?

But Paul says that he will boast of the things that will show his weaknesses! And I wonder if we have not shifted from a cross shaped Christianity to a triumph and success based Christianity. We will happily boast of our successes, but we will not speak openly of the sufferings, the hardships, because we fear we will be seen to be weak and useless. We fear being written off. We fear failure. Not Paul. For he knew that genuine Christian ministry and life was cross shaped.

3) True Christianity is grace empowered (12 vv 1-10)

But we might ask, how then are we to cope? How then are we to endure such ministry and life if it is a life of walking the way of the cross, a life of joy yes, but suffering too. I mean, I’m suffering now, we might say. Is there any encouragement for me? Should I just grin and bear it? Well that brings us to our final point. That true Christianity is grace empowered. And that is what Paul tells us in chapter 12 verses 1-10. Now at first we might think that this section has nothing at all to do with God’s grace in suffering. But the first half of the section sets up the second. Because Paul is continuing his theme of boasting. He moves from boasting about physical sufferings and weaknesses, to spiritual revelations and dreams. Verse 1: “I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.” Now the false teachers boasted of amazing dreams and revelations that they had had, or said to have had. Paul here does the same. But he is so reluctant to do it, that he talks about it in the third person. “I know a man who…” But it becomes clear that it really is him. He wants the Corinthians to see that he has had such things, but he’s not going to boast about it. He doesn’t want them to think more highly of him than is warranted. Which is interesting isn’t because we want people to think more highly of us than we are! So he distances himself from it, whilst still making the point. And not only that but it is rare. It was 14 years ago, and it was intensely private. He cannot talk about the details. But it was something extremely significant to Paul. It seems to have been some amazing vision of heaven itself, and Paul himself isn’t sure whether he went there literally or in some trance. Even for Paul this is private and very rare. And if the Corinthian situation hadn’t arisen, he would have taken this experience with him to the grave. No-one would know about it. But it happened, and verse 6, I am telling the truth, he says.

            But see what happened next, verse 7: “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.” As a direct result of this experience, Paul receives a thorn in a flesh. Notice it’s given to him, by God that is, but it is also used by Satan to torment him. God allows Paul to be afflicted with some problem. Speculation is rife as to what it was- a person, a physical sickness, some have suggested his mother in law, but we simply don’t know. But it’s clear it’s something Paul ends up suffering with for a very long time, perhaps the rest of his life, and it’s something he asked the Lord to remove. But notice God’s answer in  verse 9: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” In other words, God’s answer was no- but I will give you the grace to cope with it each day. So see how Paul reacts. Verse 9: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” It’s an extraordinary attitude isn’t it? He knows that when he is weak, then he is strong, because God is at work in him to help him deal with the weaknesses. So for Jesus’ sake, he delights in weakness, because Jesus’ power is all the more evident in him. And in many ways, this sums up the whole letter. Don’t trust in outward appearances or power. Trust the power of God to sustain you in your weaknesses.

            Now this is both a massive encouragement and a big challenge. It’s a great encouragement, because Jesus promises to us that in our weakness he will give us grace. Whether it be a physical problem, a psychological problem, a spiritual problem, or a relationship issue, whatever weakness you and I have, God promises to give us grace today for today. And it may be that you are thinking, “How on earth can I contribute, how can I serve God in my weakness. I feel utterly useless, I feel so wretched, I feel utterly drained, emotionally, physically, spiritually, mentally.” Well the message of 2 Corinthians is that God specialises in using weak human beings to display his amazing power. His grace is sufficient for you. He has his treasure in jars of clay, the clay jars that are our bodies. That’s why God chose to use a D L Moody to bring many people to Christ, even though he was barely literate. That was why he chose to use a Spurgeon to preach to thousands in London, even though he was often crippled by depression. That is why he has chosen to use Joni Earakson Tada, despite her being a quadriplegic. That is why God can use you and me. For in your weakness, he will display his awesome power. It doesn’t mean we are told why bad things happen to us, or why we are weak, but it does show that in our weakness, then we are strong, for God’s grace and power is at work in us. And if you are suffering in any way this morning, which many of us will be, then take great encouragement. The Lord says to you: “My grace is sufficient for you. I will bring you through. I am with you today. I will supply you with what you need today. And tomorrow, we’ll do the same together. My grace is sufficient for you.”

            But there is also a challenge. And that is to see such weakness as an opportunity for power and strength. Because we are so locked into the world’s categories of success, we believe success and power go together. For Paul, true power is seen in weakness. And we need the courage to see that our weaknesses are not a cause for despair, but for asking God to supply the grace he promises to give to help us in those weakness, so that his power may been seen in our lives. That’s the challenge. It’s to have a totally different perspective on our weakness. Paul delights in weakness and even boasts of it, because “when I am weak, then I am strong.”  And like so many things in the Christian faith, it totally turns the world’s values and thinking upside down.

            So how do you react? The challenge of this chapter is to lay aside triumphalism and see it for the false teaching it is. And there is much triumphalism in the 21st century church. Rather says Paul, follow the way of love, the way of the cross, the way of grace. For true Christianity is love driven, true Christianity is cross shaped, and true Christianity is grace empowered.

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