Pastoral Passion - 2 Corinthians 11:1-15
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Ebbsfleet United is not a football club you will have perhaps heard, at least until this week. They are not part of the European footballing glitterati like Liverpool, Real Madrid or AC Milan. But this week, Ebbsfleet United hit the headlines and made history. Why? Because they became the first club to be owned and completely run by a very large committee. Over the last few months 20,000 people have signed up to a website and paid £35 each, which has enabled them to put £700,000 into buying out a football club. They went for Ebbsfleet United, and now those 20,000 people have a 51% controlling stake in the club. And that means not only control over the club’s finances but even the power to select the team through an online poll, something that has never happened before. Understandably there has been a mixed response, and some in the club are no doubt fearing as to what might happen. The present manager Liam Daish had this to say: “As the coach, I look forward to the challenge of working with thousands of members to produce a winning team.” Cautious at the very least isn’t he? It all goes to show that takeovers, when they happen, can have significant impact on those who are being taken over. There is a new way of doing things, a new attitude, and often it means the old guard are swept aside as the new comes in.
Well if you’ve been following our series in 2 Corinthians these last few months, you’ll know that there has been a takeover in the church in Corinth. Paul himself had set up the church, but new leaders have come in and pushed Paul aside. Like Ebbsfleet United there has been a radical change of management, and these new leaders it seems have a controlling hand on what happens in that church. These new teachers are very impressive and the Corinthians seem to like them. They are impressive speakers, they come with all the right credentials, they claim to be able to do miracles and have amazing visions of heaven. They are the ancient equivalent of the Armani suited, white teethed preachers of today. Smooth talking and causing people spiritually speaking, if not literally, to swoon before them. And the Corinthians have fallen for them. Paul on the other hand is a right off, at least in the new teachers’ minds. He’s very weak, a little pathetic if truth be known. He’s always in and out of prison, spending a lot of his time in the hands of the Roman or Jewish authorities. He’s not got the right education and so can’t talk proper, unlike these men. He’s just not the sort of pastor you want, say the new leaders to the Corinthians.
But Paul knows that to lose him as their pastor, is to drift from the gospel. He is Christ’s apostle to the Gentiles, and to choose other leadership is dangerous in the extreme, especially if they are actually false teachers. And in this final section of the letter, chapters 10-13, Paul takes the false leaders apart. He shows them up for what they are, and reveals their true colours, and in doing so, Paul also reveals his own true heart. He began to do that as we saw last week in chapter 10. He showed how he models himself on the ministry of Jesus. His methods are preaching and prayer and his motivation is the gospel. Whereas the false teachers ride roughshod over people. Their methods look spectacular but are fraudulent, and their motivation is money and fame.
But in chapters 11-12, Paul does something a little different. Notice what he says in verse 1 of our chapter. “I hope you will put up with a little of my foolishness; but you are already doing that.” Paul says here that he is going to act like a fool. You see in order to awaken the Corinthians from their spiritual slumber Paul feels he must fight the false teachers on their terms. He’s got to lower his standards just for a little, to engage in foolishness, as Paul calls it. That means boasting of his credentials. The false teachers parade theirs, he says, so I’m going to parade mine. I’m going to play the fool like them, he says, just to make the point so you can see I’m the real apostle and they are the frauds, not the other way around. So see what he says in 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.” It’s possible the false teachers were painting Paul as an idiot, so he says, let me behave like one. Now of course he is not comfortable doing this. He’s already said how foolish it is to boast in the world’s terms in chapter 10. But he feels this is the only way to win them round. Maybe he has in mind Proverbs 26 v 5: “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” Sometimes the only option is to act in a way which shows up a person’s folly, even if it means risking playing the fool yourself. So passionate is he about the Corinthians that he feels he must do almost anything to point out their foolishness in following the false teachers and convince them he is the real deal. So in our passage, he sets up his argument by showing the church what kind of pastor he is. What right does he have to talk to them like this? Well there are three reasons which reveal Paul’s genuine heart and concern for this congregation as he seeks to wean them off the false teachers. And Paul says that he is marked by:
1) Godly Jealousy (Vv 1-6)
2) Godly Generosity (Vv 7-12)
3) Godly Discernment (Vv 13-15)
1) Godly Jealousy (Vv 1-6)
So first Paul says he is marked by godly jealousy in verses 1-6. Let’s read from verse 1: “I hope you will put up with a little of my foolishness; but you are already doing that. I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.” Now chapters 11 and 12 are chapters that are full of mild, and sometimes biting, sarcasm from the apostle Paul. It’s said that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but sometimes to prove the folly of your opponent you need to use it. So Paul says, “Don’t mind do you if I engage in a little folly? You’ll put up with my stupidity won’t you? After all, you’re doing it already.” In other words, you consider me a fool anyway, so let me play the fool! But why play the fool, Paul? Why not let it lie? After all the Corinthians got themselves into this mess. They should get themselves out of it! Well, no says Paul. Because verse 2: “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.” Paul sees himself as the father of the bride. Ignore all thoughts of Steve Martin- this is something quite different! As the father of the bride, he reared his daughter, the Corinthian church, he started this church. And he is looking forward to presenting her to Jesus Christ on the day when he returns. And that day will be like a marriage. So Paul is concerned that his spiritual daughter keeps her virginity intact for her husband to be, the Lord Jesus Christ. He doesn’t want her to sleep around spiritually speaking. And for that reason he is jealous with a godly jealousy. Now we immediately think that something is wrong when someone is jealous. But it is not always the case. A husband can be rightly jealous if his wife is playing the field. And God uses the same language in the OT as he says he is rightly jealous of his people playing the field spiritually. They go after other gods, and God is rightly jealous. God’s people is his young bride. How dare she flirt with other men. So here. Paul, as the bride-to-be’s father, is outraged that this church is flirting with other suitors, leaders who just want to take advantage of the church.
Just so we get Paul’s illustration, let’s think a bit more about what that would mean. Imagine a father being told by his daughter that she has got engaged. Well he is delighted. The young man in question is everything a father would want for his daughter. After all, no-one is ever quite good enough for your daughter are they? But this man fits the bill as much any man can. He’s kind and caring, he’s godly, he has a good job and he’s responsible. And he obviously loves the girl in question. So the marriage preparations get underway and the father is looking forward to that great day when he will give his beautiful virgin daughter in marriage to her handsome fiancé. But a few months down the track, as the wedding preparations are in full swing, disaster strikes. The father discovers that his daughter is seeing someone else. And not only is that bad enough, but she’s moved in with him, and given everything to him, including her virginity. And to cap it all, the father knows this man is a charlatan. He’s a crook and a con artist. He’ll just use her for sex, money and anything else he can. And the father is outraged and incredibly jealous and protective of his daughter. He wants the situation to end and will do all in his power to rescue his daughter from ruining her life.
Now if you can understand the pain that that father would be feeling, his godly jealousy, his moral outrage and his deep love for his daughter, then you can understand how Paul feels about his daughter, the church in Corinth, whom he had pledged to Christ. Because they are mucking around with a dodgy lover, someone who is just using them for their own gain, a charlatan. So see what Paul says in verses 3-4: “But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent's cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.” Do you see what these teachers are like? They are preaching another gospel, another Jesus, another Spirit, and the church puts up with it easily enough. She’s run off with a scoundrel! You’re like Eve, says Paul, who in the garden of Eden fell for the devil’s schemes. She was duped by his clever lies. Her mind was deceived. And so the church has been led astray by these Satanic messengers. Now we don’t know exactly what they are teaching, but Paul makes it clear it was a different gospel. The problem was that these characters probably didn’t say anything that sounded too different from Paul. They may have spoken of the gospel. They might have talked about Jesus. They would have spoken of the Spirit. But it’s a different Jesus they present. Their Jesus was all victory and triumph, freedom from sin now and glory glory all the way to heaven, no more illness, and pain. And the advocates of this Jesus are very attractive with their smooth tongues and flattery and fine CV’s. They don’t have weaknesses it seems. But they are Satanic false teachers. Their Jesus is not the Jesus of the NT, the Jesus of the cross, of suffering, of weakness. The ministers of that NT Jesus suffer and are weak. But in verse 5, as Paul bitingly refers to his opponents as “super apostles”, apparently almost super human in their strength and gifts, he says he is no way inferior. He might not have their education, but he has got knowledge. He knows the real Jesus. He’s the real apostle.
Now I think there are two lessons here which I want us briefly to ponder. The first lesson is one we might think is irrelevant. And that is to beware of such leaders in our church. Now you might think such wariness is redundant. Surely we would never be taken in would in? We’d never fall for this? But the Corinthians weren’t stupid. Some of them were very intelligent, they were all very gifted, according to Paul in his first letter. But they were duped. And many Christians are taken in by leaders offering more than the NT gospel offers in this world. A better life materially, an easier ride, a promise of healing, financial security. All if you take these men’s word seriously. And often if you give to their ministries. Sometimes it’s blatant, but at times it’s far more subtle. The serpent did not come to Eve and say, “Disobey God’s word! Go on sin!” He subtly distorted the word of God and she was taken in. And all it takes is a slight twist to change the message and make it more palatable and we’re taken in. Often it’s when we’re having a tough time and we want some comfort. We’re tempted to take the first thing that comes to us which promises an easier life. And if you think I am being over sensitive in raising this as something to think about, then why is that millions follow such false teachers. How come a gifted large church like Corinth were taken in? Because they are human like you and me. And sometimes, perhaps after years of pressure and stress, we just want something easier, something which soothes our pain, something to stroke our egos. Well the authentic gospel brings much comfort, but it also makes clear the pathway to glory is the way of suffering. So don’t sleep around spiritually speaking. Stick with the real Jesus.
But there’s a second application briefly before we move on. Because as someone who has pastoral oversight for others, I need to ask myself if I have Paul’s godly jealousy for those in my care. Do I love people with such passion that I will do everything in my power to teach them faithfully and to wean people off false teaching. Do I have Paul’s passion, his fatherly heart for the flock in his care? Do you, if you have responsibility in the church, whether it be for children, or young people, or students or adults? Because one of the marks of a true godly leader is love. And with Paul such love was revealed in his godly jealousy.
2) Godly Generosity (Vv 7-12)
But Paul hasn’t finished yet. He reveals a second mark of godly leadership, and that is his godly generosity. So have a look at what Paul says in verse 7: “Was it a sin for me to lower myself in order to elevate you by preaching the gospel of God to you free of charge?” Now the background to this statement needs a little unpacking. You see in the ancient world, travelling preachers often survived by charging people for their teaching. Teachers of philosophy for example would travel around and the better a teacher you were and the more famous you were, then the more you charged. And people were very happy with that. It seemed sensible. It still happens today. If you get a famous celebrity, then you have to pay. You might remember Cheriegate a few years ago, when there was a furore surrounding Cherie Blair’s expenses for public speaking. If we wanted to get Bill Clinton to speak at Time Out, then it would probably cost us between £25,000 and £160,000. I guess that’s a little beyond our budget. But translate that into the right Christian speaker for the right price and it gets very ugly very quickly. And these false teachers, it seems, were charging for their teaching. They were living off the Corinthian congregation. And they were probably saying something like this about Paul: “You know that Paul character. He doesn’t even charge for his teaching. What a cheap skate. I mean it’s so bad, so ineffective that he hasn’t even got the courage to charge for it. That’s how bad it is! It’s not even worth paying for! He’s not a true apostle!” And it appears that the Corinthians have fallen for those slurs.
So look again at how Paul defends himself in verse 7: “Was it a sin for me to lower myself in order to elevate you by preaching the gospel of God to you free of charge?” Again Paul uses biting sarcasm to make his point. Did he commit a sin by offering to the Corinthians the glorious gospel of God to them free of charge, a message which lifted them up out of the spiritual idolatry and pointless lives? Was that a sin to do that? No of course not, is the implication. Quite simply Paul did not charge because it was contrary to the message. It is a fundamental inconsistency to offer the free grace of the gospel and then charge for it. It’s illogical. The method undermines the message. So Paul’s view was, ‘if I’m offering the grace of God, then I’m not going to charge my hearers for it. It’s free in every sense of the word.’ So Paul would think it batty at an evangelistic meeting to pass round a collection plate. It would be odd in the extreme. Because you cannot resist the temptation to think that the person speaking is asking you for money having just preached the gospel of grace to you.
So how did Paul survive? Well he explains how in verses 8 and following: “I robbed other churches by receiving support from them so as to serve you. And when I was with you and needed something, I was not a burden to anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied what I needed. I have kept myself from being a burden to you in any way, and will continue to do so.” Again he’s using sarcasm. Of course he didn’t literally rob other churches, but these churches supported Paul in his missionary work. He’s wanting the Corinthians to see how far Paul and others are willing to go to support the Corinthian mission. The irony here is that it is the Macedonian churches which supported Paul in his work, and he’s already told us in chapter 8 that they are very hard up. So here are poor struggling churches supporting Paul financially to serve a rich, multi gifted congregation in wealthy Corinth. But Paul refuses to be a burden to those he preaches to. Sometimes he even works to pay his way. So during the night he made tents, and during the day he talked and preached. But Paul will not burden the people he wants to win for Christ with his upkeep. And notice that Paul is not against ministers being supported financially. Elsewhere in Paul’s letters we read that it’s fine for ministers to be supported and given money so they can serve. But Paul’s point here is that whilst the false teachers bleed the congregation dry, he won’t ask them for a penny.
But of course that might mean he wants to use his generosity as emotional blackmail later. I served you free of charge before, but now you better support me, after all I brought you the gospel. Is that Paul’s attitude? He doesn’t really love you Corinthians, said the false teachers. He’s out to nail you later by emotional blackmail. See how he answers that charge in verse 10-12: “As surely as the truth of Christ is in me, nobody in the regions of Achaia will stop this boasting of mine. Why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do! And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about.” Of course I love you, he says. And there is no way he’s going to change his policy. There is no way he’s going to start asking for payment, because that would be to stoop to the level of the false teachers.
Now sadly history is scattered with examples of leaders bleeding their people dry. For example, the 'Palace of the People' in Bucharest is the third largest building in the world, built by the former Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. Ceausescu was so enamoured by his own greatness that he built this extraordinary monument to his own ego. While the palace was built over the ruins of many houses and churches the people starved. The building is colossal: there are over 1000 halls, a subterranean nuclear bunker, an underground car park that could accommodate Buckingham Palace, rooms are decorated in gold leaf and marble, and there are over 4,500 chandeliers. All of it constructed to Ceausescu’s exacting standards. Indeed, one of the staircases was rebuilt three times because Ceausescu was unhappy with it. On the front of the building there is a huge balcony that looks down a spectacular boulevard modelled on the Champs Elysees (although it's a metre wider than the Champs Elysees). However, in one of those delicious ironies of history, Ceausescu himself never used the balcony of his palace. He was ousted before it was finished. In fact, only one person has ever used the balcony: the pop star, Michael Jackson, who rather unfortunately greeted the people of Bucharest with the words, "Hello, Budapest!"
But sadly such abuse of people can happen in the church too, which is why we need to be so careful with money. Financial irregularities have ruined many a church and many a pastor. Certainly those of us who are supported financially to do the work of the gospel must be above board in this area and seen to be above board. Our tax affairs need to be in order, our hands clean from any whiff of peddling the gospel for money. Please do pray specifically against a love of money for those in the church who are supported in this way. But there is surely a further lesson for us as a church. You see there is a sharp contrast here between how the Corinthians reacted to money and how the Macedonian churches who supported Paul reacted to money. To the Corinthians, they would only be impressed if the preacher was up the mark, if he spoke in the right way, if he had the credentials, in short if he came up to scratch with the standards of the world. And money was a big part of that. They judged things from a worldly point of view. True success for them was seen partly in financial terms. They wanted the best speakers, and they were willing to pay for it, regardless of what message they were preaching. And too often in our generation, churches go for spin over substance. If it looks good it must be good. If the presentation is slick it must be right. Not so says Paul. Let us not become a church where spin gets more of a look in than substance. Because that’s what the Corinthians loved. And it was in sharp contrast to the Macedonians. They put substance before spin. They put their money where their mouth was. They supported good gospel work even though it was very costly, both financially and spiritually as they supported the apostle Paul. But of course it all depends on what you really want. Authentic gospel ministry is costly in many respects. Will be committed to that, supporting it prayerfully, financially, with our encouragement and presence? False ministry looks so impressive but will bleed you dry in many respects. It creates churches which are shallow spiritually and people taken for granted. So what do you want? The real gospel or a false one. Because one of the marks of a true ministry, both in preacher and hearer alike, is a godly generosity.
3) Godly Discernment (Vv 13-15)
But briefly as we finish, Paul highlights a third mark of his ministry, and that is a godly discernment. And now the gloves really come off. See what Paul says in verses 14-15: “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.” You see says Paul, let me be blunt. Let’s call a spade a spade. These false teachers are not just men who hold a different opinion. They are not people with whom we agree to disagree. They are satanic in origin. Men yes, but messengers of Satan. They may look like ministers of the gospel, they may even speak abut Jesus and the gospel and the Spirit. They might be lovely and nice, but they are false apostles, deceitful workmen, servants of Satan. For Satan himself often puts on angel’s clothes in order to deceive people. At the end of the day false teaching is nothing more than Satanic. All false teaching is demonic. Because it leads people away from Jesus, and ends in hell. So Paul removes the mask and shows what is really going on. And it would have been deeply shocking for those Corinthians humble enough to hear Paul’s words.
And the temptation for us in this multi-cultural politically correct world is to um and ar and to hesitate to say what is really going on. Paul does not. He shows up false teaching for what it is. Evil, demonic satanic deception. And we as a church and individuals need great wisdom to see falsehood for what it is. Of course that is not to say that we arrogantly dismiss everyone we disagree with as demonic false teachers. And nor are passages like this an excuse for lack of grace in dealing with people. But it does remind us that there are lines which must not be crossed. Behind falsehood lies the great liar himself. And what a teacher sounds like or looks like or whatever credentials and reputation they come with, is no guarantee of truth. It’s about their message. There is where truth or falsehood lies. Don’t be duped. Keep your Bible and your ears and your mind open. Don’t be fooled. Like Paul, be someone who is marked by godly discernment.
You see it is vital to spot truth from error in every walk of life, but particularly in the spiritual realm, because so much is at stake. And in many ways this passage is a disturbing passage. But Paul has shown us what to look for in an authentic minister, indeed in any authentic ministry. And we need to ask how we compare. For if we are on the side of truth, then we will marked by godly jealousy, godly generosity and godly discernment.
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