Getting Serious - 2 Corinthians 12:11 - 13:14
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
If you’ve been following the news this week, then one story will not have escaped your attention. That is the remarkable coming back to life of 57 year old John Darwin. Back in March 2002, Mr Darwin apparently disappeared off the coast of Hartlepool in what looked like a tragic canoeing accident. A huge air and sea rescue was conducted but Mr Darwin was never found, and six months later he was declared formally dead. His wife cashed in his life insurance and it was all thought to be a case of death by misadventure. However, last week, Mr Darwin appeared alive and well at a London Police station, with a lot of questions to answer. At first it seemed to be a mysterious case of long term amnesia, but as the week has gone on, the story has got murkier and murkier. The Mirror published a photo of Mr Darwin apparently very much alive and well with his wife in Panama last year, and the photo has been authenticated by Mrs Darwin. Mrs Darwin seems to realise that the net is closing in as she is reported to have said to journalists this week that her life has been lived "as a lie, constantly looking over my shoulder. I was never totally relaxed: always on edge and knowing the truth could come out at any time." And just this weekend it’s been discovered that Mr Darwin was living in a secret annex next to his wife’s house, whilst going around Hartlepool in a cunning disguise. What was thought to be a remarkable case of back from the dead is turning out to be a nasty case of serious fraud!
Now it has to be said that perhaps some of us might look at Mr and Mrs Darwin with a twinge of jealousy, at least if they had managed to pull it off. Some of us might well have thought about the possibility of changing lives. Leaving everything behind and starting again. And if the apostle Paul had thought that, then you could certainly have forgiven him. Because the Corinthian church was really driving him to distraction. We would not have thought it odd if Paul had left his sandals and cloak by the seashore of the Mediterranean apparently having gone for a swim, when all along he’d started a new quiet life on the coast of the Black Sea. Because as we’ve seen over the last few months, Paul had had real problems with these Corinthians. He founded the church, but false teachers, super apostles as Paul sarcastically called them, had come in and taken over. Paul was pushed to one side as a weak, pathetic man, and these outwardly impressive men had taken over. But Paul will not give up this church without a fight. Not out of personal pique or personal pride, but because he knows that if they reject him as their pastor, then they are rejecting Christ. And over the last few weeks, we have seen that Paul has had to fight the false teachers on their terms, in order to show the Corinthians what is really going on. He’s been forced to boast like the false teachers did, boasting of their credentials and amazing deeds. But whilst Paul has boasted, yet he has boasted of other things. He’s boasted of his sufferings, his pain, his weaknesses, his thorn in the flesh. Those are the marks of an authentic minister following the way of Jesus.
But now Paul is coming to the end of his letter and he tells the Corinthians that he is about to make a visit to the church. This will be his third visit, and he wants it to be a success for both parties sake. And the big question will be whether this church has taken on board all that Paul has been saying, or will they continue in their stupidity by following these false teachers. So as Paul comes to the end of the letter, he gives his readers some final challenges and warnings. He shows them for a final time how he conducts himself. For one last time he will defend himself against slanderous accusations. And then he will apply those same criteria to the church, and ask if they, the Corinthians, are living by those standards too. Because the standards of the world and the standards of the Lord Jesus are very different. And if we wish to be true authentic Christians, then we need to examine ourselves and make sure we are walking the ways of Jesus and not the world. So Paul talks about:
So first of all Paul talks about the standards we must live by in chapter 12 vv 11-21. And in this section, Paul reminds the Corinthians for one final time of his conduct amongst them. And we’ll see that his ministry is marked by three standards, standards we’ve seen all the way through 2 Corinthians, standards you and I need to take on board and live by.
First there’s the truth standard in verses 11-12. Let’s see what Paul says in verse 11: "I have made a fool of myself, but you drove me to it. I ought to have been commended by you, for I am not in the least inferior to the "super-apostles," even though I am nothing." Now as we’ve seen Paul has had to sink to the standards of the false teachers, at least temporarily. He had to resort to boasting of his credentials to show the Corinthians that he was a true apostle. But the fact is he is a true apostle. They ought to have been commending him. Paul is in no way inferior to those false teachers, even though he recognises that he is just a sinner saved by grace. In Paul’s words he is nothing. But at the same time, he is an authentic apostle, and he shows it in verse 12: "The things that mark an apostle—signs, wonders and miracles—were done among you with great perseverance." You want signs and wonders, says Paul, miracles and healings, well I did them among you. I have the right credentials, he says. And all the way through the letter that has been his claim. He’s put forward a number of different criteria for the truthfulness of his apostleship, his teaching, his lifestyle, his authority, all of which point to the fact that he, and not the false apostles, is the true apostle. And here is another one. He does signs and wonders. Now it’s interesting that he doesn’t actually say that he did them. Rather they "were done" among you, he says, almost as if Paul is making the point that he is a mere servant of Jesus through whom the Lord works. He can’t even boast of things he really has done, so humble and against boasting is he! But there is no doubt as to his apostleship. He’s the real deal. So see how he puts it in verse 8 of chapter 13: "For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth." Paul lives and proclaims the truth, and he is the real apostle.
Now why is all of this important. Well very simply because the truth matters. You see if these Corinthians follow a false apostle, then he will lead them away from Christ and not too Christ. That is to hell and not to heaven. That’s how serious it is. Imagine for a moment that someone fills up my jug of water here in the pulpit but unbeknown to me, they fill it with hydrochloric acid. And so I take a huge swig thinking it’s water. It looks like water and it’s in the water jug. But it’s not true. It’s false. It’s a lie. And the consequences are very serious, no doubt fatal. Sometimes in life the difference between the truth and a lie is a matter of life and death. And in the spiritual realm, it’s also a matter of life and death, but this time eternal life and death. You see falsehood is not a matter of opinion. It’s not a topic for polite discussion. Falsehood needs to be got rid of and opposed. We should be unashamed about the truth contained in the Bible. Because people will die through false teaching, not just physically but spiritually too. And people will live through true teaching. That’s why Paul was so keen to promote his true colours as an apostle. Not through personal pride, but because he knew that the truth saved people. We act for the truth, he says. That’s the first standard Paul and we must live by.
- But then secondly Paul shows he lives by the love standard. Because as he has done throughout the letter, he once again shows his true heart in these verses. And that is a heart of love. And how has he shown his heart of love? He has refused to be a burden on this Corinthian church. Verse 13: "How were you inferior to the other churches, except that I was never a burden to you? Forgive me this wrong!" It’s possible the false teachers were telling the Corinthians that they were an inferior church with Paul as their pastor. After he didn’t even charge for his ministry, something that travelling preachers often did. It was a mark of authenticity in Paul’s day. The more you pay, the better the teacher will be. But Paul refused to do that. We saw it in chapter 11. He refused to burden the church by asking them for money. So Paul sarcastically says: "Forgive me this wrong!" How foolish of me, he says! I should have squeezed you dry of every penny. How daft I was! No, says Paul, I would never do such a thing. I didn’t do it in my previous visits, and I’m not going to do it again, verses 14-15: "Now I am ready to visit you for the third time, and I will not be a burden to you, because what I want is not your possessions but you. After all, children should not have to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. So I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well. If I love you more, will you love me less?" Paul gives his own illustration. A child doesn’t pay for his parents, so I won’t demand payment from you, he says. Paul was the Corinthians’ spiritual father, and there was no way he was going to bleed this young church dry, his spiritual children, for his own gain.
Just imagine that this week I sit my son Matthew down, and say to him, "Now son, quite frankly we’ve been paying for you long enough. It’s been nine months now and you’re bleeding us dry! All those nappies, all that food, all that kit! Just to look after you. Quite frankly it’s about time you started pulling your weight! You’ve got to pay for us now!" What do you think Matthew would do? Well apart from biting me, not much. But what kind of parent would I be? No a parent takes care of his children. And so Paul applies that spiritually. He won’t make demands of his spiritual children. Now it’s not a blanket principle. Children do support their parents in old age, and spiritually speaking Paul was supported by some of the churches he founded. But in this case, he will not suck this young church dry and preach the gospel whilst asking them for a fee. And nor has he used any of his colleagues in verses 16-17 to exploit this church. No they are above board too.
Can you see the standards Paul sets himself? He is acting as a loving parent. And pastoral ministry is in many ways a parental ministry. I wonder if those of us with any sort of pastoral ministry in the church realise that. Whether we look after children, or young people or students or adults. Is this our standard? Genuine love for others, as a father for a son. I love you, says Paul. Could we say the same of those in our care. Or are we out to get what we can out of people, however cleverly we conceal on motives? Perhaps the buzz of responsibility, the pride of having people look up to us, the glory in seeing people do what we want. That’s not Biblical ministry. That’s the makings of a false ministry. Paul though applies the love standard. He was a father to those in his care.
And then finally in this section, Paul applies the behaviour standard to his own ministry. Verse 19: "Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? We have been speaking in the sight of God as those in Christ; and everything we do, dear friends, is for your strengthening." How does Paul go about his ministry? It’s a ministry of strengthening. Everything he does is for his people’s benefit. He’s certainly not been out to defend himself in the Corinthians’ terms. He has defended himself, but in gospel terms, not as the false teachers would do. For he recognises that he speaks in the sight of Christ. He answers to Jesus. And his whole behaviour is geared to that truth. That he is a minister of Jesus Christ and he lives and acts by the standards of Jesus and not the world.
Now if we take a step back, then we can see that really the whole letter has been Paul’s way of showing what authentic Christian ministry s about. What kind of ministers ought a church to have? What kind of ministry is true Biblical ministry? It should be a ministry of truth, love and godly behaviour. If we are engaged in ministry then we need to be men and women of commitment to the truth whatever the cost; of genuine love, whatever the pain, and for Paul there was much pain as we have seen; a ministry marked by godly behaviour, and Paul’s motives and behaviour could not be challenged, even though people tried hard. That’s the sort of ministry a church needs, and it’s the sort of ministry those of us who do it should long to be.
But sadly it is not always the case. I want to mention to you one case, not to gloat, but to show us the dangers involved in ministry. To show us that barring the grace of God and godly personal accountability, we could be in this position. It concerns a man called pastor Douglas Goodman who a few years ago was convicted of four counts of sexual assault on young woman in his congregation. His church, the Victory Chapel in North London, attracted thousands. His lifestyle was lavish with a £1.3 million pound home and fours cars, including a BMW, Porsche and two Mercedes. He was also investigated for financial irregularities. In many ways his congregation loved him. They would regularly give him gifts and presents, and they crowed him and his wife the King and Queen. But sadly amid all the gloss it was a deceptive ministry. The truth standard was not applied. What is his message? If you give a sum of money you can buy miracles, and you can be free from financial pressure and enjoy prosperity and God’s blessing. Did he love people? Well maybe he did, but some he exploited and abused. What about the behaviour standard? Well clearly his behaviour was nothing to do with the Lord Jesus Christ. He tore down, not built up. Now I tell you that story not to gloat over another man’s sin, but rather to highlight the fact that false teaching and false living is alive and well in England, and but for the grace of God go we. We as a church and as ministers need to be careful to apply these three standards to our lives and ministries. The truth standard- are we proclaiming the truth of the gospel. The love standard- are we loving people as a father for his children. The behaviour standard- are we living the gospel as those who speak in the sight of Jesus. Please pray that those standards would be ours. Pray for the protection of this church. For those are the standards we are to live by.
But if Paul has spent half this passage reminding the Corinthians and us of the standards he lives by, now he puts before us the questions we must ask. Because he turns the finger from himself to us and he will use the same standards that he applies to himself and he will ask us some penetrating questions, though in a slightly different order! And what is interesting about chapter 13 is that the theme of examination or testing is the key theme which runs all the way through the passage. 6 times in this short chapter, the theme of testing comes out. And so Paul is asking us to test ourselves as to the authenticity of our faith and Christian life.
His first question is the truth question. Are we standing in the faith? See what Paul says in verse 5: "Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you- unless, of course, you fail the test?" What Paul is urging the Corinthians to do is a bit of humble self examination. It’s not a question of doubting our faith or making sure we’ve done everything we should have in case we’ve missed something and are not Christians. That’s paranoia! And of course we are Christians only by God’s grace. Rather it’s a humble self examination which asks ourselves if we are still walking with the Lord. Are we still trusting his grace day by day? Are we still reading his word, basing our lives on the solid foundation of the Bible? Are we still trusting the grace of God, or have we slipped into a works mentality whereby we are trusting our performance rather than what God has done for us in Jesus? And Paul is confident the Corinthians will pass the test. "Do you not realise Christ Jesus is in you, unless of course you fail the test," which he seems to doubt. His point is that if Christ is in them, then they should behave appropriately. And of course another more subtle point is that if they are Christians, if they are the real deal, that that can only mean one thing. That the person who brought them the real gospel must be a real Christian minister himself. That is Paul. If they are Christians through his ministry, then he must be a real true apostle, otherwise they couldn’t have become Christians! So verse 6: "And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test."
Now it has to be said that such self examination is not really the done thing in Christian circles today. But often in the NT we are warned of the dangers of pride and the need for humble self examination. It’s not that we doubt our faith, simply that we are so concerned for our own spiritual health that every so often we pause to ask ourselves the big questions. It’s a bit like having an MOT for the car. In theory the MOT, if the car passes, helps us to avoid having an accident or mechanical breakdown. It will root out serious problems and malfunctions. So a spiritual MOT will help us to avoid a spiritual breakdown or accident. So why not resolve this week to take time out of our busy lives to take stock of our spiritual lives. Are you still reading the word and praying? Are you striving to be holy. We need to ask ourselves those questions for our own spiritual good. Test yourselves, says Paul. That’s the truth question.
But the second question Paul asks is the behaviour question. Or to be put it another way, are we battling with sin? And it has to be said that Paul is not confident that they can answer this question. Because at the end of chapter 12 in verse 20 he says that he’s worried that when he comes to Corinth, he will find the same old problems that he found last time. "For I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be, and you may not find me as you want me to be. I fear that there may be quarrelling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder. I am afraid that when I come again my God will humble me before you, and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged." And so when he comes, he fears he will have to impart more discipline. Chapter 13 v 2: "I already gave you a warning when I was with you the second time. I now repeat it while absent: On my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others, since you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me." Paul will act to bring these sins to an end. Sin cannot be tolerated within a church. And that is what he means in verses 3-4. They thought Paul was weak, and yet he will act in power, with the rod of discipline if necessary, just as Jesus was crucified in weakness, yet now reigns in power through his resurrection. That power will be seen as Paul exercises discipline in the Corinthian church if they do not change. And that’s why they need to examine themselves. Get rid of you sin he’s saying. Be ruthless with sin. So Paul prays in verse 7 that they will not do anything wrong. And in verses 9-10 he reveals his loving motives behind his tough discipline: "We are glad whenever we are weak but you are strong; and our prayer is for your perfection. This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority- the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down."
You see in short he wants them to keep battling with sin, to be ruthless with sin, to get rid of it, both from their personal lives and from their corporate life. And like the Corinthians it’s a question you and I need to face up to as well. You see sin is like a weed in the Christian’s heart. A few years ago, I bumped into an old friend at a wedding who was an expert in Japanese Knotweed, which you might know is one of the nastiest weeds in the British Isles. It’s not a native weed, as the name suggests, but it is extremely strong and hard to get rid of. It can go through concrete and it’s roots go down very deep. You need to be totally ruthless and get it early if you are to have any hope of killing it. It needs strong weed killer and ruthless efficiency, otherwise it will spread and then there is virtually nothing you can do to kill it. Well it’s the same with sin. It is a weed in the Christian’s life. Yes, the penalty of sin has been paid. We are forgiven through the cross of Christ, but we need with the strength of the Holy Spirit to put to death our sin. To be ruthless with it. And the trouble is we love our sin too much. We think the weed looks rather pretty in the garden of our hearts. We end up cherishing it and watering it. But if we are to pray Paul’s prayer for our own perfection, that is praying to grow in holiness not literal perfection which cannot be achieved in this life, then we need to be serious about our sin. We need to ask ourselves if there is certain sin in our lives which we are clinging onto. We know it’s wrong, we know it’s a dangerous weed, but we’re reluctant to do anything about it. Battle against it. Don’t let it get a foothold. Root it out and keep applying the weed killer. Keep asking God to help you battle. Otherwise the weed will take over.
But there’s one final question Paul asks us briefly and that is the love question. Are we loving each other? And that is the final challenge he ends the letter with in verses 11-13: "Finally, brothers, good-bye. Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints send their greetings." Now often such verses are skipped over at the end of Paul’s letters but they reveal certain priorities Paul has for the church to which he’s writing. And these verses show how much Paul believes that love in a church fellowship is of vital importance. Be of one mind, he says, live in peace. It’s not that we are all to agree on everything. But on the essentials unity, loving commitment to one another. Just as Paul showed his love for the church is so many ways, so the Corinthians and us are to show genuine love for each other. That’s the way to stop infighting and rivalry in the church of which there was plenty in Corinth. We serve a God of love and peace, and those qualities are to mark his children too.
And if we worried about whether we can keep up all that Paul has said in 2 Corinthians, then the final verse, which we have come to know as the grace, is actually a fantastic summary of all he has taught. It’s about the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. We become Christians only through the grace of Jesus and we keep walking by his grace. It’s about the love of God. His love empowers us day by day and growing in that love will keep us on the path of authentic Christian ministry and service. And the fellowship of the Holy Spirit? That’s the joy of being God’s people together. The Holy Spirit brings people together, which in itself is a remarkable miracle. And we need each other to help us press on to the end. And with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit at work in us day by day, then we will be able to keep standing in the faith, to keep battling with sin, and to keep loving one another.
c) The Love Question-
b) The Behaviour Question-
a) The Truth Question-
2) The Questions we must ask (13 vv 1-14)
c) The Behaviour Standard (Vv 19-21)-
b) The Love Standard (Vv 13-18)
a) The Truth Standard (Vv 11-12)-
1) The Standards we must live by (12 vv 11-21)
2) The Questions we must ask (13 vv 1-14)
1) The Standards we must live by (12 vv 11-21)
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