2 Corinthians 12:11-21 “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. The things that mark an apostle – signs, wonders and miracles – were done among you with great perseverance. How were you inferior to the other churches, except that I was never a burden to you? Forgive me this wrong! 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? Be that as it may, I have not been a burden to you. Yet, crafty fellow that I am, I caught you by trickery! Did I exploit you through any of the men I sent you? I urged Titus to go to you and I sent our brother with him. Titus did not exploit you, did he? Did we not act in the same spirit and follow the same course? 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. 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 quarreling, 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.”
It is common to categorize churches and describe them as dead or lively, formal or informal, traditional or contemporary, growing or declining, and men can put all kinds of labels on congregations. The Church Growth Movement has its own varied categories including one which seems to fit ours very well, the ‘awkward sized church.’ The New Testament takes a very different approach. It calls this congregation in Greece, “The church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ – their Lord and ours” (I Co. 1:2). That is the biblical estimate of a gospel congregation. Because this church had many problems that does not mean we are permitted to belittle it sticking some demeaning label on it. It was a true church of God. There are no super-churches and no super-ministers. There are pastors teaching according to their light and power congregations of mere Christians who are the body of Christ, and then there are others which are inferior.
Maybe that is the pattern you get in the New Testament, not of the hyper-church, but the local congregation which is the pillar and ground of the truth, the house and temple of the living God, the fellowship of the Spirit, the mountain of the Lord, and the bride of Christ, and then there are those congregations which are in certain ways inferior. The Galatian church was inferior because it was departing from the gospel. The Ephesian congregation was inferior because it had forsaken its first love (Rev. 2:4). The Thyatira church was inferior because it tolerated that woman Jezebel (Rev. 2:20). The Sardis church was inferior because it had a reputation for being alive but was dead (Rev. 3:1). The Laodicean church was inferior because it was lukewarm, wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked (Rev. 3:17) This concern, that a church may become inferior, is evident in our text. Paul addresses the congregation and he asks them, “How were you inferior to the other churches?” (v.13). Paul was evidently confident that the Corinthians were not at all inferior, but he reckons on the possibility of any and every church declining in one way or another. Today we want to ask the question what is it that turns the people of God into an inferior church. The first answer is very brief, but quite unexpected:
1. PRETENTIOUSNESS IN THE LEADERS CREATES AN INFERIOR CHURCH.
Remember the little theme running through these chapters, Paul’s consciousness that he is speaking like a fool. He says, “I hope you will put up with a little of my foolishness” (11:1), “I repeat: Let no one take me for a fool” (11:16), “What anyone else dares to boast about – I am speaking as a fool” (11:21), and finally in our text he says “I have made a fool of myself, but you drove me to it” (v.11). You know that the apostle wasn’t dressing up and behaving like a court jester. He wasn’t fooling around entertaining goats. What was he doing? He was conscious that his own converts were not speaking up for him to his critics as they should have been. Those super-apostles were boasting of all their wonderful experiences and insights, while Paul’s disciples were mute, and the apostle had been forced onto the back foot. He has to defend his own reputation and apostleship. He has to remind the church of all that he has endured as an apostle, and also of the visions and revelations he has experienced, and that becomes perilously near boasting. He will defend himself, but he will do it this way, by poking fun at himself for this approach, telling them how he has become such a fool for taking this stance, “but you drove me to it,” he protests (v.11)
Paul doesn’t get angry with his fence-sitting Christian supporters for being wimps. He doesn’t wallow in self-pity. He doesn’t put his nose in the air and say, “My reputation is such that I won’t even dignify your criticisms with a reply.” He will not turn a deaf ear to the complaints. Al Martin says, “Many a minister has insulated himself from any kind of criticism and he wants it that way. That is nothing but hellish pride! ‘I’m the Reverend!’ Who cares that you’re the Reverend, if you are not edifying your people because of a pompous aloofness; because of an academic stiffness; because of a pedantic manner? It’s like six elephants walking through quicksands to get from the first point of your sermon to your last point and it’s an exercise in Spartan-like diligence to stay awake through one of your sermons. It’s high time you had a few people come and tell you so” (Al Martin, “Prepared to Preach,” Covenanter Press, Strathpine Press, Australia, 1981, p.41).
So Paul did not ignore the criticism, and he was not mute before it. Such responses would have demeaned the congregation and ignored the seriousness of the problem. He arrays before the church his credentials in this fresh, but tongue-in-cheek manner, and he does it without becoming pompous. They are not crushed when they have read his defence.
I was reading Charles Haddon Spurgeon this week, surely the model for every preacher until the end of the world. He is the most unpretentious minister the world has seen since the time of this apostle, given the extraordinary fame that became his before he was 21, and the range of gifts that he had – was he deficient in any area of his life? – and the modest humility with which he handled it all. He once said to a group of preachers, “Everybody must wear the garment of praise which fits him best. Mine is so big I could put any half-dozen of you in the pockets.” I came across an account of an incident that I had forgotten about and was glad to read again. It seems to me a perfect example of the spirit of the apostle in these verses, dealing with a local difficulty in such a creative and calming manner. Three young men came into the Metropolitan Tabernacle and settled themselves in front of the gallery with their hats on. Some deacons approached them and asked them to remove their headgear but the men refused. When Spurgeon entered the pulpit he spotted the men. He ignored them until he was well into his sermon and then he began to open up the theme of the Christian respecting the feelings of others. He could have embarrassed them and shamed them with some sharp words, and they would have got to their feet and pushed past everyone and noisily walked out. Then Spurgeon would have lost the attention of the congregation and never got them back into the sermon again – though he might have felt justified in rebuking them. But Spurgeon was not a pompous man. What he actually said was this: “My friends, the other day I went into a Jewish synagogue, and I naturally uncovered my head, but on looking around I perceived that all the other men wore their hats, and so, not wishing to offend against what I suppose to be their reverential practice, though contrary to my own, I conformed to the Jewish one, and put on my hat. I will now ask those three young Jews up in the gallery to show the same deference to our Christian practice in the house of God as I was prepared to show when I visited their synagogue, and take off their hats.” No white-knuckled grasping of the pulpit! No flash of anger… “You young men, daring to be in the house of God with your hats on…!” but rather the sweetest encouragement to stay and listen, but to remove their hats.
Again, Spurgeon was leading one of his vast prayer meetings in his church and some people were prone to pray too long So he said to the people, “Now it is a very cold night, and if anybody prays very long somebody will be frozen to death … I am not like Paul, and cannot restore him to life, so please don’t render a miracle necessary since I cannot perform one.” He hated affectation in the pulpit. He said to his students, “Mind you never get into the goody-goody style, like the preacher who said, “I was reading this morning in dear Hebrews.” He said, “We must guard against two foes in preaching – the pretentious and the commonplace.” He said, “If ever you should attempt the grand in your preaching, mind you are sure of not making a fool of yourself, as the brother did who exclaimed: ‘It thundered, brethren, it thundered … like … like … like … anything.’ Nor yet as he who, describing the angels ascending and descending Jacob’s ladder, said, ‘They went up and down, up and down, like…like…like…” If you attempt the tight-rope, be sure you are a Blondin first.”
Pretentiousness and pomposity in the pulpit will trickle down to the pews and soon there will be a pervasive self-righteous spirit which suggests to the world that we as a church have got it right, and unless other churches copy us they’ve lost it. It was the grace of God that taught this manner to Spurgeon. It didn’t come naturally to him. In the pulpit he had to repress certain natural tendencies such as wit, sarcasm and mimicry. He hated pretentiousness, and he was also as inventive and energetic in spreading the gospel as Paul himself. For example, he created a farmer figure and called him John Ploughman, and in a few books which have sold in their hundreds of thousands he addressed such a man and the vast rural community of England in their own language with the great truths of the gospel. He did this from the south bank of London. Grace makes a man more humane than he ever was before. When a preacher is pompous and pretentious he is hardly a human being let alone a Christian. Pity the poor congregation domineered by such a minister. Little reason they become inferior. Paul was prepared to make a fool of himself that the Corinthians should become wise.
2. A BAD FOUNDATION MAKES AN INFERIOR CHURCH.
The apostles were unique as companions of Jesus Christ from the beginning of his public ministry – they saw it all – and especially witnesses of his resurrection. Remember Peter speaking when the church seeks another apostle to replace Judas: “it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from among us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection” (Acts 1:21&22). Paul was one ‘born out of due time’ yet he also witnessed the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. These men were commissioned and gifted by the Lord Jesus. The apostles were to become the foundation for the church for the next two thousand years. They were the Lord Jesus’ foundation gifts to his people. “I will lay for every congregation of my people an indestructible foundation,” he has said. This is portrayed so magnificently in Revelation 20 where John describes the New Jerusalem. “The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rev. 21:14). You see what he is saying in that pictorial language? What is the foundation of our congregation? It is the teaching of the apostles, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul – the writers of the New Testament. I know that neither Luke nor John Mark were amongst the Twelve but Paul stood behind Luke, and Peter stood behind John Mark. The ‘Twelve’ is a symbolic name for the apostles; they are never the ‘Thirteen’. It is said of the three thousand who were converted on the day of Pentecost that they continued in the apostles’ doctrine. They put themselves under the teaching of James, or John, or Thomas. They built their new lives in Christ receiving and obeying that instruction. We are to be just like those three thousand. All the teaching whether from the pulpit, or on the promenade in the conversations and in the tracts distributed, in the Sunday School and the Women’s meetings, or in the Young People’s Fellowship – everything must be based on the teaching of the apostles. That is the foundation of every gospel church. Without that you have an inferior congregation.
Notice a house being built. The builder will want to build on a rock, or on a rock-like raft of cement. Its dimensions and thickness will determine what he can build there. Once the foundation is secure then up he can build up. If he should lay another foundation then he is building something else. It might be a garage, a greenhouse, or a swimming pool. The house itself need only have one foundation. It isn’t necessary for the builder to lay another foundation on top of that one, and then later another foundation on top of that. One strong foundation is all that is needed, and then it can take the weight of all that it is intended to support. So there were the apostles, and they are the foundation – in what they have written in the New Testament – for every and any congregation until the end of the world. The Scriptures are a magnificently inviolable foundation.
The problem with the false apostles was that they were laying another foundation. Mary Baker Eddy was laying another foundation in her Christian Science movement. Joseph Smith was laying another foundation in his Mormonism. James and Ellen White were laying another foundation in their Seventh-day Adventism. Charles T Russell was laying another foundation in his movement called Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Roman Catholic Church has extended the foundation of the church with all its additions to the New Testament – the immaculate conception and bodily assumption of Mary, and so on, so that their building is all out of shape and only in places reflects the apostles’ foundation – their trinitarianism and view of the deity of Christ and such things. But the Head of the Church who says, “I will build my church,” has already laid a wonderful foundation. We are not saying, “We wish we had a foundation for the 21st century.” We have one, and we can build on it whether we live in Papua New Guinea or in New York, and no matter what storms are hurled against this foundation this is bedrock, and the house which is built on it will never collapse.
The apostle here reminds them of one great proof that he was one of those mighty foundation stones which the Lord Jesus gave to the church. “The things that mark an apostle – signs, wonders and miracles – were done among you with great perseverance” (v.12). These miraculous gifts were God-given proof of a divinely appointed ministry, they were an apostle’s insignia. Just as the miracles of Moses and Aaron were the badges of office demonstrating that they were the authoritative spokesmen of God under the old covenant. So miracles and wonders were evidences that marked an apostle. They did not mark a Christian. They did not mark a Spirit-filled Christian. They were given to identify a true apostle. I could tell you that I lived on Buarth Road. Now there are seventeen houses on our street, but I could say. “You will know our house because the sign, ‘The Manse’ is on it.” Imagine your consternation should you come to our hill and find that every house had the sign, “The Manse.” Then that sign would not be a sufficient mark distinguishing our own house. So if every Christian was marked by these things, signs, wonders and miracles, Paul would not be calling them here “the things that mark an apostle.”
You see very clearly how they were the distinguishing marks of an apostle, for example, when Paul and Barnabas were in Iconium we are told that they “spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders” (Acts 14:3). They spoke the divinely inspired word – no New Testament Scriptures had yet been written down – and God in effect said to the audience, “Yes, this is the foundation on which you in Iconium can build your lives,” and that divine confirmation was the miraculous signs and wonders God enabled them to do. The miracles were a testimony from God that their message was true. You see the same in Romans 15:15-19 where Paul is reminding the brethren in Rome that it was through the grace of God that he was made a minister of Christ to the Gentiles, and all the things Christ did through him: “I have written to you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done – by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ” (Roms. 15:19). The signs and wonders Paul was permitted to perform were one of the means by which the Lord Jesus enabled Paul to bring the Gentiles to obedience. They were inseparably connected with his ministry as the apostle to the Gentiles. You find the same emphasis in the famous words of Hebrews 2: 3 and 4: “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with diverse miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his will” (A.V.). These gifts and miracles were intended as divine confirmation that the message brought to the Hebrew Christians was of the Lord himself. So these miraculous gifts are not scattered indiscriminately through the New Testament. They are Jesus’ signs that the word of the apostles is to truth to be taken into our lives and obeyed.
So in the book of Acts we read, “The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people…people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed” (Acts 5:12, 14 & 15). And again Luke wrote, “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them” (Acts19:11&12). Why should anyone today pay attention to and actually obey these words that have been read in your hearing from this second letter to the Corinthians written over 1900 years ago? One answer is that God did extraordinary miracles through the man who wrote these words. God approved of the life and beliefs and teaching of this man to this extent that the blind saw and the lepers were cleansed and the cancer victim was healed by God’s power working through this man. This is not a fairy story. These inexplicable events took place through Paul, and so we pay attention to what he said.
God is saying to us today, “Trust these men. What they have written is true. See how I confirm it to you by these mighty miracles which they have done. Build your life on this foundation of what my apostles have written down. There is no need of any more revelations from heaven. Jesus has spoken to the world all it needs to know. He did not leave out anything. All that the Father told him to say he said it, and the apostles have written it down. That can make you perfect, and thoroughly equip you or any Christian for every good work.” God has given us at this very moment a miracle – the Word of God – and Christians gather in the presence of a miracle each time we worship. Here is a miracle. A book that comes from heaven, God-breathed truth to its jots and tittles. We are not bereft of miracles. We have a miracle. What a foundation for life and godliness. Any other foundation will make Christians inferior.
3. EXPLOITATION MAKES AN INFERIOR CHURCH.
The apostle is so insistent on reminding them that he was never a burden to them. He was a blessed burden to the church in Macedonia because they were anxious to give money to Paul’s support. Like a couple who have been long childless, finally having a baby with all the expense of providing everything for the little one, will cry, “Blessed burden!” So it was with the Macedonians: what a privilege, they felt, to be underwriting a divine apostle. But that so-called burden was never allowed to be borne by the Corinthians. Paul wouldn’t give them that privilege. He would rather make and sell tents than be reluctantly supported, and here he teases them, “Forgive me this wrong!” (v.13). Then Paul announces his travel plans, that he is coming to visit them again, “and I will not be a burden to you” (v.14). More than that he says, “I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well” (v.15). Then he returned to this same theme in the 16th verse, “Be that as it may, I have not been a burden to you”.
So the great theme is that in the normal Christian church the leaders do not exploit the congregation, in fact they go out of their way not to be a burden to people. Was the Lord Jesus ever a burden to James and John and the other disciples? Did they get together behind his back and say to one another, “What a chore to be looking after him all the time, washing his feet, feeding the multitudes that swarm around us, arguing with those persnickety Pharisees, all the virtue we feel going out of us as we heal all these sick folk, and the weariness of teaching these crowds day after day?” No, they never said that, because they did none of those things. He did it all! In fact he said to them that that was his food, to do his Father’s will and to finish his work. Yet he got so weary he fell asleep during a storm in an open boat. He went forty days without eating, there were frequent nights of sleeping outside on the ground. He didn’t ask someone to look after his house when he was away on a preaching tour because he had no home. He lived with these 12 young men year after year. He had to get up early in the morning to have any time alone. He knew tiredness, hunger and thirst, pain, inconvenience. But all that work was actually like food to him. It nourished and strengthened him. It satisfied him and he lived on it. He never exploited these men. He spent himself for them. He is the model for Christian service. During our lives our privilege has been to meet such people who have never been a burden to the church, but rather have taken up the church as their burden. I could speak of a number in this congregation but that would be unseemly, but I did come across this account of a church member known to my friend Don Whitney:
“When I think of a faithful willingness to serve, I remember a quiet little man from a church where I was a staff member. On Sundays his arrival was always unnoticed, for he would come long before anyone else. Yet he burrowed his old car into an obscure corner of the parking lot to leave the best places for others. He unlocked all the church doors, got the bulletins, and then waited for the people to arrive. When you walked up he’d give you a bulletin and a big smile. But he was not able to speak. He was embarrassed when newcomers asked him questions. Something had happened to his voice long ago. When I met him he was into his sixties and living alone. When he had car trouble, which was often, he never let anyone know and so would walk more than a mile to the church. Because of his vulnerability he was robbed and beaten several times, at least twice during the three years I was in that church. Some long-time church members told me they suspected he lost h is voice as the result of being beaten years before. He had extensive arthritis, which stooped his shoulders and prevented him from turning his neck. It made hard work of unlocking doors and handing out bulletins. But he was always there, always smiling, even though he couldn’t speak a word. Everything about his life worked to keep him unheralded and in the background, even his name – Jimmy Small. Yet despite his drawbacks, setbacks, handicaps, and a plethora of potential excuses, he willingly served God. And he served in a disciplined way, which in the sight of God, was neither small nor in vain” (Don Whitney, “Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life,” NavPress, 1991, p.122). Is this the picture of an exploited man? Of course it is not. Here is a happy man who freely and willingly gives, making no demands on the people at all.
When you consider the cults then one definitive mark of their activities is the way they exploit their members. A cult leader will be self-willed, arrogant and even irreverent in the use of his alleged spiritual knowledge and authority. He will exploit his followers emotionally, financially and even sexually. He might make use of ritualism to provide a sensuous substitute for genuine spiritual worship. He will rub the consciences of his followers raw until they are in total subjection to him. A cult is an inferior church and one way you know this is in how it exploits people.
4. SELFISHNESS MAKES AN INFERIOR CHURCH.
Hear this selfless man: “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” (vv. 14&15). Remember how King Saul’s selfishness made him so resentful of the gifts of David so that he wanted to murder him. He would not spend himself to promote David for the sake of the people. Remember how the selfishness of two members of the early church cast a shadow over its whole life. The husband and wife were named Ananias and Sapphira. They had property to sell, and they wanted to give the proceeds from it to the church, but they led about the price they had sold it for and kept back some of it for themselves. Their selfishness and deceit brought terrible judgment upon them. But you can take these words of Paul and place them on the lips of our Lord Jesus. The Spirit of Christ was in him when he said them: “I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well.” That is exactly what the Lord Jesus said and did. He spent everything he had for us; he expended his very self for us. That is the spirit that makes a church flourish, and without it, what an inferior church you will find.
We have to teach our children from the very beginning to consider others first, because a child’s heart by nature is a selfish heart. It always says, “Me!” One Pancake Day a mother was turning the first pancake, and her two little boys Gwyn and Alun began to argue who was going to get it. So she saw the opportunity to remind them of a Christian approach. “If the Lord Jesus were sitting here he’d say, ‘Let my brother have the first pancake. I can wait.'” So Gwyn turned to Alun and said to him, “You be Jesus!” In a true church every member is not expecting other people to act like Jesus and inwardly criticise them for not doing so, but they are using that energy in saying, “I will be like Jesus. I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself for you.” We are not to be limited and deceitful like Ananias and Sapphira. Parents spend themselves for their children. That spirit can transform a church, otherwise it’s going to be an inferior church.
In a book called “Through the Valley of the Kwai” Ernest Gordon writes about life in a World War II Japanese prison camp and the men who built the bridge over the river Kwai especially one big strong Scotsman from the regiment of the Argylle and Sutherland Highlanders named Angus McGillivray. The camp had become an ugly situation, with lots of thieving. The Argylles worked in pairs. Every senior man had a man called a ‘mucker’ who worked with him. Angus’s mucker was dying, and everyone had given up on him except Angus. He had made up his mind that his friend wouldn’t die. Someone had stolen his mucker’s blanket. So Angus gave him his own, telling his mucker that he had “just come across an extra one.” Likewise, every mealtime, Angus would get his rations and take them to his friend, stand over him and force him to eat them, again stating that he was able to get ‘extra food.’ Angus did anything and everything to see that his friend got what he needed to recover. But as Angus’s mucker began to recover, Angus, this great strong man, himself collapsed and passed away. He had died of malnutrition complicated by exhaustion, as many prisoners did. But he had been giving his own food and shelter to his friend. He had given everything he had – even his very life. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12). As word circulated of the reason for Angus McGillivray’s death, the mood of the camp began to change. Suddenly, men began to focus on their mates, and living beyond survival, of giving oneself away. They began to pool their talents=97one was a violin maker, another an orchestra leader, another a cabinet maker, another a professor. Soon the camp had an orchestra full of homemade instruments and their church (called the “Church Without Walls”) began to flourish so that even the Japanese guards attended. The men began a college, and a library system. The camp was transformed; an all but smothered love revived, and the catalyst was the attitude of a Scotsman named Angus who gave all he had for his friend. For many of those men this turnaround meant survival. Our point is this, that a congregation too can change through the influence of one man who despises selfishness and determines, “I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well.” (v.15). Without that spirit a group of Christians becomes an inferior church.
5. UNFAITHFUL TEACHERS MAKE AN INFERIOR CHURCH.
Paul asks them, “Did I exploit you through any of the men I sent you? I urged Titus to go to you and I sent our brother with him. Titus did not exploit you, did he? Did we not act in the same spirit and follow the same course?” (vv. 17&18). Who did Paul send to work in Corinth? No doubt we have our own ideas about students and young ministers, and we like them to act in certain ways. Paul sent men who acted in the same spirit and followed the same course as himself. They had their own different personalities, weaknesses and great gifts, but the most crucial feature of Titus and his companion was that they acted in the same spirit and followed the same course of teaching and living as the apostle himself. That need is non-negotiable, and however many other fine characteristics men may have if they are lacking these they are not fit for the ministry. When you interview a young man who believes himself called to be a pastor you have to be 100% convinced that he is acting in the same spirit and following the same course as the apostle Paul, because whatever potential for damage a man may do in the pew it is many-fold increased if he stands in a pulpit. If there is any doubt the response is No. The ‘spirit’ is the heart attitude and the ‘course’ is the methodology of the apostles. Both must be there. Think of two recruiting sergeants arguing with one another, the one championing the virtues of the left leg while the other champions the virtues of the right leg! What folly! A soldier must have both right and left legs. So too any servants of God must have both apostolic spirit and course.
Titus and his companion had the same spirit as Paul. What’s that spirit? They could not preach Christ crucified while remaining altogether unmoved. More to be feared than emotion is cold professionalism, the dry, detached utterance of a lecture which has neither heart nor soul in it. Do man’s peril and Christ’s salvation mean so little to us that we feel no warmth rise within us as we think about them? Titus and his companion had the same spirit as Paul. They could wish them accursed that their brethren might come to faith in Christ. Richard Baxter, the Kidderminster minister and author of the Reformed Pastor had that identical spirit. He said: ‘I marvel how I can preach slightly and coldly, how I can let men alone in their sins and that I do not go to them and beseech them for the Lord’s sake to repent, however they take it and whatever pains or trouble it should cost me. I seldom come out of the pulpit but my conscience smites me that I have been no more serious and fervent. It accuses me not so much for want of human ornaments or elegance, nor for letting fall an uncomely word; but it asks me: “How could you speak of life and death with such a heart? Should you not weep over such a people, and should not your tears interrupt your words? Should you not cry aloud and show them their transgressions and entreat and beseech them as for life and death?” That was the spirit in Titus and his companion that was also in the apostle Paul. And what was the same course they all followed? They were all determined not to know any other theme among men except Jesus Christ and him crucified, and to that end they laboured both publicly and privately night and day. Holiness of life, utter integrity, prayerfulness and trust in God to bless was the course they stuck to. That was the course Paul set for them and which they followed. They laboured to bring the whole counsel of God to bear on the whole congregation. They had to edify the congregation. “How can we better serve our Saviour?” they asked, stirring up one another. Listen again to Al Martin: “When we read the history of preaching, the history of revivals, and the history of the great epochs in the church; with but few exceptions we find common denominators appearing again and again with respect to the questions: ‘Who is used of God in conversion work in times of gracious visitation? What kind of preaching hooks the ears, pierces the conscience and breaks the heart?’ There is a kind of preaching that is owned of God in the salvation of men. To the degree that we have a passion to be used in the salvation of men, we will labour at the cultivation of our preaching gifts. This is true also, with respect to the edification of the people of God. Paul could say in that classic statement in 1 Corinthians 14:26, “Let all things be done unto edifying.” Remember that the context of these words is the regulating of the exercise of certain gifts that may have been the outworking of an unusual measure of spiritual unction. Yet because they were not intelligible, they could bring no edification. We must study what it is that brings, under the blessing of God, the greatest measure of edification. Our great concern must not be simply to do our job, to receive our remuneration, and to have a modicum of approval from our people! If we long to see our people flourishing in grace, we will be forever studying how to bring the Word to our people in a way that will more and more build them up in Jesus Christ. If we are not simply enamoured with biblical and theological ideas and notions for their own sakes, and mesmerized by the sound of our own voice as those notions take verbal symbols, then we cannot but help to be instruments of grace and blessing to the maximum degree.
“If God is using your present level of preaching to grant a trickle of conversions, don’t you long that he will make you instrumental in bringing dozens into the kingdom of God? The base line of our theological agreement is that ultimately salvation is the work of God. We believe that. We hold to that, I hope, with all of our hearts. But brethren, we must not ignore the fact that one of the reasons why the Spirit of God may be withholding such blessing, is that he would be putting the premium upon our laziness” (op cit p.25). Titus and his companion were faithful teachers and so Corinth was saved from being an inferior church.
6. MEN WHO HAVE LOST SIGHT OF GOD MAKE AN INFERIOR CHURCH.
“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” (v.19). Paul asks them, “Do you think that everything I’ve been writing to you has been designed to defend myself? There is a much greater Being in whose presence I’m conscious I’m speaking. To please him, and get his verdict, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’, is my ambition.” In all his endeavours Paul knew that he was ultimately answerable to the God who had laid his hand upon him, made him the apostle to the Gentiles, and sent him forth as his herald. So that in this constant cultivation of his gift his supreme motive was to show himself approved unto God himself. When Paul had preached any sermon, or engaged in any evangelism – at a synagogue or in a lecturer’s hall – whatever frown or smile may have appeared upon the face of whatever person had heard him preach, Paul had a greater passion and goal. The apostle know that the God who had honoured him by making him an apostle was smiling on him. Remember what he has already written in this letter? “in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God” (2:17). That awful concept of the minister coming from God’s presence and consciously speaking in the sight of God is a recurring note in the writing of the apostle.
Cotton Mather was one of the greatest American Puritan preachers. He once said, “The great design and intention of the office of a Christian preacher is to restore the throne and dominion of God in the souls of men.” Sinners have dethroned the living God and have put themselves on the throne of their own hearts. “Who is the Lord that I should obey his voice?” each one has asked. Rebellion and mutiny are on all sides, and God’s authority is scorned by millions. Our great calling is to cry out that God reigns, that he will not suffer his glory to be scorned indefinitely, that he will vindicate his name in great and terrible wrath, but now there is an amnesty being offered to all the rebel subjects who will lay down their weapons, and call on him for mercy, bow before his throne and swear their allegiance to God for ever. The offer of an amnesty has been signed in the blood of God’s Son. Only men who speak in the sight of God can bring that message with authority to rebels.
What a constant source of strength to Paul to have God in his mind and thoughts constantly. How could Christ preach to the dying thief from the cross without God in his mind. The harassed preacher forgets the difficulties, the grind, the labour as he remembers the Lord of hosts is with him. The pastor entombed in his study and confronted with an impossible daily agenda of duties brightens in his heart and feels his pulse quicken as he remembers the living God. The thought of God should be the preacher’s panacea. It should cure all his ills at a stroke. There is nothing as beautiful as the concept of the true and living God. There exists this Being who is infinite in power, knowledge and goodness, and this God cares for me with a perfect love as if I were the only man in existence. He loved me before I was born. He created me to enjoy him eternally. He loved me even when I was fast bound in sin and nature’s night. He sent his Son to suffer the agony of the cross to secure my eternal happiness. Surely that must end all a preacher’s heaviness. It ought to and it often does.
As soon as Paul put his troubles in the light of God’s being and perfection he was emancipated from alarm and terror. How did all those heroes of Hebrews 11 obtain promises and work righteousness and subdue kingdoms? They had this mental image of the living God – the one who rewards those who diligently seek him. They believed and laboured and were prepared to lay down their lives for this reason only, that God was ever present to their mind’s eye. They triumphed over all their discomforts and continued in their exertions because God was in the forethought of their minds. To have this God as their God meant that it was a good exchange for Paul to suffer everything he mentions in these verses, and lose his life itself to enter the presence of this God at the end.
When Paul spoke in the sight of God then there were no insoluble problems. If God is my God then no difficulty of mine is without its appropriate solution. All that Paul needed to neutralize all evils, compensate for all losses, veto all temptations was found in a sight of God. There was such a competence and enabling and wisdom in God that we should transform every ill into good as soon as it touched us. Peter looked at the waves and began to sink. Paul looked at God and said, “We are more than conquerors through him that loved us.” There is no situation in life too hard for God, but this situation of false teachers in Corinth looked very hard for Paul at first. They were ordained to give Paul room to wait on God for deliverance and to write his answers in this superb letter for us and all the church.
Of course if God be only a mental fiction, the opiate of the people, contemptible escapism, then it is mere whistling in the dark to develop a dependence upon him every moment of the day. You may as well develop the principle of positive thinking. However, God is! He is not spiritual medicine invented by our fears. So the secret of a healthy blessed church is that every member holds him in their thoughts as often as they can, and especially when they gather on his day around his living Word. Without that, one belongs to a very inferior church.
7. UNMORTIFIED SIN MAKES AN INFERIOR CHURCH.
Do you see Paul’s concern here? “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 quarreling, 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” (vv.20&21). Paul wanted to find a strong church. Everything he had done was for their strengthening (v.19), and that was not the strength of aggression, but of patience, and faith, and overcoming temptation. He longed that he would not find such weaknesses as “quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder”. These sins are in all our hearts, but Paul’s fear was that he would find them plainly in evidence in the congregation. They were not being mortified, and the garden of Christ had been turned into a mudbath. When a family called the Romeros brought their new Burmese python home from the pet shop they called it ‘Sally’. It was a foot long, but they fed it every week and after eight years Sally reached eleven-and-a-half feet and she weighed eighty pounds. And one day, July 20, 1993, Sally, turned on 15-year-old Derek, wrapped herself around him and strangled the teenager so that he died of suffocation. It used to be just a little pet snake, and maybe the family did not realise how big and strong it had become because it had lived there docilely with them for eight years, quite a talking point in the home. But that snake was a killer.
Any one of those sins listed by the apostle can kill a congregation – quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder. We have to mortify them in our hearts before they crawl into the church meetings. James tells us, “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:14&15).
Paul was prepared to come for a third time, and was steeling himself to find these sins in the heart of the church, and in beholding them God would humble him before the people. He had spent some years working in their midst, caring for them, praying for them, longing that they would not become an inferior church. Some had fallen into sexual sin and had not repented and that would further grieve Paul: it had become an inferior church. Let us cry to God that we would become an ordinary Church, the house of the living God, the body of Christ, the fellowship of the Spirit, the pillar and ground of the truth.
17th March 2002 GEOFF THOMAS