2 Corinthians 13:1-4 “This will be my third visit to you. ‘Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 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. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him to serve you.”
How do we know that the Lord Jesus Christ speaks to us through the writings of the apostle Paul? That is one of the most important questions men can ask. People we call modernists or heretics deny that Paul does speak on behalf of Christ. For example, the famous Russian novelist, the anti-Semitic Leo Tolstoy, wrote in 1906, “I should like to write something to prove how the teachings of Christ, who was not a Jew, were replaced by the very different teachings of the apostle Paul, who was a Jew.” Of course he never wrote such a book, and if he had tried he would have found very quickly how united Christ and his servant Paul were. Their relationship was a relationship of love. Paul says of Christ, “He loved me and gave himself for me.”
Troublers of the gospel have always sought to drive a wedge between Christ and Paul. But what is surprising in our text is that Paul was actually asked by some professing Christians in the Corinthian congregation whether Christ was speaking through him. “We need proof,” they demanded (v.3). Paul’s personal presence was not commanding. His speech was not fascinating. He seemed to lack the power of an orator and he was unimpressive by the standards of the world. Men reasoned that a man who claimed to be the representative of the Son of God should have been a colossus, people should experience the hairs on the back of their necks standing on end when they came into his presence. Paul for them was a flop. He seemed a battered Jewish nerd. Paul’s authority was being systematically undermined by the ‘super-apostles.’
Yet we are sure that there were others in that same church who, when they heard this request, “Give us proof that Christ speaks through you,” cringed with embarrassment. They felt that people asked it to their shame. What a debt the Corinthian church owed to Paul. He was their father in the faith. He had shed blood, and grown weary in bringing the gospel to them. He had travailed in birth until Christ was formed in them. Yet how quickly can such things be forgotten. That it was asked at all during this extraordinary apostolic period might be surprising to some of you and is certainly salutary. Consider Paul’s sermons, that they were not in enticing words of men’s wisdom but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power. “Everyone would know the Holy Ghost was with Paul in his preaching,” we might think. Surely then, at a time of revival, Christian people wouldn’t need to demand from this preacher some proof that Christ was speaking through him, unlike today, of course…
Today there are plenty of people who think that they know when Christ is speaking through a certain ministry. They can confidently define what is a ‘blessed ministry.’ They also think they can tell when Christ is not speaking through others. Apparently it’s quite acceptable for men today to make such judgments, even though there are warnings from Christ about judging others. However, it was not easy for some in Paul’s time to be convinced: “you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me,” he said to them. So he gives them proof. Whether they were any happier by his answer we are not sure, but his reply is the only one. His approach is the following.
1. THE DIVINE MODEL IS STRENGTH ATTAINED BY WEAKNESS.
How does Paul answer them? He doesn’t deny the evident weaknesses of a sinner saved by grace, of a mortal man growing old and frail, of a much persecuted victim. He makes no attempt to exalt himself. He admits anything they may have to say about his deficiency in natural dignity and elocution. So what proofs that Christ was actually speaking through him does Paul offer his critics? The apostle takes them back to Jesus, and he directs their attention to the life of the Son of God on this earth. What he is doing is to ask them this kind of question, “Where has that power of God (that has transformed your lives) been seen most clearly?” He tells them the answer: “In the life of the Lord Jesus.” We can all be “sure” of that; Paul says, “for to be sure, he was crucified in weakness” (v.4). There can be no argument about that historical reality. The Corinthian church believed it. The ‘super-apostles’ believed it. Paul believed it. We all believe it today. The divine Messiah himself, incarnate Jehovah, the Creator of Genesis 1, was crucified in weakness.
Paul the Pharisaic Jew had often quoted the prophet Isaiah and cried, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down! Drive the Romans out of thy land.” Paul the Christian knew that God had entered this world in the being of his Son; the Lord Jesus had clothed himself in the garments of weakness, and in the form of a man had stilled the tempest, and raised the dead, and cleansed the lepers and cast out demons. No man spoke as he spoke. It was utterly essential for God’s power to save the world, that God himself must come down to earth; God himself must visit his people. So the Son of God became man. The Word was made flesh. The Almighty must become weak. The Initiator of all things must be born of the virgin Mary. The Sustainer of all things must become dependent. The Creator of the rolling spheres must be conceived and born. He must put himself in a position of human vulnerability. He must come where disease and death dominate. He must pitch his tent where cursing and stoning and crucifixions occur. The Ruler of all things must become submissive to earthly parents. He who wore the royal robe of sovereignty must be found in a carpenter’s apron. Jesus voluntarily chooses to be made of no reputation. He takes upon himself the form of a servant. He puts himself under the divine law. Nothing could rescue man from destruction, nothing could elevate a sinner out of his misery except God the Son humbling himself to weakness. There was nothing found within any man by which he could be raised or purified. There was no inherent power by which any man could lift himself out of the depths into which the human race has sunk. God must become man to achieve it.
Think of the tragedy of the actor Christopher Reeve. He played the part of Superman. As an actor he was handsome, manly, with a muscular physique. Then a dreadful accident while riding a horse left ‘Superman’ totally paralysed, in a worse condition than Joni Eareckson-Tada. Only by a machine is he is able to breathe and speak. He shows dignity and courage now, but he has no resources within himself to save himself. He is totally dependent on powers outside himself for any possibility of deliverance one day by what would be an almost miraculous medical breakthrough. He cannot effect this at all. There is no hero inside himself who can do it. Deliverance from his paralysis lies outside himself.
Thus it is with man. We were once in Adam a super sinless man. Then we experienced a fearful fall. Now any hope of our salvation lies outside ourselves in some work done for us and to us by the second Adam. That has been accomplished by the Son of God Jesus Christ, and telling the world of helpless broken sinners that message is the church’s duty. It is the message of the gospel.
i] Christ was crucified in weakness.
But more than Christ’s unique arrival is necessary. The incarnation leads to the crucifixion. Christ must become the Lamb of God if the sin of the world is to be taken away. Something in the very nature of what God himself is demands it. The atonement is not man’s response to the mess he’s in. The atonement is divine in its conception, and also in its accomplishment. It goes back into eternity. Christ is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. The atonement goes in and in and in and into the very heart of who God is. To understand the necessity of the cross is to understand reality itself. God the Son must hang on the cross. His blood must be shed. His life must be taken away from him. It is not enough to know that the Child was born, and the Son was given, and the Word made flesh, wonderful though those truths may be in themselves. Bethlehem by itself offers no salvation. The baby in the manger brings no peace to the guilty conscience unless the stable leads you to the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory dies. Jesus was born in order to give his life a ransom for many – he claimed this himself, very lucidly and directly. He took upon himself our nature that he might offer up himself the God-man to the Father as a sacrifice for the sins of men and women.
“He was crucified in weakness,” Paul says. It is the only place in the Bible that actual phrase is found. He was not crucified in defiance like one of the thieves on Golgotha hurling insults at Christ with his last ounce of strength. Jesus was crucified in weakness, and what weakness was his. There was the weakness which came from the loneliness that he experienced. There was no solidarity with his friends, no camaraderie of pain on Golgotha. All his disciples had forsaken him and had run away. The Lord Jesus had spent the best years of his life teaching and loving these men, but at the end they all quit on him. Not one spoke up for him at his trial; no character reference had been given by a single old friend. They all stood a great way off as he hung on the cross. None of them understood why he chose to hang and suffer there. They contributed to his weakness.
There was the weakness of his physical pain. He had been whipped, and the squaddies had blindfolded and punched him and then asked him to tell them which of them had hit him. They had plucked out the hairs of his beard as if they were plucking a chicken, and they spat on him. He was helpless as they made fun of him. And when they drove the nails through his hands and feet it was indescribably pain! Such sickening agony! He was suspended by the nails and hung up naked before the world the weight of his body pulling on the nails. He refused the drugged wine. He had no built-in analgesic to dull the pain and the burning glare of the sun on his white body. He had to endure the chanting shouts of mockery which went on and on. He was not a noble victim. He hardly looked like a man. There was nothing attractive in the scene at all – however the old masters have sought to preserve it. It was three slowly writhing bodies, hardly able to move because of the nails, trying to adjust their pain-wracked torsos from the cramp and the insects hour after hour. He was crucified in weakness.
There was the weakness of the Father’s abandonment. You understand that it is not at all that Jesus felt that God had forsaken him. God actually did desert the sin-bearer. The desertion was not a sense of something happening which was not really happening. A Christian may feel forsaken. The sense of divine peace and the divine presence has been removed from him. Christians commonly experience such winter nights of darkness at some spots on their pilgrimage. But Christ was forsaken. He was not disoriented by the heat and pain and dehydration. Heaven did close its doors to him. There had always been his Father there to turn to. His Father loved him and he loved his Father. In all eternity there never was a love like the Father’s love for the Son and the Son’s reciprocal affection. And during all his life on earth until Golgotha he could appropriate his Father from his first waking moments at the peep of day and go on to enjoy his fellowship throughout the succeeding hours. There had never been a time when the Father was not there to encourage and strengthen and advise. But Calvary was uncharted territory, because of Christ’s new relationship to sin, and the broken law, and the curse, and the divine anathema. The Scriptures say it so plainly and continually: Christ bore our sin, and he was made sin, and he took our sin, and he was made a curse, and he died for our sin, and he gave himself for the church. The great Promise Keeper in heaven who says to his people, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” forsook him, that is, withdrew his fellowship from him, turned his face away, refused to listen, would not acknowledge him as his Son, because our sin had been imputed to him. Then what fellowship has light with darkness? Surely he was crucified in weakness!
That weakness was also his life ebbing away. Death was softer for others, even for the two hanging on each side of him. They had only the load of their own guilt and shame to carry, but Christ, what burdens bowed thy head? Our load was laid on thee. God the Son summoned one of his creatures to give him a drink in a sponge held high on a reed, and then he found the voice to preach his last two words to man and God. He summoned all his energy for the last stupendous effort. He gathered together all his physical and spiritual forces and he laid himself upon the altar as the Final Offering, and with a loud voice cried, “It is finished!” He did not weakly ebb away in a trickle of silence. He was in full possession of the vocation he accepted when he had left heaven to come into the world, to save that vast multitude whom the Father had given to him. With whatever reserves of strength and fortitude were left he set out on the last steps of his humiliation until all the curse was exhausted, and the whole cup was drained dry. “Father,” he finally cried, “into your hands I commend my spirit,” and he breathed his last. Christ was crucified in weakness. The sinless One died a sinner’s death, for us. Salvation and eternal life become ours if and when we receive that Saviour and his salvation as God freely offers it to us. Take it! Please take it! We beseech you to take it. Say, as Toplady said
“Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling.
Naked come to Thee for dress,
Helpless look to Thee for grace,
Foul I to the fountain fly,
Wash me Saviour, or I die.”
Has that Saviour become your own personal Saviour? Is your hope that he loved you and gave himself for you? You say to me that this is what you are seeking. Seeking won’t save you. Hell is full of people who were seekers. Finding will save you. Others of you are saying, “I am willing to have Christ, but Christ is not willing to have me.” That is a lie from the pit. Christ is far more willing to have you than you are to have him. You are not a Christian today because you don’t want my Saviour, and that is the only reason.
So the first reason Paul gives as to why Christ speaks through him is that he preaches a crucified Christ. Only through those who preach the cross does Christ speak. But Paul goes on:
ii] Christ lives by God’s Power. (v.4)
The one who was killed lives! His death was not the end. He rose the third day according to the Scriptures. We serve a living Saviour. “How can that be?” you ask, “A man dies and he is dead. Nobody’s come back.” Yes! The Scripture says, he who was crucified in weakness was raised from the grave. How did it happen? “By God’s power,” says Paul here (v.4). That is the full and utterly adequate explanation. He died in weakness and his weakness became the means of strong salvation coming to us. He used the weakness to redeem weak men and women. God is so delighted with his obedience to the death of the cross that he has highly exalted him and given him a name that is above every name. He has overcome the power of death. The grave is not ultimate reality. The Lord Jesus is!
The well-known New York film-maker Woody Allen was in London last week and was interviewed by a reporter named Nigel Farndale, and the American’s intense focus on this crucially important subject of dying and death was evident in a way I have never read in any interview before. Allen obviously looks at death all the time, and what he sees terrifies him. He says, “You find you are happy with a lovely wife and only then do you realise what is in store for you – it is going to end somehow. You are going to die.” Allen is terrified of being left alone with his thoughts. He says, “There are times when I would buy a newspaper or a magazine prior to a five-story elevator ride because I didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts in the elevator for 30 seconds.” Then he can sound like a preacher awakening a congregation when he says, “Let me tell you, when I go for a walk in Central Park on a beautiful day I have to set myself mental tasks, prepare a speech, think about casting. Otherwise I know I will want to run up to people and shake them and say, ‘Why are you bothering to sunbathe? What is the point of your pregnant belly? Why are you walking your dog? Toward what end? We’re all going to die one day.’ Am I the only one who sees it? Am I the only person in the concentration camp who knows what is going on behind that big hedge?”
Then Farndale says that Woody Allen spread his arms, fingers splayed and added, “I will look around the Park and think, ‘We can cut to this scene 100 years from now and all these people will be dead. Every 100 years a big toilet will have been flushed and a new group of people will be in their place. The Islamic fundamentalists, the baseball players, the beautiful models, everybody who is here now will be gone. All gone. You and me.’ It is hard to combat this thought. It’s constantly nagging at me. Our seemingly busy busy lives ultimately mean nothing in this cruel and hostile universe.” The best Woody Allen has to offer mankind is that we should love one another. “To say ‘I love you’ is the nicest thing, the most meaningful thing you can do in life. That is why my priorities in life are my children and my wife, not my movies. But this is cold comfort. When I’m with my wife and children I think, ‘This is so impermanent. There will come a point where we have to say good-bye.’ Love is the best you can do, but it’s just not good enough! It’s too little too late” (Telegraph Magazine, 17 March 2002, p.15).
The Lord Jesus Christ did more than urge us to love one another. He was crucified in weakness and was buried, but he was raised in power. Through his special dying death itself was conquered. It took him, and he submitted to it. He himself tore the veil that joins soul and spirit and he ended his own earthly pilgrimage. His body was taken and buried but his spirit returned to God his Father. But on the third day early in the morning his spirit and body were reunited and he rose from the dead. He was seen by his disciples for almost six weeks. He walked and talked and answered their questions and ate and drank with them. He transformed their lives. Weak blustering Peter became the mighty preacher of Pentecost. Doubting Thomas doubted no longer. Cleopas and his friend were transformed from utterly dispirited people to those whose hearts burned within them. The broken hearted Mary Magdalene had her heart healed. Jesus was powerful among them. Death does not have the final word to those who are joined to Jesus Christ because the Lord lives by God’s power.
By his death the Lord Jesus has dealt with the guilt of our sin and he took it to himself once and for all. But by his life he deals with the power sin has in us and he comes with superior power and guardian grace into our lives. He makes men and women new creations. He supplies a new heart that loves him and loves his word. He gives new resources. He supplies new graces and new life. He makes all things new. The blustering bully, Saul of Tarsus, becomes this remarkable new man. It was all through the Lord Jesus. He lives by God’s power and is powerful among men and women.
Is there any message more important and more relevant than this? There was an occasion shortly after the death of Lazarus when Jesus went with his sisters Mary and Martha to the grave of their brother Lazarus and to their amazement Jesus stood outside the tomb and said, “Lazarus! Come forth!” and the dead man was raised to life, and many believed on him there. Jesus declared to them, “I am the resurrection and the life.” This same Jesus is here with us today, and he will raise us from the dust if we are his. He even knows you by name just as he knew the name of Lazarus. In death, if you will be his, your very dust will be precious to him. Every particle of it is loved by him. He will call you from the grave and reunite you body and spirit. I learned this week that on a recent Friday the Cook County officials in Illinois buried 60 or so bodies in Homewood Memorial Gardens just outside Chicago. There were no mourners present at all. Who were they? People whom nobody knew or cared about. They just died, and eventually someone came across their bodies on Chicago’s streets, or in a park, or in an alley by some refuse bins, or in a lonely tenement. The officials searched for relatives but no one was ever found. The Medical Examiner’s Office waited and held the bodies. No one came forward to claim the body. A hundred-eighty-foot-long trench was dug at the cemetery and the wooden boxes are lined up next to each other and they are buried. No stone, and no marker. 20 to 30 unclaimed people are taken each month from the streets of this one city of Chicago and buried unknown and unmourned. That is how I know it happened last Friday. Men and women die in weakness, just like Jesus died, but there is this difference, Christ was known by God. “This is my beloved Son,” God said when his body was placed in the new grave. He is not weak today, nor is he weak in dealing with people.
“He will raise me from the dust.
Jesus is my hope and trust.”
How many lost lonely people there are in our society. Cut off from virtually everybody. Surrounded by millions in big cities but not a single person seems to know or care how they live or when they die, isolated from everyone. That feels like absolute lostness. But it’s not. Absolute lostness is when you are cut off from God. That is the weakness the Lord Jesus experienced on Calvary. For our sake he was cut off from God in order that sinners need never be cut off from him. It is better to die unknown to every human being in the country than to die unknown to God. If we feel a chill of pity and alienation when we hear of 68 forgotten people buried in a mass grave in Homewood, Illinois, without a friend or family member even to give our names, how much more should we feel the fearful prospect of dying without God? The Lord said that he would say to many in the tremendous day, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” Does Christ know you?
Paul is speaking here about the life of Jesus Christ and the divine power he has over life and death. Paul says, “He is not weak in dealing with you, but he is powerful among you.” (v.3). “He is!” says Paul. “He is!” Christ was alive and at work. He had transformed the lives of these men and women in the Corinthian church. Some of them had been sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexual offenders, thieves, greedy, drunkards, slanderers, and swindlers. There was no way that they could inherit the kingdom of God while they lived like that. But they had gone to Jesus Christ and his cross and they had been washed, they were sanctified, they were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (I Cor. 6:9-11). That is what Jesus’ power had done to them, and he had taken away their fear of death. He had announced that he had many people in that city and he made them all new, giving each of them eternal life. He knew them as he knew Lazarus. He dealt personally with them, and he will do so once again on the great day of resurrection.
As I grew up I first came across evangelical Christianity. I was drawn to it, to its people, and to its language. They talked to me and preached to me often about someone they called a “personal Saviour.” Someone who called his own people by their names. Someone whom his people worshipped singing, “My Jesus I love Thee I know Thou art mine.” Or they sang, “Living He loved me, Dying He saved me, Buried he carried my sins far away.” Or they sang, “This is my story; this is my song, Praising my Saviour all the day long.” It was all very personal, and the justification for such intimacy is found in the New Testament in the words of the apostle Paul, “He loved me and gave himself for me.” How important is this personal relationship with God? For me it is all important. Even in daily life personal relationships with the people who surround us are the basis of health and justice and happiness.
I learned this month of a small town in which the citizens have been concerned about the sudden explosion of drugs, alcohol and teenage pregnancies in their quiet community. A meeting was called and various ideas were suggested to combat this disintegration. Many sensible things were said. Then an older man got up and he said, “When we were boys it seemed everybody in the town knew us, called us by our names and sort of hooked int o our lives. Maybe one important thing is to get to know these kids.”
It was a simple suggestion but it caught on, and a serious effort was made by the men and women of the town to learn the names of the children of their neighbourhoods and greet them on the street, say, “Hello Dylan,” and “Hello Megan” and talk briefly with them. So new relationships were started, some were very superficial, of course, and yet with the relationships came a bit of commitment. A few months later the town held another meeting and there was a buzz as people shared what they had done. The police and the doctors reported that there were fewer pregnancies and fewer arrests for drugs. Something subtle had happened when these children became aware that they were not anonymous people, simply a list of statistics on a social workers’ report, or recorded on a file on the school computer, but that they were people with names, and so a part of the social life of the community. Personal relationships were initiated. At our Friday night meeting for young people we see something similar. Once the workers have learned the names of new teenagers the inter-personal dynamics (to use the buzz words) alter.
I want to multiply that by infinity and say to you all that the Lord who himself rose from the grave, and who raised Lazarus by name from death, is this powerful living person, Jesus Christ, and that he is among us here, and he invites you to enter into a personal and life-transforming relationship with himself. He lives now by God’s power because he became weak for us. He knows your name, and he is calling you to himself today. That is why he brought you here. He can save you, and keep you, and then will raise your body from the grave by that same power.
This is the divine model, of ‘saving power attained by weakness.’ What proof do we have that Christ was speaking through Paul? The answer is that Paul preached the Christ who was crucified in weakness yet who lives by God’s power.
2. OUR OWN MODEL IS THE POWER OF SERVICE ACCOMPLISHED THROUGH WEAKNESS.
Two things again:
i] The Christian serves in weakness.
Paul was weak in Christ. He says that clearly, “Likewise, we are weak in him” (v.4). Paul’s body was covered in scars. He had frequently faced death, he had been beaten by rods, flogged and stoned. He had been often hungry and cold, thrown into prison, shipwrecked, surviving by clinging to driftwood a night and a day. What weakness in service. Neither was Paul a superman psychologically. There was a time when he was immeasurably pressed down with a huge weight of concern so that he was in despair. He bore the cares of all the churches. There were times when he was fighting on many fronts while at the same time inwardly afraid. Paul was weak, and that consciousness kept him going to the Lord and saying, “I can only cope by your help.”
Hudson Taylor, the founder of the China Inland Mission, knew this. He was being complimented once by a friend on the impact of his society on China, but Hudson Taylor answered, “It seemed to me that God looked over the whole world to find a man who was weak enough to do his work, and when he at last found me, he said, ‘Hudson Taylor is weak enough – he’ll do.'” When a man is really aware of his weakness he will go to the Lord for strength. I remember my grandmother who lived with us and there were times when she got older when she felt weaker. She did not accept it. She said, “I’ll go to the doctor for a tonic.” That was her response. There were various medicines in which she had confidence, Cod Liver Oil and some emulsions, and iron tonic. Her weakness drove her to find strength. So it is with us. Who will seek strength but those who know that they are weak?
I was just reading the autobiography of a pastor’s wife, Elsie Dawson, who was born in 1890, and in a very sweet way this truth came home to her when she was a teenage shop-assistant. She had gathered some old papers which were published by the Salvation Army. In the shop they used old papers to wrap up candles and soap-packets. In an idle moment her eyes happened to see and read the obituary of a seventeen year old Salvation Army girl. This girl’s last words were,
“Weak is the effort of my heart,
And cold my warmest thought,
But when I see Thee as Thou art
I’ll praise Thee as I ought.” (John Newton)
It was a new experience to Elsie, to hear of someone outside her own restricted denominational circle, who also loved her Saviour, and her heart went out to the dying girl for her humility. This Salvation Army lass, three years younger than herself, knew that the effort of her heart to serve the Lord were weak. That is a great discovery to make. But there was more, she knew that soon she would be seeing her Saviour and then she would praise him as she ought to be praising him now (Elsie Dawson, “The Hidden Pathway,” compiled by G.D.Buss, Gospel Standard Trust Publications, 2001, p.46).
I wish you could all read Edward Griffin’s mighty sermon on the text found in verse 10 of the previous chapter, “for when I am weak, then am I strong.” (Life and Sermons of Edward Griffin, Volume 2, Banner of Truth, pp.208 – 222) Griffin was a New Englander who died in 1837, and probably the work of no preacher in those states was blessed as greatly as his to the conversion of so many people. He did it all by never losing consciousness of his Christian weakness. How much we owe to our weaknesses! They make us seek the divine cordial and the heavenly tonic to keep us going. Listen to the apostle arraying his weakness before the Corinthian church: “To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered,, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world” (I Cors. 4:11-13). “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also be revealed in us” (2 Cors. 4:8-10).: “in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness … through glory and dishonour, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet now killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Cors. 6:4-10).
Paul was no superman prostrating the nations by the power of his own arm, but a weakling subduing the enemy’s champion with a sling and a stone in the name of the God of the armies of Israel. Paul was a poor worm unable to sustain himself, enduring violent persecution with unresisting meekness and faith, and that was the means God used to convince thousands and extend the kingdom of Christ. Paul took pleasure in being an earthen vessel, in having a thorn in the flesh, and in undergoing all that degradation for Christ, because they gave opportunity for God’s power to be glorified in him. Paul would say to any sympathiser, “It’s perfectly all right. I never feel my graces so active nor my spiritual joy so high as when I am suffering for his sake.” When did the three Old Testament Christians see the Son of God most clearly? When he walked with them in the burning fiery furnace. Ordinary Christians are most strong in their faith when they are suffering for Christ. When we most feel our weakness we turn to Christ for strength and are strong. We are never so pure as when we cry, “Wash me Saviour, or I die!” We are never so strong in the power and grace of the Redeemer as when we feel the pressure of our afflictions and know we can only survive in union with the Lord Jesus.
Throughout our Christian lives God is seeking to loose us from a proud dependence on ourselves. He uses everything to create that dependence on himself. When he sees we need strength, he gives it; pardon, he gives it; comfort, he gives it; worldly goods, he gives them; affliction, he gives it. He is at work. We cannot guide ourselves, our vision is too blinkered and so he guides us. He blocks up our way. He upsets our plans. He turns us back much against our will, heedless of our protest. We are weak, but he is mighty. We are foolish, but he is wise. We know in part while he knows everything. So in all our conflicts, and in all our guilt we can only resort to God’s strength, to God’s grace, to God in Christ who is our all in all. He uses everything to achieve that dependence on him. That is progressive sanctification.
John Berridge of Everton, that mighty 18th century preacher, compared his growing dependence on Christ to leaning on a walking stick: “Once, Sir, I went to Jesus like a coxcomb, and gave myself fine airs; fancying that if he were something, so was I; if he had merit, so had I. And, Sir, I used him as a healthy man will use a walking staff, lean an ounce upon it, or stroll with it in the air. But now he is my whole crutch; no foot can stir a step without him. He is my all, as he ought to be, if he will become my Saviour; and bids me cast (not some but) all my care upon him” (John Berridge, Works, Volume 1, 1838, p.248)
This is the spirit which we should cherish. This is the weakness that makes us strong. We will go on relying on ourselves until we despair of our own strength. We shall never rest on Christ until we cease to lean upon ourselves. We shall never draw down power from heaven till we rest in Christ. In the same proportion as we feel our utter weakness and go out of ourselves to rest on his strength, we shall be strong. Was Paul inactive when he was weak in Christ? Was there ever a Christian who worked as hard as he did? In labours he was more abundant. The Christian race is not for the sluggard. We must wrestle, and fight, and run, and endure hardness as good soldiers of Christ, but the point is we are doing so with the strength which Another gives. Once we rely on ourselves, and our name, and brain, and reputation and influence, we are lost!
Let me illustrate this by reference to Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones. During his life he was offered honorary doctorates. He is said to have declined them because he was satisfied with having a doctorate from London University. More important perhaps was his rejection of honours as part of his belief that academic honours and preferment might easily be corrupting. An honorary doctorate encouraged a feeling of personal strength. It could well draw a man away from dependence on Christ. Consider the scandal in the USA last month surrounding the publication of more of the conversations of President Nixon’s secret tapes. His conversations with a famous evangelist have now been printed. In them Nixon expresses his contempt for the Jews at some length, and this evangelist firmly agrees with him. The despising words are shocking. The old evangelist this month has offered not one but two profound apologies and expressions of regret for his silence in saying nothing to counter Nixon’s anti-Semitism, but the damage has been done. Far from his courting the friendship of the White House resulting in the furtherance of the gospel these secret tapes now reveal how much the evangelist was compromised by walking the corridors of power. The weapons of our warfare are not carnal but spiritual, and only by maintaining a consciousness of our utter weakness can we possibly serve our God faithfully. “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.”
ii] By God’s power we live with God to serve the church. (v.4).
So, here is a man living by the power of God. There is blatant sin tolerated in the Corinthian church. Paul will not ignore it. He spells out the wickedness plainly as a loving friend speaking of being “grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they had indulged” (2 Cors. 12:21). That is the sin, not envy of another woman’s hat, and not some boisterous laughter after a Sunday service – nothing minor. There was wickedness going on and there was no repentance. Paul tells them he knows, and he does so as a dear friend (12:19), who spends himself for them and loves them (12:15).
But he is not prepared to base any action on rumour, especially of sexual misconduct which is done in private. Are there witnesses? He quotes Deuteronomy 19:15, “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses,” and if two people flatly contradict one another and there are no witnesses, then the church will have to take care about taking sides. Paul will also bring to their remembrance earlier warnings which he gave them when he was with them (v.2) and which he now repeats, and if the same wickedness is going on he will not spare those he spoke to earlier. He will not spare them because he is conscious that through the discipline of the leaders of the church Christ is speaking and acting, and “He is not weak in dealing with you” (v3). When Christ visited the Corinthian church a few years earlier many were struck with sickness and some were put to sleep in the grave. Christ was not weak when he comes with his rod to unrepentant professing Christians. The apostle makes it all perfectly clear. He is up front with them. He is not going to surprise and shock them at a church meeting by raising matters of such import without any notice. He spreads out before them the sin, the lack of repentance and what is going to happen when he comes if nothing is changed.
These are not the words of a weak man, are they? Here is a man who can say, “we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him to serve you” (v.4). Paul was not afraid of them because he was doing what the Lord Jesus tells his people to do in Matthew 18. Paul had the strength that comes from a wise and faithful adherence to the Word of God. Paul was doing all this by the strength of Christ.
My brethren, we face a very numerous enemy. They are like the Midian army filling all the valley “as grasshoppers for multitude.” But one shout of faith, “The sword of the Lord and of Gideon!” will do more to disperse them than anything else. O that this lesson were written in our hearts! It would do more for our usefulness in the kingdom of Christ than all other things. This is the secret for the church surviving in the 21st century. This truth of our felt weakness being the grounds of receiving strength from Christ will accomplish all things. Supported by its power, “he that is feeble shall be as David, and the house of David shall be as God.” They “shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed and be thou cast into the sea,” and it shall be done. “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” We are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him to serve you.
24th March 2002 GEOFF THOMAS