2 Corinthians 5:11-13 “Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in what is seen in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. If we are out of our mind, it is for the sake of God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.”
In Pilgrim’s Progress, early on in his journey to the Celestial City, Christian comes across Interpreter’s House and there he is shown a number of scenes which display different aspects of true religion. For example, he is shown a very godly man with a book in his hand and his eyes lifted up to heaven, a dusty room swept clean only after water had been sprinkled on it, two different sisters called Patience and Passion, a fire burning brightly though water is being poured over it, and a man in an iron cage: some of those are memorable images. In this text of ours Paul gives us some pictures of what it means to be a Christian.
1. A CHRISTIAN LIVES CONSISTENTLY BEFORE BOTH GOD AND MEN
“What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience” (v.11). Paul knew what he was. That was a wonderful discovery. He did not define himself as men do as being the son of certain parents, or as someone’s husband, or as the father of certain children, or even with reference to what his career was. He had come to understood who he was through knowing who God is. “What we are is plain to God,” Paul says. “I don’t know why those heretics went to Galatia and caused trouble in the church, but God knows. I don’t know why there have been times when I’ve been pressed down beyond measure, but God knows. I don’t know why I am having to spend this long time in prison, but it’s plain to God.” Paul lived his life knowing God, and thus he had come to know himself. So Paul had an anchor to his life.
I have told you Frank Peretti’s illustration. A man awakes to find himself standing in a pitch black room. There is no light whatsoever. He cannot see his hand directly before his eyes. He shuffles forward gingerly, arms outstretched, and then he bumps into a chair. He walks two paces north of it and two paces back to the chair; two paces to the south and back; two to the east, and also two to the west. Then he goes ten paces in each direction, always returning to the chair, and then twenty paces. He is mapping out the dimensions of the space he finds himself in. He can do it because he has a fixed reference point. What a fool he would be should he suddenly pick up the chair and carry it about with him. He would no longer possess an external point of reference like the unchanging Pole star. That is the plight of modern man. To him God is dead, and so men do not know their origin, their destiny or their purpose in life. Men without God are alone in vast space. There was a tramp who came to this town, and slept out of doors in all weathers. He drank too much and was so lost that he had even lost his name. ‘Taffy’ was the name by which he was known. That is not a name. That is a nickname. But when God began to deal with him and he began to gain victory over his drinking and came regularly to church he finally started to know who he was, and he began to use his own name again. A Christian has this anchor, a fixed point in the consistent nature of a faithful Lord who is from everlasting to everlasting and who takes interest in us.
In the beginning this God created the heavens and the earth. This God has given us in the Bible a true story of what we are as human beings. We are not accidents or junk. God made us in his image and designed us for eternity. But many things have gone wrong because of the sin of our father Adam and our own sins. They have brought dreadful evil and devastating damage into God’s creation and into our own lives. But that is not the end of the story. God has also told us how he has set out to rescue us from our ruin. He has spoken to men through Moses and the prophets, but his mightiest words and deeds are seen in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ his Son. He calls a people to himself, the family of God, and he gives a happy ending to that story, a heavenly home for all who belong to his family. So Paul knew what he was in reference to all of that. He had no problem about his own identity. He would tell anyone, “I am a man made in the image of God. I am a sinner. I am a redeemed child of God, one in whom Jesus Christ dwells. I belong to all who know and love this living God.” C.S.Lewis put it like this, “It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to his Personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.”
If you don’t know God there is no way you can know yourself. You will always feel confused and fragmented. Your life will not be plain to yourself unless it is first plain to God. You cannot define your own character. You need the character God has chosen for you. We discover ourselves when we hear from the Bible the story of our creation, our fall and our redemption. Your parents, your career, your spouse, your children – all may make their contribution to what you are, but they are not the sum of your story. Your sins and failures and heartbreaks also have had some part in making you what you are, but they are not the last word. God has that. No woman is simply a shoplifter. No man is simply a fraudster. No child is simply an academic failure. Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as the unshakable reference point in life, even when many aspects of life are changing. Then things will happen you did not dream could happen. Once you know God you can make sense of life and you will find an identity and a purpose. The bigger your troubles have been, the more God’s power has shone forth in giving you the victory. The worse your sins have been, the more God’s mercy has been magnified when he has forgiven and transformed you. It is the most releasing truth to know “what we are is plain to God.” A husband may be a mystery to his own wife. I may be a bit of a mystery to myself and to others, but I am not a mystery to God. He knows me altogether, and he loves me completely. What I am is plain to God.
But you notice what Paul goes on to say, “and I hope it is also plain to your conscience” (v.11). Today the man in the world is considered psychologically healthy when what he is in his own eyes is identical with what he is in the eyes of others. Wherever he shows a consistency of attitude towards himself and towards other people then he is considered a well-adjusted and self-integrated individual. But for Christian maturity more than that is needed. You also need to bring in your relationship with God so that what you are is plain to yourself and plain to others but also plain to God. You hear the words of Paul here, “What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience” (v.11). What you saw in Paul is what you got. He was a man of integrity. He behaved in private as he behaved in public because whether in private or in public God was with him. This is the one who told a slave, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ” (Ephs. 6:5), and that is how he himself acted toward everyone. Paul was conscious of God’s presence always. What effect did this have on his conduct?
There was an uprightness about Paul. He was straightforward and honourable in his dealings with people. There was an honesty of deed and word. If that had been absent it would have been the end of his life as a preacher. His sermons might have been fervent, and his man-management brilliant, his system of visiting very efficient but if men felt they could not trust his word, or that Paul was loose in money matters, or that he got involved in debt then all his ministry would have gone for nothing. There is a standard which the men of the world can appreciate. They look for uprightness in one another, but they look for more than that in a church officer. Are they wrong to do so? We preach to them that they need to repent of their sins and change their lives. We point them to a better kind of life. Are we ourselves living it? If you fail in even the commonest virtues it is a mockery to preach the heavenly life to others. If we have not proved ourselves faithful in these least things, who will commit to our trust the greatest? There must be an uprightness before God and men.
There was also a simplicity about Paul. That is, he was single-minded in motive, in aim, and in conduct. There was a transparency about his life with no hint of the double tongue, the double heart, and double dealings. The Lord Jesus commends to us the lack of deviousness of an infant. The little child is what she is. She is a sinner but there is an absence of guile. So it is with Christian simplicity. We have to make it our constant goal to mortify every underhand motive, and every unreal word. Yes, every unreal word. How many unreal words do we speak from the pulpit or in pastoral visitation? A preacher will tell a member, “God will heal you, sister.” How does he know that? It may be her appointed time to die. In all our common everyday duties we are God’s ambassadors and the Lord’s diplomats, so there can be no place for sweet talk. Single- mindedness, and guilelessness are the heart and soul of being a servant of God.
There was also a consciousness that Paul was what he was by the grace of God. All the wisdom and gifts that he displayed he had received from the Lord. So he had nothing to boast in. There is the story told of a man who purchased at great cost a Stradivarius violin and announced the night on which he would play it at a concert. The hall was full to capacity, and the audience was gripped by his technique and the beauty of his playing. There was rapturous applause at the interval. He bowed, and then he went across to a chair and savagely brought the violin down across it repeatedly, smashing the instrument into pieces. The audience was stunned. Then he announced to them that that violin was not the Stradivarius at all but a beginner’s violin thrown away by a school worth twenty pounds. The second half of the concert he told them he would be playing with his 200,000 Pound violin. The point he was making so dramatically was that the genius of the pieces played did not lie in the violin manufacturer but in himself. The same is true for the Christian. If there is a sense of God’s truth and presence and a renewed love for the Lord Jesus that comes from a sermon it is because God has been at work in the meeting. He has taken up a twenty quid preacher and used him to make Christ his Son beautiful in the eyes of men. It is this great theme of this letter, that the treasure of the Lord Jesus is in earthern vessels. Of course, we have no confidence in relics, shrouds, pieces of the cross, the rod of Moses and the slingshot of David. I have stood in the Trefecca museum on Whitefield’s own open air pulpit, and I have preached in Lloyd-Jones’ pulpits, but I did not become an inspired preacher because of those contacts. Christian ministers owe everything they are and have to the grace of God coming upon them and using them that very day. “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one” (I Cor. 3:5). A Christian is conscious that man is nothing and that God is everything. So a Christian lives consistently before both God and men. He must be able to say with Paul that what we are is righteous, single-minded and dependent on grace before God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience.
2. A CHRISTIAN IS CAREFUL WHEN HE CHOOSES TO COMMEND HIMSELF.
“We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again,” (v.12). The emphasis here is on the word ‘again’ because he has been commending himself to them in this letter, and he is concerned about protesting his true apostleship again. Might it not create a backlash? He has already declared that his ministry had been a ministry of the Spirit, not of the letter (3:6), and that it is his very words that are the aroma of life to those being saved and death to those who perish (2:15&16). He has assured them that he has set forth the truth plainly (4:2). He has reminded them of his sufferings for the Saviour, that he has been persecuted and struck down so that he is carrying around in his body the death of Jesus (4:9&10). He has all the marks of a potential martyr, but he tells them that he longed for heaven. Paul has set forth his credentials as a preacher and an apostle in claims like these, and he will repeat this later in the letter.
His opponents are ready to cry out, “You boaster! If all your life is plain to our consciences why do you need to keep saying this?” Is this truly boasting? We believe that Paul would reply, “but I am not commending myself for my own sake.” Then why was he continually reminding them of his authority over them? Because he had been appointed an apostle of Jesus Christ, and so he had authority not only over the church in Corinth but over every single Christian for the remainder of the history of the Church. The apostles are the foundations on which the church is erected. For your redemption and your growth in grace it is essential that you know, believe and obey what Paul writes in his letters. These epistles have been a strength to Christians for almost 2,000 years, for example, John Knox’s son-in-law died reading Romans chapter 8, his finger on the verses at the heart of that mighty chapter. You will never be a useful Christian if you consider the writing of the apostle to have second class status.
Peter Barnes, the Australian Presbyterian minister and author, begins his book “The Gospel: Did Paul and Jesus Agree?” (Evangelical Press, 1994), by reminding us that “in 1906, in the aftermath of Russia’s defeat by Japan in the war of 1905, the magisterial Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, in a fit of anti-Semitic patriotism, lamented, ‘I should like to write something to prove how the teaching of Christ, who was not a Jew, were replaced by the very different teachings of the apostle Paul, who was a Jew.’ Mercifully, Tolstoy never seems to have written such a work but, in one form or another, it has become widely accepted that Paul departed radically from the teachings of Jesus” (op cit p.7). My father’s twin brother was a Congregationalist minister trained in their theological college in Brecon around 1930 and that was the approach to the apostle Paul that its students were taught there, with the consequence that he (and others like him) refused to preach from the letters of Paul for much of their ministries. The influence of a 19th century writer called Ernest Renan was still pervading Wales during the disastrous 1930s. Renan had written this, ‘True Christianity, which will last for ever, comes from the Gospels, not from the epistles of Paul.’ Think of the deprivation to my uncle and his congregations created by such ideas disparaging the Son of God’s own chosen apostle Paul. But these ideas are not uncommon today. I had to purchase a copy of that book of Peter Barnes last month and send it to a lady who was being confused by her vicar who is teaching these very theories to his congregation today. How grieved the Spirit is by such disrespect. There is no hope of his blessings coming upon a church while modernist unbelief prevails.
It is a crucial issue. If you leave aside the anonymous epistle to the Hebrews, thirteen of the New Testament’s twenty-seven books were written by the apostle Paul. If you believe that he also wrote the letter to the Hebrews that means that over half the number of the books in the New Testament were written by Paul. If Paul misunderstood and corrupted the teachings of Jesus, then much of the New Testament would be rejected as unreliable.
That was why the apostle was so concerned firmly to commend his apostleship to the Christians in Corinth. He could not yield on an issue like that. He had been assisted by the Spirit of the Lord Jesus to write his letters, and he knew that all the authority of the Lord Jesus lay behind them, as if the Lord were saying, “As the Father has sent me, so, Paul, I have sent you.” Paul was conscious he was under the direct authority of Christ, and so, at the conclusion of his second letter to the Thessalonians he writes, “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (2 Thess. 3:14&15). That binds our attitude to Christians, especially preachers today. So Paul had to go on commending to the Corinthians his office as an apostle. Yet there is the problem which every preacher faces of over-kill. You can protest a point too much.
Let us examine two fascinating and famous verses adjacent to one another in the book of Proverbs and see how they can help us. Proverbs 26:4 and 5, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.”
The author of these proverbs has put them side by side to make us think about the balance to be maintained between being silent, and answering. The men in Corinth who opposed Paul and tried to encourage others to resist his apostolic authority were being foolish. A fool in the book of Proverbs is “one who is foolish in his thinking, attitudes and behaviour because he is foolish in his relationship to God. The word refers to those who have deliberately become obstinate or stubborn; to those who have resisted God’s truth in favour of their own ideas” (Jay E. Adams, “Maintaining the Delicate Balance in Christian Living,” Timeless Texts, Woodruff, SC, 1998, p.57). So Paul occasionally found himself having to decide how to respond to them and their foolish ideas. How would these verses in Proverbs help him?
Paul must not answer a fool according to his folly, but at the same time he must answer him. How does Paul do two seemingly contradictory things? The solution is this. One must never answer a fool in the same manner in which he acts or speaks. Paul dare not argue meanly and speak sharply and proudly to these fools, but he was to answer those foolish opponents according to the content of what they were doing or saying. It was not right to stand by and allow the fool to get away with foolishness. He could not let the fool think he had prevailed in his foolish ideas.
So Paul did not shout and curse at his opponents, “Yes, yes, yes. I am a true apostle.” He was to be conscious of the danger of boasting about his status and the blessings God had given to him. Paul never adopted the tactics of the foolish people who resisted him. But Paul had to show them how foolishly they were acting, and he sought in every way to minimise their influence in the Corinthian congregation. Paul exposed their folly and made as sure as he could that their errors didn’t prevail. So we are not to adopt or imitate the manner of fools, but we may reply to the matter that fools bring up against the truth. It is the balance of Proverbs 15:1 we are to maintain, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
There are places in the letters of Paul where he chooses to defend himself when his enemies accuse him of wrong-doing. He writes, for example, to the Thessalonians and he reminds them of his integrity, “the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives … you know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed – God is our witness” (I Thess. 2:3,5). There is a place for self-defence in the Bible. Didn’t the Lord appeal to his observers, saying, “Which of you accuses me of doing anything wrong?” There is that great farewell speech of the prophet and judge Samuel in 1 Samuel 12: he acknowledges that he has become old and gray. Then he says to them, “Here I stand. Testify against me in the presence of the Lord and his anointed. Whose ox have I taken? Whose donkey have I taken? Whom have I cheated? Whom have I oppressed? From whose hand have I accepted a bribe to make me shut my eyes? If I have done any of these, I will make it right” (I Sam. 12:3). The people reply that he has never cheated or oppressed them. He has been a man who has reflected the righteous Lord whom he served.
There are times when ministers of the gospel may need to speak up and defend themselves against accusations. There was an occasion when a woman accused John Macdonald of Ferintosh, the ‘Apostle of the North’, of being the father of her illegitimate child. He immediately called a libel and a church court interviewed him and interviewed her. He commended his utter innocence to the church, and she soon acknowledged that she was lying and that he was not the child’s father. But there are other situations when a Christian under accusation is silent. Some charges are delicate, complicated and shadowy, and public defence would leave the matter worse than before. There are cases when a humble silence is the Christian’s only answer. He will say, “We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again.” When Paul knew that there were Christians in Rome who were preaching Christ out of envy and rivalry and selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they could stir up trouble for him while he was in chains, he noted it, but said that the important thing was that, whatever the motive, Christ was being preached, and because of that he rejoiced. He had other things to do than try to being discipline to bear on them. Let many things pass. Men are immature. You were once immature and people were patient with you.
3. A TRUE CHRISTIAN SHOULD BE THE BOAST OF HIS FELLOW BELIEVERS.
We are “giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than what is in the heart” (v.12). There is a false glorying focused in man himself, his intelligence and wit and eloquence and accomplishments. There was a time when unconverted Paul was proud of not being a Gentile, and he boasted in the fact that he had been circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; with regard to the law, he was a Pharisee. There was a man just like him mentioned by the Lord Christ, who stood up in the Temple so that he could be seen by more people, and he prayed aloud with himself boasting in the fact that he was not like other men: he fasted and he prayed. The confidence of such men was in their external religious privileges. They were utterly sanctimonious and hypocritical, glorying in their religious observances, taking pride in what could be seen, rather than what was in their hearts, which were full of uncleanness.
But there is a true glorying in what the grace of God has done in the lives of sinners. We are proud of Christ and everything his great salvation has wrought. We boast in everything our Lord has done. Think of the apostles’ letters and how every epistle he wrote with one exception begins with him rejoicing in all that God has done for them. How proud he is of them. He tells the churches at Colossae, Philippi, Thessalonica and Rome, “Whenever I think of you I glory in you. I thank God for every quality you possess. I remember without ceasing your work of faith and labour of love and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. I think of the love you have for all the saints, and the fellowship in the gospel we have enjoyed until now.” Paul is glorying in them. He does not do that for the church in Galatia because that congregation was abandoning the gospel, but that makes it all the more striking that he is so proud of the graces displayed in the other places. He is so encouraged by the qualities they possess and the faith they show, and he rehearses their virtues before their eyes in his letters. Sometimes we are so afraid to say to each other, “I thank and praise God for you.” We are so reluctant to acknowledge the wonderful change God has wrought in the lives of other Christians, until they are dead, and then they write lavish obituaries. But the apostle Paul did praise men, and even more than that, he gave them many opportunities to be proud of him.
You think again of the Lord Jesus gathering those young men together on the mountain and in Matthew chapters 5, 6 and 7 preaching to them. He says, “You are the salt of the earth.” He glories in them. They had no qualifications, and they had not yet proved themselves. They had not preached one sermon, and suffered nothing for the sake of Christ. They were flawed human beings, and yet Jesus tells them that this is their status, “You are the light of the world.” He said it to their faces. Wasn’t there a danger of their becoming proud? Perhaps there was, but the Mighty Counselor said it. He did not mind that they would become proud of believing the gospel, and receiving Christ into their hearts, and preaching him to the nations as the light of the world. That was not going to fill them with arrogance. There is a legitimate glorying in the messengers of the cross, and the resurrected Redeemer who s upported and helped them, and the fact that the Holy Spirit indwelt them and gave them gifts and created fruit in their lives. The Lord Jesus told these people, “I am not going to call you my servants but my friends, because you really matter to me. I do love you, and as you preach me to the nations I will build my church on that rock of your testimony to me.”
The apostle gloried in the steadfastness of his fellow Christians, and their growth and the fact that everyone in one huge district knew about their faith. He was so proud of their love and patience and hope, and he wanted them to be aware of the graces they had been given because they were the result of God working in them. They were a consequence of union with Christ. But Paul also gave them an opportunity to take pride in him. They could look at this converted persecutor, this Pharisee of the Pharisees, and say to one another, “What an extraordinary thing God did when he saved him! What truth is in his letters! What a sense of God is about him!” They felt loved when they were with him, and they would have given their very eyes to him because they gloried so much in him. They wanted him to know that what he was doing was appreciated, and so worth-while, so very valuable for the church. The apostle Paul himself needed those assurances, to know that he was loved. He was so grateful for their kindnesses to him because the devil was always telling Paul that he had achieved nothing and his whole life was useless, and that after he left a place like Galatia they quickly turned against him.
Think of the prophet Elijah, having that utterly magnificent time on Mount Carmel. You would have thought that he would never be discouraged again after experiencing such a wonderful triumph. That ego-boosting experience you would imagine would result in a ten year high. Yet in a matter of hours he is as low as he has ever been, and he needs to be encouraged by an angelic messenger, sleep, warm food and the still small voice of God. So it is with us. We tell others how proud we are of what God has done in them and we create opportunities for people to take pride in fellow Christians. We will organise a farewell tea when a member leaves. We will have a pastor’s anniversary service, and on occasions like that we are doing what Paul speaks of here, “giving you an opportunity to take pride in us.”
But the purpose of these words of Paul is not only to encourage the Corinthians to boast in him but to warn them against taking pride in what is external rather than what is in the heart. Let’s be careful of that. Things that are seen are the easiest things for the devil to counterfeit. There may be an admiration for us shown by members of the congregation. That is apt to make us pleased with what we have done, and so soon it turns into pride. An admiring congregation hanging on men’s lips is a danger to every preacher. We appreciate the praise, of course, but let us not take it too seriously. Members of a congregation think that giving praise is what they are supposed to do. They have probably never heard the great preachers. Of course we fear criticism, but we have to abhor the pleasure we feel in hearing men’s appreciation, and the fondling in our hearts of men’s praises. When John Bunyan was told that he had preached an admirable sermon he said that the devil had told him so before he got down the pulpit stairs.
There are seasons of remarkable prosperity. How we long for such. A dozen of us meet each Friday morning at 7 for an hour and we pray earnestly for revival, that Satan’s kingdom be pulled down. But the blessed history of such awakenings in Wales is also a history of fearful temptations in preacher’s lives. There has not been a century in which some leading men have not been destroyed by pride at such awakenings. The best of men can hardly fortify their hearts against the enthusiasm that comes from floods of blessing. The only cure is to constantly remind themselves of their vileness in the sight of God. Often God has had to bring a thorn in the flesh to deal with the dangers of taking pride in what is seen. A call to serve God in some position of prestige comes, and that call is for a man of experience, but that very calling can make a man fall into the snare of the devil. So the gap between vice and virtue is as thin as a razor’s edge and nowhere more than in a matter like this. A Christian glories in the grace given to other Christians, and even provides opportunity for them to take pride in him, and yet he is aware of how easy it is for men to take pride in mere externals.
4. A CHRISTIAN IS BESIDE HIMSELF FOR GOD, AND SELF-CONTROLLED FOR MEN
“If we are out of our mind, it is for the sake of God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you” (v.13). Paul had known ecstasy hadn’t he? Not epilepsy, and not excessive self-advertising as if he were a religious maniac, and not his zeal in speaking to Festus who accused him of being mad because Paul was so concerned that Festus repented and believed in the Lord Jesus. Paul had been ‘out of his mind’ certainly on one occasion which we know about very vividly. He tells us in chapter 12 of this letter of the time when he was caught up to paradise and “heard inexpressible things that man is not permitted to tell” (I Cor. 12:4). Paul had been out of his mind, or beside himself, in the body or apart from the body he did not know, and that had resulted in him being cut off from humanity. He could only relate to God. He was even refused permission to reveal what he had seen and heard. He had been out of his mind for the sake of God. He had been there. He had done that. If his opponents in Corinth were claiming that that was the essence or the apex of Christianity he had impeccable credentials.
There seems to be some evidence that ecstatic mystery religions had been the background of most of them. He writes to them at the beginning of his long section on the gifts of the Spirit in I Corinthians 12, 13 and 14 and he says, “You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols” (I Cor. 12:2). Paul is saying to them, “you were swept off” or it can be translated “you would be seized by some power which drove you to those dumb heathen gods” (NEB margin). They were simply overpowered and carried away by spiritual forces when they were pagans. That is how he begins this section on “spiritual things” in Corinth. He is making it plain that ecstasy and seizure in not necessarily Christian, or paramountly spiritual.
Yet in our text he tells them that he knew what it was to be beside himself for God. He is not saying that it is something evil to be ecstatic for God. Consider the Lord Christ where we are told of him, “At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth…” (Lk. 10:21). Paul had known such experiences, but they was not the badge of being a genuine apostle. He did not use this fact to promote himself as a super-Christian. He does not appeal horizontally to the church and say, “Treat me with respect,” because of his vertical ecstatic experiences. “If we are out of our mind, it is for the sake of God” (v.13), not to gain a hearing and an audience in the church. Joy unspeakable and full of glory are the wonderful benefits that come into our lives from the grace of Jesus. Sometimes before God we may be lost in wonder, love and praise. He may shed his love abroad in our hearts.
Then he adds this, “if we are in our right mind, it is for you” (v.13). If we are self-controlled then it is for the benefit of the church. Paul’s desire was to be thoughtful before a congregation. This is enormously important in the New Testament. Think of Paul insisting on this repeatedly, saying such things to the Corinthians as, “Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying. You will just be speaking into the air” (I Cor. 14:9). Paul says this, “So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind. I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind” (I Cor. 14:15). He tells them, “in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue” (I Cor. 14:19). He tells them just two people should speak in a meeting, or at the very most, three. He tells them that the mark of a Spirit-filled church is that everything is done in a fitting and orderly way. He would not allow a man to burst into prophecy after two or three have already spoken claiming, “I couldn’t help it because I am full of the Spirit:” Paul would rebuke him saying, “The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets” (I Cor. 14:32). You are in control of whether you open your mouth, make a prophesy, speak in tongues or if you are silent. Paul also tells them that all women should be silent, in a Spirit-filled church.
Paul was self-controlled. That is one of the fruit of the Spirit. He was in his right mind. He could not have been a pastor-preacher and evangelist if he were anything else. What is the supreme mark of the Spirit coming on a man? What are the words he says, given to him by the Spirit? Go back to the opening of those three great chapters on the theme of spiritual gifts, I Corinthians 12, 13 and 14. Paul begins in chapter 12, “You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (I Cor. 12:2&3). The classic work which the Holy Spirit creates is an intelligent and thoughtful confession that Jesus is Lord. The man who confesses Jehovah Jesus is the one who has experienced the deep work of the Spirit. “The Spirit does not exhibit himself supremely in sublimating the ego, in emptying it, removing it, overpowering it, or in ecstasy extinguishing it or thrilling it, but in intelligently, intelligibly, christocentrically using it” (Frederick Dale Bruner, “A Theology of the Holy Spirit,” Eerdmans, 1970, p. 287). Paul’s opponents had had a spectacular ego-enthralling understanding of the Spirit, but Paul is here reemphasizing the place of the mind and self-control and the understanding for these Christians.
When the Spirit of God comes upon a man he speaks and says, “Jesus is Lord.” The Spirit bears witness to the incarnate, flesh-bearing, human Jesus who wept and hungered and thirsted and slept and grew weary and fell to the ground and prayed until his sweat was like drops of blood. The Spirit makes a person say that that weak mortal was God. In other words, the Spirit bears witness to the human. You experience the Holy Spirit supremely in your desire to honour Jesus in the plain ascription to him of deity. That is what God the Holy Spirit creates.
So what does Paul do when the Spirit comes upon him? He persuades men to make that confession, that Jesus is Lord, and he does so with self-control. He sees he has a weak brother before him and he adapts his message to him. When he is before Jews he adapts the same message to them. When he is in Athens facing the Greeks he adapts the same message that Jesus is Lord and Judge of mankind to them. When Paul turns to God in the secret place at the end of the Lord’s Day he may be in an ecstasy of joy that ten people had come to him and confessed that in the past weeks they had believed that Jesus was Lord. Paul was beside himself with thanks to God, as many of us would be, but that joy in the Holy Spirit before God did not legitimate his ministry or give him any more authority before the congregation. Those are the things of the private realm where he closes the door and speaks to God in secret and the God who hears in secret rewards Paul openly.
Think of the Great Awakening and Jonathan Edwards in New England. What a mighty intellect he had, lucid, profound and reasoned in his preaching and writing. But before God in his room, or alone in the forest, he or his wife too could be utterly overwhelmed at the glory and greatness of the Lord falling to the ground in a faint, but not when he was in the pulpit. That is the balance Paul speaks of here, “If we are out of our mind, it is for the sake of God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.” You meet it again and again when you read the lives of the founders of Calvinistic Methodism in Wales, or in the experience of George Whitefield. In this evangelist’s life you are introduced to a man who painted houses called William Holland. He obtained the copy of Luther’s Galatians which he gave to Charles Wesley, and then he sat down as Wesley read aloud Luther’s opening words of introduction – his Preface. Holland wrote in his diary that night an account of what happened: “At the words, ‘What, have we then nothing to do? No! nothing! but only accept of Him, “Who of God is made unto us wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption”‘, there came such a power over me as I cannot well describe; my great burden fell off in an instant; my heart was so filled with peace and love that I burst into tears. I almost thought I saw our Saviour! My companions, perceiving me so affected, fell on their knees and prayed. When I afterwards went into the street, I could scarcely feel the ground I trod upon” (quoted in Arnold Dallimore, “George Whitefield,” Volume 1, Banner of Truth, 1970, p.183). There were the words of Luther, speaking in his right mind the truth of a free justification, for the benefit of William Holland and any others who would hear. There was the joy in understanding them displayed by Holland as he fell before God in thanksgiving, his burden of sin falling off, and his heart filled with peace and love, weeping and walking home his feet scarcely touching the ground – out of his mind for the sake of God. That is the balance of experiential religion.
29th April 2001 GEOFF THOMAS