2 Corinthians 6:3-10 “We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: 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; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; 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 not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
No preacher can read these words without a terrible sense of failure. A minister can hardly speak on a passage like this without blushing, feeling an utter hypocrite. His congregation sees the luxury and ease of his life. He has grown fat in the ministry. There seems little contact between what Paul describes here as a credible ministry and the ministry of their own pastor. How could a man justify spending a half an hour sermon on this text simply explaining to a congregation that things were utterly different in the first century compared to the twenty-first, or in extolling the extraordinary grace of the apostle in such a way that the spotlight of these verses is never focused on we preachers ourselves? It seems to me that there are few other passages in the Bible more important for ministers of the gospel and contemporary Christians to be studying than these words, even if it should bring many of us to the point of resignation from our calling. Unless this passage makes a minister cry out, “I have been an unprofitable servant,” then he has not understood it.
The passage lends itself to more of ‘a glorified Bible study’ than a sermon, and I regret that, but if at the end we have a picture of what the New Testament ministry is all about I shall bear that criticism stoically because this is a peculiar passage on which to preach, as one phrase is tossed out after another. I am not prepared to take a number of Sundays going through it and so we will survey the whole today.
This passage is a description of how every normal pastor lives at times of great outpourings of the Spirit when the church is aggressively evangelising the world, many people are turning from sin to Christ, and the world hates it. At the centre of such awakenings are revived pastors, however you choose to describe them – Spirit-filled preachers, true servants of Jesus, greatly-used and greatly-blessed men of God, the Reformed Pastor. This passage brings together all the ingredients of an awakening ministry. When there is a revival of true religion in our nation it will be characterised by the emergence of the men of God that Paul describes here. One despicable response to this passage is to set it alongside tele-evangelists (whom we hardly know) and use it simply to blow them away. Whereas its true purpose is not to destroy others but to make us – make me – cry, “Lord, is this how I live?” These words of the Holy Spirit must make us poor in spirit, and then cry out, “make me a real servant of God.” But Paul did not write this simply to whip preachers. The man who wrote these words was a sinner saved by grace. He did not attain his great usefulness because of his superior genius or extraordinary energy and health, but because of the grace of God. These words also contain a wonderful promise to every struggling discouraged pastor of what that same grace of God can do in him.
But one other obvious point must be made. We are not to imagine the apostle Paul lived a life of hardships and struggles while the rest of the congregation sat back in ease and prospered. There was no marked contrast between how preacher and people lived. They also entered into something of this lifestyle as described in these verses. They knew the blessedness of being persecuted for righteousness sake. That is the experience, to some degree, of all who would live godly lives in Christ Jesus. There can be no escape from that. Of course you can escape from this if you live a moderate religious life and sit under moderate ministry, but such a life is impossible to the true Christian. He must break the alabaster box of perfume and pour it all over the Saviour’s feet. He cries, “This one thing I do.” He claims, “For to me to live is Christ.” All such must enter the kingdom of God through many hardships. Paul has been pleading with his hearers not to receive the grace of God in vain, and here he shows that he himself had not receive it in vain. The way of life described here is the proof of that. Paul had a divinely authenticated and credible ministry.
1. THE MINISTER IS KNOWN BY EVIDENT MARKS.
There are actions in which no pastor must ever be involved, but there are also activities which define the man of God. You see both of these in the words which commence our text, “We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance” (vv.3&4). Paul tells us those things he doesn’t do – what would have discredited his entire ministry, and then what he doesn’t fail to do.
i] God’s servants put no stumbling blocks in anyone’s path. What does he mean by a stumbling block? For example, if some of your hearers discover that you believe that the cross of Christ is the only way of salvation then they could claim that that would be a stumbling block to them becoming a Christian because they are Muslims, modernists or materialists. That cannot be the meaning of this verse because we cannot and may not cease preaching the cross. Nor does the fear of putting down a stumbling block mean that we are silent about such a basic New Testament conviction as the one that forbids women from holding a ruling office in the congregation. In fact we know that every aspect of the Christian message offends some – whether it is the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, justification by faith, the infallibility of Scripture, the judgment of the lost – all such truths are stumbling blocks to different people. That does not mean we are never to mention them from the pulpit, or only apologetically and in a whisper! When Paul is talking about stumbling block he is not talking about people’s feelings being offended when they discover that we believe in blood transfusions, or we don’t believe that the Bible teaches total abstinence, or we do believe that there are two grounds for divorce, or in believers’ baptism, or in infant baptism etc. Those feelings of disapproval and disagreement are not the stumbling blocks that Paul is speaking of here.
Paul is saying we must not cause anyone to stumble into sin by our actions or teaching. We think of how David abused his authority as king in his relationship with Bathsheba. He put a stumbling block in her path, in the path of her husband, and even in the path of his own servants when he told them to put Uriah in the thick of the battle and desert him. David was discredited by his action. We think of the Judaizers going to Galatia and persuading the Christians there it was necessary to get circumcised in order to be saved – what a stumbling block. We think of the activity of the Nicolaitans in Ephesus, or the mischievous people in Pergamum who held to the teaching of Balaam, or the woman who was troubling the Thyatira church who was called ‘Jezebel’ and claimed to be a prophetess – people like that spent their lives putting stumbling blocks in the paths of Christians. What discreditable ministries!
Remember the words of the Lord Christ: “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matt. 17:18). You see the scene, down at the harbour, you are sitting there one evening and watching some men as they struggle loading a millstone by the small crane onto a fishing boat. Then they carry on board that boat a protesting man, bound hand and foot. They start the motor and they cast off, sailing down the harbour turning at the jetty and going out into the Bay. You watch through your binoculars and see that when they have gone out a mile they chain the man by his neck to the millstone, and then they stop the boat. They roll the millstone to the edge of the boat, along with the man, and with a push they send them both splashing down and down to the bottom of the sea. Why did he deserve such a fearful end? He was going to cause a little Christian, who trusted in Jesus, to sin. Drowning was better for him than the guilt and shame and punishment of what he was planning to do. So the first thing Paul refers to is the fact that when he had been in Corinth and ever since that time (it is a present activity he is mentioning) he and Timothy put no stumbling block in anyone’s path. He claims that his is a credible ministry because he had not tempted others to commit sin.
ii] God’s servants commended the ministry in every positive way, especially that a minister endures. “Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance;” (v.4). Notice that Paul is not commending himself as an example of a super-Christian. He is commending the ministry which he had received from the Lord. The word ‘ministry’ was clearly very important to him He refers to it twenty-three times in his letters. He treats it with the utmost respect. His ministry, not his person, is what matters. Ministers come and go. A few are ten talent men; most are five; a few are one talent men. God will do much with a five talent man who dedicates his whole ministry to the Lord as God’s servant. All over the world there are churches which have been built up by such men whose first calling has been to serve the Lord in everything.
Now there are Christians who have been let down by a number of preachers, and that can result in the very ministry itself being discredited in their eyes. If you have read the 19th century novels of Jane Austin, or Trollop, or George Elliot you meet in their pages vicars and Methodists who are all effete amateur scholars, huntsmen, gourmets, poets, fanatics, ranters, bigots and hypocrites – anything but sensible biblical preachers and pastors. It is no wonder that as a result of the abundance of such men for an earnest evangelical vicar of the Victorian period like J.N.Darby the very concept of the ministry itself became discredited. Darby was one of the men who started the group which became known as ‘Plymouth Brethren.’ They claim that no man has a call from God to enter the preaching ministry. Such a ministry did not exist. For the apostle Paul such rejection of the call of God would have been an utter disaster. Here he proceeds as a servant of God to commend to us the true ministry.
The one outstanding mark of the ministry is this, “great endurance.” You see that this has pride of place in this list; it is basically the heading for all that follows. You can understand this quite readily. Who knows about the ministry like a man who has accepted the divine commission, nurtured and trained the gift, and endured the life of the ministry for many years? Remember how the king of Aram was threatening to besiege and destroy Samaria and do all manner of things against its people, when the king of Israel curtly sent a message back to him, “One who puts on his armour should not boast like one who takes it off” (I Kings 20:11). When Paul was writing this letter he still wearing his armour and totally involved in the ministry. Paul was a survivor. He had suffered much as a servant of God, and so what he writes doesn’t come out of a textbook but out of his own experience.
If you have read the biography of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones you will be struck by such similar notes at the end of his life, a sense of wonder that he has endured to the end, he didn’t lose his way, he never fell into great sin, he never got involved in stunts, he stuck to the message of the gospel to the very end. Dr Ernest Kevan spoke to us of the last words of his own father. He said to his son, “The great truths of the gospel I have believed all my life. I believe them yet.” He had endured keeping the faith until his deathbed. Every trial Christians pass through is also a testing of our faith. God is saying to the minister, “Do you still believe that I am your loving Father, and working everything together for your good, and that I will supply all your need, and that I have brought you at this stage of your ministry into this testing time?” You recall it perfectly in the behaviour of two ministers at Philippi. Paul and Silas were in prison at midnight after wretched injustice, and scourging, and in the bottom dungeon in impenetrable darkness, with their feet in the stocks, uncertain what lay in their futures. Then and there, in their pain, at the midnight hour they are enduring. They are more than conquerors. They are singing praises to God so that the prison re-echoes with doxology. The true minister is characterised by great endurance.
In what areas does he endure? In every single area. Let us imagine that what we have in the verses before us is like a great stained glass window, and the picture it presents is of a true minister of the gospel. Imagine it: “The picture of a very grave person … and this was the fashion of it: it had eyes lifted up to heaven, the best of books in his hand, the law of truth was written upon his lips, the world was behind its back; it stood as if it pleaded with men, and a crown of glory did hang over its head” (John Bunyan, Pilgrims Progress). Paul brings a kaleidoscope of colours in the following verses which portray a New Testament minister.
2. THE MINISTER SHOWS COURAGE IN SUFFERINGS.
In many parts of the world today the church is going through the refiner’s fire of severe affliction, but in many other countries the worst we put up with is utter apathy to our message, but the favour of God seems to be resting upon unbelievers. They have the power, the wealth, the possessions of the earth. It is certainly dangerous to universalise what Paul says here was his experience in vv. 4 and 5 and say that this is the only possible experience of the church. The Lord Jesus says to the church at Philadelphia, “Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial” (Rev. 3:10). They had been faithful and so he kept them from persecution. There have been groups in the history of the church who have had a persecution complex. They courted hostility by their antagonism to people, and excessive language. Then when trouble came to them they used it as proof that they were being blessed by God. Let’s avoid that mentality. The apostle was the special target of the hatred of the world and the devil. He was breaking through the compacted ice of sin for the whole fleet of gospel churches and Christians who would sail along after him far more easily.
There are in this particular section nine great trials adduced by Paul as commendations of his ministry, and they are in three sets of three:-
i] “in troubles, hardships and distresses” (v.4). How easily these words trip off our tongue, but how devastating these realities can be. What a catalogue of pain. I am not sure whether the NIV translation does succeed in bringing out the intensity of these sufferings. The first word is translated ‘troubles’ and this means inner pressures, that sense of internal oppression of spirit that conflict creates. Paul talks elsewhere of ‘fears within’, that spirit of heaviness and tension that a Christian knows. You remember the psalmist saying to himself, “Why art thou cast down O my soul?” There were days when Paul was pressed down beyond measure. It almost brought him to despair.
The second word is ‘hardships’, and this refers to those necessary sufferings that come into our lives if we are following the Lord Jesus who said, “If anyone would follow me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” There are hardships that come crashing into our lives which we would never have experienced if we had not set out following Christ. But for Paul there was no option: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel,” he said, and so there were multiple waves of hatred which swamped him from people outraged at his preaching.
The third word is ‘distresses’, and this word means ‘constraints’ – imagine a person in a strait jacket. Think of a woman who can never leave the room in which she lives her entire life except for trips to the hospital. Consider Joni Eareckson virtually chained to her wheelchair. Think of a man or woman frustrated so often because of being confined to a place, a job, a marriage, a church, and there is no escape from them. There were times in Paul’s life when he was caught up by forces over which he had no control – the great whirling wheel of the Roman Empire crushed him. They arrested him, and kept him in chains in prison, and locked him up in a jail in Rome where he languished for years. All this happened to Paul through bringing the message of God to people hostile to God who had no desire to change and were greatly offended at what Paul told them. Think of John Bunyan twelve years in jail with his wife having to look after their young family including a blind daughter. So troubles, hardships and distresses are the first great reality of the ministry mentioned here.
ii] “in beatings, imprisonments and riots;” (v.5). Here we are confronted with specific and concrete examples of suffering at the hands of persecutors. The first is ‘beatings’ and Paul later in this letter tells us that on five occasions he received the thirty-nine lashes, and the Roman beating with rods three times. The executioner would work his way up and down Paul’s body, one stroke after another, like a line of fire on his back, from his neck to his knees so that the pain was excruciating. This happened to him five times, and three times with a rod. God did not intervene and stop it. There was no spiritual analgesic that made it painless. In what state was Paul’s back? Did maggots infest the wounds? The after-effects would have lasted months if not for the rest of his life.
We are strangers to such an experience in the western world, though some of us know minor physical pains for Christ. There was a young man visiting a particular house in a depressed area of Huddersfield. He knocked the door and a man opened it. “What do you want?” he said. “I want to speak to your wife about Jesus,” he said. With that the man kicked him violently in the shins and told him to get going and not come back. The young man responded by saying to some Christian friends that he was ‘going back soon to talk to that bloke.’ He had not had a beating but a bodily blow for Jesus.
The second word is ‘imprisonments’ and Paul tells us later that he was frequently in jail. We must remove all our notions of a humane penal institutions and think of the brutality and disease and the unsanitary conditions and the rotten meat and decaying vegetables that the convicts would have been given to eat there. That was prison fare, and Paul often experienced it.
The third word in this triplet is ‘riots.’ We see on TV news pictures of riots, crowds of angry stone throwers whose venom would tear a man up limb from limb with their bare hands if they could get to him, and a thin line of soldiers or police protecting those men. From reading the Acts of the Apostles it seems that almost everywhere the apostle Paul went his ministry created social upheaval which was caused by Jews or by priests from a pagan temple challenged by the gospel of Jesus. Sometimes he escaped by the arrival of soldiers or by being let down in a basket from a window in the city wall. He was the object of mass hatred, and he often left in the night after the riot so that the Christians could lick their wounds, regroup quietly and know some peace. So there was physical violence and threat which Paul knew.
iii] “in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger” (v.5). These are difficulties particularly exacerbated in the apostle because he did not have a wife and home to retreat to at the end of the day. There was no wife with a job by which she could support them. In fact no one supported him but he himself, and so he took on all the chores of tent-making. That would be the first reference here to ‘hard work.’ He would have to purchase the cow skins, carry them to his rented rooms, cut them and sew them together. He would have to guard them, locked up somewhere safe, and then sell them at a profit to buy food and pay rent for lodgings for himself and for his companions. What tedium! When he had enough money from that he could carry on with his evangelism, preaching, debating, teaching the new leaders, visiting, praying, writing letters. Little privacy.
Little wonder that he comes next to ‘sleepless nights.’ Does this refer to long nights of discussion with eager questioners not wanting to leave him? Does it refer to fevers, splitting headaches and sickness robbing him of sleep? Does it refer to deadlines in tent-making so that he had to cut and sew all night to meet the demands of a customer? Does it refer to vigils of prayer? All of those, one thinks.
The next item in this triplet is ‘hunger.’ That is something we know nothing about, wondering how and where we will eat again. The Lord who did not spare him from the 39 lashes did not exempt Paul from days when he had nothing to eat. He was often travelling, and he would not beg for food. He would not be a burden to anyone. Does this also refer to the times he fasted beseeching God’s blessing on a venture to a new city in Greece?
So those are the first nine words, all introduced by the preposition ‘in’ which tell us that a credible ministry affects your body and mind as your words stir up such venom from the world. For the apostle Paul as he struck hard at the kingdom of Satan we see how hard Beelzebub struck back. Paul too was a suffering servant of the Suffering Servant: the disciple was not above his teacher. Paul showed exemplary courage.
There is one great lesson from all of this. One hears at times the cliche, “If God is in it everything will fall into place.” In other words, people use providence as the basis of their guidance rather than obedience to the will of God. Very often the road we are asked to take is neither smooth not easy. If God is in what we are doing then we will know a great deal of troubles, hardships and distresses. Are we going to be prepared to hang in there, not rebelling nor moaning at the cup he has given to us to drink? How may evangelistic opportunities have been squandered because people have given up, saying, “God is clearly not in this, because there are so many difficulties and disappointments”? Endurance is required. Another visit is needed, or more thought. We must not lose our nerve. We are children of this instant generation, but the men and women who have done anything for God have stuck it out for many years, often lonely, unappreciated and misunderstood. Such people have set their faces against the quick fix.
3. THE MINISTER RECEIVES GOD-GIVEN GRACES.
Great endurance does not only mean carrying on in the face of this opposition. Stoics are men who do that. We talk about the grace of plodding, but it is plodding on in the life of God. Paul progressed in graciousness and Christlikeness. Now it is possible to make the following part of the list another group of three sets of three if you occasionally claim that two words are referring to one quality, as Paul Barnett does in his commentary. Simon Kistemaker makes them four sets of two. The first four are single words and the next four are sets of double words. That seems to be more natural.
i] “in purity, understanding, patience and kindness:” While all this persecution was taking place and never ending Paul wouldn’t allow roots of bitterness to go down into his heart. His ministry was characterised by ‘purity.’ This family of words can mean sincerity, or integrity in matters of finance, or purity in sexual matters, or purity of conscience. The exact Greek word is found only here in the New Testament. The Lord Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matt. 5:8). What if a congregation puts a big question mark over the head of their minister concerning his purity in all these areas? As he stands before them and moves around the pulpit as he is preaching to them this question mark moves with him. How distracting from his message. If they cannot believe he is a pure man he will never make contact with them.
The minister must also be known for ‘understanding’ in other words Paul gave to people an understanding of themselves, an understanding of God, an understanding of the Bible. They learned from him their true state, what was wrong with the world, why men and women behave as they do, what the great remedy is in the Saviour Jesus Christ, and how they could please him in everything they did. Some people came to scoff, and left with unders tanding. There is a no better way of thanking a minister than saying to him, “You helped me to understand that passage of Scripture.”
If a preacher is a stranger to ‘patience’ (the next grace mentioned by the apostle) then he will never last in a pulpit. Why should people change simply because we tell them? They will watch and listen and observe us to see what kind of men we are. How do we react under provocation? God himself is slow to anger. Will we wait for the congregation to mature to introduce radical changes because then they have come to trust us and can understand our reasons? I mean that we were patient to establish a gospel pulpit, and then patient to establish gospel leadership in the church, and then patient to establish a regenerate church-membership, and then patient in dealing with compromising inter-church relationships, and then patient in evangelism. The Lord Jesus calls us to be fishers of men. Have you ever met a successful fisherman who was an impatient man? “Love is patient,” Paul tells the Corinthians in his first letter.
‘Kindness’, the next grace mentioned, is the positive side of patience. It is the kindness of God to sinners that leads them to repentance. Kindness is the wonderful context in which the words of evangelism can be set. How hard to resist a kind and loving man. The Greek word means ease, something that fits easily, that is easy to wear. Jesus speaks of a yoke that is ‘easy.’ When the Lord gives us a burden to bear it is from his kindness that he does so. His burden is light. So all our words that chase people from their sins and urge them to hide in Christ alone, those strong words of rebuke and correction, are kind words. Paul was never surly and mean. Think of him shipwrecked on Malta, the first to set about gathering wood to make a fire to warm the other passengers.
ii] The next quartet is of double words and they are very striking. ‘In the Holy Spirit,’ Paul says. We would never put that in the middle of a list after mentioning thirteen words first, and then mentioning another twenty or so afterwards. We would begin with the Holy Spirit. We would say that this is essential, and that men will never have an awakening ministry without him. That is true. Why does Paul mention God the Holy Ghost almost in passing? I suppose because the Holy Spirit’s ministry was so evident in the Corinthian church and in all the work of the apostle. They were the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. They all knew that for the dead to live, for men to be born from above, for the great change to be wrought and sustained they had no power at all in themselves to do these things. They attributed the birth and growth of the church in Corinth to the sovereignty of the Spirit. “Who has done this?” people would ask as they visited Corinth and were introduced to this large congregation of loving holy people. “The Spirit of Christ,” they would readily answer. It was no secret. The ministry of the Spirit was absolutely fundamental for his fruit of love, joy and peace that made them the same, and for the Spirit’s gifts which made them different.
‘Sincere love,’ is the next indispensable mark of a true servant of God. Not ‘pretend’ love with sickly smiles, but love that does not envy, does not boast, is not proud, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth, always protects, always trusts, always hopes and always perseveres (I Cor. 13:4-7). Such unhypocritical love that is genuinely experienced and manifest in the church must be seen in all the King of Love’s subjects. A colleague went to a certain church for a while and this is what he saw, “… Love which is all charm, friendly and gracious; the absence of truth and frank honesty – the lack of coping with real situations and the real world, the absence of courage to tackle thorny problems” He went on to talk about, “a number of folk for whom religion or their faith is an escape from reality.” Let’s beware of that, and make sure that our love is sincere.
‘Truthful speech,’ is the next phrase (v.7). This is the essence of the Christian message. Why should anyone become a follower of Jesus Christ? Why should anyone believe the gospel? Because it is true. Can there be a better reason? He died for our sins, and it is true! He rose the third day from the dead, and it is true! If anyone believes upon the Lord Jesus Christ they are saved, and it is true! There was once a man who stood on this earth who raised the dead and stilled the winds and waves. This man claimed, “I am the truth.” There is no better reason to follow him than that. We live amongst a confused generation who live in shadowlands. Christ is the light of the world, and that is true. So what we say in the Christian message and in all our dealings with men and women must be words of truth. Genuine love and truthful speech is a rare but priceless combination. Those who emphasise love can be mealy-mouthed in preaching. Those who emphasise truth can be strident in proclamation, but love and truth together is the mark of the minister much used by God.
‘In the power of God,’ is the final phrase, and again it is almost slipped in in passing! We have books on this theme, like Arturo Azurdia’s fine study of “Spirit Empowered Preaching” (Mentor, 1998), and conference addresses, and we lament the absence of power in the pulpits of our land, but for the apostle it was so self-evident that it was placed alongside other essential qualities like sincere love and truthful speech. What would be a church where those were absent? A synagogue of Satan. Paul’s enemies looked at his little man and disdained him. They said, “in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing” but his letters, they reluctantly conceded, “are weighty and forceful” (2 Cors. 10:10). James Denney says about Paul, “Of all men in the world he was the weakest to look at, the most battered, burdened, and depressed, yet no one else had in him such a fountain as he of the most powerful and gracious life.” No one had had such evangelistic success. No one wrote such letters. No one was so courageous under sufferings. What could explain the apostle Paul? The power of God. That is the only explanation for the existence of the church all over the world today.
Paul had had to unlearn attitudes to power he had picked up as a Pharisee of the Pharisees. He had to experience the power of God dealing with his impatience and sensitivity. Big-heartedness and gentle kindness did not come naturally to Saul of Tarsus. At first he did not see these things as strength at all. The Lord had to teach him what the power of God was.
So we have looked at eighteen phrases describing the true minister of the gospel, and each one of these phrases was introduced with the preposition ‘in.’ Now the apostle introduces a new preposition which is similar to our word ‘through’ and he describes some of the various circumstances which the Christian minister is going to endure.
4. THE MINISTER IS PREPARED FOR CONFLICTING EXPERIENCES .
“with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonour, bad report and good report” (vv. 7 & 8). There will be times when a thousand swords will flash in men’s readiness to follow a leader to death and glory. Then there will be occasions when men will bay for his blood. Glory, but then shame, and maybe the one swiftly following on the heels of the other. We see it when Paul arrived at Lystra. He heals a man lame from birth and the crowd goes wild, “‘The gods have come down to us in human form!’ Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker,” (Acts 14:11&12). But soon the Jews won the crowd over and the same people began to stone Paul until they believed that they had killed him. Or again when Paul was bitten by a snake on the island of Malta the people were sure he was a murderer – “Justice has not allowed him to escape.” But when nothing unusual happened to the apostle we are told, “they changed their minds and said he was a god,” (Acts 28:6). How can the life of the servant of God continue in any equilibrium? How can he keep his sanity in the midst of such violent mood swings?
i] ‘With weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left.’ The man of God engages the world. God provides him with weapons for this task and they are very balanced, in the right hand and the left. He is a preacher and a pastor; he is a teacher and a herald; he brings the people to God and brings God to the people; he is set for the defence of the faith and he launches forth and fights against the world, the flesh and the devil; he fights liberal, decadent, unbelieving Christianity on the right and the cruel attacks of resurgent Hinduism or Islam on the left. The Christian soldier has a weapon of attack like a sword or spear in his right hand, and a weapon of defence like a shield in his left hand. He can fight offensively and defensively. Both are needed. Spurgeon refers to this combat in one of his best books as “The All Round Ministry.” When God commissions his men to this great work they don’t have to provide their own weapons. There are divine supplies for all his soldiers. The weapons are those that righteousness supplies (they are not the parcel bomb or the poisoned drink of the assassin), and they are weapons that promote righteousness (it is a just and honourable war). There is the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit – this is the full armour of God. If we fail in this fight it was not because there was an inadequate quartermaster in glory. Paul does not take the availability of these weapons for granted. He looks at the whole Ephesian congregation and he says to them, “Therefore, put on the full armour of God!” Never go out without your armour. He tells them to stand firm and to take these weapons of righteousness. I wonder who many of us as we set out each day say to ourselves, “I am going forth into a hostile world that despises my Saviour. Let me be prepared for the battle. Let me make sure I have my sword and have put on my armour.”
“Stand, then, in His great might,
With all His strength endued;
And take, to arm you for the fight,
The panoply of God.
Leave no unguarded place,
No weakness of the soul;
Take every virtue, every grace
And fortify the whole.”
Is the evangelical church conscious of the battle for life that is going on today, and thoroughly arming its people? What would you think of a new general who took away swords and issued ukuleles to his troops and they went singing and playing into battle? You would think the general’s name was Monty Python. So it would be for any minister who failed to equip his soldiers with the indispensable belt of truth and the sword of the Spirit, and taught them how to use them
ii] ‘through glory and dishonour, bad report and good report.’ There were days when Gentiles said of Paul “What is this babbler trying to say?” There were days when Jews said of him, “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here … They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (Acts 17:7). But there were days when men would have plucked out their eyes and given them to him, and days when they wept at the thought of not seeing his face again – “glory and dishonour, bad report and good report.” There are some days when men speak ill of us – “he splits churches, he has not had a happy history” – then there are other days when we are the flavour of the month and we are wanted everywhere. There are days when men glory in our gifts and other days when they dishonour us by cruel criticisms. No one can truly judge any living Christian comprehensively at this short range. Spurgeon was being dismissed as a sick confused trouble-maker at the end of his life, but he was content to leave history to come to a better informed judgment. How men willl judge the church leaders of our own day at the end of this century will be a more accurate assessment. We stand and fall as those who must give an account and receive a judgment from the Lord himself. Let us go through the little times when men might glory in us, and through the times when they dishonour us, and through the times of bad report and the times of good report. Let us just be good soldiers of Jesus Christ through using the weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left.
5. THE MINISTER ACCEPTS THE PARADOX.
“Genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (vv. 8-10). Here are seven contrasts or antitheses, seven appearances of the word ‘yet’ in our English version, but in the Greek seven prepositions of the word translated ‘as’ introducing each phrase, which the NIV omits. What is the purpose of this final section? Paul is warning us not to put any confidence in the world’s judgment of any Christian’s life. The world will write you off and say, “A failure!” But in God’s eyes you were anything but a failure. Men look for tidy answers to life’s problems so that everything is neatly and easily explained. Men want a straight line from the degree of sinfulness of a person to the degree of suffering he experiences. No straight line occurs. Again, it would be simple if all those who put their Jesus Christ first in their lives had a big house and a Rolls Royce. We instinctively want explanations for what we can’t understand, but God never commands us to understand. He tells us to trust him in the paradoxes of life.
i] ‘Genuine, yet regarded as impostors.’ Paul’s opponents said that he did not carry letters of recommendation. Dr Lloyd-Jones’ opponents said that he had not been trained in a theological seminary. Welsh Baptists have said of me that ‘he studied in America.’ So men will hint that we are not real ministers, but God says, “Genuine! The real thing!” Would Paul have known all those blessings if he were a fake?
ii] ‘Known, yet regarded as unknown.’ Paul was dismissed as a nobody. He had not been with the twelve who followed Jesus in Galilee. “Doesn’t he admit,” his opponents could say, “that he didn’t deserve to be called an apostle?” They wanted to make him an outsider in the Christian circle. They drew the lines and they included him out! But Paul was the most well known figure in the Gentile Christian world, loved by God and by his true people.
iii] ‘Dying, and yet we live on.’ Paul’s whole life was one brush with death after another. In Lystra he was nearly killed by stoning. When his unconscious body was left after being dragged out of the city most Christians thought they would never see him again. In Jerusalem he was attacked by a mob. He was repeatedly flogged, thrown into prison, shipwrecked, exposed to death from bandits and disease. He often looked death in the face and was not afraid. He knew he was immortal until his life’s work was over. “We live on,” he cried. The reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. In the eyes of the world his was a miserable life going from one encounter with death after another, but God is saying through Paul’s deliverances, “Don’t trust in the power of Caesar, and don’t think that doctor’s diagnoses are infallible. Life and death are both in my hands, not the hands of men.”
iv] ‘Beaten, and yet not killed.’ The heavenly Father needed to take up his rod and chasten Paul at times. God did so with as much reluctance as any earthly father chastises one of his children, but “the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?” (Hebs 12:6 & 7). How terrible are some of the Lord’s disciplines! When one was prescribed for Paul he had three long sessions of prayer crying to God that he would end it. Every minister is chastened to God. “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebs. 12:11). Chastened? Yes. Killed? No.
v] ‘Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.’ These members of the church at Corinth gave much grief to Paul. So did the church at Galatia. He wept as he warned the church at Ephesus about those who would distort the gospel. This word ‘sorrowful’ is found eighteen times in this letter. Paul was certainly following the man of sorrows. The sight of the defiant city of Jerusalem made Jesus weep. The grief of Mary and Martha because their brother had died found tears of sympathy running down Jesus’ face. Whitefield said to his congregations, “how can I not weep for you when you will not weep for yourselves?” Sometimes you would be walking home past Paul’s front door and you would hear through the shutters the groans and sobs of a deeply distressed man. Yet, he was always rejoicing in the will of God, in the majesty of his Saviour, in the good news of sins forgiven, in the hope of the crown to be given to him in that great day, of seeing his Lord and being with him for ever: “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”
vi] ‘Poor, yet making many rich.’ Paul wouldn’t peddle the gospel for gain. He dressed poorly. He carried all he owned in a little bag. He had nowhere to lay his head. Yet how he enriched Philippi, and Thessalonica, and Corinth, and the prison at Rome by his presence and all he gave to the people he met. They became blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus when they believed the message. How different are so many in the world who are rich, but whose selfish lives make other people poor. We have recently been reading a brief account of the first missionary of the Irish Evangelical Church, Dr Harold Lindsay who went to Peru in 1938. On one occasion a patient came to him who was known to have some means. He asked Dr Lindsay if he would remove a tooth which was causing him severe pain and the price of the extraction was agreed. So the tooth was removed, but then the man began to quibble about the agreed fee. He immediately became a poor man, and he did not think that he should pay so much, and so on. After the argument went on too long Dr Lindsay picked up a small rubber-headed hammer from a nearby table. “Give me that tooth, nurse,” he said. “If he won’t pay I will have to drive it back in again!” The man paid. Dr Lindsay could have been a rich General Practitioner in Ulster, but he chose poverty in Peru to make many South Americans rich.
vii] “Having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” There was an occasion in Dr Lindsay’s life when he and James Mackintosh were having to walk across a high pass in the Andes, and then at the end of the day were putting up their tents before night fell. Dr Mackintosh recounts the incident like this. “We had crossed the high cordillera and the guide and I began, in the quickly falling darkness to arrange our beds for the night. We needed Harold, but he was nowhere to be found. After a short search we saw him perched on a rock, reading, and the guide who knew him, said that he was at prayer, so we should leave him. He had been using the last rays of the setting sun for Scripture reading and prayer.” He had little of these world’s goods but he was having an audience with the mighty Creator of the universe thanking him for all the blessings he had received from him that day and seeking help for the days to come. “Having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
Listen to what God says. How he knows us, though the world does not. Pascal. the seventeenth-century French thinker and mathematician wrote out his Christian thoughts, and he saw man himself as a paradox. He wrote, “What sort of freak then is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe! … Know then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself … Hear from your Master your true condition, which is unknown to you. Listen to God!”
In these words of our text the apostle Paul has bared his heart, and told us what he has experienced because of the genuiness of his ministry. Who could have gone through all this and endured it, rejoicing at the grace of God, unless the hand of God was always upon him? He stayed on his course in spite of all he went through. He never became depressed, and so this list offers us tremendous hope. We study it together and we say, “If Paul could endure so much by the grace of God that same grace is available to me. I can cope too in my far less taxing afflictions.”
June 24 2001 GEOFF THOMAS