2 Corinthians 7:12-16 “So even though I wrote to you, it was not on account of the one who did the wrong or of the injured party, but rather that before God you could see for yourselves how devoted to us you are. By all this we are encouraged. In addition to our own encouragement, we were especially delighted to see how happy Titus was, because his spirit has been refreshed by all of you. I had boasted to him about you, and you had not embarrassed me. But just as everything we said to you was true, so our boasting about you to Titus has proved to be true as well. And his affection for you is all the greater when he remembers that you were all obedient, receiving him with fear and trembling. I am glad I can have complete confidence in you.”
The Prime Minister was speaking in New York on Thursday at the Memorial Service for the hundreds of people from Great Britain who died in the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center. He ended his speech with a quotation from the novelist, Thornton Wilder, in the final words of his book, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” which deals with the aftermath of the death of five people when a bridge collapses where Wilder writes that “love will have been enough”. The Prime Minister was commenting on the centrality of love in human experience, though the actual ideas of Wilder seem to be inspired more by Buddhism than Christianity.
To speak helpfully about love is as challenging as speaking about repentance. Everyone in the world praises love, and sings about love, and acknowledges that love is the most important grace of all, and we are never going to deny that. To say all that freshly, and from the teaching of Jesus Christ, is the challenge of this moment so that these cold hearts of ours are quickened in love. What a need for our own congregation. Too much selfishness exists in all our lives, and love is the greatest of all.
I am not saying that it’s love rather than the truth that we need. The alternative to orthodoxy is error, and that will do no one any good. God has given to us a revelation of himself in his Son Jesus Christ who has told us everything that his Father has given him to say to the world. Let me hear that! You shall know that truth from this pulpit, and embracing that truth can make you free. If I didn’t believe that I would cease preaching this moment. But more than truth is needed. The devil himself believes many great truths about God, but there is no love at all within Satan.
The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, said to his disciples, “A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:34&35). Not the fish sign you may stick on your car, nor the cross you wear around your neck, nor the T-shirt with a text on the back, nor the clerical collar, nor the brown habit, nor the long hair, nor the length of our beards nor our ringlets can be the marks showing that we are religious folks. But in all times and in all places the mark of a disciple of the Lord Jesus is his love.
We love our neighbours as ourselves, and in these days if our neighbours are Muslim we should be particularly concerned to show our love for them. Love is largely service and not sentiment. Love is longing for our neighbour’s welfare. Joe Bayly wrote about an elderly woman and her son living in downtown Philadelphia. “The mother was paralysed; the son had given up his struggle to live and just stayed at home and ate. As a result, he weighed so very much that he couldn’t stoop down to care for his feet. Two elderly Christian ladies, sisters, lived next door. They cared for the mother, bathing her and nursing her. But they could do nothing for the son. Hearing about the situation, a young assistant pastor began to stop at the home. He washed the son’s feet and cut his toenails, and all the time he was doing it the man cursed the young pastor, used obscene language and heaped all sorts of abuse on him. But this didn’t stop him” (Joseph T. Bayly, “Out of My Mind,” Zondervan, 1993, p.89). Love endures all things. Love for all kinds of men endures all kinds of things.
A friend of mine named Caffy Whitney, author Don Whitney’s wife, has been spending some time recently doing some renovation work at the home of an unconverted couple who are loved greatly by Don and Caffy. He says, “She’s doing it because she wants to love them towards Christ, that is, to show a sweaty love that might gain a hearing for the gospel. She has more than enough of her own work to do, but she is, to use Puritan Ralph Venning’s term, “un-selfing” at this time because of her love for God, and the gospel, and her growing love for these people who, at present, are not interested in our message.
Every individual Christian has this grace, but imagine the resources of love that a fellowship of believers in a church can tap. Everyone is joined to Christ and of his fulness they receive. Everyone is indwelt by the Spirit of love. Such a church has to be a community of the love of God. So the New Testament exhorts us many times about the crucial place of love: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other” (I Thess. 3:12). “This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another” (I Jn. 3:11). “We ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (I Jn. 3:16). Can we have any assurance that we are Christians if we don’t love one another? “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God” (I Jn. 4:7). This is not touchy-feely love This is a congregation where everyone is patient, and kind. They don’t envy. They are not proud, nor rude, nor self-seeking. No one is easily angered, nor does anyone keep a record of wrongs. They don’t delight in evil but they rejoice in the truth. This is a congregation where everyone protects, and always trusts, and always hopes, and always perseveres. They don’t know the meaning of failure where love is concerned. The motivation for this love is their awareness that God the Son took frail flesh, lived on this earth and laid down his life for them to save them from condemnation. He loved them and gave himself for them. That is what constrains them to love in a costly way: Jesus’ love “so amazing, so divine, demands my soul my life, my all.”
The impact of such corporate love on the watching world is to cause it to know that we are Christ’s disciples. There was an evangelical conference of students, and they were all staying with Christian families in the town. One of the students had been converted only two years earlier and she had never been into a Christian home before. In a sharing session at the end of the conference she said, “I’ve sometimes wondered if there were such a thing as a Christian home, and what it would be like. My own mother and father weren’t Christians, or even religious. Well, now I know – and I could just rave about the home where I’ve been staying here at the conference. It’s going to make a difference to my entire outlook on marriage and having children. This family where I’ve been staying has eight children. They live in a big old house. Their furniture is old and sort of put together – but lovingly put together. There are separate boys’ and girls bathrooms like at school. There’s a big dining table – the father’s at one end, the mother’s at the other. The mother’s so peaceful, you’d never know she had eight children” (Joe Bayly, op cit, p.44). That was the biggest discovery that girl made that week, not the good teaching, nor the missionary talks, nor the times of praise and prayer, but a Christian home where ten people loved one another.
A breakdown in love in a Christian community is a tragedy. It is a denial of all we say about the love of God in giving his own Son for us. If you are guilty of failing to love, of being selective in whom you love and whom you will not love, then that is a tremendously serious matter. Have you truly known the love of God for your own worthless self? Then how is it that you are not dealing with those gripes and hurts that prevent you loving as one for whom the Lord Christ died should love?
So, as we have seen, there was a breakdown in love between the Corinthian church and the apostle Paul. They have believed the innuendo of his enemies and their criticisms. Then Paul wrote to them a letter, and when they got the letter and realised how badly they had been acting, they were so sorry, and they came to realise how devoted to Paul they were. That is the precise phrase Paul uses here, ‘devoted to us’ (v.12). It is the language of marriage where a husband and wife are utterly committed to one another. What can we learn from this experience? We are not loving one another as we should. How can we find the flame of sacred love rekindled in our hearts? What does this passage teach us about this crucial theme?
1. LOVE FOR FELLOW CHRISTIANS SHOWS ITSELF IN A DELIGHT IN THEIR CHARACTER AND GRACES.
Paul had a deep love for the Corinthian congregation. He had spent 18 months there evangelising, teaching and praying for them. He never stopped loving them and regaled Titus with stories of the conversions, self-sacrifice, the change in slaves and in masters too, the Christian homes that had been established and the daily living of that new church. He constantly boasted about all this to Titus (v.14), not exaggerating in order to tell a good yarn, but having observed the extraordinary changes that grace had wrought in the lives of temple prostitutes, male and female, slaves, idol worshippers, thieves and many ordinary people Paul couldn’t help bragging to Titus about what God had done.
It is one of the rules of Christian pedagogy that we give praise to those over whom we may have any kind of authority. We praise our wives’ intelligence, and home management, and beauty, and dress sense, and godliness, and skill in raising the children. We might say after a delicious meal, in today’s parlance, and a little tongue in cheek, “There are many who claim to be domestic goddesses, but you excel them all.” We praise our children. When we give our daughters away in marriage we say in our speech at the wedding breakfast that she has been a far better daughter than we have ever been a father to her. If we are teachers or tutors we encourage our pupils or students by legitimate appreciation. When ministers are at their conferences they use the opportunity to tell fellow ministers what fine elders and deacons and congregations they have, how earnest are the Sunday School teachers and the youth leaders. We can brag about them on such occasions, and I must also do so from the pulpit at every conceivable moment. Ministry that is all exhortation and directive is unbiblical. Any progress made in the congregation in being filled with all the fulness of God is fair game for commendation.
Paul had written a letter about the Corinthians’ need for profound repentance, and in response they had manifested deep godly sorrow. Now it was the place in this letter to lighten up and to balance those sentiments with many good words of praise: “Do you know I boast about you to my friends?” he says to them, “and all I say about you is true. How Titus loves you, and all the more after his recent time with you.” Think of a Victorian father like Elizabeth Barret Browning’s, who was exacting, demanding, critical, never effusive and affectionate – utterly unlike a far more typical Victorian father, the happy and holy Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Imagine how it would cripple a child to have such an austere figure in the home all the years he was growing up never tossing him a scrap of praise.
Consider the Lord Jesus Christ, how he encouraged his disciples: “Don’t be afraid Peter, from now on you will catch men;” “Great is your reward in heaven;” “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you.” “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven;” “Blessed are the eyes who see what you see;” “Whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will acknowledge before the angels of heaven.” “I am going to prepare a place for you, and take you to myself that where I am there you will be also.” What wonderful truths, spoken every day, cheering them, keeping up their morale, motivating them to spend their lives serving him, inspiring them to keep going, taking up their cross and following him, that being so much away from their wives and homes was all worthwhile, that it would produce a priceless harvest. Remember after Peter had fallen into sin so publicly very soon our risen Lord meets with him and recommissions him, “Feed my sheep. Feed my lambs. Keep going Peter, keep going.”
These disciples were all such young men, some in their early twenties. They had no qualifications; they were not proved and tested, in fact deeply flawed human beings, yet the Lord goes out of his way to encourage them. And I wonder in how many congregations are members wilting, and in how many marriages is the morale of the wife and the children, or even the husband, low because they feel that their best efforts are not at all appreciated, and simply not good enough. They sigh, “I don’t seem to be able to do anything right.” People are becoming passengers, and refusing to try in case they don’t measure up. So there is talent unutilized, and unapplied because of a prevalence of discouragement. People are afraid that they will be put down.
But the apostle Paul began virtually all his letters with words of encouragement, with one solitary exception. He gives churches and people great words of praise and thanks to God as he thinks about them, and he tells them what he says when on his knees he praises God for them. He tells them what graces he remembers in their lives – for which he thanks God – their work of faith and labour of love and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. He is at pains to express his awareness of the qualities they possess, and his own personal debt to them, and how encouraged he is by them. “I thank God for you,” he is saying. We need to follow him, because praise shows itself in evident delight in the graces of others. Think of the Song of Songs, and how each of those lovers, so deeply in love with the other, speaks of all the beauty of the other, how fragrant and handsome and delightful they are, how they can’t stop loving them as their minds dwell on them. Paul here is writing to this church of converted sinners, which has had so many weaknesses, and yet he says to them “I am glad I can have complete confidence in you” (v.16), and that minister is a blessed man who can say the same about his own congregation. So, love shows itself in delighting in graces seen in others.
2. LOVE FOR FELLOW CHRISTIANS CAN GROW COLD.
As the old proverb says, ‘Love’s fire, if it once goes out, is hard to kindle.’ That’s true. Easier to fall in love with someone else than to love again the person you have fallen out of love with. There had been a time when the Corinthian congregation had been in danger of idolising Paul. A group had emerged in the church that said, “We follow Paul” and Paul was horrified: “Was Paul crucified for you?” he cried. But as the years went by a murmuring spirit grew up in the congregation and a party emerged who first subtly and then blatantly opposed him and undermined the place he had occupied in the hearts of the people. We know this from this very letter, how he feels he must plead with them to show their affection to him, opening wide his heart to them and saying, “We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange – I speak as to my children – open wide your hearts also” (2 Cors. 6:13).
Paul has written this earlier letter which dealt with a serious sin that was being tolerated in the congregation, counselling them how it must be dealt with, but here he tells us that it was not principally because of the injured party – the old man whose wife had been taken by his own son – nor even because of the ones who did wrong – the son and the wife – that he had written (v.12), but, Paul says, “rather that before God you could see for yourselves how devoted to us you are” (v.12). Do you understand the point the apostle is making? He wanted the church to go on a voyage of self-discovery, to turn around and realise, “We do love Paul, don’t we? Of course we do. We are devoted to him. What fools we have been to ignore him the way we have.”
Of course, love for the apostles is not an option, like your love for certain music or foods or colours. Every one of us must love the apostle Paul. It is a terrible sin not to love an apostle of Christ. Only that can make a congregation a God-blessed congregation. If there is coldness to the apostles and their ministry today there is no way that such a church is going to know the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation and growth. It has been the great mark of religious liberalism in the church in the past 200 years that it has felt bold enough to criticise the apostles, or seek to drive a wedge between them and Jesus Christ their Lord.
Through the activities of these false men there developed in Wales (just as there once was in Corinth) a coldness towards this representative of Christ – for that is what an apostle is. I had an uncle who was a minister, and yet for years he did not preach on the writings of the apostle Paul because he had been taught by Welsh Congregationalist lecturers that Paul had ruined the simple Galilean gospel of Jesus. That heresy is as old as the New Testament itself. What does it do? It kills any love for Paul. It must do so. If he destroyed the gospel of Jesus he is a rogue, isn’t he?
They were saying something like that in Corinth, disdaining Paul. However, many of that congregation were genuinely saved people. That is, they had the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, and that Spirit was constantly saying to them, “The words of the apostle are true words. Obey what Paul says because they are God-breathed words. Heed them and do them.” Every time they heeded one of his critics they were kicking against the goads. So it has been with all the multitude of academics who have dominated seminaries and university departments of religion in the last century, and spoken of the alleged “assured results of modern criticism” have not prevented God raising up in every generation students who love and obey all the Word of God. Always, in the heart of every true believer, there will exist a devotion to the apostle Paul as the greatest Christian, and preacher, and man of prayer that the world has ever seen. God himself has put that witness in every single Christian heart and it will remain there until we meet him in glory, even though at times on our pilgrimage we get temporarily led astray by modernist Religious Instruction teachers or lecturers.
So in Corinth the enemies of the gospel had managed for a while to turn the hearts of many in this fledgling congregation against the apostle. This was also the devil’s strategy in Galatia. You remember those moving words as Paul reminds them of his first visit there: “you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. What has happened to all your joy? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Gals. 4:14-16). False teachers had effectively undermined Paul.
It also happened in Asia. In one of his last letters, maybe his final letter, Paul told Timothy, “You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes” (2 Tim. 1:15). What had caused this? Had it been Paul’s arrest? Did they think that the cause of Christianity was lost? It was a personal desertion, but it was also a disavowal of his apostolic authority. He had been there in Ephesus for two and a half years and many had believed in Christ through him, and now these very people had turned away from him. How fickle is the human heart! What seeds of criticism and prejudice are in the hearts of every single believer. The great awakening in Asia had been followed by the great defection. To every eye but the eye of faith it must have appeared that that was the end of Christianity in the area.
Imagine it! Paul had been the instrument in bringing the light and truth of Jesus Christ to them. He had loved them like a nursing mother. He preached the gospel to them with the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven. This man had met the risen Christ. He had been caught up to the third heaven. This was the man they ceased loving. Our point is this, that if in a number of places men’s affection for the holy apostle turned cold this experience is certainly going to be true for you and me at some places on our earthly journey. If the men who shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is that cometh in the name of the Lord!” could shout in less than a week, “Away with him! Crucify him! Release unto us Barabbas!” then those who once blew hot for us pygmies may come to blow cold for us in a short time. If the Lord Jesus himself could say of the mighty, well-instructed congregation in Ephesus, “You have forsaken your first love” (Rev.2:4) then our little congregation can certainly leave its first love. I would think that the Lord is saying to us at this moment, “Reckon on it,” and not in some distant future period when through distractions and wealth and brilliant new responsibilities I start to love the world, but I am to reckon on it this week, that I can tolerate coldness of heart for the New Testament writings themselves, and stop reading the Bible and be switched off enjoying biblical preaching, and lose my love for preacher and church leader and for fellow Christians.
Yet in every true Christian heart there must a sense of oneness with his brother and sister in Christ even though it has been disappointed by them, and is ill-educated, or covered with a pitying and sick pseudo-sophistication. It will re-emerge again as the wind of the Spirit gently breathes on those smouldering ashes and makes them burn again. They will again confess their love for their brother or sister with whom they are going to spend eternity. There has to be a devotion for every child of God in the Christian heart, even the one we feel most estranged from, and embarrassed by. You think of Dr. J. Gresham Machen’s admiration for the message Billy Sunday preached in a huge auditorium in Philadelphia during on long crusade. Billy was his brother.
I remember coming home from the cinema in the Rhymney Valley, 45 years ago, one wet winter Saturday night about 8.30 and at the bus stop in Tiryberth (which was then, I guess, a community of poorer people) three black suited men got on the bus. They had made waistcoats for themselves on which they had crudely painted Bible verses in white lettering. That Saturday night they had been out in the streets preaching and knocking on the doors of the council houses. They were very wet, and they were returning to Newport. One sat on the seat next to me. I remember thinking how young and intelligent he was compared to his two companions who looked older and wilder. Immediately he got into conversation with me about the gospel, and I told him sheepishly that I too was a Christian. I had been converted six months, and I knew nothing more than that I was a believer, and I admired what these men were doing, and I couldn’t mock them (there was a smirking eyebrow-raising fellow-pupil from our school two seats ahead looking at me being spoken to by the waistcoated brother). I could not mock them. My mother’s salvation came through an uncle converted in the 1904 revival who preached on Saturday nights in the streets of Merthyr Tydfil to the men tumbling out of the pubs, but I thought that I would never do that sort of thing myself. I knew, yet, that this man on the bus with me was my brother. There was a primitive devotion in my teenage Christian heart to him and his work. So it has been ever since, wherever I have seen faith expressed at some cost to the person himself though he is engaged in activities that I would not do myself I’ve felt a devotion to that man. I have taken comfort in that fact believing that I have the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. Paul hoped that by writing a letter to them, and their heeding it their love for him would be reawakened and they would rediscover just how much they loved him.
3. LOVE CANNOT BE REVIVED WITHOUT THE SUMMONS TO REPENTANCE.
Paul reminds them of this fact: “everything we said to you was true” (v.14). When he had first come to them and preached to them, everything he said to them was true. Then what he wrote in all his letters to them was also true. The only reason we spend a year or two on Sunday nights studying this letter is that everything that Paul says is true. Now that is not a unique feature of the New Testament. It is not its truthfulness that makes it the Word of God. Everything written in the manuals accompanying your personal computer may be true. If error is discovered the manual is rewritten and a new edition is produced. Because those manuals are true they are not thereby the Word of God. This letter is the Word of God because the Spirit of truth help ed Paul to write it, and one of the consequences of that inspiration is its abiding truthfulness. “Thy word is truth” (Jn. 17:17).
So when they read Paul’s letter and broke their hearts it was the truth of what Paul wrote that did it, and so Paul was not praising himself when he write, “even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it” (v.8). The truth was that there could be no rediscovery of their first love for Paul, and no establishing of a right relationship between the apostle and the church without them repenting of their sin. It had believed error. It had become suspicious and critical of the servant of Christ. It was judging him as a phoney. For that it needed to repent. The path to renewed relationships and warm affection is repentance. If the church is going to be a fellowship of holy love there is no way that that can be achieved without constant repentance.
Let me use this illustration. About a year before President Richard Nixon resigned as the US President he asked a number of American leaders to come together in the White House and one by one he asked them what they thought he should do about Watergate. This one man, who is a Christian, told the President that the American people are very forgiving. “Even at this late date, if you went to them and said, ‘I did wrong; I’m sorry. Please forgive me,’ they would.” The president listened and then he brought in the next person for his suggestion, but he never took the advice of the Christian to apologise for authorising the break-in of the Democratic Party’s offices in the Watergate building, and within a year he was forced to resign from office.
Just an admission of culpability and a plea for forgiveness and President Nixon would have served out his term of office. But repentance is a lost grace, for individuals, and in churches, and in the world. If Christians resist the call to repent should we expect unbelievers to confess their sins to God? There is plenty of temporary repentance about. Someone has compared that to sailors who throw their goods overboard in a storm to help keep the boat from sinking, but when the sun shines the following day they regret what they did and wish they still had their chattels.
The Corinthian church was getting aloof and distant to the apostle of Christ and they needed to repent of this sin. They needed honest prayer, and to help them Paul write to them this letter. It could have been a struggle for the proud Corinthians even to identify their sin before God. You also flounder because the name you give your sin often expresses further evasion. “You pray; ‘Lord, forgive me for not loving Mrs. X.’ But in your heart you can still see the obnoxious image of Mrs. X, and the vision doesn’t exactly attract your compassion, and the sentimentalised image of Jesus which floats through your consciousness has no power to banish your evil thoughts about that woman.
“Then the Lord Jesus at the Father’s right hand begins to do his sovereign work. Suddenly you realise through the Holy Spirit that you have been trifling. Now you pray differently, with a stricken conscience: ‘Holy Father, I have not loved Mrs. X. But that’s only part of my sin. In my heart I have despised her.’ So in your confession to God you fight to name your sin – and to give your sin its right name. Then you hand it over to Christ by faith and taste the happiness of sins forgiven (Psa. 32:1) and find the deliverance from hypocrisy which comes through honest confession (Psa. 32:2-5) … Grace is for sinners, and you have felt grace make a clean sweep of your repentant heart” (C. John Miller, “Repentance and 20th Century Man,” CLC, 1975, p.118).
That is exactly what happened when the letter Paul had written was read out to the church in Corinth. That letter hurt them for a little while, but then godly sorrow led them to repentance about how they had been treating Paul, and that led to their salvation. Because if you cannot love your brother whom you can see how is it possible for you to love God whom you cannot see? So this godly sorrow over their behaviour in the congregation towards a particularly sinful relationship, and their boorish attitude towards Paul, produced an earnestness, and eagerness to clear themselves, an indignation, an alarm, a longing, a concern and a readiness to see justice done.
That was the way love was revived in the congregation. It was through repentance. It always is through repentance. That is the God-appointed way. We hate David’s wickedness in taking a man’s wife and having the man murdered, but when we see his deep repentance we love him again, because we recognise sinful David living on in our hearts. We yearn that repentant David lived there too.
I see in Wales a church landscape of huge buildings and tiny congregations, and they are kept going these days by a few people who are in earnest about religion. They want to see their congregations grow, but they have the most superficial ideas about the faith. Their only contact with size and enthusiasm has been meetings where all the emphasis is on contemporary Christian music, and so their diagnosis is this, that the reason for our religious decline is old hymns, and old buildings. Their answer to the decline is, “If only we could sing new songs with music groups then we would attract young people.” Of course, the problem is far more profound, about the churches’ relationship with God, and with the Bible, and with one another. Much repentance needs to be displayed and deep trust in God and his Word. That is the only way forward. We can sing our way to destruction via Graham Hendricks’ songs just as easily as by carrying on singing from the old hymnal.
4. LOVE CAN BE STIRRED UP BY WITNESSING A CHANGE IN OTHERS.
Paul tells them, “we were especially delighted to see how happy Titus was, because his spirit has been refreshed by all of you” (v.13). We all long to come to church and find our spirits refreshed. It happened to Titus. He was evidently there, sitting in the congregation, maybe on the edge of his seat, praying in his heart for the people and their reception of Paul’s letter as one of the elders got up and began reading it to them. Then he began to witness the great change taking place all around him as the words began to sink in, the godly sorrow, the tears, the new spirit of earnestness, the eagerness to clear themselves, the indignation, the alarm, the longing, the concern, the readiness to see justice done. Then, after the meeting was closed and in the following days, Christians in Corinth kept coming to him and pressing him for news of Paul, urging him to tell Paul how much they longed for him, and of their deep sorrow that there had been this alienation, and their ardent concern for him. Little wonder after experiencing that Titus was a new person with a refreshed spirit.
What a picture this is of revived believers with restored souls, some saying that their joy was greater than they had ever known, with a new love for other believers. See how Paul describes Titus here – “his affection for you is all the greater” (v.15). Isn’t that what we want for ourselves? That we should be changed just like that? It came to Timothy as he sat there and saw the effect the Word of God had on the congregation, the godly sorrow created by the letter of Paul working repentance in the lives of others. That has happened many times in the history of the church. A businessman went to the Methodist church in Bristol in 1739. The meeting in its form differed little from the services he generally went to, but there the similarity ended. Charles Wesley was preaching, and this is what the businessman saw: “Never did I hear such praying. Never did I see or hear such evident marks of fervency in the service of God. At the close of every petition, a serious Amen, like a gentle, rushing sound of waters, ran through the whole audience. Such evident marks of a lively devotion I was never to witness to before. If there be such a thing as heavenly music upon earth, I heard it then. I do not remember my heart to have been so elevated in Divine love and praise, as it was there and then, for many years past, if ever” (Tyerman’s “Life and Times of John Wesley” Vol. 1, pp.153-4). That man’s spirit was refreshed being in that meeting.
5. LOVE CAN BE STIRRED IN OTHERS BY SIMPLY HEARING ABOUT THE MIGHTY WORKS OF GOD.
Paul himself was not in Corinth when all this was going on. He was 100 miles north of that city, but he heard about everything there through Titus. He says, “By all this we are encouraged” (v.13), and he goes on to repeat that word, and then speaks of his own delight in seeing the effect it had had on Titus. In other words, Paul was not an eye witness but, like ourselves, heard of it all second hand. Yet that was enough to impact his own faith: “I am glad I can have complete confidence in you,” he says (v.15). His heart was stirred in love for them by hearing of this mighty work of God done in their midst.
The eleventh chapter of Hebrews is a record of the great works of God which men have done. The author gives an overview of the whole sweep of redemptive history and tells us of all his great heroes and their exploits; “who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions; quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies” (Hebs. 11:33&34). Why does he do this? To encourage us to remember that the people of God are not an insignificant grain of sand but we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses stretching back through history. So let’s run our race with patience and fix our eyes on Jesus, and keep struggling against sin. Hearing how men of like passions as ourselves have prevailed by trusting God encourages us to keep working.
Think of the impact on all England which Richard Baxter’s twenty year ministry in Kidderminster had. Most of the people of the town – which at that time numbered a couple of thousand – were converted through his preaching and five extra galleries had to be built into he church to hold the crowds. This was known by every evangelical Christian in England and it gave them great encouragement. In Northern Ireland in the 1620s there was a great work of God under a crazy man called James Glendinning of Sixmilewater in Antrim who preached just the law and struck men down in terror, but who did not understand the gospel enough to bring them into peace. A man called Robert Blair did that, and the face of Ulster changed. Again in less than ten years from that revival in Kirk o’Shotts in Scotland a quietly spoken man called John Livingstone preached on the new birth for an hour and a half and 500 people testified afterwards that under that sermon they came to know God for themselves. All Scotland were encouraged by the news. Or again, David Brainerd almost a century later saw some of the most depraved Indians in New Jersey transformed by God’s grace. How it encouraged him; he wrote, “I was ready to think that I should never again despair of the conversion of any man or woman living, be they who or what they would.”
Or again a century earlier in Dedham John Rogers was preaching a sermon to the people on their sin of neglecting the Bible. He impersonated God speaking to the congregation and said to them, “Well, I have trusted you for so long with my Bible. It lies in your houses all covered with dust and cobwebs; you care not to listen to it. Do you use my Bible so? Well, you shall have my Bible no longer.” Then Rogers took up the Bible from the pulpit and seemed as if he were going away with it and carrying it from them, but immediately he turned again and impersonated the people before God, falling down on his knees, and crying and pleading most earnestly, “Lord, whatever you do, don’t take your Bible from us. Kill our children, burn our houses, destroy our goods, only spare us your Bible.” Then Rogers impersonates God again to the people, “Say you so? Well, I will try you a while longer, and here is my Bible for you. I will see how you will use it, whether you will love it more … observe it more … practice it more, and live more according to it.”
At this point a wave of godly sorrow fell upon the entire congregation and the service ended as the people broke their hearts. Thomas Goodwin was sitting in the congregation and when he had composed himself he got up and found some energy to walk out to his horse. But when he reached the horse he broke down again and had to put his arms around the neck of his horse to support him as he wept for fifteen minutes before mounting the horse and riding home. Now that is the phenomenon that Titus witnessed when he was in Corinth and heard Paul’s letter read out, and saw the congregation dissolve into weeping. That is what he told Paul about when he reached him, the news of which so greatly encouraged Paul.
There is this great problem in the church:
“Lord it is our chief complaint
That our love is cold and faint.”
It is a serious problem – failure to keep the new commandment of the Lord Jesus. And here is this God answering that problem. He takes hold of a little letter written by Paul, and he uses the voice of some utterly unknown church official who proceeds to read it to a congregation of insignificant church members in Corinth, and there is the most startling reaction. The whole church is plunged into godly grief. There is a new earnestness, “what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done” (v.11).
Should we not yearn that today, somewhere, where no preacher has turned up, an elder should read to the people an old sermon coming from revival times, and the Spirit of God fall upon them under that Word and there begins a great awakening in our day, which no one can attribute at all to any orator or the power of man, but which has been done by the Sovereign God’s grace so that no flesh should glory in human engineering but in God’s mercy. And should we not cry to God that such signs of his intention to favour us should be seen again or else our whole civilisation be destroyed and there be left an increasingly muted testimony to our Saviour Jesus Christ in the earth.
23rd September 2001 GEOFF THOMAS