We continue today following the life progress of the Apostle Paul, and we are heading for a note he wrote to the church in Corinth – called in the New Testament “the Second Epistle to the Corinthians”. On the way, I want to mention a story to set the scene…
I took this account from an African Pastor who shared events recently. I was writing notes as he shared, but the paraphrase is my own:
“The people sat huddled quietly in the rectangular room lined with bookshelves. Too many for the chairs, they pressed tightly against one another on the floor. Some were crying softly… all were praying. They were seeking God in a moment of extreme need. They were surrounded in a village that was preparing to fall to a vicious enemy that hated them because they claimed to be followers of Christ. They were warned this day might arrive, but as they faced the reality, they could barely speak now. It was too horrible to contemplate – losing their families, their community, their church, their children – all of it. There was no point in trying to fight back – they were grossly out-numbered and without weaponry beyond that in the spiritual realm. They did what they could… they asked God to preserve them if that would bring Him glory, and to let the cup of suffering pass them by if at all possible for His plan. They waited…”
Stop for a moment…Let me ask you a question. If the enemy set up a tribunal at a makeshift table outside that room, and you were taken out from that tear-filled, huddling place– pulled from that crowd and put on trial…would the enemy have enough evidence to convict you of following Christ? Is there evidence in your life that you know, love and obey Jesus Christ and His Words as recorded in the Bible?
There is a truth that is so essential to grasp that God lodged it in the heart of the Christian Scriptures, in a letter written after the wearing effects of a firefight in the spiritual realm had left the writer, an Apostle of Jesus named Paul, deeply wounded. It wasn’t wrong to be wounded – because God used his pain to spill out a letter that was deeply personal, and beautifully instructive. At its core, it left us with a truth we want to explore in this lesson…
Key Principle: The work of the Spirit changes the life of the one who truly follows Jesus.
That is a fact. When God touches a stick, it can become a snake. When He touches a rock, it can spew forth like a fountain. When He touches a man or woman – lost in sin and filled with FEAR – He can change that one deep inside. Yet, there is a “catch”. Sticks and rocks don’t fight transformation – believers do. We fight God, even as He is actively transforming us. What shape do we fight to be in? In three words we fight to be in: “the world’s mold”. It is as though the stick resists being a snake and says – use another stick, I don’t want to be changed. Yet, the exciting use of our lives by the Creator happens when we open to being changed into what He intends… and that is our story.
We pick up Paul’s life in Acts 19, during his third mission journey with these words:
Acts 19:21 Now after these things were finished, Paul purposed in the Spirit to go to Jerusalem after he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.” 22 And having sent into Macedonia two of those who ministered to him, Timothy and Erastus, he himself stayed in Asia for a while.
Paul deeply desired to move ahead in new ministry, drawing more people to Jesus…but the maintenance of the older places was necessary for sustained ministry – and that is ultimately the only kind that really makes a difference long term. The baby churches were under attack, and Paul couldn’t go forward until he strengthened the lines behind him. There was the church at Corinth (though a congregation among whom Paul spent a year and a half during the second mission journey) which had erupted into division, disobedience and defamation of Christ in their publicly unregenerate lifestyles. Meanwhile in Rome young believers hungered for a careful explanation of justification by grace and the implications for daily living. At the very same time, across Galatia some Gentile followers of Jesus were under attack by traveling Jewish teachers that were causing significant defections from the church. In short, the church was getting “pounded” from all sides – and this was not the time for an advance to begin new works. Paul responded initially as:
• He sent some men to carry a message to the people from God – offering them clear direction (cp. 1 Corinthians; Acts 19:21).
• He made plans to visit the center of the problem at Corinth when God enabled him (19:21b).
• He remained in Ephesus and wrote letters of instruction to Rome and Galatia, while praying fervently.
After Paul received word of the people’s response to his first letter in Corinth, he responded again, apparently with a lost letter written to Corinth, sometimes called his “sorrowful letter”. After some time, he wrote a third time (as best we can discern) – and this is the letter we call “Second Corinthians”. We are dropping in on a difficult relationship being played out in writing from a hurting but God-inspired leader. This is very important letter to round out our understanding of the time, and it addresses three primary issues:
• First, it is a letter to offer Paul’s explanation of tardiness for another visit to Corinth. He said he would visit them again, and when he didn’t show up, some who didn’t like his leadership anyway “smelled blood in the water” and attacked his reputation (2 Corinthian 1-7). The first section answers that attack.
• Second, this served as a reminder to the people that Paul still had an expectation concerning them, specifically that they would finish taking up the offering for Jerusalem’s poor and send it as they previously promised they would (2 Corinthians 8-9).
• Third, it was an exhortation to them not to discount his word or his authority as they moved forward – as some were encouraging them to do (2 Corinthians 10-13). Paul made clear he was called by God they were to listen to his words. These were very personal words written by a man who was sustaining one attack after another, but stubbornly refused to roll over and let others take his God-given place in the church away.
Honestly, you cannot study the letters of Paul without understanding how much more PERSONAL than any of the others this one is. It is apparent to me that the issues of the church got under the skin of the Apostle a good bit more than the other churches. I personally believe we need to carefully give Paul a break on that agitation, because of the heinous nature of the sinful punches the enemy and disobedient believers landed on the church. That was a church where division was institutionalized for a time – people didn’t truly love one another and that was “fine” with the leadership. This was a church that boasted about toleration instead of holy living. This was a church that hung the dirty laundry of lawsuits between its members in the middle of the basilica law court of their community – and saw nothing wrong with that. It was, to be kind, a mess of a church.
Look closely at the first part of the letter, because in that section, Paul exposed the key problems in the people’s thinking that became the underlying issues of their whole mixed up situation. He indicated that:
Problem One: Forgetful Christians…They thought: “Out of sight, out of mind” (1:1-11).
Paul opened with an idea: they didn’t seem to be aware of what was really happening with Paul, but were listening to stories about him that weren’t accurate (2 Cor. 1:1-11).
He opened in verses one and two with the standard greeting, and followed it by drawing out that God was the believer’s comfort. He noted in verse five:
1:5 For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ.
After explaining that sufferings were endured to be a witness on their behalf, he made clear how serious the problems he was facing in Asia Minor truly were. Apparently they didn’t know the gravity of the situation:
1:8 For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came [to us] in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; 9 indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves..
He then enjoined them to be praying for the situation. We can’t know all that was involved, but with what we know of Paul – we know he was beat up and the situation was weighing on him excessively.
Sometimes we operate with an “out of sight out of mind” method in relation to ministry partners. We don’t hear, so we don’t pray. We are preoccupied with other things, and their problems don’t make our radar. Paul wanted them to see that their evaluation of his performance may have to do with the fact they were unaware of the troubles he faced. Let’s be careful to KNOW before we JUDGE what other people are doing. Forgetful Christians jump to conclusions about people without carefully recalling what they observed first hand from their lives.
Problem Two: Naïve Christians…They Were Hearing Voices (1:12-2:4)
Paul broached the idea they forgot the real Paul that was with them for so long, and were listening to voices that replaced and mischaracterized his heart and methods (2 Cor. 1:12-24).
He mentioned in verse twelve that if they really looked back, they would see how he and his team “conducted themselves in the world and toward them.” He urged them to look at what he wrote carefully and compare that with what they knew of him – and not listen to others who were turning him into a cartoon version of himself.
By verse fifteen he began to explain that he “intended” to come to them, but was not able to do it. He recognized that caused some to say he was flip-flopping on his word, so he responded:
1:17 Therefore, I was not vacillating when I intended to do this, was I? Or what I purpose, do I purpose according to the flesh, so that with me there will be yes, yes and no, no [at the same time]? 18 But as God is faithful, our word to you is not yes and no.
He argued that God also had a say in what he did, and he was called to follow God’s lead. He truly intended to come, but God showed him something that he couldn’t ignore. He went on to explain:
1:23 But I call God as witness to my soul, that to spare you I did not come again to Corinth.
Paul argued that God made clear to him that coming was a BAD MOVE at that time, and that was why he decided to write a difficult letter that left the whole relationship very strained. He explained:
2:3 This is the very thing I wrote you, so that when I came, I would not have sorrow from those who ought to make me rejoice; having confidence in you all that my joy would be [the joy] of you all. 4 For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears...
Paul was essentially saying, “I was deeply upset. I knew it wasn’t good for me to come right then, but rather offer written instructions and give you time to fix things, so we could enjoy each other when I did arrive.” Here is the problem. Paul looked like a chicken in the face of trouble. It appears people took advantage of the waffling and appearance of timidity in the face of dissension.
We cannot back down, but it isn’t easy to confront, either. We care about other believers, and we may be able to roar from a pulpit, but sensitive men and women in ministry do not find confrontation comfortable. Sometimes it isn’t productive. Timing is tremendously important in confrontation. If a woman catches her husband getting out of the car in the driveway at the end of the long work day and say: “Wait until I tell you what your son did today!” while she looks sternly – she is probably going to evoke a negative response in her husband, both about the son and even about her. His response is unfair, but the method was unwise. If a man walks in to a woman who has labored hard all day and criticizes something that wasn’t completely to his satisfaction, he will wound her. There is confrontation – but there is also sensitivity to timing. Paul wasn’t ducking the responsibility – but it looked that way and voices of others used the gap to fill the stage with criticism of Paul. Some of them were naïve about who to listen to when it came to truth. Naïve Christians listen to the loudest or most popular voice in the room, not the one who reasons carefully from God’s Word.
Problem Three: Harsh Christians…Even the forgiven couldn’t forgive well (2 Corinthian 2:5-11).
It isn’t only TIMING for confrontation that needs sensitivity – it is depth of response. We can overreact – all of us. Passion for God can be channeled easily into a “lynch mob for Jesus” if we aren’t careful. That is why we must learn to hurt for the offender, not just the offended. Paul referenced the man who was in sexual sin that he previously told them to “kick out” until he repented of his sin. Apparently, the man was broken by the response of his friends, and came to his senses. The problem was, they weren’t sure how to let him back into their circle. After all, he was a publicly shamed sinner. Paul told them in verses five and six that they were to DRAW HIM BACK IN now that he had turned away from his sin.
Here is the truth: many believers have more enthusiasm about discipline and failure of others than they do of restoration and renewal of others. The get steamed at sin, but not jazzed about repentance. That’s a heart problem… and we all need to guard against it. Paul told them:
2:6 Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which [was] [inflicted] by the majority, 7 so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort [him], otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm [your] love for him…
Paul sternly warned that failure to do so would leave the man and the church open to a new attack of the enemy. Forgiveness and renewal closes the breach left open by sin and the anger that it causes in the offended. Harsh Christians don’t let go – even when it is obvious that the other fellow-sinner hungers to be restored.
Problem Four: Befuddled Christians…They couldn’t read reactions of people to truth (2 Corinthian 2:12-17).
Paul explained that it was true that he wasn’t far from them, but still didn’t stop in to see them in verses twelve to fourteen. He claimed he was following the leading of God, who (like a triumphal procession or parade) was directing them and other believers to make an impact in different places. He used “fragrance” as his illustration when he wrote:
2:15 For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; 16 to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life…
His point was that people respond differently to the Word of God, and to those who bring it to others. Some hear the words of life and respond. Others hear words of condemnation – they are a sinner, they are required by their Creator to bow to Him – and they react out of arrogance and pride. That message condemns them. It is a message of death, because they won’t give up their sin – not for God or anyone else. They want what they want, everyone be damned. The problem is: they will be damned, and that is heart breaking. Yet, it is their choice. Befuddled Christians think it is their job to make the message smell better to arrogant men – it isn’t. We should be loving, but the message isn’t ours to change even if people think it stinks.
Problem Five: Unchanged Christians…With behaviors unchanged, they think they can add Jesus to their choices (2 Corinthians 3:1)
Paul opened chapter three with the note that their changed lives are the letter of effectiveness of the message of the Gospel in them. Verses one to three make clear that it is not a list of rules that characterize the faith in Jesus – but the changed lives of His followers. Even with their flaws, the followers at Corinth showed real change in many areas, and Paul simple said he possessed:
3:4 Such confidence we have through Christ toward God.
Ministry is the process of clearly delivering truth in model and word, and watching as God opens hearts and changes lives. Paul knew HE didn’t do it, because he said:
3:5 Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as [coming] from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God,
At that point in the letter, Paul began to unfold the heart of the whole issue he wanted them to consider. It was our point at the beginning of the lesson. Paul wanted them to face the fact that there should be in the life of every believer life change and transformation that signals that they are, in fact, being sculpted by God’s Spirit. Believers are to be in the process of transformation. If we are living just as we did before we claimed to have come to Jesus – perhaps we didn’t come to Him at all. The difference between a believer and a non-believer is less what they know about Jesus and more what they have surrendered to God to crush and remake in themselves. Many people know much about Jesus, but that knowledge hasn’t caused them to open their heart to God’s work within.
Look at Paul’s next words, because they can seem difficult on first reading in 2 Corinthians 3:6ff:
2 Corinthians 3:6 [speaking of God] “…who also made us adequate [as] servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life…”
Paul said that God made Him a minister of the NEW COVENANT to them in a “spirit” way, not in the literal “letter” way. That deserves some explanation. The New Covenant was a term that came from Isaiah 59 and Jeremiah 31, and in both places it was an agreement for God to change the hearts of the Jewish people and give them the full and complete fulfillment of His promises to them in their own homeland. God repeated the terms of the new covenant “to the household of Israel and of Judah” in Jeremiah 31:27, 31 and 33 (only Israel is mentioned there). It is painfully clear that God was talking to the nation of Israel (Jer. 31:36) and not some loose spiritual substitute. He promised He would give them back their land, and give them His Spirit within – not just the Law without. They would be transformed, and their sinfulness would be a thing of the past. Jesus said the MEANS of that covenant was to be His broken body and shed blood in the Last Supper. Yet, Paul clearly did not believe this was a work already completed, as he made clear in Romans 11 – that the Jewish people would someday in the future all “be saved”. He didn’t believe the “church” replaced Israel’s promise, either, or his words in Romans 11 would make no sense.
Here is the question: If the New Covenant was for Israel, how could Paul claim he was a minister of it to the people at Corinth who were not Jews? The answer is in how he claimed it. He said they were not the LETTER of the agreement (that was for the Jewish people) but they were the SPIRIT of it – the transformation of their lives from the Spirit’s domination inside to the outside.
Just as the Gospel brings the stench of death to those who don’t want to be changed by God, so the ministry of the Law brought the stench of death to many goats, sheep and bulls – because of sinners. The Law was engraved on stone, brought a sacrificial system filled with blood – and yet came with the GLOW of God’s manifest presence!
How much more would the work of God in transformation by His Spirit do to bring glory to God and a glow to changed faces? Moses face glowed with the coming of the Law verses ten to thirteen remind. He needed a veil to cover his face. Yet, sadly, Paul remarked of his Jewish family outside the faith:
2 Corinthians 3:14 But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ. 15 But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; 16 but whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, [there] is liberty. 18 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.
Paul argued that his earthly family of Jews still needed to have the transformation happen – and it will one day. For now, the veil that blinds them as a people, which was a judicial move of God over them carefully forewarned by the prophet Joel, wasn’t blocking people (Jew or Gentile) who surrendered to Jesus and allowed God to work on transforming them by God’s Spirit.
Freedom came with the Spirit – I am free to follow God and please Him for the first time in my life when I open my heart to Him. Bondage is self-service; freedom is God-service. A writer for the “New Centurion” Blog posted something that caught my attention:
“Bill Irwin, a man who is blind, has a talking computer he uses to study the Bible. He’s had a few chuckles over some of the pronunciations. “For a long time,” Bill says, “the computer pronounced Holy Bible as ’holly bibble’ until I figured out how to modify it.” But there was one thing Bill couldn’t change. The computer uses the Spanish pronunciation for Jesus Christ–HEYsus Krist. “The programmer is Hispanic,” Bill told me with a smile, “and he made sure that HEYsus Krist cannot be altered.” I like that. It reminds us that among the things in life that can be changed to suit our taste, one remains tamper-resistant–we can’t change Jesus. When life is unsettled, we gain great comfort from the Bible’s affirmation that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever”. But the statement is also a stern rebuke to our tendency to try to modify the words and character of Christ when we don’t like what He says. How easy it is to forget that we came to Christ longing for Him to transform us, not the other way around!“
Let’s go back to the little tribunal where we began this lesson from the Scriptures. You are kneeling on the ground. An armed man pushes you with the muzzle of his rifle. The man sitting at the card table looks up at you and says…”I have evidence that you claim to belong to Jesus Christ.”
What evidence is there? What is scribbled on the paper before Him?
Was Jesus at the center of your choice of an occupation? Have you used your work to show others Who the Savior is? Is he at the center of your entertainment choices? Does He determine what you will say, what you will sing, what you will laugh at?
Pastor David Welch was preaching on “Life Signs of a Healthy Church” and he offered this insight I think is worth recalling: “Walt Disney was a dreamer. His crowning vision was EPCOT; Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. He envisioned the perfect city of 20,000 using all of the most modern advances technology. One problem, Walt Disney died before his dream was ever realized. His dream was so big and complex and outside the box that no one else in the Disney Company ever caught the dream and had no idea what to do after Walt was gone. What Walt Disney intended as a living breathing perfect city turned out only to be a [mere] entertainment center. Disney’s “World” would only become a place to visit.”
Here was the part that I found inspiring…”Jesus left a blueprint for His church so vast, so marvelous, and so innovative. [He instructed and constructed] a living, breathing, expanding organism that would permeate and transform the whole world. The problem is, that as time went on, His followers lost the vision and couldn’t wrap their minds around such a magnificent plan. Rather than a community of loving, passionate followers of Christ dedicated to demonstrating the power of the Christ-transformed life in a dark world, they began to do what they knew best, build buildings and run organizations and develop entertainment centers that would hopefully draw the crowds to hear the story but miss the transforming power of Christ.” (From a sermon by David Welch, Life Signs of a Healthy Church, 10/19/2009 posted at Sermon Central.com).
That wasn’t Jesus’ call. He has never been the theme park building type. He has always been in the transformation business. I want to close this with some words from a few of my favorite authors combined by Francis Chan some time ago:
He was making the point that the transformation of our characters to that of one like Jesus is often A PAINFUL PROCESS. He wrote: “The truth is that the Spirit of the Living God is guaranteed to ask you to go somewhere or do something you wouldn’t normally want or choose to do. The Spirit will lead you to the way of the Cross, as He led Jesus to the cross, and that is definitely not a safe or pretty or comfortable place to be. The Holy Spirit of God will mold you into the person you were made to be. This is often an incredibly painful process that strips you of selfishness, pride, and fear. For a powerful example of this, read in C. S. Lewis’s book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader about the boy, Eustace, who becomes a dragon. In order to become a little boy again, he must undergo a tremendous amount of pain as the dragon skin is peeled away and torn from him. Only after he endures this painful process is he truly transformed from a dragon back into a boy. Sometimes the sin we take on becomes such a part of us that it requires this same kind of ripping and tearing to free us. The Holy Spirit does not seek to hurt us, but He does seek to make us Christ-like, and this can be painful.” (Francis Chan. Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit – pp. 50-51). Kindle Edition.