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Devotions from Second Corinthians

OUR TRIUMPH IN UNION WITH CHRIST #33

Paul, the Quintessential Christian Worker

 A Man Molded by His Message

Dr. Gordon E. Johnson

Rio Grande Bible Institute

I conclude the expository studies on 2 Corinthians with an overview of Paul in his very essence as a Christian worker.  Over my past more than 65 years as a pastor, professor, administrator  and missionary, I have studied the life of Paul as an example of  a man and a ministry to emulate by God's grace. If 2 Corinthians does anything for us, it gives us a window on Paul in his multiple relationships with a problematical church which he established and in Christ still loved dearly and deeply.

Paul lays bare his pastoral heart in this epistle and teaches with passion the Message of the Cross.  In other epistles, such as Romans and Ephesians, he applies doctrine to the variety of church life; but it is not couched in such personal terms. In Galatians he does open his heart with passion, but he is dealing with specific doctrinal problem of law and grace. In Philippi, Colosse and Thessalonica he addresses their spiritual needs applying appropriately the truths of the Cross. To Timothy and Titus he counsels them and warns them in fatherly tones.

Very distinctively in 2 Corinthians, he combines the message of the Cross with the immediacy and urgency of a cross section of church life, including among other things, his change of plans, the imminent collection of the offering for the poor of Jerusalem, the grace of giving and the  peril of the "super apostles" who were working havoc in their midst.

He must defend his persona and his calling in a most difficult situation – with his own spiritual children infiltrated by his enemies. 2 Corinthians is unparalleled in this regard.  However, the Christian worker can be guided by Paul's example of tact, love, sternness and faithfulness to truths of the Cross. 2 Corinthians can uniquely equip the Christian worker with the "what" and "how" of victory in union with Christ.

Paul, the Trophy of the Grace of God

Saul of Tarsus

"I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel [the foremost Jewish Rabbi known to all] taught according to the strictness of our fathers' law, and was zealous toward God as you all today" (Acts 22:3). "I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers." (Galatians 1:13, 14).

Later from prison his retrospective look: "If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church: concerning the righteousness which is in the law blameless"  (Philippians 3: 4-6).

Paul now in Christ

But read on in his letter to Timothy: "And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief . . . However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering as a pattern to those who are going to believe in Him for everlasting life'' (1Timothy 1:12-16).

Paul, the Missionary and Church Planter

Although Paul's spiritual transformation was abrupt, complete and final, he was accepted but slowly and not without some doubters. A Jew with that background and now the Apostle to the Gentiles and eventually one of the Twelve, was a bit of a stretch for the Jewish church leaders to immediately accept.  We can understand their human reticence. But God's plan was unique to show the initiative of grace in Saul who became Paul.

"Afterward I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia; and I was unknown by face to the churches in Judea which were in Christ. But they were hearing only, ‘He who formerly persecuted us now preaches the faith which he once tried to destroy.' And they glorified God in me. Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas  . . .. ‘" (Galatians 1:21-24; 2:1). 

We can only surmise that in those years in solitude God defined his calling and his message, the Message of the Cross. It was his time with God; God's sovereign hand was upon him as his chosen vessel. Again God used Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement, to open doors for Paul in Antioch as he had earlier in Jerusalem (Acts 9: 26-30).

After Paul's teaching ministry in Antioch prospered, the Holy Spirit sent Barnabas and Paul on the church's first missionary journey.  Early in that journey it became evident that Paul was the chosen vessel; in the two succeeding missionary journeys, Paul was the leader whom God appointed for greater missionary outreach. Paul gathered around him a series of new Gentiles and Jewish believers as his associates. The genius of his leadership was the array of associates who gathered around him and whom he discipled and with whom he shared in a spirit of cooperation and meekness.

With the passing of time he spent almost three years in Ephesus, the mother church that reached  into eastern Asia; Paul also dedicated eighteen months to pastoral ministry in Corinth. These two churches became the focal point of church growth and his subsequent writing ministry. Philippi, Colosse and Thessalonica merited his counsel and Timothy and Titus became his sons in church governance and leadership.

 

The thirteen epistles of Paul constitute a major portion of the New Testament and stand as a monument to his role in the Early Church. Paul carries the marks of God's sovereign choice as a "vessel unto honor."

The Cross Leads through Suffering to What Truly Blesses     2 Corinthians 1: 1-11

The message of the Second Corinthians comes through loud and clear. It begins as an outburst of praise, a veritable *paean of praise. One would never have guessed the circumstances through which he had just passed. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulations, that we may be able to comfort [encourage] those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ" (vv.3-5).

Paul is saying to serve is to suffer; to suffer is, in turn, to minister most directly to others.  We too often think of serving as the using of our talents, gifts and training, in brief, our preaching and doing.  But God has another avenue that ministers more directly to others in need.  With a totally selfless thought of the cost of such service, Paul blesses God. He discovers in suffering the dynamic of the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort and encouragement. Self has been substituted and in its place a risen Christ surfaces with healing balm.

 

This principle of the Cross is the underlying theme of the whole epistle. It is no coincidence that the epistle so begins.  The Cross brings a death to self in all its mutations and issues in life in others.  "So then death is working in us, but life in others" (4:12). God has crossed out the flesh of the servant and, in turn, releases the fragrance of the Crucified.

Take note of the trouble Paul faced which led to this buoyant response. "For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of our trouble which came to us in Asia: that we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life. Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead, who delivered us from so great a death, and does deliver us; in whom we trust that He will still deliver us, you also helping together in prayer . . . " (vv.8-11). Notice how death to self includes the prayers of the saints, even the Corinthian saints. Observe the hallmark of humility. We are never ever invulnerable.   

The Cross Leads to Triumph in Every Place    2 Corinthians 2:14-17

In the midst of active service with conflicting signs, Paul bursts forth again: "Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place" (v.14). This is not, for a moment, optimism or public relations. For in every challenge of ministry: "For we are to God a fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death to death, and to the other the aroma of life to life. And who is sufficient for these things? (vv.15,16).

Once again ministry of the crucified believer will be to God as the triumphant entry of a Roman Caesar returning home in victory and in his entourage he exhibits the trophies of his victory.  Paul and we are "Led in the Train of Christ's triumph."

The Cross Leads to the Spirit's Ministration   2 Corinthians 3:1-18 

Paul answers his detractors' claims of duplicity by transparency in the presence of God and then turns their allegations into positive teaching (2:19-22). He disclaims any sufficiency for himself. "Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God" (v.5).

Paul highlights the fading glory of the Mosaic covenant without demeaning its value. Its glory was a fading glory and hidden from the eyes of the viewer by a veil on Moses face.  Paul's logic is irrefutable. "How will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious? For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory . . . for if what is passing away was glorious, what remains is much more glorious. Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech -- . . ." (vv.8-11).

Paul lays the capstone of the argument: "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 by the Spirit of the Lord" (v.18).  Ours is the Much More ministry through the Spirit of the Crucified. We can identify ourselves with Paul's thanksgiving for the effective ministry of the Holy Spirit, even in the face of ministry's greatest challenges.

The Cross Leads to Humbling and Holiness      2 Corinthians 4:1-18

Paul now delves more deeply into the essence of the Message of the Cross.  So often we hear the generalities that the Holy Spirit gives us the victory and by God's grace we will persevere.  It is surely true that the Holy Spirit does his life transforming work, but Paul follow it up with  "if" he can work, "how" he will work and "what" our response must be.

We, however, cooperate with the Holy Spirit. Listen to Paul's response: "Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to everyman's conscience in the sight of God" (vv.1-2). Our cooperation with the Spirit is to let God's truth search our hidden springs and constantly reveal the areas of the energy of the flesh and our persistent pride.

How does the Spirit do his transforming work?  With the echo of Gideon's victory with a mere three hundred: "we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us" (v.7). At the precise moment the order came to Gideon: "Break the pitchers."  "Then the three companies blew the trumpets and broke the pitchers--they held the torches in their left hand and the trumpets in the right hands for blowing--and cried: ‘The sword of the LORD and Gideon.' And everyman stood in his place all around the camp; and the whole army ran and cried out and fled'" (Judges 7:20, 21). Could there have been a more unlikely strategy for victory?  Never but it carries the marks of weakness and brokenness – marks of the Cross.  

Paul makes the application: "We are pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed – Always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus' sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you" (vv. 8-12).

Here is the most concise statement of the true dynamic of Christian service. The Christian worker does not depend on gifts, degree titles, experience or even past blessings but on a brokenness that lets God be God in service. To serve is to suffer for Jesus' sake. What an honor!

The Cross Leads to the True Motivation for Service   God's Love    2 Corinthians 5: 11- 17

We come now to the apex of Christian service. The only service that God can recognize, is  service rendered by Christ who lives in us and is service motivated by his Calvary love.  Throughout this extended passage 2 Corinthians 2:14 -7:1, Paul has traced the wonders of God's grace as revealed in the multiple applications of the Cross to the life of the believer. There has been no hint of self pity facing the trials of the ministry. His triumph in union with Christ leads him to share in Christ's triumphs. 

James Denney has said: "No man can bear witness to Christ and to himself at the same time . . . no man can give the impression that he himself is clever and also that Christ is mighty to save. The power of the Holy Spirit is felt only when the witness is unconscious of self and when others remain unconscious of him."[1] Again, "Our only true triumphs are Christ's triumphs over us."

In a masterful condensation of the Cross and Christian service, Paul declares: "For the love of God constrains us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all; THEN ALL DIED; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again. Therefore, from now on we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet no we know Him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; Behold all things have passed away; all things have become new" (vv.14-17).

The saddest fact of today's preaching is that we have not heard that "we died in Christ" the very  moment that we trusted him as Savior and Lord; the power of that death forgave our sins but also cancelled the power of the old life over the believer according to Romans. 6:1,2. "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?  Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?

I return again and again to this basic truth to be believed and grasped in faith. It is not a truth that  our minds can fully understand, but it is the truth that our hearts can receive by faith and by faith alone, just exactly as in our initial  salvation. This truth believed and obeyed eliminates our futile struggles, our pride of merit or service and our frequent distress of demerit.

We now serve on the sole basis of the constraint of Calvary's love. A willing and glad submission to our new Master whose love has cancelled out the flesh and its pride and hypocrisy and released the fragrance of his presence and blessing, far outweighing any apparent any cost of service.  We can truly be LED IN THE TRAIN OF CHRIST'S TRIUMPH by virtue of our union with the Crucified and Risen Christ.

Paul concludes in the same spirit of his initial arrival in Corinth: "And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:1, 2).



[1] James Denney as quoted by A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: The Judson Press).1907, foot note at bottom of  pp. 339,340.