NOTES II Corinthians
6:1-10 (click here for study)
Paul has emphasized that God has appointed Christ-followers to be his ministers of reconciliation, proclaiming the news that God has reconciled himself to the world through Christ who bore the weight and penalty of our sin. As Christ-followers, we bear the awesome responsibility of carrying the presence of the living Christ into the world through the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. We are God's "fellow workers," Paul says, and he urges us not "to receive God's grace in vain."
As fellow workers with God, we do God's work in the world. One of the mysteries hidden from the Old Testament faithful who anticipated the coming Messiah was the miracle of the new birth, the indwelling Holy Spirit who would bring our souls from death to life and literally fill us with the life and power of Jesus. We bear in us, as Christ-followers, the literal presence of God. As stones in his living temple, we become the physical means through which Jesus ministers his love and grace to the world. Our job as fellow workers with God is not merely to tell people what the Bible says. Un-reborn people could speak those words. Being fellow workers means that we bear the literal presence God in us, and as we submit to his love and grace and discipline, Jesus is able to glorify himself through us.
Receiving Grace in Vain?
After stressing our intimate relationship with God and his work, Paul delivers an apparently paradoxical warning: "We urge you not to receive God's grace in vain." Being a fellow worker of God, however, suggests that a person has received God's transforming grace in abundance. Why, then, this warning?
Developing a relationship with Jesus is not something we do once when we accept him and then ignore. In order for God's grace to bear fruit in our lives, we must spend time developing our relationship with him. We have to continue to submit to him, to be disciplined, to grow, to be obedient to the Holy Spirit's work in us. A person's initial emotional and intellectual response to the gospel is not what defines his or her relationship with God. Many people have the appearance of godliness without the spiritual transformation that comes from a new birth. It is the fruit of a Christian's life that determines whether or not his or her experience is genuine or not.
Paul shed some light on this apparent paradox in chapter 5 verse 15: "And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again."
If a Christian responds to the gospel but resists the discipline of God, persisting instead in living to gratify himself rather than living for God, he has received God's grace in vain. Although grace impacted that person's own heart, it is not growing and bearing fruit. A true heart response to grace will result in a person's becoming increasingly surrendered to Jesus and marked by the fruit of the Spirit.
In 1 Corinthians 1:1-2 Paul also says that we are saved by the gospel if we hold firmly to its teaching. Otherwise, we believe in vain.
Paul further elaborates on the kinds of self-centered motives we must not indulge if we are to live fruitfully. Stop passing judgment, he told the Roman Christians (Romans 14:13, 19-20); don't put any stumbling block in the way of a person's fragile faith. Do what leads to peace and mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God in another person by insisting on indulging your freedom in Christ in a way that confuses or offends a tender new believer.
James, the half-brother of Jesus and the leader of the early church in Jerusalem, had much to say to the very first scattered Jewish Christians who accepted Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit at the time of Pentecost and immediately afterwards. In James 2:12-13 he admonishes them to speak and act as people who will be judged "by the law that gives freedom". Judgment without mercy, he warns will be exercised toward anyone who does not show mercy. Their new-found faith in the Messiah must result in their sharing the mercy which God prodigally shared with them.
He further explains that we are to live in humility coming from true wisdom from God, not giving in to selfish ambition and bitterness. Where selfishness and bitterness reside, James cautions, evil also resides. Heavenly wisdom, on the other hand, is pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, merciful, bearing good fruit, and is impartial and sincere. (James 3:13-16)
The apostle John points out, in 1John 2:9-11, that anyone claiming to walk in the light who hates his brother is really walking in darkness. Only he who loves his brother lives in the light.
The apostles made it clear that going through the motions of claiming belief in Jesus but not accepting the transformation of grace is to receive grace in vain. A Christ-follower will live a life bearing the fruit of the Spirit. His or her life will mediate the love and truth and mercy of Jesus to those around him or her.
The Time of God's Favor
Paul follows this admonition not to receive God's grace in vain by quoting from Isaiah: "In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you. I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation." (from Is. 49:8)
Isaiah wrote the original passage from which Paul borrows when he was prophesying Israel's restoration after being exiled. It is likely that this verse is referring to the idea of the Year of Jubilee, when all lands return to their original owners, and all tribes again retain their original allotment of Canaan. (See notes in NIV Study Bible.) This prophecy, as well as others, promises the restoration of Israel and the faithfulness of God to provide the Messiah to be a covenant for the people, to "restore the land," (Is. 49:8), to call the captives out of bondage, and to free those in darkness.
Paul asserts that the time of that deliverance from bondage and divine intervention is NOW. The Messiah has come, and this time of grace between the old covenant and the coming Day of the Lord is reality for us now. Today is the day of salvation. Today we have freedom from the bondage of sin and from captivity to death.
David also prayed that God would rescue him from death and destruction "in the time of your favor." (Psalm 69:13) Although the promised Messiah had not yet come and was only dimly understood, David trusted that God could and would deliver him.
The Old Testament faithful were saved as surely as are we who live in the age of grace. They received salvation by faith, just as we do. Even though Jesus hadn't lived, died, and risen inside time yet, in eternity his sacrifice was in place. Even though they understood dimly, the Old Testament patriarchs believed God's promises, and their faith was counted as righteousness.
Jesus said, "Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad." Paul said, "For no matter how many promises God has made, they are 'Yes' in Christ. And so through him the 'Amen' is spoken." (2 Cor. 1:20) The writer of Hebrews also underscores the certainty of the Old Testament faithful in the promises of God: "All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance." (Heb. 11:13)
The day of salvation is the day we accept God's salvation of us by faith. Whether a person lived under the old covenant or lives in the new, it is trust and belief in the saving promises of God that puts us in relationship with God.
Paul is impassioned in his desire to stimulate the Corinthians to stand firm in the gospel he preached to them. The false teachers in Corinth are having at least partial success in turning those young Christians away from the true simplicity of the gospel by discrediting Paul, the one who taught them. By distracting the Corinthians with contentious claims for their loyalty, those self-serving false apostles have succeeded in breeding divisions among the young church and doubts in their hearts about Paul's authenticity and about the veracity of his word.
In this letter, Paul pleads with them to look objectively at him. He reminds them that he has "put no stumbling block in anyone's path, so that our ministry will not be discredited." Paul defines "stumbling blocks" in other of his epistles. For example, in Romans 14:13-16 he says, "Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another." He continues by saying that whatever a believer does, he must consider his brother's reactions before indulging his freedom in Christ. If, for example, a Christ-follower believes something, such as food, to be clean or permissible, one should not indulge his freedom to eat that food in front of his brother who considers it unclean and would therefore be distressed.
In other words, in our freedom from Old Testament ritual requirements, we must not distress another brother's conscience by indulging our freedom in front of one who still feels sensitive about such requirements.
Paul further says, in Romans 14:16, "Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil." If in one's understanding of freedom in Christ certain old prohibitions (not, however, things which the Bible condemns as sin) now seem acceptable, one should not be made to feel guilty or unworthy by another's adherence to the prohibition. Just as a Christ-follower must never distress another brother by indulging in a freedom which the other considers inappropriate, just so we must not allow other's reactions to our observances or non-observances cause us to feel guilty or out-of-fellowship. We must not judge one another. It is the Holy Spirit's job to convict us of changes we need to make.
It is important to note that this admonition is directed toward brothers in Christ. Essentially Paul was saying that Jews and Gentiles who love Jesus should not judge each other's observances or non-observances of rituals. Gentiles needed to give up eating meat offered to idols because such eating was associated in their minds with their old, habitual pagan rituals. For a Jewish Christian to eat such meat would mean nothing. Jewish converts, on the other hand, had to give up their insistence upon rituals such as requiring circumcision for Gentiles when they became believers. Gentiles viewed circumcision as needless mutilation. Both Jewish and Gentile Christ-followers had to allow each other to follow Jesus and belong to Christ in the ways the Holy Spirit led them. They were not to judge each other's observances, nor were they to enforce their own on each other. They were not to put stumbling blocks in each other's way that would cause them to fall away from Christ and into works or doubt. Christ, not signs or rituals or laws, was to be the focus of every Christ-follower. The fruit of the Spirit, not observances and practices, was to be the mark of true believers.
Commendation through Hardship
At this point in his letter Paul begins an interesting defense of his ministry. He creates three miniature lists illustrating that his ministry is real and is appointed by God. His first list describes hardships he endures for the sake of the gospel. The second list describes spiritual attributes he has which demonstrate his authenticity, and the third list is a collection of paradoxes describing the harsh treatment he receives contrasted by God's intervention in his life.
In verse 4 Paul states, "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"
Paul is continuing his defense of his apostleship in this passage. He has already stated that he is not putting stumbling blocks in the way of believers, nor is he deceiving people or preaching the gospel for his own profit or reward. Now he illustrates his authenticity by telling the Corinthians what he endures. A true minister of Christ will experience resistance, hardship, temptation, misunderstanding, and privation. When God calls us and puts his work before us, the only reward we can expect is the reward of the actual presence and love of Christ. Christ-followers will be slandered, ignored, persecuted, jeered, and experience physical, emotional, and spiritual struggles.
Paul lists the hardships he faces as evidence of his authenticity as an apostle of Jesus and a minister of God's reconciliation.
Early in his ministry, when Jesus was outlining the way a life would look when it was directed by the Holy Spirit, he said, "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matthew 5:10-12)
Jesus also told his disciples, as he was preparing them to go into the Israelite villages and preach the news of the kingdom of heaven, "Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues." He also said, "All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved." (Matthew 10:17, 22) In the same instruction he told them, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." He further said family members would turn against each other because of Him, and he emphasized that if anyone loved his family or his comfort more than Jesus, they were not worthy of him. (v. 34-37)
"Anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me," Jesus said. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." (Matt. 10:38-39)
John records another statement of Jesus that declared the world would hate his disciples: "If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me." (John 15:20-21)
Jesus clearly taught that we, as Christ-followers, could expect persecution, betrayal, and opposition. In 2 Corinthians Paul is outlining his sufferings to the Corinthians to illustrate that his ministry is truly from God. He is not an imposter, as his detractors are saying. If he were, he would not be suffering the kinds of trials and persecution he's experiencing.
In another epistle, Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, "We sent Timothyto strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted." (1 Thessalonians 3:2-4)
Paul knew he would suffer. Anyone who devotes his life to serving God and takes a stand for the truth will suffer, because the world, as Jesus taught, hates Christ-followers.
In his second epistle to Timothy, Paul's young protege in ministry, Paul stated plainly, "In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and imposters will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived." (2 Tim. 3:12-13)
The author of Hebrews puts suffering into a bigger perspective. "Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?" (Hebrews 12:7)
Paul understood clearly that suffering was an inevitable part of following Christ. He recited his hardships to the Corinthians as a way of emphasizing that the rumors about him were not true. If he were a fraud, as his detractors claimed, he would not be experiencing the extreme forms of persecution he met wherever he preached. His suffering was a direct result of his preaching the true message of salvation from sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus. His preaching condemned self-righteousness and self-righteous works. He uplifted Jesus alone as the only way to salvation. His message was not welcomed by people who did not want the truth. His persecution was the result of his own loyalty and commitment to Jesus and to the truth of the gospel.
Commendation through Spiritual Attributes
After listing the sufferings he was enduring, Paul's list shifts to a recitation of spiritual attributes he has which the Holy Spirit had given him. By listing these things, Paul is demonstrating that his apostleship and ministry are true and not fraudulent. The qualities of character which he claims for himself cannot exist in a person who is not living in unity with Jesus. These are things which can only occur in a life by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Here is what he says: "As servants of God we commend ourselves in every wayin purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God."
The unique character traits of a true Christ-follower are outlined in Galatians 5:22-23. In the preceding verses Paul describes characteristics of people who will not inherit the kingdom of God: "sexual immorality; impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like." He contrasts these behaviors with a life displaying the fruits of the Spirit: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control."
In the passage in 2 Corinthians, Paul is saying that his purity, patience, and kindness are evidences of the Holy Spirit's claim on him. If his apostleship were fraudulent, if he were deceiving the Corinthians, God would not be blessing him with these characteristics because God would not be directing his ministry.
In other epistles Paul further outlined the characteristics of true ministers of Christ. Earlier, for example, he wrote to the Corinthians and reminded them that his preaching to them had not been with "wise and persuasive words," but it had come with the Spirit's power. (1 Corinthians 2:4-5) Later he wrote to them again and declared that he had "renounced secret and shameful ways" and had "set forth the truth plainly," commending himself to their consciences. To the Thessalonians he emphasized the hallmark of true conversion and ministry when he wrote that he knew God has chosen them "because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction." (1 Thess. 1:4-5)
Paul admonished the Romans that their love must be sincere. They were to hate evil and cling to what is good. They were to be devoted to each other in brotherly love and to honor each other. They were to be joyful in hope and faithful in prayer. They were to bless those who persecuted them and to live in harmony with others. They were not to be proud or conceited. (Romans 12:9-16) He also told them to behave decently, with no debauchery, dissensions, or jealousy. (13:13)
In one of his epistles to Timothy, Paul told him not to let men teach false doctrine. The goal of preventing false teaching, he wrote, was to have "love which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith." (1 Timothy 1:4-5)
Living with integrity was Paul's objective. He was committed to Jesus and to preaching the cross of Christ, and he took seriously his commission as an apostle of Jesus Christ. In spite of their slander and persistent defaming, his detractors could not conceal the marks of the Holy Spirit on Paul's life. His self-commendation in 2 Corinthians 6 is simply reminding the Corinthians that he lived the way he taught them and others to live: by the power of the Holy Spirit giving him a new nature. He emphasizes the source of his power to live with holiness by stating that he had the Holy Spirit and the power of God and "weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left." (v.6-7)
Paul mentions divine weapons again in 2 Corinthians; he states that he fights not with weapons of the world but with weapons that have divine power to demolish strongholds. (10:4) He further identifies the Christian's warfare preparations in Ephesians 6:10-18. The armor of God, he says, consists of the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes fitting the feet with the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit.
He could not be a true apostle, Paul says in effect, if his life did not display all these characteristics of a person who has been born again and indwelled by the Holy Spirit. The fact that his ministry is marked by purity, patience, kindness, and understanding, that he has the Holy Spirit and lives in the love and power of God, that he is committed to truthfulness and is armed with weapons of righteousness is proof that his ministry is from God.
The measure of a true Christ-follower is not a person's words or teaching or declarations of belief. The true measure of a Christ-follower is a person's fruit. If someone does not bear the fruit of the Spirit, his claims to belong to Jesus are mere words.
Commendation through Paradox
In his book A Different Drum, Christian psychiatrist M. Scott Peck defines truth as a paradox. Truth, he says, is always a paradox. To teach half of the truth-or half of the paradox-as if it were the whole truth is to teach heresy. Examples of paradoxical truth include: God is both transcendent and immanent; a person must lose his life in order to find it; Jesus, the only sinless human, took our sin and our punishment; God is both just and merciful; salvation is both a free gift and a costly gift.
In verses 8-10 of 2 Corinthians 6, Paul uses a series of paradoxes as his final demonstration that his ministry and apostleship are genuine and not fraudulent. These paradoxes, which are unexplainable in human terms, can only be possible because of God's intervening power in Paul's life. Only by living in truth could he experience these opposing realities and emerge confident and whole.
The first paradox Paul cites as evidence for his integrity is that he experiences both glory and dishonor. In 1 Corinthians 4:10-13, Paul expands on his experience of being dishonored. He writes that he is hungry, thirsty, in rags, brutally treated, homeless, persecuted, slandered, the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world. He is being mistreated because of people's disdain for the gospel and for him as Christ's witness. Yet in 2 Corinthians 3:18 Paul stresses that he is among those who, with faces unveiled by the law, "reflect the Lord's glory and are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit." Paul is experiencing transcending glory even while he is being dishonored by his enemies.
Peter also commented on the paradox of simultaneously experiencing glory and dishonor in 1 Peter 4:14: "If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you."
The glory Paul and Peter refer to is a glory that is eternal. It is spiritual glory; it makes no sense to a person who is not born again. But when we become alive to God in Christ, we experience the very real glory of his righteousness and love and honor as we suffer and persevere for him.
Of Bad Report and Good
The next paradox Paul addresses in his experience is being the object of both bad report and of good report. We already know Paul has been experiencing slander from jealous false teachers and apostles. He previously wrote to the Corinthians, "When we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world." (1 Corinthians 4:13)
Jesus made it clear that his followers would be the objects of false criticism. "Blessed are you," he said in his Sermon on the Mount, "when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven." (Matthew 5:11-12)
In John 15:18-21, Jesus made even more clear the fallout for following Jesus. "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first," he said. "If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its ownNo servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me."
The fact that Paul was experiencing intense and persistent slander was not an evidence that he was doing something wrong. Rather, the smearing of his reputation was a direct result of his uncompromising dedication to Jesus and to the truth of the gospel. Slander and criticism can make one reel with self-doubt and guilt. The only way to withstand the inevitable attacks of the jealous and the ungodly is by keeping Jesus firmly in the center of one's focus.
Not everyone, however, will slander Christ's ambassadors. Those who are thirsting for truth and who are themselves committed to growing in God will recognize the Holy Spirit in His followers-at least part of the time!-and will respond to it positively. Ultimately, however, we cannot trust or depend on any person's evaluation of us or of our ministry. Only Jesus can declare us worthy, and we serve only Jesus. In reality, we do not even serve our brothers or the unsaved; we serve only Jesus. He transforms the work he gives us to do and uses it to bless others, but those blessings are not from us. They are always from God through us or to us.
As Christ-followers our responsibility is to make the effort to live peaceably with people. We cannot control whether or not others will respond to us equally peaceably, but our responsibility is to allow Christ to live through us regardless of how others receive us. The author of Hebrews stated, "Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord." (Hebrews 12:14)
Ultimately, human opinion is fickle and means nothing. Only the opinion of Jesus and the Father counts. Neither bad reports nor good reports define our ministry. They should not cause us to question or to be complacent about our relationships and responses to Christ's work in us. We must submit our hearts and our motives and our work to Jesus with complete humility. We must allow him to reveal to us our blind spots and the ways in which we function in deception. We must also be accountable to godly brothers or sisters in Christ who have the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and can help us to evaluate ourselves objectively. Praise and criticism are both natural human responses to God's work in a Christ-follower's life. We can rejoice when we experience these things because they mean Christ is at work in us. But we cannot listen to the things people say. We can only know that we will receive criticism and flattery; neither necessarily represents the truth. Only our integrity to our relationship with Jesus matters.
Genuine vs. Imposter
Paul's next paradox addressed his persistent problem in the Corinthian church. Both of his surviving epistles to the Corinthians repeatedly address the attacks he received from false teachers and apostles who tried to undermine his authority by claiming he was not really a true apostle of Jesus Christ. This very passage in 2 Corinthians 6, for example, is part of his defense of his authenticity.
In this paradox Paul is saying that he is genuinely an apostle of Jesus Christ but that many disrespect him and consider him to be an imposter-someone merely claiming to be a true teacher. His statement has further implications, however; Paul is also letting us know that anyone who follows Jesus and commits him or herself to ministry can expect to be slandered and discredited.
The history of God's people is punctuated with unbelievers and compromised people defaming His prophets and messengers. Jesus' own experience is the most blatant example of this phenomenon. On Sabbath as Jesus' body lay in the tomb, "the chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate. 'Sir,' they said, 'we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, "After three days I will rise again." So give the order for the tomb to made secure until the third day.' " (Matthew 27:63-64)
Their hatred for Jesus suggests that the Pharisees knew He was beyond their control. His miracles, his following, his authority all convicted them of their own arrogance, but they refused to respond to that conviction. They were quite certain the story of Jesus was not over at his death. Even though they didn't want to admit the truth, they had some sense that the tomb would indeed be empty on the third day. Instead of responding to the call and presence of God in the person of Jesus, the Jewish leaders attempted to discredit Him and to prevent any chance that his promise to rise from the dead could come true. Instead of acknowledging that his authority and power came from God, they called him a "deceiver." They attributed his claims and promises to Satan, the father of lies, instead of to God.
Paul earlier defended his authenticity when he said, "We have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in relations with you, in the holiness and sincerity that are from God. We have done so not according to worldly wisdom but according to God's grace." (2 Cor. 1:12) He also reminded them, "Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God." (2 Cor. 2:17)
"We have renounced secret and shameful ways," Paul further says, contrasting himself with the false apostles who have insinuated themselves into the Corinthian church. "We do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God." (2 Cor. 4:2)
Paul is emphasizing that the accusations against him claiming he is deceitful and untrustworthy are simply untrue. His own experience with the Corinthians, he reminds them, proves his trustworthiness. He is unashamed and boldly states his commitment to truth.
Truth is always divisive. People who do not wish to face the truth in their own lives always look for ways to rationalize or discredit truth when it is presented to them. This phenomenon is the problem Paul faced. He was a genuine apostle of Jesus Christ, but those who did not want to commit to the discipline of truth in their lives spent their energy trying to prove he was an imposter.
Truth, however, is more powerful than deception. Ultimately everything hidden in darkness is revealed.
Known but Regarded as Unknown
This paradox has two levels of meaning. On the surface, Paul is saying that the Corinthians and, indeed, all who received the gospel from his ministry to them, know him to be truthful and genuine. They know he is honest, and they know he speaks the truth. Now, however, as they face flattery and pressure from the false teachers among them, they are beginning to have doubts about him. They are allowing themselves to be convinced that Paul deceived them, that he was double-minded and that he did not tell them the truth or deal honestly with them.
The deeper way this paradox can be understood is that, because of his commitment to the Lord Jesus, Paul loves God and God knows Paul. (see 1 Cor. 8:3) His detractors, however, are spreading rumors about him suggesting that his relationship with Jesus is not genuine. They are convincing people to look at Paul as someone who is faking his dedication to the Lord and is not intimate with God.
Near the beginning of this letter Paul reminds the Corinthians that he has not written anything to them that they cannot understand. He states that his hope is that they will progress from understanding him "in part" to fully understanding that they can have confidence in him and can boast of him in the Lord. (2 Cor. 1:13-14) His desire is that the Corinthians will see that he is exactly what he claims to be, that he lives for and by the gospel, and they can know he taught them truth-truth that will enable them to stand with confidence before God on the "Day of the Lord".
Paul longs for the Corinthians to trust him and to trust the Spirit's power in him. He has not hidden from them; he has been transparent and trustworthy, and it causes him great pain that they do not respond to him with reciprocal trust and vulnerability. Even though they do not fully embrace the truth about Paul, though, he considers their misunderstanding of him to be one more evidence of his trustworthiness and authenticity. He knows he has not been deceitful or withholding; their lack of response comes from their own divided hearts and vulnerability to deception.
Even more, however, Paul loves God, and he is confident that God knows him. As a committed Christ-follower, Paul is known by the Father. No longer is he separated from God by sin; no longer is he persecuting God's people. Paul loves God, and God knows him. (1 Cor. 8:3) Furthermore, Paul knows that whenever people turn away from doing their own works, from living by the law and instead embrace the awesome person of Jesus Christ and his sacrifice, the veil of confusion and distance from God falls away. They grow in love for Jesus, and God can then be intimate with them. (see 2 Cor. 2:16)
In this paradox of being known but being regarded as unknown, Paul is not only defending his relationship with the Corinthians but also with God himself. False teachers and even the Corinthians may regard him as an imposter not truly relating to God, but Paul knows the truth. He is completely vulnerable to Jesus, and God has complete access to Paul's heart and mind. God knows him, yet the world does not perceive the intimate relationship Paul has with his Father.
Dying Yet Living On
The great irony of Paul's life was that he began his career as a rigid Pharisee devoted to killing the swelling numbers of Christ-followers that succeeded Pentecost, and he ended his career as a devoted follower of Christ who was beaten, stoned, imprisoned, and often left for dead. In this part of his defense, Paul acknowledges the intensity of his suffering when he says he is beaten and dying yet not killed.
Paul's physical insults were so severe he should have died, by human standards. Indeed, he would have found relief in death. "For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain," He wrote to the Philippians. "If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body." (Phil. 1:22-24)
Paul realized that his physical survival was a miracle. When he was preaching in Lystra, Jews from Antioch came and stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city where they left him, thinking he was dead. He lay there until the disciples gathered around him. At that point he got up and returned to the city. (Acts 14:19-20) In Philippi Paul and Silas were preaching, and a man who was angry because they had cast a demon out his slave girl stirred up the crowd against them. The people became angry and stoned Paul and Silas after which the magistrate threw them into prison. They were set free that night by an earthquake which broke their chains as well as the doors to the prison. On still another occasion Paul was in the temple in Jerusalem. Some Jews from Asia spotted him, stirred the crowd against him, and they dragged him out and tried to kill him. Roman soldiers saved his life by arresting him and putting him in prison. (Acts 21:30-33)
In 2 Corinthians 4:10-11 Paul had already stated that he was a spectacle on display; he was weak, dishonored, and brutally treated. His persecution was a result of his preaching the gospel; it was to be expected. His suffering, however, was intense and real. Yet he was willing to endure these assaults against him because he knew God was glorifying himself through the work he was enabling Paul to do. He was completely aware that the only reason he was surviving repeated stonings, beatings, imprisonments, and privations was that God strengthened him.
God will keep his followers strong to the end, Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 1:8-10, so they will be blameless on the day of the Lord. God has called his people into fellowship with him, and he is faithful.
Paul knew that God alone kept him alive. Yet even though he suffered beyond what most of us can imagine, he praised God for his faithfulness. When God strengthens a person and saves them from suffering, the gift He gives is not only physical. God blesses people with spiritual strength and with His own presence in the middle of persecution and anguish. God himself is our reward.
Paul saw his suffering and his spared life as indications that God was using him. Rather than pine because God was not sparing him from suffering, Paul knew that God's saving him in his suffering was the real mark of a Christ-follower.
Sorrowful yet Joyful
The next paradox Paul uses to validate his experience as a true apostle of Christ does not make good sense outside the context of being born again. Although he is full of sorrow, he says, he always rejoices. Outside a spiritual understanding of this phenomenon, such a claim sounds masochistic.
Paul's simultaneous sorrow and joy is the reality Jesus declared in his Sermon on the Mount when he said Christ-followers would be blessed when they were persecuted and slandered. They should rejoice, Jesus said, because their reward in heaven would be great. Furthermore, he reminded them, cynical and unbelieving people persecuted God's prophets throughout the ages. (Matthew 5:11-12) Suffering and persecution are natural components in a Christian's life. They should not surprise us or destroy us. Rather, we are to rejoice and praise God because this persecution indicates that we are experiencing God's power working through us, polarizing people and clarifying good and evil.
Throughout his epistles Paul emphasizes the necessary transcendence of hardship with praise. To the Corinthians he wrote that he thanked God for them because of how God had enriched their speaking, their knowledge, their testimony about Jesus, and their gifts of the Spirit. (1 Cor. 1:3-7) The amazing thing about this praise to God is that the Corinthians were being divisive and were being seduced from an undivided loyalty to Jesus by false teachers in their ranks. Yet Paul focused on the reality of their position in Christ and on God's gifts to them through the Holy Spirit and praised God for His work among them in spite of their orneriness. He wrote to them again, in his second epistle, that he was encouraged in all his troubles; his joy knew no bounds. (2 Cor. 7:4)
The recurring them of continual praise surfaces again in Ephesians 5:20 when Paul admonished the church there to make music to God in their hearts, always giving thanks to the Father for everything. (Eph. 5:20) He made no exceptions for hard times or suffering. Giving thanks to God is something his people are to do in all circumstances. In Philippians 2:17-18 Paul again acknowledges his persistent suffering for the sake of Christ as he served the new Gentile believers. He wrote, "But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me." And again in Philippians 4:4, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!"
Colossians 1:24 contains one of Paul's most poignant admissions of his suffering for the sake of bringing the gospel to the lost. "Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church." Paul enduring extreme hardship and persecution, yet he rejoiced in his agony because it meant Christ was being glorified in the lives of the growing new church. Such rejoicing is not possible in an un-reborn state. In fact, rejoicing in suffering sounds masochistic. Yet to a true minister of Christ, rejoicing in suffering for the gospel does not mean reaping some perverse pleasure from pain. Rather, when a Christ-follower suffers for the gospel, the comforting and enlightening presence of Jesus is close and real in ways often not experienced in trouble-fee times. It is in that presence of Christ that a suffering Christ-follower rejoices. It is because of one's relationship of love with Jesus that one can rejoice in hardship because God is being glorified.
To the Thessalonians Paul wrote, "You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit." In this single sentence Paul connects the believer's experience with that of Christ, and he identifies the source of this apparently incongruous joy as the Holy Spirit. A true follower of Christ will suffer for the sake of Christ, but the suffering will not destroy the believer. Rather, the deep, transcendent joy that can only come from God sustains the sufferer and gives him peace and perspective in the middle of trouble.
Perhaps Paul's most clear and comprehensive directive to praise God is found in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: "Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus."
In his paradox of rejoicing in sorrow, Paul is referring to a phenomenon that can only make sense in the context of being born again. Without the enlivening presence of the Holy Spirit in our own spirits, rejoicing in suffering cannot make sense. Without the presence of God, such rejoicing really would indicate some sort of emotional pathology. The reality of being alive in Christ, however, is a completely different state from being spiritually dead. Those who have not experienced the new birth have no possible way to understand what such rejoicing means.
When we are alive in Christ, our rejoicing is not reveling in pain; rather it is an expression of trust in God's sovereignty and an acknowledgment of his comforting and strengthening presence and peace when our world seems about to come unglued.
Paul is right. The fact that he can rejoice in the midst of sorrow is proof of his authentic relationship with Jesus. He is not hopeless or despairing because the literal Spirit of God is always in him.
Poor, Yet Making Rich
Paul's next defense of his apostleship is the paradox of his literal poverty which coincides with his bringing great riches to others. While his physical poverty was extreme, his spiritual state was rich in trust and truth. He shared his spiritual riches liberally with those whom God brought into his sphere.
Jesus instructed his disciples to be on guard against "all kinds of greed," because a person's life does not consist of an abundance of possessions. Destruction is the destiny of all those who store up things for themselves but are not "rich toward God." (Luke 12:15, 21) Physical poverty is not the measure of a person's well-being. His relationship with Christ and his inheritance of eternity and life are a person's true treasures.
Paul confirms that his ministry to the Corinthians has resulted in their enrichment. He thanks God, he said, for His grace to them. He has enriched them in speech and knowledge because of the testimony of Jesus in them. (1 Cor. 1:4-6) The Holy Spirit who bears testimony to Jesus is the One who enriches believers with spiritual grace and wisdom and knowledge. Paul's suffering for the sake of the gospel was resulting in spiritual riches in the Corinthians. He further confirms to them that all things-the world, life, death, the present, the future-all are theirs. Furthermore, they are "of Christ," and Christ is of God. (1 Cor. 3:21-23) All that they have is theirs because they are now connected to God. His riches are theirs.
A passage which explains the paradox of delivering riches out of poverty is 2 Corinthians 8:9: "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich."
Jesus gave up his riches to become a poverty-stricken human being. Not only was he poverty-stricken, but he also carried our spiritual poverty upon himself and died a criminal's death, separated from God, in our place. When we accept Jesus' sacrifice for our sins, we surrender our lives to him. All that we are and have we submit to his sovereignty. We no longer claim what we have; all is God's.
The paradox is that when we give up our rights to what we "own", we discover that we have something which deeply satisfies us. We have security, truth, eternity, and Jesus himself. We have riches that are more real than the "things" we cherished before. When we participate in the poverty of Jesus, we then participate in his riches as well, both now and eternally.
Paul's purpose, he said to the Colossians, was to enable the new converts with whom he worked to be encouraged in heart and to be united in love so they could experience the "riches of complete understanding" in order to know the mystery of God which is Christ. (Col 2:2-4)
The former Pharisee who enjoyed honor and distinction among his peers for his great learning and his zealous commitment to stamp out the spread of Christianity became an itinerant tent maker who devoted all his energy to preaching the gospel. He participated in the poverty of Christ by giving up the comfort and honor he enjoyed as an orthodox Jew, but the paradox he discovered was that when he became poor, then he experienced riches he could not have imagined. Out of his spiritual abundance he shared those riches with thousands of people to whom he ministered.
Having Nothing, Possessing Everything
In this last paradox Paul emphasizes the value and transcending effect of belonging to Christ. He has nothing, he acknowledges, yet he possesses everything. The physical things he has given up have ceased even to seem desirable. Although he suffers physically, the reality of his relationship with Jesus and the literal, continual presence of God in him far surpasses the temporary physical things the world values. He has been born again, and Paul has discovered they mystery of the new birth: reality is unseen. Reality is bigger than we can perceive with our senses and minds. Spiritual reality is more real than physical things. When a person becomes spiritually alive, spiritual things become revealed to him, and the spiritual realm transcends and defines the created things around him.
Peter also understood this paradox of value being completely redefined. "Silver and gold I do not have," he told the cripple begging for alms, "but what I have I give you." Then Peter told the man to pick up his bed and walk, and he was healed. Peter had nothing the beggar or anyone else would have considered valuable, but the power of God was startling in its worth. Rather than receiving a handout that would buy him food, the man received the ability to walk. His entire life was changed!
Surrendering everything is the call of God to every Christ-follower. Just as Jesus "made himself nothing" and became a servant, so we are to submit all that we have and do not have to God, allowing him to glorify himself through our lives in the way he chooses. (Philippians 2:5-7) Following Jesus brings about a complete change of focus and a new set of values. Eternal, spiritual reality replaces money and success as the center of our attention and the goal of our lives. The drive to amass temporal success is fueled by a desire to fill one's life with meaning and satisfaction. What a Christ-follower discovers, however, is that success as most people define it does not fill the void in one's heart. Only a living spirit filled with God's own Spirit and in communion with Him can fill that emptiness. Only when we let God direct us and glorify himself through us do we begin to experience the true sense of being filled, or being rich.
Paul wrote to the Romans that just as God did not spare his own Son but gave him up, so he will give us Christ and "all things". The material things we know in this life mean nothing compared to the eternal riches we have in Christ. Even though our spiritual riches are intangible, they are more real to us than the things for which we struggled before we knew Jesus. Security, peace, rest in the middle of chaos, meaning when circumstances seem random-these things are beyond worldly value. They are also inexplicable except in the context of the new birth.
Jesus told his disciples, "I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the FatherYou may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it." (John 14:13-14)
The power and love and grace of the God of creation is ours when we are in Christ. Such transcendent power is unimaginable to a person not grounded in Jesus. This power, unlike power associated with financial or political success, does not trample on others for its own advancement. It is power that serves and power that restores. It is power that derives its strength from Love, the ultimate power-God. It is power that does not bring honor to us; rather, it glorifies God, and we are honored to be the vehicles through which God touches the world.
When Paul said he had nothing yet possessed everything, he was not simply being metaphorical. He meant exactly what he said. Poor and unworthy by worldly standards, he had at his disposal the power and riches of the Creator. As a child of God, all eternity as well as God's power within time were his. Paul saved his most inclusive and intangible paradox for the final proof of his authenticity as an apostle. No one except a true Christ follower could claim such an apparent contradiction without being considered out of touch with reality.
God is calling you to trust him completely. He is calling you to deepen in him, to respond to the Holy Spirit's promptings in you to release to him your shame and secrets and treasures and control as he reveals these things to you. God wants to make of you a person through whom he can glorify himself. He wants you to experience the deep joy and peace and rest that only come from experiencing Him making your spirit alive and healing your wounds. He wants you to be able to transcend the suffering in your life with the comfort of your love for him and the reassurance of his knowledge of you.
As you grow in Jesus, you will experience suffering, coldness from those you love, loss, slander, soul-questioning doubt, and painful misunderstanding. Like Paul, however, you can know that these things are the results of following Jesus. The gospel-truth-is always divisive. You cannot take a stand for integrity and truth without offending those who wish for truth to be relative. Do not be surprised, as Peter said, when these things happen to you. Jesus is with you, and the Holy Spirit will confirm to you, in the middle of your trauma, that you are safe in God's heart.
You will also discover, as Paul has pointed out, that as you trust Jesus and stand firm in him in spite of opposition, the Holy Spirit will fill you with strength and the fruit of the Spirit as you persevere. You will sense the presence of God holding you, being your strength, and you will experience a deep rest that you cannot explain externally.
You will ultimately discover, as did Paul, that your life is a series of paradoxes. When you walk in truth, you discover that you do not have to explain everything so it makes logical, intellectual sense. You can experience paradox, and you can embrace the reality that both sides of the paradox are true. You will discover great freedom in leaning on God's sovereignty and allowing him to have ultimate understanding while you simply respond as he directs you.
Walking with Jesus and being a born-again Christ-follower is unlike anything a person experiences before meeting Jesus. Intimacy with Him requires risk and trust; it results in power and peace that one cannot experience before giving up one's rights to oneself.
Ask God to reveal to you how he wants you to grow and change. Ask him to put his Spirit in your heart in the places where you have harbored fear and doubt and shame and grief. Ask him to make you willing to release to him the things you fear losing. Ask him to teach you to trust him.
Praise God for giving his Son to us. Praise Jesus for divesting himself of glory to become a sacrifice for our sin. Praise Him for conquering death and giving us life. Praise the Holy Spirit for bringing our spirits to life and for filling us with the presence of God!
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Copyright (c) 2002 Graphics Studio, Redlands,
CA USA. All rights reserved. Posted June 26, 2002.