“For we write nothing else to you than what you read and understand, and I hope you will understand until the end; just as you also partially did understand us…” (II Corinthians 1:13-14)
Pastors like Moses because they identify with his situation so strongly. Against great odds and at incredible risk, long after retirement age, he performed feats of leadership still talked about thousands of years later. And what’s more–the part we particularly appreciate–he did so in spite of the constant bickering and harassment of God’s people.
Moses literally dragged God’s people to Canaan.
The people he was called to serve, those for whom he was devoting the last third of his life, these who were his pride and his joy–they were his biggest headache.
That’s why we love the epistle called Second Corinthians so much.
In Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, the membership is called immature and carnal and it’s easy to see why. They were divided, cliquish and clannish, competitive with one another, and callous anyone they didn’t approve. The lessons the apostle teaches on spirituality, spiritual gifts, and love are some of the finest in Scripture.
When we come to his second letter to that church, we might expect more of the same. Instead, it was like Paul was writing to a different church altogether. These people have become angry and resentful toward him, the man who started their church and poured his lifeblood into building it up.
Pastors sometimes write me about their difficult situations. I’ve heard more than once of a pastor beginning a church from scratch, building it up into hundreds in attendance, and then some hot-shot arrives on the scene and stirs the people up against him. Suddenly, he finds himself on the outside looking in–jobless and friendless. Where, the writer wants to know, is the justice in this? Why didn’t the Lord’s people do the fair thing?
Answer: do not look to the people of the Lord for anything or you will be often disappointed. Keep your eyes on the Savior. Now, get up and get on with the next thing the Lord has for you to do. Next time, you will be a little smarter.
The Corinthian Christians were just not sure about Paul.
Does he really care for our church? If so, why doesn’t he spend more time on the field here?
“I intended to come to you,” Paul says (I Corinthians 1:15), “in order that you might be twice blessed.” Like an embattled president in a television debate, the apostle is trying to explain why some programs don’t work out as planned and why the voters need to be understanding and sympathetic.
“I was not vacillating,” he says (1:17). “In fact, it’s to your benefit that it worked out as it did, because I might have been harsh with you had I actually come” (1:23).
Paul begins explaining himself (chapters 1-2), then stops short. “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again?” (3:1)
He’s having an imaginary conversation with his critics. He can hear their voices in his head as they accuse and attack. Then, when he begins to explain why he did what he did, they interrupt, “Oh, he’s getting defensive and justifying himself. Listen to him brag.”
He can’t win for losing.
“If I have to have a letter of recommendation,” he says, “then you are it. You are the best proof of who I am and God’s hand upon me.”
They remained unconvinced. They just did not know. After all, if Paul loved them the way he said he does, wouldn’t he be here, on the field, taking care of all our needs? Wouldn’t he have made it for my mama’s funeral? I was in the hospital and he didn’t come once.
Pastors know. They have been there, done that, and have the scars to prove it.
The man of God can obey the Lord or he can cater to the whims of the people; he cannot do both.
Paul was certainly no Joel Osteen. Not even a David Jeremiah.
“He can sure write tough letters,” said the self-appointed critics. “But he’s not much in person.” He wasn’t handsome or eloquent or charismatic (in the modern sense). He wasn’t telegenic and women did not swoon in his presence.
Paul said, “We do use great boldness in our speech, but not like Moses who put a veil over his face so no one would see the fading glory” (3:12-13). (It turns out that Paul identified with Moses also.) Moses was using every gimmick he could come up with to keep the people’s confidence in his leadership. Paul says it was because of the hardness of their hearts (3:14).
Should Paul explain himself or not? He decides to give it a try…
“We have this treasure in earthen vessels” (II Cor. 4:7). You will always find flaws and weaknesses in the vessel; keep your eyes upon the treasure.
Perhaps if they knew something of his personal trials…
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;
Perplexed, but not despairing;
Persecuted, but not forsaken;
Struck down, but not destroyed;
Always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our body. (II Cor. 4:8-10)”
If it seems like we are weak personally, you’ve got that right. But it’s all right. “Even though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day” (4:16).
Then, Paul catches himself again. “We are not again commending ourselves to you” (5:12). “I hope we’re giving you reason to be proud of us, so you will have a response to those for whom the appearance is everything.”
Those for whom appearance is everything! Got any of those in your church, pastor? God bless you and keep you strong. Do not play that game; it leads to a bottomless pit and there is no satisfying such people.
“But,” he says to his naysayers, “if we are out of our mind, the way some of you are implying, it’s God’s doing. On the other hand, if we are sane, it’s for your benefit” (5:13). Either way, stay with me here, he says.
There is so much the congregation does not know.
“In everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger,” he says (6:4-5).
But he doesn’t stop there.
“…in purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love, in the word of truth, in the power of God….” (6:6-7)
Here are the two sides of Paul’s qualifications–every minister’s resume!–to be their shepherd: he has paid the price in suffering and he is exhibiting Jesus Christ to them. The cost and the Christlikeness.
Later, Paul picks up on the price he has paid to be called an apostle of Jesus. In chapter 11, we have what I like to call a “reverse resume’.” To his attackers who say Paul is a johnny-come-lately and not a real apostle, he pulls out his resume’. But instead of listing his attainments and awards, his achievements and his accolades, he shows them his scars:
“…in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, in addition to all this, there is the daily pressure upon me of concern for all the churches.” (II Corinthians 11:23-28).
There! That’s a conversation stopper, isn’t it, pastor?
One hopes the critics in Corinth were shamed by this, that their hearts were broken, and that they repented before God and asked Paul’s forgiveness.
We think of the little line from Hebrews 11. After a long list of the price God’s most faithful have paid over the centuries to see that the message of the Lord was delivered to us intact, we read: “Of whom the world was not worthy” (11:38). Indeed.
Let’s see now. Why was I complaining? Oh, yeah. The deacons cut my salary. The church members don’t understand me. Someone criticized my sermon. I received an anonymous note in the mail.
“Forgive me, Lord. I am such a cry-baby. I have done none of the things Paul did, paid nothing like the price he paid. And yet, to hear me, you would think I had spent 40 years in the wilderness alongside Moses. Forgive me. Thank you for the reality-check. Now, help me to shake off this little self-pity and get back to work. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.”
Forgive the foolishness, Paul says.
“I have become foolish. But you made me.” (12:11)
The fact is, Paul rebukes the Corinthians, “you should have been commending me and bragging on me. Because, even though I am a nobody, I’m certainly not inferior to the blowhards who have invaded your congregation and present themselves as Super-Apostles.” (12:11)
What pastor has not wanted to rebuke his people for their silliness in demanding the latest fad in church innovations, for chasing after the most recent religious hot-shot to come to town, and for putting down the very one who has devoted untold days and nights, year after year, to their welfare?
But we don’t do it. Nothing about that would turn out well. So, we give it to the Lord in prayer, lay it at the feet of Jesus in love, and rise to our feet and re-enter the fray, with a smile on our face and a song in our voice.
What we can do is what Paul did: we can keep exhorting our people to grow in the Lord.
–“Examine yourselves to see if you are in the faith,” he urges them (13:5). Always a good thing to do, particularly by those who have devoted themselves to harassing the preacher. They may be lost, which would explain everything.
–“Invest yourselves.” Rejoice, be made complete, be comforted, be like-minded, live in peace (13:11). Grow in Christ. Do the things that mature disciples do.
The final word on this subject comes from 12:19-21…
“All this time you’ve been thinking that we are defending ourselves to you.”
“Actually, it is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ, and all for your upbuilding, beloved.”
You have been eavesdropping on my intercessions for you with the Lord.
“For I am afraid that perhaps when I come I may find you to be not what I wish and may be found by you to be not what you wish; that perhaps there may be strife, jealousy, angry tempers, disputes, slanders, gossip, arrogance, disturbances….”
I fear that when I finally do get to Corinth, you and I may be disappointed in one another.
“I’m afraid that when I come again my God may humiliate me before you, and I may mourn over many of those who have sinned in the past and not repented of the impurity, immorality and sensuality which they have practiced.”
I suggest that instead of setting yourself up as a panel to pass judgment on me as an apostle, you take a good look at yourselves. I will be so ashamed when I get there to find that you are still the same compromised, carnal, ungodly bunch you were before.
Now, you have a nice day.
(See why we love this man and this book so much! –JM)