Signs, Sacrifice, and Sorrow
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 12:11–21
Signs, Sacrifice, and Sorrow
2 Corinthians 12:11-21
Sunday, February 22, 2015
Pastor Randy Smith
We will never act as a Christian until we think as a Christian. Last week was a lesson in biblical thinking.
My first exposure to working out in a gym was back in the mid- 80's. Throughout college and the few years thereafter, a health club was the primary location for my workouts. Then for a lengthy period of time, I worked out exclusively in the home. I had a set of weights that were kept in the spare bedroom. But with the increased additions to our family, I was eventually squeezed out and needed to return to a health club outside of the home. It didn't take long to notice that a lot changed in twenty years!
Machines had become as popular as free weights. Headbands were nonexistent. Women worked out alongside the men. Nobody was listening to their cassette tapes on a Walkman. Nobody was wearing an old t-shirt that they transformed into a tank top with a pair of scissors, of course with the entire midsection exposed! Leather weight belts and short shorts were out and gallon jugs containing all kinds of drinkable concoctions were in. And people were working out and then having conversations on their cell phones! I can only imagine the looks I would have received if I dressed not accounting for the changes in the culture!
That story is my attempt to describe how foolish we must look when we come to Christ, but still act in a way similar to the world. In my story it was understanding the changes of a gym culture. However, when we come to Christ it is about understanding the changes of receiving an entirely new nature. In chapter 5, verse 17 of this letter we learned, "Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come." There should be nothing more embarrassing, but let me add frustrating, disappointing and tragic, than when a professing Christian still thinks and acts the way he or she did before being totally transformed by the Holy Spirit.
Last week, as we studied Paul's "thorn in the flesh," we learned how we should now think as Christians. We learned that God has adopted us as His children and desires nothing but the very best for our lives. He welcomes us thanks to the blood of Christ, to enter His throne and bring our prayers into His presence. He hears us. And He answers our prayers always in a way that is loving and wise. It may not always be the answer we desire, especially when its pain that we want removed, but it is in a way for our greatest good as He is forever in the business of conforming us to Christ. Understanding and accepting this principle will remove all despair, complaining and anger and provide joy, hope, peace and gratitude.
You'll remember that Paul was given this "thorn in the flesh" in a sense both by God and Satan. God used it to keep Paul humble as it pertained to the visions he received regarding heaven. Satan wanted the thorn to cause Paul to doubt God, get depressed and remove himself from ministry. The thorn made Paul weak, but in his weakness he found himself weaned from his own self-sufficiency and then drawn to the Lord for strength.
We understood the Christian paradox that weakness draws us to Christ whereby human weakness is thus the road to receive divine strength. Remember the interchange in verses 10 and 11? "And [Jesus] has said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.' Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong." Rather than putting Paul on the shelf, trials led Paul to greater contentment and greater effectiveness in his service to Christ.
In verses 11-21, Paul is going to wrap up his defense as to why the false teachers should be rejected and he should be received by the church . Despite the suffering he received from Satan, tremendous physical affliction from being a gospel minister and significant emotional heartache from the church in Corinth, Paul pressed on, giving evidence that he is a true servant of Christ.
This morning we'll look at three components that characterized his walk with the Lord and provided he was a true apostle. We'll examine those and then examine our own lives to see if we too are truly living unlike the world empowered by God's sufficient grace. We will see if we are thinking and acting in a way that exemplifies how God has made us a new creature and is presently transforming us to the likeness of Christ.
First, Paul talks about the "signs" of an apostle he performed among them. Look at verse 12. "The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles." Again, in seeking to show himself superior to the false teachers, he reminds the church that before their very eyes he, unlike his opponents, demonstrated all the signs of a true apostle of God.
So what do apostles do? What are the signs of an apostle? They carry a direct commission and authority from the Lord. They establish churches. They sometimes write Scripture. They even at times mediated the Holy Spirit. And Paul says that to verify his signs of an apostle the Lord accompanied his life with "signs and wonders and miracles."
These are not three types of supernatural acts. These are three aspects of the supernatural acts that God did through the apostle. Signs would authenticate the message, wonders would invoke awe, and miracles were a manifestation of divine power. Based upon what the Corinthian church witnessed in their midst, it should have been evident to them that Paul was a true apostle sent to directly represent Jesus Christ.
Signs and wonders and miracles did not happen throughout the history of the world. They came during three relatively short periods of biblical history - Moses and Joshua in the writing of the law, Elijah and Elisha in the prophetic era, and Jesus and the apostles with the dawning of the New Covenant. Then they creased as they pertained to being done through another human being.
So there is a uniqueness to this passage that is not prescriptive for us today. We are not apostles nor can we prove our authenticity through signs and wonders and miracles. Yet we are Christians. So I ask you, how do we give evidence to the reality of that not only to others, but also to ourselves to know we are truly saved?
Let me give you a few points for consideration. These are the traits that will mark all true believers in Christ. Though we all fail to continually live up to these biblical mandates, there should be an ongoing desire in our lives for them and there should be, if we are truly saved, objective evidence that we are living according to this pattern. Here's just a few from the book of 1 John.
1 John 2:15, "Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him." True believers will have a distaste for the beliefs and desires that drive those without Christ. They will show themselves to have been rescued from the world. They don't hate people. They do hate the mindset.
1 John 2:23, "Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also." True believers will confess that Jesus is Lord and the only acceptable way as a result of His sacrifice to the Father.
1 John 3:14, "We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death." True believers will have a heart of love, especially a love for the other children of God.
1 John 3:3, "And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure." True believers admire the Person of Christ and seek, by His grace, to be like Him in all purity.
1 John 3:10, "By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God." True believers hate sin and make it their passion to pursue righteous living.
1 John 4:1, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world." True believers have a love for God's Word and examine all they hear to be in line with the Scriptures.
1 John 5:21, "Little children, guard yourselves from idols." True believers love the Lord and are forever in the process of guarding themselves from the false gods that can pull away their affections from Christ. The Christian life is forever a pattern of God pulling dead idols out of our hearts and increasing our dependence on Him.
So Paul had signs from the Holy Spirit that he was an apostle. We too should have tangible signs from the Holy Spirit that God is presently at work in our lives. Paul pointed to his miracles without as powerful validation. We should be able to point to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit within as an indication that God is working among us.
As we move to the second point, another reality that Paul pointed out that gave evidence of his genuineness was his willingness to sacrifice for the church. For him there was always a desire to put the needs of the church above his own.
This is a significant biblical point as many people today approach the church with a consumer's mentality. Though I think our church is an exception, the stories I hear from many pastors is that the congregation is great at taking, but very poor at giving back. Healthy church people both give and take. However, when people only take, they then become a burden to the church rather than a blessing. This is what Paul feared for himself when he served among the Corinthians.
At the end of verse 13, Paul says, "That I myself did not become a burden to you." He was selfless. He put the needs of others above his own. He worked with his own hands rather than even take any collections for himself from the flock. You see , the false teachers did the opposite. They used the church. They were parasites that would leech on to the church for their own benefit and then move on when the host could no longer provide their needs.
In verse 14 we see the same. As he prepares for his third visit to Corinth he says, "And I will not be a burden to you." He goes on in that verse to get specific on his intent. "For I do not seek what is yours, but you."
Paul's desire for the church was not to further his own reputation, get rich from the ministry or stroke his own ego with the accolades from others. There was nothing worldly from the church that met any kind of deficiency in Paul. He just wanted to be known as their faithful servant. And if there was anything he wanted from the church, he says in verse 14 it was them . He wanted their hearts to fall in love with Jesus. He wanted them to grow in their walk with Christ. He wanted them to be trophies of God's grace.
The illustration he provides at the end of verse 14 drives the nail home. "For children are not responsible to save up for their parents, but parents for their children." What good parent would say a child exists on this planet for them? On the contrary, parents are here for the welfare and development of their children. How many times have you heard parents when experiencing the suffering of their child say they wish they could exchange places?
Verse 15, "I will most gladly spend and be expended for your souls." Talk about sacrifice, could anything be more Christlike than to express those sentiments to Christians in the local church? We know the example of Christ, how He gave of Himself to the extreme. We know how it says in the Bible, that He purchased the church with His blood (Ac. 20:28). The church maligned Paul, doubted him, believed lies about him and rejected him. Yet he suffered, pouring out his time and money and energy resulting in emotional strain, poor health, horrific physical persecution, premature aging and eventually a martyr's death. And the man just kept giving sacrificial love for God's people. You can see why he asked at the end of verse 15, "If I love you more, am I to be loved less?"
In the overall context, do you see why Paul needed God's strength? By God's grace and through His strength, you can do it too because only the Lord can give us a heart like this for the people of God. Sacrificial love for the church - it's another indication God is at work within us.
So we looked at the signs of a true believer, the sacrifice that should characterize a true believer and lastly, the sorrow that should result within a true believer.
For the sake of time, let's skip down to verse 20. Having already told the church he is preparing for their third visit to Corinth (verse 14; cf. 2 Cor. 13:1) (let's remember his second visit to them was a disaster), he says in verse 20, "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" (stop right there).
Just that saying alone indicates that Paul knew what would bring him the greatest sorrow. He didn't like pain. Just as he prayed that his painful "thorn in the flesh" would go away, he wanted to avoid this particular situation that would bring him much pain as well. And what was that? That he would find the church unrepentant. That he would walk in the door and see, verse 20, "strife [and] jealousy [and] angry tempers [and] disputes [and] slanders [and] gossip [and] arrogance [and] disturbances."
Paul knew the sinful conduct of believers. He understood the implications of especially divisive sins like these that always eat away at the unity of the church like a cancer and destroy their testimony to a watching world. Sins like these give no evidence that the Holy Spirit is producing any spiritual fruit in their lives. They give no evidence one is really saved. And when you consider the false gospel preached by the false teachers, Paul had to wonder if their sins were symptomatic of believing their lies. All of that was extremely distressing and sorrowful to the apostle.
We can expect the world to behave this way. For Paul as it should be for us, it's heartbreaking when Christians treat each other this way. It must grieve God's heart when He sees His children acting in a way contrary to Christ and causing so much pain in each other's lives. Any parent can understand this. And Paul, as the spiritual father of church, took this more dramatically than others. He was afraid that they would be not as he wished.
In verse 20 he also says they may find him not as they wish. This also is evidence of his love for the church as their spiritual leader. You'll remember after the last visit when he was maligned by the rebellious sect and not supported by others in the church that he crawled out of town in deep sorrow. Yet if the church persists in their rebellion he warns that his response will be much different this time. In 13:2 he warns that this time he "will not spare anyone" This time they will feel the full weight of his apostolic authority - something the potentially unrepentant church won't wish to experience..
No Christian leader takes any pleasure in church discipline. In 1 Corinthians 5:5, Paul speaks of the one he needed to put out of the church as being… " deliver [ed] to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." Watching people walk away from the Lord. Watching people set horrible examples for other believers in the church. Dealing with all the attacks and accusations from others within and without when a believer must be disciplined is emotionally excruciating. Paul wanted to spare him and them this sorrow.
In verse 21, Paul compares it to be humiliated. If Paul needed to wield the rod (so to speak) it was not done in a spirit of joy or revenge. It would be the right thing to do, but a very difficult one to undertake. He said in verse 21 he would "mourn over many of those who have sinned in the past and not repented of the impurity, immorality and sensuality which they have practiced." He would feel disgraced as a parent with an out of control family.
Like peeking behind a curtain, he wasn't sure of what he was going to see in Corinth when he arrived this third time. Would it be joy over the church's spiritual stability or would it be sorrow over the church's unrepentant sin?
Evidence of true conversion in our lives. Sacrifice for the church and sorrow over the sins in the church. This is fruit that we are depending on God's strength and not our own. So I praise God and encourage you for what we see the Lord doing among us collectively. May we all each continue to contribute by the example we set in character and the sacrifice in our service. It is all for His glory that the church may be a testimony to those within and those without of God's sufficient and incredible grace.