No one likes to be accused of being deceitful or of telling lies. No one likes to be accused of misleading other people. No one likes to be accused of being unreliable and untrustworthy. We don’t like to be accused of these things and we want people to regard us as being truthful and honest and reliable and trustworthy.
But it seems that some people in Corinth were accusing Paul of being untrustworthy and unreliable. And so, he was responding in this letter to those false charges; and in this letter, he’s defending himself and his ministry. And so, after the introductory section which we studied last week — where Paul praised God for being the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comes to our side to help us with all the troubles and trials of this life; and especially the troubles and trials which we experience because of our faith in Christ — after that introductory section, Paul gets to the heart of the letter. As one of the commentators puts it, Paul hopes the Corinthians will come to see that they can and should take pride in him instead of criticising him, because he’s always aimed to be a faithful servant of Jesus Christ the Lord. As Paul will go on to say in chapter 5:
What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us….
This evening, we’re going to study the verses we read a moment ago. So, it’s verses 12 to 22. And the passage can be divided into three parts. In verses 12 to 14, we have Paul’s clear conscience. In verses 15 to 17, we have Paul’s travel plans. And in verses 19 to 22, we have Paul’s defence.
Verses 12 to 14
And so, in verses 12 to 14, we have Paul’s clear conscience. ‘Now this is our boast’, Paul begins.
We normally regard ‘boasting’ as something unpleasant and wrong. We don’t normally like boasters who are always talking about themselves and the achievements they have had and the things they’ve accomplished. And parents will often teach their children not to boast, but to show modesty.
Of course, there’s a type of boasting which is good and which should be encouraged. And the type of boasting which is good and which should be encouraged is boasting about the Lord. When we praise God and give thanks to him, we’re boasting in the Lord and we’re declaring to the world how great and good the Lord is. And as we’ll see in a moment, Paul is not boasting about himself, but he’s boasting in the Lord.
He goes on to say that his boast is this: that his conscience testifies or bears witness that he has conducted himself in the world and especially towards the Corinthians in the holiness and sincerity that are from God. He’s saying that his conscience is clear: he has conducted himself with holiness and sincerity. The word ‘holiness’ comes from a word which means separated. When God calls sinners to faith in Christ, he separates them from the rest of the world in order to belong to him. And he fills his people with the Holy Spirit to enable them to separate themselves more and more from sin and disobedience. So, God separates his people from the unbelief and the sin and the rebellion of the world. And the person who conducts himself with ‘simplicity’ is a person whose motives and intentions are simple and straightforward and pure. The picture behind the word is of something which is held up to the sun and found to be pure. So, imagine you hold up a white shirt to the sun to see whether it’s clean or not. When it’s lying in the drawer, it looks clean enough. But when you hold it up to the sun, the sun reveals that there’s still a stain in it which the washing powder did not wash away. Well, Paul is saying that if you examine his motives and his intentions, you’ll find they are pure. There’s nothing deceitful in him.
So, that’s his boast. His conscience bears witness that he has conducted himself in the world and especially towards the Corinthians with holiness and with simplicity. But, you see, he’s not really boasting about himself and his own achievements, because the holiness and simplicity which mark his life come from God. They are from God, he says in the middle of verse 12. We can’t make ourselves holy, because only God can make us holy, because he’s the only one who can separate us from the unbelief and the sin and the rebellion of the world; and he’s the only one who is able to free us from that kind of deceitfulness and dishonesty which is the opposite of simplicity. So, he’s not boasting about himself, but in the Lord, because the only reason he’s like this is because of the Lord who was at work in Paul to change him.
And look: Paul goes on to say that he has conducted himself in the world and especially towards the Corinthians not according to worldly wisdom, but according to God’s grace. Worldly wisdom should really be translated as ‘fleshy wisdom’ or ‘wisdom of the flesh’. The ‘flesh’ in Paul refers to everything that belongs to this present evil age which is destined to perish and which is marked by sin and unbelief. So, he’s talking about the kind of wisdom unbelievers rely on. Think of the kind of person who is able to get his own way through trickery and deceit and manipulation. When you encounter one of these people, you feel cornered by them, don’t you? And afterwards, you feel such a fool, because you were taken in by them and you’re annoyed because they got the better of you. Well, Paul did not rely on such wisdom. Instead he relied on the grace of God which is God’s kindness to sinners; and it’s the help he gives his people. He graciously helps us every day to do what’s right and to honour him by the things we do and say. And so, Paul is saying that he conducted himself in the world and especially towards the Corinthians, not relying on worldly wisdom which is manipulative and deceitful, but relying instead on God’s gracious help. And, of course, since the grace comes from God, Paul is not boasting in himself, but he’s boasting in the Lord who graciously helped him.
So, Paul’s boast is that his conscience bears witness that he conducted himself in the world and especially towards the Corinthians with holiness and with simplicity and by God’s gracious help. And so, when he wrote to them — and we’re now looking at verse 13 — when Paul wrote to them, he did not write to them anything they could not read and understand for themselves. In other words, his previous correspondence to them was plain and simple and straightforward. You know what it’s like, don’t you? You write a simple message to someone — or at least, you intended it as something simple — but they read something into it, something they didn’t like. You made an innocent remark, but they took it as a complaint or a criticism. And they got angry with you and they wanted to know why you said what you said and what did you meant by that? And don’t you realise how hurtful your message was? It happens all the time. You send a text message off, without giving it a lot of thought, because it’s only a text message. Perhaps it contained a joke. But the recipient thinks about it too much and examines every word and wonders what you really meant by that remark and they mistake your joke for something else. Well, says Paul, when I wrote to you, I only wrote what you can read and understand. My message was simple and straightforward. You don’t have to read between the lines or decipher my meaning. It’s plain and simple.
I should perhaps explain at this point that Paul apparently wrote more letters to the Corinthians than the two letters we have in our Bibles. In 1 Corinthians 5, he refers to a previous letter he had sent. So, our 1 Corinthians is really the second letter at least which Paul wrote to them. And then, in 2 Corinthians 2:4, he refers to another letter he sent them. And so, there seems to have been the first letter which is now lost. Then there’s the letter we know as 1 Corinthians. Then there was a third letter which is now lost. And then there’s the letter we know as 2 Corinthians. So, that’s four letters at least which Paul sent to the church in Corinth. And he wants them to see that his letters are plain and straightforward which they ought to read and understand in a plain and straightforward way.
And then, in verse 14, he moves on from referring to his letters to referring to himself. He hopes that they will come to understand him fully. In other words, he wants them to understand that he’s conducted himself in the world and especially towards them with holiness and simplicity and by God’s gracious help. He hasn’t been trying to deceive them or mislead them. He hasn’t been dishonest with them and he hasn’t lied to them. They mustn’t think of him as a con man, out to get the better of them. He hopes they will fully understand that he’s been a faithful servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. And so, he hopes that in the day of the Lord Jesus Christ — which is the day when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead — they will be able to boast about him and take pride in him, just as he will boast about them on that day. He hopes they will be able to boast about him on that day because they have come to see that he has always conducted himself with integrity. Someone has been telling the Corinthians that they can’t trust Paul. He hopes they will come to see that that is not true.
If it was important to the Apostle Paul that he should conduct himself with holiness and simplicity and by God’s gracious help, then we should make that our aim as well. We can perhaps put it this way: in the world and among your fellow believers, you ought to conduct yourself with holiness and simplicity and by God’s gracious help. So, during the week, when you’re out in the world, dealing with people at work, people in the community, people in your home, the members of your family, and also among your fellow believers, make sure that your actions are holy and that your motives and intentions are pure and simple. Instead of relying on worldly wisdom — trickery and deceit and cunning — rely on the help of the Lord to do what’s right and to say what’s right and to do all things for his glory. Perhaps in the workplace, it’s common practice to deceive and to mislead and to trick people in order to get along and succeed. Perhaps telling lies is normal in the workplace. That may be so, but God calls his people to live a different kind of life. Instead of living according to the standards of this present evil age, which is destined to perish, you’re to live a life that reflects the glory of the world to come, which is where you belong by faith.
Verses 15 to 17
Let’s move on to verses 15 to 17 where we have Paul’s travel plans.
Again, I should perhaps explain that at the end of 1 Corinthians, Paul wrote to the Corinthians and said that after he had gone through Macedonia, he would come and visit them. Perhaps — he said — he would stay with them a while, or even spend the winter with them, before going on somewhere else. He said that he didn’t want to see them immediately and make only a passing or brief visit. He wanted to spend some time with them, if the Lord permits.
So, those were his travel plans according to 1 Corinthians 16. But travel plans change, don’t they? Things can happen which make us want or need to change our plans. When we make our plans, we fully intend to do what we planned, but something can happen later, which means our plans must change. And, in fact, Paul even wrote in 1 Corinthians ‘if the Lord permits’, He acknowledged that all our plans are subject to the will of the Lord.
And it seems that Paul’s plans did change. According to 1 Corinthians, he wanted to spend some time with them. However, in verses 15 to 17, he refers to a revised plan. According to these verses, he planned to visit the Corinthians on his way to Macedonia and then to come back to them from Macedonia before going on to Judea. So, in 1 Corinthians he said he would visit them once and spend some time with them. But then his plans changed and he planned instead to make two visits to them: one on the way to Macedonia and one on the way back from Macedonia. Those were the revised plans.
However, it seems that his revised plans were also changed. According to verse 1 of chapter 2, he visited them once. He refers to that visit as being ‘painful’. It was painful, because he was trying to sort out a problem in the church; and it wasn’t easy either for him or for the church. And because it was such a painful visit, it seems he wasn’t sure whether or not he would make the second visit. Why come a second time if the second visit was going to be as painful as the first visit?
However, some of the people in Corinth were not pleased. He says in verse 17:
When I planned this, did I do it lightly?
Presumably some of them were accusing him of doing it lightly. In other words, he didn’t regard the Corinthians as being very important. He treated them lightly. So, he would see them if he could, but he didn’t really care whether he saw them or not. And then he asked:
Do I make my plans in a worldly manner….
The words ‘worldly manner’ can be translated ‘according to the flesh’. And so, it seems he was accused of behaving as those who belong to this present evil age. And in practice that means saying ‘yes, yes’ and ‘no, no’ at the same time. Instead of sticking to his word, he’ll say one thing to one person and he’ll say the opposite to another person. Instead of sticking to his word, instead of being a man of his word, a man you can rely on, he’ll change his mind depending on who he’s talking to and who he wants to please. They were saying he can’t be trusted and that he deceived them and he misled them.
Verses 18 to 22
And so, Paul begins his defence in verses 18 to 22. But it’s a strange defence, isn’t it? It’s a strange defence, because instead of giving reasons for changing his travel plans, he talks instead about the message he proclaimed about Jesus Christ. He will go on to explain why he changed his travel plans. But for now, he begins with the gospel.
Our message to you — he says in verse 18 — is not yes and no. After all, his message to them was the message about the Son of God, Jesus Christ. He and Silas and Timothy preached about him. So, wherever they went, they always preached the good news about Jesus Christ and how salvation is found in no one else but in him. And the message they preached about him was not yes and no. It was always yes. And what that means, is spelled out in verse 20, where Paul explains that no matter how many promises God has made, they are yes in Christ.
So, think of God’s promises. In the Garden of Eden, he promised that the seed of the woman will crush and destroy the head of the serpent. Is that promise true? Yes it is, because the seed of the woman is the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who came into the world to destroy the works of Satan. To Abraham, God promised that all the nations of the world will be blessed through him and through one of his descendants. Is that promise true? Yes it is, because the Son of God, Jesus Christ, was descended from Abraham; and through faith in him, we are blessed with the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. To David, God promised that one of his descendants would sit on his throne and rule forever. Is that promise true? Yes it is, because the Son of God, Jesus Christ, was descended from David and he rules and reigns in heaven forever. Through Jeremiah and Ezekiel, God promised to establish a new covenant with his people and to remember their sins no more. Is that promise true? Yes it is, because on the night be was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took the cup and said it was the new covenant in his blood, which he was about to shed for our forgiveness.
On Wednesday evenings, we’ve been going though the psalms. And in Psalm 23, the Lord promises to be our shepherd and to provide for us and to protect us and to bring us at last into his house. None of us deserves these things. We don’t deserve good things from him, because we’re sinners who deserve to be condemned. We don’t deserve protection from him, because we’re sinners who deserve to be punished by him. We don’t deserve eternal life in his presence, because we’re sinners who deserve to be sent out of his presence forever. None of us deserves these good things from the Lord, but they become ours because the Lord Jesus was condemned in our place and he was punished in our place and he died in our place. God’s promises to us in Psalm 23 are true for us, because of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
We were thinking about the same thing last week. The Lord is the Father of compassion and the God of comfort who comforts and help us in all our afflictions. But we don’t deserve his compassion and comfort and his help. We don’t deserve it, because we’re sinners. But these things become ours because of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who died to reconcile God and sinners, so that God is no longer the judge who must condemn us, but is our loving heavenly Father who cares for us.
As Paul says here in 2 Corinthians, no matter how many promises God has made, there are yes in Christ. And so, through Christ, the Amen is spoken by us to the glory of God. When I was small, we would visit my grandparents in Co. Fermanagh. And we’d go to their church on Sundays. And as the preacher preached, men in the congregation would call out: ‘Amen, brother.’ They were saying: ‘What you’re saying, preacher, is true.’ And we can all say that about all of God’s promises to us, because in Christ they are true.
We wonder: Can we believe God’s promise? Surely, it’s too good to be true? Surely it’s too good to believe that God will pardon me for my sins and give me eternal life? Can it really be true? Well, yes and amen. It is true. It is true because of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, because all of God’s promises are yes in him. He has fulfilled them all by his life and death and resurrection.
And that’s not the end of it, is it? God makes us stand firm. In other words, he is at work in us to strengthen us.
Furthermore, he anoints us. That is, he anoints us with his Spirit. The Lord Jesus was anointed with the Spirit in order to become our prophet, priest and king. And believers share in his anointing, so that as prophets, we can build one another up by declaring his word to one another; and as priests, we can offer ourselves as living sacrifices, dedicated to his glory; and as kings, we can strive with all our might against sin and Satan.
Furthermore, he has set his seal of ownership on us. In old cowboy movies, the cowboys would brand the cattle with a hot poker. But when I was a boy, visiting my relatives in Donegal, you’d see how — instead of using hot pokers — they would paint marks on their cattle. Nowadays, of course, they use some kind of electronic tagging. But these seals and marks and tags are designed to make clear to whom the cattle belong. And God has put his seal on believers to make clear they belong to him and they we are under his protection. And the seal he puts on his people is the Holy Spirit. That’s what Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:13, where he says believers are marked with a seal, the Promised Holy Spirit.
Of course, the Holy Spirit is invisible, isn’t he? We can’t see him. So, he’s a seal that we can’t see. What good is that? Well, we may not be able to see the Spirit, but we can see his effect, can’t we? The Holy Spirit produces his fruit in our lives; and the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of God’s people are the visible marks which make clear that we belong to God.
And furthermore, the Spirit of God in our hearts is the deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. What is to come? Well, what is to come is eternal life in the presence of the Lord. Right now, we’re not yet in the presence of God. We must wait for it. We must wait for the coming of Christ who will make all things new and who will glorify us in God’s presence. So, we must wait for it. But since God has given us his Spirit, then that’s the guarantee that God will indeed give us eternal life in his presence.
So, God gives us strength. And he has anointed us with his Spirit, who is the seal to make clear that we belong to God. And the Spirit is the guarantee that we will receive eternal life. All of this is part of God’s great plan for our salvation, which Christ has accomplished on our behalf, because after he died for our sins, he was raised from the dead and exalted to heaven, and he poured out the Spirit into our lives.
All of this is true. But why does Paul mention any of this here? Why is he referring to God’s faithfulness to his promises and the fulfilment of those promises in Jesus Christ? Why is Paul writing about that, instead of defending his own integrity?
It’s not entirely clear; and if you read the commentaries, they try their best to make sense of Paul’s line of argument. But perhaps the best solution is from an older commentary by a man called Charles Hodge who died in 1878. He says that Paul was much more concerned for the gospel than for his own reputation. Paul’s attitude is: ‘Whatever you may think of my [truthfulness] as a man, my preaching was true. And that’s what matters most of all: that you believe God’s promises of salvation, which are true because of Christ the Saviour.’ Paul will go on to explain why he changed his travel plans. But his attitude is this: whatever you may think of me, make sure that you believe the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s the most important thing by far.
And that’s the way it is in the church, isn’t it? People in the church may let you down and they may disappoint you. This may be true of preachers, elders, youth leaders and everyone else. They may let you down and disappoint you. But the most important thing is that you believe all of God’s promises, because all of God’s promises — all of them — are true because of Christ.