Paul is having to defend his character and his ministry in this letter to the Corinthians, because instead of displaying gratitude to the man who first told them about Jesus Christ the Saviour, they were now ungrateful and critical of him. They were critical of the way he conducted his ministry and he didn’t seem very impressive to them compared to some of the other preachers who had come to Corinth and who tended to boast about themselves and their abilities. And they were critical of the way Paul changed his travel plans and it seemed to them that he was unreliable and a man who can’t be trusted. And so, there were people in Corinth who were criticising Paul’s ministry and his character. And because of these criticisms, Paul had to defend himself and his ministry, not because he cared about his own reputation, but because the gospel was at stake and the members of the church in Corinth were in danger of being led astray by these new preachers who had arrived in Corinth. Later on, in chapter 11, Paul will say to them:
But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.
So Paul was not so much bothered by his own reputation, but about the health and well-being of the church and how the members of the church were being led astray by the new preachers who were now teaching them.
And we saw last week how he compared his own gospel ministry to the ministry of Moses. I said last week that it’s not clear why he compared himself to Moses, but it’s possible that the new preachers who had arrived in Corinth were Jewish believers who boasted about Moses and the law of God. Whether that’s the case or not, Paul compared his gospel ministry to Moses’s ministry and he made the point that while Moses’s ministry was accompanied with glory, his gospel ministry is even more glorious. Do you remember? Moses’s ministry brought death, but gospel ministry brings life. Moses’s ministry was engraved on stone tablets, but gospel ministry is of the Spirit who works inwardly in our hearts. Moses’s ministry condemns, but gospel ministry brings righteousness so that sinners are declared right with God for the sake of Christ who did everything right. Moses’s ministry did not last, but gospel ministry lasts and will never be replaced by anything better. And then, in the Old Testament, only Moses was glorified. His face, and his face alone, shone with the glory of God and no one else was able to gaze on his glorified face. But now, through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, God reveals his glory to every believer. And God uses the gospel to transform his people into his likeness with ever-increasing glory by the Holy Spirit who works in us. Moses’s ministry was accompanied with glory, but it pales in comparison to gospel ministry.
In today’s passage, Paul continues to defend his ministry. And we can divide these six verses into three parts. In verses 1 and 2 Paul says he will not give up or change his ministry. In verses 3 and 4 Paul explains why many people do not believe — and it’s got nothing to do with how Paul preached the gospel. And in verses 5 and 6 Paul explains what it takes for sinners to believe — and it’s all to do with the power of God.
Verses 1 and 2
And so, in verses 1 and 2 Paul says he will not give up or change his ministry. He writes:
Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.
The word ‘therefore’ tells us that this section follows on from what he has just said about gospel ministry. And he’s making the point that he has received this glorious gospel ministry by the mercy of God. Back in verse 16 of chapter 2 he asked:
And who is equal to such a task?
That is: Who is qualified or competent for this work? Was there something about Paul which made him qualified or competent for this ministry? Was there something in Paul’s character or skillset — isn’t that what people say today? — which qualified him for this work? And back in chapter 3, Paul was clear that his competence, his ability to do the work of ministry, comes not from himself, but from God and from God alone. God is the one who set Paul apart and who called him and who equipped him to be an apostle and a preacher. Or, to put it another way, preachers of the gospel become preachers of the gospel because of the mercy of God. They don’t deserve this calling; and they haven’t done anything to earn it; and it’s not that they were better than other believers. No, they receive this calling only by the mercy of God. They receive it by the kindness of God. After all, what do gospel preachers really deserve from God? What they really deserve from God is condemnation and eternal punishment for a lifetime of sin. But God, who is rich in mercy, pardoned their sins for the sake of Christ the Saviour. And then, not only did he pardon them, but he called them to be preachers of his word. And so, gospel preachers have no reason to boast, because they have received this ministry, not because they deserve it, but because of the sheer kindness of God.
And having received this gospel ministry by the mercy of God, Paul says he does not lose heart. The Greek word he uses has a variety of meanings. It can mean to become discouraged. And it can also mean become weary and to become lax and reluctant. It can also mean to become timid. And I’m sure you can see how all of these meanings are inter-related. When someone — anyone — is discouraged in their work — whatever their work is — they start to feel weary, don’t they? At first, the work excited and energised them, but now they go to work feeling weary and tired. And then, when they’re discouraged, because things are not going well, they can be tempted to become lax and they don’t make the same effort. ‘What’s the point?’ they think. And they’re reluctant to push themselves anymore or to make an effort. And when once they were full of confidence, now they become timid and fearful, because it’s all going to end in disaster. And so, the end result is that someone who feels like this gives up. And that’s another way of translating what Paul says. Since we have received this ministry through God’s mercy, we’re not going to give up.
And we can perhaps think of lots of reasons why Paul might have been tempted to give up. In the very next section, he describes his experience and it’s not very encouraging, is it? We are hard-pressed on every side. We are perplexed. We are persecuted. We are struck down. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus. We are always being given over to death. Back in chapter 1, he wrote about his troubles and hardships and the great pressure he had been under which was more than he could bear so that he despaired of life. Later on in the letter, he will write about his suffering for the gospel and how he was imprisoned and flogged and beaten and shipwrecked and how he faced all kinds of dangers; and then there was that thorn in his flesh which used to trouble him. All of that might have discouraged him. And no doubt it was discouraging for him when so many people refused to believe the good news of the gospel. And then, to top it all, he had to deal with criticism from the members of the church in Corinth who criticised his character and his ministry.
All of this would make anyone discouraged and you could see why he might be tempted to throw in the towel and give up.
And yet, he will not give up, because he has received this gospel ministry by the mercy of God. God has called him to this work; and therefore he will keep going despite all the discouragements.
And not only will he not give up, but he will not change his ministry. Now this is the story of the modern church. In the face of growing secularisation, in the face of growing unbelief and indifference, with churches becoming smaller, the temptation is to change what we do. People say: Why keep doing the same things when they’re no longer working? If what we used to do doesn’t work anymore, we need to change our approach and do things differently. After all, that’s the way we think about other things. In business, if our product is not selling as well as it once did, then we need to change what we do and find a new method or a new technique to market it. And since that’s the way we think about earthly things, then we approach the church and its ministry in the same way. So, in the modern church, we’re always trying to find a new way to do ministry.
But what does Paul say? Well, there are a few unthinkables. There are a few things which he will not even contemplate. He says: We renounce secret and shameful ways. We do not use deception. We do not distort the word of God. So, we won’t do any of those things. Back in chapter 2, he referred to those who peddle the word of God. And the word for peddling was normally used to refer to backstreet dealers who would try to cheat you by selling you dodgy goods. The same word was used to refer to people who would sell wine which had been watered-down. And preachers are always tempted to water-down the word of God to make it more pleasing and acceptable. They leave out the hard parts, the difficult parts, the parts that are offensive to human pride; and they preach a water-downed version of Christianity. But instead of giving people the true message of Christianity, instead of proclaiming the authentic gospel, they give the people dodgy goods. That’s what other preachers do, but Paul says he will not distort the word of God. He will not tamper with it. He will not change its message in any way.
And he will not use any kind of deception or trickery or manipulation. Charles Finney was an American Presbyterian minister who died in 1875 and he’s known as the Father of Modern Rivivalism. Charles Finney believed that while it took the work of the Holy Spirit to change a sinner, nevertheless there were certain things a preacher should do to ensure that people were changed. So a minister can produce conversions so long as he uses the right means, the right techniques. And ever since that time, the church has continued to introduce new measures to grow the church, measures which God has not commanded. So, use the right kind of music to get the people in the right mood. Tell the right kind of stories to pull on people’s emotions. Create excitement and buzz. Get someone famous or well-known who will draw in a crowd. Do all the right things and people will decide for Christ. And yet, all they’re doing is manipulating people by natural means.
I wonder what the false teachers in Corinth were doing? Since Paul compares the Corinthians in chapter 11 to Eve who was deceived and led astray, it seems likely that the false teachers in Corinth were deceiving the people by their ministry and leading them astray. But Paul will not do what they were doing. Instead of doing what they were doing, he does this:
By setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.
What is Paul’s approach to ministry? He will set forth the truth plainly. In other words, he wasn’t thinking: Is this interesting enough? Is this funny enough? Is this moving enough? Is this engaging enough? He was thinking: Am I proclaiming the truth? Am I making known God’s truth? That was his calling: to make known the truth of God’s word. That was his responsibility; and how the people responded to the truth he proclaimed was not his responsibility.
And by preaching in this way, it would be apparent to anyone who heard him that he was not trying in any way to deceive them or to hide anything from them or to manipulate them. That was Paul’s approach to ministry and it needs to be the approach of every gospel preacher. The preacher is to set forth the truth of God’s word.
Verses 3 and 4
But why do so few people believe? Why do so few people accept the truth of God’s word?
Often I have to conduct funerals for people with only a loose connection to the church. And during the service, I say to these people who are weeping that God sent his Son into the world to die for our sins before rising from the dead to give us life. And he promises forgiveness to those who trust in him and the hope of everlasting life in the new and better world to come, where God will wipe the tears from our eyes; and there will be more sorrow or sadness or disease or death, but only perfect peace and rest. And so, I say this to them. And afterwards, I sometimes think to myself:
Why aren’t these people following me home to find out more, because this is the most wonderful message ever? This is good news. If I was them, I’d want to know more about this.
But usually they don’t. And they’re not moved by this marvellous message and they just go on with their lives. Why do so few people believe?
In the modern church we tend to assume there must be something wrong with the way we present the gospel. If we did a better job of communicating the gospel, if we used the right method and techniques, then more people would be interested and would believe. And presumably that’s what people in Corinth were saying about Paul. They were criticising his ministry; and so perhaps they were saying that if he were a better preacher, or used a different approach, if he adopted with methods of the new preachers who had come to Corinth, then more people would believe.
But what does Paul say? He makes clear that there’s nothing wrong with the gospel and there’s nothing wrong with gospel preaching. After all, the gospel ministry he has received is a glorious ministry; and every time the gospel is preached, God displays his glory. So, there’s nothing wrong with the gospel or with Paul’s gospel ministry in which he sets forth the truth of God plainly.
So, there must be a different explanation. And therefore in verse 3 Paul explains that the gospel is veiled to those who do not believe and who are therefore perishing. In other words, they cannot see it. They cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. Just as a blind man cannot see the light of the sun, so the spiritually blind cannot see the glory of Christ and of God which shines in the gospel. It’s as if there’s a veil covering them which prevents them from seeing God’s glory.
And, says Paul, the god of this age has blinded their minds. The god of this age is the Devil. And Paul says he’s able to blind people to keep them from seeing the glory of God in the gospel. The Devil is preventing them from seeing.
That’s how Paul explains what is happening: the Devil is preventing unbelievers from seeing the glory of God as it’s revealed in the preaching of the gospel. But instead of believing that the reason people don’t believe is because the Devil is blinding the minds of unbelievers to keep them from seeing the glory of God, we think the reason someone doesn’t believe is because our style of ministry is wrong or our method is wrong. And if we only update our methods and try something new to make the message more engaging, then they’ll believe. If only Paul were more like the other preachers in Corinth. If only we were more engaging. And what we don’t realise is that those who don’t believe cannot see: they cannot see the glory of God in the gospel unless God works powerfully in their lives. And that’s the point: God has to work in their lives. Without God working in their lives, they will not see no matter what we do or say.
Verses 5 and 6
And so, in verses 5 and 6, Paul explains what it takes for sinners to believe. And it’s all to do with the power of God who uses what? He uses the preaching of Jesus Christ as Lord to save sinners.
So, Paul says we don’t preach ourselves. Preachers are not to talk about themselves. The false teachers in Corinth talked about themselves. In fact, they boasted about themselves. And some preachers like to boast about themselves and the things they have done. And some preachers think they have to talk about themselves and tell anecdotes about their life so the congregation will identify with them and like them. But preachers are not to talk about themselves. They’re to talk about Jesus Christ the Lord.
And, of course, they’re to talk about Jesus Christ the Lord, because God reveals his glory through the preaching of the good news about Jesus Christ; and those who believe are transformed into God’s likeness with ever-increasing glory by his Spirit who works in us. That’s what we learned last week. So, preachers are not to talk about themselves. They’re to preach Christ crucified and risen as Lord of all.
And preachers are to serve God’s people. Presumably the false teachers in Corinth expected the congregation to serve their needs and to do their bidding. But gospel preachers are to serve the Lord’s people so that the Lord’s people will come to faith and be built up in the faith through hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And what sometimes happens when the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed? This is what sometimes happens: God makes his light shine in the hearts of sinners to give them the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. That is, God enables sinners to see his glory which is revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And Paul compares what happens when the gospel is preached to what happened when he created all things. So, in the beginning, when God made the first heaven and earth, he said: Let there be light. Let the light shine out of the darkness. Everything was dark at first. And then God spoke powerfully and there was light. That’s what happened when God created this first heaven and earth. But God’s plan is to make all things new, isn’t it? He has promised us a new heaven and earth where we will live with him forever. And when Christ comes again, he will renew us in body and soul and he will glorify us in his presence. However, he has already begun his new creation work in us, because when he converts us to faith in Christ, he gives us a new life and he fills us with his Spirit who renews us inwardly in God’s image so that we become more and more willing and able to obey the Lord.
And how does that new creation work begin? It begins when he says about us: Let light shine out of darkness. He takes away the darkness in our hearts, which is there by nature, because by nature we’re sinners and we’re in the dark about God. But he takes away the darkness in our hearts and his light shines in our hearts so that we’re enabled to see the glory of God which is revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. And do you see? This is God’s work. And he does it when and where he wants to do it.
The God who loved us and who sent his Son to die for us has also sent us preachers to set forth the truth of God plainly; and to preach the message of Jesus Christ crucified and risen as Lord over all; and to announce God’s promise to sinners that whoever repents and believes in his Son receives forgiveness and the free gift of eternal life. And all he commands his preachers to do is to set forth the truth plainly and to preach Jesus Christ crucified and risen as Lord over all; and to leave the outcome to him.
And this is such a relief to us in the church, because instead of trying to keep up with the latest ideas for growing the church, instead of worrying that we’re not being creative and inventive enough, instead of spending loads of money on a new scheme for reaching the lost, instead of adding more and more activities to our weekly schedule, we can content ourselves with the knowledge that all the Lord calls his church to do is to set forth the truth of God plainly; and to rely on him to make the blind see. And when someone asks you to tell them the reason for your hope, all you need to do is to set forth the truth of God plainly and tell them about Jesus Christ the Lord.
And if you have possessed sinful and unbelieving ideas about the place of preaching and preachers in the purposes of God, then you should repent of them now and ask for God’s forgiveness. And when you come to church, you should come with a humble and believing heart which is ready to receive the truth of God which you need to hear. And may the Lord be pleased to reveal his glory more and more as the gospel is proclaimed around the world; and may he work powerfully in the hearts and minds of those who hear to enable sinners to see and believe; and all to the praise of his glorious grace.