At the end of last week’s passage, Paul appealed to the people in Corinth to be reconciled to God. Though they were members of the church, believers in Christ, something had come between them and God so that they needed to be reconciled to God all over again. And the reason they needed to be reconciled to God all over again was because they’d been taken in by these new preachers, these ‘super-apostles’ who had come to Corinth, who looked impressive and who boasted about their credentials and their abilities. As one of the commentators puts it, they took pride in appearances rather than on character, and on externals rather than on inward realities. They were sophisticated speech-makers, who could speak with eloquence and charm. However, they were only pedlars of God’s word, watering down the word of God and relying on craftiness and manipulation and deceit. They proclaimed a false gospel. And the believers in Corinth had been taken in by them and therefore they had been led astray from the true gospel. And so, Paul appealed to the Corinthians to be reconciled to God all over again, because they had wandered from the truth because of these new preachers.
And therefore, as God’s fellow-worker, Paul urged his readers not to receive God’s grace in vain. God had been gracious to them. He sent his Son to die for them. He sent them preachers to teach them. He sent his Spirit to live in them. So, don’t let it be in vain. Don’t let it be for nothing. Now is the time of God’s favour. Now is the day of salvation. Today God will hear you and he will help you, if only you will turn to him in prayer and ask him to forgive you for your sins so that you will be reconciled to God all over again.
That’s how last week’s passage ended: with Paul appealing to his readers. And today’s passage ends with an appeal. Look down to verses 11 to 13. He says to his readers that he has spoken freely to them. In other words, he has been sincere and open with them. He’s always been that way with them: when he was with them in person and in his letters to them. He’s always been open and honest with them.
And Paul and his companions have opened their hearts to the Corinthians. The word for ‘open’ means to broaden or to widen. Think of a road that is widened to allow traffic to flow through it freely. Well, Paul’s heart and the hearts of his companions have been opened and widened and broadened towards the Corinthians to allow their feelings for them to flow freely. He’s therefore referring to his affection for the Corinthians. And notice how he refers to them as ‘Corinthians’. This is a direct appeal to them and he’s calling on them affectionately. And then he adds in verse 12 that he and his companions are not withholding their affection from the Corinthians. That is, their affection, their love, for the Corinthians is not restricted or confined in any way. That can happen in a relationship. And you can imagine it might have happened here, since the Corinthians had begun to doubt Paul’s character and his ministry. Remember? They had begun to think he was unreliable, because he had changed his travel plans. They complained: ‘He said he would come and see us; but he hasn’t.’ ‘He can’t be trusted.’ And they had begun to doubt his ministry, because he wasn’t as impressive as the new preachers. And so, we could easily imagine Paul being hurt by them and how his love for them might diminish. But, says Paul, we’re not withholding our affection from you. Our love for you has not diminished.
However, he says, you are withholding your affection from us. Our love for you has not been restricted, but your love for us has been. Our hearts are still open towards you, but your hearts are closed. Once the Corinthians loved Paul and they benefitted from his ministry. But they have now been taken in by these new preachers and their love and affection and admiration for Paul has gone.
And so, here comes Paul’s appeal: As a fair exchange, he said, open wide your hearts also. We’ve opened our hearts to you, so won’t you open your hearts to us? We’ve opened our hearts wide to you so that our feelings for you — our love and affection — run freely. Won’t you open your hearts wide to us, so that your feelings for us will run freely as well?
And look how he refers to them as his children. They’re his spiritual children, because many of them first heard the gospel from him and came to faith because of his ministry. And just as a father loves his children and he wants his children to love him in return, so Paul loves the people in Corinth and he wants them to love him in return.
But remember. The reason Paul is appealing to them like this isn’t because Paul is concerned with his own reputation among the Corinthians. He’s making this appeal to them because the gospel was at stake and the members of the church in Corinth were being led astray by these new preachers. He was concerned for their spiritual well-being and for the salvation of their souls. Paul was worried that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent in the beginning, so the believers in Corinth were being deceived by these new, false preachers. And since Paul had received his ministry from God, and since Paul and his companions were God’s ambassadors, so that God was speaking through them, then for the Corinthians to reject Paul and his companions meant they were rejecting God and his gospel. If they weren’t listening to Paul, then they weren’t listening to God, because Paul was God’s ambassador and God’s fellow-worker.
So, this is all about the gospel. Will they believe the gospel, which God sent Paul to declare to them; or will they believe the false gospel which the new preachers were peddling?
Paul commends his ministry
So today’s passage ends with another appeal:
open wide your hearts also.
Open wide your hearts to me, says Paul, because God has sent me to you to declare to you the true gospel.
And today’s passage begins with Paul once again having to commend his ministry to the Corinthians. He says that he and his companions have put no stumbling block in anyone’s path. Now, back in 1 Corinthians Paul said that the message of Christ crucified is a stumbling block to the Jews. That is, it was a message they couldn’t get over, because they were expecting a mighty Saviour, not a Saviour who would die. And the gospel is a stumbling block to many people, because the message that we’re all sinners and we must rely entirely on Christ for eternal life is offensive to everyone until God converts them. So, the gospel is a stumbling block. But Paul is not referring here to the gospel. He’s referring to his ministry. And he’s saying that he hasn’t put any obstacles in their way to keep them from hearing the good news. So, he hasn’t been dishonest. Or selfish. Or demanding. He hasn’t done anything inappropriate. He hasn’t done anything scandalous. Sadly, from time to time, you hear of preachers who have acted inappropriately and there’s some scandal around them. A preacher has been unfaithful to his wife. He’s been involved in some financial scandal. He’s bullied and abused his colleagues. That kind of thing. Well, Paul hasn’t done anything like that to discredit his ministry. Instead, as servants of God, Paul and his companions have commended themselves in every way.
Now, this isn’t the first time Paul was used the word ‘commend’ in this letter. And it seems this is one of the areas of contention between Paul and the new preachers. They seem to have complained: Why didn’t Paul have letters of commendation to confirm his apostolic credentials? That seems to have been one of the complaints the new preachers had about Paul. Paul claimed to be an apostle; but if he were really an apostle, wouldn’t he have with him a letter confirming his status? And sure, if you look at his life, and his ministry, there’s little evidence that he really is an apostle. That’s perhaps their argument. After all, would a true apostle suffer the way Paul has suffered? And if Paul is a true apostle, why do so many people not believe his message? His ministry is often fruitless. He can’t be an apostle.
That seems to be the complaint against Paul. Well, here’s Paul and he’s going to commend his ministry. You want a letter of recommendation? Well, let me tell you about my ministry. And so he proceeds to list various features of his ministry, including the trials and tribulations he has suffered, and the ups and downs of his ministry. But the first thing he mentions is endurance. Do you see that in verse 4? In great endurance, he says. And that’s perhaps the heading for everything that follows, because the point is perhaps this: the fact that they are prepared to endure all of these things, and to keep going, and to persevere, despite all the troubles and trials and tribulations, the ups and downs of their ministry, is evidence that their ministry is genuine and they really have been sent by God. Who else would be prepared to put up with all of these things? It’s easy being a preacher when everything is going well and everyone is praising you and they admire you. It was easy for the new preachers in Corinth, because everyone was impressed by them and no one took offence at them, because they were prepare to water down God’s word. But Paul’s ministry was hard and difficult. And yet he kept going. He persevered. And he endured all of these things, because he really had been sent by God and he really was God’s ambassador and fellow-worker. He wasn’t a charlatan. He wasn’t an imposter. He wasn’t a fraudster. He was sent by God to proclaim the good news of the gospel.
So, what does he say about his ministry? How does he describe it? He begins with three threes: in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger. These are the circumstances of their ministry.
So, if someone asked Paul to tell them about his ministry, he would say that his ministry was full of troubles or afflictions and hardships and distresses. He’s been afflicted because of persecution. He’s had to suffer all kinds of hardships throughout his ministry. And he’s been distressed by all kinds of stressful situations.
And he’s been beaten. And we know of a time when he was beaten so badly, his attackers thought he was dead. And he’s been imprisoned. Think of the time in Philippi when he was flogged and beaten and then thrown into the inner cell of the prison and his feet were put in the stocks. And he faced riots, when angry mobs turned on him because of what he was preaching. An imposter would not put up with these things, but only a true preacher would endure it, because he’s been sent by God.
And then Paul worked hard, both as a preacher and as a tent maker. And he suffered sleepless night. We all like a good night’s sleep, but Paul was up at night, because of his ministry. And there were times when he was hungry.
Manner and Means
These are the things he suffered. And then he lists eight characteristics or graces which he and his companions displayed. Or, as one commentator puts it, this list describes the manner and means of their ministry. So, when they suffered these things, they did so in purity and understanding and patience and kindness; and in the Holy Spirit; and in sincere love; and in truthful speech; and in the power of God.
When he refers to purity, he means sincerity. His motives were sincere and there was nothing corrupt about his ministry. The word for ‘understanding’ is really ‘knowledge’, because Paul is saying that he knows God. And when we’re under pressure, we can lose our patience and become unkind. But Paul remained patient, putting up with all things. And he continued to show kindness to the people around him, doing good to all. And he was able to carry on his ministry with the help of the Holy Spirit who enabled him to conduct his ministry with sincere love. ‘Truthful speech’ should really be ‘word of truth’, because Paul is referring to how he proclaimed God’s word. Whereas the new preachers watered down God’s word, Paul made sure that he preached the truth of God’s word. And he did so in the power of God, relying on God to make the reading and preaching of his word effective.
So, Paul and his companions were under great pressure. They suffered all kinds of trials and troubles because of their ministry. But unlike the new preachers, who were false apostles and who watered down God’s word, and who relied on the wisdom of the world, and on deception, Paul and his companions conducted their ministry from pure motives, loving the people around them, proclaiming the truth, relying on God the Holy Spirit to help them. And as he conducted this ministry, they used weapons of righteousness in the right and left hands. Romans soldiers carried a sword in their right hand and a shield in their left hand. The sword was for attack and the shield was for defence. And so, it’s possible that Paul is saying that their ministry had two sides to it: offence and defence. They proclaimed the good news so that those who hear will believe; and they defended the truth of the gospel against those who are sceptical.
Ups and Downs
Paul then refers to the ups and downs and the contrasts of their ministry. He mentions glory and dishonour and bad report and good report. Sometimes people thought well of them and praised them and admired them and said good things about them. But sometimes people criticised them and complained about them and said bad things about them. At times people honoured them; at times people despised them. Everyone praised the new preachers, because they were easy to like and to admire. But not everyone praised Paul and his companions.
And then there’s the final section of Paul’s description of their ministry. They are genuine, yet regarded as imposters. So, they were not false. They were not dishonest. They were not deceivers. They were truly sent from God. But often they were regarded as imposters. And they are known, yet regarded as unknown. Perhaps he means he was recognised as an apostle by many, but not by all. And they are dying, he says, yet we live on. Back in chapter 4, Paul described himself and his fellow preachers as jars of clay, because they were weak and frail and hard-pressed and perplexed and persecuted and struck down. And so, they carried around in their bodies the dying of Christ. Death is at work in us, he said, because their life reflected the sorrow and suffering of the Saviour. So, we are dying. Nevertheless, we live on, because God is upholding us and strengthening us. Though they’re hard-pressed, they’re not crushed. Though they’re perplexed, they’re not in despair. Though they’re persecuted, they’re not abandoned. Though they’re struck down, they’re not destroyed. Death is at work in Paul and his companions, but God upholds and sustains them to enable them to preach the gospel so that many will hear and believe and receive the free gift of eternal life. And so, they are beaten, yet not killed, because the Lord preserved them. And they are sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. No doubt there were many things which made Paul sorrowful. But the Lord helped him to rejoice in the good news of the gospel and in the hope of glory to come. And they are poor, yet making many rich. Paul and his companions were not rich. They did not have many possessions. And yet, through their ministry, many men and women and boys and girls became spiritually rich, because those who believed received one spiritual blessing after another from the Lord. In this world, Paul and his companions had nothing. And yet they possessed everything. That is, they possessed everything that counts, because everything in this world is destined to perish, and what counts is eternal life in the presence of God which is theirs because of Christ who gave up his life to pay for their sins and who was raised to give them eternal life.
Application: Paul’s ministry
And so, if someone asked Paul to tell them about his ministry, he would say that his ministry was full of troubles and hardships and ups and downs and dying and beatings and sorrow.
If you were the kind of person who relied on appearances and not on character, on externals and not on internal realities, on what is seen, rather than on what is unseen, then you’d look at Paul and his ministry and say that his ministry can’t be the real thing. And that’s what people in Corinth were saying about Paul. He can’t be a real apostle and his ministry is not really from God, because look how he has suffered and look at the trouble he’s had and look at how weak and frail he appears to be. Surely if he was really from God, God would bless his ministry and give him more success? But look at his troubles and hardships and distresses; and his beatings and imprisonments and the riots he’s been through. God is not with him. And so, they looked at Paul and doubted his ministry. And then they looked at the new preachers, the ‘super-apostles’ who looked so impressive and who spoke so well and who were so successful. And the people in Corinth said that’s the real thing; that’s a ministry from God.
But the people in Corinth were wrong. They were wrong about the new preachers, because they used deception and they relied on the wisdom of the world and they preached a watered-down gospel. And they boasted about themselves. And they were not sent from God and their ministry was not the real thing. So, the people in Corinth were wrong about the new preachers.
And they were wrong about Paul, because look at what Paul suffered and you’ll see that Paul’s ministry reflected the sorrow and suffering of his Saviour, who also endured troubles and hardships and distresses in the course of his earthly ministry. Paul’s ministry bore a likeness to the ministry of Christ.
Application: Paul’s character
And then look at Paul’s character: his purity, his knowledge, his patience, his kindness, how he relied on the Holy Spirit, his sincere love, how he preached the word of God, how he relied on the power of God, how he declared and defended the gospel. Look at his character and you’ll see that Paul’s character reflected the character of Christ, in his purity and knowledge and patience and kindness and his sincere love and on how the Lord Jesus relied on the Holy Spirit and how he preached God’s word and relied on God’s power and declared and defended the gospel.
And wasn’t Paul just like the Lord Jesus in that some people honoured the Lord, but many others dishonoured and despised him? And wasn’t Paul just like the Lord Jesus in that some people spoke well of the Lord, and many others spoke against him? And though the Lord Jesus was genuine, he was regarded by the Pharisees and teachers of the law as an imposter. And though the Lord was recognised by some to be the only Saviour, many others doubted him. And the Lord was dying and was beaten, but God his Father sustained him throughout his ministry. And he was sorrowful, yet he rejoiced. He made himself poor, so that we might be made rich. He possessed nothing in this world, but he possessed everything because he is the Son of God.
Application: Ministry and Character
The Corinthians doubted Paul, but Paul’s ministry and character reflected the ministry and the character of the Saviour. And so, the lesson for us today is not to be led astray by appearances. Not to be taken in by externals. Not to be deceived by what looks impressive and what seems powerful and appealing and popular. That’s what the new preachers in Corinth were like, but they were false teachers. You’re not to listen to a preacher just because he seems impressive. And you’re not to discount a preacher just because he looks weak and ordinary.
So, what should you be looking for? Well, ask yourself these three questions when you’re listening to any preacher. Firstly, what is his message? Is he preaching a watered-down version of God’s word? Does he leave in the bits people like; and leave out the bits people don’t like? Or is he preaching the full counsel of God: the law and the gospel, sin and salvation, repentance and faith, judgment and eternal life? Most of all, does he preach Christ crucified and risen? What is his message?
Secondly, what is his character? Are his motives pure or is he in the ministry for what he can get out of it? And while no one is perfect, does he strive to be patient and kind and full of sincere love? Does he strive to be more and more like his Saviour? What is his character?
And thirdly, does he just want an easy life? Paul suffered troubles and hardships and distresses and beatings and imprisonments and riots and so on. He suffered those things. And he was prepared to endure them all and to keep going, because his calling was from God. And so, no matter what he suffered, he pressed on, because that was the will of God for him. So, does this preacher just want an easy life or is he willing to put up with trouble for Christ?
So, when you’re listening to any preacher, that’s what you should ask yourself. What is his message? What is his character? Does he just want an easy life?
But in closing, let me remind you once again that the description Paul gives here of his own ministry and character reflects the sorrow and suffering of our Saviour. The Saviour loved you and he was prepared to endure all of these things for you. And so, you should marvel at the greatness of his love for you, and how he was prepared to suffer for you and for your salvation so that you can have peace with God and the free gift of eternal life. You should marvel at the greatness of his love and give thanks to God for him. And you should not live for yourself, but for him who died for you and who was raised.