“Corinthians Conclusion (and Future Writings)”

C’est fini!  It’s all over!  It’s finished!  The end of studies and writings about the Corinthian letters. Am I glad about that?  You bet!  This experience was a little bit like a previous study in Ecclesiastes – very interesting and enlightening, but filled with so many conversations about difficult and dark topics that it feels good to move on and read something different!

But I hope this has been a good experience for you and for the church. Many people have been very expressive and kind in comments about the series.

Yes, we have issues as sinners in this world. I’m a mess; you’re a mess. But as we’ve been saying weekly, we also have answers – thanks to the inspired writings of Paul and the work of the Spirit of God through the Word. There is a balance. As our old friend Chris used to often say, “We are more deeply sinful and flawed than we ever imagined, but more loved and forgiven that we could have ever hoped for.”

So even as we recognize in our own church family in our own context in the tri-state area that we can be like the Corinthians at times, we have greater resources to move toward godly living together and toward the end of being lights that shine for God in a darkened world.

This will mark the end of devotional writings to accompany a sermon series for quite a while – likely until September. The upcoming schedule does not lend toward writings, and beyond that I confess to needing a bit of a break from it. I may write a few isolated devotional thoughts on the topics being covered or whatever else drives me to the keyboard.

The next five weeks will feature individual topics from a missionary guest, a sermon each from Tim and Trent, and two from me.

The summer series will be called “The Dog Days of Deep Doctrine” and will be a review of the 10 points of the theological statement of the Evangelical Free Church of America – our denominational fellowship.

The fall series will be called “Reflections on the Christian Life.”  I’m really looking forward to sharing nine themes that are my life-experience summaries of the big ideas about what living for the Lord is all about.

Don’t forget to read the Scriptures over the summer! And you can also go back to previous series and writings on this page – either as a first time through them or to review some other portions of Scripture. There are now a total of 1,304 devotionals on this website.

So, unless I lose you to the summer moon above, I’ll see you in September.  (If you’re younger than a Baby Boomer, ask someone from my generation what that means!)

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“The Work of Restoration” (2 Corinthians 13:1-14)

Like me, I’m sure you are all rather sick of the political environment in which we live with endless investigations that merely breed more investigations. A phrase we always hear is that “there needs to be an investigation to get to the bottom of this.”

Paul is saying to the Corinthians in this final chapter that he is coming to visit them and that there is going to be forthright conversation and accountability … and the end result will be that the truth of all things – Paul’s credentials and life, their lifestyles and values, etc. – will all be “gotten to the bottom” so to speak. It might hurt during the process, but the results were going to be good. God’s power would be at work.

In the second paragraph, the phrase “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves” is usually understood by interpreters to be in the sense of a self-examination about the reality of their salvation – theologically-speaking, their positional standing as either true believers or falsely thinking they were saved. More likely it has to do with sanctification – testing themselves to see if they were truly living in a way that exemplified the life of Christ within. That is how they certainly should be living. This is a good test, one that should lead toward corrective modifications.

And Paul moves on to speaking about what was his highest hope as a result of his coming and whatever painful process may ensue: restoration. He desired to see them in right relationship with God, with each other, and with he himself. It would take work and intentional effort, no doubt. And thus he comes right out and says that, even before he arrives, they should “Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace.”  I like that!  Could we just go ahead and use that as a new purpose statement at Tri-State Fellowship?  Let’s head that way!

So, did it work in Corinth?  We don’t know from the letter, but we do know from a passage in Romans that they did work through this process successfully and arrive at a good place as a church community. He spent three months in Corinth during which time he wrote the Romans letter. And in 15:23,24 he said, “But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to visit you, I plan to do so when I go to Spain.”  The Corinthian situation had been successfully dealt with. Restoration achieved.

The work of living together in faith in the church is one that is never fully done. We never completely arrive. There is a continual need to spur one another along toward godliness. There may be some difficult seasons, but if the desire to always work actively toward being in restored relationships is sought, we can successfully deal with our “issues.”  Yes, we got issues, but we’ve got better answers!

2 Corinthians 13:1 – This will be my third visit to you. “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” [Deut. 19:15] 2 I already gave you a warning when I was with you the second time. I now repeat it while absent: On my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others, 3 since you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. 4 For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him in our dealing with you.

5 Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? 6 And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test. 7 Now we pray to God that you will not do anything wrong—not so that people will see that we have stood the test but so that you will do what is right even though we may seem to have failed. 8 For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. 9 We are glad whenever we are weak but you are strong; and our prayer is that you may be fully restored. 10 This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority—the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down.

11 Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.

12 Greet one another with a holy kiss. 13 All God’s people here send their greetings.

14 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

“Longsuffering Love” (2 Corinthians 12:11-21)

Over 20 years ago there was a situation in the church with an individual who was living a dual life. On one hand, this person was valuable in the church for the public ministry skills presented; but on the other hand, this person had a rough edge at times and was known to be living a less than exemplary life out in the world. Soft ways of encouraging and discipling the individual were not entirely rebuffed, but neither were they producing fruit.

Everyone in leadership had come to the point of concluding that strong words were very necessary, likely leading to a break in relationship. That is … everyone but me. Due to my friendship with the person, I was still holding onto hopes that a positive change might yet ensue. It came to a moment where those on the board looked at me with some statements like, “Randy, you have to see that we’ve done everything we can do!  It is time to move on!”

They were correct. It was time. But I was so sad about it and was surely deep into extra-innings extensions of grace. And I think I have generally been that way over the years. I’m usually (though maybe not absolutely always) willing to walk a long way with someone in hopes of restoration. It is kind of a pastor thing, I suppose.

But I have to say, as I look at Paul and the Corinthians, I would have never put up with them so long and gone through all that he did with them and their accusations and ingratitude.

But there really is something good to be said for an extensive display of grace, though it is not worth much unless it is additionally filled with strong communication that is enveloped in love and desire for truth and righteousness to prevail. It is not “loving grace” to allow a person or group of people to continue in sinful and errant ways. Strong words need to be said. And Paul surely was up to this task as well.

He takes the role of a parent here. And he had earned that, as it was descriptive of the relationship he had with them. And a part of this equation was that they did not owe him anything and he would not be looking for anything – the same as in the past. He just wanted to give to them, doing so in genuine love. And through all of this he hoped they would be repentant and that their mutual relationship might be restored as he speaks of what would hopefully be his third trip to visit with them.

Yes, there is a role for longsuffering love. But that love is a verb, not just a noun (this will be a sermon theme in the fall). And love as a verb demands the hard action of genuine conversation about what is not correct in another person’s experience, while also pointing in hope to a better place. It is all a part of being a family together.

2 Corinthians 5:11 – I have made a fool of myself, but you drove me to it. I ought to have been commended by you, for I am not in the least inferior to the “super-apostles,” even though I am nothing. 12 I persevered in demonstrating among you the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles. 13 How were you inferior to the other churches, except that I was never a burden to you? Forgive me this wrong!

14 Now I am ready to visit you for the third time, and I will not be a burden to you, because what I want is not your possessions but you. After all, children should not have to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. 15 So I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well. If I love you more, will you love me less? 16 Be that as it may, I have not been a burden to you. Yet, crafty fellow that I am, I caught you by trickery! 17 Did I exploit you through any of the men I sent to you? 18 I urged Titus to go to you and I sent our brother with him. Titus did not exploit you, did he? Did we not walk in the same footsteps by the same Spirit?

19 Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? We have been speaking in the sight of God as those in Christ; and everything we do, dear friends, is for your strengthening. 20 For I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be, and you may not find me as you want me to be. I fear that there may be discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder. 21 I am afraid that when I come again my God will humble me before you, and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged.

“Strength in Weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:1-10)

(For some reason, this devotional either did not post on Thursday as scheduled or was somehow dropped online.)

I knew a person back in New Jersey who was called of the Lord into ministry, surprising pretty much everyone. He was born illegitimately, with a doctor talking his mother and grandmother out of seeking out an illegal abortion at the well-known place for it at a particular farm along the river. Being adopted into a church-going family, he did meet the Lord through the work of their local church. Getting involved in youth ministry as a teen, he was not one of the boys you’d expect to end up as a pastor … though maybe as a part of the music team … maybe? But he was more than a bit too earthy in speech and over-aggressive in competitive ventures. Yet somehow, while in college, he ended up surprising everyone by excelling in theology and academics, eventually becoming a church pastor.

You get what I did there?  Yes, I talked about myself in a third-person fashion, which is what Paul continues to do as we open today to 2 Corinthians chapter 12. As mentioned yesterday, this passage continues the previous thought – Paul “bragging” about his credentials and experiences that did indeed qualify him over the “super-apostle” frauds who had captured the ears of the Corinthians. And again, we’ll see that these “credentials” were of the sort that demonstrated the reality of Christ’s work in and through Paul – using him in spite of his weaknesses. Only God could do this, therefore Paul was validated by the evidence of this divine strength working through him.

Paul mentions an out of the body experience that he had some 14 years earlier. Not knowing the exact nature of it as technically in the body or out of the body, he knew that it was extraordinary. This was before his missionary travels. We might take from this that it involved a preparatory event for Paul’s years of labors yet ahead – years that would be filled with astonishing experiences requiring an extraordinary endurance beyond the lives of others. Clearly, he was chosen for something very special as an apostle to the Gentiles for the great advance of the gospel worldwide.

In any event, it was amazing. A person chosen for this incredible work and given such incredible conversion and preparatory experiences might have moments where he would begin to think, “I really am a pretty big deal!”  That would be rather natural.

To remedy this tendency, God in grace gave Paul a reminder as to who was actually in charge and making the great things happen. The Apostle called this his “thorn in the flesh.”  Scholars over the years have debated as to what this was. It is rather certain that it involved some sort of physical malady.

A common suggestion is that it was an opthimalic condition that was possibly even a bit grotesque to view. Supporting this is that Paul used others to write his letters, only rarely speaking of something being in his own handwriting in large letters.

Another primary suggestion is that Paul may have had some sort of speech impediment. We’ve read several times in this series about his appearance and oratorical skills not being extraordinary as compared to those especially gifted in this way. Whatever, by natural appearance, he was unimpressive.

The effect of the “thorn” was to keep Paul humble, while also using it to display the power in his words and ministry as sourced in God, not the flesh. It was a principle of life for Paul, that when he was weak, then he became strong IN CHRIST.

There is timeless truth in this big idea for sure. Yes, it is nice for any of us to have natural gifts, whatever they may be. But they aren’t ultimately worth much without the power of God working through them, or better yet, through our weaknesses and frailties. It is therefore a great privilege to be weak and to see God display his strength in and through us.

2 Corinthians 12:1 – I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. 3 And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. 5 I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, 7 or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

“Boasting about Failure” (2 Corinthians 11:16-33)

After having grown up in the same area for the first 22 years and then going off to college, marriage and seminary studies in Texas, at age 28 I returned to my home town as a pastor. We built a home less than a mile from where I grew up, and I began to serve for 11 years in a community where most people remembered me as a child.

I have often joked that, like Jesus, I returned to my home town, but that I actually had more success in preaching than he did in Nazareth!  Here is what happened to Jesus after he preached in his home town: (Luke 4:28-30) All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way. Hey, nobody did that to me in New Jersey!

For me to (seriously) say that I was more successful than Jesus Christ and that my teaching was more truthfully excellent is as ridiculous as the Corinthians saying that the pseudo-apostles who had come into the church were greater than Paul because they were more slick and outwardly popular. It is valuing appearance over substance, the outward beauty over the inward reality.

If you think about the life of Jesus, though there were moments of apparent success and large crowds at various times (especially when Jesus was doing miracles), ultimately they turned against him and affirmed his crucifixion. That does not appear to be success. He was beaten and reviled.

In our reading today (the thoughts which form a unit with the next passage scheduled for tomorrow), Paul takes on a unique communication device of writing from the perspective of his critics. They considered him a fool and a failure, and so he went along with them to brag about his “failures.”  Yes, he had plenty of rough experiences, even though his genetic and historic credentials as a Jew were as good as any of his critics, likely even superior.

After stating this, he admits that it is certainly true that he has suffered greatly. And he gives a litany of experiences that would have killed almost anyone – beatings, deprivations, enemies and dangers galore! And he adds to this the mental agonies he endured in worrying about what was happening in all the fledgling churches.

He says that this boasting does elevate his weaknesses. But how is that a good thing?  Recalling an early experience that set the standard for the craziness that would mark his like, he reflects on the experience of escaping the city of Damascus in a basket!  It set a tone … a paradigm … that ministry life was going to be rough, but God was going to be faithful in the midst of it all.

This was likewise the story of Christ’s incarnation. His journey was marked with opponents and much suffering of all sorts. It was more often very difficult than it was glorious. It ended on a cross.

So, what is more like Christ: magnificent successes in measurable components of the material world, or identifying with Jesus in a life of suffering in a world hostile to the gospel?

We too are living in a hostile environment, though less than what many fellow Christians experience in remote corners of the earth or what has oft been the common experience of thousands of martyrs over the years. Being hated and reviled should not be a surprise, and it is not a mark of failure. It can even be seen as a success. We might need to remember this more and more as our culture is daily flying off the rails of our Judeo-Christian past.

2 Corinthians 11:16 – I repeat: Let no one take me for a fool. But if you do, then tolerate me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting. 17 In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool. 18 Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast. 19 You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise! 20 In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or puts on airs or slaps you in the face. 21 To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that!

Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?

30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. 33 But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.

“Speaking Jersey” (2 Corinthians 11:1-15)

Did you know that Tarsus – the hometown of the Apostle Paul – was in New Jersey?  I think it had to be, after reading our passage today in 2 Corinthians 11!  This is the way people in Jersey talk to each other – Boom! In your face! Boom! Add in a bit of snark! Then a wisecrack, also with some sarcasm. You build to a climax, and out comes exactly what you think in the bluntest terms imaginable.

Clearly, the Apostle Paul had his fill of hearing about these false teachers and self-proclaimed “super-apostles.”  Again, we can see that they had degraded Paul’s speaking ability as “untrained.” And though that obviously stung, Paul knew he had spoken the truth.

Adding to the annoyance for Paul surrounding all of this was the fact that, unlike these errant opponents, he had not taken money for his services in Corinth. Rather, he was supported from elsewhere.

The church in Corinth was being deceived, illustratively even as Eve was fooled by the serpent in the garden. As in that instance, truth was questioned, and a beguiling substitute was offered. Though the Jesus being taught in Corinth and the gospel being espoused was alleged to be genuine, it was of an entirely different sort. It was categorically wrong.

This rebuke was more than Paul just standing up for himself. It was rather because of the depth and extent of love he had for the Corinthians that he was making these bold statements and categorical denunciations.

And finally, it all comes pouring out. These frauds were false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ.  And beyond that, they were directly connected to their true boss, Satan himself. Like the Evil One’s outwardly beautiful appearance in the garden, they operated with the same modus operandi. The day would come when justice catches up to them.

Because of Paul’s genuine affection for the Corinthians, he needed to stand up, speak Jersey, and call out these jerks for who they really were. And he does.

Every once in a while, it becomes the role of those in leadership in a church to make a strong stand. Yes, we try to model kindness and the longsuffering love of Christ, not answering harsh words and actions with more of the same. But just as Jesus went a bit ballistic in cleansing the Temple one day, there comes a time when, in love, strong words and actions need to be taken to protect the body of Christ. I’ve had to do this on a few occasions. Though from Jersey, I actually don’t like doing it. But it is the correct thing to do in order to protect the dearest thing on earth – God’s program for this dispensation – the Church.

2 Corinthians 11:1 – I hope you will put up with me in a little foolishness. Yes, please put up with me! 2 I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. 3 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. 4 For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.

5 I do not think I am in the least inferior to those “super-apostles.”  6 I may indeed be untrained as a speaker, but I do have knowledge. We have made this perfectly clear to you in every way. 7 Was it a sin for me to lower myself in order to elevate you by preaching the gospel of God to you free of charge? 8 I robbed other churches by receiving support from them so as to serve you. 9 And when I was with you and needed something, I was not a burden to anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied what I needed. I have kept myself from being a burden to you in any way, and will continue to do so. 10 As surely as the truth of Christ is in me, nobody in the regions of Achaia will stop this boasting of mine. 11 Why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!

12 And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. 13 For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. 15 It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.

“Valid Ministry Measurement” (2 Corinthians 10:1-17)

I suppose it happens in a majority of fields of endeavor, not just in church ministry. I’ve been continuously employed in local church work for 40 years, though have on the side dabbled in a few other occupations. And in all of these, I have seen people who really think they know what they are doing but who are in reality far short of their self-evaluation.

I have seen it in my occasional service at Antietam Battlefield. A giant bus filled with high-paying tourists will pull in with a guide from … well … who knows where. They’ll be gathered around this fellow who is speaking in a loud and authoritative voice, but who is boisterously pointing in the wrong direction when describing battle actions and combatants.

I have seen it when coaching runners. A few other teams sported vociferous coaches warming up their athletes in all the wrong ways … with methods that seem correct, but that were counterproductive and even harmful. It was sad to see naturally-gifted athletes decline over the course of a season rather than advance.

And I have so often seen this same thing in the religious world. The most glaring examples are the mega-ministry stars with large media ministries. An inordinate number of these have come crashing down over time. And even on the local level in the places I’ve lived, along comes an exciting preacher dude with energy galore, and people leave churches to flock around him and his upstart ministry. And then something blows up, or the starlet exploits his fast-rising fame to vault himself to a larger ministry in a more prominent place, leaving the people behind to try to hold together a fragile following built more around a personality than the person of Christ.

Paul has saved his most difficult and awkward topic for the final quarter of his letter – the subject of boldly dealing with and confronting the opponents of the apostle and thereby of the truth. They needed to be dealt with and removed; the Corinthians needed to return to the truth that had been the pure gospel message of their salvation.

By measurements of this material world, these self-proclaimed leaders were impressive. They had credentials and a level of excitement beyond what Paul produced. They saw Paul as a weakling – all bark and no bite. They said his speech was unimpressive. Likely these folks were fun to listen to; but likely also, when they got done, you couldn’t actually remember what they taught. They probably had style … likely some great stories as well. It felt good. There was energy. Paul was just a meat and potatoes guy by comparison.

But real growth, not just in numbers and excitement, has to do with people growing in their faith and in their desire to expand the gospel message near and far. It is the stuff of regular faithfulness on a daily basis. It may not be glamorous all the time. But it can be measured by lives changed over a longer period of time. This is the inner work of the Spirit, not the outer work of the flesh.

The work that really counts is that which God commends, not that which simply finds the accolades of the masses. And this quiet, but faithful, service can indeed bring pleasure – the joy (the boasting) of being used by God to do His work in His timing and His way.

The Christian tortoise beats the pseudo-Christian hare … again.

2 Corinthians 10:1 – By the humility and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you—I, Paul, who am “timid” when face to face with you, but “bold” toward you when away! 2 I beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be toward some people who think that we live by the standards of this world. 3 For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. 6 And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete.

7 You are judging by appearances. If anyone is confident that they belong to Christ, they should consider again that we belong to Christ just as much as they do. 8 So even if I boast somewhat freely about the authority the Lord gave us for building you up rather than tearing you down, I will not be ashamed of it. 9 I do not want to seem to be trying to frighten you with my letters. 10 For some say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.” 11 Such people should realize that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present.

12 We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise. 13 We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God himself has assigned to us, a sphere that also includes you. 14 We are not going too far in our boasting, as would be the case if we had not come to you, for we did get as far as you with the gospel of Christ. 15 Neither do we go beyond our limits by boasting of work done by others. Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our sphere of activity among you will greatly expand, 16 so that we can preach the gospel in the regions beyond you. For we do not want to boast about work already done in someone else’s territory. 17 But, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” [from Jer. 9:24] 18 For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.

“The Zinnia Principle of Giving” (2 Corinthians 9:1-15)

As Paul continues to prod the Corinthians toward making good on their intentions for generously giving toward the collection for the saints in Jerusalem, he elaborates on the benefits of giving toward the Lord’s work. Paul really did believe that the Corinthians were going to be generous and not give merely in a reluctant fashion. And this enthusiasm for giving is the theme of most of chapter nine.

Giving generously is fun!  Really?  Yes!  And Paul says that God loves a cheerful giver.

We need to see the joy in what we give, not thinking about what we’ve lost. Our anticipation should look toward all that will come of the gifts for the advance of the kingdom.

The word for cheerful is hilaros – a Greek root of the word hilarious. It is simply hilarious fun to be a part of something so big as what God is doing in the world.

Giving really is fun. At the Good News Club we do weekly at the Jonathan Hagar Elementary School, I will sometimes stick a mini candy bar in a note or card to one of the kids by slipping it in their school bag or handing it to them on their way out the door. And I look forward to hearing what they’ll say later.

What we get in life is consistent with what we give. Paul teaches that reaping is consistent with sowing.

I was planning all winter to double the size of my garden this year. In the fall I even moved the fence panels in place to be able to do it. But, now it looks like too much work for the time available, so I’ve decided not to do it; and therefore, I’m not going to have a double harvest. It is a principle … sowing sparingly = reaping sparingly.

The idea here from Paul is to state a principle and insure confidence in generosity, not initiate a self-serving motive so that you can get more. This passage is saying that you can trust God to take care of you and meet your needs (not your excessive desires, necessarily).  You simply have no need to worry or hold back from faithful giving.

Over my four decades of pastoral ministry, I have heard thousands of complaints and disappointments from Christian people trying to find their way through a sinful world. Even with the peace of eternal confidence in ultimate salvation, there is sadness in this mortal world. But I have never-ever even once had a person tell me that they regretted giving to God. No person I’ve ever met has said that being generous toward the Lord’s work was the dumbest thing they’ve ever done … though I’ve heard the opposite stated as a life regret!

And then Paul also teaches that sowing and reaping seeds leads to generations of harvests, both to meet one’s own needs and to be able to give away even more.

When growing up in New Jersey (the Garden State!), my father planted zinnia flowers around the edges of our large garden. They’re the most amazing plants. In the fall, after they die off, the flower portions can be taken and stored away for seeds for the next year. Once they dry out, you rub them together and they provide for you literally thousands of seeds to plant. Every year, you just keep getting more and more of them.

And there’s a spiritual principle in this. The picture is of seed >> plant >> more seed >> more plants >> much seed >> many plants, etc., etc.

This is the way the kingdom of God grows. And you can be a part of this, or you can just be a dead-end plant. There won’t be any fruit or praise to God from it. But who knows what can become of your service and seed-planting generosity, as a little bit can go a long way.

2 Corinthians 9:1 – There is no need for me to write to you about this service to the Lord’s people. 2 For I know your eagerness to help, and I have been boasting about it to the Macedonians, telling them that since last year you in Achaia were ready to give; and your enthusiasm has stirred most of them to action. 3 But I am sending the brothers in order that our boasting about you in this matter should not prove hollow, but that you may be ready, as I said you would be. 4 For if any Macedonians come with me and find you unprepared, we—not to say anything about you—would be ashamed of having been so confident. 5 So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to visit you in advance and finish the arrangements for the generous gift you had promised. Then it will be ready as a generous gift, not as one grudgingly given.

6 Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. 7 Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. 9 As it is written: “They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor; their righteousness endures forever.” [from Psalm 112:9]

10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

12 This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. 13 Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. 14 And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

“Taking Pains about Money” (2 Corinthians 8:16-24)

It has often been said in ministry circles that there are three primary categories of sin and failure that can ruin a spiritual leader and his service: money, sex and power. We have surely seen all three of these play out very publicly in the broader evangelical church in America over recent decades. Moral issues have recently been especially publicized in a whole variety of denominations and churches. And since the beginning of this new year, a very prominent pastor of a large church has been removed because of his over-authoritarian and arrogant way of leading. Regarding money, just Google search “richest pastors” and link after link will come up of the “top ## most ridiculously wealthy pastors in America.”  (I didn’t make the list.)

These sins ruin the lives of more than merely religious leaders, that is for sure. But there is something more shocking about it when servants of God commit these offences, even pilfering money that was given with the intent of “giving it to the Lord” for spiritual work. It is all very sad.

But the allure of money is nothing new. Paul told Timothy to teach – “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” (1 Tim. 6:17)  It just is natural to see the possession of money as the possession of security and opportunity. But along with this may come temptation when around a lot of cash in any unaccountable situation.

In the context of the offerings being collected in the Macedonian churches and in Corinth for the purpose of sending it on for the needs in Jerusalem, Paul was acutely aware of the need for secure accountability. Today, this section of chapter 8 addresses this matter. What we have is a letter of commendation of three individuals who will take the gifts to Jerusalem, along with Paul frontally addressing the need for it to all to be done in an openly, honorable fashion that was above reproach. He surely knew that there were opponents in Corinth (and elsewhere) who would like to use this as an opportunity to cast aspersions upon the Apostle.

Paul speaks of the quality of the life of Titus, a man known to the Corinthians already. Not only was he honorable, but of his own initiative he was especially passionate about this particular offering and all that it represented. As well, Paul references two other Godly individuals who would be a part of this effort. They are unnamed, either because they were already known to the Corinthians or that they would be introduced by Titus. In any event, they were highly-regarded in effective ministry and character in Macedonia.

It must have been a difficult and even dangerous undertaking to accomplish this task in that era. It was not like you could put the funds from Thessalonica, Ephesus and Berea in the local branch of the Mediterranean Bank in Macedonia, add to the account in the branch bank in Corinth, and withdraw it from the Jerusalem branch in Palestine.

Recognizing the nature of sinful man, Paul writes a wonderful statement that is timeless in application: For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of man.

2 Corinthians 8:16 – Thanks be to God, who put into the heart of Titus the same concern I have for you. 17 For Titus not only welcomed our appeal, but he is coming to you with much enthusiasm and on his own initiative. 18 And we are sending along with him the brother who is praised by all the churches for his service to the gospel. 19 What is more, he was chosen by the churches to accompany us as we carry the offering, which we administer in order to honor the Lord himself and to show our eagerness to help. 20 We want to avoid any criticism of the way we administer this liberal gift. 21 For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of man.

22 In addition, we are sending with them our brother who has often proved to us in many ways that he is zealous, and now even more so because of his great confidence in you. 23 As for Titus, he is my partner and co-worker among you; as for our brothers, they are representatives of the churches and an honor to Christ. 24 Therefore show these men the proof of your love and the reason for our pride in you, so that the churches can see it.

“Healthy Repentance” (2 Corinthians 7:1-16)

I will admit that the title of our series – “We Got Issues” – and accompanying statements about how we are messy people like the Corinthians is a bit “out there.”  And I’ve been surprised that no person has taken me on a bit by these negative, downer designations. It is not popular to have and express negative self-images, or to include others in some deprecating class of people.

But the fact is that we are a mess. The issues of the Corinthians are not unique to 2,000 years ago. Inter-personal relationships are still tainted by our residence in a sinful world where we are stuck within imperfect bodies.

There is a lot of awkward conversation in the 7th chapter of 2 Corinthians that we turn to today. The relationship between Paul and these new Christians was very strained at a variety of points – some of which we are unclear as to the full nature of the conflicts and controversies. But it clearly involved some strong feelings and very frank communications.

Paul references here some writing to the Corinthians that is beyond these two inspired letters in the Scripture. It must have been smoking!  Paul was apparently very blunt. Titus was hesitant to be involved in the middle of it all. But the results had proven to be generally very good. There was repentance and a vast improvement in attitudes toward one another. Paul and Titus were blessed by this positive turn, even while still saying there was space for greater warmth and restoration of relationship to a highest level of mutual regard.

When your children misbehave or fall into a sinful pattern necessitating your engagement, you step in strongly to bring a change in both attitude and understanding, as well as a change in behavior that demonstrates the reality of their growth. This is essentially a definition of repentance: a change in belief that show its genuine nature through a change in action. It is saying the right thing and then also doing the right things.

Genuine repentance brings about very positive spiritual change. Paul writes of their true sorrow, followed by true actions to rectify the situation. This a godly sorrow, not just a mere worldly sorrow. The difference could be seen in the actions of Peter and Judas at the time of the trials and execution of Jesus. Judas was sorry, though not genuinely repentant. Peter was crushed with a godly repentance that of course was exhibited through the passionate ministry that characterized the rest of his life.

When we are confronted with truthful reality about our sin and deficiencies in Christian character, we need to have an immediate reaction that always considers the reality that these descriptions may indeed be true. We need to avoid the natural reaction – to be immediately defensive and dismissive, thrown into a self-righteous mode of protection without any thoughtful consideration.

Beyond that, our relationships together may involve times of needing to confront another brother or sister about blind spots and serious character faults … even sins. This is difficult to do, as who wants to appear self-righteous and judgmental?  From both experience and observation, we know that these types of intentional confrontation often do not go well. We know that they may bring out violent reactions that seem worse than glossing over the clearly-evident deficiencies.

But that is not love; that is mere expediency. And we want our lives to be better than that, and they can be in the family of God through the body of Christ.

2 Corinthians 7:1 – Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.

2 Make room for us in your hearts. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have exploited no one. 3 I do not say this to condemn you; I have said before that you have such a place in our hearts that we would live or die with you. 4 I have spoken to you with great frankness; I take great pride in you. I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds.

5 For when we came into Macedonia, we had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn—conflicts on the outside, fears within. 6 But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, 7 and not only by his coming but also by the comfort you had given him. He told us about your longing for me, your deep sorrow, your ardent concern for me, so that my joy was greater than ever.

8 Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while— 9 yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. 10 Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. 11 See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter. 12 So even though I wrote to you, it was neither on account of the one who did the wrong nor on account of the injured party, but rather that before God you could see for yourselves how devoted to us you are. 13 By all this we are encouraged.

In addition to our own encouragement, we were especially delighted to see how happy Titus was, because his spirit has been refreshed by all of you. 14 I had boasted to him about you, and you have not embarrassed me. But just as everything we said to you was true, so our boasting about you to Titus has proved to be true as well. 15 And his affection for you is all the greater when he remembers that you were all obedient, receiving him with fear and trembling. 16 I am glad I can have complete confidence in you.