“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.

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“Being Biblically Woke” (2 Corinthians 6:11-18)

The portion of the United States that I am originally from, and that state in particular along with a neighboring state with the same “first name,” is known often for producing people who are verbally rude and aggressive. There is more than an ounce of truth to this impression.

Yet, at the same time, I have come to appreciate some elements of the candor and open communication of the “New” places. There is little ambiguity as to where you stand with someone, and little room for misunderstanding and wrong impressions. When an appropriate addition of Christian love that seeks the well-being of another person accompanies the forthright speech, great good can come from it.

The Apostle Paul was a person of blunt conversation, that is for sure. He did not stutter about what he was saying to this or that person, group or church community. He confronted Peter to his face, and he had a sharp disagreement with Barnabas that ended with them parting ways in ministry. And many portions of his letters come right out with bold rebukes and exhortations. But at the same time, his genuine love and high desire to see the recipients prosper in God’s grace was undeniable.

None of the churches had quite the same punches to the nose and pokes in the eye from Paul as did the Corinthians. None of them deserved it more. But none of them had as many bold proclamations of his genuine affection for them. That Paul didn’t just give up on them was evidentiary point #1 of his deep love for the church in Corinth.

And Paul begins today’s passage with a statement of his affection for them and desire to see their mutual relationship deepen…

2 Corinthians 6:11 – We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. 12 We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. 13 As a fair exchange—I speak as to my children—open wide your hearts also.

Sometimes you have to say some difficult things to your children, but it is the right thing to do. And what should the Corinthians do in response? …

14 – Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15 What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:

“I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” [Lev. 26:12; Jer. 32:38; Ezek. 37:27]

17 Therefore, “Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.” [Isaiah 52:11; Ezek. 20:34,41]

18 And, “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” [2 Samuel 7:14; 7:8]

This passage beginning with verse 14 is most often used to speak to the issue of mixed marriages of a believer with an unbeliever. Though that may be a fair application, Paul is in this context most likely speaking about his desire to see the Corinthians “divorce” their relationship with false teachers who had come into the community – these dangerous folks being from the idolatrous world of that place, or more likely those who were not genuinely connected to the true gospel message.

In any event, they were not believers; they were impostors and a grave danger to the health of the church. This could not continue, and there simply had to be a total break from them.

Five questions list five incongruous elements. The word “Belial” was a Greek transliteration of a Hebrew term that spoke of a “worthless person” … often used to refer to Satan.

Three Old Testament quotes are given by Paul. These looked back to times where God exhorted his chosen people to eschew idolatry and the dirty ways of false religions and to commit fully to God as their Lord and Father. The Corinthians needed to do the same.

Though we cannot isolate ourselves from the dark world around us, we do need to clearly understand what is light and what is darkness. We need to choose to maximize our relationships with one another, with the consequence being a greater light that shines into the grave darkness. It is necessary to clearly understand truth so as to not compromise it by admixtures with the errors of the natural world.

To use a modern word from social justice warriors in the pop culture of our day, we need to be “woke” about light and darkness. This means to not just mentally understand the difference, but to also take action upon it by the purity of our lives. So are you “woke?”

“Paradoxes of Ministry” (2 Corinthians 6:1-10)

One of the surprising and somewhat depressing observations of my life is to look back on the many dozens and dozens of guys whom I knew well in college and seminary. Though upon entrance to each institution, pretty much everyone was committed to a lifetime of ministry, honestly the percentage of those who have actually done it is sadly rather small. The education at both schools was very intense as well as very excellent. It was difficult to complete. It therefore startles me that so many went through all this academic preparation, only to use it in vocational ministry for a very small time of life or in a very fractional way relative to other pursuits.

Paul just finished speaking of being compelled (or pressed hard) by Christ’s love to prioritize the gospel message in all of life. If one really believes this but then does not act upon it, this is receiving this message of grace in vain … as he says in 6:1 – As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain.

The word for “vain” has the meaning of being “empty.”  Not living for the proclamation of the gospel, having received it, was really a waste of time. And Paul says, in the spirit of Larry the Cable Guy, the time has come to Git-R-Done!  …  2 For he says, “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” [from Isaiah 49:8] I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.  After years of expectation and hope, the Messiah Christ has come and given his life as a payment for sin, and not just for Israel, but for all people. This is a message to spread.

Paul was actively doing just that; and it was a difficult thing to git-r-done. The opposition was inevitable and oft oppressive. Sometimes the opposition was not only from outside forces hostile to the gospel, but rather from within the so-called Christian community. This was especially exacerbated in places where there were false teachers touting their own credentials while mocking those of Paul. The Apostle’s credentials were not what you might expect, as the genuine teaching of the Scriptural truths would lead to troubles of all sorts. Paul writes …

3 We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. 4 Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; 5 in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger;

But even with these difficulties, Paul had ministered in honorable ways …

6 in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; 7 in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left;

The Apostolic ministry involved quite a few paradoxes. It was a life that was very different than the way someone would expect it to look like. Nine items are listed …

8 through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; 9 known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; 10 sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

Living for Christ and preaching the gospel out of a response to the great love that Christ has shown us is always going to be difficult. Though there are blessings along the way, great trials are inevitable. But even in the sorrows and depredations there is a God-given sense of joy, satisfaction and fulfillment. If we calibrate our expectations toward a realism about the nature of a sinful world, our difficulties in living for Christ take on a new dimension. We become eternity-minded in light of the bigger picture of God’s work.

“Feeling Important, Because You Are!” (2 Corinthians 5:11-21)

Let’s have a poll question today to start our discussion of the second half of 2nd Corinthians chapter five …

Which of the following would you see as the position of greatest import and potential impact? …

  1. Chief Executive Officer of a Fortune 500 company?
  2. A leading member of Congress?
  3. A pop star with 17 million followers on Twitter?
  4. Manager of the Baltimore Orioles or head coach of the Dallas Cowboys?
  5. An ambassador of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

You selected number “4”?  Logical, but wrong. The correct answer is “5.”  And that is what you are if you are a redeemed sinner-turned-saint through the blood of Jesus Christ.

The Apostle Paul again turns to a jocular defense of his ministry leadership role, it being criticized within the Corinthian community by opponents. They said things about him that he was arrogant and boastful about his activity and roles in the church. We know also that they did not think he made the most impressive personal presentation. And some simply called him a nut-case, saying he was out of his mind. They had visible successes and grandiose impressions; Paul was talking about an inner faith and a future, unseen hope…

2 Corinthians 5:11 – Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. 12 We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. 13 If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.

Paul said that his motivation was directed toward the Corinthians for their eternal well-being, however poorly they might interpret it. The message that came to Paul on that Damascus Road changed everything about his life and motivation. His life had a new purpose and drive.

14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

I’ve gotten a bit of a feeling that some folks are wearying of my Greek word references. Sorry … just trying to make passages come alive a bit more. But do this … look back at those verses 14 and 15 and think about what word – if better defined with all the color of its usage in the original language – would most make these verses jump out even more?

I think it is rather clearly the verb “compels.”  What did Paul mean when he chose this word, and how might the original readers have understood it?  The word means in a more literal sense to “press tightly” … like to squeeze something together. This word was used in Luke 8:45 to describe the throngs of people who were around Jesus and pressing tightly against him – in that moment when the woman who needed healing exhibited her great faith by somehow reaching through the “press” to merely touch the hem of his garment. So Paul was saying he felt the squeeze to live life in an intentionally bold way of high-level motivation and action.

In fact, Paul no longer just had simple, worldly categories of seeing people as, say, being rich or poor, important or mundane, slave or free. No, rather he saw them in one of two categories: stuck in the old category of lost in sin in a lost world controlled by the Evil One, or a totally new creation in Christ.

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.

People were either reconciled to God or not. Those who were at peace with the Lord now had a new role to play as agents of reconciliation. This is the biggest story of big stories. It is what EVERYTHING is about. Life if not really about all the survival stuff we think is materially important. No!  We have a new mission, and it ain’t no small thing … it is awesome …

20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

So, don’t you feel better about yourself right now?  Hope so.  And oh, that means you’ve got work to do that counts for eternity, doing that work today, tomorrow, and every other day until the end. You can stop reading now and go be an ambassador in your world.

“The Tent Life” (2 Corinthians 5:1-10)

Most of us do not live daily with fear of mortality. However, some who live with life-threatening medical conditions would differ from the majority. I think also of several of our missionaries in more remote and hostile conditions. They may not always know what dangers could be lurking nearby.

The Apostle Paul was a guy who had a profound sense of these dangers. He suffered greatly for his boldness for Christ, getting beaten up so significantly on one occasion that he appeared to have died. And we see from the overall flow of Paul’s writing that he pretty much expected it to not be a matter of “if” he would be put to death for his ministry work, but “when.”

Always remember that Scripture verse references and chapter divisions are not original but were added at a later time. We are sometimes left to scratch our heads as to why a division was made at a certain point … like this transition today from the end of chapter four to the beginning of chapter five. Let’s bring back those final three verses from the previous chapter to set the stage today …

2 Corinthians 4:16-18 – Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Paul is speaking of the wasting away of the human body. If you haven’t had this experience yet, thrust me, believe me, it’s coming!  It is a startling thing to realize that you simply can no longer do something that was a regular event of your earlier life (like running from filming a kids scene at the ark out back and into the church where the main group was rehearsing, only to have knees ache and sciatic nerve feedback for days afterward!). And Paul says that these momentary troubles cause us to have a perspective that helps us to let go of this visible, physical world and to rather cast our vision above to the permanent world that is yet to come.

He continues to flesh out these thoughts as we turn to the next chapter …

2 Corinthians 5:1 – For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. 2 Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, 3 because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

Yes, the failures of human weakness and the difficulties of mortal life lead to a groaning. Ugh!  Y’all laugh at me for my endless running and baseball illustrations – the things of life I like the most – and here Paul is like me (or am I like him?) giving an illustration about something of regular familiarity. Remember that Paul was, by trade, a tentmaker.

Surely he thought about life, ministry, theology, big issues, etc. while he was working on tents. And what better illustration of the aging process than an aging tent. The older the tent, the more it was tattered, developing holes that needed to be repaired (surgeries!), and the more that it simply wore out and became frail. It you’re a person of that time who was living in a tent that was getting ravaged by the elements of time, you might wish for the day you’ll be able to trade it in for a new tent.

And here’s another reason for this tent illustration of the human body to be such a good metaphor: it was actually used of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In John 1:14 it says of Jesus … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. The Greek word for dwelling is of a tent / tabernacle. Christ took on our human form, our tent, to be like us in all things, yet without sin (Hebrews 2:14-18).

Paul says that it is God’s plan to make us this way. And beyond that, he has put the Spirit into our lives as a deposit – a word that takes an entire phrase in English to translate the idea of a down payment with the promise of the full payment that is yet to come.

So we are intentionally left by God in a position of mild, albeit growing, frustration with a human house that fades away. But this gives us perspective …

6 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 For we live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.

Yep, Paul says, it can be frustrating, but it causes us to have to trust God in faith while looking forward to a better home with the Lord. Meanwhile, the appropriate life plan is to live our time here in productive ways that please God; that is the picture to have and the main idea to think about in our daily routines.

And if that is not enough motivation, Paul reminds us that there is a court date appearance we must all face. Understand, this judgment seat is not about salvation. This is for those who know the Lord to either gain great rewards for things accomplished while living in the “human tabernacle” or to suffer an empty loss at having little accrue due to foolish camping follies in our tent life.

So, how’s your tent life coming along?  Do you have some holes and thin spots?  It’s OK, someday you’ll be done with the camping life in living in such a temporary home. You’ve got a house just up ahead … actually, it’s a mansion.  So, chin up – go do something productive for the Kingdom of God right now.

“Not Losing Heart” (2 Corinthians 4:1-18)

I will be very honest with you. I have had times and seasons as a pastor where I have just wanted to throw it all overboard, head far out into the country with my beloved Jack Russell Terrier and simply raise chickens for a living. There is nothing quite so hurtful or frustrating as attempting to serve God and people with pure motives, yet being falsely accused of wrongful motives or of having insufficient gifts and accomplishments.

Even as I write that paragraph above, I know that I have had it very easy compared to most who have set out to do this thing called pastoral ministry. That is especially true compared to the Apostle Paul.

A number of years ago I was terribly discouraged, having had some opponents suggest I should just move on, quit, die … whatever … just vacate. Many things were not going well. So I spent a couple of days to go back to the roots of it all – to the New Jersey church where I met Christ as a child. I know the very spot where I sat that Wednesday evening. I found the doors of the church unlocked, with nobody around. So I went to that spot and spent some time in prayer.

Next, I went into the sanctuary and sat in the very pew where I was weekly with my father, while my mother was on the side stage as the church organist. And sitting there for multiple hours, I read all the New Testament letters and epistles. That is where it hit me and when the Spirit spoke to me, saying essentially, “Randy, you’re being a wimp!  Don’t you see all the troubles and conflicts that these early church leaders had to endure, especially Paul?  Stop your whining and get back to work.”

As we read the 4th chapter of 2 Corinthians today, though filled with great stuff, to get the big idea, simply read the first and last verses together: “since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart… we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Paul faced so much opposition and criticism, some of the worst of it emanating from Corinth. The accusations so often leveled against him were actually the bullet points on the resumes of those most loudly pointing their fingers at him. And Paul simply said that his plain teaching was a “what you see is what you get” reality of the gospel facts. Anything not plainly understood, or whatever was veiled, was that way due to the efforts of the Evil One and his pervasive cast of darkness over the world systems. Whatever light that would break through would only shine because the same God who created the world by calling light out of the darkness would do the same to cause the lost to see the gospel.

The message of salvation in Christ was a great treasure. And the irony of it all was that this treasure – revealed to and preached by fallen creatures like Paul – was the most valuable thing imaginable, yet entrusted to the most fragile thing imaginable. It is kinda crazy-looking … like storing your entire fortune in a clay pot out in the backyard. But when people saw the persecutions and hindrances thrown at servants like Paul, and saw also his perseverance with the gospel message, it was a communication of great power. What should be a terrible defeat was instead an ongoing display of victory that was spreading ever more and more.

So, yes, it can be nasty sometimes when serving the Lord. Even your own teammates may slap you down at times. It will never be easy-going and smooth-sailing in this turbulent sin-filled world. But that is only discouraging if your eyes are merely focused upon this world. When the larger and eternal picture is brought to bear upon the mind, it all makes sense. True values are now in sight. Losses today equal gains for eternity. Fixing our eyes on the unseen – that’s a plan; but it is a plan that needs to be mentally renewed, over and over … like … well … today!

2 Corinthians 4:1 – Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

13 It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.”[from Ps. 116:10] Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. 15 All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.

16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

“Unfading Glory” (2 Corinthians 3:1-18)

Whenever in our varied careers we have made job changes, we understand that it is characteristic to give the prospective employer some references as to the genuine nature of our abilities and experiences. It is wise for the interviewing party to check out those references by making a phone call or email contact.

Letters of reference were a part of the ancient world of Bible times as well. We see Paul writing words of commendation about associates. But checking credentials was much more difficult in an era without electronic communications or even a well-defined postal system. Anyone could produce their own letters of reference from famous people far away, claiming them to be genuine. And it is not as if anyone could easily authenticate these communications.

And apparently Paul’s opponents had trafficked in something of this sort. In any event, they were proud of their references while claiming Paul’s background was rather scant. Paul had a better answer for them…

2 Corinthians 3:1 – Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? 2 You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. 3 You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

Paul says that all the confirmation they needed concerning the effectiveness of his genuine ministry could be seen in the mirror. Their lives had been changed by the gospel message that Paul and his companions had brought to them, along with the founding of the church community. He could make this bold statement upon strong authority and in great confidence …

2 Corinthians 3:4 – Such confidence we have through Christ before God. 5 Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. 6 He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

In the previous chapter, when thinking about the complexities of the gospel ministry, Paul exclaimed, “who is sufficient for such things?”  And here he answers that his sufficiency – his competence – is strong through the power of God.

It is great to have outstanding credentials. Hey, I gave a HUGE chunk of my life (nine consecutive years, not counting doctoral studies after that) to the attainment of education and ministry credentialing. It’s nice, and I’m thankful for it, but academics alone are not the fuel of effective ministry. Quite a number of those with whom I went through those years did not enter ministry work, and many who did were not able to sustain it for a lifetime. It takes God’s blessing to make it happen fruitfully, and Paul had that blessing.

This was the ministry of the gospel, the fulfillment of God’s promises in what was the new covenant. The old covenant – loved so much and promoted by Paul adversaries – came with great glory. But it was not the final deal, not the final chapter of God’s work …

2 Corinthians 3:7 – Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, 8 will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? 9 If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! 10 For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. 11 And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!

Before commenting on this, let’s take a moment to read the seven verses from Deuteronomy that gives this account that Paul is talking about …

Deuteronomy 34:29 – When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the Lord had given him on Mount Sinai.

33 When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. 34 But whenever he entered the Lord’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the Lord.

The law given to the people through Moses was amazing!  This truth was evident by the radiance that accompanied its transmission to the people through God’s servant. Moses had to cover his face!  But this great law, wonderful as it was, did not really bring life. Rather, it brought condemnation. The law revealed God’s perfection. The covenant was not able to be kept by the people – who repeatedly broke it and went into sinful directions. But God, in His grace, would promise a new covenant.

12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. 14 But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. 15 Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. 16 But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate[reflect] the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

The law was transitory – fading and passing away. It was ultimately insufficient. And the Israelites who did not accept Christ were like those with a blinding veil over their eyes, something that could only be taken off by Christ. And in him, through his work on the cross, a greater glory has come. This new covenant of grace, redemption and freedom will not fade away. It grows and expands, all the way through to the eternal state.

When you read this, you cannot help but be so very thankful to have had the opportunity to live at a time when all of this is in the past. We have a completed record about it. And though we don’t know all the details of what remains to get us to our ultimate destination, we have such a clear understanding as to what has foundationally made it possible. It is not fading, it is growing in brightness and intensity.

“We Smell” (2 Corinthians 2:14-17)

There are some people who like both the smell and the taste of coffee, some who like the smell but dislike the taste, and others who totally despise both. Count me in that last category.

I last had a cup of coffee in the summer of 1988 while on a missions trip to Scarborough, England. I was leading a music team that was doing beach ministry by day on the shores of the English Channel, while presenting concerts in community centers and churches in the evenings. The mayor of Scarborough heard about our presence and invited us to tea in her mansion. But it wasn’t tea, it was coffee I was served. I took a couple of sips to be polite, but at a moment when all were looking in a different direction, I surreptitiously dumped the remains into a large, potted plant (probably killed the thing later!).

I call coffee “skunk juice.”  I frequently have trouble distinguishing one odor from the other. I just know that this is not my imagination, and though I likely have a bad attitude about coffee, it TRULY does smell much like a skunk (to me). So, I did some scientific research and was quickly able to find multiple articles identifying that there are indeed overlapping chemical components, called “thiols,” in each. I have included the chemical chart as evidence.

In our passage today, Paul references a well-known, historic occasion where odors in the air had decidedly different reactions from people, depending upon who you were. When the Roman legions would return home victorious from their conquests, they would march into the city in a parade that exalted the general and his troops, while also displaying the conquered prisoners. Incense was burned on this occasion and filled the air with varied aromas. For the soldiers, it was a smell of victory; but for the prisoners, it was a stench that portended their death or slavery.

Paul somewhat mixes the picture by describing himself and believers as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession. But having been captives of His love and grace, we find it to be as victors with him who overcame death.

The smell of Christ’s victory is the aroma also of our lives as we are identified with him. For those who know Christ or who are being called by him unto salvation through our service, this is the aroma of life. But to those who reject Jesus and the gospel, the smell for them is one that leads to death. It is a paradox of Christian life and ministry!  And Paul asks, “who is equal to such a task?  (He’ll answer that question later by saying that we are sufficient in Christ – 3:5).

Paul further states that his ministry and that of his associates was not like that of many others with whom the Corinthians had contact – people who demanded payment for their services. Though Paul could have rightly expected this (as we covered in 1 Corinthians), he did not take anything from them. And here also, Paul says he is not like these others who peddle the word of God for profit.  The Greek verb for “peddle” is only used this one time in the Bible. It was a term of derision used to describe unscrupulous street merchants who were commonly known to cheat people with their sales. In the same way that the contemporary phrase “used car salesman” frequently has a negative connotation, so did this word. Synonyms could be “huckster” or “hawker.”  Paul’s ministry was not like this; it was genuine and sincere, as from God.

We all smell; we all have an “odor” to those around us. We want that aroma to be sincere, as we want to come off smelling like Christ in a genuine way. This will be attractive to those who have a work of the gospel going on inside them. However, this may offend some who are hostile to the gospel, but that’s not our problem. We need to be faithful. And we need to be sure our lives are not excreting some other odor!

2 Corinthians 2:14 – But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. 15 For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task? 17 Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God.

“Painful Ministry” (2 Corinthians 2:1-11)

Imagine reading a piece of mail correspondence from one person whom you know to another group of people with whom you are also acquainted. The letter references a variety of events that are common knowledge to both, but which are largely unknown to you. Therefore, you would be somewhat confused as to how to put all the pieces together as to what had happened and relative to who had done what.

This is essentially the situation we have as we continue reading here in the early portion of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. As we’ve referenced earlier in these devotionals, there were more than two letters from Paul to the saints in this early New Testament church. This is merely the second inspired letter that was intended to be included in the canon of Scripture. There were other letters and a number of visits being referenced at varying points.

What is clear is that there were issues of sin, conflict, confrontation and discipline that had gone on within the church community, much of it involving Paul as an Apostle and authority. These conflicts caused much grief and painful relationship between Paul and the Corinthian congregation. Hard things were said (in person and in writing), and there were tears of distress, anguish and grief.

What was the situation that stimulated this season of difficulty?  Historically, it has been thought that it related to the individual in the first letter who had committed incestuous sin … the thought being that the congregation had treated him very severely – to the extent that though he was now repentant, they were unwilling to forgive him. However, it is now more often believed that this relates to another situation not addressed in the first letter. We might speculate that it was something targeted specifically at the Apostle Paul, perhaps wrongly questioning his apostolic authority and good intents. This offender was severely censured and in time had become repentant. Paul is saying that enough had been done to discipline this person, the apostle was forgiving him, and they should likewise do the same.

The principle underlying this forgiveness and restoration of mutual love is a wonderfully timeless takeaway point to always remember. If the conflict was allowed to go on, this would play into the hand of the great enemy, Satan. It was already bad enough that this situation had erupted and caused the severity of grief all had experienced. To not forgive the person was to continue the damage and to accomplish the advance of the Evil One’s agenda … or as Paul calls this dastardly plan, “the schemes” of Satan to attempt to outwit the church family.

I can tell you rather certainly that there is nothing worse in the world of doing church ministry than to have to get involved with disciplinary matters of people in sinful behaviors and attitudes. There are occasions where the behavior has blinded the person from seeing the wrongful nature of it, and they are therefore rather unapproachable – seeing the confrontation as arrogance and power-posturing of people in leadership. Often they have some measure of a following who don’t see the full picture and who are sympathetic to the offender and his viewpoints. Before long, there are factions and an overall feeling of conflict and dissention in the church family. The ministry of outreach particularly suffers, as all energies and thoughts are focused within the walls and upon the strife.

By God’s grace, we as a church at TSF have been largely spared the scope of painful conflict as Paul is addressing in this passage today. But we have not (nor will we ever on this side of eternity) escaped all conflictual situations. Sometimes it is necessary, in godly love, to confront sin and error. As always, the goal to not to lord it over anyone or to “win” and bring punishment and pain upon anyone. The goal is restoration, not punitive action, as much as that may at times please the flesh in the heat of conflict.

The desired outcome for all is to be like Christ in our interpersonal relationships both within the church and in front of an unbelieving world. And Paul will have some beautifully colorful pictures of this as we read on later in this chapter.

2 Corinthians 2:1 – So I made up my mind that I would not make another painful visit to you. 2 For if I grieve you, who is left to make me glad but you whom I have grieved? 3 I wrote as I did, so that when I came I would not be distressed by those who should have made me rejoice. I had confidence in all of you, that you would all share my joy. 4 For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you.

5 If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you to some extent—not to put it too severely. 6 The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. 7 Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him. 9 Another reason I wrote you was to see if you would stand the test and be obedient in everything. 10 Anyone you forgive, I also forgive. And what I have forgiven—if there was anything to forgive—I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, 11 in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes.

“Yes Means Yes” (2 Corinthians 1:12-24)

As many of you know, the fourth of my five sons was married in the last year and has moved with his new wife to begin an exciting life in Colorado, even buying a new house a couple of weeks ago. My wife and I want to visit with them and see their new home and the lives they have established in that place. But so far, every attempted plan has fallen through for one reason or another. I’m pretty sure they don’t think we’re trying to avoid seeing them!

Plans fall through; things happen. Paul had said he was going to come and visit the Corinthians, but it did not eventuate as he had hoped. And now there were people in the church there – likely in the category of false teachers – who were using this story as an opportunity to impugn the apostle and his motives.

We live in a time of great political and philosophical division. It is the regular and daily experience to hear people in leadership vilified in awful ways. A person does not actually need to have done something terribly wrong to be effectually wounded, all he has to have happen is to be accused of the deed and a certain number of people will believe it. This was the stratagem of Paul’s opponents – they were helped as his reputation was tarnished and thrown into doubt.

So Paul is on the defensive, as he will be through much of this letter. Here at the beginning he tells them essentially, “what you see is what you get, I ain’t very complicated!”  He was simply serving God by speaking the truth with integrity and sincerity. There was no personal gain in it. And he hoped that over time they could become fully convinced of this.

The inference of his opponents was that this fellow who spoke out of both sides of his mouth about visitation was also a person whose message could not be trusted as truthful. And to that charge Paul spoke strongly that there was no vacillation going on. This was a certain message of the gospel.

The certainty of the gospel is illustrated in three truths about the believer’s relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

First, there is an anointing of the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation. The picture looks back to the anointing of priests at the time of their induction into ministry.

Secondly is the seal of ownership. In ancient times, a seal on a document specified the owner of it and granted that document its authority and veracity.

Thirdly is the deposit of the Holy Spirit. This banking/financial term spoke of a down payment that affirmed the necessity of full and final payment to come.

These are three awesome pictures that give us confidence in a broken and messed-up world. We possess stuff that is so much greater and more lasting than the vicissitudes of this material age.

(Here is an update on the friend I mentioned yesterday as a prayer item: Dave has survived a 12-hour surgery, with the doctor reporting that it went well. Some of the vein / blood supply complications that were the issues of greatest concern and threat apparently were successfully managed. I am not sure it can be said at this juncture that he is “cured,” but it is certainly a report well on the positive side of the ledger. I would remain thankful for your continued prayers.)

2 Corinthians 1:12 – Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, with integrity and godly sincerity. We have done so, relying not on worldly wisdom but on God’s grace. 13 For we do not write you anything you cannot read or understand. And I hope that, 14 as you have understood us in part, you will come to understand fully that you can boast of us just as we will boast of you in the day of the Lord Jesus.

15 Because I was confident of this, I wanted to visit you first so that you might benefit twice. 16 I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia and to come back to you from Macedonia, and then to have you send me on my way to Judea. 17 Was I fickle when I intended to do this? Or do I make my plans in a worldly manner so that in the same breath I say both “Yes, yes” and “No, no”?

18 But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not “Yes” and “No.” 19 For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us—by me and Silas and Timothy—was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.” 20 For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. 21 Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, 22 set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

23 I call God as my witness—and I stake my life on it—that it was in order to spare you that I did not return to Corinth. 24 Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, because it is by faith you stand firm.