Authentic Ministry 14/Second Corinthians
The early church father John Chrysostom once said that the apostle Paul had gone through a “blizzard of troubles.” This passage, this text, is one of the places where we learn something of them. But, if the truth be told, we are probably just learning a fraction of them.
Paul’s adversaries at Corinth had been apparently arguing that Paul could not be from God—look at how much trouble he was in, all the time. The man was a controversy magnet, and this was upsetting to that breed of Christian who always wants to stay well away from all controversy magnets. But Paul’s reply to them was that his troubles did not negate his ministry. Rather, his long endurance through those troubles confirmed his ministry. His was the way of the cross.
“Giving no offence in any thing, that the ministry be not blamed: But in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, In stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labours, in watchings, in fastings; By pureness, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Ghost, by love unfeigned, By the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armour of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, By honour and dishonour, by evil report and good report: as deceivers, and yet true; As unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and, behold, we live; as chastened, and not killed; As sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things. O ye Corinthians, our mouth is open unto you, our heart is enlarged. Ye are not straitened in us, but ye are straitened in your own bowels. Now for a recompence in the same, (I speak as unto my children,) be ye also enlarged” (2 Cor. 6:3–18).
Summary of the Text
Paul here works through a litany of his troubles, and his language is that of high poetry. But the subject of his poetry was how many times he had been beat up. First, he is careful not to give offense in anything (v. 3). He is of course talking about unnecessary offense.
In the original, there are 28 descriptive comments. As Kent Hughes points out in his commentary, the first 18 are prefaced with the word in, the following 3 by the word through, and the last 7 by the word as. Not only so, the first round comes to us in triplets. First we see general troubles—afflictions, necessities, and distresses (v. 4). The second triplet was made up of troubles from others—stripes, imprisonments, and riots (v. 5). Remember that Paul went through riotous tumults in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, Ephesus, and Jerusalem (Acts 13:50; 14:5,19; 16:22; 18:12; 19:23; 21:27). That man knew his riots. Then there was the last triplet of troubles he went through that might be called self-sacrificial—labors, watching, and fasting (v. 5).
How could he endure all this? Paul then gives us a list of the inner graces that made it possible for him to maintain his steady equilibrium, despite all the commotion around him. In the middle of this list he mentions the Holy Spirit Himself by name. So Paul does what he does BY pureness, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, and by genuine love (v. 6). He does it BY the word of truth, the power of God, and the armor of righteousness on the right and on the left (v. 7). The word armor here would be better rendered as weapons—weapons for the right hand and left. He does what he does BY honor and dishonor, BY evil report and good (v. 8a).
For the last seven, Paul gives us a series of paradoxes, all of them ending on an upward note of triumph. AS deceivers, but actually true (v. 8). As unknown, but actually well known. AS dying, and yet “look at us live.” AS punished, but actually not killed (v. 9). AS sorrowful, but always rejoicing, and AS poor, while actually enriching many others, and AS possessing nothing while at the same time owning everything in the world (v. 10).
Paul then speaks straight to the Corinthians—our mouth is open, he says, and our heart is enlarged (v. 11). They were not restricted because of Paul and company, but rather were constricted in their own attitudes (v. 12). The kink in the hose was in them, not in Paul. Paul pleads with them as with his own children—be enlarged in heart, just as Paul was (v. 13). This is something we can imitate the apostle in.
The Grace of Controversy
There are those who believe the ministry to be an indoor job with no heavy lifting. There was an old Southern joke that said that a hot sun and a slow mule had been responsible for many a call to the ministry. This has always been a lure. There were men in the first century who confounded gain with godliness (1 Tim. 6:5). And remember what Paul warned against just a few chapters before—“For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ.” (2 Cor. 2:17, NKJV). And when there is constant trouble, it disrupts marketing. It discourages sales. It makes it hard to be friends with the world, and difficult to monetize that friendship. That’s why Demas had to leave Paul’s company to take a new position (2 Tim. 4:10). One mark of authentic ministry, which it is Paul’s task to describe and defend in this epistle, is that all the tumult makes it hard to monetize.
Notice that biblical joy is not a frothy bubblegum kind of joy. It is not happy happy joy joy. It is not some superficial sentiment. Paul says “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (v. 10). This shows us that when Paul tells us elsewhere that we are to rejoice all the time (Phil. 4:4), he is not urging us into some kind of a masochistic glee. The soil in your life may grow some plants that have thorns, but down underneath it all must be the bedrock of joy. The soil in which blessings grow is the soil of difficulty. The mines in which the diamonds of grace are found are the mines of difficulty. The legacy of peace which we inherit comes from an ancestry of difficulty.
And underneath it all is the bedrock of joy. Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.
Largeness of Heart
Paul concludes this section by urging expansiveness of heart upon the Corinthians. He tells them that it was because of his largeness of heart that he had told them about all the troubles he had gone through. His mouth was open because his heart was enormous. Earlier he spoke because he had believed (2 Cor. 4:13). Here he speaks because he loved. “I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou shalt enlarge my heart.” (Psalm 119:32).
When King Solomon pleased the Lord by asking for wisdom instead of other baubles and trinkets, what did God do for him? “And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the sea shore” (1 Kings 4:29).
Fussers don’t have this largeness of heart. They fuss right and they fuss left. They fuss about their meals, they fuss about the traffic, they fuss about the sermons, they fuss about the lack of things to grumble about. Because this had happened at Corinth, the saints there had fallen prey to certain agitators who wanted to circulate their complaints. So Paul opened his heart wide, and poured everything out. And it was at that moment that he told them the problem was in their own twisted, constricted hearts. Open up, Paul says. Imitate him as he imitates Christ. Join him and his company of great hearts.
It sounds inspiring, but what is the cost? It means going and walking with Paul as he works through his blizzard of troubles. This is why many opt to continue to fuss along through their small troubles . . . because they don’t want a life of joy through great troubles. But when you are in the joy of the Lord, whether troubles are great or small, you are where Christ is.