The Minister Under Attack
2 Corinthians 5:11–13
Well once again, after a considerably long break, we find ourselves back in our study of Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians: 2 Corinthians chapter 5. And I remind you once again that we have turned to 2 Corinthians in order to be equipped for Christian ministry. And as we have studied the first four and a half chapters of this great treatise on the nature of New Covenant Gospel ministry, we have been armed with much truth and have learned many lessons concerning how we are to serve the Lord and His Church as we minister as members of the body of Christ. We have learned foundational principles for ministry; we have observed motivations for ministry; we have been taught keys to endurance in ministry—how to battle discouragement in ministry. If you have been with us since we began this study in 2 Corinthians, you have learned about pressing on in joyful, enduring ministry even in the midst of affliction.
And in that time I hope I’ve convinced you of at least one thing: that every Christian believer must be involved in ministry! This has not been a theoretical study concerning the requirements of those called to vocational ministry—pastors, elders, professors, missionaries, and so on. This teaching certainly applies to those of us in vocational ministry, but it certainly isn’t limited to that. Each and every one of us—if we have been called out of darkness into God’s marvelous light and into fellowship with Christ as our Savior—each and every one of us has been called to ministry. Each and every one of us should be able to put these lessons we’ve been learning in 2 Corinthians into practice as we minister to our brothers and sisters within the body of Christ, and as we take the Gospel to friends, family, neighbors, and strangers who are yet lost and need to hear about the forgiveness that is found in Christ alone.
That’s been my prayer for you—that none of you would sit through an extended sermon series on ministry, and be content to remain idle, inactive, and unfruitful in service to the church; but that you would be stirred up to lay your lives down for one another in sacrificial ministry. That you would meet each other’s practical needs—from helping people load and unload the moving van, to taking meals to a family with a new baby; from giving people rides to and from church, to sharing one another’s financial burdens. That you would serve the church by bringing refreshments, by coordinating events, by visiting our homebounds, or by volunteering in the nursery. That you would be radically selfless with your time, and make the effort to build into one another’s lives in small group Bible studies—to do the hard work of admonishing one another, of giving and receiving biblical correction, of leading one another to repentance and spurring one another on to love and good deeds and increased maturity and deepening discernment.
That’s the ministry to which you have been called.
But imagine that as you are doing that—and many of you won’t have to imagine this because you’ve experienced something like this firsthand—but imagine that in the midst of your ministry to your brothers and sisters, a conflict arises. There have been misunderstandings—exacerbated by gossip and by people sinfully making assumptions concerning others’ motives—and all of a sudden rumors and accusations start to swirl about how you’ve failed to handle the situation biblically. People start forming sides and some even begin accusing you of lacking integrity.
And you’re hurt by this. You’ve gotten close to these people; they’ve been in your living room, sat at your table. More than that: you’ve let them into your heart. You’ve walked alongside them in the trenches of ministry, and even more in the dark crevices of one another’s sinful hearts. And now, in the moments in which your character is being attacked, they don’t say a word in your defense. They don’t stand up for you against those who are speaking evil of you and testify to what they know to be true of your integrity. And so now you’re in the awkward and uncomfortable position of having to defend yourself, or else allow your integrity to be wrongfully attacked, and therefore perhaps be unnecessarily limited in your usefulness in ministry to the church. That would be a terrible position to be in, wouldn’t it?
Well that’s precisely the position the Apostle Paul found himself in as he labored in ministry with the Corinthians. False teachers, claiming to be apostles from the church in Jerusalem, had infiltrated the church in Corinth. And in order to make room for their false teaching, they knew they had to discredit the Gospel that Paul preached. But because they couldn’t discredit the message, they set their sights on discrediting the messenger.
And so they launched a full-scale assault on the character and integrity of the Apostle Paul. They accused him of harboring secret sin, of stealing the money he collected for church offerings, and of not being a true apostle since he wasn’t sent by the original Jerusalem church. He couldn’t have been sent by Christ: he wasn’t a skilled communicator, he didn’t attract a large enough following, and he suffered way too much for someone who professed to have the blessing of God on his ministry. Now, Paul might have expected these kinds of accusations from enemies trying to seize power and influence in the early church. But the Corinthians—whom he ministered to for at least eighteen months (Acts 18:11), whom he considered to be his spiritual children (1 Cor 4:15)—began to buy into this narrative! Rather than speaking up for him, and testifying to the integrity they had observed in him with their own eyes and vindicating his character, the Corinthians stayed silent—and even began to doubt the legitimacy of Paul’s apostleship.
And so there was much to do about this. There were sorrowful visits and tearful letters, and eventually the majority of the church repented of their being deceived by the false apostles, and returned to their support of Paul. But the false apostles continued to launch their attacks, and their influence was still felt in a yet-unrepentant minority in the Corinthian church who were questioning the legitimacy of Paul’s ministry—and of necessity, therefore, the legitimacy of the message Paul preached. And so out of a desire to defend the Gospel, Paul writes 2 Corinthians to decisively refute the accusations of the false apostles, to vindicate his apostolic authority, and to equip the repentant majority to win back the rest of his detractors to Gospel purity.
This has been his M.O. in this letter from the very beginning. In the opening verses of chapter 1, he praises God for the very afflictions that the false apostles claim disqualify him, noting that it is in suffering for Christ that he comes to know the comfort of Christ. In the second half of the chapter he proclaims that his conscience is clear and that he has conducted himself in integrity—both with the Corinthians themselves and with the unbelievers he evangelizes—and that his change in travel plans was no evidence to the contrary. At the beginning of chapter 2, he explains that the purpose of his severe letter was not to gratuitously wound them, but to effect their repentance—which is precisely what has happened, for which he rejoices. And then from chapter 2 verse 12 to chapter 4 verse 6, he describes the nature or character of the Christian ministry, which culminates in his description of regeneration as the shining of divine light into the darkened hearts of unbelievers, opening their eyes to see the light of the knowledge of the glory of God revealed in the face of Christ. And then from chapter 4 verse 7 to chapter 5 verse 10, he outlines the paradox of the ministry as one of strength in the midst of weakness and life in the midst of death—that though our labors in ministry might cause our outer man to progressively decay, yet in our inner man we are being renewed day by day. And even if we should lose our lives in the course of our ministry, we look forward to being clothed with our resurrection bodies, fit for sin-free life on the new earth for eternity.
And that brings us to our passage this morning: chapter 5, verses 11 to 13. Here, Paul returns to the letter’s main theme—the defense of the integrity of his ministry amidst these attacks by the false apostles. He writes, “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest to God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences. 12We are not again commending ourselves to you but are giving you an occasion to be proud of us, so that you will have an answer for those who take pride in appearance and not in heart. 13For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are of sound mind, it is for you.”
In these verses, Paul models for us how the Christian minister ought to handle himself in the situation we described just a few moments earlier—when you’re facing unfair and false accusations in the midst of ministering faithfully, and yet no one steps up to defend you. From this text, we can observe three imperatives that guide us in carrying out our ministry with integrity, even when we’re misunderstood and misrepresented.
I. Fear God, Not Man (v. 11)
That first imperative is that we must fear God, and not man. Look again at verse 11. Paul writes, “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest to God.”
Paul begins with the word “Therefore,” which means he’s making an inference in light of his previous thought. And so we must look back to discern what the therefore is there for. In 2 Corinthians 5:10, Paul has spoken of the reality that we all must appear before the judgment seat of Christ to be rewarded for the labors we’ve accomplished by God’s grace which have eternal significance and value, or to suffer the loss of reward for those works which were of no eternal significance or value. It is then, at the judgment seat of Christ, that the motives of men’s hearts will be exposed, and even those outwardly good works that were done with impure and hypocritical motives will be shown for what they were, and they will burn up, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:15, like wood, hay, and stubble. On that day, what is hidden before men will be open and laid bare before the Judge of the world, and the verdict upon each man’s integrity will be rendered.
Paul says that he conducts every aspect of his ministry in light of that awesome reality. He describes the consciousness of the coming judgment at the seat of Christ as “knowing the fear of the Lord.” This deeply-held conviction that he will one day give an account of his every thought, word, and deed to his Master fills him with the wholesome, sobering, weighty reverence for the sovereign authority of the Lord Jesus. This is “the fear of the Lord” that Paul is talking about here.
He’s not talking about the debilitating terror that unbelievers ought to have of God; remember: the judgment that Paul ministers in light of is not the judgment of salvation, but of rewards. So in keeping with that, his fear is not the fear of condemnation, but the rightful fear of losing the commendation from his Master that a faithful steward earnestly desires. It is, as Charles Hodge called it, “the pious reverence for Christ, the earnest desire to meet his approbation” (505). Another writer said, it is “that reverential awe which the Christian should feel towards the Master he loves and serves and at whose hand he will [be recompensed for] ‘the things done in the body’” (Hughes, 186). Because he knows the fear of the Lord, his ministry of persuading men—persuading men both of his integrity and legitimacy as an apostle, and therefore persuading them of the legitimacy and authenticity of his Gospel—is conducted with the utmost gravity, sincerity, and sobriety. He would never think of doing the things the false apostles accuse him of—harboring secret sin, stealing money from the offering plate, emotionally manipulating the Corinthians with severe letters and needless changes in travel plans—because he knows every moment of his life and intention of his heart lies open before the searching, omniscient gaze of the Lord Jesus Christ.
He says, “We persuade men, but we are made manifest to God.” That is to say, I aim to persuade men of the reality that I am a genuine apostle sent by Christ, and that the message I preach is the true Gospel. But whatever anyone believes about me, God knows the truth. The word “made manifest” is phaneroo—the same word that he uses in verse 10 to say that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” And when we studied that verse we noted that it doesn’t just mean “to show up.” It means to be made manifest, to be revealed, to be exposed. One commentator said, “To be made manifest means . . . to be laid bare, stripped of every outward façade of respectability, and openly revealed in the full and true reality of one’s character” (Hughes, 180). Paul knew that he lived every moment of his life Coram Deo—before the open face of God—stripped of every outward façade or pretension, totally exposed before his Judge. Every day of Paul’s life was Judgment Day!
This accountability before the searching gaze of God is a recurring theme in Paul’s writings on ministry. In chapter 2 verse 10, he says he forgave the Corinthians “in the presence of Christ.” In chapter 4 verse 2 he describes his ministry as “the open statement of the truth, commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” And in chapter 12 verse 19, he tells the Corinthians, “All this time you have been thinking that we are defending ourselves to you. Actually, it is in the sight of God that we have been speaking.” In other words, more important than your judgment of me is God’s judgment of me. He says the same thing in 1 Corinthians 4:3: “To me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court. … the one who examines me is the Lord.”
See, the spiritual hypocrites, who pretend on Sunday to be what they know they aren’t, they can fool other people into thinking that they’re mature Christians. They can even get to a point where they deceive themselves! But no one can ever put one over on the Lord Jesus Himself—very God of very God. And so Paul appealed to his clear conscience before the Lord. He was constantly aware of the fact that he lives his entire life in the presence of God, subject to His scrutinizing evaluation and assessment. He was ever conscious of the truth of Proverbs 5:21, that “the ways of a man are before the eyes of the LORD, and He watches all his paths,” and of the truth of Hebrews 4:13, that “there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.” And so he conducted himself in the fear of the Lord. He says, “I’m not concerned about putting on a show for you all; I’m living before the eyes of Christ Jesus, my Master and my Judge! He knows who and what I am!”
Dear friends, can you behold what a treasure it is to have a clear conscience before God? When men and women hurl false accusations against you—when even friends and ministry partners turn on you, and call your integrity into question, and no one comes to your defense—what an indescribable, supernatural peace it brings to have a clear conscience before the Lord! To know that when all facts are known, if Judgment Day took place at the very moment your assailants charged you with evil, the righteous Judge of all the earth Himself would find you not guilty! What a terrible feeling it is to be found out! To have been hiding something—to have been concealing a secret sin in your life—only to have someone call you out on it! You feel caught! trapped! ashamed and embarrassed! What an unspeakable blessing it is, when you’re accused of some sin, to have been walking in integrity and be able to have recourse to a clear conscience! Richard Sibbes said that an ill-conscience is the worst prison—it is a kind of hell on earth—but that a good conscience is a heaven on earth (3:216, 18). Philip Edgcumbe Hughes called the testimony of a clear conscience before the Lord “that priceless and unassailable bulwark of the soul” (187)!
Dear friends, if a clear conscience is of such inestimable value, keep watch over your hearts so as to lay hold of this priceless treasure! Do as Paul said in Acts 24:16 when he said, “I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men.” Keep short accounts with God. Confess and forsake hidden sin. Fear God, knowing that you live every moment before your omniscient and impartial Judge! And let that highest accountability compel you to a ministry of utmost integrity!
He says, “What we are is made manifest to God.” But then he goes on to say in verse 11, “And I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences.” And we learn here that fearing God and not man does not mean that the minister of the Gospel is indifferent to man’s evaluation of him. It is a legitimate desire to have your partners in the Gospel and the beneficiaries of your ministry to regard you as you are—for them to see you as God sees you.
And that was especially so in Paul’s case, because of how their acceptance of Paul was inextricably linked to their acceptance of Paul’s Gospel. To reject Paul as an illegitimate minister would have been to reject the Gospel that he preached in favor of the false teaching of the false apostles. Corinth would have been overrun by heresy, and the corruption of that church would have been a blight on the name of Christ and a hindrance to further ministry in Greece. And yet if they could be won back to allegiance with Paul, they would be won back to allegiance to the only true and saving Gospel, and could then be a hub for further ministry throughout the Gentile world. Their own souls were at stake! And so Calvin observes, “We are here taught that Christ’s servants ought to be concerned for their own reputation only in so far as it is for the advantage of the Church” (228).
And this word, “I hope,” is the biblical concept of hope; it’s not wishful thinking, but confident trust. Paul is saying that he was convinced that in their heart of hearts, the Corinthians knew he was genuine and sincere—that he was not duplicitous and manipulative. Just as he has appealed to his own conscience, he now appeals to their consciences, trusting that their consciences were sufficiently informed about Paul’s true character from the 18 months of day-and-night ministry he had shared with them at the founding of the church (cf. Acts 18:11). He’s saying, “God knows who I am. And you yourselves know who I am as well! You know that I am not the man the false apostles slander me to be. I trust that you will see what God sees about me: that I am a true apostle and servant of Christ, and that the Gospel I preach is the only way of salvation from sin and judgment.”
And so if we are to be prepared for the kinds of relational conflicts that are inevitable in real, sacrificial ministry, we must remember first of all to fear God, and not man—to be conscious of the Lord’s constant evaluation of every facet of our lives, and to walk in integrity with a clear conscience, no matter what others may say about us.
II. Focus on the Heart, Not Externals (v. 12)
Number two. We must not only fear God, and not man, but we must focus on the heart, and not externals. Look with me at verse 12: “We are not again commending ourselves to you but are giving you an occasion to be proud of us, so that you will have an answer for those who take pride in appearance and not in heart.”
Now, Paul begins this verse by anticipating an accusation from his adversaries based on what he’s just said. He can just hear it now. “Oh, would you look at Paul! There he goes again, commending himself—arrogantly boasting about how pure his conscience is! Of course he appeals to his conscience! Nobody can see it! But we bring you these letters of commendation certified by the church in Jerusalem! What objective criteria does Paul have to testify to his genuineness?” And so Paul, anticipating that, answers the objection before they can make it. He says, “We are not again commending ourselves to you.”
He’s had to repudiate this accusation once before already, and he’ll return to it several more times before the letter is over. In chapter 2 verse 17 he said that he was not a peddler of the Word of God, as the false apostles were, but he ministered in sincerity, under the authority and accountability of God and therefore was made adequate by God for the impossible task of ministry. Anticipating the same objection there, he wrote in chapter 3 verses 1 and 2: “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men!”
See, Paul may not have had a letter of commendation from a church like the false apostles claimed to have (though their letters were forgeries anyway). He had one better. The Corinthians themselves were the proof and endorsement of his ministry! He had living letters certifying his authenticity! The very fact that they were saved through Paul’s preaching meant that they could not deny Paul’s Gospel or the legitimacy of his ministry without at the very same time undermining their own status as Christians! If Paul’s fake, they’re fake! If Paul’s Gospel doesn’t save, they aren’t saved! But of course they were saved! The radical transformation that had taken place in their lives was evidence of it!
So he’s saying, “I’m not commending myself to you, as if I needed to do such a thing. You yourselves are my commendation.” He would say later in chapter 10 verse 18: “It is not he who commends himself that is approved, but he whom the Lord commends.” And the Lord has commended him to the consciences of the Corinthians by saving them through Paul’s ministry, and by testifying to Paul’s holy life as he ministered among them.
He’s not commending himself. Instead, he says, “[We] are giving you an occasion to be proud of us.” “I’m not boasting in myself. I’m giving you all an opportunity to boast in Christ on my behalf!” Paul has said this numerous times in his letters. In Philippians 1:26, he says he goes on ministering “so that your proud confidence in Christ Jesus in me may abound.” In 2 Corinthians 1:14 he says that he hopes that they will come to fully understand “that we are your reason to be proud as you also are ours, in the day of our Lord Jesus.” In 2 Corinthians 9:2 he tells them how he boasts about their generosity to the Macedonians. Like a good spiritual father, he is proud of what the grace of God has accomplished in his spiritual children, and he desires that his spiritual children be proud of him as well. Fathers, you know what this is like—to want your sons to be proud of you, proud to be related to you, proud to have been raised in your family. You know it’s not out of vainglory and conceit that you want your children to be proud of you! It’s only proper for love to happily own the beloved—to say, “That’s my dad!” Paul desires that the Corinthians wouldn’t be ashamed of him, nor of the true Gospel that he preaches, but would boast of what the Lord God has accomplished through him in their midst.
And he gives them this occasion to be proud of him for a particular purpose. Look again at verse 12: “so that you will have an answer for those who take pride in appearance and not in heart.” And this is brilliant. Rather than accepting the awkward position of having to defend himself against the attacks of his enemies, he instead equips his friends—the Corinthians that have already repented and demonstrated allegiance to him and to the true Gospel—he equips them to defend his integrity before his detractors. Proverbs 27 verse 2 says, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; A stranger, and not your own lips.” And here we learn a valuable lesson for dealing with conflict in ministry. Whenever it is possible—which is to say, whenever the Gospel is not at stake—you ought to refrain from defending yourself, and let others testify to your integrity. At the same time, this principle also teaches us that when you are not the one under attack, but one is under attack who is a man or woman of integrity and innocent of the accusations leveled against them, you ought to be quick to stand up for that person, so that they can let another praise them and not their own mouth.
We need to come to one another’s aid, friends! We cannot leave one another hanging out to dry! When someone comes to you and speaks ill of a brother or sister, and when you’re tempted to just go with the flow and laugh lightly and keep silent, you are to take a stand for your brother’s integrity! And say, “No, that is not true about him! I know the man; I’ve walked closely with him and prayed with him and worshiped with him. And I have personal knowledge that he is not guilty of the charge you bring against him!” And you silence them. Paul says, “I’m not boasting in myself. I’m only giving you an occasion to boast in me, so that you’ll have an answer for those who malign my character and baselessly assault my integrity.”
And then it’s how he describes his opponents at the end of verse 12 from which I draw this second imperative to focus on the heart, and not on externals. He says, “. . .so that you will have an answer for those who take pride in appearance and not in heart.” The false apostles gloried in that which was external, that which was natural. They had to! because they had nothing truly spiritual to speak of. And you can mark it down as a rule: when the Spirit of God is absent, the more formalism and religious externalism flourish! Because that’s all phonies and imposters have! They can only look at outward measures of success—of numbers, results, of rhetorical eloquence, of material blessing and freedom from suffering.
And so when they look at Paul, they see nothing special! He had no formal letters of commendation; he suffered like no one else; his was certainly not a life free from conflict. Far from material blessing, Paul didn’t charge money for his preaching, like they did, so he couldn’t boast of prosperity. And even though he preached for free, so few people were following him; he was accused of being unskilled in speech and lacking any sort of rhetorical prowess. And so the false apostles look at the Corinthians and say, “That’s your apostle?!”
In fact, there are at least four marks of ministerial externalism that we can glean from observing the false apostles which characterize religious imposters in any age. And I want to go through these with you, because contemporary evangelicalism is nothing if not rife with ministerial imposterism.
First, there is what we might call celebritism—the cult of celebrity. Just a few verses later, in 2 Corinthians 5:16, Paul would say that an implication of the Gospel in his life is that, “From now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer.” And I think if we read between the lines a bit we understand that Paul is saying this for the false apostles’ benefit, because they’re boasting that they walked with Jesus before His ascension—they knew the Man Jesus according to the flesh. And all Paul could do is tell some story about a vision on the Damascus Road.
This is celebritism—a claim to legitimacy and spirituality grounded in superficial attachment to a teacher, even if that teacher was Jesus. It’s absolute folly, because Judas could have boasted that he walked with Jesus. Many will profess to be His disciples, to whom Jesus will finally say, “I never knew you” (Matt 7:21–23). So many ministerial imposters in our day claim legitimacy based on the externalism of who their teacher was, or whose ministry they sat under. And friends, the people in our circles are not immune to this! I can’t tell you how many people expect me to be impressed by the fact that they’ve come from R. C. Sproul’s church, or David Jeremiah’s church, or Chuck Swindoll’s church, or even that they’ve followed John MacArthur’s ministry or Grace to You for decades! Friends, men like R. C. Sproul and John MacArthur are gifts of God to the church, but spirituality is not a function of who your favorite teacher is! It doesn’t matter how closely associated you may be to a Christian celebrity; what matters is whether or not you know Jesus—and whether Jesus knows you. Don’t fall for the religious imposterism of those who try to get by on the name of their favorite teacher—even if it’s a good teacher.
Second, there is elitism. And this always goes hand in hand with celebritism. We see this in the false apostles in the way they prized supposed letters of commendation from the church in Jerusalem—what they considered to be the one true church. They boasted in their ethnic and spiritual pedigree as Jews; Paul would say later in chapter 11 verse 22: “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I?” Obviously, the false apostles were trying to commend themselves to the Corinthians by saying, “We’re the spiritual elite! True Jews from Jerusalem—where Christianity started on the Day of Pentecost!” They had belonged to the “one true church,” and Paul and his followers were nothing but schismatics and dissenters (Hodge, 507).
Does that sound familiar at all? It should. It’s the constant refrain of the Roman Catholic Church, who claims to be the original church founded by Christ, and that there is no salvation apart from union to Rome and the papacy. Anyone who says different is a schismatic. It also sounds like the Anglican church of the Puritan era, which also claimed to be the one true and apostolic church—despite the rich irony of the fact that the Church of England was birthed out of nothing more than Henry VIII’s desire to appoint himself the head of the church so he could divorce his wife. And yet in the 1660s, if you didn’t conform to Anglican standards of worship, you were nothing but a dissenter, and were expelled from ministering within the city limits of London on pain of imprisonment. Such ecclesiastical elitism is a mark of ministerial imposterism, friends. Don’t fall prey to it.
Third, there is what I’ll call naturalism. And that is the conflation of natural talents and abilities for spiritual giftedness. As I mentioned before, they called Paul “unskilled in speech,” chapter 11 verse 6, and said that “his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible,” chapter 10 verse 10. He wasn’t skilled in the arts of rhetoric and the powers of oratory. And we see this today. A young man has an impressive personal presence and is what so many call “a gifted communicator,” and well hand that handsome boy a pulpit! If you have a nice smile, and perfectly-coiffed hair, a charming southern drawl, and can spin pagan platitudes about positive thinking in a warm and endearing tone, well then you can be the “pastor” of the largest “church” in America! It is precisely the ministerial externalism of naturalism that gives us imposters like Joel Osteen, and Steven Furtick, and Mark Driscoll! GraceLife, don’t confuse natural talents and abilities with spiritual giftedness.
And finally, there is experientialism. The false apostles boasted of their visions and revelations, their ecstatic spiritual experiences, so much so that Paul was driven to speak of his own true experience in the opening paragraph of chapter 12. He says in verse 1: “Boasting is necessary, though it is not profitable; but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord.” And then after detailing his experience, he says in verse 11, “I have become foolish; you yourselves have compelled me.” He’s saying, “It’s so stupid to boast of one’s own spiritual experiences. But because you’re so taken with the externalism of the false apostles, you’ve compelled me to respond in kind. Experientialism—where supposed spiritual experiences and visions and revelations are valued over verifiable truth as objectively revealed in Scripture—is a sure mark of religious externalism and ministerial imposterism. And where do we see this but in that petri dish—that breeding ground—of nearly all ministerial imposters: the Charismatic movement?
The spiritual imposters are always focused on the externals. Paul says to the Corinthians in chapter 10 verse 7: “You are looking at things as they are outwardly!” The reason you’re so compelled by these false teachers is because you’re consumed with the external! He says in Galatians 6:12, “Those who desire to make a good showing in the flesh try to compel you to be circumcised, simply so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.” You see? Persecution doesn’t come to phonies and imposters! because if it did, they’d just compromise whatever would bring that persecution so they could avoid it! They don’t love Christ! They don’t embrace the shame of His cross! They just want to make a good showing in the flesh!
But Paul says, the quality of a minister is to be measured not by externals, but by the character of the heart. Paul said in chapter 4 verse 18 that the proper preoccupation in the Christian life is to “look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” And this statement he makes at the end of verse 12 is a clear allusion to 1 Samuel 16:7. You remember this. After the Lord had rejected Saul as king, He sent Samuel to Jesse’s household to find the successor to the throne of Israel. And when Samuel saw Eliab, Jesse’s firstborn son—how tall and handsome and strapping he was—the text says he thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before Him.” It’s got to be Eliab! But what did the Lord say to Samuel? 1 Samuel 16:7: “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”
This is what makes a servant of Christ! Not height! Not beauty! Not strength! Not natural talents and capabilities! Not winsomeness or charm or eloquence! Not blue suits or striped ties or polished shoes! The heart! Dear friends, as you undertake to serve Christ and His Church in whatever ministry He has entrusted to you, give no consideration to externals, but focus all your energy on keeping your heart! On cultivating the kind of character that only the Holy Spirit can produce in you! Solomon said to his son in Proverbs 4:23: “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.” Moses said to the children of Israel in Deuteronomy 4:9: “Only give heed to yourself and keep your soul diligently.”
Many of you know the story of George Muller—what a great man of faith he was as he ran orphanages in England, and how many were his ministerial responsibilities. With all he had to do, and all he could have focused on, Muller said this: “According to my judgment the most important point to be attended to is this: above all things see to it that your souls are happy in the Lord. Other things may press upon you, the Lord's work may even have urgent claims upon your attention, but I deliberately repeat, it is of supreme and paramount importance that you should seek above all things to have your souls truly happy in God Himself! Day by day seek to make this the most important business of your life. . . . The first thing to be concerned about [is] . . . how my inner man might be nourished.”
Friends, our responsibility as ministers of the Gospel is not first and foremost to be refined exegetes, and respected scholars, and polished preachers—or even just useful, practical nursery workers and homebound visitors! Our primary business is to keep our souls! It is to sit at the feet of Jesus in His Word, and to be broken by Him in mourning over our sin, and then to be healed and restored and strengthened as we find all our forgiveness and righteousness in Him. Dear friends, if we would steward our ministry faithfully, we must focus on the heart, and not on externals.
III. Do All for God and the Church, Not for Yourself (v. 13)
And finally, we come to our third imperative that guides to minister with integrity. We must fear God, and not man; we must focus on the heart, and not on externals. And number three: we must do all for God and His Church, not for ourselves. Do all for God and the Church, not for yourself. Look with me at verse 11: “For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are of sound mind, it is for you.”
Paul’s opponents charged him with being “beside himself.” The Greek word is existemi, and it means “to be out of one’s mind.” And the commentators speculate on what might have given rise to this charge, though time constrains us to be brief. To put it plainly, they saw Paul’s indefatigable zeal, his tireless endurance in ministry even in the midst of the severest affliction and persecution, the fluctuation of his affections as represented in the tearful sorrow of his personal visit to them and the bold, righteous anger that characterized his severe letter——and they concluded that he was insane. “He’s a religious nut! A fanatic! A zealot! An enthusiast! An extremist!” He didn’t have the “temperance” and the “balance” of a well-adjusted member of society!
And this wasn’t the first time Paul was accused of insanity. You remember at his trial before Festus in Acts 26:24, as Paul proclaimed the death and resurrection of Jesus, Festus rose up and said in a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind! Your great learning is driving you mad!” This is always the case with those who are devoted to God and His truth above the proprieties and sensibilities of men. John the Baptist lived in the wilderness, ate locusts, and wore camel’s hair as he preached the Gospel of repentance. And Jesus said in Matthew 11:18, “For John came neither eating nor drinking”—a reference to his austere lifestyle—“and they say, ‘He he has a demon!’” They said the same thing about Jesus Himself. He taught the crowds, healed the sick, and claimed to be Israel’s Messiah, and in Mark 3:21 it says, “When His own people heard of this, they went out to take custody of Him; for they were saying, ‘He has lost His senses.’” In John 10, Jesus says He has authority to lay down His life in death and to take it up again in resurrection. And in verse 20 it says, “Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is insane. Why do you listen to Him?’”
And so Paul was in good company here. And his response is perfect: “If we are beside ourselves, it is for God.” In other words, “The false apostles see my persistence even in great sufferings, and they read my forceful letters calling for repentance, and they conclude that I’m a fanatic—that I must be out of my mind. That’s because they’re only concerned with appearances, externals, and polish. But if I’m fanatical, it’s only because God and His Gospel are worthy of the kind of efforts the world deems crazy!” And here I can’t resist making the application that, friends, we ought to be living the kind of radically sacrificial lives in service of Christ and the Church that the world looks at us and thinks, “They’re nuts!” We ought to be living in a way that would be crazy, if we didn’t serve a God who raises the dead! We should be driven to bold and passionate preaching of the Gospel to the lost! We should be driven to sacrificial giving and support of one another in the body of Christ! Because God is worthy of such passion! of such abandon!
And further, let us not despise such passion in one other! So many of us clamor for another Martin Luther or another Charles Spurgeon—lionhearted men who preach with boldness and conviction. But then when God sends us one in that mold, and when their boldness and conviction are directed at us and our sin, how easy it is to dismiss them as extreme, and overly-emotional, and meddlesome, and even arrogant. No, let us rather welcome a generation of preachers, who like the prophets of old, will tell it to us like it is—even if it means stepping on our toes!
“If we are beside ourselves, it is for God. But,” he goes on, “if we are of sound mind, it is for you.” In other words, “Zeal for God drives me to the lengths I go to in serving Him. But my passion and zeal are not the marks of insanity, because you know me to have been of sound mind as I ministered the Gospel among you. I was sober enough to patiently teach you the Gospel night and day for eighteen months. I was sane enough of a preacher so that you could be saved by understanding the message I preached. If I am crazy, it’s for God. If there are times when I don’t look so crazy, it’s so that I can be a help and benefit to you.”
And here’s the key: “Whether I’m beside myself or of sound mind—whether you conclude that my ministry is rational or irrational—it is never out of self-interest, but only out of a supreme concern for God’s glory and for your benefit. Love for the Lord and for His Church is what drives me, no matter what it is I’m doing.” And if we want to survive the attacks against our own character that are sure to come in ministry, we must heed the imperative drawn from Paul’s example to do all for God and His church, and not for ourselves—to never act out of self-interest, seeking to take advantage of the people of God, or to use them as a stepping stone for our own self-aggrandizement. Our entire lives must be devoted to the glory of God and the good of His people.