Well we return this morning our study of 2 Corinthians. And we find ourselves once again in 2 Corinthians chapter 6. And the last time we were together, we left off in the middle of verses 3 through 10. We were able to make it through verses 3 through 7 last time, and so this morning we’ll look to finish this paragraph.
Now, we began our study of this text by asking: What is the greatest hindrance to Gospel ministry? What puts the most significant obstacle in the way of successful evangelism? And we concluded that the greatest obstacle to Gospel ministry is not secularism, or skepticism, or anti-biblical naturalism; it’s not radical Islam that makes preaching the Gospel illegal, and it’s certainly not that the church is culturally irrelevant. The greatest obstacle to successful evangelism is when those who profess to be saved by the Gospel that rescues from sin conduct themselves in a way that contradicts the message that they preach. The most compelling evidence for the veracity of the message you preach is the demonstrable, purifying work of that Gospel having taken effect in your own life. And that means, conversely, that the most powerful hindrance to the Gospel—that which most obscures the Gospel’s glory and majesty and power to save—is someone who seems to be enslaved to the very sin they profess to have been saved from.
Paul understood that reality. And that’s why he is so concerned, throughout this letter of 2 Corinthians, to defend his integrity to the Corinthians the attacks of the false apostles against his character. The message he preaches is unimpeachable. But if the Corinthians fall prey to the false accusations made against Paul’s character—if they decide that he’s not a trustworthy representative of Christ—they run the risk of disbelieving the Gospel Paul preached, and suffering shipwreck of faith.
And so Paul is concerned to defend his integrity—to demonstrate to the Corinthians that he is a legitimate and trustworthy servant of Christ—and that nothing he has done ought to cast doubt on the veracity of his message. And so he writes, in chapter 6 verse 3: “We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that the ministry will not be discredited.” Paul is saying, “I make it my earnest endeavor to never let anything about me or my life be used as a legitimate excuse to bring shame upon the Gospel.”
And the specific way Paul’s life commends himself to the Corinthians as a genuine minister of God is by his joyful endurance even in the midst of affliction. Verse 4: “But in everything, as servants of God, we commend ourselves by much endurance.” While the false apostles use Paul’s many sufferings as an indictment against his apostolic legitimacy, Paul is saying, “Look, it’s easy to commend yourself as a genuine servant of God when everything in your life is easy! But you’ve observed my conduct in the midst of great hardships, and I haven’t let those afflictions cause me to waver in my devotion to Christ and faithfulness to the ministry to which He’s called me!”
So Paul’s overarching concern in this text is to demonstrate that the life he’s lived has not put any legitimate stumbling block in the way of those who would believe the message he preaches. And the mark of his genuineness is not that God has blessed him with an easy life full of comforts and pleasures, but that God has blessed him with the steadfast endurance to withstand all manner of hardships and afflictions without wavering in faithfulness to Christ and His Gospel.
And in his self-commendation to the consciences of the Corinthians, we said last time that he further defines the nature of the Christian ministry. And while the lessons in this text might apply first of all to pastors and church leaders, it also applies to each and every one of us; because you and I—all who truly belong to Christ—have been called to this ministry—ministry to one another in the body, and the ministry of reconciliation (cf. 5:18) to the lost who stand yet in need of salvation. And we said that Paul outlined three elements of Gospel ministry in verses 3 to 10. First, he details the difficult circumstances of Gospel ministry in verses 4 and 5; second he lists the sustaining graces by which he is strengthened to endure those difficult circumstances, in verses 6 and 7; and third he enumerates the defining paradoxes by which the ministry is characterized, in verses 8 to 10.
Review I: The Difficult Circumstances (vv. 4b–5)
We were able to examine the first two of those last time. We saw the difficult circumstances of Gospel ministry—the list of nine circumstances in which Paul’s endurance manifested itself. Paul endured, verses 4 and 5, “in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults [or riots], in labors, in sleeplessness, [and] in hunger.” Dear friends, these are the circumstances of Gospel ministry. This is what the life of the faithful Gospel minister looks like. We are so prone—aren’t we—to look at that kind of difficulty, that kind of struggle, that kind of opposition, and conclude, “God is punishing Paul! He’s withdrawn His blessing! His ministry is under divine judgment!” But in doing so, we’re just as bad as the false apostles—and just as bad as the contemporary health-wealth-and-prosperity heretics—who define God’s blessing and “success” in ministry as the absence of conflict and suffering.
But the Christian life—the Christian ministry—is not one in which the Christian makes demands upon on God but in which God makes demands upon the Christian. It’s not the minister who makes a positive confession and “names and claims” their blessings from God; it’s God who exercises His sovereign Lordship and names and claims a life of enduring obedience from His people. You see, the life of radically sacrificial service to which we are called is not supposed to be easy. God has designed it to be difficult, so that you would be emptied of your own resources and would flee to Him for the divine strength necessary to put the power of God on display in your weakness, and to commend yourself as a genuine servant of God by patient endurance in difficult circumstances.
Review II: The Sustaining Graces (vv. 6–7)
But then we asked: By what means does the faithful minister endure the difficult circumstances of Gospel ministry? How do we endure all that? And Paul answers that question by identifying the sustaining graces of Gospel ministry—nine spiritual virtues by which the Lord enables His ministers to faithfully endure all our afflictions in a way that commends His power to the world. In verses 6 and 7, Paul says he endures, “by purity, by knowledge, by patience, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by genuine love, by the word of truth, by the power of God; [and] by the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left.”
The faithful minister conducts himself in purity—both in behavior as well as in attitude. He doesn’t traffic in deception speaking with hidden meanings or operating with secret agendas. He doesn’t downplay the difficult demands of the Gospel so as to pander to the world. And he loves the people of God enough to tell them the truth, even if it means they resent him for it. The faithful minister endures by knowledge—by pursuing the knowledge of the truth in an intimate, personal relationship of communion with Christ, and keeping that knowledge at the forefront of his mind. Rather than despairing in the midst of affliction, abandoning hope in Christ, losing his temper, or seeking vengeance on those who mistreat him, the minister of God endures with patience and kindness. And such patient endurance can only be achieved as the Holy Spirit is at work in the soul of man, sanctifying him from the inside out and causing him to bear the fruit of righteousness.
The faithful minister endures “in genuine love”—literally, non-hypocritical love. The hupokrites was an actor; Paul says that genuine Christian ministers are bad actors! Bad politicians! They’re not good at pretending to be someone they’re not. With them, what you see is what you get. They don’t have to feign their love to those whom they minister, but they genuinely love one another from the heart (cf. 1 Pet 1:22). Further, the faithful minister endures by “the word of truth,” which is to say, by the proclamation of the Gospel. No matter what adversities befall him or how severe the consequences, he doesn’t waver in preaching the Gospel; he cannot be silent. He cries with Paul from the depth of his heart: “Woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16). And that fire in his bones is “the power of God” mightily at work within him, even and especially in his own weakness.
And finally, because the Christian’s life of joyful, enduring ministry in the midst of affliction is a spiritual battle, the faithful minister endures “by the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left”—the shield for the left hand to defend against all ideological attacks advanced by the children of Satan, and the sword for the right hand to tear down ideological fortresses with the word of truth.
And it’s my prayer that as you faithfully engage in the ministry to one another that Christ has called you to, that you would know something of these nine sustaining graces at work in your heart. That you would experience the energizing power of purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, and genuine love—worked in your soul by the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit! That you would taste the sufficiency of the power of God strengthening you to faithfully endure the proclamation of the Word of truth, even in the midst of the difficult circumstances that you meet in the course of your ministry.
III. The Defining Paradoxes of Gospel Ministry (vv. 8–10)
Well then, having been reminded of the difficult circumstances of Gospel ministry which we are called to endure, as well as the sustaining graces by which we faithfully endure those difficult circumstances, we come now to the third element of the ministry that Paul discusses in this text. And that is, number three, the defining paradoxes of Gospel ministry. And understanding these paradoxes that characterize Gospel ministry is absolutely essential if we, as ministers of God, are going to commend ourselves by endurance. If we are to have any hope of faithfully enduring the hardships and the suffering that we’re sure to experience in ministry, we must understand both the Christian life and the Christian ministry is wholly paradoxical.
So much of the unsoundness in ministry, so much of the unmet expectations of ministers, so much of the burnout among servants of the church is a result of what we might call an overrealized eschatology. That is to say: wrongly believing that the unmitigated blessing and eminent victory and global triumph that is promised only at the return of Christ at the end of the age is to be expected in the here and now. It’s the misunderstanding that the kingdom of God has arrived in its fullness in the present age, and not giving adequate emphasis to the reality that the present form of God’s kingdom is spiritual, and that in the present age it exists right alongside the kingdom of darkness.
And that was at the root of the false apostles’ problem. They look at Paul and they search for the outward evidences of a “successful” ministry, and all they see is this shell of a man—broken and battered by constant beatings and imprisonments, run down by inadequate food, drink, and shelter, and run out of every city he goes into—and they conclude, “No man can claim to be a servant of the King and expect to suffer so severely! The genuine minister of Christ can expect blessing! and honor! and recognition!” The false apostles in Corinth were the original health-wealth-and-prosperity preachers.
But Paul understands the paradox of ministry, and he wants the Corinthians to understand—and he wants us to understand—that the Christian lives between two worlds. Jesus says in Matthew 28:18, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” And yet the Apostle John says in 1 John 5:19 that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” And those are not contradictory statements, because the kingdom of God exists right alongside the kingdom of this world. And the Christian lives in both of those worlds simultaneously. He is in the world; he lives and moves among a people of unclean lips; he is a citizen of his earthly country of origin. But though he is in the world, the Christian is not of the world. First and foremost, he is a citizen of heaven, as Paul says in Philippians 3:20, and that means he is an alien and stranger, a pilgrim, a sojourner in this foreign land.
And therefore, the Christian minister’s life is a constant paradox. And if we are going to commend ourselves by our endurance, we must be acquainted with these defining paradoxes of Gospel ministry. And just as there were nine difficult circumstances and nine sustaining graces, so also does Paul list nine defining paradoxes. Let’s work through each of these.
1 & 2. Glory and Dishonor, Evil Report and Good Report
And I want to cover the first two pairs together, because they really function as a unit. Paul says he commends himself by his endurance, verse 8, in the midst of “glory and dishonor,” and in the midst of “evil report and good report.” And these two paradoxes speak of similar realities. The first concerns how the minister of Christ is personally treated, and the second concerns what is said about him behind his back.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the pastor is often the most loved and the most hated person in the community. To those in the church who are truly regenerated, the faithful pastor is revered, and honored, and even treasured. And that is because he is the undershepherd of their souls. He keeps watch over their spiritual state. He intercedes for them before the Father and prays for their spiritual growth and well-being. He feeds them as he carefully ministers the Word of God in preaching and teaching. He strengthens their hands to apply the Word of God to their lives in counseling. By helping them put off sin and put on righteousness, he consistently works so that their spiritual sight of Christ gets clearer and clearer. He shows them their Savior, and is an instrument by which they feast on His Word.
And yet at the same time, to those in the church and in the world who are not regenerate—who have not been born again—the pastor is despised. By his proclamation of the Word of God he is a source of conviction of sin, an instrument by which the enemies of righteousness become sensible of their guilt and their shame before God. For those who cling to their wickedness and nurse their pet sins, the pastor’s calls for repentance are maligned as judgmental and arrogant. He’s rejected as a control freak, a busybody, and a power-hungry narcissist. He ministers in glory and dishonor, by evil report and by good report.
The same was true of Jesus. No man who ever lived was loved more intensely by those who had tasted of the forgiveness He brought. And no man was hated more bitterly by those whose deeds of darkness were exposed by His words. Those who loved Him washed His feet with tears of overflowing gratitude (cf. Luke 7:38). Those who hated Him mocked Him, spit in His face, and called for His brutal execution (cf. Matt 27:29–31). And Jesus Himself said in John 15:20, “‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” And so the followers of Christ expect nothing less. Because His message is our message—because we are all ministers of the New Covenant, 2 Corinthians 3:6, because we have all been entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation, chapter 5 verse 18—we as His servants will experience the same paradox of glory and dishonor, of praise and slander.
Paul experienced that in his own life. On the one hand, he was honored. On one occasion, after he healed the lame man in Lystra in Acts 14, he was so honored by the Lycaonians that they worshiped him as a god! Perhaps a bit more reasonably and appropriately, in Galatians 4:14 he refers to the way the Galatian Christians honored him by receiving him despite the difficulty of his physical ailment. He says, “That which was a trial to you in my bodily condition you did not despise or loathe, but you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself.”
And yet on the other hand, he was dishonored, mistreated, and slandered. The situation at Corinth is a prime example. The false apostles slandered him as fickle and fleshly for changing his travel plans, chapter 1 verse 17. They accused him of harboring sinister motives and trying to take advantage of the Corinthians. They even ridiculed his appearance and his lack of eloquence, chapter 10 verse 10: “For the say, ‘. . . his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible.” And the Corinthians have so bought into this that Paul is driven to defend himself for the Gospel’s sake.
And none of this is unique to Paul. As we said, this paradox was true of Jesus, and it’s true of all those who follow Jesus and minister His Gospel. We are called to minister in glory and in dishonor, by evil report and good report. And our challenge here is to maintain our spiritual equilibrium no matter what the fluctuating judgments of fickle human beings may be. Our eyes must be so fixed on Christ—our hearts so singularly devoted to His glory and not our own reputation—that insults, slander, and mistreatment don’t devastate us, and that glory, honor, and genuine reverence don’t puff us up. And we must resist the temptation to alter our message or soften our doctrine because we desire to be well-spoken-of or to have the praise of men. As Philip Hughes said, “[The minister’s] task is to steer a straight and undeviating course, giving heed only to the word of his one Master, regardless of what men may say about him” (232).
3. Regarded as Deceivers, Yet True
Well, such are the first two defining paradoxes of ministry. A third comes at the end of verse 8. Paul says we are “regarded as deceivers, yet true.” When the Jews were searching for the Lord Jesus at the Feast of Booths in John 7, there was rumbling among the crowd as they were discussing who Jesus might be. John 7:12 says, “Some were saying, ‘He is a good man;’ others were saying, ‘No, on the contrary, He leads the people astray.’” “He deceives the people;” same word as here. After He was buried, the Pharisees went to Pilate and said, Matthew 27:63, “Sir, we remember that when He was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I am to rise again.’” The Lord Jesus Christ, who is called “Faithful and True” (Rev 19:11) who is Himself the Truth incarnate (John 14:6), was regarded as a deceiver by deceitful men.
And as Jesus Himself said, “If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign the members of his household!” And as the servant of Christ, Paul bore the brunt of this same accusation. The false apostles charged him with deceiving the churches with regard to his apostleship. He was a false apostle, they said, with no letters of commendation, and preaching antinomianism—teaching that it was OK to set aside the Law of Moses. But, of course, Paul was a true apostle. And all he could do was appeal to the authenticity of the message he preached and the call which he had received from Christ Himself. He says in 2 Corinthians 2:17: “For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God.” And in chapter 4 verse 2: “We have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God, but by the manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.”
He was regarded as a deceiver, and yet was true. And this is the case with all of us who follow in Paul’s footsteps in service to Christ. One commentator says, “It has always been the work of Satan and his servants to attempt to overthrow the truth of God by calling it falsehood. . . . The antichrist, Satan’s agent on earth, is precisely described as the deceiver (2 John 7). Such a one seeks to present truth as error and error as truth” (Hughes, 233).
And he is working overtime in our society, which presents truth as error and error as truth. The doctrine of western secularism teaches that man is fundamentally good and, if he does do bad things, he is perfectly capable of securing his own forgiveness with God through other good works. The Christian teaches that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are totally incapable of commending themselves to God (Rom 3:23; 8:7–8). The world teaches that the universe is the product of random explosions and billions of years of evolution. The Christian teaches that the personal, holy, loving God of the Bible created the heavens and the earth in six days (Gen 1–2). The Christian teaches that men and women occupy distinct roles of headship and submission in marriage and in the church (Eph 5:22–33). The culture rejects those truths as misogyny. Indeed, the world declares that gender itself is a fluid concept; men aren’t necessarily men and women aren’t necessarily women as long as they don’t feel like it. The Christian teaches that God made man male and female, and that men are men, women are women, and both should act like it (Gen 1:26–28; 1 Cor 16:13; Titus 2:3–5; 1 Pet 3:3–4). The cardinal dogma of postmodern secularism is that everyone is free to express their sexuality in whatever way they see fit. Fornication and adultery are fine as long as it’s between two consenting adults, and opposition to homosexuality is hate-filled bigotry. The Christian teaches that neither fornicators, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals will inherit the kingdom of God unless they repent of those sins and trust Christ for cleansing (1 Cor 6:9–11).
In nearly every aspect of our culture’s worldview, the preacher of the Bible is regarded as a deceiver. And yet, dear friends, you know that you preach the truth. And you simply cannot retreat into silence. No matter how loudly and severely the enemies of the truth seek to malign you, you must endure, and go on ministering, as verse 7 says, “in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left.”
4. Unknown yet Well-Known
A fourth paradox begins verse 9. Paul says we are “as unknown yet well-known.” Now, the Saul of Tarsus was one of the most amazing people who ever lived. He had a towering intellect, an enormous amount of willpower. He was educated by the most respected rabbi in Jerusalem (Acts 5:34), at the top of his class in his religious and educational studies, from the socially-respected tribe of Benjamin, and from the elite sect of the Pharisees. In his former life, Paul was well-known to the movers and shakers of his world. He was a mover and shaker.
And when those people from his former life had learned that the most promising young rabbi in Judaism had counted as loss all that they thought gain—that he threw away his job, his education, his inheritance, and his social standing so he could work night and day as a tentmaker in order to support his itinerant ministry where he gets beaten and stoned everywhere he goes, and preaches that the crucified, illegitimate-son of a carpenter was the God of the universe—they would have thought, “What a waste of a life!” He was unknown to anybody that mattered in the world. As we said before, he wasn’t much to look at; other preachers ridiculed his rhetorical skills; he never had much of a following, and he suffered through constant conflict. In the eyes of the world, Paul was a nobody.
But in the eyes of the only One who matters at all, Paul was known. He was well-known. In fact, he says in 1 Corinthians 13:12 that he was fully known. He was known by God. Jesus says in John 10:14, “I am the good shepherd, and I know My own . . . and I lay down My life” for them. Paul was not only known by name, but loved by the Good Shepherd! And He was not only loved, but purchased at the cost of the life of the Good Shepherd! And not only purchased, but adopted into the family God Himself! Paul testifies to the greatest comfort of every Christian’s soul in 2 Timothy 2:19, “The firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, ‘The Lord knows those who are His!’”
One of the great plagues of the evangelical church today is our infatuation with celebrity. We labor under the deluded notion that the most faithful Christians are the ones who are going to be remembered in the church history books. And so we tend to venerate those who are widely known, aspire to be famous ourselves, and are disappointed if our efforts go unrecognized. Dear people, the God of the universe knows your name! The One who spoke hundreds of trillions of stars into existence and knows them all by name, knows you by name! And knows the number of hairs on your head! And knows your thoughts, and desires, and longings, and anxieties, and needs! And knowing everything that He knows about you, He still wants something to do with you! The Lord Jesus Christ is not ashamed to call you brothers and sisters!
So don’t let anonymity and obscurity deter you from serving Christ faithfully in ministry. Your name may never be written in the bright lights of a marquee, or in the annals of church history. But your name is written on the nail-pierced hands of your Savior; your name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life! Let all thirst for prominence and prestige be quenched by the reality that the King of all kings and the Lord of all lords knows your name.
5 & 6. Dying yet We Live; Punished yet Not Put to Death
Paul goes on. The next two paradoxes can also be grouped together. Finishing verse 9, Paul says, “As dying yet behold, we live; as punished yet not put death.” These two phrases refer to similar realities. The first is fairly straightforward. But when Paul says he’s punished yet not put to death, he’s saying he’s received the scourging that is usually followed by execution, but he’s never yet been executed. In other words, Paul was always on the brink of death, yet the Lord consistently delivered him and preserved his life.
2 Corinthians has taught us much about how the Christian ministry is characterized by life in the midst of death. In chapter 1, verses 8 and 9, Paul speaks of his afflictions in Asia in which “we had the sentence of death within ourselves.” That is to say: we were convinced we were going to die! He said in chapter 4, verses 10 and 11, that we are “always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus,” and that “we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake.” He says in Romans 8:36: “For your sake”—that is, for the sake of the church—“we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” He says in 1 Corinthians 15:31, “I affirm, brethren, . . . I die daily!” His life was a living martyrdom, a continual crucifixion, a moment-by-moment denying himself, taking up his cross, and laying down his life in sacrificial ministry to the church.
“But behold! We live!” And I love that spontaneous exclamation of joy! “We’re dying every day, put to death all day long, constantly being delivered over to death, and yet here we are! Alive!” Chapter 4 verses 8 and 9: “We’re in all things afflicted, but not crushed. We’re perplexed, but not despairing. We’re persecuted, but not forsaken. We’re struck down, but not destroyed.” Everywhere he went was God’s hand of protection and deliverance. And friends, as we embrace the kind of living martyrdom—the continual crucifixion of our comforts and preferences for the sake of serving our brothers and sisters—we can be confident that, though it may seem like we’re losing our life—that life is just passing us by as we pour it into others—that the one who wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Christ’s sake will find it (Matt 16:25).
7. Sorrowful yet Always Rejoicing
The seventh paradox in Paul’s list could be the subject of a whole series of sermons, and it is probably the single best concise description of the Christian ministry. He says in verse 10 that we are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”
The life of the genuine minister of Christ is a life filled with sorrow. This is unsurprising, since the Lord Himself was called “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa 53:3). Jesus wept over the death of Lazarus (John 11:35) and He wept over the unbelief of Israel (Luke 19:41). And following in the footsteps of his Lord, the Apostle Paul was also a man of sorrows. In Romans 9:2, as he reflects on the unbelief of his fellow Jews, he says, “I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart.” Unceasing grief! In 2 Corinthians 11:28, he speaks of the daily pressure of concern that he has for all the churches—that his affections are bound up with the spiritual health of Christ’s people, so much so that in Galatians 4:19 he says, “I am in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” And he was especially grieved over this whole incident with the false apostles leading the Corinthians to distrust him. He speaks in chapter 2 verse 1 of having coming to them in sorrow—that his previous visit was full of sorrow and grief. He speaks of the sorrowful letter that he wrote to them, calling them to repentance, in chapter 2 verse 4: “For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears.”
The true Christian minister is acquainted with sorrow. He knows what it means to weep over the unbelief of the world around him—and even more, over the unbelief of those inside the church. He bears the burdens of his congregation—whether it be the pain of a strained marriage, the grief over the death of a child, the heartbreak of a professing brother or sister returning to their sin like a dog to its vomit. He’s filled with sorrow over how weak his people are in withstanding temptation, how tepid and halfhearted is their devotion to Christ and their pursuit of holiness, how susceptible they are to the deceptions of false teachers. The genuine minister of Christ feels an ownership of the spiritual health of the entire body. He cries out with Paul, “Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern?” The true minister is sorrowful.
Oh, but he is always rejoicing! Even in the midst of the greatest possible pain, the servant of God experiences an inextinguishable, indomitable joy that is rooted in the surpassing pleasure of knowing Christ! Joy and sorrow are not mutually exclusive! The one who had great sorrow and unceasing grief in his heart made it a matter of duty to “rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice!” He’s the one who says in chapter 7 verse 4, “I am overflowing with joy in all our affliction!” And that means that joy is not some superficial peppiness or perkiness that is untouched by the sorrows of life! The genuine minister is not marked by a cheap, perpetual levity. Joy is not a flippant, chipper light-heartedness that doesn’t know how to weep with those who weep! Joy is the affection born in the soul by the experience gladness in the person and work of Christ, in the atmosphere of the gravity that understands the weight of sin and the brokenness of the world. It is that complex unity of gravity and gladness.
The constancy of joy matches the constancy of the sorrow. Because even as the truth is rejected by some, it is received by others! The Holy Spirit takes our feeble efforts of proclamation and makes the Gospel effectual in the lives of sinners! Even as obedience to Christ and the pursuit of holiness is despised by some, others of His people grow, and mature, and make progress in sanctification! There are no words to describe the joy that I experience when I see the light bulb go on for Christ’s people—when a brother or sister more clearly sees some aspect of Christ’s glory, when they’re captivated and bowed in worship because they see and savor something of their God that they hadn’t before. Oh, the minister is sorrowful—sorrowful like no other in the world; but he is always rejoicing! Because what he sees of Christ as he follows after him in radically sacrificial ministry is a deep well of life-sustaining satisfaction that no sorrow could ever dry up!
8 & 9. Poor, Making Many Rich; Having Nothing, Possessing Everything
And we can treat the final two paradoxes as a pair as well. Look with me at the middle of verse 10. Paul says, he is “poor, yet making many rich, as having nothing, yet possessing all things.”
Paul was poor. He was accurately said to have nothing of the world’s goods. He says in 1 Corinthians 4:11, “To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless.” In the next verse, 1 Corinthians 4:12, he says, “We labor, working with our own hands.” He says in Acts 20:33, “I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothes. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me.” Paul speaks of his “labors” in tentmaking, which he worked at alongside his ministry at so he could earn his own money and not drain the resources of those to whom he was ministering. 1 Thessalonians 2:9 says, “For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.”
You see, Paul needed to work day and night to support himself in the ministry. That means he didn’t have any nest egg he could draw from. He voluntarily imposed this poverty upon himself so that he could never be accused of being in the ministry for monetary gain. He says in 1 Corinthians 9 that he has a right to be remunerated—to make his living from the Gospel. But he says, 1 Corinthians 9:12, “Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things so that we will cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ.”
But though he was poor—though he had nothing beyond life’s necessities, and oftentimes not even those—he says, “I am making many rich.” And here he speaks not of amassing literal riches, but of the spiritual riches that are bound up in the treasure chest that is Christ Himself. In 2 Corinthians 8:9, Paul capsulizes the Gospel in these terms when he says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich,”—and how was Jesus rich before His incarnation? Not in that He possessed all the money in the world, but that He possessed the spiritual riches of heavenly blessing. “Though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.” So that through His submitting Himself to the “poverty” of humanity, and death, and even divine wrath, you poor beggars might come to possess the treasure hidden in a field (Matt 13:44), the pearl of great price (Matt 13:45–46), that is Christ Jesus!
In Romans 10:12, Paul says that the Lord is “abounding in riches for all who call on Him.” In Ephesians 2:7, Paul speaks of “the surpassing riches of [God’s] grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” In Ephesians 3:8, he says he was sent “to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ.” In Colossians 1:27, he says “God willed to make known [to the saints] what is the riches of the glory of this mystery . . . , which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” And in Philippians 3:8, Paul sums up his entire life when he says, “I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord!”
Paul was the instrument of putting people into possession of the greatest treasure that can be enjoyed—whether in life or in eternity: the unfathomable riches of Christ Himself! And because Paul had Christ, he had all things! Because Christ is all! And because all things belong to Christ! Romans 8:17 says that if we are children of God, we are fellow heirs with Christ! 1 Corinthians 3:21 says, “For all things belong to you! Whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you,” because you belong to Christ who is the heir of all things, and because Christ belongs to God who possesses all things!
Dear Christian, you may have little of this world’s goods and treasures. You may have to labor to the point of exhaustion in order to support yourself and your family. You may never drive a nice car or live in a nice house. But if you belong to Christ—if you have a saving interest in Him—you possess the greatest treasure in all the world! And if Christ is yours, all that belongs to Christ is yours! You possess all things! And, dear friend, if you devote yourself to the ministry of reconciliation—proclaiming the Good News of forgiveness of sins through repentance and faith in Christ, and sacrificially ministering that Gospel to your brothers and sisters in the body of Christ—you may be poor in this world’s currency, but you are making many rich! You put people into possession of the unfathomable riches of Christ! And I don’t know about you, but I want to give my life to that! I want to spend and be spent for that!
Jonathan Edwards was one who was well-acquainted with the paradox of ministry. Along with George Whitefield, he had been uniquely instrumental in America’s First Great Awakening in the 1730s and 40s. While Whitefield’s preaching was the engine of our country’s greatest revival, it was Edwards’s sound doctrine and theological writings that served as the mount for that engine. To this day, Jonathan Edwards is regarded as the greatest American theologian in history. And on June 22, 1750, after pastoring the church in Northampton, Massachusetts for 24 years, America’s greatest theologian was fired, for insisting that communion was only to be taken by genuine Christians.
As the vote came down, 200 to 23, an observer recorded Edwards’s reaction: “That faithful witness received the shock, unshaken. I never saw the least symptoms of displeasure in his countenance the whole week, but he appeared like a man of God, whose happiness was out of the reach of his enemies and whose treasure was not only a future but a present good, overbalancing all imaginable ills of life, even to the astonishment of many who could not be at rest without his [dismissal]” (Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards, 321). Edwards commended himself as a faithful minister of God by his endurance. He didn’t let this deter him from useful service, but spent the next seven years of his life ministering to the Native Americans in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and writing his treatises on Original Sin, The Freedom of the Will, and The End for Which God Created the World—theological treasures without which the church would be only the poorer.
How did he do it? What strengthens a man to endure the betrayal of 90% of the congregation he’d labored over for more than half his life? How was he able to keep his “happiness . . . out of the reach of his enemies,” as the observer said? Surely it was the observers next words: Edwards’s “treasure was not only a future but a present good, overbalancing all imaginable ills of life.” “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age . . . and in the age to come, eternal life!” (Mark 10:29–30). Christ was so valuable! Not only would Christ be valuable someday in the future! Christ was so precious—the riches of His glory were so present to the eyes of his heart, and were so radiantly beautiful—that “all imaginable ills of life” lost their power to steal his joy!
Dear friends, are the riches of the glory of Christ so present to the eyes of your heart? Can you behold Him as so radiantly beautiful that “when all around [your] soul gives way, He then is all [your] hope and stay”? That is how the servants of God commend themselves by the endurance of the difficult circumstances of Gospel ministry: Christ! He is our strength for joyful, enduring ministry in the midst of affliction. And may God be pleased to make Him so sweet to you, that you can endure the paradoxes of ministry with a glad heart and unwavering devotion.