In the Bible we see the pattern for the Christian way of life. It alone tells us the true nature of spirituality. It presents what a vital relationship with the living God and other believers is. It is our goal to pursue this. We want to be Christ’s people for the glory of God. David Platt recently put it this way. “Brought together from different backgrounds, and having journeyed through different struggles, we find ourselves joined together as one in the life of Christ. Disciple making involves identifying with a community of believers who show love to one another and share life with one another as we live together for the glory of God” (Radical, p. 97). This is our vision for the church.
In this letter, Paul is modeling this way of life, as he seeks to resolve some confusion in his relationship with the Corinthians and to, at the same time, to lead them closer to the Lord Jesus Christ. Our procedure in this message is simple. First, we will listen to Paul’s explanation, and then we will consider the significance of this for our way of life.
I. A fuller explanation of his decision not to make the previously planned visit
A. Paul involves God in his explanation.
1. He has already been doing this, as he explained why they ought to trust him about changing his plans. He did this by emphasizing their shared position in Christ (1:12-22). How can they not trust the one who told them the gospel? How can they not trust a brother in Christ who shares grace in Christ with them?
2. But now, Paul appeals to God himself. He calls God as his witness that he is telling the truth. And he does this strongly, asking God to “witness against his life” (cf. ESV) if he is not telling the truth. Clearly, Paul wants to put questions about his integrity behind him. But God is the one who knows his heart, with its motives and attitudes. So he must appeal to him.
Apply: We should always be thinking that we live in the presence of God, and so live lives of truth and integrity.
B. Paul gives the reasons for his previous decision not to come. If we would take the time now to consider his decision in greater detail, it would become clear that he was between the proverbial rock and a hard place. We like to imagine that our decisions only have upsides. But in all actions there is both loss and gain. Hopefully, we strive for godly gain. But Paul knew if he went it would cause pain, and if he stayed away, his opponents could seize upon his absence as a sign of weakness, which they did. So why did he decide not to go at that time?
1. He did not go in order to spare them. As an apostle of Christ, he had authority to order and judge a church’s affairs. Consider Peter and the tragic case of Ananias and Sapphira (Ac 5). Congregations are to keep gospel order among their members, and it was the job of the apostles to get this function established in them (cf. 1 Cor 5; Ph 4; 2 Th 3). If he went, this would bring pain or grief to them. He decided that this would not be the best course of action in their growth and grace and knowledge of the Lord (2 Pt 3:18).
2. He did not go in order to share joy with them. Christian friendship or fellowship or partnership is to be characterized by joy in the Lord. Such joy is to be highly prized. Sadly, one of not beneficial effects of the Reformation has been a love of controversy and forceful action in the church. We assume that blunt, direct, immediate action to “deal with it” is Christ’s way. It is a wrong overemphasis on his cleansing of the temple. And so we fail to see his usual approach of great patience and careful instruction (cf. 2 Tm 2:24-26). We have forgotten that the fruit of the Holy Spirit is not forcefulness and compulsion but gentleness (Gal 5:23).
Example: “Lament” by Evangeline Paterson in Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian
II. Practical lessons from his explanation
A. The proper way of gospel ministry
1. An approach to be rejected – Leaders in Christ’s new covenant assembly must not act as lords over the faith of those they serve. Historically, there has been a tragic overemphasis on positions or offices in the church over functions in the gospel partnership. A great contributing factor has been the erroneous view that the church is an institution with a place of business. But as the Scriptures make clear, the church is God’s people that share new life in Jesus Christ together. Once we really grasp this, we can see leadership as a function among equals, rather than men who rule or lord it over the church.
2. The correct path to walk on – Two concepts are essential to reform or renew proper ministry or leadership.
a. Leaders, like Paul, work with Christ’s people, like the Corinthians, for their joy. Here again, we must first rebuild a biblical concept to grasp what is saying. Joy is an essential part of true Christian experience. It springs from the shared reality of what we already have in Christ (the “now”) and what we confidently expect to have in him (the “not yet”). Joy is a basic description of the true follower of Christ (Mt 5:3-12), a leading part of God’s saving reign (Rm 14:17-18), and the product of the Holy Spirit’s presence (Gal 5:22). Every leader in the church needs to be someone who works for the joy of other believers.
b. Everyone who is a member of Christ’s body, the church, needs to sense their responsibility for spiritual stability and so stand firm by faith in Christ. Leaders are not your lords, because you stand firm by faith. Yet, each one must constantly rely on the Lord for grace and mercy for the experience of joy.
B. The importance of mutual joy
1. Paul’s realizes that he shares in God’s grace with the Corinthians. They are partners for the gospel. Now in a partnership, one partner doesn’t do all the work, while the other partner reaps all the benefits. (By the way, this is part of the trouble in marriages in our time. There is no true partnership of husband and wife. Instead, both often pursue separate and incompatible goals.) Paul seeks to rebuild their sense of responsibility in their partnership. In spite of all his sufferings for Christ, God has greatly encouraged him, and he wants them to share in this joy of encouragement from God.
2. Notice that he states clearly that they ought to have made Paul rejoice when he planned to come. He did not see that happening, so he did not visit them as planned. So then, we must see that our gatherings should be occasions of mutual joy. Each member of Christ needs to be contributing to the joy of the whole local assembly. This changes our views of a church from being consumers (who go to have their own needs met) to being contributors (to the needs of one another).
Apply: Here is one reason to stand around and talk for a while. Yes, there are occasions when someone must leave quickly. But surely we ought to adjust our schedules for the priority of sharing life with one another! Hang around for a while. Go out for lunch or share dinner at someone’s home. It is also a reason to get involved in a small group.
C. The necessity of expressing love
1. Paul wrote the “painful letter” to the Corinthians for many purposes that we can gather as we study 2 Corinthians. There were some situations that needed immediate and effective correction. So he wrote to achieve those goals. But he also had another purpose that he didn’t write down before. Now he explicitly states it. He wrote as he did to let them know how much he loved them. Love can be painful at times, as it works through struggles with sin. Now that he has reason to hope that they have changed, he reminds them of his love for them.
2. I hope that your present experience of life in this body of believers is much better than my experience of church life in the days of my youth. While people tried to be polite, there was not much deep affection. There were some events that except for the grace of God would have made me walk away from church forever. At least once my parents could have left our local church because of something that happened. But they hung in there for the sake of the gospel. When Sharon and I were youth leaders, we had to endure a tragic church split in one church and a terrible lack of love and joy in another. Yet by the grace of God and through the power of his love, we kept following Christ and learned from his Word and some of his people.
3. What we learned is the importance of love and clearly telling others of your brotherly love for them in Christ Jesus. Love is intended to be shown, expressed, and spoken of. To tell a brother or sister in Christ, “I love you,” does not cost you a million dollars. It simply risks an opening of your heart to others who share the grace of God with you.
Apply: You are sitting in a room with a lot of people that you should open your heart to and tell them that you love them and will work for their joy with them. We are partners in the good news, members of Christ’s body together, and heirs of the grace of life with Christ and each other. It is time for you to increase your love for others. Right now, by God’s grace, pull down the walls that you have erected and reach out to your brothers and sisters in Jesus. Do this for the glory of God in Christ and the true good of one another.
Apply: Now it is time for all of us who know the Lord Jesus Christ to go out and make disciples for the glory of God. Stay on mission with Christ by the Spirit this week!