2 Corinthians 1:23-24 But I call God to witness against me—it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth. Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.
We have been studying the New Testament letter of 2 Corinthians where Paul is patiently defending his words and actions and ministry to a church that has some in its number who are accusing Paul and seeking to undermine his ministry. One of the things these combatants are saying is that Paul is fickle and untrustworthy and apparently does not have God with him because he seems to make his plans according to the flesh, saying he will come, but then changing his mind.
Let me remind you of the circumstances surrounding these accusations. Remember that Paul had made an unscheduled visit to Corinth during his third missionary journey (a visit he calls a ‘painful visit’) and while in Corinth on that unscheduled visit he apparently decided that the Corinthian church would benefit if he changed his travel plans and visited then two more times during this third missionary journey (once before traveling to Macedonia and once more as he came back from Macedonia). But something happened at the end of his visit or after prayer and reflection, which made Paul decide that an extra visit would not be the best plan. So Paul then decided to write a letter (called the severe letter) to them and come to them only on his way back from Macedonia.
Some in Corinth took this behavior as a sign that Paul was fickle, untrustworthy, and made his plans according to the flesh. Paul is here in 2 Corinthians responding to these accusations (among other things).
Last time remember that Paul lifted up the banner of his apostolic ministry claiming that the very center of his message and ministry was the faithfulness of God in Christ Jesus. Even as all God’s promises are a full-hearted Yes in Christ Jesus, so Paul is claiming his ministry toward the Corinthian church has been in harmony with this message. In our verses this morning Paul begins telling them why he changed his travel plans and decided to write instead.
Growing As Ministers
As we walk through these two short verses my aim is to glean from Paul how we ourselves must think about ministry and ministers. My plan is to unpack each phrase here and apply what Paul is saying to each of us as ministers.
I believe I have said this every week we have been in 2 Corinthians that each one in the church is a minister in some capacity or other. Everyone in the body of Christ is to be equipped for the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:12). This does not mean we all have the same level of responsibility in the church or that every member has an official office of leadership, but it does mean that we are all to be growing as ministers in whatever arena and sphere of influence the Lord has placed us.
So as we walk through this passage be thinking about applying this to yourself first and let this add to your understanding of what leaders in Christ’s church ought to look like. And then let us be praying that the Lord would be raising these kinds of leaders up in our midst and making the leaders we currently have more like this (starting with this leader!).
I have broken this passage up into 5 marks of a Christ-honoring minister.
1st: Christ-Honoring Ministers Can Call God to Witness (v23a)
Paul begins this verse by saying, “But I call God to witness against me—”
We saw in verse 12 that Paul said his “…boast was this, the testimony of his conscience…” and in verse 14 he showed that he had the Day of the Lord in view in his ministry. Here Paul is making a very similar statement, but I do not want to fly by this too quickly lest we fail to glean from Paul the heart posture that would produce such a statement.
Can we truly call God to witness against us? Does God loom largest and most significant in your heart and life? Is it God we long to please?
One day we will stand before the Judgement Seat and all will be laid bare. Let us endeavor to be the kind of ministers who can call God to witness against us that our behavior in this world has been wholly for His glory and for the good of others.
Can we like Paul call God to witness against us that our lives and ministries are in harmony with the gospel?
Look now to the end of verse 23 as it contains the second and third mark of a Christ-honoring minister as they are closely related.
2nd: Christ-Honoring Ministers Will Not Ignore Sin (v23b)
Paul calls God to witness against him, specifically in this: that…it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth.
So here Paul tells us why he finally decided not to visit Corinth on his way to Macedonia. It was to spare them. What is Paul talking about?
We will learn in the next few weeks that apparently during Paul’s painful visit someone had sinned against Paul personally. We are not told the exact nature of the offense, but Paul may be hinting at it in chapter 12 when he says he fears that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder when he comes again. So maybe this person publicly slandered Paul and gossiped about him. We don’t know for sure. But it appears that someone sinned against Paul personally. In addition there were those who “sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced” (12:21).
So when Paul says, “…it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth” he is speaking about bringing discipline. This is affirmed by the fact that in chapter 13, Paul says to those who are sinning that when he comes again he will not spare them (13:2), though he adds that that their restoration is what he is praying for (13:9).
So, 1st notice here that a Christ-honoring minister will not ignore sin. We will see this more fully when we come to the last chapters of the letter, but here let’s just recognize that sin is serious business in the Body of Christ. As Paul will say at the end of chapter 6,
…what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? …What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.’ Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.
Let us never think that Christ our Lord died so that we could go on in sin. He did not. He died to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:14).
We should be growing to hate our sin, brothers and sisters, more and more. Repenting, forsaking and turning away from it whenever we see it rising in our hearts. In Romans we are told that those who live in harmony with their sin will die, but those who by the Spirit put to death the sinful deeds of the body will live because all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God (Romans 8:13-14).
As ministers of Christ we cannot ignore or excuse sin – not in ourselves and for loves sake not in the Body of Christ – because God is being belittled the soul of a person living in harmony with sin is in peril.
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted (Galatians 6:1).
Love will seek restoration, which leads us to our third mark.
3rd: A Christ-Honoring Minister Longs to Spare (v23b)
Notice that it was not Paul’s joy to come in judgment.
Paul’s point is that their accusation, that his plans were made ‘according to the flesh’ – that is with ungodly and earthly motivations – that accusation is exactly wrong. Last week we saw that is original reason for wanting to visit them twice was to bless them and now he says the reason he changed that plan was to spare them.
Paul was not excited to come to Corinth in order to push and punish and grieve them. His hearts desire was to bless them. His only motivation as a minister of Christ has been to see them flourish. Paul does not want to come with the ax to cut down and destroy. He longed to see healing and restoration and maturity and so he delayed his coming, wrote instead, and gave them time to repent.
I am reminded of Lamentations 3:30 that the Lord does not afflict or grieve the children of men “from his heart.” Judgment is not God’s favorite activity.
Truly Jesus was Paul’s example here. The minister of Christ must be like Christ. Who came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28), which is why he said, “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave” (Matthew 20:26-27).
In the Body of Christ leadership looks like service, power looks like patience, and those who would be praised by the King must long for and work for and suffer for unity, restoration, love, and peace among Christ’s people.
This must be true of each of us, starting with the elders and leaders. Each of us needs a heart, not to beat down and destroy one another but to buildup and restore one another.
Notice that though Paul the apostle had the authority and responsibility to deal with sin in the church he pursued that responsibility with the meekness and gentleness of Christ (10:1-2), with humility and grief (12:21), and here with patience (1:23) for the sake of love. As Paul Barnett says, “At no point in the apostolic ministry is the model of servant abandoned for that of lord” (The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, pg. 115). In the Body of Christ, Jesus is the model of leadership as the Lord of lords and King of kings stooped to wash his followers feet and bore their sin at Calvary.
4rd: Christ-Honoring Ministers Recognize Their Own Limitations (v24a and c)
Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.
If we focus on the first and last phrase here we see that Paul understood that his own authority had limits. Even as he speaks of “sparing” them (that is allowing them time to repent before he comes in discipline), Paul here says that he is not lording it over their faith – meaning he does not presume to be master or lord over their faith because, he says, you stand firm in your faith.
Paul seems to be saying, I am not functioning like the master of your faith, there is only one Master and it is before Him that each of us give account. Christ-honoring ministers recognize that they are lord and master over no one and that everyone will give an account of themselves to the Master of all. We each must live before the King with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our own hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience (Hebrews 10:22).
Truly no minister can make you godly. No external force can be brought to bear which will produce the fruit of righteousness. A Christ-honoring minister will understand that they have no power in themselves to change another. They are not Master.
What then is the role of the minister? If not Lord, than what?
5th: Christ-Honoring Ministers are Co-Laborers For the Joy of Christ’s People (v24b)
…but we work with you for your joy…
This phrase might also be translated but we are co-workers or co-laborers for your joy.
There are two things I would like to highlight.
First, the Christ-honoring minister is not in the place of a master, instead the Christ-honoring minister is a fellow worker. Paul saw himself as a fellow worker and laborer. He had a responsibility to act and behave with a clear conscience striving to bless and help and strengthen in the role assigned to him and with the gifts given to him. But at the end of the day he was simply a fellow laborer in God’s garden. God must give the increase.
But the second thing I want to highlight in this little phrase is that the Christ-honoring minister labors for something specifically – the aim of Paul’s labor was “for your joy.” This is not the only place he says this. In Philippians 1:25 Paul’s stated reason for remaining on the globe was “for your progress and joy in the faith.”
- Paul was not laboring to see miserable people conform externally to rules.
- Paul was not laboring to see begrudging people meeting each another’s needs.
- Paul was not laboring to see duty-driven people doing missions in the world.
- He was laboring for their joy.
There is such a rich and important theology present in this phrase. Paul understood the great aim of all ministry was seeing people being filled with joy. This, in fact, gets to the very heart of why we were created. Did you know that you were created to be filled with joy? Satisfaction? Delight?
For God’s Glory
We know that the testimony of the Scriptures is that God created all things for His own glory.
For example, Isaiah 43:6-7,
I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.
“For my name’s sake I defer my anger,
for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you,
that I may not cut you off.
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver;
I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,
for how should my name be profaned?
My glory I will not give to another
Isaiah 2:11-12 and 17-18
The haughty looks of man shall be brought low,
and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled,
and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.
For the Lord of hosts has a day
against all that is proud and lofty,
against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low;
…And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled,
and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low,
and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.
And the idols shall utterly pass.
‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.
God created all things for Himself.
And we know that we are to join God in glorifying Himself from such verses as:
1 Corinthians 6:20
You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
1 Corinthians 10:31
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God
Glorify God by Enjoying Him
So God created all things for His own glory and we were created for that purpose and are commanded to glorify God in all things. So shouldn’t Paul have said, “we work with you for the glory of God – to help you glorify God”? Well I am convinced that this is exactly what he did say because the way we glorify God in our bodies and in all we do is by rejoicing in Him. You will not glorify God if you do not rejoice and delight in Him. We will not glorify God if we are not moved in out hearts to love Him.
The way John Piper puts it is: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.
Johnathan Edwards helps us think through this when he writes,
[The] glory of God [does not] consist merely in the creature’s perceiving his perfections: for the creature may perceive the power and wisdom of God, and yet take no delight in it, but abhor it. Those creatures that so do, don’t glorify God… The glory of God, therefore, [consists] in the creature’s admiring and rejoicing [and] exulting in the manifestations of his beauty and excellency… The essence of glorifying… God consists, therefore, in the creature’s rejoicing in God’s manifestations of his beauty, which is the joy and happiness we speak of. So we see it comes to this at last: that the end of all the creation is that God may communicate happiness to the creatures; for if God created the world that he may be glorified in the creatures, he created it that they might rejoice in his glory: for we have shown that they are the same (John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life, pg. 30-31 quoting Jonathan Edwards).
So when Paul says he is laboring for their joy, and last time he said the great banner over his ministry is the message of God’s faithfulness in Christ Jesus, he is saying that the aim of ministry is to see people delighting more and more in God through Christ – to see people fully satisfied in Christ. If our aim in ministry is anything short of this joy, we are not pursuing God’s glory.
Are you personally seeking to be fully satisfied in God, through Christ, by the Spirit?
And are you seeking to work for the increasing joy of others in Christ?
As we think about the great aim of all of ministry do have in our minds more and more people being more and more delighted in all that God is for us in Christ Jesus? Does increasing joy, delight, happiness, satisfaction in the Father, Son, and Spirit characterize us and the ministry here? Do we know the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus and the joy of the faith?
Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord;
Truly this is the aim, not just to know facts about God, not just to learn and practice principals to live by, not just to do our duty, but to delight in God, to love Him, to seek Him, to rejoice in all He has done and revealed in Christ Jesus, to know Him.