Aiming To Please.

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. – 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 ESV

Why do you do the things you do? Most likely, it is either to please yourself or to please someone else. We are either motivated by self-satisfaction or some form of people-pleasing. We are out to make ourselves feel good or to ensure that others feel good about us. But Paul introduces another motivating factor for the believer: Pleasing God. More than anything else, we should desire to do what pleases Him. And Paul knew that a life of holiness, living set apart and consecrated to God and His purposes, was what pleased God. He wrote to the Thessalonicans: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification…” (1 Thessalonians 4:3a ESV). God desires His people to be holy and distinctively different in their behavior. He wants to them live according to His will and in keeping with the godly guidance of His indwelling Holy Spirit.

The apostle Peter described as life of holiness as “doing good”. He wrote, “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:15 ESV). He went on to say that we must abstain from certain ungodly behaviors such as sexual immorality and lustful passions. But while we “put off” unrighteousness, we must “put on” godliness. Peter went on to say, “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (1 Thessalonians 4:7-8 ESV). To refuse to live a holy life is to disregard the very will of God for you. It is to willingly disobey and displease Him. But Paul insists that he makes it his aim to please God. That was how he was able to maintain his motivation to do the right thing even when he got the wrong reaction. He was able to endure injustice and abuse even when he was doing exactly what God had called him to do. Because his real goal was to please God, not man. Peter claimed that suffering was to be an expected part of living a godly life. “But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:20-21 ESV). Just as Christ suffered for doing what was right and godly, so shall we. We should not be surprised when living godly in an ungodly world brings godless reactions from ungodly people.

But Paul was of good courage. Even though he found life on earth to be difficult at times, he was encouraged by the knowledge that this life was not all there was. He believed in a life to come. He lived by faith, not sight. Like the writer of Hebrews, he knew that faith was “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV). And he knew that faith was essential if anyone wanted to live a life that pleased God, because “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6 ESV).

Paul received courage from the fact that God had promised Him eternal life through His Son, Jesus Christ. He received courage from the promise of Jesus that He would one day return. He received courage from the promise of a redeemed and resurrected body. And he longed for the day when he would be able to vacate his earthly “tent” and move into his new body, a “house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (1 Corinthians 5:1b ESV). But in the meantime, while he waited for the return of Christ or his own death, he made it his aim to live his life in such a way that it pleased God. That meant he had to stop trying to please others or doing what brought pleasure to himself alone. And Paul knew that there was a day coming when his actions or deeds would be judged by God. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (1 Corinthians 5:10 ESV). On that day, every believer’s conduct in this life will be judged – every thought, action, attitude, and word will be exposed. Everything we have done since the day we accepted Christ as Savior will be assessed and evaluated as to whether is was good or evil. This has nothing to do with judgment for sin, because all our sins have been paid for by Christ. It is about whether what we have done in this life since coming to faith in Christ was godly or ungodly, righteous or unrighteous, pleasing or displeasing to God. Did we live our lives in keeping with His will? His will is our holiness. So was that our motivating factor? Was pleasing Him our aim? Our actions and attitudes will reveal whether it was or not. How we lived our life will expose whether we were trying to please Him or whether we were living to please ourselves or others. Paul’s aim was to please God – even in this life. He made it his life-long objective to do the will of God, to live holy, set apart – doing good even when it produced less-than-good outcomes. He lived by faith, not by sight; trusting in the reality of what he hoped for, yet couldn’t see: Heaven and his resurrected body. Paul actually looked forward to the judgment seat of Christ, because he was confident that his aim in life was to please God. He was attempting to do the will of God, not men. He was striving to please God, not himself. And while that kind of lifestyle might result in troubles and tribulations in this life, it promised rewards in the life to come and the promise of hearing the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21 ESV).

 

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Body By God.

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. – 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 ESV

Paul closed out his preceding thoughts with the words, “So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever” (2 Corinthians 4:18 NLT). He is contrasting the seen with the unseen, the temporal with the eternal, the material and the spiritual. Now in chapter five, he continues his comparison by sighting the difference between our earthly, temporal bodies and the new resurrected bodies we will receive as part of our glorification. What we see here is not all there is or will be. The body in which we live does not represent the reality of who we are or will be. John reminds us, “we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is” (1 John 3:2 NLT). In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul told them, “our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies” (1 Corinthians 15:53 NLT).

Our earthly, physical bodies were not designed for eternity. They are temporal by nature and susceptible to disease, decay and, ultimately, death. And as Paul so matter-of-factly states, there is a day coming when our earthly body will be destroyed. We will die and our physical bodies will undergo decomposition. But Paul assures us that “we have a building from God, a house not made with hands” (2 Corinthians 5:1 ESV). He is referring to our resurrected body. Again, in his first letter, Paul had told them, “Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies. For just as there are natural bodies, there are also spiritual bodies” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44 NLT).

And there is a certain degree to which we should long for our new body. This body is corrupted by sin and prone to disease and decay. In his letter to the Romans, Paul provides us with an autobiographical glimpse into his daily struggle with his own sin nature:

The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.d I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. – Romans 7:14-21 NLT

To the Corinthians, he describes the outcome of this internal battle as producing a burden that results in groaning. Our new nature wearies over the constant warfare going on within us. It even led Paul to exclaim, “Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?” (Romans 7:24 NLT). And he answered his own question. “Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25 NLT).

Faith in Christ produces victory over the control and penalty of sin in this life and victory over the power and presence of sin in the next life. According to Paul, we should long for the day when we can put off this body of death and put on our new bodies, clothed in the righteousness of Christ. It is on that day when we will finally experience what it is like to be sinless and totally righteous, not just propositionally, but practically. Holiness will no longer be a goal for which we strive, but a reality in which we live.

And Paul says, “He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” (2 Corinthians 5:5 ESV). We have been redeemed by God in order that we might one day be restored to sinless perfection, and able to enjoy unbroken fellowship with Him. The Holy Spirit is a down payment, a sort of guarantee that what God has promised to us will be done for us. In this life we enjoy the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God who guides and directs our lives. He convicts and comforts. He provides us with a supernatural source of power and a never-ending supply of God’s mercy and grace. But while we enjoy His presence in our lives, we also struggle with the influence of indwelling sin and the external attacks of the enemy. Yet the day is coming when our fellowship with God will never again be broken by sin. Our righteousness will no longer be contaminated by unrighteousness thoughts or actions. Our obedience will be complete. Our joy will be constant. Our holiness will be undiminished and unending. He has prepared us for this very thing.

Keep Your Eyes On The Prize.

Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. – 2 Corinthians 4:13-18 ESV

What Paul taught, he fully believed. His belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is what fueled his ministry and personal life. It was also his firm, unwavering belief in the reality of our future redemption and glorification that motivated all his efforts. Quoting from Psalm 116:10, Paul says, “I believed, and so I spoke.” To understand why Paul chose this particular verse from this particular psalm, you must remember what Paul has just finished discussing with the Corinthians.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. – 2 Corinthians 4:8-10 ESV

In these three verses, Paul describes the nature of his earthly ministry. It was difficult and at times, dangerous. And, no doubt, Paul chose to quote from Psalm 116, because it had become near and dear to his heart during those many times of trials and troubles. The second part of the verse he quoted reveals that this psalm carried special meaning for Paul. “I believed, even when I spoke:I am greatly afflicted’.”  Even Paul’s cries to God during his times of difficulty were driven by his belief in God. The psalmist shared that same faith in the sovereignty and compassionate mercy of God.

I love the Lord, because he has heard
    my voice and my pleas for mercy.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
    therefore I will call on him as long as I live. – Psalm 116:1-12 ESV

For you have delivered my soul from death,
    my eyes from tears,
    my feet from stumbling;
I will walk before the Lord
    in the land of the living. – Psalm 116:8-9 ESV

What shall I render to the Lord
    for all his benefits to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
    and call on the name of the Lord,
I will pay my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people. – Psalm 116:12-14 ESV

Paul had experienced the mercy of God, not only in his conversion experience, but in the everyday struggles of life. And he wanted to share the news of God’s mercy and compassion with anybody and everybody. Paul assures the Corinthians that all he has done by way of sharing the gospel was done for their sake. “All of this is for your benefit. And as God’s grace reaches more and more people, there will be great thanksgiving, and God will receive more and more glory” (2 Corinthians 4:15 NLT). The greater good of men and glory of God were what motivated his efforts. And it was these was two things that prevented him from losing heart or growing discouraged, no matter how much difficulty he may have had to face.

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. – 2 Corinthians 4:16 NLT

Paul could relate to the psalmist when he wrote:

How kind the Lord is! How good he is!
    So merciful, this God of ours!
The Lord protects those of childlike faith;
    I was facing death, and he saved me.
Let my soul be at rest again,
    for the Lord has been good to me. – Psalm 116:5-7 NLT

Paul was motivated by the mercy and grace of God. He believed in God’s presence and trusted in His power. Yes, his body was dying and he knew what it was like to suffer physically as he went about his ministry. But he was able to rest in the knowledge that God was with him in this life and would one day reward him with eternal life. From Paul’s perspective, his troubles and trials were nothing more than “momentary light afflictions.” He was able to say, “For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! ” (2 Corinthians 4:17 NLT). He chose to view his struggles in this life from a positive, rather than a negative perspective. They would be short-lived but have a long-lasting influence on his life. In his letter to the believers in Rome, Paul reminded them,

…if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering. Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. – Romans 8:17-19 NLT

Suffering precedes glory. This life will have its difficulties. Jesus promised it (John 16:33). But this life is not all there is. There is more to come. And it was Paul’s belief in the reality of the resurrection and its guarantee of our future redemption that kept him going.

So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. – 2 Corinthians 4:18 NLT

It is our faith in the future that provides us with strength for the present. Having a future-focused faith keeps us from fixating on our troubles and trials, as if they are reality and heaven is nothing more than a fantasy. But Paul reminds us, “the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.” Like a runner who keeps his eyes on the finish line, we are to run the race of life with endurance, willing to suffer the pains and difficulties associated with this world, because we know the completion of our race will bring with it a reward that far outweighs all the effort we have had to exert along the way.

The writer of Hebrews provides us with some powerful words of motivation:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up. After all, you have not yet given your lives in your struggle against sin. – Hebrews 12:1-4 NLT

 

God’s Glory In Clay Jars.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. – 2 Corinthians 4:7-12 ESV

Paul was not afraid to admit that he was human. He was far from perfect. In fact, later on in this same letter, he will write, “I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 NLT). But this did not mean that Paul saw himself as flawed or somehow faulty when it came to his ministry for Christ. This was an important distinction that Paul felt compelled to make, because the value and integrity of his ministry was constantly under attack.
Paul is out to defend his ministry, not himself. As far as he was concerned, this was not about him. It was about the glory of God as revealed in the face of Christ and made accessible by the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God. He was simply a conduit through whom God communicated His message of reconciliation to the lost. He claims, “we don’t go around preaching about ourselves. We preach that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we ourselves are your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5 NLT). Just like the rest of the believers in Corinth, Paul’s life had been transformed by the gospel.

So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. – 2 Corinthians 3:18 NLT

And ever since his conversion experience, he had seen it as his Christ-commissioned responsibility to take that same gospel message to the ends of the earth. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6 ESV). 

The amazing thing to Paul was that God had chosen to place His glory in a “clay jar” like himself. He viewed himself as common and unimpressive, as without value and unworthy of being a receptacle for the very Spirit of God. He humbly admits, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7 ESV). God had chosen to place His glory into less-than-perfect vessels. And not only that, Paul saw himself as sharing in the very sufferings of Christ as he bore the light of God’s message of redemption to the world. Just as Jesus suffered and died in order to make possible the redemption of mankind, so Paul and his fellow apostles were suffering for the sake of the gospel. “Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:10 NLT).

Paul explains to the Corinthians, “We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9 NLT). In spite of all the problems, persecutions, rejections and roadblocks they faced in their daily ministries, the apostles supernaturally sustained by God. He protected and provided for them. This does not mean they were somehow immune to trouble. Paul knew what it was like to go hungry and do without the essentials of life. In fact, he wrote the believers in Philippi, thanking them for their willingness to help him, but confessing, “Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11-13 NLT). Paul knew what it was like to experience all kinds of deprivations and indignities for the sake of the gospel. On one occasion, he had even been stoned and left for dead (Acts 14:19-20). And yet, God had sustained and revived Him. Just days later, Paul and Barnabas would continue their missionary journey, sharing the gospel and encouraging believers. “They encouraged them to continue in the faith, reminding them that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22 NLT).

Paul knew what it was like to suffer. He was familiar with pain and persecution. But he had a unique attitude toward his life and ministry.

Yes, we live under constant danger of death because we serve Jesus, so that the life of Jesus will be evident in our dying bodies. So we live in the face of death, but this has resulted in eternal life for you. – 2 Corinthians 4:11-12 NLT

Paul would later write to his young mentor, Timothy, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:6-8 ESV). He would write to the believers in Philippi, “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all” (Philippians 2:17 ESV).

Paul was not perfect, but he was perfectly content in knowing that he was being used by God. He was a clay jar containing the glory of God and carrying the life-transforming message of the gospel to the ends of the earth. Paul had no problem admitting his own weaknesses. He even referred to himself as the chief of all sinners. But it was this indisputable realization that made his ministry all that more amazing. It led him to say, “This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves” (2 Corinthians 4:7 NLT). The thousands of changed lives Paul had left in his ministry wake were not the result of his powers of persuasion or oratory skills, but because of the glory of God that had taken up residence within him in the form of the Holy Spirit. That is why Paul could be content with sufferings of all kinds in his ministry for Christ. It is why he could boldly claim, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13 ESV).

 

But Now I See!

Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. – 2 Corinthians 4:1-6 ESV

Paul viewed himself as a minister of the new covenant. He had been commissioned by Jesus Christ to carry the message of the gospel, the good news that a right standing with God was available through faith in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah. It was not based on the old covenant of works or human effort. No longer did men have to vainly attempt to keep the Mosaic law, trusting that their efforts would somehow measure up to God’s righteous standard and earn them favor in His sight. That old way had been replaced with a new and better way. The author of Hebrews reminds us:

But now Jesus, our High Priest, has been given a ministry that is far superior to the old priesthood, for he is the one who mediates for us a far better covenant with God, based on better promises. If the first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need for a second covenant to replace it. – Hebrews 8:6-7 NLT

Jesus is the one who guarantees this better covenant with God. – Hebrews 7:22 NLT

Paul didn’t lose heart in sharing this new and better covenant with the world, because he knew it was effective. It was the key to victory over sin and the means by which men could be make right with God – once and for all. So in spite of opposition, rejection, persecution and seeming lack of success at times, he kept sharing. He felt no need to use deceitful tactics or underhanded means by which to trick people into believing the gospel. There was no need. It could stand on its own because it was the truth of God and had proven itself fully capable of transforming the lives of countless individuals without Paul having to resort to human wisdom or his own personal powers of persuasion. In fact, in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminded them, “I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan…Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit. I did this so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:1, 4-5 NLT).

There was no doubt that some who heard the gospel as preached by Paul, Silas, Titus and others, remained unchanged. The problem was not with the gospel or the presentation skills of the minister, but with the spiritual condition of the recipients. They were blind – “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4 ESV). It is important to keep Paul’s use of the word “veiled” linked with his prior use of it in chapter 3. There he had been talking about the old covenant as revealed under Moses. It was the covenant of the law. And there were still Jews who were trying to gain favor with God through the keeping of the law.

But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. – 2 Corinthians 3:14-15 ESV

When the Jews in Paul’s day read the books of the law, they were blinded by their own belief and expectation that they could somehow be made right with God through that old covenant. So they refused to accept Jesus as the mediator of a new and better covenant. And in the case of non-Jews, Paul insists that the were blinded by the god of this world – Satan.

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. – 2 Corinthians 4:4 NLT

Their eyes must be opened to the truth in order to receive it. Their spiritual blindness must first be healed so that they can see the glory of God in the face of Christ. Paul knew exactly what he was talking about, because it was what had happened to him in his own conversion. He recounting of that fateful day is found in Acts 9 where he tells of coming face-to-face with the resurrection Christ. On the road to Damascus where he intended to persecute and arrest Christians, Paul (then known as Saul) was suddenly blinded by a light and heard the voice of Jesus Himself.

Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. – Acts 9:8-9 ESV

Jesus commanded Saul to go to the city of Damascus and await further instruction. God sent a disciple named Ananias to minister to Saul.

And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened. – Acts 9:17-19 ESV

Saul had been blind, but when the Holy Spirit came upon him, his physical sight was immediately restored along with his spiritual sight. He was able to see for the first time in his life the truth of the very gospel he had been trying to destroy. He was converted. And in chapter three of 2nd Corinthians, Paul insists that it is the Holy Spirit who removes the veil from the spiritual eyes of the lost so that they might see and reflect the glory of the Lord.

But whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. – 2 Corinthians 3:16-18 NLT

Like the blind man who had been healed by Jesus, those who have their spiritual eyes opened by the Spirit of God so that they can see and accept the truth of the gospel, are able to say, “I was blind, and now I can see!” (John 9:25 NLT). That bright, holy light that had blinded Paul on the road to Damascus is the same light of the glory of Christ that shines into the life of every unsaved person, eliminating the darkness of sin and illuminating their lives with the life-transforming hope of the gospel.

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. – 2 Corinthians 4:6 ESV

It is the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit that makes it possible for spiritually dead and sightless individuals to see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. He opens their eyes so they might see the truth of the gospel message of hope, healing and restoration. Salvation is the work of God as performed by the Spirit of God in the lives of the lost. It is not due to the persuasive power of men like Paul. Only God can restore sight to the blind. Only God can raise the spiritually dead back to life. Only God can remove the veil placed on the minds of unbelievers by Satan, allowing them to see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christwho is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4 ESV).

 

With Unveiled Face.

Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 3:12-18 ESV

In verses 7-11, Paul has been talking about the greater glory of the new covenant as revealed in the presence of the indwelling Holy Spirit and His sanctifying ministry in the lives of believers. Rather than having to try to live up to a God-ordained code of conduct in our own strength, we have been given a new nature, made possible by the Holy Spirit’s presence within us. In his letter to the Romans, Paul explained just what man’s relationship with the old covenant had become due to the work of the Holy Spirit.

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 ESV

And Paul tells the Corinthians, “since we have such a hope, we are very bold” (2 Corinthians 3:12 ESV). Unlike the glory that shown from Moses’ face after having received the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai, our glory is internal and permanent. The Holy Spirit is a permanent resident in the life of the believer. His glory shines through us. Concerning the external glory on Moses’ face, the book of Exodus reveals, “When Moses came down Mount Sinai carrying the two stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant, he wasn’t aware that his face had become radiant because he had spoken to the LORD” (Exodus 34:29 ESV). The glow from his face terrified the people, so he would cover it with a veil. And every time he met with God, he would remove the veil. But the day came when the glory on his face began to fade, but he kept wearing the veil, leaving the people with the impression that nothing had changed. Yet Paul insists, “We are not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so the people of Israel would not see the glory, even though it was destined to fade away” (2 Corinthians 3:13 NLT). The old covenant, like the glow on the face of Moses, was intended to be temporary. It would not last and would one day be replaced by the new covenant and the permanent, indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.

Just as Moses covered his face with a veil, Paul says the minds of the Israelites were obscured by a veil so that their hearts were hardened. They believed the law was the key to their righteousness, even though they were incapable of obeying it. And it was their stubborn belief that the old covenant (the law) was the God-ordained means of being made right with Him, that kept them from accepting Christ when He came. They refused to believe that He was the answer to their sin problem.

But the people’s minds were hardened, and to this day whenever the old covenant is being read, the same veil covers their minds so they cannot understand the truth. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ. Yes, even today when they read Moses’ writings, their hearts are covered with that veil, and they do not understand. – 2 Corinthians 3:15 ESV)

Their stubborn adherence to self-righteousness prevents them from accepting the righteousness made possible through the death of Jesus Christ. And yet, Paul repeatedly insists…

Yet we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law. – Galatians 2:16 NLT

So it is clear that no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” – Galatians 3:11 NLT

So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law. – Romans 3:28 NLT

Paul tells the Corinthians, “whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (2 Corinthians 3:16 NLT). And it is the Spirit of God that makes this possible. He opens the eyes of the spiritually blind, those with veiled hearts, and allows them to see the life-changing truth of the gospel. And as a result, they “can see and reflect the glory of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18a NLT). Like Moses, they can see the glory of God face-to-face and, not only that, they can reflect that glory to all those around them.

As believers in Jesus Christ, we have access to God just as Moses did. We can come into His presence and He has also placed His presence within us in the form of the Holy Spirit. And we are being transformed by this daily encounter with the divine – from one degree of glory to another. Slowly, methodically and persistently, God is molding us into the likeness of His Son, and it is all because of His Spirit within us. There is no longer any law to live up to, but only the Spirit we must submit to. He is the one who gives us the capacity to say no to sin and yes to righteousness. He is the glory of God residing within us and shining through us. He is constantly transforming us. And because He never leaves us, our ongoing transformation is guaranteed.

A New Covenant.

Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory. – 2 Corinthians 3:7-11 ESV

This entire paragraph sounds like a riddle. To understand it, we must go back and look at the two verses that preceded it.

Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. – 2 Corinthians 3:5-6 ESV

Paul had just brought up the topic of the new covenant. Now he is going to expand upon it, explaining the difference between it and the old covenant. He will provide seven different contrasts between the two. But before we look at those distinctions, it is important to understand just what he means by a “covenant”. The Greek word for covenant is diathēkē and it refers to a testament or agreement. It is where we get the Old and New Testaments of our Bible. It is a form of agreement between two parties, but it is unilateral, where only one party sets the conditions and the other party must either accept or reject it, much like a last will and testament. Paul is bringing up the differences between the agreement God had made with the Israelites found in the Old Testament with the agreement He has made with the church found in the New Testament. The first agreement was the Mosaic Law handed down to the Israelites from Mount Sinai and administered by Moses. The second agreement was the  new covenant in Christ’s blood handed down at mount Calvary and administered by the Holy Spirit. When Jesus had held up the cup of wine at His last Passover meal with His disciples, just hours before His death, He said, “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people – an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you” (Luke 22:20 NLT).

In the closing of his letter to the Hebrews, the author provides the following benediction:

Now may the God of peace—who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, and ratified an eternal covenant with his bloodmay he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen. – Hebrews 13:20-21 NLT

Paul refers to the old covenant as “the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone” (2 Corinthians 3:7 ESV). The Mosaic Covenant revealed the will of God in the form of the law. It contained His commands regarding how the Israelites were to live their lives on this earth as His chosen people. It was intended to set them apart from all the other nations. The law contained plenty of “you shall’s” and “you shall not’s”. It required perfect obedience and it was accompanied with blessings and cursings. If the Israelites kept the law of God, they would be blessed. But if they failed to keep it, they would experience His punishment in the form of God-administered curses.

If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands…I will look favorably upon you, making you fertile and multiplying your people. And I will fulfill my covenant with you. – Leviticus 26:3, 9 NLT

However, if you do not listen to me or obey all these commands, and if you break my covenant by rejecting my decrees, treating my regulations with contempt, and refusing to obey my commands, I will punish you. – Leviticus 26:14-16 NLT

The old covenant was a “ministry of death” because the people could not keep it. It could do nothing but condemn them. It could expose their sin, but was not designed to help them have victory over sin. The law could tell them what to do or not to do, but was not capable of helping them obey. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:19-20 ESV). In his letter to the Galatians, he responds to the logical question, “If the law can’t help men live righteously, why did God give it?”

Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised. God gave his law through angels to Moses, who was the mediator between God and the people. – Galatians 3:19 NLT

Paul refers to and incident when Moses came down off the mountain after having received the law from God. His face literally glowed. He exuded the glory of God and the people were awed by it. It was the only evidence that the tablets of the law he passed on to them had come from God. When the glory on his face began to fade, so did their respect for and obedience to the law. But when Christ died, ushering in the new covenant, it was accompanied by the glory of the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God. Rather than an external and temporary form of glory, it was to be an internal and eternal one.

The new covenant has replaced the old covenant – “what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it” (2 Corinthians 3:10 ESV). No longer do men need to try and live up to the righteous standards of God equipped with nothing more than their own determination and sin-weakened will. They now have the Spirit of God living within them, whose power makes it possible for them to live in obedience to the will of God. The author of Hebrews, quoting an Old Testament prophecy found in the book of Jeremiah, explains the significance of this new covenant relationship with God made possible by the death of Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

If the first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need for a second covenant to replace it. But when God found fault with the people, he said: “The day is coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and led them out of the land of Egypt. They did not remain faithful to my covenant, so I turned my back on them, says the Lord. But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already. And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.When God speaks of a “new” covenant, it means he has made the first one obsolete. It is now out of date and will soon disappear. – Hebrews 8:7-13 NLT

The Corinthians were already recipients of this new covenant. They had received the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. But the day is coming when even the rebellious people of Israel will know what it is like to experience the grace of God and glory of His Spirit’s presence and power. Remember, Paul claimed his sufficiency came from God (2 Corinthians 3:5). Anything he accomplished was the result of the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. It was the Spirit who made is possible for Paul to be a minister of the new covenant. It was the Spirit who equipped him for service. It was the Spirit who validated his ministry. The new covenant had provided Paul with new life, a new nature, a new ministry, a new perspective on life, new hope, new purpose and a new relationship with God that was based on grace not effort, mercy and not merit.

Confident Conduits of God’s Grace.

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. – 2 Corinthians 3:1-6 ESV

Paul ended the last chapter with the words, “You see, we are not like the many hucksters who preach for personal profit. We preach the word of God with sincerity and with Christ’s authority, knowing that God is watching us” (2 Corinthians 2:17 NLT). He can’t help but feel a bit frustrated at having to defend himself and his ministry yet again. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he found himself having to deal with those who were questioning his authority and his apostleship. But as far as he was concerned, it was only God to whom he had to answer. “As for me, it matters very little how I might be evaluated by you or by any human authority. I don’t even trust my own judgment on this point. My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t prove I’m right. It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide” (1 Corinthians 4:3-4 NLT). 

Much of what Paul writes in this letter is not new news to the Corinthians. He had said it all before, in writing and in person. He wants them to know that he is not attempting to prove himself to them again. As far as he is concerned, he does not need a letter of recommendation, either from himself or anyone else. If they wanted proof of the effectiveness of his ministry, all they had to do was look at their own lives.

The only letter of recommendation we need is you yourselves. Your lives are a letter written in our hearts; everyone can read it and recognize our good work among you. Clearly, you are a letter from Christ showing the result of our ministry among you.– 2 Corinthians 3:2-3a NLT

Paul’s ministry had been fruitful. It had produced results. Lives had been changed. And there should have been no reason for him to defend himself. The believers in Corinth were his letter of recommendation “written not with pen and ink, but with the Spirit of the living God. It is carved not on tablets of stone, but on human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3b NLT). There was no greater proof of the validity of Paul’s apostolic ministry than the transformed lives of those who made up the church in Corinth. The amazing thing about what had happened in Corinth was not that Paul had arrived in town and was able to wow the people there with his oratory skills. He didn’t blow them away with his eloquence and powers of persuasion. In fact, just the opposite was the case.

When I first came to you, dear brothers and sisters, I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified. I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit. I did this so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God. – 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 NLT

The establishment of the church in Corinth had been the work of the Holy Spirit, not Paul. He had simply been a conduit through which the Spirit had worked. He had been an instrument in the hands of God. Paul could look at the changed lives of the people in Corinth and know with confidence that his work had been effective. And he also knew that it had not been because of his own skills or abilities. “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant” (2 Corinthians 3:5-6a ESV). Any success Paul had enjoyed was the result of God’s power, not his own. “We are confident of all this because of our great trust in God through Christ” (2 Corinthians 3:4 NLT).

It is important to note that Paul, while viewing himself as a servant of God, did not really believe that he was working on behalf of God as much as he was being used by God. He truly believed that God was working through him, not that he was working for God. Sometimes we can easily begin to think that we are doing God a favor by serving Him. We can believe that we are doing all the work and He is sitting back eagerly watching and waiting to see what it is we accomplish. But Paul knew that, without God’s power, all his efforts would have been in vain. God is not dependent upon us. It is the other way around. It was Paul who proudly proclaimed, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13 ESV). It was God who said to Paul, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NLT).

It is the Spirit who gives life, Paul asserts. It is God who makes possible the salvation of men. We have a role to play, but we must never forget that our role is as servants of God. We are tools in His hands, empowered by His Spirit and obligated to do His will His way. Paul will emphasize his understanding of his God-given role later on in this same letter.

And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” –2 Corinthians 5:18-20 NLT

We are conduits of God’s grace. We are PVC pipes carrying the live-giving message of the good news to those who are spiritually thirsty and starving. And we can be confident that God can and will use us as we make ourselves available to Him. Our weakness does not disqualify us, it makes us perfect candidates for God’s service.

God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 NLT

So, “If you want to boast, boast only about the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31 NLT). He can and does use you. Your value to Him begins with your recognition of your absolute dependence upon Him. Your greatest use to Him starts with your understanding that you are useless without Him. When we understand that God is power behind our effectiveness, we can become confident conduits of His grace.

Insufficiently Sufficient.

When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for me in the Lord, my spirit was not at rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I took leave of them and went on to Macedonia.

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. – 2 Corinthians 2:12-17 ESV

Paul seems to have felt it necessary to defend his movements since the time that he had sent his troubling letter to the Corinthians. He has already told them, “I wanted to come to you first, so that you might have a second experience of grace. I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia, and to come back to you from Macedonia and have you send me on my way to Judea” (2 Corinthians 1:15-16 ESV). He had already made one painful visit to the city of Corinth and had no desire of doing so again. “I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you” (2 Corinthians 2:1 ESV). In addition, he had been quite busy in the meantime, traveling to Troas and on to Macedonia. The Corinthians needed to understand that they were not the only fellowship for which Paul was responsible. He had many congregations over which he served as an apostle and their spiritual father. His dance card was full, so to speak. He was pulled in many different directions and always wrestling with the weight of the responsibility he felt for the spiritual well-being of the new believers who made up the churches he helped found. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he described his attitude regarding his relationship with them.

For even if you had ten thousand others to teach you about Christ, you have only one spiritual father. For I became your father in Christ Jesus when I preached the Good News to you. – 1 Corinthians 4:15 NLT

But at the end of the day, when all was said and done, Paul knew that his schedule was in the hands of God. He was the one leading them “in triumphal procession” as they followed the will of God and the example of Christ. There might appear to be setbacks and detours and there would most certainly be difficulties along the way, but the outcome was guaranteed to be a victorious one, because of Christ. Paul was content with being a means by which God spread the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ everywhere he went. Whether he ended up in Corinth, Troas, Macedonia, Asia, Palestine, Greece or Rome, it really didn’t matter. He knew that his mission remained unchanged – to share the good news of Jesus Christ to everyone with whom he came into contact.

But Paul was also painfully aware that the “fragrance” of the knowledge of Christ wasn’t always pleasant to everyone who heard it. He sadly states, “to those who are perishing, we are a dreadful smell of death and doom” (2 Corinthians 2:16a NLT). In his first letter, the apostle Peter refers to those who refuse to believe the gospel message as “those who do not believe” and who “stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do” (1 Peter 2:7-8 ESV). Because of sin, they are destined to condemnation and death – eternal separation from God. And in their condition the fragrance of the gospel comes across as a stench. It isn’t good news. As Paul wrote in his first letter, “…people who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can’t understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means” (1 Corinthians 2:14-15 NLT).

So what do they do? If the good news is incomprehensible to them, how do they get saved? It requires regeneration. Jesus told the Pharisee, Nicodemus, “unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God” (John 3:3 NLT). Because of the fall, men are born spiritually dead. They are without spiritual life and condemned to remain spiritually separated from and dead to God for eternity, unless something happens to regenerate them. In his letter to Titus, Paul reminds us that God “saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5 NLT).  J. I. Packer describes regeneration as “the spiritual change wrought in the heart of man by the Holy Spirit in which his/her inherently sinful nature is changed so that he/she can respond to God in Faith, and live in accordance with His will.”

So until the Holy Spirit regenerates the unbeliever, opening his eyes and giving him the capacity to see and comprehend the truth of the gospel, he will find the good news onerous and odorous.

But to those who “are being saved” the gospel and those who share it are “a life-giving perfume” (2 Corinthians 2:16b NLT). And while Paul feels completely inadequate for the task, he knows he is being used by God. He has been an eye-witness to the power of the gospel as exhibited in the changed lives of countless individuals who were once dead in their sins.

Paul wasn’t in it for the money. He wasn’t out to make a name for himself or build up his own reputation. He was like a captive being led in a victory parade by the victorious Christ. His place in the line had been made possible by Christ. His role in the spread of the gospel was the result of Christ’s sacrificial work on the cross. So he gladly preached the word “with sincerity and with Christ’s authority, knowing that God is watching us” (2 Corinthians 2:17 NLT). He had learned to go with the flow, to go where God directed him. He had learned to see apparent setbacks as nothing more than God’s orchestration of His divine will. He had learned to recognize his own weakness and God’s all-sufficient power. He was insufficiently sufficient, because he believed it when he said, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13 ESV). And as he would tell the Corinthians near the end of this letter, “That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 NLT). As the old hymn so clearly teaches:

I am weak, but Thou are strong,

Jesus, keep me from all wrong;

I’ll be satisfied as long,

As I walk, let me walk close to Thee.

Just a closer walk with Thee,

Grant it, Jesus, is my plea.

Daily walking close to Thee,

Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.

 

 

The 3 R’s.

Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs. – 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 ESV

In these verses Paul refers to an unnamed individual who had been a source of trouble in the church. Evidently, he had played an adversarial role, attempting in some way to undermine or question Paul’s ministry or the validity of his apostleship. And he had caused Paul and the church pain – (lypeō – sadness or grief). This man’s disruptive presence had been a source of consternation and sorrow, and it Paul concedes that is had been harder on the Corinthians than it had been on him.

Unlike their earlier response to the man who had been having an incestuous relationship with his stepmother (1 Corinthians 5:1-2), here they had chosen to deal with it. Even this had resulted in grief. Practicing tough love on a fellow believers is never easy. In the case of the young man committing adultery with his stepmother, Paul had told them, “Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:2 ESV). He went on to defend his recommendation, telling them, “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5 ESV). Church discipline is neither fun or easy. But the alternative can be devastating, as Paul told the Corinthians.

Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. – 1 Corinthians 5:6-7 ESV

In regards to the individual Paul refers to in this second letter, the Corinthians had practiced church discipline, but now it was time to restore their brother in Christ. He gently, but firmly reminds them, “Most of you opposed him, and that was punishment enough. Now, however, it is time to forgive and comfort him. Otherwise he may be overcome by discouragement” (2 Corinthians 2:6-7 NLT). The goal of church discipline should be the offending party’s repentance, restoration and reconciliation. This man had been publicly ostracized by the body of Christ, and it had made an impact on his life. Paul wanted them to forgive and restore him so that he would not lose heart and perhaps fall into greater sin. So Paul tells them, “ I urge you now to reaffirm your love for him” (2 Corinthians 2:8 NLT).

According to Paul, the body of Christ has been given the ministry of reconciliation. It was the same ministry to which he had been called by Christ.

And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” – 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 NLT

Helping restore lost individuals to a right relationship with God is our mission. But it also includes restoring believers who have walked away from God and the body of Christ through persistent sin. Paul told the believers in Galatia: “Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself” (Galatians 6:1 NLT). Practicing church discipline on a fellow believer without the ultimate goal being their restoration is ungodly. Removing an offending believer from your fellowship without intending to one day restore them is not what God had in mind.

One of the things we must always keep in mind is that Satan, our enemy, is always out to divide and conquer. Jesus said of him, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10a ESV). His intention is to steal those from the flock of God who are weak and vulnerable. He can’t take away their salvation, but he can steal their effectiveness and joy. He can kill their sense of contentment and destroy their unity with the body of Christ. Satan would much rather destroy the church from within, rather than attacking it from the outside. That is why we must be so concerned about sin within the camp. Sin, like yeast, permeates and spreads. It can be like a cancer, growing undetected, under the surface, silently infecting the entire body. So we must always be on the alert and willing to confront sin within the body of Christ. But along with confrontation must come compassion and restoration. Forgiveness is essential. This was a recurring theme for Paul:

…be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. – Ephesians 4:32 NLT

Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. – Colossians 3:13 NLT

May God, who gives this patience and encouragement, help you live in complete harmony with each other, as is fitting for followers of Christ Jesus. Then all of you can join together with one voice, giving praise and glory to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given glory. – Romans 15:5-7 NLT

Paul knew that God longed for unity among His people. Sin was and is an ever-present reality, but forgiveness should be as well. Otherwise, we open ourselves up to the evil scheme of Satan, who seeks to outwit us and destroy the unity Christ died to provide. That is why we need to practice the three R’s: Repentance, reconciliation and restoration. We are in this together. We are the body of Christ, the family of God. Our unity should be as important to us as it is to our heavenly Father.