I wonder if you are The One on the Run or The Faithful Friend? This passage from 2 Corinthians is important for all of us, but especially, I think for those of us who fit one of those two descriptions.
I’ll tell you what I mean in a moment, but first would you make sure that you’ve got 2 Corinthians 13.1-10 open in front of you. That’s on p 1166. It’ll really help if you can follow this in the Bible, so do share with your neighbour if you need to do that. I take encouragement from what Paul says back at the start of this letter, in 1.13, where he says…
… we do not write to you anything you cannot read or understand.
Note that he doesn’t promise it’ll be easy. We just have to work at it. Now, who do I mean by The One on the Run and The Faithful Friend?
The One on the Run is someone who thinks of himself (or herself – we’ll take that as read) as a Christian, but who doesn’t like some aspect of the Bible’s teaching as it relates to his life, and so ignores it and runs away from what Christ is saying to him through it. So this is someone on the run from the voice of God.
The Faithful Friend, on the other hand, is someone who is a believer, and is the friend, perhaps even the parent, of such a One on the Run. The Faithful Friend is upset and anxious about his friend’s flight from God, and is trying to do all he can to get the One on the Run to stop running and to come back to Christ and start obeying him.
This passage is massively helpful for both of these two. And that may well include you. In fact, in different parts of your life you might even be doing both things at once. As you can see from the outline on the service sheet, I have five headings which I hope will help us to piece together what’s going on in Paul’s mind here. So I want to consider Paul’s witness, his power, his test, his prayer, and his purpose.
First, PAUL’S WITNESS
Take a look at verse 1 down to the start of verse 3:
This will be my third visit to you. [And then Paul quotes the Old Testament law – Deuteronomy 19.15 to be precise] “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses”. I already gave you a warning when I was with you the second time. I now repeat it while absent: On my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others, since you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me.
The question here is: What is that the Corinthians are doing wrong? Answer: They are rejecting Christ; they are failing to turn away from sinful patterns of behaviour; and they are listening to the liars. The liars are the false teachers, those Paul labels with heavy sarcasm the ‘super-apostles’ who are persuading the Corinthians not to listen to Paul but to them. So, as we’ve seen over these last few weeks, the Corinthians are turning away from Paul and because what Paul teaches is the truth about Jesus, they are thereby turning away from Christ as well. If you reject Paul’s authority and his teaching, you end up rejecting Christ as well.
Why does Paul quote that law from Deuteronomy that says, “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses”? It seems to me that he’s laying a solemn charge against the Corinthians, and he’s calling each of his three visits (two past and one future) as witnesses against them. Their treatment of him has become an established pattern. His second visit to them is the one that he describes in 2.1 as his ‘painful visit’ to them. He’s afraid that when he visits them again the pattern will be repeated and prove his point that they’re turning away from him and soaking up the lies of the ‘super-apostles’. So he’s already said in 11.3:
I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be lead astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.
The serpent, of course, represents Satan, the Father of lies and liars. And again in 11.19-20 he says:
You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise! [More sarcasm] In fact, you even put with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or pushes himself forward or slaps you in the face.
And when they demand proof that Christ is speaking through him, that’s not a neutral seeking after truth. What lies behind those demands is really a denial that Christ is speaking through Paul. So Paul is saying: “I and my visits stand witness against you that you are listening to the liars, rejecting Christ, and reflecting that in your behaviour.”
The other day the Chief Executive of Enron was convicted of fraud in relation to the financial scandal that brought that massive company crashing down. The woman who blew the whistle had written to him to tell him what was going on. But he either knew about it and was colluding, or he chose to shut his ears to the warning and ignore it and listen to the lies of those around him in a way that amounted to criminal negligence. Listening to lies is dangerous.
What, then, of The One on the Run and the Faithful Friend? The first thing for us to take on board is that whether we’re running away or we’re trying to help someone who is, we have to face the problem head on. We have to look it in the eyes and tell it for what it is. Lies must be identified as lies. That’s Paul’s witness.
Secondly, PAUL’S POWER.
The Corinthians are listening to the liars. Paul has given his witness to that. What, then, can Paul do about it? We’ve already seen how, in verse 2, he says:
On my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others…
And he goes on (end of verse 3 and verse 4):
He [that is Christ] is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him to serve you.
What can Paul do about the fact that the Corinthians are listening to the liars? The first answer to that is: nothing. He is powerless. He can’t use deception or manipulation to get them to do what he wants. As he has already said back in 4.2:
… we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God.
Nor can he use physical coercion. 10.3-4:
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.
So he cannot make them think or do anything. But Christ can. And Christ will, through Paul. How? By his Spirit, and by his word, spoken in love. Christ deals with people by the word and the Spirit. And that seems weak. Paul seems powerless in the face of the onslaught of those ‘super-apostle’ liars. Just like Christ himself seemed weak as he hung there on the cross, as he was “crucified in weakness”. But in fact, at the cross Christ was breaking the power of evil and lies once and for all. He is actually all-powerful. He will save his chosen people from the liars. He will bring them back to Paul. He will cause them to hear Paul’s appeal. Only those who are perishing remain blind to the truth.
Paul is weak in himself. In other words he is powerless. He is completely unable himself to bring about the change in the Corinthians that he wants to see. But God is powerful. And Paul knows that God will work through him by the truth of his word and the power of his Spirit to turn hearts and minds back to him, to the gospel, and to Jesus. The word and the Spirit seem weak in comparison to what the world thinks of as power, but they are not.
I recently heard Bill Hybels, the senior pastor of Willow Creek church in Chicago, speaking. He told how when Bill Clinton was President, Clinton asked Hybels to meet up with him once a month for Bible study and prayer. As Hybels said rather ruefully, things got bad enough, but imagine what they could have been like if he hadn’t been doing that! But he told how wherever the President goes, this briefcase goes with him, which for some reason they call the ‘football’. It has in it the nuclear codes and the button – in other words the technology that could unleash unthinkable destruction. And on one occasion, Clinton and Hybels were moving through to another room and the guy who carries the ‘football’ briefcase offered to carry Hybels briefcase too. So there he was, the ‘football’ in one hand, and Hybels briefcase in the other. And Hybels said that image stuck with him. And he said how worldly power seen close-to is impressive. But he said he realised that the Bible in his briefcase was actually far more powerful than the nuclear button in the President’s. And what is more, it was power to build up, not to destroy.
So if you’re The One on the Run from Christ, you need to realise that nobody can force you to change. That Christian friend who is worried about you cannot make you do anything. Even if what you were doing was criminal, the most the police could do would be to lock you up. They couldn’t change your heart and your thinking. But God can, through his word and his Spirit. Don’t imagine you’re more powerful than him. It might even look as if you are for now. But you’re not.
And if you’re the Faithful Friend, then accept your powerlessness. But use Christ’s power – and trust the change to him.
Thirdly, PAUL’S TEST
What should the Corinthians be doing in this situation? Look on to verses 5-6:
Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realise that Christ Jesus is in you – unless, of course, you fail the test? And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test.
What should they do about it? They should look for the Spirit of Christ in their lives. Now what Paul says here is at first a bit puzzling. Why does he go on to say “I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test”, rather than “I trust that you will discover that you have not failed the test”? Surely what he means is this. The real test of whether they have the Spirit of Christ is how they react to the voice of Christ – and Christ is speaking through Paul to them. So if they have the Spirit, they’ll recognise that Paul is telling them the truth. They’ll recognise that Paul passes this test – that Christ is in him.
If the Spirit of Christ is in us, we do recognise and respond to the authentic voice of Christ, even it takes us a while to get round to it. So Jesus himself says, in John 10. 14-16:
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me… They… will listen to my voice…”
If you have a diesel engine, and it has diesel fuel in it, then it’ll run properly. If it has petrol put in it, it gets severely dysfunctional. I know all about that. There’s a quick and easy test for what’s in it. You can try and drive it. If you fill a believer’s life with lies, it gets severely dysfunctional, and it’s not hard to spot. Especially if that life is yours.
So what’s the message to The One on the Run? Stop. Look inside your heart. Do you not recognise, if you’ll only give yourself the space to think about it honestly, that what Jesus is telling you through his word is true and for your best? If you really don’t, then whatever you call yourself, you are not yet really a believer, and now is the time to recognise that and do something about it. Turn to Christ today. But if you do know the truth and rightness of God’s word deep down, then today is the day to stop ignoring it.
And if you’re The Faithful Friend, despite all of the frustrations and the seeming lack of response, be confident of God’s sovereign power, don’t give up expecting change, and keep on talking and telling the truth.
Fourthly, PAUL’S PRAYER
What does Paul want God to do about this crucial issue he has with the Corinthians? He wants God to change them. Look now at verses 7-9:
Now we pray to God that you will not do anything wrong. Not that people will see that we have stood the test but that you will do what is right even though we may seem to have failed. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. We are glad whenever we are weak but you are strong; and our prayer is for your perfection.
He’s praying, negatively, that they won’t sin – “we pray to God that you will not do anything wrong”. And he’s praying, positively, that they will grow in Christ and become mature, no longer at the mercy of liars – “our prayer is for your perfection”. Why is he praying? Because he knows this is only going to happen by the power of God. God’s got to change them.
D. E. Hoste was the man who succeeded Hudson Taylor as the General Director of the China Inland Mission, that subsequently became OMF. He was appointed in 1900, just after the Boxer Uprising during which 57 missionaries were killed and thousands of Chinese believers were tortured, many of whom died. He lead the mission for the next 35 years. He knew the challenges of Christian leadership. Listen to this characteristically simple and challenging reflection of his:
“We can’t discern God’s mind for the way we should carry out his work unless we spend unhurried time in Bible study and in prayer, learning from him and listening to him. Spiritual power in ministry, that is the power which shows people their need of Christ, and builds up Christians in their faith, only comes through the hard work of intercessory prayer.”
So if you’re on the run from God and deep down you want to get back on track, then admit your need for God to change you. You cannot do it alone. You cannot do it without the work of his Spirit within you.
And if you’re The Faithful Friend wanting to see that person you love get back on track, then keep on praying. That is the path to spiritual power. Paul prayed.
Fifthly, PAUL’S PURPOSE
Paul uses very strong – often biting – language to the Corinthians. And he needs them to know his motivation. Why is he saying these things? Why is he being so tough with them? Does he hate them? Here’s verse 10 where Paul spells out his purpose so there can be no mistake:
… our prayer is for your perfection [he has just told them]. This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority – the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down.
What does Paul mean by a harsh use of authority? He has no physical sanction that he can take, and he wouldn’t want to as we’ve seen. So he must mean that if need be he’ll give them a strong verbal rebuke face-to-face. And that’s what he wants to avoid the need for through a positive response to this letter. He says, “You might feel as if I’m tearing you down, or tearing you apart. But I’m not. I love you. I want the best for you. I want to build you up. My purpose is not destruction but construction.” That’s the big difference between him and the liars – because behind all lies is Satan, the father of lies, whose purpose is always death and destruction.
It was Oscar Wilde, apparently, who said: “A true friend stabs you in the front”. And sometimes that’s almost literally true. I’ve see the scars my father has on his chest as a result of the heart bypass surgery he had very successfully many years ago. That surgeon treated him, from one perspective, incredibly harshly. And yet the surgeon’s knife is a tool, not of wounding, but of healing.
So if you are on the run from God and God has been gracious enough to give you friends who are giving you grief because they want to see you back on track, don’t doubt the love of your friends. See beyond your anger with them, to the care for you that motivates them.
And if you’re the Faithful Friend who’s causing the grief, make sure, of course, that your frustration isn’t taking over and eating away at your love. But then keep reminding your wayward friend why it is that you’re being tough with them. Tell them, as Paul does here, that you care for them and you want their long-term good.
The letter is wrapped up in those last verses, 11-14. We’ll look at them in more detail next week. But what’s clear is that for all the aggro between them, the Corinthians are still Paul’s brothers and sisters, he still loves them, he hasn’t lost his affection for them underneath all the righteous anger, and he throws out one last plea: “Listen to my appeal! Listen to me! I’ve poured my heart out to you. Don’t ignore me.”
He reminds me a bit of someone talking to a person who’s in a coma. He keeps on talking, convinced that in the end the words will get through, communication will open up again, and life will start afresh.
So one last word to The One on the Run: Do you know deep down that you are shutting your ears to the truth? Well, open them! Start listening again to Christ and his word, and acting on it. That is the only way to peace and to reconciliation.
And a final word, too, to The Faithful Friend: Never give up loving and making your appeal, however powerless you feel. Because Christ is powerful among us.
For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power.