You’ve probably heard of churches in other parts of the world where the pastor is on a huge salary, drives an expensive car, lives in a big house with swimming pool - and no-one thinks twice about it. You hear of churches here where the Vicar is unfaithful to the Bible, but because he’s got a theology degree, no-one questions him. You hear of churches where the leader is more like an entertainer, and the services more like a TV program, and although there’s no real gospel content, people put up with it.
What’s going on in those situations? What’s going on is that Christian ministry is being judged by the world’s standards. We soak up standards and values from the world almost without realising it and then apply them to the church. So, successful businessmen are on huge salaries, and we apply that to Christian ministry. The academic world says only degrees really qualify you to do something, so we apply that to Christian ministry. The media often puts appearances above character and spin above substance, so we apply that to Christian ministry.
But if we apply the world’s standards to God’s church we’ll inevitably misjudge what is good ministry and what is not. And God inspired this morning’s Bible passage to stop us doing that. And it is the responsibility of every one of us to evaluate the ministry we’re part of, and to ask whether it’s being done along God’s lines or not. That’s our responsibility year by year if we stay in JPC. And that’s our responsibility as and when we come to move and look for another church.
So would you turn in the Bibles to 2 Corinthians 11. Last week we began a new sermon series in 2 Corinthians. Let me remind you of the background to it by revising what we saw. Look at 2 Corinthians 11.2, where the apostle Paul writes to this church he planted:
2I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. 3But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent's cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. [So he’s concerned that they’re being misled by some supposedly Christian ministers who’ve arrived in town after he’s gone.] 4For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. [But not only are these false ministers unfaithful to the Bible, they’re also criticising Paul. So, Paul defends himself by saying:] 5But I do not think I am in the least inferior to those "super-apostles." [As he sarcastically calls the false ministers.] 6I may not be a trained speaker, but I do have knowledge. (vv2-3)
So what was happening was this:false ministers in Corinth were talking their own credentials up (which Paul refers to throughout this passage as ‘boasting’); and they were talking Paul down. Eg, they highlighted the fact that they were well-trained speakers, capable of much more polished preaching than Paul. And the trouble was: the Corinthians accepted them, because the world in their day was impressed by polished public speaking. But Paul called the behaviour of both the false ministers and the Corinthians foolishness. By which he meant, ‘operating by the world’s wisdom’ - bringing the world’s standards into God’s church – which should actually be operating on entirely different values, Christ’s values.
And Paul’s problem was how to defend himself. Because to stop the Corinthians being led even more astray, he had to. But the danger was that he’d end up sounding just like the false ministers – talking himself up (ie, ‘boasting’) and talking them down. So with a good deal of awkwardness, he basically says, ‘OK, to show you the difference between me and them, I’m going to mimic their foolishness. I’m going to talk myself up and them down.’ So look at 11.1. The section of this sermon series begins:
1I hope you will put up with a little of my foolishness… (v1)
So that’s the background, which brings us to heading no.1:
Firstly, DON’T BE FOOLED BY JUDGING CHRISTIAN MINISTERS BY THE WORLD’S STANDARDS (vv16-21)
Let’s read from v16:
16I repeat: Let no one take me for a fool. [Ie, ‘I am mimicking these false ministers, but please don’t think I really operate like them, by their values.’] But if you do, then receive me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting. 17In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool. 18Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast. [Ie, ‘I too will talk myself up and set out my credentials as a Christian minister.’ And then he gets very sarcastic about the way they’ve accepted these false ministers:] 19You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise! [Ie, you think you are, but you’re not] 20In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or pushes himself forward or slaps you in the face. (vv16-20)
What’s Paul doing there? He’s trying to show them how fooled they are, and how ridiculous it is that they’ve been so impressed by such non-Christian behaviour in these supposedly Christian ministers.
The trouble, as I’ve said, was that the Corinthians had taken their values for Christian ministry from the world. There were traveling speakers at the time who were brilliant up-front personalities, very polished preachers. And since these false ministers were like that, the Corinthians thought they must be good. The traveling speakers of the day also charged hefty amounts of money for their services and it appears that these false ministers also did. Where it says in v20 ‘exploits you’ that’s a money word. ‘Rips you off,’ is what we’d say today. It’s a bit like a top lawyer who charges £200 an hour. ‘He must be good,’ we think. And then, v20, Paul says that these false ministers ‘enslaved’ the Corinthians and ‘pushed themselves forward’ and even ‘slapped them in the face’. That may be literal slapping, or it may be metaphorical - we might say, ‘They wiped the floor with them.’ So these false ministers were authoritarian and self-important (you were there to serve them, not the other way round) and it sounds like they wouldn’t tolerate any criticism but doled it out generously themselves. And Paul was saying to the Corinthians, ‘How can you be impressed with that? How come you’ve swallowed that?’ And the answer was that it was like the leadership they saw in the world: the kind of ‘strong’ leadership that’s pushy, domineering and has no time for what it sees as the little people, the weak people, the unstrategic people. And then, v21, Paul says very sarcastically,
21To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that! (v21)
Ie, ‘ We were too weak for that kind of leadership, for the world’s kind of leadership.’ Because Paul did Christ’s kind of leadership which, if you look back to 10.1 was marked by meekness and gentleness.
Now we may be shocked that Paul can be so sarcastic, but they needed shocking, and warning (and so do we), to see that it’s highly possible to be fooled by judging Christian ministry by the world’s standards. Eg, we may look at the business world and say, ‘Well, a minister’s like a manager.’ And there’s just enough truth in that for it to be dangerous. But go down that road and you get ministers demanding big money; you get ministers who are out of touch at the so-called ‘top’ of their churches; and you get ministries for the strong and strategic but where the weak and wounded are neglected; ministries where numbers are everything but individuals are lost. Or we may look at the academic world and say, ‘A minister’s like a teacher or lecturer.’ Again, there’s some truth in that. But go down that road and you end up saying that academic qualifications are the guarantee of faithful ministry. But as you know, there are people with theology degrees and PhD’s in pulpits up and down the country denying the gospel even as I speak. Or we may look at the media world and say, ‘A minister’s like a presenter.’ But go down that road and you end up with entertainment which aims to be evangelistic or youth-friendly but ultimately loses the gospel along the way.
So what’s the lesson? Don’t be fooled by judging Christian ministers by the world’s standards. Don’t ever be uncritical of the ministry you’re part of – it needs evaluating. And when we evaluate, we’re to use Biblical values, not the world’s. And for the hundreds of us ministering in the different ministry area here in JPC let’s measure ourselves likewise by the Bible’s values, not the world’s. So eg, being a youth leader is not the same as being a Blue Peter presenter. Being in music group is not the same as being a performer. And so on.
Don’t be fooled by judging Christian ministry by the world’s standards. So what are the Bible’s standards or values? Well, onto my other heading:
Second, DO JUDGE CHRISTIAN MINISTERS BY THE CHRIST THEY CLAIM TO SERVE (vv21-33)
Read on in v21:
What anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool [ie, ‘Remember: I’m mimicking the false ministers, not operating like them’]—I also dare to boast about. 22Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham's descendants? So am I. (vv21-22)
So these false ministers had Jewish backgrounds. And they were probably talking up their pedigree: ‘We’ve been brought up with the Old Testament,’ they would have said, ‘We’ve been well-trained and can even read it in the original Hebrew – so you better believe us.’ To which Paul says, ‘The same is true of me.’ So onto v23:
23Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have… (v23)
Now imagine you’d never read 2 Corinthians. What would you expect Paul to say next? ‘I have… planted more churches than any of them; I’ve preached the gospel in more places to more people than any of them; I’ve seen more conversions than any of them; I’ve seen more people trained and sent into full-time ministry than any of them; I’ve had greater leadership in the world-wide church than any of them.’ He could have said all that and it would have been true. But the knock-out punch of this passage is what he actually says, v23:
I have… worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one [that was the Jewish synagogue punishment for preaching what the Jews regarded as heresy. People were known to die from it.]. 25Three times I was beaten with rods [that was a Roman punishment.], once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked [and since this was written before the shipwreck in Acts, it actually happened at least four times in his life - and after one of them he says:], I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers [no bridges in most places, remember], in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers [like the false ministers in Corinth.]. 27I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? (vv23-29)
What - or rather who - does that list remind you of? Because when you’ve seen that, you begin to see the point…
33"We are going up to Jerusalem," [Jesus] said, "and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, 34who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise." (Mark 10.33-34)
34Then [Jesus] called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Mark 8.34) [Ie, ‘ He must deny himself any rights – eg, to an easy life – and must be prepared to suffer and sacrifice and serve as I am going to suffer and sacrifice and serve on the cross.’]
The Bible’s says: we’re to judge Christian ministers by the Christ they claim to serve. Which means asking two questions.
• Do you see a ‘cross-shaped life’?
On the one hand, as you look at a Christian minister – or as you look at your own ministering - do you see a ‘cross-shaped life’? Because that’s the point of that list in vv21-29: it’s a cross-shaped life. And Paul’s ministry was a kind of long, drawn-out crucifixion. A cross-shaped life means willingness to suffer – to suffer opposition and difficulty and emotional and physical pain in our efforts to see Christ glorified and the gospel preached and his people looked after. Is that our shape? A cross-shaped life means willingness to sacrifice – to sacrifice time, sleep, money, maybe home, home country, career, to see Christ glorified and the gospel preached and his people looked after. Is that our shape? And a cross-shaped life means willingness to serve - to love people. That’s what drove Paul to all this and that’s why v28 is like the climax to it all. Look at v28:
28Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? (vv28-29)
The false ministers were basically in it for themselves – relishing the status, the praise, the chance to show off. Whereas Paul was in it for people and their eternal destinies - and for all people, including the weak and wounded and those the false ministers would have thought unimportant. And when he saw people being misled he didn’t just shrug his shoulders, he saw eternal destinies at stake and waded in whatever the cost to him. And the Corinthian church certainly cost him, and in one sense gave him more pain than those Jewish lashes or Roman rods.
So what do we learn? That a genuine Christian minister – whether a bishop or vicar, a Home Group- or youth-leader – lives a cross-shaped life. And actually you’d say the same about a genuine Christian, full stop: willing to suffer, to sacrifice and to serve. What’s conspicuous by its absence in Paul’s list is any mention of results, of numbers. Because success (to use the world’s term) – ie, what results we actually see - is in God’s hands. What’s in our hands is the willingness to suffer, sacrifice and serve.
So genuine Christian ministry will always look and feel like a kind of crucifixion. I think of our vision to grow, God-willing, to be a church of 5,000 with 5,000 more in church plants like the initial one in Gateshead. And you can think that it’s going to be like Tesco marching on, taking more and more of the market share in a long story of well-planned, smoothly-executed success. But whatever the Lord does do with us in the next 20 years, it won’t be like that. It’ll be like vv23-29: full of difficulty and set-backs and opposition and financial needs and deficits and so on – nothing like you’d plan. God will keep it cross-shaped.
So to judge a Christian minister – or measure ourselves – we need to ask, ‘Do I see a cross-shaped life?’ But then, last question on the outline, we also need to ask what we hear:
• Do you hear self-effacing speech?
These false ministers clearly loved to talk themselves up, and to make the connection between what was happening (eg, people becoming Christians), and their part in it – as if it was more down to their brilliance than God’s work. In fact as you listened to them, most of the glory went to them. So look down lastly to v30 and the total contrast in Paul:
30If I must boast [and remember: I’m mimicking them, not operating like them], I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying. 32In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. 33But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands. (vv30-33)
And at first sight, v31 seems a bit odd – almost a change of subject. But it makes perfect sense if you remember what a life-changing experience Paul had in Damascus. You remember in Acts 9 how he went to Damascus as a non-Christian bent on destroying the church. He went there as a leading Jewish theologian, a rising star, a man tipped to become a bishop or even an archbishop, a man with the world at his feet. In a word, he went strong. And then the risen Lord Jesus met him on the road and turned him around, and Paul started preaching Jesus in Damascus – until his fellow-Jews rounded on him and he had to escape. And he left through a window in the city wall in a basket, looking (and no doubt feeling) like a failure, like a fugitive, like a fool. In a word, he left weak. And it was a life-changing moment. Because as he was being lowered in that basket, he must have realised that he’d kissed all hopes of his own glory goodbye. And for the rest of his life he’d have a ministry that made him look weak in the world’s eyes.
So what do we learn from these last few verses? Well, v30, that a genuine Christian minister – indeed, a genuine Christian - will ‘boast of the things that show [his or her] weakness.’ Ie, they will talk up their own weakness so that the glory for any fruit in their lives or in their ministry goes to Christ. So, eg, we won’t say, ‘I’m not surprised the attendance at my Home Group has gone up – after all, I’ve been leading it so well.’ We’ll say, ‘I’m rejoicing that God is developing commitment to his Word and to one another in the members of our group – despite the weaknesses of my leadership.’ We won’t say, ‘I knew so-and-so would finally become a Christian because of all my brilliant evangelistic efforts.’ We’ll say, ‘I’m amazed that God’s used me to bring them to Christ despite all my cowardice and inconsistency and incompetence.’
When genuine Christian ministers talk about their ministry or church or Christian organisation, you’ll hear more about their weaknesses, and most about the Lord.
As I said at the start, we’re all responsible for evaluating the ministry we’re part of, and asking whether it’s being done along God’s lines or not. That’s our responsibility year by year if we stay in JPC. And that’s our responsibility as and when we come to move on and look for another church. Because it’s not just leaders who are responsible for misleading. It’s churches - like the one in Corinth - that are responsible for being misled. So what God is saying to us through this part of his Word is:
• Don’t be fooled by judging Christian ministers by the world’s standards.
• Instead, do judge Christian ministers by the Christ they claim to serve. Do you see a cross-shaped life that reminds you of Christ? Do you hear self-effacing speech that brings glory to Christ? And as a Christian, and in any ministry you have, can others see and hear those things in you?