I wonder if you get scared by what’s up ahead like I do. This morning I want us to find the antidote to fear.
Today’s the day in the cycle of the church calendar when we particularly remember the events on that Feast of Pentecost nearly 2000 years ago when God sent his Holy Spirit down on to the first disciples of Jesus. But it’s not 2000 years ago I’m so concerned about. It’s today.
That’s why it’s great that we’re moving on this morning to the next section of Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. Because it’s all about the massive difference the Holy Spirit makes to us today as we live for Jesus. What began with such power on that Day of Pentecost continues now, all around the world and in our lives.
So this is 2 Corinthians 3.7-18. This is the truth. I’m trying to explain it and apply it. You need to see it for yourselves - so please have that open in front of you.
Now, why do you think I get scared when I think about the future? I’ll tell you. It’s because of what Jesus has given us to do. God has called us to reach Tyneside with the good news of Jesus; and to reach this region; and to reach across cultures; and to play our part in reaching the world. The risen Jesus said to his disciples before Pentecost:
… you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Tyneside to the world is our equivalent. And that’s difficult! There are great obstacles. There’s opposition. There’s the energy-sapping stone wall of spiritual apathy that’s so characteristic of this generation. There is the blind irrationality that believes everything and nothing and hardly even grasps the concept of truth.
But we are charged with the mission of taking the gospel to Tyneside and the world. Many of you will be aware that we’ve been talking over these last few months about what we believe God is wanting to do with us at JPC over the coming generation. Grow to become a church of 5000. Plant other churches that will make up another 5000. That is part of a vision that I for one am more and more convinced is from God.
But how does being given a mission like that make you feel about yourself? Does the confidence drain out of you? Does the anxiety level rise like a flood? Do you feel like giving up before we’ve hardly started? Do you feel unequal to the task? Bully for you if you don’t, but I can tell you, when I look at myself that’s exactly how I feel. Unequal to the task. That hits the nail on the head. That’s me. And quite frankly, as I look at you, I think you’re unequal to the task as well.
So how are we going to do it? How are we going to fulfil this awesome gospel ministry that’s been given us? Well last week Ian was introducing this longer section of 2 Corinthians by pointing out that Paul is teaching that authentic gospel ministers suffer rejection; stick to God’s Word; are used by God’s Spirit; and rely on God’s Spirit.
And that’s the secret. The only hope we have is our own personal experience of that Pentecost outpouring of the Holy Spirit. ‘You will be given power…’ Jesus had said to them. Why? Because boy did they need it! They were just as unequal to the ask as us. And so was Paul. He’s under no illusions on that score. 3.5:
Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves…
And just look back to 2.16. Here’s my feeling:
And who is equal to such a task?
[God] has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
How can we do what God has called us to do when we’re not up to it? By relying on the Holy Spirit. How do we know we can rely on the Holy Spirit? That’s exactly what 3.7-18 is telling us. Here’s why Holy-Spirit-powered ministry works. Four reasons.
First, THE MINISTRY OF THE HOLY SPIRIT IS GLORIOUS
So that means our lives should not be full of ‘if only’s’. Do you know what I mean by that? ‘If only I was less weighed down with family responsibilities, then maybe God could do something with me. If only I could just have one miracle in my life then I could do great things for Jesus. If only I was richer then I could be so much more generous. If only this society was more responsive, then we might get somewhere. If only I could be more gifted then I’d be of some use.’ And so the ‘if only’s pile up in our minds until we’re completely swamped and spiritually stuck in the mud.
But God has given us everything we need to fulfil our mission. We already have it. We have been given a powerful and glorious ministry – and it could not be more glorious. It’s there in verse 7-11.
Before I read it let me say this: in this whole section 7-18 Paul makes a series of contrasts. In fact there’s a contrast corresponding to each of the four reasons why Holy Spirit powered ministry works. And the contrast he makes first is between the Old Covenant (Mount Sinai, Moses, the Ten Commandments and so on) and the New Covenant (of reconciliation with God through Christ in the power of the Spirit). So look out for that contrast between the Old Covenant and the New – between the Law and Gospel. Here it is (verses 7-11):
Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!
There’s no question that the Old Covenant was glorious. So much so, that when Moses came off Mount Sinai with the two tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments on them ( I quote), ‘his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord’. That’s what Exodus 34.29 says. And it was so impressive that it scared the Israelites and they wouldn’t come near. The giving of the Law was an awesome and glorious thing.
But the Law just ended up condemning us all. Why? Because our hearts are twisted and rebellious and we never kept it. So instead of showing us how to live, we just became subject to the just penalty of the Law – death. There’s nothing wrong with the Law. The problem’s us. Read – or re-read – Exodus and you’ll see the awe and glory of the Old Covenant under Moses.
And if that’s the glory of the old covenant that ends in death, the new covenant that brings life is massively more glorious. Instead of condemning us, it makes us right with God. Instead of death it brings life. It puts the old into the shade. Get an idea of the awe and divine glory of the old covenant, and you get just a tiny glimpse of the power and wonder – the glory – of what the Holy Spirit does through the gospel.
Do you wish you could have been there at the time of the Exodus, seen and heard the thunder and lightning, and the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, and glory shining from the face of Moses? Don’t let it bother you that you weren’t. Our experience of the Holy Spirit at work changing people’s lives through the gospel of Jesus is far more awesome and glorious. So no ‘if only’s. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is glorious.
Secondly, THE MINISTRY OF THE HOLY SPIRIT GIVES BOLDNESS
Here is the source of the courage that we need now and that we’re going to need in the years ahead so that we can make an impact on this region and nation in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the antidote to the timidity that can so easily cause us to withdraw into our shell like a shy tortoise. This is what gives us the confidence to let it be known that Jesus is everything to us, and to open our mouths and talk to other people about Jesus.
That was Paul’s experience. And here he makes the contrast between himself and Moses. So we’ve seen the contrast between the Old Covenant and the New. Here’s the next contrast – between Moses and Paul. Verses 12-13: Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away. That’s what Moses did – Exodus 34 tells us about it. When Moses had been speaking with the Lord his face would start to shine with the radiance of God’s glory. But when he went back among the people he would cover his face with a veil, hiding the radiance.
And Paul is using that as an illustration and saying ‘We don’t need to be like that.’ The glory of the gospel isn’t something that ever needs to be hidden from view like that. The Holy Spirit emboldens us to keep it out in the open, whatever reactions it provokes.
‘… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses…’
says Jesus (Acts 1.8). And that’s what happens. Acts 4.31:
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.
And was that at a time when things were easy and life was comfortable? No! Their leaders Peter and John had just been arrested and threatened precisely because they had been (I quote) ‘teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.’ They had been commanded (quotes) ‘not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus’. And what was the result? The whole church was speaking the word of God boldly. That was their response to being told not to:
‘ Now Lord, consider their threats [they prayed] and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.’
They were fully aware that on their own they wouldn’t do it. They’d hide. They’d let their fear overwhelm them. But they knew that the work of the Holy Spirit was to produce courage in them. Paul knew that, too. In the next chapter of this letter he speaks of his experiences of being hard-pressed, perplexed, persecuted, struck down. But none of it stopped him ministering the gospel. Why? The power of the Holy Spirit was at work within him.
A while back we stayed at a B and B and in the sitting room I noticed that there was a military medal framed and hung on the wall. With it was an account of what lead to its award. It was a Victoria Cross, awarded, as I recall, to the great uncle of our host. He was an infantry officer in the First World War. The citation described how he had rallied his men under a hail of fire, boldly and repeatedly placing himself in mortal danger, but galvanising his troops into successful action. He was injured and taken behind the lines. But as soon as he was patched up he insisted on going straight back to rejoin his men, walking up and down, all bandaged up, but tremendously encouraging to those under his command. Soon after he was awarded that VC, he was killed.
That kind of courage is what the Holy Spirit inspires in believers. I read the other day about an Australian woman who works in India as a missionary. Her husband and two young children had been brutally killed, burned to death in their car in a religiously motivated attack. But she says she forgives her killers because that’s what Jesus wants us to do, and she wants to carry on her husband’s work. That’s the kind of boldness and courage the Holy Spirit inspires in believers. We’re not equal to the task. But here’s a prayer for us to use consistently and from the heart: ‘Now Lord … enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.’ 2 Corinthians 3.12:
Therefore, since we have such a hope [of the glory of the gospel], we are very bold.
The ministry of the Holy Spirit is glorious and it gives boldness. Then:
Thirdly, THE MINISTRY OF THE HOLY SPIRIT SETS US FREE
If we need to pray for boldness, then here’s the heart of why we pray. People become Christians when the Holy Spirit sets them free from their blindness to the truth, and their slavery to sin, and their bondage to Satan. It’s the Holy Spirit who does it. We can’t. We have to be faithful in our witness to Jesus. But we can’t change anyone’s mind. God does that by his Spirit. And when we know that, then we pray. We ask God to do what only he can do. There’s no way our vision will become reality unless we become a more prayerful church, and unless we get a stronger hold on what it means to pray in faith. Only God can change lives. So we need to be asking him to do that, in faith.
This is verses 14-17. Here Paul uses the illustration of being veiled in a different way, and makes the contrast between the Israelites (and his contemporary fellow Jews) who couldn’t see the truth, and believers in Christ who do. So we’ve had the contrast between the Law and the Gospel; between Moses and Paul; and now between the Israelites and those who believe in Jesus.
But [the Israelites] minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (verse 14)
Paul obviously has the Jews – his own people – particularly in mind. And he’s saying that although they read the Bible (our Old Testament) – and in particular they read the Books of Moses (Genesis to Deuteronomy) – they completely miss the point.
Right from the beginning, the Bible’s message is about the grace of God. God saves a people for himself not because they’ve earned it, not because they’re better than anyone else, but because of God’s sheer, undeserved love and grace. The purpose of the Law never was that we should earn our place in heaven by our obedience. The purpose of the Law was to make it very clear to us that we need a Saviour, because of our inability to keep the Law. So the Law, just like all the rest of the Old Testament, points us to Jesus – if only we have the eyes to see that.
But they just don’t get it. They insist on thinking that it’s a matter of being good enough, moral enough - and then God will accept them. They completely miss the point. It’s as if the truth is right there, plain as day - but they don’t see it. Why? Because they have this veil over their eyes. They are blinded.
And of course, it’s not just the Jews. In a variety of ways, that blindness is all around us. All around us people walk around with a veil over their spiritual eyes. They cannot see the truth of Jesus. They cannot see who he is. They cannot understand what he’s done at the cross. As Paul puts it a little later on, in 4.4:
The god of this age [that’s Satan] has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
What frees people from this blindness? The ministry of the Holy Spirit liberates them. It is the Holy Spirit alone who can remove the veil.
My wife Vivienne and I were in Sri Lanka recently to take part in the dedication of a new building for the Navajeevana Healthcare Centre in Colombo. On the wall by the main entrance to the building is a beautifully engraved plaque. But when we arrived for the start of the dedication service, none of us could see a word that was written on it. Why? Because it was covered with a veil of fabric. And Jayantha, the medical director of the Centre who was leading the proceedings said to Vivienne as we all stood outside, ‘Vivienne, will you please unveil the plaque.’ So Vivienne stepped forward and very elegantly pulled aside the veil, revealing the plaque. And then we could read it. It’s in three languages so everyone can understand. And it was read out loud for all to hear:
This building is a testimony to the glory and goodness of God shown through the prayers and giving of God’s people throughout the world. Our vision is to provide healthcare with the love and compassion of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The request was made. The veil was removed. The message could be understood.
How do people understand the gospel and become Christians? The Holy Spirit removes the veil over their hearts. What does that mean for us who believe? Of course it means great thankfulness that the Spirit has done that for us. But it means that when we consider the unbelieving world around us, we should be driven to prayer. Who are the unbelievers who God’s given you a special concern for? Pray for them. Ask God to unveil their hearts, and set them free – ‘where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.’
The ministry of the Holy Spirit is glorious so that should put an end to our ‘if only’s. It gives boldness, so that should give us courage that overcomes our fear. And it set us free, so we should pray. Then finally:
Fourthly, THE MINISTRY OF THE HOLY SPIRIT MAKES US MORE LIKE JESUS
So we need to keep our focus on Jesus. The Holy Spirit acts like blinkers, keeping our spiritual eyes fixed on Jesus. This is the last verse of this section, verse 18. And here the contrast is between what we were, and what we will be. Heads down, and take a look again:
And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
There’s a wonderful double meaning to that word translated ‘reflect’ there. That’s why there’s a footnote in the NIV. Do you see that, at the bottom of the page? It says, ‘or contemplate’. In other words, this could be translated ‘we … contemplate the Lord’s glory’ as well as ‘we… reflect the Lord’s glory.’ I think Paul has both meanings in mind. Because it’s as we have our faces turned towards Jesus that we reflect his glory to the world around. We look to him. And others can then see his glory in our words and in our lives.
The moon has no light but the light of the sun. The side of the moon that’s towards the sun reflects its light and brightens our night skies. The side of the moon that’s facing away from the sun remains in darkness.
How are we going to fulfil our mission to reach Tyneside and the world with the good news of Jesus? By relying on the Holy Spirit, and keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus. Keep contemplating Jesus in order to keep reflecting Jesus. In the end it’s Jesus who is our vision. Not numerical goals or faith targets They have a place, but they are not the heart of the matter. Jesus is the heart of the matter. The ministry of the Spirit is to lift high his name. And nothing is more glorious; nothing is more emboldening; nothing is more liberating, and life-transforming than that.