This week I read the true story of an American called Gerald Barnes. He wanted to be an actor or a doctor, but didn’t make it as either. Instead, he became a pharmacist. But it then occurred to him that he could pretend to be a doctor - which he did for 20 years, picking it up from those he worked with. Eg, he asked one colleague how to improve his stitching of wounds (never actually having done any). The colleague said he sometimes practised on a fresh chicken from the supermarket. And that’s how Gerald Barnes learned to do stitches. He rose to become Director of a top clinic which, ironically, won the contract for the health-care of FBI agents – the very people whose job is to uncover frauds like Gerald Barnes.
Well, they did finally uncover him. But not before a patient had died.
It matters to be able to spot whether a doctor is authentic or not. Because your health, your life, is at stake. And it matters even more to be able to spot whether a Christian minister is authentic or not. Because your spiritual health, your eternal life, is at stake. There are ministers, leaders, bishops, claiming to be Christian, who are not. There are churches, organisations and cults claiming to be Christian, which are not. The crucial question is: how do you spot an authentic gospel minister or ministry? And that’s the question answered by this morning’s bit of 2 Corinthians.
So would you turn to 2 Corinthians 2. We’re in a series on this letter from the apostle Paul to a church he planted in Corinth. He was currently away from Corinth, dealing with problems there by letter. And the box below shows the main problems Paul faced:
Problems in Corinth: • The ‘one who has caused grief’ (2.5) • The Corinthians’ false expectations about Christian life and ministry • The new teachers who’ve arrived in Corinth (2.17, 3.1)
Two weeks back we saw how Paul had to deal with a particular individual. 2.5 calls him the ‘[one] who has caused grief’. It seems this individual had gone off the rails and then tried to turn the church against Paul during his last visit. So Paul had left, written a severe letter to stop the whole church going off the rails, and sent it with Titus. He then planned to meet Titus at a place called Troas, to find out how they’d responded. So let’s pick it up at 2.12:
Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me [ie, given him a good opportunity], I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said good-bye to them and went on to Macedonia [ie, towards Corinth, hoping to meet Titus part-way.] (2.12-13)
Well, they did finally meet up. The good news was that the problem of the individual who’d ‘caused grief’ had been sorted out. The bad news was the two other problems in that box above. One was the Corinthians’ false expectations about Christian life and ministry. They expected an authentic gospel minister to be strong and successful – hundreds coming to faith, a mega-church with seating for 5,000 a multi-storey car park and a staff gym. Whereas the story of Paul’s ministry was weakness and suffering. So was he authentic? And that question was fuelled by the other problem. A group of new teachers had arrived in Corinth. They claimed to be authentic ministers - and said that Paul, by contrast, was not.
So in 2 Corinthians Paul is writing to defend himself. To show why he is the authentic gospel minister and why these new teachers are not. And we need what he says every bit as much as the Corinthians did back then. Because we need to evaluate everything that claims to be Christian ministry. We need to evaluate our own church, especially the ministries we’re responsible for. Is this an authentic gospel ministry? Those of us moving away will need to evaluate other churches as we look for a new one to join. We need to evaluate parachurch ministries – from campus groups to Spring Harvest. We need to evaluate the people who come knocking on our doors from cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the International Church of Christ. And we need to evaluate our own personal evangelism.
So… how do you spot an authentic gospel minister?
Firstly, AUTHENTIC GOSPEL MINISTERS ALWAYS SUFFER SOME REJECTION (2.14-16)
Read the book of Acts or the rest of 2 Corinthians (eg, 1.8-11, 4.7-12, 6.3-10, 11.21-33) and you’ll see how much Paul suffered for the gospel. He was beaten up during missions. He was thrown out of towns. And he lived under Jewish death-threats. And the Corinthians were thinking, ‘Isn’t something wrong, here? Surely if you’re on God’s side, doing God’s work, it’ll be one, long, triumphal procession of conversions, popularity and success.’ Whereas with Paul, numbers coming to faith were low and numbers rejecting were high. His evangelism seemed to be one, long string of set-backs and suffering. But look how Paul saw it with the eyes of faith. 2.14:
But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.
Now if you’ve read some serious, ancient history like the Asterix books you’ll know what Roman generals did after they’d gone and defeated some army somewhere. They came back to Rome and had a triumphal procession through the streets, leading their prisoners of war, so that everyone could see who’d won, and also have a good laugh at those who’d lost - and throw some rotten tomatoes, etc, at them.
And in v14, that’s Paul’s picture of evangelism. Paul’s saying: God is in fact the winning general – winning every time he turns a person back to himself as we spread the gospel. But in the process, we often look like, even feel like, losers. We’re often the minority, often get laughed at, often get stick. We’re like the prisoners of war. But, says Paul, don’t let that make you think something’s wrong. Because the gospel will always get a mixed reaction. Read on, v15:
For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. (2.15-16)
Paul now uses a second picture of what’s going on as we spread the gospel – this time, the picture of an Old Testament sacrifice being burned so that the aroma goes up to God and is also smelt by the people around. So in the first picture, we’re the prisoners of war. In the second picture, we’re the sacrifice, the dead cow being burned on the altar. And our living and speaking for Christ is like the smell given off to God and the people around us. Now God loves the smell – loves us living and speaking for him. But from other people we’ll always get a mixed response. It’s a bit like the scene around a barbecue: a big steak is cooking and on one side is a group of vegetarians and on the other side is a group of meat-eaters. And the reaction to the same smell in the two groups is completely different. It’s a divided reaction. Well, now look at v15. People are divided into ‘those who are being saved [ie, those in whom God is currently at work to bring them to faith] and those who are perishing [ie, those in whom God is not currently at work, people he’s currently leaving in their rejection of him. Clearly, those are not fixed groups, in the sense that you move from being in one to being in the other when God does start to work in your life to draw you to himself.]’. And whenever we try to witness for Christ to someone in whom God is not currently at work, they will reject us – they won’t like ‘the smell’ of our witness. Because by nature they don’t want God – any more than you did, if you’re a Christian, before God worked in you. But those in whom God is at work will like ‘the smell’ of our witness, and want to know more.
So because there are always those two groups of people, our witness will always get a mixed response – some accepting, some rejecting. So authentic gospel ministers always suffer some rejection. And evangelism where there’s no negative reaction at all is suspect.
So, as a church and as individuals let’s expect some level of rejection - and not misinterpret that to mean something’s wrong. Now of course we can provoke rejection by being tactless or unloving. But even assuming we’re witnessing as well as we can, there will still always be rejection. We will be disliked as a church – by the world and by a denomination which is selling out to the world (which is, increasingly, the world in denominational clothing). And we will be disliked, to some degree, as individuals for our faith. But that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily doing anything wrong. We shouldn’t think, ‘If only I was sharing my faith right, there would be no negative reactions and all my family and friends would come to Christ.’ Not true. Jesus was the prefect witness and they crucified him. There will always be mixed reaction.
So, authentic gospel ministers always suffer some rejection.
Second, AUTHENTIC GOSPEL MINISTERS STICK TO GOD’S WORD (2.16-17)
End of v16:
And who is equal to such a task?
Eg, I go and speak on a university mission – speaking to hundreds of people; possibly the one chance they’ll get to hear the gospel. But there’s a lot of it they don’t want to hear. Eg, they don’t want to hear there’s a hell as well as a heaven. They’re happy for me to quote Jesus saying, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life,’ but they hate me saying the next bit, ‘No-one comes to God except through me.’ And it’s easy to water it down, not to say the hard things. ‘Who is equal to such a task?’ You may be the only Christian in your family or workplace or flats; possibly the only person who’ll ever try to share the gospel with them. ‘Who is equal to such a task?’ Because eternal destinies are at stake, aren’t they? Eternal destinies are at stake this morning even among us. Because not everyone here has necessarily yet put their faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Read on, v17:
And who is equal to such a task? [For ] unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God. (2.17)
Notice the ‘so many’ at the start of v17. That’s the first reference Paul makes to the new teachers who’ve arrived in Corinth – problem no.3 in the box above. And from now on in 2 Corinthians, Paul is not just defending his own ministry but attacking theirs. And he says, v17 that they ‘peddle [literally, ‘dilute’] the word of God for profit’. The original word there was used in the wine trade. If you were a dodgy wine dealer in Corinth, you watered down the wine so as to make more profit. And Paul says: these new teachers do that with God’s Word. They water it down, they don’t say the hard and unpopular things, so as to make a ‘profit’ in the form of lots of positive responses.
But if it’s not the gospel, a positive response is worthless. In fact, it leaves people worse off because they now think they’re OK with God – because they’ve responded positively to some religious message - when in fact they’re still not; when in fact they’re still hell-bound. Churches up and down the country are deceiving people with watered down messages about being nice, and tolerant of everything – all in the name of some vague faith. But it’s not the gospel - which says we’re all rebels against God heading for judgement. And that we all need forgiving through Jesus’ death and resurrection, and need changing by the work of his Spirit in our lives. That’s the gospel. And Paul says, v17:
[For ] unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit [we do not water it down to get lots of positive responses]. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God. (2.17)
Ie, we believe the gospel has non-negotiable content from God, so we’re not at liberty to change it because we didn’t make it up in the first place. It’s God’s gospel. And when we speak - whether it’s in a pulpit, or an evangelistic event or Christianity Explored group or in personal conversation about Christ - we speak before God. We remember that God is listening and we’re more concerned about what he thinks of what we say than whether the other person will like it.
So, as a church and as individuals, let’s stick to God’s Word. Whenever you hear teaching here, please follow it in the Bible to check that what is being said from this pulpit is a faithful explanation and application of God’s Word. When it comes to moving and finding a new church, look for a ministry that sticks to God’s Word. Which means being very discerning. And it means far more than asking, ‘Do they use the Bible?’ After all, most ‘liberals’ use the Bible - you can, after all, make the Bible say almost anything you want it to (if you handle it badly enough). The question is: does this church handle the Bible correctly? That’s why, if you’re a student, you need to come to Foundations to learn that kind of discernment. But we need to stick to God’s Word as individuals, too. Next time you’re asked a question you’d like to bottle out on, remember v17. Remember the gospel comes from God – we’re not at liberty to water it down. And remember we speak before God. Who do we want to please more? God, or the other person?
Authentic gospel ministers stick to God’s Word.
Third, AUTHENTIC GOSPEL MINISTERS ARE USED BY GOD’S SPIRIT (3.1-3)
Paul has just said that he does stick to God’s word. Which could come across as ‘blowing his own trumpet’. So he goes on, 3.1:
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you?
Again, notice in v1 he says, ‘some people’. I take it he’s talking about the same people as in 2.17 – the ‘many… who peddle the word of God for profit’, ie, these new teachers in Corinth. Paul had planted this church, then left; then in came these new teachers with letters of commendation from their headquarters saying that the Corinthians should welcome them and trust them. So now the Corinthians are wondering, ‘What equivalent credentials does Paul have?’ To which Paul says, v2:
You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. 3You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (3.2-3)
Paul doesn’t have literal letters saying he’s done a theology degree or has a licence from a Bishop. His main credential is the church in Corinth. His main credential is to be able to point to these Christians and say, ‘God used me to bring these people to faith. As I shared the gospel, God’s Spirit worked in their hearts. I may not have human commendation, but the result of my ministry shows I have God’s commendation.’
Authentic gospel ministries are used by God’s Spirit to bring people to new birth as new Christians. Whereas false ministries like the cults and denominational liberalism are parasitic on authentic ones. They lead to no people newly coming to faith because they don’t preach the authentic gospel and therefore the Spirit doesn’t use them. Rather, they mainly prey on those who’ve already come to faith, and draw them away from Christ.
So, as a church, let’s remember to evaluate ministry by looking for results of the Holy Spirit’s work in peoples’ lives. It’s easy to measure numbers, attendance figures, quality of music, organisation, levels of fun in the youth work – and so on. But those things tell you little or nothing about whether the Spirit is at work, bringing people to faith and growing people in faith. And this is a word in season for a church like ours with its emphasis on planning and structuring. I suggest we’re weak on asking, ‘Are people actually coming to faith?’ not just ‘Are people coming?’ And I suggest we’re weak on asking whether we’re growing in faith. Eg, small group leaders: you may be asking: are people coming? Are we getting through the Bible study? and so on. But do you ever ask: are people growing in faith, in obedience, in love, joy, peace and all the other fruit?
And as an individual, as you see the results of the Spirit’s work through you in others, be encouraged. If God’s used you to bring someone to faith, be encouraged. If he’s used you to help people grow in faith, be encouraged.
Because authentic gospel ministers are used by God’s Spirit. But they don’t then become proud, which brings us to our last heading:
Fourth, AUTHENTIC GOSPEL MINISTERS RELY ON GOD’S SPIRIT (3.4-6)
Paul’s just said that the results of his ministry gives him confidence that God backs his ministry. But he goes straight on to say, 3.4:
Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant - not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (3.4-6)
So Paul doesn’t look at the result of his ministry and say, ‘Well done me. Aren’t I competent? Look at all these people I’ve converted.’ Paul never converted or changed anyone. Nor have I. Nor have you. Only God does, by his Spirit.
Now the new teachers professed to be Christian but were from a Jewish background. We don’t know exactly what they taught but Paul calls it ‘a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached’ and ‘a different gospel’ (2 Corinthians 11.3-4). They were basically still Jewish, still operating as if the old covenant was in force. So they majored on the law, which, in the words of v3, had been written on tablets of stone. And I’ve tried to picture the old covenant on the left hand side of the picture below:
The crown stands for God; he gave Israel his law. But they had rebellious hearts and wanted to run life their own way – hence the little crown on their head. So they rejected God’s law. Which is why he ultimately judged them and sent them into exile. And God designed that whole period of Old Testament (OT) history to teach us that we are naturally rebellious against him and that law will not change us. Law can tell us what we should be, but can’t make us what we should be.
So from then on, the prophets pointed forward to a new covenant. Look in the arrow on the picture. Through Jeremiah, God promised a time when he would ‘put [his] law in their minds and write it on their hearts’. Through Ezekiel he promised, ‘I will give you a new heart… I will remove from your heart of stone [ie, your naturally God-rejecting heart] and give you a heart of flesh [ie, a supernaturally God-serving heart. How?] … I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees.’ (See Jeremiah 31.31-34 and Ezekiel 36.22-27.)
And we now live in that time to which the prophets pointed forward. Jesus has died on the cross for our forgiveness. And he’s risen from the dead and can come into our lives by his Spirit to change us into people who want to live for him and do – albeit imperfectly, this side of heaven. Christianity is not about a set of rules – ‘a morality’ - imposed on human beings, as if that will change anyone. It’s about Jesus forgiving you all past failure up to the present moment and changing you by his Spirit at work in your life – a change that will one day be finished off and complete when he raises you from the dead to be with him in heaven. (People sometimes talk about ‘born again Christianity’ in a derogatory sort of way – as if it was an odd, fanatical brand of Christianity. But there is no other brand. If we’re not ‘born again’ by God’s Sprit, we’re not Christians (see John 3.3-8).)
And in new covenant ministry, we tell people about Jesus; the Spirit does everything else, so v5 we don’t claim any results as coming from ourselves.
So, as a church and as individuals, let’s make sure we rely on the work of God’s Spirit and not on ourselves. Let’s not rely on people and their gifts – eg, let’s not say, ‘So-and-so’s preaching, therefore people are bound to be converted or helped.’ Not true. Let’s not rely on personalities – eg, ‘If only we could get Jason Robinson to come to our Rugby Club dinner, that would impress people into becoming Christians.’ Not true. And let’s not rely on programs – eg, ‘If only we import this idea or that idea from Saddleback Church, we’re bound to grow.’ Not true.
Authentic gospel ministers rely on God’s Spirit to use them. And the way to find out how much we actually do that is to ask how much we pray. Because prayer is relying on God. Not praying is relying on ourselves.
So, how do you spot authentic gospel ministers or ministries? There’s always some level of rejection. They stick faithfully to God’s Word. You can see that God’s Spirit is using them to create and build up faith. And you can see they rely humbly on God rather than proudly on themselves. Is that us? Is that you? Is that me?