A Final Warning
We as a church have been remarkably productive of children – I think we counted last week nearly 90 kids across our various groups. So I'm sure many of you will resonate with the difficulty of discipline. You can try all kinds of techniques and programmes, wall charts and incentive schemes, even outright bribes … but so often the only thing that gets a response is fear – isn't it? And yet you can't just rant and scream all the time – and no one wants to make our children afraid of us… so we reserve the screaming for the really serious stuff – like getting dressed or getting in the car or being quiet… OK so maybe we could be a bit more selective…
In our passage this morning we see Paul reach the limits of all other discipline and produce the threat of judgment.
Today we come to the end of our series in 2 Corinthians and Paul brings his appeal to a close with a serious warning and one last call to repentance.
Three parts –
A serious warning of judgment, v1-4
A call for response before it's too late, v5-10
A final reminder of the letter, v11-14
We'll spend almost all of time on the first two points.
And we start with Paul's serious warning of judgment, v1-4
"This will be my third visit to you. "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. He 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."
So things come to a head – Paul's coming and when he comes he will not spare those who have sinned earlier, or the others – presumably anyone else who is caught up sin.
But what does that mean? What is Paul planning?
Verse three suggests that Paul expects it will provide proof that he speaks for Jesus – they've been demanding proof and they'll get it when he comes…
But what proof will they accept? They've already rejected his bible teaching, his miracles – the signs, wonders and works of power he did among them. They've already rejected his suffering for the gospel and his position as an apostle. They've already rejected his appeals, his challenges, his two previous letters and various visits and messengers.
What else is can Paul do to prove he's the real deal?
Paul says Jesus isn't weak among them, verse 3: he won't be pushed out of his own church, he rules in power.
And if Jesus really is active in the church through Paul, and they've rebelled against Paul, then they've really rebelled against Jesus: what should they expect as a response from the one who is powerful among them?
They should expect judgment, and since Paul is Jesus' direct representative it's his place, his role, to bring it.
Do you see what Paul is saying: If they continue to demand proof they will get it - and they won't like it!
Whatever Paul does will be visible and undeniable, proof that he is Jesus' apostle.
What ever could that mean?
Look again at the passage. Verse one puts us right back into the world of Exodus to Deuteronomy. Paul quotes from Deuteronomy to explain what he's been doing: he's already warned them once, now he makes a second warning; likewise he has visited twice, his next will be the third – so he fulfils Deuteronomy's requirements of two (warnings) or three (visits) witnesses. Paul's witness against them is sufficient for judgement to commence.
Now in the Exodus we see again and again that those who opposed God's servant Moses suffered God's wrath and were destroyed (Numbers 16 is a good example). It is clear that the Exodus has been in Paul's mind – in 12.12 he spoke of the things that mark an apostle as including 'signs and wonders', the characteristic phrase for Moses' miracles. Back in 1 Corinthians 10 Paul appealed to the Exodus as a warning that the Corinthians should listen to – because all God's people died in the wilderness for rebellion as a warning to us not to follow their rebellious example and also be destroyed.
Not only that but when we look back at 1 Corinthians 11 we see that some of the Corinthians have been struck ill and even died because of their sinful behaviour at communion, say's Paul (1 Corinthians 11:29-32). Just pause and let that sink in – some of them have been put to death by God for their sinful behaviour at church.
To all this we add Acts 5 – Annanias and Saphira. As we heard in our reading earlier these two were guilty of putting the Holy Spirit to the test, and at a word from the apostle Peter they were struck down dead.
Doesn't it seem that Paul is talking about some sort of extreme physical judgement that will plainly demonstrate that he is the apostle, that he has power from Jesus to speak on his behalf, and to exercise judgment on his behalf too.
It seems very likely to me that Paul is expecting something similar to Acts 5 and what happened to Annanias and Saphira – he is expecting to have to meet unrepentant sin with clear judgment from God that demonstrates the seriousness of the clear, settled displeasure of God at unrepentant sin.
Do you want to just think about that for a moment?
A few years back Zoe and I visited the far north of Australia. I've never seen a crocodile in the wild, and I really wanted to. Everywhere we went there were signs warning of crocodiles, but we never saw a single one … Then one day we took an outing up to Palm Cove, where rich people have their holiday. As we walked past luxury resort after luxury resort we smirked at the signs warning of crocodiles – I remember saying to Zoe 'I bet the resorts want to get rid of those, they can't be any good for business, nervous nanny state business'!!
Later we got talking to local who absolutely terrified us with stories of close encounters with sharks and crocs at all of the places we'd just been. Apparently he'd seen tiger sharks caught off the local peer, met enormous crocs right off the beach where we were standing, and just that week there had been a salt water croc sunning itself on the bank of the river we'd just walked past – right in front of that 'nanny state' sign we'd laughed at. It had been basking with it's mouth open over a couple of days and people were loving it, taking photos, just what I'd been hoping for really… but then it ate someone's dog.
It was actually quite difficult for us to go in the water after that.
We'd been thinking of crocodiles as a fun tourist experience to tick off our list … but of course they're not safe, not at all … and so often our thinking about sin is just like my thinking about crocodiles – something to play with, something that can't really hurt us; and the warning signs, well they're just a bit over the top aren't they? We live in a world that says we need to express ourselves, to be true to ourselves, whatever the cost to others… we live in a world that increasingly encourages all sorts of sin… it's very easy for us to begin to think that sin isn't really serious, that, it might actually be better for people if they just did what they feel like … and like it might be better for us if we gave in to our deep seated longings and desires and lusts… and whose going to correct us, we all want to believe it's OK because we really want to indulge. And we begin to think of sin as just another 'nanny state' restriction – arbitrary and unnecessary and ultimately stupid.
But Jesus is no nanny state legislator, he is the creator of all things, what he says corresponds with reality at the deepest level; and he is the judge of all things, he will call us to account for how we keep, or disregard, his law. We really need to know that he is serious about all of this – serious enough to come and offer up his own life in our place to pay for it… serious enough to give us warning after warning. Serious enough that he will do what he has said… and that's what's behind Paul's warning to the Corinthians.
So Paul warns that he is coming to bring judgment, serious judgement. What will they do in response? Paul still has hope, so he calls for a right response … and that's point two:
Paul calls for response before it's too late:
"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. 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. 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.
Examine yourselves. Test yourselves. See whether you're in the faith.
Do you see how high the stakes are here? It may be that they are not in the faith at all.
If the stakes are this high, if the warning is this serious, there's a real urgency required isn't there? Don't mess around, sort it out before it's too late.
So verse 5, examine yourselves. Test yourselves. But what test? What should they be doing?
The test is how they respond to this warning – will they be mortified at the rebuke, act in earnestness and repent? Or will they brush this off and carry on in their sin? If they belong to Christ the Spirit of Christ in them will stir them up and lead them to repentance and renewed obedience. If they carry on disregarding Christ's calls for repentance through his servant Paul then they can be sure they have no part in Christ.
So what has this got to do with Paul passing the test? They are the result of his work as an apostle – he brought the gospel to them in the first place. If they fail the test, and Christ is not in them, then it's possible Paul didn't bring the real Jesus when he came. But if they find that Christ is in them – as they should – then Paul is vindicated, since it was he who introduced them to Jesus in the first place.
But again, being vindicated isn't Paul's motive. Look at verse 7: Paul's prayer isn't that he will be vindicated and his reputation restored… but that they'll do what is right, even if he doesn't get any credit for it. See, if he comes and shows Jesus' power as he smites sinners left, right and centre – well he would be vindicated and all that talk about him being weak would have to stop… but they would be the losers, so that is emphatically not what Paul wants. He would much rather keep his reputation for being a bit ordinary and unimpressive and see them restored.
So in verse 9 he prays for their restoration – the NIV says 'perfection' – and that's a correct translation, but it loses something… because the word is for complete restoration – it's the word used in Mark 1.19 to describe James and John repairing their nets – they were mending the holes to make them complete, useful. The repaired net might look a mess, but it would be restored so as to be useful. This is Paul's prayer for the church in Corinth – that like the net with the patch they might repair the damage, that the church might be restored to obedience to Jesus so as to be useful to him.
That's why Paul wrote before he came – he's not looking for a show down to prove his authority, no, his authority is for building them up, not for strutting his stuff in tearing them down. He writes in hope – even expectation – that they will respond in time before judgement falls.
So Paul writes for a response. He lays it on thick, makes the warning heavy and forceful in hope that they will finally respond. Every student facing exams knows how this works – the promise of judgment focuses the mind so we prepare. I know how it works too. I'm hoping to compete in a triathlon this year. I know that a day is coming when either my fitness will be exposed and I suffer pain, or I discover that all the training was actually worth it. August 13 is judgment day. When that judgment day was still a long way off I could keep telling myself that I could take it easy now, because I'd make the training up later. But as the day draws near I'm increasingly panicking that I'm no where near fit enough to go the distance – and my training motivation is soaring.
But the judgment day that we need to prepare for will be a far more penetrating examination that a physical challenge, or a GCSE test. Paul warned the Corinthians that he was going to come in Jesus power to execute Jesus judgment among them. And by extension Paul warns us too. We don't have an imminent visit from Jesus or his representative to focus our minds – but Jesus could come anytime, we have heard more than enough warnings, we have heard more than enough teaching, more than enough encouragement, more than enough challenges – when Jesus comes we will be without excuse.
So what are you doing to ruthlessly cut out sin? What are you doing to deal with the greed that lurks in our hearts? The pride? Lust? Anger? Malice?
Paul feared that when he arrived he would find quarrelling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder; and impurity, sexual sin and debauchery – well he would find them here too wouldn't he? In our homes, in our work and our schools – that is what we're all like by our very nature, and our culture and society are saturated with them.
Only Jesus can change us by the work of his spirit in us – and that not as we passively sit and wait for change; it takes work from us – work of hard study of the bible, work of persistent, regular, bible-saturated prayer, work of confessing our failings to each other, work of repentance, of publicly turning away from sin and even making amends with those we've wronged, work of making peace among us, work of wrestling with sin, actively resisting temptation, diligently striving for godliness… are you doing that – are you working for godliness? Are you living as if Jesus will actually come back and you will actually have to give an account for every idle word? Are you? Because He will, and you will…
So Paul warns them with all seriousness and calls for a suitable response. And all that remains is to wrap things up quickly, which he does, and so will we.
Point three – Paul summarises his letter.
"Finally, brothers, good-bye. Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints send their greetings. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all."
Really briefly Paul summarises his letter. He reminds them of five instructions:
1) good bye – really the word is rejoice… finally brothers, rejoice;
2) aim for perfection – this is the word of complete restoration again, aim for complete repair, restoration
3) listen to my appeal
4) be of one mind – agree with one another in the Lord
5) live in peace
You would do well to sit down with this list in front of you and read back through 2 Corinthians again to note how these five commands sum up all that Paul has said.
In some sense all this is summarised in verse 12 – get rid of the factions and quarrels and divisions among you and make up – rejoice in the fellowship you share in the Lord and greet one another with the genuine affection that comes from being brothers and sisters – kiss and make up! And making peace together the God of peace will be with you and even bless you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Soon we'll celebrate communion together. Paul tells us what we're doing in 1 Corinthians 11:26-32… that we eat and drink to proclaim the Lord's death until he comes again. That is – we say that Jesus has died – and that for our sin, under the judgment of God, the judgment we deserve; and we say that we are waiting for his return – when he will bring an end to sin by bringing the final judgment day of which his death is a foretaste. Therefore, Paul goes on, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup for anyone who eats and drinks without recognising the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are sick and a number of you have fallen asleep!'
We need to know that the stakes today are no less high than they were back in the days of 1 & 2 Corinthians. We stand this morning in the presence of God. As we take communion we are spiritually lifted to stand in the very courts of heaven and to participate in the death of the son of God. We cannot do this lightly; it cannot be a matter of indifference for us. Because the day will come when this spiritual reality will be our physical reality too.
Let's pray that God would make us ready when we meet him.