Do you think it’s good to be foolish, jealous and boastful? As a rule that kind of behaviour is obnoxious and undesirable. But just occasionally, if you do it in the right way and for the right reasons, it’s good to be foolish, jealous and boastful. That’s the message of our passage this morning. And we need to take a good look at it if we’re not going to misunderstand that. So, if you’re not there already, please turn to p1164 in the Bibles in the pews, where you’ll find 2 Corinthians 11.1-15. We’re returning to this letter today after a break, and over the next few weeks we’ll be working our way through to the end of it. You’ll see from the back of the service sheet that my two simple headings are, first, ‘Paul’s jealousy’ and, secondly, ‘Paul’s boasting’. But before I come to those we need some background.
These last chapters of 2 Corinthians are extraordinarily moving. They show the apostle Paul at his most fierce and his most tender – at his most direct and his most subtle. They’re full of barely controlled passion, which is always bursting through. They are really one long passionate appeal from the opening words of chapter 10:
By the meekness and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you…
More than anything else they are reminiscent of a loving but deeply hurt husband trying desperately to win back his beloved wife who has fallen in love with someone else and who has all but decided to go off with him.
In fact that is really what’s going on – except that Paul is not fighting for himself. He’s not battling on his own behalf. He’s trying to win back the Corinthian church for Christ. That’s why he’s so easily misunderstood. We are so used to passionate emotion and argument being essentially self-centred. But that would be a complete misreading here.
Let me just recap the situation. Paul’s relationship with the Christians in Corinth is deeply troubled. Paul spent eighteen months there planting a church. But now there are big problems in the relationship between Paul and the church. What’s going on? Well the Corinthians had it in for Paul. And Paul was desperately worried about them. There were various reasons for that but one of the most important comes right to the surface in this passage.
Paul had planted this church. But now a different group of teachers – Christian teachers, according to them – have come to the church. Their influence is spreading. And they are poisoning the Corinthian Christians against Paul.
Now one of the things that Paul is doing here is comparing himself to these teachers, so that the Corinthians will reaffirm their allegiance to what he is teaching, rather than what they’re hearing from this new and trendy crowd. And that’s why Paul says here, in 11.1:
I hope you will put up with a little of my foolishness; but you are doing that already.
Paul doesn’t like having to say what he’s going to say. In fact he regards it as folly. But this is what we might call ‘necessary folly’. It is neither unnecessary nor sinful folly. But Paul would far rather be talking about much more positive topics, and not about himself.
Because of the great spiritual danger that the Corinthians are in, Paul needs to expose these new teachers for what they are. And he uses some strong language. In 11.5 he says:
I do not think I am the least inferior to those ‘super-apostles’.
There is more than a hint of sarcasm about that ‘super-apostles’ label. And then if you look down to the end of our passage, to 11.13-15, you’ll see Paul let off his big guns against these men:
For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness.
It’s clear from that broadside what these men claim to be. They claim to be apostles of Christ, workmen in the church, and servants of righteousness. We should understand ‘apostle’ here not in the sense of one of the twelve, but as a key, regional leader of the church with responsibility over a wide range of churches and with authority to teach. Clearly they call themselves Christians and use the language of Christian faith. They claim to be on the side of truth and Godliness.
But they are not what they claim to be. So what are they? They are false apostles. In other words they may claim to be apostles but they’re not. They are deceitful. They are masquerading. In other words to those who are not on their guard they may look like faithful servants of Christ – but they are not what they seem. They are, in fact, servants of Satan. Satan is the father of lies, and because they are leading people away from the truth and feeding them lies, they are serving Satan’s purposes.
So Paul has two messages for the Corinthians, which could be rather crudely summed up in this way: first, ‘listen to me, not them – and love Christ’; and secondly, ‘I’m better than them – because I love you.’ In other words he is jealous with a Godly jealousy; and he boasts with Godly boasting – for their sake and for Christ’s sake. So let’s take a closer look at Paul’s jealousy and his boasting.
First, PAUL’S JEALOUSY
He is jealous – but he is jealous for the sake of Christ. The Corinthians are virtually abandoning Paul to follow these ‘false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ’. So Paul says (verse 2):
I 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.
Now we do tend to think of jealousy as a negative and destructive emotion. And it can be, if it is irrational, paranoid and unjustified. But if a man’s wife is in danger of being seduced by another man, then he is right to be jealous. That kind of jealousy is loving and protective. It is jealousy, and not indifference, which is the right response to that kind of situation.
In that positive sense, jealousy is a vital characteristic of God’s love for his people. Like marriage, Christ’s relationship with his people is rightly exclusive. He can admit no rivals. We are to love and worship him alone. So ‘godly jealousy’, as Paul calls his own jealousy, reflects the character of God.
But Paul’s jealousy is not only like the jealousy of God, it is on behalf of God. It is true that the Corinthians are in danger of rejecting him, but Paul is intensely aware that, because he is teaching them the truth about Jesus and the gospel, if they reject him, they reject Jesus. And that’s what Paul cares about above all.
He is, in a sense, like the father of the bride. Christ’s bride-to-be is the church. Because Paul, under God, was instrumental in planting this church, he is like a father to it. So he says in 1 Corinthians 4.15:
… you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.
And he is desperate for this bride to be completely loyal to her bridegroom. He will, as it were, present her to Christ when he returns at his Second Coming. But that’s not going to happen if the bride is unfaithful. And that’s Paul’s fear as he watches these ‘super-apostles’ move in. So, verse 3:
But 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.
Satan, in the form of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, lead Eve astray by first sowing doubts about God’s word, then distorting God’s word, and in the end by outright denial of the truth of God’s word. That remained his strategy in Corinth. And that is still his strategy today. Verse 4:
For 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 you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.
They talk about Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and the gospel. They use all the Christian vocabulary. But the meaning of it is twisted out of all recognition. Paul can see it all unfolding before his eyes, and he’s desperately trying to warn them and pull them back before it’s too late.
Now it has to be said – and we need to be reminded – that this is exactly the danger in the Anglican Communion in our own day. A while ago I watched over the internet part of a service taking place in the Anglican Diocese of New Hampshire in the USA. Gene Robinson was being consecrated as the new bishop of the Diocese. I heard him recite the creed. I heard him promise that he would be faithful to the Scriptures. I heard him promise that he would exercise a Godly discipline over the members of the church and provide a Godly example of life. But this is a man who has unrepentantly left his wife and children and is in a self-confessed practising homosexual relationship. Over 50 Anglican bishops took part in the consecration. All of these bishops teach that Gene Robinson’s behaviour is not only acceptable but admirable and pleasing to God.
Thank God for those in the USA and other Anglican Provinces around the world who are standing against such developments. One American Anglican group said this about those events: "Heresy has been held up as holy. Blasphemy has been redefined as blessing. The hope of the transforming love of Jesus Christ has been denied. Holy Scripture has been abandoned and sin celebrated over sanctification."
They are right. The Anglican church world-wide is dividing over this issue. We need to be aware of that because it will have consequences for us here in the future. What those will be we cannot yet fully see. Major Anglican provinces – representing the majority of Anglicans around the world – have declared themselves out of communion with all the bishops and dioceses that supported the consecration of Gene Robinson. This division is a right response to what is happening. We cannot remain faithful to Christ and do what God wants and at the same time remain united with those who teach the opposite. Pray for the American Anglican churches as their General Convention meets this summer.
One of Gene Robinson’s supporters is a bishop called John Spong. He is charming and articulate. Despite his own consecration promises, Spong is an outspoken advocate of a wholesale rejection of all the main truths of the Christian faith including the divinity of Jesus, his death for our sins, his bodily resurrection, and even the existence of God. He is accepted by and acceptable to the liberals who support Gene Robinson. Many of them agree with him. John Spong has visited this Diocese of Newcastle to teach his views.
If we don’t accept that the teaching and authority of Paul is from God, then all the evidence about Jesus can be pushed, pummelled and distorted in to any shape you like. Jesus is just reconstituted to suit our convenience. But we can’t chop and change Jesus to suit us. Paul’s jealousy is a Godly jealousy. We need to heed his warning. ‘Listen to me’, says Paul, ‘and love Christ’.
And Paul doesn’t stop at jealousy. So:
Secondly, PAUL’S BOASTING
Paul wants to get across the message that he is better than the false ‘super-apostles’. He needs to do that not for his own glory, but so that the Corinthians listen to his God-given teaching. So he boasts.
His is no ordinary boasting. But he is well aware that boasting is usually self-centred and not admired. That’s why he’s been defending his boasting in chapter 10. For instance in 10.8:
For even if I boast somewhat freely about the authority the Lord gave us for building you up rather than pulling you down, I will not be ashamed of it. For some say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.”
Some people weren’t impressed by Paul’s appearance. But appearances can be deceptive and are never the true measure of a person.
Last autumn saw the 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. A few years before Trafalgar, when Admiral Nelson travelled back to England after one of his earlier famous victories – the Battle of the Nile – not everyone was impressed by what they saw.
One newspaper said: “His face is pale and sunk, with the hair combed onto the forehead; the loss of an eye is less noticeable than that of the right arm as he fastens the empty sleeve across his buttoned tunic”.
Someone else described him as… “… a small, thin man with one eye and one arm whose looks do not betray the hero.”
One German observer commented: “Nelson is one of the most insignificant looking figures I ever saw in my life. His weight cannot be more than seventy pounds. A more miserable collection of bones and wizened frame I have never yet come across… He speaks little, and then only in English and he hardly ever smiles.”
Some did not think much of what they saw of Paul. The newcomers were far more impressive. And because the eternal destiny of the Corinthians is at stake, Paul is driven to Godly boasting. 11.5-6:
I do not think I am in the least inferior to those ‘super-apostles’. I may not be a trained speaker, but I do have knowledge. We have made this perfectly clear to you in every way.
The Corinthians had to recognise, accept, and submit themselves to the fact that what Paul taught them was the truth. It wasn’t a truth. It wasn’t partial truth obscurely glimpsed through a frosted window and heavy net curtains. It was the truth, revealed to him as the chosen apostle to the Gentiles by the author of all truth – God himself.
Was Paul speaking God’s word or wasn’t he? Plenty of people asked that in his time. Over and over again he has to defend his authority - and that’s what he’s doing here.
Then in verses 7-10 he boasts of the fact that he hasn’t been a financial burden to them. Instead he relied on his own income and the giving of others. Maybe people were even despising him because his ministry cost them nothing. You don’t value what you don’t pay for. Verse 7:
Was it a sin for me to lower myself in order to elevate you by preaching the gospel of God to you free of charge?
End of verse 9:
I have kept myself from being a burden to you in any way, and will continue to do so.
And then in verses 10-12:
As surely as the truth of Christ is in me, nobody in the regions of Achaia will stop this boasting of mine. Why? Because I do not love you? [No doubt that was yet another accusation against him.] God knows I do! And I am going to keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about.
That would be mighty arrogant talk except of course for one thing: what Paul taught was indeed the truth. And what is more, he was ready to lay down his life out of love for the church. Others were feeding them lies. They used Christian language, but they were false, and deceitful. They rejected Paul’s authority; they rejected the truth Paul taught; and as a result they rejected Christ.
This outward acceptance of Christian faith going hand in hand with a wholesale rejection of it is not just an issue for 2000 years ago. Nor is it just an issue for the Episcopal Church of the USA.
Not long ago Christian Research conducted a survey of the beliefs of the clergy of the Church of England. It’s been published under the title: ‘Believe It Or Not: what Church of England Clergy actually believe’. It was a wide-reaching and representative survey. One in five of all clergy completed the questionnaires. Here are some of the main findings. These are percentages of those who definitely and confidently believe various central truths of the gospel.
• Only 82 % believe confidently in God the Father.
• Only 77% believe that Jesus died to take away the sins of the world.
• Only 77% believe God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are all equally God.
• Only 66% - two thirds – believe that Jesus rose physically from the dead.
• Only 56% believe that Jesus is the only way by which we can be saved.
• Only 51% believe that Jesus was born of a virgin.
I quote from the report published by Christian Research for the Anglican think-tank Cost of Conscience, who commissioned the research:
“This survey has finally exposed what many Anglicans of various traditions have long suspected: the existence side-by-side of two separate churches under the cloak of Anglicanism.
“One of these is essentially credally orthodox and committed to the historic faith and apostolic mission of the Church; the other is wrapped in the garments of Christian language, but has only the most tenuous grasp of the central teachings of the faith.
“None of the liberal groups (of which the latter largely consists) was able to muster even 25% of their membership confident in the Virgin Birth, or the uniqueness of Christ in salvation . The best of them managed no more than a third who have confidence in the bodily resurrection [of Jesus].”
Paul is afraid for the Corinthians. And yet he knows what the ultimate outcome of this spiritual battle will be. Look at the end of verse 14:
Their end will be what their actions deserve.
All of us who have leadership responsibility in this church need to look to our own lives as well. We are not exempt from the dangers Paul sees, or the warnings he gives. We need to be aware of his Godly jealousy and listen to his Godly boasting. Not one of us can afford to point the finger at others unless at the same time we are pointing several fingers back at ourselves. We are not immune to the spiritual disease to which others have fallen prey. We too can start saying one thing, and believing and doing another. We dare not compromise with sin or harbour any rejection of Jesus in our hearts. If we go down that road, we who lead this church will come to the end that our actions deserve.