This morning, we reach the end of our journey through 2 Corinthians, Paul’s warmest, most passionate, most vulnerable letter. It began with Paul walking his readers through his long relationship with them – four letters and a couple of visits, pleading with them and urging them to side with Jesus and the gospel, and with him. After getting an up to date report from Titus, he then calls the church family to come good on their commitment to help their struggling brothers and sisters in Jerusalem by sending them money (chapters 8 and 9), before taking on the false teachers who had been undermining his relationship with the Corinthians in chapter 10, and calling the church to be wise and to side with Christ in chapters 11 and 12, as we saw last week. And now, we come to chapter 13, where this letter finishes Paul very much on the front foot, as he placards before us one more time what it means to love people like Christ, and like Paul loves them. He doesn’t say much that’s new, but he gathers up all that he has said – all that God has said to us here at MPC over these months. So once more Paul shows us what Christ-like, gospel shaped love looks like, this time in seven easy steps as we see Paul’s Christ-like love in action. So here’s step 1:
LOVE PURSUES (12:14-15)
Read with me from 2 Cor 12:14:
Now I am ready to visit you for the third time, and I will not be a burden to you, because what I want is not your possessions but you. After all, children should not have to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. 15So I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well. If I love you more, will you love me less?
Paul’s first visit to Corinth had seen the church planted. His second hadn’t been quite so special – ‘the sorrowful visit’ – but he hasn’t given up
– he will come a third time. Why? what I want is not your possessions but you
. We have seen before, he is their spiritual father – he is the one who brought the gospel to Corinth – and he hasn’t forgotten about them, or moved on from them. In fact, he is taking his spiritual parental responsibilities very seriously indeed!
Rather than sponging off them as a benefactor, he is their patron – for children should not have to save up for their parents, but parents for their children.
Paul is committed to them, and will not let them go – for love always pursues its object. And look at how works out with Paul –
I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well
Just let that sink in … Paul is still so committed
to these half-hearted, confused believers – who, let’s remember had no doubt hurt him deeply by believing all kinds of lies and slander about him- but he is still so committed to them that he will not stop pursuing them – and in fact says that he will gladly pour out everything he’s got
for them. The irony is, of course, that according to verse 15, they were so mixed up that as his love for them increased, theirs for him seemed to decrease – but not even that deterred Paul. He still pursues the Corinthians, because he loves them.
So what produces this kind of love for people? This willingness to stick with them, put up with them, pursue them at such real personal cost? Only one thing can do that to a man, and that is the discovery that we have first been pursued by another. Paul had experienced that personally, when the same Jesus Christ whom he hated and whose followers he had hounded, calmly caught up with him on the road to Damascus. And the end of one pursuit gave rise to the beginning of another, as Paul set out to be all things to all men in order that he might save some.
With unhurried yet breakneck speed, Christ has sought us, and wooed us, and won us, and shepherded us – so in the same way that he has given himself for us, so we must lovingly pursue others. God does not give up on us.. Who are you tempted to give up on? Who would you honestly like to run away from? Perhaps this morning we all simply need to remember that love pursues. And in this pursuit …
LOVE GIVES (12:16-18)
We’ve seen over and over again as we’ve worked through 2 Corinthians that Paul went to great lengths to ensure that the Corinthians couldn’t mix him up with the philosophers working the religious circuit for cash. It was so important to Paul that the freeness of the gospel is backed up by the fact that we are always giving, not taking
– that’s the way of love.
The ironic thing was that Paul got a hard time from the Corinthians over this. They accused him of some kind of double-bluff – feigning generosity whilst somehow being on the make. And Paul’s response?
16Be that as it may, I have not been a burden to you. Yet, crafty fellow that I am, I caught you by trickery! 17Did I exploit you through any of the men I sent to you? 18I urged Titus to go to you and I sent our brother with him. Titus did not exploit you, did he? Did we not walk in the same footsteps by the same Spirit?
Paul’s response is actually very straightforward – he points to his record and that of the rest of his inner circle. They had consistently acted with integrity and generosity, and even more than that, they constantly put themselves out for the sake of the Corinthians. Love isn’t on the take, it gives.
To be a Christian is to adopt a stance which makes us ready to give at a moment’s notice. Why? Because as the apostle John says,
1 John 4:7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
Love gives, because God gives. And love builds.
LOVE BUILDS (12:19)
2 Cor 12:19 Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? We have been speaking in the sight of God as those in Christ; and everything we do, dear friends, is for your strengthening.
If you want a statement that sums up everything we have seen in this letter about serving Christ by serving one another, his church, then this is it – speaking in the sight of God as those in Christ to build other people up.
Real ministry is always accountable to God, saturated in and motivated by Christ himself, and with the clear aim of building up the church. Everything Paul did was done with the clear aim and purpose of building up the Corinthians.
For Paul, and every other NT writer, the twin purposes of the church are reaching out in evangelism and strengthening one another in edification. We grow out and grow up to the glory of God. The love of Christ pursues and gives so that it may build
. This is your role and mine – and it will be so for the rest of our lives. God is building his church, and it is our responsibility, our great privilege to fall into line with that agenda. And if we get this, if it is burned into our souls, then we will spend the rest of our lives pouring our hearts and souls into seeing the people of God built up. We won’t always be thanked for it. It may sometimes feel to people that ‘being built up’ seems awfully like being ripped apart – it may mean confrontation and correction. But this is what love does.
And because love builds, by its very nature, that will set our agenda, shape our desires for the local church in a way that will and must create in us a holy, thoroughly Pauline discontent, that God will use for the benefit of his people and his mission in this world. What do I mean? I mean that because love builds, that dictates what we will look for and long for in the local church, and if it is missing, it will grieve us to the very core.
You see, if there is no desire for and plan for evangelism, we are short on love. If there is no thought of new initiatives – church plants, revitalisations, initiatives in and between churches, we are short of love. If there is no concern to see the gospel penetrate the hardest places in Brisbane we are short on love. If there is no desire to send people to take the message of Christ to the nations, we are short on love. If there is no desire to see people become more like Christ, we are short on love. If there is no desire to see people grow in their love and knowledge of Christ we are short on love. If there is no concern that people are being gripped and transformed by the glory of Christ, we are short on love. If there is no desire to walk with each other through the mess of life, then we are short on love. Jesus did say that we would be known by our love… And all this all flows from the simple fact that love builds. And explains the fact that love also mourns.
LOVE MOURNS (12:20-21)
20For I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be, and you may not find me as you want me to be. I fear that there may be discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder. 21I am afraid that when I come again my God will humble me before you, and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged.
I once had a slightly awkward conversation with my best friend from school.
Through school, we were closer than brothers, and through those years, I owe more to Glenn than I can say, as we spurred each other to live for Jesus, and did a lot of other stuff that it wouldn’t be appropriate to mention here. Then gradually, inevitably, we began to see less of each other, as I moved to Scotland and then England. Eventually, about 6 years later, when I moved back to Northern Ireland we caught up again. And it was a bit awkward – I suspect we were both thinking when I come I may find you not as I want you to be.
We both desperately wanted the other still to be on track – at one point, he asked me what kind of thing we studied in our home groups – what do you mean, I asked? He tried to sound nonchalant – ‘you know, books, or DVDs or… ‘We study the Bible, stupid!’ I answered. ‘Phew’ he answered. ‘That’s a relief.’ It was mildly irritating at the time, but now, I’m really glad to have friends like Glenn who do actually care about whether or not I’ve lost the plot theologically! And that’s Paul.
Paul has deferred this visit for as long as possible. He’s worried that there may be discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder. After all, his last visit revealed that someone was sleeping with their mother-in-law and had to be excommunicated – these fears are real! In verse 21, Paul ramps it up still further: Paul’s concern is that when he shows up, all his past efforts – writing 1 Corinthians included – won’t actually have solved anything, and he will have to face the fact that he has done a rubbish job in trying to help the church in Corinth get back on track – and he knows that this will be heartbreaking. He is scared that there will be relational disappointment, or dysfunctional relationships, or sexual immorality, or a combination of all three. Why? Because he cares.
This is one of the stand-out features of this letter. Paul cares desperately for the Corinthians, even though they have been the bane of his life. So he rejoices when they are on track, and he grieves when they have lost the plot.
And this, for me, has been the single great challenge of this letter. To make sure that whatever else I do, whatever else happens, that I pour myself into loving people, with a love that pursues, gives, builds and mourns.
So how do we do this? How do we love people following Paul as he follows Jesus? First, let me say it has nothing to do with your personality type – whether you are an INTJ or an ESFP, or a PQRS, a Reformer or a Peacemaker, a hugger or a non-hugger, we have the responsibility to love people earnestly from a pure heart, to quote Peter. So how do we do that? The key is simple – we need to die to ourselves to the extent that we are more concerned about others than we are about ourselves. It’s not complicated, it’s just hard, especially when you are inveterately selfish, and would prefer to speak when we want to and be quiet when we don’t. But the gentle work of the gospel in our lives is to so assure us of the love and safety and affirmation and acceptance that we have in Christ through faith and repentance, that we can gradually stop fretting about ourselves, and thinking about ourselves and talking about ourselves, freeing up the oxygen we need to breathe freely, and so start to see beyond ourselves, to think beyond ourselves, to ask questions and to listen to answers, and to love and to care, with the rich mixture of joy and mourning which that brings. This is the depth of love for his people which Christ produces in us. Which takes us to the fifth facet of love in this passage, where…
LOVE CONFRONTS (13:1-4)
2 Cor 13:1 This will be my third visit to you. “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” 2I 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, 3since you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you.
Paul quotes Deuteronomy 19:15 in 13:1 – he’s saying that his first two visits were like two eye-witness reports – this next visit would satisfy the burden of proof that there was a real and ongoing problem in the church which if that’s the case, needs to be confronted head on. And he is very clear – if there is blatant sin in the church, he will name it and shame it, and this is part and parcel of Christ working powerfully in his church through his word.
Paul then returns to the idea of Christ working through our weakness in 13:4:
4For 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 in our dealing with you…
The logic runs like this: Christ embraced our weakness, dying in our place on the cross, but he is no longer weak, living by the power of God. In Christ then, even though I as his apostle am weak, as I explain his word, Christ himself will act in the power of God.
Paul’s weakness doesn’t stop him from acting to confront sin and ungodliness in the strength which Christ supplies, which is mediated through his word.
I suspect that often, we hide behind humility
to allow us to avoid hard conversations that we don’t have. If I may say it respectfully, 2 Corinthians 13:1-4 blows that argument out of the water. Rather than hindering this pursuing, giving, edifying, mournful, confronting love, our weakness is the key to it, as it ensures that we don’t mix up what we can and should do (speak the truth in love), with what Christ himself does, dealing powerfully among us through his word.
Richard Baxter, an English Puritan, once wrote: Take heed, therefore, that you do not connive at the sins of other people, under pretense of love, for that were to cross the nature and end of love. Friendship must be cemented by piety. A wicked man cannot be a true friend; and, if you befriend their wickedness, you show that you are wicked yourselves. Pretend not to love them, if you favor their sins, and seek not their salvation. By favoring their sins, you will show your enmity to God; and then how can you love your brother? If you be their best friends, help them against their worst enemies. And think not all sharpness inconsistent with love: parents correct their children, and God himself ‘chastens every son whom he receives.’
Sometimes love confronts. And according to 13:5-6, it also challenges.
LOVE CHALLENGES (13:5-6)
As well as confronting what is very clearly and obviously wrong, love constantly pushes God’s people to make sure that they keep going and keep growing, which is clear from verses 5-6:
Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you-unless, of course, you fail the test? 6And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test.
The false teachers have caused a huge amount of confusion – confusion over Paul’s orthodoxy, confusion over the truth of the gospel and clearly also confusion about the Corinthian’s own salvation. So Paul encourages them to examine themselves to see whether they are in the faith.
He does this multiple times in Romans, and in Colossians and here.
Since the Reformation, evangelicals have usually shied away from this kind of language. We don’t want people to turn inwards, but outward to the objective work of Christ on our behalf. But Paul has no problem in using this language – why? Because he either wants them to take hold of the obvious – that Christ has brought them to repentance and faith, and that these are signs of new life -the markers, to use the words of verse 5, that Jesus Christ is in you
. Or he wants them to face the fact that they are not yet believers (that they have failed the test). This is the loving thing to do – to gently push people to the assurance that God wants everyone in Christ to enjoy, or to the reality that they have not yet crossed from death to life, and are in mortal peril.
It is one of the great myths of our time that it is unloving to tell people the truth of the gospel. But let’s not fall for that. Telling people the truth about our God, Father, Son and Spirit is the most loving, most vital thing in the world! Real love gently but firmly tells the truth – love challenges – and one more:
LOVE PRAYS (13:7-10)
Paul prays for the Corinthians, and he tells us exactly what he prays for them in the middle of this fraught situation:
7Now we pray to God that you will not do anything wrong-not so that people will see that we have stood the test but so that you will do what is right even though we may seem to have failed.
Ultimately, Paul doesn’t really care about what they think about him – the main game is whether or not they repent, and cling to Christ. That’s what he prays for. If they do that, then they have nothing to fear from Paul – as he says in verse 8,For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.
If they have repented, then all is well. In fact, even if they still think Paul is a wimp, that’s ok: 9We are glad whenever we are weak but you are strong; and our prayer is that you may be fully restored.
Paul longs for his visit to be a happy one, because they have come back to the gospel and are living wholeheartedly for Christ – verse 10:
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.
He prays for God to work in their lives, enabling them to return to him in repentance and faith – he prays for them to embrace the gospel. That’s what love does.
Love pursues, gives, builds, confronts, mourns , challenges and prays – and in particular, it prays for God to do his work in the lives of the people we love by enabling them to grasp and live out the gospel. So what should we pray for those who persecute us? That God would deepen his work in our lives. What should we pray for those who don’t rate us, or don’t like us, or don’t agree with us? That God would deepen his work in their lives. What should we pray for those who are closest to us? That God would deepen his work in their lives. For this is where love takes us. And with that, Paul draws this stunning letter to a close…
Look with me at what he says:
2 Cor 13:11 Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace.
These five simple statements sum up what he’s been aiming for from chapter 1 – he longs that they find joy in Christ, and the relief that comes through repentance and forgiveness, that they encourage one another through the gospel and stand together for the gospel as they bask together in the peace of God which is ours in and through the Lord Jesus – he longs for them to know that the God of love and peace is with them.
Can you feel the warmth? It’s so obvious that Paul loves these men and women deeply – he loves them like Christ himself. This is such a moving conclusion.
No wonder that he tells them to Greet one another with a holy kiss.
, which is a thoroughly Pauline expression of the purity and the unity, the close relationships, the family relationships that the love of Christ creates both within local churches, and even between local churches, as he passes on the greetings of all God’s people.
And then he signs off with these well-known words, which underline that our God, Father, Son and Spirit both calls us to and equips us for the gospel-shaped life – 14 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
This is what the Corinthians needed. This is what Paul needed. This is what we need.
For as we have seen so often in this letter, when we are weak, then we are strong in Christ. Strong to love one another with his love, for his glory. So let’s do it. Amen.