In 1814, Ivan Andreevich Krylov
, poet and author, wrote a fable entitled “The Inquisitive Man” which tells of a man who goes to a museum and notices all sorts of tiny things, but fails to notice an elephant.
The phrase became proverbial. Fyodor Dostoevsky
in his novel ‘Demons’ wrote, “Belinsky was just like Krylov’s Inquisitive Man, who didn’t notice the elephant in the museum
.” From there, the ‘elephant in the museum’ went walkabout, eventually becoming domesticated as ‘the elephant in the room’ – a phrase which aptly sums up the issue that Paul is addressing in 2nd
Now you may have noticed something strange about the ‘story so far’ in 2nd
Corinthians: up to this point, Paul has made no direct
reference to the guys who showed up after his extended first church-planting visit to Corinth But now, as he moves to the conclusion of his letter, it’s time to turn his sights to the very large, impressive-sounding, philosophically-sophisticated, personally vitriolic elephant in the room. In chapter 10, Paul finally tackles the specific and damaging accusations which have been levelled against him with devastating effect by these deeply divisive, theologically misguided and thoroughly arrogant ‘Christian philosophers’. And as he does so, he gives us a brilliant model of how to cope with challenging circumstances: here are Paul’s ‘Seven habits of extremely godly people.’
I don’t know if you’ve noticed as we’ve worked through 2 Corinthians, but God has an uncanny habit of having us in just the right part of the Bible at just the right moment for us as his people. And he’s done it again this morning. When I came back to MPC at the end of last year, it was pretty obvious that the priority for us was to avoid a complete meltdown, and enable the Campbells to end as well as possible and move to Melbourne to start their ministry at Scots. In God’s kindness, despite lots of pain and sadly, some damage, we’ve done that. As part of that, I decided that the most useful thing I could do was preach each week this term as we looked together at 2nd
Corinthians. We’ve almost finished that. So what happens next?
Now we enter the recovery stage. Gradually, we start to build a new normal. I’ll be at the Mt Tamborine Easter Convention next week, and then on holiday for a week, and will come back to finish off 2 Corinthians. From then on, I’ll be around a bit less on Sundays, as Doug and I share the preaching series on 1st
John at Morning Church. My role will revert to the usual duties of the Interim Moderator – chairing the meetings of the Elders and the Search Committee, and preaching occasionally. And what should we be doing as we seek to press on from here together? We could do much worse than copying Paul as he follows in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus himself. Here are his seven habits: you’ll see the first, not very surprisingly, in verse 1: It’s…
BE MEEK AND GENTLE (10:1)
For most of this letter, Paul has written on behalf of his whole team – but not now. Now it’s all about him – he steps forward into the glare of the spotlight and says:
10:1 By the humility and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you …
Apparently, the accusation levelled at Paul was that he was a roaring lion when he was miles away with a pen in his hand, but a little lamb when he actually showed up. That’s reflected in the second half of verse 1:
–I, Paul, who am “timid” when face to face with you, but “bold” toward you when away!
They were accusing him of having double standards, which, is often the first ‘go to’ for anyone wanting to go at us. But in this case, his opponents, it seems, had got things very wrong indeed.
In the first place, his opponents had completely misunderstood the gospel. They thought that to call someone ‘humble’ was the ultimate insult. It’s kind of sad really – like kids in the playground trying to inflict some mortal wound on their enemy, but not having the verbal firepower to do so. I That’s the kind of accusation they levelled at Paul – ‘you’re just so… humble!
‘ And in saying that, they had completely missed the point of the gospel.
It was a very Greek issue – in fact it’s the same basic issue that dominates much of 1 Corinthians, where the message of the cross was viewed as too stupid for words. Now, however, it isn’t the message itself that’s under fire, but the messenger himself. And Paul’s response?
He counters their ridiculous, wrong-headed accusations with Christlike poise and strength. He fights their fire with ‘meekness’ (the same word used in the beatitudes by Jesus) and ‘gentleness’, used by Paul himself in Philippians 4 (let your ‘gentleness’ be evident to all). They attacked him. He appealed to the Corinthians – and to them – with meekness and gentleness. It isn’t always the picture we have of Paul, but it seems that he wasslow to take offence, ready to put up with accusations, and always committed to putting others first. He was gentle.
It’s pretty impressive. Paul has been working for years
to see this church plant in Corinth flourish. He has seen all his work undermined – and his reputation dismantled by these unnamed itinerant teachers, who had carved out a living for themselves as the new thing on the old philosophy circuit. But how does he respond when they try to take him down? In the same way that Jesus himself responded to those who were plotting to kill him. In a controlled, gracious, gentle way. Is that easy? Of course not – but this is the change that the gospel brings about in people like us. The Spirit produces real-time fruit in our lives, enabling us to live and speak like Jesus himself, even when we are attacked. Calvin sums up his point: The gentleness that Christ himself showed, he requires from his servants
So is gentleness the dominant note of your life? And mine? Even when we’re attacked? It should be. It can be. Let’s ask God to make it a habit. Which takes us to verses 2-6 and the second habit:
TRUST THE TRUTH (10:2-6)
We mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that Paul’s commitment to acting and reacting like Christ (with meekness and gentleness), made him a soft touch, because it’s equally clear that he has a deep passion for the truth of the gospel, which drives everything he says in this mess. I suppose you could say he refuses to make it about him, and makes sure that God’s work in our world through the gospel stays front and centre. He trusts the truth to do its work. And that’s really what makes it possible for him to sleep at night – and to be honest, it makes it possible for me to step back a little at MPC – we can trust the truth!
Incredibly, Paul’s opponents were accusing him of being unspiritual: 2I beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be toward some people who think that we live by the standards of this world (lit. walking according to the flesh
Paul longs not to have to confront those who are undermining him – although, if he has to, he will. Why? Because this really matters. It’s not really about him at all – the real issue is the nature of true gospel ministry – is it the super-spiritual, super-impressive, super-confident psycho-babble of the sophisticates the real thing? Not according to Paul, whose down-to-earth ministry of the gospel could hardly have been more different. He may not be all that impressive, but his ministry – gospel ministry – is the real thing. Look how he spells that out from verse 3:
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. 6And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete.
Paul’s personal frailty may be obvious, but so is the power of the gospel. They can say what they like about him, but Paul will not let them deny the fact that his ministry has real, spiritual power because it is gospel
The picture Paul uses in these verses is almost certainly that of a Roman siege engine, which, after smashing down the walls surrounding a city, and even the inner citadel, enables the invading armies to pour through the walls, taking prisoners and punishing those persisting in rebelling against the new rulers (when their obedience – that is, their submission – is complete). And this is how the gospel operates. If, when attacked personally, Paul is meek and gentle, when it comes to truth, he is passionate and fearless! Unlike his opponents, who are always trying to accommodate the gospel with existing philosophical ideas, Paul is happy to unleash the power of the gospel on those very ideas with devastating effects! He is committed to ‘taking every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ’, that is to bringing the truth to bear in the public square exposing every human philosophy, every human argument for what it is.
The irony is here that his opponents make it personal, but for Paul it is all about the gospel. He refuses to play the man. They say that he is worldly and that they are deeply spiritual. Paul shows the reverse is true by focusing on what they haven’t grasped – that when God works, he does so freely and graciously through the gospel by the power of the Spirit in broken people like us, rather than through human giftedness. It’s the gospel changes people, and takes on powerful empires and ideas and brings them to their knees. For Paul, it’s not about him, it’s about the gospel. That’s why we must not trust ourselves, but only the truth of the gospel. It’s ultimately the gospel which has the power to heal us, and our relationships, and enables our leaders to stand both humble and strong.
Calvin, again, wrote this deeply arresting statement: For nothing is more opposed to the spiritual wisdom of God than the wisdom of the flesh, and nothing is more opposed to his grace than man’s natural ability, and it is the same with everything the world thinks exalted.
We cannot be confident in ourselves and in God at the same time. We cannot live by grace whilst robbing God of glory and giving ourselves the credit. We cannot be passionate about the truth, whilst defending our own reputation. I think Paul got that exactly right – he is utterly convinced of both his own weakness, and the power of the gospel, and lives out of both. That’s why he is so passionate about the truth. And that’s what came out when he was attacked. Which takes us neatly to the third habit in verses 7-8, put your confidence in Christ.
PUT YOUR CONFIDENCE IN CHRIST (10:7-8)
Paul’s attackers were very confident that they were ‘in Christ’ – and seemingly weren’t not so sure about Paul – but look with me at how the apostle replies in verses 7-8:
2Cor. 10:7 You are judging by appearances. If anyone is confident that they belong to Christ, they should consider again that we belong to Christ just as much as they do..
Paul is quite happy to assert that he has been joined by faith to Christ, and that this permanent, irreversible reality is the bedrock both of his own security and his ministry. But his confidence in Christ stretches beyond that. He goes on to say that at times, his confidence may even have looked a bit like boasting
, but so what?
8So even if I boast somewhat freely about the authority the Lord gave us for building you up rather than tearing you down, I will not be ashamed of it.
We have already seen multiple times in this letter, that for Paul, boasting in Christ
is not a bad thing – in fact it reflects a host of healthy, spiritual realities: we will only boast in Christ if we trust him implicitly, and believe that Christ really does have the power to change people through the gospel. And there is a specific word to our elders here: if we believe that Christ recruits and commissions people like us to wield spiritual authority in the church
, then we can get on with it, knowing that Christ is more than enough. Even when the heat is on, we’ll be more than able to withstand it.
There will be times for all of us
if we keep going, that we have to say to ourselves ‘I know I am broken, sinful and inconsistent – but I am in Christ, and he has appointed me to serve him – so I’m going to get on with it whatever people think of me, in the strength that he supplies.’ That’s what it means to put out confidence in Christ – and that believe it or not, is both freeing and empowering.
Spurgeon once said this: ‘I cannot make out what has happened to some of my brethren who fancy themselves so wonderfully good. I wish the Lord would strip them of their self-righteousness and let them see themselves as they really are in his sight. Their fine notions concerning the higher life would soon vanish then. Brothers, the highest life I ever hope to reach to, this side of heaven, is to say from my very soul ‘I the chief of sinners am, but Jesus died for me.’ I have not the slightest desire to suppose that I have advanced in the spiritual life many stages beyond my brethren. As long as I trust simply to the blood and righteousness of Christ, and think nothing of myself, I believe that I shall continue to be pleasing to the Lord Jesus Christ, that this joy will be in me, and that my joy will be full.’
And it’s this confidence in Christ – this boast – which enabled Paul to keep going – and which will set us up for this recovery stage in the life of MPC, even when the pressure is great! Which takes us to principle number 4:
COMMIT TO CONSISTENCY (10:9-11)
The fourth principle of Paul’s response isn’t really a ‘response’ at all – in that it’s something that marked Paul’s ministry from the start to the end. It doesn’t sound very sexy, but it is very, very significant. It’s consistency
Read with me from verse 9I do not want to seem to be trying to frighten you with my letters. 10For some say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.” 11Such people should realize that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present.
Paul reminds them that with him, what you see is what you get.
The accusation that was levelled against him was a tough one. It’s basically that he was duplicitous – writing one thing and saying another face to face. That kind of contradiction will slowly but surely kill relationships, and will gradually kill a church, as gradually, our actions undermine our words. Thankfully Paul was able to say, on the basis of multiple previous visits to the city of Corinth, that this just wasn’t true of him. With Paul, you got the same person one to one as you did at the front on Sundays. He lived a joined-up life. Which begs the very obvious question, do we
Together, we need to pursue the kind of consistency that marked Jesus’ dealings with people, and Paul’s. Whatever the situation, whatever the cost, Paul spoke the gospel into people’s lives – is that me? Is that you? God calls us to this kind of joined up life – so let me encourage you, as we move forward, let’s be the real deal. Let’s be consistent. And for us, that will mean no talking in the corner, or in the carpark. No saying one thing to people’s face, and another when they’ve gone. Let’s be consistent: Hope you are going OK – just three more habits to go, and they come think and fast at the end of this chapter. The 5th
habit of godly people is:
DON’T COMPARE (10:12)
A few years ago, I went with a friend, to watch his young son play football. The hilarious thing was that this was non-competitive soccer, as obviously the idea of winning and losing was just too much for these 7 year olds to deal with. So there would be no winners and losers, every game would be a draw, and no-one would keep score. Except that no-one had told the kids about this, and they greeted each goal with a carefully choreographed premier league type team celebration and such strictly non-competitive comments like ‘6-1’, ‘I’ve scored 5!’and ‘we’re stuffing you’. But Paul, it seems, really did operate in a non-competitive environment. Even though his opponents were clearly into comparison, he wasn’t:
We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise. –
lit. completely clueless.
If we belong to Christ, then comparing ourselves with other people really is appalling. In fact, it shows we have completely lost the gospel plot. And yet we do it. We look at someone else and say to ourselves ‘How come people seem to like them better than me?’ ‘How come she treats her better than me?’ How come they seem to have so much more money than me? How come they have been given more responsibility than me?
And so it goes on. And unfortunately, it doesn’t stop. Comparison it seems, is an occupational hazard – but only if you are a living, breathing member of the human race.
The trouble is that every time we do it – every time we look at another person and measure ourselves, we are throwing the door wide open to pride (if we can find a way to score ourselves higher than them) or its twin sister, self-pity (if we can’t). Every time we compare, we throw living by grace through faith out the window and start to run with a gospel of good works. Every time we compare, we swap living to please God with living to please ourselves, under the guise of impressing other people – and it stinks! That’s undergirding Jesus’ own teaching in this area in Matt 7:
“Judge not, that you be not judged. 2For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. 3Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
This is what keeps Paul from bitterness, and ensures that he stayed on track over the years – he doesn’t succumb to comparisons, but focuses on the work of the kingdom.
So how are you going with that one? I just wonder if right now, there are some of us who are ruining our own happiness in Christ by comparing ourselves with others, and are either slipping into an odious superiority, or a self-indulgent self-pity, both of which are a slap in the fact to the Christ who rescued us and treasures us, even in our self-regarding stupidity? Which flows neatly into the next (and penultimate) habit which enabled Paul to cope and flourish despite no small amount of stress…
FOCUS ON WHAT GOD HAS GIVEN YOU TO DO (10:13-17)
There is a delicious freedom in knowing what God has – and hasn’t – given us to do – and sticking to it. That was something that Paul’s opponents weren’t so crash hot at. It seems that they were extremely keen to take over – and take the credit from Paul. You can see that in verses 13-15:
We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise. 13We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God himself has assigned to us, a sphere that also includes you. 14We are not going too far in our boasting, as would be the case if we had not come to you, for we did get as far as you with the gospel of Christ. 15Neither do we go beyond our limits by boasting of work done by others.
Paul maintains that God gave him the responsibility to look after the new church at Corinth, and that he is determined to follow that through! That’s why he can’t just stand idly by and let this strange interlopers poke their noses in destabilise everything. And it isn’t because Paul is a control freak – anything but – but he does have a profound sense of pastoral responsibility. These church members in Corinth – no matter how annoying they may be – are a gift from God to him and he isn’t going to walk away completely, which is why God continues to speak to them. Paul is committed to focusing on what God had given him
responsibility to do. Although in Paul’s case, was actually quite a lot!
As well as Corinth, he is also committed to seeing the gospel spread across the entire Mediterranean –
Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our sphere of activity among you will greatly expand, 16so that we can preach the gospel in the regions beyond you. For we do not want to boast about work already done in someone else’s territory. 17But, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
His opponents desperately wanted to steal some glory for themselves- Paul’s concern is to see the gospel spread and God’s glory increase. And to focus on what God had given him to do.
You know there is real freedom in knowing that. If God has given us a role to do, we focus and that, and pray for those who have different roles in church. If God has put us in MPC, let’s focus on MPC, on loving each other, and in playing our part in spreading the gospel to North Brisbane and to the world. So make sure that we focus on the specific local task that God has given us, whilst not forgetting that we are also called to play our part in the great commission work of taking the gospel to the whole world – if we do that, we will be neither proprietorial nor short-sighted! Which takes us to the last gospel-shaped habit that will thrive even in the face of strong opposition. So far we’re to develop the habits of being meek and gentle, trusting the truth, putting oour trust in Christ, committing to consistency, not comparing but focusing on what God has given us to do (both locally and as part of the global people of God) And completing the perfect number 7, the last habit is ?…
LIVE TO PLEASE GOD (10:18)
It’s hardly a surprise – Paul draws the chapter to a close with these words:
18 For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.
There is a reason why we’re asked to supply references when we apply for a job. It’s because self-commendation is basically meaningless, and even more so in a Christian context – because the only approval that actually matters come from God.
Nowhere is that clearer than in Matthew 25, where Jesus, in the parable of the talents, holds out to us the glorious prospect of these words: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’
This is to be our great goal That’s why Paul tells us in 2 Tim 2:15,Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.
Ultimately, it is living like this – living to please the Lord Jesus which sets us up and sets us free to cope with conflict and opposition, and criticism, and slights, and to do it all with a deeply secure smile on our faces. That’s what Paul models for us, and that’s what we are called to. These are the habits we need to cultivate, this is what we need to do, as we recover, and reset and rebuild here at MPC.
But one question remains – how can we pull this off? In particular, how on earth can we hope to maintain this balance, this godly poise when we’re under pressure? How can ordinary people like us hope to live this this in a messy and messed up world? The answer is simple -Paul found it back in the OT , which he quotes in Jer 9:23:
Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, 24but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.”
This really is the key to everything: Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord!
The key to living for Jesus is to treasure him above all things. May God help us to do that, and may it transform the way we think, and speak, and plan, and stand, and hurt, and respond. For in Christ, we really do have nothing to fear. Amen.