2 Corinthians 1:1-2 Of, from, and through God and Jesus Christ

Instead of introducing 2 Corinthians before looking at the letter itself, I’d like us to look at Paul’s own introductory words and allow those words to give a doorway into this letter.

2 Cor 1:1-2 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God that is in Corinth, including all the saints throughout Achaia: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (NRSV) 

Here Paul begins 2 Corinthians, this letter in which he gives the most concentrated attention to the life of ministry. Paul, as he introduces himself and the receivers of this letter, does some important defining even in these first two verses as he describes who he is and who the Corinthians are — and I think who we are as well — before God and Jesus Christ.

On one hand, his first words are very similar to first words of some of his other letters. On the other hand, words always take meaning from their placement in a particular document, and we can begin to think about these two verses in light of what we know of the rest of 2 Corinthians.

Probably more than in any of his other letters, Paul in 2 Corinthians is going to take care to explain his way of going about life and ministry. He’s in a situation where his own approach to Christian life and ministry has been questioned, and he’s going to need to define where he stands — especially on the role of weakness and suffering in that life, since the Corinthians have concerns about the presence of weakness and suffering in his life.

And here at the very beginning, Paul speaks of himself and his ministry as of, from, and through God and Jesus Christ.

So much of 2 Corinthians is about Paul defining his identity, his way of life, and his manner of ministry — with the ultimate goal of defining all of these things on behalf of believers and their lives. We will see that he does that while he, at the same time, is describing a standard for Christian leadership by what it means to live a God-centered life in deep unity with Jesus Christ.

The apostle Paul wrote in Greek; every Greek noun has case, the trait which makes the biggest difference for how nouns come together with other words to make meaning. “The basic function of the genitive case is to describe or define” (Croy 1999:13). We see the genitive case when Paul says he’s an “apostle of Jesus Christ”. And he calls the church not just the church, but the church “of God”, or “God’s church”. Genitives frequently identify belonging. As an apostle, he belongs to Jesus Christ. And the church belongs to God. Moreover, Paul affirms that grace and peace come “from” God and the Lord Jesus Christ. Genitives can identify the source or origin of something. Paul uses the genitive case over and over in the first two verses – ten nouns in all.

It’s no accident that there are so many genitives in the first two verses, because there’s a lot of defining and identifying happening here, as Paul will do throughout this letter.

Let’s take a closer look at some of Paul’s particular phrases and expressions he uses to identify himself and the believers to whom he’s writing.

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus”

An interesting thing about scholarship on 2 Corinthians is that commentators have often said that 2 Corinthians is about Paul’s apostleship and about Paul defending his apostleship. They see that Paul calls himself an apostle, and they see him being a little defensive in the pages that follow. But in this first big section of the letter, 2 Corinthians 1-9, Paul only mentions that he is an apostle once, here as he introduces himself in 1:1. Paul actually does not act very interested in making himself distinct from other Christians in his position and authority. We’ll notice that Paul will normally speak with the word “we”, not “I”, especially in the first nine chapters. He’ll tend to place himself with fellow Christians, not apart from them or different from them. From Paul’s own words, we will see that Paul seems to focus on life and ministry in union with Jesus Christ, a way of life that’s available to all the saints, not just to an apostle. I don’t think Paul speaks often enough about apostleship to be defending his apostleship; instead, he defends a manner of life and a manner of ministry that arises from deep union with Jesus Christ, a way of life that says yes to all that Jesus Christ is – his weakness, suffering, and death, as well as his power. And this way of life is for all who are in Christ.

Scholars have also said Paul is preoccupied with his authority in 2 Corinthians. Paul does mention his title and role from the very beginning. It states his authority. But only sort of. Paul is calling himself an apostle partly to demonstrate his authority. In this letter Paul is going to describe what Christian leadership looks like. Namely, it is shaped and conditioned by the one who authorizes, the one the apostle represents, Jesus Christ. An apostle is one sent by Christ. That involves authority, but we will also learn that it means service, servanthood, and sacrifice. Paul will tell the Corinthians, “Death is at work in us, but life is at work in you” (4:12). Paul not only proclaims Christ but takes on the traits of Christ – his meekness, his gentleness, and his suffering, as well as his power.

Paul expects Christian leaders to follow a path of ministry that embodies Jesus Christ. Paul lives in a state of fellowship with Christ but also a oneness with Jesus Christ that affects all aspects of life. Paul leads and preaches, Paul influences others, and he believes this cannot be separated from living in the manner of Jesus. For Paul, this is not at all optional. Those who preach Jesus Christ model a deep integration between the message they preach and the way of Jesus Christ. “For we do not preach ourselves but the Lord Jesus Christ, and ourselves as your servants because of Christ” (4:5). It’s a standard of Christian leadership that cannot allow anything but an integration between message (preaching Jesus Christ) and way of life (living out the manner of Jesus).

It is not exactly theology that turns Paul against some Christian teachers who oppose him; it’s the lack of integration between the gospel and the Christian life that Paul will attack in 2 Corinthians. To put it differently, we could say that Paul’s approach to Christian theology does not allow him to separate preaching Jesus Christ from living a life that arises from fellowship with Christ. Paul teaches a deep unity between Christ and Christian leaders, and between Christ and all believers.

This is part of what makes 2 Corinthians so powerful and penetrating as a letter. It has been among the least studied of Paul’s epistles. Yet if it had been kept more closely at hand, it could have helped Christianity to avoid some of its greatest mistakes. One thinks immediately of the fateful combination of political power with the Christian faith after the conversion of Constantine in the 4th century. And the sins committed during the crusades of the medieval period. And the entanglement of Christian mission with colonialism. The deep integration between Christian proclamation and Christian living demonstrated in 2 Corinthians could have helped the church avoid such epoch-making mistakes.

by (dia) the will of God

Anyone who reads Paul’s letters or the book of Acts can recognize that Paul was a man with a powerful will. Yet this phrase, “by the will of God“, is one of his favorites when introducing himself and his ministry (Guthrie 2015: 56). Paul’s life was not mainly about his will, but God’s, as part of his overall God-centered approach to life.

“By the will of God” is a good translation, but the word behind “by”, dia in Greek, gives the idea of a means by which something is done over time, a process that may take a long time. The phrase διὰ θελήματος θεοῦ, most literally, “through the will of God”, suggests the “circumstances by which something is accomplished” (Guthrie 56, BDAG 224). Paul uses that same word dia when he says, “we walk by faith (διὰ πίστεως), not by sight (διὰ εἴδους)” (5:7). Paul’s word dia fits walking, a process, a journey. It’s not just that Paul got to be an apostle by the will of God. God did not just get it started, then leave it up to Paul. The long journey of it, from start to finish and everywhere in between, is through the will of God.

For Paul, it’s crucial in his ministry that God’s agency is primary; Paul acts in response to God and in cooperation with God. God makes the first moves and keeps making the first moves. No matter how active we are as Christians, we are people who receive our ministry, who respond to God. We are not firstly people who act, who make decisions, who make things happen. Behind and before any desire or action on our part, there’s God’s will, God’s desiring (see also 1 Cor 9:16; Gal 1:15-16).

The life of ministry is God centered. It’s not mainly about our will, but God’s.

“and Timothy the brother” – 2 Corinthians is a letter in which Paul is going to say a whole lot about himself. And yet he is very collaborative, always involving someone else (Thiselton 2019:20). He names Timothy from the beginning. Paul knows that to get anywhere far or reach any big goals, he needs persons at his side. He acts in light of the reality that the work is far bigger than himself.

Calling Timothy “the brother” at the start of 2 Corinthians, I think Paul sees Timothy as “Exhibit A” for what Paul hopes to see in the Corinthian congregation itself. Paul holds up Timothy as representing what Paul is about as he ministers. He will call the Corinthians “brethren” in 1:8 and occasionally in the letter (8:1; 13:11). Yet he tends to use the term to refer to those who minister with him (9:3, 5). Timothy is the kind of person he hopes the Corinthians themselves will become.

Paul mentioned Timothy twice in 1 Corinthians. Immediately after Paul says the Corinthians are his children in the Lord and invites them imitate himself, he speaks of Timothy as his “beloved son, faithful in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ” (1 Cor 4:17). Timothy was the kind of trusted friend and assistant who could deliver Paul’s letter and then stand in Paul’s place while visiting a congregation when he couldn’t be there himself. “He does the work of the Lord as I do” (1 Cor 16:10). Timothy was also bi-cultural, half Jew and half Greek, and perhaps naturally able to cross boundaries with the gospel as Paul did.

I find it interesting that the Bible first mentions Timothy in Acts when Paul visits Lystra, Timothy’s hometown (Acts 16:1; see also 2 Tim 3:11), where Paul was dragged and stoned, left lying on the ground, and thought to be dead (Acts 14:19). Timothy either witnessed this event or at least was intimately acquainted with this suffering of Paul in his hometown. Timothy knows Paul’s suffering, and yet stands close to him as a trusted partner and friend.

We’ll see that the Corinthians are in a position where they know Paul’s difficulties, and they’re deciding whether or not to stick with Paul. They’re asking, can an apostle, can a model Christian, be someone who suffers? Can someone whose personal presence is weak, and his speech appalling, be a model of Christian maturity for people in an up-and-coming city like Corinth (2 Cor 10:10)? That’s a big reason why Paul writes this letter. Due mainly to concerns about the presence of weakness and suffering in his life, Paul needs to defend his manner of life and ministry, and build trust. Timothy is there as one who knows Paul’s sufferings, and yet stands with Paul. Can the Corinthians become like Timothy? Will they be able to walk with their teacher who has gone through terrible hardship, and continue receiving his teaching, instead of turning their back on that leader or stigmatizing him? Will they be able to stay close to Paul, and see that he is an apostle of Jesus Christ, that he represents Jesus Christ, even amidst the hardship he has faced?

Like Paul, we all need persons at our side, persons we develop and trust, who continue the work of the Lord as we do, who teach the Christian way of life as we do. The Christian life is collaborative. It gets lived out in heartfelt partnership and friendship.

“to the church of God which is in Corinth” – Here Paul first names the Corinthians, whom he calls “God’s church”. They’re a called people, the ἐκκλησίᾳ who’ve been “called out” (the literal meaning of the word) and gathered by God. Here the genitive “of God” seems to indicate ownership. This group of people belongs to God.

I once went to a presbytery gathering, a gathering of ministers and leaders from a number of congregations meeting at one local church. One of the ministers asked, “Who’s the owner of this church?” Then the pastor of that congregation was identified as the owner of that congregation. Maybe I misunderstood something. I hope I did. But what I heard shocked me. Only God owns the church.

And this church, this group of people who’ve been called out by God, reside in Corinth. Place is not the same as belonging. Paul says they belong to God, but they live out this belonging in the city of Corinth.

We could say many things about the city of Corinth. Bustling, prosperous. But what’s especially relevant about Corinth for understanding 2 Corinthians is that the people of this city tended to care deeply about competition, success, appearance, status, and reputation. It was a city of opportunity, a place where people migrated for the chance to pursue an upwardly mobile life.

These realities arose from the city’s location on a little piece of land between the Aegean and Adriatic seas. Shipping brought the city a seemingly endless supply of goods and money and people. Corinth controlled this shipping and profited from it. Rome had destroyed Corinth two hundred years before Paul arrived there, but in 44 BC Rome re-founded and allowed the city to repopulate. But since it had gone so long without a population, it had no established aristocracy. So unlike most ancient cities, people who had never enjoyed high status could enter and gradually move into the elite class, if they competed well. So the people were concerned with having the kind of success and appearance and mannerisms that led to high status.

Though the members of the Corinthian church had become followers of Jesus Christ, “some competitiveness, self-achievement, self-promotion, self-congratulation, and self-sufficiency remained” (Thiselton 2019:7). And the church came to wonder if Paul met their standards of what someone who led them ought to look like and sound like. Some were saying, “his bodily appearance is weak, and his speech despicable” (2 Cor. 10:10).

Yet Paul loved the Corinthians and didn’t give up on them. He had spent some eighteen months in Corinth during his initial visit (Acts 18:11), and as far as we know, he wrote more to this church than to any other. His challenges in Corinth were enormous, but he saw himself as a father; he saw them as his children (1 Cor 4:15). He also must have seen the worth of having a church and center for the gospel at such a crucial crossroads in the Mediterranean world. Such strategic ministry was worth personal sacrifice.

“with all the saints in all Achaia”

Paul calls these believers saints even though he will reveal that, in some ways, the Corinthians themselves have wounded him. What a history they have, in light of 1 Corinthians. Yet he dignifies them with the name “saints”, people set apart by God and for God. Both the term “saints” and the previous term “God’s church” signal that these people belong to God and God’s purposes. Sometimes we’re tempted to give up on God’s people, but Paul did not give up on the Corinthians, and will say to them in 2 Cor 1:6 “Our hope for you is firm.”  

The believers who are in Corinth are part of a larger body of Christians in that broad southern region of ancient Greece called Achaia, which also included Athens. It might seem that some of what Paul says is so specific that surely it pertains only to a small group of people in Corinth.  So it is interesting that Paul addresses this letter to all the believers throughout Achaia, a broad area, well beyond the city of Corinth (see also 11:10). In ancient times, Chrysostom took this to mean that the believers dispersed in this broad area were all involved with the same problem, and thus needed the same solution. I’m sure there’s truth to that, as the believers from this area must have dealt with similar issues and likely composed a fairly tight network of Christian fellowship with one another.

On the other hand, I think it likely that some of the believers living well beyond the confines of Corinth would hear the reading of this letter, and they would not understand some details of issues mentioned by Paul. For instance, they might not understand why Paul’s reputation seems to be at stake.  And yet Paul meant the letter to be shared broadly. This bears early witness to Paul’s confidence that the letter could speak beyond its immediate circumstances. Paul must have seen that his situation with the Corinthians fit a pattern of events that could easily occur elsewhere, or at least that the realities he spoke of in response to the problem fit a pattern that could speak beyond one context. Paul’s reputation has been attacked, but Paul has a message which will benefit not just himself or the congregation in Corinth, but the church as a whole.

So, either the problems spread beyond Corinth throughout Achaia, or Paul implies that the lessons speak beyond the particular context of Corinth – and the latter might even say something about Paul’s confidence that it could speak to us, today, as well. Paul wanted the letter shared. He had confidence that the truth we have and speak in Christ is translatable truth. It needs to go public. It can leap over boundaries, beyond the original circumstances. And God can speak to us today through these words of 2 Corinthians even if we don’t know the whole story of what’s behind Paul’s words or there’s something here or there we don’t fully understand.

We’ve seen that in the first verse, Paul marks his identity as an apostle, one sent by Christ Jesus through the will of God, and he addresses a group of people he calls saints and “God’s church”. Paul recognizes himself first as who he is in relation to Jesus Christ and God. That will always come first. Not that he’s Jewish, not that he’s educated, not that he’s a citizen of Rome, but that he’s sent by Jesus Christ. And he is who he is by the will of God. We are what we are, and we are who we are, through the will of God. We can be tempted to put other identities first, and maybe without realizing it. The verse first verse presents us the opportunity to ask if we are allowing ourselves to be defined by God and Christ.  

1:2 “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (NRSV)

On one hand, Paul greets the Corinthians in a way modelled after a traditional Greek letter greeting (Thiselton 2019: 21), including a slight adjustment of the word χαίρειν “greetings” (see James 1:1) to become “grace to you” χάρις ὑμῖν. This is normal for Paul’s letters, along with the word “peace” (εἰρήνη) which indicates holistic well-being, based on the Hebrew concept of shalom.

Even in Paul’s greeting, he expresses deep ministry-shaping convictions: Grace, which as we will see in 2 Corinthians is what enables vitality and ministry during any difficulty, comes from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ (see 2 Cor 12:8-10). Moreover, peace – wellbeing, flourishing – comes from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (see Guthrie 2015:59).

Paul identifies a key direction of movement that lays the basis of our life as Christians: Grace and peace come “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. Paul will repeatedly identify this pattern throughout the letter. In the Christian life and the life of ministry, we have what we have from God and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the source and sustainer of all grace and every blessing.

We will find a triple use of “father” in verses 2 and 3. For Paul, in this context, God as Father means source, and the language highlights the personal and relational nature of God. Paul uses the personal language available to him, and Paul will help his readers see what kind of Father God is – he is the Father of mercies (2 Cor 1:3). And in Paul’s thinking, gifts come from God in, and by means of, Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:5; 8:6). We will also see much more of “Lord” after this first mention by Paul. “We do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor 4:5). The Lord Jesus is the one Paul seeks to honor and please (2 Cor 8:19, 21).

As we have seen through verses 1-2 God and Christ make Paul and the saints who they are. Paul knew who he was. His identity, calling, and way of life are rooted and centered in God and Jesus Christ. Through God and through the Lord Jesus Christ, Paul knew who he was and affirmed who he was with strong conviction, and he was able to affirm certain realities about his audience with the same strong conviction.

Let’s remember that God and Christ make us who we are. We’ll learn in 2 Corinthians that Paul’s circumstances also made him who he was, and that God used circumstances to make him who he was. We’ll explore that later. But behind and in our circumstances, God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ make us who we are as God’s church, as saints, and as those who minister. Paul’s initial words invite us to see ourselves as defined by and belonging to not ourselves or our own will but to God, God’s will, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Each one of us has a life and identity shaped by many factors. But most primary and determinative of all, is that we are of, from, and through God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We receive our identity, our life, and our ministry from God and through Jesus Christ

Questions for reflection, conversation, and prayer

  1. From what do we take our sense of identity and purpose? What’s primary – our history, our education, privileges we enjoy, our belonging to a particular group of people? Do we define ourselves in and through God and Jesus Christ, or do other voices prevail?
  2. In light of Paul’s words and your own convictions, what do God and the Lord Jesus Christ enable you to affirm about yourself?

 

Works Cited

Croy, Clayton. 1999. A Primer of Biblical Greek. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Guthrie, George H. 2015. 2 Corinthians: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. 2015. Baker Academic: Grand Rapids.

Thiselton, Anthony C. 2019. 2 Corinthians: A Short Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary. Cascade Books: Eugene, Oregon.

The God who wants to hear our story — and hear it again

This is a long post — a whole sermon — which I preached during the last Justo Mwale University (Lusaka, Zambia) chapel service of 2019:

I’m honored to share the word during this final service of the 2019 school year. We as a JMU community have made it to week 10 of Term 3. It’s not been an easy term, but the finish line is near.  

In 2019 we’ve been hearing messages focused on “Living a life worthy of the calling”. This morning I would like us to think about the question: What about when living a life worthy of the calling doesn’t seem to be going as well as we thought it would? …When we think we’re living the life God has called us to live, but our circumstances seem difficult, when the life of ministry or life as a student at Justo Mwale does not feel it is going as smoothly as we hoped it would go?

Let’s open our Bibles to 1 Kings, where we learn about the God who wants to hear what we’ve been going through, the God who wishes to hear the difficult stories from our lives, and then hear our stories again.

1 Kings 18:42;  but also 1 Kings 19:1-14. As we read, let’s be asking: What is Elijah going through? And, What’s being said through the story about who God is?

Old Testament characters are often thought to be role models. Sometimes they are. But, much more often, their stories are meant to speak to us about God as we take a close look at what they were going through.

When our story begins, there’s just been a mighty spiritual battle, a showdown between on one hand Yahweh and his prophet Elijah, and on the other, Baal and his prophets. Baal was the god of storms, rain, and fertility. On Mt Carmel, God has revealed himself powerfully by sending fire from heaven and burning up a sacrifice. Elijah in his zeal has just slain the prophets of Baal.

And so we come to 18:42… So Ahab (the king of Israel) went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees.

What is happening with Elijah? What’s happening inside Elijah? He’s bent down to the ground; he’s got his face between his knees. He might be talking to God, but the Bible does not normally describe having our face between our knees as a gesture for prayer. With his face between his knees, Elijah looks disturbed. He looks down, afraid, maybe despondent, despairing.

On one hand, a battle has just been won. But on the other hand, maybe Elijah is having second thoughts. Did he go too far killing the prophets of Baal? And he realizes who Ahab the king is going to talk to when he gets home.

Jezebel – patroness of the prophets of Baal. Jezebel. It’s not a name we Christians think much about when it’s time to name our baby daughters.

Elijah is probably realizing that once Jezebel finds out what he’s done…  his ministry is over, he’s as good as finished. Because Jezebel is a swift killer.

And sure enough, our story tells us, Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.  2 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” (1 Ki. 19:1-2)

How does Elijah respond to Jezebel’s message? The Bible says…

Elijah was afraid and ran for his life… he… went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He …sat down under a bush and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.

Elijah fears and runs for his life. He knows God does not always prevent terrible things from happening to his servants. Jezebel has killed other prophets of Yahweh (18:13), and Elijah is Jezebel’s enemy #1.

He’s afraid. He’s also down, blue, and despairing. “I’ve had enough, LORD.” “Take my life. I’m no better now than my dead ancestors.” All he can do is lay down and sleep.

So we see that God does not prevent Elijah from experiencing depression. Elijah recognizes he’s in a bad situation, and he feels it like a huge weight upon his chest and shoulders.

This is what happens sometimes to God’s servants. This is what happens sometimes to men and women of God.

But let’s also notice: instead of blocking out or ignoring God, as some of us might do when we feel despair, Elijah speaks his despair to God: “LORD, I’ve had enough.”

I’m thankful for this honesty between Elijah and God; there’s something here for us. God allows Elijah, God allows us sometimes, to go through difficult, difficult things. But we also get to speak our pain to God. We get to name our pain to our good Father — even to say: “God. have you thought about how this might be a good time to finish me off?”

I love how the the Bible is an honest book about what real believers go through. And God is a God who allows us to be honest.

Let’s not miss who God is shown to be.  We read in v 5… All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. 7 The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” (1 Ki. 19:5b-7)

God is sensitive to human needs. God knows we need to eat. An angel of God touches Elijah, repeats encouragement to him, and gives him food (v 5).

Yet Elijah, even after being touched by an angel, is still so tired and blue he can hardly get up.

Then when Elijah rises, eats, and drinks, he begins a journey… all the way to Mt Horeb. That’s Mt Sinai, far to the south, where Moses had met with God. So we see this time of running for his life becomes a pilgrimage, a marathon run to meet with God on the holy mountain.

I wonder if we, like Elijah, can allow our fears and pains from a life of ministry to make us run like Elijah to Mt Horeb, to meet with God.

You see, fear and weakness and pain can be a precious gift. A feeling of inadequacy for ministry can be a friend. Because these feelings can call us to God and pull us to God and drive us to God, even as they took Elijah all the way to God’s presence on Mt Horeb. Negative feelings can prod us to run to God.  

And when Elijah gets to Horeb, the LORD speaks to him with a question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” It’s an invitation for Elijah to tell his story.

“I’ve been very zealous for you. I’ve done all these things for you, and look at me now. Look at what your people are going to do to me now. I’m the only faithful one left, and I’m counting down my last hours.”

Reality is that the rest of the story tells us it’s not completely true that Elijah is the only faithful one left. But he feels isolated. And God does not argue.  God listens.

And God listens to us.

I like this Elijah story for us at Justo Mwale – for us as a community, and for us as individuals. For most of us, coming to Justo Mwale was a victory, a breakthrough. Perhaps a little like Elijah on Mt Carmel. We saw the Lord’s power for us as he brought us to Justo Mwale.

But as we’ve been here, we’ve also been through some difficult times. This academic term a lot of you have found the basics of life very difficult – difficult to cook, difficult to bathe, difficult to sleep, difficult to use the library, difficult to use a computer to write assignments.

Some of us have also walked through numerous other hard things – some have been stolen from, maybe some of you were expecting money to arrive, and it didn’t come. Maybe there’s someone you thought you could trust as a friend, and now you’re not sure. Some expected to be healthy, but you found yourself sick. Some of us have faced serious difficulties in our families.

Or maybe some of us are still hurting from things that have happened to us in life or in ministry from the past, and we thought the pain would disappear here at Justo Mwale, but we still feel wounded.

Now Elijah, we remember, has journeyed to Mt. Horeb. He’s run because of fear, but he’s also run to meet with God.

Verse 11 — The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Ki. 19:11-13)

God has listened, and God responds to Elijah and proves to be a God who makes himself known. But it’s not in the wind, or the earthquake, or fire but in the “sound of silence”, a faint whisper. God responds to us often not in the ways we might expect, often not on our terms, but on his terms. He responds. But he does it his way.

And notice when God makes himself known, he says, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Ki. 19:13 NIV). Haven’t we heard that question before? God again invites Elijah to tell him his story. And Elijah repeats the same story again.

Why would God do that? Why would the Bible describe God as one who invites Elijah to tell his negative story two times in the same chapter?

 

Because that’s real relationship, that’s real relationship with someone who loves and cares. When we go through something hard, we need to tell someone our story, and we often need to tell it more than once. And we get to do that with God. Because he wants relationship with us. And he knows we need to tell him things. And that we may need to tell him some things again and again.

As with Elijah, God says to us, even today, “What are you doing here?” In light of Elijah’s response, I think God means, “What have you been going through that brings you to this place and time in your life, feeling what you’re feeling now?” And like Elijah, we get to tell God our story. “God, this is what I’ve been through. Coming to Justo Mwale was a great thing that happened to me. Thank you. But it hasn’t been easy. Some things have been difficult.”

We are honored by our call, we’re honored to be here. But that doesn’t make this calling or this time in our life something easy.  We get to tell God: This is what it seems you’ve allowed us to go through. And this is how we feel.

Once Elijah has been able to tell his story twice, in God’s presence, and God has listened, it’s now that Elijah is ready for God to give him something else to do. The experience of being in the presence of a listening God, a God who keeps asking questions and keeps listening, prepares Elijah to go forth and keep on being a prophet. He can get back to fulfilling the call.

And after God listens to us, and listens to us again, he says something similar to us:  I’ve got something I want you to do. Don’t give up. I’m not finished with you.

When we’ve gone through difficulty, it’s being in the presence of a listening God, the God who wants to hear our story again, that prepares us to get back to living a life worthy of the calling.

Perhaps some of us can relate to Elijah. Maybe we feel we’ve been faithful, even zealous, but some things have not gone the way we thought they would go.  The Christian life can be like that. The life of ministry can feel like that.

Elijah goes through fear. He’s troubled. He gets so tired. He feels despondent. He feels isolated. And maybe some of us feel some of the same things.

But through Elijah’s story we see.. Our God is listening to us… giving us what we need along the way. He may not always do things the way we want, but he’s involved, he speaks, and he gives us good work to do.

And what speaks to me is that we can be honest with God. He’s attentive, welcoming our honesty.

If we think about what the Lord’s Supper is, it’s communion with God through Jesus. It’s an invitation to closer relationship. When we take holy communion, we respond to God’s invitation to come into his presence just as we are. No need to pretend.

 

As God asks us, “What are you doing here?”, what do we need to tell him? What would we say as a JMU community? What would we say as individuals? Maybe like Elijah we need to tell God a difficult story. And then, in God’s presence, we need to tell God the same story again. That’s real relationship.

That’s what happens in a relationship that empowers us to live a life lived worthy of the calling. We cannot live the life worthy of the calling unless we first have that real, honest relationship with the God who wants to listen.

Let’s close our eyes and take moments of silence, and ask ourselves: What do I need to tell God about what I’ve been through? And you’re invited to start telling him now, silently, or think of a time when you’re going to be alone with God and tell him the story that you need to tell. He’ll listen. And when you’re ready to tell it again, he’ll listen again. Let’s pray silently…

(silence)

We thank you, God, that the Bible is honest about Elijah’s inner suffering and despair. You asked him questions. You listened to him. You were there for him. And we thank you that you are here for us as well, for us as individuals, for us as a community. Help us to tell you the story we need to tell, and then to tell it again. We need that kind of relationship with you to be able to live a life worthy of our calling. Amen.

 

Be Cautious about Prophets but Zealous to Prophesy: 1 Corinthians 14 and Today’s Questions about Prophecy (in Southern Africa)

Johanneke Kroesbergen-Kamp’s research (2016) among students at Justo Mwale University suggests that members of the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches of Southern Africa are asking numerous questions related to prophecy and prophets: What is prophesying? What are prophets? Can we have prophets today? Are prophets dangerous, or are they specially gifted and worthy of elevated status? Is God still speaking in the same way that he spoke to the biblical prophets? What would the existence of prophets and prophecy mean for the relevance of the Bible? How does prophesying relate to preaching?

This essay attempts to allow Scripture to answer these questions which are being asked in Southern Africa, instead of allowing the prevailing Pentecostal atmosphere, or even our Reformed heritage of Justo Mwale University, to dictate and define the terms. This approach requires that we identify where the Bible speaks of prophesying and prophets, that we ask of the biblical texts these same questions about prophecy, that we do exegesis with literary and historical sensitivity, and that we reflect theologically on how the biblical passages might answer these questions arising from our context. This essay will concentrate on 1 Corinthians 14, asking what evidence we find therein for answers. I have selected 1 Corinthians 14, in the literary framework of chapters 12-14 as a whole, in order to focus the essay and because it is the chapter in the New Testament which deals with prophets and prophesying in the most depth and detail.

The essay will argue that 1 Corinthians 14 guides us to be cautious about prophets but to appreciate and welcome prophesying as a gift from God to edify the church today. 1 Corinthians 12-14 provides direction which, if maintained, can ensure that the gift of prophecy is used to strengthen the church instead of causing harm. My findings suggest that the older, more established churches should embrace certain aspects of a Pentecostal approach to the prophetic gift, even while also advocating measures that place limitations on and give greater direction to prophesying. This essay also urges Pentecostal churches to consider how Paul’s words affirm certain strengths of the Reformed tradition. The hope is to offer a mature response to Scripture and to what is happening with regard to prophecy in Southern Africa today, for the sake of the wisdom and unity of the churches.

To download and read this paper, go to https://justomwale.academia.edu/DustinEllington

Cooperating with the Gospel

Thanks to friends at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte for the idea of making this video. It lasts nine minutes, and here’s the beginning in case you want to know more about it before deciding to watch:

If in your reading of 1 Corinthians you made it into chapters 8 and 9, you may be asking, “What’s the big deal with meat that’s been sacrificed to idols?”

Well, let’s remember that a letter in the New Testament, such as 1 Corinthians, is rooted in a particular place and time. There’s a historical gap between us and the original group of people to whom the letter was sent.

Let’s see if we can fill in the gap a little: Some members of the Corinthian church figured out that since they knew idols were not real gods, it would technically not be wrong to eat the meat that had been sacrificed to them. The most readily available meat was that which had been used in pagan worship, so this knowledge of theirs gave them new freedom, freedom to enjoy meat as they pleased.

All of this sounds fine, but the apostle Paul responds: “Hold on. It’s not quite that simple.” We have to think critically about our freedom. It’s not just knowledge that informs our choices. Love for others, and a desire to build them up, needs to shape what we choose. He also says in 8:9, “Be careful… that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”

Then, in chapter 9, Paul goes on to talk a lot about his choices and about the gospel. Now many of us are accustomed to thinking about our relationship with God and how that impacts our choices. But Paul also thought a lot about the relationship we have with the gospel. He talks about his relationship with the gospel throughout chapter 9 and how that relationship affected what he did with his freedom. This may be where a first-century issue of food sacrificed to idols overlaps with our lives. So let’s let Paul help us to see what he saw about the role of the gospel in his life and how that affected his choices.

He mentions the word “gospel” and preaching the gospel probably more in 1 Corinthians 9 than in any other passage in the Bible. It’s also one of the passages where Paul talks about himself about as much as anywhere else. But he isn’t just talking about himself. We need to remember that chapters 8 and 9 are part of this section of 1 Corinthians that ends with the conclusion, “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ” in 11:1. So when the apostle talks about his choices, he’s also saying something about us, about our choices, and our calling…

Love and Spiritual Gifts — Especially Prophecy

a sermon during our seminary’s January orientation 

Orientation at Justo Mwale is an important time to seek direction.  Orientation is a good word. It means getting aligned at the beginning so the future becomes what it’s meant to be. I’ve selected one verse to direct our thoughts this morning, 1 Corinthians 14:1. “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy.”  Or, as a literal translation says: “Pursue love, and be zealous for the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.”

I’m not sure how you tend to interpret this verse of Scripture. From my experience, many Presbyterian and Reformed congregations think, “This is not for us. This may be for other believers, but not for us.”  Sometimes we act as though Paul said, “Pursue love, ignore the spiritual gifts, and don’t even think about prophesying.” Sometimes we treat these words as though Paul wrote the verse only for the believers at the Pentecostal and charismatic churches.

My hope is that we can move away from the idea that other kinds of churches have access to gifts and power that we don’t have. We need to claim the whole Bible for ourselves. Why should we leave some parts of the Bible for other Christians if there might be some benefit for our own life of faith? We need to claim 1 Corinthians 14 as a passage of the Bible that’s for us.

I think it would be a big surprise to Paul that there would be churches that don’t treat 1 Cor 14:1 as relevant to their life and ministry.

We need freedom to explore what these words mean, these words that seemed so important to the apostle that they’re a summary of 1 Corinthians 12 to 14. What better place to explore the meaning of these words than at a theological college? Here we are, training to be people who speak the word of God, and setting aside a year to think about what it means for us to be pastors and preachers. It is a good time to take a closer look.

Verses take their meaning from the context in which they are found. So even though our passage is short — one verse, one sentence — we need to take a close look at 1 Corinthians to understand what this statement means, and especially chapters 12-14, the section where our verse is found.

We as a community have some important things in common with what Paul is talking about in this section of 1 Corinthians. In chapters 12-14, he’s giving directions regarding the Corinthians’ life and ministry together. He tells them they’re the body of Christ, and that as individuals they have gifts to use and ministries to grow into so that the body will be built up.

This is similar to us at Justo Mwale. We’re here because God has called us, and the church has said we have gifts for ministry, and we’re here to prepare for a ministry of building up the church, and especially to become qualified to speak the word of God to God’s people.

Let’s notice that Paul says three things in this verse which sums up what he urges the Corinthians to do:  1) Pursue love. 2) Be zealous for the spiritual gifts, and 3) Especially be zealous that you may prophesy.

Let’s start with the second part of the verse: “Be zealous for spiritual gifts.”

Paul used a very strong word when he commanded the Corinthians to desire the spiritual gifts. Eagerly desire them. Be zealous for them.  An important question for us to address is: Why would Paul tell the Corinthians to eagerly desire the spiritual gifts?

I believe Paul answers this question for us in the way he describes the spiritual gifts and what they accomplish for the church. Paul says in 12:7 “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” A spiritual gift is a manifestation, a bringing to light, a disclosure of the activity of God the Holy Spirit. The gift makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is alive, present, and doing things. In the spiritual gifts the power of the Holy Spirit is manifest. This is why people who are hungry for God in their lives often desire spiritual gifts.

Paul also says a spiritual gift is a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good, for the advantage of the body of Christ as a whole.  Paul speaks of the spiritual gifts in several places in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 as edifying the church, encouraging the congregation, and strengthening it.  He repeats the word “build up” at least six times in chapter 14.The repetition of this important term helps us to realize what Paul cares about— building up the church – and that the spiritual gifts are for this specific purpose.

Sometimes we give the impression that our churches, as churches of the Reformation, are about the past; we bear witness to the faith of the 16th century European Reformation. We bear witness to the faith brought by missionaries 100 years ago. This is true and good, but we also need to bear witness to a living God who is doing things today, right now, in our midst. Perhaps young people especially need to hear that, and see it.

And sure enough, the Bible uses present tense words to describe the Christian life. In 12:7, Paul says, “To each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit”; he uses the present continual tense of the verb “give”. God gives the manifestation of the Spirit in an ongoing way. It’s something that happens now, and continually. God is giving the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. And so Paul responds to this reality, in 14:1, when he says, “Eagerly desire” or “Be zealous for” the spiritual gifts. He also uses the Greek verb tense that means ongoing action in the present, as though he says: Eagerly desire, and keep on eagerly desiring the spiritual gifts.”

God wants us not only to be open to the spiritual gifts but to eagerly desire them. The church needs to experience the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. We’re to be eager for the gifts, because the church needs to be strengthened, encouraged, and built up.

 

Now let’s go back to the first part of our verse: “Follow the way of love.”

Paul speaks of love and the spiritual gifts in the same sentence. Back in 1 Cor 1:7, Paul said that the Corinthians had all the gifts. They were not lacking in any spiritual gift. BUT in 1 Cor 3:1-3 Paul says he could not speak to the Corinthian church as to spiritual people.  He had to speak to them as spiritual infants. They had every spiritual gift at work in their church, and yet Paul said he could only treat them as infants in Christ. How could this be?  Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 — Where there is jealousy, where there is strife, where there is disunity, where there is boasting, spiritual maturity is absent. Notice: Spiritual gifts are not the mark of spiritual maturity. The mark of spiritual maturity is love.

So Paul says to the Corinthians, “Pursue love.” If Paul could be here at Justo Mwale, I think he might say the same thing. Look what he says in 1 Cor 8:1: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Knowledge needs love. Justo Mwale, as an academic institution, is in the business of giving knowledge. And when you graduate, you will graduate with knowledge.

But Paul says, in 13:2, “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, …  but have not love, I am nothing.” I am nothing without love, even if I have all knowledge.

The NIV translation of 14:1 says, “Follow the way of love”, but the verb being translated is stronger and more intense than the word “follow”.  Paul uses the same Greek verb when he says in 1 Cor 15:9 “I persecuted the church of God”. Paul didn’t just follow Christians around before he became a believer in Jesus. He chased them. He pursued them. He caught them. And so translators use the word “persecute,” to get at the intensity of the word. And that’s the word Paul uses to tell us what to do with agapē love. We go after it and pursue it.

If we chase and pursue something, then our mind is on it. We set it before us as a goal, and then we start running, and we don’t give up. It’s impossible to do this casually or lightly. When Paul uses the same word for pursuing love as the New Testament uses for when early Christians were pursued by their persecutors, it’s clear that we have a picture of zeal, of earnest desire, and seriousness about this goal to love.

But what is this love Paul speaks of in 1 Cor 14:1? Words of Scripture take their meaning from the part of the Bible where they’re found. In this case, we don’t have to look far. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 says, 4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

What if we spent our years at Justo Mwale in the pursuit of that kind of love?

When it’s time to graduate, the registrar, the dean, and the rector may not get together and ask, Is this student patient? Is he kind? Doe she envy? Does he boast? He’s not proud, is he? Is he self-seeking? That conversation probably won’t happen. But when you go to your first congregation as a pastor, they will be asking questions like that. Does the pastor care? Is he kind, or is he self-seeking? Is she easily angered, or does she keep no record of wrongs? Is he rude, or is he patient?

Paul says to earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, but he also says: Pursue love. The gifts are manifestations of the Spirit and of divine power. Paul knows that power without love is destructive.

If we place even more emphasis on love than on our other gifts and skills for ministry, we are less likely to use our gifts for self-gratification. We’ll use our gifts for building up the church. If we spend our years at Justo Mwale learning to love, then we’re on our way to becoming good pastors.

Now the third part of the verse: “Especially that you might prophesy”

Throughout chapter 14, Paul attempts to encourage and convince the Corinthian church of the importance of a particular gift. Paul was convinced that this gift of prophecy was the spiritual gift that the Corinthians most needed. If Paul would tell a local congregation to be zealous that they might prophesy, how much more would he say the same to us, as a community of people preparing for ministries of speaking the word of God to others!

We need to think about what 1 Corinthians means by prophesying. It would be helpful if we had a video of a Corinthian worship service, so we would know exactly what gift looked like. One of the difficult things about interpreting 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 is that we only have Paul’s words. Although we can turn to Acts and see some of the same words for the spiritual gifts used, such as tongues or prophecy, it’s not always clear that they have the same meaning in Acts as they have in Paul’s letters.

The word prophesy itself just means to proclaim something that God wishes to say. But other verses in chapter 14, besides verse 1, give us a little more information. Verse 29 says, “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.” Paul says that others in the church should weigh, evaluate, and discern what is said. It looks like prophesying in 1 Corinthians may not carry the same authority as when Old Testament prophets would say, “Thus says the Lord…” It sounds like Paul is saying we need to be humble when we use this gift, because we may not always say exactly what the Lord wants us to say. We don’t always hear God’s voice with accuracy, so the congregation needs to evaluate what is said.

Verse 14:3 can also help us in knowing what Paul means by prophesying: “The one who prophesies speaks to people to build them up, encourage them, and comfort them.” Genuine prophesying is for building people up, encouraging them, and comforting them. Verse 31 is also clarifying: For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged.” “So that all may learn” – it involves learning.

I don’t see any evidence in 1 Corinthians that Paul means to say this gift is the ability to tell the future. He doesn’t rule it out, but he also doesn’t mention it. I also don’t see any evidence that the person has to have a magnetic, exciting personality. He doesn’t need special clothes. He doesn’t have to have a nice car or access to a TV camera. And she doesn’t have to be someone who speaks to huge groups of people.

People who prophesy speak deeply into people’s lives, so their listeners are not the same afterward. The person is enabled by God to speak a word that is on target for people’s hearts and minds, to build them up and encourage their faith. He or she speaks just the thing that the people need to hear at a given time. The Holy Spirit is manifest because people know that God has addressed them and not just a person. The word not only rings true with Scripture; it goes to people’s hearts, so they know the Holy Spirit has been present.

Is preaching the same as prophecy? This is something we need to explore. I can only begin an answer.

It seems clear from Paul’s words that prophecy does not require a sermon. It can happen separately from a formal sermon.

But it also seems that preaching can qualify as prophecy. Often when I sit in one of these chairs, and someone else is standing here preaching, I sense that God is speaking to me. I experienced it yesterday. Maybe others were having the same experience. If so, that’s a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. Yesterday’s preacher might not think of himself as a prophet among us, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t exercising a prophetic gift, if God was addressing us through him.

Let’s be honest: I don’t think preaching always qualifies as prophecy. But it can qualify as prophecy. Prophecy is when God speaks through a person what people need to hear. Preaching can do that. And when it does, it is prophetic.

Whether we understand this gift completely or not, one thing is clear: Prophecy is something we should eagerly desire. And just in case we miss it in 14:1, Paul says it again in 14:39 – “Brethren, be zealous to prophesy.”

Our studies can give us perspective and help us say informed things. But it takes the involvement of God to say what God wishes to say. It takes the involvement of God to say something, and then have people know that God has said something to them. When God speaks through us, the Holy Spirit is making himself manifest and activating the gift of prophecy through us.

Some pastors and congregations steer away from spiritual gifts because they can be abused. The gifts can certainly be abused. But staying away from them was not Paul’s solution. He taught love and emphasized that love is the real mark of being spiritual. Some Christians think, if you really want to be a strong, mature Christian, you must learn about spiritual gifts.  But we’ve seen that spiritual gifts are not the mark of a mature Christian. Love is the mark of a mature Christian. Yet we’re still to desire the spiritual gifts, especially to prophesy.

As you go through your years at Justo Mwale, pursue love, desire the spiritual gifts, and especially that God would reveal to you what’s on his heart to say to God’s people. Earnestly desire the gift of prophecy.

 

Maybe we need to think about our experience here as training to be prophets. We may be Reformed. We may be Presbyterian. We’re going to do things decently and in order. But we also need divine power. We need divine gifting. And we sell ourselves short if we settle for getting academics but miss integrating our studies with the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

God has things he wants to communicate to people. Let’s become pastors who have insight into what those things are. “Pursue love, be earnest for spiritual gifts, and especially that you might prophesy.”

 

An Inside Look at the Call to Ministry

This is the sermon I shared with our seminary community here in Zambia at chapel this morning. Hopefully parts of it can speak beyond this context.

Our passage for today is 2 Corinthians 4:5-12. Remember, our theme for this term is the pastor’s calling. 2 Corinthians focuses on Paul’s experience of ministry. 2 Corinthins 4 is a difficult passage, but it’s also deep, and practical. And it includes such relevant topics as suffering, power, perseverance, witness, true prosperity, and avoiding discouragement. Focusing on the whole chapter would take more time than we have; verses 5 to 12 give us a chance to get an in-depth look at our calling to ministry. The passage gives us an inside look at the light and treasure we have received, the life of ministry we live, and the light and message we have to share.

Let’s focus first on verses 5-6. In verse 5 Paul mentions what we preachers don’t do and what we do: We don’t preach ourselves, and we do preach Jesus Christ. But then he backs up and gives a basis in verse 6 for what he has said in verse 5. God has shown light into our hearts. This is a picture of conversion, but it’s also a picture of a call. In the book of Acts, Paul tells the story of seeing a light (Acts 9, 12, 26). Jesus spoke to him. And then he was told what he was to do. I think the book of Isaiah played a huge role in Paul’s mind, in how he interpreted his experience of this light. Paul saw a light, and then, in the words of Isaiah, he saw himself as called to be a light to the nations (see Is 42:6; 49: 6; Acts 9:3; 13:47). We’re not that different from Paul: God has shown a light in our hearts – we’ve experienced that ourselves – and ever since, and from now on, we have light to share.

Let’s look at the end of verse 6. God has made his light shine in our hearts, but then the NIV says, “to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ”. The words “to give us” are not there in the Greek text, and other translations are closer to the original when they say, “to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (NRSV, ESV).  No mention there of us as the object of the light. In other words: We’re illuminated, not just for our sake, but to become illuminators: we’re illuminated in order to go forth and illuminate others. God has shown forth in our hearts, so that we can go forth and reveal, Paul says, the face of Christ.

What a high calling we have. What dignity God has given you and me, that not only would he shine his light into our lives but also give us the task of illuminating others with the light of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

And so that’s the basis of what Paul says in verse 5: “We do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants on account of Jesus.” We don’t preach ourselves, because the message is not about us. We preach to help others encounter the face of Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, we who are called to reveal the light sometimes get confused and lose our way. We begin to get the idea that the ministry is actually about us and our own success. We look around at who seems to be doing well in ministry. We see the nice car. Maybe we see preachers on TV. And something in our hearts says, “That’s where it’s at. You need to think big. You need a big voice, a big personality, a big house, big buildings. You need to see your picture on a big sign. You need a big name.” So our ambition grows. And before we know it what we really want is that others will encounter not the face of Jesus, but our own face. We preach ourselves, not Jesus Christ. And the light that came to our hearts falls dim.

But our passage presents a different picture. “We do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” Servants for Jesus’ sake. We’re not trying to become masters here on earth; the only master is the Lord Jesus Christ.

As servant-preachers, the picture we want to leave with people is the face of Jesus. “We do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord.” And this happens best if the image of ourselves is a picture of serving. We serve the church for Jesus’ sake.

Next, let’s look at verses 7-9. “We have this treasure in jars of clay.” Paul sometimes used common objects as symbols. In chapter 5, he will say our bodies are like tents. Here in 4:7, we believers are like clay jars, earthen vessels, with a treasure inside. Now a clay jar is a practical thing to have. It’s fragile, but it’s useful because things can be put inside it. One could even put a treasure inside, like precious gems or gold.

Paul is using a symbol to say important things about our calling. We are jars of clay. But not just any clay jars. We are distinguished because of what we carry. Based on verse 6, the treasure we carry is the illumination, the making known, of God in Christ. Verse 5 is also clarifying: the message we carry is not how special we are, but Jesus Christ. The treasure is the message of Jesus Christ.

Let’s think more about this treasure we have. Here in Africa, there’s a lot of talk among believers these days about prosperity. I don’t think we can really get to the bottom of how the Bible speaks to that topic without looking at the whole canon of Scripture. But this passage does speak to it: 2 Corinthians says, we who carry Jesus Christ inside us have treasure.

I wonder, who in our lives gets to define what success and prosperity mean? Do we let the billboards along the highway tell us what success is? Do we let what’s on television tell us what prosperity and success are? Do we swallow those messages? That we won’t be a success, and we won’t be content, until we have every last object on those billboards? If we swallow this message ourselves, how much more might the people in our congregations swallow it!

Maybe we need to listen to 2 Corinthians: We have prosperity already, because we have a treasure already, because we have Christ and the light of the gospel inside us. Paul knew he had a treasure; he had genuine prosperity, and it was something that no circumstance and no person could take away. He still worked with his hands to meet his needs, but he already had contentment that no one could take away. He says in Philippians 4:12-13  “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

These things may seem easy for me to say, since I grew up in a rich country. But when we allow what’s on TV and what’s on the big signs to define success for us, we can miss the real contentment that is freely ours to enjoy through the treasure of Jesus Christ already living inside us. Let’s be careful about who gets to define true prosperity and success in our life of ministry.

We are common clay, but we carry something very special inside, something extraordinary. Our calling is not about us; it’s about the treasure inside, the message we carry and have to share. We are here for something larger, more beautiful, more precious, and more important than ourselves and our own success. Christ is the message, the light, and the treasure. Our calling is to something bigger than what the world calls success and prosperity.

Verse 8 says, “We are hard pressed on every side.”  What happens when a clay jar is hard pressed on every side? It’s crushed. But the jars of clay in our passage are different. Despite being hard pressed on every side, they are not crushed. This says something about perseverance. We’re exposed to risk, because we’re made of common clay. But we’re also resilient, uncommonly resilient. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

Verses 8-9 raise the question: What keeps us from being crushed and destroyed? There is something about the light that has shown in our hearts, and there is something about the treasure inside us, that make us tough, resilient, and durable. Christian leaders take heat sometimes. We may take heat, and sometimes in our minds we may fantasize about hiding, and running away from the ministry.

But our passage says: we can take heat. We can be hard pressed, and we can handle it. Verse 1 says that even as we have received mercy (even as we have received the light), we do not lose heart. And later verse 16 will say, “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” Inwardly – that’s where the treasure is. There’s something about having that light and treasure inside us that gives us power to persevere. And verse 7 even speaks of “surpassing power”. It’s not from us – we’re clay jars – but it is inside us. It’s from God, yet we derive a benefit. So even though we are clay, clay that gets hard pressed on every side, we are not crushed or destroyed. We have access to surpassing power.

In Paul’s mind, having Christ in our lives simultaneously subjects us to vulnerability AND makes us strong to withstand vulnerability. Since we’re not living first for ourselves, since we realize there’s something larger at stake than our own success, we do put ourselves at risk. We risk what is good for us for the sake of a larger good. That’s why we often say yes when we get the call to some task or some place that looks difficult. Maybe it’s not the village you would have chosen for yourself. Maybe it doesn’t look like a place for personal advance. But if we’re there, then the light, and the treasure, will also be there, because it goes with us.

We get exposed to hardship because our purpose is to live not for our own welfare but for proclamation. We live to illuminate, to help people see the face of Jesus. That’s what leads to God’s glory, as verse 15 will say. But living for something larger than ourselves also makes us vulnerable. God gets glorified. But that can also get us into situations where we’re at risk. Yet let’s take courage: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

Let’s move on to 4:10-12. These verses build on what Paul has been saying about suffering, and about revealing Jesus Christ, but they take it further.

The first half of each of these three verses use symbolic language to speak of hardship we go through in a life of ministry. All three verses use the word death to describe the life of ministry. Paul is using symbolic language to try and describe how difficult true ministry is. Each one of these statements doesn’t necessarily mean a literal death but rather the suffering that we keep going through as we minister.

The symbolism of the first half of each verse is a little difficult: For all of us who carry the treasure of Christ, we have a strong relationship with the death and life of Jesus. In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul says our relationship with Christ’s death is so strong that his sufferings flow over into our lives. And here in 4:10-12, Paul says the hardships which we go through in a life of ministry are actually a carrying around of his death in our bodies. When Paul uses the word “body”, he’s emphasizing that these hardships affect our whole being. It’s not just a spiritual thing but something that involves the whole of our lives.

The second half of each of these three verses, 10 to 12, is a little easier to understand. Each second half states the result of these hardships we go through, and each speaks about the larger purpose of a life of ministry. Namely, the life of Jesus is revealed, and that life (the life of Jesus) is at work in those to whom we minister. No matter how difficult the things are that we walk through, we can take courage because the life of Jesus gets revealed to others through these hardships.

Just to explain it again: Paul says, we who minister always go through hardship. And these difficulties are a result of us being in a special relationship to Jesus and his death. But the result of the hardship we go through is that the very life of Jesus gets revealed. The ministry brings difficulties, no doubt.  But through these things, we become revealers of the life of Jesus.

It’s like what Paul said earlier: We are illuminated, and we become illuminators, except here it’s clarified that the suffering we go through plays a big role in our becoming people who illuminate others.

Verse 12 states the message differently, but it’s the same message. For those called to a life of ministry, death is at work in us (that is, we go through adversity), but for those we minister to – they receive life (Christ’s life).

I’m sure we’ve known people who have both walked through difficult things and yet have also revealed Christ to us. And the difficulties we know about in their lives, the hard things they’ve walked through, just make their witness shine brighter. That’s what verses 10 to 12 are about. The things that make our lives difficult also bring out the light and life of Christ.

If we’re preaching not ourselves but Jesus Christ, if we’re doing genuine ministry, we encounter hardship. But our difficulties serve a higher purpose. They help people realize we’re not the message — Christ is. Our difficulties transform us to become people who reveal the life and power of Christ.

 

To conclude: God has shown us mercy by shining forth in our hearts. He has illuminated us, and he’s called us to be illuminators. We’ve given ourselves to something larger and more precious than our personal welfare and success. And so we don’t preach ourselves; we preach so people will encounter the face of Jesus. We are like clay jars carrying a treasure. And we don’t just preach with words. We preach by who we are. Even our hardships preach Jesus. People see that the power in our life comes not from us but from God. We’re knocked down, but we get up. We’re hard pressed, but we’re not crushed. All these things point to a greater reality: Jesus becomes manifest. The face of Jesus becomes visible through our words, and through our lives, to the glory of God. Amen.

Not Applicable to Believers?: The Aims and Basis of Paul’s “I” in 2 Corinthians 10-13

In this article I argue that in 2 Corinthians 10-13, in addition to defending his ministry, Paul uses his personal example to teach the Corinthian congregation that power and weakness cohere in Christian life and leadership. Moreover, I contend that Paul bases his manner of holding together power and weakness not on a foundation unique to his apostleship but instead on the far broader foundation of believers’ participation in the crucified and risen Christ. Therefore, Paul’s words can speak beyond his own ministry, instructing the Corinthians for a life of genuine participation in Christ. Investigating the aims and basis of Paul’s self-references will clarify that his “I” targets the lives of the Corinthian believers.

Journal of Biblical Literature

Volume 131, Number 2, 2012

pp. 325-340

http://sbl-site.org/publications/journals_jbl_noLogin.aspx

The article is a thorough revision of a chapter from my Ph.D. dissertation at Duke University. It’s also based on a presentation I gave at the Society of Biblical Literature in New Orleans in November of 2009. I’m thankful to Richard Hays, Kavin Rowe, and Suzanne Henderson for their comments on earlier drafts, in addition to comments from the 2 Corinthians group of the SBL.

Thorn-Incited Prayer (Based on 2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me” (12:8). Paul’s thorn drove him to prayer. No matter the identity of Paul’s thorn, and no matter what the shape of any thorn is which we may carry, it can drive us to speak to our Father, the one 2 Corinthians 1 calls the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. And Paul shows the Corinthians (and us) that through prayer, as we speak to our Father, weaknesses and difficulties get transformed, so that they’re not just things that are negative. The wounds and difficulties of ministry act as signposts pointing us to prayer, prayer that takes us to Jesus himself, who gives grace to sustain us. And so the hard things we go through, and the wounds we receive, also open doors. They open gates to the grace and power of Christ. Thorn-incited prayer leads us to the grace of Christ which is sufficient for anything we can face.

Instead of taking the thorn away, Christ met Paul right where he was and gave him grace. And through the experience, Paul gained principles not just for his life but for the church as a whole.

One is the principle that weakness, vulnerability, and wounds drive us to God and open our lives to the grace and power of Christ.

And another principle is that God is more interested in filling our lives with grace than in getting us out of all our difficulties. Filling us with grace is more important than removing us from hardships.

God responded to Paul’s prayer, but in a way quite different than he expected. Sometimes God doesn’t meet our expectations. Sometimes God refuses one request but grants something different. Sometimes God wants to empower us with grace that makes us able to stay right where we are, in the face of the same challenging circumstances.

In a life of ministry, the experience of difficulty and weakness is unavoidable. We can’t do ministry without getting wounded. But this passage shows us that we can take this reality and make it work for us. We can allow the wounds of ministry to drive us to God in prayer. And through prayer we find contact with Christ who speaks to us and holds out his grace to us. He empowers us with grace, grace that’s sufficient for us, grace that can make us able to pass through anything that comes our way.

As we look toward the future, we don’t need to fear weakness or disappointments. They may be unavoidable, but we can choose now that we’re going to let these things drive us to God. And as we go to God in prayer, honest about our need, Christ will say to us: “My grace is sufficient for you.” So that we can say with Paul, “When I am weak, then I am strong.”

The Christian Leader’s Life and Ministry

Our theological college’s faculty and staff had a good discussion using this Bible study. Feel free to adapt it to your particular situation.

1 Thessalonians 2:1-12
JMTUC Staff Bible Study

As people who are involved in the training of pastors and leaders for the church, it’s important that we turn to Scripture for perspective on our work. Let’s study 1 Thess. 2:1-12 for insight into being a pastor and Christian leader. In  these verses, the apostle Paul recalls the time in which he was in Thessalonica doing ministry. He speaks of what his ministry required of him. He speaks of his aim, motivation, and practices. Let’s study the passage to see what we can learn from Paul’s example.

Let’s use these questions to open up the passage of Scripture and guide our discussion:

1. In verses 1-2, what does Paul say that his ministry required of him? What experiences did it make him pass through? (For background, see Acts 16:19-24 and Phil 1:29-30.) What character trait did it take?

2. In verses 3-8, what does Paul say were his aims and motivation? What does he say was not his aim or motivation? Why might Paul have emphasized whom he sought to please?

3. Does ministry today require the same character traits, aim, and motivation as did Paul’s ministry, or does it require something different? What tends to happen when these traits and aims are present, and what tends to happen when they are absent? Why does one’s motivation for ministry matter?

4. What does Paul say were and weren’t his practices and techniques in ministry? What similes (symbolic language) does Paul use to describe his manner of ministry, and what can we learn from these? Which of these practices might help us as people who train pastors?

5. Finally, in light of today’s passage and discussion, how can we pray for one another, for our students, and the church in Africa? 

NOTE: If you want to go into much deeper detail in the study of 1 Thessalonians, I recommend the writings of Abraham Malherbe.

“You give them something to eat”

As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”  Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”  “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered. “Bring them here to me,” he said.
– Matthew 14:15-18

Last week I discussed this passage with our first-year seminary students. I asked them how the disciples might have felt when Jesus said, “You give them something to eat.” I expected my students to say that the disciples felt confused, mystified, overwhelmed, challenged. But one Zambian student responded, “They were probably afraid they’d lose the little bit they had.”

That spoke to me. It spoke to me because it seems true, and it spoke to me because I realized my students’ own experiences (in this case, of hunger) help them to see things in Scripture that I overlook. It helped me see yet again that when I study Scripture with them, I see more than I would on my own.

My student’s comment also spoke to me because I have often felt something similar in my own experience of ministry. When God has put new opportunities and responsibilities before me, I haven’t only felt challenged and mystified (how will I measure up?). I’ve been fearful of losing something precious, something I already feel short on. Unlike my students, it’s never been food that I feel short on. Opportunities to minister frighten me because I think I might lose other things that are precious to me – like the little bit of time and energy that I have, and which I hold dear, or my sense of control in life, which I hold very dear. I fear that if I say yes to certain opportunities in ministry, as Jesus called his disciples to do in this passage, I will lose control of my time, my energy, my relationships, and my personal space. This was as true when I was an associate pastor in California as it has been during my ministry in Africa.

Jesus must have known his words would frighten his disciples, yet he spoke them anyway. By speaking those words, he opened an opportunity that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. Over five thousand hungry people experienced the abundance of God, and the disciples learned something about trusting Jesus when the temptation was to fear losing the little they had.

Jesus’ command, “You give them something to eat,” can take on a lot of different shapes, depending on who we are, our situation in life, and how the Holy Spirit is nudging us. Hearing Jesus might make us afraid of losing the little that we have. On the other hand, following through on his command might also open the chance to see more of Jesus than we’ve ever seen before. And it might allow us, as it did the original disciples, to be part of something that’s truly amazing.