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Author:Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
 frca.org.au/mountnasura/
 
Title:Be a Weak Servant for the Lord
Text:2 Corinthians 11:22-33 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Servanthood
 
Preached:2018
Added:2018-05-06
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 134:1,2,3                                                                                       

Ps 119:17,18

Reading – Jeremiah 9:17-26; 2 Corinthians 12

Ps 20:1,2,3,4

Sermon – 2 Corinthians 11:22-33

Hy 23:1,2,5,6               

Hy 84:1,2,3,4

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Brothers and sisters, lots of churches go through a time of vacancy at some point. Generally it means that consistory appoints a committee so they can start looking for a new minister to call. When a calling committee does its work, they’re on the lookout for something. They’re looking for strengths. They want to know: does this seminary graduate, or does that minister, have strength in preaching, strength in counseling, does he have strength in this or that? No committee and no consistory will conclude, “What we really need for our congregation is someone weak. A weak preacher, a weak pastor—just a weak character all around is what we’re after.” You wouldn’t hear that.

It’s a wonder then, that the apostle Paul ever had success as a minister! It’s a wonder that he survived three or four decades of working in the churches, and that he seemed pretty good at it too. Because how does he describe his work to the Corinthians? Look at verse 30 of our text, “If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmity.” He draws attention to his weaknesses as a minister, his many sufferings. And for Paul, this isn’t reason for shame. He’s happy to be lacking in ability—he “boasts” about it.

Something is going on here that we need to understand. Why is Paul talking so openly about his weakness? In what way is this apostle of the Lord Jesus lacking? And as we look into our text, we find an important lesson about the very nature of the gospel, and about what kind of person is ready to believe in Christ and serve him. Those are essential matters for all of us to think about. Let’s look at our text under this theme,

Paul boasts in his weakness as a servant of the Lord:

  1. the extent of his suffering
  2. the depth of his concern
  3. the shame of his position

 

1) the extent of his suffering: Have you ever eavesdropped while a stranger was talking on his phone, maybe next to you on the bus or when you were shopping? You wanted to know what he was talking about, but the problem was that you heard only one side of it. That’s like the situation when we open up 2 Corinthians. In this letter we’re hearing one side of a conversation between Paul and this church, and it’s about some pretty personal stuff. We’re not totally sure what he’s referring to all the time.

But while 2 Corinthians is at times a difficult read, we can figure out the general shape of what’s happening. Paul had brought the gospel to Corinth some years before. And in this new church, there’d been big problems, like division, immorality, and false teaching. After Paul’s letter to them (in 1 Corinthians), there had been some progress, but now things were going downhill again. Some new leaders had come into the congregation, and were causing trouble.

They started with an easy target, with Paul. He was away from Corinth, working elsewhere as usual. He had visited, and then moved on. So these new ministers started whispering in the ears of the Corinthians: “Where is that Paul fellow, anyway? He doesn’t really care about us—see how he’s always gone, giving his attention to other churches.”

And their criticism got worse. They pointed out that wherever Paul went, he ran into trouble—they wondered aloud if God was maybe punishing him for some serious sin. These other ministers also started comparing Paul to themselves: they were sophisticated speakers, and they could even perform miracles! As for Pastor Paul, he was a nobody: his character was kind of awkward, and he was stilted in his speaking.

Paul has heard about these latest troubles, so with this letter he reacts. All this criticism bothered him, but not so much because the Corinthians were rejecting him. It was because they were rejecting the gospel! By cutting down the messenger, they were scorning his message. If you want a glitzy, glamorous preacher, you’ll probably want him to bring a clever, entertaining message. And that’s just not what the true gospel is.

For nine chapters, Paul has been responding to these allegations and comparisons, more or less indirectly. All along, he’s been trying to put the attention on the true gospel, on the peace with God that Jesus brought about by his death. But beginning in chapter 10, he turns more openly to the charges against him.

He admits that it’s no use to start boasting and being proud like his rivals. But if it would help the cause of the gospel, then he’d do it. If his words would somehow point the Corinthians back to Christ, then he’d risk sounding like a fool. So referring to these other ministers, he first asks, “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I” (v 22). These others claimed to be full-blooded Jews, as if that qualified them as ministers. But Paul says this gave no advantage, because he was a Jew, as much as they were.

Even so, Paul knows it’s a “snare to compare.” It’s always dangerous to look at what others have and who they are, next to yourself. Because either you’ll be eaten up with envy, or you’ll become swollen with pride. And truth be told, Paul could’ve bragged! Hadn’t he established countless churches around the Mediterranean? Hadn’t he performed signs and wonders on his missionary journeys? He had even seen the risen Christ, had inexpressible visions. But he won’t celebrate any of this.

So after speaking of his family tree, Paul turns the tables. It’s as if he says to the Corinthians, “You know what? You’re right. I am weak. I’m not glamorous or charismatic like some. I do suffer, almost all the time. I do fall short. And I wouldn’t want it any other way. Because if I was more notable as a person, the gospel might lose its power among you. You’d put more stock in the messenger, than in the message! You’d look at me, and not at Christ.” He’s gladly weak, so that God’s grace can shine more brightly.

And this comes through as he describes the extent of his suffering. If the Corinthian pastors dared to compare, then compare what matters! Let them look at Paul’s résumé: “In labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often” (v 23). This was the hazardous life to which Christ called him.

For example, the Jews often opposed him, so “five times [he] received forty stripes minus one” (v 24). By my count, that’s 195 lashes with a whip! The Jews also stoned him, while other times he was beaten—sometimes by mobs, other times by Roman soldiers. What’s more, “three times I was shipwrecked” (v 25), says Paul, so often because he was frequently traveling to build up the churches. After one of those shipwrecks, he spent “a night and a day…in the deep” (v 25), probably hanging onto a piece of wreckage in the open water.

Consider all the other things he suffered: “In journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren…” (v 26). If a minister today had to endure just one week of Paul’s kind of suffering, he’d probably be thinking about a change of career—but Paul endured it, year after year.

Now, Paul expects that some will accuse him of exaggerating to make his case. So a bit later he vows, “The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying” (v 31). He places his life before the LORD, who knows all things. For indeed, some of these sufferings were known only to a few, or only to Paul. Often he suffered alone, in silence—and God saw every moment of it.

But before we start admiring the apostle for his fortitude, let’s not miss where he’s going with all this. This wasn’t about Paul’s strength, how he could take a licking and keep on ticking. No, all of this showed his weakness! Because if you’re often in prison, or recovering from another beating, you’re not going to feel like an effective pastor. If you’re always exhausted and anxious, your preaching is probably going to suffer. If you’re always “in peril,” you won’t feel very confident.

That’s the point. Paul says that in spite of every adversity God still used him, and did great things with Paul’s ministry. He wanted the Corinthians to say, “How could Paul ever do what he did? He was so weak and so troubled—yet many came to faith. By his suffering ministry many were saved.” And then the attention simply could not be on Paul, but it had to be on Christ: on his grace, his strength, his faithfulness! Paul could do nothing apart from Christ.

We’re not ministers like Paul, yet this is still so true. For in our life we all serve the LORD in different ways and capacities. And whenever we start to work with any degree of success or achievement, we’re tempted to become proud. We’re proud of our good report at school, and our positive review at work. We feel pretty good about our family and how it’s thriving, and we feel a bit self-satisfied with how our gifts are useful in the church. We’re getting things done for God! God might actually need us.

But make this your boast: that you are fully dependent on Christ! Paul was happiest when he was at his weakest, for then he was most ready to be used by the Lord. Then God’s power would really shine through. That still ought to be our greatest joy. What others think of us doesn’t matter. What we think of us doesn’t matter. But our confidence is in the Lord, and our joy is that God has given us the privilege of labouring for him.

We read this in Jeremiah. The prophet said that Israel needed to boast in something more than outward religion or human standing: “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, nor let the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth” (9:23-24).

Don’t put stock in worldly wisdom and human strength and material riches. Don’t equate good looks and charisma with success. The Spirit says—and Paul reminds us—that this is the only thing we should glory in: that we know the LORD, and every day we rest in his grace and power!

 

2) the depth of his concern: I think that every office bearer has had the feeling of coming home from a meeting or a visit, and knowing you’re not going to sleep very well. There’s too much on your mind, as you think about the people that you’re trying to help. And this might mean bags under your eyes in the morning, but it’s actually not a bad thing. For someone who genuinely cares about others, it’s to be expected.

Here’s what Paul says, getting to the end of his long list of sufferings: “Besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches” (v 28). He describes this like a heavy burden on him; it was something that constantly weighed down on his heart, “a deep concern for all the churches.”

We have an idea about how this was a trouble for him. We know that Paul was a mobile man, for he wanted to go wherever the gospel hadn’t been preached. He was effective in this kind of ministry, but just think of the anxiety that this must have caused him. Everywhere he left behind these small groups of believers. They were relatively unorganized, sometimes with just a beginning grasp of the faith—to say nothing of all the tension of being a holy people in the midst of a wicked world.

Paul cared deeply for Christ’s people, he loved them and wanted the best for them, so when they faced a challenge it affected him personally. As he writes in verse 29, “Who is weak, and I am not weak?” Some believers were weak in faith; they were prone to periods of doubting, and unsure of God’s will in certain situations.

For a Christian who is walking in step with the Holy Spirit, that can still be a real struggle. If it’s your one desire to please the Lord in all things, how can you always be sure you’re leading a godly life? How can you be sure that this decision honours him? What if you seem to lack the ability to do what God requires? When Paul heard about those in the churches who were weak in faith, he worried about them.

And he continues, “Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation?” (v 29). We imagine him hearing about sin in the congregations—and Corinth was a prime example of this. People in that church were stealing money, and sneaking back to the prostitutes, and getting drunk, and when he heard about it, Paul couldn’t just shrug his shoulders. No, he treated it like his own stumbling into sin. It made him upset, burning with anger against the Tempter, the great enemy of God’s people. He wanted to be there, to pray with the believers and to give encouragement. Daily this came over him, a deep concern for the churches. Even when he was out of prison and in good health, this was a burden that didn’t go away.

What’s the lesson of this? Is Paul’s experience a warning that we should be detached from the cares of other people? We try to avoid shipwrecks and floggings—should we also avoid whole-hearted investment in those around us? Because we want to preserve our own mental well-being, can we say to someone who is struggling, “Sorry, not my problem.” No, if anything, this was the mark of those rival ministers in Corinth; they were the ones who were too sophisticated to know the struggles of real people. If this kind of weakness set Paul apart from them, then he was glad. He accepted suffering for others.

Today a Christian can escape the pain of walking alongside others, but you’ll escape it only by being self-centred. If your life is always focused on yourself, then their weakness won’t bother you. If most of your thoughts are about your own interests, then other people’s sin and struggle will be of little account to you. You’ll avoid heartache, but it’s not the way of true service. Paul’s example is right for us to imitate. Or think of what the Spirit commands in Romans 12, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (v 15).

In Christ’s service, we ought to share in the struggles and joys of others. Maybe there’s a struggling family in the church that you can encourage. There’s a grieving sister that you can put your arm around. Maybe there’s a brother who is greatly tempted, and you know a little of what Paul says, “Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation?” Paul’s words warn us that it’s not always easy to get close to people. It can even be disturbing to hear the ugly stories and see the tears falling. It’s uncomfortable. There’s a real burden that gets laid on those who help.

But if this is weakness, then so be it! Because we know the value of a soul, and we’ll work hard to protect it. When we know the healing power of the gospel, we’re eager to share it, even when that’s not easy. We don’t mind to endure hardship for Christ’s sake. A sleepless night once in a while, a tense conversation, an exasperated prayer, a feeling of deep fatigue—this is part of the price of caring.

And Paul tells us to accept this weakness because it lets God’s strength to be seen. If you’re helping someone, there soon will come a time when you see your inability to change someone, your inadequacy to help them. That’s good, for then you’re hopefully learning to depend on God. Being in that place moves us to bring our concerns before the Father, to confess that we can do nothing at all without his blessing.

Paul wasn’t the only one who led this kind of caring ministry—Jesus did too. He was moved by the pains of his people. His concern for others knew no bounds. He’d heal the sick ‘til He was exhausted, and pray throughout the night. Finally, He even gave his life for sinners, surrendering and being nailed to a cross. And what did He accomplish by this endless giving of himself? Nothing less than our salvation, and the restoration of the universe! God used weakness and vulnerability to bring about something great, to build a new and everlasting kingdom.

From Scripture we learn that we must imitate our Saviour in this kind of care and compassion. In chapter 13 of this letter Paul writes, “[Christ] was crucified in weakness, yet He lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet… we will live to serve you” (v 4, NIV). Notice that key word: “Likewise!” Jesus was weak, so we can be weak. Jesus gave himself to serve others, so we need to do the same. We know God can use it for great things.

 

3)  the shame of his position: Before the Battle of Britain in World War 2, when the Germans would repeatedly bomb London but be repelled by the Royal Air Force, Winston Churchill predicted that it would said of those heroic pilots, “This was their finest hour.” At the time their country needed them, they would step up. And they did. Probably we all like to imagine ourselves being heroic like that, if we really needed to be—that in the hour of need we’d be brave and willing.

The apostle Paul might’ve been tough, as shown by his years of ministry. But so that no one thinks he’s bragging, his list of sufferings ends like this: “In Damascus the governor, under Aretas the king, was guarding the city… with a garrison, desiring to arrest me; but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands” (vv 32-33).

The story is familiar. After coming to the Christian faith, Paul’s life is in immediate danger, and the believers in Damascus help him get away. They put him in a big basket and lower him out of the city. It’s memorable, but it seems curious here in 2 Corinthians 11. What’s the big deal? In talking about his suffering, why would he put this very last, as the climax of the list? Given the choice, I’d take evacuation in a basket over flogging any day!

But the apostle wants to show that he was no hero. Mentioning this incident, he’s probably thinking of something from the Roman army. Whenever the army would besiege and attack a city, the first soldier up the ladder and over the wall was given great honour. For that was a fine act of bravery! The first one over—if he survived, anyway—might be given a small crown as reward.

But Paul? He wasn’t the first one up, he was the first one out! He didn’t storm up a ladder in boldness of heart—other people had to let him down in a basket, through the window! To be sure, God delivered him that day. But in Paul’s eyes, like so many events in his life this was an example of personal weakness. He was dumped out of the city like a common fugitive.

This was not his finest hour, and it didn’t matter! Because remember: Paul boasts in the things that show his weakness. His rivals might’ve been impressive, but he would celebrate his dependence on God. He would, because then God’s glory would be put on display.

Sounds good, but it’s still so hard to accept. It’s very natural to look at things like the Corinthians did, and be drawn by charisma and eloquence. We want riveting speakers and engaging personalities. We always try to be strong, and we imagine ourselves doing great things for God. We want to be the hero. At the very least, we want to be respectable! But if we’re followers of Christ, we first need to be covered in shame.

A person who admits that he needs rescuing looks like a loser. A person who always relies on someone else to get him out of trouble is helpless. Yet good things come from being humbled. For knowing God’s strength, we can admit our weakness. Acknowledge that you don’t have the ability to convert your neighbour. And you can’t change your child’s heart. And it’s not up to me to build the church. Confess your emptiness to God.

That’s what Christ said to Paul when he prayed that his “thorn” be taken away. The thorn hindered the apostle and his work. But instead of removing it, Christ said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness!” (12:9). It was all He needed to say: “Rely on my grace.” For that’s where the strength is. So stop focusing on what you can accomplish. Acknowledge that you can’t do it by yourself. For then God will begin to show his grace in new and surprising ways. Then we can truly say with Paul, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10). And that is our finest hour.  Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was: http://frcmn.org/sermons/

(c) Copyright 2018, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof

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