2 Corinthians 10:6-18 “And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete. You are looking only on the surface of things. If anyone is confident that he belongs to Christ, he should consider again that we belong to Christ just as much as he. For even if I boast somewhat freely about the authority the Lord gave us for building you up rather than pulling you down, I will not be ashamed of it. I do not want to seem to be trying to frighten you with my letters. For some say, ‘His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.’ Such people should realize that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present.
“We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise. We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will continue our boasting in the field God has assigned to us, a field that reaches even to you. We are not going too far in our boasting, as would be the case if we had not come to you, for we did get as far as you with the gospel of Christ. Neither do we go beyond our limits by boasting of work done by others. Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our area of activity among you will greatly expand, so that we can preach the gospel in the regions beyond you. For we do not want to boast about work already done in another man’s territory. But, ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.’ For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.”
There are two kinds of people described in this section, those who commend themselves and those whom the Lord commends. Both groups in Corinth were confident that they belonged to Christ (v.7), but one alone was. The first were a self-promotional crowd while the others were being promoted by the sovereign grace of God. The same two kinds of people are in this congregation tonight, and these two categories alone, with everyone belonging to one class or the other. This is true for ‘all people that on earth do dwell’ – you are either commending yourselves, and then you are lost men and women, or you are amongst those true believers whom the Lord commends. The former are on the broad road that leads to destruction. The latter are on the narrow road that leads to glory. The former are goats, and the latter are sheep. To the former Christ will say, ‘Depart from me you that work iniquity.’ To the latter Christ will say, ‘Come you blessed ones of my Father.’ Do you not see how important this subject is? Doesn’t it constrain you to ask yourself with Judgment Day honesty, “In what category am I? Do I belong to those who commend themselves to their fellow men and to God, or am I amongst those whom God himself commends to the angels of heaven?”
Think of two men talking together in hell. One is saying to the other, “This is a terrible place isn’t it? But I still feel I’m a great guy.” Think of two men talking in heaven. One is saying to the other, “How wonderful heaven is, and to think that God himself has brought us here through his Son Jesus Christ.” Don’t you want to be amongst those commended by God to the glories of his holy city? You all know that there’s not a single person here who will lack a funeral in which some man will stand up and say wonderful things about him, who will commend him to the mourners. But how is that thought going to excite you if your spirit – at that very moment – is suffering with the devil in the place of woe? There have been men whose bodies have been dug up and publicly burned and their ashes have been flung into the local river. That happened to John Wycliffe who was amongst the first of the translators of the English Bible. But what did such contempt for his earthly remains matter to Wycliffe when his exultant spirit was being commended by the Lord Jesus to the archangels and seraphim?
Isn’t it far more important to be commended by God than by man? Perhaps you don’t know what this means, to be commended by men or by God. I will tell you today, because this chapter gives us the marks of those who are commending themselves, and the marks of those whom God commends.
1. THE MARKS OF THOSE WHO COMMEND THEMSELVES.
i] Those who commend themselves are satisfied with the appearance of things. “You are looking only on the surface of things” (v.7). Like the crowd standing on Golgotha seeing the two thieves hanging on the crosses one each side of the Saviour and saying, “Trash! Both trash. They had it coming to them.” I say no! One was on his way to Paradise to be eternally with the Lord, while the other was lost. The spectators were looking only on the surface of things. Other men would pass a rich man’s house and see the gates open and out he would ride seated in his carriage driving past a beggar called Lazarus whose sores were being licked by dogs. No one envied Lazarus. They were looking merely on the surface of things, but a few short years later that rich man was crying to Father Abraham to place a drop of water on his parched tongue because he was in the flames of hell in agony while the beggar was in Abraham’s bosom in heaven. The two men were going to receive two utterly different destinies. There was a man and his wife called Ananias and Sapphira who professed to follow Christ. They were baptized and joined the early church. They appeared as devout and earnest as any other disciples, yes, more so than many. They had sold a piece of land and had brought the money to give to the poor of the church, but they were lying before God. Judged by their appearance how religious they seemed. They themselves sought to give the best appearance to their religion, but God looked within, and he saw there their wickedness.
Men who commend themselves are very anxious to make a good impression. Like the Pharisees they are like vessels whose outside has been scoured but inside are full of filth. They are hypocrites, wanting to create a good impression, refusing to face up to how God sees them. That’s the only thing that matters: “but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (Hebs 4:13). Man judges the outward appearance but God judges the heart.
Am I prone to look on the surface as a pastor? I had a colleague in the ministry, and a woman in that church left to join another congregation and he asked her why. She said, “Well, I became a Christian at that church, but they also asked me hard questions about the real me. I didn’t like it at first. Here no one – including you – asked what I was really like. You were kind to me, but you didn’t ask me tougher questions. I had been calling myself a Christian and giving all the Christian answers when secretly I was doing a lot of wrong stuff and I wasn’t a Christian at all.” Jack said, “Her explanation was pretty devastating. She was telling me that I was nice, but naive about soul care. She thought I was too quick to accept people at face value. I had failed her, and felt the shame of it (cp. C. John Miller, “A Faith Worth Sharing”, P&R, 1999, p.86). Those who commend themselves look on the surface of things, because that is how they want you to judge them.
ii] Those who commend themselves put down others. They can’t stand any competition. They are ungenerous in their evaluation of other people. I remember once talking to a fellow sixth former who lived in my village. He was a coal miner’s son, and I said to him, “Do you know who is one of the best looking fellows in the school?” (it was the sort of foolish remark a 17 year-old adolescent might make). And he half-smiled back at me in expectation … until I didn’t say his name. He thought I was going to say, “You are.” Then he frowned, and mocked that boy whose name I had mentioned. My friend had a pretty face, but a devilish heart. He soaked up praise himself, but he demeaned others. He was no encourager; no supporter. He lacked an ounce of sympathetic love in his whole personality. Every boy of ability was a threat to him. He had green eyes. He was the most unpopular lad in school.
So too in our passage and this tenth verse we read of people who looked for things for which they could criticise Paul which would by contrast set them in a favoured light . They said, “in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.” They knew all about public speaking; they were master practitioners. Remember how the enemies of Christ seized on the fact that a mighty miracle had been done by him … on the Sabbath! There was this man who had been actually born blind, a beggar all his life, and now Jesus had touched him, and he could actually see for the first time his parents’ faces, and the blue sky, and the singing birds. But, unimpressed, they grumbled that Jesus had done this miracle on the seventh day of the week. That incidental was far more significant than the power and mercy of Christ, and the seeing eyes, and the joy in his parents and friends. It became another opportunity of demeaning the Saviour. They also put down Jesus for allowing a women to anoint his feet with precious oil, and also for going into the homes of poor sinners and eating with them. Those who commend themselves to others must always feel superior to other men.
iii] Those who commend themselves are too easily impressed by the natural talents of others. These men opposing Paul admired rhetoric and human eloquence (v.10): “Now that’s true religion!” they said. “The orator, standing and declaiming till you get goose pimples! Poor old Paul…” Maybe the apostle’s speaking amounted to nothing. Perhaps he didn’t have the eloquence of a Peter or an Isaiah. Might some men complain because he had no manuscript? We have heard sermons delivered without a scrap of paper and they moved us not a whit. They left us feeling, “The Lord was not in the wind.” Or did these opponents whinge because he had a manuscript before him when he spoke? We too have heard men who have surrendered much – a quality of directness and pointedness and verve and liveliness – because of the papers they read. Yet wherever and however Paul went and spoke to people many were converted to Christ, and then built up in the faith. Other details seem trifles in comparison with that. As the years have gone by we’ve become increasingly unimpressed with personalities who can strut their stuff, and hold an audience in the palm of their hands, and chat away with a big smile to a thousand people. That is the stuff of religious television on the satellite channels, and that sort of speaking leaves us cold. It is a natural talent. Some recent American presidents have had it, but there is no moral strength behind the words. No one is saved. Those who commend themselves love natural talents – the wit, the musician, the genius, the dancer, the comedian, the personality… What do such things have to do with godliness?
iv] Those who commend themselves have other sinners as the standard for judging themselves. Paul says of them that “when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise” (v.12). If you go to the top floor of the Aberystwyth museum you will discover all the old official weights and measures that were for more than a century the standard for shops and markets throughout this county of Cardiganshire. Men were not allowed to be their own judges as to what a gallon or a hundredweight might: “I conceive of a pint to be this much.” No! There has to be a norm so that wherever you are, in Taliesin in the north of the county, Cardigan in the south, or Tregaron in the west one pound weight is the same everywhere, throughout the entire county. That is the only official legal measure, and the standard old measures are kept there for all to see in the museum.
So it is with man. We can all measure ourselves by other men and women, and preen our feathers and pity them. Men who commend themselves do that because their eyes are not lifted up. They look at other men. That is the mark of the Pharisee. The Lord Jesus noticed one of them as he got to his feet in the temple (so that everyone could hear him), and he prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican” (Lk. 18:11). When we are obsessed with our own self-image we will always spot men whom we set below us, and that mentality will make us intolerably smug. But when we become obsessed with God then it doesn’t matter if there are a million men below us – we are all lost men! How can I be like God?
There was a man in this congregation who would listen silently to Christian students talk of their faith in the Saviour and he would go back to his room and he would kneel and pray, “Lord, make me a righteous man!” That was his obsession, not that he wasn’t better living than thousands of other students. What was that to him? He knew he was further from God than a toad is from us, and he wanted the righteousness of God. Those who commend themselves judge themselves by other men.
v] Those who commend themselves even take credit for what others have done. Paul was careful not to “go beyond our limits by boasting of work done by others” (v. 15). He repeated that concern, “We do not want to boast about work already done in another man’s territory” (v. 17). That was being done by his opponents. It was as if Paul had never come to Corinth; “Let’s tell you now what we’ve done for the church in this area.” Bragging in the labours of other quieter men is the definitive mark of the vain man. Once King Nebuchadnezzar was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon. He said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan. 4:30). Imagine the amount of taxes forcibly taken from the poor folks paying for all that opulence, and the army of slaves with hundreds instantly dispatched if they became injured or grew sick. Think of the architects, builders and decorators who all had spent years of their lives on this lavish project. They are all ignored by Nebuchadnezzar! “Isn’t this the great Babylon I’ve built?” is the king’s boast.
I heard a man say that he had planted two churches in his town, his own and the one that everyone went to. I can understand where he’s coming from. I sympathise with that observation, but I fear when I hear preachers doing such things as exaggerating the pathetic smallness of the church which they had inherited. “There were less than forty … twenty … ten…in the congregation when I went there,” they say to me. It is nonsense. They don’t need to make such claims. They have been faithful preachers, and their congregations have grown, but they followed other gospel preachers who did not leave them with a mere handful of people. Others laboured in the gospel before them. Paul is anxious not to lay claim to other men’s work.
Let me make my own convictions clear. When I returned from America in 1964 I did not come into a wilderness. I came into a prepared Principality. There had been the work of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones who in his preaching back and fore across the Principality for forty years and in his books had given unparalleled leadership to younger preachers. We became expository preachers of the Bible because of his example. For me there were many other role models of Welshmen working in pastorates all over our little nation – Wales is 200 miles north to south and a hundred miles east to west. Less then three million people live here. Amongst the Calvinistic Methodists there were men like I.B. Davies, John Thomas, Hugh Morgan, Gareth Davies, Eifion Evans, Vernon Higham, Glyndwr Jenkins, Gwilym Roberts, Arthur Pritchard, Hubert Clements, Peter Clements, Tudor Lloyd, Eryl Davies, John Davies, Gilbert Evans and Hywel Jones. They were the best men. Amongst the Baptists there were Emrys Davies, T.J.Russell Jones, Omri Jenkins, Cecil Jenkins, Sulwyn Jones, Malcolm Jones, Neil Richards, Graham Harrison and Alun Watkins. What excellent men. The Congregationalists had men like Noel Gibbard, Elwyn Davies, Derek Swann, Malcolm Evans, Maldwyn Mundy, Luther Rees, Neville Rees, and Peter Jeffery. Grand men. I love to say their names, and there were many more.
These men were all in the ministry in Welsh churches when I arrived in Aberystwyth. I was no loner. I knew that in villages and towns all over the Principality they were expounding the word of God to their congregations and seeking to win sinners for Christ. That awareness was important. I was not a cranky individual because I was out of touch with the other ministers in this modernism-dominated university town of 40 years ago. I was doing what scores of other preachers were doing in our nation. We were engaged in the work of reformation. But in addition to those men there were my own contemporaries, men of my age, setting out into the unknown ministerial pilgrimage with me and perhaps they had helped me most of all. They had seemed so mature when God brought me to meet them as fellow students, and their cheerfulness and confidence about being called to become preachers showed me the possibility of becoming a preacher myself.
So there was the crowd of preachers who knew one another, and met and prayed with one another. I was part of this movement. The doctrines of grace which they loved held them together, and they were all involved in the work of reforming their churches and seceding when they refused to be reformed. These men sent their young people as students to the university in this town and they usually came to worship here. I didn’t mess them about, but built on the doctrines they had heard from their own pastors. These men co-operated in the camps and conferences of the Evangelical Movement of Wales. They supported the Bible College in Barry. We took away the oxygen of theological students being sent to study in the liberal denominational seminaries, and consequently they began to collapse. We shed no tears. We all bought and read the books that were published by the Banner of Truth. We had the same heroes – Tyndale, Owen, Whitefield, Rowlands, Edwards, M’Cheyne, Spurgeon, Machen, Murray, Van Til, Schaeffer. We learned of men with these same theological convictions as ourselves in Ireland, Scotland, and America. The world has shrunk in the past forty years so that men in South Africa can read on the web on a Tuesday what I’ve preached here the previous Sunday.
When I was called into this church, I thought it was a big congregation by Welsh standards. There were godly prayerful men and women who called me to come here. I’ve been their spokesman, and they have been my friends and supporters throughout their lives and there are still almost ten of those original people who called me in the congregation today. Do you understand the point I am making? I was not the lonely long distance runner when I set out on a ministry here, so that by myself I built up a congregation. That is not how it was. It is very rarely like that with anyone. I was not a pioneer and a ground-breaker, and often where my emphases were different because of latent American influences I was to discover that they were not helpful emphases. As a congregation we have all inherited a living tradition of historic Christian teaching enfleshed in the lives of hundreds of people across the Principality. That made a vital contribution to our stability and momentum. Many of you were affected by those theological influences. A couple of you in fact go back to the Welsh IVF conferences here in Aberystwyth just after the Second World War when Dr Lloyd-Jones preached to what were to become future leaders of the churches in Wales on the doctrines of grace. We as a church have inherited the fruit of those occasions. So I cannot boast of a work which I alone did. We have inherited from the work which many others were engaged in. We must respect them and thank God for them. I cannot brag about achievements which had been accomplished by others. I went to their churches; I attended their camps; I read their books; I subscribed to their magazines; I profited from their conferences; I perused the catalogues of their publishing houses and with the money I got for preaching as a student I bought the Puritans and Lloyd-Jones’ books. They laboured and I inherited their labours. They have all taught us.
Without some great spirit of determination or self-consciousness we simply became part of a modest and God-centred movement which the Lord was blessing and which has been saved from becoming too narrow or too broad. But one thing is clear, that that evangelical movement has become increasingly egalitarian. Every minister these days is on the same spiritual and pulpit level, and there are very few exceptions. I mean that we Welsh preachers today are all of the same kind of ability, experiencing the same kind of successes and trials. None of us has anything distinctive to boast about. We are generally surviving and have quiet encouragements. There are no giants in Wales, so if there were a spurt of growth and blessing in one church – which was not due to the weapons of the world – then it would be the most terrific boost to all the gospel churches in Wales. “That could happen here too,” we would cry.
I have been babbling on at this point too long saying that another mark of a man who commends himself is that he brags about what he has done as if there were no others who had seen the truth and preached it. You will even find him taking credit for what other men and women much better than himself have achieved. He will ignore the influences of everyone else and suggest that alone he built his mighty Babylon. But those whom God commends will acknowledge their debt to many brethren and confess that they could not have stood as they have without those co-labourers in towns and cities near and far. Alfred Place is not ‘my’ church. It will thrive without me as long as these great Biblical truths are maintained and promoted. I can be the best encourager to men everywhere by being the holiest man I can be here.
So those are some of the marks mention here of a man who commends himself. Am I such a man? Let’s all ask, Lord, is it I? Is it I?
2. THOSE WHO ARE COMMENDED BY GOD.
What are the marks of such people of whom God says, “I commend these brethren to you”?
i] They are straight when they deal with disobedience in the church. “And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete” (v.6). People don’t like the Bible when it talks about ‘punishment’ and ‘disobedience’. Those words are banned from most pulpits. They are not the inspired bits of the Bible for the pick’n’mix modernist preacher. Paul should have said that he was ready to place these people in psychotherapy until an expert had pronounced they had been healed. What a punishment! I prefer the biblical requirement for discipline, repentance and restoration. The Lord Jesus spoke severely enough to the Pharisees of his day who were disobeying God and placing heavy burdens on the people. The Pharisees were a fiercely evangelistic cult. He asked these extremists, “How can ye escape the damnation of hell?” (Matt. 23:33). The Lord was ready enough to punish their acts of disobedience. There was no way that Christ would suggest to his disciples, “Let’s hold a week of prayer for unity between the Pharisees and ourselves.” While they were still – in Jesus’ vocabulary – ‘white-washed sepulchres’, ‘fools’, ‘blind guides’ and ‘hypocrites devouring widows’ houses’ there was no way that anyone who loved God could have united with them. Jesus warns us, Don’t try to swallow that camel! On the day of Pentecost there were some favoured men amongst the Pharisees who turned from their sins amongst those 3,000 early Christians and they followed Jesus. That’s what Saul of Tarsus had to do. He was a Pharisee under the wrath of God for defying the gospel. Unity with Christ on his terms – that is what the gospel demands, not coming together with Pharisees in a fudge.
One mark of a people commended by God is that they maintain some sort of discipline in the church. You can’t believe whatever you like, and do whatever takes your fancy if you want to be a part of Christ’s body the church. Think of a Marxist who turns up at the next meeting of the Aberystwyth Communist Society and tells them he now really believes in free enterprise, and capitalism and in rolling back big government. Could he continue one day longer in the Communist party without changing? Not at all. They would ask him to leave. They are a communist party not a capitalist party. We understand when even the world will thus show some integrity. So if there are people of influence in the church who disobey what the Lord Jesus taught then they cannot continue in office in the church. Implementing that is the first mark of a man who is commended by the head of the church.
ii] Those who are commended by the Lord build up Christians. You notice how Paul speaks about “the authority the Lord gave us for building you up” (v.8), not for stroking your affections, or for entert aining you, or rearranging your own prejudices but building you up. We grow spiritually as Christians as we grow naturally, by inches. You think of a man who decides to build up his body. Can he go into a shop and purchase a huge new chest and mighty thighs? Is there an injection that can transform his puny arms so that they are like Arnold Schwarznegger’s? A transplant somewhere? Of course not. There is no secret about body building. A man has to exercise continually, and eat the necessary food. Then he will be built up. That is the precise way the Lord works with us. He tells us what spiritual strength is. It is not the strength of macho aggression and assertiveness. It is the strength of a husband who will lay down his life for his wife. It is the strength of forgiving someone seventy times seven. It is the strength that refuses to retaliate. To achieve that requires exercise. It will involve effort. It demands discipline, commitment and determination. You can never be built up as a Christian in any other way. There is no instantaneous way of being built up.
We attend to the Word of God regularly and diligently. We sit under the most powerful preaching we can, where the Bible is faithfully applied to our lives and where we are exhorted and helped to change old habits of thinking, feeling and behaving. You can’t change long ingrained attitudes in a few days. You build up obedience to the Word of God and the work of the Spirit over a period of exposure to the Bible. Let me use an illustration of Wayne Mack’s:
Try this simple little exercise. Put your hands together and without thinking about it, intertwine your fingers. Which thumb do you find on top? When I intertwine my fingers and look down, I find that I have my right thumb on the top. When I switch my thumbs and put the left thumb on the top and the right thumb under it, it feels strange. It feels out of place. Why? Because for more than six decades of my life when I’ve intertwined my fingers I’ve been automatically putting my right thumb on top of my left thumb. Intertwining my fingers in this way has become a habit and a pattern with me.
Now suppose for some reason I wanted to change that pattern. I’d say to myself, “From now on, I will put my left thumb on top of my right thumb.” And suppose I would do just that today. Initially doing it would feel a little weird. I could then say, “Ah, what’s the use? I can never change the way I put my hands together.” But suppose I decided to continue. When I did it tomorrow, it would still feel a bit strange. It would probably still feel a bit strange on the third day. But suppose I would keep on practising. I’d have to concentrate, but I could do it. Suppose day after day, week after week I continued to practice putting my left thumb on top of my right thumb. What would happen? Eventually, the time would come when it would be natural for me to put my hands together that way. You can change patterns but it takes training.
That silly example illustrates how we are built up, that unrighteous patterns may be changed by Christians who are indwelt by the Spirit of God into righteous patterns by means of training, by diligence, by consistency, by practice and perseverance. How does a Christian train? A Christian trains as he continues to apply himself to the Word of God, as on a daily basis he comes to the Word to be taught, to be reproved, to be corrected. He trains as he gets up from his study of the Word or as he goes out from the preaching of the Word to immediately put it into practice on Mondays. He keeps on putting it into practice on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, and on Thursday, and Friday, and Saturday and for the rest of his life.
The person who wants to change is convicted about something as he hears a sermon from the Word of God. He sees what he should do to correct it. Then on a daily basis he consistently applies himself to work on changing in the area he wants to change. He consistently asks God for help. If he does this on a daily basis he will find that within some weeks of daily practice, doing it the righteous, godly way will start to become easier. It takes time to change. We bring into the kingdom of God with us a momentum of sinful attitudes. Our weakness is that we quit trying too quickly. The devil whispers his lies continually, “You can’t change. There is no forgiveness for keeping falling into these same sins.” We groan, “It’s so hard. It’s so difficult. It can’t be done.” Yes, it is hard. You’re changing patterns. You’re changing habits. Habits and patterns don’t change easily, but they do change if you’re willing to be trained by the Word of God.
That is how you are built up in the faith, under the apostolic word read day by day and heard sermon by sermon on Sundays, then you become strong, you become complete, you become mature, you grow up, your life takes on meaning, it becomes fulfilled. So those who are commended by God are built up in the faith and build up others.
iii] Those who are commended by God are consistent in how they live. Paul’s opponents said that he was double-tongued. He could write fierce letters, but when he turned up in the flesh he was a pussy cat. Paul rebuts that charge: “For some say, ‘His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.’ Such people should realise that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present” (vv. 10&11). “My letter are me, and I am my letters,” said Paul. There was no difference. You remember how Paul tells Christian slaves that they must be consistent in their attitude to their masters: “Obey them not only to win their favour when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing his will from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men” (Ephs. 6:6&7). We can all identify with the person whose behaviour is impeccable when his teacher is standing next to him as he writes in his book, or the mechanic who is being watched by the foreman, or the school-teacher who is teaching a class with an inspector sitting at the back of the class room. How perfectly they behave then, but the stature of the real man is when no one is there, how does he behave then? Are you conscious that God’s eyes are always upon you? God himself is there. “Thou, God seest me!” So someone commended by God behaves in the same way in our presence as he does in his e-mails to us. His letters are as patient and tender as he himself when he is with us under provocation in person.
iv] Those who are commended by God stick to their own personal vocation. You see what Paul says here, “We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the field that God has assigned to us” (v.13). Then you see Paul speaks of not going “beyond our limits” (v.15), and of his own “area of activity” (v.15). So Paul was conscious that he had an assigned field of labour, and that that had certain limits, and it was a certain area of activity. He was sent to the Gentiles and so his field of labour was not Jerusalem. He left that to James. He didn’t major in a ministry of mercy; he left that to the deacons. He didn’t think of getting married and having children because he had a specialised area of activity as a church planter and evangelist and the pastor of new churches. He didn’t build on another man’s foundation or go into another man’s territory. He was conscious of his own special calling and he stuck to it. It’s a great theme of the apostles, especially to these excitable Corinthians. They wanted to neglect their duties and zoom off in all directions speaking about the gospel. How important that they build up credibility and the confidence of their non-Christian friends by some serenity, reliability and routine. Paul writes to them and says, “each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him This is the rule I lay down in all the churches” (I Cor. 7:17).
You have a field God has assigned to you, as a student, as a mother, as a deacon. You have some responsibility given to you in the church and that is your area of activity, and you give yourself to it without fail. That would make a tremendous contribution to the fellowship. The American Christian leader, Norman Geisler, as a child, went to a Vacation Bible School because he was invited by his friends. He began to attend the same church for the Sunday School. Each week one man in the congregation had the responsibility of driving the church bus and picking up the children for Sunday School. That man continued to do it year after year, and for over eight years he picked up teenager Norman and brought him to church. Week after week Norman attended morning Sunday School without any indication that he was believing the messages he was hearing. Finally, during his last year in High School, after being picked up for church over 400 times, he was converted. What if the man driving the bus had quit and there was no one else to drive it? What if he had given up after 395 times and claimed that that was pretty good record? What if the man had said, “This kid is going nowhere spiritually, why waste any more time on him?” He didn’t say that. He got to the church bus at 8.30 a.m. sat in the driver’s seat, started the engine and set off to get the kids – as he had done for so many years. In other words he stuck to the field God had assigned to him.
Maybe your ministry is intercession, or perhaps you shyly say, “Well, I just can’t help continuing to pray for some people.” That’s right. Those are your proper limits. Hang in there! One time George Mueller found himself praying for four or five of his friends. After many months, one of them came to the Lord. Ten years later, two others were converted. It took 25 years before the fourth man was saved. Mueller persevered in prayer until his death for the fifth friend, and throughout those 52 years he never gave up. It was after Mueller’s funeral the last one was saved.
Don’t give up! Think of William Carey, the father of modern missions. He waited seven years before he saw one Indian being converted. He said, “If, after my removal, anyone should think it is worth his while to write my life, I will give you a criterion by which you may judge of its correctness. If the writer give me credit for being a plodder, he will describe me justly=85I can plod. I can persevere in any definite pursuit.” That is what Paul is speaking about here. Those commended by the Lord plod on in their personal vocation.
v] Those commended by God long to see the work of God expand: “Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our area of activity among you will greatly expand, so that we can preach the gospel in regions beyond you” (vv.15&16). So often our Lord commends those servants whom, when the Lord returns, he finds busy, involved in Christ’s work. He told them that the fields were white unto harvest, but the labourers were few, and that they should pray that the Lord of the harvest would send labourers into the harvest field. “Go into all the world!” he told them. There are ‘regions beyond’ says Paul in this well known phrase which gave birth to the title of a missionary society. There are unreached people. Many will be modest and humble people, but one young person you might contacted could become another Spurgeon or another Whitefield. We have to find Christ’s other sheep and bring them in. Let’s scatter the seed where we can. Let’s seize the opportunities we have. Let’s be faithful in little things. How often the Lord speaks of that.
I bought and enjoyed that beautiful little book, “The Man Who Planted Trees” by Jean Giono. It had been read on Radio 4 and I’d found it gripping. I have given it to someone, I don’t know to whom, and I must get another copy. The book tells the true story of a man called Elzeard Bouffier, a shepherd whom Giono had met in 1913 in the French Alps. At that time, because of careless deforestation, the mountains around Provence were barren. Former villages were deserted because their springs and brooks had run dry. The wind blew furiously, unimpeded by foliage. While mountain climbing, Giono came to a shepherd’s hut, where he was invited to spend the night. After dinner Giono watched the shepherd meticulously sort through a pile of acorns, discarding those that were cracked or undersized. When the shepherd had selected 100 perfect acorns, he stopped and went to bed.
Giono learned that the 55-year-old shepherd had been planting trees on the hillsides for over three years. He had planted 1,100,000 trees, 20,000 of which had sprouted. Of those, he expected half to be eaten by rodents or die to the elements, and the other half to live. After World War I, Giono returned to the mountainside and discovered incredible rehabilitation: there was a veritable forest, accompanied by a chain reaction in nature. Water flowed in the once-empty brooks. The ecology, sheltered by a leafy roof and bonded to the earth by a mat of spreading roots, become hospitable. Willows, rushes, meadows, gardens, and flowers were birthed.
Giono returned again after World War II. Twenty miles from the lines, the shepherd had continued his work, ignoring the war of 1939 just as he had ignored that of 1914. The reformation of the land continued. Whole regions glowed with health and prosperity. Giono writes, “On the site of the ruins I had seen in 1913 now stand neat farms=85.The old streams, fed by the rains and snows that the forest conserves, are flowing again=85.Little by little, the villages have been rebuilt. People from the plains, where land is costly, have settled here, bringing youth, motion, the spirit of adventure.”
That should be our vision for the future of the churches in Wales. That story of Elzeard Bouffier is a parable of what lies before all the church of Jesus Christ in Wales in the century ahead as an example to us. Jesus tells us that the word of God is like seed which the sower scattered in his field, and that though there were some disappointments there was also terrific growth, 100 fold increase in some cases. We possess that same seed and we are to go to the regions beyond these four walls with it. Such activity is done by men whom God commends.
“I would the precious time redeem,
And longer live for this alone,
To spend and to be spent for them
Who have not yet my Saviour known.
Fully on these my mission prove,
And only breathe to breathe Thy love.” (Charles Wesley)
Wesley is passionately concerned to ‘get to people with the gospel’. Those are Paul’s actual words here: “we did get as far as you with the gospel of Christ” (v.14). Let’s get to men and women by every legitimate biblical means with the gospel.
vi] Those commended by God glory in the Lord, not in themselves nor in the might and talents of men: “But ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord'” (v.17). He is a man who knows what is the chief end of man. “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Two truths are asserted in that statement: the duty of man, ‘to glorify God;’ the destiny of man, ‘to enjoy him.’ A fellow student with me was once an agnostic. He told me how he was working in one of the great forests in the western USA. He would not see another man for a month while he lived in a cabin on top of high poles and looked around him at a sea of green trees as far as the eye could see. Each day his duty was to look for the telltale plume of smoke that announced a fire. Each night a sky carpeted with moon and stars from horizon to horizon pressed down on him. His thoughts, more and more, were, “How glorious must be the God who made all this!” He bought a New Testament and began to read it – and God found him! Now he boasts in the Lord by believing in him, by confessing him before men, by worshipping him, by defending his truth, by showing the fruits of the Spirit in our lives. Where there is self-denial, the redemption of time, the absence of luxury and self-indulgence, and the unmistakable separation from earthly things then we see a man whose boast is in the Lord. He is always about his Master’s business. He has a single eye. His conversation has a humility and holiness, a patience and dignity that says, “I know the living God.” A woman may glorify God in her duties at home. A child in her school or at her play with her friends may do those things in such a way that glory is given to God. The Lord Jesus on the night before he died said to his Father, “I have glorified thee on the earth.” Let’s boast in that!
vii] Those commended by God are the only ones approved by God. “For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends” (v.18). There will be a day when each of us must given an account for how we have lived in this world. The Lord Jesus Christ confronted Saul of Tarsus and he said to him, “It is hard for you to go on like this kicking against the goads.” He was aware that that was exactly what Saul was doing, defying his own screaming conscience in the case of every man or woman he had stoned to death or thrown into prison. “Why are you persecuting me?” he said to Saul. So the Saviour knew everything about Saul’s life. But Jesus also speaks of those to whom he will say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” He has seen our lives. He has noticed what we’ve done, especially that we’ve been servants. The cup of cold water given in Jesus’ name to a thirsty person is going to receive a reward from him.
Those approved by God, what sort of people are they? Men who were not at their own disposal, but were their master’s purchased property. Bought to serve their master’s needs, to be at his beck and call every moment. The servant’s sole business was to do what he was told. Christian service means living out a slave relationship with one’s Saviour. What work does Christ set his servants to do? The way that they serve him, he tells them, is by becoming the slaves of their fellow-servants, and being willing to do literally anything, however costly, irksome, or undignified, in order to help them. This is what love means, as he himself showed at the Last Supper when he played the slave’s part and washed the disciples’ feet. Those approved by God minister to fellow Christians. I don’t mean preaching to them but devoting time, trouble, and substance to giving them all the practical help possible. The essence of Christian service is loyalty to the king expressing itself in care for his servants. Those who commend themselves are a blight to the church.
Those who commend themselves are motivated by self-effort. Those who are commended by God have a relationship with the indwelling Lord. Those who commend themselves are impressed with the “big deal.” Those commended by God find it almost impossible to distinguish the small from the large service. Those who commend themselves do it for external rewards. Those commended by God are satisfied that one day they will hear his words of approval. Those who commend themselves are highly concerned about results. Those commended by God are free of the need to calculate results. Those who commend themselves pick and choose whom to serve, but the service of those commended by God is indiscriminate in its ministry. Those who commend themselves are affected by moods and whims. Those commended by God do so simply and faithfully because there is a need. Self-commenders give temporary service. The service of those commended by God is a life-style. Those who commend themselves lack spiritual sensitivity. Those who are commended by God insist on meeting the need even when to do so means a cross. Those who commend themselves can withhold their service as freely as perform it. Those who are commended by God are faithful until the end. Those who commend themselves fracture a congregation. Those commended by God build fellowship and community
The Lord Christ will not be approving those who have been commending themselves. Paul puts that very bluntly in the last sentence in the chapter. Then will the Lord approve of you in that great day? Are you one who submits to the gracious discipline of the church? Are you building up your fellow Christians and being built up yourself? Are you faithful in the sphere of service where God has placed you? Do you long to see the work of God expanded? Do you glory in the Lord? These are the marks of the people the Lord commends. He will say in that tremendous day, “Father let me present to you one who loved and served me during his life. Behold all you angels, one who truly lived for me and loved me. I commend this one to you.” Will you be amongst those people?
27th January 2002 GEOFF THOMAS