2 Corinthians 11:16-33 “I repeat: Let no-one take me for a fool. But if you do, then receive me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting. In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool. Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast. You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise! In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or pushes himself forward or slaps you in the face. To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that! What anyone else dares to boast about ‘I am speaking as a fool’ I also dare to boast about. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised for ever, knows that I am not lying. In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.”
“I hate to do this. I feel rather foolish when I even think about what I’m going to do, but, take me as you will, I will do it. I am now going to indulge in a little boasting. I know I’m not talking as the Lord would talk if he were standing in this pulpit. This is not being sensible, I know, but boast I’m going to. The world does, and so am I.”
Now I have the complete attention of all of you and I guess that some of you have been thinking, “What’s happening? I hope he’s not actually going to boast. What’s he got to boast about? How embarrassing! Don’t do it, Geoff, think again!” But most of you understood perfectly well that what I’ve been saying is telling you what Paul has written in this particular passage to the congregation in Corinth. This is actually how he introduces a section which summarizes the intense sufferings which came to him as a follower of Christ. “It seems that simply everyone is bragging these days. We are living in ‘The Days of the Braggarts’ and so I thought that I might as well join in. You in your … great wisdom … gladly put up with these foolish boasters because you are … so wise. Well, you can put up with me!” (v.19) So the apostle becomes bitingly ironic and decides that he’s going to have a piece of this braggadocio. He will boast too. “When you first hear these words it will be as if the elder standing in the pulpit were reading the letter of a fool, but, what can I say about that? You appear to be putting up with many foolish braggarts these days, so you can certainly put up with me and my boasting. You have been incredibly gullible in swallowing everything the false apostles have been saying, so you can take in your stride what I’m about to tell you. You’re such … smart people … after all! If you can willingly become the slaves to people who actually hit you in the face then you can bear with my foolish words. Personally we find ourselves too weak to enslave you.”
So Paul begins his ‘boasting’, conscious he is speaking foolishly, but determined to make it absolutely plain to the Corinthians what were the painful consequences of being a true apostle of Jesus Christ. We can divide up his boasting into four areas.
1. PAUL BOASTS IN HIS JEWISHNESS.
“Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I” (v.22). From this we gather that those ‘super apostles’ must have been Jewish. Paul hasn’t mentioned that earlier, but it figures. The Jews, of all the peoples in the ancient world, considered themselves to be the experts, connoisseurs and aristocrats in religion, and they divided into their different parties, Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, and the followers of the different rabbinical schools, fighting amongst themselves. It was easy enough for them to drift effortlessly onto the high ground of faith: “You ain’t much if you ain’t Jewish. You certainly don’t know much about religion, because we’ve been immersed in it for 2,000 years. We’re the tops.”
To describe his religious background Paul uses these three different designations; first ‘Hebrews’, the national name, broadly referring to their history, culture, nation and language – Paul’s pure Jewish ancestry. There is the patriotism of the Hebrew whose land at the present time was under the occupation of the Roman army. He was certainly not a Gentile. Then the second designation is ‘Israelites’, the descendants of Jacob, the witnesses of the divine glory, the recipients of the covenants, the law, the temple, and the promises. Here is a theocratic and worshipping spiritual community. Proselytes became Israelites, but they could never become Hebrews. The third designation is ‘Abraham’s descendants.’ Here are a people deeply conscious that they were the heirs of the promise God made to the old patriarch. They had a special relationship to the one God, the mighty Creator. The God of Abraham was their covenant Lord
What a wonderful inheritance. Imagine that the people of the British Isles could trace their history back 4000 years, and that we were worshipping today the same God whom the people of those days knew, and that what he said to our fathers those millennia ago, and what was written down by Moses 3,400 years ago, we actually knew and it had bearing on our lives today. Wouldn’t you walk tall? Wouldn’t you remind your children of such a lineage? Didn’t the apostle feel that? There was a great affection for his nation. Didn’t he say that he would willingly wish himself accursed if his fellow countrymen could be saved by any judgment that came upon him? That was his heart’s desire and prayer for them. He never stopped being a Jew, and loving to be with his fellow-countrymen.
So, when he heard that these ‘super-apostles’ (who were splitting the Corinthian church – as they had done in other places – and were undermining the gospel of grace and assailing his authority), were actually defending these actions on the ground that they were real Jews while he was being faithless to Israel, then Paul raised his voice in protest. “I am as much a Hebrew and an Israelite and a descendant of Abraham as they are.” He had the most magnificent sense of his people’s glories, but he could see that their history of redemption was all focused on this great event that the Lord Christ, the promised seed of Abraham, should come and bless all the nations of the earth. Israel’s Messiah had come and now the uniqueness of the land, Jerusalem, the Temple, the feasts, the seventh day Sabbath, circumcision and so on, had all come to an end, never to be restored. The New Testament Christian cried, “We are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:6).
We can think of them as one of the ‘neo-Jewish-Christian-splinter groups’ of the New Testament times, and they wanted to take a parcel of their religion and weld it onto the work of Christ. They wanted to do this in order to make things easier for religious people. All the traditions and laws of the Pharisees made things easier for people. People were told just what to do in every circumstance of life, and that was religion. So these neo-Jewish-Christian-splinter groups told Christians to get circumcised, or keep a seventh day Sabbath, or refrain from eating pork and other foods, and soon it became a pretty Hebrew sort of lifestyle – with Christ, of course, in there too … somewhere. But Paul of the true circumcision will have none of it. The more that came in, the more Christ was pushed out. He affirms, “We (he stands in solidarity with the whole uncircumcised Philippian congregation) are the true circumcision who worship by the Spirit of God, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.”
2. PAUL BOASTS IN THE PUNISHMENTS HE HAD KNOWN SERVING CHRIST.
“Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea,” (vv.23-25).
Were these men servants of Christ? That’s the key question. Who were these ‘super-apostles’ serving? Was it Christ? Had they ever served him? Let’s understand how anyone becomes a servant of Christ. You don’t look at the job description and make a decision all by yourself that you’ll take it on. The Lord Jesus Christ has to make us his servants. He gives the permission, and authority, and power to serve him. “Come to me and I will make you my servants,” he says. “Take my yoke upon you.” Ichabod Spencer of Brooklyn, New York, was once preaching a sermon in which he compared the people of this world who are without God and without hope to men and women stumbling across a dangerous mountain in the pitch dark. It became an unforgettable picture to one woman who was converted that night. Spencer vividly pictured the scene; no moon, no stars, no lanterns to help them, the walkers were utterly lost, and it was growing blacker by the minute. That is where you are tonight, you who are without God. You are groping your way along the sloping edge of a dreadful precipice and the winds are blowing stronger, and soon you come across some companions who are slipping and sliding down the steep slope to the edge. They are catching onto bushes and holding on for a little while before the rye grass comes up by its roots and they slide down nearer the edge again. “Hold on!” your friends cry in the darkness. “Hang on!” you shout to the sound of the voices near you. “Hold on!” everyone shouts as the darkness gets deeper, and the winds blow stronger, and the roots of the bushes give way , and you jerk down lower, nearer the edge, clawing for something to hold onto. Will you be dashed to pieces? It’s giving way but you grab another little branch and hold on. “Hold on!” people cry: “Hold on!”
I read in the Times yesterday an account of a man holding on in the darkness. His name is Richard Pryor. He is a notorious American black comedian and film star. Almost twenty years ago his salary was 4 million dollars for his part in “Superman III.” He has been married seven times, and has been addicted to hard drugs. He suffers from mood swings and once tried to burn himself to death while taking cocaine. A film about him was made by a director named Paul Schrader, and he called Richard Pryor, “the unhappiest performer I’ve ever come across.” Here is a man hanging on to weeds in the darkness. Fabulous wealth, fame, drugs or women have been no light to him.
What have his psychiatrists and friends and wives said to him? “Hang on!” That is a very natural cry for people to make who can’t see a light, a rock, some shelter, a path, or any way of deliverance. “Hold on! Hold on!” Wouldn’t you shout those words if you could see someone on the edge of a cliff with a great drop below them? “I’ll go for help. Hang on!” That is the natural man, holding on to whatever’s at hand, one thing after another, but they are all giving way. Nothing is strong enough to support the soul of a man made in the image of God that can save him from the bottomless pit.
A man called John Farese is severely disabled in his arms and legs so that he cannot even sit up. He lives in Florida and he operates a Christian website which informs people about gospel churches all over the world. You can find there our own church and this week I have written to him again. My friend Bill Hughes of Glasgow has this year become his minister. Fifteen years ago Johnny was just hanging on in the darkness of his life. He had given up on religion after years of church attendance, and repeating prayers, and even being taken to Lourdes. He then entered a period of self-destructive darkness which lasted twelve long years, holding on to gambling, heavy drinking, marijuana abuse, visits to strip clubs, and frequent engagements with call girls as the blackness of pain, loneliness and emptiness hemmed him in. “Hold on Johnny!” the world cried as they all went slipping and sliding to the edge.
However, there is another great reality to be seen which these “Hold on!” people know nothing about. At the bottom of that precipice stands the mighty Son of God, Jesus Christ. His hands are outstretched to catch us, if we consent to let go and fall into his loving arms. The rye grass is coming up by the roots, but there is a Catcher in the rye. This Saviour is crying out, “Let go! Let go!” Everyone else is saying, “Hang on! Whatever you do, hold on!” But down below Jesus is saying, “Let go!” You are hanging on to the bushes of sin, to the twigs of self-righteousness. You are hanging on to the tattered remnants of your own thoughts about life and God and death and eternity, and all the world is shouting to you in its darkness, “Hang on to what you’ve got! Don’t let go of that!” But the Lord Christ is willing to catch you and he is able to catch you, but you must let go. Let go of your ideas that your good living is going to save you from the fall. Let go of your half-baked ideas about religion and what life is all about. Here is the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount, the one who died for sinners and rose again on the third day. Here is the living one, and he cries to you, “Let go of the rye grass, sinner, and fall into my hands. I can catch you. I can keep you from falling. I will present you faultless at my throne in that great day.” Stop your shouting! Stop telling other people to hang on to what they think and what they believe, and listen to Jesus who is saying to you, “You must let go and fall into my kind arms. Let go of everything and come to me.” No hope, no light, and no peace is possible without that.
That is what happened to Johnny Farese. His brother Bernie had already let go of his own works. Through the testimony of one of his neighbours Jesus Christ had become Bernie’s Saviour. Bernie was driven by a daily desire to please God. Then a dozen years later his younger brother Paul, who had also been hanging on to the weeds of sex and drugs, also let go and fell into Jesus’ kind arms. Both these brothers then prayed for Johnny and urged him “Let go!” For six months he refused but that half year was the worst period of his life. In the indignity of that darkness, and hanging onto joyless sex and drugs and gambling John became increasingly despairing, and he eventually did let it go. It was when he was reading the Sermon on the Mount that God opened his eyes to the truth about his sin and the inability of religion to deal with it, and the need to repent and let go and trust in the arms of Jesus to take and keep him.
The following are the words he has written in tribute to his Saviour, and when I read them this week I thought of this bedridden paralyzed man, suffering with the most painful bedsores, yet operating that useful website which he does by blowing through a tube. He says this: “Jesus has turned my mourning into laughter and my desolation into joy. He has made my heart rejoice with ‘an inexpressible and glorious joy’. When I struggled to escape from his grace, he drew me to himself. I bear witness that never servant had such a Master as I have, never brother such a Kinsman, never spouse such a Husband. No sinner ever had a better Saviour than Jesus, no mourner a better Comforter. I want none beside him. In life he is my life, and in death he will be the death of death. In poverty he is my riches, in sickness my health, in darkness my sun. Jesus is to me all grace and no wrath, all truth and no falsehood, and of truth and grace he is full – infinitely full” (quoted by John Blanchard in his “Is God Past His Sell-by Date?”, Evangelical Press, 2002, p.186). When John Farese let go that was the Saviour who caught him.
William Carey was the father of the modern missionary movement. He died in India where he had made the most extraordinary impact for the Lord Jesus Christ. These are the words he chose to have inscribed on his tombstone in Serampore:
Born August 17, 1761, Died June 9, 1834
A wretched, poor and helpless worm,
On Thy kind arms I fall
He is quoting the words of a hymn of Isaac Watts who also had fallen into Christ’s kind arms. So had William Carey. So has John Farese. So have I, and many here also, but have you? Or are you still hanging on? That is how worms become servants of Christ. Let go of ceremonies and circumcision and hands placed on your head and kneeling at alters. They cannot save you. Your righteousnesses cannot save you. They are all tattered rags with no strength to keep you from the pit. Only he can! There is a catcher in the rye! Fall into the arms of Christ and then he will tell you how to serve him. Let’s make sure that we are servants of Christ not religion! Let’s be confident that he has given us the authority to work for him and please him in everything we do.
That’s what Paul had done, and then his life was spent in telling others of the Saviour. It meant Paul laboured away in serving Christ, as he says here, “I have worked much harder.” It is a strange juxtaposition, that salvation is all of grace, coming to us as we stop hanging on to our own works and falling into the arms of Jesus. But all who have done this then become zealous in their hard work for Christ. Paul looked at his Hebrew fellow-country men and all their legalism, and he said to them, “Let go of it all! Fall into the true Messiah’s arms as they are outstretched to save you.” He came to the Romans with their pride in power and law and military might and worship of Caesar, and he said to them, “Let go of it all! Jesus Christ the King of kings and Lord of lords will become your Saviour if you entrust yourselves to him.” He came to the Greeks with their culture, poetry, games, philosophy and he said to them, “Let go of it all! In Christ are his all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. He will receive you if you come to him.”
What was their response? Some of you will think that Jews, Romans and Greeks were all waiting to hear this message, that there was a hunger for it everywhere, and that they ditched all they were clinging to without a second glance. From that error you might go on to think that if droves of people are not lining up to accept our message today then there must be something wrong with us. It is because we must be boring and unloving and pharisaic. But I would say to you that Paul was none of those things. He was Christ-like, and when he had preached at Lystra the people who heard him thought he was the god Hermes who had taken human form. They did not think his speech was contemptible! But when they heard him clearly tell them to stop hanging on to the weeds of their religious systems and fall into the arms of Jesus they hated it. In Lystra the people who first thought he was a god soon changed their tune. “They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead” (Acts 14:19). The Jews hated him. The Greeks hated him. The Romans hated him.
Paul makes it clear to us in these verses just how much they hated him; he was often thrown into stinking prisons. Clement of Rome said that the apostle had been handcuffed seven times. He was frequently flogged, and he was exposed to death again and again. Men hung around in the dark to kill him. But he gets more specific, “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea” (vv. 24&25). The thirty-nine lashes were counted out loud that no mistake should be made. The number thirty-nine was determined by a division into three parts: thirteen lashes were laid upon the chest and twenty-six on the back of the person. The victim was laid out on the ground and a leather whip was used. That is the response of the world to a man telling them that to be saved they had to let go of everything and fall into the hands of Jesus. The world hated that message! It hates it yet! This is what Paul boasts about. “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (v.30).
3. PAUL BOASTS OF THE DANGERS HE HAS ENDURED.
“I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked” (vv. 26&27). Eight times the word ‘danger’ is repeated. This is not the fake danger of watching people in films acting as if they were in danger and being entertained. This is the real thing, like walking home alone one night and a man is walking up behind you getting nearer and nearer. There is no one about, and suddenly he lunges at you. Horror!
How did Paul travel anywhere? By boat, and then there were storms, shipwrecks and pirates, or Paul simply walked there. “I have been constantly on the move,” he remarks. He can say that again! If he walked twenty miles a day – depending on the road conditions and weather – then Ephesus is about a thousand miles from Jerusalem (Aberystwyth to Rome, or to Warsaw), and at twenty miles a day Paul would take about three months to walk there. Philippi to Jerusalem would be by ship and on foot and he would take seven weeks to get there. On the journey he would spend some nights in inns and others in the homes of Christian friends, or he would pitch a tent he had made himself in an open field and seek to keep warm. Swollen rivers had to be forded if there were no ferrymen (it is interesting that the word ‘bridge’ is not found in the Bible).
Then there were bandits lurking in the mountain passes. There were dangers from his fellow-countrymen. He could never think, “This stranger has a Jewish accent so I can trust him.” Similarly Gentiles were a threat and even some people within the church itself were dangerous men – false brothers. When Paul met a man as he was walking along in the mountains who told him he was also a Christian Paul still had to keep an eye on him. When they bedded down for the night in a lonely spot Paul slept lightly. The man could have been a Judaizer who hated the apostle. There was no safe place for Paul, in cities, in the country, on the ocean, every day was a day of danger. He could be dragged into court, whipped, and imprisoned. Think of the stress the apostle lived under. “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” (v.30).
This was his condition, “I have laboured, and toiled, and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked” (v.27). It is an astonishing picture of discomfort and poverty. How can the sleek proclaimers of the health and wealth message bear to read inspired words like this? Shouldn’t it make them deeply ashamed? Paul’s travelogue of pain makes us ashamed – and we despise their message. What deprivation he endured. Paul doesn’t tell us merely that he worked, but that he laboured and toiled. There was no end to it. He doesn’t say he went without sleep but that he had often gone without sleep, and “often gone without food” and so knew hunger and thirst. When did anyone here go without food because he had no money to buy any, and no one would give him even a cup of water, so that he often had those pangs of hunger? Paul says he often knew this. Paul was oftentimes cold and naked. He wrote to Timothy near the end of this life asking him if he could bring the cloak to him that he had left behind at the home of Carpus in Troas. It would help keep the cold off at night and when crossing mountain ranges in winter. So with those words he ends his list of references to his condition and appearance.
These are the things Paul was boasting about! Little wonder I didn’t boast to you. You were right. I have nothing to boast about. What a contrast Paul was to the false apostles who lived like kings! This was the cost of being appointed by the Lord an apostle to the Gentiles. How often had his mind gone back to the very beginning at Damascus and Ananias befriending this unlikely convert. “I’m ashamed to say that I doubted whether you could ever be saved,” Ananias had confessed to him. “But the Lord said to me, ‘This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name'” (Acts 9:15&16). How sobering for Saul of Tarsus to hear those words. They were written on his heart. It was to an apostleship of suffering that he was called. The disciple was not greater than his Master. Every time they turned their dogs on him, or waited in a dark alley and beat him up, or hurled stones so accurately at his battered body, or spat on him and cursed him Paul could cheer himself that he had been chosen by the Lord for this very vocation, to suffer for the name he bore. The Lord was going to make plain to him this was his calling. “I’m still on line,” he could smilingly say to himself as he nursed a broken rib, or held a cloth against a wound to prevent the flow of blood.
But it was not just the pain it was the psychological humiliations of all this suffering that he had to resist. Notice how the chapter ends – just before Paul speaks of being caught up to the third heaven in the next verses – he tell us that he was let down from a window in a clothes basket like a bundle of merchandise! It was probably his first taste of the ignominy of persecution, and it left an indelible impression upon him: “In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands” (vv.32&33). Remember who this man is, dangling in this basket, an absolutely brilliant individual, one of the great intellects of all history. We heard Dr Lloyd-Jones say something like this on more than one occasion: “Paul was a man who was endowed with unusual and exceptional natural ability. There is no question about that. It is something that comes out everywhere in all his epistles, and in what we are told about him in the Book of Acts. This man undoubtedly was one of the great brains, not only of the church but also of the world. That is something that is acknowledged by people who are not Christian at all. I remember that towards the end of the Second World War a series of lectures was given here in London on ‘The Master Minds of the Ages’. It was a secular society that arranged them, but in the list of the men dealt with came this man, the Apostle Paul, because they had to recognize and to admit that he was one of the master minds of the ages. And that is something that comes out very clearly in everything he does. You cannot help noticing his tremendous reasoning power, his logic, his arguments, the way in which he marshals his evidence and his facts, and presents them. He was, then, a most amazing man if you look at him only from the natural stand-point and consider the unusual ability which he had…
“Yes, but not only that; he was also trained as a Pharisee; he had the privilege of sitting at the feet of Gamaliel, the greatest teacher amongst the Pharisees, and there, under that expert teaching, he himself became an expert on the Jewish law, at least as it was taught and interpreted by the Pharisees. He tells us that he excelled all others. He obviously came out top in all the examinations. He could simply drink in knowledge and information, and here he is, therefore, ‘a Pharisee of the Pharisees’, an expert in the Jewish understanding and interpretation of the law of God … Yes, but another thing about him is that he was born a Roman citizen … Now that meant a great deal: it was a high honour … with all the privileges which that implied…” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “Romans: The Gospel of God,” Banner of Truth, 1985, p.8). This is the man bumping down the side of the city wall at night in a basket to escape from bully-boys who want to murder him.
This was no wild-eyed fanatic foaming at the mouth on a street corner denouncing everyone who past by in the most unguarded language! Here was a refined intellectual, a leader amongst men, wise and discerning. Here was a meek and gentle, Christ-like man. There was one way he could have avoided this catalogue of pain he presents to us, and that is by being unfaithful to his calling to preach the message of Jesus Christ. But once he spoke the truth about the living God and the plight of man in sin and the only way God could have been reconciled to us Paul was destined for a life of fearful suffering.
4. PAUL BOASTS OF HIS CONCERN FOR THE CHURCHES.
“Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (vv.28&29). You understand that Paul was not worried about the churches. That was forbidden by the Lord, but he was concerned for others. The good Samaritan was concerned for a hurting man. He simply couldn’t carry on walking. There was a cry of compassion in his heart. The pressure made him stop and help. Paul received news from the churches at Antioch, Thessalonica, Galatia, Ephesus, Colossae, Philippi, Rome, Corinth and others bringing him daily pressures and concerns. It was so stressful being the apostle to the gentiles, laying a foundation for the whole future of the expansion of the gospel into the world. He tells the Romans, “even we ourselves groan within ourselves” (Roms. 8:23). You might walk past Paul’s room one night on your way to the bathroom and you would hear soft groaning coming from within. You think to yourself that he might be ill, and then you remember his anguish in prayer. Some of you fathers were with your wives when they went into labour and you remember their gasps and panting and pain before your sons or daughters were born. Paul tells the Galatians, “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gals, 4:19). It was not slick and mechanical to bring a newborn Christian into the world. We will never grow in size until there are some pains of childbirth in many more of us.
Paul asks, “Who is weak?” There are weak Christians. People on the fringes of the church, not quite in the world and not quite in the church, Christians not responding well to their providences, not going on in their walk with God, not growing in grace and in the knowledge of God. Like Lot they linger outside Sodom. Like Lot’s wife they often look back. Weak Christians. The hour calls for men, but they, alas, are children. They neither know, nor care, nor feel, nor understand, nor think, nor read, nor exercise their minds, nor trouble their heads as much as they ought with affairs of the congregation. They could not tell us what is the meaning of conversion, grace, justification and sanctification. They could you tell you where their teams are in the football league, and what is number one in the Top Twenty but they could not list the ten commandments, and they could not recite the beatitudes. Weak Christians. When they grow in numbers in a church the whole life of the congregation is threatened. They will silence the pulpit and make it like themselves. Hasn’t it happened all over the country? Weak Christians lead to weak churches, terminally declining churches, and soon to no churches at all.
Paul says he feels weak when he meets them. They had an effect on him. It is a contagion. They cooled his ardour. They dampened his zeal. He was tempted to cut corners when he was with them. We have known young men who kept the faith throughout their theological training because of godly fellow students keeping an eye on them and encouraging them. Then they entered a modernist-dominated denomination with a congregation full of weak Christians, and soon they were weak themselves, and they never recovered. They have settled into the bands and casual folksy worship of casual Christianity. How they joke about their earlier convictions – “when we thought we had all the answers” – they say derisively, glorying in their shame. Weak Christians.
They had once believed that man was a sinner, but that word is no longer used from the pulpit to describe the congregation sitting in the pews. Modern church-goers do not feel sinful. What they want is emotional self-indulgence, and an affirmation (to which they believe themselves entitled) of their personal significance. Their goal is happiness, and the minister they have called and pay for is expected to serve that end. Weak people, no longer adherents to Christianity. Christianity is about a life of following the suffering Saviour and experiencing the pain of identifying with him and his message. It is about surrendering one’s will to the will of God. True Christianity is far too demanding to satisfy the artefact of casual praise that they have come to consider faith.
A weak Christian is weak doctrinally. As J.C.Ryle says, “All of us know what a vast difference there is in the manner in which such people leave the world, and the amount of comfort and hope which they seem to feel. Can any of us say that he ever saw a person die in peace who did not know distinctly what he was resting on for acceptance with God, and could only say, in reply to inquiries, that he was ‘earnest and sincere’? I can only give my own experience: I never saw one! Oh, no! The story of Christ’s moral teaching and self-sacrifice and example, and the need of being ‘earnest’ and sincere, and like Him, will never smooth down a dying pillow. Christ the teacher, Christ the great pattern, Christ the prophet, will not suffice. We want something more than this! We want the story of Christ dying for our sins, and rising again for our justification. We want Christ the mediator, Christ the substitute, Christ the intercessor, Christ the redeemer, in order to meet with confidence the King of terrors, and to say, ‘Oh death, where is thy sting? Oh grave, where is thy victory?’ Not a few, I believe, who have gloried all their lives in rejecting doctrinal religion, have discovered at last that their ‘broad theology’ is a miserable comforter, and the Gospel of mere ‘earnestness’ is no good news at all. Not a few, I firmly believe, could be named, who at the eleventh hour have cast aside their favourite, new-fashioned views, and have fled for refuge to ‘the precious blood,’ and left the world with no other hope than the old-fashioned doctrine of faith in a crucified Jesus. Nothing in their life’s religion has given them such peace as the simple truth grasped at the eleventh hour” (J.C.Ryle, “Charges and Addresses,” p.57, Banner of Truth, 1978).
Just as I am: without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee
O Lamb of God, I come.
Weak Christians spread their weakness through a congregation. What a pressures of demoralisation they bring to the congregation’s leaders.
But Paul goes one step further. “Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (v.29). When Ananias and Sapphira fell into sin what soul-searching must have taken place amongst the apostles. Peter and John burned inwardly at the deceit. When one member of the Corinthian congregation was led into sin it was Paul who inwardly burned. The church was proud. The skids were under them, and they were finding it hard to believe in a God who thought so much less of them than they thought of themselves. Their religion, in short, was moving from Paul to a religion of therapy, a religion not formulated as a response to the demands of God made to them through his apostle, but a vapour rising from untutored individual need. It was, in short, derived from human vanity.
There was a fire in Paul’s bones. Was he burning with agony, or concern, or distress, or indignation? All those one imagines, and in some sad sympathy with the sinner too, but distress over that sin tolerated in the heart of the church, anger towards those who led them into sin and a burning longing to see remission and restoration. All such burning Paul knew. He was drawn into fighting weakness and yet a burning longing for holiness in the people of God.
All this is what the apostle boasted about, the immense cost to a sensitive man like Paul of what serving Jesus Christ was all about.
3rd March 2002 GEOFF THOMAS