2 Corinthians 7:2-4 “Make room for us in your hearts. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have exploited no one. I do not say this to condemn you; I have said before that you have such a place in our hearts that we would live or die with you. I have great confidence in you; I take great pride in you. I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds.”
What helpful insight into the New Testament church we find in these words. We would all agree that this was a time of an extraordinary work of God, with great preaching, churches being planted throughout the known world and many people being brought to salvation. Think of this man Saul of Tarsus. At one time he was a proud Jew, not only despising the Gentiles but also the principal opponent of Christianity. He hated the Lord Jesus Christ’s claims and teachings so passionately that he sought to wipe from the face of the earth every reference to his life. He had guarded the coats of the men who had disrobed themselves of those outer garments in order to better stone Stephen to death. Paul had rejoiced in that murder. He reminds a mob in Jerusalem, “I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison” (Acts 22:4). It is this very man who, twenty years later, writes here to these Greeks and saying, “We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have exploited no one” (v.2). There has clearly been a great change in this man’s life.
1. CONVERSION BRINGS EXTRAORDINARY CHANGES.
Saul of Tarsus has been converted from bigotry to kindness, and from hatred of Jesus Christ to love for him. For him it was quite a dramatic change and utterly unexpected, while he was travelling on that cruel road to Damascus he met the Lord. But Paul was not unique in this change of life. In the book of Acts we find accounts of many such people turning from unbelief and beginning to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, and the letters section in the New Testament is written to those people who have been converted.
Conversion is a fearful word isn’t it? Men and women do love themselves, and they want to go on being at ease with their own beliefs and how they live. They don’t want to become very religious and strict and extreme. That is what they have been brain-washed into thinking conversion is all about. Martin Luther once wrote that there is no more terrible word in all the Bible than conversion, because for the natural man there is nothing more undesirable, disagreeable and unnecessary to flesh and blood than is conveyed in the word ‘conversion.’ It is a very rare man who leaves his home for the first time to go to church in order to get converted. Few of us have ever met such people. Yet conversion is a reality. Here is a man called Paul who was once a hateful, cruel, self-righteous martinet who had experienced a wonderful change of life so that now he wrongs no one, corrupts no one and exploits no one. That is certainly a change for the better. Many monstrous men and women never change. They die as they have lived – unconverted. They are the once born.
Conversion is necessary. The Lord Jesus Christ said, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Mat. 18:3). All of us want to enter the kingdom of heaven, and there is just one way, said the Lord Christ, and that is by being converted. All mankind can be divided into two groups, the unconverted and the converted. There must be no more frequent question asked from the pulpits of the world church than, “Are you converted?” There is no more important question that I can ask myself than, “Am I truly converted?” There is no more pressing need than ministers like myself clearly explain what conversion is. It is that change of life seen in the apostle Paul which transformed him from an insufferable religious hypocrite to becoming a follower of the Lord Jesus. Or we can define it in biblical terms: conversion is the work of God’s Holy Spirit in the hearts of sinners, so that they are drawn irresistibly under the influence of the grace of God. They turn in repentance from their own ideas and ways (which are no good), looking to God whom they begin to serve. So conversion is an inward longing and movement of the heart resulting in an outward change of life.
Millions of people in very personal and different ways are converted. I visit more nonconformist churches than most people. This summer we called in at the Maryport Street Baptist Church in Devizes, Wiltshire, on the town’s weekly market day. The church is perfectly situated for serving coffee to visitors to the market, and on each table members of the congregation had placed a number of leaflets. I picked up the church magazine, “The Chronicle”, and read there with considerable profit the comprehensive testimonies of three older women in that congregation. Their names are Janette Bean, Anne Livermore and Joan Moone. Theirs are just ‘ordinary conversions’ describing their initial suspicion, and yet the growing conviction of spiritual need which they experienced as they came under the influence of the Jesus of the Bible. They came to realise that they were sinners and they needed him to be their Saviour. They have now walked with God for decades. What they record has been recorded thousands of times over the last couple of decades giving brief stories of change of life in booklets and church magazines and newsletters all over the United Kingdom and the whole world. All the time God is at work in this world converting men and women. On Thursday night at the Aberystwyth Conference a number of us heard an Irish trawlerman named Paul telling us of how seven years ago he had been converted through reading the Bible and going to a Bible study. Now he leads the Sunday School in his local church. I cannot believe that those very different people are all rather weak and stupid who have been brain-washed into making some emotional decision which they are soon going to regret. There are indeed such temporary changes, when people get enthusiastic about religion for a while and then fall away. The Lord Jesus told us in the parable of the sower that that would happen, that there would be for some an initial joyful response to the word of God which would not last. That does happen, but there are life-enriching, gentle, imperceptible changes of attitude and behaviour which are quite permanent, which come about as people take seriously themselves and the claims of Christ.
Here is this man Paul, once a evil cruel bigot whose life was so elevated and ennobled by Jesus Christ that he can say so artlessly to these people amongst whom he lived for some years, “We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have exploited no one” (v.2), and such a change of life God desires to see in the life of everyone here who hitherto remains unconverted. “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). A child’s conspicuous characteristic is dependence. A child is helpless. It cannot survive without the protection and support of its parents. That is the first grace that conversion effects in us. We become poor in Spirit. We know we cannot survive in this world or in the next without the loving support of God our Father. “I need Thee, Oh I need Thee; Every hour I need Thee,” we cry to him. Those are the words of a converted person.
2. CONVERTED PEOPLE LIVE IN A STATE OF GRACE.
What am I getting at? It is simply this, that converted people are indebted to God’s grace for the change in their lives, but they are not yet living in a state of glory. They have not yet been perfected, but they would be perfect. That needs to be turned both ways:-
i] Not everything is immediately transformed when we are converted. Not all sin is removed from the Christian. Sin no longer reigns over us, but there is an inward power of sin which is still in our lives and which will remain there until the day we die. We are not made perfect. This man Paul who is protesting in our text that he has neither wronged, corrupted nor exploited anyone is yet anxious to say somewhere else, “Not that I … have already been made perfect…” (Phils. 3:12). In fact this same man acknowledges, “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing…When I want to do good, evil is right there with me…” (Roms. 7:18-21). Every single converted man who has been changed by God expresses exactly those sentiments. We are changed, but we are showing only the beginnings of a new obedience. We are in a state of grace, not a perfect state of glory. We are members of a congregation of converted people, and every one of them is also in that same state of grace. So there is imperfection in the best churches.
Paul was being attacked by false teachers. They were seeking to undermine the place of affection and trust he had occupied in the Corinthian congregation. There were not many of them, maybe there were just three men. That is all that is needed, sitting there in the Corinthian congregation, implacable and sour faced as Paul taught and preached. How wearing for the apostle was their attitude to him. Their influence was far out of proportion to their numbers or godliness. As the Scripture says, “a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour” (Eccles. 10:1). They said to the church there, “We know this man. We can spill the beans on him. He is wronging you. He is corrupting you. He is exploiting you.” That is why Paul has to protest his innocence of those charges. Think of it! They were professing Christians, claiming to be converted, but they were telling these lies. There is no perfection ever going to found in a true church, even in the holiest. Professing Christians were undermining the reputation of a man whose life had been transformed, who had seen the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, who had been made an apostle to the Gentiles by the Son of God, who had been caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, who had planted this church in Corinth and been the father in the faith to this entire congregation, leading and teaching them, praying for them, counselling and supporting them in person and in letter. Yet there were other people in the church who, even though their debt to Paul was enormous, had now turned against him on the strength of those false teachers. Paul has to protest his own innocence against mean-spirited accusations.
Isn’t it sad to hear the apostle Paul saying, “I haven’t corrupted anyone” when there were people in the church of Corinth, both men and women, who had been corrupted by temple prostitution. There were former thieves and liars whose corrupt lives had been transformed through meeting the Christ who had been introduced to them by Paul. They owed him everything, yet how quickly had this affection turned to scorn – for a pastor who had prayed for them, inspired them, and loved them deeply. “I have not exploited anyone,” he has to say.
My point is this. We are living in a state of grace, and that means that the good we should do we fail to do, and the sin that lives in us all makes us occasionally speak and act in sub-Christian ways. If these things happened during the time when the Spirit was being powerfully poured out on the church then it is surely going to happen today. If grumbles and hatred confronted the apostle Paul surely it is going to strike pastors and congregations today. There are going to be ministers who are going to be accused of wronging and corrupting and exploiting members of their fellowships and they are either going to have to apologise and repent, or they are going to defend themselves – as unpleasant a task as this is. It is easy for a man to say that he wouldn’t bother ever speaking a word in his own defence, and there may be much wisdom in that, but there are times when he will have to take a leaf from the book of the apostle Paul.
One thing a minister will never do is to rubbish criticisms and carry on blindly. The Lord has not allowed this situation to develop for it to be ignored. The apostle Paul had been praying for holiness: “Make me humble, and patient, and give me the grace to turn the other cheek.” These accusations were God’s answer, and the fruit of humility and patience which the criticisms created in Paul’s life enabled him to write this letter. Persecution has been to the blessedness of Christians everywhere ever since “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matt. 5:11). Graces grow as they are exercised. They are exercised as they are tested. Forbearance, and patience, and longsuffering develop under provocation.
Ministers notice the ebb and flow of the members of their congregations. I remember once talking with Dr Lloyd-Jones and saying to him how hard it was bound to be for anyone who would follow him to Westminster Chapel. He responded very quickly, “Not as hard as it was for me to follow Campbell Morgan. There were people in Westminster Chapel who worshipped Campbell Morgan. There was no one in Westminster Chapel who worshipped me.” Of course, no one worshipped him, but the congregation did love him deeply. He was sui generis. When he stepped out of that mould in which God made him that mould was shattered. There was no one who could succeed him who possessed his extraordinary combination of gifts. But Dr Lloyd-Jones did not feed on the affection of the people: for him to live was Christ. The congregation’s devotion to him was in part veiled from him, but ministers notice where the coldness is, and where the doubts are, and where the backsliding is, and the spiritual deafness. The shepherd barely casts a glance on the 99 sheep safely in the fold. His concerns are directed towards one wandering sheep going astray. His peace about the 99 is nothing compared with his feelings for the missing ewe.
So when God permits criticism to happen then every preacher fortifies himself by the knowledge that this is going to be working for his own good, making him a more concerned and less complacent servant of Christ. A pastor-people relationship is very much like a marriage, and by nature and by grace both marriage and pastoring are demanding. Dr Johnson had wise things to say about all of life, and he said about marriage, “Sir, it is so far from being natural for a man and woman to live in a state of marriage that we find all the motives which they have for remaining in that connection, and the restraints which civilised society imposes to prevent separation, are hardly sufficient to keep them together.” Dr Johnson was not criticising marriage He was saying that it is peculiarly difficult – even when you are motivated by love and friendship and desire and hemmed in by the law. When you emerge from the church on your wedding day you are at the beginning of a huge work of construction involving massive human masonry and taking years of careful craftsmanship. Inevitably there will be subsidence and falls and regular repairs. So it is with a pastorate. It is an exercise in social maintenance demanding constant attention. You get out of it what you put into it, and you ought to try to put into it everything you can. So Paul says here to the Corinthians, “you have such a place in our hearts that we would live or die with you” (v.3). That is the language of passionate commitment, of a lover – a husband to his wife.
It does seem to me that a pastor running away from a situation where people are making accusations about him, or a church firing a pastor, makes a bad situation worse. Pastor and people have no choice but to survive. It is amazing how quickly a church can get over a crisis when both officers and congregation know that they have no alternative. In a year or two they may remember the row, or not, but they have usually forgotten what it was all about, just like a woman forgets the pains of childbirth. There are disappearing or invisible scars in the history of every church. The church is in a state of grace. It has to live with its imperfections, not justifying its sins, but conscious that there must be falls, mistakes and problems while we are absent from the Lord. So not everything is transformed the moment we are converted.
ii] Being in a state of grace means that every converted person will seek to lay aside every kind of sin. There is a refusal to behave in a certain evil way. Paul could see poor people being wronged all around him. They were being corrupted and exploited, and he could remember all the ways in which he as a Pharisee had exploited poor people by his legalism, imposing on them, quite literally endless rules and regulations. But now Paul shunned all that behaviour. There was a definite renunciation of common sinful practices, a quite deliberate, conscious and reasoned refusal to act in those ways. That is one of the great emphases of Scripture in Old Testament and New Testament. There can never be a real conversion unless there is also an accompanying refusal to get involved in sinful attitudes and actions. Side by side with trusting in the Lord Jesus there is always repentance. In every decision of faith there is also a turning one’s back on certain alternatives.
We see, for example, Abraham, as he is following God, won’t wrong his younger nephew Lot. He won’t exploit him. There are tensions between their herdsmen and he tells Lot, “Now you choose where you want your flocks to go, and I will go the other way.” Abraham was following God and so he was renouncing sin in every form. Or you find Paul saying that the things which once were counted as gain to him were counted as loss after his conversion. The Pharisee old boys’ network, the Benjamin tribal links, the fact that he had trained under the most brilliant teacher of the middle east – he never used those things to elevate himself or his work. He counted them as loss in comparison to the fact that he knew and served Christ. The apostle Peter said to Jesus, “We have left all and followed thee.” In true conversion there is a refusal to dally with sin. There is a turning one’s back upon certain alternatives, and Paul specifies these three such activities which he hated.
a] “We have wronged no one:” there was a time when Peter wronged the Gentile Christians in Antioch, refusing to eat meals with them because he judged that they were eating ‘unclean’ food. Peter shamefully wronged them, but Paul wronged no one. Think how the magistrates in Philippi wronged Paul and Silas whipping and imprisoning them without a trial, or how Potiphar’s wife wronged Joseph. Paul is talking about definite harm being done to another person by our behaviour. David Prior says, “I can think of several situations over the years where a church member has resorted to completely unscrupulous actions to establish or maintain control over another Christian’s life – perhaps through breaking confidences by talking about the person to a third party, or through deliberately creating mistrust towards the other person by sowing doubts about his/her reliability or integrity. There is also a pernicious tendency to use shared confidentiality virtually as fuel for blackmail: ‘if you don’t do what I say, I shall have to go and tell the vicar'” (David Prior, “The Suffering and the Glory,” Hodder, 1985, p. 141). Paul says, “we have wronged no one.”
b] “we have corrupted no one”: when Paul had been in a position of leadership and someone had come to him for guidance or help he had not abused that trust. He had not interrogated them with personal questions about private matters in their lives. No lonely old woman, no impressionable teenager, no abandoned wife had been corrupted – in the way that king David had corrupted Bathsheba. Of course, corruption can take place without overtly immoral behaviour – you can play around with someone’s emotions. David Prior points at the way “certain people deliberately set about undermining the ‘simple faith’ of those who have been recently converted, either by dismissing the reality of their experience or by systematically sowing doubt. This happens a lot in university circles, where new believers are bound to come across scepticism in high ecclesiastical places” (ibid.) Think of how Solomon’s wives corrupted him and the people by requesting that the idols of the gods they worshipped be set up in Jerusalem. Paul says, “we corrupted no one.”
c] “we have exploited no one”: that is, we have taken advantage of no one. There was no rich elderly widow in the Corinthian congregation in whom Paul took a predatory interest. Christians in the poorer part of town did not notice him walking past their homes to see this woman at all hours of the day and night. Think of how the Lord Jesus did not exploit the woman who had been brought to him who had been caught in adultery. She was being exploited, but he turned to the men who had brought her there and he said that the first man to throw a rock at her should be himself a sinless man. Then Jesus told her he did not condemn her and that she should sin no more. No exploitation. There are those who use people, wanting more and more from them in the relationship. It is essentially a ‘me-centred’ attitude to others. We are constantly in touch with them because of what we get out of the friendship, they help us, and we need the relationships. It is all self-interest. There is no mutual experiencing of new life in Jesus. So Paul can say that he had neither wronged, nor corrupted nor exploited anyone.
This is what a Christian can achieve by the grace of God. Let me ask if there is something which is preventing us becoming Christians? Is there a friendship? Is there a relationship? Is there an ambition? Is there some position? Is there a heart which may be broken? Is there some influence which we do not want to forfeit? Is there a great prize which is too precious, and which we are not prepared to let go? Are we saying that we cannot go to the people whom we have wronged, and corrupted and exploited and apologise to them? It is all too costly. I am asking if there may be a price which we are not prepared to pay for our soul’s salvation? Is there something to which we are so unequivocally and totally attached that we will never let it go?
I am asking Christians if you have moved into a situation where your commitment to God is qualified? You have set conditions before God and you are saying that you are now in a position of such influence that you cannot obey this apostolic example. You have such complex friendships that you cannot obey the call to serve God whole-heartedly. So today someone is being wronged by you, or being corrupted by you, or being exploited by you. I put it to you in the great words of the incarnate Lord, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away” (Matt. 5:29). I must say first to myself before I say anything to you that it is perfectly lawful and perfectly desirable to have an eye, but, if that eye makes me fall, and betrays me into sin, and becomes a hindrance in my Christian service am I prepared to gouge it out? Paul discovered that he could not follow Christ and pastor a congregation while at the same time wronging anyone, corrupting somebody, or exploiting a person, and by the grace of Jesus Christ he was enabled to avoid doing any of those things, and millions of pastors like him have also avoided those sins. That is what the redeeming energy of God in the lives of men and women is achieving each day.
That is as much a part of the evangelism of the world and the sanctification of a congregation as anything that the pastor actually says. Men who wrong no one, and corrupt no one, and exploit no one will appeal to other people who appreciate such graces. Like attracts like. This quality of life must be there in the pastor’s walk before the congregation. Then the congregation will be encouraged to walk in newness of life.
3. GRACE ENABLES PASTORS TO LOVE THEIR PEOPLE.
Why is Paul saying this? To humiliate and condemn them for ever daring to listen to his critics? No. “I do not say this to condemn you,” he says (v.3). Then why does he say it? “I have said before that you have such a place in our hearts that we would live or die with you” (v.3). He couldn’t wrong them, or corrupt them or exploit them because he loves them. They are not a list of names in a church annual report. They are written on his heart in marks of indelible grace. He tells them this. Pastors find it hard to say this to their congregation. Maybe they are afraid of mawkish sentiment, so they don’t say to their people – “You are always on my heart.” Maybe ministers think that the years they have spent there as the pastor are eloquent enough of the love they have, that they cannot bear grieving that love by moving away. “How could I ever love another church in the way I have loved them,” a minister will say. No minister would stay for decades pastoring a people if he were not motivated by great affection for them. But Paul actually spells it out to the Corinthian church, “You have such a place in my heart,” he tells them. Maybe we are afraid of flattery and using our words of affection to buy the favour of the congregation.
The apostle is very firm – “if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned” (Gals. 1:8). Yet he is loving. Presbyterian pastor Jim Baird served in the American infantry under a company commander who was a strict disciplinarian. At first the men disliked him. Then they saw that this captain continually displayed a concern for their welfare. Adjacent companies failed to see this in their commanders. Jim Baird’s company developed a love for their captain that others couldn’t understand. They were quite willing to accept his leadership and his discipline. The pastor must also be a man faithful to the apostolic gospel who truly loves and serves his people. He is not to use them as a mere stepping stone to a more attractive field of service in a bigger city. If it transpires that staying in the outpost is God’s will then he would be pleased to spend all his life just in one small congregation. His love for them rivets him to them. The congregation know this, and so they are willing to accept his rebukes and his protestations, “We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have exploited no one.” How could he behave in such evil ways when they were in his heart – it would be like attacking his very own heart. So they accept his loving leadership.
But then Paul also gives them a sense of destiny: “we would live or die with you,” he says. This is a little Greek phrase which we find in the ancient papyri from New Testament times. A man would write that aphorism in a letter to his friend expressing his loyalty and affection for his friend. That friendship was going to be sustained throughout their lives and the death of one would not wipe his memory from the mind of another. Paul is saying to them, “You and I are going to live and die together. Nothing is going to separate us from one another. Even if these evil men tarnish my reputation in your thoughts we are going to spend our eternities loving you. This is a love which is never going to end.” Here is a sense of destiny. Paul is appealing to conscience, to great purpose, and to idealism. These Corinthians were not naturally world-beaters, but they loved Jesus Christ and his apostles, and they were committed to the gospel. The truths they had been given empowered them, and they used them to do great things.
“How can you believe that I would wrong you and corrupt you and exploit you when we are going to spend eternity in heaven together?” Paul is saying. “Living we’ve loved you. Dying we’ll love you.” So they mortified their complaints, and they got on with building the kingdom of God. One of the extraordinary wars in the last thirty years was the defeat of the American army by the Viet Namese. Outgunned they yet overcame American military might by the power of their convictions concerning the justice of their cause. Now we are not enamoured by Marxism at all, but we are impressed at what great ideals can achieve. We are told that the Viet Namese generals would brief their soldiers like this: “You will almost certainly die. But you are dying in the fight against colonialism. You are not dying for your country. You are dying for suffering and oppressed humanity all over the world. Your death will help to make the world a better place to live in.” They were appealing to the consciences of their followers. They were presenting them with an admirable goal in life and death, a goal which was going to reach the whole world. Paul says, “We would live or die with you.” People are looking for leaders who can lead, who are men of integrity, corrupting and exploiting no one; men of love and men of destiny. Then there are four final brief comments:
i] Paul had great confidence in them (v.4). This is the first time in the letter that he says ‘I’ rather than ‘we.’ He is moving into a new section. He is not flattering them. He really did have not merely some confidence but great confidence in them. They were a deeply flawed church. There was a personality cult running through the fellowship, some boasting in Paul and others in Cephas and other in Apollos. They had a poor understanding of the resurrection of the body. The strong were impatient with the weak. The love feasts were turning into meals of excess, the poor going without anything and the rich gorging themselves. They were tolerating a great sin in the congregation. The revelatory gifts of the Holy Spirit were being given an excessive importance. The teaching of some false preachers was being heeded and the apostle was being despised. To this congregation Paul says, “I have great confidence in you.” He says it because they were responding to all his teaching. He had gone through their problems one by one in his first letter to them and they had heeded everything he had said, and this had cheered him greatly. Though they were immature they were teachable, and that is the great mark of conversion, not that the new convert grasps everything or behaves in a perfect way but that when he sees something in the word he does it.
Paul told them of his confidence in them. He had great confidence in them because he had great love for them. The unloving heart is a suspicious heart. The loving heart is an unsuspicious heart. Paul was not afraid that by telling them of his confidence that knowledge would spoil them. Just like the Lord Jesus Christ standing on the mountain before his little group of disciples said to them, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” They were young men who had never preached a sermon but he showed them that the future of the world lay with them, as they understood and preached and did what he told them. The destiny of the world lay in heeding what these fishermen and tax-collectors said, and he was sure that they would be absolutely sufficient for their calling. Of course, by the power of grace, but they would do it. They would go into all the world and make disciples of all the nations. “I have great confidence in your being able to do this. Wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes, then you will have power to be witnesses to me.” He told them that they would do greater things than he had done. We ministers need to instil that confidence into our hearers. “You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. I have great confidence in you that that will be achieved.” We need to assure our children that we are confident that they are going to attain far more than we have, and reach greater heights and serve more than we have. It must be devastating to be the children of disapproving parents who showed little confidence in their children.
ii] Paul took great pride in them (v.4). When he wrote to them he began his letters, “I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way – in all your speaking and in all your knowledge … you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 1:4-8). Wouldn’t you be proud of a people like that? All that they were and had was by the grace of God, of course, but he wanted them to know how they were on his heart, and he was confident in them and took great pride in them. He wanted them to have no doubts about it. Think of the dilemma of a child who believes that he has done nothing to make his parents proud of him. He feels an absolute failure, and his greatest need is the encouragement of his parents. So it must be in a church if it is frequently being scolded by its preacher. If he gives them the impression that they never match up to Christian living then the heart goes out of them. “What is the point? We are always failures.” One thing the prodigal son had had drummed into him was that no matter how far he would fall, or how much he would break his parents’ hearts, the front door would always be open to him.
iii] Paul was greatly encouraged by them (v.4). You would think the letter would say, “I’ve heard that you are greatly encouraged in me.” He had shown such patience and love and prayer for them, and then perhaps he had heard them say to one another, “What an encouragement to be pastored and loved and taught by Paul.” But that is not what we are told. He was encouraged in them, and again he let them know it. We are so afraid of making our congregations proud and so we don’t tell them of the place they have in our hearts, and our confidence in them, and the great pride in them it creates, and the constant encouragement it is to know of the ways that they are handling pain, or unanswered prayer, or their stewardship, or their faithful attendance at the two Sunday services and the weekly prayer meeting, or their willingness to work for the Saviour, or their affection for one another, or the way the strong bear the burdens of the weak, or their letters to missionaries, or their family life. Everyone in the church has graces which cause their pastors great encouragement, and the congregation should know we are encouraged by their whole Christian life.
iv] Paul’s joy knew no bounds (v.4). Though the early Christian had many troubles, and the apostle Paul especially, in the midst of them all he knew boundless joy. He refers to this again in verse 7, “my joy was greater than ever.” So we have to revise our whole picture of the apostle and of the true minister of the New Testament. We see artists’ impressions of the apostle, and he is ancient with a long beard and a careworn face, sombre and intimidating – a philosopher, but hardly a pastor-preacher, not someone any gospel church today would be likely to invite to become their pastor. But look at this picture of him in our text, a heart brimming in love, full of encouragement and boundless joy. You can see the laughter and smile wrinkles on his face. There is an illumination and lustre about his features. He has picked this up from the time he has spent at Jesus’ feet. A wonderfully attractive heavenliness draws you to him and you fall in love with him, and you want to be with him always. You say good-bye to him refreshed, more joyful and certain about the faith than ever before. That was the apostle Paul, and this is how we ought to be.
What should be our response to such a man? The answer to that is found in his first exhortation to them – “Make room for us in your hearts” (v.2). What is in your heart today? Who is in your heart? Your family and friends? Your treasure? Where your treasure is there will your heart be also. Do you treasure your preacher? Do you have room for him in your hearts? Can’t you make room for him? Room for so many things, but no room for him? “Make room for us in your hearts.”
19th August 2001 GEOFF THOMAS