2 Corinthians 1:1 “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Six days a week the postman calls at our house between 9 and 11 o’clock and pushes through the letterbox a handful of mail which lands on the hall carpet. I pick them up and check the envelopes as I walk back to the kitchen and lay them out on the table. Some of the letters are unsolicited, and most of them are unexciting. I check to make sure that each one is actually for us. There are other manses in the town, and one is in a road called ‘Bath Street’. That address appears to be similar enough to my own street, ‘Buarth Road’ – at least in the eyes of some of the employees of the Royal Mail – so that occasionally we have received someone else’s bills. So I check whether a letter is addressed to me. In the mail the rare hand-written envelopes are the most enthralling. Do I recognise the writing? Where does the letter come from? Who has been writing to me, and why?
Those are the sort of questions one might ask in reading a New Testament epistle. Who wrote this letter? Why and when did he write it? To whom is it addressed, and what does it say? Do I have a right to read it? If so, is it just for antiquarian interest, or am I somehow involved in its encouragements and warnings? These questions are answered in the opening verses of this letter. The writer is the apostle Paul, and the readers are members of a European city congregation plus many others. Every Christian in the area is being invited to read this letter too. “To the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia” (v.1). In other words this is an open-ended invitation to every Christian to heed this epistle. It contains such matters as principles of conduct, teachings about who God is and how people can become disciples of Jesus Christ. It presents to every Christian the possibility of learning much that is helpful – almost 2,000 years after it was written. In fact I would be impoverished as a human being, let alone as a follower of Christ, if I were unfamiliar with this epistle. So the letter is for every follower of the Lord Jesus.
One other question has to be raised in this introduction, and that is, why it has been chosen to be preached on now. Any minister would be uneasy about interposing himself even for a moment between a congregation and the Word of God. No preacher wants to remind a congregation that now they are listening to a minister preaching a prepared sermon. That is not helpful for any of us. Whenever we preach we want to do two things, open a window and show the congregation God, and hold up a mirror and show people themselves.
But in the risk of talking about ourselves we have to say that we believe that this particular letter is one of the most crucial and relevant parts of the New Testament that we could possible be studying. The proof of that will have to lie in your growing anticipation and pleasure in understanding and benefiting from this epistle.
But there are other reasons why we should study it. It brings to us some of the clearest parts of the Bible on such themes as handling difficulties and trials, on how Christians should use their money and possessions in the service of God. That section of the letter is important because it is saying that we cannot be all wrapped up and contented with our life in the local church, because there are Christians in need elsewhere. The letter also opens up the theme of the nature of the new covenant and its blessings, and on the importance of the apostleship for the church.
This letter also uniquely opens to us its writer, Paul the Christian. He never wrote an autobiography, but God did select crucial episodes in Paul’s life when he helped Luke to pen the book of Acts. God wanted the church to know some details of Paul’s travels and actions – even though long years of his life are a complete blank and we are left entirely in the dark about what was happening to him. God did not even want us to know how Paul died. That was not necessary in helping a single person live the Christian life. But the Holy Spirit did reveal to us how Paul felt on many occasions in his life, because God’s purpose is that we become well aware of the varieties of true Christian experience. So the apostle had a remarkable gift of self-revelation and self-consciousness. A result of this is that in this particular epistle, but in all his other letters too, we are given such intimate contact with the inner man that the psychology of Paul is the best known of all the men of antiquity. What an attractive personality he reveals, sensitive, all-round, self-integrated, generous, no stranger to the heights or depths of human experience. We know practically nothing about the personalities of Julius Caesar or Socrates or Alexander the Great. We do know a little of what they did and said, but not how they felt.
There are men we never come to know. They may be our colleagues, and our neighbours, yet we have never come to know them. There are others like Paul, and without self, or vanity, or any hint of morbid introspection, most naturally and genuinely we are allowed a glimpse of their inmost souls. Paul has revealed to us his own life and experience, and he has done that with the help of God the Holy Spirit, and as a result Christians have a guide for the parameters, intensity and variety of their own emotional lives. We learn about Paul’s attitudes, his motivation, his purposes and methods, and that is what makes his second letter to the Corinthians so helpful.
For example, you may hear this question being discussed in the church, whether true Christians can get into a state in which they feel they are, “under great pressure, far beyond their ability to endure, so that they despair of life”? People ask whether God would allow any Christian to get into that state. If a follower of Jesus Christ should feel like that, is he sinning, and should he despair of possessing saving faith? Reading a few verses at the beginning of this letter and we discover that the apostle uses those very words to describe himself (v.8). That must be a comfort to you, and a help to any church leader. This letter becomes an enormous help in counselling and pastoring.
But more than that, such described feelings are a mark of maturity. We will say this, that animals cannot experience such emotions. Only limited research has been done in this field, but nothing has been discovered to challenge that assertion. A recent book has been published written by the Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at Harvard University, Dr. Marc Hauser, and it is entitled “Wild Minds: What Animals Really Think” (Allen Lane, 2000), and his tentative conclusion is that animals lack any moral dimension to their thoughts. There is no evidence that they are aware of their own beliefs and desires, and how these differ from others. But man made in God’s image and likeness is self-conscious. We are not saying this to encourage the exploitation of animals, but to insist upon the uniqueness of mankind as a special creation of the Almighty. Think of this, that Paul can say, “For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you” (2:4). The gap between the feelings of the highest primate and those words is an unbridgeable chasm which has been set in place by the Creator himself. The combination of evolution and limitless time could not be responsible for having created that.
Then we must add this point. This letter is also a neglected part of the New Testament. Preachers avoid it for a couple of reasons. The first letter to Corinth, they believe, seems to deal with issues relevant to contemporary churches, and there are ministers who tackle that mighty epistle. It would be a long time before such men would devote themselves to another Corinthian letter, and so it is ignored by default. Also the length of 2 Corinthians also dissuades people from preaching through it. It is a striking fact that to one congregation Paul wrote twenty-nine chapters of inspired correspondence, let alone other letters which subsequently seem to have disappeared.
But in our pastoral ministry are not going to pass over this letter because we are lovingly familiar with Paul, and with all the New Testament letters. We have had role models for preaching through the whole Pauline corpus and they have left their mark on us. We wish we had had other role models for other parts of the Bible. Ah, let us speak the truth, we should have become such ministers ourselves. But the epistles have provided for us those Scriptural materials which we believe we are best able to preach on, and from which the congregation has most profited. Of all the Bible we think that the epistles are the most helpful for churches to study because they are the most immediately relevant. In the pattern of a congregation hearing three messages a week for there always to be one on the New Testament letters seems to be a wise guideline.
Finally, we have never preached on this letter before, neither has it ever been taught in this church, as far as we can discover, during its entire 130 year history. It is our oft-repeated conviction that every Christian during their pilgrimage of three-score years and ten should hear every part of the Bible opened up and applied to their lives. That is one of the reasons why God gave the Book to us, and the time has come for us to learn from this inspired and infallible part of it.
1. Who Wrote This Letter?
The first word introduces the author. It is the apostle Paul. It is no more pride that makes him begin with that word ‘Paul,’ than it is humility that causes us to end our letters with our own names. These are different traditions. That is how letters were written at that time: they began with the author and then went on to those being written to. It was a kind of address.
There has never been another Christian like this man Paul, and there never will be. What trials and sorrows he accepted. What burdens he bore. What consecration of himself and his gifts to God did he make. What humility and holiness of life he displayed. What success he knew as an evangelist, church-planter, teacher and pastor, and how modestly he accepted it all. One follows his thinking, for example, in his letter to the Romans against the background of the first century and his words are utterly discontinuous with any literature of Rome or Greece. Scholars read those Latin classics, but peasants all over the world today are reading and memorising Paul. While great minds of our day are also studying his thinking, and thousands of books about him and his writings have been produced in the past century – as much as in all the previous centuries put together. The interest in the apostle shows no sign of waning.
What is the explanation for the transformation of this man who once was a vehement adversary of Jesus Christ to became his most resolute servant and herald? It can only be a miracle of divine mercy and regeneration! Unless you can acknowledge that you will never begin to understand this man. His conversion story, when he personally met the risen Lord is recorded for us three times in Scripture (Acts 9, 22 and 26). As Dr Machen once wrote of the change wrought on the Damascus road, “All of Paul’s life crumbled away beneath him. In miserable blindness he groped his way into Damascus, a poor, wretched, broken-spirited man! All his zeal had been nothing but rebellion against the King of Israel. Yet Jesus had appeared to him, not to put him to shame, but to save him. The poor, bewildered, broken-spirited rabbi became the most influential man in the history of the world!” (J.Gresham Machen, “The New Testament. An Introduction to its Literature and History”, Banner of Truth, p.82). If that Damascus Road experience had been a mere hallucination then the profound transformation of this bigot would never have occurred. But the miraculous change did take place, and it began in a contact between two persons. Paul’s seeing the Lord Jesus Christ and hearing his words of love, “Saul, Saul …,” was the reason for the change.
So, Paul was not converted by any teaching he received from men, but neither did he immediately go on to seek instruction from the apostles – quite unlike those who were converted in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, or like converts today. The apostle proceeded to receive further teaching personally from that same divine Lord – just as the great prophets of the Old Testament had done. When later he shared his understanding of the good news with the leaders of the early church it was approved unequivocally by the other apostles (Gals. 2:9), especially by those two men who had spent intimate years with the Lord Jesus, Peter and John. James our Lord’s half-brother also gave to Paul the right hand of fellowship. Within his lifetime Peter was designating Paul’s letters as ‘Scripture’ (2 Peter 3:15 & 16). In other words, the same Lord who transformed Saul of Tarsus and made him his apostle caused this letter to be penned exactly as he wanted it to be written.
It is a fascinating fact that some of Paul’s letters were being written at the same time as the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and two of those men had been actual travelling companions of Paul on missionary journeys. So this was no ‘Pauline revisionistic’ interpretation of Jesus that he was writing. Paul thoroughly knew of the mighty works and teachings of the Lord Jesus, and his evaluation of Jesus’ life was immediately recognised and approved by the apostles and all the founders of the Christian church. There is not a membrane of difference between what was believed by the apostle Paul and the apostle John – the disciple whom Jesus loved.
The influence of Paul’s writings in the history of the Christian church has been incalculable. When the church has been losing its way and dying out it has often been by a return to these letters that God has revived it. Augustine discovered Paul’s letter to the Romans and used it mightily to resist the faith in man that was coming into the church through Pelagius. Martin Luther and then John Calvin seized on Paul’s teaching of justification through faith to deliver the church from its medieval mindset when religious people were encouraged to be putting their confidence in doing penance and attending to the ceremonies of the Roman Church. “Go to Christ in faith and cast yourself upon his mercy! He has promised all such salvation,” they declared. “For ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved'” (Romans 10:13).
Such a message has been the barometer of healthy gospel churches ever since. There may be various labels that distinguish us Protestant churches from one another with our twig and leaf differences – this congregation happens to be called ‘Baptists.’ But all of us agree with the trunk and branch doctrines of Christianity which have been written in the Scriptures and are found so comprehensively in the writings of the apostle Paul. Our minds are held captive to them. They have become a mighty mark of any orthodox Christian church; it derives its structures of faith and conduct from the Pauline letters. Consider, for example, the members of the cults and ask whether their paramount interest as they speak to you is in the great letters of the New Testament. You can ask the same question of the Roman church: what is more important to Rome, Paul or Mary?
It is this Paul, we say, who penned these words of 2 Corinthians, not as a brilliant individual but as one who is “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” In other words, Paul has been officially sent by Jesus Christ to present to us the Lord’s own message, so that all the weight of the Son of God lies behind the teaching of Paul. That is “the will of God” we are told here, for this world until the end of time. What is essential for us to believe has been written down by the apostles in the gospels and epistles. Can you grasp how crucial that is, to have something to appeal to for what you should believe and how you should live? Think of a man who half kills you and robs you of your possessions, but who then tells you that according to his beliefs what he has done is not wrong at all, and so he is free from any blame. There would be anarchy in society if such a defence for wickedness were accepted.
So there is utter anarchy in the church when the writings of the apostles of Jesus Christ are considered to be an optional authority for what Christians should believe and how Christians behave. When men say, for example, that they think Paul was wrong in his teaching about the role of women in the church then their attitude to all his teaching and the entire New Testament is affected. In places he may be wrong, they say, but they can provide no guidelines at all for determining where those places may be except their own ideas and feelings. So the mind of man becomes the new authority in religion. That is the essence of modernism,
There is a current controversy on the little Orkney island of Eday. The Northern Lighthouse Board want to tear down Eday’s old lighthouse and build a solar-powered lighthouse in another spot. Local people were not consulted and suddenly heard of the decision to pull down the old cast-iron lighthouse which had been built in 1909 by David A. Stevenson, a relative of Robert Louis Stevenson. One of the fishermen of the bay over which the old lighthouse sends its beams says that changing the lighthouse would confuse mariners: “If they’ve seen the lighthouse once they’ll be looking for it again. For safety reasons they should leave it as it is.” 96% of the island’s inhabitants have signed a petition demanding that the lighthouse stay where it is and as it is. A light has been shining out from one place for about a century, and sailors on the ocean see it and they know where they are. So it is with the 2000 year-old New Testament. Peter says, that it is “a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Pet. 1:19). Apostles of Jesus Christ have written the words given them by their Lord, and as we understand and obey them we know where we are.
2. To Whom Was This Letter Written?
“To the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia:” (v.1).
Paul was a Jew. He was of the aristocracy of Israel. He was a Hebrew of the Hebrews, that is, though he had spent years in the Gentile city of Tarsus he had not discarded his language. He knew the tongue of his fathers. He was also a Pharisee, one of those ‘Separated Ones’ who had forsworn all normal activities in order to dedicate life to keeping the law, and Paul had done this with meticulous care.
No nation was hated more bitterly than the Jews. Cicero called the Jewish religion “a barbarous superstition”, and Tacitus called the Jewish nation, “the vilest of people.” In return the Jews hated Gentile nations. They considered God had created the Gentiles “to be fuel for the fires of hell.” Juvenal declared that if a Jew was asked the way somewhere by anyone, he would refuse to help except to a fellow-Jew, and if anyone was looking for a well, he would refuse to direct him to it, unless the man were circumcised. There was no love lost between Jew and Gentile.
Yet here is this Jew writing this letter to Gentiles and expressing the depth of his love for them (2:4). He longs to see them again, and he cares for them devoutly. He has lived in their midst for a year and a half, and now he cannot forget them. They are on his heart and mind. What caused a Jew such radical transformation? What brought Paul to Corinth? What was the connection between the two? It was the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The living One met with him and changed him. It was he who taught Paul, making him an utterly different person, planting in his heart a love for all kinds of men and women, and leading him to preach good news to the Gentiles that henceforth they were going to share in all the same benefits as the Jewish Christians – instant personal access to God, office in the church and the hope of glory.
E.G.Benson writes of his own boyhood and describes reluctantly being put to bed one light summer’s evening and lying in the bed for a long time half asleep. Then he hears outside the window the sound of voices and laughter. He gets out of bed and draws back the curtain. Peering through he sees his mother and some strangers playing croquet together on the lawn. He is so shocked at this side that his legs grow weak and he has to stagger back into bed where he lies, blown out of his mind at the sight. That person is ‘his mother’ That is why she existed, to minister to his needs. As a little boy he thought she had no independent existence apart from him. But that night he discovered that those presuppositions were wrong, that she was more than just his mother. There were other parts and relationships to her life. So it is when we become Christians. It is not that Jesus Christ then becomes “my personal Saviour,” and our lives go on with that additional bonus We soon discover that he is also the Saviour of all his people, and that these people are our brothers and sisters, and that we start to love them as Christ loves both them and ourselves.
There was a great Highland evangelist named Finlay Munro, and one day he was visiting a village called Galson to preach for the minister there, John Macleod. The minister noticed that the evangelist’s trousers were torn. “Let me mend them for you, man,” he said. He urged Finlay Munro to lie down on his bed in the next room while he threaded a needle and began to repair the trousers. The door between the two rooms was open and as he worked he could hear Finlay Munro saying, “Oh what an honour is bestowed on me – allowed to lie in a Christian bed.” The willingness to serve in so mundane a task, and the simple delight in resting on a provided bed are marks of what genuine Christian affection is all about.
It is a fascinating story of how Paul came to Corinth. He and his companions are in Asia Minor in that part of the Mediterranean which today is northern Turkey, and they try to go to the province of Asia, but they are prevented by God, and they attempt to get into another province called Bythynia yet God again stops them, and so they move to Troas. Their first night there Paul has a vision of a man from Macedonia, that is, of a European from Greece, standing and begging Paul, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). Macedonia had culture, athletics, poetry, drama, philosophy and democracy, but it did not have the gospel of Jesus Christ, and Paul immediately interpreted that cry for help as a message from the throne of the universe, “that God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:10). So soon they had set sail for Greece, preaching first in Philippi, and from there they went to Thessalonica, Berea, Athens and finally they arrived in this city.
Corinth was the fourth largest city in the Roman Empire, with only Rome, Alexandria and Antioch larger. It was the capital of Achaia, and the trading bridge between east and west. It was located on an isthmus less than four miles wide at its narrowest, and it had two harbours, one on the Aegean and the other on the Adriatic with passengers and laden carts constantly taking goods and people back and fore from the one side of the city to the other. Asia lay to the east, Europe lay to the west. It was a cosmopolitan city where Mammon reigns, where there are the extremes of enormous wealth and a huge slave underclass, and utter sensuality was common, with all sorts of perversions. There were “city walls, paved roads, harbour infrastructure, water supply, agora, shopping area, senate house, numerous temples, fountains and monuments, gymnasiums, baths schools, administrative buildings, theatre, odeium, library, parks and athletics fields” (Paul Barnett, “The Second Epistle to the Corinthians”, Eerdmans, 1997, p.3). Perhaps a million people lived there. It was far bigger than Athens, and so Paul stayed there much longer. It was a strategic centre for the gospel with its needs and opportunities. It was destroyed by an earthquake almost 500 years later. God had determined to establish a church there: “To the church of God in Corinth” (v.1): and to have a sanctified holy people throughout the province of Achaia: “together with all the saints throughout Achaia” (v.1).
Can we grasp the significance of this, that in Corinth, there is this alternative society of the kingdom of God. See the relevance of that for us today: without God, men and women just have themselves and the State. What an impoverishment of life that is. What is going to motivate schoolteachers to dedicate their lives to the work of a school? What is going to motivate a woman to become Florence Nightingale? Will the bureaucratic model? Will the commercial model? How are hospitals and universities to be run if Caesar has everything? Is the car factory going to be the model for all of daily work? But here is “the church of God in Corinth”, and also we are told of all the other saints throughout the surrounding area. Christ is their Lord and his Word tells us how to live, and so a place like Corinth has light, and Corinth has salt!
The strategy which Paul employed in taking the gospel there is a model for all church planting. First, he ascertained who were the local believers, and he met a husband and wife, Aquila and Priscilla, staying with these fellow Jewish believers. Together they went to the synagogue every Sabbath where Paul reasoned with the Jews persuading them from Scripture that Jesus was the Christ. They also spoke to the Greek converts to Judaism in the synagogue. When too much hostility built up in the synagogue Paul moved down the street to a room in a house owned by a Christian called Titius Justus and there many of the Corinthians heard the gospel and turned to Christ including the synagogue ruler himself, a man called Crispus.
It was demanding difficult work, so much so that the Lord needed to confirm Paul’s calling to Corinth. In another vision the Lord made it clear to Paul that he should stay in Corinth and keep persuading men of the reality of Christ: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9). Paul was given that promise of great growth which no preacher has today with a divine infallible certainty. No preacher knows with certainty that there are multitudes of God’s elect who are going to respond to the gospel which he preaches there. We work in faith, and pray to God that there may be many who will repent. But whether many people or few we know there will be some whom God the Father has given to God the Son to save and keep, and most certainly they will be found as we preach, and witness, and persuade, and pray, and live Christ-like lives. God will effectually bless those means of finding his own people, however few or many.
So Paul stayed there in the early 50’s for at least eighteen months teaching the people of Corinth the word of God. His certainty that many were going to respond did not make him a fatalist. He did not sit by the quay on the Aegean and wait for decision cards to be dropped in his lap. Paul laboured on in hope, because the God who ordains the successful end has also ordained the means of that success in the work of his servants.
When the apostle left for Syria he did not forget Corinth. How could he when he truly loved them? He was soon writing a note to them which no longer exists (I Cors. 5:9). The gist of it was not to associate with sexually immoral people. The catalyst for his next letter (which we refer to as I Corinthians) was a report he received of the party spirit in the church, and he immediately responded with that lengthy epistle. Then there may have been another communication, which he might be referring to in this epistle when he speaks of a letter he had written to them which has caused them pain (2 Corinthians 2:3). We are not sure about that. Could it be referring to what we call I Corinthians? Finally, some months later, he writes this letter to them.
You remember the Corinthians had no gospels yet because they were not yet written, and that would have been one of the reasons for their problem in understanding the nature of the resurrection of the body. They would also be beginning to receive copies of letters that Paul had written to other churches. We know that it was during the eighteen months he was in Corinth that he wrote from there his letters to the Galatians and to the Thessalonians. There were, of course, other revelatory gifts of the Spirit present in these early congregations, but none of them could compensate for the absence of written New Testament documents, and those revelatory gifts were destined to pass away once the Scriptures were complete as they were no longer needed. Every church would have the miracle of the complete word of God at its heart every time it gathered together.
Clearly Paul never thought, “Ah, they will be all right when I leave them and go off to Syria. I have ordained elders, and they can lead and teach the people. The Spirit speaking through gifts of knowledge and tongues and interpretations and prophecies will guide and keep them.” Love would not let him think like that, let alone his self-conscious dominical authority which he saw as a sacred trust. He knew he had been authorised by God to edify the churches (10:8, 12:19, 13:10). As revelator Paul as apostle cannot be replicated. While he said to them, “You do not lack any spiritual gift” (I Cor. 1:7), they were still in desperate need because they lacked written new covenant Scripture. So he put pen to papyrus, and he wrote to them, and as a result we have two of the longest letters in the New Testament. They have been one of the great foundation stones of Biblical Christianity ever since. To know that I have the word of God, what mental strength, and peace, and moral responsibility it gives me in my work, and my witness, and my sufferings.
So we meet in this letter a Jew who has personally met the Lord Jesus Christ and by that encounter has been converted, but immediately from that moment becomes part of a new community. Individually saved, he never possesses an isolationist mind. The Spirit of Christ who gives him light also makes him a member of a family. He begins his letter by a reference to his own brother, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother”. Converted Saul of Tarsus discovers he has a new family, with spiritual brothers, and all the affection and responsibility that being in a family brings. He is a Jew but because the Son of God bore an equal shame and curse for the elect amongst the Gentiles as well as the Jews when he carried their sins on the cross Paul said of his Jewish heritage, “whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ” (Phils. 3:7). In Christ there was no Jew nor Greek.
3. What Did Paul Long for Them All?
“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v.2). That is what this letter is all about. That is what the church, and preaching, and the Lord’s Table, and Christian fellowship is all about – the divine grace and peace coming to men and women.
This is a reality. There have been times in the history of the church when the presence of these graces has been overwhelming. In the book of Acts we read that “great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33). But the grace given to us is no mere feeling, it is the power of God redeeming and sanctifying us. That is the authentic mark of a Christian.
We are living in a world with no understanding nor any experience of grace and peace. For our fellow-countrymen it simply does not exist. These words are utterly empty of significance. All they have is man. There is a book that has recently been published which I have seen reviewed called “I’m A Man” by Ruth Padel (Faber, 2000) and it is an examination of the phenomenon of rock music. Rock music has been made by men, not women, and it is fundamentally about being a man. The musicians and followers of rock have an acute need for authenticity, and they find this in black rather than white, loud over soft, angry over everything else, and male over female. That is what replaces the divine grace and peace at the heart of their lives. The book contains a story of a group called the Charlatans, a dull baggy band of the early 1990’s. They had a keyboard player who was killed in a car crash, and they had a gig a few days later and the organiser sent them a telegram offering them to release them from the gig because of the death of one of their musicians. He got back a screaming telegram from the band which said, “THERE WILL BE NO CHANGE. WE ARE EXPLETIVE ROCK.”
Now that perfectly illustrates the society in which we live. Men and women are strangers to the living God, so their only resources lie within them. Young men decide they must be hard men. There is nothing else. In that toughness alone their authenticity is to be found. So heartache comes, and loved ones die, and children grow sick, and friends betray you, and every day is a day nearer the grave and eternity – and all you have is rock. It is a desperate life. “There will be no change!”
But here is the living God, the mighty maker of the heavens and the earth, loving the world, sending his servants the prophets to speak to us, and in the fulness of time to come in his only Son Jesus Christ. He does not come to condemn mankind, he comes as the Lamb of God to atone for our sins and propitiate the wrath of a sin-hating God that there might be peace with God.
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.
Let the water and the blood
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.
There is another Rock. A real Rock. When you cry to it there is an answer. A CD never answers. A guitar never answers, but he not only answers, he takes the redemptive initiative and visits us in love. He comes to the hard man Saul of Tarsus, whose cruelty is seen in the way he watches his friends stone a beautiful young man to death while he does not shed a tear. On he goes on his way of destruction – “There will be no change.” But there is a change, on the Damascus Road the Lord of grace and peace meets with him and transforms him and his whole value system and the whole world for two thousand years has been different because of him.
God’s grace and peace do extraordinary things like that. An acquaintance was trying to explain his hopes and concerns for improving the country to another very gifted person. She was listening kindly, with some touching respect, but he was not making himself very clear, and the person finally said to him, “What’s your buzzword?” That is, wrap up what you are saying in one key phrase. He couldn’t. It is hard to do that. For the apostle Paul it took the whole epistle to the Romans to comprehend the Christian message. But if you a need buzz word then ‘God’s grace and peace’ would have to be the heart of the good news of the Bible.
We deserve eternal death because we are sinners, but because of the grace of God Jesus Christ the Son of God came to this world, and he continues to come and he changes men and women if they come to him, forgives their sins, provides for them limitless resources of spiritual strength, reconciles God to them so that there is peace with God through the Lord Jesus. This is a reality. These are not just words or feelings that religious people get. Grace and peace comes to the hardest men, like Saul of Tarsus, and makes them wonderfully attractive and useful people, loving husbands, caring fathers, strong and kind people who you want to know and spend your time with. God delivers us from the bleak emptiness of a life of despair. Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ achieve that, and they can achieve it for you. Let the hardest person cry mightily to God that he might receive God’s grace and peace. Maybe that man is me. Maybe it is you. Whoever it is, no one ever cried for grace and peace from God in vain.
3rd September 2000 GEOFF THOMAS