Date: 23 Apr 2017
Text: 2 Corinthians 6:3-13
Many of us have probably suffered hardships of some sort in our lives. How we regard and deal with those hardships varies of course between people depending on their starting point. Philip Green would probably feel some form of hardship were he to lose his Knighthood over the BHS Pension Fund debacle. Meanwhile someone on any form of disability benefit and who suffers a cut in that benefit would feel real hardship as they would no longer have enough money to help them cope with modern life.
Now I do realise that hardship is no laughing matter. However, the Monty Python crew performed a sketch some years ago titled Four Yorkshiremen. In that sketch four Yorkshiremen, who by now were doing well enough to be drinking quality wine, reminisced about the past and the hardships they suffered. It starts gently but then becomes competitive with each one having suffered greater hardship than the others. One talks of living in a cardboard box and when another describes living in a rolled up newspaper in a septic tank one of his friends shouts “luxury” and then describes in great detail the hardships that he suffered when growing up. It’s my sense of humour I’m afraid. The whole conversation gets completely out of hand as they compete to see who suffered the greatest hardship. As I say though, real hardship is neither competitive nor a laughing matter and where we see such hardship it is surely incumbent upon us to try and do something about it.
In these few verses Paul is talking about the way that he and the Corinthians seem to have drifted apart and how they no longer seem as supportive as they used to be. As a way of bringing about reconciliation Paul explains the numerous hardships that he has endured whilst serving Jesus Christ in various places. He does this not to brag, but to back up his claim to be a true Apostle of Christ, appointed by Him to preach the gospel. Let’s face it, if we had to deal with the hardships that Paul talks about here we would soon give up. Paul didn’t though and persevered.
If you cast your mind back to the previous sermons I have delivered on this epistle to the Corinthians, you may recall that the letter was written to deal with a number of issues that the Corinthians raised in a critical letter that they had sent to Paul. There were many in Corinth who doubted Paul’s credentials as a Minister of Jesus Christ; there were those who thought that he wasn’t genuine and that he was only interested in money. Needless to say there were also those who just didn’t like him finding him to be an abrasive character whose style of ministry offended them.
What Paul is trying to do in these few verses in 2 Corinthians 6 is to remind his critics of his background and his God given credentials to do what he does. Much of what he has to say here is very similar to his comments in 2 Corinthians 4 where he said, “We are hard pressed on every side “ (4:8).
Paul was always anxious that nothing in his ministry should bring any discredit to the gospel of Jesus Christ, feeling that if he did that then it could be a “stumbling block” to some people. His overriding desire was to present the good news of Jesus Christ in an open and honest way. In the NIV Paul says in 6:4, “we commend ourselves in every way”. That could sound like he is bragging about all that he had endured in his ministry although I suspect that that is not his meaning at all. The NLT puts it in a slightly better way when it translates 6:4 as, “In everything we do, we show that we are true ministers of God.” Paul felt that he was serving God in the right way and in the following verses set out to explain why he thought that.
Paul & Hardship
In 6:4b-10 Paul describes the ways in which he suffered for his faith and yet remained strong in that faith whilst continuing to preach the good news of Jesus Christ. Some of these comments may seem on the dark side, although Paul always contrasts them with the light side. Just consider what he says in 6:4b-5, he has suffered “in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger...” Could we endure those types of hardships as part of any activity let alone serving Jesus Christ? To get the full picture of what these verses mean we need to read through various sections of Acts that describe them. We know from Acts 16:23 that Paul was imprisoned with Silas in Philippi. In a latter passage in this epistle, 11:23-25, we read that he was whipped five times by the Jews. He seems to have repeatedly faced angry crowds and mobs, since, in Acts 13:49-52 we read that some high ranking people tried to have him expelled from Pisidian Antioch, and in Acts 14:5-6 we learn that the local people plotted to stone him, whilst in Acts 14:19 we read that the people of Lystra did actually stone him. Being in Corinth provided no respite since we learn from Acts 18:12-17 that some Jews seized him and brought him before the Governor. That is hardship on a different scale to anything any of us can ever expect to face in this country even despite the growing anti-Christian feelings that exist today.
Many of us experience sleepless nights for a variety of reasons. Paul was no different since he tells us that he too experienced sleepless nights. Some of these may be because he was working through the night to earn a living whilst others may have been because he spent the whole night in prayer for the people in the various churches that he founded, particularly in Corinth. He also had times when he was hungry, possibly because he didn’t want to be a burden on those around him who weren’t too well off themselves.
Having talked of some of the hardships that he endured, Paul moves on to describe his style of ministry. Many weren’t too enamoured of his ministry which may be why Paul makes these comments. No Minister can ever expect to be popular with everyone in the church; people are people and form their own opinions about the Minister they see week by week and Paul was no different. What he seems to intend to do with these comments is to demonstrate where his style of ministry came from. He always endeavoured to minister “in purity, understanding, patience and kindness” (6:6a). In the next phrase we learn where this comes from, “in the Holy Spirit”. Paul didn’t work on his own strength or thoughts; everything he did was empowered and led by the Holy Spirit. He then adds that he also did everything “in love”. Paul loved the people with whom he worked regardless of how they treated and responded to him. In doing this Paul was true to his own words. In 1 Corinthians 13:1 he wrote, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” Without love he could do nothing and although the people may not have loved him in return that didn’t prevent him from loving them. Whilst this type of love isn’t always easy it should form an important part of our motivation to serve Christ.
I’ve mentioned before that one of the biggest problems that Paul faced came from false teachers; those who taught a distorted gospel message, something that was close to the truth but most definitely not the full, whole truth. To combat that, in 6:7 Paul makes it clear that his ministry was carried out “in truthful speech”. Paul only preached the full gospel of Jesus Christ in truth with no distortions or exaggerations. He never sought to mislead the people in any way and only wanted them to hear the truth given to him by Jesus Christ Himself. Many of course will hear and reject the gospel even though it is the truth. That may be because the truth is always hard to hear and it may also be why some of the Corinthians were so against Paul’s ministry; they simply didn’t want to hear the truth!
Notice then that Paul reminds his readers again that he worked “in the power of God”. Paul could not work in his own power since he always admitted that he was but a weak human being. If we are to serve God in any way then we too must do it “in the power of God”. Our own power will never be enough and if we do try to serve on our own then we will surely fail. Paul’s comments in the rest of 6:7 are very reminiscent of his comments in Ephesians 6:10-18 where he talks of putting on the full armour of God. This is not a fashion statement but serious advice on how we should be prepared when we serve God. Just as Paul did, we will face an enemy who will stop at nothing to prevent the good news of Jesus Christ being shared in any community. Consequently we need to be prepared and equipped. In 6:7b Paul talks of having the “weapons of righteousness” in both hands, and the passage in Ephesians 6 expands on what that phrase means. In those verses we are told to put on the “full armour of God”. That consists of “the belt of truth”, “the breastplate of righteousness”, the readiness that comes from having “the gospel of peace” on our feet, “the shield of faith”, “the helmet of salvation”, and finally “the sword of the Spirit”. That is quite some equipment but it is all vital if we are to be ready to serve God and to experience and cope with anything like the hardships that Paul endured.
Many of us can be put off serving God by criticism or setbacks that are in reality minor rather than major showstoppers. Paul kept working through both “glory and dishonour, bad report and good report” (6:8a). It didn’t seem to matter to Paul what people said or thought about him so long as the gospel was preached. As I mentioned a moment ago there were numerous false teachers who were active in Corinth and Paul was sometimes included in their number hence his comment, “genuine, yet regarded as imposters” (6:8b).
Despite all that happened to him Paul seems to have been one of the most resilient people you could possibly read about. No matter the circumstances he always seemed to be able to put a positive slant of things; if only we could be the same. Just consider what he says, “dying, and yet we live on”, “beaten, and yet not killed”, and what about “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” a comment which puts his thought in Philippians 4:4 into context. He said there, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” Paul always practiced what he preached! He follows that up with the comment “poor, yet making many rich” (6:10). Paul never had any money although that never seemed to bother him. Regardless of that he made “many rich” by leading them to faith in Jesus Christ, something that will provide far more wealth than large amounts of money in the Bank will ever do. Paul also regarded himself as “having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (6:10b). It is all too easy to rely on possessions and monetary wealth rather than a solid faith in Jesus Christ. Luke warns us against “all kinds of greed” and adds that wealth “does not consist in the abundance of [his] someone’s possessions” (Luke 12:15). Paul reminds us that we will always be taken care of even if we have no money. He makes it very clear in Philippians 4:19 that, “my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus” and he adds in Colossians 2:3 that, “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are hidden in Jesus Christ. What more can we ask for? We have the ultimate wealth in coming to faith in Jesus. Paul had Jesus in his life which was all he ever needed. Could we say that? Could we say that because we know Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour we also have everything that we will ever need? I hope so. Knowing Jesus will last for all eternity whereas money in the Bank will soon disappear.
Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian church was to say the least, strained, and this whole letter is intended as an attempt at reconciliation. They had had a major fall out over a variety of issues and as a result many had stopped listening to him. In these few verses Paul is trying to explain himself and confirm his credentials as a genuine Apostle of Jesus Christ, appointed by Him to take the gospel to the Gentiles. He makes it clear that in doing this he “has opened wide our hearts to you” (6:11). In using the plural “hearts” I suspect that Paul may be including his friends Silas and Timothy. Whether or not Paul felt hard done by I can’t say; but he certainly seems sorrowful that he and his friends are “not withholding our affection” from the Corinthians, and yet sadly, despite that, it seems that the Corinthians were withholding theirs. All that Paul seems to want from them, certainly at this stage, is for them to “open wide your hearts” “as a fair exchange”.
Throughout this letter and certainly in these verses Paul has been totally open and honest with the Corinthians. He wants to put behind him anything untoward that may have happened in the past and bring about reconciliation between them. He has explained the rationale behind his ministry and how he has suffered in that ministry. He has told them that he has opened wide his heart towards them and all he seeks in return is for them to reciprocate. That doesn’t seem too much to ask does it?
We can learn a lot from these verses. We may think that we suffer hardship from time to time but Paul suffered real hardship, hardship endured in the service of Jesus Christ. That didn’t seem to stop him though and no matter what happened to him he continued to remain positive and “always rejoicing”. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could follow suit and join Paul in “always rejoicing” despite any hardships that we may face.