***The following is a sermon I preached at Seed Church on my birthday, January 21, 2018. You can listen here.
Some background on the Corinth church before we launch into the passage for today. The city of Corinth is in modern day Greece. You can actually go to the modern day city of Corinth but the ancient city is about 2 miles to the southwest. Corinth was a port city so, as you can imagine, there were lots of different people coming and traveling through Corinth.
The Apostle Paul had come to Corinth in AD 51 and ministered there for about 18 months with Silvanus and Timothy (Acts 18). From there, the missionary team went on to Ephesus where Paul wrote the real 1 Corinthians which is lost to history. Then Paul wrote a second letter to Corinth which is our 1 Corinthians. A third letter to Corinth was the severe letter or the ‘letter of tears’. Finally a fourth letter to the Corinthian church was written which we know as 2 Corinthians. The Corinth church was also corresponding with Paul in between those letters as well. A long and complicated history between the parties but fair to say that Paul did love this church and wanted to see them flourish in their faith in Christ.
Macedonia is mentioned in this passage which is north of Corinth and in the northern Greece area. This is near where Thessalonica would be as well as Philippi to the east.
Judea is where modern day Israel is and where Jerusalem lies.
After sharing some empathy regarding suffering for Christ at the beginning of his letter, Paul then launches into an issue that had surfaced in the Corinth church. Judaizers or Jewish Christian leaders had come in and challenged the Apostle Paul because his travel plans had changed. Because of this change, they were questioning other parts of Paul’s gospel message. This wasn’t merely a theological disagreement as Paul would accuse them later in his second Corinthian letter of preaching a completely different Jesus.
Verses 12-14: ‘Now this is our boast: our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, with integrity and godly sincerity. We have done so, relying not on worldly wisdom but on God’s grace. For we do not write you anything you cannot read or understand. And I hope that, as you have understood us in part, you will come to understand fully that you can boast of us just as we will boast of you in the day of the Lord Jesus.’
Paul’s word for ‘boast’ here can also be translated ‘proud confidence’ like in the NASB. 29 of the 59 uses of the word in the New Testament are used in 2 Corinthians. The apostle uses boasting in a positive and negative context in his writings. In the positive sense, like in this passage, connotes a legitimate confidence in what God has done in someone’s life. Paul was being attacked by false teachers who evidently were winning their case with some Corinth congregants against Paul.
Paul appeals to conscience and on this topic, he is different then the Stoic philosophers of the day. He isn’t necessarily saying that conscience is always the voice of God. He is considering the conscience to be a human faculty (God created all things good in Genesis 1 and people bear the image of God).
He is saying his conscience is clean. He has behaved with integrity and godly sincerity.
It appears that the false teachers or rivals were trying to say that Paul was contradicting himself in his writings and teachings. Paul simply says, with his confidence, ‘for we do not write anything you cannot read or understand…’ Paul is saying in his previous messages that his writing and teachings were clear, he means them and suggests they were straightforward on living a gospel centered life.
Verses 15-16: ‘Because I was sure of this, I wanted to come to you first, so that you might have a second experience of grace. I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia and to come back to you from Macedonia and have you send me on my way to Judea.’
For these verse’s let us recall the last series on 1 Corinthians and specifically 1 Corinthians 16:5-7 where Paul writes that he intends to visit them again after passing through Macedonia. He talked about staying the winter there and having them help on where he would journey next. That didn’t work out so Paul in these verses was trying to change his plans so that he may come and see them first.
The phrase ‘second experience of grace’ is an interesting comment. Some of your translations may have the word ‘grace’ translated as ‘pleasure’. This could mean the friendship and affection that Paul had for the people at Corinth and likewise. He genuinely wanted to see them. However, I think it is also likely that this is referring to the blessing of being taught by an apostle. Paul was the Billy Graham of their day. Also, Christianity was rather new on the scene and churches were hungry to learn from Paul. To get instructions from him on how to live out this Christian thing was of paramount importance.
Verses 17-20: ‘Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this? Do I make my plans according to the flesh, ready to say ‘yes, yes’ and ‘no, no’ at the same time? As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No, but in Him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in Him. That is why it is through Him that we utter our Amen to God for His glory.’
Paul starts out asking a rhetorical question. Is he vacillating according to the flesh? He implies that this is a ‘no’. There are circumstances that come up on his missionary journeys that are beyond his control. There is a Greater person in charge of his life. With the false apostles accusing him of changing his plans and then presumably not caring about the Corinthians, Paul is stating that he has his focus set on the spread of Jesus’ gospel as God directs him. Paul even reminds them that God is faithful and that his word is faithful as well. Simply, sometimes plans change in the world. The apostle is saying he does not make plans according to the flesh or the double mindedness of a worldly man who is saying yes and no at once. He is committed to Corinth but outside circumstances change the plans.
Paul brings up his fellow ministers, Silvanus and Timothy. Silvanus was a leader in the Jerusalem church who in Acts 15:22 was carrying a change in leadership decision from the Jerusalem council to Antioch. Silvanus is Silas in Acts. He became Paul’s companion on the second missionary following the dispute between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41). When the two men reached Lystra, Timothy who had a Jewish Christian mother and a Greek father, was recruited to join the team. Therefore, Silvanus and Timothy were both with Paul when he first came to minister in Corinth.
In verse 20, Paul reminds his audience about the faithfulness of God. All of God’s promises result in yes because God is true and faithful. So congregants utter their amen to God for those promises to come to fruition in Christ ultimately for His glory.
Verse 21-22: ‘And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put His seal on us and given us His Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.’
Paul appeals to his work spreading the gospel. It is God who has established Paul and his team with the Corinthian believers. The Greek word for ‘to establish’ is used in a legal sense in the papyri of a guarantee which states that certain commitments will be carried out. Paul mentions that they are anointed which was a rite of commissioning in this day. And the anointing, in context, refers to an anointing by the Holy Spirit.
While Paul is still defending himself from the false apostles who are challenging him on several points including his change of travel plans, he seems to escalate from arguing that God has established his ministry to a salvation sense…God has put His seal upon Paul and the other ministers.
The seal in this culture is a deposit made by a buyer to a seller as a guarantee that the full amount will be paid over time. It is the down payment. The Spirit in the minister’s hearts is that guarantee of payment in full with the Kingdom to come.
Verses 23-24: But I call God to witness against me- it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth. Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.’
Paul is declaring to the Corinthians that he has pure motives in changing his travel plans. He states that God is his witness. He also sheds a little bit of light on why his travel plans changed and he refrained from coming to Corinth according to schedule. He wanted to spare them perhaps from a serious disciplinary action. Recall that prior to 2 Corinthians writing, Paul wrote the severe letter or ‘letter of tears’ rebuking the Corinth church. Also, ahead in chapter 13:1-4; 10, Paul invokes a threatening tone toward those practicing immorality. So, in a sense, Paul is stating that ‘you are lucky I’m not coming there.’ Quickly, he adds some nuance by saying that he is not trying to lord it over their faith but says he has their ultimate joy in mind (wanting to see them living out Christ’s gospel) and for them to stand firm in the faith. A faith that was consistently being tested by the suffering and persecution which Brian Bailey spoke on last week.
So, why does Paul having his travel plans change matter? Furthermore, having Paul being accused by Judaizers or another group of Jewish Christians of not being sincere in his holistic message because the travel plans had changed, what does that mean for us today?
Obviously, we all have plans change in life. You have probably all heard the famous John Lennon quote from the song ‘Beautiful boy (darling boy)’ where he says , ‘life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’ Plans change even when we intend to do great things for the Kingdom of Jesus just like Paul was doing in spreading the gospel. We can have the best of intentions but there is so much in life that we cannot and do not control. There are higher plans and predetermined outcomes that we are not always privy too. The mind of God remains largely a mystery and the decisions of our lives, sometimes not shaped purely by our individual choices but by circumstances that come our way that we have to navigate through.
In seeing that Paul. while doing a righteous and necessary thing, can have his plans changed by circumstances outside of himself, we can see:
Thesis: Praying that God’s will be done means moving forward with what you know but ultimately recognizing that it is God that makes things happen.
In other words, you can make your plans but Providence may muck those plans up. Other places in Scripture tell us: Proverbs 16:9 tells us: ‘In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.’ (NIV)
‘Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’’ James 4:13-15, NIV
There is a tension we have to realize in life. If we do make choices or have a free volition, it is very limited and narrow in scope. Many things in life we do not have any control over and Providence, working among other elements of our lives, directs beyond our control.
This is hard to come to terms with because most, if not all, of us are Americans. A big thing that we are raised to believe in this culture is that we are the shapers of our own destiny. Picking ourselves up by our individual boot straps and working hard will carry us to success (defined by a materialistic culture) and toward whatever our dreams may be. Is this actually true? Does this actually represent real life? While we celebrate freedom and liberty in our individual lives, how much of either do we actually really have?
In the church, of course, we have this age old debate on Calvinism and Arminianism and by that we mean a debate on pre-determinism versus free will. How much are we really free to make plans without forces outside ourselves carving a path for us. Ultimately, Providence intervening.
What is interesting is this debate on predeterminism is not just in the church but is debated now among secular philosopher and they characterize their philosophy as the universe conspiring against you. You cannot choose your genetic makeup and what diseases or illnesses you may be susceptible too. You cannot choose your parents or the socio-economic condition you are raised in. You cannot choose your race and how different races are perceived in different cultures across the world. Your free choices and freedoms are narrowly limited. A shrinking menu of things you can choose for yourself based on Providence and the options Providence gives us.
Providence or events that happen out of our control can be a double-edged sword. We can perceive them as being good or bad or maybe perhaps neutral.
We like the good stuff but when we perceive bad elements forcing our hand, things being out of our control is hard to come to terms with.
If we are honest, this drives us crazy because a lot of us want control. The powerful drug of control that gives us the illusion that we can affect things that are not ours to affect. This is scary stuff, right? What happens when you feel out of control of circumstances? What happens when your plans are dashed and you have to go back to the drawing board? How does that affect you? How does that affect your relationships with your friends and family? What does it do to your faith in God?
I struggle with wanting control a lot of the time on Sunday mornings. I have plans to leave the house at 9:40am in order to get to church. I also have a 3 year old and a 1 year old. How often do you think the plans on the time to leave change?
When you gather to watch a Seahawk game and late in the game, we have a chance to win and the team lines up for the field goal. You can’t control the field goal kick as much as you want it to go through the uprights to win us the game rather then going wide right.
Seed Church is about to go through a change of plans. As was announced last week by Pastor Jeff Krabach, Brent Rood is going to be retiring from ministry in March. Brent and Christy feel called by God to a new chapter of their lives and Seed will enter a new chapter as well. For a lot of us, not what we expected and I think we all universally loved Brent’s teaching but change comes just as it did for the Apostle Paul in our passage.
When we try and white knuckle something we cannot control, what happens to us? When we try and control someone else so they will do what we want? If we are a small business owner and a contract or key investor that are hard to replace go away, what is our reaction? When there is a political situation that comes around but you are just one vote and you can’t control how others vote?
Think of these poor people in Hawaii whether they live on the island or were others on vacation. An alarm goes off and you think you have half an hour to live until a nuke strikes. People were lowering their children into sewer drains to try and protect them. What control did they have over what they thought was going to be the end of their lives?
Sudden job losses. Getting unexpectedly sick or having a chronic injury. Life can throw painful challenges at us that alter all our plans. Our choices become extremely narrow and limited at the arrival of unexpected events.
When our plans in life get altered, this can bring anxiety. A lot of us aren’t good with change and we grow worried at the changing landscape of our lives. Anxiety is a state that can steal our joy and distract us from important things in life.
How do we cope in this fallen world? How do we deal with our anxiety? What hope do we have?
One of the things that we have to do is let a lot of things go. Let it go. It sounds simple. Cliche even but I would argue this is incredibly difficult to practice. When I say, ‘let it go’ I’m not saying become a hippie (although hippies are cool) and just say, ‘whatever man’ and don’t care about anything. No. We have to think through and recognize the things in our life that we cannot control and let go. The things and plans that we do have some control over we, of course, pursue and work hard. As we all know, our culture is incredibly fast paced. We have work and ministries we are involved in and our families and we often bounce around to all these different events. It has become difficult to get a quality quiet time with Bible reading, prayer and meditation so that we have the opportunity to bring some of these changes in life before God and think deeper about them.
The primary thing we need to keep in the forefront of our minds is Paul’s instruction in our passage this morning, ‘For all the promises of God find their yes in him.’ This world can change and be chaotic. With us and other people, our minds and plans can change all the time but God’s promises to you will never change. What are His promises? From our passage again, God establishes us in Jesus, anoints us (which is a special sacred ritual), puts a seal upon us and gives us the Holy Spirit (also called a Comforter in Scripture) as a guarantee. When we come to Jesus repenting of our sin and desiring him to be our Lord and Savior we become His child and these promises from God are for us. Not just for heaven but for right now in this world as God is building His Kingdom. Will we let go of the things we cannot control and place our proud confidence in the God who directs our paths?