Well we return again this morning to our study of the letter of Second Corinthians, so turn with me in your Bibles to 2 Corinthians chapter 11. We find ourselves at the tail end of a three-part series on 2 Corinthians 11, verses 16 to 29, perhaps the most famous of Paul’s catalogs of his sufferings in ministry. And I’ve titled this passage, “Answering the Fool,” borrowing the language of Proverbs 26, verses 4 and 5, which says, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”
That seemingly contradictory counsel teaches us that discerning when to engage an unbeliever’s arguments and when to just walk away so as not to cast pearls before swine is a matter of wisdom. There are times when we must not answer the fool, because in doing so we may stoop to his level and respond in foolishness ourselves. And yet there are other times when we must answer the fool, because if we don’t, he goes away thinking that there’s no answer to his arguments and is only reinforced in his folly.
Well, Paul has discerned that he was in a situation when he had to answer the fools according to their folly. The fools we have long been acquainted with. They are the triumphalist false teachers who have invaded Corinth, boasting of their amazingly successful ministries and deriding the Apostle Paul for suffering so severely—even accusing him of being an impostor because of all the opposition he faces. If he were a genuine apostle, he’d be like them! with their polished oratory and flowery rhetoric, their large crowds and high speaking fees, and their super-spiritual heavenly visions and revelations.
And the Corinthians have been dazzled by this outward flashiness—this foolish, fleshly boastfulness of the false teachers. They’re enamored with glitz and glam of these self-exalting triumphalists. And so Paul decides that if he’s going to bring the Corinthians to their senses and win them back to faithfulness, he’s going to have to boast too. Even though, as a genuine servant of Christ, Paul recognizes that the sovereignty of God’s grace makes it absolute folly to boast in himself, he discerns that now is a time to answer a fool according to his folly. Since they’re infatuated with the foolish, he’s going to have to engage in some foolish boasting.
We spent our first message explaining the meaning of the passage along five points. Follow along in the text as I recap those just briefly. First, we saw that there was a serrated appeal, in verse 16. It’s an appeal, because he says, “Again I say, let no one think me foolish.” “Please don’t think I’m actually a fool just because I start boasting like one. I’m just trying to make a point.” But it’s a serrated appeal, because he follows that up with, “But if you do, receive me even as foolish, so that I also may boast a little.” “Even if you do mistake me for a fool, that’s fine. Just be sure to receive me like you receive these other fools!”
Second, there’s an important clarification that he gives in verse 17. He says, “What I am saying, I am not saying as the Lord would, but as in foolishness, in this confidence of boasting.” He clarifies that such boasting is not Christlike, and would not meet with the Lord’s approval. You say, “Well then why are you doing it?” And that was our third point: Paul’s desperate rationale, which we see in verses 18 and 19. “Since many boast according to the flesh, I will boast also. For you, being so wise, tolerate the foolish gladly.” Paul hates to boast, but he feels forced to lower himself to acting like the foolish false apostles so he can win the Corinthians back to the truth.
Fourth, he presents a striking contrast between himself and the false apostles in verses 20 and 21. “For you tolerate it if anyone enslaves you, anyone devours you, anyone takes advantage of you, anyone exalts himself, anyone hits you in the face. To my shame I must say that we have been weak by comparison.” He contrasts the tyrannical, domineering lordship of the false apostles, which the Corinthians foolishly submitted to, with the servant-hearted weakness that characterized his own ministry.
And then, finally, we have Paul’s foolish boast. He says in verse 21, “But in whatever respect anyone else is bold—I speak in foolishness—I am just as bold myself.” And because the false apostles were Judaizers, they boasted in the purity of their Jewish heritage. So Paul responds, first, by countering that he is as much of a Jew as they are. Verse 22: “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I.” In every area that had to do with Jewish privilege, Paul was on a level with these Jewish false teachers.
But they also, and perhaps primarily, boasted in their successes in ministry as so-called servants of Christ. And so Paul says, verse 23, “Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so.” And you’d think what would follow is a celebration of his victories and accomplishments and successes. But instead he speaks about his sufferings and difficulties. Let’s read the rest of the passage, verses 23 to 29: “in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern?”
So we spent our first message explaining the meaning of that passage. Then, last time, I began drawing out some of the many the implications this passage has for our lives. I noted that this text teaches us no fewer than six lessons concerning life lived in obedient service to Christ. And we got to three of those last time.
Review I: The Christian’s View of Boasting
The first lesson taught us about the Christian’s view of boasting. And we saw three things in particular about boasting. One: boasting is totally incongruous for a follower of Jesus. Paul says in verse 17, “What I am saying, I am not saying as the Lord would”—literally, I am not speaking according to the Lord—“but as in foolishness, in this confidence of boasting.” This is out of accord with the Lord Jesus. The beginning, middle, and end of the Gospel by which we are saved—the incarnation of Christ, the perfect life of Christ, and the substitutionary death of Christ—is a wholesale denial of self-exaltation and the embrace of self-abnegation. It would be totally incongruous for us whose salvation has been won by self-denial—and which salvation we receive only as a gift of God’s grace—to go around boasting in ourselves.
And therefore, in the second place, boasting should make the genuine servant of Christ intensely uncomfortable. And you see this intense discomfort in the Apostle Paul all throughout this section of his letter. He refers to boasting as foolishness, verse 16, 17, 21, as fleshliness, verse 18, as insanity, verse 23. In chapter 12, verses 2 through 5, he invents a person to boast about because he finds boasting in himself so distasteful! The commentators describe Paul’s attitude to boasting in this passage with the words, “obvious embarrassment,” “thoroughly distasteful,” “nothing could be more uncongenial” (Hughes, 396), “utterly detestable” (Carson, 113), “sends him into spiritual agony” (Carson, 114), “filling him with a feeling of self-contempt” (Hodge, 642). This is how the genuine servant of Christ feels about boasting in himself. And we asked if this is our attitude toward boasting, or whether we really enjoy the accolades and the attention.
And then in the third place, we learned from this text that if the faithful minister of the Gospel ever does boast, it is not in his spiritual victories, exploits, and accomplishments, but only in his sufferings, shame, defeats, and weaknesses. And that is because, as we learned down in chapter 12 verse 9, that Christ’s “power is perfected in weakness.” It is against the black backdrop of human weakness that the brilliant glory of the power of God shines the more brightly. It is when the minister is bankrupt of his own strength, destitute of his own glory, and can do nothing but cry out to God for help that God shows up, and works through your frail and feeble efforts to make His Word effectual in the lives of His people—it is then that there is no doubt who the glory belongs to. It is then that your weakness showcases the glory of Christ’s power. And so Paul says in Galatians 6:14: “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Such is the Christian’s view of boasting.
Review II: The Christian’s View of Ministry (vv. 20–21)
A second lesson we learned from this passage was about the Christian’s view of ministry. Namely, that biblical ministry is a ministry of service, not of tyrannical lordship. And we saw this in the contrast between Paul and the false apostles that is outlined in verses 20 and 21. But because we’ve gone over that several times I won’t repeat it. I’ll just mention Jesus’ command in Luke 22:25. He says, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant.” You see, that heavy-handed, domineering spirit—that’s what marks the rulers of the world system. But in the kingdom of God, true greatness displays itself in the humility of servanthood. The truly loving shepherd of Christ’s sheep renounces all forms of despotism, domineering, and dictatorial power.
And so I exhorted you on two fronts. One: to beware of any professing Christian leader who doesn’t seem to understand that genuine Christian ministers exist to serve the people of God, to spend and be spent for your souls, they humble themselves to exalt you, to build you up, to labor alongside you for your joy and to see you strengthened in the faith. But two: I exhorted you to take care that as you carry out your ministry in the body of Christ that you stifle any hint of a domineering spirit that might be seeking to crop up in your heart. We are ministers, not masters—servants, not lords.
Review III: The Christian’s View of Correction (vv. 19–21)
And then, our third lesson was concerning the Christian’s view of correction. And that was that the sensitive, caring, Christlike minister—the one who understands that biblical ministry is a ministry of service and not lordship, the one who eschews the heavy-handed, domineering spirit of tyrants—that minister will sometimes employ vigorous and even harsh language to correct the sheep from particularly dangerous error. Again: the sensitive, caring, Christlike minister will sometimes employ vigorous and even harsh language to correct the sheep from particularly dangerous error.
And that is seen in how Paul openly mocks the Corinthians for their foolishness. “Receive me like you receive fools!” verse 16. “You, being so wise, tolerate the foolish gladly!” verse 19. “To my shame, I must say, that we have been weak by comparison!” verse 21. Paul, who, understands that ministry is servanthood and not lordship, does not hesitate to employ severe mockery—the most biting irony—to bring needed correction to the straying sheep!
And we said that these two pastoral voices are entirely consistent with one another. The same love and compassion for the sheep that issues in tender encouragements and expressions of affection is the same love and compassion that brings forth the severest correction when the sheep are in the midst of wolves, or when they’re trapped in a tangled web of sin and can’t break free. Desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures. And sometimes, serrated irony can function as a controlled shock that jolts the heart back to health.
And so I exhorted you to examine yourselves, and ask yourselves whether you’d wisely receive this kind of correction from your pastors in spite of the sting, or whether you would look them in the face, and as it were look Paul in the face, and accuse them of being unloving and harsh, and so forfeit the benefit of that correction.
And that brings us current to today, where we’ll examine three more lessons this text has for us.
IV. The Christian’s View of Tolerance (vv. 19–20)
In addition to learning the Christian’s view of boasting, of ministry, and of correction, we also learn, number four, something of the Christian’s view of tolerance. Paul uses the word tolerate twice in verses 19 to 20. He says, “For you, being so wise, tolerate the foolish gladly. For you tolerate it if anyone enslaves you, devours you, takes advantage,” and so on. He said something similar toward the beginning of the chapter, in chapter 11 verse 4. He said, “If one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully.” It’s a cognate form of the same root word. “You bear this beautifully! You tolerate the foolish gladly!” The Corinthians have a tolerance problem. They bear with false teaching. They tolerate the intolerable.
In the last 10 to 15 years, the worldview of postmodernism has come to dominate the collective intellectual consciousness of western society. And perhaps the pinnacle virtue of postmodernism is tolerance. Now, contemporary postmodern tolerance is not what English-speaking peoples have always understood the word tolerance to mean. A person was judged to be tolerant if, though he held to his views strongly, believed them to be absolute truth, and believed just as strongly that all other mutually exclusive views were absolutely wrong, he nevertheless insisted that others had the right to disagree with his deeply-held convictions. He believed in his convictions unwaveringly, and even believed that everyone else should believe what he believed. But he didn’t demand agreement or try to coerce consensus. He tolerated the existence of differing opinions, even on what he believed was non-negotiable truth. The old view of tolerance was well-captured in the oft-quoted aphorism, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (cf. Carson, 6).
But the postmodern version of tolerance is of a totally different sort. To today’s culture, tolerance is no longer the idea that wrong views, though wrong, nevertheless have the right to exist and to be heard in public discourse. Now, you’re only tolerant if you believe that no position is any more or less true, right, or valid than any other view. D. A. Carson explains the shift this way: “The new tolerance suggests that actually accepting another’s position means believing that position to be true, or at least as true as your own. We move from allowing the free expression of contrary opinions to the acceptance of all opinions; we leap from permitting the articulation of beliefs and claims with which we do not agree to asserting that all beliefs and claims are equally valid” (3–4).
And with that revisionist definition of tolerance comes also a revisionist definition of intolerance. Which is a big deal. Because there are few worse charges to be accused of today than being intolerant. Now that tolerance doesn’t mean tolerating the existence of opposing views but rather asserting that all views are equally valid, intolerance is disagreeing with the notion that no one position is more true, valid, or trustworthy than another. If you insist that someone is unambiguously and unequivocally wrong about something, you are intolerant! You’re an uncharitable, arrogant bully! Perhaps even a bigot!
And do you recognize what the central philosophical underpinning of that worldview is? It’s relativism—the rejection of absolute truth itself. If no one claim is more true or right than any other, there is no such thing as absolute truth at all. And the postmodernists don’t dispute this. In 1995, the United Nations released what is called the Declaration on Principles of Tolerance, and in Article 1 on the meaning of tolerance, it asserts that tolerance “involves the rejection of dogmatism and absolutism” (source). And one can’t help but observe that that assertion sounds quite a bit dogmatic and absolute (cf. Carson, 12)!
And of course, that is the failure of all forms of relativism: relativism is hopelessly inconsistent, because the claim that there is no absolute truth is itself an absolute statement. If someone comes up to you and says, “There is no absolute truth!” you just ask them, “Is that absolutely true?” It is rationally baseless! It immediately collapses under its own weight! And so Carson observes, “Under the new aegis of this new tolerance, no absolutism is permitted, except for the absolute prohibition of absolutism. Tolerance rules, except that there must be no tolerance for those who disagree with this peculiar definition of tolerance” (13). And so ironically, but inevitably for all systems that are based on relativism, what is now called tolerance is actually what the world has always known as intolerance.
And because the church inexorably imitates and apes the foolish fashions of the world—always ostensibly as a misguided means of attracting the world—contemporary evangelicalism has imbibed these very redefinitions and philosophical presuppositions. For so many professing Christians, who are scared to death to offend the sensibilities of the postmodern culture, the worst thing in the world is for them to be called intolerant. And so what has happened? They have subtly, maybe even in some cases unintelligibly, abandoned their commitment to the absolute truth of Scripture, in favor of being more tolerant of a “diversity of opinions.” Men rise up in the church, and they begin teaching doctrine that does not accord with the pattern of sound words entrusted to us in Scripture, and some men rise up against that error and criticize it for not aligning with biblical truth, and yet other men push back against that and say, “Hey, let’s not be so rigid and dogmatic, OK? These men are aiming to ground their teachings in Scripture; they just have a different interpretation than you do. Who’s to say that our interpretation is better than their interpretation? After all, the text isn’t all that clear anyway. We should hear them out. We should give them a platform. We ought to be tolerant of a diversity of views.”
And friends, that is exactly what happened in the Corinthian church. The false apostles showed up when Paul was miles away, and they began sowing doubt about the integrity of his character and the truth of his Gospel among the believers there. And when the Corinthians first discerned that that was going on, they should have risen up and rejected these men for the wolves that they were. But what happened? They flashed their ‘letters of commendation.’ They touted their Jewish heritage and connection to the Jewish church. They bragged on their eloquence and their strong leadership. They boasted in their high-priced honorariums, and their large fanbase, and the bevy of their ministerial successes. And the Corinthians were taken in! And so they tolerated the subtle deviations from the truth. And when those subtle deviations became more obvious deviations from the truth, they tolerated those as well. And when the toleration of little compromise after little compromise led to their enslavement, their being devoured, and taken advantage of, and even physically assaulted—by these fools who preach another Jesus, and a different spirit, and a different gospel—they tolerated it. They bore it beautifully!
Friends, this text teaches us that there is a limit to biblical tolerance! There are certain things that we simply must not tolerate in the church. You say, “But Mike, wasn’t Jesus the supreme example of tolerance? He refused no one! He welcomed everyone to Himself!” Turn to Revelation chapter 2. In Revelation 2:19, Jesus commends the church of Thyatira for their deeds, their love, their faith, their service, and their perseverance. Whereas the church of Ephesus needed to repent and do the deeds she did at first, verses 4 and 5, Jesus said that Thyatira’s “deeds of late are greater than at first.” But though Thyatira was loving, their love could be undiscerning and blindly affirming (DeYoung, 123). Look at what Jesus says in verse 20: “But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality.” Jesus is intolerant of Thyatira’s tolerance of error and immorality! And He promises severe judgment for it! Verse 22: “Behold, I will throw her on a bed of sickness, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her deeds. And I will kill her children with pestilence, and all the churches will know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts.”
The Jesus of Revelation 2 is not the Jesus of postmodernism! The real Jesus is decidedly intolerant of false doctrine and moral relativism. And for those churches who compromise the Word of God in an effort to be more “tolerant” and more “affirming” than Jesus is—on whatever issue—they will find themselves under the judgment of the One whose eyes are like a flame of fire, whose feet are like burnished bronze, whose robe is dipped in blood, and who strikes down the nations with the sword of His mouth. Martin Luther said it well when he wrote, “I am not permitted to let my love be so merciful as to tolerate and endure false doctrine. When faith and doctrine are concerned and endangered, neither love nor patience are in order. … When these are concerned, neither toleration nor mercy are in order, but only anger, dispute, and destruction—to be sure, only with the Word of God as our weapon.”
Listen, dear people: truth is intolerant of error. And we are not permitted to tolerate the preaching of error in the name of truth! Rather we are, 2 Corinthians 10:5, to “destroy speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and [to] take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” Not by force! Not by coercion! We understand that in a fallen world error must exist, and we don’t seek, as some, to outlaw from the public square every viewpoint but our own. But behind this pulpit—in Christ’s Church—there is one rule! one sovereign standard! to the exclusion of all others! And that is the Scripture alone. We must never so adopt the world’s notion of tolerance that we tolerate anything but the voice of our Good Shepherd as spoken in His Word.
V. The Christian’s View of Fake Christians (v. 26)
There’s a fifth lesson that we glean from this passage. And that is, number five, the Christian’s view of fake Christians. And we see this in verse 26, where Paul lists the many “dangers” he’s faced. He says, “I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren.”
The phrase “false brethren” translates a single Greek compound word: pseudadelphoi. The word adelphos is the word for brother. We recognize that, as Philadelphia is the city of brotherly love. And the word pseudos means false, phony, counterfeit, like how we talk about astrology being a pseudoscience. These are false brothers, phony Christians, counterfeit believers. Paul uses this word only one other place in his writings, in Galatians 2:4. There, he says, “But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage.” Just as in our passage, Paul uses the phrase false brethren to speak of Judaizers who professed faith in Christ, but who sought to add works as an instrumental means of justification.
This teaches us, friends, that there are people who will call themselves Christians, who will profess to be our brothers and sisters, who are not genuine Christians, who are false brethren, who are just as dead in their sins as any Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or atheist. That is to say, there is such a thing as fake Christians. And when you think about all the doctrine that the Judaizers got right—monotheism, Jesus as Messiah, Jesus being fully and truly God and fully and truly man, penal substitutionary atonement, the necessity of repentance and faith in Christ for salvation—you have to recognize that you can say an awful lot of the right things and still be phony. All you have to do is teach something about Jesus or the Gospel that is so fundamentally unlike the true Jesus or the true Gospel that it makes Him into a different Jesus and turns the Gospel into another gospel. And teaching that we are justified by faith plus—by Christ plus—is to corrupt the Gospel with works and make grace no longer grace (Rom 11:6). So also: the fleshly triumphalism that teaches that Christianity consists in boasting about one outward success after another and that suffering is a sign only of divine displeasure makes God into a glorified genie and prostitutes the Gospel into a means of self-worship. There is such a thing as fake Christians, friends.
And what I want you to notice is: these fake Christians are particularly damaging to ministry and are particularly heartbreaking to genuine servants of Christ. Why do I say that? Well, I want you to notice the literary structure of this list of dangers. We’ve got a pair of dangers that are associated with the “frequent journeys” that he says he’s been on: dangers from rivers and robbers. Then, we’ve got a pair that covers the spectrum of all peoples: dangers from my countrymen (Jews) and dangers from the Gentiles. Then, there’s a triad that covers the spectrum of all places: dangers in the city, in the wilderness, and on the sea. And then, at the end of the list, standing all alone, as the climax of all the dangers of ministry, is the phrase, “dangers from false brethren.”
He singles this danger out. Why? Because this was the most personally hurtful and strategically damaging of all. He could deal with external threats to his own life well enough. Getting swept away by rivers, getting mugged by bandits, getting whipped and beaten and stoned by unbelievers was bad enough. But it took a special measure of fortitude to endure the pain of betrayal from those who claimed to be his brothers in Christ but who were false brethren. When someone who seems to be laboring right alongside you in ministry all of a sudden pulls the rug out from under you and aims to sabotage your ministry, it’s an especially bitter sting.
And it so insidiously corrupts and undermines ministry, because those who you depend on to bear the weight of ministry are rotten on the inside. And just when you need to lean on them most they crumble into pieces, and destroy the work of the ministry. It was only several months ago that a man who served for 23 years as a professor at TMU’s IBEX program denied the deity of Christ, and so proved himself to be a false brother. And what happened? Not only was the work in Israel threatened, but so many students who had been through that program and had benefited from this man’s teaching and influence had begun posting on social media about how bewildered they were that this could happen. If a man who they regarded as such a godly example could prove to be phony, were they phony as well? Was the truth he taught them not the truth? All manner of mischief is brought upon the ministry of the truth by false brethren.
And so what is the church of Christ called to do? Romans 16:17: “Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them.” 2 Thessalonians 3:14: “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame.” Titus 3:10–11: “Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned.” Matthew 18:17: “If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” The elders of the church are especially tasked to be on guard for and to protect the flock from the savage wolves which Paul promises will arise from within the church, Acts 20:29–30. Fake Christians exist, and they are particularly hurtful to the genuine servant of Christ, and particularly damaging to the work of genuine ministry. And therefore, the shepherds of the flock are to make it their business to discover these fake Christians through the work of church discipline, and to remove them from the fellowship of the redeemed. As Paul instructed the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 5:11, “I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one.” Verse 13: “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.”
VI. The Christian’s View of the Burdens of Ministry (vv. 28–29)
Well, we’ve learned much concerning the Christian’s view of boasting, of ministry, of correction, of tolerance, and of fake Christians. The sixth lesson this text has to teach us is, finally, the Christian’s view of the burdens of ministry. And we see that in verses 28 and 29. He says, “Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern?” Deeper, more intense, and more burdensome than any of the avalanche of sufferings outlined in verses 23 to 27 was the daily pressure of concern for the spiritual health and stability of all the churches. Beatings, shipwreck, cold, and exposure are no match for the pain that assails the heart of the genuine shepherd for the welfare of his flock.
Paul speaks of this daily “pressure of concern.” The word “concern” there is actually literally translated, “anxiety”—the same word, in fact, that Paul uses in Philippians 4:6 when he commands the Philippians to “be anxious for nothing.” Now, the anxiety Paul is speaking about in Philippians 4:6 certainly has a more negative connotation; there it’s sinful anxiety. But here we learn that there is an appropriate anxiety that the genuine minister feels for the health of the people of God! The genuine servant of Christ is not indifferent or disinterested or detached from the spiritual well-being of his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ! He is deeply invested in the strength and vitality of their faith, in the progress of their sanctification.
In verse 29 he uses another fascinating word. He says, “Who is led into sin without my intense concern?” And “intense concern” translates the single word puróomai, which literally means “to burn.” The New King James translates this, “Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation?” And that captures the sense well. Whether because of an evil example, or because of the seductive deception of those who disguise themselves as angels of light, or because of the corrosive nature of false doctrine, or even just because the allure of sin has deceived a believer’s heart over and against the glory of Christ, if any believer stumbles in sin, Paul burns. His heart is set aflame—both with compassionate concern and vicarious shame for that child of God who has stumbled, and with fiery indignation against the messengers of Satan who have caused them to stumble.
And I want to quote an extended portion from Philip Hughes here, who so insightfully comments on this verse. He says, “So sensitive is he to the fortunes of those who through his ministry have become his spiritual children, so conscious is he of the responsibility that has been laid upon him for them as Christ’s apostle, that he cannot detach himself from their lot. … [It is] the compassion of the parent for the children he has begotten, of the shepherd for his frail sheep. … Their weakness is felt as his weakness. Their frailty, so easily suffering offence, is his frailty also. The stumbling of one of them causes him to burn with shame as though it were his own stumbling and to burn with indignation against the seducer who has made one of Christ’s little ones to stumble (cf. Mark 9:42, etc.).” And then he applies it to us: “And so it should be with every faithful pastor of Christ’s flock”—and not just every pastor, but every single one of us, because every single one of us has been called to ministry to the body. “And so it should be with every faithful [servant] of Christ’s flock: he should lovingly identify himself with those who have been committed to his care,”—namely, in our case, the fellow members of our local church—“showing himself deeply anxious for their spiritual well-being, compassionate with them in their frailties and temptations, and resisting and resenting everyone who seeks to entice them away from the purity of their devotion to Christ” (417–18).
GraceLife, are you such faithful servants of Christ’s flock? Does your heart beat right alongside Paul’s heart? Do you long for the sanctification of the church? Do you agonize in prayer for the health of your brothers and sisters? Do you burn with indignation at those who cause Christ’s precious little ones to stumble? Do you know anything of the anguish of childbirth because you long to see Christ fully formed in fellow-believers? Do you know anything of that daily pressure—that intense concern—that feels the pain of spiritual weakness in the body of Christ as your own weakness? Do you grieve over the heartbreaking news of a believer stumbling into sin? And do you therefore labor among your brothers and sisters now, doing everything you can to strengthen their hands and to root their joy so deeply in Christ that such stumbling never takes place?
In Colossians 2:1, Paul says, “For I want you to know how great a struggle I have on your behalf and for those who are at Laodicea, and for all those who have not personally seen my face.” Paul struggled mightily in prayer for Christians he’d never even met! And struggled for what? Until you “attain to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Dear people, ask yourself: do you know anything of that great struggle? Do you devote your time to investing in the Bride of Christ, to training her, to equipping her, to strengthening her to battle temptation, to put off sin and press on in practical righteousness?
The genuine servant of Christ is no professional. He’s not a dispassionate CEO, managing an organization of people from his well-decorated, air-conditioned office! He is a pastor! He is a shepherd! Even those of you not called to full-time vocational ministry are charged with caring for the flock! And that ministry to which you have been called is not faithfully discharged with half-hearted, indifferent detachment. It is carried out with the most intense zeal, with the deepest compassion, with the loving heart of a brother or sister, with a tender heart that feels the burden of that zeal and compassion more acutely than the most severe external sufferings.
But notice one more thing about these burdens of ministry. The good shepherd—the faithful servant, the caring servant—is sympathetic to the weaknesses of God’s people. Verse 28: “Who is weak without my being weak?” It wasn’t just that Paul burned with indignation when someone fell into sin. His heart was weighed down with the burdens of any spiritual weakness in all the churches. No one, in any church, endured any spiritual weakness which Paul did not feel as his very own weakness!
And that is ultimately because he himself was weak. He knows what it is to suffer with physical infirmity. He speaks of “bodily illness” in Galatians 4:13. He knew what it was to be discouraged, as Acts 18 records that the trials he faced on his first visit to Corinth required the Lord Jesus to come to him in a vision and encourage him to persevere. He knew what it was to battle fear; he tells the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 2:3, “I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.” Paul could so readily empathize with the believers and feel their weakness as his own weakness because he himself was acquainted with weakness.
And such is true of all genuine servants of Christ’s church. The best servants are not, as the false apostles claimed, those who were successful and polished and put-together and super-spiritual! The best servants—those who can most faithfully and compassionately minister to those beset with weakness—are those who are experimentally acquainted with weakness themselves. Think about it. When you’re battling with sin and discouragement, the last person you want to come help you is a triumphalist, a prosperity preacher, someone who boasts only in their strength and despises weakness as the judgment of God. No, you want someone who has walked through the valley you’re walking through now. You want someone who has felt the sting of affliction, and who therefore has felt the consolation of God’s sovereign comfort, so that they can comfort you in your affliction with the comfort they received from God.
Which means, friends, that your weakness can never disqualify you from serving Christ and His people. Your weakness only qualifies you to receive comfort and strength from God’s sovereign hand, and then to communicate that comfort you receive to others who are in need of it. Your weakness isn’t an obstacle to faithful ministry; it’s a prerequisite to faithful ministry! Because it’s only in your weakness that Christ’s divine power is perfected.
And of course Christ Himself is the premier example of that truth for us. I want you to turn with me to Hebrews chapter 5. Hebrews 5, starting in verse 1: “For every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God, in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins; he can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided, since he himself also is beset with weakness.” The High Priest’s weakness qualified him to deal gently with the ignorant and misguided. And so it was in the case of Jesus our High Priest. Look down to verse 7: “In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation, being designated by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” He prayed with crying and tears. He learned obedience from His sufferings. He was made perfect as a genuine human being. And it was because of this continuity of nature with us—because He was genuinely human and faithfully obeyed His Father as a man—that He became the source of our eternal salvation, as our Great High Priest.
Look back to Hebrews 4:15: “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” Because He took the form of a slave, being made in the likeness of men, assuming to Himself a true and full human nature with all the frailty and weakness that entailed aside from sin, because of His assumed weakness, He can sympathize with our native weaknesses; He can deal gently with us, the ignorant and misguided; He can be the source of our eternal salvation.
Friend, if you sit here this morning outside of Christ, clinging to your sins, void of true repentance, destitute of genuine saving faith in Him, you have no Great High Priest to sympathize with your weakness, no Great High Priest to bear your weaknesses and your sins, to pay for them by the sacrificial offering of Himself. You’re lost. You can expect nothing but to die in your sins, to come under the judgment of God, and to drink down the dregs of His outpoured wrath forever in hell.
But dear sinner, none of that has to be! Because this Great High Priest has interceded for the transgressors, He has borne the sins of His people on the cross! He has accomplished righteousness and defeated death by rising from the grave! And this Great, merciful High Priest offers Himself to you this very day. He calls you to repentance from sin and to faith in Him and in His Gospel. He calls you to confess your sins, to own your guilt, to repudiate any and every good deed you might trust in to pay for your own sins. And He calls you to look upon Him, and His good deeds, and to see in Him a perfectly sufficient Savior! To see in His cross all the payment for sin you’d ever need! To see in his life all the righteousness you could ever hope for! And He calls you to trust in Him for that forgiveness and righteousness. Dear friend, repent and believe in Christ. Lay hold of the merits of your Great High Priest, who not only avails for you in the courtroom of God, but who deals gently with you in your weakness, because He was also Himself beset with weakness.