We come once again to our study of Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, so turn with me in your Bibles to 2 Corinthians chapter 10. And I began last week by underscoring the great importance of and the necessity for the church to have spiritual discernment—that is, the ability to rightly discern truth from error, to distinguish sound doctrine from false doctrine. I used the illustration that Pastor MacArthur often uses when he says that a lack of discernment is like having spiritual AIDS. It’s like having a compromised spiritual immune system: people in that condition can die from any number of even minor ailments. So also, people who are unable to rightly discern between truth and error are susceptible, Pastor John says, to dying the death of a thousand heresies. Any number of subtle errors can be the undoing of a church, a ministry, and even of professing Christians.
And we also mentioned that there are a thousand heresies to die from! More than that even! The 2,000 years of church history have been the story of the truth in constant conflict with error. And not even error of other world religions—though of course the errors of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam are significant enough. But the conflict between truth and error—between sound doctrine and false doctrine—has been raging even within the walls of the professing church! There are, and have been since the beginning of the church, false teachers who propagate false doctrine, all while naming the name of Christ and claiming fidelity to the text of Scripture. And I spent some time last week briefly surveying some of the heresies that arose during the first 400 years of church history: the Galatian heresy of the Judaizers, Gnosticism, Arianism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, monophysitism, and Pelagianism were just a sample of false teachings promulgated by teachers who all claimed to be followers of Jesus Christ!
Satan disguises error in the name of truth. He peddles poison that’s labeled as medicine. Jesus warns His disciples to “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt 7:15). These false teachers blend right in with the flock! Paul says that men will arise from among your own selves and will teach perverse doctrine (Acts 20:29–30). Peter says false teachers will be among you who will secretly introduce destructive heresies.” And John tells us not to believe everyone claiming to be a teacher of Scripture, but to test those who claim to speak for God. So if there is one task for which the church must be equipped, it is to be able to identify and dispense with false teaching peddled by false teachers.
And the Apostle Paul equips us for that very task in 2 Corinthians chapter 10, verses 7 to 18. The Church of Corinth had been infiltrated and by a band of false teachers who sought to make room for their heresy by undermining Paul’s character and ministry. And the Corinthians had been deceived by these false teachers for a time. They had begun questioning Paul’s integrity, the legitimacy of his apostleship and the authenticity of his ministry, and they even began questioning the very Gospel he preached. Paul made an immediate visit to quell this rebellion, only to find himself in the middle of a full-scale mutiny when he got there. It broke his heart. Here were his dear spiritual children, men and women whom he had begotten in the faith—people into whose eyes he stared as the lights came on in their souls when the Spirit regenerated them by the preaching of the Gospel—now questioning the veracity of that very Gospel and flirting with apostasy.
He immediately fled Corinth and returned to Ephesus, where he wrote them a severe letter, sternly reproving them for being deceived by these false teachers, and for failing to take the proper measures to discipline those who were instigating this rebellion. He sent the letter by Titus, and has recently received report from Titus as to how they responded. And we learn in chapter 7 that the Lord granted repentance, and the great majority of the church turned back from this false teaching, repudiated the false apostles, and reaffirmed their love and loyalty to Paul and to the true Gospel.
But there was a still a minority in the Corinthian church who remained captivated by the errors of the false teachers. And the false teachers themselves, though they had been dealt a decisive blow via the repentance of the majority, they didn’t just leave town! They were keeping quiet, biding their time, and waiting for the right time to resurface and rekindle their rebellion. And having addressed the repentant majority in chapters 1 to 9, in chapters 10 to 13 he turns to address the unrepentant minority, as well as to take aim directly at the false teachers themselves.
And what he does beginning in chapter 10 verse 7, is to contrast himself and his genuine apostolic ministry with the phony ministry of the false teachers. And we examined verses 7 to 11 last week, and noted that his comments here may be used as a litmus test for how to discern the difference between a genuine servant of God and a false teacher. In verse 7 he says, “Look at what is before your eyes.” “Look at what’s right in front of you!” He wants the Corinthians to consider what they know about him and what they know about the false teachers, and to render a righteous judgment based upon the clear presentation of the facts—based on the objective evidence that was staring them in the face. And in verses 7 to 11 he presented them with four points of contrast between a faithful servant of God versus a false teacher. And I’ll review those briefly.
Review I: Commission (v. 7b)
First, there is a contrast between false teachers and genuine servants of Christ with respect to their commission. Verse 7: “If anyone is confident in himself that he is Christ’s, let him consider this again within himself, that just as he is Christ’s, so also are we.” The false teachers were claiming to be “of Christ” in a special way, in a way that Paul wasn’t. They were claiming to have unique authority in the church because they had been specially and distinctively commissioned by Christ as His authoritative representatives.
But note, such a one is merely confident in himself, not in any objective facts or reality. Their claim to a special commission from Jesus didn’t have any objective evidence from the fruit of their ministry to back it up. It was just subjective opinion and unprovable, untestable assertions. But Paul substantiates his commission to ministry from the Lord Jesus by pointing to the objective facts. He points to the Damascus road and the testimony of those who saw him instantly transformed from persecutor of the church to preacher of the Gospel. He points to the holiness and integrity of his own life which he had lived before their eyes. He points to the church’s very existence as tangible proof of the genuineness of his ministry. The radical transformation of their lives was the fruit of his preaching and teaching among them for 18 months.
And we gleaned from this that false teachers ground their commission from Christ in subjective assertions, and in unverifiable anecdotes about spiritual experiences or about their special, extraordinary knowledge of Christ that is unavailable to the ordinary believer. But the genuine servant of Christ grounds his commission in objective evidence of a transformed life, a clear conscience, and the fruit of the Lord’s work in the lives of those to whom he’s ministered.
Review II: Authority (vv. 8–9)
Secondly, there is a contrast in authority. And we saw that in verses 8 and 9: “For even if I boast somewhat further about our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you, I will not be put to shame. For I do not wish to seem as if I would terrify you by my letters.” And we saw that the first key phrase there is that Paul grounds his authority in the grace of Christ. He speaks about “our authority, which the Lord gave.” Because they have no true commission from Christ, false teachers seize authority for themselves. They make groundless boasts of unverifiable experiences in order to lord their authority over those to whom they seek to “minister.” But the genuine servants of Christ are commissioned by Christ, and so whatever authority they have is an authority granted by Christ Himself.
And further, this text teaches us that false teachers leverage the authority they seize in order to tear down the people of God, whereas genuine servants recognize that the Lord has granted them authority to build up the church whom they serve. The false teachers had pointed to the severe letter and to the threat of discipline, and accused Paul of being heavy-handed with the Corinthians—of throwing his weight around and oppressively wielding his authority just to assert his own dominance at the Corinthians’ expense. But Paul explains that he never intended to terrify them by his letters; he simply knew that his correction had to be sharp if the Corinthians were going to be snatched from the clutches of the damning doctrines of the Judaizers. Just like in literal construction work, Paul had to do some preliminary demolition of their sinful patterns of thinking before he could begin building them up once again on the proper foundation. But even if that correction stung a bit, it was never intended as demolition merely for demolition’s sake. It was always aimed at their ultimate edification and growth in Christian maturity.
Interestingly enough, though they hurled this accusation against Paul, it was the intruders who were guilty of tearing down and not building up. They used their “authority” to charge the Corinthians money for their ministry. They’ve sown division within a local church. They’ve attacked the character of the Apostle Christ used to bring the Corinthians to salvation. And they’ve led them astray from the only true and saving Gospel. We learned from this that false teachers don’t lay down their lives to build up the people of God. They use their illegitimate authority to manipulate the church into laying down their lives for their teachers. But the true servants of God exercise the authority the Lord gave them for the benefit and edification of the church. Even if they have to bring correction—even if that rod of discipline stings sometimes, it’s never wielded as a domineering, tyrannical power-trip to tear down, but only in the service of truly building you up in Christ.
Review III: Methodology (vv. 9–10)
A third contrast between false teachers and genuine servants of Christ is the contrast in their methodology. Verse 10: “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible.’” The false teachers were triumphalists. And this accusation against Paul’s lack of personal gravitas and his simplicity of speech revealed a mark of all false teachers. False teachers are always enamored with fleshly externals—like polished oratory and manipulative gimmickry. They use fleshly methods to appeal to fleshly people. They preach themselves, 2 Corinthians 4:5. They make themselves and their style the draw of their ministry, rather than the foolishness of the cross of Christ.
But, as we saw illustrated in Paul’s declaration that he came to them with no superiority of speech and in weakness, genuine servants of God are preoccupied only with spiritual benefit. They renounce all fleshly methodologies and refuse to call attention to themselves, because they don’t want the success of their ministry to depend upon their winsomeness or charm—on the wisdom of men—but as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:5: on the power of God, who alone can transform the heart. They’re not about flashiness or polish. They speak and minister plainly, simply, and clearly, so as to accurately communicate divine truth, which alone has the power to subdue sin and create faith in the heart.
Review IV: Integrity (v. 11)
The fourth contrast that we observed last week between false teachers and genuine servants was integrity. Commission, authority, methodology, and integrity. And we saw that in verse 11: Paul says, “Let such a person”—that is, such a person who would accuse me of being different in person than I am in my letters—“Let such a person consider this, that what we are in word by letters when absent, such persons we are also in deed when present.” Paul says: I’m no phony. I am not one thing in private and another thing in person. There is no inconsistency or inconstancy or duplicity in my character. I am not a hypocrite who wears two masks, has two faces, two personas. What I am in word by my letters when absent I am in my actions when I’m face to face with you. False teachers, on the other hand, are one person on the surface but someone else underneath. There’s an artificial exterior to them that you have to penetrate if you’re going to get to the real them. There’s the necessity to appear to be something that they’re not, so they can deceive and take advantage of the unsuspecting.
That was verses 7 to 11, which we examined last week. This morning, though, we come to verses 12 to 18, and we find that Paul goes on contrasting the character and ministry of the false teachers who had invaded Corinth and his own character and ministry as a genuine servant of Christ. Let’s read our text this morning: 2 Corinthians 10, starting in verse 12. “For we are not bold to class or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves; but when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding. 13But we will not boast beyond our measure, but within the measure of the sphere which God apportioned to us as a measure, to reach even as far as you. 14For we are not overextending ourselves, as if we did not reach to you, for we were the first to come even as far as you in the gospel of Christ; 15not boasting beyond our measure, that is, in other men’s labors, but with the hope that as your faith grows, we will be, within our sphere, enlarged even more by you, 16so as to preach the gospel even to the regions beyond you, and not to boast in what has been accomplished in the sphere of another. 17But ‘He who boasts is to boast in the Lord.’ 18For it is not he who commends himself that is approved, but he whom the Lord commends.”
And what we have in this paragraph, as a continuation from the previous, are four more points of contrast between false teachers and genuine servants. As we endeavor to be equipped to discern between truth and error, between sound doctrine and false doctrine—as we aim to protect ourselves from dying the death of a thousand heresies—we need recognize these four contrasts as well as the last four between (a) the genuine ministers of the Gospel sent from Christ, and (b) the purveyors of false doctrine.
V. Standard (v. 12)
And since we’ve already had four contrasts, we’ll start this morning with number five. Between false teachers and genuine servants, there will always be a contrast in standard. Look with me again at verse 12. Paul writes, “For we are not bold to class or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves; but when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding.”
Now, a key concept in this verse is commendation. The false teachers who have invaded Corinth must do everything they can to commend themselves as legitimate emissaries of Christ and teachers of Scripture. That’s all a false teacher can do. They’ve come into town, they’ve found the fruit of Paul’s labors in the Corinthian church, and they desire to woo them away from fidelity to Paul and his Gospel, and to entice them to follow them and become disciples of their teaching. And so they’ve got to give reasons for why they’re the real deal and why Paul therefore can’t be trusted. And so they have to commend themselves in comparison to Paul.
And this was a common practice in Greek culture, especially in education, public discourse, and politics. If a leader was going to attract followers, he often had to lure people away from rival teachers. And he’d do that by comparing himself to his rivals and seeking to impugn their character or abilities. One commentator writes, “In the cutthroat competition for plaudits and pupils, one had to advertise oneself publicly with audacious praise while impugning the qualities of other contenders for honor. People were constantly vying with others to attain elusive glory and engaged in a constant game of one-upmanship.” He quotes another scholar as saying, “An individual’s worth and consequently his respect in the community was dependent on the status he was able to project.” And then he comments, “Boasting about one’s status and achievements and comparing oneself favorably against others were routine tactics for those who aimed at gaining a following for themselves” (Garland, 452).
This described these false teachers perfectly. One way you could tell that they were no true servants of Christ is that they had been totally conformed to the pattern of this world, rather than being transformed by the renewing of their minds (Rom 12:2). They had adopted the values and methodologies of their surrounding culture, rather than standing against the culture’s values in accordance with Scripture. And so they boasted about their personal presence, their gravitas, their charisma. They boasted in their rhetorical eloquence and fancied themselves “excellent communicators.” They boasted in the fact that they developed a large following and commanded significant speaking fees. They boasted in their ecstatic visions and subjective spiritual experiences. And it was by this standard that they measured their ministry and commended themselves to the Corinthians as legitimate teachers.
The problem was: the source of all these criteria for evaluation by which they measured themselves was entirely self-referential! He says, “They measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves.” It’s as if they’re wondering how they can discern the proper standard for evaluating the faithfulness of their ministries, and so they look at one another and say, “Hey, we’re excellent speakers, we’re eminently likeable, we’ve got this weightiness to us, we project this aura of authority. We’re able to draw crowds and compel financial support for our work. That’s what it must be to be a successful minister of Christ! And what do you know? Applying those criteria, we all pass with flying colors!” You see the absurdity of it all! They set up their own conduct as a standard of excellence, and then pat one another on the back for meeting that standard! One preacher remarked, “These people are charter members of their own mutual admiration society!” (Storms, 113). “They measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves.” But when they do that, Paul says, “they are without understanding.” It’s total foolishness.
And Paul says he doesn’t play that game of self-referential self-commendation. He even mocks it at the beginning of verse 12. In the context of being told that his personal presence is unimpressive and that his speech is contemptible—of being accused of being timid and wimpy and not strong and assertive enough to be a leader worth following—he sarcastically says, “For we are not bold to class or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves.” “I’m not bold like the false apostles? Well, you’ve got me there! I wouldn’t dare compare myself to the kind of people who are so great that they base their authority in their own self-commendation! Men who are their own standard of excellence! I’ll admit it: that is a boldness with which I am unfamiliar!” Calvin paraphrases it like this. He says, “I am satisfied . . . with my moderate way; for I would not dare to put myself on a footing with your ‘apostles,’ who are the heralds of their own excellence” (331).
You see, false teachers differ markedly from genuine servants of Christ when it comes to the standard of evaluation for their ministry. False teachers commend themselves on the basis of man-made, subjective—even self-referential—criteria. But genuine servants of Christ follow the example of the Apostle Paul. In the first place, they don’t commend themselves, because, verse 18, “It is not he who comments himself that is approved, but he whom the Lord commends.” So in the first place, the genuine servant of Christ seeks Christ’s commendation; he doesn’t manufacture his own. But then, as a standard for the Lord’s commendation, the measurement of a genuine servant’s ministry is the objective standard set forth in Scripture, namely, number one: allegiance to the Gospel of Christ and fidelity to sound doctrine. The genuine minister is consumed with ministering in a way that is consistent with the Gospel and with Scripture’s teaching. He is consumed with conducting himself and his ministry in a way that doesn’t undermine the fundamental tenets of the Gospel or any of the teaching set forth in the Bible. Number two: the genuine servant’s ministry is measured by increasing conformity to Christ’s likeness, both in the minister and in those ministered to. It repudiates all underhandedness, all sensuality, all immorality, all worldliness, and is in a manner obsessed with pressing on to lay hold of the sanctification for which he was laid hold of by Christ, Philippians 3:12, and with presenting every man complete in Christ, Colossians 1:28. And number three: the genuine servant’s ministry is measured by the willingness to suffer for Christ on the path of faithfulness—to lay down your life for the sake of the church and the Gospel. It’s measured by a willingness to be debased—to become the servant of all; not by the ambition to be exalted, and to be spoken well of, and to be at home in the world!
Dear people, false teachers and true teachers have different standards by which they evaluate their ministries. False teachers commend themselves on the basis of man-made criteria. True teachers are commended by the Lord on the basis of biblical criteria. Don’t be fooled.
VI. Ambition (vv. 13–15a)
A sixth contrast between true and false teachers comes in verses 13 to 15. Not only is there a contrast in standard, but there is a contrast in ambition. And we see this in verses 13 to 15a. Paul writes, “But we will not boast beyond our measure, but within the measure of the sphere which God apportioned to us as a measure, to reach even as far as you. For we are not overextending ourselves, as if we did not reach to you, for we were the first to come even as far as you in the gospel of Christ; not boasting beyond our measure, that is, in other men’s labors.”
Here Paul speaks about two kinds of boasting. There is boasting beyond our measure, or overextending ourselves, and then there is boasting within the measure of the sphere which God apportions to us. Paul denies that he does the former and confesses that he does the latter. Paul is not going to presume to speak about any ministry endeavor that was outside of the sphere which God measured out for him. Whatever he’ll talk about concerning his ministry will be confined to the limits of the field that God had assigned to him.
This word that gets translated sphere in verse 13 is the Greek word kanon, from which we get the term canon. And that’s not “cannon,” with two Ns, like the kind you shoot cannonballs out of. It’s “canon” with one N, like the canon of Scripture. It means the rule, the standard, the measure, the plumb line. In the context of the Olympic games, this was the word that the Greeks used to speak of the lane that was measured out for each of the runners in a race. Each runner was required to stay in the lane that was measured out for him, not to transgress the lines on either side into another runner’s lane. Paul says, “The Lord Jesus has measured out my lane and told me to run in that lane. I’m not going to venture out of it.”
Now, when did Christ do that? When did the Lord Jesus assign Paul a particular ministerial lane to run in? Well it was from the moment of his conversion that he was given a special commission from the Lord Jesus to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. In Acts 9:15, the Lord tells Ananias that Paul is His chosen instrument “to bear My name before the Gentiles.” In Acts 22:21, Paul recounts the testimony of his conversion, and reports that the Lord Jesus said to him, “Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” In Acts 26:17 he tells the story again, and reports that at his conversion Jesus told him that He was sending him to the Gentiles. In Romans 1:5 he says that he “received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for [Christ’s] name’s sake.”
And turn to Galatians chapter 2, verses 7 to 9. It’s here that Paul comments on how the assignment he received from the Lord was ratified by the pillars of the church of Jerusalem: Peter, James, and John. Paul says in Galatians 2:7, “Seeing that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised (for He who effectually worked for Peter in his apostleship to the circumcised effectually worked for me also to the Gentiles), and recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, so that we might go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.” So Paul received a revelatory commission from the Lord Jesus Himself. But he didn’t just strike out on his own with nothing more than his private revelation. He submitted that commission to the church. He spoke to the other Apostles, and they agreed that just as they had been called by Christ to minister among the Jews, Paul had been called by Christ to minister to the Gentiles.
And so he’s saying, the Lord has measured out my kanon, my sphere, my divine assignment. And that assignment was: preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. And, he says, end of verse 13, “That sphere—that kanon, that lane—reaches even as far as you, dear Corinthians. And I did reach as far as you, verse 14! When I insist upon my authority and defend my influence in the church at Corinth, I’m not overextending myself! I’m just running in the lane I’ve always run in! Because I was the first to come even as far as you in the Gospel of Christ! When I boast of what the Lord has accomplished through me in Corinth, verse 15: I’m not boasting beyond my measure! I’m not boasting in other men’s labors! I’m speaking of the work that I put in during those 18 months of preaching the Gospel and teaching the Word of God to you!”
Once again, all he has to do is appeal to the fact that it was through his ministry in Corinth, as recorded in Acts chapter 18, that this band of Gentile pagans even know Christ. He says in 1 Corinthians 9:1–2: “Are you not my work in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord!” And in 2 Corinthians 3:1–3: “We don’t need letters of commendation to you! You yourselves are our letter, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God!” Put simply: When the Holy Spirit opened the eyes of their heart to see the filthiness of their sin, and the loveliness of Christ, and the suitability of Christ as the Savior from their sin, who preached the message by which they believed? Was it these men? No! It would be years before they would even meet one of them! It was Paul!
You see, the false apostles have no such assignment from Christ. They’ve been given no such sphere of influence or authority by the Lord Jesus. By attempting to seize authority in Corinth, they are running out of their lane. They’ve got no lane to speak of. And yet they’re intruding into the lane the Lord Jesus marked out for Paul. And they’re not only intruding into his lane, they’re boasting in other men’s labors. Paul had invested his heart and soul in the salvation and sanctification of the believers in Corinth. And then years later, these men show up and find a field ripe for the harvest of their own false doctrine, and they start talking like every good thing about the church was a result of their work!
This would be like someone coming to Grace Church, and within a couple years of their being here, saying, “You know, I remember when there was no Family Center, when there was no Worship Center, when there was no Tower Building, no Heritage Building, no Master’s Seminary. I remember when it was just the Chapel. And, you know, it took a lot of work, a lot of endurance, a lot of patience and perseverance, but I’m so thankful to the Lord for what He’s accomplished at Grace Church through me.” What? No! You just got here a few years ago! And now you’re taking credit for what the Lord has done through John MacArthur over these past 50 years? That’s what the false apostles were doing. Calvin wrote, “Those persons afterwards come forward, and find the road made and the gate open. That they may appear persons of consequence, they impudently claim for themselves what did not of right belong to them, and disparage Paul’s labors” (336). Another commentator summarizes it by saying, “The opponents were bragging about ministry whose foundation had been dug with the calluses and sweat of Paul and his coworkers” (Guthrie, 494).
And it’s this that characterizes all false teachers. They are sinfully ambitious, always seeking to broaden their influence and seize greater exposure and fame. They have no God-ordained sphere in which to minister, so they intrude upon the lanes measured out to other faithful laborers in the vineyard, and they aim to take credit for other people’s work. D. A. Carson says of these types of people, “Little men can be dangerous, especially when they position themselves in such a way as to capture some stolen glory from great men, and forge it into the bangles of self-interested leadership” (77). Genuine servants of Christ, however, like the Apostle Paul, are content to minister within the God-ordained limits that have been measured out to them. They are unconcerned with the breadth of their influence; they don’t need to seize notoriety or chase after fame and recognition. They are preoccupied only with their faithfulness to run in the lane that has been assigned to them. Pastor John summarizes this principle well when he says of the Apostle Paul, He “was perfectly content with the sphere of ministry God had marked out for him. He focused on excellence rather than success; on the quality of his ministry rather than its size; on the depth of his ministry rather than its breadth” (347).
VII. Vision (vv. 15b–16)
But if the genuine servant of Christ does have any ambition, it doesn’t concern infringing upon other people’s ministerial labors, laying on another man’s foundation. The genuine servant of Christ is ambitious to plant on untilled soil, to lay a foundation for the Gospel where none has been built, to preach the Gospel where Christ is not yet named. And that’s our seventh contrast between false teachers and true teachers, namely, a contrast in vision. And we see this in verses 15 and 16. Paul says, We are “not boasting beyond our measure, that is, in other men’s labors, but with the hope that as your faith grows, we will be, within our sphere, enlarged even more by you, so as to preach the gospel even to the regions beyond you, and not to boast in what has been accomplished in the sphere of another.”
If the faith of the Corinthians grows—if the unrepentant minority finally does repent, and the church of Corinth with one voice drives these false teachers from their midst—the unity of the church will be protected, and the consolidation of their efforts as a unified congregation will allow them to press on in further ministry of the Gospel even beyond their church. Specifically, Paul looks forward to a time when they’ve gotten their act together, and therefore can “enlarge” Paul—a way of speaking about supporting his missionary endeavors financially—so that he can move further westward and preach the Gospel where Christ has not yet been named. You see, Paul is not ambitious to intrude upon the sphere of another; he wants to preach the Gospel where there are no churches! Where no one is confessing Jesus!
We see this same desire gripping him as he writes to the church in Rome. In Romans 15:20, he says, “And thus I aspired to preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named, so that I would not build on another man’s foundation.” And a few verses later in verse 24, he identifies that place as Spain, saying that he wants to see the Romans on his way there, and “to be helped on my way there by you, when I have first enjoyed your company for a while.” Which is to say, again, I hope that you will support me financially as I aim to run in the lane which the Lord measured out to me: to preach the Gospel among the Gentiles where Christ is not yet known.
And there’s so much more that could be said about this, but observe the contrast in vision between false teachers and genuine servants. The false teachers’ vision is painfully myopic. They’re concerned with building their own little kingdom by poaching the fruit of other men’s labors—by building on another man’s foundation and parasitically leeching off of the spiritual life that was cultivated by the genuine Gospel ministry of legitimate teachers and preachers.
But the genuine servants of Christ can see beyond the task that is immediately in front of them. They care for every work that the Lord has for them to do, but they don’t see all their ministerial eggs in one basket, so to speak. They recognize that the kingdom of God is bigger than the small corner of the field that the Lord has entrusted to them. They’re not myopically trying to build their own sub-kingdom; they’re consumed with a global vision for advancing Christ’s kingdom—not by shuffling one group of professing believers from one location to another, but by sending and going as ministers to those towns, and counties, and cities, and states, and countries where there is no sound local church, where there is no Gospel witness, and aspiring to preach the Gospel where Christ is not named. And like I said, there is so much more that could be said about that, but time hastens us on.
VIII. Boasting (vv. 17–18)
The church is able to discern between false teachers and genuine servants of Christ by carefully noting the several contrasts that distinguish the false from the true. There is a contrast in commission, in authority, in methodology, in integrity, in standard, in ambition, and in vision. The eighth contrast between true and false teachers that we see in these two paragraphs comes in the final two verses: namely, a contrast in boasting. Look with me at verses 17 and 18. Paul writes, “But ‘He who boasts is to boast in the Lord.’ For it is not he who commends himself that is approved, but he whom the Lord commends.”
To boast in something is to glory in it. To rejoice in it. To put all your confidence in something to protect you, or to define you, or to secure your identity. Paul speaks of the Jews in Romans 2:23 who boasted in the Law. That is to say, the Jews put all their confidence in their obedience to the Law to secure themselves before God, and to define themselves in the world. In 1 Corinthians 3:21, Paul admonishes the Corinthians—who were splitting up into factions and claiming, “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos,” and so on—he admonishes them, “Let no one boast in men.” Don’t look to other people to define you and be a source of your identity. You’re not a Paulist, or an Apollosite; you’re a Christian!
And here in this passage, Paul is quoting from the prophet Jeremiah, in chapter 9 verse 24 of his prophecy. Let me read Jeremiah 9:23–24. The Lord says, “Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am Yahweh who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things.”
To boast in your wisdom is to rejoice in and derive your identity from your intelligence. It’s to be preoccupied with being “the smart one” in the room. It’s to expect to be accepted by others because they admire your ability to think quickly and reason well through a problem. To boast in your might is to define yourself as the one who’s in the best shape, able to lift the most weight—“Oh, you need help moving that box? Let me get that for you!” It’s to delight in showing off your strength, and to expect that others will want to follow you and be like you because they admire your strength. To boast in riches is to be preoccupied with your financial successes and material possessions. It’s to define yourself as one who “enjoys nice things,” and to rest in the supposed-security that financial freedom brings. It’s to expect that your nicer clothes, and cars, and house make others want to be around you and court your company.
What you boast in is what you derive your identity from. And what you boast in is what you commend yourself by—it is that by which you commend yourself to others. And God Himself says, “Don’t boast in wisdom! Don’t boast in might! Don’t boast in riches! If there’s going to be any boasting, “let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am Yahweh who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things.” The only kind of legitimate boasting is boasting in the Lord—in glorying in who the Lord is (“let him boast that he knows Me”), and in what the Lord does (“that I am Yahweh who exercises lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness”). The false teacher boasts in himself and what he has managed to accomplish in building his little ministry-kingdom. But the genuine servant of Christ recognizes that anything that he has been able to accomplish has been really been the Lord’s accomplishment, worked by the power of Christ in him, himself only the instrument in the Lord’s hand.
Paul says this very thing back in Romans 15, where we were a little earlier. In Romans 15:17 and 18 he says, “Therefore in Christ Jesus I have found reason for boasting in things pertaining to God. For I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me, resulting in the obedience of the Gentiles by word and deed.” You see, Paul understood that he had no adequacy in himself, 2 Corinthians 3:5, but that all of his sufficiency was in the God who makes him adequate. He understood that he himself was not the treasure of his ministry, the bait of his ministry, but that he was just an earthen vessel which carried the treasure of the Gospel, 2 Corinthians 4:7. He may have planted, Apollos may have watered, but God was causing the growth. “So then,” 1 Corinthians 3:7, “neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.” False teachers make their boast in themselves and their fleshly methods and worldly accomplishments. Genuine servants of Christ boast only in the Lord. They recognize that they have nothing that they have not received from the power of God. And since they’ve received it, they don’t boast as if they haven’t. They boast in the One who has given to them by His grace—in who He is and what He has accomplished in them.
And as I said, what you boast in is what you commend yourself by. But Paul reminds us in verse 18, “It is not he who commends himself that is approved, but he whom the Lord commends.” What matters most is not the commendation of the world. What matters most is not a large following. What matters most is not the approval of men. What matters most is the approval of God on our lives. And you can always tell the false teachers from the true on this measure: the genuine servant of Christ is pursuing heaven’s reward, not earth’s reward. In His Sermon on the Mount, the Lord Jesus warned us in Matthew 6:1: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men, to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.” And then he speaks of giving to the poor, of praying, and of fasting, and he says, “When you do these things, don’t be like the hypocrites who display their piety to be seen and honored by men. I tell you, they have their reward in full.” In other words, the reward they’re seeking is the praise of men. And do you know what? Because the whole world lies in the power of evil one, they’ll get the praise of men! But that is such a meager, paltry, worthless reward! “But you, when you give, when you pray, when you fast, when you minister as a servant of Christ, you do these things for your audience of One, for your Father who is in secret. And He will see! And your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you!”
And, dear friends, that reward is infinitely greater than a few praises and accolades of fellow mortals! Heaven is real! The fullness of joy and eternal pleasures that are wrapped up in the smile of God’s approval on our lives for the sake of Christ is a real reward! And it is not even worthy to be placed in the same sentence as the praise of men! Dear friends, desire that reward! Pursue the greater reward of the Lord’s commendation! Charles Hodge writes, “Instead of comforting ourselves with our own high estimate of our attainments and efficiency, or allowing ourselves to be inflated by the applause of men, we should be satisfied with nothing short of the divine approbation” (624). And Calvin says, “Let us therefore, leaving off all other things, aim exclusively at this—that we may be approved by God and may be satisfied to have His appropriation alone, as it justly ought to be regarded by us as of more value than all the applauses of the whole world” (337).
And friends, the only way that we can be seeking the approval and commendation of the Lord, is if we are seeking it in Jesus Christ. We will never be able to commend ourselves at the bar of God’s justice. We have sinned, and we will only and ever fall short of the glorious standard of perfect holiness that is required for fellowship with Him. But because of the Lord Jesus Christ—because He has lived the perfect life that we were commanded to live but failed to live, because He died the atoning death for sin that we were required to die but couldn’t survive, because He bore our sins in His body on the cross—we who are guilty may be forgiven! We who are corrupt may be declared righteous in His sight, through faith alone in the work of Christ alone! Trust in Him this morning!
And when that happens—when the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see the filth of sin and the loveliness of Christ—our eyes are opened to behold the refuse of earthly glory and the shame of self-promotion and self-praise. And we come to desire the Lord’s approval and applause above the world’s. And by God’s grace, as we make progress in the Christian life—pressing onto holiness and maturity in the things of the Lord—our eyes will also be opened to discern. To discern the difference between (a) the genuine servants of Christ who exalt only Him and seek to build up the church, and (b) the false teachers who come exalt themselves at the church’s expense. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” And when you test them, look for the contrasts in commission, in authority, in methodology, in integrity, in standard, in ambition, in vision, and in boasting.