Standing firm in trouble and strife

With some people it seems you can never win. You go out of your way to be fair, you think carefully before you speak or act but it’s never good enough, you always offend, you always say the wrong thing! It seems that this was the experience of the apostle Paul with the Christians in Corinth. Paul had written his first letter to the Corinthians with some encouragements, some direct warnings and some helpful teaching. The letter was for their benefit and it came with a generous dollop of love and concern. Since that letter had been written, Paul had visited Corinth, but it had not been much fun. Paul describes it as a painful visit. It was time for some straight talking – Paul wrote another letter, a direct and difficult one which seems to have been met with a mixed response. This ‘severe’ letter incidentally is no longer in existence, we can only guess as to its actual content. Not surprisingly Paul had received feedback from this letter, some good and some less good: it was under these circumstances that 2 Corinthians was written.

  1. Trouble and strife

What a change a few years can make. We celebrated my son’s birthday this week. He’s just turned 26. He’s a grown man, currently sporting a fine beard!  We reminisced about the day he was born: 28th October 1988 – so many changes, so many memories!.

How things had changed for the New Testament church from the heady days in Jerusalem on that special Pentecost. The Holy Spirit had come in a remarkable way, many people had signalled their belief in Jesus and the gospel quickly took hold in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. There were miracles aplenty, times of great wonders and progress. But times had changed. The miracles had largely dried up, there was division in some of the churches and there was persecution and trouble. It seemed that the beautiful summer of the early church had moved quickly to become a severe winter. Why? Had the believers and churches done something wrong? Should they now be attempting to re-create those heady summer days in Jerusalem? Why the trouble? Why the strife?

There is a bigger picture that we do well to take a step back in order to take in its fuller vista. In much of the bible God had dealings with an ethnic people descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Spectacular promises were made to this people, promises of blessing, land and prosperity. The path to these unconditional promises was however paved with conditional promises: do what’s right and all will be well, do what’s wrong and suffer much. In spite of many failings and consequential pain, the destiny of these people is bound up in the promises of God, promises of great health, wealth and prosperity. The trouble is that they kept on rejecting God. They rejected the Messiah, and capped this off by rejecting the Holy Spirit on that spectacular day of Pentecost. The result: more pain! What emerges from this tragic (and yet to be completed) story is that God turned away from his choice people to form something new and unanticipated: the church – to be composed of people from every ethnic origin. The destinies of the church and Israel are not the same just as the promises to each are different. When we study the Old Testament we see that the blessings (and curses) are for Israel – God deals with Israel on a specific set of promises that are quite distinct from those of the church. In spite of these distinctions we see areas of overlap and commonality: the basis of relationship to God is by faith and in this respect we in this church age are considered ‘children of Abraham’, but the destinies of the church and Israel remain distinct. Failure to accept this forces a re-reading of the Old Testament in a way that empties the words of their meaning, confuses the current age and brings God’s word into disrepute. A misreading of this big picture has clouded the minds and judgement of theologians down the centuries to the present day. Does it really matter? Yes, greatly. The expectations of Israel are founded on the promises made to them – if they repent they will be blessed and will know God’s working amongst them. For the church the picture is different. The great summer of Pentecost was Israel’s last throw of the dice before a significant judgement. God was at work amongst them and as the people put their faith in God, some of the prophecies of the Old Testament began to unfold (remember Peter’s speech when he carefully noted that the events they were observing were ‘those spoken of by the prophet Joel). But within a few weeks of these great events the nation made its choice and rejected once again God’s offer of rescue. Judgement duly came and Jerusalem was obliterated by a merciless Roman army. Would God finally abandon these stubborn people? Would they be forever thrown away on the garbage heap of history? If God is as good as his word one would think not and this was Paul’s conclusion too (you can read about this in chapter 11 of his letter to the Romans). The destiny of the Jews is directly linked to the return of Jesus as king. You can imagine the interest of Christians who witnessed the re-emergence of the nation of Israel shortly after the second world war – a war that almost wiped this people from the face of the planet. Let’s not side with the fanatics and conspiracy theorists who go way overboard in their wild fantasies about Israel, but let us neither miss these events of great import as history inches us ever closer to the return of the Lord.

 What emerges from the train wreck of Israel’s rejection of the Messiah and rejection of the Holy Spirit is the church: a new institution with a different set-up and destiny, but a relationship to God that was identical to that of Israel: a faith relationship.

Back to that heady summer of Pentecost and Holy Spirit inspired miracles and events. Israel has been promised a final destiny of blessing based ultimately on their repentance and acceptance of the Messiah. The church looks also to a final day of blessing ‘to be forever with the Lord’. But in the here and now, the church is to expect nothing but trial, troubles and strife. This is exactly the story board of the book of Acts: the triumphs in Jerusalem and Israel (as they came close to national repentance) are followed by the troubles of the church. Is it all bad for the church? Does not God show some mercy? He certainly does, and this we see in the next few verses of 2 Corinthians 1. Paul says the following: 3Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4who comforts us in all our troubles. Notice that God does not remove the troubles, but rather he comforts us in our troubles. There was no question that Paul was going through great trouble – he was imprisoned, beaten up and left for dead and now had to deal with the awkward squad in Corinth, but in spite of this he knew comfort. The source of his comfort was Christ. What is notable is that part of Paul’s experience was that as he went through trials and difficulty and experienced God’s comfort this experience equipped him with the means to bring comfort to others. We are in this together! If you are going through sufferings take note of this: that we are comforted in our suffering and this produces patient endurance. Some Christians misapply the promises given to Israel and seek not comfort in trials but release from the trial and a life of health and happiness. If you ever watch the religious TV channels you will doubtless see much of this sort of thinking – what you will not see is the destruction of faith that comes from such skewed thinking. Expect troubles and look for God’s comfort as the difficulties arise.

Paul gives us a brief glimpse into the sort of trouble he had to endure: great pressure beyond his ability to endure, pressure that made him despair for his life. It was at the point of no hope that Paul learned not to rely on himself but on God – the God who raises the dead! Can we help someone who is in such trouble? Paul was helped through these desperate days by the prayers of the Corinthians. This is of great encouragement to us – the Corinthians were making a right hash of things, and yet their prayers could help the great apostle Paul! Keep on praying for each other and see how God can bring comfort and delivery.

  • Paul explains

Paul had promised to visit the Corinthians, but circumstances had necessitated a change in his plan. It seems that the Corinthians had roundly criticised him and accused him of being unreliable and insincere. This was harsh as Paul had a clear conscience – he had acted with integrity and godly sincerity. In this respect Paul is a good example for us to follow and learn from. What you do may be criticised but ensure you have a clear conscience and always act with godly sincerity. It’s easy to act out of selfish motives, but this was not Paul’s way. In Roman times it is believed that sellers of pottery would on occasion discover that some of their pots were imperfect and cracked. Rather than discarding them or offering them at a big discount they would fill the cracks with wax and cover over the wax. A discerning buyer would always examine the pots outside of the gloom of the shop by holding the pot up to the sun. In the absence of wax-filled cracks he would declare that the pot was sine cere: literally without wax. Whether this is true or not is open to some debate, but nonetheless the story serves us well in reminding us that under examination we do well to be ‘without-wax-Christians’ – sincere in all we do and not lacking in integrity. Paul did not restrict his sincerity to his work with believers; he conducted himself with integrity and godly sincerity in all of his dealings whether they were with the world or amongst believers. What’s your reputation with the people you interact with on a daily basis? Whether family, friends, work colleagues, people on the train, at the shops or in the café? Is there a recognisable and distinct godly sincerity?

Misunderstandings will inevitably occur in this life, but there will be a day when our true motives will be uncovered. Paul anticipated that the Corinthians, in spite of their current feelings, could boast about Paul on the ‘Day of the Lord Jesus’ and he hoped he could boast about them too.

Paul’s motives were for the good of the Corinthians – whatever their interpretations of his actions were. Paul wanted the best for these people, but it’s rather sad to see his need to continually have to justify his actions. This tells us more about the Corinthians than about Paul.

  • Standing firm

Since the church’s lot is to be one of testing, trials and strife Paul calls on the Corinthians to stand firm in Christ. This picture of standing firm amidst difficulty is exactly what we would expect Paul to say as we understand the distinctions between Israel and the Church. In his first letter Pater describes believers as aliens in this world. This place is not our home. Peter was very clear that we are to honour the human institutions we live under:it seems that the task of the church is not to Christianise the world, but we are to stand firm and live consistent godly lives before the world. How can we accomplish this task? The Corinthians were making a hash of it, so much so that even people outside the Church at times had higher moral standards than those inside! The answer Paul gives is that we cannot stand firm – we are incapable! But there is one who is not incapable. Paul says: ‘21Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, 22set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.’ The work is God’s work, he has quipped us in three particular and distinct ways. God has anointed us, sealed us and given us a deposit or a down payment. Anointing often involved pouring fragrant oil over someone’s head! The purpose of such a physical act was to symbolise a status being conferred on the one anointed as well as setting them aside for a particular task. When we believe we are anointed with the Holy Spirit, this sets us apart as belonging to God and also ordains us to do good work for God. This anointing gives us the fragrance of the Holy Spirit too. Interestingly, John in his first letter mentions this anointing and indicates that it gives us to understand. John seems to link anointing with standing firm and continuing to do what is right so that when Jesus comes we will not be ashamed. What a dreadful thought that rather than being pleased at the Lord’s return we could be ashamed – this is a great incentive to do what is right! Not only are we anointed, but we are sealed with the Holy Spirit. The seal is one of ownership. A ransom price has been paid and as we believe, that purchase is completed and we belong to God. Some Christians worry about whether they can be lost after putting faith in Jesus, but once we have that seal we belong to none other. Knowing this helps us to stand firm, we are secure. What is obvious is that in spite of anointing and in spite of being sealed, we often still fail and do the wrong thing – we are a work in progress. We had some building work done 3 years ago and there remains some electrical work to be done! I wonder if it will ever be finished! The work God has done within us will for sure be completed – how do we know? because we have received a down payment. The Holy Spirit is our down payment, he indwells us and is a guarantee that the work will one day be complete. I have a £10 note in my wallet on which it says, ‘I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of ten pounds’ – I believe the governor of the  Bank of England makes that promise, and it’s a pretty good guarantee.. But God’s guarantee is on another planet of reliability! There is no doubt that better is to come! God’s work in us will one day be complete, no ifs, no buts. If this doesn’t make us stand firm then what else could!