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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Hearing and Heeding

Continuing with the study of 2 Corinthians, what happened after Paul wrote to the Corinthians appealing to them to give to the poor in Jerusalem as God had prompted them? Why, just 4 chapters later, is Paul saying 2 Corinthians 13:10 (NASB), “For this reason I am writing these things while absent, so that when present I need not use severity, in accordance with the authority which the Lord gave me for building up and not for tearing down?”
Consider chapter 10. Paul began the chapter by describing himself so that by the time he arrived at verse 10, he made us aware that the false apostles said Paul had little integrity. 2 Corinthians 10:10 states, “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible’." Before we think that Paul delayed weightier matters for the end of the letter, let us look again at chapter 1 verses 23-24. Paul stated, “But I call God as witness to my soul, that to spare you I did not come again to Corinth. Not that we lord it over your faith, but are workers with you for your joy; for in your faith you are standing firm.” What Paul wrote in chapters 10-13 is not something new and disturbed him much. Paul went back to how he began his second letter to the Corinthians. The Corinthians allowed false apostles to sway their belief away from the Gospel Paul and his colleagues preached.
These false apostles preached with much persuasion and power. They accepted offerings of payment from the Corinthians. The false apostles used these two things to wedge doubt about Paul and the other apostles into the Corinthians’ minds. Paul states in 2 Corinthians. 11:10-16 (NASB), 
But what I am doing I will continue to do, so that I may cut off opportunity from those who desire an opportunity to be regarded just as we are in the matter about which they are boasting. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore, it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds. Again I say, let no one think me foolish; but if you do, receive me even as foolish, so that I also may boast a little.
Paul directly approached the slander to his authority as an apostle at the very beginning of this letter. In chapter 1, we read he attacked this slander against him with his credentials of whom he was and by whose authority he preached the Gospel. In 1:21-22, he stated how he and the Corinthians discerned with certainty that he proclaimed the true Gospel. Paul wrote, “Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and anointed us is God, 22 who also sealed us and gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge.” (2 Corinthians 1:21-22, NASB). Paul attested without a doubt that Christ had called him to preach the Good News since his own conversion on the road to Damascus. (See Acts 9.) In 2 Corinthians 11:10-16, Paul spoke specifically against these men; he called them false apostles. Paul countered their claim of his foolishness by stating that even if others believed these men and thought Paul foolish, he accepted that so long as they did not fall away from God to follow these “servants of Satan.” Paul was willing to “become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22b, NASB).
            Paul, though, did not consider himself great enough in speech, strength, or authority to persuade humankind to follow Christ. He often spoke of his weakness. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul spoke of his weakness as a thorn in the flesh, similar to a nagging splinter, that did not let him forget his weakness. He stated in 2 Corinthians 12:7, “Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me-to keep me from exalting myself!” This thorn kept him humble and reliant upon God. God's power and strength in Paul spread the Gospel. Paul asked God three times to remove this thorn but God told him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." (2 Corinthians 12:9, NASB). Paul responded, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10, NASB). Paul did not allow his thorn to stop him from spreading the Gospel; he allowed his liability to keep him focused on the power and strength of God to use him. He was aware of his weaknesses and of God’s might. Where these false apostles tried to create a wedge by speaking of Paul as a weak and small man, Paul turned around to say that because of his own weakness God’s power and strength showed more poignantly.
            Paul’s statement should give us pause to stop and think. First, are there personal weaknesses we have that we hold up to God as an excuse that He cannot use us for His service? Moses did that when God told him to speak with Pharaoh. That incident did not deter God from His purpose; He called Aaron, Moses’ brother, to speak for Him instead. What did Paul teach us in this lesson? God uses broken people, people with personal limitations, to show His power and strength. If God used a strong person, what that person does could confuse the recipient into thinking the strength of the person and not God is how the action occurred. God would not be given the glory and would not be followed. God chooses those who recognize they are weak.
            Paul’s statement to the Corinthians in chapter 13 verse 5 told the Corinthians to “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves that Jesus Christ is in you-unless indeed you fail the test? (NASB). Paul wanted them to understand with surety their faith is in Jesus. He told them to test themselves. After this verse in the letter, we do not read in what way Paul told them to test themselves. However, if we go back to chapter 1 verses 21-22, we find out how to be sure Christ lived in them. These verses tell us, “Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and anointed us is God, who also sealed us and gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge.” (NASB). They could be sure of their faith in Christ by the means in which Paul and the other apostles were sure, if they experienced the Holy Spirit residing in them. If they witnessed they were bearing fruits of the Spirit, then they would know Christ resided in and God anointed them.
Paul does not end his chapter here with a final teaching. His final lesson, maybe it should be called his warning, is this: “For this reason I am writing these things while absent, so that when present I need not use severity, in accordance with the authority which the Lord gave me for building up and not for tearing down.” (1 Corinthians 13:10, NASB). Paul gave his major purpose for writing this letter to the Corinthians. He is not being weak in this statement nor too gentle, as he was in chapters 8 and 9. In this verse, he wrote with great urgency that they heed him while he is absent from them because if they did not, his severity, as the severity from God, would be heard and felt. Like our loving Father in heaven, Paul dealt with the Corinthians in this letter with tact and gentleness, sometimes with sarcasm, to remind them of what he taught them before and to re-teach them in some cases. Paul may appear weak, but through him, the voice of God was known. God can be gentle, but we have read and heard of God’s patience being tried too far, and then we can experience His severity through judgment and discipline. Paul warned them several times in this letter. His final statement before his farewell told the Corinthians in no uncertain terms that either they test to find out whom they follow and return to God or be judged and rebuked by God. This is Paul’s final word to them.
What does this mean for us today? First, when confronted with a person who appears to have great authority and strength and who states he speaks for God, test to discern if what he is saying is what you know is from the Bible. Are the words this person speaks against the Word God gave in the Bible? We must remember the power and authority of a person does not mean God is using the person. God uses the weak to confound the strong with His strength. Remember Paul’s words to the Corinthians in his first letter, “Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Corinthians 1:25, NASB). God does not necessarily use the strong, wise, or well spoken.
Second, ensure that who and what you are allowing to guide you is God and not a manmade thing, religion, or even a charismatic person. Paul told the Corinthians to do this, too, remember. He said, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!” (2 Corinthians 13:5, NASB). To ensure this, check to identify whether the Holy Spirit resides in you (2 Corinthians 1:21-22). If you are a Christ follower, His Spirit will live in you and will result in the fruit of the Spirit being evident, which comes from a daily relationship with God. (See Galatians 5:22-23).
Finally, make sure that you are responding in obedience to the promptings to your heart by God through the Holy Spirit. Paul urgently spoke to the Corinthians concerning their procrastinating in fulfilling their pledge to send support to the poor in Jerusalem. He spoke gently to them in chapters 8 and 9, but by the end of the letter, in chapter 13, Paul wrote with severity and warned them of his reaction if he arrived in Corinth and found the Corinthians had not collected for the poor and sent it to Jerusalem. Paul was the voice of God to the Corinthian believers. He tactfully and gently prodded them to their commitment first. After much urging, he took a stronger stand with them and told them he would judge and chastise them if they had not fulfilled their commitment. God, our loving Father, relates to us in this same way. He hopes that we will act upon the Spirit’s prompting of our hearts. If that fails to bear fruit, He gently urges and encourages us. When these fail, God becomes stern and warns us to do what He told us or be judged and disciplined by Him. Finally, if we do not heed God’s stern warning, He will discipline us. This is how He has acted with humankind throughout history. Consider the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for forty years as a discipline to not believing and following God into the Promised Land. Consider the people of Noah’s time who did not heed God and died in the great flood. Consider, too, when the Israelites had been warned repeatedly by God through the prophets to return to God and not worship other gods and idols. God gave them as captives to other nations for decades and centuries.
We each must decide if we will recognize God’s voice and heed it. We each must decide to be obedient to the call God has put into our hearts. We each must decide to be in a love relationship with God through the redemption paid by His Son, Jesus. We must decide for ourselves who we will follow, our own selves or God, and whether we will be faithful to God. Will we be people who must be warned, chastised, and disciplined or will we follow God faithfully? Seeing Paul’s ire build in 2 Corinthians, and he but a small man, I do not want to be subject to God’s disappointment and judgment. I choose the way of God. I pray for my obedience to follow-through with my commitments to Him promptly. What is the Holy Spirit saying to your heart today?