How do you handle change? Does it freak you out or energise you? When meetings get postponed, or events cancelled at short notice how do you respond? How flexible are you? If we are following Jesus we should expect him to make changes to our plans because we are not in control and we don’t know what the future holds. How we handle the challenges of life, especially how we manage change, will reveal our character; for what life does to us depends on what life finds in us. In the verses before us tonight, Paul shows us how to handle change and the misunderstandings that change sometimes brings. Paul had been criticized because he had changed his plans and apparently did not kept his promise. When Christians misunderstand each other, the wounds can go very deep. There were also those who opposed his apostolic authority in the church. One—possibly a leader—needed discipline, and this gave Paul great sorrow.
Paul confesses in chapter 1 that the trials they faced in Asia were so severe, he even despaired of life. What kept Paul from giving up? How can we keep going? By realising what John Maxwell once said, “Change is inevitable, growth is optional.”
1. Maintain a Clear Conscience (2 Cor. 1:12-24)
The conscience is that inner faculty that approves when we do right, but accuses when we do wrong. Conscience is the window that lets in the light; but if the window gets dirty because we disobey, and we don’t keep it clean by confession, then the light becomes dimmer and dimmer.
Paul says “So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.” (Acts 24:16).
When we have a clear conscience, we have integrity and can be trusted. Mark Twain once said, “when you tell the truth you don’t have to remember”. Why were the Corinthians making these accusations against Paul? Much to Paul’s regret and embarrassment, he had to change those plans. Instead he now planned to make two visits to Corinth, one on his way into Macedonia, and the other on his way from Macedonia.
But even Plan B had to be scrapped. Why? Because he could not endure what he describes as another “painful visit” (2 Cor. 1:23; 2:1-3). Paul had informed the church about his change in plan, but even this did not silence the opposition. They then accused him of being flickle and worldly (2 Cor. 1:17), of making plans just to please himself. They were saying, “If Paul says one thing, he really means another! He is inconsistent.”
Misunderstandings are sometimes difficult to untangle, because one misunderstanding can often lead to another. Once we start to question someone’s integrity or distrust their words, the door is open to all kinds of doubts, a downward spiral of a loss of confidence. Let me illustrate this. Occasionally people question why I am away from the parish at various times of the year. When invitations come to speak elsewhere I evaluate my existing responsibilities and see if they are compatible then ask three questions.
Evangelistic Test: Will more seekers hear about Jesus if I go than if I stay?
Discipleship Test: Will this help build up more believers there than here, especially where they are suffering persecution or opposition? Two weeks a year invested in Uganda has led to thousands of pastors being trained to use CE.
Prophetic Test: Will this invitation confront evil or injustice which is hindering evangelism and discipleship? As you know this has led to visits to some hot spots including China, Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran in recent years.
In making these decisions, I seek to have a clear conscience knowing I am accountable to Jesus as well as to my Bishop and Church Council. Several things flow from a clear conscience. Paul reminds us, with a clear conscience we:
1.1 Live in the light of the return of Jesus Christ
“as you have understood us in part, you will come to understand fully that you can boast of us just as we will boast of you in the day of the Lord Jesus.”
(2 Corinthians 1:14)
Paul is implying their evaluation of his motives was partial so, in effect he was saying ‘give me a break”. We know that one day we will have to give an account of our stewardship of our time, our talents and treasure. It is before our master we stand. The expectations and opinions of others comes a distant second.
1.2 Get serious about doing the will of God
“I wanted to visit you first so that you might benefit twice. I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia and to come back to you from Macedonia, and then to have you send me on my way to Judea. Was I fickle when I intended to do this? Or do I make my plans in a worldly manner so that in the same breath I say both “Yes, yes” and “No, no”? But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not “Yes” and “No.” (2 Corinthians 1:15-18)
Paul insists he did not make his plans carelessly or haphazardly; he sought the leading of the Lord. His motives were clear: he was seeking to please the Lord and not people. When we consider how difficult both transportation and communication were in his day, we can marvel that Paul did not have more problems with his schedule.
1.3 Glorify Jesus Christ in all you do
“For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us… was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.” For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ.” (2 Corinthians 1:19-20)
You cannot glorify Christ and practice deception at the same time. If you do, you will violate your conscience and erode your character; but eventually the truth will come out. There is no inconsistency with Jesus. No “yes” and “no” about Jesus Christ. He is God’s “eternal yes” to those who trust Him. Jesus Christ reveals the promises, fulfils the promises, and enables us to claim the promises! Finally, when you have a clear conscience,
1.4 Rest in the assurance of the Holy Spirit
“Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” (2 Corinthians 1:21-22)
The presence of the Holy Spirit is God’s guarantee that He is dependable and will accomplish all that He has promised. Paul uses several terms to describe this.
All Christians have been anointed by the Spirit (2 Cor. 1:21). As we yield to the Spirit, He enables us to serve God and to live godly lives. The Spirit has also sealed us (2 Cor. 1:22) so that we belong to Christ and are claimed by Him. The witness of the Spirit within guarantees that we are authentic children of God and not counterfeit (Rom. 5:5; 8:9). The Spirit also is our deposit (2 Cor. 1:22), assuring us of all that is to come. That He will protect us, because we are His. He enables us to enjoy the blessings of heaven in our hearts today! Because of the indwelling Holy Spirit, Paul was able to have a clear conscience and face misunderstandings with love and patience. If you live to please people, misunderstandings will inevitably depress you; but if you live to please God, he will always vindicate you. Paul had a clear conscience. Secondly Paul had,
2. Cultivate a Compassionate Heart (2 Corinthians 2:1-11)
Someone in Corinth caused Paul a great deal of pain. Paul had made a short visit to Corinth to deal with it. (2 Cor. 12:14; 13:1). He had also written a letter letter to them about the situation. In all of this, he revealed a compassionate heart. What can we learn?
2.1 Love puts others first
“For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you.” 2 Corinthians 2:4)
Paul knew that his words would wound those he loved, and this brought pain to his heart. But he also knew that there is a big difference between hurting someone and harming him. Love always considers the feelings of others and seeks to put their good ahead of everything else.
2.2 Love disciplines but forgives
“The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.” (2 Corinthians 2:6-8)
Paul does not mention the name of the man who had opposed him and divided the church family. However,
if it is the same person mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5, then the church did discipline the man, he repented and was restored. Church discipline is not a popular subject or a widespread practice but it is evidence of love. Unless you tell me I am harming myself or someone else you do not love me. When you tell others about my faults but not me you do not love me. Problems that are “swept under the carpet” have a habit of multiplying and creating even worse problems later on. The man whom Paul confronted, and whom the church disciplined, was helped by this tough love. As a child I never really understood discipline. When I became a parent I understand what they meant when they said, “This hurts us more than it hurts you.” What kept Paul going when he despaired of life? A clear conscience and a compassionate heart.
3. Develop a Conquering Faith
On the surface it seemed Paul’s plans had completely fallen apart. Where was Titus? What was going on at Corinth? Paul found an open doors for ministry at Troas, but he had no peace in his heart. Humanly speaking, it looked like Satan was winning. But just when the situation could not have been more depressing, Paul demonstrates a conquering faith! He was able to break out in praise and write,
“But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.” (2 Corinthians 2:14-16)
Despite the setbacks and misunderstandings, Paul was sure that God was in control. The picture Paul uses here is called a “Roman Triumph,” If a Roman general defeated a foreign army, if he killed at least 5,000 soldiers and gained new territory for the Empire, then he was given a Roman Triumph. The procession through Rome would include the general riding in a golden chariot, surrounded by his officers, a display of the spoils of battle, as well as the captive soldiers.
The priests would burn incense to pay tribute to the victorious army. The procession would follow a special route through the city and would end at the Circus Maximus where the captives would entertain the citizens by fighting wild beasts. It was a very special day in Rome when its citizens celebrated a “Roman Triumph.” How does this piece of history apply?
Jesus Christ, our great Commander in chief, came to foreign soil (this earth) and completely defeated the enemy (Satan). Instead of killing 5,000 persons, He gave life to more than 5,000 persons—to 3,000 at Pentecost and to another 2,000 plus shortly after Pentecost (Acts 4:4). Jesus Christ claimed the spoils of battle—those slaves captive to sin and Satan (Luke 11:14-22; Eph. 4:8; Col. 2:15). What a splendid victory! The victorious general’s children would walk behind their father’s chariot, sharing in his victory; and that is where believers are today—following in Christ’s triumph.
We do not fight for victory; we fight from victory.
As the Roman priests burned the incense in the parade, the fragrance affected different people in different ways. To the triumphant soldiers, it meant life and victory; but to the conquered enemy, it meant defeat and death. This analogy is applied to believers too. We are likened to incense, giving forth the fragrance of Jesus Christ.
To God and other believers, we are the fragrance of life; but to those who refuse to believe, we are the fragrance of death. In other words, the Christian life and ministry are matters of life and death. The way we live and work can mean life or death to a lost world around us. No wonder Paul cried out, “And who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:16). Circumstances may discourage us, and people may misunderstand us; but we have in Christ the victory if we maintain: a clear conscience, a compassionate heart, and a conquering faith.
“What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:31,37)
With grateful thanks to Warren Wersbie and his little commentary “Be Encouraged”, to Max Lucado and “The Devotional Bible”, to Charles Swindoll and his study “A Ministry Anyone Could Trust” and to Roy Clement’s commentary, “The Strength of Weakness” for much of the inspiration and content of this sermon.