An authorised person

A couple of years ago I became an authorised person.  I was authorised by Her Majesty’s government and in the words of the government papers I was made:  “responsible for ensuring that the legal requirements of marriages solemnized in a registered building are met; this includes marriage preliminaries, registration of marriages etc.”. It’s a solemn duty and one which I take very seriously. Imagine for a moment that some unauthorised person was to push themselves forward at a marriage ceremony,

falsely claiming the rights and privileges of an authorised person and worse still imagine that they cast doubt on my status! Stern words would have to be spoken!

This was similar to the situation that had arisen in Corinth. Paul had a special status. He was an apostle. You will remember that Jesus appointed 12 disciples. There came a time in their training when Jesus authorised them and called them ‘apostles’. The word apostles means ‘one sent forth with orders’. All of the apostles were Jews, but not all were disciples. Paul was appointed as an apostle. His appointment came after that of the others. Whilst the other apostles were spreading the good news, Paul was attempting to have Christians rounded up and imprisoned. He didn’t mind if the Christians became martyrs in this process. But it was on the road to Damascus that he met the risen Lord Jesus and received his authorisation. Perhaps it is for these reasons that he considered himself to be the least of the apostles. He described himself as the apostle to the Gentiles, whilst Peter was the apostle to the Jews.

The church was founded on the work of the apostles. At the time 2 Corinthians was penned, the written word of God was limited to the Old Testament. New revelation was required for the development of God’s new agency on earth: the church. The channel of that new revelation was the apostles. You can begin to see that any challenge to the authority of the apostles, and worse any attempt to assume the role of an apostle without authorisation, carried great dangers for the fledgling church. It was vital to maintain clarity in the new and difficult to comprehend revelation – corruption of God’s revelation could destroy the church before it had grown sufficiently to take its first baby steps. It is into this set of circumstances that chapters 10 and 11 were written.

1.            Rejection of Pau’s authority

It seems to be a well worn path for our journalists to ‘dis’ our appointed leaders. John Humphries and Jeremy Paxman seem to take great delight in treating our politicians like dirt. The effect of this is that when we think of David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Milliband and Nigel Farage, we kind of snort with a superior attitude that these people are beneath contempt. Is that entirely fair? Or have we been conditioned to have a low opinion by the constant sniping and undermining by the very ‘superior’ commentators and interviewers in the media? Whether our politicians deserve our respect may be a question worthy of some debate, but no such debate should have surrounded Paul’s authority and credibilty – and yet the Corinthians were doing just that: questioning and undermining his apostolic authority. The life of the church was at stake and this called for a robust response from Paul, a response he was not shy to give!

Whilst Paul’s defence of his authority would be robust it would be based on God’s character, thus Paul begins chapter 10 by appealing to the Corinthians ‘by the humility and gentleness of Christ’. Even when under unfair and potentially damaging attack, our disposition ought to be one that is characterised by the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Paul was ready to demolish the false arguments that had lead the Corinthians astray and was ready to deal with disobedience amongst the church in Corinth, but they way he would do this would be of importance. Some had contended that Paul was living according to the standards of the world, but whilst he lived in this world, he would not deal with this situation in a worldly way.

The Corinthians seemed to be accusing Paul of being bold, forceful and weighty in his letters but lightweight in person. Paul wanted to emphasise that this was not the case and that he would use all the authority vested in him by the Lord to build the Corinthians up rather than to tear them down. He would use forceful and perhaps even harsh words, but this was not a self-serving thing, it was about contending for truth and building the church.

2.            False verses true leaders

The hallmark of the false apostles was self commendation. It seems that these false apostles were not only full of self importance but were full of self promotion too. Paul seems to hint that they saw neither limits to their abilities nor the scope of their work – they could do it all! In contrast Paul was well aware of the limitations in the sphere of work God had called him to: ‘we confine our boasting to the sphere of service God has assigned to us’. Paul was not in this business for the benefit of himself, he was not expanding his ministry in some sort of great enterprise to gather fame and fortune. He knew what God wanted him to do and that was what he would do, nothing more and nothing less. I remember once speaking to an aspiring ‘full time Christian worker’. He explained that those who undergo training to be ‘ministers’ would initially find themselves working in small churches and once they had completed this they would go on to look for bigger and grander churches! I was somewhat appalled at this attitude. Paul was not of this mind: he would take the work that God had appointed him to do and get on with it; could there be any greater privilege? Surely not!

These false apostles were quite happy to take the credit for work done by others. Now that is a nasty trait! In contrast the true apostle just wanted to see the Corinthians’ faith grow. Once Paul felt that they were growing and were stable he could turn his attention to new places in which the gospel needed to be preached. Paul was about the Lord’s work, not his own – he could therefore say ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord’. Self commendation is nothing, but commendation from the Lord is everything.

If we were to apply this to our church situation I think we ought to think about where we see our source of authority. Do we idolise some Christian teachers above God’s word? I see God’s word as equivalent to Paul’s apostolic ministry – this was the role of an apostle. Since God’s revelation is complete there is no longer a need for apostles. Sometimes however, we are prone to elevate theologians and Christian teachers above God’s word. I’ve heard often well meaning Christians say that ‘so and so’ thinks this or that – I’m not suggesting that there is not great value in listening to the expositions and teaching of great church leaders but when we place them above God’s word perhaps we come close to making the same error made by the Corinthians. This can sometimes be quite subtle, so we need to be on our guard. I worry when I hear people say I’m a ‘Calvinist’ or I’m an ‘Arminian’ – in response someone once said I’m a none of these things ‘I’m a biblicist’ – I quite like that and I suspect that Paul would have liked it too!

3.            Truth and Falsehood

The history of this world is marked by deception and lies. Right back at the beginning of the human story Eve was deceived by the serpent and ever since our minds have been under the same assault. Every day when we listen to the news or read our newspapers we are influenced by thinking that is either atheistic  or which bends the truth about God. Paul says in chapter 11: 4 that there were three separate areas that were under attack by the deceiver: the person of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and the gospel itself. Sadly the Corinthians were easily deceived and put up with these deceptions all too readily. Let’s be especially careful in these three areas – deception in these can be fatal for the church.  That’s why it’s good to study the gospels to meet Jesus through his interactions with real people.  If you go anywhere near a railway station at the moment you will find “Jehovah’s Witnesses” handing out their books – they do not believe that Jesus is God.  But when real people met Jesus they had no doubt, remember doubting Thomas he declared of Jesus ‘My Lord and my God!” – Jesus commended his belief in response. Much is done in churches today in the name of the Holy Spirit but one has to ask which spirit is in evidence and finally the gospel. The more theologians talk about the gospel the less we seem to understand! In response to the Philippian jailer who asked Paul ‘what must I do to be saved’ the reply was simple and profound: ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved’ – nothing more, nothing less, a message so simple a child could understand.

Paul came with no request for money (11: 7), no training as a speaker (11:6) and with love for the Corinthians in his heart (11:7) and most importantly with the God-given authority to speak as an apostle. Contrast this with those who had wormed their way into the church in Corinth, they were false apostles, deceitful workers and masqueraded as apostles (11:13). These are the hallmarks of Satan, he doesn’t show up with horns and a pointy tail, but rather masquerades as an angel of light.

4.            Something to be proud of

The false-apostles were not backward at coming forward. They knew how to present themselves to get maximum impact – but they lacked substance and more importantly lacked authenticity. They were not doing this for fun – they wanted the attention and the power that came with their exploits – they took advantage of the Corinthians. I suspect that this is a good test of the genuineness of the leaders of a church. Are they in if for themselves – financially, or for the attention they get or for the power? Or are they in it because it’s the right thing to do? Paul saw the boasting of these people and indulged in a bit of boasting.

Interestingly Paul was a bit hesitant to go down this path (of boasting about himself) – he says I am speaking as a fool! What comes next is an extraordinary list of feats – the like of which few if any could match! Paul was of the right heritage: a Hebrew and descendent of Abraham. God had chosen this people to bring salvation to mankind. I find it interesting as we study Esther that a wicked man sought to exterminate this race – Haman finds himself in the company of Hitler and to this very day nations surround Israel who’s stated intent is to drive these people off the face of the planet. Why? Because through them the salvation of the world will come! It is of note that Jesus does not return to the Vatican or to Lambeth palace, or to any of the great centres of commerce and human achievement – he returns to Jerusalem to these hated (and disobedient!) people.

Paul was not just a descendent of Abraham, he was a servant of Christ. Note a servant. He knew his place – and this led him to his list of achievements: hard working, imprisoned, flogged, exposed to death, beaten with rods and the lash, pelted with stones, shipwrecked,  in danger from rivers, bandits, fellow Jews and Gentiles, in danger in cities, country and sea as well as false believers. He went without sleep, food, and without clothes! What a list – read it for yourself in verses 21 to 29 of chapter 11. Why boast about all this stuff? Because it shows his weakness!

I attended a meeting this week in which the CEO of the company made a speech. He arrived with a significant entourage of important people and minders – he is an important man in charge of one of Japan’s most successful businesses – he is an admirable man. But compare and contrast with Paul. Paul was great because he was nothing! I remember hearing a story of a building project, they seemed to spend forever digging down, down, foundation after foundation. An exasperated prospective owner spoke to the engineer about his frustration at the lack of progress and got this reply – ‘if you want to go up high, you have to go down deep’. We need to take Paul’s thinking to heart – James wrote ‘Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.’