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Paul Defends his Ministry

Sermon passage: (2 Corinthians 10:1-18) Spoken on: October 25, 2010
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Pastor Wilson Tan
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: 2 Corinthians

Tags: 2 Corinthians, 哥林多后书

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About Pastor Wilson Tan: Pastor Tan served as a youth executive at the Presbyterian Synod, and as a pastor in Jubilee Church. He continues to serve in church as a cell leader in zone ministry.

Sermon on 2 Corinthians 10

Paul condemns self-praise
Manifestation of self-praise today
Understanding divine commendation and Paul’s apostolic authority
Why Paul needs to defend his ministry?
Conclusion: To boast in the Lord is to recognize what God has accomplished in our lives / ministry

There is a famous Chinese saying: When Mr Wong sells his melons老王卖瓜, he boasts about them proudly自卖自夸. Of course, I am neither talking about Rev. Wong Siow Hwee …nor his melons. I am speaking about the issue of self-commendation or self-praise. A popular saying in Singapore: “self-praise, is no praise”, is actually a variation from an early 19th century proverb (self-praise is no recommendation). Even the Bible discourages it, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips (Prov. 27:2 ESV).

It was fairly common for someone influential to write a letter of recommendation for someone who is making their way into society. It’s like how we ask for reference from your old boss when you are looking for a new job. Again, Paul tells us in 2 Cor. 3 that we do not need such letters of recommendation in ministry, because the people whom we minster to are our letters of recommendation, “written on our hearts, to be known and read by all (2 Cor. 3:2).” Their transformed lives speak volumes about us more than any words could bring.

Paul condemns self-praise
Self-praise was an issue which Paul was dealing with when he wrote 2 Cor. 10. Many of Paul’s opponents were fond of blowing their own trumpets. In the past, many would travel long distances to be students of famous philosophers. Some teachers of rhetoric and philosophers in the cities throughout Mediterranean competed for students and their fees. To attract more students, they would often shamelessly praise their own school of philosophy and criticized severely their competitors’. When William Shakespeare said, “There is not one wise man in twenty that will praise himself,” clearly he has not met those Greek philosophers in Paul’s time.

Paul does not engage his followers like the philosophers of his day. Note in v. 12, “12 Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding.”

Even though the wisdom of this world frowns upon self-praise, the society in which we live in seems to accept it, and even, celebrate it to a certain extent. Since the birth of the Renaissance, the status of Man has been placed on a pedestal. Mankind became the center of the Universe. Before this, most European art were religious in nature and Jesus Christ is often portrayed at the center of a painting as the focus, the other possible focus could be Mary, mother of God. But during the Renaissance, Man takes centre-stage. Artist Botticelli‘s “Birth of Venus” (1485) is a classic example illustrating this change. Slowly the art scene changes and would celebrate humanness over the divine. More and more contemporary art celebrates the human self. It is a form of self-praise. But what about the 21st century?

Manifestation of self-praise today
Man and woman remains in the lime-light. Social media perpetuates this centrality to greater heights. It gets even better with technology. We don’t even have to boast ourselves; technology can do that on our behalf. The numbers on our facebook, blog, twitter, etc., does the talking on our behalf. Statistics speaks louder than words. This is why Steve Job’s Mac World presentations are always so entertaining. Yes, we have sold x number of ipads in just 30 days! That’s one month! Please do not think that I am anti-technological progress. I am not. In fact, I love my tech-toys. Facebook is the next best thing since sliced bread (said in jest)!

I remember when I first started my facebook account. I was obsessed in finding my friends, sometimes, my friend’s friends I also add. There was an unhealthy sense of pride seeing the number of friends growing more each day. I was happy and proud when these friends reciprocated my request for “friendship” and added me as a friend too. I always knew I was a friendly guy, but I did not expect that I was “that friendly”! These were MY friends! I am Mr. Popular. Another example of self-praise at work here.

I have been blogging for a few years now and I can understand the attraction in broadcasting yourself to the world. I have something worth saying and I want the world to hear it. And so, I blog. Again, I get really excited when I see the number of visitors increasing on my blog. I am finally making an impression in the world. I am a proud blogger. I am important. Self-praise, yet again.

Recently, I have finally, in the words of fellow netizen, “succumbed to twitter”. If you do not know the word “netizen”, you are indeed, blessed. You do not live in the clouds and you meet your real friends face to face. Yes, I have jumped on the bandwagon of the “little birdie”. It took me a long time but I have. Again, I see the temptation to have lots of followers. It makes me feel important. Reality check. Latest report by a Toronto-based social media analytics company Sysomos[1] , reports that 71% of all tweets are ignored. That is, 7 out of 10 tweets are just not worth caring about. No one cares!

Actually, my pride bubble had already been burst long before when someone told me that those who cannot write (a book), blog. Those who cannot blog, tweets. That’s another reality check for me. Like Paul who was humbled when he came face to face with the church in Corinth, I was also humbled. The difference being Paul’s humility, meekness and gentleness, is of Christ (v. 1). For me, pride was just coming before a fall.

A Japanese proverb says, “Every potter praises his own pot.” Some of us boast of our kids, who could speak at 9 months or could walk at 10 months? I was awfully proud when Ezra first called “Papa” before “Mummy”! We become proud parents when our children score 9 A’s in the ‘O’ levels. We can be proud of our job, our house, our new car! There are many things we can be proud of. Self-praise. No one likes it, but everyone seems to be doing it.

Understanding divine commendation and Paul’s apostolic authority

What is the relevance of today’s passage for us? Self-praise continues to be an issue for us today as much as it was an issue in Paul’s time. Paul is not saying that we cannot boast. In fact, Paul assumes that every one of us boasts in something. We boast because we are proud of what we have accomplished in life. But is this good enough a reason for us to boast? Is there a limit to what we can boast about in life? Paul tells us in v. 13, that we are “not to boast beyond limits” What does this mean? What is the limit? Boasting is ok, just not in yourself and not too much. Is that it? The key to understand this limit is from the second part of the same verse. We “will boast only with regard to the area of influence God assigned to us.” Each of us is given an area of influence by God. In this area of influence, we are called to serve the people within it with the humility of Christ. For Paul, his area of influence was to the Gentiles. That is a pretty big group of people. This area of influence can be understood as his apostolic authority.

Big theological words: apostolic authority. What does it mean? Think of apostolic authority as “special pastoral jurisdiction”. Paul was given an apostolic authority over the many churches in the Roman Empire and in Asia Minor. Some of which were founded by him, and some were not. Paul referred to himself as an apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 11:13). Some have called him an apostle of weakness[2] (David Alan Black, 1984). What makes someone an apostle? Someone who is directly called and appointed by God/Christ (Gal. 1:1), given authority by God to be “sent out” for a very specific missional work (i.e. to the Gentiles, Rom. 1:5; Gal. 1:16; 2:8). Besides missional work, an apostle would be engaged in teaching and encouraging fellow Christians. Thirteen letters in the NT have been attributed to Paul. Paul was an apostle with apostolic authority.

It was precisely this apostolic authority which had come into question by Paul’s opponents. Not only was his authority questioned, his appointment as apostle was also debated. How can someone like Paul be an apostle? He was not even part of the original Twelve Apostles appointed by Jesus. Paul was accused by his opponents of being two-faced. In his letters, he appears to be bold and fierce; but in person, he was meek and gentle, like Christ. The bold Paul is so unChrist-like. The timid Paul is too weak! Many were critical of his seemingly contrasting behavior. How could an apostle of Christ be two-faced in his letters and in person, and constantly changing his travel plans to visit them; and at times, seemingly flip-flopping his ideas?

True. On the surface, he was guilty of all these charges. His character, integrity and sincerity were attacked. “10 For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account”” (v. 10). To his opponents, Paul replied, “11 Let such a person understand that what we say by letter when absent, we do when present” (v. 11). He is in fact saying, “See for yourself, if these accusations are true? I appear before you in person, judge me for who I am, and not what others say about me.” There was a real and urgent need for Paul to defend himself against his opponents[3] . For the integrity of the gospel, the truth of his message, the sincerity of his character, were at stake. These attacks had undermined his apostolic authority. In fact, some would go as far as to say that the entire letter of 2nd Corinthians was a defense of his apostolic authority.

Why Paul needs to defend his ministry?
Would his defense be considered a form of self-praise? Why was it important for Paul to defend himself? There is more at stake here than his pride. Paul defends his apostolic authority, not for his own sake, but for the sake of the gospel. If his opponents were right in their accusations, it would mean that all of what God has done in his life would be gone to waste. Paul tells us in vv. 1-5, that the battle is not intellectual, but spiritual, and the power of the Spirit is seen in transformed lives of God’s people. The weapons of Paul’s attack are not of the flesh but power from above. It is through prayer and through the Holy Spirit which would deliver Paul from his accusers (See Philippians 1:19).

In previous sermons, we have already explored several reasonable reasons for his seemingly wish-washy behavior. But his heart had always been for the love of his fellow brother and sister in Christ. He changed his travel plans for their sake, as they were not ready for his return visit after his tearful letter. He was bold in his letter because he wants them to hear the truth, and be transformed by the gospel. He changed his pastoral message to cater to different groups of people in need. “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22).

Even in his defense, he remains true to his calling as an apostle[4] . He, unlike the philosophers of his day, refrains from self-commendation. Instead, he says, 17 “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (v. 17). The real debate is not one of style but of substance. What are we boasting about? As a faithful servant of God, there is much which Paul can boast of. But the content of his boast is never in his own works, never of his own strength and accomplishment. He only boasts in the Lord. What does this mean? “To boast in the Lord is to exalt in what the grace of God has accomplished in one’s life.” We boast from a heart of thanksgiving, because we recognize the grace which God has so abundantly bestow upon us each day. We boast not in our ego or our works, but in what the Lord has done in our lives. God is the object of our pride. We are free to take pride in what the Lord has done.

In 1 Cor. 9:1-2, Paul asked rhetorically, “1Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? 2If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord” (1 Cor. 9:1-2). They, the people whom Paul was ministering to, were the seal of Paul’s apostleship in the Lord. They were Paul’s letters of recommendation!

Conclusion: To boast in the Lord is to recognize what God has accomplished in our lives / ministry
Who are our letters of recommendation? Do we have God’s “stamp of approval”? What are we boasting about today? Things or people? The only thing worth boasting about are often, not things. Can we learn to boast in what God has accomplished in our lives? There is much to learn from Paul’s humility in responding to his opponents. He does not follow in their ways of self-commendation. He does not need any letters of recommendation!

As I was reflecting on this passage on a personal level, it makes me look deeper and harder into pastoral ministry. Some ministries bring about more “letters of recommendation” than others, but it does not make those ministries any less important. If all we are looking for when serving in ministry are letters of recommendation, pride sets in, and our motives would be wrong. People can unknowingly become our objects of pride. Remember that the ministry we serve in is God’s ministry, not ours. We are partners, not owners. We need to recognize God’s accomplishments in our lives and ministry. It is not about what we can do for our Lord, but what God can do in our lives to fulfill his purpose. His mission. His ministry.

I hope that today’s sermon can help us re-orient our mission in ministry. Consider what we are currently doing. Every now and then, it is important to return to our roots for ministry. We serve because we are called by God to partner him in service, not because your pastor called you to serve in this or that ministry. Each of our area of influence is different. Do not compare which brings about more recognition. Every service is important. In Jubilee Church, everyone must serve, in small ways or others.

I really hope that our church can truly be a blessing to others and everyone is actively serving one another.

Let us pray.

[2] The theme of boasting appears again in other chapters. Later in 2 Cor. 11:30, Paul said, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” I will leave it for Pastor Daniel to explain that verse.
[3] Indeed, Paul had many opponents, during his days and also in our modern times. His contemporary opponents questioned his apostleship and his apostolic authority. Modern critics called him a Gnostic (Elaine Pagels), “a violent opposition to the original 12 Apostles” (F. C. Baur), “a member of the family of Herod the Great” (Robert Eisenman) and the “first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus” (Thomas Jefferson). Some have even suggested that he is the founder of Christianity (Marvin Meyer, Gerd Lüdemann, and various others), implying that his teachings were different from Jesus’ teachings (untrue! ). Being Paul is tough. Even when he has been dead for almost 2000 years, people are still criticizing him.
[4] Ernest Best, a NT theologian, had asked, “When Paul exercises authority does he do so as apostle, teacher, prophet, pastor, or missionary founder? (Essays on Ephesians, p. 25)” I believe, first and foremost, the source of his authority comes from God. But inherently, each of these roles bears its own sense of authority.