2 Corinthians 6:1-13 – 2 Corinthians: A Testimony to Suffering in the Power of God
Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 30, 2019 (am)

***We apologize that the audio is missing the beginning portion of the message.
The full text is below.

Sometimes a word carries more actual freight than its simple definition infers.  Let me give you an example. We have grandkids living in our house for the summer, and one night my daughter and her husband stepped out for coffee at 9:00 or so and left us in charge of ‘sleeping’ children.   A few minutes after they left two of the precious charges came downstairs crying about something.  When I asked them what they wanted, they said… ‘We want Mommy.  Only Mommy, not you grandpa. We need her, we want her.”  Even though I explained logically and slowly that Mommy was not there and they were stuck with me and grandma, they just kept crying.  Finally, in exasperation, I said… “Well kiddos, you have two choices.  You can either go back up to bed and go to sleep… Or. “Only then did I realize that I did not really have an “or”.  What was I going to do? Spank them? I think not!  Fact is that I had very few real weapons in my arsenal.  So, with nothing to say or to fall back on, I listened with some curiosity to the next words as they proceeded from my mouth.  “Or,   I will have to tell your mommy and daddy when they get home… that you will have to be… ‘Instructed.’  Even now as I say it I am struck by how ridiculously lame those words sound!

But to my surprise the kids looked at each other, looked at me, stopped crying, and did an about face and toddled up to bed.  I think it was a combination of a comparatively unknown authority figure with the use of a word not entirely familiar to them that did the trick.  Possibly they simply wondered at the ominous sound of the middle syllable.  The point is this, a single word can pack a bigger punch than its meaning might infer.  So it is with Paul’s opening statement here in 6:1.

Alternative intro:     It was September 11, 2001 and the air traffic control personnel in Gander Newfoundland were scrambling to contact every aircraft bound for the U.S. and communicate that due a crisis unfolding in New York City and Washington and Pennsylvania,   United States air space was closed.  All incoming flights were diverted to Canada, and many of them would find their way to ‘the lifeboat of the Atlantic’, the small and sleepy and shrinking town of Gander NF.   This extraordinary chain of events is documented in the book “The day the world came to town’ by Jim Defede[1].    One radio conversation went like this.  “Flight 4701 this is Gander N.F.  Due to a crisis in the U.S.  you have three minutes to choose an alternate flight path to St. John’s, New Brunswick or Gander.  If you are not able to choose a destination I will direct you.  The pilot of a Gulf Stream corporate jet came back with this statement. “We have very important and very busy people on board who are expecting to land in New York.  We must proceed according to our original flight plan. “Aircraft control Gander:  “If you proceed into U.S. air space you will be shot down.  I do not have time for this foolishness.  You are instructed to proceed to Gander.”   Here again the word ‘instruct’ carries more freight than its definition infers.  To knowingly disregard such an instruction is to court a revocation of a license.  It is a term that brooks no compromise, no moderating dialogue, no ‘how about this’.

 II. 6:1-3 “working together with Him then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in  vain, for he
says, in a favorable time I listened to you. And in a day of salvation I have helped you.

This portion of scripture contains specific instructions from Paul at both the beginning and the end.  He has been building toward this instruction that he couches in the seemingly passive word ‘appeal.’  But make no mistake, life and death are on the line.  Paul is after nothing less than the salvation of their souls, transformation of a life.  He implores them to be reconciled to God, to not have received the grace of God in vain.  He has just made an extraordinary claim, that this message of reconciliation, this stunning new creation having now begun has been entrusted to him, Paul, the unlikely ambassador for Christ, the voice called to proclaim a message of hope for the world.   Paul has submitted to this calling in all of its sobering consequences.  He has placed himself in the traces and he is faithful to implore this skeptical people to embrace the good news that they have been privileged to hear.    Toward that end he quotes from Isaiah 49:8 [read Is 49:8-13]

I quote this extended passage because it sheds light on Paul’s ministry, his person, and on the nature of this great ‘day of salvation.’  First of all Paul has taken on himself the mantle of the prophet, this is his calling, his identity.  Second,  the urgency in the phrase ‘a day of salvation’ is not the urgency of a window closing, [which is how we sometimes think of it]  but rather the urgency of a new day dawning.   Notice that Paul restates the quotation prefaced by the word ‘Behold!   Paul is pointing to a dim but clarifying and brightening horizon saying, ‘there!  There! Do you see it?  He would not have the Corinthians miss it. He especially would not have them see it and dismiss it as unworthy of their attention.  Finally, the embracing of this mantle is evidence of the seriousness with which he takes this ministry.  It is a ministry that is bigger than he is, one that he cannot lay aside, one that has demanded and received all that he has to give.   A ministry for which he has endured all that this world could throw at him.   And so once again we see this beleaguered servant of God once more forced to review the foundation stones of his commendation.

III. 6:3-5 The credential of affliction:

In 10:7, Paul urges the Corinthians to ‘look at what is before your eyes.’  And in these verses Paul simply lays out the afflictions that he has born in the service of his sacred calling.  The category for these is the lead off hitter ‘endurance’.  The following nine items all testify to his endurance for the sake of the ministry, in the service of the ministry and for the joy of the ministry.  He labels them somewhat loosely and in general categories; afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonment[s], riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.   Notice a couple of things.  First each is stated in the plural.  It is not as though he is trotting out a specific instance of difficulty, these are the ‘contours’ [1] of his ministry.  Notice also that he does not elaborate on any of them.  He is not giving us his autobiography here, he is defending his apostolic ministry.   It is interesting to compare this litany to a more descriptive one in chapter 11.  There, Paul is defending his person.  What is going on here is that Paul has been attacked in his ministry and in his person and in our passage today the defense is of the ministry to which he has been called.   I have wondered why he relies so heavily on the suffering he has endured as the first and perhaps heaviest salvo in his response.   I’d like to pause a bit and take a look at the quality of endurance through suffering. 

Paul’s suffering for the sake of the gospel is of great use to him here.  It is his entry pass into their affections and it carries weight and freight in the validation of his ministry on their behalf in about a half dozen ways:

-It is the evidence of the integrity of his message.
-It is the evidence of the purity of his motives
-it is the evidence of the true nature of his love for them,  his true spiritual children
-it is the identification card of his apostolic ambassadorship [2]
-his suffering for the sake of the gospel shows the way in which he is working with God in making the only effective appeal for the reconciliation he is called to proclaim.
-His endurance in affliction is authoritative evidence for the sustaining, transforming presence of God in his life. 

We will come back to this idea of suffering as part of our take away this morning, so let this percolate on the back burner for a bit, but I want to caution us in one regard.   If you are inclined to think that your particular brand of suffering does not somehow measure up to Paul’s, you may be right…………… but not for the reason you might think!

One might think that he has made his point and could now move on to other things, with the validation of his calling secured.  But he is only getting started!

IV.  6: 6-7.    Paul now adds to the cannonade!  To his endurance in suffering for the sake of the glory of God in Christ,  he adds the demonstrated character qualities exhibited over and over again in his apostolic ministry:   purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the holy Spirit, genuine love, truthful speech and the power of God with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left.   A few observations:  First this seems at first glance to be a jumbled list! The Holy Spirit listed right next to kindness?  The power of God next to truthful speech? And what are these ‘weapons of righteousness’ he speaks of here and elsewhere?    It would be possible I am sure to link these wide ranging  descriptors  in a way that would tighten them up and allow for a more tidy outline, but I have wondered if  Paul’s intent here is to suggest that the character proofs of his apostolic ministry will stand or fall alone, or together, in aggregate and in isolation.  The picture here is of a life lived in examined integrity [and by the way, here is a great definition of a life of integrity…. You never have to remember what you said!]   He is opening his heart, setting out the smorgasbord of his life wide open for their examination, utterly confident of its testimony.  That confidence is truly amazing.  In a parallel passage in Philippians 4:6-9 he lists similar attributes that he urges this church in Philippi to put on.  

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, it there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. [!]’

You will notice that in the mix here, Paul tosses in the phrase ‘weapons of righteousness, for the right hand and the left.’ Whatever these weapons are, they don’t seem to quite fit in a list of afflictions, nor in a list of character attributes.  All we really know from the context here is that they are apparently valuable to Paul, and there are a lot of them!  Our second takeaway this morning has to do with how we understand these weapons, so set this on the back burner along with the category of suffering that is even now beginning a simmering boil!   The author references this idea in other places of course, Ephesians 6:14 speaks of the whole armor of God, the passage I just read in Philippians speaks of the things that we are to put on.  Romans 6:13 puts in another light.

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.  Do not present your members to sin and instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.

 The NIV suggests this rendering, ‘offer every part of yourselves as an instrument of righteousness.’   The implications for us are astounding and life altering if we allow them to work in us.  For Paul the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left are the cumulative sum total of his character, his experiences, his afflictions, even perhaps his weakness and his shame,  all of it.  More later as we conclude!

V. 6: 8-10   Having established the credibility of his ministry via endurance through suffering, and also through proven character over time, he now delivers yet another salvo with the inclusion of 9 antitheses statements.  These more directly confront the accusations of his opponents, and they will precede and set up his pointed and direct challenge to his beloved children in Christ in vs 11-13.

I thought it might be helpful to break these antitheses down into their component parts.  Paul has been accused of  and stands charged here of the following crimes and misdemeanors, bringing  dishonor upon himself and his followers, living under and never being quite able to escape a cloud of  slanderous accusations,  pretending to be someone he is not, being unknown but acting as if he were known by all,  being a very  picture of death,  deserving of the punishment that he so presumptuously labels as suffering,  wallowing in grief with never a smile on his face, hardened in poverty,  scrabbling around on the edge of destitution, not having anything, anyone, anywhere to call his own.    Pretty nasty indictment eh?   To which Paul responds ferociously and with utter confidence.  Contrary to this ungenerous, untrue, unwarranted portrait he boldly proclaims that his honor is  rooted not in  self-promoting  self-talk but from his faithful obedience to his Holy call,  his praise is from a place far distant from the fickle applause of men,  his  identity is as secure  as the word of God is true,   he is known by Christ and has marched in lock step with his captain and champion,  his lamp is illuminating a path to true and everlasting life, his  stripes bring comfort and a joy  unknown to many,  his godly grief is a holy lament for the souls of men but always  contained in a universe of joy for the  beauty of the Savior that it is his privilege to proclaim.!

VI.  6:11-13

And now we come to the bookend at the other end of this passage.  In 6:1 we have an appeal to the Corinthians to not receive the grace of God in vain, and here in vs 13 we see Paul’s plea that this people, his children ‘widen their hearts.’  Let’s break it down.

He first of all makes it clear that he has held nothing back from them.  Whatever he has inside of him by the power of the Holy Spirit, he as put it all on the table for their sakes.  Verse 12 has a chill to it because the simple truth is that though his affection and watch-care for them is open full throttle, they themselves are restricted in their reciprocal affections.  It is a restriction which puts them at peril.  From what?  The peril is that the restrictions in their affections may cause them to be hardened to the grace of God poured out for them.  The peril is that their hard heartedness will cause them to push back against this ministry of reconciliation, this dawning new creation, where the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ may finally, actually  bring some  reasonable sense and joy to their picky, suspicious very stunted souls.

Strangely, this restriction that Paul identifies is not caused by Paul.  The blame here lies at the feet of the Corinthians themselves.  They themselves have not husbanded or cultivated open, clean hearts, as they ought, as we ought.  They will apparently follow the example of just about anybody else, but not Paul. How could this be so?  It is because Paul has taken the road of Christ, and it is a road of affliction.  The Corinthians are recoiling at the cost of that road, the cost to their pride, to all the things they have trained their hearts to value.  And so Paul has a final word for them, and it is a word of stern rebuke from a spiritual father aching for his beloved children. 

He says to them ‘in return’…………I speak as to children, widen your hearts also!’  This has been rendered in other translations as ‘in fair exchange’ [4], as in a quid pro quo. [as an important aside, the model here between this minister of the gospel and the flock he has labored for is altogether human and altogether reciprocal,  a small thing perhaps but something that we should never forget][7]   He suggests to them, no he gives them a word of clear command to return his honest, clean affections.  For the sakes of their eternal souls he instructs them to widen their hearts to be generous in their gratitude and to be students of what is real, where puffed up pride ends and plain, straight up truth begins.   As I walk us through three takeaways from this passage I want to pose a question for us today to place on the third back burner, ‘Are we really compelled to reciprocate genuine and earnest and honest and vulnerable affections?”  The answer as I have wrestled with this text surprised me, and I think it might for you as well. 

VII.  Conclusion in three take aways:

-Suffering is not a contest.

-Our weapons of righteousness include all that we bring to the battle.

-The reciprocity of our love is commanded.

1. We often have a distorted, uncharitable, disconnected view of the nature of suffering, or affliction.  First of all because we tend to rank absolutely everything, from who can shoot a ball through a hoop, or push a ball into a hole, or kick a ball across an upright, to who can do the most jump ropes in the least time, to who can type the fastest to who can do a charade the best …. So also we rank suffering.  We rank it qualitatively, we rank it according to pointed pain and according to which kind of suffering elicits the most reverberating horror.  And as Christians we rank suffering according to a ‘persecuted for Christ’ scale.  Suffering directly related to our testimony is somehow of more worth than other kinds of suffering, and that feels right.   And yet, Paul does not here make large distinctions between beatings or imprisonments he has received and other forms of suffering, like sleepless nights or hunger.  In fact in terms of defense of his ministry it is not the suffering itself that is worth mentioning.  Rather it is the faithful enduring through suffering that commends him.  This is a powerful truth.  Hafeman puts it like this,

“Suffering and oppression in themselves do not mark one out as representing Christ in the world.  Paul has no romantic notion of suffering, he suffered too much for that. Indeed by itself, suffering is the consequence of sin.  To experience suffering is to participate in the evil of our fallen world.  Left to itself, suffering is not a noble and purifying virtue.  Rather, what distinguishes the suffering of the righteous from the suffering rampant in the world is the transforming power of god’s sustaining presence in their lives……….” [3]

Do we begin to see the implications?  For Paul, the suffering he endured was not categorically ennobling.   His suffering gave evidence of the ‘transforming power of God’s sustaining presence’ in his spirit enabled endurance.   And so it is for you and me.  The question we ought to ask is not ‘does my particular brand of suffering count for anything?’  Rather this, ‘does my suffering give evidence to the sustaining power of God in my life?’   Or, how about this question, ‘my suffering is self-inflicted, or inflicted by a loved one, can even this suffering, tainted though it surely is, give evidence of a transforming power of God’s sustaining presence?’  The answer is yes, and yes and yes again! That is the tension of living in this now and not yet world!   Strange as it may seem, deep lament for the consequences of sin is the handmaid of a profound and brilliant redemption.  They walk side by side.  And like one of my fellow elders attested to a week or so ago, ‘sometimes the very best that we can do is to sit together with one another for a while and simply weep.’ 

2. The second take away has to do with our ‘weapons of righteousness.’  If according to Romans six,  all that we are and have may be presented as instruments of righteousness, then it follows that powerful weapons can be crafted by a heavenly hand out of the most unlikely materials.   The journalist Edward R. Murrow described Winston Churchill in this way.  [Loose paraphrase]  “He [Churchill] took the English language, mobilized it and sent it off to war.”[5] So it was with the apostle Paul.  2 Corinthians 10:3-5 speaks to the potency of these weapons.

………. we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God and take every thought captive to obey Christ……………

 He took the totality of his experience, his knowledge, his character, his weakness, his strength, his suffering, his abounding and his poverty, and mobilized all of them as weapons in his growing arsenal of righteousness sharpened and available for battle, especially when the stakes were life and death.   How about you and me?  Where do our weapons lie?  Can we be so bold as to weaponize even our suffering?  To present even our afflictions as useful tools in the hands of God to herald a new and different creation?  May that always be so!

3. The final take away is this.  In 6:11-13 Paul is giving them a gospel call.  The issue is not a call to embrace Paul, but the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The hardness of their hearts, the narrowness of their love is an issue of life and death spiritually.    Paul imposes on these people a duty to love, a duty to reciprocate the affections that he has so freely given.  How about it?  Do we have such an obligation?  If so, then would we do well to avoid one another in order to not wrack up obligations that we did not ask for?   An illustration from my life has helped me to come to terms with this in the last few weeks.  I began this morning with a story from some of our grandkids who are staying with us.  The youngest of the lot is Jonathan, a year and a half.  We call him JuJu, and JuJu follows grandpa around.  Now, he is in fact, a very astute judge of character, but that is not why he runs to find his shoes whenever I get ready to leave the house.  He races for his gear in order to not be left behind, and the reason is that he knows that I am the keeper of the tractor keys! …… And he loves the tractor.  In fact he has only about a three word vocabulary at this point and one of them is a noise that is unmistakably that of a tractor!   His love for me is conditional of course, and at some point it will be directed to the keeper of a different set of keys!  But, for now, as far as he is able, his love is pure, honest and confessed with an open heart.  Do I have an obligation to reciprocate that love?............  Yes, of course I do!  Absolutely I do.  To spurn that love or to fault him for his baby like self-absorption would be to condemn my own heart.  I must not, I dare not!  Make no mistake here, going back to my opening illustration, Paul is giving his beloved children a word of instruction!  It is a beautiful picture of the gospel itself.  And it is a word that we dismiss to the peril of our eternal souls.  The themes of life and death echo through this book and we are instructed to heed them.

Finally, as we close this morning, let’s remind ourselves that this sovereign creator of the universe has inaugurated a new creation, and a new world is coming, one reconciled to the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ.  He has paid the full price demanded by love for his people.  He has spoken freely to us through his word. He has opened his heart to us in fullness through the death and resurrection and ascension of his son, and yet strangely our hearts are restricted, because of our inescapable, unreasoning hardness………………. Unless our affections are supernaturally set free to reciprocate such a love as this we will stubbornly go to our grave cherishing that hardness of heart as our most precious heirloom!  Forbid it Lord! [8] Could we maybe plead to a kind and merciful sovereign heavenly father for that supernatural freedom of a widened heart?  And maybe then, we will begin to cultivate in our spirit a deep and abiding thankfulness even in the face of the affliction that stalks us like a relentless predator and inevitably finds us.  And when that happens we will according to scripture become children of God more fully, more joyfully surrendered to Christ, and we will see through bright and thankful eyes this new and coming world emerging all around us. [9]
Father in heaven, make it so!

End notes:

[1] This is a fun read available at the Warrenville Public Library.  It is the true story of the passengers and the predictable chaos of 6500 strangers unexpectedly descending on a town of roughly 10,000 persons.  It is mainly a story of true competence, resourcefulness and thoughtful kindness amid anxiety and heartache.  It answers well the question, ‘who is my neighbor?’

[2] Hafeman NIV application commentary, p. 273

[3] ibid p 444.

[4] ibid pa.  274

[5] The ‘in return’ [ESV] is rendered variously as:
            now as a fair exchange NET
            now in a like exchange NASB
            now for a recompense in the same KJV

[6] The actual quote goes like this:
            He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle to steady his fellow countrymen and hearten those Europeans upon whom the long dark night of tyranny had descended.

Edward R. Murrow, On Winston Churchill, 1954

[7] Barnett, New international commentary on the 2nd epistle to the Corinthians, Paul Barnett, p.  335- 37.  Barnett makes a powerful point that pastoral as well as missionary ministry is fundamentally a human ministry, and ought never to become a mere institution.  

 [8] Story of Bob __________:    This idea of carrying our stubborn unrepentant hearts to the grave, and this plea for the widening of our hearts may be communicated better by a story than by piling up words upon words:     In 1997 my friend and drywall sub-contractor Bob was dying of brain cancer.  [“Hey it is October you know! You want us to hang frozen sheetrock in a frozen house and have the mud freeze as soon as we apply it! Get some heat in that building!”] I shared the gospel with him in the form of a letter, and I dropped it off at his house along with a whopper jr. that he had asked me to sneak in for him!  Now, Bob’s father ‘Bob’ had started the business decades earlier and Bob was earnestly preparing his son ‘Bobby’ to take it over on unexpectedly short notice.   Well, a couple of days later Bob called and said, ‘Hey, guess what, I did it.  My wife and I prayed that prayer to surrender to Jesus!  When I went to see him a few days later he gave me more detail.  He explained how his own father had sat at his kitchen table with him and wept because what he wanted to more than anything was to somehow take the place of his son in this battle, and in utter helplessness could not do so.  Bob then said this, “To think that someone who was able, would actually send his son to die in my place, well, what is there to say to that except…… thank you!” 

[note:  Bob did pass away a few weeks later after we visited several more times.  His son Bobby did take over the business and runs it with the same integrity and competence that his father did.  I had the privilege of speaking and sharing the gospel at his funeral.]


[9] This idea of thankfulness is prominent in GKC’s book Orthodoxy.  He says that ultimately his journey to surrender to Christ was rooted in an inexplicable sense of gratitude for this world and all that is in it.  He felt greatly blessed to have a certain capacity for simple gratitude which cried out in his thinking for an object in which to invest it.