“I am become a fool in glorying; ye have compelled me: for I ought to have been commended of you: for in nothing am I behind the very chiefest apostles, though I be nothing. Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds. For what is it wherein ye were inferior to other churches, except it be that I myself was not burdensome to you? Forgive me this wrong. Behold, the third time I am ready to come to you; and I will not be burdensome to you: for I seek not yours, but you: for the children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children. And I will very gladly spend and be spent for you; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved. But be it so, I did not burden you: nevertheless, being crafty, I caught you with guile. Did I make a gain of you by any of them whom I sent unto you? I desired Titus, and with him I sent a brother. Did Titus make a gain of you? walked we not in the same spirit? walked we not in the same steps? Again, think ye that we excuse ourselves unto you? we speak before God in Christ: but we do all things, dearly beloved, for your edifying. For I fear, lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I would, and that I shall be found unto you such as ye would not: lest there be debates, envying, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults: and lest, when I come again, my God will humble me among you, and that I shall bewail many which have sinned already, and have not repented of the uncleanness and fornication and lasciviousness which they have committed” (2 Cor. 12:11-21).
The Church of God is the holiest thing there is on earth, and yet there are a great many imperfections in that Church. It is absolutely the best thing in the world today. If you were suddenly to take the Church of God out of this world, what a mixed, conglomerate mass of iniquity would be left behind! You can realize that better if you stop to consider what the Church of God has meant throughout the centuries. People often debate the question as to whether the world is better or worse than it was 1900 years ago. Some insist that the world is worse, and that it is constantly getting worse. They quote the scripture, “Evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived” (2 Tim. 3:13). Others insist that the world is better, and they point to the millions of Christian people, to the kindliness and the interest in the poor and needy that prevail in many lands where once the vilest cruelty existed. But, in my judgment, both are wrong.
The world is no worse than it was 1900 years ago. When Scripture says that “Evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse,” it is simply telling us what has always been true, and always will be true of people who turn away from God. As men give themselves up to evil, certainly they get worse and worse as time goes on. That was always so; it is so today. Wherever you find evil men, they grow worse and worse. But the world is not worse today than it was when our blessed Lord Jesus was here. The greatest crime that has ever been committed was committed 1900 years ago in the murder of the Son of God. Now the world continues to condone that crime, and as long as it continues to reject the Lord Jesus Christ it will never get any better. Therefore the world is not getting any better. It is not improving. But, you say, think of the Christians, of the churches all over the land, of the kindliness and interest in the needy that prevail in many places. Yes, we take all that into consideration, but the question is this, “Is the world getting any better?” If you want to find out if the world is getting any better, you must subtract the Church. If you could imagine this scene with every Christian gone, you would have “the world,” and you would find that world just as corrupt, just as vile, just as wicked as it was 1900 years ago. It is true that this globe is a much more comfortable place on which to have a home than it was 1900 years ago. We enjoy a great many inventions, and have benefited by a great many things that minister to human need and comfort that were unknown then, but these things do not change the hearts of men. Men are just as wicked with electricity, with radios, with stream-line trains, with motor-boats, with air-planes, as they were before these things were known.
In this world there is something very dear to the heart of the Son of God. He called it, “My Church.” When Peter made his great declaration, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus said, “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father which is in heaven; and I say unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock”—the Rock that thou hast confessed—“I will build My Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:17, 18). The Holy Spirit has likened that Church to Christ’s Body, His Bride—“Christ loved the Church, and gave Himself for it; that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word” (Eph. 5:25, 26).
The Church is looked at in two aspects. In the first place it includes all believers everywhere at any time since the day of Pentecost. Now, whether these people have intimate church relationship with others or not, they belong to “the Church which is His Body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all” (Eph. 1:23). But the Scripture also contemplates churches. You read of the churches of Galatia, the churches of Judea, the seven churches of Asia, etc., and these local churches are groups of confessed believers. Not always are all of them real believers, but presumably, they all profess to be believers, and so gather together for worship, for praise, for prayer, and for Christian testimony. This has been so from the beginning. Those that “received the Word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:41, 42). We need this fellowship, we need this outward expression of Christian testimony, and so God by His Spirit forms local churches in various places where His people gather together thus to worship Him. There are some who say, “I am a Christian and belong to the Church, the Body of Christ, and I do not need to be associated with any local body of Christians. If I could find one absolutely perfect, I would join it.” But then, it would be spoiled after you got in, for you would be the first bad thing in it, because you would go in with that critical spirit of yours, and that would spoil the whole testimony. It is never contemplated in Scripture that local churches will be perfect companies of believers. From the beginning you find a great many imperfect people in local assemblies, but that is no reason why they should be disbanded. Therefore, you and I as Christians are responsible to walk in fellow- ship with other Christians. They need us and we need them. Some people who find it very difficult to get along with others get a great blessing for putting up with them. The hardest thing, if endured for Christ’s sake, will bring blessing. It drives us to our knees to self-examination, leads us to ask ourselves, “What is the matter with me that I find it so hard to please such absolutely good people?” We are all just poor sinners saved by grace, but some day we are going to be just like the Lord Jesus Christ, and as He is so patient with us, we can afford to be patient one with another.
We find from this epistle that there was a great deal in the early Church that was far from satisfactory. We have seen the difficulties the apostle Paul had even with his own converts. He would go into a certain place and lead people to Christ, and it would not be long before they thought they knew more than he did, and some of them, in their own estimation, became so much holier than he that they no longer wanted to have fellowship with him!
As he comes to the last part of the portion of the epistle, in which he has attempted to justify his own ministry, Paul shows us that there are both helpers and hinderers in the Church of God. You can settle it in your own mind as to which you are, whether a helper or a hinderer. You are one or the other. You are either helping the testimony, spreading the gospel, commending Christ to other people, or you are hindering, by leading people to question whether there is anything real in the salvation of which we speak.
Let us notice first of all how grace wrought in the apostle Paul. He did not like to speak of himself, but the Holy Spirit made him do so. For the fourth or fifth time he says that he is a fool as he speaks of himself, “I am become a fool in glorying; ye have compelled me: for I ought to have been commended of you.” God had given him this mission and he could not think lightly of it. Because he had led them to Christ he should have been commended of them. It was like little children trying to tell a father what to do and how to behave. Not so very many months ago I was in a home and something was going on upstairs while I waited in the car. A young lady of about seventeen years of age came down the stairs, and said to me, “You must excuse me, I do get so angry. I have an awful job making Father behave!” That is the spirit of the day, and these Corinthians were trying to regulate their father in Christ.
Paul now says that he has to tell them something of the mission intrusted to him, which was not given to any other man. He says, “For in nothing am I behind the very chiefest apostles, though I be nothing.” You have here a wonderful combination of the importance of the mission committed to him and of Christian humility. He would have been false to his commission had he failed to recognize the fact that he was indeed in nothing behind the very chiefest apostles. The Lord Jesus Christ had committed to him such a ministry as no other apostle had fully entered into, but he to whom this ministry was committed said, “Though I be nothing.” In his first epistle to them he rebuked the Corinthians for making too much of leaders and saying, “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Cephas,” and says, “Who is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed?” (1 Cor. 1:12; 3:5). But the minister is nothing, Christ is all; and so he sets the example of true Christian humility. One who would be a helper in the work of the Lord must be a humble man. God refuses to identify His name for long with those that walk in pride. “Those that walk in pride He is able to abase” (Dan. 4:37). If we have not the mind of Christ, we will not be used of God as He would like to use us. Let us search our own hearts and see whether we are cherishing that unholy pride which goes before destruction. There is many a man of remarkable ability whom God has to put to one side because a proud, haughty spirit comes in continually to interfere with the work of the Lord. May God teach us to be lowly, and help us to “walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing” (Col. 1:10).
Notice in the third place, the devotedness of this man. In verse 12 we read, “Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds.” The miracles he wrought proved he was divinely approved and accredited. “For what is it wherein ye were inferior to other churches, except it be that I myself was not burdensome to you? Forgive me this wrong: Behold, the third time I am ready to come to you; and I will not be burdensome to you: for I seek not yours, but you: for the children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children.” He was out in the work of the Lord and he was unequaled as a teacher and a preacher. Did he set a price upon his ministry? Did he say, “I refuse to preach, to teach, unless you pay me a certain salary”? No; he said, “I will very gladly spend and be spent for you.” And when he found there was a wrong spirit among them he decided that he would take nothing from them, and all the time he was ministering to them he had received his support from other churches who sent their offerings to him. These Corinthians did not understand it, and so said, “He cannot be a real apostle or he would be taking money for his Ber- vices.” But he says, “The very fact that I am here to serve you freely ought to be to you the evidence that I have no selfish motive.” He was an unselfish man, a devoted man, there was something so frank, so childlike, so whole-hearted about him, that it should have commended him to their love and confidence. “I will very gladly spend and be spent for you; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved”—I am willing to lay myself out for you whether you think much of me or not, I am here to do you good. And yet they tried to see some hidden motive behind it all and said, “He is crafty, he is putting on this appearance of humility, he is pretending to be meek and lowly in order to have influence over us and exercise authority over us.” “Nevertheless, being crafty, I caught you with guile!” Is he saying that he did this? No, he is quoting what they said about him, for they said, “He is deceitful, his apparent disinterestedness is just craft, and he is pretending to be so humble and lowly in order that he may hold us under his thumb.” The apostle repudiates anything of the kind and says, “My preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:4). “Did I make a gain of you by any whom I sent unto you? I desired Titus, and with him I sent a brother. Did Titus make a gain of you? He had sent Titus to receive their gift for the needy saints, and with him another to count the money, that there might be no misunderstanding. “Walked we not in the same spirit? walked we not in, the same steps?”—showing that our entire service was absolutely unselfish.
Then notice, his own life was summed up in living- for others, “Again, think ye that we excuse ourselves unto you? We speak before God in Christ: but we do all things, dearly beloved, for your edifying.” Although you and I are far from being apostles, yet we can all be characterized by the same spirit of humility, of devotedness to Christ, of unselfish service for others.
Now look at the contrast. See what has been manifested in these Corinthians as this evil spirit of fault-finding took hold on them. “I fear, lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I would, and that I shall be found unto you such as ye would not: lest there be debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whispering’s, swellings, tumults.” Let us face this passage honestly, and see whether we have fallen under the power of any of these unholy things. “Lest there be debates.” What does that mean? It is what you so often see when two or three people get to fussing about this and that. What a childish spirit this is, and yet how it hurts the work of the Lord. And then in the second place, “envyings.” How few people there are who can re- joice in what others are accomplishing, who can delight to see others honored and recognized. In the third place, “wrath,” for envy cherished leads to wrath. And how easy it is to be censorious and bitter. That which begins in a small faultfinding way, if not judged, soon degenerates into positive ill-will toward others. And then, “strife.” How often there is strife between God’s people. “Backbitings.” You know the sister who comes to you and says, “Did you hear about Brother So-and-So?”
“Well, I don’t know that I ought to tell you.”
“Oh, yes, do.”
“Well, it is really awful.”
And just then Brother So-and-So walks in the door, and the sisters say, “Why, how do you do? We were just talking of you. Speak of an angel, and he’s sure to appear!” It isn’t always the sisters who do this. It is often the brothers too.
Miserable hypocrites! Backbiting, saying things behind the back that they would never dare to say to the face! If every time someone said something evil or unkind behind another’s back the other person would say, “Is that so? Well, let us go and talk to him about it,” this thing would soon be stopped. Then, “whisperings.” A meeting breaks up, and a little group over here is whispering and fault-finding, and there a group is together whispering and complaining. Judge whether you have ever been guilty of anything of the kind. “Swellings.” I do not recall what that Greek word is, but this word always makes me think of a bull-frog sitting on a log puffing, puffing, puffing. Throw a stone at him, and he goes down to a very small size. And then, “tumults.” How many churches have been wrecked when at last these evil things have resulted in tumults, internal troubles that divide and destroy the work. We can be very grateful to God that through the Holy Spirit He has indicated these dangerous things so that we can avoid them and be helpers instead of hinderers.
Why did they find fault with the apostle Paul? He had to be very strict about some wicked things that had been tolerated by some people in the church at Corinth, and he says, “Lest, when I come again, my God will humble me among you, and that I shall bewail many which have sinned already, and have not repented of the uncleanness and fornication and lasciviousness which they have committed.” Some of these people had fallen into unclean and unholy things, and in order to cover up their own pollution they were finding fault with Christ’s servant because of his faithfulness. That is always the effect of sin. Hidden sin in the life will result in unfair criticism of the servants of God who stand against things of that kind and seek to lift up a standard of holiness and purity.
And so, may we face the question, Am I a hinderer or a helper? God has committed to His Church the business of making known the gospel of His grace to a lost world. I want by His help to carry it on and not to hinder. May God impress on our hearts the importance of devoted living for the blessing of others.