“The Standards of This World”
2 Corinthians 10:1-18
June 22, 2003
Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
We have considered the matter of the collection in the last two chapters. Now the last four are something of a section to themselves. You will notice a change in tone as chapter 10 begins. One commentator [James Denny] explains it this way: “If a man has a long letter to write, in which he wishes to speak of a variety of subjects, we may expect variations of tone… If he has something on his mind which it is difficult to speak about, but which cannot be suppressed, we may expect him to keep it to the end, and to introduce it perhaps with awkward emphasis.” [Cited in Hughes, 344]
Clearly, in what follows, Paul addresses head-on the sinister influence that the false teachers in Corinth were exercising in the church. Clearly they were critical of Paul, his doctrine, and the manner of his ministry. Plainly they had impressed some, if not many in the church, and had undermined Paul’s authority as an apostle. In the letter to this point there have been indications of the presence of these false teachers, of their desire to substitute themselves in the place of Paul in the hearts of the Corinthians, and of the importance Paul attaches to the threat they pose. As far back as 2:17 we read Paul saying, “Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit.” Clearly he has the false apostles in view. But only now does Paul respond with a direct and an elaborate comparison of his ministry with that of these interlopers who had trespassed on the territory God had assigned to him. What has been simmering to this point is brought to a boil in chapters 10-13. [Witherington, 431]
v.2 No doubt that was the criticism of Paul that the false teachers were circulating: Paul is only “bold” when absent. Paul responds both by reminding them that meekness and gentleness was the way of Christ himself and by warning them that he could be bold if the situation required it.
v.3 In verses 2 and 3 the NIV has, somewhat inexplicably, translated Paul’s word, “flesh,” with “world.” What Paul literally says is that some people think that he walks or lives according to the flesh. And he replies that while he lives in the flesh he does not wage war according to the flesh. The NIV translation is not really misleading but “flesh” is, as you may know, an important theological term for Paul and has a variety of uses. To live according to the flesh, in Paul’s language, is to live according to the principles and powers of the sinful nature, of the world in rebellion against God. To live in the flesh is to live, like any other man, subject to the laws and limitations common to human life. So Paul is saying that while he lives a genuinely human life, with all of its difficulties and limitations, he does not live it according to the powers and principles of the unbelieving world or the rebellious and unrenewed human heart.
v.5 And what are the strongholds that must be taken? They are the thoughts and convictions of the unrenewed human mind and heart. What must be overcome are the reasonings of the unbelieving mind, the prejudices of a heart in rebellion against God, the determinations of a will that is in thrall to sin and to self. Only spiritual weapons blessed by the Spirit of God can bring a man to true understanding and living faith who, in himself, not only does not and cannot know the mind of the Spirit of God but will regard and must regard the message of Jesus Christ as something to be dismissed as foolishness. With the weapons of the Spirit, however, not only are strongholds brought down but prisoners are taken, the thoughts and reasonings of the unsaved mind are brought into captivity to Christ.
v.6 It seems clear that there are two groups in the church, those loyal to Paul and those who have been swayed by the new teaching and the teachers who have brought it. Paul seems confident that he will have the lion’s share of the church with him. This, of course, is what Titus has told him.
v.7 The idea is: stop thinking so superficially. Consult their own spiritual experience and knowledge and they will realize that Paul was their genuine apostle and that the unsubstantiated claims of the new teachers should be rejected outright.
v.8 The implication is clear: the influence of the false teachers, the “super-apostles” as Paul sarcastically describes them in 11:5, is tearing the Corinthians down.
v.12 Paul is being sarcastic. He wouldn’t dare compare himself with individuals “whose daring is so extraordinary that they rest their authority upon self-commendation.” [Hughes, 364] In spiritual matters, self-praise is dispraise, self-commendation is self-condemnation. [Tasker in Hughes] But the sophists, the traveling teachers of the Greco-Roman world, were noted for these conventions of self-advertisement. [Witherington, 432] There were those in the Corinthian church who were quite familiar with and prepared to be impressed by the self-praise of these so-called Jewish philosophers. But, according to Paul, their praise of themselves unmasks their total lack of understanding of what constitutes true Christian faith and the way of true Christian service. C.S. Lewis writes in one of his Letters to an American Lady [p. 58]: “How difficult it is to avoid having a special standard for oneself.” Yes, and how little people struggle not to have such a special standard for oneself. Even the best men struggle, but these men were quite happy to judge themselves according to a standard they had themselves devised for themselves. It is hard not to think well of yourself under those conditions.
By the way, in the ancient world of Paul’s day humility was not regarded as a virtue, but as a sign of weakness. The false teachers saw it as an indication that Paul was feeble. That is very much becoming the case in our day as well. Even in the church, self-promotion is now widely regarded as necessary and Christians are happy to reward it. Paul was gentle and humble, Christian that he was, and he was even in his dealings with those who had strayed in the church. It seems clear from 11:20-21 that the false teachers were much more peremptory in their discipline, much more severe than Paul had been. As he says, with biting sarcasm in 11:21: “To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that.” Paul has already talked about his “weakness,” how he held the treasures of the gospel in jars of clay and how outwardly he was wasting away (4:7, 16). His confidence came from the Lord’s power at work through him, not in his own strength. And that is going to be the theme of these next chapters of 2 Corinthians.
v.16 As we know from Romans 15:24, 28 Paul had in mind to make his way further west, indeed all the way to Spain. It appears that he did in fact make it that far because Clement of Rome, writing to the Corinthians at the end of the first century, says that Paul traveled to the furthest limit of the West which is a way Spain was referred to in those days.
v.17 For Paul the fundamental issue is theological: in whom does one place his trust and confidence. The super-apostles had placed it in themselves; Paul in the Lord Christ.
There are two ways of looking at things and there are two ways of ordering one’s life: there is the way of the world and the way of Christ. There are only these two ways. People may be very impressed by the differences between one human philosophy or religion or another, but, according to the Bible, we might as well lump them all together. They are the way of the world, of the flesh, and the differences between them are of no real consequence. Plato or Aristotle, Islam or Buddhism, liberalism or conservatism, modernism or postmodernism, it is all the same. What fundamentally defines all those views is the absence of the true knowledge of God at their center and the lack of faith in Christ as their principle. The want of Christ and the truth makes them all false, dead-ends, and makes the differences between them incidental and irrelevant. And while the religious views are durable, however false, the secular philosophies are not. They may be trumpeted as the secret of life by those who have embraced them, but, as Oscar Wilde said, “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” That is true in the realm of thought and human belief as surely as it is true in the realm of dress and appearance.
And, says Paul, you can say the very same thing about aberrant forms of the Christian faith and true Christianity. There are forms of Christianity that are, for all intents and purposes, no different than Plato, Islam, or American liberal or conservative secularism. If the Triune God, if the Son of God incarnate, if the cross, if the second coming of the Lord Christ, if the absolute necessity of believing in him for salvation, if the absolute authority of the Word of God, do not lie at the heart of a religion or philosophy than it is false and deadly because untrue at the very point where truth matters most and forever.
But, nothing is more obvious than that most people don’t agree with that assessment. Most people in our day find such a viewpoint intolerant and offensive. Most people in days gone by found it simply unconvincing. They preferred to think the same thing about their own viewpoint and refused to grant to Christianity the authority they invested in another worldview.
Paul knew that. He knew it very well. He knew it theologically – he knew how averse fallen human beings were to the truth as it is Jesus Christ – and he knew it experientially. He had taken this message out into the cities of the Greco-Roman world and found that, as he said in 1 Corinthians 1, the pagans thought it ridiculous and the Jews thought it blasphemous.
There was never a more unlikely thing that happened in this world than the conquest of the Greco-Roman culture by Christianity. The Gospel was a message tailor-made to offend the sophisticated world of imperial Rome. That was a culture that prided itself on its philosophical tradition as well as on its tolerance of many faiths. The idea that the meaning of life should be found alone in the death of a Jewish rabbi, executed for insurrection by a Roman governor, in some backwater of the empire, was, to their way of thinking, more than faintly ludicrous. And to the Jews, the claim that the Messiah had come and been crucified offended every sacred instinct of their religious sentiment.
Celsus, one of the early detractors of Christianity, wrote sneeringly of a religion that was spread through women gossiping Christ at the laundry. Obviously such a faith would be of no interest to an educated man. And there were a great many in those days who would have thought similarly. And yet, Christianity did triumph. It spread outward from Jerusalem and in thousands of encounters with hearts utterly ill-prepared to believe and culturally and constitutionally utterly unwilling to submit to Christ’s rule, with its spiritual weapons it conquered the strongholds of unbelieving hearts. It waged war against unbelief with meekness and gentleness – as Augustine would later say, the unbelieving world was conquered by suffering, not by fighting – and with arguments, the simple and straightforward assertion of the truth of the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, and by the Spirit’s power, hearts by the thousands and the tens of thousands were brought into captivity to Jesus Christ.
And such has been the history of the progress of the gospel ever since.
Never was there a less likely occurrence than the transformation of Geneva at the time of the Protestant Reformation.
Geneva was a wicked city before the Reformation; the city fathers, as city fathers are wont to think, felt that for the city’s best interests and for their own the town needed to be cleaned up. Protestantism was having a salutary effect on other cities; but Luther was occupied. So they turned to a skinny, little scholar. All Calvin had was the Bible. No political power, no money, no influence, and, after his first exile to Strasbourg, he had already failed once. The story goes that when he returned to Geneva, he picked up in his course of preaching right where he had left off when sent from the city several years before. But by that unlikely means, a little scholar and his sermons, the city was changed and then changed the world through the people who came to Geneva, experienced its Reformation, and then went home carrying the Reformation with them. It was another case of what Paul describes as God using the foolishness of preaching to win the world.
And so he has times without number. Have you ever read a sermon of John Wesley? If you have, I am sure you have wondered how such sermons could have so powerfully moved the hearts of so many thousands upon thousands of his countrymen during the Great Awakening of the 18th century. If you read Wesley’s sermons you will think it utterly inconceivable that simple folk heard those messages and had their hearts melted and then utterly transformed by them. They have little in the way of imagination or illustration or dramatic effect. Nothing very likely to make the preacher popular. One of his admirers writes, “Wesley’s published sermons do not enhance his reputation, and they leave the reader perplexed as to the secret of his great influence, and his unparalleled popularity.” [Whyte, Thirteen Appreciations, 370] And yet hardly any sermons ever had a greater or more dramatic effect on the life of an entire nation than did Wesley’s. It has been often thought that one reason Britain did not suffer a revolution as France did was because of the immense impact of the sermons of Wesley and Whitefield on the population, especially the lower classes of 18th century England. What is this but Paul’s point illustrated once more. The weapons Christians use are not worldly, not of the flesh, not the weapons the world calculates would be effective. The sophists in Corinth were sure that the message could only advance in the mouths of great orators and Paul was not a great orator by his own admission. The false teachers were sure that for Christianity to succeed, not only did its message have to be accommodated to the thinking of the world, but it needed more polish and pizzazz in its presentation. But Paul preached his simple straightforward Gospel sermons, as Wesley did after him, and the boundaries of the kingdom of God moved inexorably outward, embracing one more unlikely convert after another.
And so it has continued to our own day. Our times have been rich with the evidence of the power of these weapons that are not of the world and that wield a power that is not of this world. Whether we think of the conversion of C.S. Lewis or Charles Colson or hundreds of others we find ourselves back in 2 Corinthians 10 listening to Paul talk about how captives are taken for the kingdom of God. I’ve told you before of Eta Linnemann, as unlikely a convert as you would find in the 20th century. Remember her? She was the first woman to reach the position of Professor of New Testament in a German University. She was a follower of the radical theology of Rudolf Bultmann. When I was a graduate student in NT she was gaining a reputation for writing learned but very skeptical works on the Gospels. Here was a woman who had succeeded magnificently. She had reached the pinnacle of her profession. She was gaining an impressive reputation in her field of scholarship. She had made it. And, then, she came into contact with vibrant Christians. They spoke to her of Christ and salvation and they adorned their words with their lives. And she believed. Though, in her world of German scholarship, she had everything to lose and nothing to gain, though it could not help but turn her professional life upside down, she could not help but believe, and when she believed, she could not help but repudiate her former scholarship. She found herself, just as Paul said had happened times without number in his day, she found herself and all her thoughts captive to the Lord Jesus Christ.
“I regard everything that I taught and wrote before I entrusted my life to Jesus as refuse. I wish to use this opportunity to mention that I have pitched my two books…along with my contributions to journals, anthologies, and Festschriften. Whatever of these writings I had in my possession I threw into the trash with my own hands in 1978. I ask you sincerely to do the same thing with any of them you may have on your own bookshelf.” [Historical Criticism of the Bible, 20]
How does such a transformation happen? How can someone so intelligent, so learned, so sophisticated in reasoning find her entire mental world overthrown and a new world opening before her eyes? Paul tells us here. It was not through any worldly calculation or effort or power. It wasn’t through the rhetorical ability or the intellectual brilliance of those who spoke to her about Christ. She was far more learned than they, far more sophisticated a thinker. One does not ascend the ladder to the German professorate without a formidable mind! The powers that demolished the strongholds of her unbelieving heart and mind where not those of the Greek sophists, the itinerant philosophers with whom the Corinthians were so enamored, nor the self-recommending judaizers who came to Corinth as so-called Christian teachers and spoke with such authority, polish, and impressiveness. No it was with spiritual weapons that were accompanied with divine power. Simple confessions of the truth by Christians folk turned into battering rams by the Holy Spirit.
And there are plenty in this congregation who could tell the same wonderful story about themselves. It wasn’t worldly weapons that brought down the stronghold of your unbelief. It wasn’t glitz or glamour, it wasn’t the most intelligent person in the university, it was the Spirit of God using the simple faithfulness of Christian people. It was the truth of his Word suddenly luminescent on the page. It was the Spirit of God working in his own marvelous and secret way, illuminating the mind, bending the will, softening the heart, drawing you to Christ and faith and life. So it had been in Corinth and so it is today.
But it is only faith that remembers that. We are all subject to the temptation to return to the evidence of our eyes, to live by sight and not by faith. And the church has done this times without number. This is always the nature of doctrinal and spiritual declension in the Christian church. She starts to think that she must do things in the world’s way if she is to be effective, to incorporate the world’s way of thinking if she is to reach the world and be respected by the world. She becomes worldly in the technical sense, the serious sense. She begins to calculate as the world does, to bow to its prejudices, and to follow the dictates of what the world calls “reason.” She begins thinking according to the flesh and not according to the Spirit, and trusting in the deeds of the flesh and not the Spirit. And, then, she has lost her power, because the world, the flesh cannot inherit the kingdom of God and it cannot proclaim it with power to the unsaved. It cannot bring down spiritual strongholds and cannot make captives.
And over and over again through her history the church has languished just when she thought she could be still more successful and move forward more mightily, because she had learned from the world how to be influential and attractive and successful. I’m reading a new history of the Presbyterian Church in the first 3 decades of the 20th century. This is precisely what happened. The church began aping the world, sure she would win the world by doing so and of course she killed herself, lost her spiritual power and began the long, slow decline that has brought the once mighty church to her present irrelevance in our culture. Actually, she had simply begun to live by sight and not by faith. She had lost her connection to the power of God that he gives only to those who, in humility, trust in him. And the Lord must teach her the same lesson once again and she must learn the truth of it once more. Worldly systems of thought and action come and go. And, however temporary, they beguile the church into thinking that she must have those systems, those principles, those powers, for herself. More often than not, she is getting on the bandwagon just as the world is beginning to get off, enamored now of some other philosophy that has come upon the scene.
But the Lord brings her back in time, and teaches her once more what her true weapons are and to wield them by faith in him and to make her boast in him only. As Chesterton famously put it, “Five times the church has gone to the dogs and each time it was the dog that died.” And we remember Voltaire’s boast that within a hundred years of his death the Bible would be a forgotten book. And now one of his homes belongs to the French Bible Society.
No, my friends, we have no reason to lose confidence in the weapons with which we have been armed: faith in Christ, prayer, obedience, the truth of God’s Word, and the promise of the Holy Spirit. They have been pulling down strongholds for thousands of years and will continue to pull them down and make captives to the truth of Jesus Christ as long as the world endures. The Lord will do his work in his own way and will frustrate the wisdom of the worldly wise as he always has.
But, confidence in these spiritual means of grace and kingdom advance means not only not being beguiled by worldly calculations of success and the means of achieving it, but also means the wielding of our weapons: witness, prayer, and obedience: the word of God both proclaimed and adorned in life. Just as surely as the church needs to forsake the world’s ways and weapons, so it needs to wield its own, with confidence and expectation, as Paul did to such extraordinary effect and as God’s people have so often and for so long done in the past.
If we are to boast not in ourselves but in the Lord alone, then we need to do his work in his way. In humility and faith we need to wield the weapons he has given us. If we do, we will have, as Paul did himself and as he promises in the last verse of the chapter, we will have reason to know that the Lord commends us. “He who honors me,” the Lord said, “I will honor.”