By Pastor Glenn Pease
Jonathan Edwards was born in 1703, and he became one of the greatest preachers in history. He lived in a day when pastors went to a church out of seminary and stayed there for the rest of their lives. His father was the pastor of The Congregational Church in the little village of East Windsor, Conn. for 64 years. Jonathan entered Yale at age 13 and graduated at age 17. He studied theology for 2 years and then became a tutor at Yale. At age 24 he was invited to be the junior pastor at Northampton, Mass. where his grandfather was the senior pastor. Two years later his grandfather died and he was the sole pastor of the church.
Edwards developed a theology that said God can do whatever He wants with people. They are His creatures and He can do with them as He pleases. He can take them to heaven or cast them into hell. He has the right and the power to do anything He wills. He started to preach a series on this theme, and one became very famous, and it was called Sinners In The Hands Of An angry God. His fearful messages started a revival that spread until he became one of the most famous and influential pastors in the nation, and he was still only in his 30's.
When the winds of change died down, and the emotions of revival cooled, and apathy set in there was a period from 1744 to 1748 where not a single new person joined the church. This was a long dry spell, and critics of Edwards stirred up agitation. After much personal bitterness the church voted in 1750 to dismiss their pastor. He appealed to the Ecclesiastical Council to review the church's action, but five of the nine ministers voted to sustain his dismissal. So Edwards found himself out of a job at 47 years of age with a wife and 10 children to support. Their financial situation was pathetic.
After a few months the church found that nobody wanted to come to be their pastor, and so they did an unbelievable thing: They asked Edwards to help them out. Most pastors would have refused with indignation, but Edwards agreed to do it. He started preaching again in the pulpit from which he had been cast out. He was ministering the Word of God to a people who had rejected him. He did this for a year before he got a call to another church. He went on to write 4 theological works that gave him the reputation of being the most original religious thinker in American history. In 1758 he was asked to become the President of Princeton. I share this history of one of the great preachers of our land because it is such a parallel to what we see in the relationship between Paul and the Corinthian Church.
Paul spent a year and a half getting this church established. It was hard work, for they were a very godless people, and Paul needed special encouragement from God to hang in there and not give up. So Paul plugged away at it and got Silas and Timothy to come and take over his labor of making tents so he could devote himself full time to preaching and teaching. You would think that this would be a dream church. The world's greatest Apostle, who was the most brilliant and devoted man on the earth was their pastor, but the fact is, it was a nightmare. Paul had more problems with this church than with all the rest of them put together. These Christians refused to grow up. They stayed as babes, and the result was they were not really any different than the pagans around them. Paul, however, never gave up on this bunch of carnal Christians. He wrote 4 letters to them. We have 2 of them, but he refers in them to 2 others he wrote. So we have the paradox that the church, which had the most problems, and which gave Paul the most grief, have the most written to them of all the churches. They were the worst and they received the best.
They found every petty fault they could find in Paul to criticize. They chewed him up and spit him out, and yet Paul keeps coming back for more. Many who study the issue in depth wonder why Paul did not just write them off as a hopeless cause. As Paul travels the world he is ever thinking of this church and how he can help them shape up and stop being so critical. He wants them to grow up for the glory of God. Most would walk away from a church that treated them like this, but Paul looks at all their fault finding and decided he will defend himself against these critics.
This letter is loaded with Paul's self-defense. Some Christians feel it is not wise to engage in self-defense, for it can sound very egotistical. This is true, and at times Paul sounds anything but humble in this letter, but we need to keep in mind that he is not doing this for his sake, or for his reputation. The truth of God's Word will suffer and all the church will be hurt if he lets his critics undermine his authority and his teaching. He is defending himself for the sake of the church. Self-defense is legitimate when it benefits others.
Believe it or not, one of the main criticisms of Paul was that you cannot trust the man to keep his promises. Paul told the Corinthians that he planned to come and see them and spend a winter with them after he went through Macedonia. But that plan did not work out, and Paul did not make it to Corinth. The best laid plans of mice and men, and even Apostles, do not always work out, and this one of Paul's fell through. This is just the sort of thing critics latch onto. They were saying that Paul's word was not worth the paper it was written on. He says one thing and then does another. He says yes, but he means no.
It made no difference to the critics that Paul ended his promise to come to them with these words in I Cor. 16:7, "...if the Lord permits." Paul knew that life did not always go according to his plan, and so he conditioned his promise. But this did not stop the faultfinders. Have you ever promised somebody something and then discovered that life took a turn that you were not expecting, and you could not keep that promise? Parents have this quite often with children. You don't have to do this very often before you hear the words, "You never do what you say you will." This is what the childish critics are saying to Paul. He is like a mother who placates her crying kids by promising them the moon, but when it comes to carrying out the promise she is too tired, or has other plans.
Parents often do make promises to easily, and they do fail to be consistent with keeping their word. But this is not the case with Paul. He has valid reasons for his behavior, and much of this letter is his self-defense. It is hard to deal with Paul's defense in any other way but by a methodical verse by verse examination of his arguments and statements, and so that is what we will do beginning with verse 12. Paul begins with, "Now this is our boast." The Greek word Paul uses for boast is a very common word in the Greek world. The only problem is that it is almost always a bad word used to describe a person who trumpets his own renown, and is, therefore, not liked.
We feel the same about a boaster today, and so it does not sound like a good choice of words for a man trying to defend himself against critics. This is especially so since James 4:16, using this same word, says, "As it is you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil." So now he has James against him too, and he is calling him evil for his boasting. Paul's fist words of defense do not seem appropriate unless he is trying to hang himself, or unless he is a master of paradox. That, of course, is what Paul was, and by so being he teaches us over and over again that the same thing can be both evil and good. Boasting is primarily evil, for it is a sign of pride. But we all know there is also a positive pride, which is the foundation for our self-esteem, and without it we would not be healthy individuals.
Paul had a healthy sense of self-esteem, and he was able to be honest about how he felt about the gifts God had given him. His pride and boasting were not self-centered, but God-centered. You will notice that he stresses that his gifts are from God and according to God's grace. When your boasting exalts God as the source of what you are proud about it is a virtue. Just because most boasting is a vice of self-centered pride does not mean we should avoid all boasting. Paul took this bad word and used it often in a positive way. In so doing he taught Christians to look for the positive side of the sinful nature of man. What possible good lurks in the hearts of sinners who behave so proud and boast of their achievements as if they were self-made and created all their gifts on their own? That very vice that keeps them self-centered can become a tool for God-centered service. This negative word became one of Paul's favorite words. He uses it about 25 times in his letters to the Corinthians, and it is used only a few times in all the rest of the New Testament. It is a bad thing that can be good if properly expressed.
Minnie Pearl was famous for saying, "I'm mighty proud to be here." It was an expression of joy and a compliment to the audience. No one would ever accuse her of sinful pride in her spirit. Paul says something very similar when he says, "I am mighty proud to be God's agent in this world. I am mighty proud to be a child of God and a useful tool for His kingdom." We sing something like it when we sing, "I'm so glad I'm a part of the family of God." Is that pride? Is that boasting? Yes it is, but it's the good kind that Paul loves to express often. It is that good pride like, "I am proud to be an American." Paul was proud to be a Christian, and he is going to boast about being a good Christian by the grace of God.
The first thing Paul boasts about is his clear conscience. His conscience testifies that he has been blameless in conduct in the world, and especially in his relationship to them. It is obvious to all commentators that Paul is being accused by some in the church of worldly behavior and worldly wisdom. They are questioning his integrity and sincerity. Almost every evangelist is suspect because there are so many who manipulate people for their own gain. Paul and all faithful evangelists have to endure this same criticism because it is so often true. Once you are accused of bad behavior it is very hard to get rid of the stain and restore your image. It is not enough to be innocent, for you have to prove it, and this will never convince all the critics.
Some years ago governor Gifford Pinchot of Pennsylvania sent his black retriever to the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia for the inmates to have a mascot. The prisoners loved the dog, and he became a great favorite. The story got out that he had condemned the dog to prison for killing a cat. He got letters from all over the world denouncing his inhuman cruelty. He could not stop the spread of the story, and so through his whole term of office he kept getting these nasty letters. It is hard to believe that people in total ignorance of the facts will go off half-cocked and in righteous indignation blast people as if they had direct access to the omniscient mind of God.
If you read of the hoaxes that have stirred up millions to write letters of protest over false reports you will discover that Christians are the worst offenders. They are often gullible and easily manipulated by false reports. It is nothing new, for Paul had to fight it in his day as all kinds of misinformation was being spread about him, and it was Christians who were doing it and believing it. That is why we see his self-defense in this letter, for if the falsehoods were allowed to stand his ministry would suffer.
His first argument is, "I do not feel guilty for my conduct, for my conscience is clear." His promise to visit them was made in all sincerity, and he does not feel any guilt that he could not keep his promise, for that was out of his hands. He does not control all of life, and so the best he can do is plan and make a sincere effort to carry out that plan. Some Christians go all to pieces when plans do not go as they wish. They feel guilt as if they failed. Paul will have none of this guilt, for he did his best. He moves on to plan B and does not fret and grieve and feel guilt. Some were trying to make Paul feel guilty by telling others that if he was really spiritual his plan would have worked out.
It is a case of Job's friends ride again. They were blaming Paul for the complexity of his life as if it was his sin that made his life so complex. If he was more spiritual and less worldly his plans would work out and he could keep his promises. Christians are notorious for calling other Christians less spiritual because they don't operate just the same way as they do. In his defense Paul writes that all he does is characterize by the holiness and sincerity that are from God. In other words, he operates with a singleness of heart, and he is not double minded as his critics are saying.
The word sincerity means, "Judged by the sun." When a person bought a vase they would hold it up to the sun, for if there was a crack in it the sun would reveal that flaw. Paul is saying, "I am not a fake putting on a show for my own benefit. I do not deceive you." Some vase makers would cover over their flaws with wax so you could not see the crack unless you held it up to the sun. On a cloudy day they could sell these defective vases, for they looked perfect. Paul is saying, "I am not trying to hide anything and put one over on you. I operate openly and above board, and gladly submit to a thorough examination to test my sincerity."
Because Paul is so honest with this self-exposure of his conduct, character and motives, we have in this letter the most intimate look at Paul's inner being and emotions. Paul tells us his conscience is a witness for his defense, for it says to him that he has done the right thing. Paul is the New Testament authority when it comes to the conscience. John uses this word only once, and Peter 3 times, but Paul uses it 28 times of the 32 uses in the New Testament. For Paul conscience is the self-awareness that you are right or wrong in your attitudes and actions. If you are deceiving people and doing what you know is not the will of God, you will feel guilty. The ancient Greeks saw the conscience as an inner witness telling you that you are on the right path, or that you are going astray. It is a God-given inner voice. It can be a very effective guide even in the pagan world.
This whole business with the conscience is a major theological issue with Paul. He writes in Rom. 2:14-15, "Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them." Paul is saying that there are pagan people who are guided by their conscience, and if they listen to this inner voice and obey it, they are as righteous as those who obey God's written law in His Word. Where there is no Bible people will be judged according to their conscience.
In Paul's day the conscience was a major subject. The Pythagoreans stressed the importance of a good conscience, and self-examination each night. They wrote, "Thou shalt not take sleep to thy gentle eyes until thou has considered each of the days acts. Where did I fail? What was a right act? What was left undone? Begin with the first, go through them, and finally when thou has done wrong rebuke thyself and when thou has done good rejoice." Socrates left the judgment of his accusers, who gave false evidence, to their conscience. Seneca the Roman stoic, who was a contemporary of Paul, wrote, "Every night I examine my life. I open out my conscience to the gods. For conscience is to every man a sort of inward god. The famous Roman by the name of Cicero wrote, "There is a law within, diffused among all men, constant, eternal.... There is one common master and commander of all, even God who originated this law. If anyone obeys not this law he plays false to himself and does despite to the nature of man."
Philo was the Greek Jewish theologian who was also a contemporary of Paul. He wrote of the conscience, "It is born with every soul and makes its abode with it, nor is it want to admit anything that offends. Its priority is ever to hate the evil and love the good." We could go on and on, but these are sufficient to make clear why Paul appeals to his conscience in self- defense. It was universally accepted by pagans, Jews and Christians that the conscience was a key witness to any persons motives. A clear conscience was one of the best testimonies that could be presented. Paul is saying, I am proud to declare that my conscience testifies I have been holy and sincere in all my dealings with the world and with the church.
Paul is saying that the charges of him being worldly wise are not true, and they are based on the critics misunderstanding. He makes it clear in verse 14 that he expects this letter to clear up this misunderstanding so that they can be proud of him. His self-defense is not just to make him look better, but to help the Corinthians so they can be proud of their founder and teacher, and, thereby feel more secure in their faith. Their self-image is going to be damaged if they think their founder is a con man. The goal is mutual boasting of each other, and a sense of positive pride about who they are in Christ.
The critics of Paul are saying that he is deceptive and that he uses words to cleverly say one thing, but he really means another. Paul says in verse 13 that what he writes to them is not mysterious and ambiguous, but it is easy to understand, for he is being as open an honest as he can be to convey transparent genuineness. His opponents are reading between the lines, and they are reading in things he is not saying. Critics who do not like a person are easily detected, as are Paul's critics. They find fault very easy because they read into his words and acts that which is not his intent to convey. Never take a critics interpretation of the meaning of another person's words, for there will be distortion. The only valid interpretation of a man's words are what he gives. If it sounds like a man is saying one thing and meaning another, don't ask his critics, ask him. He alone can give you an authentic interpretation of what he means. Paul's critics are saying, "We think he means something other than what he says." Paul responds, "You are wrong. When I say yes I mean yes, and when I say no I mean no. I say what I mean and I mean what I say."
Warren Wiersbe of Back To The Bible fame says he can sympathize with Paul, for he has made promises too and then had plans changed so that he had to cancel meetings where he was scheduled to be. Christians can be very critical when you foul up their plans. Paul's critics are calling him wishy-washy. He does not care about us, but only wants to get our money. We will see a lot of criticism and a lot of self-defense as we study this letter. The major lesson of this letter is that Christians are too critical, and they hurt the cause of Christ by being that way.
I must confess that I find myself critical of other Christians. We went to a large Presbyterian Church, and found myself being critical. Their choir was not nearly as good as ours, and the pastor took 10 minutes giving announcements, and his message had no central theme. I came away feeling proud that even though we are smaller we have a better service. Being critical of others makes us feel superior, and that is why it is popular, and that is why Christians put others down. It is important for us to be aware that we have this critical spirit so that we can keep it under control. That is one of the major goals for studying this letter of Paul.