We received a phone call one Saturday afternoon from a young lady who said, “Mr. Deffinbaugh, this is …” Because she pronounced my name correctly, I was sure I must know her. She had lost the directions to our house and asked if I could give her and her husband directions from where they were. After hanging up the phone, my wife Jeannette, who had been standing nearby, asked who was on the phone. I told her I couldn’t exactly remember, and I really didn’t know who the young woman was. I had assumed she was one of Jeannette’s tutoring students, or at least someone she knew. I really didn’t have a clue who she was; I had just told her how to get to our house. Jeannette couldn’t think of who it might be either. Our minds racing, we wondered, had we made an appointment for counseling we had forgotten? Had we invited someone to dinner and forgotten it and them? Was this all some terrible mistake, and someone we didn’t know was now on their way to our house for dinner?
The couple arrived, in two cars, with out-of-state license plates. The young woman greeted me warmly. Thinking to myself, “I must know who she is, but I don’t.” I finally swallowed my pride and asked, “Do I know you?” A terrible look came over the young woman’s face as she turned to her husband, realizing that she had made a most embarrassing mistake. The young woman was the daughter of some friends from the past, but we had known her only as an infant, not as a young married woman. She and her husband had just come to town, having made arrangements to visit other friends for dinner and to spend the night before coming to church the next day. They had forgotten they were to have dinner with the other friends, so when they became lost and needed directions, they called us by mistake. What a relief! I was not losing my mind after all. We had not made some terrible mistake. Fortunately, it was a happy reunion, even if we hadn’t planned on their arrival that afternoon. We were delighted to renew our acquaintance.
Mistaken identities are not always so humorous and enjoyable. The Corinthian church has a very serious problem with mistaken identities. In the church at Corinth, there is a problem of mistaken identity concerning spirituality. Some think they are spiritual because they feel free to participate in pagan idol worship (chapters 8-10). Some think themselves more spiritual than others because of the spiritual gifts they possess or because of the public nature of their ministry (chapters 12-14). Some criticize and look down upon Paul and his gospel, claiming they are genuine apostles when they are actually servants of Satan (2 Corinthians 11).
In our text, Paul defends authentic apostleship by defining what it is. Second Corinthians 5:20–6:10 sets down those elements of authentic apostleship which distinguish it from the counterfeit. In his earlier First Corinthian epistle, certain things made the apostles distasteful, even shameful, to some Corinthians (see chapter 4, verses 6-13). Paul now returns to these “offensive elements,” to show that these very things authenticate true apostles and set them apart from the false. Paul defends not just himself, but his fellow-apostles as seen by his use of the plural pronoun (“we”), rather than the singular pronoun (“I”).
My understanding of the structure and argument of this passage stems in part from an observation concerning the expression, “we are ambassadors.” From the English translation, one would expect that there are three words in the original text: the pronoun, “we”; the verb, “are”; and the predicate nominative, “ambassadors.” Actually, the expression reads, “we ambassador.” Ambassador is a verb, not a noun. As I interpret it, this detail is important because it is the principle statement of the passage, and the others are supportive. “Ambassadoring” entails: (1) begging lost men to be reconciled to God (5:20-21); (2) urging saints not to receive the grace of God in vain (6:1-2); and (3) not giving cause for offense, but commending oneself as a servant of God (6:3-10).
Viewing the structure of our passage in this way helps to explain the emphasis we find in verses 3-10. The most lengthy portion of our text is all about the sufferings of Paul and his colleagues in the gospel ministry. What does this have to do with the whole passage? If, as I am contending, the main verb is “to ambassador,” then these three segments define what ambassadoring is. Ambassadoring is about preaching the gospel to the lost, urging saints to live according to the gospel, and suffering in a godly way for the cause of the gospel. Let us proceed with our exposition based upon this assumption concerning the structure of our text.
20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
The “therefore” of verse 20 links these verses with what has just been written in the preceding verses:
18 Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
I wish to highlight two things Paul says in verses 18 and 19 in relationship to his words in verse 20. First, I believe Paul speaks of the ministry of reconciliation as being given to the apostles in particular, and only secondarily to all believers. The “word of reconciliation” is the message of the gospel, as defined and declared by the apostles in their inspired and authoritative writings (i.e., the New Testament) and in their preaching. This is why, when they entreat men, begging them to be reconciled to God, they do so as though God were speaking and entreating through them. Their word is God’s Word.
Second, I believe Paul defines here what he means by reconciliation. Reconciliation is the restoration of lost sinners, alienated from a holy God, into fellowship and relationship with Him, by faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection in the sinner’s place. It is possible to speak and think of wayward sinners being reconciled to God, but I do not think this is the sense in which it is used here. Indeed, the dominant meaning of the term reconciliation is the reconciliation of lost sinners. Reconciliation here is virtually synonymous with salvation.
I struggled with this conclusion, because it is clear in the context that the “you” in verse 20 refers to those in the church at Corinth. How can Paul beg people in the church to be reconciled to God if reconciliation is the salvation of lost sinners? The answer is not nearly as difficult as we might think. How can we possibly assume that every church member is saved? More specifically, how can we assume that every Corinthian church member is saved, especially in the light of the doctrinal and moral problems Paul has already exposed in his letters to this church? Paul does not assume that everyone who attends church is saved. He does not even assume that everyone who professes to be saved is saved. Paul assumes that in a church which has so many serious problems, it is likely that some who gather with the saints are not saved.
He assumes, for example, that there may be visitors who are lost:
23 If therefore the whole church should assemble together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you (1 Corinthians 14:23-25).
At the end of this epistle, he challenges the Corinthians to give serious thought as to whether or not they are truly saved:
5 Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test? (2 Corinthians 13:5).
And so, my friend, if the Apostle Paul can appeal to those who gather with the Corinthian saints, begging them to be reconciled to God, is it not appropriate for me to urge you to be saved as well? This should certainly not offend anyone who is truly born again (John 3:1ff.), but it should give pause for thought to any who might not be. Just being with Christians does not make you a Christian. Even professing to be a Christian does not save you. What saves you is trusting in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in your place, for the punishment of your sins, and for the gift of God’s righteousness in Christ. I beg of you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
1 And working together with Him, we also urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain—2 for He says, “AT THE ACCEPTABLE TIME I LISTENED TO YOU, AND ON THE DAY OF SALVATION I HELPED YOU”; behold, now is “THE ACCEPTABLE TIME,” behold, now is “THE DAY OF SALVATION.”
I pass on, leaving behind the richness of verses 20-21 only because I have dealt with this text in previous messages. If Paul’s words in verses 20 and 21 are spoken to the lost, his first two verses of chapter 6 are addressed to those who are truly saved. These words are Paul’s admonition and exhortation to those who truly have been reconciled to God by faith in Jesus Christ. Once again, Paul speaks on behalf of God. He writes, “and working together with Him …” In the context, I believe it is clear he means, once again, that when he says these words to the Corinthians, he is speaking for God and with God (see also 1 Corinthians 3:9).42 Paul is not speaking alone; He is speaking for God, and he is also speaking with the apostles. He writes, “we also urge you …” (6:1). Thus, all of the apostles speak the same thing when they speak for God to men.
As authentic apostles urge unbelievers to be reconciled to God, they urge Christians “not to receive the grace of God in vain.” The question, of course, is what Paul means when he speaks of “receiving the grace of God in vain.” The expression, “in vain,” consistently seems to refer to any actions taken which do not produce their intended result. This may be one’s labor or ministry, which fails to produce the desired results (Isaiah 49:4; 1 Corinthians 15:58; Galatians 2:2; Philippians 2:16; 1 Thessalonians 3:5). It may even be one’s suffering, which proves to be of no benefit (Galatians 3:4).
I believe Paul speaks here of the danger the Corinthian believers face of having started well and then being led astray, so that their lives fall short of what the grace of God is designed and provided to produce in them. Paul warns the Galatians of this very thing:
1 You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? 2 This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 5 Does He then, who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? (Galatians 3:1-5).
7 You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? (Galatians 5:7).
Here in Paul’s words to the Galatians is the same warning he sounds to the Corinthian saints. Jewish legalists have crept in among the Corinthians, supposing their Jewishness makes them superior to mere Gentiles who are in the faith. They advocate teachings and practices which they claim are a part of the old covenant and which they wrongly suppose are superior to the new. If the Corinthians buy this heresy, they will have been turned from grace to law, and they will fail to reach the doctrinal and moral maturity for which God made provision. Paul simply urges the Corinthians to press on toward the goal of their salvation—by the same means as they were saved—by grace (see Philippians 3:1-16; Colossians 2:1-23).
This is a very serious matter for Christians of all ages. All too often, Christians assume that once they are saved they have arrived. Salvation has three dimensions: past, present, and future. Salvation is the starting point, and salvation has a final goal. Having been saved, we must press on to maturity in Christ. We should not be like the Hebrews who became stagnant in their faith:
11 Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. 13 For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil (Hebrews 5:11-14).
Sinners are called to be reconciled to God, to be saved from their sins by faith in Jesus Christ. Saints are called to obedience, to grow up to maturity in Christ. And this growth is not done in isolation, but as a part of a body that is working together in unity and harmony:
11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ. 14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love (Ephesians 4:11-16).
No wonder Paul is concerned about the Corinthians! They are divided into little competitive cliques. Some are looking to their leaders or to their own gifts as a basis for boasting over others. Those at Corinth who are lost need to be saved, and those who are saved need to grow up in unity to maturity. If they fail to do so, they have received the grace of God in vain. They have been saved from their sins, but they have failed to reach the goal of their salvation by grace. The apostles’ task is to call the lost to repentance, to be reconciled to God. It is also their task to call believers to growth and maturity. And this is what Paul and his fellow-apostles are continuing to do. Those who claim to be apostles and do not do the same clearly are not authentic apostles.
Paul buttresses his appeal in verse 1 with a quotation from Isaiah in verse 2: “For He says, ‘AT THE ACCEPTABLE TIME I LISTENED TO YOU, AND ON THE DAY OF SALVATION I HELPED YOU’; behold, now is ‘THE ACCEPTABLE TIME,’ behold, now is ‘THE DAY OF SALVATION.’” Paul appeals to Christians in verse 1 not to receive the grace of God in vain. He then quotes this text in Isaiah 49, verse 8. I believe we can only grasp Paul’s understanding and use of verse 8 if we look at the broader context of the chapter from which this is cited. Look especially at verse 4: “But I said, ‘I have toiled in vain, I have spent My strength for nothing and vanity; Yet surely the justice due to Me is with the LORD, And My reward with My God’” (Isaiah 49:4, emphasis mine).
As I understand this chapter, an interchange takes place in the meaning of the term “servant.” Sometimes, the “servant” is the nation Israel; at other times, it is the promised Messiah. Jesus, the Messiah, is the “Servant” who fulfills what Israel could not and did not fulfill as God’s “servant.” In verse 4, Israel protests that it has toiled “in vain” (the same Greek term Paul uses in 2 Corinthians 6:2) and spent its strength for nothing, for vanity. God speaks to disheartened Israel to assure her that her labors are not in vain. They are not in vain because He is sending the Messiah, upon whom all of Israel’s hopes are pinned, and through whom they are realized. God promises Israel that in “an acceptable time” and in a “day of salvation” He will bring about their salvation. This “day” will be a day of salvation for both Jews and Gentiles (see 49:1, 6-7, etc.).
That promised “day,” Paul says to the Corinthians, has come. The promised “Servant” is the Lord Jesus Christ. Through His death, burial, and resurrection, God has fulfilled His promise of salvation. That day has come. This means that all our labors, all our sufferings are not in vain. They are certain. Why then should we become slack and undisciplined, so that we receive the grace of God in vain by not striving toward the goal of our salvation? The doubts and fears expressed by ancient Israelites, because the promised day was distant, are not excusable, but they are understandable. However, for those upon whom the ends of the ages have come in Christ (1 Corinthians 10:11), there is absolutely no excuse for doubting the certainty of our future hope. Christ has come, the day of salvation is now. We have every reason to labor diligently, knowing our labor and suffering are not in vain. We have no reason to give up and every reason to press on in our relationship with Christ.
3 Giving no cause for offense in anything, in order that the ministry be not discredited, 4 but in everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, 5 in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger, 6 in purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love, 7 in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left, 8 by glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; regarded as deceivers and yet true; 9 as unknown yet well-known, as dying yet behold, we live; as punished yet not put to death, 10 as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things.
There are four major dimensions to Paul’s words in verses 3-10. First, Paul purposes to give no cause for offense in anything. Second, he and his fellow-apostles are suffering greatly as servants of God. Third, in the midst of all this, they are manifesting godly character through the ministry of the Holy Spirit in them. Fourth, they are employing godly means and methods. Let us pause to consider each of these four dimensions.
Paul tells us that he and the true apostles “give no cause for offense in anything, in order that the ministry be not discredited” (verse 3). It is very important that we understand what Paul does and does not say here. Paul does not say that he avoids offending unbelievers altogether. Paul says, in effect, that he is scrupulous to avoid offending anyone unnecessarily and in a way that adversely affects the gospel, which is the heart and soul of their ministry. Paul has already told us that the message of the gospel is offensive to the unbeliever:
22 For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).
The gospel does not flatter lost men; it condemns them as guilty sinners. Men do not come to faith through flattery and appeal to their egos; they come to faith in brokenness and humility. Paul does not and will not change the gospel to make it more appealing to lost sinners, and he strongly condemns anyone who does (see Galatians 1:6-10). Paul seeks to avoid offending men by his conduct and lifestyle, setting aside anything which hinders the gospel in any way. One of the best examples of Paul’s eagerness to avoid unnecessary offense to the gospel is found in 1 Corinthians 9:
15 But I have used none of these things. And I am not writing these things that it may be done so in my case; for it would be better for me to die than have any man make my boast an empty one. 16 For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel. 17 For if I do this voluntarily, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have a stewardship entrusted to me. 18 What then is my reward? That, when I preach the gospel, I may offer the gospel without charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. 19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. 20 And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. 23 And I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow partaker of it (1 Corinthians 9:15-23).
In this chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul goes to great lengths to demonstrate his right to be supported in ministry. In the verses just cited, Paul explains that while he has the right to be supported in his ministry, he sets this right aside so there is no unnecessary hindrance to his ministry. Some people then, as now, think that all preachers are in the ministry for the money. They can hardly accuse Paul of this, because he labors with his own hands, providing not only for his own needs but also for those of others:
5 For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness—6 nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority. 7 But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. 8 Having thus a fond affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us. 9 For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; 11 just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, 12 so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory (1 Thessalonians 2:5-12; see also Acts 20:33-36).
What a contrast this is to the mindset and lifestyle of those who are false apostles. The false apostles more than willingly modify the gospel so it will not give offense to fallen men (see 1 Corinthians 15:12; 2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:2; 11:1-4). They seem to be taken with themselves and are far from humble. They advocate assertive leadership, not servant leadership. They may be involved in some of the practices which even offend the pagans of their day (see 1 Corinthians 5:1). They do not seem to be the kind who surrender their rights as Paul and others do, but may well be among those who insist on their rights, even when their “rights” are wrong (such as participating in pagan idol worship ceremonies—1 Corinthians 8-10). The false prophets are “wolves” who feed on the sheep, while the true apostles are shepherds, who protect, guide, and feed the sheep at great personal sacrifice. Authentic apostles seek to avoid any offense which hinders the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We know that suffering was the rule for the Old Testament prophets: “Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become” (Acts 7:52). Jesus made it very clear to His disciples that He would suffer, and so would they:
21 From that time Jesus Christ began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day (Matthew 16:21; see also Luke 9:22; 24:26).
18 “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. 21 But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me” (John 15:18-21; see also Matthew 24:9).
False prophets have minimized sin and its consequences throughout biblical history, and they have promised peace and prosperity to the wicked (Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11; 2 Peter 2:1-3; 3:3-7). When Jesus spoke to those who would follow Him, He made the cost of discipleship very clear (see Luke 9:57-62), and so did the apostles (Acts 14:22; 2 Timothy 3:12). The apostles know what it means to “take up their cross” in following Jesus. But the false apostles are not interested in paying a price for following Christ, because they do not know Him (see Jeremiah 23; John 10:10-13). They are motivated by greed and self-indulgence. Thus, one of the ways of discerning an authentic apostle is to see how much he has suffered for His Lord.
Before proceeding, it may be worth noting the structure Paul indicates and employs in verses 4-10. Verses 4-7a contain the repeated term “in.” In verses 7b-8a, Paul employs the term “by.” And finally, in verses 8b-10 Paul uses the form, “as … yet” There are then three separate categories. The “in” list of verses 4-7a is a listing of the various forms of suffering which Paul and his fellow-apostles have endured, as well as the godly character they evidence in their adversity:
“In” much endurance: 43
“In” (godly character):
The “by” of verses 7b-8a enumerates the various means by which the gospel is proclaimed and practiced by the apostles:
In the final structural device (“as … yet”), Paul describes the popular perception of the apostles by unbelievers, contrasting it with the true perception of their standing and status in Christ:44
yet behold we live
yet not put to death
yet always rejoicing
yet making many rich
as having nothing
yet possessing all things
We have already seen that authentic apostles are those who have suffered Christ’s rejection and persecution, while the false apostles avoid suffering and persecution like the plague. False apostles are intent upon experiencing the “good life” for themselves and using it as bait for those whom they would lead astray. It is not enough for one just to suffer; an authentic apostle (as well as an authentic Christian) must suffer for the right reasons, and they must suffer in the right way. This is a point which Peter forcefully spells out in his first epistle:
18 Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. 19 For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. 21 For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, 22 WHO COMMITTED NO SIN, NOR WAS ANY DECEIT FOUND IN HIS MOUTH; 23 and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; 24 and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. 25 For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls (1 Peter 2:18-25).
The last part of Paul’s “in” list in verses 6 and 7 contains those qualities evidenced in their sufferings, which mark the apostles out as those who are identified with Christ. They are guided by the Word of God, enabled by the power of God, indwelt by the Spirit of God, and characterized by the fruits of godliness: purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, and love. How easily we justify our bad temper or our impatience in times of trial. God’s authentic apostles manifest Christ-likeness in the midst of their adversities. They not only bear His afflictions, they respond to them as He did.
The false apostles are gospel hucksters (2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:2). They modify the gospel to make it look good to men. They want to “sell” the gospel, appealing to the fleshly motives of men and, in the process, satisfy their own lusts. They try to make their “product” look good by making themselves look good. Authentic apostles refuse to dilute or modify the gospel message. They know that Christ crucified is not a popular message, but they rely upon the power of the Holy Spirit to convince and convert men (see 1 Corinthians 1:18–2:16). Thus, in using the term “by” in verses 7b and 8, Paul speaks of the means God employs in defining and declaring the gospel through His authentic apostles. Here are the means God works through His authentic apostles:
The weapons authentic apostles employ are the “weapons of righteousness.” They are not like those of the false apostles:
1 Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not lose heart, 2 but we have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God, but by the manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, 4 in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:1-4).
The false apostles love glory. They boast in it. At times, God did manifest His glory through His apostles as a testimony that they were authentic:
12 The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles (2 Corinthians 12:12).
1 For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 2 For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, 4 God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will (Hebrews 2:1-4).
But God also used His authentic apostles in situations which are far from glorious. Stephen’s stoning was far from glorious, but it brought about greater evangelism (Acts 8:1) and eventually the conversion of Saul (Acts 8:1-3; 9:1ff.). Paul’s imprisonment was used by his opponents who claimed that by this he was disapproved and should not be taken seriously; yet his imprisonment actually furthered the gospel (Philippians 1:12-18). Paul’s imprisonment led to the conversion of many in the household of Caesar (Philippians 4:22). It was in his imprisonment that Paul spent much time in prayer for the saints and in writing his epistles to them, some of which we now study as the very Word of God! Authentic apostles are not those who always seem to succeed or who have men’s approval; they are those who are faithful to the God who uses them in their honor and dishonor, for the sake of Christ.
The line between authentic and counterfeit apostleship is being drawn, leading up to Paul’s climactic conclusion in chapters 11-13. The Corinthian cliques, which Paul first mentions in 1 Corinthians 1, are being led (at least in part) by men who employ fleshly methods, who appeal to human reason and motives, and who distort and dilute the gospel to gain a following. At the same time, they look down upon Paul and his associates and ridicule his gospel as simplistic and offensive. They belittle Paul and the other apostles because they are not highly esteemed in the world. In fact, they are rejected and persecuted. Authentic apostles have none of the outward appearances of the counterfeit apostles. Paul outlines in 1 Corinthians 4 the things which he suffered, for which some of the Corinthians look down upon him:
6 Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that in us you might learn not to exceed what is written, in order that no one of you might become arrogant in behalf of one against the other. 7 For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? 8 You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become kings without us; and I would indeed that you had become kings so that we also might reign with you. 9 For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. 11 To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; 12 and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; 13 when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now (1 Corinthians 4:6-13).
Now, in 2 Corinthians 6, Paul raises these matters for which he is judged the “scum of the world, the dregs of all things.” These sufferings, trials, and tribulations of the Apostle Paul are now claimed as proof of the authenticity of his apostleship and that of his colleagues. Paul completely turns the tables on his opponents.
Is it not the same today? How do many professing Christians judge the authenticity of God’s servants, of the men (and women), of their message, and their methods? All too often, we judge on external standards, the very same standards employed by the world. Let us adopt the same standards Paul sets down, not only for those whom we will follow as our leaders, but as the standard for our own lives as well. Here in this text we learn not only what distinguishes an authentic apostle, but also that which distinguishes an authentic Christian. Let us live according to the standard of authenticity God Himself sets down for us through His apostle, Paul.
43 One finds an even more complete but parallel listing of the apostles’ afflictions in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27. It should also be noted that many of these afflictions are not recorded in Acts, which describes only the “tip of the iceberg” of the apostles’ afflictions.
45 See Ephesians 6:10-20.