We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 1 Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. 2 For he says, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. 3 We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4 but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; 7 by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8 through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9 as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything. 11 We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open. 12 You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. 13 In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also.
Let me tell you here at the very beginning what the main point of this message is. The main point is this: What the world needs from the church — let’s be specific, from Bethlehem Baptist Church, from each of us who are Bethlehem — is our indomitable joy in Jesus in the midst of suffering and sorrow.
I’ll say it again: What the world needs from the church is our indomitable joy in Jesus in the midst of suffering and sorrow.
Letting the Sufferers Know We’ve Been There
This is the last message in the series of thirty-year theological trademarks of Bethlehem, and I am calling it “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” Here is what I wrote to the worship leaders to give them a flavor of where I was going in this message:
I believe for these decades this theme and tone has marked us deeply. We are a happy people. But we are not what you might call “chipper.” There is a plaintive strain in the symphony of our lives. I think Jesus was the happiest man who ever lived. And O how sorrowful! A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
Our signature song is perhaps “It Is Well With My Soul.” I think that would be a good song to end the service with. God bless and guide you as you build a joyful service that makes all the sufferers know that we’ve been there.
Not Playing Games in Corporate Worship
I have tried these thirty-two-and-a-half years to lead the staff and the elders and you in the experience of sorrowful yet always rejoicing. I turn with dismay from church services that are treated like radio talk shows where everything sounds like chipper, frisky, high-spirited chatter designed to make people feel lighthearted and playful and bouncy. I look at those services and say to myself: Don’t you know that people are sitting out there who are dying of cancer, whose marriage is a living hell, whose children have broken their hearts, who are barely making it financially, who have just lost their job, who are lonely and frightened and misunderstood and depressed? And you are going to try to create an atmosphere of bouncy, chipper, frisky, light-hearted, playful worship?
And, of course, there will be those who hear me say that and say: O, so you think what those people need is a morose, gloomy, sullen, dark, heavy atmosphere of solemnity?
No. What they need is to see and feel indomitable joy in Jesus in the midst of suffering and sorrow. “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” They need to taste that these church people are not playing games here. They are not using religion as a platform for the same-old, hyped-up self-help that the world offers every day. They need the greatness and the grandeur of God over their heads like galaxies of hope. They need the unfathomable crucified and risen Christ embracing them in love with blood all over his face and hands. And they need the thousand-mile-deep rock of God’s word under their feet.
The Thousand-Mile-Deep Rock of God’s Word
They need to hear us sing with all our heart and soul,
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
They need to hear the indomitable joy in sorrow as we sing:
His oath, His covenant, His blood,
Support me in the whelming flood.
When all around my soul gives way,
He then is all my Hope and Stay.
If you ask me, “Doesn’t the world need to see Christians as happy in order to know the truth of our faith and be drawn to the great Savior?” my answer is “Yes, yes, yes!” And they need to see that our happiness is the indomitable work of Christ in the midst of our sorrow — a sorrow probably deeper than they have ever known that we live with every day. They need to see “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”
So let’s put some of that rock under out feet now — the rock of God’s word. What John Piper and Jason Meyer think counts for nothing compared to what God thinks. So let’s go to the Bible and see if these things are so.
Why Emphasize “What the World Needs”
We will focus on 2 Corinthians 6:3–10. Why have I put the emphasis on what the world needs? Why have I framed the main point of this sermon as, “What the world needs from the church is our indomitable joy in Jesus in the midst of suffering and sorrow”? The answer is in verses 3 and 4. Paul says, “We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way.”
In other words, Paul is saying: What I am about do in this chapter is remove obstacles and commend our ministry — our life and message. He wants the church in Corinth, and the world, not to write him off, not to walk away, not to misunderstand who he is and what he teaches and whom he represents. He wants to win them. If you want to use the language of seeker-friendly, watch how he does it.
A Seeker-Friendly Apostle
It’s amazing what he does here. Many savvy, church-growth communicators today would have no categories for this way of removing obstacles and commending Christianity. In fact, some might say: Paul, you are not removing obstacles, you are creating obstacles. So let’s watch Paul remove obstacles and commend his ministry. This, he says in effect, is what the world needs.
He does this in three steps: He describes the sufferings he endures; he describes the character he tries to show; and he describes the paradoxes of the Christian life.
The Sufferings He Endures
First, he describes the sufferings he endures for Christ (2 Corinthians 6:3–5):
We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.
So be asking yourself: How is this removing obstacles? How is this commending his ministry? Why is this not putting people off rather than drawing them in?
The Character He Shows
Second, he describes the character he tries to show (2 Corinthians 6:6–7):
. . . by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left [probably the sword of the Spirit in the right hand and the shield of faith in the left, Ephesians 6:16–17].
So instead of being embittered and frustrated and angry and resentful by all the afflictions and hardships and calamities and labors and sleepless nights, by God’s grace Paul has shown patience and kindness and love. His spirit has not been broken by the pain of his ministry. In the Holy Spirit, he has found resources to give and not to grumble. To be patient in God’s timing, rather than pity himself. To be kind to people, rather than take it out on others.
The Paradoxes of the Christian Life
And third, Paul describes the paradoxes of the Christian life (2 Corinthians 6:8–10):
. . . through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
When you walk in the light and minister in the power of the Holy Spirit, and speak the truth in “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, and love,” some people will honor you and some will dishonor you (verse 8a); some will slander you, and some will praise you (verse 8b). And that dishonor and slander may come in the form of calling you an imposter (verse 8c). You’re not real. You’re just a religious hypocrite.
Remember Jesus said, “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets” (Luke 6:26). Which means that in Paul’s mind a mixed reception (some honoring and praising, some dishonoring and slandering) was part of his commendation. It removed the obstacle: You can’t be a true prophet, for all speak well of you.
Outside Perceptions with Some Truth in Them
Then come six more paradoxes. If you aren’t careful, you might take these to mean that Paul is correcting false perceptions of Christians, but it’s not quite like that. Every perception here of the outsider has truth in it. But Paul says, What you see is true, but it’s not the whole truth or the main truth.
Verse 9a: You see us “as unknown, and yet [we are] well known.” Yes, we are nobodies in the Roman empire. A tiny movement following a crucified and risen king. But O we are known by God, and that is what counts (1 Corinthians 8:3; Galatians 4:9).
Verse 9b: You see us “as dying, and behold, we live.” Yes, we die every day. We are crucified with Christ. Some of us are imprisoned and killed. But O we live because Christ is our life now, and he will raise us from the dead.
Verse 9c: You see us “as punished, and yet [we are] not killed.” Yes, we endure many human punishments and many divine chastenings, but over and over God has spared us from death. And he will spare us till our work is done.
Verse 10a: You see us “as sorrowful, yet [we are] always rejoicing.” Yes, we are sorrowful. There are countless reasons for our hearts to break. But in them all we do not cease to rejoice, one of the greatest paradoxes of the Christian life!
Verse 10b: You see us “as poor, yet [we are] making many rich.” Yes, we are poor in this world’s wealth. But we don’t live to get rich on things, we live to make people rich on Jesus.
Verse 10c: You see us “as having nothing, yet [we are] possessing everything.” In one sense, we have counted everything as loss or the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:8). But, in fact, we are children of God, and if children, then heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). To every Christian, Paul says, “All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Corinthians 3:21–23).
Exactly Opposite of the Prosperity Gospel
Now step back and remember what Paul said in verse 3: “We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way.” He has been removing obstacles to faith and commending the truth and value of his ministry — his life, his message, his Lord. And he has done it in exactly the opposite way that “the prosperity gospel” does it.
What obstacle has he removed? He has removed the obstacle that someone might think Paul is in the ministry for money, or for earthly comfort and ease. He has given every evidence he could to show that he is not a Christian, and he is not in the ministry, for the worldly benefits it can bring. But there are many pastors today who think just the opposite about this. They think that having a lavish house and a lavish car and lavish clothes commend their ministry. That’s simply not the way Paul thought. He thought that such things were obstacles.
Enticing to Christ for the Wrong Reason
Why? Because if they would entice anyone to Christ, it would be for the wrong reason. It would be because they think Jesus makes people rich and makes life comfortable and easy. No one should come to Christ for that reason. Enticing people to Christ with prosperous lifestyles and with chipper, bouncy, light-hearted, playful, superficial banter, posing as joy in Christ, will attract certain people, but not because Christ is seen in his glory and the Christian life is presented as the Calvary Road. Many false conversions happen this way.
So how is Paul commending his ministry — his life, his message, his Lord? Verse 4: “As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way.” How? By showing that knowing Christ, being known by Christ, having eternal life with Christ is better than all earthly wealth and prosperity and comfort. We commend our life and ministry by afflictions. We commend our life and ministry by calamities. We commend our life and ministry by sleepless nights. What does that mean? It means Christ is real to us, and Christ is infinitely precious, more to be desired than any wealth or comfort in this world. This is our commendation: When all around our soul gives way he then is all our hope and stay.
Sorrowful — Yet Always Rejoicing
What does it mean (verse 10) that part of Paul’s commendation to the world is that he was sorrowful yet always rejoicing? It means that what the world needs from the church is our indomitable joy in Jesus in the midst of suffering and sorrow.
Let me move toward a close with two pictures of this sorrowful yet always rejoicing. One from Jesus and one from Paul.
A Picture from Jesus
When Jesus said in Matthew 5:11–12, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven,” do you think it is random that the next thing he said was, “You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world”? I don’t think it was random. I think the tang of the salt that the world needs to taste, and the brightness of the light that the world needs to see is precisely this indomitable joy in the midst of sorrow.
Joy in the midst of health? Joy in the midst of wealth and ease? And when everyone speaks well of you? Why would that mean anything to the world? They have that already. But indomitable joy in the midst of sorrow — that they don’t have. That is what Jesus came to give in this fallen, pain-filled, sin-wracked world.
A Picture from Paul
Or consider Paul’s experience of agony over the lost-ness of his Jewish kinsmen in Romans 9:2–3. Remember Paul is the one who said in Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” But in Romans 9:2–3, he writes, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.”
Don’t miss the terrible burden of the word “unceasing” in verse 2. “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” because my kinsmen are perishing in unbelief cut off from the Messiah. Is Paul disobeying his own command to rejoice always? No. Because he said in 2 Corinthians 6:10, We are sorrowful yet always rejoicing.
What the World Needs from Us
Is this not what the world needs from us? Picture yourself sitting across the table at your favorite restaurant from someone you care about very much and is not a believer. You have shared the gospel before, and they have been unresponsive. God gives you the grace this time to plead with them. And he gives you the grace of tears. And you say: “I want so bad for you to believe and be a follower of Jesus with me. I want you to have eternal life. I want us to be with Christ forever together. I want you to share the joy of knowing your sins are forgiven and that Jesus is your friend. And I can hardly bear the thought of losing you. It feels like a heavy stone in my chest.”
Isn’t that what the world needs from us? Not just an invitation to joy. Not just a painful expression of concern. But the pain and the joy coming together in such a way that they have never seen anything like this. They have never been loved like this. They have never seen indomitable joy in Jesus in the midst of sorrow. And by God’s grace, it may taste like the salt of the earth and look like the light of the world.
So I say one last time: What the world needs from the church — from us — is our indomitable joy in Jesus in the midst of suffering and sorrow.
Indomitable Joy in Suffering and Sorrow
This was Paul’s commendation of his ministry. May it be our commendation of Christ at Bethlehem. It is no accident that Paul concluded the greatest chapter in the Bible — Romans 8 — with words that are designed pointedly to sustain your joy and my joy in the face of suffering and loss.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died — more than that, who was raised — who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in [not instead of, but in!] all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31–39)
So, Bethlehem, let the world taste your indomitable joy in suffering and sorrow.