2 Corinthians 1:23–2:4
But I call God to witness against me––it was to spare you that I refrained from coming to Corinth. Not that we lord it over your faith; we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith. For I made up my mind not to make you another painful visit. For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? And I wrote as I did, so that when I came I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice, for I felt sure of all of you, that my joy would be the joy of you all. For I wrote you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.
The better we know why we exist as a church the more freely and strategically we can each join in the mission of the church and make our individual contribution to its overall goals. And the goal in these three weeks, beginning last Sunday, is to clarify the reason Bethlehem exists.
The better you can express the purposes of your church the more easily and effectively you can speak about it to unbelievers at work. And I hope none of you is an invisible Christian. I hope you speak to unbelievers about your church and your faith.
Four years ago we defined the priorities of the church like this: We exist to enjoy God in worship; to minister to our fellow believers in nurture; and to reach out to unbelievers in evangelism. The priorities haven't changed. But recently we have been expressing things in a little different way that puts God even more consistently at the center of these three priorities.
Now we are saying:
Bethlehem is a vision of God. And we exist to
savor the vision in worship,
instill the vision in nurture, and
spread the vision in evangelism and missions.
The value of the new vocabulary is simply to reaffirm that the philosophy of ministry is alive and well, and to make even more clear than ever that we are committed to being a radically God-centered church—not only in the vertical acts of worship, but also in the horizontal acts of nurture and evangelism.
Last week we spoke of savoring God in worship. The text was Psalm 63 and we saw how a savoring of God, or a taste for God, can express itself in fainting for him when he is distant, and feasting on him when he is near. And we saw how the memory of corporate worship in the house of God in Jerusalem served to strengthen David later in the wilderness when he was pursued by his enemies.
This is our first priority as a church––individually to savor the power and the glory of God above all things in this world, and corporately to see and savor God in such a way that the experience itself is a tribute to the worth of God, and later, even in the wilderness, the memory of worship will be our joy and our strength.
We turn today to the second priority: Not only do we exist as a church to savor the vision of God in worship; we also exist to instill the vision of God through nurture.
Instilling the Vision in Nurture
The word nurture suggests the idea that we are a family. That's intentional. We are talking here about our goal in relationship to believers. The one time that "nurture" is used in the King James Bible it has to do with the rearing of children ("Bring children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord" Ephesians 6:4.) The dictionary defines nurture as breeding, education, training. The word has connotations of gentleness and care. I use it to refer to all those activities among Christians that help instill in our minds and hearts a bigger, deeper, clearer vision of God: teaching, conversing, visiting, working together, playing together, studying, encouraging, counseling, admonishing, rebuking, etc.
What the second priority makes plain is that believers make up a family of brothers and sisters, and that in all the ways of loving nurture our goal is to instill in each other a larger, deeper and truer vision of God.
The text I want us to look at for the support of this priority is 2 Corinthians 1:23-24. Paul had evidently intended to go to visit Corinth, but then changed his mind. This change of plans got him into big trouble. You can hear the accusations of his enemies behind his own words in verses 16-17,
I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia, and to come back to you from Macedonia and have you send me on my way to Judea. Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this? Do I make my plans like a worldly man, ready to say Yes and No at once?
That is what his accusers were saying. But the truth is very different. Why hadn't he come? He gives his answer in verse 23.
But I call God to witness against me––it was to spare you that I refrained from coming to Corinth.
Paul knew something about the situation in Corinth that was so bad it would have turned his visit into one great painful experience, for them and for him. So he made a decision to wait, and not to come at that time, but to hope that through his letters and his prayers, the situation would be changed, so that he would come with tenderness and not with a rod (1 Corinthians 4:12).
But even as he writes verse 23 he hears how someone may twist it. Someone may say, "So Paul says he didn't come so that he could spare you. Exactly! He doesn't really care about you and your relationship to God. What he cares about is his power, and his authority. He likes to throw his weight around. He likes to talk of sparing you so that you will remember that he is really the boss. He likes to lord it over your faith."
In verse 24 you can almost hear Paul sighing that he even has to say it, but he must. So he says, "Not that we lord it over your faith; we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith."
This is the verse I want us to think about. Here Paul describes his relationship horizontally with the family of believers in Corinth. He tells us what his goal is in that relationship. And I want us to take Paul here as a model for ourselves and let his goal be our goal. I don't think there is anything to suggest that this goal is only for apostles or only for the first century.
He says that his goal is not to lord it over their faith, but to be a fellow worker for their joy. I take this to mean that his goal is not to exalt himself or call attention to his own authority or serve his own reputation; but his goal is to work alongside them and do whatever he can to increase their joy. He is the servant of their happiness.
Now someone may ask, What does that have to do with your second priority of instilling a vision of God?
I think we will begin to see the answer if we look very carefully at the relationship between faith and joy in verse 24.
Nurturing the Joy of Faith
The verse begins with the issue of faith; shifts to the issue of joy and then returns to the issue of faith. Let me give you a literal rendering as I understand it: "We do not lord it over your faith; but we are fellow-workers for your joy; for by faith you stand."
Consider first the relationship between the first two clauses: "We do not lord it over your faith; but we are fellow-workers for your joy." The contrast between those two clauses is in the words "lord" and "fellow-workers." "Lord it over" means proudly exalt your authority over; "be a fellow-worker" means humbly stand beside to help.
So the contrast is not between faith and joy, but between lording it over and being a fellow-laborer. "We do not lord it over your faith; but we are fellow-workers for your joy."
It sounds as though faith and joy are almost interchangeable, as though he could as easily have said, "We do not lord it over your faith; but we are fellow-workers for your faith." I think Paul shifts from faith to joy not because they are separate goals in his ministry, but because this makes clearer than anything that Paul really loves them. They are not just notches on his gospel gun. He wants them happy. It is the goal of his life.
So I would say that the joy of verse 24 is the joy of faith, not a mere natural joy, but the joy that comes from faith, because the two words are almost interchangeable the way Paul uses them in these first two clauses.
Then consider the second two clauses together: "We are fellow-workers for your joy; for by faith you stand." The emphatic position in the last clause is given to faith, not to standing. He is not stressing their secure stance. He is stressing that when they are standing secure, it is by faith.
So what is the logic here? "We are fellow-workers for your joy; for by faith you stand." What's the connection? I think he is saying that faith is utterly indispensable because it is the strength by which you stand as a Christian. And Christian joy is so inseparable from faith that to work for your joy is the same as working for your faith. In other words, you stand as a Christian only by faith and therefore I work for your joy ... of faith. The logic of the verse falls apart unless the joy he seeks is the joy of faith.
So I would step back then and describe Paul's goal in his relationships with his fellow believers like this: He aims in all he does to work with them for the joy of their faith.
Nurturing in Small Groups
Now is it becoming a little clearer how this relates to the second priority of Bethlehem, namely, that we exist to instill a vision of God through nurture?
Paul's goal is to advance the joy of their faith. And so our goal should be to advance the joy of each other's faith. But if it is the joy of faith, we must ask faith in what? And the simplest answer is, faith in God.
For joy to grow, faith must grow, and for faith to grow the vision of God must grow. And so if our goal is to be the same as Paul's, namely to be fellow-workers of each others' joy, then we must work to instill in each other a bigger, deeper, clearer vision of God. Without a clear vision of God our faith weakens, and when our faith weakens our joy diminishes, and the church suffers.
And so our great second priority is this: we must work to instill in our brothers and sisters a deeper, bigger, clearer vision of God, and we must cultivate personal relationships in which that God-centered nurture can happen.
One relationship like this that God has given me in recent years is with a fellow pastor named John Armstrong at a Conference church down in Wheaton, Illinois. He has strengthened my hand in the work many times.
We were on the phone just this past week and he was telling me about last week's sermon on Nicodemus and how Christ was available for him late at night. He said in preparation for the sermon he had counted all the names at the end of Paul's letters––people that Paul wanted to greet personally, and found that there are over a hundred names.
And John said with great feeling in his voice and great longing for his people to see this: Paul was not a loner. He loved people, he cherished friendships, he longed for camaraderie.
And so this morning I urge you, as Steve comes to present to you the fourth year of the 20:20 Vision, to consider whether this form of small group gathering may be God's place for you this year––where the vision can be instilled and faith can be strengthened and joy become unspeakable and full of glory.