Triumphantly Encouraged: The Privilege of Ministry, Part 2

Desiring God 1997 Conference for Pastors

Triumphantly Encouraged: The Privilege of Ministry

Thank you. It’s an opportunity I can’t resist to comment on my wonderful father. God has graced my life with such a faithful man. He’s in his 80s. He is still living in Eugene, Oregon, and still has a weekly radio program. He still writes his normal material and still reads just as extensively as he ever has in his life. His mind is still as alert as it’s ever been. He fires on all cylinders and that’s good because I hope I have some of those genes in me. I’ll be clothed and in my right mind for a few more years. My dad is a true friend. We talk all the time. He still feels it’s his responsibility to instruct me relentlessly, and he sends me faxes all the time telling me what books I’m supposed to be reading and he’ll be sending another fax in a week to get a report as to how I enjoyed the book.

When I go to visit with him, he has a stack of material waiting for me to go through, and we have these great, great times. It’s a great heritage, and of course, I’m a fifth generation preacher in the MacArthur family, starting way back in Scotland and marching through Australia and Canada, finally down to the United States. So I have an awful lot in my background for which I can thank the Lord. The waters in our family run deep back into Scottish Presbyterianism. In fact, my great-grandfather’s brother was the pastor of the Presbyterian church in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and that’s where the MacArthurs first landed in this part of the world. And the heritage goes from there. So we’re very grateful for the way God has blessed in our family, and I’m very thankful to the Lord for my dad, who is a treasure to me.

Partners in a Common Work

I also want to take a moment to introduce some of the folks who are with me. I hope they came this morning, wherever they are. From our church staff, Pat Howell is our missions pastor at Grace Community Church and he came out there from Minnesota. He’s from this area, so he used this as an excuse to come back and see all his old friends and pals under the guise that he wanted to hear me preach. Glad you’re here, Pat.

And Dr. Dick Mayhue is here. Dick is a treasured friend and is the dean of the Master Seminary. He gives the leadership to that institution which God has put his hand on for blessing. In fact, the day before yesterday, on the Lord’s Day, we broke ground for a new $4 million library and faculty office that will house the 175,000 volume library that we have. A large portion of it is now in boxes and it’s very hard for students to use those kinds of books. So in 10 months, we should have that building in place and we’re very grateful to the Lord for how he’s blessed our seminary. We have 250 men now in the MDiv program, and some are in our ThM program. In two years, we’ll start a ThD program as well. Dick has given all that leadership there.

Dr. Allen Pugh is here as well and he is provost at the Master’s College. He gives leadership to the academic and other assorted things that go along with it. If these gentlemen can be of any help to you, I hope that you’ll take the opportunity. They can stand on their own feet, preach and teach the word of God, and give you insight and help into church ministry. Allen pastored for many years in Delaware before coming out west and then coming to be with us and, of course, is a tremendous blessing to us. I really thank the Lord for the men that God has put into my life through the years and what a tremendous joy and what a help they are to me.

The Value of the Treasure Within

I have to say as well, that my favorite group of people to speak to are preachers because I know there’s sympathy out there. You know what this is like. Especially when you have so many to speak to who know so much about the word of God, and yet, what a privilege and joy it is to encounter the great truths of scripture together. And I come to you as a servant. I come to you really, not to bring down some great truth that’s never been heard before, but to try to direct your thinking to things that have been heard many times before, and just to focus our thoughts together on the word of God in ways that’ll be helpful.

We’ll be in 2 Corinthians 4, and this morning is probably going to be the toughest one for me because I have so many things that I want to try to embrace in this message. In some ways this text, of course, could stand alone, but I want to say what the text says and I also want to use it as a launch point to say a few other things. So I’ve tried to insert them in the appropriate places. I guess it’s an old adage that you can’t tell the value of something by the package that it comes in, and that is really the heart and soul of the text before us. It is certainly true, in terms of the preachers and the witnesses to the gospel. It’s like the treasure of salvation buried in the dirt our Lord referred to it in his parable in Matthew 13:44, which was so precious that a man would sell everything he had to buy it, or the pearl of great price which was once hidden in a dirty shell and it became so valuable that again, the man would give everything he had for it.

The container does not always indicate the value of the treasure that it holds and that is, essentially, the picture that is found in the text of Second Corinthians chapter four. Let me read 2 Corinthians 4:5–15 (all Scripture references are from the NASB):

For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you.

But having the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I believed, therefore I spoke,” we also believe, therefore we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you. For all things are for your sakes, so that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God.

Attacks on the Apostle Paul

The false apostles, the false teachers we mentioned last night in Corinth, had been relentless in their assault on the apostle Paul. And as I told you, they had been trying every possible way to discredit him, saying things about him that obviously were not true. Some of them are indicated in the earlier verses of this chapter. If you’ll look back, just to invite a little context into the picture. He says in 2 Corinthians 4:1, “Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not lose heart . . .” And then in 2 Corinthians 4:2 we have some suggestions of some of the accusations against him that are reflected in what he says. He says, “We have renounced the things hidden because of shame” (2 Corinthians 4:2). One of the things that they were saying about him, no doubt, was that if the truth were known, it would reveal that Paul had a secret hidden life of shame; that under this religious facade, under this hypocritical surface, this veneer, there was real corruption.

They also no doubt said that he walks in craftiness. They suggested that he adulterated or perverted the word of God and those are the very things that he denies here. They were doing everything they could to dethrone Paul. And as I told you, they even got to the place where they began to attack his physical appearance. Over in 2 Corinthians 10:10 they said his letters are weighty and strong. In other words, “The man can write. There’s no question about that. He has a great logical mind and when he puts it down for us to read it is profound stuff. His letters, indeed, are weighty and they are strong.” But then they said, “But his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech is utterly contemptible.”

In fact, they even went so far as to say he was very unskilled. Second Corinthians 11:6 says, “Even if I am unskilled in speech, I am not so in knowledge.” And again, he reflects on another of those criticisms that came against him. He was aging, he was scarred, he was marred, he was embattled, he was bruised, and he certainly was weary. Some have suggested he was small, maybe hunched over a little bit, and some have gone so far as to suggest he had some kind of eye deformity. I’m not sure that we can confirm that, but certainly, the rigors of years and years of ministry had rendered whatever handsome man there might have been, anything but that. He was obviously not all that people would’ve expected him to be where he would win the favor of the crowds.

But whatever his shortcomings in looks and whatever his shortcomings in terms of his personal presence, he was obviously aware of all of them and nobody was surprising him. They smeared him as a preacher, discrediting his ministry because of its simplicity. Back in 1 Corinthians 2, they disdain the fact that he came in weakness, fear, and much trembling. They disdain the fact that he shunned cleverness of speech. And so it went. And all of this really only had one goal in mind and that was to destroy people’s confidence in him, so they could replace him and then they could step in and be the reigning teachers in the Corinthian church and make the money and gain whatever they wanted to gain from those people, as false teachers always want to do.

Amazed to Be an Instrument of God

But all of this kind of assault on Paul’s person, as I said, was not news to him. In fact, it was a continual source of amazement to him, that in spite of his looks, in spite of the absence of oratorical ability, in spite of his shunning, as it were, the cleverness of speech by which you might curry favor, and in spite of all of his infirmities and weaknesses and all of that, the Lord called him and continued to use him. And he used him powerfully. And that’s really the sense that’s behind this passage. He is the first one to stand up and confess he’s a clay pot. This is not news.

While he would agree about his weaknesses and he would agree about his inabilities affirming some of the taunts of his detractors to be accurate, he at the same time, had to defend himself as a faithful preacher of the truth of God. So he is somewhat caught in a difficult place. He cannot allow the church at Corinth to be drawn away, sucked away from him, or they will be drawn away from the truth. So like all noble ministers, he’s in a very embarrassing place.

He’s being criticized by people much more sinful than he is, by people teaching error and not truth. He’s being criticized by people far weaker than he is, and yet, he finds it hard to defend himself because he knows he’s nothing, and yet he must defend himself because he has to salvage his place in the church. So he is caught in that very embarrassing position of wanting to defend himself and not defend himself at the same time. He does a masterful job of doing just that and maintaining wonderful balance in this passage.

The Glories of the New Covenant

Now, he was very aware of the glories of the New Covenant gospel. If you look again at the text, you will see that he sums up the gospel in most grandiose terms in 2 Corinthians 4:4 as “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” And then in 2 Corinthians 4:6, he says that light, shining out of darkness, is the one who has “shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” This is a grandiose expression, simply to say that the glory of God, incarnate in Christ, has come to dwell in the preacher. And the preacher is an instrument by which the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ is being manifest.

I wish we had the time to fully expand on that portion of the passage, but we don’t. Paul is very aware of the glories of the New Covenant. I love 2 Corinthians 3 because it is a monumental statement of the nature of the New Covenant. It gives tremendous insight into all new covenant references in the Old Testament and to any grasp of the distinction between the Mosaic covenant and the New Covenant in Christ. It’s a profound passage of Scripture, including the glorious illustration from the life of Moses in his encounter with God’s glory in Mount Sinai.

Paul was aware of the glories of the new covenant, of the great glory of God that’s shown in the face of Jesus Christ being deposited in the preacher. He comments on the gospel through this epistle and I cannot resist at least looking at two of the comments that will give you something of the grandeur of the gospel.

His Riches for Our Enrichment

Look at 2 Corinthians 8:9. This is one of those vital passages of scripture that define for us, something of great merit and great significance, this one being the kenosis. It says:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

That is a profound gospel statement that talks about the transition from being God and coming down and becoming man in order that man, through the impoverishing of the second member of the Trinity, might become rich.

When you look at this verse and break it down, it’s a very simple verse and yet carries the great weight of profundity that the incarnation bears. It says, “Though he was rich.” What does that refer to? It refers to his eternal riches. He was pros ton theon (“face-to-face”), John says in John 1:1 of his Gospel. He was equal with God, as it is indicated in Philippians 2:6, and he was as rich as God is rich. He was the possessor of all that existed. That’s how rich he was. Yet for your sake, he became poor.

When I went through this, I decided to do a little historic reading. I went back and I read Aquinas on this passage, I read John Calvin on this passage, and I read a few other notable people. And everyone that I read, when they came to the phrase “for your sake he became poor” launched off on a discussion of Jesus’s economic conditions. This passage has nothing to do with that. It has nothing to do with his economic conditions. The economic conditions of Jesus have no redemptive value at all. They are no more a part of redemption than was his pain on the cross.

You hear preachers stand up and preach graphically about the pain of Jesus and it may induce some sentimental feelings, but it was not his pain that redeemed; it was his death that redeemed. And it was not his economic conditions that redeemed, it was the divesting himself of what he had every right to as God, in setting aside the prerogatives of his deity to become impoverished, in the divine sense, not the human. That’s the incarnation, that’s the kenosis, that’s the self-emptying. And he did it that you, through his impoverishment, might become as rich as God is rich. This is the profound reality of the gospel.

He Became Sin for Our Sake

There’s another verse that may be the single greatest statement of imputation and substitution in all of the New Testament. It’s in 2 Corinthians 5:21. I’m pointing these out only to let you know that Paul understood the glories of the gospel, and he understood the precision with which the gospel is to be understood. In this great section of 2 Corinthians 5, he’s talking about the ministry of reconciliation. That in itself, is a remarkable reality that God is willing to reconcile sinners, isn’t it? It had to come from him and he had to initiate it. No sinner, no collection of sinners, however careful and thoughtful, however clever they might have been, however erudite, and however devoted, could ever have conceived a scheme of reconciliation with God. God alone could have designed one to reconcile himself to sinners, and he did.

God designed a way to reconcile himself to sinners. How? Second Corinthians 5:19 say “by not counting their trespasses against them.” The only way that God could ever be reconciled to sinners was if sin is not an issue, right? Sin has to be removed because God has purer eyes than to behold evil and can’t look upon iniquity (Habakkuk 1:13), so God has to deal with sin. How does God reconcile himself with sinners? By not counting their trespasses against them. By taking their sin and removing it. The question immediately comes in, how can a just God do that? How can a holy God merely overlook sin? How can he not count their trespasses against them and still maintain his holy justice? Answer? Second Corinthians 5:21 says:

He made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

That is a powerful statement. Let me break it down just briefly. It says, “He made him” — that is, God made Christ. Then he says, “He made him who knew no sin.” Who is “him who knew no sin”? It’s a fairly narrow field to choose from. “Him who knew no sin” is Christ, and “he” is God. Literally, in the Greek text, “God made Christ sin.” The only way that God could not count trespasses against us would be if someone else took the penalty for those trespasses. That’s the substitutionary atonement of Christ. But as you see what it says there, it’s so wonderful. It says, “He made him who knew no sin to be sin.”

The question is in what sense was Jesus made sin? If you read, tragically and sadly, the writings of some contemporary writers such as Kenneth Hagan and Kenneth Copeland, they will tell you that on the cross Jesus became a sinner. On the cross he became a sinner and he had to go to hell and suffer for his sins for three days, and after he had expiated his sins in hell, God let him be resurrected. We can perhaps chalk that up to ignorance, but in reality, it’s blasphemy. Jesus Christ on the cross was as sinless as he ever was before or since, or ever will be. He was never guilty of any sin or he could not have been the perfect sacrifice for our sins.

There is only one sense and one sense alone, in which God made him sin and it is this: though he was perfect, committed no sin was holy, harmless, undefiled and separated from sinners, God treated him as if he had committed every sin ever committed by every person who would ever believe. God treated him as if he had committed every sin ever committed by every person who would ever believe, though he committed none of them. That’s imputation.

There’s another side to it. He did that on our behalf, “that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” Understand it this way. On the cross, Jesus was not a sinner, but God treated him as if he was. Are you ready for this? You’re not righteous either, but he treats you as if you are. That’s imputation. That’s substitution. Paul understood that. That glorious kenosis, incarnation, substitutionary atonement is the essence of the New Covenant. He knew that. That was the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ deposited in his body and that’s what he preached.

Poor Instruments, Beautiful Melodies

Now let’s go back to our text. That’s half of the introduction to this deal. It’s like link sausage. Cut it off anywhere and you get the whole deal. It never ceased to be a wonder to Paul. It never ceased to be, and it shouldn’t be to us. It never ceased to be a wonder to Paul that such a priceless treasure came in such a clay pot. You can go back again to 1 Timothy 1:12–14 where he goes over that little rehearsal of who he really is. It’s this murderer, this aggressor, this worthless person whom the Lord picked up and used. AT Robertson, years ago, wrote:

It is a fearful mistake to expect or demand an impossible standard in the preacher. Ministers are men, and so long as men are not perfect, there’s no hope of perfection in the ministry. If God couldn’t use poor instruments and feeble voices, he wouldn’t make any music.

Abraham was guilty of duplicity, yet he became the man of faith and the friend of God. Moses had his halting speech and quick temper, yet he was the man chosen to make a nation and to commune with God. David was guilty of adultery and murder, but he repented and became a man after God’s own heart and a sweet singer of Israel for all time. Elijah ran from Jezebel and sat under the Juniper tree, but he stood on Mount Carmel and defied Ahab and all the prophets of Baal and heard the still, small voice of God at Horeb. Isaiah, in the presence of the heavenly vision of God’s holiness said, “Woe is me; I am undone, for I am a a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5). AT Robertson goes on to say:

Nevertheless he ventured to say, after one of the Seraphim touched his lips with a coal from the altar and cleansed him, “Here am I, send me.” And Peter, who though the leader in spokesman of the 12 apostles had denied his Lord with oaths and curses, was restored by the compassion of Jesus and enabled to speak under the power of the Holy Spirit with tremendous effect on the day of Pentecost. It is needless to go on. There was John the apostle, who expected to be praised by Jesus for refusing to allow a man not of their company to cast out demons in the name of Jesus, who with James wanted to call down fire from heaven to burn up a Samaritan village, and who with James also, wanted the chief places in the kingdom of Jesus. And John became the beloved disciple, the apostle of love, the eagle who soared to great heights, who pierced the deepest into the mystery of Christ, the Son of God.

You know, God is used to using clay pots. So here is Paul under assault, unjustly, falsely accused, and yet he is overwhelmed by the privilege to participate in this preaching of glorious truth.

Accusations and Credentials

Here he does something quite amazing. He takes all of their accusations and turns them into credentials. His defense is this: “Everything you say about my weakness is true, but they’re not defects. They are credentials of my authentic apostleship.” This section then unfolds as a magnificent tribute to a true servant of God and a true messenger of Jesus Christ. And they set forth the credentials of a noble preacher, a defense not based on natural talent, human skill or achievement, but on spiritual character. And I’ll give you several principles, as many as we have time for.

The Humility of Paul

First, one of his credentials was that he was humble. Here is one of the many paradoxes in 2 Corinthians. The epistle is full of them. Second Corinthians 4:7 says:

We have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves . . .

This must always be the preacher’s perspective. We’re just earthen vessels. We have no confidence in the flesh because the flesh has nothing to commend itself. In 2 Corinthians 10:17–18, Paul says:

He who boasts is to boast in the Lord. For it is not he who commends himself that is approved, but he whom the Lord commends.

This is a statement of Paul’s true humility. We have this treasure, this ministry, as he noted it in 2 Corinthians 4:1 — this New Covenant gospel, this glorious word of incarnation and substitution, this knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ — in clay pots. Ostrakinois is the word for “clay pots,” and I guess what we could say about them is that they were cheap, common, breakable, replaceable, valueless, and homely. It was baked clay, that’s all. Now occasionally, some precious treasures were stored in clay pots like the Dead Sea scrolls, and often they were used as vaults to store gold or jewelry or other precious things, sometimes then to be buried in the ground. In Roman triumphal processions, it was customary for gold and silver to be carried in earthen vessels.

Plutarch describes how at the celebration of the Macedonian victory of Aemilius Paulus in 167 BC, 3,000 men followed the wagons carrying silver coins in 750 earthen vessels, each containing three talents and borne by four men. Paul has captured an imagery here that is not uncommon to those folks. You could put a real treasure in a clay pot. But I have to say, mostly they were used for garbage. Mostly they were used for waste. I don’t want to get too graphic here, but they didn’t have plumbing in those days and clay pots served them well. I think that’s what’s in the mind of Paul. Turn to 2 Timothy 2:20 for a moment. In second Timothy 2:20, Paul says:

Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware . . .

Now in a large house you have some vessels that you eat from and then you have some vessels that you carry out the end result in. Some vessels, according to 2 Timothy 2:20, are to honor and some are to dishonor. The point being here that they have dishonorable uses, unmentionable uses. That was the common usage for clay pots. The only value they really had was the service they performed, and they were really ugly and they were kept out of human sight. They were used for the humble and dirty uses, not anything noble. You hoped that they never came out into public places.

Paul says, “That’s me,” and that’s all of us. We have this great treasure in a garbage bucket. Now therein is the essence of true spiritual humility. They said of Paul, “He’s weak, he’s unimpressive, he’s plain, he’s calm, and he’s not clever. He’s not intellectual.” He said, “You’re right. I am a garbage pail, but God has cleaned me up and put his treasure in me.”

Not Many Noble

The New Testament was not written by the elite of Egypt, and it wasn’t written by the elite of Greece or Rome. Do you want to know something? It wasn’t even written by the elite of Israel. The greatest scholars in Egypt were there at the greatest library of antiquity in Alexandria. The most distinguished philosophers of the ancient world were in Athens. The most powerful movers and shakers and leaders of people were in Rome, and the religious geniuses were in Israel’s temple. And God ignored all of them and chose clay pots. All the better because God gets some pleasure, doesn’t he, out of the base and the “not many mighty” and the “not many noble,” to confound the wisdom of the world.

He passed by Herodotus, the historian. He could have used him. He passed by Socrates, the philosopher; Hippocrates, the father of medicine; Plato, the philosopher; Aristotle, the philosopher; Euclid, the mathematician; Archimedes, the father of mechanics; Hipparchus, the astronomer; Cicero, the orator; and Virgil, the poet. Why? Well, they weren’t listening, first of all. And he picked peasants and common people and fishermen and nobody’s, and he’s still doing it, isn’t he?

The content of the New Testament gospel is put in these clay pots. That’s us. Why? It says why in 2 Corinthians 4:7 when Paul writes, “That the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves.” Do you understand that? God is still today passing by the elite. He’s still passing by the proud intellectuals in the universities and the seminaries, and he’s looking for the humble clay pots who will carry the treasure of saving truth. He is still doing it. Why? So that the surpassing greatness of the power may be clearly of God.

When God uses frail, homely, ugly, nobody’s, everybody knows where the power is. It’s not in us. The great power of the truth overcomes and transcends the weakness of the preacher. The fact that God can do such eternally powerful and transforming work through such frail clay pots is proof of the greatness of his power. It’s a treasure in a garbage pail. The weaker the preacher, the greater potential for power.

That’s why Peter, in 1 Peter 5:5, says, “Clothe yourselves with humility.” We’re dirt, baked hard. Denny wrote years ago:

No one who saw this and looked at a preacher like Paul could dream that the explanation lay in him. Not in an ugly little Jew without presence, without eloquence, without the means to bribe or compel could the source of such courage, the cause of such transformation, be found. It must be sought, not in him but in his God.

He’s right. There have always been men in the world so clever that God couldn’t use them. They could never do his work because they were so lost in admiration of their own. God’s work never depended on them, and it doesn’t depend on them now. The power of the gospel is not the product of human genius or technique. It’s not the result of clever human ingenuity. It’s the result of humility. We’re just weak and common and plain and fragile and breakable and dishonorable and disposable, and that’s God’s plan.

The Strength of Paul

Second, I don’t want to leave you there. There’s a second characteristic that marks the noble preacher. First, he is humble. Second, he is strong. It’s pretty simple here. He’s strong. This is a very resilient clay pot:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed . . .

Though there is humility, that’s not to be understood as weakness. Here is the marvelous partner to humility and provides a series of paradoxes, a series of four contrasts to show that weakness does not cripple but weakness strengthens. It is an essential that is not fatal to the fulfillment of our duty.

Paul was not only a clay pot, I remind you, but he was a mercilessly battered jar at that. And we noted that last night, as I reminded you back in 2 Corinthians 1:8–11. He talks about despairing of life and having the peril of death, affliction, and suffering beyond strength. And again, he repeats the same fears of course, as they were with him all the time, here in 2 Corinthians 4, and then on again and through the epistle, including chapters six, seven, 11, and 12. He was a battered jar, to put it mildly.

But in the same sense he was strong, he was actually strengthened. He says, “We are afflicted in every way (thlibō),” which means, “subject to pressure which burdens the spirit.” It’s like the care of the church’s despair. He says there is “disappointment” but he is “not crushed.” The word in the Greek means to “be pressed into a narrow place,” or, “confined,” or, “to be pressed into such a confined space as to make escape difficult.” He’s pressed, he’s hemmed in, he’s crushed.

Not quite. He’s resilient. He’s perplexed from time to time, at a loss, despondent, at his wit’s end, but he’s never despairing. He is never at a total loss. He ever enters into final despair, though he has been depressed. He’s persecuted but not forsaken, not deserted, not abandoned. He is struck down — literally, knocked down with force — but not he is not perishing (apollymi). Now all of these terms simply depict severe assaults, adversity, enemies, and persecution. You know the story of his life. But he was so resilient. We’re going to see that resilience, so we’ll leave the rest of this point for tonight, when we come to 2 Corinthians 12.

You see, one of the things that Paul had going for him was the fact that he saw death as triumph. I mean, he would rather die and go to heaven anyway. He says, “It would be far better to depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23). So when you remove the fear of death, the severity of persecution is lessened because all it does is move you closer to your real goal. We’ll talk about that strength and how he developed that strength tonight.

The Sacrificial Love of Paul

There’s a third characteristic of this man. He was humble, he was strong, he was sacrificial. He was sacrificial. Second Corinthians 4:10–11 says:

Always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

Now here, the preceding paradoxes are given their meaning. The paradoxes of 2 Corinthians 4:8–9 are interpreted here and he explains the significance of all this suffering. All this suffering goes on all the time, in order that the life of Jesus may be manifested in his mortal flesh. What are you saying is, all of this struggle demonstrates the power of Christ in his life.

He was always under the threat of death. Every single day that he woke up, he knew it could be the last day of his life. Every day. He was daily facing death, always carrying about in the body, the dying of Jesus. Please, don’t get mystical here. He’s not talking about the “crucified life” here. He’s not talking about dying to self here. In 2 Corinthians 4:11, he says, “We who live are constantly being delivered over to death.” What he’s talking about is the fact that real death was imminent every day. Every single day he knew could be his last. The people who hated Jesus hated him, and they were Jews and Gentiles. The hatred for Jesus was directed at him. All of his sufferings were not due to his personality. They were not due to what people thought were “insane techniques,” but because he exalted Christ.

He was always carrying about in his body, the dying of Jesus. What he means by that is that he was feeling the blows that really were meant as a hostile response to Jesus. That’s why he said he bore in his body the scars of Christ (Galatians 6:17). They were whipping him but they were really after Jesus. But all of this, he says, was so that the life of Jesus might be manifested in his mortal flesh. The purpose for it all was to show that the living Christ in Paul was empowering him with courage and faithfulness and endurance and patience.

When you looked at his life, there was really no other explanation. Manifested through him was the power of Christ in the midst of all of this impending death. So he says it’s all that Christ might be manifest. It’s all “death working in us, so that life can work in you” (2 Corinthians 4:12). It’s sacrificial. That’s the nature of it. He was willing to suffer whatever he had to suffer in order that he might get the gospel to the unbelievers.

Expendable Ministers with an Indispensable Gospel

Do you remember that he said the same thing, essentially, a number of times in his letters? In Colossians 1:24, he says:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.

To the Philippians. He said, “If I die getting the gospel to you, it’s sweet death. If I am offered on the sacrificial altar of your faith, it’s sweet death” (Philippians 2:17). He was expendable. Gentlemen, at some point you need to come to grips with that. The kingdom doesn’t rise and fall on you. You don’t need to be the pastor of the world, or the Messiah of your city. The whole monkey’s not on your back. God buries his servants, but his work goes on, right? We are all disposable. We are clay pots. We are dispensable. We are not indispensable. We are not necessary for the purposes of God to unfold.

You don’t need to live a life of self-protection and self-preservation; you need to live a life of self-abandonment. And you make sacrifices for the truth. I’m not talking about making yourself obnoxious to people just so they’ll persecute you, but I am talking about being faithful to the truth, to take whatever comes in response to that truth. You have to see yourself as expendable. The apostle knows that he’s just a clay pot and that any day he could be broken into irretrievable pieces and fragments and he would go onto his eternal reward, and the Lord would put the treasure in another pot. That’s okay. But as long as it was in him, he would be sacrificial. He accepts the reality that he’s going to live on the brink of death and that he’s going to live with disdain and rejection. That’s the way it’s going to be.

The Faithfulness of Paul

That takes me to another point and maybe I just have time to make this briefly because this is really where it culminates. He was faithful, he was humble, and he was strong. There’s no question about the beautiful balance of those things. He was sacrificial and balancing that wonderfully, he was faithful. With all of the pain, you could have thought he might compromise his message, but he didn’t. Somebody might say to him, “Paul, if you just shut up for a while you can kind of cool things off.” Here’s his response:

But having the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I believed, therefore I spoke,” we also believe, therefore we also speak (2 Corinthians 4:13).

Don’t you like that? Someone might say, “Why did you say that, Paul?” He says, “Because I believe it.” They might say, “Well, Paul, didn’t you take into account the audience?” He says, “No, I took into account one audience.” Someone asks, “Why did you say that?” Paul says, “It’s because I believe it.” Philip Hughes writes:

It’s the unconquerable life of the risen Jesus within that man that enables his servant willingly and perpetually to be handed over to death for his sake, in order that he may proclaim the truth at any cost.

He is saying, “I didn’t have a choice. I believed it, so I said it.” And he says, “I have the same spirit of faith as Psalm 116.” That’s what he’s quoting. The writer in Psalm 116 is in grave difficulty. You can see it in Psalm 116:3–8. He prays for God to deliver him (Psalm 116:4), he believes God will do it (Psalm 116:5–9), and then he bursts out in thanks (Psalm 116:12–19). The Psalmist believed in power, he believed in mercy, he believed in care, and he believed in God’s deliverance, so he praised God. And Paul says, “I’m like him. I just trust God and say what I believe.” No hesitation. It doesn’t matter what persecution comes. It’s a little thing to him. He says in 1 Corinthians 4:3, “It is a very small thing that I may be examined by you.” He says, “I’ll wait till the Lord makes the final verdict” (1 Corinthians 4:5). He showed the great faith of the Psalmist, who had the courage of his convictions.

The Weapons of Our Warfare

Turn over to 2 Corinthians 10 for a moment. Here is an attitude and a reality that I think strengthens us for this kind of conviction to say what we really believe. I hear a lot of talk about spiritual warfare today and there’s a lot of stuff being written about spiritual warfare. Some of it’s helpful and some of it’s not, and you have to be very careful what you read. But one of the passages that really gets ripped out of its context is this one in 2 Corinthians chapter 10, and it gets applied in areas where it really, I don’t think, speaks directly. But I would call to your attention 2 Corinthians 10:3–5:

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh,

When he says “we walk in the flesh” here, he simply means “I’m human.” In fact, it’s an interesting transition because in 2 Corinthians 10:2, he denied walking according to the flesh. It’s almost the same phrase. He said, “There are those people who criticize me, because they say we walked according to the flesh.” He says, “No, we do not — not in the sense of immorality, not in the sense of sin.” But he turns right around like a play on words in 2 Corinthians 10:3 and says, “I am human, and because I’m human, I do not go out and make war with human weapons. I’m not going to enter into a spiritual conflict with human ingenuity and human cleverness and human ideas and marketing techniques, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.” You know the list. If I’m going to go to war, I’m not going to go to war in my humanness. Then 2 Corinthians 10:4 says:

For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh (they’re not human), but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses.

If I’m going to go to war, I’m going to go to war with powerful weapons, mighty weapons, because we’re trying to destroy, what? Fortresses.

Now, this is really a great, great statement. If any of you have traveled in the Mediterranean area or you’ve traveled in the Middle East, you’ve seen some of these massive ruins of these great fortresses. There are massive stone fortresses that were built. Paul says, “Look, we’re engaged in a warfare of storming, impregnable, massive fortresses.” We’re not knocking down cardboard houses, folks. This is a formidable foe that we assault. When we attack the kingdom of darkness, to borrow from our metaphor last night, to take prisoners out of the kingdom of darkness and bring them into the kingdom of God’s dear Son, so they can march with us in the triumph, we are storming massive, stone fortresses that don’t fall over with just some hot air blown at them. So what fools would we be to storm such fortresses with human ingenuity?

The Battle for the Mind

Now, what are these fortresses? It’s defined in 2 Corinthians 10:5. He says at the end of 2 Corinthians 10:4, “the destruction of fortresses,” then he immediately says — and this is the modifying statement — “destroying logismos (ideologies, concepts, or ideas).” The best word is “speculations.” What are the fortresses? Human speculation. They’re ideological fortresses. They’re not demons. Spiritual warfare is a battle for the mind. It is a battle of ideologies. It is bringing the truth to bear against human speculation.

The greatest fortress of our current day is the fortress of evolution, which is the reigning human ideology that cuts people off from any need for God because they don’t have to explain the ultimate cause. But there are lots of others — religious ones, philosophical ones, scientific ones. Here are these massive fortresses, these human ideologies. He further defines them, saying, “Even every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Any ungodly philosophy, any ungodly religion, any ungodly speculation, or any ideology of any kind that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, is a massive fortress which we assault.

Now if you understand the character of ministry, this puts it in perspective, folks. We are engaged in an all-out effort at some very formidable foes. And if we’re going to smash the fortress to the ground and capture those prisoners, who all their life long have been imprisoned by the fear of death and the clutches of Satan, and we are going to bring them captive to Jesus Christ, we have to be armed to do that. Those fortresses don’t fall easily and the weapons for doing that are not human. They are divinely powerful.

Armed with the Truth

Now, let me ask you a very simple question. You say, “Let’s get specific MacArthur. What’s the weapon?” You tell me. What is the one thing that destroys error? It’s truth. It’s that simple. This passage is not telling people to go chase demons. This passage is telling people to preach the truth. Yes, you’re going to be in a battle. Yes, there will be opposition. You’re talking about storming the fortresses of human ideologies and false world religions and whatever — cults and isms and schisms and spasms and yogis and whatever other stuff comes down the pike. And you’re storming all of those fortresses with the truth.

That was Paul. He was a warrior, wasn’t he? He was a battler, he was a soldier. When somebody said, “Ease off a little bit, take a vacation, go to Palm Springs and play some golf — cool it,” all he knew every day of his life was, “I wake up and this could be the day I die, but I’m going after the fortress again.” And what was his goal? His goal was to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5), every idea. He wanted to get all those people in there and he wanted to give them the truth, so that all their thinking shifted from damning speculation to saving truth, and then he could just scoop up the captive, smash the walls of the fortress, and set them all free and bring them to Christ. That’s war. That’s the real spiritual war.

The Hopefulness of Paul

That was just a footnote. Let’s go back to 2 Corinthians 4. He is saying, “Look, every day I could die. It could be the end. I mean, it could be over. I may not make it through the day. Some plot hatched by some Jews somewhere could end up in my death. Some group of Gentiles might throw me again on the dump, as they did in Lystra, and stone me to leave me for dead. I may never make it through the day and I wake up with that reality, but that doesn’t change anything. I believed, therefore I spoke. I just go at it. I storm the fortresses with the truth.” We believe, so we speak.

Here’s one last point. He was hopeful. He was hopeful because in 2 Corinthians 10:14 he said:

Knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you.

Isn’t that good? He looked toward the resurrection, didn’t he? He knew where his eternal reward was. He knew the future he had. He knew where it was all going. He had the hope of eternal life. He had the hope of eternal reward. He knew that someday there was laid up for him a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, would give to him, and not only to him, but to all those who love his appearing and live in the light of that. Someday death would come, but that didn’t hold any fear for him because he knew the reward was there and he would come to stand in the presence of his Christ.

He was glad to be nothing. He was glad to be a garbage pail, a clay pot — weak, disposable, and suffering. He was humble, he was strong, he was sacrificial, he was faithful, and he was hopeful. He knew in the end, there would be a reward.

The Worship of Paul

Here’s the culmination of everything. Here’s where it all went: he was worshipful. Second Corinthians 4:15 was the culmination of everything. Someone could say, “Why do you do this, Paul? You could have been something. You were something. You were a prominent student of Gamaliel, a well-trained Jew. Under the authority of Jewish leaders you were carrying out their wishes. You could have moved up the ladder, friend. How’d you get in this mess, where you live every day as if it could be your last, where you’re nothing but a garbage bucket, where you’re treated so unkindly and brutally, where you have to sacrifice all the time and life is so tough and you’re just smashing against these fortresses and fighting these battles endlessly and wearing yourself out and always saying what you believe and creating a stir and winding up in every jail, in every town you visit? Why do you do this?”

For all things are for your sakes, so that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God (2 Corinthians 4:15).

Do you know what motivated him? God’s glory. Do you know why he did all this? Listen, I’ll sum it up. It’s because the greatest reason to live for Paul was to glorify God. If he could just add one more voice to the hallelujah chorus, that was sufficient. That’s why he did what he did. It was so that this saving grace, spreading to more and more people, causes more and more people to give thanks to God. So God receives greater glory. The ultimate purpose of everything was worship. The man was a worshiper in the purest and broadest sense of the term. The goal was never his comfort, his reputation, his popularity, or his prosperity. The goal of his selfless service was that more and more people would be saved, so that more and more people would praise God, and more and more glory would come to the One who was worthy.

That’s it. That’s the supreme goal, that God may be glorified, that God may be honored, that someday throughout all of the new Jerusalem and the eternal new heavens and new earth, the hallelujahs would ring to the glory of God and the clay pots would all sing along.

Questions and Answers

Most of us who are here are probably married, and we recognize that our obedience to follow Christ may be costly to ourselves. How do we prepare our children or family that our obedience may be costly to them?

That’s a very good question. I really do believe that, and I’ll say this tonight, I don’t want to steal all my thunder tonight, but I really do believe that adversity is God’s greatest tool to shape a man. And consequently, adversity should be the greatest gift that he gives, not only to you but to your family. But that happens only when you have the right and appropriate response to it. And what makes the difference in your family is not what happens to you, but how you deal with what happens to you. If you deal with it triumphantly — as we saw last night — if you regard it as a privilege, if you deal with it as part of the price of the truth, and if at the same time, you nurture and cherish and nourish your wife and your children, they will be your greatest treasures.

I look at my life now and I look at my marriage now. God graciously spared Patricia three years ago when she had less than a five percent chance to live through an automobile accident, in which she broke her neck. I look at the years we’ve had since then. I look at four children who walk with Christ and love Christ, and who — and I say this honestly from the heart — think more of their father than they have any right to think because they believe in the cause from the heart. So they understand what goes with it. They’ve been a part of God refining a whole family, as we have endeavored prayerfully to accept what comes and to see God’s hand in it, as he has been shaping and molding us into what he wants us to be.

I look back at my wife’s accident and her incredible faith and strength through the time of her paralysis and wondering what would happen. God was always honored and the kids all came around and experienced all of that confidence and trust, and there was never a question about the purposes of God. I think of all of that unfolding.

I think it’s again, how you respond to all of those things. While God is shaping you, he can be shaping all. And I think that’s why it’s so important to respond in a godly fashion and to let God do his work. As I said last night, I go back to that comment about Job. There are going to be times when things come and there is no reason for them that you can figure out. Those are the great tests. Can you let God be sovereign and do as God wants to do? In the end, he’ll pour out abundant blessing as he did in Job’s case. So I think it has to do with how you respond to that, which is really in great measure, the test of your own spiritual leadership too.

Is spiritual warfare only an interaction with human ideology?

Well, according to Ephesians 6:12, we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but principalities and powers and so forth. I really believe, however, that in the biblical sense, our spiritual warfare is an interaction with ideology. Satan is disguised as what? An angel of light, and his ministers are angels of light. I think we are in an ideological battle. That is not to say that demons aren’t functioning on some level, trying to assault us or trying to hinder the work. But first of all, I can’t cast demons out of non-believers. Every casting out of demons in the New Testament was out of unconverted unbelievers. They just walked up and told them to leave. That’s apostolic. I can’t do that.

What I can do is bring the truth to bear against them, against the ideologies that they propagate. I think we need to pray. There times we need to pray that the Lord would deliver a person from demonic oppression or whatever that might be. But I don’t find anything in the Scripture to indicate that I am instructed to speak to the demons. I’ve had some conversations with him and I wasn’t very effective. I tried to cast a bunch of demons out of this one person. I mean, it was pretty ridiculous.

I finally came to the conclusion that this person had given place to Satan because of iniquity and because of belonging to Satan. So I just got through these voices to this individual and presented the gospel, and she opened her heart to Jesus Christ. In a moment there was just this incredible transformation, and the Lord delivered her graciously. But I’ve written a little book called How to Meet the Enemy, which details some of these things. I’ll say more about that tonight. I think our battle is ideological. I think Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. I think the idea of chasing after demons is totally foreign, by the way, to the Old Testament. It’s altogether foreign to the Old Testament. The only time you ever have any of that is the one little moment of redemptive history when Christ and the apostles are here and God is demonstrating that this is the Messiah and this is the New Covenant with a flurry of miracles, the likes of which never had occurred before or since.

I think the gift of miracles in 1 Corinthians is dunamis, and dunamis in the Gospels is power. He gave them power over the demons. I think that was part of the formidable testimony and credentials of the signs, wonders, and miracles that were done by the apostles. That is not to say that it’s inappropriate to pray that people would be delivered from those things. It is to say that I can’t command those beings. They have a commander. It’s not me, but I can sure tell the Lord to do it. Do you remember Jude? It says Michael didn’t dare to bring a railing accusation against Satan. We’ll mention more about that tonight. It’s important.

In your theological development over the years, what could you share with us that has been a moment of change or a new insight, where you left something that you held onto early in your ministry and now has changed?

There are a lot of those, but there’s sort of small steps. It’s not like a mid-course, 180 degree deal. I came out of seminary as a leaky dispensationalist. I wasn’t sure what should be leaking out and what should be kept. Through the years, I think I’ve come to see that refined. As I said last night, in response to John’s introduction, I have seen the crystallizing of my understanding of Reformed faith. I started reading the Puritans. Actually, I started reading Benjamin Warfield when I was a seminary student, and I was struck by his writings and that sort of sent me on a track. Then just after I finished seminary, I was given a book called The Existence and Attributes of God by Stephen Charnock, that takes a lifetime to read. You basically just keep reading and reading. Is this not true?

Then I got a hold of Thomas Watson’s Body of Divinity and his book on the beatitudes. As a kid in high school, I started reading Thomas Á Kempis’s book Imitation of Christ, because I felt like there was something more than just something on the surface to this whole thing. I read all of E.M. Bounds’s little books. I don’t know what I was looking for, but I was a kid. I was a basic jock. I never let my books get in the way of my education all through college. I was sort of stuck in this one mode. I kept saying, “I read books about people who prayed all day.” I read about the Bonar Brothers in Scotland and Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s biography, and I was just a kid reading this stuff, saying, “What is this?”

I like dead writers, or guys who read dead writers. I like them too. I like guys that are unaffected by contemporary culture. I like pre-Freudian writers. I like the fact that they go down and stay a long time. So I started reading that stuff in seminary and it began to refine and refine and refine my thinking. I’ve read an awful lot. My favorite leisure reading would be to read theology or to read biographies of outstanding Christians or historical figures, because I just continually want to hold my life against that standard.

But I guess it’s not a question of having some mid-course correction, it’s just a question of refining, step by step. As John said last night, it is perceivable that there has come some movement in my life, but it wouldn’t be that there was some major step. In fact, my dad and I have largely worked through these things kind of together. I’ve shared what God was teaching me and we’ve had a wonderful process going on as we’ve kind of sharpened our understanding of these things.

I come out of a heritage of going to a college that was mildly Methodist and we had these Methodist revival times every year when everybody went up there and tried to get the second work of Grace. And then I was under the influence of some sort of Presbyterian teachers and did a lot of reading of the Princeton guys — Machen and all of those people. And I read a lot. I read Van Til and things like that. And of course, I come from a Baptist background, so it all kind of got canceled out, and I came out of school. I said, “I’m going to take my Bible and I’m just going to go through this deal and I’m going to keep going through here until my theology survives or doesn’t survive, gets refined or doesn’t.” That’s why I say it took a while before I sort of stuck my neck out and affirmed what others have known all along. The only thing worse than not writing a book is writing a book you wish you hadn’t written.

There’s a huge tension that I feel between lifting up the obvious Pauline stress upon using the unimpressive, the uncultured, the low-born, the broken, the unintellectual, and being the president of a liberal arts college, where you probably want professors in music and history and English, the use of language, the use of computers, the use of medical technology, who stress competence, excellence, and not shoddy work. So there’s the tension. I want you to speak to it for a minute on how you, on the one hand, drive an excellent liberal arts enterprise and while extolling God’s way of doing things, which is to use people not like that.

Then here’s the other part of it. When you go over to 2 Corinthians 10:1–6 and talk about the opposition being ideologies and evolution, and how the weapons are not to be human, I’m not really clear on why truth is not a human weapon, especially when Behe writes Darwin’s Black Box and all of us evangelicals are so happy. Behe is not a Christian, so his truth is still true and he’s pulling the plug on evolution. Everybody’s pulling the plug today, and we are really happy that these non-praying, non-spiritual, demonized people are defeating this huge monster called evolution. Yet we’re not going to fight that way.

If I can stay in the same metaphor, all those guys are doing is moving people from one fortress to another. They can create intellectual problems for those people. We can create intellectual problems for them. Only the gospel can deliver them from the fortress. I think that’s the distinction. Let me go back to the original question. It’s a very important issue.

When I was in athletics and particularly in football in my college days, I remember our coaches used to say, “You guys can’t decide the outcome. All you can do is determine the level of effort.” And I started learning then, that there’s a difference between excellence and success. I can’t determine the outcome. All I can do is determine the level of effort. So I am very much aware of the fact that in the end, a sovereign God is unfolding his purposes in the world.

I’m not in on those things, but I do believe that though I am a clay pot, I am to function as excellently as I can in that role. I don’t know that I can give you a simple answer to that profound question, but the way I approach it is this: God deserves my very, very best. I mean, I am so over-awed by the privilege that if I am going to be a clay pot, I don’t want to be a cracked pot. I want to be held up to the sun and be without wax.

So we would say that the grace of humility and all those things we talked about this morning can be a part of this clay pot. If you’re a scientist, you ought to be the very best scientist you can be. But realize that before God, you are only an instrument to be used by him. Now that’s talking redemptively, that’s talking in the arena of gospel truth and biblical truth. Science is another whole thing of competency. Music is another whole thing of competency. And we have about 75 percent of our faculty with terminal PhD degrees and our seminary guys are all very competent with multiple degrees and all that.

There are technical matters that we want competency in, but in the end, it is the simple gospel that we preach and live that transforms people. You can attack their ideologies and you can shift them. You can loosen them up with their convictions to certain things, or you can move them from one ideological fortress to another, but they’re still ensconced in some satanic ideology until the gospel has broken onto their hearts. So we do need competency. We want competency. We don’t want incompetent doctors and lawyers and teachers, or whatever. We want competency at all levels. But we realize, however, that it’s not intellectual competency alone. You can use intellectual assaults to break down people’s resistance, but it’s the simple gospel that shatters the fortress and transforms the heart and frees the captive.

That’s the only way I can approach it, and maybe that’s not an adequate answer for your thinking, but I have a strong commitment to excellence. I think that’s just part of living in God’s world and taking advantage of his providential graces to us and the magnificence of all that he’s given us. I think we need to use it to the max. We need to use our capabilities to the max, and we need to be the very best that we can be in every discipline that we’re engaged in, realizing that when it comes to the transforming truth, we go back to the simplicity of the saving gospel and let the Spirit take it and apply it to the prepared heart.

is the pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church, as well as an author, conference speaker, president of The Master’s University and Seminary, and featured teacher of Grace to You.