Though he faced significant opposition throughout his life and ministry, the Apostle Paul was compelled to keep on preaching, working to spread the Gospel even in the most difficult circumstances. Alistair Begg uses Paul's example to encourage today's pastors to rely on God's strength when they feel weak, to seek His grace when disappointments arise, and to take heart in challenges, knowing that God's power is best displayed as He preserves His own in times of trouble.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Two Corinthians 4:1. I’m going to read the whole chapter:
“Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
“Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ [so] also [we] believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
Now just a brief prayer:
Father, as we turn to the Bible, we pray that the Spirit of God will enable us in both speaking and in hearing, in understanding and in believing, trusting and obeying your Word. For we humbly pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
Well, in these main sessions, as the program has identified, we’re going to be following, as it were, the pattern of Paul in his ministry, considering his prayers, considering his preaching, and considering the way in which he persevered. In one sense, we are heeding his exhortation to the church in Philippi, where he said to them, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” And what I would like to do, having been entrusted with the responsibility of tackling Paul and his perseverance, is essentially begin for us what is the theme of the conference, taken here from this particular section of 2 Corinthians, where he says, “We do not lose heart.” Immediately he mentions it in verse 1, and to that he returns again in verse 16.
And as we begin in this way, we recognize the fact that Paul, as he gives us his life story, as it were, never disguises any of this stuff from us. There is no sense in which he is representing himself as something other than he so clearly is. And it is a quite wonderful thing that by the time he’s writing his final letter, at least as we have it—his swan song in 2 Timothy—he’s able to say to Timothy and to all the readers of 2 Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, [and] I have kept the faith.” Now, there was no sense of bravado in that. Paul recognized as he wrote to the Philippians that God had begun a good work in his life, and he was bringing it to completion, and he would bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. And when we review the story of Paul’s life, we realize that his perseverance takes place in the face of daunting obstacles and severe trials. And it’s important for us immediately to acknowledge the fact that Paul here is not an example to us of a peculiar personality, although he surely was that, nor is he an example to us of somebody who is able to just establish the grit and determination of someone who wants to see it through, although clearly he is able to do that. He is not here as an example of someone whose perseverance is on account of a decision of his will, but rather, as in the case of every chosen saint of God, as a result of God’s will.
And so, for example, in the Westminster Confession, where it tackles the issue of the perseverance of the saints, it reminds us as follows:
The perseverance of the saints [including Paul] does not depend upon their own free will, but on all the unchangeableness of the decree of election, flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father, on the efficacy of the merit and of the intercession of Jesus Christ, on the continuing presence of the Spirit, and the seed of God within them, and on the nature of the covenant of grace. These are grounds of the certainty and infallibility of their perseverance.
So Paul would have been quite happy to sing along with us, “The work which his goodness began, the arm of his strength will complete.” And when he writes to the Colossians, he gives us that wonderful juxtaposition between the work of God within him and his own endeavors, when he says, “I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”
With that by way of introduction, what I’d like to do is move through the Acts of the Apostles as quickly as is sensible, and then move to the Epistles. I do this because this is what I did for myself when I realized that this was my assignment. I sat up one morning early in my bed, and securing for myself a little citadel of my own that I make with pillows to keep my wife out of things, to protect her from the light of my iPad, I just read through the Acts of the Apostles. And I said to myself, “Now, let’s just see how often and how quickly we find ourselves confronted by Paul and the indication of his perseverance.” And of course, in the Acts of the Apostles, it’s just a wonderful adventure. It’s full of imprisonments and beatings and riots, escapes, resurrections, shipwrecks, trials, and all manner of stuff. And at the very heart of it all, so often, is this gentleman Saul of Tarsus, Paul the apostle. Now, to say I’m going to go through the entire Acts of the Apostles is a daunting thought at any time, but at this point in the afternoon on a Monday, it seems a ridiculous venture. And it may prove to be a ridiculous adventure, but we’re going to begin.
Let’s begin in Acts chapter 9. You can follow with me, or you can trust me and then check later and see whether your trust was valid or not. Acts… It’s always good to check and make sure that the person who’s speaking from the Bible, the stuff is actually in the Bible. So, Acts chapter 9. Acts chapter 9. Now, we’re not going to deal with his experience of conversion, his great encounter there. But we pick it up from the time that he’s been baptized. “He [a]rose,” verse 18, “and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.” And then we’re told that “for some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus.” And then we’re told that he had to overcome the fact that the people there were fearful as to his motives. Verse 21: “Has he not come here for this purpose, to bring [us] bound before the chief priests?” And so we’re told that “the Jews” then “plotted to kill him,” and he made a quite interesting exit from the city by being lowered down the wall in a basket.
So, let’s just pause for a moment and imagine that he’s being interviewed by Christianity Today: “Saul of Tarsus has apparently become a Christian. How have these early days been going for you, Paul?” “Well, I’d have to say that they’ve been interesting. I was under threat of death from the Jews, but I had a wonderful ride down the wall in a basket.” And that’s where we are as of now.
Well, how about Jerusalem? Turn over the page, and there you are in verse 26. And he went “to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.” So he said to himself, “I’m done with this Christian stuff. What a miserable bunch of people these are,” and he went on his way from there. No! Mercifully, Barnabas takes him up and brings him into the company, “and he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists,” and once again, verse 29, they were all “seeking to kill him.” And they “sent him off to Tarsus.”
Well, we can fast-forward to chapter 13, which will be an encouragement, I’m sure. In Antioch in Pisidia, the Jews there, we’re told, were “filled with jealousy”: on the Sabbath, “the whole city” had “gathered,” verse 44, “to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy.” And as you read on through that, they then, in verse 50, “incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city,” and they “stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district.” And Paul shook the dust from his feet, as did Barnabas, “against them and went [on] to Iconium.”
Well, surely by the time they get to Iconium, things will be looking up. Verse 5: “When an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, they learned of it” and decided to go to Lystra.
So, let’s just pause for a moment and acknowledge: this has not been going swimmingly well, has it? This is not exactly a walk in the park. Here is this newly converted man who is devoted to the Lord Jesus Christ, and as he proceeds to these various places, he is confronted by distinct and determined opposition. It is almost unassailable, and no matter where he seems to go, it continues to follow him.
In 14:19, the “Jews came from Antioch and Iconium,” and having infiltrated and “persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city,” the people “supposing that he was dead.” But they gathered around him, and he was raised up, and he entered the city. That’s quite persevering, isn’t it? “And on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe.” He didn’t say, “You know, I think I’m gonna have to go off to the Mediterranean coast here for a little while. I’m sure someone has a nice cottage that I can go and stay in.” It would have been legitimate, I’m sure, but he doesn’t do it. And “when they had preached the gospel” there and “made many disciples,” they went back “to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”
“And are you sure you really want to go back, Paul? I mean, why would you go back?”
“Well, we should go back.”
“To strengthen their souls.”
“Never mind the souls, Paul. What about your face? What about all those stones?”
“Well, we must encourage them to continue in the faith. We should go back and let them know that it is through many tribulations that they will enter the kingdom of God.”
Let’s go to chapter 16. Philippi: the Macedonian call, the conversion of Lydia, the problem of the fortune-tellers, and then their imprisonment. Verse 20: “And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are Jews, … they[’re] disturbing our city.’” The crowd join in, verse 22, “in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them.” What a nice group! These are the magistrates. These are the people who are supposed to sit behind a bench and behave themselves. They were so energized by it, they said, “Let’s rip the clothes off their backs.” And they gave order “to beat them with rods.” And verse 23: “When they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison.” The verb is important there. “They threw them into [the] prison.” They ordered the jailer “to keep them safely” in that place.
We’ll perhaps come back to the impact of that later on, but we can fast-forward again. Go to Ephesus, and there in Ephesus you see this persevering preacher. Verse 8: “He entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading … about the kingdom of God.” This is no short-term mission project on his part. He is absolutely convinced and absolutely clear, and he is continuing to do what he has been set to do. Things emerge as Luke records them for us, and by the time you get down to verse 10, he has relocated to the lecture hall of Tyrannus, where once again, you will notice, he continued “for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.”
Into chapter 20, and it’s farewell to Ephesus, and as he parts from them, verse 22, he says, “[Now, I want you to know that I’m] going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.” “That’s what I know. I don’t know much, but I do know this: that it is now part of my journey to be confronted by the immensity of this challenge and by the peculiar, horrible way in which I am physically treated.” But look at verse 24: “But I do not [count] my life of any value nor as precious to myself”—now, we’re beginning to get some kind of insight here, aren’t we?—“if only I may finish my course”—that sounds like perseverance, doesn’t it?—“[in order that] I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus.” “I’m not a volunteer. I’m a conscript.” And that ministry is “to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” Now, that, I think, is one of the key sections in all of Acts in terms of Paul in relationship to this subject. And hopefully that will become apparent to us, at least by Wednesday lunchtime. “If only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the … grace of God.”
Now, I’m gonna leave you to follow on with that by yourselves. But let me just point out to you: verse 27, he says, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the … counsel of God.” Verse 31: “I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.” Verse 35: “I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” You see this sort of compelling dimension of the apostle elsewhere, where he says it is the love of Christ that compels us, constrains us. And you see this working itself out in him: “I didn’t shrink. I didn’t cease. I’ve shown you that by working hard…”
Now, you think about this: by the time he writes to Timothy in his final letter to him, he says, you know, it is “the hard-working farmer” who will be the first to receive a share of the crops. It is the athlete who “competes according to the rules.” It is the soldier who submits to his commanding officer. And so he says, “Study to show yourself a workman who doesn’t need to be ashamed.” And here he is providing by his own personal testimony the reality of what it means to be working for the Lord Jesus.
I could not work my soul to save,
For this my Lord has done.
But I can work like any slave
For love of God’s own Son.
Acts chapter 28. You’ll be encouraged, because there isn’t an Acts 29. Acts chapter 28. (At least not in the Bible.) Acts chapter 28. Just one thing to notice. He’s now in Rome. Verse 20: “For this reason … I have asked to see you and speak with you, since it is because of the hope of Israel that I am wearing this chain.” Here’s his badge of office. He’s not talking about a thing that you wear around your neck that says you’re the mayor of Rome. No, he says, “It is because of the hope of Israel,” the Messiah, “that I am wearing this chain.” It’s similar to how he ends Galatians, isn’t it? He says, “I don’t really want to have a lot of trouble from any of you folks that I’m writing to.” How does he finish that? He doesn’t say, “Because you know who I am, don’t you? I’m the great, persevering apostle Paul!” No, he says, “Don’t let’s have any trouble from any of you, because I bear in my body the marks of Jesus.” His badge of office is the fact that as you track through his ministry with him, he has fought the fight, he has kept the faith, he has finished the race.
Now, in the Acts, you have that, if you like, by way of summary. When we turn to the Epistles, and to one in particular, from which we have just read, then we view this, if you like, by way of testimony. So as you read through Acts, in the narrative you have this picture of his perseverance in summary form. When you come to his own writing in his own letters, we’re able to tackle it, as it were, by way of testimony—or, if you like, then we have Paul in his own words.
Now, I’m not gonna roam around the Epistles, and I want, really, to be in chapter 4, but I need to begin for a moment in 2 Corinthians chapter 1. And in chapter 1, he states things very clearly. Incidentally, I think 2 Corinthians is arguably the most personal letter of Paul. I think when you read the letters, Paul reveals his feelings at least as much, if not more, in 2 Corinthians than he does in any of the rest of his letters. You may want just to check that on your own, but I think you’ll find that that’s possibly the case. And the picture that we’re given of Paul is not one of somebody who’s able to run roughshod over the concerns of others. It’s not of somebody who is unaffected by the damaged relationships that have taken place within the Corinthian context as a result of misunderstandings. In fact, it’s quite the opposite of that. He’s very, very clear. He is not able to simply say, “None of this really is a concern to me. None of this really matters to me.”
You’ll see there in 1:8, he says, “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia.” Why? What was it like? “Well,” he says, “let me tell you”: “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.” That’s a pretty straightforward statement, isn’t it? I mean, you’ve had a bad Sunday or two, and so have I, but that is quite remarkable. “We have been completely burdened beyond our strength.” The language he uses is strong language, and we need to note that, because we’ll come back to it later in the week. But it would seem to be even “beyond our strength,” so that “we despaired of life itself. … We felt that we had received the sentence of death.” But “that was actually quite good, because it helped us to understand how dependent we are on God.” So that we don’t have the sense of Paul being able, on account of the peculiar gifts that he’s been given, because of the privileges in ministry that he’s enjoyed, that he is somehow now by this stage of the game inured from these things—you know, “Other people can deal with that stuff. Other people can handle the burdens.” You know, he’s not saying, “You know, I’m the one that writes the letters. I’m the one that speaks at the conferences.” No, he says, “The fact of the matter is that together we felt so under the burden of it.” Because he was engaged in it. Because he cared about it.
There’s an anecdote concerning a young psychiatrist and an older psychiatrist that just pops into my mind. And now that I’ve mentioned it to you, I have to tell it to you, but I may regret that, but there’s nothing I can do about it now. So, the young psychiatrist is in a building with a number of physicians, and he is listening to the people’s woes and concerns and complaints and everything day after day. And he emerges from his business in the day just a complete wreck; his tie is all gone, his shirt is half unbuttoned, his hair is all over the place. And as he gets on the lift, on the elevator, at night, he gets on the lift almost routinely with an older psychiatrist who is very well put together; his hair is nice, and his suit seems to be just perfect and his collar, and so on. And the fellow looks at this fellow every day, and he sees him, and he thinks, “How?” And so he says, “I’m gonna ask this fellow one day, you know, how he does this. I mean, he comes out of his practice looking like a million dollars, and I look like I got run over by a tractor.” And so, eventually he finds himself one day in the lift by himself with the man. And he says, “Sir, I’ve noticed this about you. You’re always leaving in the evening, and you seem completely unruffled.” He said, “You know, how do you listen to all of that stuff?” And the man said, “Who listens? Who listens?” It’s an anecdote.
Do we listen? Do we actually get under the burden of the thing? Or have we become so used to the story? I mean, we know the story. We can complete the story after the first sentence. We’ve heard it all.
“No,” he says, “we were actually burdened. Utterly burdened! Burdened beyond our strength.” And he says, “We don’t want you to be in the dark concerning this. We want you to know that this is what it actually meant for us.” And whether this was physical, or whether it was spiritual, or whether it was a combination of the two, it doesn’t really matter. They were at the end of their tether. And it produced in them what he’s going to say later on at the very end of the letter: that which is most necessary in the service of God—namely, that the fact that they were forced again and again and again to trust God entirely.
The gospel ministry, as we know, brothers, provides us with immense privileges and also with peculiar pressures. And those pressures and those privileges expose our frailty. They can either appeal to our ego, and so we are destroyed, or they make us feel so perilously hopeless that we feel we must make a run for the border as fast as possible. And Paul’s point, as we come now to 2 Corinthians 4, is that God, in the economy and wonder of his purposes, has determined that it should be this way. So, verse 7. “This ministry that we have,” he says, “is by the mercy of God. We are in a great spiritual battle. We know that God is sovereign over these things, and the fact is, the treasure is in jars of clay”: “We carry this … Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives.” “In the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives.” I think that’s probably J. B. Phillips. It sounds like him. But here’s where we are. Basics 2016: a conference for unadorned clay pots. Speakers: an American, a Canadian, an English, and a Scottish pot, all of them remarkably unadorned in the purposes of God.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, he says, “Not many of you were…” “Not many of you were…” It’s absolutely true, isn’t it? It looks like craziness. What a strange group to put together. What an odd choice of individuals. That’s what the people in Corinth were saying: “Why can’t he be high sounding, like some others? Why can’t he be impressive, the way many of these other teachers are impressive? Why is he so apparently inept and weak?”
“We have this treasure…” Well, what is the treasure? You can decide whether it is the apostolic ministry of verse 1, or the gospel of verse 4, or “the knowledge of the glory of God” in verse 6. Or you can do what I do, and that is decide that it must be all three, and take it that it is the “ministry” of the “gospel” of “the glory of God.” But it is in an old clay pot. It’s a description of human weakness. Terra-cotta pots that were ten a penny in the marketplace, that were both fragile and expendable. Well, we know that, don’t we? That we are fragile, and we are expendable. “Frail as summer’s flower we flourish; blows the wind and it is gone.” “All men are like grass and the glory of man like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower falls, but the word of the Lord will stand forever.” “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”
The King James Version—remember the King James Version? Some of you, please don’t shout out now. The King James Version, which is a good version. King James liked it. And we can check with Don, but I think there is some reason here to consider this—and you can use it in a Q and A session for later—but the King James Version translates this verse, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not … us.” “May be of God and not us.” I wonder whether Paul is not simply saying that it is in this that the power of God is displayed—which is obvious—but that it is only in this. That it is only in this—i.e., in weakness and in humility—that it is discovered, that it is known at all. So that pride and arrogance and self-assertiveness and an undue focus on our own abilities or our backgrounds or whatever else it is will deprive us of the very power that is necessary for persevering and completing the task.
Think about it. The most dramatic displays of divine power, when you read through the Bible, are found in those who are prepared to acknowledge that they are nothing very special. Isn’t that true?
“Moses, I’d like you to go up to Pharaoh.” “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” He doesn’t say, “Excellent choice! I’m glad you didn’t think of my brother, because, man, he talks all the time. But he’s no good. No, you’ve got the fellow here! Thank you. Thank you so much. I’ll get it out on Facebook, let everybody know: Pharaoh, here I come!” No. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?”
“Gideon, you mighty man of valor!” “Pardon? You talking to me? I am the least of a lousy family.” “You’re my man.”
Now, we could run through it. It’s tedious, isn’t it? But let’s just take the principle. Isaiah 66:2: “This is the one to whom I will look [says the Lord]: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and [who] trembles at my word.” In other words, the very things that… As one of the Puritans says it, he says that in shunning trials, we miss blessings. In seeking to disguise the reality of our own frailty, we fail to enter into the dimension of God’s power that he uses to manifest his glory.
That seems to me what Paul is saying. Pride and arrogance negate, by definition, divine power. Divine power. It’s not for us to determine what is a display of divine power or not. On the Day, that will become apparent. We may get it completely wrong now. But in terms of our own approach to things, we now get an inkling of why it is that by the time Paul is writing at the end of 2 Corinthians, he says, “to keep me from becoming conceited.” “To keep me from becoming conceited.” How jolly honest is that! “To keep me from getting a fat head,” he says.
“Oh, well, he’s the apostle Paul. He couldn’t get a fat head.” What? Are you talking…? He’s the champion of fat heads: “In terms of my background, very good background. Very good university. Very good theology. In keeping the law, remarkably strong on that.” He knew that. That was his background. “I’m your man”—until he realized it was according to the mercy of God: “By the mercy of God I have this ministry,” that “his mercy was shown to me, the chief of sinners,” he says. And even at this stage of the game, when in an experience of God’s amazing power towards him that would have played very, very well on, you know, like, Christian television in Corinth if there had been such a thing, he says, “I’m gonna talk about this in the third person. In fact, I’m not gonna talk about it at all. I was caught up. I experienced this. But here’s the real issue: I was given a thorn in the flesh so that I might discover that when I am weak, then I’m strong.”
Now, let’s just pause, can’t we, just for a minute, and say, “Are we gonna actually embrace this?” I ask myself—I’m speaking to myself too—“Are we gonna embrace this?” Are we gonna buy this? Or are we gonna just keep going the way contemporary evangelicalism is going in North America? Looking for more superheroes and presenting ourselves as very accomplished and managing to do this and managing to do that and capable of this and doing that.
Well, Paul has explained this to us in verses 8 and 9, in his APPS. You didn’t know he had apps, did you? But he has APPS, and I’ll just point them out to you. There’s four of them: “afflicted,” “perplexed,” “persecuted,” “struck down.” Those are his APPS. A for “afflicted”: “We are afflicted in every way,” or “We’re troubled on every side.” “We’re perplexed.” You remember, he writes to the Galatians, and he says, “My dear children … I am perplexed about you!” What he’s saying is, “We don’t always know what to do. We don’t always know what to think.” Verse 9: “We’re persecuted.” He who had hunted down the Christians, chasing them down like an animal, now finds himself on the receiving end of the same treatment. “Afflicted,” “perplexed,” “persecuted,” “struck down,” as in a wrestling bout or as in a boxing match.
In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade,
And he carries the [reminders]
Of every glove that laid him down
And cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his [pain],
“I am leaving. I am leaving,”
But the fighter still remains.
Paul knows what it is to have been thrown down on the mat. And so do we, don’t we? I remember in Scotland, years and years ago, with a gentleman who’s become legendary, at least in my mind now—a big man called Mr. Collins, who scared me dreadfully as a young man in my early twenties. And I used to visit him in his home, because I was supposed to. And on one occasion, in the afternoon, he was chiding me for certain elements in my preaching, and he said… And he had a stick that he had beside him in his chair. Why he needed it when he was in his chair, I don’t know. But it was threatening, and he had this stick with him in the chair, and he said, “And I’ll tell you what, sonny!” He says, “You better stick with that Bible!” He says, “’Cause if you start any nonsense in this church, I will stand up in the pew with my stick, and I will shout, ‘Heresy!’” I said, “Thank you, Mr. Collins. Thank you.” And I remember getting in my car going, “This guy’s on my side! This fellow’s trying to help me.” And he was representative of quite a few.
Now, what does he say, of course? Well, what we observe is that the surpassing power of God is revealed not in preserving Paul from affliction, perplexity, persecution, and being struck down. But rather, in those experiences, look at what he says: “We’re afflicted, but we’re not crushed. We’re perplexed, but we’re not driven to despair.” Close, as we saw at the beginning, in chapter 1, but not despairing ultimately. “We’re persecuted, but we’re not forsaken. We’re knocked down, but we’re actually never knocked out. We’re not destroyed.” Now, what is this a testimony to? Is this a testimony to the ability of Paul to withstand trials? No, it is a testimony to the adequacy of God’s grace.
And look at what he says. This is a life-and-death issue: “[We’re] always carrying [around] in [our] body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” While we live, we’re “being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus … may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” In a nutshell, Paul is declaring that it is in dying that life is discovered and displayed—which is, of course, in keeping with the teaching of Jesus. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever [wants to] save his life will lose it, … whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” “Suffering,” writes James Denney, “for the Christian, is not an accident; it[’s] a divine appointment.” And as Paul walks in the footsteps of Jesus here, he finds that in his very own physical frame he bears testimony to the fact that he has been included in Christ.
Now, we could go on from there, but we won’t. Because we should finish. So let me just make one point by way of application, and we’ll come back to application if any of us are left on Wednesday. So, in Acts, the narrative gives us something of the perseverance of Paul in summary. In the Epistles—and we’ll come back to this—we have it by his testimony, the words of his own mouth. Just one point by way of application, and it’s already inherent in what I’ve said. And it is this: that it is our sense of insufficiency in these matters—it is our sense of insufficiency—that will be a plus rather than a minus. It is in our awareness of the reality of these challenges. You see, we lay ourselves open to all kinds of dangers when we attempt to deny or to disguise our frailty. We lay ourselves open to all kinds of temptations. We should actually be more afraid of commendation then of criticism.
Now, I know some of you are sitting there going, “Well, I’d like just a little commendation, especially from my deacons. That would be nice, just once, before I finally make a run for the border.” But no, in fairness, I think you will prove that to be the case: that more spiritual progress is made in disappointment and in tears than is made in success and laughter. When people make more of us than is justified, they do not help themselves, and they do not help us. They absolutely don’t. My boss in the early days, Derek Prime, would always remind me of these two salutary truths. He said, “Remind yourself that if they knew of you as you know yourself, they would never make much of you. In fact, the opposite.” Which is true, isn’t it? If people really knew us, if they knew how tempted we are, how frail we are, how easy it is to be ensnared by all kinds of things…
Some of the men in our church think that somehow or another, because we’ve been called into pastoral ministry, we sort of move around the world as if we didn’t see anything. We didn’t see how attractive that girl was. We didn’t see those magazines in the airport when we were passing through. No, we don’t see those things, you know. No, we weren’t tempted in that way. That’s not true. That is not true. Yes we were. And to the extent that I seek to deny or to disguise the reality of what it means to make our way through this world and create an illusion for people to make you commendatory, you harm yourself, you harm those people.
It’s only when we see things in the light of the eternal that we can rightly make sense of the temporal. And this was Derek again: he said, you know, “We find ourselves aware of … stars only when we cannot see the sun; we are preoccupied with men only when our minds are turned away from God.” And one of the ways in which God chooses to bring that home to us is to remind us again of our frailty so that we might rest in his sufficiency.
Can I end by just saying: let’s not run from this notion of what we really are, in terms of being old clay pots. Let’s embrace—let’s embrace our ordinariness. And let me finish with a quote from George Eliot in Middlemarch:
The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who [live] faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Those who faithfully live “a hidden life” and one day will “rest in unvisited tombs.” How many of us will even be a footnote in history—even the history of our own families? But this should not depress us, because it is in this very frailty and in this awareness of our own transient existence, looking at the life of Paul before us, we might be enabled by God’s Spirit eventually to say, “I managed to finish the race. God helped me keep the faith. I fought the fight.”
Well, hopefully, as we proceed through the next couple of days, as the Word of God is opened up to us, we might be encouraged, because some of us were probably here at the point where we’re saying, “I think I could maybe just get to Wednesday, and then go home and retire.” Which is quite a thought, since you’re only twenty-nine years old!
Now, let’s pray:
Father, thank you that you make us really aware of the fact that the best of men are men at best; that on our best day, we’re actually unprofitable servants; that Paul does us a great service by being so amazingly transparent in revealing his heart: “We were burdened beyond our ability to frankly cope with it, even to the point that we despaired of life itself. However, knowing the grace of God…” So we want to ask that right even in this moment, that the Spirit of God will come and meet with us and fill us up and turn us afresh to the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom we receive one blessing after another. And in his name we pray. Amen.
 Philippians 3:17 (ESV).
 2 Timothy 4:7 (ESV).
 See Philippians 1:6.
 The Westminster Confession of Faith 17.2. Paraphrased.
 Augustus M. Toplady, “A Debtor to Mercy Alone” (1771).
 Colossians 1:29 (ESV).
 Acts 14:5–6 (ESV).
 Acts 19:8 (ESV).
 Acts 20:22–23 (ESV).
 See 2 Corinthians 5:14.
 2 Timothy 2:5–6 (ESV).
 See 2 Timothy 2:4.
 2 Timothy 2:15 (paraphrased).
 Galatians 6:17 (paraphrased).
 See 2 Timothy 4:7.
 2 Corinthians 1:9 (paraphrased).
 2 Corinthians 4:7 (MSG).
 1 Corinthians 1:26 (ESV).
 Henry Francis Lyte, “Praise, My Soul, the God of Heaven” (1834).
 Isaiah 40:6–8 (paraphrased).
 Exodus 3:11 (ESV).
 See Judges 6:12–16.
 Isaiah 66:2 (ESV).
 2 Corinthians 12:7 (ESV).
 See Philippians 3:4–6.
 1 Timothy 1:15–16 (paraphrased).
 See 2 Corinthians 12:1–10.
 Galatians 4:19–20 (NIV).
 Paul Simon, “The Boxer” (1968).
 Mark 8:34–35 (ESV). See also Matthew 16:24–25; Luke 9:23–24.
 James Denney, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 2nd ed., The Expositor’s Bible (New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1900), 163.
 Derek J. Prime and Alistair Begg, On Being a Pastor: Understanding Our Calling and Work (Chicago: Moody, 2004), 288.
 George Eliot, “Finale,” in Middlemarch (1871–72).
 See Luke 17:10.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.