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Sovereign Seeks Helpers Unconcerned for Personal Gain: Must Be Willing to Die for the Cause

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Feb 19, 2006

2 Corinthians 4:1-18

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The Lord's Day Evening

February 19, 2006
Missions Conference 2006
II Corinthians 4:1-18
“Sovereign Seeks Helpers Unconcerned for Personal Gain:
Must Be Willing to Die for the Cause”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

I love missions week, and I love missions week because it brings us into contact with our brothers and sisters whom we know and love and pray for, and whose pictures have been on the wall in corridors at First Pres now for a number of weeks, and this week they will be here. And we’ll meet them, and we’ll talk to them, and we’ll hear their joys and perhaps sorrows, too. And when they go back to their fields of service, I like to think that they take a little bit of us back with them, just as they leave a little bit of them here.

And one of the ways that you and I enter into the work of missions is bearing up these brothers and sisters in prayer. And tonight as we...and if you have a copy of the missions brochure, it's a wonderfully produced brochure. I'm just astonished at what this church can actually do. It's a stunning brochure. If you've mislaid it, if you've put it under the pot plant or something in the kitchen, get it out. Put it on the kitchen table — breakfast, lunch, dinner, go through it. Pick someone out, and over the next meal as you go through the week, pray for somebody in here. You’re going to see pictures of — oh! I see Bo Bowen in here! He's not on the faculty, but that's the picture I can see in here. But pray for them during the course of the week.

I love II Corinthians 4. I've always fallen in love with II Corinthians ever since I first read it. It's because Paul wears his heart on his sleeve in II Corinthians. You see something of his humanity. You see something of his ups and downs. You see something of how Paul viewed ministry, missionary work - how hard it was, how difficult it was, how unrewarding it often was! How, instead of getting applause, he got criticism.

Now, I won't belabor you with all of the details now, but just take it from me — and who am I, but I'm just the mouthpiece of Simon Kistemaker. He told me thirty years ago that there were four letters to Corinth, and if Simon Kistemaker says there were four letters to Corinth, then there are four letters to Corinth! Two of them, of course, are lost. There's an initial letter that Paul writes to Corinth. He tells them not, basically, to associate with immoral persons. The letter did not go down, and immediately after that he writes what is I Corinthians, and he responds to various questions and difficulties that have been put by the household of Chloe.

Then there's a third epistle. It's sometimes called ‘the sorrowful letter.’ We don't have that letter. It's gone. It's missing. And II Corinthians is actually Paul's fourth letter to the Corinthians. God in His wonderful providence saw fit to keep two of those letters inspired by the Holy Spirit, and to insert those two letters in the canon. And it's in this second letter that we see something of the heart of the Apostle Paul.

You’ll notice in verse 1 and again in verse 16, he tells them not to lose heart. And commentators say it might be an example of what grammarians call litotes or...he's telling them not to do something, because he himself is prone to it. He's saying don't lose heart, but actually he's saying ‘You know, there are times when I lose heart. There are times when I find missionary work, gospel work, so difficult that I'm prone to lose heart.’

And I'm wondering...you know, we sometimes do an awful disservice to missionaries when they come, because we expect them to give wonderfully glowing reports of wonderfully successful missions where thousands and thousands and thousands of people are being converted, and the church is just bursting at the seams, because, well...perhaps we won't support them if they don't give those kinds of reports.

And we do them a terrible disservice, because in actual fact, some missionaries (and some of the ones who are coming here this week) have been in a war zone. They have been face to face with Satan's minions. They come, and if truth be told, they’re losing heart. And the ministry that we can give to them this week is to uphold them and encourage them, and be a Barnabas to them, and be to them someone who stands in the gap and reassure them that we’ll support them no matter what, because it's not earthly success that we're supporting. It's the work of God. It's the advancement of the kingdom of God.

Now turn with me to II Corinthians 4, and let me read these extraordinary words of the Apostle Paul. This is God's holy and inerrant word. And before we read the passage, let's pray together.

Father, again we confess the darkness that resides within our minds and hearts and spirits and souls, and we need You to come open up this word and give us understanding. Help us, we pray, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

“Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not lose heart, but we have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God, but by the manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 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, that the surpassing greatness of the power may 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, 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, 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 also we 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, that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God.
“Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”

Amen. And may God bless His word to us.

I want us to see three mission perspectives in this passage we have before us this evening, and the first one is this, and I want to call it “The Shorter Catechism Principle.”

I. The Shorter Catechism Principle.

It's the principle of seeking first the glory of God. And you see references to the glory of God in verse 6, and again in verse 13, and again in verse 17. You see it there in verse 6 when Paul makes reference to the “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 Christ.”

This gospel in which the Apostle Paul is a minister and an ambassador and a missionary, this gospel has come from outside. It has come not as the result of the imaginations of men; it's come not as the result of the wisdom and sophistry of men; it has come from the God who said, “Let there be light.” It has come from the sovereign God of heaven and earth who made this world, and spoke this world into being. And Paul is an ambassador of a message that has come from outside of this world, and it's a message about glory that shines in the face of Jesus Christ.

And three times in the course of this chapter (again in verse 13 and again in verse 17, where he makes reference to “the eternal weight of glory that awaits us as the children of God”) he is reminding us and he is reminding himself, and he's reminding these Corinthians, of The Shorter Catechism principle that “The chief end of man is to glorify God....” It's to bring God glory. It's not about Paul. It's not about personalities. It's not about this church being better than that church, or this mission being better than that mission. He doesn't preach himself: he preaches Jesus Christ as Lord, because all of the glory - all of the glory - is God's.

Now, let's think about that for a second, because one of the temptations that Paul seems here to be addressing is the temptation to curtail and trim his message so as to please men. There must have been an enormous temptation on the part of the Apostle Paul when he was so vilified by these Corinthians to tailor his message accordingly, to preach himself, to say to these Corinthians ‘Who do you think that you are?’ Paul is reminding himself that it's about God. It's about the glory of God that shines in the face of Jesus Christ. He's reminding himself, you see, as he writes this chapter, that one of the principles of missions is that we must never succumb to a worldly view of ministry that says it's all about me, but rather we must view all of ministry as about the glory of God.

But you know, that's true about teaching a class in Sunday School; it's true about that ministry of being a mother in a home and raising children; it's true about those involved in missions in far-off countries — whether Kenya, as our brother has reminded us of this evening — or wherever we may be in the course of this week as we focus our gaze on mission fields in far-off places, all of it must be to the glory of God.

Now, I think that Paul is saying that partly to remind himself that he is not to lose heart, and one of the ways to insure that we don't lose heart is to remind ourselves that this is God's work. This is not about me, and this is not about Paul's glory, and it's not about the prestige of Corinth as opposed to Thessalonica or Rome or somewhere else. It's about the glory of God. This is His gospel. This is His work. This is His message. This is His doing. And that's the first principle: The Shorter Catechism principle of mission work: Do all to the glory of God.

II. The sub specie aeternitatis Principle

The second principle — and bear with me — the second principle is what I want to call “The sub specie aeternitatis Principle. Now, I told you to hold on, and I’ll translate what I mean by that, but that's a very, very popular Latin phrase that comes out of the seventeenth century that the Puritans were wont to employ in their preaching and teaching and writings, and all it means is, it is to live in category of, or under the light of, eternity.

Do you notice what Paul is doing? From about verse 16 through to the end of chapter 4, he is contrasting a series of contrasts between the ephemeral and the real, the transient and the permanent:

“We do not lose heart...though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. This slight, momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison....”

And do you see what he's doing? He's contrasting that which is true here with that which is going to be true in the world to come. He's contrasting the ephemeral and the real, the transient and the permanent. In other words, he's saying we are to live our lives and engage in ministry with an eye on the world to come. We’re to live, as it were, with one foot in the grave. We’re to live, as it were, conscious that this is not our home, that whatever may be happening here below — and Paul will describe it in this chapter in various ways as “death working in us, so that life may work in you” — however Paul may describe it, he's saying live your lives sub specie aeternitatis, in the light of eternity.

Rosemary and I were in Charleston, South Carolina, just a little while ago, and we visited...those of you who know Charleston, and your senior minister knows Charleston extremely well, so he will be nodding now when I say “the circular Congregational Church in Charleston, South Carolina.” It goes back — not the present building, but it goes back I think to 1695, when the first church was erected on that piece of property. Rosemary and I were walking around this fascinating architectural building. It's the first, I think, Congregational Church of the historic section of Charleston, and there's an astonishing graveyard all around the circular building. And there are stones, one of which goes back at least to the seventeenth century, but many of them from the eighteenth century, and we came across this particular stone. (And if you don't believe me, I took a picture of it and it's in my Bible here.) But this is what this stone says. It's about three little boys who died all within the space of a few weeks of each other. Two of them were obviously twins. They must have died of some kind of a disease, perhaps, that spread through Charleston.

“John Ford Savage. Died August 31, 1784. Aged 7 yrs 3 mos 10 days.

William Savage. Aged 3 yrs and 6 mos. Died September 8, 1784 [just barely a week later].

Dandridge Richard Savage [same age, 3 yrs 6 mos]. Died September 9 [the next day], 1784.”

And this is what is carved on their tombstone:

Here lies the bodies of three brothers
Sons of Richard and Mary Savage
Who were interred within ten days
***** to this stone
August 31 1784 aged 7 years, 3 Mo. 10 days
1784 aged 3 years 6 months
Sept 9 1784 aged 3 years 6 months
Beneath the surface of the turfed earth
Enwrapped in silence and the arms of death
Exposed to Worms he's three once charming Boy
The Fathers Comfort and the Mothers Joy
These youths at once fair fruit and Blossoms bore
Much in possession in expectance more
Twou’d grieve you tender reader to relate
The hasty strides of unrelenting fate
Dire decree at human art was vain
The power of medicine failed the healing train
But happy youths by death made truly great
Had life been lengthened to its utmost date
What had they known but sorrow Pain and woe
The Curse entailed on Adam's race below
They’re only safe who through death's gates have passed
And reached those joys that evermore will last
Now vain is man How fluttering are his joys
Which what one moment gives the next destroys
Hope and Despair fill up his round of Life
And all his joys are One continual strife.

Unimaginable that such a thing would be written on a tombstone for three children today. There's the difference of perspective, I think, between our age and a by-gone age. There were folk who were face to face on a daily basis. John Owen had twelve children, eleven of them died in infancy. They knew all about death. They lived with death as a daily factor in their lives.

And the best way to live, and the best way to see what is our chief goal in life, is to live like Paul is saying here: not to live for this world, not to live for the gains of this world, but to live for that eternal weight of glory that is beyond all comparison that awaits the faithful servants of Jesus Christ.

“I've found a friend, O such a friend!
All power to Him is given
To guard me on my upward course
And bring me safe to heaven.
“The eternal glory gleams afar
To nerve my faint endeavor;
So now to watch, to work, to war,
And then to rest forever.”

And that's the way to live. The principle of sub specie aeternitatis.

You know, Robert Murray M’Cheyne painted a picture of a setting sun on the dial of his — probably his pocket watch — to remind him every time he looked at that pocket watch that here we have no continuing city; that we seek one which is to come, whose builder and maker is God.

III. The Jars of Clay Principle.

And there's a third principle, and let me just outline it very quickly, and it's this. We've seen The Shorter Catechism Principle, of doing all for the glory of God. We've seen the Sub Specie Aeternitatus Principle, of living in the light of eternity. And the third principle is what I want to call the Jars of Clay Principle. It's what he refers to here in the opening verses: We are [in verse 7]...”We have this treasure in jars of clay.”

We’re just clay pots. Every day that goes by, I'm reminded that this physical frame is a clay pot, and it just doesn't work as well as it used to. And thank the Lord for ibuprofen and all the rest of it that keeps this physical frame ticking over, because all we are are jars of clay. But, you know, as Ligon reminded us so movingly on Wednesday evening... (Just Derek Thomas, you might say, to be moved by Psalm 88, a Psalm in which there isn't a note of hope anywhere to be seen except the one that Ligon managed to find!) ...a Psalm by Nathan the Ezrahite, one of the sons of Korah, a Psalm of almost total, total darkness. But you know, as Ligon brought that Psalm to an end on Wednesday night, you know what I said? “Thank God for that Psalm! I may never need it, but I'm glad it's there. It's like a parachute, that, if it gets worse, if it gets to the very worst, there's a Psalm in the Bible for that condition.”

And you remember what he reminded us of on Wednesday evening? God used that melancholy soul. God used that melancholy soul to be an instrument in writing part of the Scriptures! Now, is that usefulness, or what? Imagine that some scribbling of yours in black despair, that God would use it and put it in the Bible that Christians down through the centuries would use for their profit and encouragement.

Paul is saying to these Corinthians — but I think he's saying it to himself — yes, mission work is hard and difficult, and often, often, my friends, unrewarding from a worldly point of view. But we are just jars of clay, and we are frail and we are fragile, and we are easily broken, but God can use jars of clay for His glory and the advancement of His kingdom.

I don't know whether we're going to get missionaries in here this week who may feel themselves to be broken jars of clay. And maybe what God is saying to us, the ministry that we can perform for them, is to encourage them and to send them back singing that Psalm. There may be a broken jar of clay, but God can use a broken jar of clay for His glory.

Let's pray together.

Father, we thank You once again for this extraordinary chapter that we've just barely glimpsed at. We thank You for the open heart of the Apostle Paul as he bares it before this congregation. We pray now as we begin this missions week of ours that You would pour out Your Spirit, that You would come down amongst us and open our eyes, that we might behold the real, that we might see that which is important, that we might set our affections on things which are above, that we might seek after that city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God, that we might utilize the provisions that You have given to us as stewards for the advancement of Your kingdom. Bless us, we pray, and forgive us our sins for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Please stand, receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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