The Fourth Sunday After Epiphany January 30, 2011
2 Corinthians 13:5-11
5, 28, 201, 203
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Even as all around you the godless madness of this world rages in ever-greater fury, may the simple peace of the Gospel grant calm and contentment to your heart until that glorious day when our Lord rolls up this earth like a scroll and carries us all to the Heaven He has prepared for us. Amen.
Dear fellow journeymen in the Lord’s service:
One of the paradoxical oddities of the pastoral ministry is the fact that members often hesitate to confide in their pastor and share their problems until that shepherd has been with them for a number of years. Unfortunately, by the time members gain that sense of comfort and confidence, they may also have tired of the sound of the same voice week after week. Having heard many (or even most) of his “best” stories and examples, there is a tendency to be lulled to sleep by the familiar cadence of his presentations and sermons. In other words, just when a pastor begins to be truly effective, he ceases to be as effective as he once was.
The unique danger of this is that we can come to imagine that we have learned all, or nearly all, that we can from our called-servant and as a result we begin to listen accordingly. It is the old “familiarity breeds contempt” problem. The answer, of course, is that no one has ever learned all that he can from another individual simply because that individual has not learned all that he will. That is why pastors continue to study, learn, and grow. Week by week they are called not to bring treasures from their own storehouse, but treasures old and new from God’s Word, and you and I will never know all there is to know in God’s Word.
Finally, it is also foolish to imagine that one can know all that there is to know about another human being in light of the fact that we don’t even know all that there is to know about ourselves.
So it is that we find encouragement in God’s Word from time-to-time to examine and reexamine ourselves—our own hearts, our own thoughts, our own actions. What we find whenever we attempt such a thing is that truly understanding ourselves requires both honesty and great humility. The inevitable result for Christians who do this is that Jesus Christ is always magnified. Truly knowing ourselves always makes Jesus all the more precious to us. We hear encouragement along these lines from our God in today’s text. That text is found in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, the 13th Chapter:
Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you are disqualified. But I trust that you will know that we are not disqualified. Now I pray to God that you do no evil, not that we should appear approved, but that you should do what is honorable, though we may seem disqualified. For we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth. For we are glad when we are weak and you are strong. And this also we pray, that you may be made complete. Therefore I write these things being absent, lest being present I should use sharpness, according to the authority which the Lord has given me for edification and not for destruction. Finally, brethren, farewell. Become complete. Be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.
These are the perfect words of our Holy God. What a blessing it is in our shabby, artificial, hollow world, to know that these words are both holy and divine—without flaw or defect of any kind. God grant us the wisdom to regard these words always with that understanding. With confidence therefore we pray, “Sanctify us through Your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth!” Amen.
First a question for you parents: Do you ever wonder if your children hate each other? The question probably occurs to every mother, maybe often. Maybe you remember your own mother lamenting aloud (repeatedly) “I just can help but wonder if you kids even love each other at all?” As children we would examine the question briefly in our fertile, adolescent minds, and come quickly to the conclusion that love is not the point. Idiotic behavior in one’s brother had to be dealt with or it would simply fester and grow like a fungus. We were more than happy to do that for each other. I could always count on my brothers to identify any silly notions that might enter my thought process and to quickly and efficiently dispel them with a wrenching headlock or an elbow to the solar plexus. The more serious the foolishness, the more serious the purging or cleansing that was called for. And I was always there for them. I’m not sure that our sister ever understood the procedure, although we regularly tried to include her in the educational process.
On a much more serious note, it can occasionally (or often) occur to us to question our own love—not just our love for another human being, but our love for our Lord. Although those can be serious and sobering thoughts, they need hold no terror for us. In fact that is the very thing that the Holy Spirit through Paul encourages us to do. We read quite plainly: “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.” [v.5] He can’t get much more straightforward than that, can he? But what exactly is he suggesting? How do we go about examining ourselves? How are we supposed to go about verifying whether or not we are really true believers in Jesus Christ?
Most of you have probably heard the simplest answer to this dilemma. “If you are worried about whether or not you are a Christian that in itself is an indication that you are. Unbelievers don’t worry about such things. The concern of itself is the verification.” There is, of course, a certain element of truth in that simple answer, yet it’s not foolproof—not much on this earth is.
Unbelievers can also worry about death and Hell, but theirs is a different kind of worry. Theirs is a mindless panic-stricken terror. The key for the Christian who finds himself in crisis over the very existence of his faith is to stop looking at himself and to start looking only to Jesus Christ. That is where the Spirit directs us in our text: “Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?” [v.5] The question then becomes not “What do you think of yourself?” but “What do you think of Jesus Christ? Do you believe that Jesus did what He said He did and that He was who He said he was? Did He or did He not live a perfect life on this earth and then offer that life on the cross as a payment great enough to cancel the debt of every single sin?”
Most often we find that doubt is created by our own sin and repeated disobedience to what we know is the will of our God. At those times—indeed at all times—we are to remind ourselves that this is exactly what we add to the equation of our salvation plan. We add sin and weakness and doubt and inconsistency and ingratitude and selfishness and every other kind of evil imaginable. We add only to the debt side of the ledger. Jesus is the only one who adds to the payment side.
This understanding of what we “bring to the table” is indeed a tremendous comfort whenever we examine ourselves and see exactly what we are supposed to see, namely, our sin. Foolishly, our doubts usually come when we fail to see anything that we have added to the payment side of God’s salvation plan, as if we could ever add anything at all to that side.
Here there is great irony clearly evident for we are often comforted by the very situation that should cause us alarm and alarmed by the very situation that should cause us comfort. How so?
We are often comforted when we look at our lives and focus on the things that seem to be going well: regular church attendance, consistent prayer, Bible reading, lack of any recent hideous sins, etc). Yet God’s Word teaches us that “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). Living as we ought to live contributes nothing toward our salvation—no more than saying, “thank you” caused the gift that preceded the thanks. Yet it seems to always be in surveying our own conduct that we often manufacture our own consolation or despair.
So it is that our text continues by talking about being “disqualified.” What does it mean to be disqualified? What it does not mean is that we fail to measure up to God’s requirements. How could it mean that, when our part of God’s salvation equation, our contribution, is sin and failure of every kind? Since Jesus provided everything necessary on the payment side of the Father’s plan, the only way any human being can now be “disqualified” is to reject Jesus’ payment. We do that by trying to replace it or supplement it with our own good works.
The picture contained in the Greek word that is translated as “disqualified” is that of a coin that is tested in an effort to determine whether or not it is genuine and of any value. Though there is little danger today that anyone will go to the trouble of trying to counterfeit American coins, as late as 50 years ago this sort of testing was still done in the United States. The easiest, most common test was to drop the coin on a marble countertop and to listen to the ring of the coin. A solid, genuine coin would “ring true.” The ring of a counterfeit would be dull and lifeless.
Imagine the horror of standing before God on the Day of Judgment and hearing His eternal condemnation of your faith as counterfeit and worthless. There is only one way that sort of thing could ever happen and that is when man rejects Jesus and tries to pay for his own sins with his own currency of good works. That is the only sort of payment that could ever be disqualified by God. He is certainly not going to disqualify, or declare counterfeit, the perfect holy payment made by His own dear Son. How could he? Why would He? He Himself declared that payment to be perfect and complete by raising Jesus from the dead. What hung in the balance as Jesus lay in the tomb was not just Jesus’ own eternal future, it was our eternal future. Remember that God had laid on Jesus “the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). When God raised Jesus, He declared the entire debt of sin to have been paid in full. The soul that pleads the blood of Jesus on Judgment Day simply cannot be condemned for God Himself has sworn, “whoever believes in Him (Jesus) shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
We can see, therefore, that when the Holy Spirit in our text encourages us to “Examine ourselves as to whether we are in the faith,” and to “test ourselves,” we are rightly to see only debt in our lives and only perfect payment in our Savior Jesus.
However, what about those exhortations in our text that we “do no evil” and that we “should do what is honorable”? [v.7] Isn’t there a contradiction here? None whatsoever! We are not saved by our actions, yet by our actions we certainly want to thank our Lord for what He has done for us. This is not a difficult distinction to make, though you would never know it by the number of those who claim Christianity but who nonetheless justify themselves according to their own conduct.
The purpose of regularly evaluating ourselves and our actions is never intended to give us confidence or assurance that we are Christians. It is done as Christians to see if our actions are in harmony with our Savior’s will for our lives. He bought us. We are His. How does He now want us to live out our time of grace on this earth?
Such an examination is now the responsibility of every single Christian. It is something each of us is moved to do on our own—willingly, according to that New Man that has been brought to life within us. The New Man in us exists in perfect harmony with our God, experiencing only God’s love and mercy. That part of you is a perfect, holy creation of your Savior God, and it is that part that we want to “put on” every moment of our lives.
Learn then to know yourself as a sinner who could never contribute anything to His own salvation. But then know yourself also as a perfect and holy saint in the eyes of God because of the payment Jesus Christ made on your behalf. Then, with confidence, apply the closing words of Paul to yourself as is indeed fitting and right. “Be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.” [v.11] Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.