The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
This is the third time I am coming to you. In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.Christian Apostleship
2 Corinthians 13
There ought to be no difficulty about the expression of so extremely modest a wish. What is a reprobate? Is it some kind of apostle? By "reprobate" we generally understand a man who is in about the worst possible moral condition. When a man is as bad as he can be we call him a reprobate. There is a theology which is very fond of this word. The Apostle does not wish to be included in the class of reprobates, outcasts, men only fit to be trodden under foot, persons absolutely destitute of character, moral dignity, or claim to Christian attention and confidence. But is this the meaning of the word "reprobates" as it is found in this text? Were this the real meaning of the word there can be no doubt as to what we should say in reply to the Apostle Paul. But this is not the meaning of the word. What that meaning is we must discover, little by little, by carefully looking at the context.
The Apostle says, "Since ye seek a proof of Christ speaking in me" (2Corinthians 13:3). The Corinthians had begun to doubt his apostleship. When we do not like a ministry, there is nothing so easy as to doubt its orthodoxy, to question its moral superiority, and to throw doubts generally upon its authenticity. When we like a ministry we easily see the Divine Being in it. When a ministry suits us, is more anxious for consolation than for correction, is more deeply solicitous that we should be quiet than that we should be correct, we can easily discover traces of Divine election and ordination. When it is rousing, passionate, vehement in moral demand; when it is exacting, rigorous; it is easy for us to question the divinity of its origin, and the value of its whole function. The Corinthians did not like what Paul had done; they thought that he was severe; his was a heavy hand, and the rod was not spared. They began to question his apostleship, they sought a proof of Christ speaking in him. What does Paul say in reply?
"Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith: prove your own selves."—(2Corinthians 13:5)
We might read these words monotonously, and so reading them should miss their whole meaning. Everything depends upon the identification of the emphasis in this exhortation. Reading the words in English we should say, "Examine yourselves," placing the emphasis upon the verb; there the weight would be in place; it is there that the voice has to interpret the sentiment: "prove your own selves," thus laying the weight once more upon the verb. But so distributing the emphasis we miss the Apostle's meaning. In the language he wrote he put the pronoun before the verb, and thus gave the pronoun the emphasis. Instead of saying, "examine yourselves," he said, "yourselves examine." Who does not see that the commentary is in the emphasis? "Your own selves prove:" were we reading in English and saying "examine yourselves," we should be justly exposed to the criticism of a false emphasis, because such a word is seldom required to bear the whole weight of the voice; but as Paul wrote it the emphasis came naturally upon the pronoun—"yourselves examine." Thus we have the balance with 2Corinthians 13:3—"Since ye seek a proof of Christ speaking in me"—or, in me speaking—"yourselves examine": let the spear be thrust into your own hearts; be not so anxious about my apostleship as about your own condition in God's sanctuary.
Characteristically he enlarges the occasion. The fourth verse has about it something of the distance, the reserve, and the subtlety of a parenthesis—"For though he was crucified through weakness, yet he liveth by the power of God,"—better: he, or even he, was crucified through weakness, yet his weakness was only transitory, a necessary element in a marvellous process, for he now liveth by the power of God. "For we also are weak in him,"—we share his infirmities, we have to be weak in order to know what it is to be strong,—"but we shall live with him," not hereafter, not in any sense of immortality, but we shall now live with him, representing his logosity, and clothing ourselves at his command with his authority, and with the right of exercising discipline which he alone can confirm. Then emerging out of the parenthesis, he comes to the words already quoted—"yourselves examine." The Apostle always descends upon us from a great level. He does not meet us on our own line, and chaffer with us as if we were equals; he comes to us from the tabernacle unseen, from the very temple and altar of God. He first lifts up the mind to new levels, whence new perceptions can be enjoyed, perceptions of truth and holiness and spiritual beauty; and then the moral exhortation falls upon us with an infinite impetus. If men would examine themselves they would not be uncharitably disposed towards others. Can the devil, master of all tricks, play more successfully with a man than to tell him that he is always right, and that all he has to do is to find fault with other people? Human nature takes easily to that kind of inspiration. Every man is pleased to be crowned with a tiara; every soul is delighted to think that, after all, though he did not know it at the time, he was the very pope of God; there is something soothing and tranquillising and ineffably comforting about the thought that a man is the very vice-regent of God, that when he speaks all other men are to regard themselves as snubbed dogs. It is not easy to dislodge such a sophism from the heart. The Apostle Paul would have nothing to do with that kind of self-gratulation and self-sufficiency. "Yourselves examine: your own selves prove": let charity begin at home: it is a pity that judgment should begin abroad; let them both begin at the same place and at the same time. He who is most severe with himself is most gentle with others; he who has felt his weakness admires and appreciates what appears to him at least to be the strength of other men.
Now we come to the exact meaning of the word "reprobates." The sixth verse opens with a "But," thus connecting it, whilst apparently disjoining it, with what has gone before. "But I trust that ye shall know that we are not reprobates": you cannot estimate us until you have estimated yourselves; until you have passed the examination you cannot tell whether we have passed the scrutiny or not. The figure is that of a scrutiny, a careful examination of every claim, a thorough critical testing of every aspiration, a severe weighing as with balances of gold in the light of the sun of every claim to Christian confidence. Now, said the Apostle, but I trust that ye shall know that we are not adokimoi, unable to pass the scrutiny:—not reprobates a substantive, but reprobate, rejected, not weight, unequal to the occasion, men who cannot pass the proof, the examination, or men who cannot stand the test. The Apostle thus asks simply to be examined after self-examination on the part of others; as who should say, Get yourselves right; be quite sure about your own spiritual standing before God; filter yourselves; pass through the narrow and strait gate and weigh yourselves; and then I trust that ye shall know that we also are able to pass the examination: you will be more gentle and gracious, therefore more just, towards us: your own selves prove, your own selves examine; and then I trust ye shall know that we are better men than you supposed us at first to be, for we have stood the test, we have passed the general scrutiny, and we have answered the personal demand of God and his righteousness, but—
"Now I pray to God that ye do no evil; not that we should appear approved, but that ye should do that which is honest, though we be as reprobates."—(2Corinthians 13:7)
How willing to sacrifice himself for a moment or two, to undergo misapprehension! how apparently willing to be looked at with some degree of suspicion, if only he could get his scholars advanced a step or two! as who should say once more, Be you right: proceed on your own way; avail yourselves of every holy opportunity to become better men, even if we should be not quite so good as you thought us to be, even although you may suspect our inability to pass the examination or the proof. No such blemish in himself does he conceive or admit in any way; but, he says, Though we be as rejected, though we be unable to pass the examination, let it stand so for a moment,—only what I say to you is, Do no evil; and having advanced to this negative position, then, do that which is honest, and, as for us, examiners, disciplinarians, apostles, "we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth." This is a passage which is often misunderstood. The Apostle does not stand up and say, I am the champion of the truth, I can do nothing against the truth; whatever I do is true and right; look upon me as an infallible man, as one who has attained, and is already perfect. That is not the meaning of the Apostle's words. Nor does he even say, We can do nothing against the truth, because it is mightier than we are, and he who would oppose a beam of timber to the oncoming of infinite billows is a fool. That is not his speech or plea. He is talking of himself as an apostolical disciplinarian, and he says, we can do nothing against the truth: if there is no offence in you, our discipline cannot take effect; if you are right, you have nothing to fear from discipline; if you are consciously right you should invite examination after having undergone it yourselves, for we can only set fire to fuel; and if you do not supply the fuel, any fire we may apply will be utterly without effect in your case.
Thus would the Apostle make them perfect parties to the whole process. But he would have them qualified before they took any part in it. Few men come from the secret sanctuary in a temper to criticise other men severely. When a man has been really praying, his eyes are opened towards the excellences rather than towards the defects of other men. If a man says when he returns from the sanctuary that he sees the world full of defect and blemish and failure and falsehood, he has not been praying, he does not know what it is to take Christ's view of human nature. Christ was no pessimist. Christ looked hopefully upon the wandering and the lost, and sent messages after them, and pledged his whole almightiness on the side of their redemption. We should be mighty in love after we have been mighty in prayer. Read, then, We are powerless against the truth; discipline has no effect of an evil kind upon good and honest hearts: but where the character is wrong, discipline will take effect, and ought to take effect, for all badness is elected to spend its eternity in hell. That is the election of God—an election of character, quality; that is the purpose of heaven. Then, with characteristic fatherhood—for every great Christian apostle is amongst us as father and mother and nurse, always binding us up, and unwilling to let the weakest die—says: "For we are glad, when we are weak, and ye are strong: and this also we wish, even your perfection" (2Corinthians 13:9); we are quite willing to be looked upon as infirm, weak, inadequate, all but incapable, if so be we can live again in you, and see our strength in your power. "And this also we wish, even your perfection." How many mistakes are made about this last word! There are persons now who are advocating perfection. Does the word mean perfectness, as the common etymology would imply? Nothing of the sort: "and this also we wish, even your"—watch the encouragement and the rebuke how they mingle in the apostolic eloquence—"your restoration." Now, we see that you have advanced in nine paces towards the journey that may be accomplished in ten, and we wish you, almost perfect Corinthians, to take the tenth step, and be perfect. The figure is very graphic. The exact word never occurs elsewhere in the New Testament. A corresponding word is found in the English of "they were mending their nets": this also we wish, your mending, your repair, your restoration: be mending yourselves; that is our apostolic wish for you. The word also occurs in Paul's Epistle to the Galatians—"Ye who are spiritual, restore such an one." The figure there is out of joint, it is out of socket; the Apostle says, If any man have become disjointed, ye who are spiritual play the surgeon, and rejoint such a one in a spirit of meekness, doing it very carefully and gently, considering thyself, lest thou also have a joint out of socket, lest thou also require the surgeon. How mighty, how gentle, how like a man, how assuredly a shepherd of the flock! That this is his idea is made evident as he proceeds; for he speaks in the tenth verse of "the power which the Lord hath given me to edification, and not to destruction": or, according to the Revised Version, "the Lord hath given me to building up, not to casting down." We have often said that any beast can crush a flower: such low miracles let us leave to the beasts, otherwise we should spoil their tinsel glory. Any maniac could destroy the abbey, the minster. Destruction is the easiest of all things. But the Apostle says his power was given to building up, to making men firmer, stronger, completer; the power to edify, until the pinnacle pierce the heavens and proclaim its radiance because of its completeness. This is the ministry we all need. When the minister is hard with me, I am afraid, I tremble before his rebuke, but when he comes down to me and says, I have been as weak as you are, and worse than you are; and if you had broken every commandment every day since you were born, God's love is greater than your sin, Christ's Cross is mightier than all your iniquity,—immediately I begin to feel that I am in the presence of one who is as God's messenger, and I bless him that he has not destroyed the last lingering beam of light. Let us do what we can to build men up, to edify them in knowledge, in truth, in love, and in every element of strong, solid character; then our ministry cannot be put down; men will need it, long for it, expect it, yea they will say, Open to me the gates of righteousness, and let me enter in, and hear from man's mouth God's indubitable word.
What is the New Testament way of dealing with men who are wrong? For the existence of wrong we must admit. The Apostle, with all his noble sentiment, has never shown that he has blinded himself to the immoralities of the Church, but still he saw the Church under the immorality, above the immorality. He opens his letter as if he were addressing angels in heaven; he closes his letter with benedictions that are like gentle mothers' arms round about us; but between the exordium and the benediction he has been clear enough in his moral views, exacting enough in his discipline; he has spared none. Yet he cannot finish his letter without "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen."—(2Corinthians 13:14)—without saying that his whole meaning all the time was to build us up. Admitting, therefore, the existence of wrong, what is the New Testament way of dealing with men who are guilty of wrong? First, there is Christ's way; what does the Master say?—"Moreover, if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone; if he shall hear thee thou hast gained thy brother." Have we not dwelt upon these words already with rapture? "Thou hast gained thy brother;" bring him as a trophy of battle, bring him as snatched from the hand of the spoiler, bring him home, and rejoice together with godly mirthfulness, with holiest joy. "But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the Church; but if he neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican" (Matthew 18:16-17). We should have heard Christ's voice when he uttered these words, for the tears would have added dignity to the tone. Then there is Paul's method; how does Paul deal with men who have done wrong? He tells us in his Epistle to the Galatians. "But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed." Then it was simple decency, then it was real manliness, then it was Christian apostolicity. How otherwise the passage might have read! "But when Peter was come to Antioch he found a leading article in the morning journal, that took him down a great deal." The article was anonymous. No doubt he would wonder who wrote it. But that article did not spare him. The Apostle Paul did not do so; he said, "When Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed." When such honesty prevails in the Church we shall have a true revival of true godliness. He proceeds: "And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation." Why, Paul names his men! How extremely injudicious; he might have been brought up for it! Then he proceeds: "But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the Gospel, I said unto Peter before them all." This was discipline, this was apostolicity, with a breadth of meaning and with a sacred unction we can hardly understand to-day. But this was Paul's method of dealing with all these things. Exhorting Timothy, he says, "Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear." Addressing the same loved disciple in a second letter, he says, "This thou knowest, that all they which are in Asia be turned away from me; of whom are Phygellus and Hermogenes." Then again he says, "For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world." He does not say "somebody has forsaken me, somebody has gone wrong, the whole apostleship is a disgrace and is a mistake." He names the men, he specifies the charges, he meets them face to face; and there is no other honest course to be taken. These indications of personal apostasy or wrongdoing are the more suggestive, because none so much as Paul was so appreciative of the excellences of other men. Read the closing chapter of the Epistle to the Romans; not a name forgotten, not a service neglected, the whole Church remembered as it were one by one for every cup of cold water given, for every prayer shared or stimulated. The man was equal on both sides; an infinitely generous heart, and yet an infinitely critical judgment; sparing none who did wrong, but if he judged them with the severity of righteousness he hastened to heal them with all the clemency and redemptiveness of love.
Now, in view of these reflections, we submit, first, that it may be absolutely necessary to bring peronal charges. Christian men must face every difficulty attendant upon this necessity. If any man is unfaithful to his queen, and yet wears the queen's uniform, he should be pointed out, named, and there should be created for him an opportunity of refuting the charge as a calumny, or accepting it as a just judgment. Then, secondly, some necessary charges should be made in grief, not in anger. Everything depends upon the distinction which is here drawn. We may accuse a man without having in us the spirit of accusation; we may almost ask his permission to put our feeling into words. Wantonly to accuse a man is one thing, but solemnly, tenderly, in a grief-stricken spirit, to say to the man, I may be mistaken—I pray God I am—but I feel that you are not preaching Christ's Gospel, or that I am not; we cannot both be preaching it; let us talk this matter over, lovingly, frankly, prayerfully; if I am right, you are wrong; if you are right, I am wrong; how does the case stand before God? and who can tell what breaking down there may be on both sides? what a running of heart towards heart, what a clearing up of difficulties, what a rectification of mistakes, with a grand reunion of souls; yet, if it should come to a cleavage that cannot be repaired, then let it be solemnly recognised; and let all proper consequences ensue. This, according to my reading of apostolic custom and spirit, would have been the course taken by the Apostle Paul.
I would further submit, that the most odious of all heresies is an uncharitable spirit. You cannot preach the evangelical doctrine without having first the evangelic spirit. Many persons imagine that, by merely naming a number of words and doctrines, they are preaching evangelically. Evangelical preaching is a question of temper, spirit, disposition, solicitude of heart. The evangelical preacher cannot preach without tears, without tenderness ineffable. When Bishop Ken died some one got his Bible, and on trying to open it the book fell open of itself. The friend once more tried to open it, and the book seemed almost spontaneously to fall open at the same place. Curiosity was excited. The portion of Scripture at which the Bible fell open was, "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing." We can tell which part of the Bible a man has been using by looking at the Bible itself. There is a self-revealing power about the use to which a Bible has been put. Some of us always fall open at a particular place, but I am afraid it is often at an imprecatory Psalm. Why should we not always open our heart, life and spirit at the holy words, "Now abideth faith, hope, charity; these three; but the greatest of these is love." A man may preach orthodoxy in a heterodox spirit. No man can preach orthodoxy wantonly, defiantly, blatantly; the Cross can only be preached by the crucified; blood can only be represented by tears. God's Gospel ceases to be a Gospel when it is uttered with iron lips. It must be declared with trembling and tenderness, sympathy and anxiety; then will the preacher be lost behind his message, and the Cross will be its own illustration. Do not believe that the divisions of Christianity or of Christian communions are any reflection upon Christianity itself; trace all differences of opinion, all separations into communions, to the vastness of Christianity, not to its littleness. Consider what it is; it is the kingdom of heaven, it is in very deed the kingdom of God; it is the all-including, all-absorbing kingdom. Who can deal with it in a concise way, or expect monotony and literal agreement? Finally, our business should be to find, not the infidel, but the believer in every man. Search for the Christian, even in the most doubtful character, and you may find more of him than you expected. We often get what we look for; want to make a man an infidel, and we soon accomplish the little miracle; want to make him a Christian, and even Zacchæus may stand up a son of Abraham.