Dr. David Strain preaches a chapel message entitled “Who is Sufficient for These Things?” on 2 Corinthians 2:12-3:6 at RTS Jackson.
Would you turn with me now please in your Bibles? Take your copy of God’s Word, turn to 2 Corinthians 2, and we’re going to read from the 12th verse through verse 6 of chapter 3. This is the Word of Almighty God.
When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for me in the Lord, my spirit was not at rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I took leave of them and went to Macedonia.
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything is coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
Amen. We give thanks to God that he has spoken to us in his holy and inerrant Word.
Before us this morning is one portion of Scripture that will be of special interest to everyone intended for any form of gospel service but especially for those of us who are called to preach because it’s one of those rare places where the Apostle Paul speaks directly and candidly to us about his own ministry as a preacher of the gospel of grace. What I want you to see immediately as we look at the text together is the juxtaposition of joy and humility, gratitude for the privilege of ministry coupled with our profound sense of personal inadequacy for the task. Verse 12: “Thanks be to God.” Verse 16: “Who is sufficient for these things?” That juxtaposition, that tension between profound gratitude and deep self-suspicion is, I think, the epitome of a fearful gospel servant. All I want us to do together in the time that we have is to explore some of the ways that Paul himself articulates those two attitudes and how they produce in him gospel faithfulness in ministry.
Now, we live at a time when self-confidence is the one indispensable attitude. It doesn’t matter if we’re particularly competent at anything so long as we are utterly convinced of our own brilliance. Paul speaks to us here from a position of avowed self-distrust. He is emphatic about it, isn’t he? Within himself, he simply does not have the resources to faithfully execute the office of a gospel minister. Indeed, he argues, in light of the gravity of the task: who does? Who is sufficient for these things?
So our question as we come to this passage together ought to be, how is Paul able to rejoice, to begin on a note of thanksgiving, when he does not believe he is up to the task entrusted to him? How is he able to go on and keep on keeping on when gospel ministry would mean, as it did for Paul as we’ll see in a moment, rejection by the churches that he served, frequent imprisonment, mob violence, Jewish antagonism, Roman hostility, and the constant efforts of false teachers to undermine him at every turn? How is it that gratitude and self-suspicion go together so that they fuel the kind of relentless faithfulness that we see here in the life of the Apostle Paul? Because it’s precisely that kind of relentless, faithful stickability, shot through with joy, that we urgently need if we are to sustain a lifetime of service in the honor and for the glory of Christ.
Well, to help us begin to answer that, I want to highlight four things quickly from our text. First, the glory of the ministry. Secondly, the enormity of the ministry. Thirdly, the nature of the ministry. And finally, enabling for ministry. The glory, enormity, nature, and enabling for ministry.
The Glory of Gospel Ministry Is Making Known the Greatness of God in Christ
Verse 14, first of all. Here’s the glory of gospel ministry. Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians, as you may know, has been painful for them both. He has had to say to them some hard things, and they have been grieved by his rebukes. Paul himself has gone on to Troas just across the Aegean Sea from Corinth, but he tells us he has no rest in his heart. He is concerned about the Corinthians, and so he has sent Titus to them, and he is waiting for Titus to come back with a report concerning the Corinthians’ welfare. Verse 12 says a great door has been opened to Paul at Troas for the gospel, but since no word of the Corinthians has arrived, and he is so anxious for our report from Titus (verse 13), he takes his leave from Troas and heads onto Macedonia. That is, he heads towards Corinth in the hope of meeting Titus en route and hearing how things stand with the Corinthian Christians.
In 7:5 we learn actually how distressed and how difficult a season of ministry this whole period was for Paul and how anxious he is over their needs at this junction. He says, “For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn—fighting without and fear within.” That was the situation. He is worried about the welfare of the people of God. He’s concerned about their fate. He’s under duress externally and internally, fighting without, fear within. And yet he says, verse 14, but for all that this season of ministry was so terribly difficult, still he says, “Thanks be to God.”
Then he uses a dramatic metaphor to highlight the reason for his thankfulness in the midst of trials, verse 14, “Thanks be to God who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.” Now that sounds like Paul is playing directly into the hands of our triumphalistic self-confidence, doesn’t it? In an age of overweening self-assuredness, verse 14 might be read as a promise that no matter what, as long as you’re on Jesus’s team, you’re going to win every time. It sounds to our ears like grounds for triumphalism.
If you think that way, if you read it that way, you’re not reading it closely enough. Paul does have in mind a great victory parade, a triumphal procession of, let’s say, a mighty Roman general marching through the streets of the capital, and in a procession like that would come a long line of prisoners taken captive and enslaved by the conquering hero. Their only function in that parade, the reason they are there, was to heap glory on the victor, to make the conquering hero look good as everyone sees the huge line of the great and the good who once opposed him now in chains following his lead. They are there to magnifying the conquerer and display the complete triumph of his campaign over all who once opposed him.
Now in Paul’s metaphor, who is the general and who is the captive slave? God in Christ, he says, always leads us in triumphal procession. We have been defeated by King Jesus. “He has utterly conquered me,” Paul is saying, “so that everywhere his procession marches though I appear utterly derelict of power and broken to the eyes of all who see me, like a slave in a victory march, I am a testament to the greatness of Christ who is the victor. And in that, I rejoice. That’s what generates thanksgiving in my heart. He has defeated me. I’ve been conquered, taken captive, even enslaved by Christ, my great king. I am the spoils of his conquest, and I exist now only to display his glory. And so everywhere he leads me, even here in Macedonia, even into all these hardships, as I march in his triumphal procession, his victory is being made known.”
Now, that is, or it ought to be, a stinging blow to the pride of everyone who wants to march at the head of the parade. If for you the measure of ministry is the measure of success in the ministry—the praise of your peers, a bazillion followers on Facebook and constant retweets of your every pearl of wisdom dropping from your lips, and your book deal, and you finally made it onto the conference circuit—if that’s the measure of success in ministry, then Paul’s thanksgiving in verse 14 will make no sense to you at all. [00:12:41]If you want to be in gospel ministry so that you can be made much of, the gratitude of Paul here is going to be incomprehensible to you. [10.6s] But if Christ as the pearl of great price to you, if Jesus has captivated and possessed you, if he has conquered you and made you his own, nothing will generate joy for you like the knowledge that even in the trials and sorrows of ministry, even when you’re at your most abject, perhaps especially then, he is disseminating the fragrance of the knowledge of him through you.
If you preach, you preach for the smile of God first.That’s the glory of the ministry in which Paul exalts: Christ the conqueror displays his greatness by leading us, his captives, in his victory parade. For Paul, nothing more joyful could be conceived than to be the vehicle and the instrument of disseminating the knowledge of Christ, to be made use of by the conquering king for the glory and the honor of his name. That’s what caused him to overflow here with thanksgiving even in a sore time of trial.
Now you don’t do that unless Christ is the reason for your service and not you. You don’t rejoice that even in your brokenness the Savior would use you if he is not the object of your ministry and you are. But if he is all in all, then to know that he is going to use us despite ourselves, that he might be made much of not only in our own hearts, but in the hearts and lives of our hearers that will be our deepest thrill and the fountain of our most profound gratitude.
Ministry Is Enormously Important Because It Honors God and Decides Eternal Destinies
Then secondly, Paul talks about the enormity of the ministry. Look at verses 15 and 16. There’s another metaphor, or at least Paul is mixing his metaphors in our passage: in the triumphal procession of a Roman victor one of the striking features was the burning of incense along the parade route. The smell of victory literally would be everywhere. And Paul is saying that’s a good picture of his work. He disseminates the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ as he preaches the gospel and suffers for the Savior. But he may also have in mind here a sacrificial image, verse 15, “We are the aroma of Christ to God.” The temple imagery of a pleasing aroma of sacrifice seems to be part of the thought, which means that for Paul, before any other consideration, gospel ministry derives its value and its dignity and its weight and its significance from its God-ward orientation.
Paul thinks of himself and his work as a sacrifice offered up in praise of the Lord.If you preach, you preach for the smile of God first. If you serve, you serve for the honor of God. Paul thinks of himself and his work as a sacrifice offered up in praise of the Lord. That should give us an entirely different target at which to aim as we prepare ourselves for ministry and as we engage, as many of us already are, in preaching and teaching, perhaps on the circuit and in the churches of which you’re a part. It offers us a different set of scales by which to measure our studies and our preparation and our preaching and our counseling and our classroom work. The great litmus test of faithful ministry and Christian service is not the feedback of my peers or of my professors but the smile of God to whom I am called to offer myself and my work in sacrifice.
So part of the enormity, the weight of ministry for Paul lies in its God-ward orientation, its vertical dimension. But notice how he goes on in verses 15 and 16, “We are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other fragrance from life to life.” There’s also a man-ward direction, a horizontal orientation to a ministry that also lends weight and gravity to the task.
He’s saying that to God faithful ministry is a sweet-smelling aroma, a sacrifice of praise. But among those who hear the gospel message, it is life-giving or death-dealing. To some, their rejection of the gospel as a dead thing will lead to their own eternal death, and to others, their reception of the gospel as the fountain of life will lead to their own eternal life. Destinies are being worked out, Paul says, as I preach Christ. Heaven and hell are being populated in response to the proclamation of the gospel entrusted to me. Do you feel the enormity of that consideration, the weight of it? Who would ever take the call to gospel ministry lightly in view of this reality?
Now I’ve known some men who are so confident in their own gifts that they never tremble to speak for Jesus. And I’ve met others who are so unconcerned about discerning their own call that to them the ministry is a mere option among many, and while at seminary, they want to keep their options open and shrug in indifference when asked about what’s next. But brothers and sisters, both extremes undermine the grandeur and the weight of the work of the ministry. For Paul, indifference is an impossibility and self-confidence is inconceivable. Who is sufficient for these things, considering that we do them to present our labors to God as an act of worship and as we do destinies, eternities are being settled in response to our proclamation. “Who’s sufficient for these things?” he cries.
Spurgeon is famously said to have told a young man inquiring about the ministry that if he could possibly do anything else, he should do that. Now I don’t think that’s right at all. Paul says if anyone desires the office of a bishop he desires a good work. If you don’t want to preach, shut your mouth. If you don’t long to proclaim Christ, keep your lips closed. It ought to thrill you to take his name on your lips and be a passion of your heart, and if that’s not true, even if you are called, you’re not ready. And until you are, close your mouth.
But I think what Spurgeon was trying to get at was the enormity and the weight of the ministry that Paul is talking about here. Who is sufficient for these things? It is not a small thing, to be considered glibly and lightly: “Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. Who knows? Maybe I’ll give it a try and see how it goes.” The gospel ministry is not a job among others when destinies, eternity hangs in the balance, as you proclaim Christ.
We ought to tremble at the thought of ministry. It’s beyond me. It’s beyond you. It was beyond Paul. Who is sufficient for these things? We ought to tremble at the thought of it. And if we are called and desire the work and we should, we ought nevertheless to feel the pressing weight of the responsibility entrusted to us to hold forth the Word of life. Destinies are being settled. Heaven and hell is being populated, as you proclaim Jesus.
The Nature of Ministry Is Incredibly Demanding
The glory of the ministry, the enormity of the ministry, thirdly, and briefly, the nature of the ministry, verse 17. He’s shown us the beauty of it, the glory of the work. He’s impressed upon us the weightiness and the solemnity of the task. Now he wants us to see something of the character of the ministry.
Here’s Paul’s mission statement, his own job description, you might say. First of all, negatively: “we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word.” He’s not in this for profit or praise. He’s not preaching for personal advancement. He is no gospel salesmen, a hustler pushing Jesus as his latest cure-all. Is Jesus Christ so precious to you that you will not be a peddler of his words, one whose main concern is himself, for whom Christ is a means to an end? Will you use Jesus or will you serve him? Is preaching and ministry are therapeutic tool to make you feel better about you or is it an act of service of Christ and love for the brethren and passion for the salvation of sinners? He is not a peddler of the gospel.
Do not preach because you have something to say. Speak because God has sent you to herald the gospel of grace.And then positively, he says, his ministry is marked by four things. First, he says he is a man of sincerity. He’s real. He’s the same man in public as he is in private. He uses his same voice, and his same personality shines through in the pulpit as it does out of it. He doesn’t say one thing and do another. I hesitate to use I now hackneyed word, but in Paul’s case, it fits: he’s authentic. He’s really authentic. He’s authentically authentic here.
And secondly, he speaks as one commissioned by God. Paul’s commission is unique. None of us here are apostles. None of us can or will share it, but if we were to engage in gospel ministry and preach the unsearchable riches of Christ there must be a commission, nonetheless, a call, a sending. And it places upon us the obligation to speak not our words but the words of the one who sends us. Do not preach because you have something to say. Speak because God has sent you to herald the gospel of grace.
Thirdly, he speaks, he says, in the sight of God. His ministry and ours are conducted coram deo, before the face of God. God is watching. Will you speak and serve and work for the verdict of heaven? Or is your highest court the court of the judgment of your peers. Are you preaching for the favor of your audience or for the smile of your Father?
And fourthly, he says he speaks in Christ. That is to say, he is a man in Christ. That is who he is, where his security and identity is rooted and grounded. There is no other way to stand before a congregation of sinners as a sinner and not do so filled either with arrogance or overwhelming insecurity. The only way to do it and to preach Christ freely and boldly is to know your identity and security rest, not in the affirmation of others, not in my own intrinsic competence, but in Christ alone.
So the ministry, Paul says, is glorious. It is weighty. And verse 17 makes plain it also is demanding. The tasks and the nature of ministry are demanding. So no wonder he cries out: who is sufficient for these things?
God Enables and Equips the People He Calls for Ministry
He doesn’t leave us there, however, with the enormity and the glory and the demands of ministry beating down on us. Paul answers his own question—who is sufficient for these things? Chapter 3, verses 5 and 6: “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
Our sufficiency, Paul says, is from God. He makes us competent. He gives us adequacy. He supplies sufficient grace.Who is sufficient for these things? Not me. Not you. Not any of us. Paul says the gospel minister is never the source of fruitfulness or blessing. You will not be let loose on a congregation to be the source of revival in their midst. The gospel minister is never the grounds of growth nor the reason for conversions nor the cause of flourishing congregational life. We are not sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as coming from us, Paul says. But we do have a sufficiency, nevertheless, for the task. We are equipped and made competent for the work, its glory and its enormity and its demands notwithstanding. Our sufficiency, Paul says, is from God. He makes us competent. He gives us adequacy. He supplies sufficient grace. So that what he calls for, he equips us for. What he commands of us, he provides for us.
Seminaries do not make gospel ministers. Only God can do that. This place will provide you a venue in which to prepare and train and pray and work and become as usable as you can be in the hand of God and in the lives of his people. But only God can take me in my bankruptcy and in my sin and make me effective in his service. Only God can do that. Only God, by his Spirit, can animate my ministry, your ministry, whether it’s in a classroom, a counseling room, the mission field, or at a pulpit. Only he can take it and lift it beyond empty talk, letter work, deadening and moribund, and fill it with life-giving power.
Seminaries do not make gospel ministers. Only God can do that.Brothers and sisters, if God is calling you into his service you should tremble at the glory and the enormity and the gravity of that task. If you don’t, you have misunderstood it completely. But you should not despair. Look to God, Paul says. If he has called you, he will equip you. If he has sent you, he will supply the sufficiency that you need. If he deploys you in his cause, he will endow you with the gifts and the graces you require in his service.
So if I can leave you with a closing exhortation, let me urge as your studies begin again in earnest and the demands of the classroom, perhaps also an additional working life and maybe a family life all begin to press in, let me urge you not to lose sight of the need of your own hearts, for more of God and more of Christ and a fresh infusion of his Spirit. Make that your priority, would you, in the year ahead, not simply to fill your your brain with knowledge and to hone your own skill set but to be someone resting more fully on the provision of grace, more dependent on his Savior, more wholly leaning on the sufficiency that God alone can provide us.
There is no other way to be useful in his service. If the wind of the Spirit doesn’t catch the sails of all that seminary teaches you and gives power and force and dynamism and life to it, you will be a liability in his service. It is not an additional extra to pray and to seek God and to look to him for help and resources to be faithful. It is vital. It is the sine qua non of faithful ministry. Without it, there is no ministry. There is just performance. If you want Christ to be glorified, make Christ the center and foundation, not just of your ministry, but of your life.
May the Lord bless to you the ministry of his Word. Let’s pray.