Sunday, July 4, 2010

God's Measuring Stick

2 Corinthians 10:1-18
As you can see, today’s title is “God’s Measuring Stick.” What is a measuring stick? It is a stick of a standardized length by which other lengths, other distances, can be compared. But how does one define the standardized length? Today, one of the themes of our passage, Chapter 10 of Second Corinthians, is the idea of a standardized measure of goodness, of righteousness.

But to start, I thought it would be interesting to talk briefly about measuring sticks. We all know the yardstick, the yard. We know it is 3 feet. But do you know how many spans it is? (Four.) Do you know how many fingers it is? (Eight.) Do you know how many nails it is? (Sixteen.) But do these identities help us to know how long a yardstick is? No. They are all relative. And their names may imply certain lengths (feet, spans, fingers, and nails), but these vary from person to person, and are not very accurate at all. 

For example, my foot is only about 80% of a standard foot, and my longest finger is only about 80% of a standard finger, and my longest nail, freshly cut, is only about 20% of a standard nail. (A standard nail is 2 1/4 inches; that’s an awfully long fingernail, by any standard.) Regardless of the origin of the yard (and there are many theories, from it being related to the length of a stride to the girth of a person’s waist to the distance between King Henry I of England’s nose to the end of his thumb), it was defined in law in the 1300s, and an official measuring stick, eventually called the British Standard Yard, was kept as the defining measure. In 1834, there was a fire at the Palace of Westminster, and the one and only British Standard Yard was destroyed. After this, the yard was defined based on a value relative to the meter.

What about the meter? The meter, which is named after the Greek word metron, which means measure, was first defined in 1668 as the length of a pendulum with a half-period of one second. Later, after realizing that this measure depended on a number of other physical factors, it was further specified to be this pendulum length when used on a pendulum at a fixed temperature, held in a vacuum at a height of sea level, at a particular location in London. The French, as you might guess, were not too happy about this definition.

In 1791 a new measure was chosen, one that was about 0.3% longer than the previous one. Do you know what it was? It was defined as one ten-millionth of the length of the Earth’s meridian along a quadrant, that is, the distance from the Equator to the North Pole. In other words, it is 10 million meters to walk from the Equator to the North Pole. But the problem with this definition, even though it was more accurate, was that constant improvements in estimating this distance around the earth (and the position of the North Pole) kept slightly modifying the measure.

In 1875, it was decided to go back to having a physical standard, and in 1889, the International Prototype Meter was defined as the distance between two lines on a particular bar that was 90% platinum and 10% iridium, measured at a temperature of 0 degrees Celsius. Concerns again about the location of this bar (it was in France) led to new attempts to define the meter based on something other than a measuring stick, and in 1960, it was redefined as 1,650,763.73 wavelengths of the orange-red emission line in the electromagnetic spectrum of the krypton-86 atom in a vacuum. (There will be a quiz on this later.) Finally, in 1983, it was defined in terms of the speed of light in a vacuum, and this is still the definition today. I find that there is a certain spiritual irony that the measure ultimately rests on light.
But that is enough of the science lesson. Let’s get into our passage!

By the meekness and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you—I, Paul, who am "timid" when face to face with you, but "bold" when away! I beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be toward some people who think that we live by the standards of this world. – 2 Corinthians 10:1-2

Twice in these two verses, Paul refers to a kind of measuring stick. First, he speaks of meekness and gentleness, and what is his measuring stick? The meekness and gentleness of Christ. What do these words refer to? They refer to an attitude and a pattern of behavior that is characterized by patiently enduring offensive behavior by others. Despite the severity of the offenses, there isn’t a response of anger, or hatred, or bitterness, or a desire to enact revenge. Meekness does not mean weakness. Weakness is all about not having the power to do something in return; meekness, in contrast, is all about having the power to do something, but choosing not to do so.

And Paul’s measuring stick is the very meekness and gentleness of Christ. I think of what Jesus said in Matthew 11:29, “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart.” I think of the quote from Isaiah in Matthew 12:20, one of my favorite verses, “A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out.” Given the parallelism of the passage, the reed probably does not refer to something still in the ground, but something used for some purpose. Reeds were used to make flutes in ancient times. A bruised reed would make a pretty lousy musical instrument; the sound that would come out would be squeaky at best, and most people would just throw such a reed away. And a smoldering wick, too small or too burned to even give off a proper amount of light, but instead makes smoke and sputtering noises. Both are offensive; both can drive someone crazy. How much like bruised reeds and smoldering wicks must we be? But Jesus does not throw us away; He is meek and gentle; patient, and kind, and loving, despite our tremendous flaws. Think of Jesus weeping for the people of Jerusalem as He enters it, fully knowing what the people in this city would soon do to Him. Think of how Jesus responded to the woman at the well, or to the woman caught in the act of adultery. Think of the story of the prodigal son. Think of Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” They knew enough what they were doing.

This is Paul’s measuring stick, the meekness and gentleness of Christ, and it should be our measuring stick as well. I know that I still have much growing to do in this area. Sometimes, when I am frustrated by the actions of others, I am far from meek. Note that there is no “Yes, but…” in this area. Now, meekness does not mean that we cannot respond at all, but it dictates very strongly how we respond. Can we be firm? Yes, especially if we are in a position of responsibility over someone. But can we express our firmness with anger, or revenge, or bitterness? Using this measuring stick, there should not even be a hint of such things.

Now if you are wondering what Paul means by the timid when face to face and bold when away comment, he is quoting his accusers. This makes me smile. Paul knows that this is exactly what some people are gossiping about him, but of course they are doing it behind his back. Paul is not supposed to know about it, and I am sure they are very uncomfortable when they see him quote them! This is still meekness, by the way. Meekness does not preclude being up front about things. It does not preclude bringing things to the light that others meant to keep hidden.

Paul begs them to change. When he visits, he does not want to have to go through church discipline processes, if necessary leading to the expelling those who are unrepentant, treating them as unbelievers, as is explained in other passages. He does not want to have to do this, but if necessary, he certainly will do this, for the good and protection of the church. This is what he is saying.

Meekness does not mean living by the standards of this world. What does the world do? Not deal with problematic behavior. It allows things up to a certain threshold, normally a very high threshold. Stealing office supplies from work is OK, says the world. Some D’s are OK, says the world, as long as your grade average is a C. In many areas of life, the world tolerates unacceptable behavior, because it isn’t worse than the standard. This is why tolerance is the highest form of morality, in our culture. This is why our culture says that intolerance, even against unacceptable behavior, is the greatest sin. And so Paul says, that, like Christ, he will be meek, but he will not be weak. Christ is gentle towards sinners who turn to Him, but He cannot abide sin.

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. – 2 Corinthians 10:3-5

Now, this is one of the most important, most directly focused passages on spiritual warfare in the entire Bible. Yes, there are others, such as Ephesians 6, which talks of the armor of God. But here, we see not the armor, but the battle, the war, itself. I want you to get into the whole war mindset. Today, July 4, is a wholly appropriate day to do so. Our soldiers in this passage are armed. And these aren’t just light weapons; these are heavy duty. They have the power to demolish strongholds. One strategy in war is to avoid strongholds, circle around them, and then cut off their supplies. That is not the strategy here. And by the way, the Greek for the verb wage war (we do not wage war as the world does) is strateuo, from which we get our word strategy. No, the strategy is not to avoid the stronghold, but to demolish it. Synonyms are destroy, tear down completely. And in addition to demolishing things, we also see the idea of taking captives. Understand the war imagery – not only are they destroying the strongholds, they are moving out the enemies that remain. This place will be cleared out of enemies; there will be none left, none remaining who can later regroup and cause more trouble.

Besides the general strongholds, what is the object of the attack? What is targeted? Arguments, pretensions, and thoughts. That first word, arguments, in Greek is logismos. It refers to any kind of reasoning, judgement, or decision, that is false and contradicts God’s Word, the Logos. Even in the word form, the logismos is like a false impostor to the Logos. The second word, pretensions, in Greek is hypsoma, which literally means high thing. It is also a specialized military word, referring to a barrier, or rampart, or bulwark. In context with logismos, it also refers to high philosophy, worldly thinking, and again, what we are to do to this high thing is to tear it down. And the word for thought is noema, which can also be defined as schemes. It is used in 2 Corinthians 2:11, with regards to Satan, when Paul says, we are not ignorant of his schemes.

May I also say that another word for the object of Paul’s attack was worldviews, worldviews in conflict with or opposed to a Biblical worldview, a worldview based on the belief that the Bible is reliable and true and that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. For those of us going through the Truth Project together this summer, understand that what we are doing is tearing down strongholds. We are doing what these verses are all about.

Now, many Christians use these verses to describe personal spiritual warfare, and I don’t really have a problem with that; indeed, we are in a war against our own flesh, our own worldly thinking. It is incredibly important that we engage in this personal battle. Countless other verses speak to this. But the direct and immediate context of this passage is that this battle is engaged corporately, as a body. Paul is not talking about one person fighting his own internal battles; he is talking about an army together. He is talking about a body of believers together identifying these strongholds, and worldly arguments, pretensions, and thoughts in one another and putting an end to “stinking thinking.” This is what Paul and his companions will do when they come to Corinth. They will wage war, not against people (as the world does) but against their thoughts that are opposed to Christ. This is reason number 296 why it is so important that believers gather together in a local body. (Don’t ask me to list the other 295.) But spiritual warfare is supposed to be a corporate endeavor. We do it together, not alone.

By the way, I suspect Paul’s choice of words was very deliberate, not just for us, and for all other readers of Scripture through the centuries, but specifically for the Corinthians. Just south of Corinth was a mountain, a high place, and in this place was a fortress, a stronghold, the Acropolis, the Acrocorinth. The temple from which came all kinds of evil practices and beliefs was up in this place. So when Paul talked about tearing down high places, destroying strongholds, the Corinthians had a vivid picture of what this meant.

And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete. You are looking only on the surface of things. If anyone is confident that he belongs to Christ, he should consider again that we belong to Christ just as much as he. For even if I boast somewhat freely about the authority the Lord gave us for building you up rather than pulling you down, I will not be ashamed of it. – 2 Corinthians 10:6-8

What does that first sentence mean? That last phrase can be translated, once you are finished with your “obedienting.” In other words, once you tell me your house is in order (that is, as a church body), I will come and see, and if there remain factions, if there remain those who are trying to undermine the gospel, if there remain false teachers, I am going to expose them and carry out church discipline on them.

The remaining sentences seem to be telling them more about what it means to finish becoming obedient. They needed to look more closely than they had been. They needed to be more discerning about what people were teaching. Just claiming they were Christians was an insufficient reason to blindly accept their teachings. They needed to become more like the Bereans, checking whatever was said carefully with Scripture. And especially if these teachers were claiming that they had some special authority as Christians, whether through their knowledge, or personal experiences, Paul was saying, “What about us? What about me?” The boasting Paul is talking about is his testimony. It is how he came to the Lord – his Damascus road experience – and how Jesus had made him into an apostle to the Gentiles. Paul was working under the authority of Peter and the first eyewitnesses of Christ’s resurrection. He had a personal commission from Christ. What ever claims these false teachers were making could not compare to this, and by tearing Paul down, they were in fact completely undermining their own credibility.

I do not want to seem to be trying to frighten you with my letters. For some say, "His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing." Such people should realize that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present. – 2 Corinthians 10:9-11

The quote here reveals the dominant thinking about leadership in their culture, not just in Corinth, but throughout the Gentile Roman world. What made a good leader? Think of Caesar. A strong, dominating appearance. A masterful, powerful orator. Those were the two requirements. And how did Paul measure up in these regards? Well, he probably wasn’t much to look at, being beaten to within an inch of death more than once, and he probably wasn’t all that imposing even before then. Even before he was saved, he had a kind of leadership role (persecuting Christians), but it wasn’t the role of a political leader or a military general; it was more like the role of a particularly effective IRS agent. Imposing looks and powerful oratory skills were not required for this position.

Americans, today, too, have certain expectations about leaders, and they are not that different from back then. And unfortunately these expectations even can drift into expectations for pastors. There is a stereotype of the ideal pastor that is something like a college dean: a well-spoken, articulate person, good-looking, and friendly with a winning smile. None of these are required qualifications for being a pastor. Yes, you must be able to effectively teach the Scriptures, but that is not the same thing. And what is Paul’s response to this? That weighty and forceful will describe what happens when Paul comes to Corinth, once the Corinthians have put their house in order.

We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise. – 2 Corinthians 10:12

Ah, now we come back to measuring sticks. Measuring themselves by themselves, comparing themselves with themselves. I can give you an example of this. Sometimes in the university research world, a small group of researchers come up with a new idea, but the general group of people who work in that area are not all that impressed, perhaps because there are practical limitations, or because it is in actuality a rehash of something already done. Nevertheless, this group becomes successful in obtaining early research funding. Well, what happens next is that these same people are asked to review papers and research proposals in this area, because they are now the experts. If the group have critical mass, they can get their papers published and bring in more funding because they form a sort of mutual admiration society. Sometimes, such a group can become so successful that funding for legitimate, important research is blocked, and papers critical of their work is prevented from being published. Ten years or so and multiple millions of dollars later, the area finally fades away, having found no applications for the very reasons others were critical of it in the first place.

Well, this also happens all the time, unfortunately, in Christianity. How else do we explain the countless liberal churches throughout America, churches so liberal that their beliefs are closer to psychological self-help books than to the clear instruction of the Bible? But they form their own organizations, their own denominations, their own seminaries, and so on, becoming convinced that they are doing great things, because their measuring stick is themselves instead of the Word of God. They are not wise.

In fact, what is their problem? What is the root cause of a lack of wisdom? It is not foolishness. It is pride. Pride says, “We don’t need to use God’s measuring stick. We have a better one.” Now, they may not out-and-out say this, but this is in fact exactly what they are doing. And be warned, we all can do this too.
Don’t compare yourself to others. Don’t compare yourself to your coworkers. Don’t compare yourself to your neighbors. Don’t compare yourself to others who graduated with you. Don’t compare yourself to your classmates. Don’t compare yourself even to others in this church. Don’t dare to do it! (That’s an interesting phrase, when you think about it.) It’s the wrong measuring stick.

We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the field God has assigned to us, a field that reaches even to you. We are not going too far in our boasting, as would be the case if we had not come to you, for we did get as far as you with the gospel of Christ. Neither do we go beyond our limits by boasting of work done by others. – 2 Corinthians 10:13-15a

This is humility. This makes me think of how in academia we judge people by their publication counts. But a publication generally counts as a publication regardless of how many co-authors are on the paper, and regardless of whether you did most of the work or were just an additional name put on because you contributed one tiny thing. Paul would not do this.

The reason Paul would not do this is that he is not thinking about impressing men. He is thinking about God watching over all that he does, all that he says. He is thinking that everything he does, he does for Christ, and the opinions of others only matter to the degree that it impedes Christ’s work. The only reason Paul is reminding the Corinthians that they would not even know the gospel if it weren’t for Paul is so that they would remember this and continue to believe that Paul has no agenda but the spread of the true gospel.

Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our area of activity among you will greatly expand, so that we can preach the gospel in the regions beyond you. For we do not want to boast about work already done in another man's territory. But, "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord." For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends. – 2 Corinthians 10:15b-18

And there you have it stated so clearly. Paul’s measuring stick is the approval of God, nothing else. And to paraphrase a saying from John MacArthur, worry about your depth, not your breadth. Do not worry about how many people you have led to the Lord. Be concerned about whether you are following God’s still small voice today. Are you being faithful in the little things? Are you doing all things with the mindset of serving your wonderful master, Jesus Christ?

There is a lot of irony in this chapter. Did you notice the phrase, “For we do not want to boast about work already done in another man’s territory.” Of course, this is exactly what the false teachers were doing! Why do people do this? One reason, as I have said, is pride. But another is insecurity. These false teachers were not capable of doing a tiny fraction of what Paul had done. They weren’t willing to die to self for the sake of the gospel, because they weren’t operating in the power of Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. They were posers, and they knew it.

Please, do not become, do not be, a poser. If you are struggling in your walk, the answer is not to put on a smile and pretend everything is fine. Sometimes it helps to open up to someone else, lay it all out, so they can pray for you, and even better, you can pray for one another. “Confess your sins to one another, so that you may be healed.” Sometimes, though, we can use talking to others as a substitute for talking to God. There is no substitute for talking to God. Fill your heart and mind with Scripture. Pour out your heart daily to God. And He will, slowly but surely, build you up.

Listen, how many of you want to hear the Lord say to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant…”? Why? Why do you want to hear this? Search your heart on this. If it is so that you will feel good inside, I don’t think you are going to hear it. If you do things to make yourself feel good, you are using your own measuring stick! Do you know what your answer should be? It should be that you want to make the Lord feel good inside. After all He has done and is doing for you, and even more, because of Who He is, you love Him more than anything and want to express your love to Him with your life. That is the kind of answer Paul would give, and it is the kind of life motivation that the Lord will work through, because you are truly opening yourself up to Him. Just as we now measure the meter by the speed of light, measure yourself by the degree of your desire to please the Light of the World.

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