Part 3 of a series on defining success for a missionary. Part 1 demonstrated that we, like Paul, can be confident in our ministry, despite all our detractors and critics. In Part 2, we talked about Paul’s need to once more prove his credibility as an apostle to the Corinthian church. By repeating the phrase “commend ourselves,” he points to some key criteria that he uses to demonstrate that God is pleased with his ministry.
The first criterion that I want to highlight is found in 2 Corinthians 4:1-2.
Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.
We have already noted that Paul was being accused of being a deceiver or even an imposter (2 Cor. 6:8). Paul says that these accusations are not based on evidence. As the Corinthians knew from observation, he proclaimed the truth rather plainly. He was not known for flowery speech or emotional arm-twisting (1 Cor. 2:1-5). In fact, the Corinthians had likely compared him unfavorably with the rhetoricians and philosophers of their day who were known for their eloquence and rhetorical skill. In contrast, Paul’s messages were amazingly unadorned, simply Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:1). Rather than apologizing for his lack of eloquence, Paul says this plain and clear message was actually proof of his credibility as an apostle.
The glorious, transforming message
It is clear from 2 Cor. 4:3 that the truth that Paul sets forth plainly is the Gospel, the message of reconciliation as he calls it in 2 Cor. 5:19. Sometimes the message is not understood by the listeners, but Paul says this is not because his message is ambiguous or obscure. No, the only reason that people do not understand his plain proclamation of the Gospel is because Satan has blinded the minds of the unbelievers (2 Cor. 2:4).
What is even more startling is that Paul equates the Gospel he preaches with the knowledge of God’s glory. When people hear and understand his message, they see the very glory of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4). Since Christ is the image of God, these hearers are actually seeing the glory of God (2 Cor 4:6) as they behold the beauty of Christ presented in Paul’s Gospel message.
This view of the glory of God in the Gospel message is transformative. When you see the glory of the Lord in its true light, as something infinitely beautiful and desirable, you cannot remain the same. Paul says, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” – 2 Corinthians 3:18
The convinced but humble messenger
This was what Paul himself experienced on the Damascus Road. The Lord Christ shone in his brilliant glory into Paul’s darkened mind and soul (2 Cor 4:6, Acts 26:13), and he never was the same again. His message was primarily based not on what he had read and studied, but on what he had personally seen and experienced. Because he was personally and completely convinced of the message’s effectiveness, he did not need to hide his own personal life from his audience. Paul was not like an actor taking a big gulp for the camera, and then spitting out the drink when the camera is turned away! He was still thrilled with the Gospel, still found it glorious. This was why he had no need for any type of subterfuge or any of the gimmicks of false advertising in order to “sell” his message (2 Cor. 4:2). He could present the Gospel plainly in its true light without any add-ons, and was confident that the Gospel would do its revolutionary work in the listeners whose minds and hearts had been opened by God.
But Paul did not ever forget that the transforming power of his message in no way suggested that the messenger himself had any inherent superiority. In the next breath, he said, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” 2 Corinthians 4:7. Paul was a simple clay pot holding an amazing treasure. Whatever happened as a result of his proclamation was totally God’s doing. His competence as a missionary/ apostle was grounded in the powerful message he proclaimed, not in his powerful oratory, his brilliant arguments or his creative methods. He knew God was pleased with his ministry because he faithfully and clearly spoke about Jesus as Lord, and kept the focus on the glory of God, not the glory of the messenger.
What does Paul say to us?
Does Paul have anything to say to us as missionaries as we seek to determine what it means to be successful? Do we ever use our speaking abilities (in the national language or in English) as our measuring stick of success and competence? Have I ever been tempted to consider myself a “good missionary” or a “poor missionary” because my ability or lack of ability to speak fluently without grammatical mistakes and glaring errors in pronunciation? Yes, often! Have I ever envied another missionary’s creativity of presentation or natural ease in front of people? Definitely! Have I ever judged the value of my ministry on the basis of how many people responded to the invitation or complimented me on the sermon or lecture? Unfortunately, yes.
We can’t stay silent.
But Paul’s example is not only encouraging to those of us who are less than dazzling orators. Paul reminds us that we are called to proclaim a message, not just be good neighbors. The Gospel must be declared clearly if we are to “commend ourselves” using Paul’s criteria. Now, to be sure, most proclamation does not happen from behind a pulpit or a lectern. We can “set forth the truth plainly”, probably even more plainly and clearly, if we share the Gospel across the kitchen table with a couple of coffee mugs between us and the next person. We also need to recognize that proclamation is multi-faceted, and in an evangelistic event, the person up front doing the speaking is only part of the whole team effort. But proclaim we must.
It’s not about us
We also are reminded that the message we proclaim must essentially be about Christ and his glory. In the end, the focus must be on his attractiveness, not ours. Making a lot of friends, and having everyone speak of you in glowing terms, has no eternal value if people do not come face to face with Christ and the beauty of his holiness and perfection. I remember walking down the streets of a town in the Philippines, and hearing my name being called from all sides by people I did not know. Everyone knew the white guy in the neighbourhood, and many wanted to be his friend. I even had a grandfather once thank me profusely for saving his country from the Japanese in the Second World War! (I was born 15 years after the war ended, and my relatives were all Canadian conscientious objectors, so it was not a big temptation for pride.) But the measure of my success is not what they think about me, but whether I have introduced them to my Lord.
Not just evangelism
Let’s not limit this criterion of clearly proclaiming the Gospel to what we call “evangelism.” The Gospel must be proclaimed throughout the process of discipleship. People must be presented with the perfections of Christ over and over again as they grow in maturity and become more and more like Him Paul testified, “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.” (Colossians 1:28)
Tell me a story
Let’s also remember that a clear presentation of the Gospel may not involve a 3-point sermon, based on Grudem’s Systematic Theology and The New International Commentary of the New Testament. It may well be a simple story, appropriately addressing the worldview of the people to whom you are speaking. I am in the process of learning more about story-telling, and how we as missionaries can train ourselves in communicating through story. I was amazed to learn that 60-70% of the worlds’ population cannot, will not, or prefers not to learn through the printed page. These people (and maybe some of us) will only really hear the good news in a meaningful way if it is communicated through stories.
So have you clearly proclaimed the Gospel? Whether or not there is a positive response, we are called to set forth the truth plainly, and this truth must be clearly centered in Christ. If we faithfully proclaim the message, through our lives and through our words, we can be confident that on that day, Christ will say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”