May 14, 2008
One way we receive the truth of the Gospel is through the words of pastors. Those who teach God’s Word must therefore resist the temptation to pitch their messages as if they are marketing a product. Instead, Alistair Begg encourages ministers of the Gospel to be candid, clear, and courageous in their preaching, having full confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Can I invite you to turn again to 2 Corinthians chapter 4? I’m going to read this, and then we’ll pray together and proceed according to the outline that you have hanging around your necks, many of you. And we’ll go through the morning as it is outlined, God willing. Two Corinthians 4:1:
“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 every man’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”
Father, we pause this morning with the words of the hymn in our minds, for it is a good thing for us to give thanks to the living God and to sing praise to your name, Most High. We know that heaven and earth will pass away, but your words will never pass away; that your word is fixed in the heavens; that all the days of our lives were written in your book before one of them came to be; that as for man, his days are like grass, and the glory of man like the flower of the field; the grass withers and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever. And this is the word which by the gospel has been proclaimed.
And now as we turn to the Bible, we pray that you will conduct that divine dialogue whereby the Spirit of God speaks into the very core of our beings, bringing the truth of God home to our hearts and our minds in a way that will be used to the transforming of our lives, and increasing our knowledge of God, and growing in our likeness to Jesus, and being enabled better to live for you and to serve you. Accomplish your purposes, then, which you have planned, and make us ready recipients of your truth. For we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
Well, here we are, back at 2 Corinthians. We began yesterday morning looking simply at the message, and we noted the source of this message and the substance of the message. One of my colleagues said to me, “I missed the third point,” and I said, “Well, so did I, because I don’t think I had one.” And I looked and checked, and I didn’t. I believe I made it sound as if there was a third point, but just, if you want one, just put it in for yourself. But it has to begin with an s. We considered the source and the substance.
And now we move on to consider what we referenced yesterday as the method which these men employ. I thought about using the word method, and I thought maybe I shouldn’t use it, and then I decided that, purposefully, I will. Because I think there is a danger in some of our circles in appearing to be very otherworldly in our approach to the exercise of ministry, especially if we hold deep convictions about the Bible. And so we perhaps look scantly at those who are strategic in their thinking or, you know, have methodologies that we would want to call in question. And so, then, in reacting to that, the pendulum swings away out to the other side, where we embrace a form of sort of sanctified cluelessness. And when people ask us, “What are you doing?” we say, “Yes, yes we are.” And they look at us, and they know that that is exactly what we’re doing.
It makes me think of the young seminarian who, in the homiletics class, was given the responsibility of delivering his talk before his peers and in front of his homiletics professor. And he delivered his address, and then he stopped, and it was met by just phenomenal silence. And he looked down at his professor, who was sitting on the front row, and he said to his professor, he said, “It will do, sir, won’t it? It will do?” And his professor called back, “Do what?”
So, I use the word method purposefully. What is the method?
Well, let’s begin by stating the obvious. The tools of the trade were words—were words. And the ministry that we exercise is a ministry of the Word, proclaiming Christ the living Word by using words. It is quite amazing that we have to underscore that, but we do in this particular generation. And just as Jesus was a teacher at whose words the people marveled, so the apostles after him were charged with the responsibility of a teaching and a preaching ministry. And it is in this apostolic teaching, or apostolic doctrine, that we have the ground of belief and we have the standard of behavior—that that which they taught has been inscripturated for us, and so now we have the word of the prophets, as it were, made more certain, so that we need be in no doubt as to what it is is to form the basis of what we’re going to say Sunday by Sunday and week by week.
Given that, even a casual survey of church history makes clear that whenever the church has lost sight of this fundamental notion, it has always languished and it has always lost its prophetic edge. I’m not going to make a side trip into church history; you can search it out for yourselves and see if that is the case.
One of the books that I’ve read mostly recently is by Stephen Prothero, who is the professor of religion at Boston College. And he wrote a very interesting book called Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t. And in the course of addressing this question—and his layout is very, very interesting. He lays his book out—I’ll just tell you this. He identifies “The Problem” of illiteracy; he describes “The Past”; “Eden (What We Once Knew)”; “The Fall (How We Forgot)”; “Redemption,” what we need to do. Very interesting.
But in the course of “The Fall (How We Forgot),” he says that if you survey the contemporary circumstances in America, by and large, illiteracy abounds. He says there are voices of confessional Christians that haven’t been entirely drowned out, however. But these confessional Christians seem to be a voice crying in the wilderness. As the nation has migrated from understanding itself as Protestant to understanding itself as Christian, then Judeo-Christian, and then Abrahamic, many have jettisoned in the name of tolerance the great teachings and stories of the Christian tradition. And he goes on to say, “Reversing these trends will be difficult since with each passing generation, more and more of our collective memory of religion withers away.”
In other words, the whole notion of the Shema in Deuteronomy 6: “These things are to be upon your hearts, and you’re to teach them to your children when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you get up. And you’ll bind them around your wrists and around your foreheads. And indeed, it will be your whole business to ensure that the Word that has been delivered is passed safely into another generation.” Prothero is writing from the perspective of a university professor; he’s casting his gaze over the entire religious panorama of America. And yet, he has points to make which are a challenge to us in this regard.
Without doubt and without any spirit of judgment, there is a staggering ignorance of biblical truth in evangelical churches in America today—a staggering ignorance. Those of you who work amongst university students will know that many are coming in almost clueless in relationship to the Bible. And indeed, the seminarians tell me that they are finding that with every passing generation, the general standard of biblical knowledge on the part of those who are applying to become seminary students is declining at an absolutely alarming rate. And there are reasons for this, of course. But at the very heart of it is the absence of biblical, expository teaching ministries in the pulpits of the country. And also the fascination in whether we’re in a postmodern world or a post-postmodern world—I’m losing sight of it now, with the speed with which everything is passing—but whatever it is called or referred to now, there is an occupation, or a preoccupation, with images, with our senses, with intuition. And indeed, all of these things are so predominant in the minds of people that while we could never have imagined it being the case, a generation is growing up that is fascinated by sitting in a basement somewhere with a number of candles, and documents from the Middle Ages, and some kind of music playing in the background, and a sort of smorgasbord of sensual experience with a religious overtone—and the only thing that you’ll find largely missing in it all is any kind of didactic, helpful proclamation of the Bible.
There is actually, in many of our churches, little danger of our congregations spilling coffee on their Bibles—and that’s not because of an absence of coffee. I’m not a fan of the Bible being on the screens. I’m not a fan of putting it up there. The pragmatists say, “But it would be better to be up there than not to be there at all.” Well, I might agree with that. But I want people to turn to their Bibles. I want people to read their Bibles. I want people to carry their Bibles.
Commenting on this kind of environment, David Wells, in the now-legendary book that we’ve been referencing, says, “None of these things”—the kind of things I’m mentioning—“can substitute for the fact that the Church has to proclaim the truth about Christ, that it cannot do so without using words, that words are the tools for expressing our thoughts, and [that] our thoughts must correspond to the reality of what God has done in Christ.” Now, we could stop here and have a great a discourse on the average vocabulary of an American. But you would take that as very unkind. But the fact is, it’s not impressive. And so it’s no surprise that people want to move away from words, more into senses and to feelings. And so our sermons then can cease to be didactic, become far more hortatory, become full of far more personal illustrations of what was happening to us or where we were going, which is all very endearing stuff, but it actually is not teaching people the Bible. It may be entertaining them, it may be engaging them, but it may actually be failing to do what is necessary.
So what, then, is the method? Look at what he says—and that was just by way of introduction; it is a word issue. But notice, in verse 2, “We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God.” But look back at 2:17, and let’s use that as our first subheading: “Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God.” Our methodology is, first of all, saying no to peddling. To peddling. Notice the phrase: Paul says, “Unlike so many, we do not peddle.” In other words, he puts himself in the minority; the prevailing methodology, the prevailing strategy, is one that he has determined he will not use.
The word that is used here for peddling, kapeleuontes, is a unique word in the New Testament, and it isn’t even in the Septuagint. Kapelos, the noun, was a reference to somebody who bought things for a price, fiddled with them, and then sold them for a higher price. We know everything about that. In particular, it was a reference to small dealers in wine—in wine—who became notorious for diluting their wine with water or compounding their wine with other substances so as to make it a more appealing product and a more profitable product. That’s the notion: to make it more appealing, to make it more profitable. And these kapelos characters were happy to do whatever was necessary in order to achieve that objective. In other words, they were fraudulent, they were masters of deception. And that is why he says in 4:2, “We are not like these people. That’s the whole point. We have renounced these secret and shameful ways. We don’t use deception, and we don’t use distortion.”
Of course, we recognize that the closer to the real thing it looks and sounds, the better it is to deceive. When we faced the battle for the Bible all these years ago—remember Harold Lindsell’s book; I think that was what it was called, The Battle for the Bible—and the folks… I was not in this country at the time, but I observed it from the other side of the ocean. And all those men got together somewhere in the States—I’ve forgotten where it was—and all sat down and said, “We must make sure that we stand firm and true in relationship to the Scriptures,” and essentially took on the residue of old German liberalism and all kinds of speculative notions. Well, that battle was fought and essentially won. That was a battle that largely came, if you like, from outside the framework of conservative evangelicalism.
The battle that we now fight comes from inside the framework of conservative evangelicalism. And it is so subtle that unless we’re absolutely alert to things and reading our Bibles, we may actually swallow it up. So it is not that people say, “We don’t believe that the Bible is God’s revelation,” but we just mix with that revelation just a few speculative theories. Or that we explain away some of the hard parts by our interest and appeal to philosophy. Or that we are prepared, along with some of our contemporaries, to dismantle the meaning of meaning, to view the truth as being elastic and moldable, so that we have a sort of malleable body of information that we can fashion into whatever kind of shape we decide. And indeed, we expect that our listeners will be doing the same thing—making their own thing: “Now, you go away, and you get this; you know, put it together for yourself” sort of thing, as if there was no apostolic doctrine, as if there was no body of truth, as if Paul had not agonized, saying, “I want you to make sure that you hold to these things, that you guard this deposit, that you convey these things with conviction, that you hold fast to the sound teaching.” He wasn’t saying, “Whatever that sound teaching is.” He understood what he was saying.
And yet here we are, in a very different landscape, and therefore facing a huge challenge. And we may put it in the affirmative: “We do not peddle.” Or we may actually turn it around and ask ourselves the question, “Do I peddle? Am I in danger of becoming a peddler?” Paul is forthright concerning this. Listen to him in 2 Corinthians 11:13. You needn’t turn to it. He eventually gets to the point he says, “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.”
Now, we’ve had a sort of recurring dialogue here about whether it’s right to name anybody. So, the easy thing for me is to name somebody who’s naming somebody; that way I can disassociate myself from it. And so that’s what I’ve chosen to do. We may not be so forthright as Paul, and Wells I don’t think would want to necessarily call into question—and he is not calling into question—the relationship of individuals to God; that is a matter for God himself.
But in his chapter on truth in this book, he eventually sort of says, “I need to tell you what I’m thinking here.” He says there is a line that
connects Marshall … Wright to Bell and McLaren. It is that the authority of God functions separately from the written Scriptures. Marshall thinks the Spirit has liberated us from some of what is in Scripture; Wright thinks the Scriptures were never given to function as absolute truth in our world in the first place; Bell thinks the Scriptures simply send us on our way to do our own thing; McLaren thinks historic faith needs to be de-reconstructed for postmoderns so that the baggage of enduring truth can be dropped.
The common thread across this broad front is that Scripture cannot be fully authoritative at the level of its functioning in the life of the church today. … At the end of the day Christianity is about filling out my story, being propelled on my journey by the Scripture or the Holy Spirit, and being propelled into the (post)modern world. It is not about our fitting into the Bible’s narrative. It is not about seeing it as an objective framework of truth. Why not? Because that does not sit well either with the (post)modern autonomous self or with [our] world. Here is the postmodern preoccupation with the self into which the whole of reality has been contracted, the self at the center of the universe, and despite all the Christian words that are spattered around, actually refusing to be part of God’s (objective) narrative.
Bit of a mouthful. I commend the book to you again, and you make of it what you can.
So, “we do not peddle,” even though the peddling may raise a cheer, even though it may gather a crowd, even though it may stir a movement amongst those who are not taught.
Well, what do we do? We do not peddle, but we do preach. And what do we preach? We preach “Jesus Christ as Lord.” We noticed that in part: “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord.” Notice that they preach as those “sent from God,” back into chapter 2, and also those who preach, 4:2, “in the sight of God.” Why are we doing what we’re doing? Because we were sent from God. We weren’t sent as apostles. He was an apostle; we are not apostles. But we are the servants of the Word of God. It’s the same commission to make much of Christ in all of the Scriptures. I love the story of [Billy Bray], who, when they said to [Billy Bray], “You know, we may have to silence you for all this preaching you’re doing everywhere,” and [Billy Bray] said, “You could put me in a barrel, and I would shout glory out of the bung hole!”—which does not sound particularly philosophically erudite, but we do get his point.
What does it mean, then, to preach Jesus Christ as Lord? Well, notice what he says. It involves, verse 2, “setting forth the truth plainly.” “Setting forth the truth plainly.” There isn’t to be a hint of the huckster—nothing crafty, nothing deceitful, nothing fraudulent about the approach of the minister of the gospel. The minister of the gospel is to be as removed from chicanery and from double-dealing as is humanly possible. That is, without question, so clear. We do preach “Jesus Christ as Lord.”
Somewhere along the way, I wrote in my notes the three c’s of gospel preaching. I can’t remember where I got them; some may be able to identify the source. The three c’s of gospel preaching are these: Number one, candid. Candid. Preaching candidly, so that there is no concealment of the truth. Number two, clearly, so that there is no obscurity in our expression. Number three, courageously, so that there is no fear of the consequences. Candid, clear, and courageous preaching is the very antithesis of the fraudulence that he is identifying here in verse 2. And when our preaching takes on those marks, then we may have some assurance that although the listener may not embrace the gospel, yet, as he says here, their consciences may confirm the fact of the preacher’s sincerity.
I need to do some more work on this little statement here, but for the time being, it seems to me that what he’s saying is, “We don’t do this deceptive stuff. On the contrary, we set forth the truth plainly.” And notice he doesn’t say, “We commend the gospel to every man’s conscience,” but “We can commend ourselves to every man’s conscience.” So that in listening to the words that come from the mouth of the preacher, in hearing what they’re saying, they may recognize the truthfulness of what is proclaimed. They may be able to say, “I don’t like what I hear, and frankly, I don’t agree with what is being said, but I cannot call in question that man’s integrity, because something right in the core of my being affirms the fact that whether he’s right or wrong, he feels himself to be telling the truth. I don’t feel that he’s like a used car salesman. I don’t think he’s trying to sell me some funny deal for $29.99 on the channel at late night where you buy the sharpest knives ever known in the entire history of the world, you know. I don’t have any of that feel from him at all.” And he shouldn’t. Because the emphasis is on Jesus Christ as Lord.
Now, when you review Paul’s approach in terms of moving in his missionary journeys, it is absolutely clear what he’s doing. For example, in Acts chapter 17, when he passes through Amphipolis and Apollonia and comes to Thessalonica where there was a Jewish synagogue, as is his custom, he goes into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days, what did he do? “He reasoned with them from the Scriptures.” “He reasoned with them from the Scriptures.” He did the hard work. It was a teaching ministry; it was a reasonable ministry. And as he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, he had one objective before him, and that was to explain and to prove that the Messiah “had to suffer and rise from the dead.”
So he took the Old Testament Scriptures, which were their Scriptures, and he said, “Now what we’re going to do for these three Sabbath days is we’re going to look in here, and I want to show you all the way through the Bible that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead.” And as he reasoned and argued and explained that along the way and did the hard work, when he finally got them to the point where they said, “Yes, it is clear that the Messiah had to suffer and die and rise from the dead,” and then he said, “And this Jesus is that Messiah.” “This Jesus is that Messiah.”
There was nothing blustering about his approach. It wasn’t a form of rhetorical flourishes. In fact, he tells the Corinthians themselves that he resisted every inclination that they may have had to play their rhetorical game or to provide them with signs that would fascinate them. “No,” he said, “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Why? Because we must not peddle the Word, but we much preach Jesus Christ as Lord. And the reason for it is that God is “pleased,” as he says to the Corinthians, “through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.”
Now, when you take and add to that verse 4, you realize how absolutely crucial this is—that the task of gospel preaching is not just difficult; it is impossible. Because “the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
So in other words, in our preaching of the Bible—in, particularly, our evangelistic preaching of the Bible—we’re preaching to those who are perishing and who are blind to the truth. Notice what he says: the problem does not lie in the gospel. As Calvin said, it’s not the fault of the sun when men shut their eyes and will not see it. No. The problem does not lie in the gospel, nor does it even lie in the clarity of Paul’s proclaiming of the gospel, but it lies in the condition of the listeners. “They cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” As Barth says, it takes the revelation of God to show the unbeliever that they’re blind—that unbelievers cannot even know that they are blind to the truth without the revelation of God. So it’s not as if they sit out there and say, “Oh yeah, I know that I’m blind to the truth.” They do not know they’re blind to the truth. They’re blind to the fact that they’re blind—without the activity of God.
You say, “Well, how in the world are we ever going to deal with this? I’m gonna have to get some fantastic video clips if I’m going to be able to overcome that. I mean, are you telling me that they’re blind to the… I’ve got to get some movies up here immediately. That’s the only way I think I’m going to be able to do this. ’Cause I’ve read my notes, and they’re no good! So let’s go here for a little while.” I guarantee you, if you start that kind of thing, it’ll strangle you in the end. ’Cause your congregation is so perverse that they will endure all your twaddle just waiting for your video clips. So I suggest you just quit the twaddle and show videos, or quit the videos and start in getting serious about preaching and asking God to help us to be imaginative, to be creative, to be under the unction of the Spirit of God, just servants in his hand.
Albert Barnes, whose commentaries are very wordy but profitable, asks the question in his commentary on 2 Corinthians; he says, “How does Satan accomplish this blinding?” And here are his answers: number one, by the “direct influence” on their thinking; two, by “false philosophy”; three, by “superstition and idolatry”; four, by producing in their minds “a wholly disproportionate view of the value of [temporal things]”—namely, wealth, fashion, pleasure, success—shutting out all thoughts of eternity; and fifthly, “by the blinding [issue] of passion and vice.”
In other words, it doesn’t really matter what methodology he employs. Satan is happy for men to be anything, just so long as they are not Christians. He has no problem with religion. He has no problem with spirituality. He has no problem with moralism served up with a thin veneer of Christian ideology. He will be happy to encourage people to deal with their issues in a therapeutic world, provided they do not ever believe themselves to live in a moral world in which accountability confronts them, and particularly in a moral world that exists as a result of the holiness and righteousness of a creator God who stands outside of time. All of that is passé as he endeavors to make sure that men and women remain in their blindness. He’ll let everything go; he will oppose nothing but the proclaiming of the gospel. As soon as the gospel light shines, as soon as it is Jesus Christ as Lord, as soon as it is the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ, then and only then, all the powers of hell are unleashed against it.
One of our brothers here from India was saying that of the 750 churches in the northern part of India, in the vast area of Delhi, there are only 10 of them—10 of them—that could be justifiably referred to as truly gospel-oriented congregations. And we spoke yesterday with some of our friends from other parts of the world, and the prevailing influence in South America, in East Africa, and in India and Asia is the story, largely sent from America, of prosperity and security that is found now. And we witness these events where people who have very little in the way of earthly provisions are giving their money to unscrupulous teachers. The devil is happy. He has blinded the minds of men and women.
Now you see, if you combine the fact of verse 4 with a loss of confidence in the sufficiency of the Bible on the part of the preacher, it is a dreadful predicament. Because either the preacher will eventually be completely silenced, or the preacher will become a purveyor of pleasant tales and superficial remedies for the passing ailments of time but not set in the context of eternity.
Well, our time is going, so let me just take us on to deal with the men. If our message finds its source in God, and if its substance is in the proclamation of God’s grace, and if our methodology is to say no to the peddling of the Word of God but instead to preach Jesus Christ as Lord, what then is to be the character of the individuals who are the communicators of this truth? Well, let me move as swiftly as I can.
First of all, you will notice that these individuals are described as self-effacing. Verse 5a: “For we do not preach ourselves.” “We do not preach ourselves.” Why does he say that? Because that was what he was being accused of. The super-apostles who’d moved into the Corinthian scene, they said, “You know, he just exalts himself.” But in actual fact, it was the pot calling the kettle black. And Paul says, “We do not preach ourselves.”
Brothers, here is a clear and present danger. Here is a clear and present danger. Self-promotion is so endemic in our culture that it almost inevitably bleeds into our churches. Self-promotion. I had found these out in the corridor today, and I thought, “How wonderful it is that my name is everywhere, with all these arrows.” It’s nice, and there’s Alistair Begg going left, Alistair Begg going right, Alistair Begg going up. Nobody knows where Alistair Begg is going at all, and frankly, nobody cares. However, if you would like me, I could sign one of these, and then you could take it home and frame it, you know? What a joke. What an unbelievable joke. And yet I want to tell you something: that every moral collapse in America in pastoral ministry that I have observed can be traced to this ugly weed, self-promotion. Pride.
You don’t have to have a big group. You just have to have a group, and the people that advance their cause. One of the most notorious failures in the last eighteen months, which I will not identify—and I’m not trying to intrigue you with it, because I don’t want to make any capital from this kind of thing at all—one of the most intriguing collapses, which was covered by the media, as it always will be, when the cameras went into the building in which the pastor who had fallen was customarily the teacher, the thing that I noticed that was the most alarming thing of all was that when it went into the vast vestibule of the megachurch and the camera panned it, it was impossible to miss the fact that there was a photograph of this pastor that had to be ten by twelve right in the vestibule. Why? Like, the people don’t know who he is, or…? In case they’ve forgotten since last Sunday how handsome he actually is? What is that about? Don’t the Scriptures say, “Let another praise you”? “‘This is the man to whom I will look,’ says the Lord: ‘he who is humble and contrite in spirit and who trembles at my words.’” Oh, they can put a picture up of us afterwards if they want, but afterwards—when you’re dead. But not when you’re alive.
“Aw, but you don’t understand Alistair. America has become great because of this. We are the masters of self-promotion. We are the masters of promotional material.” And all of the pluses that are represented in the world of business are articulated clearly in relationship to that. But it has no place in the church. It has no place in the church. And Paul is addressing it. “We do not preach ourselves.” Ours is a self-effacing ministry. Ours is a John the Baptist ministry. And that doesn’t mean you get a hairy shirt and dress up kind of funny and wander around. Anybody can do the John the Baptist strut, as it were: “Hey, look at that!”
My friends, they all tell me, say, “You know, do you dress like this? Do you go to bed like this? Is this your pajamas as well? You know, a navy blazer, and everything like that. Why don’t you get like us? You know, we’re free, you know. We don’t do that.” Oh, you don’t? Oh no, you’re not the guys that wear the long, kinda hairy jerseys out over the front of your trousers, with a goatee, and do that? That’s not a uniform? No, the externals are almost irrelevant. The question is, what’s in the core of the individual?
They came to John the Baptist, and they said to him, “Tell us something about yourself. Who are you?” And he declared, “I am not the Christ.” And they said, “Well then, are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” And they said, “And are you this?” He said, “No.” And he frustrated them dreadfully. And they said, “You’re gonna have to tell us something about yourself, John the Baptist. Who are you?” Now, let’s be honest. Most of us love it if somebody comes and says, “Well, tell us something about yourself.” “Well, hey, pull up a chair and sit down! I’ve got some information for you! Let me tell you!”
Listen to what Albert Barnes says we must guard against in terms of self-promotion. We’re supposed to stop right now at ten thirty, aren’t we? Well, we’re going a little longer. All right. All right. I’m sorry. Incidentally, Albert Barnes, if you have Barnes’s commentaries—and if you don’t, you should get them—the fantastic thing about them is that they’re so dense; the print is very small. And they sold half a million of them in his day when he was a minister in Philadelphia. They were translated into various languages in the world. They went all over the place. And I was reading this 2 Corinthians thing in the last few days, and I said to myself, “How does this man manage to do this?” And so I had my secretary go and find his obituary, and when I got to his obituary, I just found this. And this is just of interest in passing, before I read from him for a moment. It says,
His study was in the church building, and for years, in all seasons of the year, and in every vicissitude of the weather, he was there before the sun, and there, with his commentaries, histories and concordances, spent the greater part of his time. He was not given to calling or receiving calls. He left society [entirely] to itself; from no [disdain] for its pleasures, nor from any disinclination to genial companionship, but because early in life he planned that great work he was enabled to complete—Notes on the Whole Bible—and this, demanding familiarity with many languages and a vast amount of study and reference, left him little time for the secondary duties of a minister, and none what[so]ever for individual relaxation and [pleasure].
Now, we’re not gonna use him as a model. But I read that and I said, “I better get off my duff!” I mean, I haven’t even got my warm-ups off in relationship to doing anything, and this guy punched out at seventy-two and had done commentaries on the entire Bible—and he wasn’t using Microsoft Word! It’s fantastic.
And listen to his ability to ask the question. He asks the question: “We do not preach ourselves,” so he says, “What would it mean if a man was preaching himself? How would we identify somebody who was preaching himself?” This is it:
Ministers may be said to preach themselves in the following ways:
(1.) When their preaching has a primary reference to their own interest; and when they engage in it to advance their reputation, or to secure in some way their own advantage. When they aim at exalting their authority, extending their influence, or in any way promoting their own welfare.
That was enough for me right there. Then he goes,
(2.) When they proclaim their own opinions and not the gospel of Christ; when they derive their doctrines from their own reasonings, and not from the Bible. (3.) When they put themselves forward; speak much of themselves; refer often to themselves; are vain of their powers of reasoning, of their eloquence, and of their learning, and seek to make these known rather than the simple truth[s] of the gospel. In one word, when self is primary, and the gospel is secondary; when they prostitute the ministry to gain popularity; to live a life of ease; to be respected; to obtain a livelihood; to gain influence; to rule over a people; and to make the preaching of the gospel merely an occasion of advancing themselves in the world.
Now, it is at that point in your study, guys, that you step away from your desk and you lie facedown on your carpet. Because the seeds of every element of this are in our stony hearts. And the only thing that prevents some of us from achieving this is that we want the mechanism for letting everybody know how fantastic we really are.
Who are these men? Number one, they’re self-effacing. Number two, they’re servants. Servants. “We do not preach [ourself], but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants.” We can’t delay on this; I will stop. But as a servant of Jesus, he is a servant of the followers of Jesus. Okay, good. But let me mention a quote to you from Derek Prime that I think, if you haven’t fastened on this, will be of help to you, provided you use it humbly and infrequently. And this is what Derek Prime told the elders at Charlotte Chapel when he went there to begin his time of ministry: he said to them, “I will be your servant, but you can never be my masters.” “I will be your servant, but you can never be my masters.” And that is a fundamental and foundational distinction—and misapplied would make us crass and arrogant and unresponsive to the necessary correction we require from our colleagues in ministry. But understood properly, it will prevent us from bowing down to some who rear their ugly heads without foundation and seek to make our lives a misery.
I remember in the early days here—just one illustration. I remember in the early days here, trying at an elders’ meeting, when we were meeting in an office building up the road here, to encourage my elders with the thought of our evening service. And I was laboring fairly hard to say to them, “I know that you have many responsibilities, but I would so much like your support in evening worship.” And it got a little bit kind of frayed at the edges, and people were explaining why they wouldn’t be offering that support. And I got a little fed up with the whole thing, and I said at one point, I said, “Well, let me ask you a question.” I said, “What about this? What about if I just don’t show up at the evening service? What are you gonna do then?” And one guy who was a sweet man from the South—had a great accent, I don’t know what it was—but anyway, he used to say in the elders’ meetings, “I’m gon’ say my piece, and then I’m gon’ hush.” And so I said, “So what if I don’t show up? What are you gonna do then?” And quick as a flash, Mr. “I’m Gonna Hush” said, “I’ll fire you! I’ll fire you.” “Oh,” I said, “okay, we got clarity now. That’s okay. Thank you. Thank you. That’s all I needed. That’s fine. We’re good.” But you know, when you’re driving home in the car, you’re saying, “I’ll fire you, you big rascal!” You know, I mean, it’s just… You know, it brings everything bad out in you. You don’t know what to do with it. Because then the servanthood is tied to the self-effacing, isn’t it?
Self-effacing servants who are saved. Look at verse 6. Saved. What Paul writes in verse 6, says Hughes, the commentator, “is no case of academic theorizing.” “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts.” Don’t you think that Paul, when he pens those words, he just goes right back to that light that was brighter than the noonday sun shining from heaven and just burning into his heart—giving, if you like, Wesley the ground for his hymn: “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin”—we sang it last night—“and nature’s night; thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray, [and] I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.”
I thought twice about using this as a statement, you know, that he was saved. You say, “Well, there’s nothing like stating the obvious, is there?” No, but I want to make an evangelistic appeal here. Because it is actually possible that there is someone here who is pastoring a church or is in leadership in a church and is an unconverted man. Someone who, like those in Richard Baxter’s day, were chided by Baxter for seeking to offer the bread of life to others—a bread which they themselves, said Baxter, have never eaten. And there may be someone here for whom the story of the gospel as delivered by my colleagues, as considered around these tables, is as a light shining right into your soul, revealing the absence of personal, living faith in Jesus. And if so, I implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God.
And finally, in verse 7—and with this we stop, obviously—these men are saved, self-effacing servants, but notice too that they’re fragile. They’re fragile: “We have this treasure in jars of clay.” The contrast between verse 6 and 7 is dramatic, and it’s purposeful. The instrumentality that is employed is disproportionate in relationship to the effect that is produced. Whether the picture is what some commentators say, of treasure and so on, or the wee pottery lamps that were inexpensive and fragile and sold in the markets of Corinth, it is just making the point that human frailty is not a barrier to usefulness. Indeed, we often say if dependence is the objective, then weakness is the advantage.
And Paul knew exactly what he was talking about when he writes in this way, as is apparent in 2 Corinthians 12. And the picture with which we’re left is this: a picture of expendable messengers and an indestructible message. Expendable messengers and an indestructible message. Did you notice through there, as we had breakfast and everything, that we were using disposable materials? I didn’t notice anybody wanting to hold on to it. I don’t see anyone carrying the material around—plastic forks and little polystyrene cups and everything else. After all, they’re just throwaway items. We use them and they’re gone.
When the bombs of the IRA hit central London, in the business district of London, they in part demolished a significant element of St Helen’s Bishopsgate, where Dick Lucas was the rector. That was eventually refurbished and rebuilt. And one of the things that I love to do on the few occasions that I get to go there is to walk in underneath the archway of that side door. Because right across the archway of the door are the words “Heaven and earth may pass away, but my words will never pass away.” “Come and bomb the building, if you want.” “Take our lives, our children, our wives, then is your profit small; these things will vanish all: his kingdom is forever.”
So, to conclude, we must, then, be clear about the message: its source in God and its substance, a gospel of grace. Clear about the method: saying no to peddling, saying yes to preaching Christ. And asking God to make us the men: men who are entirely dependent and men who are utterly disposable.
Father, thank you that we have a Bible to go back and read, that we can go and turn our hearts and minds to its truth and ask you to clarify and confirm that which is of yourself and enable us to forget anything that is extraneous, unhelpful, unkind, or untrue. We pray that you will fill us so with your Spirit and with a love for Christ that we might increasingly be those men, that we might be convinced of these methods, and that we might be absolutely clear concerning this message. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
 See Psalm 92:1.
 See Matthew 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33.
 See Psalm 119:89.
 See Psalm 139:16.
 See Psalm 103:15.
 See Isaiah 40:8.
 See 2 Peter 1:19.
 Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 120.
 Deuteronomy 6:6–8 (paraphrased).
 David F. Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 229.
 See 1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:13–14.
 David F. Wells, The Courage to be Protestant: Truth-Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 87.
 2 Corinthians 2:17 (NIV 1984).
 F. W. Bourne, The King’s Son; or, A Memoir of Billy Bray, 8th ed. (London: Bible Christian Book-Room, 1874), 34. Paraphrased.
 Acts 17:2 (NIV 1984).
 Acts 17:3 (NIV 1984).
 Acts 17:3 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 2:2 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 1:21 (NIV 1984).
 Albert Barnes, Notes, Explanatory and Practical, on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians and the Epistle to the Galatians (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1851), 77–78.
 Proverbs 27:2 (NIV 1984).
 Isaiah 66:2 (paraphrased).
 See John 1:19–28.
 North American, quoted in “Sudden Death of Rev. Albert Barnes,” New York Times, December 27, 1870.
 Barnes, Notes, 79–80.
 Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 133.
 See Acts 9:3.
 Charles Wesley, “And Can It Be, That I Should Gain?” (1738).
 Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (1656; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), 54.
 See 2 Corinthians 5:20.
 See Matthew 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33.
 Martin Luther, trans. Thomas Carlyle, “A Safe Stronghold Our God Is Still” (1831). Paraphrased.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.