Have you ever poured your heart and soul into something only to have it crumble right before your very eyes? Have you ever gotten your hopes up that finally you had turned the corner, only to find out that around the corner was a brick wall? What you thought you had built or accomplished proved to be something other than what you thought it was? The people you loved, shared your life with in the most significant of ways, and opened your heart to with no reservations, decided to turn their hearts in another direction? Has this ever happened to you? It is devastating isn’t it? And yet, it has happened all throughout history and it still takes place every single day. Disappointment with what appears to be the unraveling of our plans, hopes, and even life itself happens to people of every walk of life, in every period of life, and in every aspect of life.
When Charles Spurgeon began his ministry in London he was only 20 years old. The crowds grew and grew at such a rapid rate that they couldn’t build a building large enough to seat everyone who wanted to hear Spurgeon teach God’s Word. The young preacher was on top of the world! And then it happened. Along with the growing crowds, Spurgeon began to face waves of criticism that he just didn’t see coming. Much of the criticism came from other ministers. Several pastors wrote publicly that they doubted Spurgeon’s faith. Rev. James Wells wrote, “I have, most solemnly have, my doubts as the Divine reality of his conversion.” Others wrote that he would be like a rocket that would fly high for a brief time and then disappear out of sight. The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent wrote, “He is a nine days’ wonder — a comet that has suddenly shot across the religious atmosphere. He has gone up like a rocket and before long will come down like a stick.”
Spurgeon kept teaching God’s Word, the crowds kept coming, and the critics kept criticizing. As great of a preacher as Spurgeon was, he was still human, and the constant criticism which came from supposed brothers in Christ took its toll. Darrel Amundsen quotes Spurgeon in his book, The Anguish and Agonies of Charles Spurgeon.
Down on my knees have I often fallen, with the hot sweat rising from my brow under some fresh slander poured upon me; in an agony of grief my heart has been well-nigh broken.” (Amundsen, Darrel. The Anguish and Agonies of Charles Spurgeon, pg. 23)
Disappointment which comes about because things aren’t turning out like we planned doesn’t just happen to preachers. It happens to all of us. And it happened to the Apostle Paul.
We spent the better part of two years walking through the pages of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. We learned about the city of Corinth and the people sitting in the pews at Corinth, which in reality weren’t any different from the people we are today.
Corinth had been destroyed in 146 B.C., but in 44 B.C. Julius Caesar decided to resurrect the ruins of Corinth, so he rebuilt it. By the time Paul visited the city in 50 A.D., the new Corinth was exploding with growth, largely because of where it was located on the isthmus of Corinth with not one, but two harbors. The harbors made Corinth an important crossroads of trade for business people who wanted to seize the opportunity to make their fortune. Ships came into the harbors bringing people and merchandise from all over the world. The city was largely Gentile, but there were some Jews present in Corinth since Emperor Claudius had recently run all of the Jews out of Rome (Acts 18:2). Two of the Jews who had left Rome and settled in Corinth were Aquila and Priscilla. There were also many people in Corinth who had been either former soldiers in the Roman army or freedmen, former slaves who had found their freedom and had made their way to Corinth in hopes of a better life.
The people of the city loved their sports and they loved their entertainment. In Paul’s day, the Isthmian Games, which were held every two years in Corinth, were second only to the Olympics, which were held every four years. The theater in Corinth held up to 18,000 people, which is almost exactly the same size as the Paycom Center downtown, where the Thunder play basketball. The concert hall in Corinth held another 3,000 people, which is 600 more people than our Civic Center.
The people of Corinth were also religious, there were temples all over the city. Don’t let the word “religious” fool you. The most famous of the temples was the temple of Aphrodite, which was built on the acropolis just outside of the city. The acropolis was a table top mesa that rose 2,000 feet above sea level. John MacArthur writes,
The most prominent edifice of the acropolis was a temple to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Some 1,000 prostitutes, who were ‘religious’ prostitutes, lived and worked there and came down into the city in the evening to offer their services to male citizens and foreign visitors. (The MacArthur Study Bible, From the “Introduction to 1 Corinthians”.)
Corinth was a city that catered to sailors and traveling salesmen and had a reputation for sexual immorality and drunkenness. William Barclay says, “Corinth became not only a synonym for wealth and luxury, drunkenness and debauchery, but also for filth.”
Paul first arrived in Corinth in 50 A.D. while he was on his second missionary journey. He had left the famous city of Athens where he had debated with intellectual elites at the Areopagus (Acts 17:19-21) and made his way to Corinth. Chuck Swindoll writes,
That two-day journey along the coast of the Saronic Gulf marked a transition from the famous to the infamous–from what most consider the center of Greek intellectual culture to what we would see as the pit of Greek immoral corruption: from Athens to Corinth. (Swindoll, Charles. Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary: 1 & 2 Corinthians. pg. 9)
Paul saw Corinth as a great place, the perfect place, to plant a church. He joined forces with Aquila and Priscilla and began sharing the gospel on the sabbath in the synagogue with Jews and Greeks, but that didn’t last long. Luke tells us they “opposed Paul and became abusive,” so we read in Acts 18:7-11,
7 Then Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. 8 Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptized. 9 One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. 10 For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” 11 So Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God. (Acts 18:7-11 NIV)
Paul stayed for 18 months in Corinth sharing the gospel and discipling those who came to believe in Jesus. After his 18 month stay, Paul left Corinth and traveled to Ephesus and then on to Jerusalem before heading back to Ephesus. Paul had received a letter from the church in Corinth. Paul sat down and answered the questions in what is called his “previous letter,” in 1 Corinthians 5:9-11. Paul writes,
9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people– 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. (1 Corinthians 5:9-11 NIV)
About one year later, in 53 A.D., Paul received more concerning news about the church in Corinth so he wrote what we know as First Corinthians. Paul loved the brothers and sisters in Corinth. He had discipled them, taught them that they were to be a light shining in a dark city, but they were allowing the culture to continue to mold and shape them. Paul was concerned, so in early spring of 54 A.D., he sent Timothy to check on the church. When Timothy came back and gave his report to Paul, things were growing worse, sexual immorality and divisiveness were still present, and now false teachers had come into the church and were undermining Paul’s authority. Paul knew he needed to go back to Corinth so he made a quick visit.
You would think that the one who established the church and had led so many to faith in Jesus would have been welcomed back, but instead, Paul was humiliated as someone, most likely one of the false teachers, had openly insulted Paul and no one in the church stood up to Paul’s accuser. Paul alludes to his “painful visit” in 2 Corinthians 2:1. Kent Hughes writes,
The apostle’s authority, even his apostleship, was called into question. If Paul was for real, why was there so much suffering in his life? they asked. Also, why was his ministry so lackluster when compared with the ministry of others? What was his preaching so dull? …Why didn’t Paul have letters of recommendation like the others? Why didn’t he regale them with stories about God’s power in his ministry? Was it because there were none? Tragically, this attack on Paul’s ministry and person had led many of his Corinthian converts to reject him and his preaching for ‘a different gospel” (Hughes, Kent. Preaching the Word: 2 Corinthians. pg. 14-15).
Paul had changed his plans so he could go to Corinth and help the church get back on track, but it had all blown up in his face. When Paul got back to Ephesus he sat down and wrote a letter to the church which has become known as the “tearful letter.” Paul sent the letter to Corinth with Titus. He alludes to the letter in 2 Corinthians 2:3-4. Let’s read it together.
3 I wrote as I did, so that when I came I would not be distressed by those who should have made me rejoice. I had confidence in all of you, that you would all share my joy. 4 For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you. (2 Corinthians 2:3-4 NIV)
Late in the summer or fall of 54 A.D., while Paul was still ministering in Ephesus, things began to unravel there. We can read about it in Acts 19:23-41, but for the sake of time let me just tell you that a riot broke out because Paul was proclaiming the gospel and people were being persuaded that their idols were no gods at all. Those who made their living off of selling idols and trinkets in honor of gods like Artemis, were livid and started the riot. Things became so bad that Paul thought he was going to die. He shared his experience with the people of Corinth, in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9.
8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9 NIV)
So Paul left Ephesus. He traveled to Troas where he ministered for a while, but he was hoping to connect with Titus there to get a report of how things were going after Titus had delivered the “tearful letter.” Paul writes about this in 2 Corinthians 2:12-13.
12 Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, 13 I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia. (2 Corinthians 2:12-13 NIV)
“No peace of mind?” We are talking about the Apostle Paul, the man God used to write more of the New Testament than any other person. Paul told the Philippians about the peace of God, a “peace that transcends all understanding,” in Philippians 4:7. How could this great man of God have “no peace of mind?” Now that’s a great question and the answer is important for you and me to understand.
Paul had just escaped Ephesus with his life and his relationship with the brothers and sisters in Corinth was up in the air…how would it all turn out? Would Demetrius the silversmith and the other tradesman turn the people of Ephesus back to idols? Would the gospel be silenced now that Paul was gone? Would the people of Corinth stone Titus to death when they received Paul’s letter? Would Paul ever be able to see those he had led to the Lord in Corinth again? Would the false teachers successfully persuade Paul’s children in the faith that Paul was an imposter? Was Paul a failure?
I can totally relate to the questions that might have been swirling around in Paul’s mind when it seemed like all of the work he had invested in the lives of the people of Corinth was unraveling right before his eyes. Have you ever had your mind bombarded with questions when things seemed to be unraveling in your relationships? The truth is everyone has had this experience and will continue to have them.
What are we to do during times when we have “no peace of mind?” I have learned from my own life that when those times happen I have a resource in my relationship with Jesus that gives me the opportunity to know His peace in the midst of times of uncertainty, when life seems to be unraveling. Oftentimes, my first reaction is to get caught up in the emotion and sink in despair, but I don’t have to stay there. I can turn to Him, trust in Him, and know His peace even while the uncertainty persists. There is a powerful promise of God that is found in Isaiah 26:3 which we should look at for a moment. Read it with me.
3 You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you! (Isaiah 26:3 NLT)
When the alarm bells go off, when my heart starts racing, and I’m feeling the straight jacket of anxiety tightening around me–my thoughts tend to be fixed on my problem and not on the Lord. The promise is not that He will keep us in His perfect peace regardless, but that He will keep us in His peace when our thoughts are fixed on Him, when we trust in Him. Paul knew this and that is why he told the people in Philippi not to be anxious, but to pray and give it to the Lord, and keep giving it to the Lord. Now, that’s a game plan you and I can follow.
Paul didn’t connect with Titus in Troas, but they did meet up in Macedonia and Paul was elated to hear that some things had changed in Corinth. Not everything was fixed, there were still so many problems, but at least some of the people in the church had expressed their love and concern for Paul. Things were starting to change from the time Paul was humiliated on his painful visit. We can learn what Titus shared with Paul when they met by reading 2 Corinthians 7:5-9.
5 For when we came into Macedonia, we had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn– conflicts on the outside, fears within. 6 But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, 7 and not only by his coming but also by the comfort you had given him. He told us about your longing for me, your deep sorrow, your ardent concern for me, so that my joy was greater than ever. 8 Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it– I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while– 9 yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. (2 Corinthians 7:5-9 NIV)
It was after Titus had given Paul his report of his visit to Corinth that Paul sat down and wrote his fourth letter, but what we call Second Corinthians, while he was in Macedonia around 55/56 A.D. This letter is very different from First Corinthians. First Corinthians was largely Paul teaching the followers of Jesus in Corinth how to fix the problems they were experiencing as a church. Second Corinthians is the most personal of all of Paul’s letters and you will hear his emotion and passion come through on almost every page. N.T. Wright says,
Paul’s second letter to Corinth is very different from the first one. Something terrible had happened, and we feel his pain from the very opening lines. In this letter he goes down deeper into sorrow and hurt, and what to do about it, than he does anywhere else, and he emerges with a deeper, clearer vision of what it meant that Jesus himself suffered for and with us and rose again in triumph. The letter itself comes through the tragedy and out into the sunlight, and has a lot to teach us as we make that journey from time to time ourselves. (Wright, N.T. 2 Corinthians. pg. viii)
There is no question that those who are closest to us are most capable of inflicting the greatest pain and sorrow. Paul had been deeply hurt, but the pain and sorrow he felt as a result of the way members of the church had questioned his sincerity, his commitment, and the validity of his ministry was nothing compared to the rejection experienced by the One who had called him and given him the responsibility of tending the flock. In our day, even church folks wouldn’t have had any problem if Paul would have simply decided to walk away from it all. After all he had done for the people in the church, after the way they had treated him, after they had allowed false teachers to humiliate him, embarrass him, and undermine his ministry…why wouldn’t he just walk away?! This is one of the great tragedies of modern-day Christianity, our willingness to just walk away when things seem to be unraveling.
Would Paul’s final letter to the church in Corinth be short and to the point, “I’m done with you!” Not a chance. He will continue to correct them, we’ll learn about how he addresses their willingness to allow the false teachers to have such influence over them, and he will hold them accountable for the commitment they made to take up a love offering for their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem who were suffering, but over all of these subjects and more will stand the cross and the life Jesus calls all of His followers to live out in a world that is most certainly unraveling. In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul writes,
14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. 16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:14-21 NIV)
“For Christ’s love compels us…” There’s no walking away from the call of God to love the unlovable, to share His message of reconciliation with those others might categorize as the unredeemable, and to continue to serve even when we are unappreciated. “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.”
I’m not sure when or how the popular teaching of the Church in our day came about. You know the message you’ve heard: “If you just give your life to Jesus then everything is going to get better, better than you ever imagined!” You will never find support for that teaching in the Word of God. The One we follow, our Savior and Master, experienced sorrow and suffering from every angle. If we are faithful in following Him we will know brokenness, sorrow, and suffering as well. Paul himself told the people of Corinth in the letter we will be studying that he was “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing…” Paul could rejoice because he knew he was not alone, the One who suffered and died was with him and was working in and through him, even in times of great sorrow. Pastor Spurgeon once said,
I am afraid that all the grace I have got from my comfortable and easy times and happy hours might almost lie on a penny. But the good I have received from my sorrows and pains and griefs is altogether incalculable. Affliction is…the best book in a minister’s library. (Charles Haddon Spurgeon)
Oh, we are in for a ride my friends. It is going to be such an incredible opportunity for you and me to huddle up around this powerful, personal letter penned from a broken hearted servant to a church he loved so dearly. I pray that as we begin this new study that those of you who are not followers of Jesus, would recognize your great need for Him this very morning. Won’t you surrender your life to Him at this time? Won’t you confess your sin and receive His forgiveness at this time?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
September 18, 2022
When It All Seems to be Unraveling