Grace For a Restless Apostle
by Pastor Ricky Kurth
(From a message given at the 38th annual Bible conference of the Berean Bible Fellowship, June 18th, 2006)
“Furthermore, when I came to Troas to preach Christ’s gospel, and a door was opened unto me of the Lord,
“I had no rest in my spirit, because I found not Titus my brother: but taking my leave of them, I went from thence into Macedonia” (II Cor. 2:12,13).
Paul speaks here of the serious effect it had on him when he was deprived of the fellowship of his friend Titus. He begins with the word “furthermore” because fellowship was also the subject of the preceding context, although this is not readily apparent. Let’s begin by backing up to determine what this “furthermore” is there for.
After Paul had advised the Corinthians to break fellowship with the fornicator in their midst in I Corinthians 5, he was delighted to hear that they had followed his instructions. However, he was now dismayed to learn that they were refusing to restore fellowship to the man after he repented! And so Paul says to them,
“Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many.
“So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow” (v. 6,7).
The reason Paul urged them to re-admit the man into their assembly was because he knew that the man needed their fellowship—and they needed his. Paul knew that fellowship is important, and to show these Corinthians just how important it was, he begins our text by saying, as it were, “Furthermore, even I Paul need fellowship.” He then went on to describe how he had “no rest” apart from the fellowship of Titus. And so we begin this message with a few words about the importance of simply going to church.
Grace believers know that the Apostle Paul never commands us to go to church. Even if you believe that Paul wrote Hebrews, the admonition we read in Hebrews 10:25 is not in the imperative mood in the Greek text, and so is not a command. But while Paul never commands us to go to church, he assumes that we will want to attend church regularly. He says in I Corinthians 11:18:
“For first of all, when ye come together in the church….”
Do you see how Paul just assumes that even the carnal Corinthians will gather together regularly with other saints to study God’s Word, to sing His praises, and to fellowship with one another? Surely if even the great Apostle Paul needed fellowship, it is certain that we need it too!
Perhaps the reader is thinking, “Pastor, you don’t understand. My church is filled with difficult people, with whom I find it hard to get along.” All the more reason to go to church! We can never learn to demonstrate the grace of God in our lives without difficult people to be gracious to! Where better than the local church to learn to display the same mercy, longsuffering and grace that God extends to us when we grieve Him.
And aren’t these the greatest of God’s attributes? Don’t you want opportunities to display the mercy, longsuffering and grace of God in your life, and in so doing testify to what He has done in your life? When it comes right down to it, these grand attributes are actually the only attributes of God that we can display. Not a one of us can display God’s omniscience, His omnipotence or His omnipresence, but all of us can learn to exhibit His grace. But not without difficult people to be gracious to!
The absence of the fellowship of Titus so affected Paul that he didn’t enter an open door of opportunity to preach the gospel. This is the only time we read that Paul failed to enter an open door. Why would God allow this dark blot on Paul’s otherwise unimpeachable record if not to teach us the importance of fellowship. Take some time to read the stirring list of things that Paul endured in the ministry in II Corinthians 11:23-33. As you read each item in this poignant register, remind yourself that the beatings that Paul endured didn’t stop him from entering open doors, the stonings didn’t stop him, the shipwrecks didn’t stop him—NOTHING stopped him. But a simple lack of fellowship stopped him dead in his tracks.
And it might stop your pastor also. Thus one of the simplest ways you can support the teaching of God’s Word in your area is to simply go to church. You don’t want to have to explain at the Judgment Seat of Christ how you allowed the light of the gospel to be snuffed out in your area because your pastor was deprived of your fellowship and support.
Now, careful students of Scripture might object that the real reason for Paul’s discouragement was his concern over the response of the Corinthians to his first letter to them, an epistle that contained some sharp reproof. Thus when Titus failed to appear with news of their reaction, it was this that caused Paul to pass on entering the open door. We agree that this was part of the reason for Paul’s disheartenment, for later in this epistle, he states:
“For, when we were come into Macedonia, our flesh had no rest, but we were troubled on every side; without were fightings, within were fears.
“Nevertheless God, that comforteth those that are cast down, comforted us by the coming of Titus;
“And not by his coming only, but by the consolation wherewith he was comforted in you, when he told us your earnest desire, your mourning, your fervent mind toward me; so that I rejoiced the more” (II Cor. 7:5-7).
Here it cannot be denied that part of the reason for Paul’s unrest was due to his concern over the Corinthian reaction to his first epistle, and the absence of news about this that he expected Titus to bring. But when Paul says that he was comforted “by the coming of Titus, and not by his coming only,” we must conclude that he was adversely affected by both the absence of the fellowship of Titus and the report that Paul expected he would bring.
This brings up another very practical point. Perhaps Paul would have entered the open door had he not been burdened with concern over the Corinthian reaction to his reproof. Obviously, this concern diverted Paul from furthering the gospel through that open door. With this in mind, how it behooves us to conduct ourselves in the local church in such a way that our pastors can give themselves to the ministry, and not be distracted by concerns over disobedience in the church.
Before we move on in our text, we want to share one more thought about “open doors.” It is said that God never closes a door without opening a window. While this is not a quotation from Scripture, it was surely true in the life of the Apostle Paul. Paul was later imprisoned by the Roman government, but as the prison door closed on his freedom, a window of opportunity opened for him to share the gospel with members of Caesar’s household (Phil. 4:22). You see, Paul was incarcerated in a sort-of “white collar prison” located right in Caesar’s “palace” (Phil. 1:13), giving him access to members of the royal family, some of whom had come to know the Lord!
If the reader is wondering whether God is still actively opening such doors of opportunity in our lives, it should be noted that Paul speaks of this very thing in Colossians 4:2,3, a prison epistle that was penned after the close of the transition period in the Book of Acts. In fact, he asks for prayer in this late epistle that God would continue to open such doors, indicating that this would continue to be the norm throughout the duration of the dispensation of Grace. May we be faithful to enter such open doors at every opportunity!
In light of Paul’s failure to enter an open door, it is intriguing to hear him speak of triumph in the next verse of our text:
“Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of His knowledge by us in every place” (II Cor. 2:14).
While Paul had failed to enter a door of opportunity to serve the Lord, God was still able to cause him to triumph in Christ, because wherever Paul went instead of entering that open door, he faithfully made manifest the savour of His knowledge.
Perhaps the reader of this page is haunted by the memory of a similar open door that you too failed to enter years ago. May I say unto you by the authority of the Word of God that your life needn’t be filled with spiritual regret over this. God can cause you too to triumph in Christ if, like Paul, you too are faithfully making manifest the savour of His knowledge wherever it is that life has led you instead.
“For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish” (II Cor. 2:15).
In spite of Paul’s failure, we read that his life was still a sweet savor to God. We believe that this was because of the Biblical significance of the phrase “sweet savour.” This phrase is used forty-three times in Scripture, and almost always refers to the burnt-offering of an animal sacrifice. Notice the significant first use of this phrase in Genesis 8:20,21:
“And Noah builded an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt-offerings on the altar.
“And the Lord smelled a sweet savour….”
The reason the burnt-offering was a sweet savour to God was because it foreshadowed the sacrifice of Christ, which is also described as a sweetsmelling savour:
“And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given Himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour” (Eph. 5:2).
We believe that the sacrifice of Christ Himself was a burnt-offering. Throughout the Old Testament, God showed that He was pleased with an offering made unto Him when He answered by fire (Lev. 9:24; I Kings 18:24,38; I Chron. 21:26; II Chron. 7:1). And so it was that on Calvary, unseen to human eyes, the fire of God’s wrath fell on our Saviour, causing him to “thirst” (John 19:28), just like the rich man in hell (Luke 16:24), who was also experiencing the wrath of God. Thus there can be no question that God was pleased with the sacrifice of our Lord, the ultimate burnt-offering, and accepted it by fire.
But there were times in Israel’s past when God refused to smell her burnt-offerings. For instance, in Amos 5:21,22 we read:
“I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies.
“Though ye offer Me burnt-offerings and your meat-offerings, I will not accept them: neither will I regard the peace-offerings of your fat beasts.”
Why would God refuse to smell something that reminded Him of the coming sacrifice of Christ? Why did He accept the burnt-offering of Noah and refuse the burnt-offerings of Israel in the days of Amos the prophet? What had changed? Ah, the Law had entered! The Law of Moses was a system of conditional blessing, which stipulated that when Israel was good, God would bless them, but when they were bad, He would curse them (Lev. 26).
We know that Israel was bad in Amos’ day since God speaks to Israel of “your feast days” and “your solemn assemblies.” When God gave these feasts to Israel, He called them “the feasts of the Lord“ (Lev. 23:2,4,37,44), but when they were living in rebellion against Him, God took His name off of these feasts and contemptuously called them “your feasts.” This is similar to how in the beginning of the Lord’s earthly ministry, He called the temple “My Father’s house” (John 2:16), but by the end of His ministry He called it “your house” (Matt. 23:38) because of their sin and rebellion. And so, since Israel was under the Law, it is not surprising to read that God would refuse to smell their sweetsmelling burnt-offerings in the sinful days of Amos.
But now let’s make a comparison of all this to how things work under Grace. For this, of course, we will need to turn to the epistles of Paul, the apostle of grace, and in particular to Paul’s epistle to the Philippians.
The Philippians weren’t offering animal sacrifices, of course, but we believe them to be the Macedonians whom Paul said gave sacrificially to the poor saints at Jerusalem (II Cor. 8:1-5; Rom. 15:26), and then proceeded to give sacrificially to the Apostle Paul:
“But I have all, and abound: I am full, having received of Epaphroditus the things which were sent from you, an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, wellpleasing to God” (Phil. 4:18).
Here we see that the sacrifice made by the Philippians smelled good to God, and was acceptable to Him. If the Philippians were under the Law, we would have to conclude from this that they had been good, and that this was why God did not reject their sacrifice, as He did with Israel’s sacrifices in the days of Amos. However, when we examine the epistle to the Philippians we find evidence to the contrary.
We believe Philippians is an epistle of reproof. Paul tells us all Scripture is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction” (II Tim. 3:16), and his epistles appear in our Bibles in this very order. Romans is an epistle of doctrine, setting forth the doctrine of our salvation from sin, and how we should live in such a way that demonstrates we are free from sin. The Corinthian epistles that follow Romans are letters of reproof. Reproof was what was needed when the carnal Corinthians didn’t live in accordance with the doctrine set forth in Romans. Galatians comes next, and is a letter of correction. Correction is what the Galatians needed since they weren’t thinking clearly about the doctrine set forth in Romans. With Ephesians, the cycle begins again, as this great epistle sets forth the doctrine of the oneness of the Body of Christ.
Philippians then was a letter of reproof, written to people who weren’t acting in accord with this Ephesian doctrine of our oneness in Christ. What evidence do we have of this? In Philippians 4:2, we read:
“I beseech Euodias, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord.”
Here we have confirmation that two of the ladies in the Philippian church were having a feud, and throughout the epistle we see indications that the church was divided, some siding with Euodias, and some with Syntyche. Paul’s frequent use of the word “all” in this epistle (1:1,4,7,8,25; 2:17; 4:23) shows that he refused to take sides in this quarrel, but rather loved and prayed for them all, and begged that they would live as “one” (1:27; 2:2).
But in light of this discord, how could God accept the sacrifice of these disobedient people? What had changed since His refusal to accept Israel’s sacrifice under Amos the prophet? Ah, Grace had now entered! Grace is a system of unconditional acceptance, and God is pleased to accept all sacrifices made to Him regardless of our spiritual condition. There is even a play on words in the Greek text, for the word for “sweet smell” (Phil. 4:18) is euodia. Euodias should not have smelled sweet to God because of her disobedience, but she did under Grace! Likewise the sacrifice of the Philippians should not have smelled sweet to God, but it did under Grace!
Having said that, this unconditional acceptance God gives us under Grace should never be viewed as a license to sin. Make no mistake about it, sin grieves the heart of a holy God (Eph. 4:30). But it should encourage the heart of every believer to know that every sacrifice we make for Him is accepted of Him. What a motivation to live sacrificially for the One who sacrificed Himself for us on Calvary’s tree.
Now we come to a very sobering part of our text, for Paul has told us that we are a sweet savour to God “in them that are saved, and in them that perish” (II Cor. 2:15).
“To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life…” (v. 16).
When we make manifest the savour of His knowledge and someone believes, we are of course a sweet savour to God. But when we make manifest the savour of His knowledge and someone does not believe, we are likewise a sweet savour to God. We see this exemplified in our Lord’s testimony to the two thieves with whom He died. One believed on Him while the other did not, but who can deny that He was a sweet savour to God in both cases. Hebrews 4:16 compares the Word of God to a “two-edged sword,” a weapon that cuts both ways. The same sun that causes the crops to grow can also ignite destructive wildfires that can devastate the countryside, but God is always pleased with the sun. And when we faithfully present the Son of God, He is always pleased with our sweet savour, regardless of whether the results be eternal life or eternal destruction.
Paul closes this passage with a haunting question:
“…and who is sufficient for these things?” (II Cor. 2:16).
Who is sufficient, i.e., who can be trusted with these issues of eternal life and eternal death? Obviously, the Lord proved sufficient for these things as He hung between the thieves. But we too are sufficient for these things if we faithfully make manifest the savour of His knowledge!
This writer never wanted to be a doctor; I never wanted to have human life dependent on my ability to preserve it. If the reader is thinking, “But Pastor, you became a minister, and people’s eternal lives depend on you,” think again! Paul says of the gospel that “IT is the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16). The eternal destiny of men depends upon the gospel, not on our ability to present it. All we have to do is hold it forth, and we are “sufficient for these things.”
That is, if we do not corrupt the Word of God. Paul says that he and his co-workers were sufficient for these things,
“FOR we are not as many, which corrupt the Word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ” (II Cor. 2:17).
Who would want to corrupt the Word? Unscrupulous men who are more interested in personal triumph than allowing God to cause them to “triumph in Christ.”
We all receive junk mail, Christians receive Christian junk mail, and pastors receive pastoral junk mail. This writer receives plenty of the latter, all of it promoting ways to build a bigger church. None of these ways ever involve preaching the pure, unadulterated gospel of the grace of God, or teaching God’s Word, rightly divided. But it is only in the measure that we are faithful in these areas that we are sufficient to be entrusted with issues of eternal life.
In the ’60s, the militant anti-government protestors became aware that the TV news cameras were broadcasting their protest meetings to the world, and so at one point they broke into a chant that soon became their mantra: “The whole world is watching!” As Christians, we have a far more important and august audience, One who monitors our every thought, word and deed. As Paul puts it: “in the sight of God speak we in Christ.” May the lives that we live and the message that we proclaim always be worthy of His closest scrutiny.