From chapter six of The Ministers in the Lord’s Recovery – Genuine Ministers of the New Covenant
The Apostle Paul’s Suffering for His Revelations
The apostle Paul not only needed to receive revelations to become a genuine minister of the new covenant; he also had to pass through sufferings in order for those revelations to be wrought into him. Thus, in vindicating his apostolic authority Paul was compelled to speak not only concerning the visions and revelations the Lord had given to him (2 Cor. 12:1) but also of his suffering a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, which the Lord allowed to buffet him so that he would not be exceedingly lifted up by the transcendence of those revelations (v. 7). It was through such suffering that what Paul saw was constituted into him to become his ministry. Instead of removing the thorn, the Lord said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness” (v. 9a). As a result, Paul declared, “Most gladly therefore I will rather boast in my weaknesses that the power of Christ might tabernacle over me. Therefore I am well pleased in weaknesses, in insults, in necessities, in persecutions and distresses, on behalf of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am powerful” (vv. 9b-10). What Paul received was not merely a revelation of the sufficiency of the Lord’s grace but also a deep, subjective experience of the Lord as grace through suffering, issuing in real ministry (1 Cor. 15:10; Gal. 2:20; 5:4). The stewardship of God’s grace that Paul received was not a mere gift—an ability bestowed by the Spirit in a short period of time, which is objective, doctrinal, superficial, and temporal. Instead, his stewardship was a ministry—a constitution in and of the divine life formed through many years of suffering, which is subjective, experiential, deep, weighty, costly, and eternal (1 Cor. 9:17; Eph. 3:2; Col. 1:25). Thus, whereas in 1 Corinthians Paul dealt negatively with gifts, in 2 Corinthians he emphasized positively that what he had received was the ministry (2 Cor. 4:1). In 1 Corinthians Paul stated that although the believers in Corinth did not “lack any gift” (1:7), there was a litany of problems among these immature and fleshly believers, such as divisions, strifes, parties, fornication, lawsuits, partaking of the Lord’s table in an unworthy manner, and heresy concerning resurrection (1:10-13; 5:1-13; 6:1-11; 11:17-34; 15:12-19). In 2 Corinthians the apostle did not boast of any gift but commended himself as a minister of the new covenant, a minister of God, Christ, and the life-giving Spirit (6:4; 11:23; 3:6), whose sufficiency was from God and whose ministry produced the believers as letters of Christ and sought to build them up and perfect them to think the same thing and be at peace with one another (2 Cor. 3:2-5; 10:8; 12:19; cf. Phil. 2:2; Rom. 15:5). Paul incisively diagnosed the believers’ preoccupation with gifts as a factor that divides them and tears down the church as the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:17), but he prescribed the enjoyment of the ministry of life to keep them in oneness and build up the church as the Body of Christ (2 Cor. 13:10-11; Eph. 4:12). For this reason, in Colossians he did not promote a particular gift or teaching but underscored in no uncertain terms: “I Paul became a minister” (Col. 1:23).
It is crucial to see the scriptural contrast between gift and ministry. A gift is a capacity given by the operation of the Spirit to enable a believer to carry out spiritual services and may be obtained in a relatively brief time. Ministry, however, is a constitution of Christ as eternal life within a believer and is produced by a lengthy period of the experiences of the unsearchable riches of the all-inclusive Christ, which experiences are gained not only through high revelations concerning the excellent person and work of Christ (Phil. 3:8) but also through unrelenting sufferings, consuming pressures, and the killing work of the cross (v. 10). For instance, a believer who has a teaching gift may speak a message on the cross accurately and eloquently. In contrast, a believer who possesses a life-dispensing ministry is what he speaks, for he lives a crucified life in resurrection day after day and is thus qualified to minister to others not just the biblical teaching of the cross but also the spiritual reality of the cross that he himself has experienced. Because Paul was a bona-fide minister of the new covenant, in whom the message was one with the messenger, he testified with a pure conscience not only that he preached Christ crucified (1 Cor. 1:23-24) but also that he was determined not to know anything among the Corinthians except this Jesus Christ crucified (2:2) and that he “always” bore about in his body “the putting to the death of Jesus,” allowing death to operate in him continually to minister life to others ceaselessly (2 Cor. 4:11-12). Such life-imparting ministry can be formed only through revelation plus suffering.
Accordingly, in 2 Corinthians Paul not only speaks of exceedingly great revelations and visions but also describes in detail numerous trials and tribulations (1:5-11; 4:8-12; 6:4-10; 7:4-5). For instance, in 6:4-10, where Paul commends himself and his co-workers as “ministers of God,” Paul lists as part of their qualifications endurance, afflictions, necessities, distresses, stripes, imprisonments, tumults, labors, fastings, and long-suffering. Paul further describes various afflictions that befall the genuine new covenant ministers: dishonor from the devil and those who follow him, evil reports that come from the opposers and persecutors, being perceived as deceivers in the sight of religious and philosophical persons, dying in suffering persecution, being seen as disciplined by God in the opposers’ superficial realization, being made sorrowful by the negative condition of the churches, being poor in material things, and having nothing in an earthly sense. In 2 Corinthians 11, where he emphasizes his status as a minister of Christ (v. 23), he enumerates a number of additional afflictions, including stripes, being beaten with rods, being stoned, being shipwrecked, hunger, thirst, poverty, all manner of perils, drawing near to death, and, in his own words, there was above all, “the crowd of cares pressing upon me daily, the anxious concern for all the churches” (vv. 24-28).
Unlike some contemporary preachers who emphasize health, affluence, and material prosperity as signs of God’s blessing on His genuine elect, Paul, a follower of the despised, persecuted, and crucified Jesus, boasted of his weakness, afflictions, and poverty (v. 30). The reason Paul had the greatest ministry among the apostles in the New Testament was not only that he received the highest revelation concerning Christ but also that what he had seen was engraved upon his being through a commensurate degree of suffering. For instance, the comfort Paul and his co-workers gave to the believers in Corinth was neither theoretical nor secondhand; it was the very comfort with which they had been comforted by the God of all comfort as they underwent multitudinous afflictions in the course of their ministry (1:3-5). God in Christ as the believers’ abounding comfort had been wrought into them, and from that constitution they could comfort others in every affliction (vv. 4-6).
At his conversion, Paul received a commission from the Lord to be a minister and a witness both of the things in which he had seen the Lord and of the things in which the Lord would appear to him (Acts 26:16). Shortly afterward, the Lord told Ananias that He would show Paul how many things he must suffer on behalf of His name (9:16). This indicates that Paul as a God-commissioned minister would endure many sufferings for the sake of the formation, enrichment, and carrying out of his portion of the new covenant ministry. The Lord’s prophecy concerning Paul’s destiny to suffer for his ministry was fulfilled most significantly in the last phase of his life during his lengthy imprisonment by the Romans. Even though Paul’s bonds caused him considerable suffering and effectively terminated his spoken ministry, they did not terminate his written ministry. On the contrary, his last eight Epistles, most of which were written in his confinement, only became richer, higher, and deeper. In these Epistles, Paul presented the profound revelation concerning God’s New Testament economy for the completion of the word of God, furnishing immeasurable supply and benefit to the church throughout the generations (Col. 1:24-29; Eph. 3:9). Ultimately, when the time of his departure was at hand, Paul declared that his sufferings as a prisoner of his Lord were for the sake of the gospel of divine grace and eternal life, which he continued to preach as a God-appointed herald, apostle, and teacher (2 Tim. 1:8-12; 4:6). How we need to thank the Lord that Paul willingly participated in Christ’s sufferings for the constitution of this precious ministry that we could receive the untold riches that poured out of his being as a living sacrifice (2 Cor. 1:5; Phil. 3:10; Col. 1:24; cf. 1 Pet. 4:13)!
© 2023, David Yoon. All rights reserved.