For we are not peddlers of God’s word like so many; but in Christ we speak as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God and standing in his presence. (2 Cor 2:17, NRSV)
As we’ve seen in previous posts, the situation between Paul and the Corinthians has improved greatly since he sent the so-called “severe letter”: the man who was at the center of the controversy has repented, and Paul has advised the congregation to lovingly receive him back into fellowship.
But that doesn’t mean that all is well. A new source of trouble has emerged. Silver-tongued rhetoricians with impressive references have come to town, turning heads, and leading the Corinthians in a direction that they were already all too willing to go: believing that this is what a real apostle should look and sound like, as compared to the lowly Paul. With the words above, Paul launches into a long lesson about the nature of true apostleship.
Painting these false apostles as hucksters, “peddlers of God’s word” for personal gain, Paul rapidly lays down four characteristics that mark true apostolic preaching: it is done from sincerity, from God, before God, and in Christ.
“Sincerity” has the connotation of purity; the contrasting background image is the diluted wine sold by unscrupulous merchants. Paul, in other words, doesn’t water down the gospel for his listeners’ pleasure. He preaches the whole truth, not just the parts that people will like. Possibly thinking back to his commission on the Damascus road, he also preaches with the confidence of one sent from God — but at the same time with the humility of one speaking before God, that is, in God’s presence. And all this, finally, because Paul knows himself to be united with the Christ who stands at the center of the gospel itself.
Most people (that I know of) don’t enter the preaching profession to become rich or famous. And there is nothing wrong with taking some pleasure in the recognition that often comes in response to a carefully crafted sermon, delivered with godly passion. We should take delight when God’s word is preached well—whoever the messenger happens to be.
But accolades and admiration are seductive. Soon, the focus begins to shift. There’s a difference, for example, between including a joke for sound homiletic reasons, and working for a laugh. It’s not either-or, but we must always examine our motivations. We may not consider ourselves to be hucksters. But have we ever watered down the gospel for the sake of approval? If so, we may have already compromised our integrity.
“Who is qualified for this kind of ministry?” Paul asks, somewhat rhetorically (2 Cor 2:16b, CEB). The super-apostles? Certainly not — at least, not if they understand what the ministry truly entails. The answer to Paul’s question is implied: no one. No one is qualified.
Unless, of course, God makes it so.