When my children were little one of them discovered what appeared to be a get-out-of-jail-free card for saying something offensive: just say the words “No offense”! “Mom, this food is yucky—no offense!” “Dad, your breath stinks—no offense!” After one particularly offensive declaration my wife asked said child what, exactly, does this child think “no offense” means. Apparently it means you cannot be offended at the, well, offensive remark. One is reminded of Michael Scott’s declaration of bankruptcy: if you say it loud enough, it counts, right?
In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul was concerned about being offensive. His concern was that he and his ministry team would not be a stumbling block for anyone who would hear the gospel through them.
We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.2 Corinthians 6:3–10 ESV
Paul’s concern is that the ministry he has been given would prove to be blameless—without fault. In context the reason for having a fault would be this: placing an obstacle in someone’s way. Paul does not want a reason for offense to be present in him or in any of his ministry team. In a world in which there was no social capital to be found in being a Christian, Paul recognizes that the lives of followers of Jesus were beacons shining on the light of the gospel. In the words of Murray J. Harris,
It is always true that the life of the Christian is the most eloquent advertisement for the gospel.Murray J. Harris, “The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, NIGTC”
The offense Paul is writing about is not the gospel itself. Earlier in the letter he wrote about the singular aroma that Christians are.
For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.2 Corinthians 2:15–16a ESV
Notice here that the fragrance doesn’t change. It is the perception of the aroma that changes. The aroma of the Christian’s life should be that of Christ. Some will perceive the aroma of Christ to be the stench of death while others will perceive that very same aroma to be the fragrance of life. This is provided, of course, that the Christian emits the aroma of Christ. Paul’s concern is not that the message of the gospel would not be an offense, but that the one proclaiming the gospel would not be an offense. In other words, if a non-Christian is going to be offended at the preaching of the gospel, it should be the gospel that offends, not the one proclaiming it.
He gives several examples of his efforts at not being an offense. He begins by listing the circumstances in which they strove to commend themselves—to provide evidence or to demonstrate or to claim through action. He groups the evidence in four groups. First, they have demonstrated the truth of the gospel in their circumstances: in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger. Second, they have demonstrated the truth of the gospel in their character qualities: in their purity, their knowledge (or understanding), patience, kindness, the presence and activity of the Spirit, and genuine love. Third, they have demonstrated the truth of the gospel through their spiritual equipment: truthful speech, the power of God, and weapons of righteousness (one for each hand!). The latter one indicates that the only “weapon” Paul has is righteousness. Finally, Paul says they demonstrated the truth of the gospel through the changing nature of their circumstances, which emphasizes the ability to remain steadfast in the midst of rapid and conflicting change: when honored and when dishonored, when slandered and when praised, when called impostors and when praised for being true, when being unknown and when being known, when on the verge of death and when experiencing full health (or life), when being punished and when not being threatened with death, when experiencing sorrow and when experiencing joy, when being poor and when overflowing with riches, when having nothing and when having everything.
It is difficult to think of a life situation that would not fit into one of these! Paul’s point is that regardless of status or level of resources or even the state of relationships with others, he and his ministry team strove to avoid any offensive behavior that would cause others to dismiss the gospel out of hand. If they cannot see or hear the gospel anyway, he wrote in chapter 4 that this is because “the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). His point in chapter 6 is the blindness must not come from him or his ministry team. They should not be the veil that covers the eyes of unbelievers.
What, exactly, is Paul getting at here? He’s saying that the real proof of his ministry isn’t a lack of trouble and hardship, but his own faithfulness in the midst of hardship. God’s power is on display, but not through keeping Paul’s life trouble-free. God’s power is on display in keeping Paul faithful through the trouble. This is what he means when he wrote that they put no obstacle in anyone’s way and therefore commended themselves “by great endurance“. The evidence of God’s power in his life is his faithfulness to God.
I remember a well-known TV preacher several years ago who bragged about God’s “favor” in his life, citing the example of his recent bump from business class to first class, as if this demonstrated God’s favor. If it did, what about all those unbelievers who fly first class all the time, or even more, who own a private jet? Paul is saying that what would be greater evidence that the gospel is true is this preacher’s great endurance if he were bumped from the flight altogether and then demonstrated his faithfulness in the midst of hardship. Being bumped from a flight is not hardship on the level of being beaten or slandered or imprisoned, yet responding in faith to even the mundane difficulties of life is more of a testimony to the goodness of God than enjoying the good things of life is. Anyone can enjoy life’s finer things. The real evidence of God’s work in the world is one who remains faithful in the midst of deep suffering.
Whether struggle is significant or minor—I say this having lost internet four times since Monday—how we respond speaks volumes about what we really believe. The very concern Paul had was for unbelievers to hear the gospel, knowing that he and his ministry team could cause such offense as to prevent a hearing of that gospel. He endeavored to not be an offense, to not put an obstacle in anyone’s way. What is amazing is the very gospel he was eager to preach and have heard is the very thing that enables us to live without causing offense. We know the gospel is the power of God. It is the very same power that raised Jesus from the dead. It is this power working in us that enables us to respond to frustration and pain and difficulty without fear or anger or a desire for revenge. The very gospel we proclaim enables us to live with no offense. Let us strive to be that “eloquent advertisement for the gospel”.