Perhaps what’s so surprising is beginning to notice just how often Paul is talking about himself, his ministry, his life, his past and so on. But it isn’t like the way modern evangelical pastors talk about themselves. They like to kick off sermons with little anecdotes about some conversation they had with their wife in the kitchen or the time they lost their temper with one of the kids. They’re cute. They’re a little sentimental. And sometimes they work to humanize the pastor and the very best ones, turn a particular biblical principle into something concrete and relatable. They’re not all awful or appalling, but unlike the apostle Paul they’re very noticeable. But you hardly notice when Paul is talking about himself. Or better, the closer you look the more you realize that he’s almost always talking about himself, but the way he talks about himself weaves seamlessly into his exposition of the gospel and its application in the lives of his audience. It’s really remarkable.
It’s also what ministers are called to imitate in their own ministries. Paul doesn’t seem to be that concerned with being seen as human or relatable or approachable. He doesn’t shy away from referring to his sinful past, but it’s not for the purpose of dwelling on it but rather to point to the grace of God that overcame his past. He doesn’t shy away from answering accusations that have been leveled at him, but the point isn’t to defend himself but somehow once again the point is the grace of God working mightily in him. And that’s the part that’s pretty daring.
Take 2 Corinthians for example. It’s a letter written to people that he’s recently rebuked pretty soundly. False teachers have shown up in Corinth explaining that Paul is a tyrannical, authoritarian preacher who’s manipulating the Corinthians and using them for their money. On top of that, Paul had promised to visit Corinth, and he hadn’t made it after all. The Corinthians are clearly hurt, confused, offended, and several have started blogging about how their abusive absentee pastor has mistreated them. Paul writes the Corinthians in the middle of that mess, and he has the audacity not to back down, not to apologize, but to robustly defend his ministry and authority as an apostle of Jesus. And this is because when he defends his ministry to the Corinthians, he is not proclaiming himself but Jesus Christ as Lord (2 Cor. 4:5). But this treasure is inside Paul and the other apostles and preachers of the gospel. This is why he can’t proclaim Christ without defending his ministry. The apostles and every honest preacher of the gospel are jars of clay. They are full of weakness, having bodies that will be destroyed, but they are truly full of an eternal weight of glory, creaking and groaning with eager expectation of the glory that will soon appear (2 Cor. 4-5). This is why Paul won’t back down. To back down would be to deny the power of Christ that has worked so mightily in him.
But for this very reason Paul is not sorry that he made some of the Corinthians sad with what he had written to them. He says he wrote them to test them to see if they would be obedient (2 Cor. 2:9). He wrote them to cause them to grieve over their sins, to produce a godly grief that leads to their repentance and salvation (2 Cor. 7:10). Not only that, but Paul has the audacity to bring up in the middle of this touch-and-go pastoral missive, a request for money. He has insisted that he is not peddling the gospel for material gain, but here he insists that they prove their repentance and love by giving the offering they had promised to give (2 Cor. 8-9). And finally, just when you thought Paul couldn’t make things any more awkward, he presses the point home by launching into something approaching a sermonic rant for the final three chapters, lurching from laughter to boasting to dead seriousness and back again repeatedly. No doubt for any of Paul’s detractors, the last three chapters are full of fodder for their next salvos. Wow, can you say passive aggressive apostle? How unseemly for an apostle to start bragging about all his accomplishments when there are people hurting. How inappropriate for an apostle to compare himself to the other “super apostles,” and what a needlessly provocative, divisive thing to do, calling them “super apostles” — they’re brothers in Christ! One minute he says he’s humble and gentle and the next he’s calling them fools. One moment he says he’s weak, and the next he’s sarcastically asking the Corinthians to forgive him for not charging them for his pastoral services (2 Cor. 12:13). Is this any way to speak to victims of his ministry? And doesn’t he care that people are going to misunderstand him again? Doesn’t he care how he comes across in his letters? What a disgrace to pastors everywhere! What a poor witness! What if unbelievers get a hold of this?
Well, actually that was the plan. The plan was for Paul’s letters to fall into all the wrong hands, and they have, even our hands. And, yes, all the indicators are that Paul knew full well how some would react, how some would misunderstand him, how some would twist his words (cf. 2 Pet. 3:16). And he knew when he arrived in Corinth, he would likely have to face those who refused to repent of their sins. But he wrote what he wrote for the Corinthians’ restoration, so that he would not have to be so severe in person (2 Cor. 13:8-10).
There are two things that are incredibly comforting about all of this. First off, it turns out that faithful ministers of the gospel still face the same sorts of accusations as the apostles did in the first century. That’s really encouraging. And not because it’s some kind blanket free pass on pastoral blunders. Remember that Paul had to call out Peter in Antioch, one time Paul spoke disrespectfully to the High Priest and apologized, and some pastors are clearly disqualified. But the fact remains that Jesus said that we will be treated the way He was treated. If they hated Him, we will be hated. If they misunderstood Him, we will be misunderstood. If they lied about Him, we will be lied about. And the answer isn’t to back down, to apologize for our ministry, to feign sadness to get the emotional leeches off our backs. No, the answer is to preach the gospel in the middle of it. We are to proclaim Jesus inside of us, breaking out of us, all over, everywhere. Every lie, every slander, every angry blog post, every hateful snarl is another crack in these jars of clay. And these jars of clay were meant to be broken. They were meant to be broken open so that the light of Jesus might shine out.
But finally, the other really comforting thing is the fact that we’re here at all, some two thousand years later. You read about the first century church and Paul’s ministry, and you might think it was all a bad dream of misguided fisherman and cranky Jewish scholars with too much time on their hands. But here we are. Here we are saved by grace. Forgiven. Washed clean. Healed. Reconciled. Filled with joy inexpressible. Sitting, clothed, and in our right minds. We are here proclaiming the same gospel, the same Jesus, the same grace that fills us and heals us and spills out of us, and all, somehow, despite us. And it’s been happening for two thousand years. Clearly, this is not our project. It doesn’t depend on us. It’s not about us. We do not proclaim ourselves. We are proclaiming Jesus Christ. We are proclaiming His life, death, resurrection, and ascension. We are proclaiming His blood, His grace, His power. We are proclaiming His Lordship over the Church and the whole universe. What a gift to be on this ride, to have a part in this story, to be singing this triumph song with Him. And for that reason, there is some sense in which we can’t stop talking about this thing that’s happening inside us and through us. Because something really has changed. Something really is different. And we can’t stop talking about it.