(Notes from the pastor’s study for this sermon series)

Spiritual Defeat
(2 Corinthians 10:1-6; 12:1-9)

Paul is writing to the Corinthians because they were being diverted from their first commitment to Christ, and the true gospel to a version that was less than pure and truthful. This diversion had been precipitated by a group of “super-apostles” who have come through Greece in a boastful and self promoting way, and asserted their authority above Paul’s (who founded the church) apostolic authority, and they were taking advantage of them, by living off of the largess of the Corinthians (2 Cor. 2:17; 12:11-21). Part of the “error” being promoted by these false teachers, is no doubt addressed by Paul in the first epistle where he speaks firmly about the reliability of a coming resurrection (cf. 1 Cor. 15) and later about the surpassing glory of the gospel in comparison to the glory of the Old testament law (2 Cor. 3). Paul saw these interlopers are builders who were using to tear up the foundation he had laid for the kingdom of God in Corinth, in order to raise some other kind of building that did not meet the requirements of master architect (1 Cor. 3:10-15).

To add to the other issues Paul faced in the Corinthian church, this undermining of his authority among the Corinthians themselves seems to be the most grievous. The reason is obvious in 2 Corinthians, by far the most personal and open letter Paul wrote to a church, where he laments the breakdown in the relationship between he and his converts. Some in the church had accused Paul or being timid in person, mealy mouthed, but bold and abrasive in his letters. Paul responds very strongly to the accusation by saying that he could be as bold as he needed to be next time he showed up! Then he makes a strange statement about spiritual warfare and the weapons used to do battle for the causes of the kingdom of God.

He begs the Corinthians not to “make him be bold” when he does finally come to them. That is, he wants them to start to cooperate with him before he shows up in person. Paul would rather exhort and encourage, than correct and rebuke. So to that end he appeals to his readers to have a change of heart prior to his arrival, because he expects that he may have to show a great deal of boldness, the kind some have accused him of in his letters, toward some in the church (2 Cor. 10:2, 11). The statement that follows leads to a characteristic pauline “digression” as some commentators call them. These digressions on closer examination actually have much more substantive ties to the issues at hand, than appears at first. This digression on spiritual warfare is one of them.

In verse three Paul accuses some of his readers of judging things by the standards or criteria of the world. The interlopers had encouraged the Corinthians to demand proof from Paul that he really is Christ’s extraordinary spokesman, particularly with respect to this church (2 Cor. 13:1-4; cf. 2 Cor. 3:1-6). We live in the world Paul says, but we do not evaluate life, and certainly not the things of God using the measurements, criteria and standards of this world. Essentially Paul is saying our methods as believers and combatants for the kingdom of God in the great cosmic struggle against the kingdom of darkness are spiritual, not carnal. By carnal Paul means that we do not prosecute our devotion and service to God using methods that are characteristic of this world’s system. For example, we do not adopt headstrong ambition, rely entirely on economics, cheat or lie, manipulate people, use anger and intimidation, etc. The “weapons” or tools by which we build the kingdom of God and serve him, by which we exercise our devotion to God are spiritual, not secular and carnal. So Paul is chastising the Corinthians for measuring the effectiveness and authority of his ministry against those “super-apostles” based on human and worldly standards and criteria.

Verse 4 is somewhat of an excursion on the nature of the weapons of warfare used in the kingdom of God. The Corinthians have been measuring and evaluating things, including Paul’s authority and effectiveness, by human standards, which in the realm of the kingdom of God are ineffective and worthless as tools for evaluating the things of God. The things of God and the kingdom of God are advanced by the weapons (tools) that God equips his people with, that have divine power, and these tools smash spiritual strongholds, bringing those spiritual strongholds under the authority of God, subject to his will, authority and reign (2 Cor. 10:4-5)! Principally Paul probably has in mind the power of the gospel to smash sin and bring deliverance and salvation, but his remarks betray that he also has in mind the power of God overpowering these false teaching and false teachers that are currently troubling his coverts (2 Cor. 10:5).

In verse 5 Paul gets to the heart of the matter when he speaks of arguments (contentious opposition to the truth, and the authority of his gospel and ministry) and pretensions (the boastfulness and arrogance of those who present themselves as apostles with greater authority than Paul’s). The arguments that have been made to the Corinthians are actually opposed to sound doctrine and truth, and Paul is concerned that they will be carried away to a religious system that has nothing to do with Christ as they first learned about him from Paul’s preaching (2 Cor. 11:4; Gal. 1:6-9). Judging by Paul’s lengthy treatment of the giving of the law and the glory of the gospel that supersedes the glory of the law giving, there may have been a Judaizing element in the new doctrine being presented to the Corinthians, something that appealed to their desire to appear to have spiritual wisdom. From Paul’s perspective, anyhow, this was a different (heteros) gospel, and a different Spirit, which is why it had become a matter of warfare to him, and the pulling down of spiritual strongholds. Here was pretentious and inflated, wordy rhetoric and teaching that threatened to subvert the genuine faith of the Corinthians, something that was not of God, a spirit of error which was rooted in carnality and self-promotion, and he intended to employ the mighty weapons of God to powerfully demolish it. The purpose was to bring every thought back into captive obedience to the will of God!

So we have here a number of elements that define spiritual defeat. Spiritual defeat involves the following things:
1. Headstrong pride that asserts its own authority over other God ordained leaders, often through a claim to fresh revelation or novel teaching that contradicts sound doctrine (these are often pretentious, larger than life claims, and argumentative, combative against sound doctrine)
2. Self promotion of leaders, lack of humility, assertion of leadership rights that focus on deriving personal benefit to the leader; and the absence of the servant spirit that Jesus promoted in spiritual leadership (John 13)
3. Exercise of “fleshly” methods for promoting the ministry, including confrontational and destructive attitudes, that undermine relationships and the unity of the church, methods that have more affinity with the way the world does its business than the kingdom of God
4. Defeat produces disobedience to God, first in the mind and heart, but ultimately in conduct. In the mind because truth faithfulness is abandoned and in conduct because lifestyle will go where the mind and heart have already gone (disobedience is sin!)

Not every element is present in every case, but you can be sure that at the bottom line, disobedience is the outcome of spiritual defeat. Spiritual defeat is when we stop practicing our devotions to God, serving him as we should and in obedience to his Word. Many believers are not spiritually defeated at all, although they have been led to believe that they are by Satan and by poor teaching. Struggling to serve God against adversity, problems, suffering, hardships, pain and other resistance to the work of God in our lives and ministry is not spiritual defeat. It is spiritual challenge! Spiritual defeat is marked by a cessation of devotion and service to God and a lack of faith in him. Spiritual challenge is marked by a struggle that maintains its confidence and faith in God, and that practices its devotion and service to God faithfully in spite of pain and cost.

As long as you are consistently trying to love God, serve him and worship him you are not spiritually defeated, although you may be undergoing spiritual challenges. Spiritual challenge left unaddressed can lead to spiritual defeat. the Bible gives us many weapons of warfare that are mighty through God, to help us pull down the strongholds and gain the victory of these challenges (including prayer, growth in the knowledge of the Word, encouragement derived through fellowship, worship, reliance by faith upon the grace of God, etc.). This leads us to a discussion of Paul’s experience of a thorn in the flesh.

Paul speaks of an issue in his life that spiritually challenged him, that he three times asked God to deal with, but received a negative answer from God with respect to outright deliverance (2 Cor. 12:1-10). Paul relates the story to the Corinthians for a specific reason, and if we take it out of its context we will be sure to misinterpret it. He was seeking to show them why he boasted so much in a position of weakness, and how they had misunderstood his promotion of his own weakness. They saw it as a liability, and the interlopers had exploited that to Paul’s detriment. But for Paul weakness meant that the grace of God would make up the ground where in his own humanity he lacked the ability and was weak, effectively adding a component of divine power, supernatural provision and victory, to his life and ministry. As a result of his weaknesses, rather than proceeding from the position of a strong human ability, Paul was able to prosecute his ministry toward them through divine power! He demonstrated that the ministry of these boastful super-apostles, prosecuted from an entirely human ability which could gain the admiration of those who assessed things by the standards of the world, was far less desirable his ministry prosecuted toward them in human weakness, but supplemented by the power of God’s grace and strength. For this reason, Paul said that he would boast in the weaknesses produced by the thorn in his flesh, which God refused to remove, because it meant that God would make up in his ministry for the lack in his humanity (weakness) by a divine impartation of his strength and grace (2 Cor. 12:9)!

This infirmity, whatever it was, presented Paul with a challenge to his spiritual life and devotion to God. He felt that it hindered his service and he asked God to remove it. Instead God promised him grace and strength to overpower the infirmity and be successful in spite of its presence in his life. Paul was not spiritually defeated, although he was spiritually challenged, because he refused to give up his service and devotion toward God. And he served God consistently and faithfully, even though to do so he had to contend with this infirmity in his life.

The bottom line is this, you don’t need deliverance from spiritual challenges in your life, you need the grace and strength (power) of God to help you overcome them. This comes from seeking him and drawing close to God. God’s grace operates where his children serve him, love him, have faith in him and refused to give up! When we come to the altar seeking deliverance when we are under spiritual challenge and pressure we are asking for the wrong thing, we need grace and strength. The good news is that the vast majority of spiritual challenges we face in life are seasonal and transitory. They will come and pass. Occasionally we will be asked by God to contend with a persistent and difficult challenge for a lengthy period of time or maybe even a lifetime. But the principle is the same, we seek God’s grace and strength and find that we are successful overcomers. However, we do need deliverance from spiritual defeat! When we have failed God, ceased from our devotion and serving God, living in disobedience, we are defeated and in need of deliverance and restoration to God.

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