29 November 2007

On the Weaknesses of Preachers

It's been a while since I've posted anything from Dr. Luther's Lectures on Galatians (1535), but the following comments on Galatians 4:13-14 really struck home with me this morning. The Reformer's words seem particularly poignant, as I am aware of several dear colleagues in the Office of the Holy Ministry who are presently suffering the weight of the cross most sorely. I share the following, therefore, because it offers the soothing balm and sweet comfort of the Gospel. The Cross of Christ does not destroy forever, but finally saves His people, including His pastors:

"When knowledge, training, and the pure interpretation of the Word are not present among pastors and bishops, they cannot avoid being smug; for they are not being disciplined by the trials, the cross, and the persecutions that inevitably follow the pure preaching of the Word. Therefore it was impossible for Paul to find understanding among them. By the grace of God, however, we have the pure teaching of faith, which we also freely confess. Therefore we are compelled to bear the bitter hatred and persecution of the devil and the world. If we were not being disciplined by the power and the wiles of tyrants and heretics, as well as by terrors of heart and the flaming darts of Satan (Eph. 6:16), Paul would be as obscure and unknown to us as he was to the whole world in past centuries and still is today to our opponents, the papists and the fanatics. Therefore it is the gift of prophecy and our own effort, together with inward and outward trials, that opens to us the meaning of Paul and of all the Scriptures.

"By ‘weakness of the flesh’ (Galatians 4:13), Paul does not mean disease or sexual desire; he means the suffering or affliction that he bore in his body, as contrasted with strength or power. But lest we appear to be doing injury to these words, let us listen to Paul himself. In Second Corinthians (12:9–10) he says: ‘I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.’ And in chapter eleven (vv. 23–25) he writes: ‘With far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked, etc.’ These sufferings, which he bore in his body, are what he calls ‘weakness of the flesh,’ not the poor health of his body. It is as though he were to say: ‘When I preached the Gospel among you, I was overwhelmed by various afflictions and troubles. From every side I was threatened by the plots and attacks of Jews, Gentiles, and false brethren. I was troubled by hunger and by a lack of everything. I was the scum of the world and the dregs of all things’ (1 Cor. 4:13). He mentions this weakness of his frequently, as in the above cases and elsewhere.

"Therefore it is clear enough that Paul calls ‘weaknesses of the flesh’ the afflictions that not only he but the other Apostles suffered. Although they were weak in the flesh, they were strong in spirit; for the power of Christ dwelt in them, and it continually ruled and triumphed through them. Paul himself testifies to this in Second Corinthians (12:10) in the words: ‘When I am weak, then I am strong.’ Again: ‘I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me’ (2 Cor. 12:9); and in chapter two (v. 14) he says: ‘Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph.’ It is as though he were saying: ‘Regardless of how cruelly the devil, the unbelieving Jews, and the heathen rage against us, we continue unconquered by all their insults. Whether they like it or not, our doctrine prevails and triumphs.’ Such was the power and courage of the spirit in the Apostles, with which he here contrasts the weakness and slavery of their flesh.

"This weakness of the flesh in the pious is extremely offensive to reason. Therefore Christ Himself says (Matt. 11:6): ‘Blessed is he who takes no offense at Me.’ And Paul says in First Corinthians (1:23): ‘We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.’ Therefore it is something great that you acknowledge as Lord of all and Savior of the world One about whom you hear that He was the most miserable of all, the least of men, ‘scorned by men, and despised of the people’ (Ps. 22:6)—in other words, despised by all and finally condemned to death on the cross by His own people, especially by those among them who were the best, the wisest, and the saintliest. It is, I say, something great not to be dissuaded by these huge offenses, to be able to despise all of them, and to make this Christ, who was shamefully spat upon, scourged, and crucified, more than the riches of all the wealthy, more than the power of all the mighty, more than the wisdom of all the learned, more than the crowns of all the kings, more than the religion of all the saintly.

"Thus it was something great that the Galatians were not scandalized by the offensive weakness and ugly form of the cross which they saw in Paul but received him as an angel or as Christ Jesus (Gal. 4:14). Just as Christ says that His disciples continued with Him in His trials (Luke 22:28), so Paul says that the Galatians did not despise the trial that he bore in his flesh. He has good reason to praise them as extravagantly as he does.

"Now the Apostles, and especially Paul, experienced not only the outward trials we have just discussed but also inward and spiritual ones, as Christ did in the garden. Such was the trial of which he complains in Second Corinthians (12:7), a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass him. It is impossible for anyone afflicted with these profound trials to be troubled by sexual desire. I am reminding you of this in passing because the papists, upon seeing the Latin translation, ‘stimulus in the flesh,’ interpreted it as the stimulus of sexual desire. But the Greek word means a very sharp stake or thorn; therefore it was a spiritual trial. It does not matter that he adds the word ‘flesh,’ saying: ‘A thorn was given me in the flesh.’ He purposely calls it a thorn in the flesh; for the Galatians and others with whom Paul had contact often saw him moved by great sadness, trembling, terrified, and crushed by an unspeakable sorrow and grief.

"Therefore the Apostles had not only physical but also spiritual trials. Paul testifies to this about himself in Second Corinthians (7:5), where he speaks of ‘fighting without and fear within.’ In the last chapter of Acts (28:15), Luke says that after Paul had struggled for a long time in a stormy sea and was sad in spirit, he was restored and took courage upon seeing the brethren who came from Rome to meet him at the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns. And in Philippians (2:27) he confesses that God had mercy on him when he cured Epaphroditus, who was ill and near to death, lest Paul should have sorrow upon sorrow. In addition to their outward physical trials, therefore, the Apostles also suffered sorrow of the spirit." (Luther’s Works, Volume 26, CPH 1963, pages 418–421, alt.)

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