What we do as ministers is to bear witness to the gospel message in the truths of God’s Word, but how we do that is equally important.
In 2nd Corinthians 2:15-16 the apostle Paul has just been describing himself and his fellow ministers of the gospel as the fragrance of Christ in the world. Christian preachers are the aroma of life to those who hear and believe the gospel, who turn to Jesus Christ in faith, and receive salvation. And at the same time they are the smell of death to those who reject Christ. “Who is sufficient for these things?” Paul concludes (2 Corinthians 2:16). Indeed, who could possibly feel adequate, knowing that how people respond to the message of the cross that we proclaim to them will determine their eternal destiny. The ministry of the gospel is a serious business.
And Paul takes it seriously. “For we are not,” he goes on to write in verse 17, “like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ” (v.17). This is what genuine servants of Jesus Christ are: not peddlers of God’s word, but men and women of sincerity, God’s commissioned agents, who speak truthfully, openly, sincerely, as those laboring in their ministry under the very eye of the Lord.
Peddlers of the Word
There are two fine metaphors in this brief statement in 2 Corinthians 2:17 by which Paul describes the character and work of Christian ministry. One is negative, the other positive. We are not peddlers of the word, says the apostle; rather, we are duly commissioned and authorized by God himself to share the gospel with the world.
A few months back I was walking through a marketplace in an African city. The streets were crowded and dusty, the sidewalks lined with little booths and shops selling all sorts of things: food, clothes, shoes, household items, toys and trinkets – peddlers’ goods. As I passed down the street I heard a voice call out to me, “Hey, white man!” It was pretty clear what the fellow thought. I was obviously foreign. I didn’t belong there which meant I could be assumed to be gullible, naive, a pigeon ripe for the plucking.
Peddlers – whether they are shady salesmen in America or street venders in Khartoum – are the same the world over. Without wishing to malign any individual’s character, let’s just say that peddlers have a well-deserved reputation for sharp practice. You would be ill-advised to assume that the merchandise a peddler offers you is genuine, or that the price he quotes is fair. Peddlers have a well-known tendency to prey upon the innocent, to cheat their customers, to play fast and loose with the truth.
That is what we are not, says the apostle; we aren’t peddlers of the word of God. Paul explains what he means by this negative image with a further statement in chapter four of 2 Corinthians: “We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word” (2 Corinthians 4:2). One of the “disgraceful” ways a peddler cheats his customer is by what’s called the “bait and switch,” where the valuable item shown to the customer is replaced with a phony substitute later, after the sale has been agreed to. That can literally be an “underhanded” trick, if the switch is made by sleight of hand.
Another common form of cheating involves adulterating the product on sale. When Paul states that authentic ministers of Christ “refuse to practice cunning or tamper with” the gospel, he uses a word that referred to the practice of watering down wine after it had been sold to an unsuspecting customer. None of these practices are worthy of true servants of Jesus Christ.
“We are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word.” In our day, as in the apostle’s, there are many who preach the gospel in a dishonest, underhanded fashion. I think of the proponents of the prosperity gospel, for example, who proclaim that if you only have enough faith, or pray the right way, or give enough money, you will automatically receive health and wealth in return – as if the followers of a suffering, crucified Savior could expect nothing but pleasure and comfort in this life, as if faith in Christ were some sort of business transaction, as if an all-wise God was obliged to give us whatever we happened to ask for.
Or consider the bait and switch tactics of preachers who offer what sounds like a gospel of grace, but enforce a legalistic religion of rules-keeping and insist that people follow the customs and traditions of their little group down to a “T” in order to be considered “real Christians.” Or think of the adulteration of the historic Christian faith by so many who no longer believe the truth of the New Testament witness to Jesus Christ but who nevertheless lack the integrity to leave the Christian church and its ministry.
Recently a bishop from a mainline denomination came to my city and preached in one of the prominent churches here. He used the occasion to attack traditional Christian beliefs like the deity of Christ, Jesus’ virgin birth and physical resurrection from the dead. The Bible is not the word of God, the bishop confidently asserted, it is merely words about God; Christians should not worship Jesus, they should simply follow him. And the bishop presented his message as a courageous championing of the authentic gospel, a bold declaration of true Christianity, as opposed to those who teach all that outmoded mythology in the New Testament that nobody believes any more. In fact, this liberal message of a merely human, exemplary Jesus is nothing but the watered down, counterfeit theology that has dominated “progressive” thought, so called, for the past 150 years. It may have been cutting edge in the 1800’s. But today it is merely a tired out, underhanded sort of tampering with the Word of God.
If we join the apostle Paul in renouncing all these disgraceful ways of preaching the gospel, what should we practice in their place? If we are not, like so many, peddlers of the word, what then are we? To grasp Paul’s answer, I want you to picture another kind of sales person. Imagine you are walking or driving down the street and you see a sign in a store front window. It is the brand-name and logo of a well-known, reputable company: Sony, it says . . . Phillips . . . G.E. You look more closely and you see a little trademark symbol by the name, and then down below the words “Authorized Dealer.” Immediately you know a great deal about this store and its staff. You know that the products being sold there are going to be genuine. You know that the prices are probably accurate. You know that the person selling to you is going to know what he’s talking about. You will expect certain standards of service; you’ve come, after all, to an authorized dealer.
This is who we are as servants of Jesus Christ and ministers of his gospel. We are not peddlers of the word, says Paul, we are “commissioned by God.” We have “this ministry by the mercy of God,” he says a little later in 2 Corinthians 4:1. God has commissioned us to serve him in this way; God has given us our ministry. The apostles – and all those who follow faithfully in their footsteps and proclaim with integrity their message – are authorized dealers of the gospel. And in contrast to all the trickery and dishonesty of those who peddle the word of God, God’s commissioned agents preach and teach the biblical message with integrity. Having renounced all underhanded methods, all tricks, and having refusing to practice cunning or tamper with God’s word, this is how we proceed declares the apostle Paul: “By the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2).
Notice the methodology Paul describes here. An authentic ministry of the word of God proceeds by the open statement of the truth. Disdaining gimmicks or sensationalism, not trying to impress anybody with big words or awe them with rhetorical power, not shouting at people or bullying them, not trying to play on people’s emotions, not manipulating them in any way or fashion, the apostle simply and openly told his listeners the truth: the truth about God, the truth about sin, the truth about Jesus and the cross, the truth about grace and faith and gratitude and obedience and holiness. Notice also the target of Paul’s preaching. He aimed at the conscience of his listeners, because the point of the gospel is not just to make us feel something or think something or buy something, it’s to make us believe something and then live differently as a result of our faith.
So this is how God’s commissioned agents share the word of God with the world. In the words of Eugene Peterson’s Message,
We don’t take God’s Word, water it down, and then take it to the streets to sell it cheap. We stand in Christ’s presence when we speak; God looks us in the face. We get what we say straight from God and say it as honestly as we can. We refuse to wear masks and play games. We don’t maneuver and manipulate behind the scenes. And we don’t twist God’s Word to suit ourselves. Rather, we keep everything we do and say out in the open, the whole truth on display, so that those who want to can see and judge for themselves in the presence of God.