2 Corinthians 3: 12 - 4:6
Atheist - Christopher Hitchens - author - God is Not Great: Why Religion Poisons Everything - interviewed by a Unitarian minister – “The religion you cite in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make and distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?”
Hitchens: “I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.”
Talk about nailing it - an outspoken atheist grasps the central truth of Christianity better than many Christians do. How is it that a man can have such a clear conception of Christianity and yet not be a Christian? How can someone say something that sounds as if it might have come from Billy Graham and yet emphatically reject the Christian faith?
Christopher Hitchens obviously has been exposed to the Bible. He knows what the Bible says and he knows what we believe, and yet he wants no part of it. He knows what a Christian is, and he knows what a Christian is not. So how could a man so clearly grasp the heart of the Christian faith and yet reject it completely?
They do not see the truth because they cannot see the truth. They are quite literally blind to the truth of the gospel they partially understand. Until that blindness is removed by God, they will never be saved.
1. Unbelievers Are Spiritually Blind.
Paul says this in 2 different ways.
A. A “veil” is placed over their hearts so they cannot understand the gospel. 3: 14, 15
Paul is thinking about when Moses came down from the mountain with his face glowing from his encounter with the Lord. But that “glory glow” kept fading away because God never intended that it be permanent. Moses veiled his face so the Jews wouldn’t see the glory fading away. That “veil” becomes a symbol for Jewish unbelief. Question in the early church - “If Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, why did so many of his countrymen reject him?” Paul devoted Romans 9-11 to a detailed discussion of this question. In 2 Corinthians he offers a shorter and simpler answer. They do not believe in Jesus because there is a “veil” on their hearts. They continue to follow the “Old Covenant” even though its fading glory has been replaced by the unfading glory of the New Covenant secured with the blood of Jesus.
Still true 2000 years later - Lord’s earthly brethren largely have not believed in him. Many Jews have come to faith in Christ in the last generation, but they still represent a tiny minority of the Jewish people worldwide. The veil remains in place.
B.Satan has blinded the minds of unbelievers. 4: 4
When they think about the gospel, it makes no sense to them. When they hear about Jesus dying on the cross, they can’t understand how one man’s death 2000 years ago could possibly have anything to do with them today. When they hear that he rose from the dead, the very idea seems ludicrous. After all, everyone knows that dead men stay dead. When they hear about Christians praying together, it seems like psychological self-delusion. When they see Christians going as missionaries to reach Muslims and Hindus, it strikes them at best as a great waste of time and at worst as a kind of cultural imperialism. “How dare you tell anyone your religion is better!” When we protest that it’s not about religion, it’s about a relationship with Jesus Christ who is alive today, the words sound like pious nonsense to them.
The result of this spiritual blindness is very clear: “they cannot see the light.” You can talk about the light, sing about the light, tell others what the light has done for you, but if they are blind, your words will make so sense to them. If we get angry with the lost because they are lost, we have missed the point. Do you get angry with a blind man because he can’t see the colour green? If he can’t see, he can’t see. Getting angry with him won’t help his situation.
We cannot argue a person into the Kingdom. Sometimes we act as if saving the lost is our responsibility. We can no more save the lost than we can cure someone’s blindness. Sometimes we get angry with our loved ones who don’t know the Lord. To be honest, sometimes they say very hurtful things to us, cutting us down, insulting our faith, mocking what we hold dear, and ridiculing our faith in Christ. In those moments, the temptation to strike back seems overwhelming. With God’s help, we must not return evil for evil or insult for insult. Why get angry when lost people act like lost people? In those moments it helps to remember that when someone says about the gospel, “I just don’t see it,” they aren’t making an excuse. They really don’t see it.
2. Only God Can Give Sight to the Blind 4: 6
Paul reaches back to the earliest moments of creation when God said, “Let light shine out of darkness.” If we had been there, this is what we would have experienced. Darkness. Thick, impenetrable darkness. Darkness filling the universe. Darkness thick and black. Darkness with not a trace of light anywhere. Then suddenly . . . light! Dazzling light. Shining light. Light filling the skies. Light so bright we have to cover our eyes.
If we had been there, we wouldn’t have known or suspected anything until God said, “Let there be light." Light happened because God made it happen. The same is true for all of us spiritually. We see the light because God in his sovereign grace opens our eyes and causes us to see. If he did not do that, we would never open our eyes on our own. We could not save ourselves any more than the blind man can will his eyes to see.
Salvation is of the Lord!
It begins with God, flows from God, streams from his heart of mercy, comes down to us in a great river of grace cascading from the cross of Jesus Christ, and enters our hearts, giving us eyes to see the glory of God in Jesus Christ.
What does this mean for our evangelism and for our prayers for the lost? Opening blind eyes is the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. He and he alone can do it. But he can do it, and this is the source of our hope. This is why we pray for our children and grandchildren and for our family members and for friends and loved ones. We pray and cry out to God and say, “O Lord, open the eyes of their heart. Help them to see the light of truth.”
3. We Must Boldly and Humbly Preach the Gospel to the Lost.
All spiritual truth must be kept in balance. While salvation is of the Lord, we still have a job to do. Paul explains that in 2 ways.
A. We must live with integrity so that our life backs up our message. 4: 1, 2.
We renounce shameful ways. We do not use deception. We do not distort the Word of God. Phillips – v. 2: “We use no hocus-pocus, no clever tricks, no dishonest manipulation of the Word of God.” Paul was not a “spin doctor.” He didn’t use underhanded means to win the lost - he didn’t try to trick people or make false promises.
This is how we are to live . . . We set forth the truth plainly. We speak knowing that God is watching and listening to us. We speak so that others can trust what we say.
B. We proclaim Christ and not ourselves. 4: 5
What would it mean for a preacher to preach himself and not Jesus? It’s hard to define but you know it when you hear it. A man who preaches himself is always talking about himself, his exploits, his titles, his name, his greatness. He’s building his empire by recruiting disciples who follow him. People go away talking about him, not about Jesus. Tricky thing - easier than you think to preach so as to subtly increase your own reputation. It’s possible to preach the truth in such a way that you glorify yourself at the same time. Paul wants nothing to do with that.
It’s not about him. It’s all about Jesus.
Good test for all who know the Lord. Am I making followers of Jesus or followers of me? Paul’s attitude seems to be, “It doesn’t matter what you think of me as long as you make much of Jesus."
This helps us keep in balance the sovereignty of God and human responsibility. Since God ordains both the means and ends of salvation, we always have a job to do. We are to preach and pray, to give and to go, to live honestly and speak boldly, always attempting to serve others in Jesus’ name. As we do that, God graciously opens the eyes of the blind so that our message makes sense to them, and they “see” what once was hidden to them, and seeing it truly they believe the gospel and are saved.
What happens when we do our part? The veil is removed - Blind eyes now see - Light begins to shine - Lost people turn to the Lord - They are now “in Christ” - The knowledge of God fills their hearts - They “see” the glory of God made beautiful in Jesus.
This is God’s plan! He intends to save multitudes of people exactly this way. Clearly not everyone will be saved. Some will perish because they do not believe the gospel. But (and this is a big but) we do not know in advance who will believe and who will not believe. We don’t have any inside information about election and predestination, therefore we don’t have to worry about that at all. Our part is to preach the gospel by all means possible, honestly, sincerely, humbly, boldly, praying as we preach that God will open blind eyes to “see” Jesus as Saviour and Lord. As we do that, God takes our preaching and our prayers and makes them powerful through his Spirit to cause the light to shine in the darkness so that lost people come to Christ.
This should give enormous hope and the highest motivation to Christians who pray for the salvation of the lost. Paul shows us 3 things very plainly: The spiritual blindness of unbelievers. The sacred obligation to preach the gospel boldly and humbly.
The spiritual illumination only God can bring.
Of those3 things, we have nothing to do with the first and the last. We can preach the gospel, we can pray, and we can live with integrity that gives credence to our message. Satan will do all he can to keep the lost blind and confused so they cannot “see” the gospel. Only God can lift the veil and speak the words that will bring light to those who walk in darkness.
But God can do it! That means there are no hopeless cases. There are some lost people who will be saved tomorrow who have no idea about it today. We don’t know who they are or where they are. We just know they are out there.
God honours forward-looking faith. Just because our loved ones are not saved today does not mean they won’t come to Christ tomorrow. Who knows what the Lord will do if only we will faithfully pray and preach the gospel?
A Slavetrader’s Conversion
He was born in 1725, the son of an English sea captain. At the age of 11 he went to sea for the first time. He eventually became a slave-ship captain, taking black Africans to the Mediterranean and the West Indies. Forced to join the Royal Navy, he tried to desert his ship but was flogged with 96 lashes in front of the crew. He became the slave of a white slavetrader’s black wife. For 2 years he lived in hunger and destitution.
In 1748 he boarded a ship for England but a violent storm in the North Atlantic hit the ship, which began to fill with water. The timbers broke away from the side. An ordinary ship would have gone to the bottom immediately but they were carrying a load of beeswax and wool which were lighter than water.
In the midst of the struggle to save the ship, the young man said to himself almost without thinking, “The Lord have mercy on us.” By his own testimony, it was the first desire for mercy he had felt in many years. That was the turning point of his life.
Eventually he left the slave trade and later entered the ministry in England. He soon became known as a great preacher who attracted enormous crowds. He wrote nearly 300 hymns, most of which have long since been forgotten. But some we still sing - one that is perhaps the most famous hymn of all time:
Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind but now I see.
Before he died he prepared his own epitaph, which reads this way: John Newton, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy.
That’s what God can do. That’s true conversion. Let us recommit ourselves to God’s work around the world. Let us give and go and pray. Let us not be discouraged by anything we see around us. Let us press on with vigour and determination and faith and joy. Let us roll up our sleeves and get to work for God.
Let us sing “Amazing Grace” with new understanding, remembering that the last line is our testimony too: I once was lost but now am found, Was blind but now I see.