The Church Postil of Dr. Martin Luther: Sexagesima
(Note from the Lenker edition: German text – Erlangen edition II, 90; Walch II, 704; St. Louis II, 514.)
Text: Luke 8:4-15
And when a great multitude came together, and they of every city resorted unto him, he spake by a parable:
The sower went forth to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden under foot, and the birds of the heaven devoured it. And other fell amidst the thorns; and the thorns grew with it, and choked it. And other fell into the good ground, and grew, and brought forth fruit a hundredfold. As he said these things, he cried, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
And his disciples asked him what this parable might be. And he said, Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to the rest in parables; that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand. Now the parable is this: The seed is the Word of God. And those by the way side are they that have heard; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the Word from their heart, that they may not believe and be saved. And those on the rock are they who, when they have heard, receive the Word with joy; and these have no root, who for a while believe, and in the time of temptation fall away. And that which fell among the thorns, these are they that have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection. And that in the good ground, these are such as in an honest and good heart, having heard the Word, hold it fast, and bring forth fruit with patience.
1. This Gospel treats of the disciples and the fruits, which the Word of God develops in the world. It does not speak of the law nor of human institutions; but, as Christ himself says, of the Word of God, which he himself the sower preaches, for the law bears no fruit, just as little as do the institutions of men. Christ however sets forth here four kinds of disciples of the divine Word.
2. The first class of disciples are those who hear the Word but neither understand nor esteem it. And these are not the mean people in the world, but the greatest, wisest and the most saintly, in short they are the greatest part of mankind; for Christ does not speak here of those who persecute the Word nor of those who fail to give their ear to it, but of those who hear it and are students of it, who also wish to be called true Christians and to live in Christian fellowship with Christians and are partakers of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. But they are of a carnal heart, and remain so, failing to appropriate the Word of God to themselves, it goes in one ear and out the other. Just like the seed along the wayside did not fall into the earth, but remained lying on the ground in the wayside, because the road was tramped hard by the feet of man and beast and it could not take root.
3. Therefore Christ says the devil cometh and taketh away the Word from their heart, that they may not believe and be saved. What power of Satan this alone reveals, that hearts, hardened through a worldly mind and life, lose the Word and let it go, so that they never understand or confess it; but instead of the Word of God Satan sends false teachers to tread it under foot by the doctrines of men. For it stands here written both that it was trodden under foot, and the birds of the heaven devoured it. The birds Christ himself interprets as the messengers of the devil, who snatch away the Word and devour it, which is done when he turns and blinds their hearts so that they neither understand nor esteem it, as St. Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:4: “They will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables.” By the treading under foot of men Christ means the teachings of men, that rule in our hearts, as he says in Matthew 5:13 also of the salt that has lost its savor, it is cast out and trodden under foot of men; that is, as St. Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2:11, they must believe a lie because they have not been obedient to the truth.
4. Thus all heretics, fanatics and sects belong to this number, who understand the Gospel in a carnal way and explain it as they please, to suit their own ideas, all of whom hear the Gospel and yet they bear no fruit, yea, more, they are governed by Satan and are harder oppressed by human institutions than they were before they heard the Word. For it is a dreadful utterance that Christ here gives that the devil taketh away the Word from their hearts, by which he clearly proves that the devil rules mightily in their hearts, notwithstanding they are called Christians and hear the Word. Likewise it sounds terribly that they are to be trodden under foot, and must be subject unto men and to their ruinous teachings, by which under the appearance and name of the Gospel the devil takes the Word from them, so that they may never believe and be saved, but must be lost forever; as the fanatical spirits of our day do in all lands. For where this Word is not, there is no salvation, and great works or holy lives avail nothing, for with this, that he says: “They shall not be saved,” since they have not the Word, he shows forcibly enough, that not their works but their faith in the Word alone saves, as Paul says to the Romans: “It is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.” Romans 1:16.
5. The second class of hearers are those who receive the Word with joy, but they do not persevere. These are also a large multitude who understand the Word correctly and lay hold of it in its purity without any spirit of sect, division or fanaticism, they rejoice also in that they know the real truth, and are able to know how they may be saved without works through faith. They also know that they are free from the bondage of the law, of their conscience and of human teachings; but when it comes to the test that they must suffer harm, disgrace and loss of life or property, then they fall and deny it; for they have not root enough, and are not planted deep enough in the soil. Hence they are like the growth on a rock, which springs forth fresh and green, that it is a pleasure to behold it and it awakens bright hopes. But when the sun shines hot it withers, because it has no soil and moisture, and only rock is there. So these do; in times of persecution they deny or keep silence about the Word, and work, speak and suffer all that their persecutors mention or wish, who formerly went forth and spoke, and confessed with a fresh and joyful spirit the same, while there was still peace and no heat, so that there was hope they would bear much fruit and serve the people. For these fruits are not only the works, but more the confession, preaching and spreading of the Word, so that many others may thereby be converted and the kingdom of God be developed.
6. The third class are those who hear and understand the Word, but still it falls on the other side of the road, among the pleasures and cares of this life, so that they also do nothing with the Word. And there is quite a large multitude of these; for although they do not start heresies, like the first, but always possess the absolutely pure Word, they are also not attacked on the left as the others with opposition and persecution; yet they fall on the right side, and it is their ruin that they enjoy peace and good days. Therefore they do not earnestly give themselves to the Word, but become indifferent and sink in the cares, riches and pleasures of this life, so that they are of no benefit to any one. Therefore they are like the seed that fell among the thorns. Although it is not rocky but good soil; not wayside but deeply plowed soil; yet, the thorns will not let it spring up, they choke it. Thus these have all in the Word that is needed for their salvation, but they do not make any use of it, and they rot in this life in carnal pleasures. To these belong those who hear the Word but do not bring under subjection their flesh. They know their duty but do it not, they teach but do not practice what they teach, and are this year as they were last.
7. The fourth class are those who lay hold of and keep the Word in a good and honest heart, and bring forth fruit with patience, those who hear the Word and steadfastly retain it, meditate upon it and act in harmony with it. The devil does not snatch it away, nor are they thereby led astray, moreover the heat of persecution does not rob them of it, and the thorns of pleasure and the avarice of the times do not hinder its growth; but they bear fruit by teaching others and by developing the kingdom of God, hence they also do good to their neighbor in love; and therefore Christ adds, “they bring forth fruit with patience.” For these must suffer much on account of the Word, shame and disgrace from fanatics and heretics, hatred and jealousy with injury to body and property from their persecutors, not to mention what the thorns and the temptations of their own flesh do, so that it may well be called the Word of the cross; for he who would keep it must bear the cross and misfortune, and triumph.
8. He says: “In honest and good hearts.” Like a field, that is without a thorn or brush, cleared and spacious, as a beautiful clean place: so a heart is also cleared and clean, broad and spacious, that is without cares and avarice as to temporal needs, so that the Word of God truly finds lodgment there. But the field is good, not only when it lies there cleared and level, but when it is also rich and fruitful, possesses soil and is productive, and not like a stony and gravelly field. Just so is the heart that has good soil and with a full spirit is strong, fertile and good to keep the Word and bring forth fruit with patience.
9. Here we see why it is no wonder there are so few true Christians, for all the seed does not fall into good ground, but only the fourth and small part; and that they are not to be trusted who boast they are Christians and praise the teaching of the Gospel; like Demas, a disciple of St. Paul, who forsook him at last, 2 Timothy 4:10; like the disciples of Jesus, who turned their backs to him. John 6:66. For Christ himself cries out here: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear,” as if he should say: O, how few true Christians there are; one dare not believe all to be Christians who are called Christians and hear the Gospel, more is required than that.
10. All this is spoken for our instruction, that we may not go astray, since so many misuse the Gospel and few lay hold of it aright. True it is unpleasant to preach to those who treat the Gospel so shamefully and even oppose it. For preaching is to become so universal that the Gospel is to be proclaimed to all creatures, as Christ says in Mark 16:15: “Preach the Gospel to the whole creation;” and Psalm 19:4: “Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” What business is it of mine that many do not esteem it? It must be that many are called but few are chosen. For the sake of the good ground that brings forth fruit with patience, the seed must also fall fruitless by the wayside, on the rock and among the thorns; inasmuch as we are assured that the Word of God does not go forth without bearing some fruit, but it always finds also good ground; as Christ says here, some seed of the sower falls also into good ground, and not only by the wayside, among the thorns and on stony ground. For where-ever the Gospel goes you will find Christians. “My word shall not return unto me void.” Isaiah 55:11.
11. Here observe that Mark 4:8 and Matthew 13:8 say the seed yielded fruit some thirty, some sixty and some a hundredfold, which according to all interpretations is understood of three kinds of chastity, that of virgins, married persons and widows; and virgins are credited with a hundredfold of fruit, wedded persons with thirtyfold, the least of all, and widows with sixtyfold. But this is such coarse and corrupt talk that it is a sin and a shame that this interpretation has continued so long in Christendom and has been advocated by so many noted teachers, and criticized by none of them. In this one perceives how many wide-awake, well-armed and faithful teachers the church has had heretofore, and how one blindly believed another, and how God allowed many noted saints and people to play the fool so completely in these important matters pertaining to the soul that he warned us to believe no teacher, however saintly and great he may be, unless he comes with the pure Word of God.
12. First, it would be doing the Word of God injustice to hold that it brings forth no other fruit than chastity, since St. Paul boasts quite differently in Galatians 5:22. In brief, the Word of God accomplishes all good, it makes us wise, sensible, prudent, cautious, pious, kind, patient, faithful, discreet, chaste, etc. Hence this comment referring only to three kinds of chastity is wholly unchristian. The heathen and wicked people, who neither possess the Gospel nor persecute it, have also virgins, widows and married persons. Doubtless Anna and Caiaphas had been properly married. Thus there were virgins, widows and consorts before the Word of God; for virgins were born, and when the Gospel comes it finds virgins, widows and wives; the Gospel did not first make them virgins, widows or wives.
13. Secondly, thus marriage, virginity and widowhood are not fruits, nor virtues, nor good works; but three stations or states in life created and ordained by God, and are not creatures of our power. They are divine works and creations like all other creatures. For if it should be valid to interpret a station or state in life as good fruit, one would have to say the state of a lord, a servant, a man, a child and of officers was only fruit of the Gospel; in this way there would be no fruit at all left for the Gospel, since such states or callings are found everywhere regardless of the Gospel. But the chastity of virgins is paraded thus for the sake of a show, to the great danger and injury of immortal souls; just as if no virtue adorns a Christian but virginity.
14. I will say further, that chastity is a different and a far higher thing than virginity, and is nothing more than that a woman has never been under any obligation to a man. Besides, however, it is possible that a virgin has not only a desire and a passion for man, in harmony with the character and nature of her female body; but she must also be full of blood and life in order to bear children and multiply the race, for which God created her, and that creation is not her work but God’s alone. Therefore that woman may not hinder God’s work, nature as created by God must take its course, whether children be born or not. But chastity must indeed be a state of a woman’s mind that has no or little desire for man, and has in her body also little or no seed to bear fruit or children.
15. Now it is generally the case that a married woman does not so often experience such desire and lust, such a flow of love or life; for she will be relieved of the same by or through her husband; and besides, where a virgin has only passion in the thoughts of her heart and in the seed of her body, a married woman has much displeasure mingled with the pleasure of her husband, so that to speak in common terms, the high and best chastity is in the married state, because in it is the least lust and passion, while the least chastity is in the state of virgins, because in it there is much more lust and passion. Therefore chastity is a virtue far above virginity; for we call a bride still a virgin, although she is indeed full of desire, passion and love for her bridegroom. Chastity waves high over all three states, over marriage, over widowhood and over virginity. But when God does not work wonders it sinks low and exists most in the married state and least in the state of virgins, and there are not three kinds of chastity, but three states of chastity.
16. True, when we consider virginity according to its outward appearance, it seems great that a woman restrains herself and never satisfies her desires with a man. But what does it help if persons restrain their passions longer without a man or a woman and then satisfy them more than with a man or woman? Is there not more unchastity where there is greater lust, love, lewdness and sensation than where there is less? Therefore to calculate according to the amount of lust and sensation, as unchastity should be considered, virginity is more unchaste than the state of marriage. This is very apparent among prostitutes, who are virgins and yet are very forward and obscene, and cherish greater thoughts of the sin than the sin itself is. In short, I wonder if there is a virgin twenty years of age, who has a healthy, perfect female body.
17. This is enough concerning chastity, that we know how the fruits of the Word must be understood differently and in a wider sense than pertaining to chastity, and be applied especially to the fruits, by which many are converted and come to the knowledge of the truth. For although works are also called fruits, yet Christ speaks here especially of the fruits the seed of the Word brings forth in hearts that become enlightened, believing, happy and wise in Christ, as St. Paul says in Romans 1:13: “That I might have some fruit in you also, even as in the rest of the Gentiles;” and Colossians 1:6: “Even as the Gospel is also in all the world bearing fruit and increasing, as it doth in you also;” that is, many will be made alive through the Gospel, delivered from their sins and be saved; for it is the characteristic work of the Gospel, as the Word of life, grace and salvation to release from sin, death and Satan. In harmony with this fruit follow the fruits of the Spirit, the good works of patience, love, faithfulness, etc.
18. Now that some seed brings forth thirty, some sixty, and some a hundred fold, means that more people will be converted in some places than in others, and one apostle and minister may preach farther and more than another; for the people are not everywhere alike numerous and do not report the same number of Christians, and one minister may not preach as many sermons or cover as great a territory as another, which God foresaw and ordained. To the words of St. Paul, who preached the farthest and the most, we may indeed ascribe the hundredfold of fruit; although he was not a virgin.
19. But what does it mean when he says: “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of Gad”, etc.? What are the mysteries? Shall one not know them, why then are .they preached? A “mystery” is a hidden secret, that is not known: and the “mysteries of the kingdom of God” are the things in the kingdom of God, as for example Christ with all his grace, which he manifests to us, as Paul describes him; for he who knows Christ aright understands what God’s kingdom is and what is in it. And it is called a mystery because it is spiritual and secret, and indeed it remains so, where the spirit does not reveal it. For although there are many who see and hear it, yet they do not understand it. Just as there are many who preach and hear Christ, how he offered himself for us; but all that is only upon their tongue and not in their heart; for they themselves do not believe it, they do not experience it, as Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:14 says: “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God.” Therefore Christ says here: “Unto you it is given”, the Spirit gives it to you that you not only hear and see it, but acknowledge and believe it with your heart. Therefore it is now no longer a mystery to you. But to the others who hear it as well as you, and have no faith in their heart, they see and understand it not; to them it is a mystery and it will continue unknown to them, and all that they hear is only like one hearing a parable or a dark saying. This is also proved by the fanatics of our day, who know so much to preach about Christ; but as they themselves do not experience it in their heart, they rush ahead and pass by the true foundation of the mystery and tramp around with questions and rare foundlings, and when it comes to the test they do not know the least thing about trusting in God and finding in Christ the forgiveness of their sins.
20. But Mark says, Mark 4:33, Christ spake therefore to the people with parables, that they might understand, each according to his ability. How does that agree with what Matthew says, Matthew 13:13-14: He spake therefore unto them in parables, because they did not understand? It must surely be that Mark wishes to say that parables serve to the end that they may get a hold of coarse, rough people, although they do not indeed understand them, yet later, they may be taught and then they know: for parables are naturally pleasing to the common people, and they easily remember them since they are taken from common every day affairs, in the midst of which the people live. But Matthew means to say that these parables are of the nature that no one can understand them, they may grasp and hear them as often as they will, unless the Spirit makes them known and reveals them. Not that they should preach that we shall not understand them; but it naturally follows that wherever the Spirit does not reveal them, no one understands them. However, Christ took these words from Isaiah 6:9-10, where the high meaning of the divine foreknowledge is referred to, that God conceals and reveals to whom he will and whom he had in mind from eternity.
Text: 2 Corinthians 11:19-12:9
For ye bear with the foolish gladly, being wise yourselves. For ye bear with a man, if he bringeth you into bondage, if he devoureth you, if he taketh you captive, if he exalteth himself, if he smiteth you on the face. I speak by way of disparagement, as though we had been weak. Yet whereinsoever any is bold (I speak in foolishness), I am bold also. Are they Hebrews? so am I. Are they Israelites? so am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? so am I. Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as one beside himself) I more; in labors more abundantly, in prisons more abundantly, in stripes above measure, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day have I been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of rivers, in perils of robbers, in perils from my countrymen, in perils from the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in labor and travail, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Besides those things that are without, there is that which presseth upon me daily, anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is caused to stumble, and I burn not? If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things that concern my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed for evermore knoweth that I lie not. In Damascus the governor under Aretas the king guarded the city of the Damascenes in order to take me: and through a window was I let down in a basket by the wall, and escaped his hands. I must needs glory, though it is not expedient; but I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ, fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I know not; or whether out of the body, I know not; God knoweth), such a one caught up even to the third heaven. And I know such a man (whether in the body, or apart from the body, I know not; God knoweth), how that he was caught up into Paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. On behalf of such a one will I glory: but on mine own behalf I will not glory, save in my weakness. For if I should desire to glory, I shall not be foolish; for I shall speak the truth: but I forbear, lest any man should account of me above that which he seeth me to be, or heareth from me. And by reason of the exceeding greatness of the revelations, That I should not be exalted overmuch, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, that I should not be exalted overmuch. Concerning, this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he hath said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my power is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
1. They who praise themselves are fools according to the views and speech of the world. The saying is, “Self-praise is unsavory.” It is forbidden by Solomon in Proverbs 27:2: “Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth.” And Christ says (John 8:54), “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing.” Paul acknowledges that he had to become a fool, something for which he had no desire, by reason of the necessity laid upon him to praise himself. The false apostles, as false spirits habitually do, delivered great, fine, splendid speeches to the multitude, in their vainglorious attempt to raise themselves above Paul, thereby to make contemptible and insignificant that apostle and his doctrine.
2. Paul was little concerned that he personally should be lightly esteemed and the false apostles highly honored, but he could not bear to have the Gospel perish in that way and his Corinthian converts seduced. Therefore he exerts himself to the utmost, at the risk of becoming a fool by his boasting. But he, in his strong spiritual wisdom, glories in a masterly manner, and skilfully puts to shame the boasts of the false apostles. First, he shows them he can glory in the very things wherein they glory, and in even more. At the same time he declares himself a fool for glorying. He might have said: “Foolish, indeed, are they, and boorish creatures, who glory in themselves. They should feel shame to the very depth of their heart. No true, sane man boasts of what he is. The wicked and the frivolous do that.” But the apostle’s attack is not quite so severe and harsh. He addresses them civilly and delicately in that he makes himself appear a fool, as if to say: “Look! how becoming self-praise is in myself, although I have grounds for my glorying. But how much more disgraceful for you to boast when perhaps none of your claims are true.” So Paul wears the foolscap, that those coarse fools might have a mirror in which to behold their real selves. This is wisely making foolishness minister to the good of the neighbor and to the honor of the Gospel. To the just, even folly is wisdom, just as all things are pure and holy unto him.
3. Second, Paul deals the false apostles a stout blow when he shows them to be ignorant of the grounds in which a true Christian seeks his glory. For, as he teaches them, a Christian glories in the things whereof other men are ashamed — in the cross and in his sufferings. This is the true art of glorying. To this he refers when he says (Galatians 6:14), “Far be it from me to glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” But the false apostles are careful to avoid glorying thus; for they flee with alacrity from reproach and affliction, rather seeking a life of ease and honor. They ever would have prominence over their fellows, be superior to and unlike others — certain indication that they lack the right spirit and are not of God. Christ testifies (John 5:44), “How can ye believe, who receive glory one of another, and the glory that cometh from the only God ye seek not?”
4. The main point of this lesson is that in a preacher or a teacher no vice is more injurious and venomous than vainglory. It is true, however, that avarice also is an evil characteristic of false teachers, being found hand in hand with vainglory. For the sake of profit, for the purpose of gain, the false teachers aspire to prominence, to honor and position. With them, nothing but current coin will pass, and what does not pay dividend is unprofitable. Any other vice is more endurable in a preacher than these two, though none is compatible with goodness, blamelessness and perfection being required in the ministry according to Paul, Titus 1:7. This is not surprising, for the two vices under consideration are essentially and directly opposed to the nature of the ministry. The ministry is ordained to have as its aim the glory of God and its promotion. Psalm 19:1 affirms, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” And ministers must, for God’s glory, suffer reproach and shame. Jeremiah complains (Jeremiah 20:8), “The word of Jehovah is made a reproach unto me, and a derision, all the day.” The world will not endure the Word. For him who in preaching seeks his own honor, it is impossible to remain in the right path and preach the pure Gospel. Consequently he avoids striving for God’s honor; he must preach what pleases the people, what brings honor to himself and magnifies his skill and wisdom.
5. Avarice, too, is, according to its very nature, opposed to the interests of the ministry. Just as the ministry is to be devoted to God’s honor at the expense of our own, so is it to be devoted to the interests of our neighbor and not to our own. Otherwise it is an injury rather than a benefit. With the false teacher seeking only his own good, it is impossible for him to preach the truth. He is compelled to speak what is pleasing to men in order to gratify his appetites. Therefore Paul (Romans 16:18) says of such preachers that they serve their own bellies. And in many places the Scriptures reprove avarice. Let him, then, who would be a preacher guard vigilantly against vainglory and avarice. But, should he feel himself in the clutch of these sins, let him avoid the ministry. For under such conditions he will accomplish no good; he will only dishonor God, seduce souls and be a thief and robber in the acquisition of property. With this explanation, the lesson is now easily understood, but we will consider a few points.” “For ye bear with the foolish gladly, being wise yourselves.”
6. Paul commends the Corinthians for their patience and wisdom in six points: as wise men, they cheerfully endure the foolish; they bear with those who bring them into bondage and oppress them; with those who devour them; with those who take from them [or take them captive]; with those who exalt themselves; with those who smite them in the face. But his commendation is meant to pave the way for his folly — to prepare them to suffer him the more readily. He would say, “Since you suffer so much from them who injure you — and you are wise in that — I trust you will bear with me who have wrought you only good, when I act the fool for a little; particularly when my object in it is your good — to preserve the Gospel among you in opposition to the false apostles.” Note how tenderly and patiently he deals with the Corinthians when he might have severely reproved them for tolerating the false apostles. He commends them as does a father a timid child, and yet, while commending them he censures both them and their false teachers. He handles them as tenderly as if he held a raw egg in his hand, in order not to distract or terrify them.
7. Paul delivers a masterly stroke when with the same words he praises the Corinthians and rebukes them and their false apostles. His commendation of their patience is in reality reproof, blows and wounds for the false teachers. He would say: “I have preached the Gospel to you at my own expense and jeopardy. By my labor have ye attained to its blessing. Ye have done nothing for me in return, and I have been no tax upon you. Now, upon my departure, others come and exploit you, and seek honor and profit from my labor. They would be your masters and I am to be ignored. They boast as if the accomplishment were all theirs. Of these ye must be disciples and pupils. Their preaching ye must accept, while my Gospel must become odious. My case is that of the bee who labors to make honey and then the idle drones and the earthworms come and consume the sweet not of their making. In me is illustrated Christ’s proverb (John 4:37), ‘one soweth, and another reapeth.’ Continually one enters into the fruits of another’s labor. One must toil and incur danger, while another reaps the benefit in security.
8. “Ye can suffer these false apostles, though they be fools and teach only foolishness. In this ye display wisdom and patience. But ye do not so suffer me, who taught you true wisdom. Nor do ye permit me much enjoyment of my labor. Further, ye can permit them to make servants of you, to be your lords and to order you to do their bidding. And ye obey. But I who have made myself your servant, I who have served you without profit to myself, that ye might be lords with Christ, must now be ignored and all my labors be lost. They rule you at their pleasure, and their pleasure is all they consult. You suffer yourselves to be devoured. That is, your property is consumed; for ye bestow it upon them abundantly, as Psalm 14:4 has it, ‘Who eat up my people.’ Upon such as these ye can shower goods and gifts, and can permit them to devour you as they please. But I have never enjoyed aught of your property. All my service has been without recompense, that ye might become rich in Christ. “Again, ye suffer the false teachers to take from you beyond your consent; to exalt themselves above you, to esteem themselves better than you and me, and to exercise their arrogance upon you. But ye deal not so with me, who have sacrificed my own substance, and have taken from others, that I might bring the Gospel to you; who have not exalted myself above any, but have yielded to all and served them. The false apostles permit you to serve them; in fact, trample you beneath their feet. They even smite you in the face; that is, they reproach you publicly, put you to shame, and abuse you with rude and insolent words. They act as if ye were beasts of burden and they your real masters. All this ye suffer. But my patience with you, my parental tenderness, past and present, is remembered no more. Paul is now represented as having wrought no good at Corinth.”
9. Note the master hand wherewith Paul portrays the character of false teachers, showing how they betray their avarice and ambition. First, they permit true teachers to lay the foundation and perform the labor; then they come and desire to do the work over, to reap the honors and the benefits. They bring about that the name and the work of the true teachers receive no regard and credit; what they themselves have brought — that is the thing. They make the poor, simple-minded people to stare open-mouthed while they win them with flowery words and seduce them with fair speeches, as mentioned in Romans 16:18. These are the idle drones that consume the honey they will not and cannot make. That this was the condition of affairs at Corinth is very clear from this epistle — indeed, from both epistles. Paul continually refers to others having followed him and built upon the foundation he has laid. Messengers of the devil, he terms them.
10. And such false teachers have the good fortune that all their folly is tolerated, even though the people realize how these act the fool, and rather rudely at that. They have success with it all, and people bear with them. But no patience is to be exercised toward true teachers! Their words and their works are watched with the intent of entrapping them, as complained of in Psalm 17:9 and elsewhere. When only apparently a mote is found, it is exaggerated to a very great beam. No toleration is granted. There is only judgment, condemnation and scorn. Hence the office of preaching is a grievous one. He who has not for his sole motive the benefit of his neighbor and the glory of God, cannot continue therein. The true teacher must labor, and permit others to have the honor and profit of his efforts, while he receives injury and derision for his reward. Here the saying holds true: “To love without guerdon, nor wearying of the burden.” Only the Spirit of God can inspire such love. To flesh and blood it is impossible. Paul here scores the false prophets when he says, “Ye suffer fools gladly”; in other words, “I know the false preachers often act as fools, nor can they help it, because their teaching is false; yet ye excuse them.”
11. In the second place such teachers are disposed to bring the people into downright bondage and to bind their conscience by forcing laws upon them and teaching work-righteousness. The effect is that fear impels them to do what has been pounded into them, as if they were bond-slaves, while their teachers command fear and attention. But the true teachers, they who give us freedom of conscience and create us lords, we soon forget, even despise. The dominion of false teachers is willingly tolerated and patiently endured; indeed, it is given high repute. All those conditions are punishments sent by God upon them who do not receive the Gospel with love and gratitude. Christ says (John 5:43): “I am come in my Father’s name, and ye receive me not: if another shall come in his own name, him ye shall receive.” The Pope, with his spiritual office, became our lord, and we became his captives, through his doctrine of human works. And our present-day schismatics pursue the same object with their fanciful doctrine concerning their works.
12. In the third place, false teachers flay their disciples to the bone, and cut them out of house and home, but even this is taken and endured. Such, I opine, has been our experience under the Papacy. But true preachers are even denied their bread. Yet this all perfectly squares with justice! For, since men fail to give unto those from whom they receive the Word of God, and permit the latter to serve them at their own expense, it is but fair they should give the more unto preachers of lies, whose instruction redounds to their injury. What is withheld from Christ must be given in tenfold proportion to the devil. They who refuse to give the servant of the truth a single thread, must be oppressed by liars.
13. Fourth, false apostles forcibly take more than is given them. They seize whatever and whenever they can, thus enhancing their insatiable avarice. This, too, is excused in them. Thus, the great establishments of the Pope did not suffice for him; with various artifices, bulls, laws and indulgences, he has brought under his power land and people and all they possess, exhausting the world by usury. And so it should be, for this state of affairs was richly deserved by men for despising the Gospel and its preachers.
14. Fifth, these deceitful teachers, not satisfied with having acquired our property, must exalt themselves above us and lord it over us. Not only do they possess all property, but they must for that very reason become our superiors; must have precedence and receive honor. We bow our knees before them, worship them and kiss their feet. And we suffer it all, yes, with fearful reverence regard it just and right. And it is just and right, for why did we not honor the Gospel by accepting and preserving it?
15. Sixth, our false apostles justly reward us by smiting us in the face. That is, they consider us inferior to dogs; they abuse us, and treat us as footrags. I venture to say we became sensible of such treatment when, under the Papacy, we were readily put in the van, cursed, condemned and delivered to the devil. We endured it all, suffered most patiently, and yielded up property, honor, body and soul. Fault in a sincere teacher, however, could by no means be tolerated. Very well, then; God is just, and it is his judgment that we must honor the messengers of Satan a thousand times more than his own, and do and suffer everything. “I speak by way of disparagement [speak as concerning reproach], as thought we had been weak.”
16. There are two ways of interpreting this sentence: First, as meaning: “I speak as one of the weak whose folly you must endure; for which I deserve reproach, since I ought to bear with you.” From such meaning I to this day have seen no cause to swerve. The other interpretation is: “I speak as one reproached — after the manner of the weak.” Or, more fully expressed: “I can speak in two ways of myself and my class: First, with honor, because of our strength in the sight of God and the spiritually-minded, worthy of honor, noble; not weak but strong, able. But I will not at present employ, this way, for we are now despised; we are not known as honorable. And all because of the false prophets. I will, then, present myself in the other light, as I am regarded — despised, held in reproach and disrespect, weak and incapable. But even this condition shall be an occasion of glory for me; my reproach and weakness is more honorable than their honor, power and strength. What would my glory be should my actual strength inspire my speech! “Weakness,” according to Paul’s own later interpretation, implies being regarded worthless, unfit, a failure. The apostle’s meaning, then, is: “I, too, will be one of the boasting fools. You will excuse it in me for I speak from the standpoint of my critics, that of a man contemptible, foolish, incompetent. Before God, however, I feel that I am a quite different being.”
17. And recollect, Paul says, “Because ye are wise, ye suffer fools gladly,” implying that one fool cannot tolerate another. The saying is, “Two fools in one house will not do.” Reason and wisdom are required, to bear with another’s infirmities and to excuse them. “Yet whereinsoever any is bold.”
18. That is, in whatever the false apostles can boast, I can likewise glory. Here we are shown what is the ground of the false apostles’ boasting: their outward respectability — being of Abraham’s seed, children of Israel, Christ’s preachers. Therein they think to far excel the Corinthians, claiming their doctrine and works to be of greater weight because they have Moses and the prophets for their teachers. But they failed to perceive that their boast is of mere externals, that render no one righteous or better before God. The majority of the Hebrews, of the Israelites, of the seed of Abraham, and of the preachers of Christ are lost. Names are of no consequence; they only make a fine show and serve to seduce the simpleminded. Paul boasts of his origin and yet derides his boasting, calling it fool’s work. His object is to destroy the boasting of the false prophets, that the people might not be deceived.
19. Note how, even in Paul’s time, great men erred concerning the true sense of the Gospel, and many noble preachers would have estimated Christian life by a merely external appearance and name. The true spiritual preachers must have been few. Should it be strange, then, that in our time sincere preachers are not numerous, and that the majority of ministers riot in what they themselves seem and do? It cannot and shall not be otherwise. The thievish drones, which are prone to riot, let them riot! We will resist to the utmost of our power, commending the matter to God, who doubtless will grant us sufficient honor and profit, both temporally and eternally, though we must labor gratuitously, accepting injury and derision as our reward. Our adversaries will not long continue their persecutions, for, as Paul says just preceding our lesson, they will eventually receive their deserts.
20. Again, Paul boasts of certain temporal afflictions wherein he excels the false apostles, who suffer nothing, for the sake of either the word or of souls, but only boast of name and person. Among the afflictions he mentions, he names having been a night and a day in the deep. Some refer this allusion to the voyage of which Luke writes (Acts 27:20-21), when for fourteen days Paul and his companions ate nothing and saw never a star, being day and night continually covered by the surges and waves of the sea. Others think Paul was, like Jonah, personally sunk into the deep sea, though but for a day and a night. Such is the clear meaning of the text. Yet others interpret it as having reference to a prison or dungeon, because the Greek text makes no mention of the sea — simply “the deep.” “Who is weak, and I am not weak?”
21. Of external afflictions affecting not his own person, but distressing others, Paul mentions two: he is weak if another is weak, and burns if another is offended. Thereby he plainly portrays the ardor of his heart — how full of love he is; the defects and sorrows of others pain him as his own. By “weakness,” I imagine, he means, not bodily infirmity, but weakness of faith. He refers to those who, young in the faith, have a tender and frail conscience, thereby betokening immaturity and feebleness of faith. He says (Romans 14:2), “He that is weak eateth herbs”; and in Corinthians 8:12, that we sin against Christ if we wound a weak conscience. These weak ones Paul does not reject. He receives them and conducts himself as if he, too, were weak. He asserts (1 Corinthians 9:22), “To the weak I became weak, that I might gain the weak.”
22. This interpretation of the sentence is borne out in his allusion to “that which presseth upon me daily, anxiety for all the churches.” Paul would say: “I exert myself, I have a continual care, I urge and admonish constantly, that offenses and false doctrine may not invade and destroy my planting; may not violate and ruin the weak consciences. As seen in his epistle to the Corinthians, directed against the false apostles, and in that to the Thessalonians, such is his vigilant anxiety to guard them from the tempter that he sends them a special messenger, and he exultingly declares it is life to him to learn of their steadfastness.
23. Likewise, by the assertion that he burns, we are to understand that he is exceedingly grieved and pained if one is offended; that is, if through misleading doctrines or examples one in any wise falls from the faith. Of the offense to faith, he says much in Romans 14. Not desiring to be offended with the offended, as he became weak with the weak, he says: “I burn and sorrow for them.” “I know a man in Christ, fourteen years ago.”
24. Of the translation of Paul into the third heaven many have written, perplexing themselves over what constituted the first, second and third heavens, and the paradise. Paul himself, who had the experience, does not tell, and declares no man can tell, for none may utter the words he heard. Therefore, we must humbly acknowledge we do not know the nature of these things. And it matters not. Paul does not boast of his experience for the purpose of imparting knowledge to us or of enabling us to duplicate it. The purpose of his boasting is simply to stop the mouths of the fanatics and to show how paltry was their glory in comparison with his own. Certain it is, however, that Paul was ravished from this life into a life ineffable; otherwise his expression would be meaningless.
“There was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan.”
25. And must this mighty apostle, O merciful God, be subject to trials lest he exalt himself because of his great revelations? Then how should others, how should such infirm beings as we, be free from self-exaltation? Many teachers have explained Paul’s thorn to be the temptations of the flesh. The Latin text is responsible for this interpretation; it reads, stimulus carnis, a spear, or thorn for the flesh. Yet that rendering does not do justice to the words. Paul is not in the habit of terming temptations of the flesh “thorns.” The thorn stands rather for something painful and afflicting. In “a thorn of the flesh” the thought is not of an instrumentality whereby the flesh stings, but of something that stings the flesh. The Greek text impels us to the thought of a thorn for the flesh, or a thorn upon or in the flesh. The idea is much like that in the German proverb, “The clog is bound to the dog’s neck.” We may imagine Paul expressing himself: “As a clog to a dog’s neck, as a ring in a bear’s nose, a bit in a horse’s mouth or a gag in the mouth of a swine, in order to restrain them from running, biting and general mischief, — so is my thorn a clog to my body lest I exalt myself.”
26. But Paul himself explains the nature of the clog, or thorn. He calls it “a messenger of Satan,” a devil, to “buffet” him, or to flay and jog him. Hence a spiritual trial cannot be meant. The explanation appeals to me that the persecutions and sufferings the apostle recounts above constitute the devil’s flaying. Thus his meaning would be: “I have received great revelations, for which reason the clog is bound to the dog; that is, the many dangers and misfortunes with which the angel of the devil buffets and humiliates my body will make me forget to exalt myself. They are the thorn in my flesh, or upon my body; for God will not permit it to come upon my soul.”
27. Yet the text seems to imply some peculiar work of the devil upon Paul’s body, for it says the thorn, or clog, is the messenger Satan employs to beat his body; and also that the apostle diligently but unavailingly thrice besought the Lord to remove it. I do not imagine him praying for the cessation of persecutions in a spirit of unwillingness to suffer them. But since he does not specify the affiction, we must let it remain a secret one, a distress known only to himself. It is enough for us to know that while God had given him great revelations, revelations beyond human ken, he also bound the clog to him — gave him a thorn for his body — to prevent his exaltation of himself; and that the knowledge of the buffetings and flaying caused by this clog, or devil, are likewise beyond human ken. “My power is made perfect in weakness.”
28. It is a strange sort of strength which is weak and by its weakness grows stronger. Who ever heard of weak strength? or more absurd still, that strength is increased by weakness? Paul would here make a distinction between human strength and divine. Human strength increases with enhancement and decreases with enfeeblement. But God’s power — his Word in us — rises in proportion to the pressure it receives. It is characteristic of God the Creator that he creates all things from naught, and again reduces to naught all created things. Human power cannot do this. The power of God is the true palm-wood which buoys itself in proportion as it is burdened and weighted.
29. Note here, “weakness” is not to be understood in a spiritual sense, as on a previous occasion, but externally; as not illness alone, but every sort of evil, misfortune, suffering and persecution calculated to buffet and humble the body. The power of Christ, in connection with which spiritual weakness cannot exist, is invoked against this weakness likewise. He says, “Most gladly will I glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” And his weaknesses he immediately explains as infirmities, injuries, necessities, persecutions and distresses. The thought, then, is: Christ is not mighty within us, his word and his faith are not strong in us, unless our bodies suffer affliction. The false apostles, however, take excellent care to escape suffering.