Knowing therefore the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest unto God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences (2 Corinthians 5:11).
It’s the plot of many a movie: an unsuspecting person happens upon or discovers some information that might radically change the way things work. Despite all sorts of opposition, the person now has one goal to accomplish– to get this information out, to get people to be aware of it, and to do what is necessary to succeed. Such is a popular theme because we would like to imagine ourselves in that position– perhaps the fate of the whole world rests upon our shoulders, and we just need to get past the bad guys so that we can save the world.
In truth, we do not need to make up such a scenario in our lives, because if we believe that Jesus is the Christ and that His message is true, we are already living in this plot!
Paul understands as much and makes it evident in 2 Corinthians 5:9-11. Paul had been going on his way, persecuting Christians, until he was presented with a radically new way of looking at things on the road to Damascus (cf. Acts 9): this Jesus whom He was persecuting was actually Lord. Not only was this Jesus Lord of Israel, but He was Lord of all– and the pagan Gentiles needed to learn of Him (Acts 26:15-18). God was announcing to everyone everywhere that He had appointed a day of judgment, that man’s ignorance would no longer be an excuse, and the confirmation of this was in the resurrection of His Son Jesus (Acts 17:30-31, 2 Corinthians 5:10). This message had to go out, and Paul was God’s chosen agent to promote it.
Paul first had to understand “the fear of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:11). The One True God, Creator of heaven and earth, is awesome in power and majesty, far superior to all flesh (cf. Isaiah 55:8-9). Therefore, what He says goes. If He has declared that a day of judgment is coming, and everyone will receive back for what they have done in the flesh, then we humans need to get busy and do what is good (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:10). This reverential attitude toward God is not to lead to paralyzing fear; instead, it is designed to be a catalyst toward humility, repentance, and obedience (cf. 1 Peter 1:16-18). All believers, including Paul and ourselves, are to revere the Lord and thus seek to do what He has called upon us to do, even if it seems unpleasant, leads to persecution, and is the cause for great suffering. He suffered for us; it is right for us to suffer for Him (Romans 8:17). We must be doing the good in order to hear the judgment we want to hear (2 Corinthians 5:10).
On the basis of this knowledge of the reverence due to God, Paul works to “persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:11). Let us first note the strong connection between understanding the honor due to God and the effort to promote His message– because we know the fear of the Lord, we are to work to persuade men. What we know should be explained and promoted among all. How can we say that we truly follow God, truly appreciate what God has done for us, and properly respect God if we do not feel the burden upon us to take that message out to others so that they also can have a restored association with God?
The mechanism is also quite important. Paul does not say that “knowing the fear of the Lord, we introduce legislation into the Senate.” He does not say, “knowing the fear of the Lord, we call for a holy crusade against the infidel.” Likewise, he does not declare, “knowing the fear of the Lord, we browbeat people with the message, screaming at them on street corners.” No– if we know the fear of the Lord, we are to persuade men!
The connection to the fear of the Lord remains important– how did the Lord reveal Himself to us? Did the Lord work to compel and coerce people through political/legislative means? Did the Lord call for forced conversions with threat of the blade of the sword? Did the Lord stand on the street corner and browbeat people? The only people whom Jesus could be said to have browbeaten were the Pharisees and scribes, the “religious good people” of the day (cf. Matthew 23)! By no means; Jesus lived, preached, died, and was raised in order to call and invite (cf. Matthew 11:28-30). God has never compelled or coerced people into believing in Him and obeying Him; that is why to this day we do not see God providing that overwhelmingly obvious supernatural event to “prove” His existence to the unbelievers. That would be using a display of sheer force to do what God expects to be done through softer forms of persuasion, in the power of the message already delivered, its portrayal of reality, the description of man’s problem, God’s desire for association with His creation, and what He has done to reconcile people to Himself.
Look at how seriously Paul takes this burden– he, a Jew, has traveled to the Greek world, and has been preaching a message involving “foreign divinities” to pagans who look at the world through a quite different perspective than he does (cf. Acts 17:16-31). Does Paul just write them off as irredeemable heathens? No. Does he try to coerce or manipulate them into believing in Jesus? No. He just works to persuade them– he finds points of agreement, and on the basis of those points of agreement and the glimpses of truth declared by certain Greek poets themselves, works to explain the points of disagreement and how the creation and the basic impulses of man all point to a Creator God who created mankind to seek Him. No tricks, no gimmicks; he just tries to know those with whom he is speaking so as to get them to give the message of Jesus some honest consideration.
In so doing, he is made manifest to God, as well as to the consciences of those who hear him (2 Corinthians 5:11). He is trying to preach and to live the message, and that provides a powerful testimony. The power of such witness is great– it shows that Christianity is not a ruse, not some pyramid scheme, but a radically new way of looking at the world and life.
We find ourselves living in circumstances quite like Paul’s in many ways. A lot of people around us have perspectives that are quite different from our own; it seems impossible to bridge the gap. Many people, based on some well-meaning yet misguided ideologies, think that political legislation or some other means of coercion is the way to guide people back toward the Lord. Not a few are inclined to write off a lot of people today as pagans, heathens, irredeemable.
These are not the ways of the Lord. Let us never forget the power of Romans 1:16: the Gospel is God’s power for salvation, and we are foolish to think that salvation can come through laws or any form of coercion. We are to spread the Gospel message like Paul did, by working to persuade men (and women). The message cannot be forced; we must work diligently to earn the right to tell people about the message, gaining an audience, and then try to understand something about what those people believe. We need to ascertain points of agreement with our fellow man, and based on that, with glimpses of truth that are found in recognized voices in culture, point to the truths of God in Christ as revealed through Scripture. Meanwhile, we must be putting that message to practice in our own lives, for even if we can find the most effective ways to preach to others, if our lives tell a different story, our witness will be hypocritical and in vain.
It is hard work, and while we must never minimize God’s role in all of this, we must remember that Paul said that “we” are to persuade men; “we” are called to go out and to make disciples (2 Corinthians 5:11, Matthew 28:19). We can only do it through the strength that God supplies in Christ, but we are to go out and do it. Let us understand the fear of the Lord, working to persuade men, preaching and living the message of our Lord, warning all men of the judgment to come, and find eternal life!
Ethan R. Longhenry