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As noted in an earlier meditation, the dangers of triumphalism are very real and imposing. We must resist the temptation to think that faith either insulates us from the trials and struggles and groan of life or elevates us above them altogether. Our “triumph” is precisely in our grace-empowered endurance in the midst of suffering as we faithfully proclaim the gospel, regardless of whether or how many either believe or repudiate the message.

But we must also be extremely careful that we do not draw the wrong conclusions from this, especially in light of Paul’s question at the close of verse 16. Following the remarkable description of what constitutes true success in Christian life and ministry, Paul asks the pointed question: “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:16b). Virtually everyone immediately responds, as they assume humility would require, “No one, certainly not I!”

The reason most think that Paul’s question calls for a negative answer is their belief that he has in mind self-sufficiency, as if the resources and qualifications for such a ministry are the fruit of one’s own wisdom and works. But the word translated “sufficient” carries no such connotations. Paul is, in fact, looking for a positive response to his question. “Who is sufficient for these things?” “I am,” says Paul, “because I don’t peddle the gospel like so many do but rather speak sincerely as commissioned by God and as one who will be judged by God.”

There are a couple of reasons for understanding Paul in this way. First, as Scott Hafemann has pointed out, “The language of ‘sufficiency’ used here alludes to the call of Moses in Exodus 4:10, where in the LXX Moses responds to God’s call by declaring that he is not ‘sufficient’ (hikanos [the same word used here in 2 Cor. 2:16]) for the task. In the context of Exodus 4, Moses is then made sufficient by God himself. Paul too sees his sufficiency as coming from God (cf. 2 Cor. 3:4-6)” (113).

Second, observe closely the logical relation between v. 16b and v. 17 as indicated by the word “for” (or “because,” sadly omitted in some English translations). Paul is clearly contrasting himself with his opponents who took pride in their personal power and triumphant style of ministry. Unlike them, Paul will say, my ministry originates with God (2:17) and I am made adequate for it by God (2 Cor. 3:6). If Paul were denying his sufficiency for ministry in v. 16b, the comparison between himself and the “hucksters” or “peddlers” in v. 17 would make no sense.

How can Paul imply here and assert later (3:6) that he is adequate or sufficient to carry out this ministry and his opponents are not? His answer is direct and to the point: “they peddle the gospel, I don't.”

The word translated "peddlers" (kapeleuo) is found only here in the NT and nowhere in LXX. The related noun form (kapelos) was virtually synonymous with the idea of a merchant who regularly cheated his customers by misrepresenting his product. According to Murray Harris, he functioned as something of a middle man “between the wholesaler . . . and the general public” who “gained a reputation for manipulating prices or tampering with goods for the sake of profit” (253). Thus the idea is of someone who dilutes the full strength of the gospel, perhaps eliminating (or at least minimizing) its offensive elements, or altering certain theological points, so that the finished "product" will be more appealing to the audience. Their aim was obviously to gain as large a following as possible (not to mention the money that comes with it!).

So, on the one hand, we must resist all expressions of triumphalism while, on the other hand, we humbly acknowledge and give thanks for the fact that God has graciously equipped us as sufficient to disperse the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Christ to a lost and dying world. Therefore, the antidote to arrogant triumphalism isn’t defeatism or false humility but the God-given, Christ-centered confidence that is inspired and sustained by him who has qualified us as stewards of the gospel.

Needless to say, Paul's approach to ministry was of a decidedly different origin and character from that of these false teachers and religious hucksters who had infiltrated the congregation at Corinth. He specifically mentions four distinct features of his (and all legitimate) ministry.

“For we are not, 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” (2 Cor. 2:17).

First, Paul doesn’t disguise his true motives in ministry: he speaks with "sincerity", wanting only that people would understand the truth. Whether or not they choose to believe the gospel and live, or reject the truth and die, is beyond his control. Simply put, “he did not convert preaching into a means of personal gain” (Harris, 255).

Second, he speaks "as commissioned by God" (literally, “as of God”). In other words, what he says originates with God, not himself. He didn't create the gospel. It isn’t the product of his imagination nor was it fashioned so as to insure the greatest possible number of respondents. He speaks only what has been revealed. He is a steward of the truth, not a manufacturer of it (cf. Gal. 1:11-17).

Third, he speaks "in Christ", i.e., from within the spiritual orbit, as it were, and out of the strength and confidence that flows from a vital, living union with Christ.

Fourth, and finally, he lives and ministers "in the sight of God", by which he means in God's presence, under his omniscient and ever-watchful eye, mindful that every syllable he utters is known to God and that he will give a full account to God for what he speaks in God's name. What a remarkably powerful incentive to keep his motives pure and his message orthodox! God was not only the source of Paul’s commission, he was also the witness, assessor, and ultimate judge of his work. Paul was not accountable to any human court, least of all the Corinthians, but ultimately to God alone.

It’s quite stunning to think, as Hafemann rightly reminds us, that “Paul’s entire life as an apostle is contained in these prepositional phrases” (114-15)! So too is yours (and mine). It matters little whether we are students, school-teachers, housewives, politicians or pastors. Our sufficiency is in Christ. Our adequacy comes from him. And thus we can, by the grace of God, and so long as we remain faithful to the terms of the gospel, successfully discharge this stewardship entrusted to us.