Adversaries are not something that we like to encounter, because they are often dangerous, and they are always unpleasant. They seem to take a perverse delight in making our lives miserable. Thriving on conflict, they oppose us and contradict us. Since we have a low tolerance for these pests, our natural instinct is to run from them or to avoid them if at all possible.
Because we usually shrink back from adversaries, it is striking to read of the response of the apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 16:8-9 we read:
“But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.”
Now, here is something we need to consider. Paul was appointed by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself to be an apostle and to be an example to other disciples of how believers are supposed to live, and, as clearly shown in these verses, Paul does not automatically move away from adversaries. In fact, the verse says that Paul is staying in Ephesus because there are adversaries. So, what can we learn from Paul’s actions that will make us more steadfast and more effective in our service to Christ?
GENERAL THOUGHTS AND IDEAS ABOUT THE PASSAGE
It goes without saying that we are talking about adversaries in a gospel context. My purpose here is not to discuss how to deal with a belligerent neighbor, but rather how do we respond when we encounter adversaries in our proclamation of the gospel.
It is also apparent that we may be in for some reorientation of our thinking regarding adversaries to the gospel. The reason that is the case is that, in my opinion, the following observations are true of many believers in our American church context:
- We interpret an adversarial response as negative. We tend to think that, if our message is correct and clear, then we will win people over to our cause. In fact, if your gospel message is clear, it is certain that Satan, THE adversary, will not be happy.
- We generally fear conflict from anyone, even from an enemy or an adversary, not realizing that, when truth meets error, there is always conflict.
- We focus on the horizontal, human plane, rather than the vertical, heavenly direction.
- We forget large sections of our Bible which promise us adversaries when we preach Christ. (Matt. 10:16 “I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.” Also, John 15:18-20; etc.)
I think we need to develop a “gospel mindset.” We must begin to see things from the perspective of how this will spread the gospel and not how this will affect us. If I am inconvenienced or maligned or even abused and the gospel is advanced, the interchange has been positive. (“I will most gladly spend” 2 Cor. 12:15; “He must increase, and I must decrease.” John 3:30) We have the gospel, which is true and powerful (Romans 1:16), and when Christ’s messengers proclaim the gospel, there will be opposition. When an arrow finds its mark, the one thus marked will immediately become our adversary. So, it is with the gospel well-aimed. Also, realize that false preachers and false prophets have no adversaries. Be nervous when there is no opposition to your message. Having no adversaries is an identifier of a false prophet (Luke 6:26).
What is the purpose of adversaries? Why does the Lord allow them?
- Adversaries could reveal that we are about to make a breakthrough and the enemy is vigorously opposing our efforts.
- Adversaries test our perseverance and our zeal. “How much resistance will it take before this guy will give up?”
- Adversaries require us to be sure of our message, for we are not ready to face an adversary until we have full confidence in our message. When a pure gospel message rouses an adversary, then we can have a sense that our aim is true.
So, those are some general thoughts about these verses that get us going in the right direction.
Let’s take a look at these two verses and imagine what Paul is saying to us. In the context of the whole letter of 1 Corinthians, Paul has been communicating his commitment to the proclamation of the gospel. He is telling the Corinthian believers that, as disciples of the Lord Jesus, they are to give themselves primarily to the gospel. As he writes and exhorts the Corinthians, so Paul exemplifies in his life. Without boasting or drawing attention to his efforts, Paul makes clear that the entire focus of his life is the proclamation of the gospel. We are not surprised, then, when he casually mentions another example of his complete commitment to being wherever the gospel is moving.
“He has decided to stay on in Ephesus.” We do not know what his previous plans were, but here he is communicating a change of plans. We can be certain that it is not for his own convenience or benefit. Probably his previous plans would have been more to his personal liking, but now something has changed and so his plans have changed.
What has changed? “A wide door for effective work has opened to me.” Paul has been laboring in Ephesus and now he has hit paydirt. His efforts have begun to show real fruit and now is the time to bring in the harvest. It is a wide door, so there must be many who are coming to Christ or who are asking questions about Christ or about salvation. Paul will stay on in Ephesus and labor with all his might so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier (2 Timothy 2:4).
“And there are many adversaries.”
There was a story of a general who was in a battle (it may have been in the Civil War, but I am not sure), and one of his lieutenants came to him and said, “Sir, there are enemies troops to the north and enemy troops to the south! There are enemy troops to the east and to the west!” The general smiled and said, “Perfect. They won’t escape this time!”
That was the attitude of the apostle Paul. Having many adversaries means that we are causing damage to the kingdom of darkness. “They won’t escape this time!” If there are no adversaries, why would you need a bold disciple of Christ involved? If there were no adversaries, how would Jesus’ promises of opposition and persecution be fulfilled? If there were no adversaries, how would we know that our message had found its mark? A wide door for effective work almost guarantees that there will be adversaries.
From Paul’s example, then, what do we do? We must take the attitude that the proclamation of the gospel is primary and that we are secondary. We have already died (Colossians 3:3), so we can serve the Lord with abandon, and accept adversaries and opposition as part of the cost of following Christ, part of the fellowship of His sufferings (Phil. 3:10). When encountering adversaries, our default response becomes standing firm (Ephesians 6:10) and remaining steadfast (1 Corinthians 15:58) and resisting the adversaries until the harvest has been completed.
SDG rmb 5/19/2020