Second Corinthians shows Paul taking on the role of a pastor. He desperately wants to win the Corinthians back to himself, convinced that the Good News is above all a message of reconciliation. Paul faced criticism and accusations from fellow Christians who doubted him as a leader. Forced to defend himself, he opened his heart to this congregation to a degree not found in other letters. Paul faced many dangers, including threats to his life, but being falsely accused by Christians he had won for Christ was one of his worst trials. Paul’s example, demonstrating how Christ loves His church is a great source of encouragement and hope to Christian leaders and to their congregation. Just like 1 Corinthians this letter was Paul’s response to diverse situations in the Corinthian church. On the one hand, they had heeded his rebukes in several areas and he wanted to share his relief and thanks. But on the other hand, he found it necessary to encourage the Corinthian believers to avoid being yoked with unbelievers. And he wanted to rebuke those who had submitted to the religious tyranny of the “super apostles”. He also wanted to teach these believers the true nature of Christian ministry, and encourage their generosity. In short, Paul was continuing the work of trying to bring his church to maturity and stability. In Paul’s day the term reconciliation was also a secular word, a diplomatic term actually. It referred to the harmony established between enemies by peace treaties. Here are three themes to watch for as you read. First, the ministry of reconciliation. Paul’s love for the Corinthians was evidenced by his joy at their repentance and renewed commitment to him, his pride in them, and his hope for their future. Paul’s desire and goal was was reconciliation; between himself and the Corinthians, among the Corinthian church members themselves, and most important, between God and human beings. Second he addressed generosity in giving. Paul encouraged the Corinthians to renew their commitment to the collection of the offering for the believers in Jerusalem. He taught that charity is an act of obedience, resulting in eternal reward and bringing glory to God. It seems that God often rewards magnanimity with material abundance to make additional generosity possible. Third, Paul spent some time defending his apostleship. Some in the Corinthian church had become alienated from Paul by the presence and influence of boastful rivals. Paul defended himself and his apostleship and made a fervent appeal for them to renew their commitment to him. The breach between Paul and some Corinthians was not simply over theological issues but had its roots in Corinthian cultural mores that clashed with Christian values. So, here we go!
Letters in the first century usually began by mentioning the writers name and that of the persons being addressed, followed by a greeting. Paul follows this pattern here. He highlights his calling as an apostle. His status as God’s appointed agent for establishing the church had been challenged at Corinth. Paul also added prayers for the Corinthians peace and an added measure of God’s Grace. The beginning here is almost worshipful as Paul breaks into a hymn of praise. He is glad that in spite of many troubles that have weighed upon him he has special comfort from God. And, he has been been rescued from death in the province of Asia. He continues by sharing that our purpose of suffering is to qualify Christ’s servants to enter sympathetically into the experience of others. Paul is not an aloof pastor, remote from the people to whom he ministers. His sharing in their troubles and offering encouragement promotes their spiritual well being. Brothers and sisters are terms of affection used to address members of the same family, here the family of faith. There is no sure and certain record of what Paul’s challenges in Asia were though there are several theories. There was a riot in Ephesus (Acts 19:23-41). Paul may have been tried in civil court and faced the prospect of execution. He may have suffered an acute life threatening illness. Whatever it was, the weight of it was unbelievably heavy and only by the Grace of God did he and his companions survive. Paul’s travel plans and his unfulfilled promise of a visit to Corinth were criticized. He was a charged with being fickle like people off the world who say yes but they really mean no. Because his plans changed Paul would not be able to bring a double blessing to the Corinthians. He would only make one visit. The criticism he received made him indignant. It was bad enough that Paul’s enemies at Corinth had attacked his character as unreliable and shifty. It was even worse when they charged that his entire message was just as uncertain. His preaching was not yes and no at the same time. It was not inconsistent or contradictory either. Paul’s preaching reflected the truthfulness and faithfulness of God because his teaching was based on the scriptures and the teachings of Christ. Paul’s ministry was literally commissioned by and endorsed by God, who equipped him for this work. And, calling God as his witness was the equivalent of a mild oath to show Paul was telling the truth. The real reason for the change in Paul’s travel plans was to spare them from a severe rebuke and not inflict another painful visit on them.
Paul previous visit had been extremely painful and had caused him great distress. This visit is not recorded in Acts but it seemingly occurred during Paul’s three year ministry in Ephesus. During that visit Paul severely rebuked the church, but was insulted by an unnamed man. After that visit Paul wrote the Corinthians a letter with great anguish and many tears that was intended for the Corinthians good. That letter has evidently been lost. However, it was effective in bringing about the needed repentance and change. Verses 5-11 are the outcome of Paul’s earlier visit and the insult he received. Following Paul’s severe but tearful letter, the church condemned the behavior of the man who caused all of the trouble, and they disciplined him. He repented so now it was time to comfort and forgive him as Paul had already done. If we exercise forgiveness, as Paul did then the evil one will not outsmart us by making us either too lax over sin or too rigorous in punishing offenders. After the riots at Ephesus Paul went to the seaport of Troas. He was impatient to get news from Titus about the result of the severe but tearful letter, and he crossed over to Macedonia in northern Greece to find him. At 2:14 the story about finding Titus broke off and Paul went on to discuss his ministry as an apostle proclaiming the Good News. This lasts until 7:4.
Like captives in a Roman generals celebration March, Paul was in Christ’s triumphal procession, carrying the willing marks of servitude. Incense was scattered along the parade route of a victorious Roman general, and it was received in one of two ways. For the captives who were on their way to death in the arena it was a dreadful smell of doom and death. For the victors it was a life giving perfume. So it is with the lives of those who proclaim the Good News, which either leads to eternal life or seals the fate of the person who rejects it. Paul contrasts his service with that of his opponents. They preach for personal profit and adulterate the truth, like merchants in Paul’s day who offered shoddy goods, or innkeepers who watered down the wine. By contrast Paul preached with sincerity and with Christ’s authority. Paul’s denial of mercenary motives re-emerges in 11:1-12:21.
Paul’s ministry was validated by the lives of those who were changed by the Good News rather than by a letter of recommendation. Christ, the author of this transformation used Paul to lead believers to Him. The marks of genuineness are not in letters written with pen and ink on parchment, but the fruit of the Spirit in human lives and carved in human hearts. The old written covenant is the religion of Moses as interpreted by Jewish rabbis. It ends in death for adherents who see it as a way of salvation. The law is good but those who use it to gain merit fail. It leads either to pride or transgression but either way the law brings condemnation. The old covenant had its moments of glory, like when Moses’ face shown from his meeting with God. But the old way has been replaced by the new way, which is eternal. The old covenant represented by Moses’ veil, led to fear and did not remove spiritual blindness. But the believer who turns to the Lord had freedom in the Spirit. We receive something Moses never knew as we become more and more like Christ and reflect the glory of God. Divine glory in this present life leads to our being like Christ in the next life.
This new way or ministry shows us God’s mercy. Paul felt privileged to have the ministry of sharing the message of the Good News. Paul’s ministry was marked by honesty, unlike some other preachers. The Good News divides people into two categories. There are those who remain in darkness, and those who are enlightened by God. God’s action in bringing people to Himself is a movement from a realm governed by darkness to the light of God’s presence. But, the god of this world otherwise known as the prince of darkness, fights against the change that the Good News brings to people’s hearts and minds. Paul doesn’t go around preaching about himself. He preaches only that Jesus Christ is Lord. The message of the Good News is like a great treasure but it is housed in fragile clay jars. So a couple of thoughts here. In the ancient world treasures and valuables were often concealed in clay jars. These jars had very little to no value or beauty in and of themselves and they did not attract attention. Here they represent Paul’s human frailty and unworthiness. Paul may also mean that the fragile clay jars are our weak bodies. All of this to remind us yet again that we have no power within ourselves. All power we have comes from the Lord.
Believers often share the humiliation of the Lord with confidence that they will also share in His triumphant risen life. Through this life of danger and exposure to mortal peril, Paul was reinforcing the faith of the Christians in the churches that he founded. The secret of Paul’s resilience was in the same kind of faith the Psalmist had, which is centered in the living Lord. The call to endurance here is given with a reminder of what is in store in the future. The human body is in the process of dying in the normal course of growing old, and Paul was particularly worn away physically and emotionally. Yet, he was being renewed every day. His spirit’s life was being rejuvenated and revitalized by the power of God. Paul encouraged all of us that we do not look at the troubles we can see now but instead we fix our eyes on things which cannot be seen. Because the things we can actually see right now will not last but the things we cannot see will last forever. Looking at current troubles may well make us grow faint but when we see our lives in light of eternal reality, we know that our troubles will soon be gone.
The prospect of eternal hope is bright with heavenly bodies replacing the dying bodies of this present life. The God of resurrection will also raise us and present us to Himself with all believers. The immediate stimulus for this statement of resurrection hope was what Paul had to face in Ephesus. The frailty of his body reminded him of what lies beyond death, when this earthly tent we live in, that is our earthly bodies, will be taken down in death and dissolution. Many long to put on their heavenly bodies. This isn’t a death wish. Paul was longing for the Lord’s return when he would give new bodies to His people. Our hope for future resurrection can only be known by faith. But we do have Jesus’ own resurrection and the presence of the Holy Spirit as evidence of what is to come. The goal of the present life is to please Him. This ambition will be tested when we stand before Christ to be judged. The judge is also our advocate, so we are confident of acquittal. However, actions done in this earthly body will be assessed and called to account.
From 5:11-7:4 Paul explains the main theme of His message which is reconciliation. This is the turning of enemies into friends and the restoration of relationships. Paul’s thinking is rooted in what God has done through Christ to reconcile sinners to himself. This exposition is framed by a defense of his own ministry and an application of his message to the situation in Corinth. One motive of Paul’s ministry is fearful responsibility to the Lord. This isn’t a cringing dread but a healthy reverence. Paul’s opponents bragged about having a spectacular ministry outwardly but they didn’t have a sincere heart. He continued “if it seems like we are crazy…it is to bring glory to God”. This statement might imply a charge on Paul’s previous visit to Corinth that he was out of his mind when he proclaimed the simple Good News at Corinth. Paul’s doctrine of reconciliation arises from his conviction that Christ died for all believers, that in Christ believers also die to sin and self, and all believers should live for Christ. The new life in Christ leads to a fresh evaluation of other people and of Christ. Christ’s love controls us. This could refer to either believers love for Christ or more likely Christ’s love for us which urges believers on in making Christ known through their service. Paul admits that there was a time when they looked at Christ from a merely human point of view. Perhaps this comes from Paul reflecting on his belief at one time as a Pharisee that the Messiah would come to set the Jews from from political oppression. Now Paul and company know Jesus in a very different way. Christ rose from the dead, ushered in new creation, and was established as the redeemer from sin and Lord of the universe. God entrusts His servants the message and ministry of reconciliation through Christ. God has given us this task of reconciling people. Paul is speaking of his own ministry here but sharing the great news of Jesus Christ is the responsibility of all believers. Christ’s ambassadors call people to accept what God has done so they can be made right with God through Christ. Christ paid the penalty for people’s sins in order to take away all that stood between God and humans and to make us right with God. The great privilege of believers is to be Christ’s ambassadors. God is making His appeal through us and there is no plan B. Paul does not say he speaks for God but instead, God speaks His word through us. Christ’s redeeming work for sinners opens the way for them to come back to God and be reconciled to Him. Christian witness has this appeal at its heart. Paul was also appealing to the rebellious Corinthians to come over to his side. Christ became the offering for our sin on the cross when He took sin’s penalty on Himself and dies a criminals death. He did this, though He Himself never sinned. He did this so that we would be made right with God. Being in a right relationship with God means that we are accepted by God. And that is Good News!
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W