This last section of 2 Corinthians finds Paul defending his ministry as an apostle. And it is written in a different style. The first 9 chapters are full of joy because of the reconciliation of sinners with God and of the Corinthians with Paul. But now Paul is on the defensive. These last chapters are full of harsh words, bitter recriminations, passionate irony, and rebuke. Some see these chapters as a separate letter, maybe even the severe lettersent earlier. It could also be that while the majority of the church members were obedient to the appeal for reconciliation, there was still a rebellious minority to whom Paul addressed these four chapters. There is also a chance that a new situation had come up since Titus had brought back his glowing report of restored harmony. If this is the case it may well be because anti-Paul missionaries had arrived in Corinth and launched a virulent campaign against the apostolic message of Good News. These folks claimed that Paul was no real apostle or even a true Christian and he had no right to come to Corinth with the gospel message since it was territory that belonged to them. They brought an alien message and exercised a domineering spirit. In short, they were doing the evil ones work. Paul, concerned upon hearing of this new situation, reasserted his apostolic authority and engaged in a form of writing that is distasteful to him by boasting of his weakness and trials. Paul’s apostolic authority is real and powerful, but it is conditioned and controlled by the love exhibited by the crucified Jesus.
Paul’s first defense is against the insinuations that he is acting from human motives. They claimed that Paul could write bold letters from afar but in person he was more of a wimp. They mistook his personal kindness and gentleness and love for the people as a sign of weakness. But, they forgot that he carried the authority of Christ. Overlooking ancient Corinth was a hill 1,857 feet high. On top of it was a fortress. Paul used that imagery as an illustration of the spiritual warfare he waged. He destroyed strongholds, cast down towers, and took captives. The fortress,towers, and captives represent the arguments, thoughts, and plans that Paul was opposing. He cast down all of the rationalizations. He took captive to the obedience of Christ every perception and intention of the heart that was against God. Our actions reveal our thoughts. We shouldn’t cling to thoughts that do not conform to the life and teachings of Christ. Paul did not walk according to the flesh or his worldly desires. Instead he conquered the flesh. The rival teachers were evidently claimingto be Christ’s representatives in some superior way that excluded Paul because of his weakness. Here he defines having true authority as distinct from being a domineering authoritarian. His authority was to build up God’s people, not demolish them. But he intended to deal firmly with these rivals when he came to Corinth.
Paul’s letters are sometimes difficult and demanding, as other Christians also found. Paul didn’t have a domineering presence, bulldozing people into submission. The earliest descriptions of Paul’s personal appearance depict him as a man of small height, almost bald, with crooked legs, but he had a good body and eyebrows meeting. His nose was hooked, full of Grace, for sometimes he appeared like a man and sometimes he had the face of an angel. Paul was not eloquent like Apollos or even a captivating orator when he came to Corinth. But his message was charged with a power no human rhetoric could command, because it was given in the Holy Spirit. With a bit of snark in his voice, Paul charged his enemies with a false set of values, since they attached such great importance to themselves. The thing about Paul and his fellow apostles is that they did not go outside of the limits God had given them for ministry. Within his boundaries was the church in Corinth. Paul went there because that is where God told him to go. Paul had already decided that he would not minister in a place where someone had already been. He would not enter someone else’s territory. He was the first to travel to Corinth with the Good News of Jesus Christ. His more recent opponents had visited the church much later, so their claim to Corinth as their territory was empty. Paul then quoted Jeremiah the prophet, 9:24, to the effect that all missionaries are directed by the Lord. That means boasting doesn’t count for anything. Only as the Lord praises us for our service can success have any significance.
Paul even finds it necessary, though distasteful, to justify his actions because of the close link he claims with the church and because his enemies were enticing the Corinthian believers away from Christ. He takes on an ironic tone in saying, “I hope you will put up with a little more of my foolishness.” And he again asks with irony for them to please bear with him. Paul loved the Corinthians and was legitimately jealous because he was their spiritual father and he had betrothed them to Christ and wanted to present them as a chaste virgin. He did not want them corrupted by false teachers. The church is called to be a pure bride to one husband…Christ. This metaphor goes back to the Old Testament where Israel is the bride of the Lord. Paul saw himself as the best man who acted for the bridegroom. The false teachers were pulling the Corinthians believers away from pure and undivided devotion to Christ. In this then they are doing the work of the evil one, just as the serpent did in the garden of Eden. These false missionaries in Corinth evidently preached a different Jesus, a different kind of spirit, and a different kind of gospel than the one the Corinthians had believed. It is difficult to know exactly what these false teachers preached. But it is quite possible they were promoting a powerful, dominant Christ and they sidelined the suffering of the cross. They probably saw themselves as equally powerful preachers, exempt from hardship and trial. By contrast, Paul’s message centered in Christ crucified, and Paul’s own sufferings were a mark of true apostleship. The nature of this difference is the heart of Paul’s defense of his apostleship. These false teachers claimed authority as “super apostles” and they despised Paul’s lack of sophisticated eloquence.
Paul was preaching God’s Good News without expecting anything in return. His policy as a church planter was to earn his living by his trade of tent making instead of being supported by the new churches. His enemies in Corinth criticized him for this. In Greek thought religious teachers could rightly claim financial support. Paul’s refusal provided his enemies with the argument that his apostleship was counterfeit. However, Paul had accepted contributions from Philippi and that made for inconsistencies in what he was claiming. This made the Corinthians suspicious of his motives and doubtful of his love toward them. Paul’s motive in refusing to accept support from the Corinthians was to show them what true christian service is like in contrast to the ministry of those who were looking for an opportunity to boast. He fiercely condemned the false teachers in Corinth. Although the false teachers wanted to claim their work was just like Paul’s, they were in fact false apostles and deceitful workers. Just as the evil one changed himself into an angel of light to deceive Eve, so his servants disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. The evil one’s servants claim to be God’s servants but their deeds are wicked and their punishment is sure. Paul played the part of the boastful fool so that he may present his true credentials as a suffering apostle. The intruders’ arrogant spirit impels Paul to adopt a style of writing that matches their behavior, all in irony. The Corinthians were proud of their capacity to understand deep religious issues, and they valued teachers who made a pretense of learning. Paul came with a different agenda. The Corinthian church had welcomed the intruders even when they exploited and insulted them. They even saw Paul’s refusal to exploit them as too weak! Rather than boasting about his strengths and successes like the false teachers did, Paul boasts in weakness and defeat, pointing away from himself and toward God.
Then comes Paul’s questions. Are they Hebrews? He is too. A Jewish heritage was seen by Paul’s opponents as a qualification for ministry. Are they Israelites? Paul is too. An Israelite was a member of the covenant community by circumcision. Paul had this badge also and was in fact a Pharisee, a most devoted follower of the Torah. Were they descendants of Abraham? So is Paul. This is yet another of Paul’s opponents claims to God’s favor based in ethnic identity. Elsewhere, Paul clarifies who can truly be called Israelites and descendants of Abraham. Here he ironically adopts the erroneous perspective of his opponents to beat them at their own game. However, Paul has served Christ way more than these false teachers. His serving included Christlike sufferings and toils. Some of the difficulties in this litany are recorded in Acts. Paul was also in prison more often. Clement of Rome, one of the early church fathers said that Paul was in prison seven times. Paul listed his punishments here indetail, and Wow. Five times Paul received the 40 lashes minus one. This is the same punishment Jesus received at the hands of the Romans. Three times he was beaten with rods, like we saw in Philippi even though Paul was a Roman citizen and supposedly exempt from this punishment. The web of scars on this man’s back must have been something else. But there was more. He was stoned and left for dead outside town. That happened at Lystra. The only shipwreck we have recorded is the one on the way to Rome but clearly there were three others. When Jesus told Ananias to go visit Saul right after his Damascus road experience remember He said he would show Paul just how much he would have to suffer for His name. Acts 9:16. The Jewish leaders punished Paul as a renegade Jew, and he faced death again and again. But there is more. Not only did Paul suffer physically, he suffered the burden of concern and anxiety for all of the churches he had founded. But no other church gave Paul as much cause for concern as the church in Corinth did. As a final boast of his weakness, Paul tells the story of his escape from Damascus a few years after his conversion. King Aretas IV of Nabataea controlled Damascus only after 37 AD following the death of emperor Tiberius. The mention of Aretas dates Paul’s escape between 37-39 AD at the end of Aretsas’ reign.
Paul’s accusers at Corinth leveled the charge that Paul did not have ecstatic spiritual experiences. He was no mystic they said but only a plain person with no impressive gifts. So, even though Paul’s authority did not come from visions and revelations from the Lord, he reveals his secret that he did in fact have such experiences. He used the third person to speak of himself here. This happened some 14 years prior, probably while Paul was in Antioch, somewhere around 42 AD. Paul was caught up to the third heaven. It was common to speak of three heavens. The first heaven was the atmosphere where the birds fly. The second is the place of the sun, moon, and stars. The third heaven is where God dwells.This is the immediate presence of God. Heaven here is called paradise. This experience probably helped Paul endure suffering for the cause of Christ. Paul wasn’t sure whether he was in a trance oractually taken into heaven. But he is sure that he was caught up. He could boast about this but it was no source of confidence in his ministry. He never makes mystical experience a proof of his apostolic authority. His life and message had to be the proof. So he boasted about his weaknesses.
There is much speculation about what the thorn in Paul’s flesh really was but no one knows for certain. What we do know is that he was given it to keep him from becoming proud. It was a messenger from the evil one, that is someone or something evil. Paul prayed to the Lord to take this thorn away. But the Lord answered each of Paul’s petitions the same way, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in your weakness.” Paul’s human weakness was an opportunity for the power of Christ to work through him by God’s Grace. Paul accepted his suffering because Christ’s strength showed itself through Paul’s weakness. Again Paul reviewed his apostolic credentials. He continued to play the role of a fool, making proud boasts because his detractors have forced him to do so. Paul too has a commission as an apostle, one sent by God Himself, with all of the signs to validate it. Included in his credentials was his ability to deal patiently with difficult people like the Corinthians. The only thing he failed to do was to take payment for his services. And he asked forgiveness for this wrong. The request is ironic and tongue in cheek. Paul would now come to Corinth for the third time. The first visit was the initial evangelism tour recorded in Acts 18:1-18. The second visit was the painful visit recorded in 2 Corinthians 2:1. Paul contemplates what he hopes will be a happier visit, but there is still, some suspicion and a need to clear the air. He did not want their money. What Paul really wanted was that they would accept his full apostolic authority. That is why he would gladly spend himself for them rather thanaccept payment from them. Some of the Corinthians still believed that Paul had somehow tricked them. Perhaps they were intimating that he was helping himself to the funds for the Jerusalem collection. Paul’s answer to this charge was to remind them of the integrity of Titus and the other brother. Their integrity, along with Paul’s, should debunk these false charges. But the evil one sows seeds of doubt that will make the strongest believer wonder sometimes. Paul is not simply offering a defense of his conduct and motives. He wants to assure his dear friends of his genuine love and Christian service for the well being of the church. He feared he would encounter new rebellion and resistance in his upcoming visit and that they had relapsed back into their old ways. Paul didn’t want to have to rebuke the Corinthians but he would if need be. He was also afraid that the Corinthians would rebuff and humiliate him againas they had on the painful visit.
With the last chapter, Paul announced that he would be making a third visit. He found confirmation of his plan in the scriptures, quoting Deuteronomy 19:15. The reason for this quote isn’t entirely clear other than perhaps given the context, Paul wanted to warn the Corinthians that every transgression would be judged on his arrival. The two or three witnesses against the Corinthians offenders were Paul’s letters or visits and the promise of his coming the third time. He reminded them that Christ spoke through Paul. He represented Christ to the congregation and he would exercise God’s power when dealing with them. Paul’s weakness was patterned on the humiliation of Christ, who was crucified in weakness. And his judgement of the Corinthian sinners would be tempered by the constraint of Christ’s love. Paul was weak but he could always draw onChrist’s strength. The issue is clear cut. If the Corinthians cannot recognize that Jesus Christ is living among them, they are theones who have failed the test of genuine faith. They are literally disapproved. There is a play on words here. They were looking for proof of Paul’s apostolic authority but Paul urged them to test themselves, or prove themselves. The lack of Christ’s presence would disprove their authenticity as Christians. But Paul had proved that he has not failed the test. The bottom line here is that no matter what Paul faced, he wanted nothing but the highest good for them. He wanted for them to become matureand strong in their faith. He wanted them to ignore the false teachers, cast them out even. Paul’s motivation is not to be successful but faithful. He patterned his life on Jesus, who looked outwardly weak and an apparent failure, dying on the cross. But Jesus is now victorious and living by the mighty power of God.
Paul did not want to have to deal severely with the Corinthians when he arrived. That is one of the reasons for the letter. He wanted to exercise his apostolic authority in a positive way. However, his ministry required him to both tear down and build up. To strengthen the believers was one of Paul’s favorite expressions for a stable Christian community. This is where the Lord lives in and among the believers. The letters conclusion includes Paul final appeal, greetings, and a blessing. One of the things Paul emphasizes is the need to encourage. He asked themto live in harmony, meaning being of the same mind. The sacred kiss was a common Jewish form of salutation, not only a sign of personal affection. It was common in the New Testament church, used in worship perhaps as a means of uniting fellow believers. The word for sacred is the same word translated God’s people, literally the Saints. God’s people here were the believers in Macedonia, where Paul was writing from. He closed his letter with a prayer and blessing. He invoked the triune God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And he began the blessing with the grace of Jesus Christ. This is because we are always relying on Christ’s sacrificial love which reconciles us to the Father and unites us through the fellowship of the Holy Spirit with all fellow believers. The love of God provides for our needs and graciously restores us to His family. The fellowship of the Holy Spirit means our fellowship with the Spirit, who joins Christians together into a unity.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W