2 Corinthians 12:19-21

2 Corinthians 12:19-21

Mourning over Sin

Christians need grace, too, you know. After all, Christians sin. If you were under the impression that Christians don’t sin, or that they believe their lives to be without fault (“holier than thou” and all that), just read what Paul says to the Corinthian Christians in these verses. These Corinthian Christians seemed to be in a class of their own when it came to sin problems. Of course, they’re not, but Paul had to address some of the same concerns over and over. “Will they ever get the picture?!” We ask. Perhaps we should wonder when we will get the picture.

In these few verses, we see more of Paul’s fears and some of the Corinthian sins. Characteristic of Paul in this letter, he shows his true colors and bleeding heart by expressing three fears. First, he fears that when he comes this third time, they will be disappointed with each other (v. 20a). Second, he fears that when he visits them again, he will see them embroiled in relational division (v. 20b). Third, he fears that when he comes again, he will be humbled by God, mournful of unchecked, unrepentant sin. Let’s look at these three fears in turn. When he finally sees them, what will he see? He’s delayed this third visit on purpose. The second visit was too painful to repeat so quickly. It was best to give them time to mull over the wisdom of God in Christ delivered to them. It was best to allow the Spirit to do his work of conviction, to give him time to work the gift of repentance in the lives of these stubborn followers of Christ. Paul hasn’t had the finest relationship with the Corinthians to-date, not due to him, of course. When he comes, therefore, will he find them as he wishes? Will they find him as they wish? That depends. Is their obedience to previous apostolic wisdom, caution, instruction, and rebuke complete (cf. 10:6)? We’re seeing front and center Paul’s daily anxiety for all the churches (11:28). Again, will Paul have to be strong in presence, and not merely put forward a posture of epistolary boldness? Time will tell. Paul’s fear is reasonable. He still sees areas in need of growth. At the same time, he has noted evidence of some of the Corinthians being on the up-and-up, moving in greater affection for Paul and increasing obedience to God (chs. 7-8).

Nobody relishes in severity. To be known only as a “severe Christian” is likely not an enviable appellation. You don’t want your modus operandi to be that of severity or harshness, do you? I don’t. Paul’s no different. Paul fears that he will have to be severe in person, not something he’d look forward to being. Nevertheless, he would be so if necessary. If his fear is realized (that is, if the Corinthians find him to be severe, and he finds them in need of a more severe approach), then so be it. In that case, the severity would be a blessing to the Corinthians, as it would demonstrate an intolerance for sin and a love for their growth in holiness. He wants them to take his letter into serious account, so that when he comes, they will have already been set on the right path. If that prior preparation isn’t enough, then a strong presence would do the trick, Lord willing. This is kind of like when a mother puts Dad on the phone (who’s at work) to speak to their unruly children. Father says, “Mind your mother. I don’t want to give you a spanking when I get home. I’d rather give you a hug and us enjoy a delightful evening together. But if you continue in this disobedience, a spanking is exactly what’s going to happen.” Dad cares about sin and unruliness. Severity may be the order of the night for his children. Likewise, Paul shows the importance for pastoral admonitions and reproofs before other serious actions or recourses are taken. Sin is severe, and it must be addressed with severity. After all, sin was so severe that in order for it to be blotted away, it took the Father crushing the Son on the cross. O the severity of the cross!

Second, Paul fears that previous relational discord will abide in Corinth (v. 20b). Paul uses several words to tell us what all he has in mind: quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. With these eight terms, Paul speaks of sinful passions (first four), sinful speech (middle two), and sinful relations (last two). These are common Corinthian problems, ones that we see him addressing in 1 Corinthians, and ones that would make his fear reasonable. The quarreling (ἔρις: strife or contention) reminds the Corinthians of what he wrote in his first letter. In 1 Corinthians 1:11 (cf. also 3:3), Chloe’s people reported to Paul that some of the Corinthians were forming cliques: some are of Paul, others of Apollos, still others of Cephas, and the elite are of Jesus! There’s also jealousy or a sinful zeal in the Corinthian church. What’s interesting is that whenever Paul uses this word (ζῆλος) in 2 Corinthians, it’s used as a godly trait except for here. Before this chapter, the word has been used to express godly concern over sin, giving, and people (7:7, 11; 9:2; 11:2). Here, however, in a list of vices, it’s used negatively. Some Christians are jealous of others. Can you relate? What effect does jealousy have in the church? Relational upheaval. There’s also the problem of anger (θυμός, mentioned also in Gal. 5:20 in a similar vice list). Anger seems to be a common problem among Christians, doesn’t it? A more pronounced expression of anger is the word “hostility” (ἐριθεία), translated “rivalries” in Galatians 5:20, and used in Philippians 1:17 to speak of people proclaiming Christ out of a selfish ambition. Some proclaim Christ out of rivalry (Phil. 1:15), whereas others do so out of love. With these first four words in 2 Corinthians 12:20, the Corinthians aren’t looking too hot. Their hearts are set on sinful passions and set against each other, as they are not fixed on their union and communion with Christ and each other.

Sadly, there’s more. In the past, there has been slander in the camp (καταλαλιά), and Paul fears that the slander has remained. Their tongues are set against each other. They’re bickering with each other, angrily and jealously opposed to one another, and expressing that hatred of the heart with their lips (cf. 1 Pet. 2:1). Coupled with Paul’s next word, gossip (ψιθυρισμός), it’s clear that their tongues need to be checked by the gospel. Paul fears that the Corinthians have given themselves over to tale-bearing or (what the word literally expresses) hissing or whispering about each other (cf. also Rom. 1:29, vices characteristic of an unchanged heart). Might there be tales told in whispers among your church that reveal hearts that are against your beloved brothers and sisters, ones for whom Christ died? I’d be surprised if there weren’t. May you not be among them!

The last two words in this list of vices are “conceit” (φυσίωσις) and “disorder” (ἀκαταστασία). The word “conceit” literally means “swelled-headedness,” and in the non-biblical literature, it was a technical term for inflation or a bloated condition. In Paul’s earlier letter, he uses a similar Greek form of the word in 1 Corinthians 8:1, wherein he speaks of loveless knowledge puffing up the person. Pride, or big-headedness, was a big problem in Corinth (cf. also 1 Cor. 4:6, 18; 5:2; 13:4). Might it be a problem in your church? If so, is it your head that’s blown up like a balloon? As to the disorder mentioned, the word is used earlier in the letter to speak of “riots” (6:5). Paul has in mind some disturbances or rebellions in the church. Relational disorder is unbecoming of followers of Christ, because God is not a God of confusion (same word used here) but of peace (1 Cor. 14:33). Christ died to break down the dividing wall of hostility (Eph. 2:4). We’d do well to keep that wall down. Calvin wisely diagnoses the Corinthians’ problem when he says that all of these sins stem from either self-love or lack of love; otherwise, the Corinthians never would have envied each other and fought with each other. How do we avoid these sins? The answer is to grow in your love for God and others, and so be united to each other as you are in Christ.

Third, Paul fears that he will be humbled by God and that he’ll have to mourn over unrepentant, abiding sin in the camp (v. 21). He’s warned the Corinthians before, he will come again, and he will not spare those who savor their sins (13:2). The three-term list in verse 21 seems to take the vice list from the previous verse up a couple notches. They are impurity (ἀκαθαρσία), sexual immorality (πορνεία), and sensuality (ἀσέλγεια). The first word refers to refuse, vileness, and uncleannesses, and it, though a different word, harkens back to 7:1 where Paul exhorts us to cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit. Jesus uses the word in Matthew 23:27 to speak of the Pharisees’ internal impurities, though outwardly they look spick-and-span. Paul also uses the word in his common vice lists elsewhere (Rom. 1:24; Gal. 5:10; Eph. 4:19; 5:3). Paul fears he will have to mourn over grave impurities. The second word, from which we derive our word “pornography,” is translated generally as “sexual immorality,” because its sexual perversity covers the gamut of sexual sins. You can see the word used by Paul throughout 1 Corinthians (5:1; 6:13, 18; 7:2), and elsewhere (Gal. 5:19; 5:3). God’s will for our lives is our sanctification, which has much to do with sexual purity and conduct (1 Thess. 4:3). The third word is another serious one, and I don’t think “sensuality” does justice to Paul’s meaning. The word literally means “self-abandonment,” referring to a lack of self-constraint and to giving sin free rein. In a word: libertinism. Paul uses the word also in Galatians 5:19, Ephesians 4:19, and in the verse the Lord used to convert St. Augustine (Rom. 13:13). Peter and Jude both attribute this sin to unconverted Gentiles and false teachers (1 Pet. 4:3; 2 Pet. 2:18; Jude 4). The Corinthians were in danger of becoming slaves to sin again.

Do you now have a better picture of why Paul fears coming a third time? Would you want to come into a mess like that? That’s a major clean-up job. Paul’s threefold fear, it must be noted, comes from something that some Corinthians lacked or needed to cultivate: love. His fear stems from his love that is so manifestly expressed before them. As a parent who fears that his child is or would be wayward, Paul grieves over their sins, doesn’t want to be put in a position to punish them severely, and is making every epistolary effort now to stir them up to love and good deeds. Moreover, Paul is not approaching them with an air or superiority: “Look at me and how much better I am at life!” No. He’s not arrogant (the very state he fears he’ll find some of them in). Mourning, not pride, is the proper response to the sins of the church. Calvin hits the nail on the head when he comments: “Every Christian shall have his Church inclosed within his heart, and be affected by its maladies, as if they were his own, sympathize with its sorrows, and bewail its sins” (Commentary, 2 Corinthians 12:21). This is the perfect call for us to pray and mourn over the sins of the church. What sins do you see affecting the church? Certainly, many if not all the sins mentioned in these two lists. What of others like abortion, homosexuality, pre-marital sex, cohabitation, backbiting? You could make your own list, I’m sure. Once the list is made, how do you respond? With mourning? Do you bewail your own sins, knowing that you’re not an innocent bystander but a contributor to the sins of the church? Repent. Do you grieve over the church’s maladies? Rebuke and encourage in love.

     
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