2 Corinthians 4:4-6

2 Corinthians 4:4-6

Blinding or Shining

To see or not to see? That is the question. That is the contrast that Paul is making in this section. The open statement of the truth (v. 2), the gospel, is veiled (v. 3). That’s an odd image. How can an open statement be veiled? That’s like unzipping a backpack for all to see, but covering it with a blanket draped over the opening. It’s open yet veiled. It’s public yet obscured. How? The answer lies in v. 4, and with it comes bad news.

Bringing us back to the imagery of the triumphal procession and of Christians being an aroma of death to those perishing (2:14-17), Paul communicates something of the same idea here. To those who are perishing, the open statement of the truth is veiled. The Jewish people who traded Jesus in for a false Moses (for a Moses who didn’t speak of Christ)—these people fall in this category of covenant breakers. The gospel is shrouded by darkness. But by whom is the gospel veiled? Verse 4 tells us: “the god of this world” (though “age” is my preferred translation). Who is this “god”? The Triune God or Satan? Both actually, but not in the same way. Hear me out. I’m NOT saying that the God of the Bible is Satan. Certainly not! And, granted, v. 4 is directly referring to Satan. He’s not the real God, the only God that is. Satan is doing the blinding. He’s covering up the truth. He’s deceiving people, and they do not believe in Christ as Lord and Savior. Satan is the father of lies and there is no truth in him (John 8:44). However, saying that Satan is the god of this age who deceives is not getting the true God off the hook for what is happening to the wicked. There are passages in both Testaments of Scripture that clearly show us the sovereignty of God in how his revelation is received. There are places also that remind us that Satan is not independent of God’s plan of revelation and eternal decree.

We could go all the way back to the Garden, but space forbids such an exhaustive treatment. Consider King Saul’s life. After the Lord rejected Saul, God would periodically send a harmful spirit upon Saul (1 Sam. 16:14, 16, 22-23; 18:10; 19:9). Did Saul know the Lord? Yes, but not savingly. Did Saul trust in the Lord’s revelation and appropriate it to himself by faith? No. Through the harmful spirit, God was tormenting and judging Saul for his rejection of Yahweh. Because Saul has rejected Yahweh, Yahweh has judged and rejected Saul. This is similar to the account with Pharaoh, though admittedly Pharaoh was no Israelite. Nevertheless, the Lord made himself clearly known to Pharaoh and all the Egyptians. The Lord himself prophesies, “The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them” (Ex. 7:5). There is no question about whether or not Pharaoh and the Egyptians received the revelation from God about who he is and what he has done. Having said that, however, we also acknowledge that the Lord himself hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 7:3; Rom. 9:17-18). Moreover, when God judged King Ahab, he revealed his secret counsel through the true prophet Micaiah against all the false prophets in that day. The Lord sent a lying spirit to Ahab, so that Ahab would be judged and killed for his wickedness and unbelief (1 Kings 22:13-40). But didn’t Ahab know the truth? Absolutely. The prophet Micaiah revealed to him the divine council wherein God determined the disaster of Ahab (1 Kings 22:19-22). We have, therefore, a king who knew but was deceived.

The situation, furthermore, is no different in the NT. Look at 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12. In that text Paul speaks of the coming of the man of lawlessness (a fulfillment in the first century on the unbelieving Jews). He will come by the activity of Satan. With this Satanic activity comes deception. No surprise there, of course. Notice also the similar language between 2 Thessalonians 2:10 and our text, 2 Corinthians 4:3: “to those who are perishing.” People are being deceived. They’re denying the truth of the gospel. They’re perishing. In 2 Thessalonians 2:11, however, it is God, not Satan, who sends the strong delusion, with the result that these wicked and unbelievers continue to believe what is false and are thereby condemned. They’re condemned because they did not believe the truth (v. 12), and because they “refused to love the truth and so be saved” (v. 10). Make no mistake. These unbelievers are morally responsible for their rejection of the truth, of the open statement of the truth. They are “unbelievers” (2 Cor. 4:4). They “refuse to love the truth” (2 Thess. 2:10). That’s intellectual, volitional, and moral. The punishment due their rejection is on them. Because of their unbelief, God judges them by sending a strong delusion, by veiling the public proclamation of the gospel, by not opening the eyes of those steadfast in their hatred for the truth and the God of the truth.

Pulling these texts together, we’re saying that yes, it is Satan who deceives. But it is God who uses Satan and his agents of deception to blind the minds of unbelievers. Satan is an instrument in the hands of the Judge. This is crucial to understand, if we’re going to recognize God as sovereign even over his rational and volitional creatures. Satan is NOT doing his own thing outside God’s eternal decree. May it never be! Satan harmed Job, but not without God’s decree. Likewise, Satan blinds the minds of many, of those who love the god of this age; and Satan does so not apart from God’s eternal decree, not as a rogue. God is on his throne, always and forever. He hardens whom he wills; he mercies whom he wills (Rom. 9:18). Satan, by virtue of being a creature, is only the secondary cause of this blinding activity. That then leaves God as the primary cause. However hard a pill that is to swallow, it is the biblical witness. And to deny it is to deny God as the author and determiner of his revelation, his creatures, and how they receive his revelation. So much for the bad news.

The good news is that this same God as Revelator course-corrects moribund creatures from death to life. Paul in v. 6 takes us to the very beginning, day one of creation. By divine fiat, God speaks light into existence ex nihilo: “Let there be light, and there was light” (Gen. 1:3). What a powerful and mighty act of God! Who but the God of Light alone could make light? And it’s this God of Light who uses his light of revelation, his saving and redemptive truth about himself, to bring us from darkness to light (cf. also Peter’s similar language in 2 Pet. 1:19). The God who created earthly light has created new hearts full of the light of himself. We who have received this new light, this new creation, are now called new creations ourselves (2 Cor. 5:17). Our hearts are now full of the knowledge of Christ himself, who is the glory of God (4:6). The light we now behold, we do so by faith with spiritual eyes mediated by the Spirit gazing at the face of Jesus Christ, who is the Light of the World. Christ’s promise for all who have eyes to see (for it’s in God’s light that we see light: Psalm 36:9) is that they will have the light of life: “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’” (John 8:12). Such very good news indeed!

2 Corinthians 4:1-6

2 Corinthians 4:1-6

The Right Ways to Let the Light Shine

“I don’t care how you do it; just get it done!” You’ve heard something like that, no doubt. What matters for that person is not so much the means as the end. It’s pure pragmatism. As long as the desired result is achieved, does it really matter how we get there? For Paul, the answer is that it absolutely matters how we get there. But where is “there” for Paul in this context? It’s the faithful ministry of God’s Word (vv. 1, 5).

So why does Paul say in 4:1 and later in v. 16 that he does not lose heart? Why would he lose heart? Wouldn’t doing good be its own motivator? Isn’t righteousness its own deterrent from lawlessness? Of course, but sin still lurks. Temptations to put forward another (false) ministry, or to put forward the right ministry but in the wrong way(s), are always present, because the deceiver is active in the world (v. 4) and sin is still present in the heart of man. Clearly, some false apostles/super-apostles caved from pressure and selfish motives, but not Paul (2 Cor. 11:12-15). What was the difference? God’s mercy, plain and simple. That’s why Paul didn’t lose heart. This verb “lose heart” (ἐγκακέω) is typical of Paul’s vocabulary. It’s used 6 times in the NT (5 of which are from Paul). In all these uses, the people of God are exhorted to keep on keeping on, to persevere in holiness, in prayer, in well-doing, even in the face of sufferings, which themselves are temptations to wander away from God and his directions for godly living (Luke 18:1; 2 Cor. 4:1, 16; Gal. 6:9; Eph. 3:13; and 2 Thess. 3:13). God has mercifully kept Paul in his grip. Paul as minister of the New Covenant, literally, has been mercied by God (Greek has a verb “to mercy”). If you know the story of Paul, you definitely know that he has been the object of much mercy from God. Paul himself would call himself a blasphemer, persecutor, insolent opponent to God, and the foremost of sinners (1 Tim. 1:12-17). But the light of God has shone in his heart (v. 6) when that very light of Christ blinded him and knocked him to the ground (Acts 9:3-5).

Paul is moved by the mercy and light of God (vv. 1, 6). That divine mercy-movement for Paul translates into avoiding some ways of ministering on the one hand, and following others on the other, as he proclaims the mercy ministry of the New Covenant. Let’s look at these ways in brief. By the mercy of God, Paul is emboldened to renounce “disgraceful, underhanded ways” (v. 2). Literally, he’s saying that he has forbidden from use “hidden things of shame” (that is, shameful and secret things). Those are general descriptors on which he expounds as he continues. He contrasts the secret ways of the deceivers with his openness. He says that he is not walking in (though the ESV says “practice”) “cunning.” Always in the NT the word for cunning (πανουργία) is used of the wicked and their crafty work of deception against believers and God (Luke 20:23; 1 Cor. 3:19; 2 Cor. 4:2; 11:3; Eph. 4:14). This language ought to remind the reader of the crafty serpent, the devil, back in Genesis 3. Of course, that is who Paul has in mind, for as he continues, he calls this deceiver the “god of this world” (v. 4). Coupled with the cunning of the deceivers is tampering with the word of God, which Paul refuses to do. By tampering with God’s Word, the unbelievers adulterate and falsify it. They seek to make it appear to teach that which is contrary to God’s plain teaching. Again, this is the work of the god of this world. You can hear the serpent saying, “Did God really say…?” How have you seen these shameful, secretive methods of deception in your own life? I think immediately of the cults, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter-day Saints in particular. They’re so sneaky with their cunning. They’ve adulterated the Word of God and supplanted it for other “uncorrupt revelation.” I think also of the Prosperity Gospel, which is a false gospel. Proclaimers of this gospel craftily tamper with Scripture to make it say what God never said: that God’s desire for us all is to be physically healthy and wealthy, provided that we have enough faith and sow a monetary seed. This, folks, is shameful and underhanded indeed. This is the kind of craft, I mean crap, that Paul refuses to engage in as he shares the light of Christ.

Rather than keeping the true message a secret, Paul puts before all people the “open statement of the gospel,” or literally, “the manifestation of the truth” (v. 2). Paul loves the truth. It was the Truth that set him free. This freeing message, therefore, must be out in the open. Everyone needs to hear it! Beloved, you should be suspicious of those who hide God’s Word from you, who don’t want Scripture to speak into their lives, or who say that you’re not ready for the deeper things of God. Did you know that the LDS missionaries are actually taught to withhold their “deeper doctrines” from potential converts? Even white lies are permitted, if the listener can be persuaded to make a commitment to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is duplicitous and a sign of Satanhood, not sainthood. Be drawn, instead, to those who invite an open examination of the Scripture. Listen to those who say, “Let’s see what God has said in the Bible.” That’s a good sign! That’s what the Bereans were known for, and they were called noble for doing so (Acts 17:10-11). The openness of the gospel light is what people need for their salvation. We mustn’t hide that light under a bushel—no! It’s the truth that changes. It’s the truth that people need. So, it’s the truth that we must give them.

Finally, we see Paul’s humble and submissive approach. Not only does Paul openly proclaim the light of Christ, but he does so as a servant in the clear sight of God. He does so by proclaiming not himself as Lord but Jesus Christ as Lord (vv. 2, 5). Contrary to the hubris of the super-apostles, who would lord it over the sheep of Christ, Paul commends himself as a servant even to the Corinthians (v 5). Christ must increase, Paul must decrease. Everything he does, he does in the presence of his God and for the good of the Corinthians. The light he shares isn’t his own to proclaim. It’s a deposit from God the gracious Revelator for the mercied objects of his special revelation. There’s no other proper way to receive God’s light than a humble and public proclamation of the same.

2 Corinthians 3:18

2 Corinthians 3:18

Ever-increasing Eikonic Reflection

Closing out chapter 3 is a deeply eschatological verse (speaking of our end goal and our present trajectory thereto). As he begins the verse, there is a definite dividing line between those who’ve been graced and mercied by the Lord who is the Spirit and those whose minds are still darkened, whose hearts are veiled from the truth. Although the latter remain veiled, the former have been given illumination. The veil has been lifted. They freely see Christ for who he said he was, for who Moses proclaimed him to be.

The image in v. 18 is beautiful. God’s elect are beholding the glory of the Lord. This imagery points us back to the glory of the Lord that filled the Tabernacle in Moses’ day (Exodus 40:34-38). It also harkens back to Jesus’ high priestly prayer for us to see the glory that the Father gave the Son (John 17:24). We are better off than Moses, because we are beholding the fullness of the Lord’s glory. But what is the glory of the Lord in this verse? Wrong question. Who is the glory of the Lord? Answer: the Lord, who is Christ himself! Another way of reading the “glory of the Lord” is, “the glory, which is the Lord.” Verse 18 is connected to 2 Corinthians 4:4, 6. In 4:4, Paul tells us that the glory of Christ is the image of God (eikōn). Then in 4:6, he says that the glory of God is shone in the face of Jesus Christ. To behold the glory of the Lord, then, is to behold Christ, who is the perfect image of God. Herman Ridderbos, connecting 3:18 with 4:4, says, “When in this context he [Christ] is called at the same time the Image of God, this is to say nothing less than that in him the glory of God, indeed God himself, becomes manifest.”[1]

The term that Paul uses for “beholding” is better translated “reflecting.” The noun form of this verb just means “mirror,” and the verb form can be properly translated “mirroring” or “reflecting in a mirror.” Since there’s a direct object in the sentence (i.e., “glory”), choosing “reflect” will work well. Connecting this fact of reflection with the truth that the glory of the Lord is Christ the Risen and Ascended Lord, we are reflecting/mirroring Christ. How can this stunning reality be real? Because we are new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). We are in the Son. Like Son, like son. He is the firstfruits of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:23), and now from an already-not-yet perspective, we are becoming more like the Firstfruits, as our old man passes away and is put off, and the new man reigns and is regularly put on (Eph. 4; Col. 3). It ought to go without saying that this reflection is dependent upon that which it reflects. When you look at yourself in the mirror, your self-reflection depends on the original you. Similarly, when we reflect the glory of the Lord, it’s Christ the Lord as Original upon whom our reflection depends. No Son, no son. No Image, no image.

As we are beholding/reflecting Christ, furthermore, our very transformation (metamorphosis) into Christ is taking place. We’re being transformed into the same image (eikōn). What image? The Image! We are being transformed more and more like Christ (1 Cor. 15:49). This is because we, by grace, are seeing him as he is (1 John 3:2). Our God has predestined us to be conformed to this very Image (Rom. 8:29). Christ has come. The veil has been lifted. He has set us free from guilty and polluted hearts, darkened minds, and sin-scaled eyes.

All this talk about imaging God brings us back to Genesis 1:26-27. We were all created in God’s image, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness (Eph. 4:24). Although that image has been defaced, and although knowledge, righteousness, and holiness were lost at the Fall (Gen. 3; James 3:9), that image is being renewed (Col. 3:10). But it’s not being merely restored to the original image at creation. God’s goal for our image-renewal is not a return to Eden. Our image-renewal is “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). What is that other degree? It’s the glory-degree of the Son of God as incarnate, risen, and ascended. That’s what I meant when I began this post by saying that this verse is deeply eschatological. Adam and Eve weren’t promised a stagnant state of integrity upon obedience to the command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were promised life (Gen. 2:17). That reward of life, as seen in the Tree of Life (Gen. 2:9), was eternal life in the Son (John 3:16). They were created in God’s image, that they might image the Image, the eternal Son of God, their reward. What other conclusion could we come to when we are faced with God’s expressed goal of bringing his many sons to glory as they are ever-increasingly conformed to the image of the Son (Rom. 8:29)?

This transformation, Paul concludes, comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. What else do you expect from the Last Adam who became a life-giving Spirit (1 Cor. 15:45)? This transformation is a divine operation. Only the Son can transform the sons into the Son from one degree of glory to another. Who but God himself has the qualifications to change image-distorters into Image-reflectors? This verse is yet another testimony of the astounding grace of our God who works to make us more like him for his glory.

 

[1] Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, p. 70 [Eerdmans].

2 Corinthians 3:13-14

2 Corinthians 3:13-14

A Christological Termination of Moses

In this post, I want to circle back the wagons and zero in on a couple of truths: one in v. 13, the other in v. 14. These are truly remarkable and absolutely key when we consider the glory of the Mosaic Covenant being surpassed by the overflowing glory of the New Covenant. Paul, in speaking about the veiled glory of Moses, takes us back to Exodus 34:33-35 (read it). In Exodus, we’re told that Moses would not veil his face when talking face-to-face with the LORD. It was only when he brought back God’s Word to the people that he needed to cover his face. The face of Moses was so refulgent of the glory of God, its shine was too much for the Israelites to take in unscathed. In v. 13, however, Paul doesn’t focus on the veil as necessary to cover a glorious face. He employed the image of the veil in that way in v. 7. He now takes Moses’ veiled face as necessary lest the Israelites see the outcome or end of “what was being brought to an end” (i.e., the Mosaic Covenant). Geerhardus Vos says, “According to Paul, the purpose for this [veil] was that the Israelites should not see how that glory gradually disappeared from his face.”[1]

This truth reminds us of what the Westminster Confession of Faith says about the Mosaic Covenant: it was “administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances” (WCF 7:5; cf. also the Larger Catechism, Q/A 34). Types and shadows. That was the way the Mosaic Covenant was administered. It was an important, organic adumbration of what was to follow. The types and shadows are not the substance, but they point to the substance, which is Christ. The Mosaic Covenant was never intended to be the terminus of God’s redemptive revelation. In fact, when we read v. 13 more carefully, we notice that the very start of the Mosaic Covenant was the very start of its conclusion. What’s remarkable with Paul’s words is the imagery of Moses that he portrays. As Moses descends to bring God’s Word, he descends to his own end. As the glory of the Mosaic Covenant is just beginning to shine brightly before the Israelites, its shine begins to fade away. Like a match that once struck loses its light, so the glory of the Mosaic Covenant once established gives way to the Glory One of Israel, the Light. Christ is the terminus to which Moses pointed. Christ is the focal point. Christ is the center. Although Moses was a faithful servant in God’s house, Christ is The Faithful Son (Heb. 3:1-6). The Mosaic Covenant terminates with Christ, which leads me to the second observation.

Now in v. 14, Paul, in speaking about the hard-heartedness and veiled minds of the Jews in his own day (a truly lamentable reality; cf. Romans 9:1-5), reminds us all that the veil will remain unlifted unless Christ removes it. It is only through Christ that the veil is taken away. The Mosaic Covenant is not properly understood unless it be understood as passing away. The Mosaic Covenant is not rightly understood unless it be Christologically understood! The essentially transitory nature of the Mosaic Covenant spoke of the essentially permanent nature of the New Covenant in Christ, because the prophet Moses himself spoke of The Prophet Jesus Christ (John 5:46; cf. Deut. 18:15-22; John 1:45; 6:14). This is also the message to the Hebrews (chs. 8-10). Christ is the key to understanding all of Scripture (Luke 24:13-27). Christ is the terminus of all of Scripture. It’s no wonder, then, that anyone who esteems Moses too highly will be prevented from seeing the glories of the Christ through whom to interpret Moses and all of the Word of God. This is why it’s always right to ask when reading the Bible (regardless of the passage), “What does this passage teach me about Christ?” Look for Christ in all of Scripture. Read Scripture Cross-eyed. Read Scripture Christ-eyed. That’s the way the Word of God (the Son) intends for the Word of God (the Scripture) to be read and understood.

 

[1] Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: Anthropology, ed. Gaffin, p. 81.

2 Corinthians 3:12-17

2 Corinthians 3:12-17

New Covenant Boldness
“Out with the Old, in with the New” was the name of the game last post. In these next verses, our Apostle Paul still contrasts New Covenant realities with Old Covenant foreshadowings. The contrast continues but takes a turn from the respective glories of the two covenants to their proclaimers. Paul says that he is bold to proclaim God’s gospel in the new, more glorious covenant. This contrast relates to Moses: “we are very bold, not like Moses” (vv. 12-13). What a bold statement, Paul! Yes and no. It’s not that Paul is here saying that Moses was his prophetic inferior. Paul, a thorough-going Jew, has much love and respect for Moses. Paul’s greater boldness owes itself to the greater covenant of which he is minister. Paul is not the focal point; the New Covenant is. Because he has in the unfolding of God’s revelation been gifted with this ministry, his boldness is firmer than that of Moses (you might even be reminded of the many times Moses wavered and wanted nothing to do with the hard-hearted Israelites).

In v. 12, Paul’s greater confidence springs from the hope that he has from the abundantly more glorious New Covenant. Remember that Paul didn’t just one day wise up to the superiority of the New Covenant. He was made a minister. This ministry was a gift. And it’s from God himself. As he said earlier, this confidence is through Christ, because God has made him a sufficient minister of the New Covenant (3:4-6). The Spirit of the New Covenant gives life, freedom, and righteousness, whereas the Mosaic Covenant (when misused) brought death, slavery, and condemnation. What an honor for Paul to be made a minister of an incredible covenant. Such doctrine of grace ought to embolden anyone.

But why would Paul need to say that he as New Covenant minister was very bold, that he had much confidence? A couple reasons can be given. First, it’s because the knowledge of God that he was sharing, even though it was a pleasing aroma that gave life to those quickened by the Spirit (2:16; 3:6), nevertheless brought death to those unchanged by the gospel. Second, to put Moses in his covenantal place (i.e., in his typological place, not as the be-all-end-all of progressive revelation) is to stir the pot. The early Jewish Christians (e.g., Stephen in Acts 6:8-15, and Paul himself in Gal. 1; Acts 21:27ff; et al.) were often accused of hating on Moses or the Law, and they were understood as throwing the Mosaic Covenant out the window (which, of course, neither did). Hard truths aren’t always swallowed with glee or ease.

Paul, emboldened by his God, and confident through Christ, is hopeful of the life-giving Spirit to do his work in the lives of his hearers. Paul is able to courageously share the glories of the New Covenant with the Jews whose hearts and minds have been veiled by an overestimation and misappropriation of Moses and the Law. Paul is confident that “when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (v. 16). Wherever the Spirit goes, freedom is sure to follow. Like the unpredictable blowing of the wind, we don’t know where Spirit goes (John 3:8), but we see the effect of his work. We, likewise, have such Spirit-wrought confidence, because the Spirit that was at work in Paul’s day is still at work in ours, setting the captives free, enlightening the eyes of the darkened, and granting new life to the dead.

2 Corinthians 3:6-11

2 Corinthians 3:6-11

Old v. New Covenant

Out with the old, in with the new. That idiom sums up a key truth from Paul, as he continues his defense of his own apostleship. Paul’s concern in these verses is to demonstrate to the Corinthians that he is an apostle. His concern is not to tease out all the differences between the Old Covenant and the New. However, because (1) he does speak succinctly about the differences, and (2) the typical Christian reader of 2 Corinthians nowadays wrestles more with these differences than the apostleship of Paul, let’s consider the differences as set forth in all of chapter 3, highlighting vv. 6-11. In the two posts following this one, we’ll address Paul’s boldness and freedom from the New Covenant (vv. 12-17), then the transformative nature of the New Covenant (v. 18). But for now, let’s look at the major differences between the Old and the New Covenants. Here’s a summary of the differences:

Old/Mosaic Covenant New Covenant
Of the letter (v. 6), carved in stone (vv. 3, 7) Of the Spirit (v. 7), on human hearts (v. 3)
Associated with Moses (v. 7) Associated with the Spirit (v. 8)
Kills (vv. 6-7) Enlivens (v. 6)
Glorious (v. 7) More glorious (v. 8)
Was brought to an end (v. 7) Permanent (v. 11)
Condemnation (v. 9) Righteousness (v. 9)
Glory terminated (v. 10) Surpassing glory (v. 10)
Veiled hearts & minds (vv. 13-14) Lifts veil (v. 16)
  Provides Spirit-wrought freedom (v. 17)
  Provides hope (v. 12)
  Emboldens its members (v. 12)
  Transformative (v. 18)

 

What’s of first importance is that Paul is not contrasting the Old Testament with the New Testament. Paul is no Marcionite. He’s not telling us to do away with the Old Testament. That would be odd and contradictory for Paul, for he often (this passage included!) uses the Old Testament as a foundation or a proof for his arguments. Of second importance, and in line with what was just said, is the fact that Paul has in mind the Mosaic Covenant. That fact is clear from his references to Moses and the Mosaic era (vv. 3, 7, 13-16). Indeed, at several points in chapter 3, Paul either alludes to or quotes from Exodus 31-34. Third, and writing parenthetically, the Mosaic Covenant was still part of the Covenant of Grace. It was not the case that people during the Mosaic period were saved by keeping the law. God’s covenant with Moses was a gracious covenant, one that was connected back to the gracious Abrahamic Covenant (Ex. 2:23-25; 20:2; Deut. 7:7-8; 9:1-12).

With those brief comments being made, there is nevertheless a strong contrast that Paul makes between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant. That Paul alludes to or quotes from OT passages that speak on the New Covenant is clear (Jeremiah 31:31-33; Ezek. 11:19; 36:26). We’d be wrong, therefore, to flatten out the Mosaic and New Covenants, making no distinction. Based on these verses in chapter 3, the differences touch on death v. life, evanescence v. permanence, and veil v. clarity. The Mosaic Covenant killed. It brought death. It condemned. This, however, was not a defect in the Covenant itself. The law is holy. It’s an expression of the holiness of God (Rom. 7:7, 12). The law promised life. But the problem was with sinful man (Rom. 7:13). The one under the law who does not abide by the law is cursed (Deut. 27:26; 30:17-18; James 2:10). The law that promised life, if it’s not obeyed perfectly, brings death (Rom. 7:9-11).

At the same time, this covenant was a glorious one (v. 7). It was not inherently un-glorious. God established this covenant with his people, so it can’t be anything but glorious. Paul reasons, then, in this way: if the former covenant was glorious, and it brought death, how much more glorious is the New Covenant, which brings life! The New Covenant was the fulfillment of the Covenant of Grace begun in Genesis 3:15 and established from eternity past among the members of the Trinity (in the Covenant of Redemption). Certainly, when the New comes, the Old passes away. Certainly, the New Covenant is more glorious than the Old. The New Covenant is better because the Old Covenant was temporary. The New is here to stay. Now is the time when the Old was not. However, there is not a time when the New will not be. The Old began with evanescent Moses; the New is with the eternal Spirit. This Spirit gives life, not death. This Spirit renews hearts of stone and rewrites God’s law on hearts of flesh. This Spirit applies righteousness to the covenant member through the substance of the covenant, which is Christ the Righteous One.

Finally, notice the veil in vv. 12-16. Moses didn’t need the veil. The people did. When Moses came down from the mountain to give them God’s Word, they needed his glorious face to have a covering. But in the New Covenant, there is greater clarity of revelation. There’s not a new gospel in the New Covenant. People in the Mosaic Covenant were saved by grace through faith in Christ. Moses, Jesus said, wrote of Christ (John 5:46). But that was seen through types and shadows (tabernacles, priests, sacrifices, purity laws, etc.). In the New Covenant, God has lifted the veil by showing us the Son, who is Light. It’s only natural, of course, that when the Old has come to an end (v. 10), the New has come in its place permanently and with surpassing glory (vv. 10-11).

2 Corinthians 3:1-5

2 Corinthians 3:1-5

Letters of Recommendation

Living in an age when we demand evidence and authentication of almost everything from almost everyone, we are no different from the Corinthians in these verses. Remember, they have challenged Paul’s apostleship, and in a long section of the letter (2:14-7:4), Paul defends his right and sufficiency to be God’s apostle. It’s in 3:5 where Paul answers his question in 2:16 (“Who is sufficient for these things?”). It’s not that Paul is enough in himself to become God’s messenger and minister of the New Covenant. It’s not that God looked upon this already qualified man and said, “Yup, he looks good enough. He’s wise enough. That Paul has a rich Jewish background that will help him in the future.” You’ve heard the phrase, “God doesn’t call the qualified but qualifies the called.” That’s the order for God’s calling Paul to become his mouthpiece. That’s Paul’s affirmation as well: “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves…, but our sufficiency is from God” (v. 5, my emphasis). Paul, then, is sufficient as an Apostle. That is, the Corinthians do not need or require some other non-apostle to substantiate or corroborate Paul’s testimony. Why? It’s because the word from Paul is the sufficient word from God. The word for “sufficiency” means “qualified” or “fit.” Paul is fit for the New Covenant ministry, but this fitness is not a self-fitness. It’s a God-given fitness. Paul’s God-given qualification points to the biblical truth that every good and perfect thing comes from above (James 1:17). Indeed, Paul had already asked the Corinthians, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7). The Corinthians (and we all) need Paul, therefore, as the Apostle from God. Paul is sufficient, because God has made him sufficient.

The gift of ministerial sufficiency is not without its evidential manifestations. So where is the proof of Paul’s ministerial qualifications? That’s that question that stirred in the hearts of the Corinthians. The sad reality is that if they had just looked a little deeper at their hearts and at Paul’s loving heart for them, they’d see that their hearts themselves and Paul’s heart were the very evidence. How so? Look back at the verses. In vv. 1-2, Paul asks whether letters of recommendation are necessary to commend him to the Corinthians. He’s referring to a common practice back then (and even now) of someone vouching for another by means of an epistle. This practice is not unreasonable, to be sure. Paul himself wrote recommendation letters (Rom. 16:1; 1 Cor. 16:10-11; Phil. 2:19-25). The Apostle John, moreover, speaks this way in 3 John when he commends the person of Demetrius to his beloved Gaius (v. 12). In Paul’s case with the Corinthians, however, he’s worried that the Corinthians would even ask for that external corroboration, since they are the evidence, and his very heart is the evidence of his apostleship and love for the Corinthians (cf. 2 Cor. 4:2). Are they so blind?

Paul is pointing to the Corinthians as the letter of recommendation itself. They are the Spirit-wrought confirmation that Paul is giving them God’s Word. Paul doesn’t need to have someone write a letter in ink. They are the living proof that the living God has qualified Paul to speak to them. Indeed, their hearts show that though they are imperfect, they are growing in godliness. Their conversion is a letter from Christ for all to read and see that the Spirit is at home in the Corinthians’ hearts and at work through Paul’s New Covenant ministry. As one commentator says, “The very existence of the Corinthian church testified to the effectiveness and authenticity of Paul’s ministry” (Kruse, Tyndale, 2 Corinthians, 90).

What Paul is getting at is a basic truth about the sanctifying and authenticating work of God. A justified faith is a being-sanctified faith. When the Living God is at work in the lives of his people, they change for the better. They follow him, the Word of God abides in them, they love God and his children, and they put off wickedness and put on purity. Paul is merely applying that basic Christian truth to his ministry to the Corinthians. Paul is saying something similar to what Jesus says to Philip when the latter asks Jesus to see the Father (John 14:8). You can hear Paul saying to the Corinthians, “Have I been with you so long, and you still don’t know me to have come from God for your very souls?” Paul certainly underwent much heart-affliction on account of the Corinthians. Applying this to us today isn’t hard. Look at the evidence of God’s living and active work in the lives of his children, and praise God for it. And praise God that you yourself are part of that work.

2 Corinthians 2:14-17

2 Corinthians 2:14-17

The Aroma of Christ

Smells are good if they smell good. Smells are bad if they smell bad. Profound words, right? Not everyone likes the same smells. The smell of yogurt might drive a teenager away from its presence, whereas it might draw a four-year-old ever closer to itself. The smell of a burger repulses a vegetarian but charms the meat-lover. We have something like that contrast going on in these verses, which mark the beginning of a lengthy section (2:14-7:4) wherein Paul defends his apostolic ministry and explains new covenant realities.

Connecting the start of this new section with the end of the previous one, we make sense of the “but” in v. 14 by recalling that Paul is tethered to the rope of God’s sovereignty. Where God takes Paul, that is where Paul goes. That direction meant delaying his travel plans to Corinth. That direction meant leaving Troas in search of Titus in Macedonia. That direction was always given by God in Christ: God’s guidance was, and is, always Christ-centered. Christ and his glory is the aim of Paul’s traveling. Wherever Paul goes, Christ is exalted. Paul rests in the sovereign, Christ-glorifying guidance of his Father of all mercies and God of all comfort.

What’s a little confusing is the triumphal procession that is spoken of in v. 14. The idea behind the triumphal procession is not the reason for confusion. God in Christ is the victor over sin, death, and misery. The procession puts on full display this divine conquest, and it arouses much laud and honor from those on God’s side of salvation. The confusion lies in the sense in which the “us” of v. 14 is to be understood. Commentators are not united on how “us” must be understood. Are believers led in the procession as the spoils of Christ the King? Or are believers following Christ the King as his soldiers who take part in the victorious work of salvation? In other words, are believers the slaves or soldiers? The captive or the co-captors? Paul uses this word for triumph only one other place (Colossians 2:15), and therein he speaks of God conquering rulers and authorities by means of the cross of Christ. These two verses are all the NT evidence we have of this word. Either sense can be understood biblically. We were conquered by Christ. We were slaves to sin but are now slaves to Christ and righteousness (Rom. 6:16-18). We are also spoken of as participants in the victory of Christ over all, as we are raised and seated in Christ (Eph. 2:5-6), even taking part in the judgment of the world and angels (1 Cor. 6:1-3). In either case, therefore, God is using us in his triumphal work of salvation in the lives of others.

Paul tells us that God in Christ uses us (captives and/or co-captors, slaves and/or soldiers) as a fragrance of the knowledge of God (v. 14). The word for fragrance is, to coin a phrase, olfactorily neutral. It does not tell us how people feel about the smell. It’s just a smell. It is subjectively considered. This, of course, does not deny the objectively pleasant smell of the knowledge of God. When “smelled” rightly, the saving knowledge of God is the best smell of all the smells! The gospel is good news whether or not a person receives it as it is. But not everyone responds well to the smell. Going back to yogurt and meats, some hate the smell; others love it. To those who are perishing, the good news of God’s message is a fragrance of death; it’s the smell of death, and it disgusts and repels the smeller. It’s foolishness to those who are perishing. In 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul speaks of the same thing but with the imagery of the cross. The word of the cross is God’s power to those who are being saved, but it’s folly to those perishing. Just read the book of Acts to see the various responses to the fragrance of God. Some love the smell and believe, some want to smell more, and others avoid the smell as if it were a deadly poison.

To those dying in their sin, the gospel and the gospel ministers are abhorrent in their noses. However, to those that God has chosen to save from their sin, it’s an aroma of Christ. It’s a well-pleasing smell (v. 15). Here Paul uses a different word to connote the objective reality of the pleasing aroma. Christ’s message and his messengers are really and truly pleasant. Paul reminds us of the pleasing incense that was burned in a Roman triumphal procession. He also harkens back to the pleasing aroma of the various well-pleasing sacrifices in the OT. This well-pleasing smell is the same used in Genesis 8:21; Exodus 29; Leviticus 1:9; 2:2; 3:5; 4:31; 6:15; 8:21; et al. Paul also uses the word in reference to the good gifts sent to him from the Philippians (Phil 4:18). Finally, in Ephesians 5:2, Paul speaks of Christ’s self-sacrifice as a fragrant offering to God on our behalf.

Now, everyone who believes this message of the gospel is likewise a pleasing aroma to God, as we share the good news about God in Christ to others. But notice how these verses began: “But thanks be to God….” That’s no perfunctory statement. It’s Paul’s expression of gratitude for God’s guidance and making him an aroma of God. Paul knew of his self-insufficiency to smell good to others. He knew that the gospel offended and was the stench of death to some. Paul could do nothing from himself to cause the objectively pleasant smell of God’s word and God’s word-givers to be well-pleasing in their sight (3:5-6). Hence, “who is sufficient for these things?” (v. 16). As we put out the smells of the knowledge of God, we do so knowing that some will find it abhorrent; others will consider it the best smell they’ve ever smelled. Regardless, we do so being led by God, resting in his sufficiency to bring the smell of the gospel from one person or place to the next. There’s no reason for self-boasting in the smells we’re putting out. Let’s thank God for his leading us in Christ, as he uses us to spread his knowledge across the world. And let’s thank God whether people find our smells off-putting or life-giving.

2 Corinthians 2:12-13

2 Corinthians 2:12-13

Rest in Search of Brotherhood  

Today we’re looking at just two verses, which seem inconsequential. Paul speaks more about his change of travel plans. No biggie, right? Two things from the outset can be said. First, remember that Paul’s change of plans was for the Corinthians a sign of disloyalty, a sign of some apostolic breach of contract. His change of plans was not looked upon favorably by the Corinthians. When Paul speaks about his change of plans, therefore, he’s also offering a brief defense of his own word and hence apostleship. Second, in Paul’s defense of his change of itinerary we see his heart for the Corinthians, though not in a way we’d expect, nor in the way the Corinthians had desired.

What surprises the reader in these verses is that Paul, the quintessential evangelist, the man who lets no barrier get in his way from preaching the good news about Christ, leaves what seems to be a great opportunity, a divine appointment even, to do the very thing God had called him to do: evangelize the Gentiles. What’s up with that? And why do those in Troas appear to get shortchanged and left high-and-dry, with no gospel-preacher to be found? Don’t they need the gospel as well? His words become especially ironic given verse 14, where he says that God uses him to spread the good news “everywhere.” Does “everywhere” include Troas, the place he left, to meet up with Titus in Macedonia? Paul heads to Macedonia because he had no rest. But what’s even more ironic is that in Macedonia, he had no rest! He says later in this letter, “For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn” (7:5). What gives, Paul? How do we sort things out? A few things need to be said.

First, we can’t say that Paul went to Troas on a whim, for selfish purposes, or even contrary to the Lord’s direction. Preaching the gospel was his call, his aim, and his desire. And that’s a beautiful thing. Nothing wrong with it. Everything right with it. Paul even says that a door was opened up for him “in the Lord.” Paul would have been right to evangelize further in Troas (and in fact God does re-open that door: cf. Acts 20:5-12).

Second, Paul doesn’t say that he never gave the gospel while in Troas. He only means that he didn’t stay long. The presence of the opened door is evidence that he did give the gospel. How else should we understand his words? If the Lord opened up a way to preach the gospel, he preached the gospel. Paul speaks elsewhere about opened doors as opportunities to preach, which opportunities were taken (cf. 1 Cor. 16:8-9; Acts 14:27). Therefore, we have no reason to believe that Paul did not preach in Troas. We actually have evidence that he did, and that his preaching was successful, albeit short. Of whom but the evangelized-now-converted did Paul take leave (v. 13)? We just don’t know for how long he stayed, and from a human perspective, his departure seemed too soon. Calvin speculates, though not without an appeal to Paul’s character and custom, that Paul did not leave himself without a witness of the gospel to take the reins: “It is not, however, at all likely that he left Troas, till he had first introduced some one in his place to improve the opening that had occurred” (Calvin’s Commentary on 2 Corinthians 2:13).

Third, the issue of concern or grief for Paul was the absence of Titus. It was his dear brother’s absence that was the cause of a restive spirit. The desire for Paul was not rest per se, nor was it even rest from physical burdens. By God’s grace, Paul braved all those afflictions (2 Cor. 11:16-12:10). Paul’s desire was for his absent brother, Titus, and through him, the Corinthians. Paul’s restless spirit is not the same thing as some may want it to be: an inner feeling from God by which to make a decision. In Christian circles, you often hear things like, “I just don’t have a peace about…,” which means that the person doesn’t feel quite right about making a particular decision. That’s not what Paul was getting at, nor would he advocate such a method for decision-making.

Titus was evidence of God’s work through Paul’s ministry. He was a Gentile convert, a son in the faith (Titus 1:4), and a missionary companion of Paul (2 Cor. 8:23; Gal. 2:1). He was a huge comfort to both Paul and the Corinthians. Indeed, his name features most prominently in 2 Corinthians (here; 7:6, 13; 8:6, 16, 23; 12:18). It’s not a surprise, then, that Paul was grieved when he, expecting Titus in Troas, didn’t see him. Why was Paul awaiting Titus so expectantly? Because Titus had been sent by Paul to Corinth, and he was to return with a report concerning the Corinthians. Paul’s anxiety for Titus was his anxiety for the Corinthians (cf. 2 Cor. 11:28). Calvin aptly summarizes Paul’s heart and love for the Corinthians: “Here is an evidence of a singular degree of attachment to the Corinthians, that he was so anxious respecting them, that he had no rest anywhere, even when a large prospect of usefulness presented itself, until he had learned the state of their affairs…. Paul loved the Corinthians so much, that he accommodated all his journeyings and long circuits to their welfare, and that he had accordingly come to them later than he had promised—not from having, in forgetfulness of his promise, rashly changed his plan, or from having been carried away by some degree of fickleness (2 Cor. 1:17), but because delay was more profitable for them.” Refreshingly, when Titus came, Paul was comforted, and so were the Corinthians (2 Cor. 7:6-7). All this was in God’s good timing.

Do you view your brothers and sisters in Christ with similar love and affection? Remember, these Corinthians aren’t the most lovable people in all the land. Nevertheless, Paul’s love for them was contagious, as seen in Titus’ love for them as well. I hope there’s a kind of anxiety or restless spirit in you as you await the presence of your Christian siblings. You’ll be living with them forever soon enough!

2 Corinthians 2:12-13

Rest in Search of Brotherhood  

Today we’re looking at just two verses, which seem inconsequential. Paul speaks more about his change of travel plans. No biggie, right? Two things from the outset can be said. First, remember that Paul’s change of plans was for the Corinthians a sign of disloyalty, a sign of some apostolic breach of contract. His change of plans was not looked upon favorably by the Corinthians. When Paul speaks about his change of plans, therefore, he’s also offering a brief defense of his own word and hence apostleship. Second, in Paul’s defense of his change of itinerary we see his heart for the Corinthians, though not in a way we’d expect, nor in the way the Corinthians had desired.

What surprises the reader in these verses is that Paul, the quintessential evangelist, the man who lets no barrier get in his way from preaching the good news about Christ, leaves what seems to be a great opportunity, a divine appointment even, to do the very thing God had called him to do: evangelize the Gentiles. What’s up with that? And why do those in Troas appear to get shortchanged and left high-and-dry, with no gospel-preacher to be found? Don’t they need the gospel as well? His words become especially ironic given verse 14, where he says that God uses him to spread the good news “everywhere.” Does “everywhere” include Troas, the place he left, to meet up with Titus in Macedonia? Paul heads to Macedonia because he had no rest. But what’s even more ironic is that in Macedonia, he had no rest! He says later in this letter, “For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn” (7:5). What gives, Paul? How do we sort things out? A few things need to be said.

First, we can’t say that Paul went to Troas on a whim, for selfish purposes, or even contrary to the Lord’s direction. Preaching the gospel was his call, his aim, and his desire. And that’s a beautiful thing. Nothing wrong with it. Everything right with it. Paul even says that a door was opened up for him “in the Lord.” Paul would have been right to evangelize further in Troas (and in fact God does re-open that door: cf. Acts 20:5-12).

Second, Paul doesn’t say that he never gave the gospel while in Troas. He only means that he didn’t stay long. The presence of the opened door is evidence that he did give the gospel. How else should we understand his words? If the Lord opened up a way to preach the gospel, he preached the gospel. Paul speaks elsewhere about opened doors as opportunities to preach, which opportunities were taken (cf. 1 Cor. 16:8-9; Acts 14:27). Therefore, we have no reason to believe that Paul did not preach in Troas. We actually have evidence that he did, and that his preaching was successful, albeit short. Of whom but the evangelized-now-converted did Paul take leave (v. 13)? We just don’t know for how long he stayed, and from a human perspective, his departure seemed too soon. Calvin speculates, though not without an appeal to Paul’s character and custom, that Paul did not leave himself without a witness of the gospel to take the reins: “It is not, however, at all likely that he left Troas, till he had first introduced some one in his place to improve the opening that had occurred” (Calvin’s Commentary on 2 Corinthians 2:13).

Third, the issue of concern or grief for Paul was the absence of Titus. It was his dear brother’s absence that was the cause of a restive spirit. The desire for Paul was not rest per se, nor was it even rest from physical burdens. By God’s grace, Paul braved all those afflictions (2 Cor. 11:16-12:10). Paul’s desire was for his absent brother, Titus, and through him, the Corinthians. Paul’s restless spirit is not the same thing as some may want it to be: an inner feeling from God by which to make a decision. In Christian circles, you often hear things like, “I just don’t have a peace about…,” which means that the person doesn’t feel quite right about making a particular decision. That’s not what Paul was getting at, nor would he advocate such a method for decision-making.

Titus was evidence of God’s work through Paul’s ministry. He was a Gentile convert, a son in the faith (Titus 1:4), and a missionary companion of Paul (2 Cor. 8:23; Gal. 2:1). He was a huge comfort to both Paul and the Corinthians. Indeed, his name features most prominently in 2 Corinthians (here; 7:6, 13; 8:6, 16, 23; 12:18). It’s not a surprise, then, that Paul was grieved when he, expecting Titus in Troas, didn’t see him. Why was Paul awaiting Titus so expectantly? Because Titus had been sent by Paul to Corinth, and he was to return with a report concerning the Corinthians. Paul’s anxiety for Titus was his anxiety for the Corinthians (cf. 2 Cor. 11:28). Calvin aptly summarizes Paul’s heart and love for the Corinthians: “Here is an evidence of a singular degree of attachment to the Corinthians, that he was so anxious respecting them, that he had no rest anywhere, even when a large prospect of usefulness presented itself, until he had learned the state of their affairs…. Paul loved the Corinthians so much, that he accommodated all his journeyings and long circuits to their welfare, and that he had accordingly come to them later than he had promised—not from having, in forgetfulness of his promise, rashly changed his plan, or from having been carried away by some degree of fickleness (2 Cor. 1:17), but because delay was more profitable for them.” Refreshingly, when Titus came, Paul was comforted, and so were the Corinthians (2 Cor. 7:6-7). All this was in God’s good timing.

Do you view your brothers and sisters in Christ with similar love and affection? Remember, these Corinthians aren’t the most lovable people in all the land. Nevertheless, Paul’s love for them was contagious, as seen in Titus’ love for them as well. I hope there’s a kind of anxiety or restless spirit in you as you await the presence of your Christian siblings. You’ll be living with them forever soon enough!

2 Corinthians 2:5-11

2 Corinthians 2:5-11

Comfort the Repentant Sinner

Who’s your cheerleader: Paul or Satan? I suppose you’d profess the former. But did you know that if you don’t forgive your repentant brother, you’re on Satan’s team? That’s a bit terrifying, isn’t it? It ought to be rather sobering and convicting for the Christian. It’s not only Satanic to withhold forgiveness from a repentant sinner, but it’s also a cause for much grief. Paul continues his theme of grief/pain in this next section of chapter two. There’s grief all around: grief for Paul, grief for the Corinthians, and grief for the repentant sinner. The only person who isn’t aggrieved in this passage would be Satan, who’d be everlastingly elated at the Corinthians’ denial of forgiveness from the brother who sinned against Paul and them.

Who is this brother? Not sure. I (contrary to the modern commentator) tend to think that Paul is referring to the incestuous man who had his father’s wife in 1 Corinthians 5. (That is a serious problem in 1 Corinthians, and it’s the only estranged man in Corinth in need of reconciliation of whom we’d be canonically aware. It would also be a wonderful testimony of the reconciling power of the gospel. But I won’t be dogmatic at this point.) He may have been involved in some sexual deviations (2 Cor. 12:21-3:1) or continued temple worship (cf. 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1). We’re not really sure, but he did sin against Paul. For that reason, Paul says that he has forgiven the man (2:10). Whoever he was, he did a number on the people in Corinth. Whatever he had done, it was difficult for the Corinthians to let the matter go. They had punished him for his sin, and the man was in danger of excessive sorrow. It was hard for the Corinthians to release the man of his sin-debt, and that’s why Paul had to put them to the test: “To forgive or not to forgive?” was the question.

You might be wondering why I’ve called this man a “repentant sinner,” especially since the word “repentant” is nowhere in this passage. For one, I don’t think Paul would command forgiveness when there’s not been confession of sin and repentance. That’s the biblical pattern. Granting forgiveness is a debt-cancellation, and this cancellation requires acknowledgement of the debt and a desire to be released from that debt. But what I’m hinging my point on is found at the end of verse 7: “or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” I’m focusing on the words “excessive sorrow.” Paul doesn’t want this man to be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. Paul is perfectly content with people experiencing sorrow, as long as the sorrow is accompanied by repentance. Indeed, that’s the only kind of sorrow over our sin we should have (2 Cor. 7:8-10). But excessive sorrow…well, that’s too much. It doesn’t fit the sin. That’s why Paul is calling for forgiveness. He’s saying, “Look, Corinthians, the man was repentant. You could see the evidence through his sorrow over his sin and how he grieved you and me. Now stop holding a grudge. Quit it with all this withholding of forgiveness and love. Reaffirm your love for him. Forgive him. I’ve forgiven him.” Something like that.

Notice a few other things. A lot is going on in verse 7. The word “excessive” is the same word used in verse 4 translated “abundant,” in reference to Paul’s excessive, overflowing love that he has for the Corinthians. It’s that overflow of emotion that Paul fears this man will experience, but for him it will be sorrow, unless the Corinthians forgive and comfort him. In fact, this emotional excess works well with the word “overwhelmed.” The word in Greek usually has a negative connotation. In Hebrews 11:29, for instance, it’s used to speak of the Egyptians being drowned. Peter uses it to speak of the devouring Devil (1 Pet. 5:8), and John uses it to speak of the earth swallowing up the dangerous river poured out by the dragon (Rev. 12:16). It can also be used positively, as in the mortal being swallowed up in life (2 Cor. 5:4), and death being swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:54). The word directs us to the powerful and complete consumption of an object. Paul fears that this repentant man will be overtaken, swallowed, consumed, devoured, never to be restored again, if the Corinthians fail to do their God-given duty and privilege: reaffirm their love for him, comfort him by forgiving him.

Notice also that the comfort given the man will be in the form of forgiveness. I take the phrase “forgive and comfort him” as “forgive and thus comfort him.” That’s the only way he will be comforted: if he finds forgiveness from his Corinthian brothers. Otherwise, it’s excessive sorrow. No comfort. Just unending and overflowing grief.

It is with this urgent need to comfort the man that we are reminded of the cycle of comfort back in chapter one. Recall that in chapter one, the pattern was laid out thus: we are afflicted/aggrieved, then God comforts us, then we comfort others who are similarly afflicted/aggrieved. And so it is in chapter two but in the context of sin, not undeserved suffering. The Corinthians have sinned. God forgives and so comforts them, then they are to forgive and so comfort others who are similarly sorrowful over their sin. The words of Paul in Ephesians 4:24 come to mind (especially since the words “kind,” “forgiving,” and “forgave” share the same word in vv. 7, 10 (forgive, charizomai): “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” As the Corinthians have been comforted and forgiven, so they must comfort and forgive.

And now we’re back to the beginning: whose team are you on? Paul’s (God’s team, really!) or Satan’s? Forgiveness is absolutely necessary in order to ward off Satan and not give him a foothold in your relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ. We mustn’t be ignorant of the craftiness of the snake of old, that ancient serpent the Devil. Paul reminds us that it’s Satan’s pleasure to outwit us. The word “outwit” (pleonekteō), I think, is better translated “taken advantage of,” “cheated,” or “robbed” (cf. 2 Cor. 12:17-18). Satan seeks to defraud us. He seeks to rob us and cheat us. Paul warns about the devilish design of Satan to involve himself in the relationships of God’s children. Back to Ephesians 4, Paul says that by allowing the sun to go down on your anger, you’re allowing the Devil to have an opportunity to sow seeds of discord and division (vv. 26-27). That’s the problem here with the Corinthians. By giving in to the temptation to hold back forgiveness, they are falling into the trap laid for them by the Devil. He’s the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning. He deceived Adam and Eve in the Garden. And now he wants to deprive the Corinthians of the all-important unity and comfort found in the freedom of forgiveness and the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Corinthians, and we (if you’ve not made the necessary application by now), then combat the enemy by forgiving our repentant brothers and sisters.

I’m sure you can think of a situation when you were truly sorry for some sin, and this sin grieved you greatly (one, because it was against the holy Triune God, and two, because it hurt your Christian sibling). And I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the offended party denied you forgiveness for a time, even when you were repentant. Sure, you didn’t deserve forgiveness (no one does), but the withholding of such grace grieved you, didn’t it? Our gracious and forgiving God has given us these verses in part to remind us to be free in our forgiveness with our Christian brothers and sisters. No, they don’t deserve it. But neither do you.

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    For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen.

  • Cross Creek Presbyterian Church (PCA) - 430 S McPherson Church Road - Fayetteville, NC 28304
    Office:(910) 864-4031 - Fax: (910) 864-8363