2 Corinthians 12:11-19

2 Corinthians 12:11-19

Apostolic Signs & Service

What makes a good ping pong player? For one, the player needs to have the right equipment: a ping pong ball, a paddle, and a table with net (tight wedgie-producing shorts are optional but preferred). The player must also have the right content of the game; he must know the rules, what’s forbidden, how to score, how to serve, and all the rest of that important information. The player must also apply the rules to his game-playing, practice much, play against challenging individuals, and devote himself to the game. What’s not necessary is his conduct. Preferably, he ought to be a model of sportsmanship, but he could be a cocky ping pong player, one who knows his skills, boasts of them, and arrogates to himself all his ping-pong prowess.

What makes an apostle to the Lord Jesus Christ? The apostle Paul, one who is unworthy to be called an apostle, helps us to know what to look for in an apostle. He’s already helped us some. The apostle must be commissioned by Christ himself by the will of God (2 Cor. 1:1). He must be established by the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 1:21; 3:6). He must have a ministry of revelation from God for God’s people (2 Cor. 3:4-4:6). Moreover, unlike a ping pong player, or most skillful people for that matter, conduct is key for an apostle. There’s no room for genuine self-boasting, self-sufficiency, or self-confidence of any kind (2 Cor. 3:4-6; 10:17). Even though Paul does not go into detail about his marks of apostleship, he does identify some of them, which we’ll consider here. In the shell of a nut, they are signs and service.

Paul no longer speaks as a fool. Recall that his foolish speech began in earnest in 11:1 and has concluded in 12:10. With 12:11, therefore, Paul owns up to what he was doing all along: “I have been a fool! You forced me to it!” This was forced foolishness of self-boasting that Paul engaged in, when the truth of the matter is that he should’ve been commended by the Corinthians to the super-apostles, who were clearly undermining Paul’s apostleship. Paul was likely being asked to show his apostolic I.D. card by some Corinthian critic(s), and so he did that as a foolish boaster in the previous chapters. Now, moving forward, he returns to sanity. These super-apostles, Paul affirms, are truly inferior to Paul. Why? Because they’re not apostles, and not even believers! Believers are better off than unbelievers. As soon as Paul asserts his apostolic superiority, he’s quick to add: “even though I am nothing.” You could just hear how much it grated on Paul to claim superiority. True, he’s an apostle; they’re not. But Paul knows himself to be unworthy to be called an apostle; he knows that his apostolic status is purely a gift from his gracious God.

What, then, are his apostolic credentials? We’ve already seen some (mentioned above and in the previous chapters), but in verse 12, Paul mentions “the signs of a true apostle” being “signs and wonders and mighty works.” That’s all Paul tells us. And when you read Luke’s account in Acts 18:1-11 of Paul in Corinth, no miracles are mentioned. Even though no such record is made in Acts 18, it’s clear from Paul that these signs were performed among the Corinthians. Not everything that happened in the apostolic age was recorded in Acts. The Corinthians were witnesses of God’s miraculous power through Paul. This truth makes their rejection of his apostleship all the more terrifying and saddening. The three words are all used together in a few other verses (Acts 2:22; 6:8; Rom. 15:19; 2 Thess. 2:9; Heb. 2:4). These words for signs are not three categorically different miracles. Rather, they are three different vantage points or angles from which to view the miraculous activity. The “sign” is a miracle that signifies, a miracle that points to something beyond itself, namely, to Jesus Christ, his word and his power (cf. John 20:30-31; Heb. 2:3-4). The wonders are miracles that impress wonder or amazement on the observer (cf. Acts 2:12; 3:10; 13:11-12). They produce marvel and elicit awe. The mighty works, or miracles, refer to powers, and the word is used generally in reference to great displays of the power of God. Such was the experience of the Corinthians, of which they should have reminded each other and the super-apostles, lest anyone deny the work and word of God through Paul. Admittedly, we’d love to read more from Paul on those signs, but we have Acts to see the kind of things that the apostles did, Paul included. Notice, however, that Paul spends less time on those miraculous apostolic signs than he does reminding them of his whole-hearted, self-giving service to the Corinthians. And it’s in this area of selfless service that Paul is really set apart from the lying light of the false apostles (11:13-15). The false apostles do not demonstrate what we see Paul doing. Let’s keep looking.

As Paul keeps writing, he speaks of what made the Corinthian church different in terms of their relation to the apostle. The church in Corinth received the same treatment as all the other churches that were graced by God’s apostle. They weren’t deprived of the signs or the revelation. They were, however, deprived of one thing, of which Paul did not spare the other churches: burden. How about that for irony and sarcasm? He even begs their forgiveness for this ostensible misstep (called an injustice or wrongdoing). What was the problem? People were complaining that Paul hadn’t served the church in Corinth as he had the others. They’re claiming that he’s playing ecclesiastical favorites. The reality, however, is that he worked for them in Corinth without charging them. Ironically, therefore, he is asking their forgiveness for not burdening them by charging them for his apostolic services (cf. 11:7; 1 Cor. 9:12, 18). He didn’t charge them, even though he could have done so. Instead of being thankful for his unconditional love expressed this way, some critics took this denial for remuneration as a sign that he was not an apostle! Surely an apostle who has a revelation worthy of attention ought to charge, right? Paul says, “Not necessarily,” and so he is like Christ, presenting the free gospel free of charge, and taking on himself the burden of extra work to unburden and serve others.

In verses 14-15, he prepares the Corinthians for his coming visit, Lord willing. It had been about six years since his first visit, then he had made that sad visit (1:23-2:1). He’s now ready to visit them a third time, especially since he received an encouraging report from Titus concerning their repentance (chapter 7). When he comes to them soon, he’s not going to burden them. He’s not seeking what is theirs; he’s seeking them. Contrary to the false teachers, Paul has come not to receive from them, but to give freely to them (even though he had every apostolic right to remuneration). Returning to the parent-child imagery begun in 6:13 (and reminding them of the truth that he had begotten/fathered them: cf. 1 Cor. 4:14-17), Paul likens himself to a generous parent who gives of himself for his children, without expecting anything in return. There are countless ways and times that parents give to their children far more than they receive. Taking celebrations that involve the giving of gifts (Christmas, birthdays, etc.), it’s the parents who lavish upon their children the many and wondrous gifts. What do the parents get in return? Perhaps a hand-drawn picture on a card, a noodle-sprayed craft that was made in school, or something small and “priceless.” Are the parents upset at this? Do they say something like this? “After all I have done for you, after all the gifts I have given to you, THIS is what you give me—a drawing on the back of the church’s worship folder???” Certainly not. Paul the parent has given the Corinthians his whole self, and he wonders why they seem to love him less than they ought.

Rather than loving him freely, as he has freely loved them, some Corinthians have been deceived by the critics or super-apostles (vv. 16-18). He handles and flat-out denies the accusation of being crafty and getting the better of the Corinthians. The accusation is likely related to his supposed financial underhandedness. The Corinthians might wonder whether the collection Paul has prepped them to make would go straight to Paul, Titus, and that other brother. As a patient parent, he reminds them that he, Titus, and the other brother all have the same spirit of love for them. They’ve all given the Corinthians ample evidence of their truthfulness, not craftiness (a mark of the serpent). No, no, no. That’s not how he has dealt with them. Over and over again in this letter he has eschewed underhanded ways. Would that they got the picture!

If they understood Pauline correspondence and conduct before them, they’d see that he’s actually been working hard at their upbuilding (v. 19). Paul is not looking to get but to give. He’s not looking to be built up, but to build up. He’s not looking to be served, but to serve. That’s a significant difference between Paul and the super-apostles. They’re craftily scheming their own gain from the Corinthians, whereas Paul is pleading with them to receive the genuine servant-love he has for them because of the immense, affectionate love that Christ has for him. It’s as simple as that. That’s the heart of the apostle: love for others to see them grow in love for God and each other. That heart-motive sure sounds like the two Great Commandments to which Christ calls all his people (Matt. 22:34-40).

If we summarize the apostolic character signs just from this brief passage, we see humility (v. 11), utmost patience (v. 12), self-sacrifice (v. 13), other-oriented service and generosity of self (vv. 14-15), truthfulness in speech and behavior (vv. 16-18), and edification of God’s people (v. 19). If we were to take these signs as an apostolic framework or checklist, we’d see every apostle to Christ exhibiting such traits. Pride is unbecoming of an apostle, and of every Christian for that matter! We’d see all these traits from those commissioned by Christ, because Christ himself was humble, patient, self-sacrificial, generous, truthful, and edifying. And it is Christ who by his Spirit has been at work in the lives of his apostles. Let’s not forget that these traits are fitting for and expected of all followers of Christ. We should not expect our brothers and sisters to bring new revelations from God to us, nor should we expect each other to demonstrate signs, wonders, and mighty works. The apostolic age has ceased, and so have the accompanying apostolic gifts. The conduct, however, endures. That was Paul’s focus in his self-defense against the super-apostles. Is it ours?

2 Corinthians 12:7-10

2 Corinthians 12:7-10

A Thorny Subject

If you’ve spent any time in Christian circles or studying the life of Paul, you’re probably like everyone else wondering what the deal is with Paul’s thorn in the flesh mentioned in 2 Corinthians 12:7. Paul goes on to say that the thorn was a “messenger of Satan” sent to harass him, used by God to prevent a conceited heart in Paul. What, pray tell, is Paul’s fleshly thorn? Inquiring minds inquire.

There’s no shortage of suggested solutions to that quagmire of a question. Answers abound. Was it an issue of sexual lust? Ophthalmia? Malaria? Migraines? Epilepsy? Speech impediment? An ongoing sin problem? Demonic opposition? Persecution? Anxiety about the churches he has established? Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim. 1:20), as Chrysostom suggested? How about Calvin’s view that the thorn represented every kind of temptation and not one in particular? With an abundance of answers for the picking, one gets the impression that no one this side of heaven will know (except for Paul and God, of course). What I suggest below is not entirely unique to me (even though I came up with this conclusion independently of others), but my borderline dogmatism may be. In other words, I don’t think we can know with certainty what Paul’s thorn was, but by knowing how the phrase is used in the Old Testament, and through a contextual reading of 2 Corinthians, we may be closer to an answer than we think. Utter skepticism isn’t necessary, in other words.

Old Testament Use

Paul’s use of “thorn” (σκόλοψ, skolops) in 2 Corinthians 12:7 is the only time the New Testament uses the word. In situations like this, it’s helpful to see if the Old Testament uses the word or phrase. As it turns out, there are four instances of the phrase “thorn in the flesh/side” in the Old Testament, and the use in every one of them is consistent. First, in Numbers 33:55 we read: “But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs (σκόλοπες, skolopes) in your eyes and thorns (βολίδες, bolides) in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell” (ESV). The Lord promises the Israelites that unless they utterly drive out the Canaanites from the Promised Land, the Canaanites will be a pain in their neck, or a thorn in their sides. Second, in Joshua 23, Joshua summons all Israel and warns them, saying that even though the Lord has graciously given them all this land, they will be driven out of the land if they marry Canaanites and do not drive them out utterly. Joshua 23:13 says that these pagan nations will “be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes.”

Third, more of the same occurs in Judges 2. In fact, the fulfillment of what the Lord says in Joshua 23 is seen in Judges 2. Because the Israelites did not obey the Lord, the angel of the Lord, speaking of the Canaanites, says, “I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you” (v. 3). Finally, in Ezekiel 28:20-26, the son of man, Ezekiel, prophesies against Sidon. And this prophecy against Sidon is good news for Israel, as it points to a reversal of the mistreatment and contempt that Israel’s neighbors showed her. The Israelites will dwell in safety, because “…for the house of Israel there shall be no more a brier to prick or a thorn to hurt them among all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt…” (v. 24).

When we boil down the OT use of the phrase, therefore, in each of these instances, there is either the threat of God sending the wicked to the Israelites for their faithlessness to the covenant, or the promise of the wicked being removed. In all these passages we see the wicked, persecuting, troublesome, godless nations being a thorn in Israel’s side. These are antagonistic, hostile, subversive, and unbelieving people opposed to God and his people. This is how the phrase “thorn in one’s side” and its parallels are used in the Old Testament. This fact becomes helpful and the only background grid through which to understand Paul’s context and thorn in 2 Corinthians.

Second Corinthians

We may be right in boiling down Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians thus: there’s much affliction, but even more comfort in the lives of God’s people, because their God is the God of all comfort. We see this theme of God comforting the afflicted from start (1:3) to finish (13:11). One source of affliction is Satan and his demonic servants, as we’ve seen most especially in the last two chapters. Paul early in the letter recognizes the crafty, Satanic designs aimed at God’s people by tempting them not to forgive the repentant sinner in their midst (2:5-11). The theme of Satanic opposition and affliction doesn’t pop up overtly (i.e., using the term “Satan”) again until 11:14 when Satan is seen as an “angel of light.” But when it does pop up, its use is significant for our present purpose. Indeed, Paul uses the same word for “angel” in 11:14 as he does for “messenger” of Satan in 12:7 (ἄγγελος, angelos), speaking of his thorn in the flesh. In chapter 11, Paul speaks of this Satanic deception in the form of “false apostles,” “deceitful workmen,” who are “disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (11:13). Because Satan is an angel/messenger of light, so are these Satanic servants (v. 15). The emphasis of deceit and disguise recalls the garden of Eden where we read that the serpent was “more crafty” than all the other beasts (Gen. 3:1). Eve was right to point out that the serpent “deceived” her (3:13). Most significantly, this serpentine deception is noted at the start of 2 Corinthians 11, where Paul brings us back to the garden by highlighting the cunning serpent that is seeking to deceive the Corinthians (11:3-4). This is who Satan is; this is what he does. He’s the father of lies, the grand deceiver (John 8:44). So, is it any surprise that his children will likewise lie, deceive, and disguise themselves against God and his true messengers?

This is exactly what we’ve been observing recently in 2 Corinthians. Paul has had to defend his apostleship throughout the letter and the last few chapters are his defense in its most concentrated form. He has to refute false gospel (11:4), false apostles (10:12, 17; 11:13), and so-called “super apostles” (11:5; 12:11). These false apostles who are opposed to Paul and the gospel of Jesus Christ say that Paul is a hypocrite, that he is weighty while away but weak while present (10:1, 10). It is by means of these Satanic servants that the Serpent of old has sought to lead astray the Corinthians and to harass Paul by opposing his gospel efforts.

What does all this Satanic opposition have to do with Paul’s thorn in the flesh? All this contextual build-up helps us to see that Paul’s mention of his thorn is smack-dab in the middle of false apostles, deceitful workmen, servants of Satan. In fact, a brief outline of chapters 11-12 shows that in 11:1-15, Paul mentions these false apostles, in 11:16-12:10 he speaks of his sufferings and the thorn in the flesh, then he again speaks of the false apostles in 12:11-13. The connection should be clear. Paul sees his suffering in general, and his thorn in the flesh in particular, in the context of super-apostle opposition. These “apostles,” like Paul, were messengers, but they brought a message of Satan, one that condemned and deceived, not one that saved.

What then is Paul’s thorn in the flesh? Paul tells us it’s a messenger of Satan. It’s these false teachers, viewed collectively in 12:7 (“messenger,” not “messengers”), aimed against Paul and calling him an imposter (6:8). It’s an anti-Paul movement or group that opposed his apostleship, that sought to lead astray the Corinthians, and that was hostile to Paul as a true messenger from God confirmed by signs (6:8; 12:12), one whom God himself commended (5:20; 10:8, 18), evidenced further by the Corinthians themselves (3:1-3) and by Paul’s tearful affliction (6:4). Like the godless nations against Israel in the Old Testament (one might even call them offspring of Satan a la Gen. 3:15), Satan, by raising up false teachers/brothers/apostles, has kept up his deceitful opposition against God’s people (in our case, the Corinthians) and God’s messenger (Paul).

The answer to the question of the identity of Paul’s thorn seems quite plain (hence my borderline dogmatism). But there is a reasonable objection against this view. The objection reasons in this way. In 12:7, this thorn is given to Paul. Paul pleads with the Lord to have it removed. Therefore, the Lord gave this thorn to Paul. Why, the objection goes, would the Lord give Paul an anti-Paul group of false teachers/brothers/apostles? It seems counter-productive to God’s plan of spreading the gospel. Is God shooting himself in the foot? It also doesn’t seem very loving of God to do to Paul his follower. There is much to be said about the relationship between God and deception, but a brief response may be better than nothing.

If you read Deuteronomy 13:1-3, you’ll see some of God’s first words on prophecy and false teachers. If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams comes, gives a sign, but gives a message against God, what are the Israelites to do? Not listen to the false prophet, of course! But notice that in verse 3, this whole prophetic scenario takes place only because of the Lord’s testing. The Lord stirred the pot! The Lord, in essence, is bringing a false teacher into the Israelite camp to test them: will they be loyal? Will they be lovingly devoted to him alone? How sovereign is your God? Is he so sovereign that he directs and uses error to test his people, that he might highlight the truthfulness of his own Word? If that’s not your view of God, then your view is contrary to the Scripture at that point. That’s how he dealt with the Israelites, and that’s how he dealt with Paul.

And what about Paul and 2 Corinthians? What did Paul tell us? He told us that it was given him to keep him from being conceited (12:7) because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations he had received. In this verse, Paul begins and ends with the Lord’s purpose in mind: to prevent a conceited heart. The only other time this word is used is in 2 Thessalonians (another of Paul’s letters), when he speaks of the man of lawlessness. This lawless man exalts himself against every so-called god and proclaims himself to be God! Paul knows well that knowledge can be used to puff yourself up. Look at yourself when you learn something; the temptation is there to be proud of yourself. Consider Paul, who had received great visions and abundantly great revelations. The Lord pulls back the curtain for Paul, shows him who-knows-what? Of course, it was awesome, then the Lord stealthily slips a thorn in Paul’s side. Surpassing revelations…then a messenger of Satan. This messenger was sent to harass Paul (literally, to beat him up). It sounds like God sent a mercenary to do his divine bidding. Would God really do that? He did it to Adam, to Job, to Israel, and to Paul.

And there was one more person who was tested, someone who came into the world with devils filled that threatened to undo him, someone who came into the world with thorns and thistles. In Matthew 4:1, it says that Jesus was up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. Who led Jesus? Satan? No way. It was God the Spirit! What did the Spirit lead Jesus to? To devilish temptations. To not merely a messenger of Satan, but to Satan himself, that Christ might be tried, tested, and opposed. And in those temptations, the Word of God is challenged; it’s perverted, twisted, softened, and subtly and craftily denied. God sends the Son to be tested, and that testing included the opposition of God’s very Word. God does not spare his own Son. And it was that testing that was essential to Jesus’ state of humiliation, as he retraced the steps of Adam, retraced the steps of Israel, and succeeded at every point in his thorny trials. At every point when Adam and Israel got pricked, beaten up, got “thorned and thistled,” they sinned. They compromised God’s Word. They failed. Not so with Christ. When he was tempted in every way as we are, when he was crowned with that thorny crown, he remained sinless. He held fast to the Word. He succeeded. He earned our much-needed righteousness.

God gave Paul that thorn of apostolic opposition to remind him that his grace is sufficient for Paul in his weakness (12:9). Paul can say that despite the “insults” and “persecutions” (12:10), he will rest upon Christ. After all, that’s exactly what he said when he began the letter. Paul, recounting all the affliction he experienced in Asia, was to the point of despairing for life. Why would God give him such affliction to the degree that Paul despaired of life? That question is just as difficult a question as the objection about God giving Paul an anti-Paul group of false apostles. What’s Paul’s answer? That intense God-given affliction in Asia was to make Paul rely not on himself but on God (1:9). That doesn’t sound too different from God sending the thorn to prevent conceit in Paul. After all, suffering has, as one object in mind, the need for reliance on God’s grace and comfort and not on oneself. Wasn’t that in part what God was saying to the Israelites? “Depend on me, not on those godless nations.” Isn’t that what God says to us? “Depend on me and my Word and my gospel, not on teaching contrary to my Word, not on your imaginations.” Perhaps that’s why also he would give Paul this thorn in the flesh. When we fail to respond faithfully to God in our trials, we need not despair, because Christ is ours. Christ now by his Spirit is at work in our lives to sanctify us partly through testing. In the face of thorns, we can rely on God whose power runs through our spiritual veins. When we are tested and opposed, we are being driven back to the God of all comfort, whose Word is truth, and who cares for us. Christ’s power abides in us. When we are weak, then we are strong…because Christ!

2 Corinthians 12:1-6

2 Corinthians 12:1-6

Heavenly Forbidden Revelations

Did you know that Jesus has blue eyes, wears a crown, is dressed in white with a purple sash, and rides a rainbow-colored horse? Students, did you know that homework doesn’t stop on earth, but you will have to do it in heaven? Did you know that the Holy Spirit, which is a thing, is “kind of blue”? These are some of the “truths” that 4-year-old Colton Burpo saw when he was in heaven for a brief time. Of course, Colton wasn’t the first or the last one to claim to have visited heaven and seen visions. Books on this theme (sometimes called “heavenly tourism”) dominate bookstores, both Christian and secular. Whether it’s Heaven Is for Real, 90 Minutes in Heaven, The Boy Who Came Back, To Heaven and Back, and countless others, one claim is central: people can go to heaven, experience it, then return to earth to tell the tale. Laying aside the many contradictions between these books (they all can’t be right, as their stories differ and contradict one another), let’s consider the Bible. Let’s consider the two Lazaruses (Lazari?) in the NT (one in a parable, the other in real life), then we’ll consider Paul. Here are people in the NT that have gone to heaven and returned. Based on these experiences, what should we expect? Before moving to Paul, let’s quickly consider both Lazaruses/Lazari in Luke 16 and John 11.

In a parable in Luke 16:19-31, Jesus tells his listeners that even if a person should come back from the dead, people wouldn’t believe him because they didn’t believe Moses and the Prophets (i.e., Scripture). What is necessary is the Scripture. That’s why father Abraham says to the rich man who wanted his servant Lazarus to relieve his inflamed tongue and whose five brothers are still on earth in need of eternal life: “Let them hear them” (v. 29). That is, let the brothers hear Moses and the Prophets.

What about the Lazarus in John 11 who’s raised from the dead after being gone for 4 days? Nothing is said in the narrative about him after Jesus raised him except that people try to kill Lazarus (John 12:9-11). But why not tell everyone what happened in those intervening days of bliss? That’s the perfect time to tell us what’s going on in heaven. Here’s why: the story of Lazarus isn’t about Lazarus, or about heaven for that matter. It’s about Jesus, the resurrection and the life (John 11:25). What’s truly sad is that people today eat up all this non-Scriptural heavenly tourism garbage. They believe that it confirms their faith, or that it adds to their knowledge of heaven. What they’re doing, however, is practically denying the finality and sufficiency of Scripture in favor of less-than-orthodox, fantastical, ear-tingling story-telling. Well, if we can’t find it in those two texts, let’s hear Scripture and what Paul has to say about his trip to heaven.

Oh wait…. Something’s wrong here, guys. The very thing we’re wanting is what Paul says cannot be uttered. (So much for all those books on heavenly tourism!) Blast it all! I suppose if we just read our Bibles, we wouldn’t be so heartbroken. What’s going on in our text under consideration? For one, we know that Paul really did go to heaven (v. 2). Granted, he speaks about “a man in Christ,” and it’s on this man’s behalf (not his own) that Paul will boast (v. 5), but as we read on, it’s clear that it was Paul himself who had the vision and surpassing greatness of revelations (v. 7). That’s why he, and not a separate “man in Christ,” receives the thorn in the flesh (v. 7, to be looked at next time). The purpose of the thorn (i.e., to kill conceit in Paul) makes sense only if it was Paul himself who ascended to the third heaven, Paradise (God’s heavenly abode). Moreover, the whole literary context is about Paul’s boastful, foolish speech. He continues boasting (v. 1), and you will recall that in chapter 11, he was “boasting” about his own status, sufferings, and achievements. Paul really went into heaven (whether in the body or out of the body is a matter only God knows). Second, Paul truly experienced visions. The word for “visions” (ὀπτασία) is used a handful of times. It’s used by Luke three times. Luke uses the word in the beginning of his Gospel when Zechariah refers to his temple vision of the angel Gabriel (1:22), then he uses it near the end of his Gospel in reference to the women’s vision of angels at Jesus’ tomb (23:24, cf. 4-5, 9). Finally, he used it in Acts in a speech of Paul’s to King Agrippa (Acts 26:19, cf. v. 13), in which Paul speaks about his vision of the Lord on the road to Damascus. [For all you Polycarp fans, you’ll be excited to know that it’s used of his 3-day, pre-arrest trance/vision of impending martyrdom of being burned alive (Martyrdom of Polycarp, 5.2)]. As far as Paul is concerned (and God, of course!), his visions were authentic.

As Paul sets up this greater reason for him to boast foolishly against the super-apostles, the reader gets excited. You can hear some of the Corinthians (and us!) saying something like this: “What?! You went to heaven, Paul?! You gotta tell us all about it. You just gotta! Then we’ll really know you’re an apostle from the Lord! Then we’ll really know there is such a place!” This would surely put him over the top, wouldn’t it? This would nail the coffin on those false prophets. This is just the perfect piece of apostolic evidence to shut the mouths of all his nay-sayers. Alas, enter verse 4: “and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” He heard “unutterable words” (an ironic jab at those who’d vocalize their many boasts of the things of God). The word “unutterable” (ἄρρητος) can mean either “words unable to be expressed” because of human inability, or “words that must not be expressed” because of their holiness. In this second sense, the words are forbidden to be uttered. I take this interpretation, and I am supported by what Paul says at the end of the verse (“which man may not utter”). The words “may not utter” translate οὐκ ἐξὸν ἀνθρώπῳ λαλῆσαι, and the key words here are “οὐκ ἐξὸν.” The phrase predominately carries the meaning of something not being authorized or legally permitted (cf. Matt. 12:2; Acts 16:21; 22:25). What Paul has in mind, then, are words too holy to be retold for fear of breaking divine law or command.

So, Paul holds his tongue. He admits that what he experienced was true. If he wanted to share his visions with the world, he’d be speaking the truth. (Incidentally, the fact that he knows words to use to communicate the truth of the visions also lends credence to the interpretation that the words were too sacred to retell, not that they were unable to be spoken.) Nevertheless, he refrains. The point has been made. He had far greater visions and revelations of which to boast than these deceitful workmen of Satan. He, contrary to the masked men of the snake, is dependable and trustworthy (cf. 4:2; 6:7; 7:14). What’s Paul after then? Sure, he has an apostolic ace up his sleeve, but it stays in the sleeve. Why? In keeping with Pauline conduct, he is not concerned with boasting in greatness but in weakness (vv. 5, 9). Paul desires that people think of him as they see and hear him (v. 6), as a weak vessel belonging to and living for Christ. Not as someone who went to heaven and back to tell the tale. He wants them to take him as he is, as someone who has in truth shared the revelation of Christ to them (1:19; 4:5; 5:11; 11:3-4), the very thing they so desperately need (not more revelation of Paul’s own heavenly visions). They need to see him as someone whose goal is to exalt the mighty Christ while highlighting his own lowliness. That’s his desire for the Corinthians, and it should be ours for ourselves. These verses, as initially exciting and enrapturing as they may be (literally so in Paul’s case), once again point us to Christ and his glory, not to man. Seeing ourselves as weak and Christ as strong—now that’s the call for the Christian. If that’s our goal, then our theology will be straighter, and our piety purer.

2 Corinthians 11:16-33

2 Corinthians 11:16-33

A Fool Boasts His Sufferings

Let me tell you why I am so much better than you. Most people don’t think much of me. Probably only a few people (my wife, my mother, and maybe one other person) read this series of commentary on 2 Corinthians. I had trouble sleeping this week. I once had to pass a kidney stone. My children don’t always obey me. I’m a white male. I’ve lost the last two golf rounds I’ve played. I could go on and on, but the evidence is incontrovertible, isn’t it? My superiority is clear. Look at me go!

That was an odd paragraph, wasn’t it? Why would I say that? Who’s going to cite as evidence of superiority things like a kidney stone being passed, disobedient children, losing golf, or being a white male? Why would someone boast of such things? Well, someone wouldn’t! (Sadly, some would cite that last bit.) It’s foolishness. And that’s the point. As Paul continues to defend himself as a commissioned messenger and servant of Christ, he takes on the persona of a fool. Irony and sarcasm pervade this section of the letter. Paul really is not foolish (v. 16), but the Corinthians are having a hard time accepting real wisdom which is seen as folly to the world. Paul will then flip the script, speak foolishly, and boast with confidence (v. 17). The Corinthians favor folly and boasting, so Paul offers them both. This is highly sarcastic, if you can’t tell. Paul has asked them to bear with him (11:1), he’s noted their ease at bearing with the super-apostles (v. 4), and so he descends to their level of boasting, ironically to demonstrate that he’s not on the same level as the false friends (vv. 5, 12, 23). We’ll look at two parts to this section: a rebuke for the Corinthians in verses 16-21, then the evidence of Paul’s apostolic superiority in 22-33.

The key point in verses 16-21 is this: Accept Paul as a fool to learn true wisdom by contrast. As we saw last time, Paul makes certain that the super-apostles, the false servants of Christ, will be judged (v. 15). Regrettably, the Corinthians are caught up by the foolishness of these masked Satanites (a word I just coined so as not to be confused with Satanists). In an effort to undermine the false teachers (v. 12), therefore, Paul engages in a bit of foolery. In essence, he says, “I’m no fool. But you apparently think I am, and you’re treating me as one, so let me boast as one” (v. 16). If the Corinthians are going to fools for teaching (i.e., Paul’s opponents), then they can at least consider what a fellow fool has to say. Again, this is to demonstrate that it’s the super-apostles and those they’ve deceived that are the real fools. Paul hastens to add, however, that this boast is not “according to the Lord” (v. 17). They’re hearing a fool, not an apostle of the Lord, nor the Lord himself, who is wise. Paul as fool is not speaking in a manner approved by Christ. As George Guthrie in his commentary puts it, “It is incongruous for a minister who does ministry ‘before God’ (2:17) and boasts ‘in the Lord’ (10:17) to put himself forward by bragging about his own work!” (2 Corinthians, p. 536). As a fool, then, he will boast according to the flesh (v. 18). Rhetorically, therefore, in order for Paul to beat the fools, ironically, he joins the fools. The sarcasm and irony in verse 19 can be cut with a knife: “You are so wise, and in your wisdom, you bear with fools!” (cf. v. 1).

What’s deeply troubling for Paul is that the Corinthians, rather than bearing with the apostle given for their growth in the truth and godliness, gladly bear with foolish people who enslave, devour, take advantage, are arrogant, and strike the Corinthians (v. 20). They couldn’t handle Paul’s weighty letters and weak presence (10:10), but they have no problem enduring enslavement, being consumed, exploitation, arrogant loftiness, and beatings at the hands of the super-apostles. Of course, it must be made clear that these super-apostles are doing all this fleecing of the flock and opposition under the guise of light and truth (11:14), which makes the problem that much more serious. The Israelites were similarly treated by the Egyptians, but they often longed for the life of Egypt. The situation is no different in its essence here. The Egyptians had a different Jesus, a different gospel, and a different spirit; and the same is the case for these devilish workmen (vv. 4, 13). These rascals enslave the Corinthians. Ironically, enslavement was the task of the Corinthians with reference to the false teachers’ ideas (10:5). Rather than enslaving the folly, they became slaves to it. The word for “enslave” (καταδουλοῖ) is used only one other time when it’s used by Paul in a similar context. In Galatians 2:4, he speaks about false brothers enslaving the people of Galatia. Like the Galatians, some Corinthians have held onto the bars of enslavement and asked that they might be made tighter. These angels of light have also devoured the Corinthians. They’ve consumed them, swallowed them up (κατεσθίει), a word commonly used to speak of a judgment-destruction (Rev. 11:5; 20:9). What except being gobbled up should the Corinthians expect if they choose to bear with foolish enslavers? The false apostles of Christ have taken advantage of the Corinthians. The word used (λαμβάνει) can mean “take” generally, but here it takes on the sense of being grabbed for someone else’s gain. Ironically, this is what some of the Corinthians accused Paul of doing to them (12:16-17), yet here they are having it done to them. Moreover, the false servants of righteousness “put on airs” (ἐπαίρεται), a translation I do not favor. The word is used in 10:5 when Paul speaks of “every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God.” Paul is saying in 11:20 that these men are arrogantly rising in opposition to God and over man, the Corinthians. Finally, these serpentine servants strike the Corinthians. The word (δέρει) is used of Jesus and Paul being beaten (Luke 22:63; Acts 16:37), and, ironically, of Paul beating up Christians before his conversion (Acts 22:19). Ironically (there’s that word again!), some Corinthians have taken the whip of their captors and asked for more. Before Paul boasts of his sufferings, he tells the Corinthians, with all the sarcasm he can muster, “To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that!” (v. 21). That’s not how Paul conducted himself before the Corinthians. His apostolic approach differed markedly in kind from that of the false apostles (v. 12). O that the Corinthians would see how they’ve been treated by these super-apostles! O that they would see how good they have it from God! O that they would see Paul’s love for them!

Now in verses 22-33, Paul as fool continues to boast of his suffering, which testifies to the different terms of his apostleship. Rather than his sufferings invalidating his apostleship (as they make the man look like a fool!), they actually authenticate it. He raises his ethnicity (v. 22), calling (v. 23), and sufferings (vv. 23-33) as evidences that evince his apostleship. These are his foolish claims to fame.

In a foolish game of one-upmanship played by madmen (v. 23), Paul bests these light-bearing snakes. Based on verse 22, we learn that the false friends are of Hebrew ethnicity, that they are Israelites, and the very (ethnic, though not spiritual) children of Abraham (cf. John 8:37-44; Rom. 4). If they thought that they could out-boast Paul in the area of ethnicity, they must think again. Indeed, as Paul would say in a parallel passage, he was the Hebrew of Hebrews, the finest Pharisee in the land, one who could have boasted in the flesh if anyone could boast (Phil. 3:4-6). Point 1 goes to Paul. What about a calling from God? They claim to be servants of Christ, but Paul is the true and better servant of Christ (vv. 13-14, 23). He’s got them beat in that area as well. Point 2 goes to Paul. Finally, Paul writes of his many ministry-authenticating sufferings (vv. 23-33). One sees the foolish one-upmanship at its finest now: Far greater labors, imprisonments, countless beatings (often near-death), forty lashes minus one (5x), beaten with rods (3x), stoned (1x), shipwrecked (3x), adrift at sea (day and night), always on the go with frequent journeys and in danger from rivers, robbers, his own people, the Gentiles, danger in the city, in the wilderness, at sea, from false brothers (wink wink!!); many sleepless nights, being hungry and thirsty, often without food, exposed to the cold, and, of course, the daily pressure of anxiety for his church plants (wink wink!!). Points 3 through 1,000 go to Paul. We cry uncle and fess up, “You win, Paul, you win!” Is it any wonder that this man did not go insane? Grace. Would you ever boast in suffering like that? Of course not, unless you’re a fool or mad! The sufferings didn’t endear Paul to the Corinthians; they turned the Corinthians away from Paul and toward a suffering-free ministry of Satan. Ah, but in the ministry of the suffered Christ, sufferings are part and parcel of living as a Christian. As Paul told them in his first letter, “But God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world…” (1 Cor. 1:27-28). Paul came to preach Christ crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). We’d all do well to re-read 1 Corinthians 1-2.

In verse 29, we see both the compassion and the wrath of Paul. He identifies with other weak Corinthians who’ve not drunk the deceptive Kool-Aid of the super-apostles. If you’re weak, you have a friend in Paul. But he’s also indignant. If any of the Corinthians are scandalized or made to fall into sin, Paul burns. The word for “indignant” is the verb form of “fire.” Dipping into the divine jealousy he has for the Corinthians (11:2), Paul is on fire. He’s more than ticked off at the fact that some Corinthians are being led astray. And here he’s simply imitating his Lord who was righteously angry at those who would cause believers to sin. There’s a special woe pronounced on them (Mark 9:42; Matt. 18:7; Luke 17:1-2). In verse 29, then, Paul combines pastoral gentleness and weakness to the weak and pastoral protection over the same in defense against wolves. Remember that Paul’s at war in these chapters. It is right to be angry when God’s truth and people are threatened.

After calling upon God as witness to his truthfulness (v. 31), we’re left with a strange two-verse conclusion to the chapter. Why, after recounting his many sufferings, then making an oath of his truthfulness, would he return to some more suffering in these verses? The answer is twofold. First, it really highlights his lowliness. It is an example of quite the ignoble escape. He had been commissioned by the high priest to persecute Christians, only to be ashamed as a fugitive and traitor to the Christian-hating cause, being let down a wall in a basket. The opposer became the opposed. The hater became the hated. As such, this demonstrates how low Paul had gone as a converted Christ-follower. Such a bounteous boast for the fool! Second, it is ironically the perfect lead-in to the next chapter wherein he speaks of his being “caught up” to the third heaven (12:2-3). A man so low and weak was exalted with such great revelations (12:7).

Can we learn anything from all this? Definitely. Since I’ve waxed long so far, I’ll be brief. First, it’s foolish to boast in our achievements, ministry callings or vocations, or background. Certainly, the world is calling for the opposite. If you’re white, you have to deny your supposed white privilege. But people of color and disability, and women are supposed to tap into their marginalization, discrimination, or disadvantages imposed by society, take great pride in them and use them to position themselves better in this world to get what they deserve. Paul calls that kind of boasting the mark of a fool. Second, the cross, along with its accompanying weaknesses, sufferings, and the world’s perception of it as foolish, is central to ministry and living for Christ. If we want to be with the exalted Christ, we must not deny his being humiliated. And that humiliation means that we, too, will be seen as fools and unimpressive. We need to get on board with that hard-to-swallow truth. Third, if we’re going to boast, let’s boast in the things of God: in his truth and prescribed conduct for communicating that truth and living before men. Fourth, if you’re tempted to one-up someone because you’ve suffered in more ways than that person, refrain from that temptation. Such one-upmanship is crazy talk. How perverted is our thinking that sometimes we think ourselves better than others because of what we’ve suffered? Madness, I tell you! Finally, if you’re really telling the truth, and no one else believes you, that’s OK. Rest in the fact that the Lord God knows all, and he knows you’re not lying. That ought to be enough comfort.

2 Corinthians 11:1-15

2 Corinthians 11:1-15

Satanic Subtlety v. Divine Sincerity

War-ready Paul is on the attack in chapter 11. His motives for this just war are two: a divine love and jealousy for the Corinthians, and a zeal to destroy the deception of the serpent, Satan. In the next post, we’ll tackle the topic of Paul’s apostolic superiority based on his sufferings and weaknesses. For the first 15 verses, we’re looking at his apostolic superiority based on the true knowledge of Christ. We need to remember something before proceeding. Chapter 11 continues from chapter 10 with Paul’s offensive attack in defense of his own status as apostle. Again, this may sound self-serving, but it is not. Paul was called an apostle by God. Paul did not call himself one. Therefore, Paul’s letter to them is God’s letter to them. Paul is not concerned with whether or not people will like or accept him per se (even though he has pleaded with the Corinthians to open wide their hearts to him). Instead, he desires that all the Corinthians will recognize the work and Word of God through Paul. One more prefatory remark: this chapter is replete with Pauline irony and sarcasm (with, for instance, the themes of boasting and foolishness, and with the terms “robbed” and “super-apostles”). That has to be acknowledged, lest we see Paul contradicting himself, and lest we think that Paul really holds these false teachers in high esteem. He does not.

Paul’s main point in verses 1-6 is this: “Satan is deceiving you into thinking that skilled speech is superior to true, sincere devotion to and knowledge of Christ.” He makes the point because he is moved by a divine jealousy for the Corinthians (v. 2). This is consonant with Paul’s style and demeanor in the letter. In it he has repeatedly expressed his love, zeal, and opened heart for not only the truth but also the Corinthians themselves. It is true that Paul attacks the “super-apostles” (v. 5), which attack needs no more motive than the truthfulness of God being at stake. However, Paul joins his love for the truth with his love for the Corinthians as a reason to lambast the false apostles and blow them out of the water and their “ministry” to smithereens. In common parlance or slang, Paul is saying, “Look here, Corinthians. I’m now going to lay into these ‘apostles,’ because I am jealous for you with a divine jealousy!” Like a husband jealous for his wife, he seeks to destroy all men who get a little too close. In fact, that’s the imagery he uses, but in his case, he’s more like the best man or father than the husband. He has betrothed the Corinthians to Christ, desiring to present them as a pure virgin-bride to the pure bridegroom (v. 3). Sadly, there’s a problem, and it’s what every member of a wedding party rightly fears: adultery in the marriage. Some Corinthians, shockingly (and it truly is shocking), are being led astray from fidelity to Christ and into the crafty embrace of another, the sneaky, false-light-bearing, deceptive serpent (vv. 3, 14). Some Corinthians were duped just like Eve was (Gen. 3).

In contrast to serpentine subtlety, Paul’s approach, one that he models and commends to the Corinthians, is that of sincerity or genuineness. Paul has already been vocal about his rejection of cunning and underhanded ways of handling God’s open statement of the truth (4:2; 5:11-12; 6:7; 7:14). The cunning is Satanic, whereas sincerity is divine. When cunning is used in the NT, it refers to foolish, deceptive humans in league with the Devil in opposition to God’s Son and the truth (Luke 20:23; 1 Cor. 3:19; Eph. 4:14). It’s sad to see that some of the Corinthians have swallowed the craftiness of the snake. This is shown in their putting up with the proclamation of another Jesus, another spirit, and another gospel (v. 4). (If you, like me, wondered what “spirit” in v. 4 Paul has in mind, you’d be interested to know that the word “spirit” in 2 Corinthians is used 17 times. In 8-11 occurrences it refers either to the Holy Spirit or to Christ the Spirit (1:22; 3:3, 6 [2x], 8, 17 [2x], 18; 5:5; 6:6; 13:14); in 3 instances, it refers to human spirits (2:13; 7:1, 13); and in 2 verses it points to spirit as in that of faith (4:13) or that of sameness (12:18). In 11:4, it actually appears to be a different use of the word from all the others, but one similar to what’s used in 4:13 and 12:18. Paul seems to point to an anti-God spirit or way of living, as he does in 2 Thess. 2:2; 1 John 4:1-3.) Rather than bearing with Paul (v. 1), they’ve been bearing with the false teachers instead (v. 4). If you think at this point that some Corinthians are acting like some of the Galatians, you’re not wrong. There’s certainly a commonality between the two groups.

The sincerity, on the other hand, involves a pure devotion to Christ the snake-crusher, not to the things of the crushed (v. 3). This sincerity likewise involves genuine knowledge, not false-knowledge deceptively wrapped in skilled speech (v. 6). Paul is devoted to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; these false teachers are not so devoted. The Corinthians, therefore, must choose sincere devotion to Christ and genuine knowledge of God.

Moving on quickly, we see that Paul’s point in verses 7-11 is essentially no different from what he said in the first six verses, as he points out another expression of Satanic subtlety. He’s basically saying this: “Satan is deceiving you into thinking that preaching for a fee is required for authentic gospel ministry.” Apparently, that’s what the super-apostles were doing. Paul thought he was doing the Corinthians a favor, but his generous gospel-proclamation was misconstrued as a sign of a false teacher. After all, false teachers don’t charge for their teaching, because no one would want falsehoods, right? Ironically, characteristic of false teachers (cf. 2 Peter 2, esp. v. 15), the super-apostles charged, whereas Paul refused to burden the Corinthians in this way, even though he had every apostolic right to be remunerated for his full-time ministerial labors. Paul lays the sarcasm on thick in verse 8 when he tells them that he robbed other churches to help them (cf. 8:2; Phil. 4:15). Paul bent over backwards not to be a stumbling block. He didn’t want to burden them, nor does he now desire to lay unnecessary weights on their necks (vv. 9-10). If the Corinthians believe Paul will go the way of the super-apostles, that’s not going to happen (v. 10). Likewise, if they believe that he has lost his love for them, think again! The Lord knows that he loves them (v. 11; cf. also v. 2). It’s out of love for them that he freely offers them the gospel without simultaneously burdening them. The love of God came to him free of charge, and so Paul will not ask or insist on money for the free gospel. What some of the Corinthians thought was a sign of loveless, false teaching was actually the opposite!

Finally, as we read in verses 12-15, Paul is quite plain about the identity of these super-apostles. They are Satan’s servants who work on different terms from those of true apostles. Sure, they look like light and truth, but they are really dark and false under their deceptive, duplicitous disguise just like their father the Devil (John 8:44-45). These super-apostles look good, act the part, proclaim what appears to be light and revelation from God, and have the audacity to charge for the truth (so it must be worthwhile, right?!), and the message is all wrapped in such fine rhetoric (for certainly God’s truth wouldn’t be for the weak and uneducated, right?!). The Corinthians need to review Paul’s first letter to them wherein he discusses the wisdom of God as opposed to the folly of the world in 1 Corinthians 1-3, which, by the way, comes right before a defense of apostolic ministry in 1 Corinthians 4! Some (ourselves included) need the same message communicated to us, even when the first iteration was written down for our instruction.

Paul will not stop his approach to the ministry, because by continuing in the ways God has prescribed for him, he’s undermining those who claim parity with him (v. 12). By not stooping down to the level of exaltation at which these super-apostles are operating, Paul is clearly telling the Corinthians that there are two kinds of ministry approaches, and, therefore, two kinds of ministries: a true one (as seen in authentic, money-free, rhetoric-free, divinely zealous devotion to Christ), and a false one (as seen in an insincere, crafty, monetarily costly, linguistically inflated, and burden-laying ministry in devotion to Satan). Paul’s ministry is not inferior; and he himself is not inferior to these servants of Satan (v. 5). Paul knows what will become of these false apostles of Christ: “their end will correspond to their deeds” (v. 15). They’ll be judged and seen to be the workers of deceit that they truly are. God often assures his people that false teachers, although they have some earthly pleasure and apparently unscathed ministries of deceit and flock-fleecing, will be judged in the end (2 Peter 2; Jude). This ought to be an encouragement to believers. The God of truth will not brook error. The future judgment of these super-apostles, therefore, is evidence of Paul’s vindication as an authentic apostle, whose apostleship is at least 8,000 times superior to that of the ministry of deceit.

With the vindication of Paul’s ministry comes, then, the call to return to God’s teaching through Paul, and comes another reminder to examine oneself. Throughout the letter, Paul directly and indirectly urges the Corinthians to examine their thoughts and worldview commitments (cf. 10:6). We would do well to do the same. Whose side are we on? Christ’s or the serpent’s? Are we with Paul the vindicated, or are we with the super-apostles the judged and condemned? What kind of gospel-proclamation or gospel-ministry do we prefer? One that is loved by the world, or one that is in line with the Word?

2 Corinthians 10

2 Corinthians 10

Boastful Self-Defense

To live before the face of Christ is to be engaged in warfare. The life we live in the flesh is one of an ongoing battle: a fight against our own sin, the Devil, and under his command, the hostile world. In 2 Corinthians 10, like an Army Captain or Lieutenant carrying a civilian reporter into battle, Paul throws us on his back and transports us onto the spiritual battlefield, not where bombs and bullets fly by our heads or penetrate our flesh, but where the fiery darts from hell shoot out from the enemy no less perilously. In this chapter we behold a war, a lofty opposition raised against the knowledge of Christ (vv. 1-6). Likewise, we are privy to the proper offense and defense in the midst of such dangerous war-waging (vv. 7-18). The hatred against Paul is not so much coming from the Corinthians (though some are not fully onboard with Paul) as it is from false friends or false apostles. In this way, then, Paul is setting up a full-frontal attack on the super-apostles in the coming chapters. For now, however, he’s just getting started. He’s loading up the guns.

At the start of the chapter we identify the opposition as attacks on Paul’s character and demeanor. In verse 1, he identifies the accusation: “Paul,” they say, “is humble in person but bold when away.” Likewise, he says a bit later in the chapter that his letters are frightening, weighty, and strong, whereas his bodily presence is anything but! He’s a weakling, and his speech is unimpressive (vv. 9-10). The attacks from these false friends (and remember, some of the Corinthians have bought the lie hook, line, and sinker) can be boiled down to two. Paul walks according to the flesh (v. 2), and he’s a hypocrite; he’s two-faced (v. 1). We’re not amazed at the accusations, of course, for we know that God’s people are promised persecution and false accusations. What’s under attack is so much more than Paul’s character and conduct when he is with or away from the Corinthians. What’s under attack is the authority of Christ the Commander. Paul is merely one soldier in the fight. To oppose Paul the Private is to oppose Christ the General of the Army of the Lord (to mix metaphors of rank from the first paragraph). Flesh and blood are not being opposed or raised up in battle. This is a spiritual battle, one between the internecine kingdoms of darkness and light, flesh and Spirit. Waging war, therefore, must be done in the Spirit and against spiritual powers: against ideas, arguments, lofty opinions, and thoughts contra Christ (vv. 3-5).

Paul is ready to go to war. He’s on the attack now. In verses 4-6, he’s on the offensive, and by divine power destroying strongholds full of the enemy, and by divine power seeking and enslaving every lofty opinion, to bring it into submissive obedience to Christ the King. Paul is ready to discipline the false friends and teachers boldly when he sees them again in Corinth (v. 2). He’s ready to attack the false ideas of these false/super-apostles. He is “ready to punish every disobedience” (v. 6a). But he waits. He waits to fully engage. That sounds strange, doesn’t it? If he’s all ready to go, why wait? It’s not really that strange when you think of it. Sticking with the battle imagery, we’d consider soldiers unwise if they went headlong into battle without the support of their brothers in arms. The same idea applies here. Paul is waiting for his fellow soldiers, the Corinthians. What’s he waiting for? He’s waiting for their obedience to be complete (v. 6b). He’s not waiting for them to be sinless, but he’s waiting for their full commitment to the cause. No commander or even soldier wants to go to battle with others who are partially committed or on the fence. You’re either on the team fully, or you stay back, lest you do more damage to the cause than good. Here’s the question for the Corinthians then: Are they ready to fight alongside him, or are they his opponents? Which team are they on? Where’s their allegiance? In order for Paul to deal fully with his opponents (which he is fully prepared and courageous to do), the Corinthians need to be his band of brothers. They will demonstrate this unbreakable bond through their full submission to the apostolic authority given to him by Christ. Paul’s delay in coming to them (2:1) and his bold letter (10:2, 9-10) serve to warn and stir up the Corinthians to deny the authority of these super-apostles and false friends, and to acknowledge God’s Word through Paul.

In the latter two-thirds of the chapter Paul takes us deeper in the battle to the manner and content of his self-defense (vv. 7-18). His manner is paradigmatic for fellow warriors. As he would say to the Corinthians elsewhere, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Paul entreats the Corinthians “by the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (v. 1). Paul is still confident, bold, courageous, and firm in his allegiance to Christ and opposition to the enemy, but his demeanor is that of lowliness. He’s humbled by the humble Christ (Matt. 11:29), and that humility of heart rises to the surface. Indeed, it was so apparent to his enemies that it was taken to be a sign of weakness and insignificance (v. 10). His lowliness is shown in verse 12. He’s not comparing himself to others. Later he says that he’s not commending himself either (v. 18). To be meek and gentle for Paul here is to know himself and his limitations. He’s a servant to the Lord, commended by the Lord. He’s not lording his authority over the Corinthians. In fact, he even says that his service is for them and their good. The Lord gave Paul this apostolic authority not to puff up Paul but to edify the Corinthians, and to increase their faith (vv. 8, 14-15). As it was the Son’s will to do the Father’s will, so it was Paul’s will to follow the orders of his Commander. And that’s why his meekness and gentleness are seen in his boasting. This boasting is within Christ-parameters (v. 13). To use John’s language, Paul isn’t going on ahead of Christ, leaving him in the dust (2 John 9). Paul is Christ-confined, so to speak. Where the Lord commissions him, that’s where he goes. How Christ expects his servant-soldier to conduct himself in the battle of strongholds, that’s how he behaves. Paul belongs to Christ despite what these super-apostles would say (v. 7). Paul has more than once rebuffed the accusation of being insincere. He takes that on here in verse 11, but he already spoke about it earlier (1:12; 2:17; 4:2). He is a sincere, lowly soldier in the Lord’s army, and he fights and boasts in the glory of his Lord (v. 17).

This chapter raises some important questions for us to think about as we engage a world dead-set on killing Christ in the culture and insistent on removing Christ from the ideas of Academia. How do we respond when people wage war against us and our reputation? How do we respond when they impugn our motives? Surely that’s happened to you, and sometimes the accusations come from a true brother or sister and not a false friend. It’s a sad reality. But what must be our response? Shall we return evil for evil? No. We shall overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21). A soft answer turns away wrath (Prov. 15:1). Our answers can be both firm and soft. Our answers can be both idea-destroying and humble of heart. Jesus lived that. Paul modeled it. As imitators of Christ, that is what we’re called to do as well.

But to ask about the manner of our fighting assumes that we’re in the battle. Perhaps that’s an improper assumption, however. Therefore, let us ask ourselves. Are we even engaged in the battle against Christ’s kingdom? Are we a part of Christ’s battle campaign? When it comes to the war of worldviews, are we like some of the Corinthians who were sitting on the sidelines? Or are we actively engaged in the spiritual warfare? Will we, like David putting Uriah at the front line without military assistance to be killed, leave Paul high-and-dry? Will we leave our brothers and sisters to be outgunned and outmanned by the enemy? Or will we band together as soldiers to promote Christ’s truth, to find every Christ-despising stronghold and every Jesus-denying thought to enslave and destroy it with God’s Word? Lord willing, we’re a part of Christ’s kingdom. If so, then we’ll need to know his Word and his ways of communicating it. May Christ aid us by his Spirit as we fight for his glory.

2 Corinthians 8:16-24

2 Corinthians 8:16-24

Beyond Pineapple Hospitality

Did you know that the pineapple is the symbol of hospitality? You probably did. I didn’t. I tend to be behind on such things. I didn’t know this culturally-immersed truth until I came to the South and saw pineapples everywhere (signs, bedposts, gates, doors, patios, inns or hotels). Naturally, I thought, “Now why would someone have a pineapple on the front door of his home? ‘Tis odd indeed!” The home we rent even has a doorknocker in the shape of a pineapple. I thought it was cute but culturally insignificant. I was wrong.

Reader beware, the story behind how the pineapple became the symbol of hospitality differs from raconteur to raconteur. Good ol’ Columbus brought the pineapple to Europe from the Caribbean. King Charles II of England even wanted a selfie with a pineapple given to him. It was such a rare gift that a portrait had to be made, and so it was. Some say that the pineapple as symbol came from the time of its rarity when a hostess would set it on the table of her home for her guests, showing them that she offers the best for her guests. Others point to a more legendary origin. It’s said that when a New England ship captain would return home from his toilsome maritime voyage, he’d place a speared pineapple on his fence post as a clear invitation for all to come, dine with him, and join in conversation. Whatever the true history, the symbol is apparently here to stay. Pineapples equal hospitality.

In our text under consideration, we’re not talking about pineapples, but we are concerned with hospitality. You may remember from last posting that Paul is in the middle of addressing some money matters with the Corinthians. In the midst of these money matters, he is saying that something more important than money is at stake: it’s the Corinthians’ view of hospitality. Not hospitality in the sense of being warm and loving toward each other, but in the sense of receiving people appointed by God for their good. To be sure, the Corinthians are urged to give. But their giving (or not) will speak volumes. Paul gets to the point at the end of our section under consideration (v. 24): “So give proof before the churches of your love and of our boasting about you to these men.” As we’ve seen, in these two chapters (8 & 9), Paul exhorts them to show their faithfulness to their word and genuine love for the brothers. One way for them to do this was to give monetarily to the cause (8:6-7; 9:1-5). And now, Paul is exhorting the Corinthians to show their love to be genuine by receiving Titus and two other men (8:24). Paul not only wants them to make room in their hearts for him, as his is wide open to them (6:13; 7:2), but now they are to widen their hearts also to these approved, faithful, earnest men who love and care for them and the whole church (8:24).

Before moving forward in that vein, let’s ask about the identities of these men. Titus is one of them (8:16, 18, 23) with whom the Corinthians are very familiar. Titus is Paul’s co-laborer in Christ who loves the Corinthians deeply, and it appears that the feelings are mutual. Titus just got back from Corinth to report on the Corinthians to Paul, and now he’s heading back to them and bearing this second letter. Titus is doing so freely because of his “earnest care” that he has for them (vv. 16-17). But this time he has some others who will accompany him. One of them is a renowned gospel-preacher. This brother is famous “among all the churches” (v. 18) because of his bold proclamation of the gospel (literally, “praise in the gospel”). These churches are likely the Macedonian churches mentioned earlier (8:1; cf. also 9:4). As an important side note, in verse 19, we learn that these churches appointed this man for the task of collecting the gift and for his continued gospel ministry. This sounds similar to the idea of a regional church (i.e., a Presbytery) doing some regional mission and gospel work. (A few points for Presbyterianism. “Hear! Hear!” say all the Presbies.) Suggestions for who this famous brother is include Sopater of Berea, Aristarchus, or Secundus (cf. Acts 20:1-6). Origen apparently considered this man to be the very author of Luke-Acts, Paul’s travel companion, Luke. Those are the best educated guesses we have; dogmatism can’t go beyond that.

The other brother is mentioned in verse 22. He’s different from Titus and the famous preacher-brother. This third man has been tested and approved. He is one whose earnestness for the Corinthians grows and grows. Beyond that, we know only that he, along with the famous preacher-brother, is called a messenger of the churches (v. 23). The word for “messengers” is literally apostoloi, which, of course, is where we get “apostles” from. These men are not apostles in the sense of being the unique official representatives commissioned by Christ himself (like Matthew, John, or Paul); nor are they the apostolic associates (like Barnabas or James/Jacob, Jesus’ brother). The ESV has it right. These men are “apostles” in the sense of being messengers or apostolic representatives chosen to see to it that a specific task be accomplished. And it’s these men, or the churches, that are the glory of Christ (v. 23). Some commentators say that it’s the men who are the glory of Christ. Others say it’s the churches. The sense is the same in either case, I think, or at least the difference is negligible. Fame and honor are given to Christ as these men as representatives (or the churches in general) make known Christ through their ministries. These men, or the churches, are like a city on a hill in a dark world, shining the light of Christ as they reflect his face (cf. 4:6).

Let’s return to the main point and its connection to pineapple hospitality. Paul is essentially saying to the Corinthians: “Because of who these men are as earnest and appointed brothers who love Jesus, his gospel, and his people, you need to receive these men, and so prove (1) your love to all the churches (who, by the way, appointed them to come to you), and (2) the truthfulness of my boasting of you to them.” As I said earlier, much more is clearly at stake than throwing some coin Paul’s way for the relief fund. The test before them is a test of their hospitality. Will they receive these brothers, or will they deny them entrance into their homes and their hearts? Will they recognize them as true servants of the Lord taking up a collection appointed by the churches for the sake of Jesus’ suffering sheep, or will they turn their backs to these earnest gospel-men, and, by extension, the saints in Jerusalem? Will they welcome the light of the glory of Christ, or will they obscure or try to snuff it out because of their miserliness? How they respond to the call will say much about their love for Paul and the gospel.

Hospitality is much more than a coming-together, a like-mindedness, a sharing of the home, eating some rare and costly food, or telling and hearing stories of great adventure. Biblical hospitality is joined to the central theme of the Bible: God’s gospel of Jesus Christ. Indeed, John says these wall-dividing words: “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching [that is, the gospel], do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works” (2 John 10-11). The connection is clear. Hospitality involves receiving brothers and sisters in Christ, greeting them in the Lord, fellowshipping with each other because of a common Christ-union, and being engaged in righteous works together. That’s what Paul calls the Corinthians to do. That’s what we’re called to be and do as well. We’re not called to host extravagant parties, though such parties in themselves are not sinful. We’re not called to bring out the choicest meats and cheeses, and pineapples of course, for our guests, though doing so may show a love for them (if not done for selfish gains). We’re not called to tell of ourselves and our adventures or glory-stories to one another, though sharing our lives with others is integral in hospitality. We’re called to widen our hearts for one another, to show our love for each other because of Christ’s love for us, to tell glory-stories of Christ and his lavished love for us, to treat one another more highly than ourselves, and to give from what we have for the good of others. In other words, we’re called to make our homes and hearts gospel-homes and gospel-hearts. Plus, pineapples are prickly.

2 Corinthians 8:1-15; 9:1-15

2 Corinthians 8:1-15; 9:1-15

Guilt-free Giving

I’m going to do something uncharacteristic of my series in 2 Corinthians. I am going to tackle half of chapter 8, and all of chapter 9 in this one post. We will look at the portions that deal with giving. In the next post we’ll return to chapter 8 and focus on verses 16-24. This post will summarize the principles and purposes of giving. A brief word regarding the context of Paul’s words is in order first. Paul is taking up a collection for the church in Jerusalem. This church is in dire straits and dependent on the munificence and magnanimity of Christ’s followers. Paul is appealing to the Corinthians’ prior commitment to generously and abundantly give to this cause (8:6-7; 9:5). Paul bases his appeal also on the Macedonian churches’ overflowing generosity as a way to stir up the Corinthians to love and good deeds (8:1-5). There’s much in these chapters, so I’ll be brief.

According to your means (8:3, 12)

At the start of Paul’s exhortation to give, he points to the churches in Macedonia that give both according to their means and beyond them (literally, according to their power or ability). These churches gave of their resources, even though they had been severely afflicted and extremely impecunious. One of the implications of this is that we don’t have to be rich or well-off before we’re in a position to give. In God’s providence, some have more, others have less. Regardless, both groups are to give according to their abilities. Remarkably, these Christians in Macedonia were even begging Paul to let them give (8:4). Isn’t that the opposite of how most of us humans, even us Christians, think and act? When we have little, we cling to the coin. We think of our needs. When these churches did this, it was not expected or commanded of them (8:5), so we do not need to turn the Macedonians’ generosity as a guilt trip for us. That’s not Paul’s intent. And indeed, there’s nothing wrong in itself with caring for your needs. But to give of yourself even in great trials is to lean upon the Lord by faith (8:5). Whenever I read these verses, I often think of my mother. She’s not poverty-stricken, but she has had little in terms of the world’s goods for most of her life. However, I don’t know a time at church when she didn’t give of her small resources. It didn’t matter if she was visiting the church or not; she gave something. Sometimes we give according to our means; sometimes we give beyond and for the good of others. When you reflect on your attitude and act of giving, do you give according to your ability, or do you hold back out of fear?

According to your heart (8:8; 9:5, 7)

As I said, Paul’s exhortation is not a legalistic tactic to bind the Corinthians’ consciences to give more and more. He even tells them to give according to the decision of their hearts. Three times at least Paul clarifies for the Corinthians that he’s not commanding them. He wants each Corinthian to consider in his own heart what he should give; and he’s to do this without feeling compelled. Moreover, once he has decided, he’s not to be reluctant. That sum will look different from person to person. Each one has different obligations and financial responsibilities. But once the decision has been made, there shouldn’t be regret, indecision, or reluctance. Neither should the person be under the impression that he’s being forced to it. After all, he’s decided in his heart what he will give. With reference to your giving, do you come to church already decided on what you will give, or is your giving an afterthought or spontaneous decision? (This is not to speak against spontaneous, voluntary giving, but the norm set forth is that of anticipated, thoughtful giving.) If so, does your heart linger like Lot’s wife’s did, and does it consider what could be obtained with the money you’ve given? Or do you trust that what you’ve given was prayerfully considered and prompted by a heart’s free giving?

As a proof of love (8:8, 24)

The Corinthians had already told Paul that they’d give to the relief fund. They had already communicated a readiness to help provide for the relief of the saints. What Paul calls them to, then, is the proof of that desire. Their readiness was a mark of love, and love is seen in actions. By staying true to their prior word, therefore, the Corinthians will demonstrate their love to be genuine. When we give, we do so to show that we love others. We’re giving in part to get beyond ourselves, to think of others more highly than ourselves. James hits the nail on the head: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (2:14-17). Based on this, isn’t withholding, then, an act of hatred for one another? Wouldn’t we say of the one who merely said, “Be warmed and filled,” that he really didn’t love the brother? When you give, do you do so out of love, to show God and others of your genuine love for the saints?

With joy (9:7)

Piggy-backing on what was said a couple paragraphs ago, we come to perhaps the most common phrase with respect to Christian giving. We give, because God loves a cheerful giver. God isn’t delighted in us being miserly or reluctant with our giving. He abhors stinginess. Here Paul is quoting from Proverbs 22:8 in the Septuagint (which adds a line we don’t have in our English versions), which reads, “God blesses the cheerful man and giver,” changing “blesses” to “loves.” God loves a cheerful giver, because God is the cheerful Giver. God doesn’t begrudgingly give us good things. He hasn’t withheld from us any of his innumerable riches! He joyfully gives to his people all things. Therefore, we likewise should be cheerful givers. When you give, do you do so out of much joy? If so, you’re growing more and more into the image of the Son.

As a thank-offering (9:11-12)

The next truth dovetails with the previous one. Paul speaks of this ministry of giving as thanksgiving to God. We’re reminded of the Old Testament freewill offerings, those sacrifices that were not required but were given out of a heart full of gratitude for God’s faithfulness. Giving is an act of worship. It’s a sacrifice of praise. When you give, do you offer up thanksgiving to God? Is your gift a gift of thanks? After all, were it not for God, would you have anything to give in the first place? Next time you give, view it in part as an offering of thankfulness to God.

To help others (8:6-7, 13-15; 9:3, 10-11, 13-15)

Recall that one of the purposes of taking up the collection was to be of monetary benefit to the saints (8:4). In that light, Paul is sending Titus to them, to collect their gift, not for himself, for Titus, or for the Corinthians, but for the saints in Jerusalem. Paul is collecting these gifts for others. The Corinthians’ gifts will do much to relieve the afflicted saints in Jerusalem. We live in a world that involves money, goods, and services. Money is a real need for us. And so, the monetary gifts of the Corinthians will be felt in real, tangible ways in the lives of the Jerusalem saints. As for the Corinthians at the time of Paul’s writing to them, they have an abundance, and their abundance should be used to supply the real needs of the saints elsewhere. Do you give knowing that your gift will be used to bless others? Think about the times when you’ve been blessed from someone’s abundance. You didn’t know how you’d pay for rent, buy groceries, get the car fixed, or pay that medical bill. But God was kind to you and he used someone’s abundance for your need. Isn’t it humbling to be on the receiving end? Isn’t it humbling to be on the giving end?

But that’s not the only way the Corinthians will help others through their gifts. We already saw this in part in the previous section, but part of our monetary service is to engender thanksgiving in others to God. The Corinthians’ generosity will be used by God to produce in Paul and others a thanksgiving turned to praise and glorification of the God who supplies all our needs (9:10-13). When you give, as you faithfully submit your life’s resources to the kingdom of righteousness, you’re helping others to humbly glorify God. By doing this, both we and those whom God helps through our gifts grow in gratitude. Do you want to grow in gratitude? Give!

To reap what you sow (9:6)

Most controversial in these two chapters is found in 9:6. We reap what we sow. If we sow sparingly, we reap sparingly; if we sow bountifully/generously, we reap bountifully/generously. This is a text on which Prosperity Gospel preachers glom to buttress their heretical views of “faith-giving.” If you’re a farmer tightfisted with your seed, don’t expect for much of a harvest. If, however, you sow liberally, the corresponding harvest is to be anticipated. This is no guarantee to have a monetary return on your gift. It’s not that if we sow a seed of $153 to some ministry on TBN that we’ll get a return of $1503 for our “seed of faith.” That’s blasphemous and an abuse of Scripture. Moreover, that attitude is contrary to the tenor of the text. Paul is not promoting a quid pro quo. We don’t give to get. We give to give! What Paul is saying is that God loves to bless those who freely give to others. And how does God give? Sometimes monetarily; there’s no doubt about that, and no use in hiding that reality for fear of being misunderstood. God gives us what he knows we need at the time we need it. God blesses the blesser. God gives to the giver. Paul says that this divine abundance is for us to have sufficiency in all things, that we might abound in every good work (9:8). The Lord abundantly provides for his people to do the work of the ministry. And that abundance looks different from person to person and time to time. He gives enough. Nay, he gives more than enough. He richly provides. Some gather much; others gather little. In either case, God has provided for us, so that there is no lack (8:15).

Because God gives (8:9; 9:8-9, 15)

Finally, why do we do this? Why should we give? We already saw that we give because God gives. We cheerfully provide for others because God has cheerfully provided for us. He has done that in two categorical ways. He has provided for our earthly needs, and he’s given us what we need spiritually. As to the former, we just saw that God’s earthly gifts abound for his people. Of course, that may not look like abundance. Could the saints in Jerusalem in need of relief really say that they had an abundance? From an earthly perspective, no. But God’s Word is clear that his people are “enriched in every way to be generous in every way” (9:11), and that God has freely given to the poor (9:9). Again, God gives us more than we need to live on earth for however long he would have us here. And because God supplies our needs, we faithfully commission our money and gifts to serve, bless, and supply the needs of others.

And as to the latter, our spiritual needs, we give, because God has provided for our greatest spiritual need: that of the Savior. Back in 8:9, we’re reminded of the gospel, and Paul paints the gospel in monetary terms. We were poor (because of our massive sin-debt). The rich Christ (who had it all in heaven) came to earth, humbled himself, didn’t have a pillow on which to lay his head or a place to call his home—this formerly rich but now poor Jesus came to us, so that our poverty would be addressed in full through the riches of his righteousness earned on earth. This gift of the righteous Son is called God’s “inexpressible gift” at the close of chapter 9 (v. 15). All our gifts pale in comparison to the inexpressible gift of Jesus. All our Christmas, birthday, Valentine’s, and anniversary gifts, as lovely as they are, are fading shadows of the monumentally substantial gift of Christ. That gift wasn’t earned by us. No gift by definition is earned. As recipients of this great gift, we are speechless. We give, therefore, not from guilt, but from grateful hearts that love the Giver who has given us all!

2 Corinthians 7:8-13

2 Corinthians 7:8-13

Fruits of Real Repentance

Not all that glitters is gold; and not all that grieves is good. In this post, we’ll be looking at the signs of real repentance, as demonstrated by the Corinthians. This is not an exhaustive list of what repentance looks like. Remember, the letter to the Corinthians was occasional in nature, meaning that Paul was speaking to particular problems in the church. In chapter 7, Paul is referring back to his letter to them that intervened 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians, which we don’t have, also known as the Severe Letter. Moreover, in this chapter, Paul points back to the Corinthians’ handling of the man who sinned in chapter 2. You may recall from last post that there is a progression of greater Corinthian acceptance of Paul as the chapter unfolds. It starts with sadness, continues with sorrow (but a good kind of sorrow), and concludes with joy.

Before we look at real repentance, let’s be reminded of the situation with which Paul is dealing. Back in chapter 2, Paul said that he wouldn’t come personally to Corinth right away, but rather he’d send Titus with the Severe Letter (2:1-4). Now in chapter 7, he’s referring to someone who had done wrong, and most likely to Paul himself (7:12; 2:5). This person was supported by a minority of the Corinthians (2:6). Sadly, even the majority didn’t get behind Paul much by dealing properly with the case of church discipline, which the Severe Letter required (2:9; 7:12). In 2 Corinthians, then, we learn of the Corinthians’ improvement of the situation (2:6; 7:11), brought about by the Spirit’s use of Titus between the time of Paul’s Severe Letter and 2 Corinthians.

There is a lot of grief or sorrow in the present chapter. I’ll pick up the theme of grief in verse 8. It’s there where Paul seems to contradict himself. Does he regret writing to them or not? Well, he did, but “only for a while” (literally, only “for an hour”). For a time he was grieving, because he did not know how well or poorly his Severe Letter would be received. But now that he sees the fruit of their sorrow, he does not regret it. Because relationships are being restored, he is seeing the value of his grief-producing letter. And so, he now rejoices (v. 9). Paul’s no sadist. In verse 3, we remember that Paul is not saying what he’s saying in order to condemn the Corinthians. As hard as the truth is to hear sometimes, it’s coming not from condemnation but love. Paul rejoices, rather, because they grieved into repenting. They experienced a “godly grief.” Literally, this is a grief “according to God,” which means that it is in accordance with God’s way of bringing people to salvation, as opposed to the “grief of the world” which leads to death (v. 10). Therefore, it’s not always a bad thing to grieve. Not all sadness is improper (John 11:35). Of course, this also means that not all grief or sadness is proper. There’s one according to God, and another of the world. And the Corinthians have experienced the former, thanks be to God! One thinks of the parables Jesus told of what was lost being found (Luke 15:7, 10, 32). When what was lost is found (a sheep, a coin, or a son), there’s much joy! Similarly, the angels rejoice over the repentance of a sinner! Do we rejoice when see repentant sinners turn away from their sin and turn to Christ? Or do we withhold forgiveness, cling to bitterness, carry a grudge, and refuse reconciliation? Godly grief is a gain for all involved (v. 9)! Do we treat it as such, or do we view it as a loss?

Let’s now consider the essential difference between grief according to God and that of the world, then see how that good grief was demonstrated by the Corinthians. Note that it is the quality of grief that is at issue, not the quantity or fact of grief. I’ve known people who cry crocodile tears and with those tears tell quite the tale, even deceiving people into thinking that they’re repentant when in truth they are not. Sadness in itself is not grief according to God. Indeed, there are examples in the Bible of people who’ve been truly sad (no feigned sorrow) while unrepentant. Worldly sorrow—however lachrymose, however tristful, however elaborately sad—is deadly: its effects are death (v. 10). Worldly grief works unrepentance, which terminates with death. Consider Cain. Abel’s murderer and brother, Cain was miserable, angry, and sad at his punishment, yet unbelieving (Gen. 4:13-14). Likewise, Esau, when he willingly sold his birthright, was nevertheless full of tears yet unrepentant (Gen. 27:34, 36, 38; Heb. 12:16-17). Perhaps the saddest case of worldly sorrow is that of Judas, one of the Twelve, who betrayed Christ for 30 pieces of silver. He never trusted in Christ for salvation. He was sad over what he had done, and he killed himself in unbelief (Matt. 27:3-10). Sadness does not equate repentance. Herman Bavinck summarizes worldly grief thus: “There is a cry of despair that is not borne out of a broken heart but that is brought forth by the terrible consequences of sin. There is a remorse and despondency that does not drive one toward God but that causes one to flee from and rebel against God” (The Sacrifice of Praise, 41). Parents, teachers, and counselors are fairly adept at spotting real sorrow yet unrepentance. If you’re a mom or a dad, you know your kid(s) well enough to know if the sorrow is repentant or not. That was the case for these men, but thankfully not for most of the Corinthians.

Repentance is seen in its effects. It produces salvation and life (v. 10). That’s how we can identify true repentance. We can’t count the tears. We inspect the fruit. And that means that identifying repentance takes time, charitability, and wisdom. The Corinthians were afforded these by Paul when he decided not to be with them, and to send them Titus and a letter instead. They had time to prove their repentance, which proof they eventually did provide (v. 11b). What, then, was this proof? Paul lists seven words that describe their repentance. Again, this is not a complete list of repentance. Paul’s goal is not to give us a list of boxes to check off in order to gauge a person’s repentance. He’s already identified the essence of real repentance: salvation and life as seen in the fruit of obedience (vv. 10, 15). The Corinthians, therefore, have shown that fruit in seven specific ways (v. 11): earnestness, eagerness, indignation, fear, longing, zeal, and punishment. At first blush, some of these sound negative, but in context they’re all good things. These are the evidences cited by Paul with respect to their real, godly sorrow into repenting.

First, the Corinthians showed earnestness (σπουδή): This is a word used by Paul to highlight the Corinthians’ diligent devotion to Paul (7:12; 8:7). That’s an especially big step when we consider that Paul’s apostleship had been challenged at every point. As mentioned in the last post, chapter 7 is something of a turning-point for most Corinthians. Second, they have an eagerness to clear themselves (ἀπολογία). There’s really just one Greek word behind “eagerness to clear yourselves,” and it’s where we have derived the English word “apology” in the sense of a defense. Paul likely alludes to the Corinthians’ self-defense as regards their conduct to the sinner in 2:5-11, and how they’ve taken the time needed to address the matter since Titus’ arrival. Third, the Corinthians displayed indignation (ἀγανάκτησις). That sounds like a negative trait, doesn’t it? In Scripture, it is used only here in its noun form, but it’s used in its verb form often (e.g., Matt. 20:24; Mark 10:14, 41; 14:4; Luke 13:14); as a verb, it is used to express anger at people or at what had been done. At times, this anger is righteous, whereas other instances are those of sinful indignation. In our letter, it likely refers to the rage of the majority of Corinthians over how Paul has been poorly treated, or over how they themselves had related to him prior to Titus’ coming. It’s right to be outraged over sin. Real repentance can be seen in a godly indignation over evils committed, opportunities for sanctification lost, and sin neglected.

Fourth, the Corinthians showed fear (φόβος). Again, this may sound negative, and at times the word does refer to an improper kind of fear. But not so here. This is a good fear, one that Paul speaks of in 5:11 and 7:1, a fear of God that is shown in love for God and others. Paul’s use of it here is also connected to what he says in 7:15. In verse 15, he is commending the Corinthians for their reception of Titus “with fear and trembling.” That phrase is a good sign that when Titus came, they began seeing the weightiness of the Severe Letter, their failings, and Paul’s position as apostle. You don’t accept an apostle or one sent by an apostle “with fear and trembling” if you don’t think he’s come from God. Repentance, then, recognizes the work and Word of God. Fifth, they had a longing (ἐπιπόθησις) for Paul. That’s wonderful, especially when we read the many appeals from Paul for them to widen their hearts to him. With this word, he refers back to his earlier use of it in 7:7. He’s using it to highlight the Corinthians’ longing to see Paul face-to-face and to be assured that now all is well between them.

Sixth, the Corinthians have a zeal or enthusiasm (ζῆλος): This word also appears in 7:7, pointing to the Corinthians’ zealous concern they’ve shown on Paul’s behalf. They’re increasingly zealous for truth and for doing what’s right. Seventh, and perhaps most challengingly, we’re told that “punishment” is a product of their repentance (ἐκδίκησις). This is where the ESV could have been clearer. It is true that the word might mean “vengeance” or “retaliation,” and that it’s translated as “punishment” in chapter 2. However, given its inclusion here in a list of positive fruit of repentance (and knowing that vengeance is not man’s but the Lord’s), the word points to the Corinthians’ doling out justice (i.e., church discipline) to the offender back in 2:6. The Corinthians’ readiness to see justice done has been clearly perceived now.

Real repentance cares about sin in the church and sin in one’s own heart. Paul summarizes in 11b: the Corinthians have in every way changed their view toward him, toward the sin that was in the camp, and toward their own moral responsibility for failing to obey right away. Remarkably, the Corinthians needed to be shown what they were showing! That’s what Paul says in verse 12 on the purpose of his writing to them. It was so that their earnestness for Paul et al. would be revealed to them in the sight of God. Once they saw it, can you picture their encouragement? Paul was rejoicing, and so should they. Real repentance, therefore, springs from the grief over one’s guilt because of sin, a confessed acknowledgment of divine displeasure, and a recognition of the ruinous effects of sins. I’ll let the Westminster Divines have the last word of this post on repentance, as they summarize life-producing repentance very well in the Larger Catechism: “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and Word of God, whereby, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, and upon the apprehension of God’s mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, he so grieves for and hates his sins, as that he turns from them all to God, purposing and endeavoring constantly to walk with him in all the ways of new obedience” (WLC, 76).

2 Corinthians 7:2-7, 13b-16

2 Corinthians 7:2-7, 13b-16

Make Room!

I don’t know about you, but when I read this letter of Paul’s to the Corinthians, I get the impression that I’m watching a relationship go through its ups and downs, and at the end of each chapter, I’m left asking, “Will they ever get back together?” Ross and Rachel, anyone? It’s not unlike watching a TV show where some friends have a particular conflict that tries their relationship and that moves one of the parties away from the other, and the viewer is left wondering what will happen to the relationship. Is there room for Paul in the inn that is the hearts of the Corinthians? Have the Corinthians kicked him out for good? There’s good news in this chapter to suggest that they’re not a lost cause, nor that Paul has been defenestrated from the windows of their souls. The chapter, even though it begins highlighting much trouble, leads the reader to conclude that Paul and the Corinthians can have a happy ending after all. And we have Titus to thank for that. If you think that this is irrelevant to your life (because, well, who cares? Paul and the Corinthians are gone from the earth), their relationship was not dissimilar to the typical relationship that Christians have with each other. Granted, Paul was the apostle/ambassador of Christ, and the Corinthians were recipients of God’s revelation through Paul. However, at the end of the day, Paul was just one of them—one of us: a servant of Christ saved by grace through faith. There’s exhortation to be had by us all.

It may seem odd to have a blog post addressing the first and third portions of the chapter, while neglecting the middle third (vv. 8-13a). The reason for this unusual break-up is twofold. I see a similar theme working from start to finish in the letter and want to address that main idea in one fell swoop; and I want to zero-in on the middle section in a post on its own and address repentance.

There’s one major concern for Paul in chapter 7: his relationship with the Corinthians, and whether they will make room for him. In 7:2, Paul commands, “Make room for us” (the Greek has no word for “hearts” in verse 2, but the ESV inserts it because of 6:13 and 7:3). The command for the Corinthians to receive him is based on their reluctance or outright rejection of doing exactly that, depending on the individual Corinthian. In 6:12, for instance, Paul says, “You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections.” Then in the next verse, he exhorts them, “Widen your hearts also.” Before proceeding, let’s take a moment to point out the irony found between 6:11 and 7:2. Paul assures the Corinthians that he loves them dearly, that his heart is wide open to them. He then speaks about God indwelling believers (6:16). Paul has them in his heart (7:3), but they do not have him in theirs (7:2), basically denying the union they have with each other in Christ as God indwells them both. For Paul, therefore, to ask the Corinthians to make room for Paul is a sad testimony to some of the Corinthians’ practical rejection of Paul’s place in Christ. They’ve kicked him out of God’s presence! (That, or they’ve denied God’s indwelling them; but I suspect they’d sooner remove Paul than themselves.) They’ll take Christ in their hearts, but not Paul his apostle. Do we see how we are like the Corinthians in this way? We may think of those who get on our nerves, who are weird, or who are just different from us, “Yes, give me Christ. Him I need. But they can go.” Some in a congregation may even (without sound biblical reason) reject Christ’s gift to them in a faithful pastor and preacher. Christians are quick mentally or spatially to do away with other Christians (even in the same congregation), thereby essentially denying God’s indwelling them and gift to them in each other. May God guard our hearts from such division. May God open our hearts to each other!

Coming back to Paul’s command for the Corinthians to enlarge their lives to include Paul’s presence, we notice that Paul offers at least 5 reasons for reconciling the relationship (even harking back to his appeal in 5:20 and 6:1). We’ll look at each of them briefly. The first is that Paul has done no wrong to them (v. 2). He denies doing any injustice, corrupting anyone, and taking advantage of anyone. He’s presented the open statement of the truth, his concern is the Corinthians’ cleanness, not corruption, and he’s unlike those super-apostles who take advantage of the sheep of Christ. The Corinthians, therefore, have literally no good reason to close off their hearts from Paul et al. They have, truly, every reason to allot him more space in their hearts. Second, the Corinthians are already in Paul’s heart, so they should reciprocate (v. 3). Paul is in essence saying, “Even though we are not entirely in your hearts, that’s not going to stop us from receiving you in ours.” Do you see Christ’s love in that attitude of Paul’s? He’s treating them as he’d love to be treated. It takes God’s mighty work of grace in Paul’s heart for him to say something like that. Clearly, he wants the Corinthians to open their hearts to him. Therefore, he opens his to them. You know how challenging it is to move towards someone who’s not giving you an inch in the relationship. The Corinthians gave him few inches. But when Christ opens his heart to you, and when he opens your heart to his, you move towards others by grace.

Third, Paul is committed to live and die with the Corinthians (v. 3). Using terms of marital commitment, Paul’s saying to the Corinthians, “Till death do us part!” He has pledged his whole death-and-life existence, all his suffering, toil, comforts, and joy to be lived out with and for the Corinthians. As Christ never leaves or forsakes Paul, the latter is committed never to leave the Corinthians. He’s saying, “We’re in this together, whether you like it or not. I’m not leaving you. So make room for me!” Weaker men would return the Corinthians’ attitude in kind: “Well, if you aren’t going to widen your heart to me, then I won’t widen mine to you. Good riddance!” But Paul is strengthened, comforted even (his word), by God’s strong grace of preservation, that he might persevere in a relationship that is mostly one-sided.

Fourth, Paul’s affliction-filled ministry for the Corinthians has earned him the right to the table of fellowship with them (v. 5). In 7:5, Paul revisits his travel narrative begun in 2:12-13. Re-read 2:12-13 in light of 7:5-6, and you’ll see that both passages are saying basically the same thing. Paul was greatly afflicted in Troas, so much so that neither his spirit (2:12) nor body (7:5) was at rest because of Titus’ absence, so he went on to Macedonia. In Macedonia even he was not at peace until he found his beloved brother there. It was through the person of Titus that God had comforted the downcast Paul (7:6). God comforted Paul by reuniting these brothers. What a sweet testimony of God’s care for his image-bearing creatures who crave godly brotherhood. It’s not merely that Titus was a brother, but that as Paul’s brother, he faithfully ministered to Paul’s own heart. Do you know that kind of Christian encouragement and mutual ministry? Do you have that with some in your church? It made the difference for Paul when it came to his relief of a restive soul and body. It was God’s very means of comforting Paul. Not only did Paul receive comfort by the Spirit through the person of Titus, but as Paul continues, we read that he was comforted with the fact of Titus’ being comforted and refreshed by the Corinthians themselves (vv. 7, 13). Paul loved Titus profoundly, and he wanted his beloved brother to be treated well by their Corinthian siblings. And Paul was concerned about how he and the brothers he sends to them would be received (1 Cor. 16). By God’s grace, the Corinthians received Titus, and even—praise God!—shared their love for Paul! In verse 7, for instance, Paul mentions Titus’ report: that they longed for, mourned over, and were zealous for Paul. That attitude is a great turning-point for Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians, and for the Corinthians’ walk with the Lord. It seems like the Corinthians have begun to see that Paul has suffered much for them; they, in turn, should see his affliction as one manifestation of his open heart towards them. Will they, therefore, make more room for him in theirs? Based on 7:7, it appears that many of the Corinthians are at that point, while some still need some convincing.

Fifth, Paul’s boasting of the Corinthians is a demonstration of his wide heart. His heart is full of boasting for the Corinthians (v. 14), which is fundamentally a boast in the God of all grace. If you’ve been riding the roller-coaster that is the Corinthians, you know that Paul is the better man for saying such things. The Corinthians have given him few reasons to boast greatly! Nevertheless, it’s those few reasons to which Paul clings. He is charitable and loving. As such, he “believes all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). That is a lesson in itself, so don’t miss it.

Paul says that he was not embarrassed when he told Titus of his confidence in and love for the Corinthians. He didn’t need to retract or qualify his endorsement or recommendation of the Corinthians to Titus. Perhaps you’ve vouched for someone based on what you knew about that person, only to find out later that he dropped the ball. That is embarrassing, isn’t it? You thought you knew someone. You told another person who trusts your word and respects you, “He’s good people. He’d be great for the position,” and on and on. But it turns out you didn’t know him as well as you had thought. Your word now becomes less trustworthy, your reputation more suspect. For Paul, he didn’t experience that kind of embarrassment or shame. Not only was he not ashamed, but he was even more joyful, as Titus his reporter himself grew in affection for the Corinthians. The Corinthians demonstrated real repentance and faith through obedience. That they received Titus warmly and as an emissary of God’s gospel is evidence of their “fear and trembling” before the Lord (v. 15). This is all great news! The Corinthians, therefore, should widen their hearts all the more!

What began with trouble (7:2-5) ends with joy (7:16). What gives? Why the change? Their faith and repentance (7:8-13), which we’ll look at next time. Before concluding, however, remember that in the first paragraph I said that Titus was to thank for the Corinthians’ keeping Paul in their hearts. There is room for Paul in their hearts. He doesn’t need to squeeze in; he fits in comfortably. God had used Titus as a mediator of sorts. He was able to bring Paul’s letter and heart to the Corinthians, and the Corinthians grew in their warm welcoming of Paul. To be sure, there were some outliers, others skeptical, still others hostile to Paul. But we mustn’t miss what the gospel can do in the hands of jars of clay. God uses his people even to bring them closer to each other. We have hope, therefore, of a happy ending for us all.

 

 

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