2 Corinthians 1:20

2 Corinthians 1:20

Yes and Amen in Christ

We’ve all been there. Someone agreed to meet us at a place at a specific time. We arrive first at the appointed time, and we wait. And wait. And wait. Turns out they’re a no-show. Although they said they’d be there (perhaps even promising their presence), they were not faithful to their word. It doesn’t feel good to be stood up like that. You begin to even question their word and their trustworthiness. Perhaps you’ve been that someone. We all fail to keep our word. We promise one thing, and do its opposite, or fail to keep the promise. Even though for none of us can it be said that our promises are always “yes and amen,” Paul assures us that there is one in whom all of God’s promises are “yes and amen”: in Christ. Paul says this in his effort of defending his own word to the Corinthians. John Calvin aptly summarizes Paul’s application of the general truth to his own circumstance. Paul in effect says, “If the promises of God are sure and well-founded, my preaching also must of necessity be sure, inasmuch as it contains nothing but Christ, in whom they are all established” (Calvin’s Commentary on 2 Cor. 1:20).  Since we addressed Paul’s defense last time, I’d like to focus on Paul’s more general statement than his specific application. Let’s ask three questions: (1) What promises of God are yes and amen in Christ? (2) How are God’s promises “yes and amen” in Christ? (3) Why are God’s promises “yes and amen” in Christ?

The What

All. Paul is clear: every, single promise from God is confirmed and established in Christ. Paul has in mind all the promises of the Old Testament, and all those promises from the coming of Christ which God has given to His people in Christ. If you’ve read the Bible, there’s a lot of promise-making from God. He promises from beginning to end. We can look at any point in redemptive history and identify promises of God. Examine the covenants in Scripture, and you will see the manifold promises of God. Here are some highlights:

  1. Genesis 2:17: God promises his image-bearers eternal life upon obedience.
  2. Genesis 3:15: God promises Eve’s offspring freedom from sin and the serpent, and victory in the seed of the woman.
  3. Genesis 8:21: God promises Noah never to curse the earth again, but to sustain it while the earth remains.
  4. Genesis 12, 15, 17: God promises Abraham, the father of faith, that His people will cover the face of the earth.
  5. Exodus 6, 19: God promises Moses that His people will be delivered from oppression and slavery, and they will be set free to live rightly before His face.
  6. Psalm 89: God promises David the crushing of the enemy, the everlasting throne, and an established offspring forever.
  7. Jeremiah 31: God promises a full knowledge of Him with all the spiritual blessings of redemption realized for God’s people (cf. Eph. 1).

Those are the covenants. All but the first one (i.e., the Covenant of Works/Life), Paul refers to as the covenants of promise (Eph. 2:12). When God covenants with His people, He makes essential promises. Look also at all the sacrifices, feasts, and holy days in the Old Testament. In the sacrifices, God promises satisfaction for their sins through the substitutionary atonement of an animal. He promises His goodness, provision, presence, and rule over their lives. In the feasts, God promises communion with His people, a sharing of life with His children. In the holy days, God promises sacred times of worship, communion, and rest. Finally, look at the prophets in the Old Testament. In the prophets, God promises His Word: the infallible, perfect, authoritative, and pure revelatory self-disclosure of God Himself. Much more can be said (and has been said!) about the many great and precious promises of our God, but above is a mere appetizer of His faithfulness throughout the Old Testament. In essence, God promises knowledge, life, salvation, communion, and rest, that they might worship Him truly.

The How

What about the New Testament? Where’s Christ in all this? Jesus himself tells us that the whole Old Testament was about him. In Luke 24:27, Jesus speaks to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and, beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interprets for the disciples all the things that the Scriptures had to say about him. Don’t we see all the promises above fulfilled by Christ? In Christ is life eternal (John 14:6). Christ is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Christ fulfills the Old Testament sacrifices, being the once-for-all-time atonement (Heb. 9-10). With Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Christ fulfills the promise of entrance into God’s presence, and sustained communion with God (1 Cor. 10:1-5, 16-17). Christ fulfills the promise of the full revelation of God’s Word (John 1:1). Christ fulfills the promise of rest (Matt. 11:28). To know Christ is to know the Father (John 14:7). In Christ all the promises of God are Yes and Amen!

The Why

But why Christ? Why not anyone else? Can’t all the promises of God be “yes and amen” in Paul? As much as some Corinthians would like to accuse Paul of that attitude, no. It’s at this point that we are reminded of the truth of Solus Christus: Christ alone. John Calvin says that the reason all these promises of God are “yes and amen” in Christ “is obvious. Every promise which God makes is evidence of his good will” (Institutes 3.2.32). How can God make good on all these promises? Is there anything in man that would ingratiate us to God and compel him to evidence his good will towards us? Nope. Does God depend on man to do his part to fulfill the covenants? If so, we’re of all men most to be pitied, because God would then be waiting forever for dead men to enliven themselves to His word and grace. But thanks be to God that the answer lies not in man but in the God-man, the only mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5). Jesus is God’s answer to all the promises He has made to His people. Calvin reminds us that it is in Christ alone that the Father is propitious towards us. Trust in anything or anyone else must be answered with No and Nay.  But if we are joined to Christ, then all the promises of God are always and forever “yes and amen” for us. Amen?

2 Corinthians 1:15-20

2 Corinthians 1:15-20

Entrusting Travels (and all things!) to God’s Faithful Sovereignty

We pick up the text remembering Paul’s confidence that he and the Corinthians will one day boast of each other because of what God has been doing in and through their lives. Paul can confidently affirm this (v. 15), but sadly the Corinthians are skeptical (v. 17). Their trust in God’s apostle has been tested. And the Corinthians would say that it was Paul’s fault: it’s because of Paul that their trust in him has been questioned. So, what’s the problem? The problem is found in Paul’s earlier statements in 1 Corinthians. In that letter, he tells them that he intends on visiting them, to deal with some of their problems (4:19), and to continue to minister to them. In fact, he was desirous of perhaps even spending the winter there. He did not want to just visit them in passing (16:5-7). Back in our text, we come to find out that Paul was not able to visit them as planned. He had wanted to visit them. He willed to see them not just once but twice more: on his way to Macedonia, then back from Macedonia on his way to Judea (2 Cor. 1:16). He had already spent 18 months in Corinth (Acts 18:11), but he loved them, cared for them, and knew that they needed his spiritual oversight. He wanted to give them a second experience of grace (2 Cor. 1:15).

When Paul was a no-show, his motives were impugned. His character was attacked. His apostleship was doubted. You can hear their accusatory rebuke in Paul’s words: “Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this? Do I make my plans according to the flesh, ready to say ‘Yes, yes’ and ‘No, no’ at the same time?” (v. 17). There it is: Paul can’t be trusted. His word is not his bond. His word is useless. He says one thing but does the opposite. He promises to visit us, but his promise is worthless. Paul is accused of disobeying Jesus’ word in Matthew 5:37: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” That’s a serious charge against the apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. If the apostle can’t be trusted, then can the God whose message he proclaims be trusted?

Paul’s personal defense of his own word, therefore, becomes a defense of his God of faithfulness. He bases his defense on the God who is surely faithful (v. 18) and on the Son of God, Jesus Christ, in whom is “Yes.” Again, there’s more at stake here than Paul’s own word. It’s the word of God that is being subtly and craftily placed under attack. It’s no wonder, then, that Paul flatly denies their charge: “We didn’t vacillate. We didn’t say ‘yes’ then turn around and say ‘no.’ Our word has been either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” And if the Corinthians were careful readers of Paul’s first letter to them, they would have seen that Paul qualifies his desire and plan to visit. In the passages already mentioned (1 Cor. 4:19; 16:7), Paul says, “If the Lord wills/permits.”

He’ll later say why he ended up not visiting them (1:22-2:4), but here we are brought back to the faithfulness of our sovereign God. We are reminded that even our travel plans fall under the purview of the God of all creation. Our travel plans need to be entrusted to the Lord who wills (cf. James 4:13-17). After all, even as Paul says, it is the Lord who determines the when and where of his creatures (Acts 17:26). We can make plans and we can desire to go places (and we should), but we ought to do so in a spirit of contentment, with an attitude of trust in our faithful and sovereign God, who knows what we need better than we do. God knew what Paul needed better than he did, and that meant traveling elsewhere. God knew what the Corinthians needed better than they did, and that meant no visit from Paul but a painful letter instead.

When your plans change (as they do daily, don’t they?), what’s your response? Frustration, discontentment, anger, doubt about God’s control or goodness? When someone’s plan that involves you changes, what’s your response? Like the Corinthians, are you eager to impugn the motives of the person, or quick to call into question the faithfulness of God? Let’s put off that attitude, and instead put on the attitude of trust: trust in our trustworthy God.

2 Corinthians 1:12-14

2 Corinthians 1:12-14

Grace-influenced Boasting

Is boasting ever morally permitted? Yes? No? Maybe so? There’s a bunch of boasting happening all over the place, isn’t there? And it’s coming not only from the world but also the church. Anyone who’s spent much time on a plane with an evangelist or preacher just might discover how many souls that preacher has saved! Watch any sporting event. You won’t have to look far and wide for boasting. It’s right there in your face during the whole game. Good boasting or bad boasting? Is every boasting good, is it bad, or just indifferent?

In these few verses, there’s a bookend of boasting, and it’s coming from Paul’s pen. Verse 12 begins with a boast, and verse 14 ends with a boast. A bad boast or a beautiful boast? To answer that question, let’s see what Paul’s doing in these few verses. He’s about to move into a lengthy defense of his own apostolicity against the complaints and charges of the Corinthians (1:12-2:13; then in 2:14-4:6; then again in 10:1-12:13). They’re saying that Paul is not acting with straightforwardness or pure motives. He denies both accusations. He says that he has behaved “with simplicity and godly sincerity” (v. 12). Paul wasn’t out to deceive the Corinthians. He was honest with them about what he taught and why. They also accused him of tapping into the world for wisdom, something with which Paul himself charges the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1-2). Now they’re throwing the charge back at Paul. He denies this accusation as well. Paul assured the Corinthians that they themselves read and even understand (to a degree) what Paul wrote to them. They read it. They understand it. No mixed motives here, Paul’s saying. No tricks, just truth.

How can Paul deny their charges? The answer lies in his boast. It’s in Paul’s boast (or, more accurately, in its truth) that their accusations hold no water. Paul says that his boast is the testimony of his conscience (v. 12). He explains what he means by saying that his conduct toward the Corinthians has been simple and sincere. He’s behaved towards them in a manner that glorifies God. Paul, therefore, allows for a certain kind of God-glorifying boast. One commentator, Paul Barnett, helps us by distinguishing between confidence (or justifiable pride) and self-glorification. Paul examines his own heart (1:12), he looks at the consciences of others (4:2), and he reminds himself of the Lord’s presence (4:2) and God’s confirmation of Paul as an apostle (1:1 with 12:12; 10:18). Moreover, Paul looks at the work he’s done in the lives of the Corinthians, and he recognizes that his conduct towards them has been singular and sincere. Because of these truths, Paul’s confident that his conduct has not been unbecoming of an apostle to the Corinthians.

Does this understanding of boasting go against his later comment in 10:17, speaking about boasting only in the Lord? Certainly not. This boast is a grace-influenced boast. This boasting is not an instance of self-exaltation. Paul’s not looking at his life and work and saying to himself, “Look at you go, Paul! You is smart, you is kind, you is important” (for all you lovers of the movie, The Help). Paul’s boast is not in himself. Paul’s good conduct and his wisdom come from God. It’s all by the grace of God alone (v. 12).

Surprisingly, Paul turns his boast on them. In v. 14, he assures the Corinthians that he will boast of them. But the surprise is what he says earlier: they, the Corinthians, will boast of him also. That might be hard for them to swallow, especially since many of them are accusing him of insincerity and underhandedness. But they really owe everything they are and have to Paul, as far as human debtors go. After all, it was Paul who gave them the gospel (1:19). It was through Paul that God reconciled them to himself (5:18ff). It was Paul who raised them as a father does his children (6:13). It is Paul who will present them as pure virgins to their bridegroom, Christ (11:2). God used Paul in many significant ways for the Corinthians. They should be thankful to God for his work in them through Paul. All this is God’s grace. Paul’s boast of them, and their (hopefully!) boast of him will be based on what they see in each other because of God’s grace. And on the last day, they will mutually boast of each other.

Might we boast then? Of course, in a sense. We should boast in what God has done in us. And we should boast in what God has done in others. All that work is a work for our good and comfort, and a work for the good and comfort of others. By boasting in that work, we’re really just boasting in our God. He’s worth boasting about, wouldn’t you say? Are there people in your life about whom you can boast? Are there evidences of God’s grace in your own life of which you can boast to others? If God’s at work in your life, there will be. Thank God for his grace.

2 Corinthians 1:8-11

2 Corinthians 1:8-11

Deadly Affliction

You’ve heard people say, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” right? Well, someone needs to tell that to Paul, because he certainly thought otherwise. After telling the Corinthians that God comforts his people in order to comfort others, Paul cites as a personal illustration his own perilous affliction in Asia. What was this affliction in Asia? Remarkably, Paul gives us very little information, so I hesitate to speculate. Suffice it to say, Paul views this affliction to be so burdensome and overwhelming that he had no more strength, he was in despair, and he thought he was going to die. He believed that he was at death’s doorstep.

Whatever the affliction, it was beyond Paul’s ability to handle. There were no resources outside Paul, nor any within him, that he could tap into, muster up, or of which to avail himself, in order to extricate himself from so perilous an affliction. Paul’s not the only one in biblical history who was so affected by such peril that he was unable to get himself out. The stories of Job, Joseph, and Daniel immediately come to mind. And what about Heman the Ezrahite? In the psalm he wrote, he mentions that his “life draws near to Sheol” (Ps. 88:3). Of course, examples could be multiplied. So much for the truthfulness of that message we hear all too often from the world: “Look within yourself. Find your inner strength. You have the power in you to handle what life throws your way. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do what you need to do.”

But Why?

Even though we are left without answers about the nature of the affliction, we are not so confused as to why God would do this. Paul is clear about God’s purpose and motive in rendering him powerless to handle the affliction. Unlike the world’s message, the Bible’s message is never to encourage God’s people to look within, but to look upward to their God, who is mighty to save. Isn’t that what Paul is saying here? The death sentence he felt he had received “was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (v. 10). God is doing to Paul what he does with all his children: he brings them to a point of utter dependence on him who saves. That’s the reality whether we recognize it or not. And our trials remind us of our insufficiency. When we’re weak, then we’re strong. And we’re strong, because we’re resting in the strong arm of God (2 Cor. 12:9-10). It was this strong arm of the Lord that raised Christ from the dead. It was this strong arm that raised Paul from the dead. It’s this strong arm of the Lord that reaches down into the depths of Sheol, to the grave itself, and raises us from death to newness of life. If we are delivered from the domain of darkness by the omnipotent arm of the Lord, we can, with Paul, set our hope on God to deliver us in our trials, however hard and life-threatening they may be (v. 10). Be encouraged, beloved, that God, who raised you from spiritual death unto spiritual life, can be trusted with your day-to-day difficulties and your earth-shattering sorrows. Our God raises the dead!

2 Corinthians 1:5-7

2 Corinthians 1:5-7

The Comforted Comfort

You’ll recall from last time that Paul blesses God because he is the Father of mercies and God of all comfort. When God comforts us, he reminds us of his strong presence, perfect providence, holy character, and infallible Word. But he also uses us thus comforted to help give comfort to others (v. 4). And that’s what we’ll look at in brief today. Notice the emphasis from Paul that comfort is other-oriented:

  1. 4: God comforts us, “so that we may be able to comfort those” in affliction.
  2. 5: “through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.”
  3. 6a: Our affliction “is for your comfort.”
  4. 6b: “if we are comforted, it is for your comfort.”
  5. 7: As the Corinthians share in Paul’s sufferings, they will share in comfort as well.

So, the chain of events is neatly laid out: (1) We suffer, (2) God through Christ comforts us, then (3) we comfort others.

The sufferings of Christ that Paul refers to (v. 5) are those physical (Acts 14:19) and spiritual afflictions (Rom. 8:17) that arise as a result of being in union with Christ. That is to say, Paul does not have in mind some general sufferings only, nor the sufferings that an unbeliever experiences. He has narrowed his focus here on what a believer experiences as a result of bearing the name of Christ. Jesus, you remember, spoke to his disciples of the baptism of suffering with which they’d be baptized (Matt. 20:23). Peter probably had that episode in mind when he reminds us of the fiery trials that we pass through when we share Christ’s sufferings (1 Pet. 4:12-14).

The comfort, then, is attached to our union with Christ. As we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, we will share abundantly in the comfort from God in Christ. So, when you realize how much you suffer, the good news is that you receive even more so in comfort! No suffering for Christ will be without the comfort of Christ. That’s a promise from the God of all comfort.

Christ suffered, and now he comforts his sheep. So, what do we do when we are comforted? Comfort others. It’s other-oriented. God does not intend for his people to merely be comforted, but to put that comfort to good use: the comfort of others. That’s why Paul could say over again, “it’s for your comfort” (vv. 6-7). Paul has abounded in suffering. For what purpose? For one, it’s to identify with Christ. But for another, it’s to be able to comfort the Corinthians. They’ve been afflicted. They’ve suffered. They need comfort. Where’s that comfort coming from? From God in Christ through Paul. You see, God uses his weak, suffering children to help his weak, suffering children.

You might be suffering right now. Rest assured, God has your comfort in mind, and he has mobilized his people to come alongside you, to remind you of his strong presence, perfect providence, holy character, and infallible Word. Or, you might not be suffering right now. Perhaps you’ve passed through a fiery trial by God’s comforting grace. Your work is not done. Now you have the privileged duty to be the one to comfort that suffering sister or brother. You get to draw from God’s comfort, that never-ending supply of mercy and grace for his children. Isn’t it amazing to see how God has orchestrated our sufferings and subsequent comfort for the good of his church?

One more thing. You might be tempted to object and say that no one can truly comfort you because they’ve not gone through the suffering and affliction that have shattered your life. They don’t know the pain you experienced, so how can they comfort you? Don’t give into that temptation. Don’t fall into that trap of faulty thinking. Don’t deprive yourself of true hope and help. Admittedly, it’s true that there are particulars in your story that are unique to you, but are the particulars the essence of your affliction? No. Trust God when he tells you that you need the body of Christ, and that the body of Christ needs you. Trust God that in his sovereign plan, you’ve suffered in one way, and others have suffered in other ways. But the fact of the matter is that we’ve all suffered. We’ve all been afflicted. And we’ve all been comforted. We know what it’s like to know God’s grace in Christ. Can you trust the Father of mercies and God of all comfort when he tells you that he has comforted his people in their afflictions to comfort you in yours?

God of All Comfort

2 Corinthians 1:3-4

Blessed Be

We begin today where we left off last time: with Paul’s benedictory doxology. It is Paul blessing God. But it is also Paul praising God. After Paul greets and graces his siblings the Corinthians, he can’t help but break out in a short doxology, a word of praise to his God. May God be blessed! Yes, and amen. God is worthy of being blessed. The word “blessed” is from where we get our English word “eulogy.” Similar to what a person does in commendation of the deceased at a funeral, Paul is speaking well of God. But God’s not dead! He’s very much alive.

Father of Mercies, God of All Comfort

And as our living Father, he gives us mercy and comfort. Or rather, mercies and all comfort. He is the Father of mercies, the God of all comfort (v. 3). The word for “mercies” here refers to God’s compassionate heart for his people. When used by God’s people, it’s used as an appeal to God to have pity and show grace to them in their times of affliction.

What does “comfort” mean? The etymology of “comfort” is helpful to bring us closer to the idea than how we typically use the word nowadays in the sense of consolation. The English word “comfort” comes from two Latin words: cum (“with”), and forte (“strength”). The person who comforts another, therefore, is coming alongside the afflicted and becomes a source or means of strength, of firmness. God, then, as the God of all comfort, comes to his people with his strong presence, and strengthens us during our times of affliction, in the midst of our weaknesses, and he gives of his omnipotent self. What a comfort…literally.

Moreover, God is the God of all comfort. If there is to be any comfort that anyone ever receives, its origin is God. Its source is the God of all comfort. God gives all comfort, and he gives it generously. You get the impression of God comforting his people liberally and abundantly. You will never lack the comfort you need from God. God doesn’t run out of comfort, so you, his child, never cease being comforted. That’s one truth that Paul makes crystal clear in this letter. Indeed, working with just 2 Corinthians (moving from chapter to chapter), I compiled a list of truths that ought to be used in an effort to comfort believers. And in my estimation, I identified at least 64 statements or truths. I doubt the list is even exhaustive. If I were to outline 2 Corinthians around the theme of comfort, here’s how I’d structure it:

Chapter 1: Comfort in affliction

Chapter 2: Comfort from forgiveness and triumph in Christ

Chapter 3: Comfort from the New Covenant

Chapter 4: Comfort from the gospel and those in jars of clay

Chapter 5: Comfort from reflecting on our heavenly dwelling and being reconciled to God by God

Chapter 6: Comfort only in the temple of the living God

Chapter 7: Comfort and joy in affliction, because God comforts the afflicted and gives repentance

Chapter 8: Comfort through the generosity of God’s people for his people

Chapter 9: Comfort because of the cheerful Christ, who gave himself for us, that we might give of ourselves to others

Chapter 10: Comfort from God’s gift of true apostleship

Chapter 11: Same as chapter 10

Chapter 12: Comfort in thorns, suffering, and weaknesses

Chapter 13: Comfort through self-examination, from one another, and from God’s presence

Those are broad categories, but we’ll see specific statements of comfort in the coming weeks as we work through the letter. Admittedly, there’s some overlap with the statements, and some are not as readily perceived to be passages of comfort as others, but still: 64! And that’s just 2 Corinthians. What about the other 65 books of the Bible? The Word of God, the revelation from the God of all comfort, is a big book about comfort.

Since comfort is a theme in 2 Corinthians, it’s helpful to have a definition, and one that can be used both of God and his people, since the letter speaks of God comforting others, and of us comforting one another. We end today’s entry, then, with a working definition, albeit long. Think on each of these aspects of God’s comfort to you. To comfort is to strengthen, embolden, encourage, and console someone with appeals to God’s strong presence, perfect providence, holy character, and infallible Word; and by extension with one’s very life that has been changed by the transformative work of God in Christ through the Spirit.

2 Corinthians: The Beginning

2 Corinthians 1:1-2

And so it begins: By “it,” I mean an almost 2-year, weekly dose of 2nd Corinthians. This entry is the first among a lot of short devotionals that address 2nd Corinthians. We will travel from chapter to chapter, verse by verse. It is my intention to make these brief expositions of 2nd Corinthians informative, convicting, encouraging, and comforting. A lot can be said about this letter. I can’t say it all, but I will say some. It’s my prayer that the some that I say will be of much use for you and your family.

You may ask, “Why 2nd Corinthians?” My reply: “Why not?” But also, it’s a letter often neglected (at least in my experience). It’s a difficult letter (leaving the vague word “difficult” unexplained for now). It’s a heartfelt, deeply personal letter. It’s also a comforting letter. Paul wrote 2nd Corinthians during his 3rd Missionary Journey around 56-57 A.D. in Macedonia, about a year after he wrote 1st Corinthians.

Paul: Apostle of Christ Jesus

Paul begins his letter by calling himself “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (1:1). Such a title sounds harmless and like a given to the typical Christian these days. But nothing could be further from the truth for the Corinthians. As we’ll see, Paul goes to great lengths defending his title. In fact, most of the letter consists of this defense. More on that later, to be sure. Suffice it to say for now that Paul did not take this title upon himself by himself. The phrase “by the will of God” is significant. In God’s providence is the gifting of apostolicity to Paul. What a gift! Paul is a representative, an ambassador for Christ to the people of Christ. When Paul speaks in this letter, therefore, God speaks. Christ Jesus speaks. Paul’s words are God’s words. To disbelieve or to disobey Paul, then, is to disbelieve or to disobey God. Beloved, the Corinthians who rejected Paul’s words were not off the hook for doing so. And neither would we be. As you read this letter to the Corinthians, know that it is from the God who speaks through his apostles, apostles whom Christ called to himself for the very purpose of being messengers of his word.

Timothy: Our Brother

Paul mentions that alongside him is their brother Timothy. The Corinthians knew Timothy, because he had accompanied Paul in his journey to Corinth (Acts 18:1, 5). Paul and the Corinthians have Timothy in common. They share Timothy as their mutual brother. How so? Because no matter how trying the Corinthians are at times, they still share in the adoption of sons in Christ.

Corinth

You can read about Paul’s time in Corinth in Acts 18:1-17. Many of the Gentiles in Corinth heard the gospel, believed, and were baptized. In God’s providence, Paul’s ministry there lasted 18 months. Paul had invested a lot of time and effort in the Corinthians, which is one reason why his letters to them are packed with passion, teeming with tears, busting at the seams with sorrow, and full of Pauline personality. These men and women of Corinth were a great joy and cause of thanksgiving to God, but they were also huge pains in the neck. Some of the many issues that Paul addressed in 1st Corinthians remained by the time he wrote his second letter. This fact is not surprising. After all, only a year had passed between letters. At least three issues from 1st Corinthians persisted into 2nd Corinthians: factionalism/church divisions, Paul’s refusal to be supported financially by the Corinthians, and Paul’s apparently poor speech. More on those later also.

Grace & Peace

Paul makes sure to begin his letter by pronouncing a blessing on its recipients. We tend to brush past that usual Pauline greeting: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2). But these words weren’t perfunctory. If Paul hadn’t meant them, he wouldn’t have penned them. True grace and true peace come only to the Corinthians and us from God our Father through Jesus Christ. Paul can tell us that we have God the Father in common. He is our Father. He is our God, and we are his people. We belong to him, and he to us! And he is our Father. Indeed, he is our Lord, but he also relates to us as his beloved children.

We who are in Christ Jesus all belong to God. We are his children. And we are his children, because God has graciously adopted us to be his children, and because Christ has made peace with us through his sacrifice on the cross. Because our Father has given us grace and peace by declaring us righteous in his sight, he will also continue to give us grace and peace as we walk in sanctification after his ways, as he seeks to conform us, his beloved sons, into the image of his Beloved Son. Be encouraged, beloved, that since even the troublesome Corinthians receive both grace and peace, we certainly do as well. But then again, maybe we’re more like the Corinthians than we let up, realize, or care to admit. In either case, we can affirm with Paul: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3), a verse we’ll look at next time.

A Thorny Subject: What Was Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh?

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 Paul 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.

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).

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 side” and its parallels are used in the Old Testament. This fact becomes helpful in how we 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. 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 (γγελος, 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 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 observe in 2 Corinthians. Paul has to defend his apostleship throughout the letter. 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). Clearly, Satan has sought to lead astray the Corinthians and to harass Paul by sending his serpentine servants to oppose Paul’s 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 false apostle opposition. These apostles (false brothers, super 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 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 (Corinthians) and God’s messenger (Paul).

The answer to the question 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 would he give Paul an anti-Paul group of false teachers/brothers/apostles? It seems counter-productive to God’s plan of spreading the gospel. There is much to be said about the relationship between God and deception, and I resist the temptation to pursue that here (as this post is long enough already). But let’s confine our answer to 2 Corinthians. What did Paul tell us? He told us that it was given him to keep him from being conceited (12:7) and to remind him that God’s grace is sufficient for him 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.

Baptism as Covenant Sign and Seal

Baptism is the sign and seal of the covenant of grace.  As a sign, baptism points to true realities beyond itself.  For example, the cleansing property of the water that is applied in baptism points to the cleansing of our sins by the atoning death of Jesus Christ.  As a seal, baptism is a visible, tangible witness of God’s faithfulness to all His promises in the gospel of Christ.  It is like a wedding ring that reminds a wife of her husband’s promises of fidelity, love, honor, and cherishing of her.  Because God says through Peter in Acts 2:39 that “the promise is for you and for your children,” and we read repeatedly in the New Testament that believers’ whole households were baptized when the believer was baptized, we also bring our children to receive this covenant sign from the Lord.

When we bring our children to the baptismal font it is a picture of the beauty of God’s love and grace.  It is also a confession that our children, who are so precious to behold, who bring so much joy to our lives, and whom we love in ways we never quite imagined we could love, these precious children are disfigured in their souls and infected in every part of their being by the evil of sin.  Baptism is a confession that our children need the grace of God to be free from the guilt and power of sin.  Baptism is a confession that only in union with Jesus Christ can our children be free from sin and enabled to walk in the newness of life to the glory of God.  Paul asks, in Romans 6:2, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?”  Then he explains how we died to sin through union with Christ, a union signified by baptism.  “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.”

These parents have this hope for their child.  Bringing her to the baptismal font, they are looking to Christ alone for her cleansing and true life with God.  We confess that baptism is no empty ritual, but is commanded by God and is, therefore, attended by His blessing.  It is the visible word of the Gospel, as Scripture is the written word.  Just as we believe that God’s word will not return void, but will accomplish the purpose for which He sent it, so we believe that the sacraments do not return void, inasmuch as they accompany the preaching of the word of God and embody that word as sign and seal.  The inward grace and virtue of baptism is not tied to the very moment of time when it is administered, but the fruit and power of baptism reaches to the whole course of our life.

Believing parents bring their children to receive the covenant sign of baptism as an early means of grace, and, by so doing, promise to bring all the means of grace to bear on the life of their children, such as the regular worship of the Church, instruction in the Scriptures as the covenant document from our Lord, and prayers with and for our children, so that when they have reached a condition of discretion, and become subject to the obligations of the covenant, namely, faith, repentance, and obedience, they may make a public confession of their faith in Christ.  Indeed, God calls us to do this with diligence.

As we witness the baptism of this child, may we look back to our own baptism that we might mourn and repent of our sins against our covenant with God, and be stirred up in faith to make right use of our baptism, supplementing “faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brother affection, and brotherly affection with love.  For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:5-8).

Parents, as you have served as an example to us all of claiming God’s covenant promises for our children and continuing by every means to impress the same upon them faithfully, I take the opportunity on this special occasion to encourage you not to grow weary in well-doing, but to take heart in knowing that in due time you will reap if you do not faint.  And as God has blessed you with the fruit of the womb, may He make these olive shoots around your table to abound with fruit for the glory of His name.

A Baptismal Prayer

Our faithful covenant God, You have made to us many precious and great promises through our Lord Jesus Christ, that we should enjoy Your glory and virtue forever.  May Your blessing attend this sacrament of baptism, that goodness and mercy may follow this child of the covenant all the days of her life, and that she may dwell in Your house forever.  Through Christ we pray.  Amen.

Household Baptism

Baptism is not a human invention or mere initiatory ceremony.  It is a divine sacrament, commanded by Christ Himself: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).  As the baptism of the Holy Spirit, of which water baptism is the sign, engrafts believers into Christ, so the visible sign of water baptism identifies one as an engrafted member of the visible Church, the body of Christ, the covenant community.  Therefore, baptism is a sacrament of the Church, and is thus to be administered by the Church, as a function of its teaching ministry, and not as a private ceremony.  As such, baptism represents both the seal and sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit, which is freedom from the dominion of sin, and the blood of Jesus Christ, which takes away all the guilt of sin.

So baptism is the sign and seal of God’s covenantal promise to believers and their children.  Throughout the history of redemption, God has bestowed his covenant blessings, not only on individuals, but upon households, so that the sign of the covenant is given to the believers’ family members.  This is seen most clearly in God’s covenant with Abraham, which was signified and sealed by circumcision.  “You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.  He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised.  Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised.  So shall My covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant” (Gen. 17:11-13).  Likewise, God’s covenant with Noah was with Noah and his posterity.  The Lord’s Covenant of Peace with Phinehas  was with Phinehas and with his seed after him.  The same was understood by David when he responded to the Lord’s covenant, saying, “You have spoken also of Your servant’s house for a great while to come” (2 Sam. 7:19).  So we are not surprised when we read in Luke 18 that “they were bringing even infants to Him that He might touch them.”  Jesus received those children and blessed them.  And the blessing of Jesus is no empty word!  Likewise, having seen how God deals covenantally with families, we expect to hear that Paul’s jailer “was baptized at once, he and all his family. . . . And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed” (Acts 16:33-34).

Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 7:14 that God regards the children of even one believer as holy.  So we do not bring our children to the baptismal font to make them holy.  God already regards the children of believers as holy.  We bring them because God regards them as holy.  When the covenant people sacrificed their children to Molech, the Lord complained that these were children “that you had borne to Me”—they were God’s children, holy to Him.  And so are your children, if you believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior.

The grace of baptism does not guarantee a child’s final salvation or regeneration.  But it does bind the child to the Lord in covenant.  The Lord is always faithful to His covenant.  The child must also be taught to live as a covenant child.  That is, a child in covenant with the Lord.  So Paul, when he addresses children in Ephesians 6, says, “Obey your parents in the Lord.”  Theirs is no mere obedience to custom, but a covenantal or relational obedience in the Lord.  In Deuteronomy 6, children were to be taught at Passover that “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt.  And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”  So the children were part of this redeemed people.  Because of this, their parents are told, “You shall teach My commandments diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”  Because our children are in covenant, they must be taught to live in faith and obedience to the Lord of the Covenant.  Some have suggested that regarding our children as members of the covenant, and giving them the covenant sign leads to complacency about their spiritual condition.  It is, in fact, quite the opposite.  How much more diligent are we to be, who esteem the privilege that our children are afforded to be born into the covenant community.

The modern American church has been heavily influenced by our culture’s crass individualism, as well as by the Arminian revivalism that has come to characterize so much of the evangelical church, with its decisional emphasis.  This is evidenced most clearly with regard to the Sacraments, and to baptism in particular.  We are trained to see baptism as a subjective experience in which the individual believer makes his profession of faith in Christ, his promise to follow Christ, by obediently being baptized.  So, it is “my” faith that is on display in baptism.  I am convinced from Scripture that this is a terrible abuse of God’s sign.  Baptism is not your signet ring that lends weight and authority to God’s covenant.  It is God’s sign and seal.  It is not your personal testimony.  It is God’s objective witness to you and to your children.  It is His seal on His covenant.  Just as it is not your spirit that seals you to the day of redemption, but the Spirit of the living God who seals to us our inheritance in Christ.  Infant baptism reminds us that salvation comes to us from outside of us; that salvation is God’s gracious movement towards us first, before we even desire to move towards Him.  We are all as helpless as infants to save ourselves.  Our only hope is grace from beginning to end.

It is with this understanding and God’s joyful purpose that these parents bring their children to be baptized.

Exhortations to the Parents:

Parents, your Church rejoices with you in God’s goodness to you in giving these children to you.  As the body of Christ we are here for you to encourage and equip you for your walk with Christ and particularly as a Christian family.  As your friends we urge you to teach your children to read the Word of God by reading the Word to them daily.  Teach them to pray by praying with them.  Entrust them to God by praying for them.  Teach your children the principles of knowing and loving our God contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, an excellent summary of which we have in the Westminster Confession of Faith, and in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, which we commend to you as tools for your own instruction as well as theirs.  In all things, endeavor to set before them an example of true godliness, depending entirely upon the grace of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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