2 Corinthians 13:11-14

2 Corinthians 13:11-14

Comfort and Joy

In this final entry, we’re taken back to the beginning, to Paul’s initial theme of comfort. Along with that theme comes a list of other verbs that remind the Corinthians of their past and present division and ecclesiastical fragmentation. They are a divided family in need of communion with each other as they have it with the Triune God. Paul seeks to remind, exhort, encourage, and bless them with these finishing strokes of the stylus.

He concludes with “finally,” a typical Pauline way of calling his readers to attention, to take note of his last words in the letter, and even to summarize central themes in shorthand (cf. Phil. 4:8; 1 Thess. 4:1; 2 Thess. 3:1). In fact, Paul’s words in 13:11 are almost identical to those found in Philippians 3:1 (“Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord”). It’s not accidental or insignificant that Paul calls them brothers. He does so to show his confidence that they are his Christian siblings, fellow sons and daughters in the Son, and as such they are equally united to Christ and to one another as part of God’s family. This reminder is an encouragement for Paul, to be sure. It is also, however, a subtle exhortation for them to act as such. We’ve seen division throughout this letter (as not all division was eradicated after 1 Corinthians was delivered and applied), which division is unbecoming of followers of Christ. It’s understandable that those of Christ would be divided from those of Belial, but these things ought not to be so among brothers! They have a common Christ; they, together, belong to Christ, and must, therefore, love one another as Christ loves them. This, no doubt, is a reminder for us all, isn’t it? We are tempted to drive a wedge further into our relationships with Christian brothers and sisters when conflicts come our way, and when sin disrupts the relationship. Beloved brothers and sisters in the Lord, God has gifted us with the means by which to be restored.

The goal of restoration is put before the Corinthians one final time, but before it is, Paul commands them to rejoice, to be glad and joyful. Some say that the word “rejoice” should rather be translated “greetings” or “good-bye,” as it can be so translated. However, when we read just two verses earlier, we’re reminded of Paul’s own joy: “For we are glad when we are weak and you are strong. Your restoration is what we pray for.” In fact, verses 9 and 13 follow the same pattern: joy then restoration. Paul’s heart is glad because of his confidence in the Lord who enjoys bringing his children to himself and to each other in brotherly affection and care for one another. Paul, then, is saying here that since he rejoices over them, they, too, should rejoice. They follow the Lord of joy, the God of peace, the Holy Spirit of fellowship. They have every reason to rejoice.

Moreover, they have every reason to “aim for restoration.” The verb is actually a passive command (“be restored”), something Paul does elsewhere with the same word (1 Cor. 1:10: “be united in the same mind”). Here again Paul takes the Corinthians to verse 9 and his fervent prayer for their restoration. The Corinthian church has been attacked from without and from within; some Corinthians are false friends and super-apostles, whereas others are faithful followers of Christ. Some sadly have swerved and gotten off the path. The church needs restoration. Paul’s plea should not be applied only to the church in Corinth. We likewise can look at our relationships and seek restoration. That restoration may mean the excommunication of enemies in friends’ clothing. That restoration may mean confession of sin, repentance, and comforting forgiveness. Whatever it looks like in your context, it must be grounded in the absolute authority of God’s Word, for that is where God has wisely counseled his people in the ways of reconciliation. The only way the Corinthians and we can be of the same mind and agree with one another (13:12) is by being mutually committed to God’s Word (cf. also 10:2-7). The only way the Corinthians and we can be at peace with one another is to know the God of grace and peace (1:2). Are you seeking a godly greeting, a holy kiss from your brother or sister? That holy kiss is a sign that even though you may not be biologically family, you are covenantally family, a holied people belonging to the holy God (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 1 Thess. 5:26). Perhaps you should extend that holy-kiss greeting to someone from whom you’re estranged. The God of reconciliation will help you.

Paul’s command “comfort one another” is also passive, and should be translated, “be comforted.” Here Paul bookends his first and final chapters with the theme of comfort. Chapter 1 is full of “comfort” (1:4, 6). Comfort is a big deal in this letter, and he carries that theme in many of his chapters (cf. also 2:7; 7:6-7, 13). You may remember my definition of “comfort” at the start. Here’s how I defined the verb “to comfort”: 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. If you read through 2 Corinthians again, you’ll see how Paul does that over and over. As he concludes his letter, therefore, he reminds them to be comforted. He gave them abundant reasons for which to be comforted. Reflect on them, and so be comforted. Before you put away 2 Corinthians for a while, read it one last time (all in one sitting), and be on the pursuit of comfort from God. You won’t be disappointed.

There’s no better way to conclude 2 Corinthians than the way Paul does in verse 14: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father and the fellowship [communion] of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” He aptly summarizes the central themes of the letter, which are the central themes of the gospel: grace, love, and communion coming from the Triune God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This Triune blessing is not only evidence of the Trinity (one God, three persons, co-equal in power and glory), but a conclusion of immense comfort! If we have God, we receive his grace, love, and fellowship. What more could a people need or ask for? What more comfort could we have? We have it all, because God. Praise God from whom all blessings flow!

2 Corinthians 13:1-10

2 Corinthians 13:1-10

Examination unto Restoration

We’ve made it to the final chapter in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Having just endured three chapters on spiritual warfare (chapters 10-12), one might think that Paul will ease up at the end. Think again. He does what most preachers or pastors do at the end of a writing or a sermon: he puts the responsibility of the message back on the listeners. “What about you?” is the call to reflect and act. That’s what Paul does here. He concludes with a call for self-examination.

Paul, one of the finest Old Testament exegetes (along with the other New Testament authors), grounds his call for Corinthian self-examination in the Old Testament. He quotes part of the Deuteronomic requirement of multiple witnesses for the authentication or establishment of a word, charge, or accusation. Deuteronomy 19:15 in full says, “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” This requirement is not unique to this letter alone, but it finds itself elsewhere (in 1 Timothy 5:19 in reference to charges against church elders; and in Matthew 18:16 with reference to church discipline for an unrepentant brother). Clearly, this is how we must operate as we hear various charges made against someone in the church. This was not merely an Israel-specific law, but it’s a wise, biblical principle by which all truth-lovers must operate even now. Paul, then, who has assured the Corinthians that he cannot do anything against the truth but always operates according to the truth (v. 8), has brought more than one witness against sinful Corinthian conduct. We know the charges: unrepentant, ongoing sin in the Corinthian camp (12:20-21; 13:2) and fraternizing with false apostles (thereby rejecting God’s Word through Paul). What are these witnesses? I take them to be Paul’s own visits. Each trip is a successive witness against them who remain firmly planted in sin. That his visits are the witnesses is clear from verses 1-2. His upcoming third visit will function as the third witness. He has already warned them previously and visited them twice (and even sent two or three letters before 2 Corinthians), and he is now warning them by letter.

Therefore, there is ample evidence to condemn. We do need to note, however, that he’s not rehashing sins that were met head-on by Corinthian repentance (as in chapter 7). That matter has been settled. He’s now taking on a different group of Corinthians and/or the Corinthian critics who must be rebuked and who must know that they will not be spared. Judgment is coming unless real repentance comes first. Paul, at the end of his letter, is offering a gracious warning to the impenitent that with each step Paul takes toward Corinth, judgment is that much closer. Paul can say this because it is Christ who is speaking in him (v. 3). If the Corinthians really desire proof of Christ’s revelation in and through Paul, it will be seen in his not sparing the unrepentant. Where’s this power to punish coming from? From Christ himself, who is not weak, though he was crucified in weakness. Christ is powerful among the Corinthians because of the power of God by which he was raised from the dead (vv. 3-4). Paul on his own is weak, but he’s not alone; he’s in Christ and so lives by the power of God. Get this, then: the power of judgment awaiting unrepentant Corinthians comes from the resurrected Son of God! Here is resurrected power aimed directly at sin and sinners. That’s a power you can’t hide from. In fact, Paul uses similar language when speaking to the Athenians on Mars Hill. Read these words in Acts 17 and note the connection between repentance, the day of judgment, and the resurrected Christ: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (vv. 30-31).

With such a strong case and unavoidable judgment coming their way, what’s a Corinthian to do? Examine his life. In verse 5, we have Paul’s double command to examine and test themselves. They must search their hearts, look at their worldview commitments, hear their words, behold their behavior, and consider their relationship to God by means of their relationship to his Word through the apostle. The questions swirling their minds must be: “Am I in the faith? Is Christ in me?” This is a call to examine oneself, as some of the Corinthians have flirted with immorality and been in bed with the enemy.

Paul demands their examination, and the demand comes from his own confusion about some of their relationship with the Lord. He cannot say that he is confident that every Corinthian that confesses Christ is a follower of Christ. Even so, we’ve already seen evidence earlier in the letter that he’s confident that a majority of Corinthians really are trusting in Jesus. We also see subtle evidence in verse 6 of such confidence. Paul has not failed the test. The Corinthians are the letter of recommendation to God’s Word and work (3:2). The Corinthians are evidence that Paul has not failed the test. If Paul has not failed the test, that means that most of these Corinthians are repentant followers of Christ. Most, therefore, when they self-examine, can be assured that Christ is in them, that they are in the faith. Even with a strong warning, Paul shows a gracious confidence in God’s power of converting and sanctifying the Corinthians. There’s that twin theme of judgment and grace pervasive in the Bible.

After calling the Corinthians to examine their hearts, Paul opens the window of his own heart through his prayer life. In verse 7, he says that he’s been praying that the Corinthians will not do wrong, the wrong being a refusal to repent, an ongoing rejection of Paul’s apostleship, and an abiding in sin. Christians should never desire that their siblings do wrong. An obvious truth, but perhaps not one that could be uttered all the time from the lips of our brothers and sisters. Sometimes (perish the thought!) we secretly desire the fall of another, because, in a Satanically twisted way, it makes us look better. But notice Paul’s motive for his prayer. It’s not that Paul will be made to look good. He doesn’t want the Corinthians to be closer to Christ so that he, Paul, would be vindicated and seen to be a great vessel of the Lord. That’s what he means by, “not that we may appear to have met the test.” He goes on to say that he wants them to do good, even if he appears to have failed. Paul says essentially, “Even if you think I’ve failed you, still do good!” Paul is concerned about God, his glory, his goodness, and his work in the lives of the Corinthians. His motive for the Corinthians’ practice of holiness is not Paul-centered but God-centered.

You can see this other-oriented concern in verse 9 as well, when Paul would gladly prefer his own weakness if that meant the Corinthians’ strength in the Lord. Some are strong, others are weak. For this reason, Paul continues to pray for them. Not only does he desire their well-doing, but also their restoration. The word for restoration (κατάρτισις) is used only here as a noun, but it appears as a verb in 13:11 (“Aim for restoration,” which is one word in Greek). The word-group may point to a perfecting or maturing (as in 1 Thess. 3:10 and Heb. 13:21), or it may refer to a coming-together (a mental unity in 1 Cor. 1:10; a brotherly restoration in Gal. 6:1; and a post-suffering divine restoration in 1 Pet. 5:10). Paul is praying that the Corinthians would be put in order, or set right, by moving away from the Corinthian critics, by fully supporting God’s Word and work, and by moving away from Christless conduct (as in 12:20-21).

I hope you can see Paul’s love for Christ and Christ’s church through this letter, and even through this last call for examination. Granted, Paul will be severe in his use of authority, if necessary (v. 10). If sin remains in the camp, if false teachers keep on keeping on, then Paul has something severe to say and do. Judgment will arrive, if necessary. But, of course, Paul’s desire is “for building up not for tearing down.” Hence the call for self-examination. Hence the prayer for well-doing. Hence the prayer for restoration. Hence the warning!

Do we care about sin in our lives and in the lives of our brothers? We ought to be concerned about our wooden planks and their splinters. Do we heed Christ’s warning against sin? Do we warn others of sin, its consequences, and the resurrected power of Christ used to punish it? In the same breath, however, do we pray for restoration? Do we desire well-doing, a habit of holiness? It all comes down to this question really: Is Christ in us?

What about you?

2 Corinthians 12:19-21

2 Corinthians 12:19-21

Mourning over Sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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  • Romans 11:33-36

    Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways!
    For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counselor? Or who has given a gift to Him that he might be repaid?
    For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen.

  • Cross Creek Presbyterian Church (PCA) - 430 S McPherson Church Road - Fayetteville, NC 28304
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