Monday, July 27 –
Welcome to a new week and also to a new book. We are beginning Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians this morning by reading 2 Corinthians 1:1 – 22. After you’ve read the Scripture, come back, and I’ll share some background to the letter, and we’ll take a look at what we’ve read. One more thing, we are now well over halfway through the New Testament. Sincerely, “well done”, and thanks for coming along with me as we seek to read the New Testament in a year.
It’s safe to say that no other church challenged Paul as a Missionary and Church Planter as the Corinthian Church. We just finished the letter of First Corinthians, and as you recall, much of it was rocky. The Corinthians were divided by personality cliques and doctrinal confusion. Paul had told them that he planned on visiting them but was delayed by responsibilities in Ephesus, and the need to visit the other churches in Macedonia (1 Cor. 16:5-8). Paul had sent Timothy on ahead, and it was after he left Ephesus and traveled north to Macedonia that he received more troubling news.
From Macedonia, Paul sat down to write this letter we are now beginning to read. Within a few months, he would arrive at Corinth (and stay with them for about three months). This letter – 2nd Corinthians – was written to answer some of the criticisms that had been leveled against him (there were many), and, as well, clarify what they were supposed to be doing, and how the Gospel message was central to the church’s mission. It was written about a year after he had written what we call 1st Corinthians – around 56 – 57 a.d.
A vocal minority of people in the Corinthian church, frankly, didn’t like the Apostle Paul. Some of it had to do with cultural clashes. They were mostly Greek/Roman converts, and Paul was a Jew. Paul’s disciplinary actions concerning incestuous sexual relations, the pagan temples, and Temple prostitution, as well as the issues of meat in the marketplace that had been offered as sacrifices to pagan gods, made many of them think Paul was too “law-oriented”...too “zealous”...and too “overbearing.” This group didn’t like Paul’s directness – “just who do you think you are?” The second group came from the Jewish believers who didn’t think Paul honored the law of God enough. Some new so-called Apostles had come to Corinth and they ardently taught the Old Testament. They told the church that Paul was being too lenient on these new converts. Paul spends a large part of 2nd Corinthians addressing these so-called Apostles and their “different Gospel,” as well as their assault on his character. He was stuck in between two opposing forces, and he had to address both of them.
The letter opens with a typical greeting, but also with a quick assertion of Paul’s Apostleship – “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God”(1:1a). While some in Corinth were unconvinced of who Paul was, Paul was not. He was an Apostle called to proclaim Jesus as Messiah, Savior, and Lord. It was not his choice to enter into this ministry – it was God’s will that called him to do this Apostolic work. As we will see, Paul was going to have to address some “so-called” Apostles (2 Cor. 11:13) who had sought to undermine his position and authority. Paul doesn’t waste any time making clear his credentials.
As to the church, Paul wants them to know how he views them – “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1-2). Among the many things that had given Paul cause to wonder what they were doing, he reminds them that they are “the church...in Corinth...with all the Saints...by Grace and peace from God.” We might find it hard to think of the Corinthian church as “saints,” but Paul does not. He knows that those who God called to himself are “Saints,” for that is what a Saint is – one called by God to salvation in Jesus Christ. He also knows that God’s call is by Grace through faith, and leads to Peace with God, as well as gains the Peace of God (Romans 5:1). He reminds them that to be in the church is because of God, and it is God who keeps the saints through continued mercy and grace because of Jesus Christ.
The heart of Paul is his compassion for this church and the tough things they had already faced. After all, Paul knew what it was like to go through challenging times just because of his faith. The Corinthian church had experienced its own share of painful things. The divisions based on personality cliques (1 Cor. 1), and the sexual and moral issues (1 Cor. Chapters, 5-10) had brought division to the church. Paul addressed this after his opening greeting – “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (1:3-4). The painful issues they had to deal with had hurt them deeply, but Paul reminds them that God is not absent from their pain and suffering. It’s insightful theology as he reminds them, and us, that suffering is not punishment, but a mysterious sharing in Christ’s sufferings – “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (1:5). In verses that follow (1:6-7), Paul reminds them that he is well aware of the troubles they have gone through and has no intention of leaving them alone to figure it out on their own.
What is the benefit of suffering, if any? Suffering keeps us from trusting in our own abilities and strength. Suffering makes it clear that we are not in control, and we need God – “For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him, we have set our hope that he will deliver us again” (1:8-10). No one likes suffering. Yet suffering is the fire of God burning away the dross of our own independent self-control. We learn in suffering that we have no control of outcomes, but God never loses control. Therefore, it is always “on Him we set our hope.”
The long section that follows in 1st Corinthians 1:13-22, and in the verses that follow these that we will take up tomorrow, Paul begins to deal with those who criticize his leadership role in the church. The false teachers, the so-called false apostles, attacked Paul in order to alienate him from the church. Our first glimpse into their accusations has to do with his lack of intellect and the Greek wisdom of the culture he encountered when he came to establish the church in Corinth – “For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you” (1:12). Paul had nothing to hide from them (1:13-14). He came to them not trying to impress them with his “earthly wisdom,” but instead to proclaim to them the “grace of God.” There you have it...simple, sincere, not trying to impress, but declaring Grace...Paul’s modus operandi.
The false apostles accused Paul – behind his back – that he didn’t really care about the Corinthians, because he refused to come back to them, but instead sent them letters. They accused him of being indecisive, vacillating, and criticized him to tear down his credibility. Paul’s words to answer them are essential to understand – “I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia, and to come back to you from Macedonia and have you send me on my way to Judea. Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this? Do I make my plans according to the flesh, ready to say “Yes, yes” and “No, no” at the same time? As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No, but in him, it is always Yes” (1:16-19). Paul is no politician promising something to gain favor only to compromise it away after they have arrived. He says, “My Yes is always a Yes, and My No is always a No.” He got that principle from Jesus (note Matthew 5:33 – 37). He stressed his choices were always a response to God’s faithfulness, God’s direction, and this follows the pattern of Jesus’ teaching.
He ends this first response with theological truth – “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory. And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (1:20-22). Rather than defend himself, he falls back on the decisions he had made and always makes. His response to God has always been “yes.” For Paul, God’s will was always an “Amen – so be it,” and then He proceeded to do what God had called him to do for the singular purpose of the “Glory of God.” How?, through the one who is working through Him, and us too – the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is God’s seal – the Greek word is “sphragizo,” and was a part of everyday life in Roman/Greek culture. When we want a document, like a will, certified to be genuine and accurate, we prepare and sign it in the company of a “public notary.” The notary stamps it, dates it, signs it, and it stands in a court of law as a lawful document. The seal in Paul’s time was a waxed stamp that sealed up the document and made clear the intent of the owner. Paul says God “sealed” us – put his stamp upon us and declared that we belong to Him and guarantees the “yes” of the will of God to be done.
False accusations – they are never pretty. We often bite our tongues rather than dignify that which is false. Sometimes we get angry and “give them a piece of our mind.” One of my mentors advised me some thirty years ago after emails had become a way to write to people, that it’s ok to write a defense back to someone – just don’t push the send button. What then do we do? Paul speaks directly to the truth of who God is...not the man Paul is. It is God who called him. It was God who appointed him to be an Apostle. It was God who ordered his movements and mission. What we have at the beginning of this letter is Paul’s response to false accusations – “you have a problem with what I am doing? Take it up with the Lord!”
Sometimes the best answer is our silence, but if it needs to be dealt with, do it in person, face to face, and do it to fulfill God’s will instead of appeasing our own hurt feelings. Is it easy? No, it sometimes sits in complete confusion, as the writer of the Proverbs reminded us – “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26:4-5). It’s somewhat clearer to remind ourselves that each time stands on its own.
The end of this is the question – “Who am I most concerned about – myself, or God’s glory?” Stay with God, watch the motives, be careful to not go down the road of slander, or gossip, and pray. God knows what he is doing – our need is to trust him to sort it all out.