Renew-Hicks Articles on Women and the Assembly

April 23, 2021

For convenience, below are links to the discussion between Renew and myself. I hope you find the series informative as well as reflective of attitudes that honor God and bear witness to the fruit of the Spirit.

I only respond to Renew posts that explicitly interact with my book Women Serving God.

  1. Renew’s Review (Part 1): Hermeneutics.
  2. My Response to Part 1.
  3. Renew’s Reply to my Response to Part 1. (I also copied it into #4 below.)
  4. My Rejoinder to Renew’s Reply to my Response to Part 1.
  5. Renew’s Review (Part 2): 1 Corinthians 11.
  6. My Response to Part 2.
  7. Renew’s Review (Part 3): 1 Corinthians 14.
  8. My Response to Part 3.
  9. Renew’s Review (Part 4): 1 Timothy 2:8-15.
  10. My Response to Part 4.
  11. Renew’s Review (Part 5): Elders.
  12. My Response to Part 5.
  13. Renew’s Review (Part 6): Marriage.
  14. My Response to Part 6.
  15. Renew’s Review (Part 9): Where Does Egalitarianism Lead?
  16. My Response to Part 9.
  17. Renew’s Summary (Part 12).
  18. My Response to Renew’s Summary.
  19. Renew’s Final Response to My Comments on their Summary.
  20. Christian Chronicle Review by Sproles.
  21. My Response to Chronicle Review by Sproles.

Christ the King

November 23, 2021

[Homily delivered at the All Saints Church of Christ on November 21, 2021 by William “Caleb” Rogers, a student at Lipscomb University and frequent preacher at All Saints Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee. The lectionary texts for the day were Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37.]

Today is the Feast of Christ the King. Our Gospel today, of course, records Jesus’ conversation with Pilate regarding the use of that term.

Because today’s Gospel comes out of order, let’s catch up: Judas has betrayed Jesus, the Romans have come to arrest Jesus, and Peter has cut off someone’s ear in a misguided effort to defend Jesus—more on that one in a minute.

After Jesus is arrested, John plays two games of hot potato. First, the narrative switches back and forth between Jesus’ fate and Peter’s betrayal of Jesus.

Second, the Jewish authorities and the Romans can’t seem to decide what to do about Jesus—or who should do it. Both groups have an interest in getting rid of Jesus—the Romans could do with one less agitator challenging the established social order and stirring up talk of rebellion and revolt, and the Jews could do with one less agitator challenging the established social order and stirring up talk of rebellion and revolt. The Roman calculus is simple—they’re in charge, and insurrection (real or imagined) is bad for business. The Jews have a little more complicated position—while they certainly wouldn’t mind a successful revolt, they’d like to avoid arousing the ire of the Romans. “If you come at the king, you best not miss,” and all that. Further, the specific Jewish authorities in question here are also established leaders whom Jesus is challenging—it’s bad for their business if Jesus is telling folks that the high priests and scribes are full of it.

But, these two groups also have reason to not want to kill Jesus. First, the Jews can’t do so themselves—they’re barred from executing people themselves, so they need the Romans to do the dirty work for them. Second, the Romans (especially Pilate) seem to view this as an internal Jewish dispute. At the end of chapter 18 and the beginning of chapter 19, Pilate expresses real desire to not execute Jesus. It’s not until the Jews tell Pilate that Jesus is challenging Caesar—the 1st century equivalent of asking to see Pilate’s manager—that Pilate gives in.

So, Jesus’ arrest and indictment take the form of this elaborate dance between the Jews and the Romans—Jesus is arrested by a combined force, then taken to one Jewish official, then another, then finally to Pilate. Neither of the Jewish officials get much of anything to stick, so they bring him to Pilate. Pilate ask them what the deal is, and their response boils down to: “We’d like to kill this guy, but we’re not allowed to, so pretty please kill him for us. Also we can’t tell you why.”

Pilate is a senior Roman official, and one usually didn’t get to be a senior Roman official by doing whatever the local leaders asked without asking questions. So, Pilate decides to figure out what’s going on.

Which brings us to our Gospel today: Pilate is trying to figure out what the deal is between Jesus and the Jews. Pilate doesn’t get it. Jesus’ identity and purpose is too foreign for Pilate to understand. Instead of understanding that Jesus is king-unlike-the-other-kings, Pilate remains blind. Ultimately—not in today’s reading but soon after—Pilate chooses the easy way out. He believes the Jews who say Jesus wants to replace Caesar as a worldly ruler and hands Him over to death.

Today, on Christ the King Sunday, we are called to recognize Jesus as King. Not in the way Pilate would have had it—not in the way Romans or Jews or Americans might understand kingship—but a true King, one whose rule transcends time and nations and peoples.

In today’s Gospel, Pilate and Jesus have a conversation about kings. Pilate asks Jesus if he’s the king of the Jews—apparently trying to figure out whether the Jewish leaders have charged Jesus correctly. Jesus doesn’t give Pilate a straight answer, but it’s not because he’s trying to confuse Pilate. Rather, Jesus can’t answer Pilate’s question honestly because Pilate doesn’t understand the question he’s asking.

Clearly, Jesus is King of the Jews, but not in the way Pilate means the question. Pilate’s conception of kingship—worldly power maintained by coercion and violence—doesn’t map onto who Jesus is or what Jesus is doing. If Jesus were that sort of king, he says, his followers would be putting up more of a fight to save him.

Pilate’s misconception isn’t unique to him—earlier in this chapter, as Jesus is arrested, Peter tries to put up a fight. He draws his sword and cuts off a servant’s ear. Jesus, though, reprimands Peter for that. Violence is not Jesus’ path to power.

Instead, Jesus says, his kingdom is not of this world. It’s a kingdom rooted not in a specific place or a specific people but in “truth.”

And here, “truth” doesn’t mean “right belief” or “correct doctrine.” Truth is right relationship with God through Jesus. Membership in Jesus’ kingdom isn’t based on living in an area the Romans control or being born into the Jewish ethnic group or having your parents be Roman citizens. Membership in Jesus’ kingdom is about relating to God and God’s son and God’s world in the way we were created to.

Which leads us, I think, to an important point about Christ the King Sunday. I was watching a movie with Jacob on Friday—The King, starring Timothee Chalamet and Robert Pattinson. It’s based on Shakespeare’s Henry plays. Toward the end of the movie, Henry V is talking to his soon-to-be wife, Catherine, a princess of France, whose hand he won by invading and defeating France.

As it turns out, Henry’s justifications for invading France were all unfounded—planted by one of his advisors to further Henry’s popularity. Catherine explains this to Henry, who, grasping at straws, says, “Why should you question my intent? Your father’s rule is illegitimate. He has no right claim to his throne.” Catherine responds, “All monarchy is illegitimate. You yourself are the son of a usurper.”

Which, of course, is true. Henry’s father, Henry IV, ascended to power by dethroning Richard II because of a personal slight. Every kingdom—monarchy, democracy, and authoritarian regime alike—is illegitimate. They are created because of the whims and selfishness of powerful men and sustained through force and violence. Our own beloved country, such as it is, was founded because some wealthy smugglers didn’t like that their tax burden was marginally higher. We fought a war in this country because wealthy southern aristocrats wanted to enforce slavery on the nation in perpetuity. 

Today, right here, our nation condemns hundreds of thousands of people to homelessness in favor of regressive land-use policies that further enrich the wealthy. Our kingdom has consigned millions to preventable disease and death because the profits of medical companies and doctors are more important. Our kingdom’s laws turn away refugees at our borders. Our kingdom holds harmless white men who kill for pleasure and imprisons black men for being poor.

This is why Jesus can’t give Pilate a straight answer—no king is like Jesus because none of the kings Pilate knew about could be like Jesus.

Those kings held—and hold—power because of force and coercion and violence, because of continued popular support, because a majority of their people enjoyed how the king is cruel to a minority of the people. Those kings are illegitimate.

Christ, the ruler of the universe, is the only legitimate king. Christ’s rule comes not from chance or whim or sin but from Christ’s very nature.

Christ’s kingdom is different from the other kingdoms because membership is open to all. Citizenship in the kingdom of God is not limited to those who were born in the right place, or to the right parents, or with the right qualifications. To enter the kingdom of God, you don’t need to hire a lawyer to navigate the US Customs and Immigration Service.

The feast of Christ the King is a new one. Pope Pius XI established it in 1926, concerned by the rise in nationalism in Europe. In the document promulgating this new feast, he wrote, “This kingdom is opposed to none other than to that of Satan and to the power of darkness. It demands of its subjects a spirit of detachment from riches and earthly things, and a spirit of gentleness. They must hunger and thirst after justice, and more than this, they must deny themselves and carry the cross.”

When Pius established the feast of Christ the King, it was in late October, the Sunday before the Feast of All Saints. Now, it comes on the last Sunday before the beginning of advent. In both cases, the feast is explicitly eschatological—it looks forward to a future kingdom.

Christ’s kingdom has not yet come in fullness. Our nations still have borders; kingdoms oppress their peoples and the world cries out for justice.

And yet, it would be a mistake to assume that the Feast of Christ the King has no meaning for us. Jesus tells us that his kingdom is not of this world, and that’s true—Christ’s kingdom is nothing like the kingdoms of this world. Revelation, though, tells us that Christ’s kingdom is already in this world.

“To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.” Made—past tense.

And in Psalms: “The Lord is King; he has put on splendid apparel; the Lord has put on his apparel and girded himself with strength.” Is—present tense, not future.

And in Daniel: “To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” Was and is—this has already happened.

Clearly we still live with the vestiges of the kingdoms of this world. The government still punishes you more for feeding the hungry without a license than it does for shooting someone. The kingdoms of this world will still, in the words of Wendell Berry, ask you “to die for profit.” Pilate, after all, did send Jesus to be crucified.

But, of course, crucifixion didn’t do much to stop the coming of Christ’s Kingdom.

Today, on the feast of Christ the King, let us remember that the Kingdom of God is already among us:

Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the kingdoms of the earth will wail.”


2 Corinthians 4:7-15 — Hardships and the Spirit of Faith

November 20, 2021

If the ministry of the new covenant mediates the glory of God in the face of Jesus the Messiah, why is Paul’s ministry so filled with suffering? The gospel, epitomized in the death and resurrection of Jesus, calls its ministers—all believers—to give themselves for the sake of others. When we follow Jesus into his ministry, we follow him into his suffering so that others might also experience the glory of God.

Ministers of the new covenant, as Paul has written earlier, are sufficient or competent in the Spirit to minister. They speak boldly because of the hope of the glory of God. In consequence of this gift of ministry by the mercy of God, they do not give up!

Moreover, we don’t give up because the ministry of the new covenant—the ministry of reconciliation—invites people to participate in the glory of God, which means, at least in part, to participate in the very life of God both now and in the future. The ministry of the new covenant is a glorious ministry!

At this point, we might hear the background grumblings of some in Corinth. In Greco-Roman culture (and today as well), if one is an approved minister for a ruler, they are dressed in honor, wealth, and power. Don’t successful ministers of the new covenant have large numbers, respected remuneration, enthralling charisma, wealth, and comfort? But Paul had none of that. Rather, his ministry was soaked in suffering and hardship. How is this, at the same time, glorious?

This treasure is delivered through clay jars.

The treasure is the glorious gospel of Jesus the Messiah in whose face the radiance and glory of God is experienced and known.

But this treasure is made known through fragile human beings who experience hardship and suffering. And this is by divine intent in order to demonstrate that the power of the gospel arises from the work of God rather than the charisma and status of its human instruments. It is God who leads us and spreads the aroma of Christ. God works through us, but it is God’s work and God’s power.

This divine power (glorious gospel) becomes visible through struggle and suffering (“clay jars”). This struggle is real, but it is not determinative. Though Paul struggles under tremendous hardship and pressures, he is nevertheless confident in his ministry.

Paul characterizes this struggle with four words while, at the same time, qualifying that struggle with a basic confidence in another four words. They stand in contrast with each other. Both are true. While one recognizes the struggle, the other affirms the hope without diminishing the struggle. This confidence in the midst of struggle arises from a spirit of faith analogous to the faith the Psalmist exhibited in Psalm 116.

The Struggle (Suffering)The Confidence (“Spirit of Faith”)
Afflicted: Hard-Pressed, Under PressureNot Crushed: Not Overwhelmed
Perplexed: Anxious Doubt and UncertaintyNot Despairing: Not Hopeless
Persecuted: Harassed, PursuedNot Forsaken: Not Abandoned or Cut Off
Struck Down: Knocked Down (Phillips)Not Destroyed: Not Knocked Out (Phillips)
The Dying of JesusThe Life of Jesus

The struggle is real. Ministers often live under pressure, experience anxious uncertainty, are pursued by detractors, and assaulted even by fellow-believers. Without diminishing that reality, ministers of the new covenant are not overwhelmed, hopeless, abandoned, or knocked out with regard to the conduct of their ministry.

Consequently, though distressed, Paul does not give up (4:1, 16). Though struggling, Paul is confident that the ministry of the new covenant is worth the effort.

There is a reason Paul does not think of struggle as inconsistent with the ministry of the new covenant. It goes to the meaning and significance of the gospel itself. The struggle reflects the commitment to follow Jesus to the cross, to bear the death of Jesus in our bodies. When we experience hardship, we suffer with Christ. In effect, we die with Christ daily for the sake of the ministry of the gospel. Yet, in dying with Christ through suffering, we also manifest or embody the life of Jesus in our bodies as well. We die with Christ, but we also live with him—and we do both through our bodies.

Paul sees his suffering through the lens of the ministry of Jesus, through the lens of the death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, Paul uses the name “Jesus” six times in this text, which is a higher concentration than in any other portion of Paul’s letters. This emphasis reminds us that Jesus of Nazareth and his gospel ministry are the ground of new covenant ministry. Jesus himself, the incarnate Lord, is himself a minster of the new covenant, and his life, death, and resurrection are the pattern of new covenant ministry itself.

Consequently, it should be no surprise the ministers of the new covenant suffer, and it should be no surprise that ministers of the new covenant also testify and embody life as well. The pattern of the ministry of Jesus the Messiah is lived out through ministers of the new covenant.

In this way ministers of the new covenant, embrace “the same spirit of faith” exhibited by the Psalmist in Psalm 116. The ancient Psalmist endured a season living on the edge of death and anticipated its coming. However, the Psalmist cried out to the Lord, and that voice was heard, and God delivered.

The “spirit of faith,” that which says, “I believe, and so I spoke,” empowers new covenant ministers to endure their struggles and hardships. It motivates them to persevere through their daily bouts with death. This is because the “spirit of faith” knows who God is and what God has done in Jesus. We know that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will (1) “raise us also with Jesus” and (2) “bring us with you into his presence” (or, literally, “will present us with you”).

This is the bedrock of Paul’s hope and endurance. The God whom Paul trusts is the God who raises the dead—not only the resurrection of Jesus, but our future resurrection with Jesus. Though Jesus is the first fruit, we are part of the same harvest. The resurrection of Jesus is the promise of our own resurrection. That promise is so certain it is as if it has already happened.

Our resurrection is also a presentation. The God who raises the dead will also “present” us. This envisions a moment in the future when God will gather all the saints—all new covenant minister, all believers—as an eschatological presentation. We will be ushered into the presence of God together (“present us with you”) as God’s own possession in order to enjoy the face of God whose glory we now experience in the face of Jesus the Messiah. Indeed, we might say the Messiah himself will present us before God as his gift to the Father—a spotless, sanctified, and cleansed bride (Colossians 1:22, 28; Ephesians 5:27; 2 Corinthians 11:2).

“I believe,” Paul testifies in the spirit of faith, and, therefore, he speaks. In other words, he doesn’t give up! (2 Corinthians 4:1, 16). This faith is in the God who raises the dead, the one who did not abandon Jesus in the grave and will not abandon us in the grave. Therefore, we don’t give up!

Why, according to Paul, are ministers of the new covenant willing to suffer? For whom or what do they suffer? To what end do they endure hardship in gospel ministry?

Paul offers three reasons.

  • It is for the sake of Jesus—we follow Jesus, respond to Jesus, and embody the life of Jesus in our own lives (2 Corinthians 4:11).
  • It is for the sake of the Corinthians—we sacrifice for the good of community and its health (2 Corinthians 4:15).
  • It is for the sake of increasing thanksgiving to (or glorifying) God as grace abounds to more and more people (2 Corinthians 4:16)—we minister to include others in the grace of God.

The ministry of the gospel entails hardship, anxiety, and assaults, and—at the same time—ministers of the gospel are not overwhelmed, knocked out, or left hopeless by those struggles. We encounter them in a spirit of faith that trusts in the God who raises the dead, and we pursue this ministry for the sake of others—Jesus, the community, and those who do not know Jesus.

Resurrection means dying, even the daily dying of prolonged hardships, is meaningful because we die for the sake of others and God will not abandon us in death.

2 Corinthians 4:1-6 — Don’t Give Up!

November 13, 2021

The ministry of the new covenant—the ministry of reconciliation—is worth the struggle, heartache, and conflict as long as we have renounced deceitful and manipulative practices and focused on the proclamation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Therefore, “we do not lose heart” but rest in the work of God who spoke light into the darkness at creation and in the ministry of Jesus, and even now shines light into our hearts today.

The ministry of the new covenant—the ministry that mediates the glory of God in Christ—is something Paul received by the mercy of God. That ministry is both grounded in and expresses the mercy of God. We have received this mercy and through it have become God’s instruments in a reconciling ministry.

The mercy of God, then, is the reason we don’t give up, lose heart, or grow weary. The glory of the new covenant surpasses all suffering, trouble, and wounds. Participation in this ministry is more significant and meaningful than its cost, though it may seem like it is not at times. Suffering, as Paul will note in next section of the letter, is part of the process by which this ministry accomplishes its ends. When we follow Jesus, we follow him into this sort of suffering, struggle, and conflict.

This ministry, it seems to me, is not simply an apostolic one or a staff position at an institution. Rather, it is part of the vocation into which all disciples of Jesus are called. Paul may be focusing on his apostolic ministry, particularly in his relationship to the Corinthians, but the ministry of reconciliation belongs to all disciples. What Paul says of himself here is also true for all minister—all believers.

This ministry, however, demands integrity, openness, and faithfulness to the message, though it is lamentably lacking among many believers (even especially leaders).

This ministry renounces:

  • Shameful things
  • Deception
  • Distortions of the word of God
  • Self-Focused Proclamation

This ministry embraces:

  • Open statement of the truth of the gospel
  • Commendation of a clear conscience
  • Proclamation of Jesus the Messiah as Lord

This is a strong contrast. Perhaps Paul is drawing a distinction between himself and others. It may be that his doubters or even the “super-apostles” of 2 Corinthians 10-12 engaged in the ministry tactics that Paul renounced. Or, perhaps Paul himself was accused of such practices. Or, perhaps the contrast only accentuates Paul’s sincerity and integrity for the sake of reminding the Corinthians of his ministry practices.  

Whatever the case, the gospel must be proclaimed in ways shaped by the gospel itself. Ministerial practices must conform to the gospel proclaimed. This entails integrity, openness, and a focus on Jesus the Messiah as the good news itself. It cannot include deceit, selfish ambition, distortion, and dishonorable motives. Unfortunately, some who proclaim Jesus as Lord function more like they are the centers of attention as they use their fame and status to promote themselves rather than the Lordship of Jesus the Messiah.

In this light, it is important to focus the message on Jesus, who is the good news of God in the world.

Thus, Paul does not veil the gospel. He proclaims it openly and truthfully with a good conscience. Yet, not everyone believes what he preaches. Their hearts are still veiled, which means they are have not yet experienced the glory of God in their hearts and lives. In this sense, they are still perishing.

Their veiled hearts are a form of blindness. The “god of this age,” who is the leader of the forces of darkness and exercises imperial-like power within “this age,” has blinded them. As long as this “god” reigns and moves in the hearts of people, they cannot see the light of the gospel. The light of that gospel is itself the glory of the Messiah, who is the image of God.

The glory of God, which Moses experienced on Mount Sinai and in the Tent of Meeting, is, in fact, the glory of Christ because Christ is the image of God. What Moses experienced on the Mount is the same glory believers experience through faith. It is the glory of God revealed in Christ. This glory is a light in the darkness. Though their hearts are veiled, this glory can open the eyes of the blind through the gospel.

The proclamation of Jesus the Messiah as Lord—which is the gospel—can open the eyes of the blind because God is at work through in the gospel.  Just as God spoke light into the darkness of Genesis 1:2-3 and just as Isaiah anticipated the light that would appear in the darkness of this age (Isaiah 9:1-2; Matthew 4:12-17), so Paul believes that through the proclamation of the gospel, God can pour light into the hearts of people blinded by the “god of this age.”

This light is the knowledge of the glory of God—it is an encounter with God in the face of Jesus the Messiah. Just as Israel encountered the glory of God through the face of Moses, so now believers, through the ministry of the new covenant, encounter the glory of God in the face of Jesus.

Moreover, Paul does not approach his ministry as one of selfish ambition or self-promotion. On the contrary, he regards himself as the Corinthian’s slave for the sake of the gospel. Rather than “lord” over them (2 Corinthians 1:24), Paul walks among them as their slave. Paul seeks to serve the Corinthians. Typically, Paul thinks of himself as a slave to Jesus who is Lord, and here he thinks of himself as the Corinthian’s slave because Jesus is Lord. He is a slave so that the ministry of the new covenant might glorify God through writing on the hearts of the Corinthians.

This prospect encourages us to participate and persevere in the ministry of the new covenant. We don’t give up because too much is at stake. The ministry is too important.

Let us not grow weary, fellow ministers (by which I mean all believers serving through whatever gifts God has given), in the work of this ministry. It is the declaration of the Lordship of Jesus the Messiah. And let us do so in ways that demonstrate integrity, honesty, and faithfulness such that the gospel we proclaim is the gospel by which we live.

If we proclaim Lord Jesus as the image of God, then we must also seek to be transformed from glory to glory into that image in both the way we live out that gospel and in the way we proclaim that gospel.

2 Corinthians 3:7-18 – We are Confident Because We are Hopeful

November 6, 2021

Paul’s “new covenant” ministry is life-giving, hopeful, and glorious. This contrasts with the glory of Moses’ “old covenant” ministry which was hidden to Israel in the wilderness but is fully revealed in Christ.

The movement from “old covenant” to “new covenant” is not so much an abolition of the “old covenant,” or a sense that the Torah (law) was inferior ethically, or that it was not an authentic revelation of God, or that the Torah has no relevant meaning any longer, but rather that what was good about the “old covenant” is taken up into the “new covenant.” It is “new” in the sense of renewal, and it is “new” because it is internalized in the hearts of believers through the ministry of the Spirit. The law, rather than remaining on tablets of stone, is inscribed on the hearts of believers by the Spirit so that we are living letters of recommendations for Christ. The law did not remain on stone tablets. It became “new” through its inscription upon the hearts who trusted in the Lord by the work of the Spirit. In this way, the new covenant mediates the experience of the glory of God inwardly and progressively.

Paul’s rhetoric employs a typical argument current in ancient Judaism called qal va-homer. In English, it looks like this: “if X is Z, then how much more is Y also Z?” The argument assumes the reality of the first statement in order to affirm the greatness of the second.

  • If the ministry of death came in glory, how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory?
  • If there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, how much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory!
  • If what was set aside came through glory, how much more has the permanent come in glory!

Paul does not deny the Mosaic ministry had glory. On the contrary, he affirms it. The glory of God radiated from the face of Moses after he encountered God on Mount Sinai and in the tent where Israel met God (the Tabernacle) as Exodus 34 tells us. The glory of the old covenant ministry, glowing on the face of Moses, was authentic. It was a genuine experience of God’s presence within Israel. God was truly present through the ministry of Moses. This should be celebrated rather than denigrated. At the same time, there is something that is filled with even more glory.

But if it was real, why does Paul call the ministry of Moses one of death, condemnation, and impermanence? Paul is not describing the “old covenant” itself or the Law (Torah). Rather, he is describing the effect of the ministry of the old covenant illustrated by the glory that appeared on the face of Moses.

Old Covenant MinistryNew Covenant Ministry
Ministry of DeathMinistry of the Spirit
Ministry of CondemnationMinistry of Justification
Transient GloryPermanent Glory

Why did this glory entail a ministry of death and condemnation? Why was it transient?

The problem does not lie with the Torah or the covenant itself. Rather, it lies in hard hearts. In the wilderness, Israel did not listen to Moses. Consequently, they could not gaze upon the glory of God without being consumed by it. As a result, Moses veiled his face so that Israel would not be consumed that glory. The glory on the face of Moses was real, but it was dangerous for the wilderness rebels. Moses hid it from the people lest they be consumed by it or perhaps lest they seek in the face of Moses the goal of their life with God.

That veil, Paul asserts, still covers the hearts of Israel in Paul’s own time. When Israel reads the “old covenant” (or, the Torah, or the tablets of stone), they do not see how God has acted in Christ for life and righteousness. It is hidden to them much like Moses’ veil hid the glory of God in the wilderness. Rather, with the same hard hearts as Israel in the wilderness, they read Moses in a way that fails to see the ministry of reconciliation that is grounded in the God who is in Christ reconciling the world to God’s own self.

In other words, the ministry of Moses was a ministry of death, condemnation, and transience because Israel’s hard hearts did not embrace the glory God revealed to them. Paul’s ministry is one of life, righteousness, and permanence because the veil is removed in Christ, and in this way the glory of God is experienced to an ever increasing degree.

This is the point of the question, “how much more . . .” If the glory on the face of Moses was authentic, how much is the glory of the ministry of the Spirit. Moses ministered in Israel to share the glory of God with Israel, though Israel did not receive it and Moses had to hide it under a veil. New covenant ministry—the ministry of reconciliation in which Paul is engaged—is the ministry of the Spirit who, in Christ, writes that glory on the hearts of people. The law is written on the hearts of believers through the new covenant, as Jeremiah 31:33 promised.

This is accomplished by the action of the Lord through the Spirit. The ministry of the Spirit, in contrast to the ministry of death, brings life, righteousness, and sanctification as we are transformed into God’s own image, and this is a permanent glory.

This is the sense in which “the Lord is the Spirit.” This is not a personal identity as if the Lord and the Spirit are the same person. Rather, Paul is commenting on Exodus 34:29-35. The “Lord” in the text of Exodus 34 is the experience of the Spirit in the present. The Spirit is the Lord in the sense that the Spirit is the one who ministers to believers as they experience the glory of God. The Lord is the Spirit who effects the good work of the ministry in the new covenant. This happens not through the ministry of Moses but through the ministry of the Spirit. The Spirit brings freedom from death, condemnation, and unrighteousness.

More specifically, the Spirit brings the freedom to gaze upon the glory of the Lord with unveiled faces. In other words, the glory that radiated from the face of Moses is now experienced in the lives of believers through their transformation into the image of Christ.

The veil is removed in Christ when one turns to the Lord by the ministry of the Spirit, and the glory of God is increasingly experienced through our transformation into the image of Christ. The glory increases as the transformation progresses. This is the process of sanctification whereby we are set apart, made holy, and become the righteousness of God through transformation into the image of Christ.

“Therefore,” Paul wrote, “since we have such a hope, we act with great boldness” (3:12).

The ministry of the new covenant is a bold one. It is a public announcement, a courageous assertion. We pursue this ministry because of the hope upon which it is grounded, that is, the glory of God revealed in Christ. By this we know that the God who raises the dead gives righteousness and life through the ministry of the Spirit, which is the ministry of the “new covenant.”

The same glory that shown on the face of Moses is revealed in Christ, and believers—as with unveiled faces—experience the glory of God in ever increasing ways such that the glory of God abounds more and more in the lives of people being transformed by the Spirit of God into the image of the Lord.

The glory increases. This text does not negate Moses’ experience of glory but points us to fuller and ever-increasing experiences of glory. There is continuity between the glory Moses revealed and the glory experienced in Christ. And the glory experienced in Christ is ever increasing as it reflects more and more the image of Christ, who is the glory and image of God.

Therefore, we boldly participate in this new covenant ministry because we have a sure hope grounded in the glory of God revealed in Christ.

2 Corinthians 2:14-3:6 — Who is Sufficient for Ministry?

October 28, 2021

Paul asks, who is sufficient (competent, qualified, or adequate) for the ministry of reconciliation?

This question begins a lengthy digression (if that is an appropriate description; 2 Corinthians 2:14-7:4) where Paul describes the significance, practice, and meaning of the ministry of reconciliation in which he is engaged for the sake of the Corinthians and others.

Perhaps it is not a digression at all. Rather, when Paul noted his opportunity to preach the gospel in Troas but chose to find Titus in Macedonia instead (2 Corinthians 2:12-13), it moved him to thanksgiving for the opportunities he has had to share the good news of Christ, including the planting of the church in Corinth. Paul gives thanks for how God works through through the ministry of reconciliation.

What begins as a thanksgiving becomes an exposition, which addresses—in one way or another—some of the significant misunderstandings Corinthians had about Paul and their misappropriations of the meaning of gospel ministry. This, then, is no digression in the normal sense of that word. Instead, it confronts a core problem: the Corinthians do not fully understand the cruciform gospel.

They do not understand how the gospel is deeply intertwined with suffering or how it is integral to the gospel of the crucified Jesus. This is why Paul suffers. It is not because Paul is an incompetent apostle but because he is a follower of the crucified Christ. This is the larger point of 2 Corinthians 2:14-7:4, and he articulates it in order to invite the Corinthians into the ministry of reconciliation, which involves both suffering and glory.

Ministry begins with gratitude: “Thanks be to God!” Thus, ministry recognizes that God is at work:  God leads us and spreads the aroma of Christ through us. God is acting, and we are God’s instruments.

In Christ, God leads us in triumphal procession. While some read this as participation in a triumphal procession or parade where we are the victors who celebrate our triumph in Christ, it is probably better to read this against the backdrop of a Roman general or Emperor who returns to Rome and leads their captives, slaves, and prisoners into the city. God is triumphant, and we are God’s slaves, but slaves invited to participate in the triumphant ministry of Christ. This procession ultimately leads to death, to a cross that we share with the triumphant Christ.

Further, in Christ, God spreads the aroma of Christ through us in every place. We are the means by which God fills the air with the fragrance of Christ, which is the knowledge of God. We are the means by which others come to know God—they can smell it from our life, actions, and words. Unfortunately, the Christ many smell is odorous because of the lives, actions, and words of those who claim to be Christians but whose aroma gives off a stink rather than a sweet smelling perfume.

Who is sufficient to give off a fragrant aroma of Christ? The seeming answer is, Nobody! But if that were true, then no one would come to know God through us. God uses us—leads us in triumphant process and spreads the aroma of Christ through us!  But how does this happen?

Unlike those who peddle God’s word for profit or their own glory, the one who is competent to spread the aroma of Christ speaks sincerely as one from God who stands in the presence of God. Sincerity rather than ambition must condition and shape the manner in which we spread the fragrance of Christ. We speak, but we speak in the presence of God rather than peddling our wares for the sake of our own interests.

So, is Paul a peddler or sincere? Does he seek his own glory or work for the joy of others? In other words, is Paul authentic? Is Paul trustworthy? Who can recommend Paul for the ministry of reconciliation?

It was common in the ancient world, as even in many circumstances today, to expect letters of recommendation. The best way to gain the trust of a new acquaintance or community was for a mutual friend or a recognized institution to introduce you through a letter of recommendation. Apparently, Paul had not come with any such letters, and perhaps there were other leading (competing?) persons who had letters of recommendations. Why, then, should we trust Paul? Where are his letters of recommendation?

Paul responds, “You Corinthians are our letter of recommendation.” Paul characterizes this in several ways.

  • The Corinthian church, as the letter of Paul, Silas, and Timothy (“our letter”), is “known and read by all.” The Corinthians are a public witness to the gospel, which they embody. They are visible to all, and they ought to bear the fragrant aroma of Christ among those who know and read them.
  • These letters are written in (or, on) “our” hearts—the hearts of the ministers who spread the fragrance of Christ among them. The hearts of the ministers are the papyrus upon which these letters were written. The Corinthians are seared into the hearts of their evangelists, those who planted the church (Paul, Timothy, and Silas).
  • The Corinthians are a “letter of (or, from) Christ,” that is, Christ wrote this letter through the evangelists who planted the congregation. Paul prepared the letter as if he were an amanuensis, but it was Christ who created the letter. Paul is instrumental, but the authorship belongs to Christ.
  • The letter from Christ is an act of God through the Holy Spirit, just as much as the ten commandments were written by the finger of God at Mount Sinai. In this case, the finger of God is the Holy Spirit who inscribes this letter upon the heart.
  • This letter is written on human hearts (in this case, the hearts of the church planters—upon Paul’s heart, for example) rather than on tablets of stone. In other words, Paul’s letter of recommendation (the Corinthians) is written on his heart rather than the use of some external means—whether stone or paper.

In summary, by the Spirit of God, Christ wrote a letter of recommendation on Paul’s heart, which is the Corinthian congregation. Paul does not need any other letters of recommendation, whether from other congregations, from Jerusalem, or from any external authority. The existence of the Corinthian church is itself Paul’s letter of recommendation, which is present in his heart and authored by Jesus Christ by the Spirit of God.

There are a number of allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures that extend the application of Paul’s words. The references to the “tablets of stone” (Exodus 34:1, 4, 28, 29), a heart of flesh rather than stone (Ezekiel 11:19), a new heart and new spirit (Ezekiel 18:31; 36:26-27), and writing the law on the heart (Jeremiah 31:33) provide a context of hearing Paul’s language. He is saying more than simply the Corinthians are letters of recommendation but the nature of the thing recommended (Paul’s new covenant ministry) possesses a glory that surpasses that of the Mosaic covenant or even the tablets of stone. This language anticipates what Paul will explain in 2 Corinthians 3:7-18, which is the topic of the next blog.

At this moment, however, this language suggests—as Materna notes—that “even though the community is Paul’s letter of recommendation written on his heart, the community is also Christ’s letter written on their hearts by the Spirit of the Living God, whose temple they are (see 6:16)” (II Corinthians: A Commentary, p. 78). While the recommendation appears in Paul’s heart, that recommendation was accomplished by the Spirit of God who inscribed the law of God upon the hearts of the Corinthians rather than on stone tablets alone.

Paul’s confidence in ministry does not arise out of his ambitions, merchandizing of the gospel, or external letters of recommendation. Rather, his confidence comes from the fact that God does the letter-writing! Paul is competent—sufficient, qualified, and adequate—because God is at work in his ministry: “our competence is from God.”

This competence is expressed in their function as “ministers of a new covenant.” This language comes from Jeremiah who envisions a time when the law will not be written on tablets of stone alone but upon human hearts (31:33). The ministry of the new covenant is not one that ends with tablets of stone or external letters. Rather, it finds its fruit in the work of the Spirit who writes on human hearts or “hearts of flesh.” The ministry of the new covenant is a ministry of the Spirit of God. It is not only a matter of letters written in stone—which is a good thing because it is the law of God. And it is that law (written on stone) that is also written on the hearts of people by the Spirit.

The letter kills when it is only written in stone. To be effective—to give life—it must be written on the heart as well. Thus, the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life because the Spirit writes the law upon our hearts.

Who is sufficient? The Spirit of God who writes on human hearts gives the ministers of the new covenant sufficiency for their task of preaching the good news of Jesus the Messiah.

Thanks be to God who in Christ writes on our hearts by the Spirit of God so that we become letters of recommendation for the gospel itself and ministers of the new covenant.

In this way, we are sufficient, empowered, and competent for the missional task of sharing the gospel and spreading the aroma of Christ.

2 Corinthians 2:12-13 — Parental Anxiety

October 15, 2021

Sometimes somethings are more important than an open door.

That is the upshot of these two fascinating sentences in 2 Corinthians 2:12-13.

Earlier Paul had intended to visit Corinth, then go to Macedonia, and then return to Corinth before he left for Jerusalem. However, the circumstances in Corinth led Paul to change that travel plans. Instead, he sent Titus with a tearful letter that confronted the Corinthians about the events of his most recent and painful visit, particularly how the Corinthians had sided with the one who had opposed Paul.

Now Paul is awaiting word from Titus about how the Corinthians responded to his confrontational letter. Apparently, they had intended to rendezvous in Troas, and so Paul went to Troas where he anticipated seeing Titus. After reuniting, they would then proceed, presumably, to Corinth.  

In these two verses, 2 Corinthians 2:12-13, Paul not only explains why he went on to Macedonia instead of waiting in Troas but also reveals his deep concern and care for the Corinthians themselves.

His relationship with the Corinthians and the ministry of reconciliation in Corinth was more important than the open door in Troas.

Paul is a minister of the gospel of reconciliation. Moreover, his own sense of vocation is to sow the seed of the gospel in new places (Romans 15:20); he plows new ground for the gospel. Consequently, he went to Troas “to proclaim the good news (or, gospel) of Christ.” This is his vocation. Seemingly, he expected to stay there a while for the sake of the gospel with Titus before heading on to Corinth.

The gospel is central for Paul. Paul refers to “our gospel” (2 Corinthians 4:3) and the “gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4) as well as again proclaiming the “good news (gospel) of Christ” as his missional task (2 Corinthians 10:4). Further, he also warns the Corinthians that they had accepted among them (presumably the so-called “super apostles” or perhaps others) some who preach a “different gospel” as well as a “different Jesus” (2 Corinthians 11:4).

In fact, Paul is engaged in a defense of not only his missional vocation to proclaim the good news but of the gospel itself. This explains, in part, Paul’s lengthy digression (if that is a good word for it) from this travelogue in 2 Corinthians 2:14-7:4: Paul identifies, explains, and defends his practice of the ministry of reconciliation through the gospel. Paul rehearses the nature of his ministry and gospel so that the Corinthians may understand what compels Paul and drives him to share this good news with others, which included the founding of the Corinthian congregation and was the rationale for his participation in the suffering of Christ.  

It was for the sake of preaching the gospel that Paul came to Corinth in the first place, and it is the reason that he continues to walk with them through thick and thin. Paul’s priority is the gospel and how it reconciles us with God and each other.

It is surprising, then, to hear Paul describe how he went to Troas to preach the gospel but decided to move on to Macedonia without taking advantage of the open door in Troas. It was an open door, but he did not walk through it. Understanding how deeply committed Paul is to his missional vocation to preach the gospel, it is rather unnerving to watch him pass up a golden opportunity to spread the aroma of Christ in a new place. (Paul had visited Troas previously, but it was a momentary stay as he was called to Macedonia through a vision; see Acts 16:6-10.)

Why would Paul pass up this opportunity? We can only imagine his own anguish and struggle with the decision. This was, as Paul said, an “open door in the Lord.” It was opened, it seems, by God. Paul recognized this divine moment but hurried on to Macedonia. Something, it seems, was more compelling for Paul.

Paul, in fact, tells us: Titus was not there. He had expected to meet Titus, but he had not yet arrived. Paul felt compelled to go to Macedonia in order to find him. Why was Paul compelled? Literally, his “spirit” could find no rest while waiting for Titus in Troas.

This reveals Paul’s deep love for and anxiety about the Corinthians. Paul continually professes his love for the Corinthians, which includes his desire for reconciliation and the renewal of their mutual joy.

This desire creates an anxiety. It is not so much a lack of faith in God but a restlessness about the relationship. It is an anxiety that arises from the burden Paul carries for the churches he has planted. It is, actually, part of his daily burden, even daily suffering. Indeed, it is the last item Paul mentions when he catalogs his suffering in 2 Corinthians 11.

He writes, “And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28). Literally, the word “anxiety” refers to cares or concerns but can refer to worries or anxieties. This is the only time Paul uses this word in his writings.

His burden or care for the Corinthians, as with other congregations, created unrest in his spirit. He wanted to know the result of Titus’ visit. He wanted to know the well-being of their souls. He wanted to know whether reconciliation was possible.

Paul did not know the answer to those questions, and, consequently, he was restless. This was a moment of desolation for Paul, and he wanted consolation, that is, the kind that comes from God through the Corinthians who reciprocate Paul’s love and comfort his anxiety.

Perhaps an analogy might be helpful. It is the sort of anxiety a parent fills when alienated or uncertain about their relationship with their children. Paul is the father of the Corinthian congregation; they are his children (1 Corinthians 4:14-15). And he speaks to them as his children (2 Corinthians 6:13; 12:14). Paul is experiencing an acute form of parental anxiety.

As a result, Paul does not wait in Troas and explore the opportunity to share the gospel there but rushes to Macedonia in order to learn from Titus as quickly as possible how the Corinthians responded to his letter.

Sometimes we are faced with an opportunity to minister but are also filled with anxiety about another situation. Sometimes, perhaps, it is appropriate to resolve the anxiety before pursuing the opportunity.

This is a place in which people often find themselves. We are sometimes too troubled about a relationship—too wounded, hurt, consumed, anxious—to pursue a different opportunity. Just as Paul sought Titus, sometimes we must seek reconciliation with others before we are healthy enough or ready to pursue other ministry opportunities.

At the same time, the burden we carry for the churches is deep because our love for those congregations is deep as well. The depth of love correlates with the depth of anxiety when the relationship is wounded, broken, or under repair. Sometimes the work of repair is more important than new opportunities.

It is good to feel this burden. It is a healthy anxiety or care; we want what is best for congregations. We seek their renewal, reconciliation, and repair. This is Paul’s passion for the Corinthians. It is also, I hope, our passion for people and congregations.

2 Corinthians 2:5-11 – Forgiveness

October 9, 2021

The one who grieved Paul (and the Corinthian congregation as a whole) should not be burdened with excessive grief but forgiven and consoled. Paul does not seek revenge for the wrong but reconciliation.

That is a bold claim. Apparently, the severe letter Paul wrote after his second (painful) visit addressed the problem this particular individual imposed. This is our first indication of the content of Paul’s letter, which, of course, no longer exists (unless it is found in 2 Corinthians 10-13).

In that letter, Paul opposed a person who had caused him great pain. Paul describes him as “the offender”—the one who wronged Paul (2 Corinthians 7:12). Perhaps he attacked Paul’s ministry style, gifts, or authority. Or, perhaps this person was one of the impenitent ones with respect to sexual immorality. Traditionally, the person has been identified with the incestuous man of 1 Corinthians 5. While some still contend for that identification, most modern readers have questioned it. In reality, we don’t know the specifics, though it seems likely that the problem is related to some of the misgivings of other Corinthians and/or the “super-apostles” rather than any sexual immorality. But we can’t be sure.

Whatever the case, the severe letter had a positive outcome (as 2 Corinthians 7:5-12 confirms). Apparently, Paul learned the outcome from Titus who reported the Corinthian response. A majority of the Corinthians responded by, in some sense, punishing the offender. Perhaps that included the exclusion of this person from the community. This kind of discipline (also envisioned in 1 Corinthians 5 for the incestuous man) intends to create an awakening by distancing people from their beloved community, which, it is hoped, creates a desire to return to the community. At the very least, it seems, it protects the community from further harm.

It seems this “punishment by the majority” had its intended effect. The offender was now overwhelmed with grief, a “godly grief” (1 Corinthians 7:11). The offender had repented and sought reconciliation.

It is important to recognize this move. Paul is not suggesting reconciliation for those who willingly and deliberately continue in their sins, abuse their victims, and continue to prey on others out of their own self-interests. Paul is not describing an impenitent offender. In fact, Paul will not “spare” the impenitent (2 Corinthians 12:21-13:2).

Paul invited the Corinthians to participate in the ministry of reconciliation with regard to this offender. He called upon them to “forgive and console” the penitent offender. Just as God forgives (shows grace to us) and consoles us (as in 2 Corinthians 1:3-8), so they are to forgive and console this penitent offender. They are to treat him as Paul has treated them and, more importantly, according to the grace of the gospel founded in God’s own identity. In this way, the Corinthians would “reaffirm [their] love” for the offender; they would reaffirm the love of God in the community.

Forgiveness is the atmosphere in which the community of Christ lives. The Corinthians forgive and Paul forgives. This forgiveness is God-driven, rooted in Christ, and other-centered. As Paul writes, he forgives “for your sake in the presence of Christ.”

Paul forgives for the sake of the Corinthians; it is for their benefit. He does this, literally, “in the face of Christ;” forgiveness happens with Christ as a witness or before Christ’s presence. Given what God has done in Christ (which is the ministry of reconciliation, 2 Corinthians 5:18-19), we forgive others because of Christ and with Christ watching. Living in the presence of Jesus forms us into a forgiving people.

Paul wrote in a confrontational manner to “test” their obedience to the apostolic witness. While the “offender” protested–in some sense–Paul’s ministry, the letter asked the Corinthians to distance themselves from him. The Corinthians did obey and passed the test. But now another test lies before them.

If the Corinthians are to embody the gospel and practice the ministry of reconciliation, they must forgive and console the offender. Forgiveness is also a matter of obedience to the gospel, an expression of the ministry of reconciliation. It is conformity to the gospel of grace in Jesus the Messiah. Paul wrote the severe letter, in part, to test their obedience to the gospel. This reflects both the seriousness of the problem in Corinth (whatever the offense was) and the importance of forgiveness within the community of Jesus for past offenders.

Whether the Corinthians forgive or not is, in fact, part of the conflict between God and Satan. Conflict, particularly between Paul and his opponents, appears over and over again within 2 Corinthians, and Paul frames this as a conflict between God and Satan. The identification of Satan as the protagonist who lies behind this conflict pervades 2 Corinthians. Paul names him (2:11; 11:14; 12:7), calls him “the god of this age” (4:4), “Beliar” (6:15), and “the serpent” (11:3). Satan is the premier opponent of the gospel, deceives people, and rules this present evil age. Satan has “designs” and intends to undermine the ministry of reconciliation in whatever way possible.

When the community of Jesus fails to forgive penitent offenders, it gives space for the wiles of the Devil and, in fact, has been “outwitted by Satan.” Or, to put it another way, when the community of Jesus forgives penitent offenders, it subverts the reign of Satan and we watch Satan fall like lightning. Forgiveness is Christ’s victory over the designs of Satan.

At the same time, we must remember that reconciliation between believers is impossible when one of them persistently continues in their sinful practices. For example, predators and abusers in the community of faith should be “punished” (like this offender), and there is no reconciliation without confession, godly sorrow, and living amends (the fruit of repentance). Authentic repentance entails submission to the guidelines and healthy practices the community of faith puts in place in order to protect the flock as well as to welcome the penitent offender.

Paul’s language gives no sanction to forgiven offenders who protest communal practices that ensure the safety of the community due to their history, and neither does it demand reconciliation for those who are impenitent, arrogant, and resistant to healthy practices and guidelines that are committed to the ethics and goals of the ministry of reconciliation. Forgiven offenders seek peace rather than self-justification. They do not demand their own rights.

The forgiveness Paul describes here is a function of the ministry of reconciliation; it is about reconciliation. It forgives, consoles, and reaffirms love. It includes others in such a way that a wronged and grieved community is healed. Grief dissipates and joy is restored. In this particular text, Paul does not envision forgiveness without reconciliation.

At the same time, Paul does not seek revenge, harbor bitterness or malicious intent, or desire to harm offenders. But reconciliation between the abused and the abuser is impossible without repentance.

The ministry of reconciliation invites penitent offenders into a community of grace and forgiveness, and it does not “spare” those who arrogantly and persistently continue their offenses or insist on setting their own guidelines.

2 Corinthians 1:23-2:4 – Why Did Paul Change His Plans?

October 2, 2021

Some Corinthians thought Paul was fickle and unreliable because he changed his plans and did not show up in ways they expected or Paul had intimated. Paul responded that his decisions—his plan changes—were  rooted in God’s faithful grace rather than human wisdom.

There was more, however, to the situation than simply the rearrangement of Paul’s intended visits to Corinth. It is also involved the nature of Paul’s presence. In person he appeared weak and uninspiring, but his letters were bold and audacious. To Paul’s critics, it was obvious why he wrote letters in the place of visiting the congregation: Paul’s presence is ineffective.

Consequently, Paul needed to explain why he wrote a letter rather than visiting. In general, Paul made decisions according to the grace of God (1:11-1:22). In other words, his faithfulness to the grace of God moved him to write a letter rather than visit. More specifically, it was for the Corinthian’s own good that Paul wrote a letter rather than visiting. Paul acted in the best interest of the Corinthians, that is, writing a letter rather than visiting was the best way for Paul to pursue a ministry of reconciliation toward the Corinthians in faithfulness to God’s grace.

It Was to Spare You

God is central to Paul’s own identity as well as his relationship with the Corinthians. God’s own identity is the centrifugal reality that shapes their life together. Paul has already articulated this in several ways in this first chapter of 2 Corinthians.

  • God is merciful and consoling (1:3)
  • God raises the dead (1:9)
  • God is faithful (1:18)
  • God establishes believers (1:21)

Here, in 1:23, Paul appeals to God as a witness as to his motive for substituting a letter for a visit. Paul has already appealed to his conscience and integrity (1:12) but now appeals to God’s own integrity. He swears an oath upon his own life (literally, “soul”) in the presence of God, and such appeals occur elsewhere in 2 Corinthians (11:31; 12:19). Paul wants the Corinthians to know his decisions were made with a deep sense of his own integrity and before the presence of God.

The motive for writing instead of visiting? To “spare” the Corinthians.

As Paul explained later in the letter, he had warned them during his second visit that he would not “spare” the impenitent when he visited for a third time (13:2). While some had suggested that Paul was too weak and ineffective to act boldly toward his opponents and the impenitent, Paul had assured them that he would do so in accordance with the gospel. Exactly what that entailed is not necessarily clear at this point though future parts of the letter may help us understand what kind of action Paul had in mind. Neither is it entirely clear whether the problems are theological (doctrinal), moral, or both. At this point, Paul depends on their shared knowledge and experience, and he has no need to explain the details to the Corinthians. That leaves us—2000 years later—a bit in the dark.

At the same time, his intent to “spare” them expresses his desire to give space for their faith rather than lord it over or “control” (NRSV) their faith. The word kurieuomen (“we control” or “lord over”) is the verb form of kurios (Lord). Only Jesus is Lord and lords over the faith of others. Believers—brothers and sisters in the body—do not exercise lordship over each other, including Paul.

On the contrary, Paul, Timothy, and Silas (1:19), and perhaps Titus as well, are “co-workers” with the Corinthians. They, the apostolic team and the Corinthian believers, are co-participants in the mission of God, and the apostolic team wants to work with the Corinthians for their joy.

Joy is a rich, robust word. It is not a simple synonym for happiness, though there is semantic overlap. Joy expresses a deep sense of relationality, communion, and experience of God’s own life. The apostolic team wants to cultivate joy in the Corinthian community rather than hardship, grief, and conflict. It is something Paul wants to enjoy with the Corinthians so that his joy is also their joy and vice versa. This is part of the reality that the ministry of reconciliation produces—joy. In essence, Paul spares them a visit in this moment in order to serve the goal of the ministry of reconciliation between himself and the Corinthians. He wants to experience joy among them once again.

Paul does not seek to control their faith but work with them because the Corinthians, too, like Paul, “stand by faith” (NRSV). Actually the phrase may mean “stand in the faith” as well as “stand by faith.” Perhaps Paul is intentionally ambiguous, and either way the point is that “faith”—allegiance to the gospel of Jesus the Messiah as the revelation of God’s own faithfulness—is the realm or means by which the Corinthians remain in the presence of God and co-workers with Paul in the kingdom of God.

It Was To Avoid Further Grief

Joy is the end-game for Paul—shared ministry in the gospel of reconciliation. Paul seeks reconciliation with the Corinthians. Consequently, he wants to avoid disruptions to that process, including another conflict-ridden visit like his previous (second) one. That was a painful or grief-filled visit.

Paul is not specific about what caused the pain or why he experienced it as such. Whatever that cause (and more is revealed later in the letter), it is the opposite of Paul’s intent. Paul seeks their mutual joy rather than grief. When the Corinthians are grieved, Paul, too, is grieved. There is no joy in their relationship or in the gospel. In other words, another visit—at least in the immediate aftermath of the second one—had the potential of generating more grief than healing, and that did not serve the interests of Paul’s reconciling ministry.

Confrontation is sometimes necessary, but we also want to pursue the best possible means of securing reconciliation. Paul chose a letter rather than a visit, though another visit was in the immediate future.

In order to promote reconciliation and embody the gospel in their relationship, Paul shifts from making another visit to writing a letter. His letter is bold in its language and severe in its confrontation. But it arose out of the anguish and distress of his heart accompanied by “many tears.”

This conscientious appeal to God, his own conscience, and to the Corinthians for reconciliation—for joy—between himself and the Corinthians expresses Paul’s heart, which contains his “abundant love” for the Corinthians. While the letter may have produced grief and hurt among the Corinthians, Paul does not write it to generate pain but to secure mutual joy in the gospel.

Paul’s commitment to the gospel of reconciliation is at stake in his relationship with the Corinthians. He ministers in the gospel for the sake of the world, including the Corinthians. His heart is breaking; his life has lost some of its joy. Consequently, he confronts the Corinthians not only because of his love for them as his children (he is the “father” of their congregation, 1 Corinthians 4:14-15), but because it is part of the ministry of reconciliation in which he and his apostolic team are engaged.

The Corinthians have become a sort of test case for the ministry of reconciliation itself. Can the gospel truly effect reconciliation? Can it last?

Paul’s heart is heavy with anguish and grief about the potential answer to that question between himself and the Corinthians.  He loves them, wants what is best for them, and seeks to know joy with them again. But at this moment—the moment between the painful letter and Paul’s reunion with Titus (2 Corinthians 7:5-12)—Paul is anxious about their response to his most recent letter (which is 2 Corinthians).

How will the Corinthians respond? That remains the open question at this point in 2 Corinthians.

Searching for the Pattern 3: Reading the Bible Jesus and in the Light of Jesus

September 28, 2021

Searching for the Pattern 2: Contrasting the Use of Scripture

September 28, 2021