2 Corinthians 7:5-15 – Reconciled

January 25, 2022

2 Corinthians 6:11-7:4 – Open Your Hearts

January 21, 2022

Paul has pursued a renewed relationship with the Corinthians through this letter. He wanted to increase their understanding of his own ministry and the nature of the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 1:13), and he appeals for reconciliation on multiple occasions (e.g., 2 Corinthians 6:1).

He began the process of working out this reconciliation at the beginning of the letter with a travelogue: why he did not visit but sent a letter and how he left Troas to look for Titus in Macedonia (2 Corinthians 1:23-2:13). Instead of completing the travelogue, which he will resume momentarily (2 Corinthians 7:5-16), he dove into an extended discussion of the ministry of reconciliation of which his ministry to the Corinthians was a part. This lengthy “digression” (if that is what it is) served to provide the Corinthians with a deeper understanding of gospel ministry, the ministry of the new covenant and to help them appreciate how gospel ministry entails suffering rather than triumphal processions—Paul’s ministry resume, as we saw previously (2 Corinthians 6:1-10).

2 Corinthians 6:11-7:4 is the final section of this “digression.” It is the climax of his appeal for reconciliation, which is explicit and repetitive in these verses. The structure emphazies this point.

A. Open Your Hearts (6:11-13)

B. Moral Exhortation (6:14-7:1)

A. Make Room in Your Hearts (7:2-4)

This final appeal functions in an A-B-A pattern.  Paul appeals for open affection and reconciliation in 6:11-13 and 7:2-4. It is, essentially, repetitive, but the second part extends the affection of the second part. Sandwiched in the middle is a moral exhortation. Some suggest this appears rather abrupt, and some have suggested it is an interpolation or Paul (or an editor) has injected a selection from one of Paul’s earlier letters (perhaps his first, the harsh letter, or even an unknown letter). I think these conjectures are unnecessary as I think there is a good reason for this moral exhortation to appear at this moment in the letter. But more on that in a moment; first, the appeal for reconciliation.

The Appeal (2 Corinthians 6:11; 7:2-4)

Paul has laid his heart before them. He has been affectionate, transparent, and parental towards the Corinthians. He has not limited his affections (any more than a parent would), but they have restricted their affections (like stubborn children). He appeals to the Corinthians to open their hearts to him just as he has opened his heart to them. Paul seeks mutual affection like should exist between parents and their children. Paul, remember, thinks of himself as a father to the Corinthian congregation since he planted the church (1 Corinthians 4:14-15).

In 6:13 Paul asks the Corinthians to enlarge their hearts and continues the metaphor in 7:2 with the idea of making room for Paul in their hearts. Though the word “heart” is not in the Greek text of 7:2, it is drawn from 6:13. Paul is resuming his appeal in 7:2 that was begun in 6:11-13. It appears as a natural flow, but it may also be resumptive following the moral exhortation of 6:14-7:1. It repeats the idea of enlargement or making space in their hearts for Paul as a means of reconciliation.

The appeal for reconciliation is shaped by how Paul ministered among them: he did not treat anyone unfairly, he did not corrupt anyone’s morals, and he did not take financial advantage of them. They are well aware of his ministry, and the Corinthians are aware of accusations against Paul. He did not come into Corinth like an imperial ambassador with power, pomp, and plenty but came among them as a sufferer, without rhetorical skills, and impoverished. He did not look like the ambassador of anyone important. Paul reminds them that he did not take advantage of his circumstance or press his ambassadorship for his own power and position. Rather, he ministered the grace of God among them.

This ministry meant that Paul intended “to die together and to live together” with them. Given Paul’s rehearsal of the meaning of the gospel in 2 Corinthians 3-5, this dying and living together is dying and living in Christ. Believers in Christ do not live for themselves, but they die with Christ and live through Christ. This is Paul’s desire, and it is his boast—the Corinthians and Paul are dying and living together.

This is the consolation for which Paul prays. In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul began his letter reminding the Corinthians that it is God who consoles or comforts. And Paul experienced this in Ephesus when he faced a deadly situation but God delivered him and consoled him. In the same way, now God is comforting Paul through reconciliation with the Corinthians. “I am filled with consolation”!

Moreover, “I am overjoyed in all our affliction.” The affliction was real; it is not dismissed as unimportant. Their relationship was troubled, and many factors contributed to that struggle—both externally and internally. Nevertheless, Paul finds joy in the midst or aftermath of this struggle, which is far from over as we will see in 2 Corinthians 10-13.

Joy is a profound emotion but not a transient one in the gospel. We may think of happiness as something that comes and goes, but deep joy settles in the heart through the gospel. Though we walk through afflictions and troubles, though we endure suffering for the sake of the gospel, our joy is rooted in reconciliation—how God has reconciled the world to God’s own self in Jesus through the ministry of the new covenant. This is the ground of profound joy, even when we are surrounded by anxious moments and troublesome times.

Moral Exhortation (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1)

The exhortation is: “do not be mismatched with unbelievers” (6:14a). This exhortation is embellished with another exhortation: “let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and of spirit” (7:1b). Lying between the exhortations is Paul’s ground or basis, which is rooted in (1) a theological contrast and (2) texts from the Hebrew Bible.

A. Exhortation: Do not be mismatched with unbelievers (6:14a).

B. Ground (Theological): A Contrast between Christ and Beliar (6:14b-16a)

B. Ground (Textual): We are the Temple of the Living God (6:16b-18)

A. Exhortation: Let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit (7:1b)

What does it mean to be “mismatched” (or, unequally yoked) with unbelievers? This exhortation has been used to exclude people from social clubs, dinners, and—more typically—marriages with unbelievers. The wide range of application is sometimes astonishing. But what is Paul’s point?  I think his ground—both theological and biblical—offers an answer.

The theological ground is pictured in the below chart. I call it “theological” because, though grounded in the biblical story, it accentuates a theological idea in order provide a basis for the moral exhortation. That idea is something like: there is no common ground between worshipping the living God and serving idols.

VerseRelationPositive ContrastNegative Contrast
15aJoint Decision/AccordChristBeliar
15bShared PortionBelieverUnbeliever
16aMutual ArrangementTemple of GodIdols

Each of the contrasts reflect polar opposites. There is no lawlessness in righteousness. There is no darkness in light. “Beliar” is a common name for the leader of the forces of evil in the intertestamental period (e.g., Qumran sect but only used here in the New Testament) derived from a Hebrew word which means “wicked” but is never personified in the Hebrew Bible. The contrast, then, is between Christ and the Devil (or, Satan). They have no common ground, just as there is none between those committed to Christ through faith and those committed to Beliar through unbelief. And, lastly and perhaps climactically, there is no common ground between the temple of God and idols (including their temples).

It seems to me that the final line illuminates the context for this series of contrasts and explains the content of the moral exhortation. Paul, following a major theme of the Hebrew Bible and a major topic of 1 Corinthians 5, 8-10, forbids associations with idolatrous temples, banquet tables, and immorality (lawlessness). Believers in Christ may only worship in one temple; they cannot participate in the idolatry of temple banquets and rituals.

This was, apparently, a sore point among the Corinthians who came to faith out their previous religious commitments. The temples of Greco-Roman religion were not only religious but social, political, and economic. To divorce oneself rom the city temples was to potentially cut oneself off from social, political, and economic institutions associated with the temples. Indeed, Greco-Roman Associations (similar to labor unions or chambers of commerce) were thoroughly idolatrous.

Paul does not oppose business relationships with unbelievers, eating with unbelievers (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:9-11) or even marriages with unbelievers (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:12-15). Rather, it is a prohibition about associations with idolatry, particularly engaging in temple rituals and banquets (which he opposed, for example, in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22).

In this way, this moral exhortation fits the context of Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians. He seeks reconciliation, but this does not mean Paul has waved his insistence on separation from idolatry and immorality. The exhortation, then, reinforces the necessity of Corinth’s moral commitment to the gospel and the way of Jesus. Rather than out of place, this section brings the larger picture into view that reconciliation is only possible if the Corinthians separate themselves from idolatry (and some had not, cf. 2 Corinthians 12:21).

Paul then locates this theological idea in the biblical text itself with a profound affirmation (which he also made in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 and 6:19): We are the temple of the living God.  Notice the important addition of “living” in contrast to the previous sentence.  The “living” God stands in contrast to the “idols.” Christians serve the living God rather than mute and deaf idols, dead pieces of wood, stone, or gold (and that is a common theme in the prophets). This is grounded in Scripture as a place where God speaks (“God says”–this is how Paul thinks about Scripture).

Remarkably, Paul assembles a collection of texts in order to tell this story of temple, separation from idols, and God’s gracious welcome to us as children of God. The texts are:

  • Leviticus 26:11-12 – I will live and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
  • Isaiah 52:11b – [Therefore] come out from them, and be separate from them.
  • Isaiah 52:11a – [And] touch nothing unclean
  • Ezekiel 20:34 – [then] I will welcome you
  • 2 Samuel 7:14 – I will be your father, and you will be
  • Isaiah 43:6 – my sons and daughters

The quotations begin with God’s promise to Israel in the wilderness that God would dwell among them in the Tabernacle (and later Temple) in a covenant relationship between God and the people of God. Then the citation of Isaiah (even reversing the Hebrew for rhetorical effect) calls for separation from idolatry and a refusal to be involved in anything idolatrous. This separation from idolatry means God will welcome them from that exile and gather them as a people. This will then constitute a relationship where God will be a parent to the sons and daughters.

In other words, Paul draws from various resources in the Hebrew Bible to tell the story of the Hebrew Bible itself: covenantal promise, separation from sin (exile), gathering the people in a return to God, and the establishment of a parent-child relationship. Paul tells that story fully aware of the contexts of each of these texts and how those contexts shape the identify of believers in the Messiah, including Gentile believers.

The Corinthians have been called out of idolatry to enter into covenant relationship with the God of Israel. The Hebrew Bible speaks to these Corinthians as much as it speaks to ethnic Israel. God invites both to come out of exile, enter into covenant, and become the people of God, the children of God.

Paul calls this biblical story a set of “promises” (7:1), and because we have these promises made in the Hebrew Bible, therefore believers are called to remove all defilements from their person (both body and spirit) and seek a holiness perfected in the fear of God.

This is the journey of sanctification and transformation. Believers, standing on the promises of God, seek to conform to the will of God and to more fully become the image of God as part of the family of God. That is the essence of the moral exhortation.

2 Corinthians 6:1-10 – Paul’s Ministry Resume

January 8, 2022

The message of new covenant ministry is, “Be reconciled to God.” This ministry of reconciliation proclaims the work of God in Christ and appeals to hearers (including the Corinthians) to accept God’s grace.

This ministry is a cooperative effort between God and Paul (and other ministers of reconciliation). God and Paul are co-workers, though Paul only plants while God gives the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6-9). Nevertheless, it is a partnership as God appeals to the world through ministers of reconciliation and, in this instance, Paul’s own ministry.

Indeed, this ministry has eschatological meaning, that is, it is the time anticipated by the prophet Isaiah (49:8) and is the arrival of the future in the present. The announcement of the day of salvation has arrived, and now is the time. There is no more wait; the future has already come and new creation has begun.

Nevertheless, Paul’s ministry among the Corinthians has been criticized by detractors who have created suspicions about his integrity and credentials. His ministry did not look like the “super apostles” or follow the patterns of other travelling teachers within the Greco-Roman world. This rendered his ministry suspect in the eyes of those steeped in that culture.

Consequently, Paul stresses that his ministry intends to put no obstacle in the way of others accepting the reconciling grace of God. In fact, Paul bends over backwards to facilitate that acceptance by his own willingness to serve (“servants of God”) in difficult circumstances and at great personal cost. This is Paul’s ministry resume, and this I how he commends himself “in every way” to both his supporters and his detractors.

His resume, however, is not a list of institutional credentials, powerful connections with people, or success rate. His resume is, in a word, “endurance.” Paul commends himself to others through his “great endurance.” His life basically stands up under the pressure (basic meaning of “endurance”) of his travels, ministry, and interactions with people. He endures—he keeps going and executing the ministry of reconciliation.

What follows identifies the context and content of this endurance. Paul employs a beautiful rhetorical structure by the use of three prepositions:  “in” (en), “through” (dia), and “as” (hos). 

The first series, “in” (en, 18 times), identifies the circumstances and means of this endurance, and Paul arranges the first set of particulars in groups of three.

  • in great  endurance
    • in afflictions
    • in hardships
    • in calamities
      • in beatings
      • in imprisonments
      • in riots
        • in labors
        • in sleepless nights
        • in hunger

The first group generalizes Paul’s circumstances; his ministry is characterized by all sorts of troubles from sicknesses to difficult situations to tragic moments. It lacks specification but provides a horizon for thinking about the troubles Paul endured. The second category names external attacks and hostile pressures as part of his ministry experience. The third category is more personal from his incessant hard work to fatigue and hunger. In other words, Paul’s ministry circumstances were not triumphant but troublesome. His ministry was not always received warmly but often aggressively rejected. He often found himself overworked, fatigued, and physically deprived for the sake of the ministry of reconciliation.

His resume did not look like a successful and honored ambassador that Greco-Roman standards expected. It looked like rejection, failure, and inauthenticity. But this is Paul’s boast (or commendation): this is what it looks like to participate in the ministry of Jesus the crucified but risen Messiah.

The second set of particulars in the “in” (en) series are communicated in groups of four. Both groups are still headed by “in great endurance” but are different in intent. While the first nine in the first set of particulars focused on the circumstances of his ministry, the second set focuses on the means of that ministry. In other words, the second set raises the question, “how did Paul endure?” or “by what means did Paul live out his calling in those circumstances?”

  • in great endurance,
    • in purity
    • In knowledge
    • in patience
    • in kindness
  • in great endurance
    • in the Holy Spirit,
    • in genuine love
    • in truthful speech
    • in the power of God

The first grouping points to Paul’s integrity in terms of how he endured his troubles. Purity and knowledge probably refer to the authenticity of his ministry; he was faithful to his own commitment and his own knowledge or understanding of the message of reconciliation. Patience and kindness probably refer to his sanctified demeanor as he responded to hardships and hostility.

The second grouping probably points to the means that enabled Paul to maintain his integrity and his kind demeanor. The Holy Spirit, the love of Christ, the truth of the message, and the power of God have shaped his vocation. He depends upon divine empowerment to endure hardships.

Together, Paul’s ministry endures through authentic and gentle responses filled with the sanctified presence of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Paul demonstrates this sort of integrity and commitment in this letter itself as he appeals to them, as a minister of reconciliation, to continue in the grace of God.

The second series, “through” (dia), seems to characterize how Paul proceeds in his ministry. He utilizes weapons of righteousness even as he is subjected to slander and dishonor as well as glory and praise.

  • through weapons of righteousness
    • for the right hand and for the left
    • through glory and dishonor
    • through slander and praise

While there are several ways to understand “weapons of righteousness,” it probably means that Paul uses weapons (ministry skills, strategies, etc.) that are righteous. He does not use evil, deceit, or hatred in his ministry. Paul pursues his ministry with integrity—he uses righteous weapons.

The meaning of right and left hand is subject to varied understandings. Some suggest it is an allusion to Roman armor: sword in one hand (offense) and a shield in the other (defense). However, it seems more probable that it is part of the contrast that follows in the other two lines. In other words, right and left hand may symbolize adversity (hostility?) and prosperity (success?).  In this case, we have the three contrasts as pictured above.

These contrasts reflect Paul’s commitment to stay the course and continue his ministry whatever the response may be to it. Some will welcome, honor, and praise him while others will oppose, disrespect, and slander him. Whatever the case, Paul does not give up! He endures.

The third series, “as” (hos—a comparative particle), offers Paul’s perspective on his hardships. He knows the real story; he knows himself.  While he may experience the first in his hardships, he knows the latter is the real story

  • as imposters and true
  • as unknown and known
  • as dying and, behold, we live
  • as punished and not killed
  • as sorrowful but always rejoicing
  • as poor, but making many rich
  • as having nothing and possessing everything

While some regard him as an imposter, consider his ministry a path of death and suffering, or they don’t know him, Paul knows the truth about himself, lives in Christ, and is known by God (if not by anybody else!).

While Paul experienced punishment, sorrow, poverty, and paucity, Paul knows the real story is that he is not killed but lives to proclaim the message, he has a deep sense of joy in the midst of hardship, his poverty is for the sake of making others rich, and his paucity is only apparent as he possesses everything through his co-inheritance with Christ.

Instead of listing his credentials—which he could have done as Philippians 3 illustrates—Paul locates the authenticity of his ministry in his endurance.

This is how Paul understands new covenant ministry. Essentially, as co-workers with God in the ministry, servants of God endure suffering with integrity by the power of God whatever the circumstance because we know who we are in Christ. And this is how Paul sees himself; it is his ministry resume.

2 Corinthians 5:11-21 – The Love of Christ Compels Us

January 6, 2022

Given our resurrection hope in Christ and because we know judgment awaits everyone, Paul seeks to persuade people for the sake of their reconciliation to God and each other. We persuade others because the love of Christ—what Christ has done for our sakes—compels us, and this love was revealed through Christ’s death and resurrection for us.

What is important to Paul is not his fame or glory, but the ministry of the new covenant which persuades people to be reconciled to God on the ground of what God has done and is doing in Christ. Paul is not concerned about appearances, boasting, or self-commendation. Rather, he is focused on pursuing the ministry of reconciliation with integrity and truth.

Still, however, Paul is struggling with his detractors. Apparently, some judge Paul by his appearance rather than his heart. His critics go by appearance rather than God’s calling. Indeed, Paul’s life looks crazy by worldly standards, but it arises out of Paul’s commitment to the ministry of reconciliation. Some Corinthians, apparently, are more concerned about the embarrassments of his sufferings and humiliations than they are Paul’s integrity and faithful pursuit of the ministry of reconciliation.

Some, it seems, looked at Paul said, “He is crazy! He is irrational! He is out of his mind.” And Paul welcomes that criticism because his otherworldly commitment to serve God in conformity with the gospel of Christ. At the same time, Paul attempts to explain his ministry to the Corinthians so that they might boast in him. In other words, Paul wants them to recognize that the heart of his ministry is the message, “Be reconciled to God.” And, thus, whatever Paul does—even if it looks crazy—he does for the sake of ministry and faithfulness to God. And he does it for the sake of the Corinthians as well! He wants them to comprehend the meaning of the ministry of reconciliation and understand his own ministry (remember 2 Corinthians 1:13).

Paul is compelled to pursue this ministry because of the “love of Christ.” This may mean the love Paul has for Christ, or the love Christ has for Paul, or perhaps even both (given its ambiguity). It seems best to understand it as Christ’s love for us, that is, given what Christ has done for us for the sake of our reconciliation to God, we are compelled to participate in the ministry of reconciliation.

In this way, Christ died for all—this is the demonstration of the love of Christ—and, therefore, we all died with Christ. We were all crucified with Christ so that we might be reconciled to God. Christ died for all; therefore, we all died in him.

But this was not a death where death is the end game. Rather our death in the death of Christ is so that we might live for Christ, the one who both died and was raised for us. In this way, we who have died with Christ will also be raised with him. The gospel grounds the ministry of reconciliation, and it grounds our living for Christ rather than living for ourselves. 

Consequently, the gospel (the death and resurrection of Jesus in this context) moves and empowers us to live for Christ because of what Christ has done for us. Specifically, we participate in the ministry of reconciliation not only to live for Christ but also to persuade others—to announce the gospel message, “Be reconciled to God.”

In essence, God has acted for reconciliation, and now we participate in what God is doing through the ministry of reconciliation. In other words, Paul couches his understanding of ministry in the light of (1) divine initiative/action and (2) human participation/action. This flows through this whole section.

TextDivine InitiativeHuman Participation
5:14Christ Died for AllAll have Died
5:15Christ Died for AllLiving for Christ
5:18All This is from GodMinisters of Reconciliation
5:19God Reconciles the WorldGiven the Word of Reconciliation
5:20God Makes an AppealGod Appeals Through Us
5:21God Made Him to Be SinWe Become the Righteousness of God

God initiates and accomplishes. Christ dies, reconciliation is from God, God reconciles the world, God appeals to us, and God made Christ “sin” for our sake. God is the initiator; God is the primary actor. Reconciliation originates with God, and God accomplishes it.

At the same time, God has invested Paul and other servants with the message (word) and ministry of reconciliation as instruments by which God makes the appeal, “Be reconciled to God.” Human participation is God’s chosen means by which the world is reconciled to God in Christ.

This is why Paul’s ministry is important, and it explains why he perseveres through suffering and is willing to suffer the indignities of opposition, rejection, and persecution as well as other forms of hardship. The message is a divine one, and it is an appeal from the love of Christ for reunion with God. That message is worth every ounce of affliction!

2 Corinthians 5:21 is a controversial text in the history of interpretation. Many read it as a divine exchange where Christ becomes sin (our sin is imputed to Christ) and we become God’s righteousness (the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us). That is one way to read this text, but I don’t think it is the best fit for the context.

It seems to me that the “righteousness of God” is what we become. We are transformed into the image of Christ, and this involves our participation in the covenant faithfulness of God. As we participate in God’s righteousness (God’s faithful covenant-keeping), we become that righteousness through sanctification and transformation. When we participate in the ministry of reconciliation, we become the covenant faithfulness of God as God acts through us to speak the message of reconciliation. When we deliver the “word of reconciliation,” we become the righteousness of God just as when entrust ourselves to the fact that Christ died for all, we also die in Christ and live for Christ.

The reality in which we live is a new creation. God creates anew in Christ.

TextOld CreationNew Creation
5:16According to the FleshBut No Longer
5:17 In Christ, We are New Creatures
5:17The Old has Passed AwayThe New has Come

Christ died and was raised.  We die in Christ and are raised with Christ. Through death, the old world passes away, and through resurrection the new world (creation) arises. Consequently, we don’t judge or regard people “according to the flesh,” that is, according to appearances, worldly standards (power, wealth, etc.), or our own personal judgments. Rather, we now see the world—and Christ—through new lenses, the lenses of new creation. We are new creatures participating in a new creation, and that changes everything and how we see everything.

We are reconciled to God who does not impute our sin against us. God has canceled our debt, and does not treat us as we deserve. Rather, in Christ, God shares with us the ministry of reconciliation. God gives us the “word of reconciliation” to both proclaim it and participate in it, “Be reconciled to God.”

“Be reconciled to God”: is this directed at the Corinthians in their situation where they need to mature and come more into line with the ministry of reconciliation, or is this a summary of Paul’s message of reconciliation (a summary of his preaching)? Perhaps it is both. Either makes sense in the context, and though I tend to think it is a summary of the message, both are applicable to the circumstance Paul addresses at this point in the letter.

“Be reconciled to God.” God has acted, Paul has ministered, and now we must hearken. God has created a new world, and God through Paul has invited us into it. Now, we must believe the incredible word of reconciliation and commit to participate in it for the sake of transformation of both ourselves and the world. “Be reconciled to God.”

2 Corinthians 5:1-10 – This We Know!

December 14, 2021

“Because we know,” Paul writes.

We don’t give up or lose heart in the ministry of reconciliation and we keep our eyes fix on what is presently unseen “because we know” resurrection life awaits us.

This continues the theme Paul introduced in 2 Corinthians 4:14 – God will raise us up from the dead with Jesus! Remember, Paul is committed to the God who raises the dead (2 Corinthians 1:8).

What we know, then, is that this Adamic body enslaved to death will eventually be clothed over by the Christic body in a resurrection to eternal life.

Paul carries this theme forward through a series of contrasts based on, as we saw in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, two modes of human existence: Adamic and Christic. What we know, then, is that this Adamic body enslaved to death will eventually be clothed over by the Christic body in the resurrection. In other words, Paul contrasts the present human life conditioned by decay, death, suffering, and fragility with the already in the inner person but not yet human life fully animated in body as well by immortality, eternality, and permanence in the Spirit of God. This contrast between the Adamic world in which we presently life and the eschatological world of conformity the Christ is what Paul has in view.

2 Corinthians 4:16-5:5 signal this contrast with varied metaphors.

Outer PersonInner Person
Wasting AwayRenewed Daily
Light AfflictionEternal Glory
What is Seen (Walking by Sight)What is Unseen (Walking by Faith)
Earthly Tent to be DestroyedEternal building from God in the Heavens
Clothed with this TentClothed with Heavenly Dwelling

We don’t give up because not only do we presently experience the glory of God in the face of Christ through the transforming work of the Spirit, we also anticipate (hope) our resurrection from the dead with Jesus.

Scholars debate several questions that arise from Paul’s language.

  • Does Paul believe that those who die in the Lord received their resurrection bodies at death and thus live in their eternal building even now (“we have”—present tense—a building in the heavens), or is Paul simply affirming the certainty of the future resurrection by the use of the present tense?
  • Does Paul believe there is a “naked” state where the dead are without a body, or is “naked” a hypothetical that expresses Paul’s preference for resurrection over the present Adamic body?
  • Does Paul believe the resurrection happens at the second coming of Christ (as 1 Corinthians 15 suggests) or that the resurrection happens at death (and has thus shifted his position from 1 Corinthians to 2 Corinthians)?

Whatever we might say about these three questions, it is incidental to Paul’s primary purpose to affirm his certainty of and confidence in the resurrection in the face of his own ministry struggles and life’s afflictions.

I don’t think it is likely that Paul had a change of theology with the few months between writing 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians. It seems most likely that Paul affirms a resurrection without naming when it will happen in 2 Corinthians. Rather, his focus is on the fact of the resurrection and its meaning for ministry rather than describing the sequence of events.

Neither do I think Paul is focused on what is called the “intermediate state”–the time between death and resurrection. “Naked” may refer to such a space but not necessarily. His focus is on resurrection and the contrast between Adamic and Christic bodies. Nevertheless, his comment that those who are away from the body are at home with the Lord does identify his confidence that the dead are present with Christ in some intimate and special sense–something more than the present Adamic existence where we are “in the body” but “away from the Lord.” Something is gained in death, and what is gained is the presence of Christ in some sense that is not available presently.

Paul’s focus is on the resurrection, which is guaranteed by the presence of the Spirit. God is at work in us to renew us by the transforming work of the Spirit, and this pneumatic presence is God’s assurance (a downpayment or an earnest) of a future resurrection.

Given this hope of the resurrection, we are always confident, Paul writes. We are courageous in the midst of our struggles. Despite the travails of ministry and the ever present reality of death, we persevere because we know our relationship with the Lord. We walk by faith, not by sight. We see the struggle, the losses, the deterioration of the body, and death. But we walk by faith because we know the promise of God despite death.  We are courageous because we know that death will not separate us from God. Rather, absence from the body is presence with the Lord.

We walk by faith, not by sight. What we see is this Adamic body of death and the struggles that come with the ministry of reconciliation. That is reason for discouragement, even despair. However, the gospel in which Paul trusts answers that despair with hope. We walk by faith because our future hope is the defeat of death. We trust in the God who raises the dead. Because God raised Jesus from the dead, we are confident that God will raise us from the dead with Jesus.

Moreover, we are confident that even in death we will find ourselves in the presence (“at home with”) of the Lord. Literally, the word “at home” is “to be in a dwelling” which is a metaphor for bodily existence or life. Living in the Adamic body, we are away from the Lord whose embodied existence is in the heavens. But when we are absent from the Adamic body, we are “at home” or living in a dwelling with the Lord. In other words, though we no longer have an Adamic body, we do have a dwelling the Lord, an eternal building not made with hands. Perhaps Paul means that we have a resurrection body (eternal building in contrast to this earthly tent). If so, then Paul may envision the reception of the resurrection body upon death. But I think this is uncertain. Paul does not seem to have resurrection in mind when he speaks about being “away from the body” and “at home in the Lord.” Nevertheless, it is quite possible (perhaps likely) that Paul is simply yearning for the resurrection body (“at home in the Lord”) in place of the present body. In that case, Paul is expressing his preference for resurrection over his present Adamic body. To that, I imagine, we can all agree.

Whether that is the case or not, the pastoral point is the most significant element here.  Whatever the present condition of those who have died in the Lord is (whether sleeping awaiting their awakening in the resurrection, consciously living in God’s presence as naked souls, or living in the presence of God with resurrected bodies), we live with courage and boldness because we believe that those who are absent from the body are “at home with the Lord.”

The righteous dead are with Christ. Whatever that means, it is an assuring comfort. God does not abandon the dead but receives them and welcomes them into the presence of the living Christ. They are “at home” with the Lord. And it because we walk by faith and not by sight that we rest in that confidence.

We entrust our living—whether at home or away—to the Lord. Because we entrust it to Christ, we are not distracted from our main goal: to please the Lord. We seek to conform our lives to the image of Christ through daily renewal by the power of the Spirit. We want to become like Christ in every way and live worthy of the gospel of reconciliation. Our identity in Christ moves us to seek this goal and the presence of the Spirit empowers our transformation.

Believers pay attention to this because what we do in the body matters. Every human being will appear before the judgment seat of Christ in order to hear a divine word about how we lived in this Adamic body. We will receive a word of affirmation or perhaps a word of condemnation. What we do in the body—how we live our lives—is the context for whatever word we hear before the judgment seat of Christ.

Our lives matter. Our actions matter. Our words matter. They either reflect who Jesus is or they do not. They are either worthy of the gospel or they are not. At some point, when we appear at the judgment, the discerning will of God will distinguish between good and evil. God will clarify the seeming ambiguity of human moral existence, and the light of God will dispel the darkness, just as God did when God created the world.

2 Corinthians 4:16-18 – Keeping Our Focus Rather Than Giving Up

December 4, 2021

Ministry involves struggle, wounds, and hardships. Yet, Paul refuses to lose heart; he won’t give up. What drives this perseverance? It is because he keeps his eyes fixed on what is unseen rather than on what is seen. He keeps his eyes on eternal glory rather than temporary affliction. He keeps his focus on the resurrection of Jesus rather than his ministry struggles.

Therefore, Paul writes, “we do not lose heart” (4:1, 16). Despite the struggles, the ministry of reconciliation is too important because the glory of God is revealed and mediated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah (4:7-15). Moreover, the struggles, in comparison to that eternal glory, have a limited—though painful—shelf life.  

However, it is important to frame Paul’s words in a contextual and healthy way. I think the following two frames miss Paul’s point, though they are present among many Christians.

  • Some think Paul tends to minimize present pain, abuse, and wounds in favor of some kind of escapism. This, then, diminishes the reality of suffering in favor of some mansion in the sky.
  • Some think Paul affirms a dualism between material and spiritual realities that ultimately annihilates materiality (including the body) and exalts spirituality (i.e., the soul or spirit). This, then, tends see salvation through the lens of the immortality of the soul. When the soul escapes the body, then the soul receives eternal life without the body.

I think both perspectives miss the essence of Paul’s meaning. They seem to assume some kind of Platonic understanding of Paul. In this view, Paul depreciates materiality in favor of spirituality such that only the spiritual (what is unseen and eternal) is real and the material (what is seen, including suffering) is dispensable and insignificant.

Paul’s contrasts in this text can lend themselves to this way of thinking. Indeed, these verses have been used as proof texts for some kind of Platonic thinking. His language is conducive to such a conclusion if read through Platonic lenses. 

Outer PersonInner Person

The outer person is seen and experiences affliction while the inner person is unseen and experiences glory. The contrast is a strong one; indeed, rather stark. The question, however, is this: what is the nature of the contrast? I don’t think it is Platonic. Rather, it is eschatological.

The contrast is not material versus immaterial, or earth vs. heaven, or physical versus spiritual. Rather, given Paul’s argument, the contrast is between this present evil age and the age to come which is, in some sense, already here. It is an eschatological contrast.

This eschatological frame, which Paul describes in several places, contrasts the “first Adam” (this age) and the “last Adam” (the age to come), who is the resurrected Jesus. In Adam, all die, but in Christ, all will be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22). Death came through Adam (Romans 5:12), but resurrection life comes through the Lord Jesus, who is the firstborn of the new creation.

Reading this text in the light of 1 Corinthians 15 and, more immediately, in the light of 2 Corinthians 4:12-15, we see the contrast is between a world of death, affliction, and suffering and the resurrection life of Jesus. The former age is Adamic (conformed to Adamic death and suffering), and the latter is Christic (conformed to Christ).

Outer PersonInner Person

The Adamic world is filled with human beings whose bodies are dying, decaying, and wasting away. The world is filled with affliction, and we see the reality of suffering all around us. We live in the Adamic age: death and suffering.

The Christic world includes not only future glory which is the resurrection from the dead (2 Corinthians 4:14), but it also includes the present glory of the indwelling of the Spirit and our transformation. The inner person is being renewed daily through its transformation from glory to glory into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). It is a present experience rather than a merely future one. The glory of God is already at work in the lives of those who are in Christ. And it is the unseen work of God by the Spirit of God.

This is not a radical dualism but a recognition of the nature of the present human condition in contrast with the glorious present and future for humanity. Inwardly we are being transformed from glory to glory even as our body decays, but the hope is that the body will be raised and it, too, will be transformed into the glorious body of Christ (Philippians 3:21). This is not soul versus body, but rather than the union of soul and body in the hope of the resurrection.

Suffering is the major point. Paul participates in the Adamic world through suffering and affliction, and he also participates in the Christic world through transformation into the image of Christ. While the outer (the Adamic) is perishing, the inner (the eschatological glory) is renewing Paul toward a future resurrection and fully sanctification.

The Adamic affliction is light and momentary in contrast with the present and future experience of Christic glory.

Adamic AfflictionChristic Glory
Outer Person Wasting AwayInner Person Renewed Daily
Light AfflictionWeighty Glory Beyond All Measure
Momentary AfflictionEternal Glory
What is Seen is TransientWhat is Unseen is Eternal

How might we legitimately call our suffering “momentary and light”? Does this diminish our affliction?

It is helpful to remember the suffering Paul endured in his ministry before we too quickly dismiss Paul as one who is insensitive to suffering or minimizes suffering. His own story is filled with persecution, beatings, stoning, shipwrecks, anxiety, betrayals, rejection, and opposition from the principalities and powers. Paul knows suffering.

At the same time, Paul also knows glory. He has seen the resurrected Lord. He has experienced the power of the Spirit in his life, including his own transformation into a disciple of Jesus. He knows the glory of God because he believes in the resurrection of Jesus and its eternal consequences for his body, soul, and the creation itself.

At the same time, this slight momentary affliction has meaning:  it prepares us. What does that mean? 2 Corinthians 5:5 also uses this term (prepare) to describe how God is preparing us for our glorious resurrection.

Momentary affliction produces something. It will produce glory, particularly the glory of the resurrection.  Just as good works produce thanksgiving to God (2 Corinthians 9:11) or godly grief produces earnestness (2 Corinthians 7:11), so our light and momentary suffering produces eternal glory. 

This is true not only in the light the resurrection of Jesus as the final goal where we will be conformed to his glorious resurrection body (Philippians 3:21), but it is also true in the present moment as we experience glory in the middle of our suffering or even through our suffering. In Romans 5:3-4, Paul “knows” that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character, and character produces hope! God is at work in our suffering for the glorious purpose of conforming us to the image of Christ, transforming us from glory to glory.

But how can we maintain this perspective on suffering? How can we in the midst of such difficult, painful, and unbearable affliction consider our suffering light and momentary?

Paul answers. We set our gaze—keep our eyes on, pay attention to, or keep our focus on—what is unseen rather than what is seen. We keep our focus on the eternal glory—experienced in the present and anticipated in the future. From the perspective of eternity, the suffering appears light and momentary. This does not diminish the pain but compares it with the goal God has for those in Christ. The eternal reality of the resurrection far outweighs what is seen (the affliction). That is our hope.

We don’t live by what we see but by faith in what is unseen, which is ultimately the hope of the resurrection. The God we serve is the “God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9). As Paul continues in 2 Corinthians 5:1, we don’t give up because “we know” that we will exchange our earthly tent for an eternal building, our resurrection body.

Therefore, we don’t lose heart. We are the ministers of eternal glory, both now and in the future. We are ministers of God’s eschatological reality, God’s glory. Consequently, we don’t give up.

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.