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.

AdamicChristic
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
MortalityLife

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
AfflictionGlory
SeenUnseen

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).

AdamicChristic
Outer PersonInner Person
AfflictionGlory
SeenUnseen

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.


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 feels 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.


2 Corinthians 1:12-22 — Operating by Grace Rather Than Worldly Wisdom

September 26, 2021

Paul makes ministry decisions according to the grace of God grounded in the faithfulness of God rather than according to fleshly or human wisdom rooted in self-interest and egoism. His goal is not to attain celebrity status within Greco-Roman culture but to embody God’s faithfulness for the sake of others.

Given Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians, we might imagine the misgivings some had.

  • He appears fickle and unreliable in his plans; he does not do what he says he is going to do. It seems that with every encounter with Paul, he has a different travel schedule and fails to follow through on previous plans.
  • Paul’s history of suffering—from shipwrecks to beatings to imprisonments—is not the sort of credential that assures hearers that his message is true. Within a Greco-Roman context, suffering is not a strength but a weakness.
  • He is unimpressive in speaker with little rhetorical skill, and his presence is far from charismatic and striking. He sounds impressive from his letters, but in person he is weak and toothless.
  • He refused remuneration from Corinthian patrons, which made no sense in a Greco-Roman patronage system that respected teachers or philosophers typically followed.

The Corinthians, egged on by the “super-apostles” and Paul’s opponents in the community, have good cultural reasons to doubt Paul’s integrity and credentials, and this leads to doubting his message.

Paul does not fit the Greco-Roman cultural image of a respected and renowned teacher. But his response is: “No, I don’t, but I do represent the faithfulness of God who has established me with you!” That contrast is the subtle but foundational point of this opening to the body of the letter.

Paul’s Integrity (1:12-14).

Paul’s integrity, including the authenticity of his ministry, is the theme of the letter. This is Paul’s “boast” (or confidence).

This boast, however, is other-centered. He asserts his purity of motive—a singleness of purpose and a godly sincerity—in in order to say that he has conducted himself in this way for the sake of the Corinthians. His plans, and whatever changes that were made, did not serve his own interests but were directed primarily and abundantly toward the good of the Corinthians.

As such, his decisions are made according to the grace of God rather than by fleshly or worldly wisdom. His decisions are not driven by some selfish motive or desire to elevate himself. Rather, they are driven by his experience of and commitment to the grace of God. Paul has no ulterior motives except to promote the grace of God in the lives of the Corinthians so that the Corinthians and Paul might “boast” in each other on the day when the Messiah appears again. Paul maintains his integrity and makes decisions according to the grace of God so that even now but also eschatologically the Corinthians would be Paul’s “boast” and Paul would be their “boast.” This boasting, we should recognize, is rooted in God’s grace rather than human pride.

Since this “boast” is Paul’s hope and goal, he wants the Corinthians to understand the nature of his ministry. They may understand in part, but they do not yet fully appreciate what this means for Paul. As the letter will reveal, the Corinthians don’t understand how suffering is an integral part of the ministry of reconciliation. Some, if not many, see it as a sign of weakness, but Paul understands it as an occasion for boasting.

Paul boasts in his weaknesses and suffering because the grace of God is his strength and the gospel includes the suffering of the Messiah himself. When the Corinthians see suffering as weakness, then they do not understand the gospel. If they don’t understand the gospel, then they cannot fully understand Paul’s approach to the ministry of reconciliation. This is why Paul will spend the major portion of this letter unpacking that ministry (2 Corinthians 2:14-7:4).

Changing Travel Plans (1:15-18)

Nevertheless, the constant change in Paul’s travel plans created doubt (perhaps suspicion) among the Corinthians. Why can’t Paul keep his word?

In 1 Corinthians 16:5-11, Paul expected to visit Corinth after passing through Macedonia, then returning to Macedonian before once again visiting Corinth (“a double favor,” Paul calls it in 2 Corinthians 1:15). At that time, he was uncertain where or what he would do when he left Corinth.

In contrast to that expectation, Paul made an emergency visit to Corinth from Ephesus. This second visit was a “painful” one (2 Corinthians 2:1). Instead of going to Macedonia and then returning to Corinth, he sailed back to Ephesus but with an apparent promise to return to Corinth. Instead of returning, he sent a “severe letter” with Titus (2 Corinthians 2:4) and waited to hear from Titus. Thus, it was charged, Paul is more bold with his letters than with his presence!

Instead of coming to Corinth and then heading to Macedonia, Paul ultimately meets Titus in Macedonia. Paul, it seems, says or promises one thing, and then does something else.

Paul’s Plan in 1 CorinthiansPaul’s Plan after the 2nd VisitWhat Paul Actually Did
Located in EphesusLocated in EphesusLocated in Ephesus
  Went to Corinth
  Returned to Corinth
  Wrote the Severe Letter
 Go to CorinthSent Titus to Corinth
Go to MacedoniaFrom Corinth to MacedoniaWent to Macedonia
From Macedonia to CorinthFrom Macedonia to CorinthPlans to come to Corinth
From Corinth to ???From Corinth to JudeaPlans to go to Judea

It is rather easy to see how Paul is charged with saying “Yes and No” as if he were talking out of both sides of his mouth. Some may hear him saying what he needs to say to protect himself, advance his interests, and promote his status. He changes like the wind out of his own self interests. He does not want to deal with the Corinthians personally or perhaps particularly his opponents (including the “super-apostles”). He stays away and writes letters.

Paul admits he changed his plans. His intent when he wrote 1 Corinthians 16 was sincere but things changed on the ground. And he provides an explanation in the next section of the letter (2 Corinthians 1:23-2:4). But he is more concerned about the charge of insincerity and unreliability. Consequently, he addresses this first.

This is the crux: did Paul change his plans for his own sake or for the sake of the Corinthians? To what was Paul ultimately faithful? Was he faithful to his commitment to the gospel for the sake of the Corinthians or to his own self-promotion and ego?

Paul did change his mind, but his adjustment is not a matter of fleshly wisdom but is faithfulness to his love for Corinth, for their best interest.  Paul’s commitment to Corinth is his “Yes.” Paul’s integrity means he will change his travel plans if it is better for the Corinthians to do so. Paul is not living in a “Yes and No” mindset but is living out the gospel-shaped character that loves the Corinthians so that he might be their boast and they his on the day of the Lord Jesus.

The Faithfulness of God—why Paul is faithful (1:19-22)

Paul is faithful because God is faithful. 

The message Silas, Timothy, and Paul heralded (proclaimed) among the Corinthians was the faithfulness of God in the gift of the Son of God, Jesus the Messiah. In Jesus, God said “yes” to the divine intent to redeem the world from its sin and rescue it from the powers of evil in the world. Every promise of God is “Yes” in Jesus the Messiah. And the response of believers, in their hearts and in their assemblies, is “Amen!”

Paul’s message, then, was never “Yes and No,” but “Yes.” His commitment to the gospel means that Paul seeks to announce a “Yes” among the Corinthians, the “Yes” of the message of God in Christ.

Consequently, whenever Paul changes his travel plans, it is not about his comfort. He suffers for the sake of the ministry of reconciliation, for the sake of the gospel. Rather, it is guided by the grace of God. This is a godly wisdom that seeks the best interest of the other toward the goal of a mutual boast on the day of the Lord Jesus.

Paul changed his plans because of his faithfulness to the ministry of reconciliation, which expressed the faithfulness of God whose “Yes” appears in Jesus Christ. Paul was faithful to his commitment to the gospel when he changed his plans because he changed them so that the Corinthians might hear the gospel more effectively. He changed his plans for their sake.

What lies behind these decisions—made according to the grace of God rather than by fleshly wisdom—is the ongoing work of God in the lives of Paul and the Corinthians. God, Paul wrote, “establishes us with you in Christ.” 

This language is foundational and pregnant with meaning. God is the actor; God establishes, confirms, or provides a foundation upon which to stand. Jesus the Messiah is the reality in which this happens; we are established in or by our union with Christ. Paul and the Corinthians experience this as a shared reality; Paul is established “with you”—it is mutual. God, in Christ, establishes a community (Paul and the Corinthians), and God continues to do this. The verb is present tense.

This process of establishing—the continual activity of God—to form us into a community in Christ is grounded in God’s past (and present as well) pneumatological (Spirit) act:

  • God anointed us
  • God sealed us
  • God gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a first installment

God anointed us with the Spirit, just as God anointed Jesus with the Spirit. This is more than delighting in the anointed one. It is also a commission. The anointed are invested with a mission. Christians (those who belong to the Christ) are also anointed as the Christ was, and we are commissioned to follow Jesus into his ministry and participate in the mission he was given by God as God’s Anointed.

God sealed us with the Spirit, just as God sealed Jesus with the affirmation: “you are my son, whom I love; I am delighted with you.” God seals those who belong to him. Our identity is found in God’s community rather than the world. We act out of the grace of God rather than making decisions according to fleshly wisdom.

God gave the Spirit to us by pouring the Spirit into our hearts by whom we cry “Abba, Father.” God communes with us through the Spirit. To give the Spirit to our hearts is to enable an intimacy that exceeds God’s presence or immanence within the creation. This is true because this is an eschatological gift—it comes to us from a future dwelling with God that is face-to-face and full. As yet, we know this through the experience of the Spirit as a first installment or a down payment, but this first payment is a guarantee of what is to come. Our present experience of intimacy with God is the promise of a future intimacy that is beyond our imagination.

Some suggest, with good reason, that perhaps Paul is alluding to a common past experience that all believers have and share with Jesus himself: baptism. When we are baptized into Christ, we are anointed, sealed, and given the Spirit of God. While Paul is not explicit about this and his emphasis lies on the Spirit, the past tense (aorist), language, and relation to Jesus generate a baptismal allusion. This is the shared experience of believers in Christ. We can rightly imagine that the Corinthians would have recalled their baptism with this language. We can recall ours as well.

Conclusion

Paul heralds this message: God has faithfully kept his promises for the redemption of the world through Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. God has said “Yes” to the groans and cries of the world ravaged by death, sin, and the powers of evil.

Paul’s ministry also says “Yes!” His commitment to the faithfulness of God and the gospel of Jesus the Messiah means he will behave in the world according to the grace of God rather than according to worldly wisdom. While this means Paul will also suffer with Jesus, he will nevertheless seek the best interests of others through the gospel. Consequently, he will change his plans when it serves the interests of the proclamation of the gospel for the sake of others.

Paul is not fickle. He is committed. But his commitment is to the gospel of Jesus, the grace of God, and the work of the Spirit rather than boasting about his credentials. The ministry of reconciliation is his credential, not his own exploits and pride.

Part of Paul’s intent, then, is to deepen the Corinthian understanding of that ministry and the nature of the gospel. If they understand the gospel—including the cross of Jesus, then they will understand Paul’s affliction for the sake of the ministry of reconciliation. When they understand that, it will clarify why Paul boasts in his weaknesses and afflictions rather than in his credentials.